The Prank War
Morning at the Nordic House.
Norway awoke to buttery yellow sunshine, a cool breeze, and the chattering of Bohemian waxwings in the tree outside the window. It seemed like a good sign. Today would be better than yesterday. (Granted, it was hard to imagine it being much worse without some kind of actual catastrophe.) He started to sit up, stopped when he realized Denmark was clinging to him like a limpet on a rock, and carefully maneuvered out of the smaller man's grasp. Everyone else was already up, and Norway briefly debated whether or not to just go ahead and wake Denmark too, but decided against it. He must have had eight or nine beers in him by the time he had gone to bed, and there was no point in making him suffer the hangover any earlier than strictly necessary. For good measure, Norway grabbed the bottle of aspirin from the nightstand and placed it in Denmark's hand. With a fond smile, he brushed a few strands of sandy blond hair away from his friend's face. Then he set out to face the morning.
Sweden and Finland were at the breakfast table, sitting at opposite ends as they always did when the option was available. Finland had a slice of buttered toast on the end of his butcher knife and was glaring at it as though he expected it to try something—he had been pretty drunk the previous night too. Sweden was hunched over a bowl of muesli, operating his spoon with one hand and jotting notes on a few sheets of paper with the other. Iceland was nowhere to be seen, and was presumably out for his morning jog. Or possibly jumping off a cliff somewhere. The atmosphere was disconcertingly tense, and Norway decided he'd better do something to defuse it.
"Morning!" he said pleasantly. Sweden glanced at him and waved the spoon vaguely. Finland did not react. "Have you seen the weather? It's going to be gorgeous out today. I might head down to the creek and throw a few worms." He grabbed a grapefruit, sat down, monopolized the sugar bowl, and started peeling.
"I wish you wouldn't," said Sweden. "We only covered two agenda items yesterday thanks to Denmark and his drama. I was hoping we could get back on track and deal with the rest today."
"If you say so," said Norway, sprinkling sugar on a grapefruit section. "But you know, if you wanted to skip the you-know-what issue because we always vote the same way, there are a lot of other issues we could skip for the same reason."
"I don't want to make a habit of it. That particular issue is one we're better off avoiding, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't stick to protocol the rest of the time. And…Norway?"
"Listen…I'm sorry about yesterday. I shouldn't have accused you of automatically taking his side just because you didn't take my side."
"Don't worry about it. I do take his side a lot. Maybe even when he doesn't deserve it, sometimes."
The foyer door slammed open and Iceland's voice went "Whoo!" Shortly thereafter, the youngest of the five Nordic nations came sauntering into the dining room, drenched with sweat yet somehow not looking any the worse for it. "That," he said, snatching a banana, "was an amazing run. Have any of you been outside yet today? The weather is perfect. So perfect, I'm going to do a second circuit after I refuel."
"Don't," said Sweden. "I just asked Norway not to go fishing so we can pick up where we left off yesterday."
Iceland made an annoyed sound in his throat. He seemed like he was going to say something snide, but just then Denmark arrived.
He looked about fifteen percent awake at best. He hadn't bothered to put on a stitch of clothing, although he was wearing someone's sunglasses (not his own). He winced in pain with every step, and was holding the aspirin bottle to his head while he worried a wet washcloth with his teeth. It took Norway a moment to figure out what was going on with him.
"Uh…I think you have that backwards," he said, getting up to help his best friend.
"Well, look at that," said Sweden, tapping his notes on the table to align them. "By a complete coincidence, these are ready to be typed up. I'll be upstairs in the office until it's safe to come out. By which I mean, once the Copenhagen Flasher here gets some pants on. Good grief." He headed for the stairs while Norway helped Denmark into a chair.
As soon as Sweden was out of sight, Denmark perked up considerably, opened the aspirin bottle with little trouble, and washed down a few pills with a glass of orange juice. Then he started snickering to himself.
"Okay, what gives?" said Norway. "You wouldn't have that much fun just faking that your hangover is worse than it is, so what are you up to?"
"Ssh! Just wait!" Denmark said, grinning and striking a listening attitude. Their curiosity piqued, the others listened as well.
They heard the office door shut. Then nothing for a couple minutes. Then…
Then they heard Sweden's protesting howl, but mostly they heard the amplified voice of a woman in the throes of…well, in the throes. It was a voice they all knew very well. Finland in particular choked on the toast he had finally started eating, and recovered only by pounding his own chest hard enough to leave bruises. He glared so hard at the guffawing Denmark that it was a wonder the other man didn't instantly burst into flames, and began to raise his knife.
"Take it easy, Finland!" said Denmark between peals of laughter. "It's from one of her commercial releases." Finland was mollified just enough not to attempt murder at breakfast—he settled for stabbing the table—but Denmark was still the only one amused. "I loaded the clip onto Sweden's laptop and set it to play automatically with the volume all the way up when he turned it on!" he boasted.
"Jeez," said Norway. "That's juvenile and tasteless even for you."
"Well, he was being a jerk yesterday!"
"Aaaand here comes the jerk now," said Iceland. "Sweden, I think I should warn you that Denmark hasn't had time to put on his pants yet."
Sweden ignored him. "What the hell, Denmark?" he bellowed.
"Whatsa matter, Sweden?" Denmark replied, leaning back in his chair and affecting a lackadaisical drawl. "Don't you love your sister? Don't you think she's pretty?"
Sweden whirled to one side and punched the wall, eliciting startled jumps from the other four. Then he marched up to the table opposite Denmark and leaned over it, planting his hands flat on the wood, radiating menace. "Enough," he said in a frighteningly calm voice. "I put up with a lot from you, Dane Devil, but this is beyond the pale. I doubt whether you can even comprehend the magnitude of what you have done, but know this: I will not simply laugh it off when you mock my family and defile my precious possessions."
Denmark had considered making a retort about adequate password protection, but that thought flew out the window when he met Sweden's eyes. His memory whipped back across the centuries—he couldn't recall ever seeing Sweden this angry, not even back in the old days of bear shirts, and this was no uncontrolled battle-madness. This was cold, lucid fury of such intensity that Denmark felt almost paralyzed.
"Uh…sorry?" he ventured. It came out as a squeak. The ill-fitting sunglasses slid down his nose until they came unhooked from his ears and fell to the table.
"It's too late for that," said Sweden. "This means war, Denmark."
"Eighty-eight," Norway mumbled into his grapefruit.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Iceland broke in with a nervous laugh, moving to take Sweden's arm and gently pull him away from the table. "There's no need for that. We're all civilized democracies here, right? We can settle our problems diplomatically."
"Of course," said Sweden, straightening up and reclaiming his arm. "War is, after all, the continuation of diplomacy by other means. I think I'm going to enjoy this, Denmark. You? Not so much. You'll never know when or how I'm going to strike…until it happens. Maybe you'll learn respect for other people's property when the shoe is on the other foot, hm?" He spun on his heel and strode away.
"Okay…what just happened?" said Iceland. "Was that a declaration of war or not? Should we get the swords out of storage?"
"Not likely," said Norway. "Sweden gets too jittery around weapons to physically attack anyone on purpose. I think it was a declaration of…impending revenge prank. And he wants Denmark to sweat about it."
"Well, I'm not going to give him the satisfaction!" said Denmark, abruptly standing. "And whatever revenge he serves me, I'll serve him a counter-revenge that's even worse! Come on, Norway, help me come up with a good way to get back at him when he gets back at me for…getting…back…" He lost his train of thought—he was a little hung over, after all. "Help me kick his ass next time!"
There was an awkward silence. Norway and Iceland met each other's eyes for a second or two. Being brothers, they could communicate a lot with a glance. "No…I don't think I will," said Norway cautiously.
"What?" Denmark exclaimed. "You're not going to back me up? You're going to take his side?"
"No," Norway said patiently. "I'm remaining neutral." With a glare at the doorway by which Sweden had exited, he muttered, "Someone around here ought to."
Denmark fell weakly back into his chair. "But-but-but…you're just going to stand by and let Sweden…do…whatever it is he's planning to do to me?"
"No.I'm going to stand by and let both of you do whatever it is you're going to do to each other until you get it out of your systems. This is my first vacation all year and I'm not going to waste it getting caught up in one of your squabbles."
"Traitor," Denmark pouted. "Fine. I don't need you. Iceland, let's—"
"What are you looking at me for?" said Iceland. "I have even less reason to take sides than Norway."
Denmark's face fell again. He turned to the end of the table and his only remaining option. "Finland…?" An irritated scowl was the only response…although it might not have been a response at all. It was hard to tell sometimes, with Finland.
"Fine," Denmark said again, rising from his seat once more. "I'll just have to plan my counter-revenge by myself. Better yet—preemptive counter-revenge!" He ran for the stairs with a cry of "For Gud, dronning, og fædreland!"
"Wow. I did not need to see that," said Iceland, losing his appetite for the banana for some reason. "I hope preemptive counter-revenge includes putting some clothes on." He sighed. "It's going to be a long week, isn't it?"
"Probably," said Norway. "But it would be even worse if we three got involved. At least this way, there's only so much they can do to each other without catching us in the crossfire."
"Will they care about that?" wondered Iceland.
"I think so. Sweden's pretty big on rules and propriety, and Denmark won't want to alienate anyone. With any luck, the lack of options will mean they get bored or reach a stalemate sooner."
"Nice," said Iceland. "You really thought this out, didn't you?"
"Sort of. I mostly just want some peace to go fishing."
They lapsed into gloomy silence. It was eventually broken by a tapping sound from Finland's end of the table. He pointed to the chair Denmark had just vacated and held up a quickly written sign: Someone should wash that.
Denmark was halfway through dressing when the thought hit him: Shit! What if he did something to my clothes? He scrambled back out of his jeans and boxers in a hurry and inspected them for any untoward holes or markings or…or itching powder, or any other sinister sabotage Sweden might have concocted. He did the same with his shirt, socks, and shoes. Everything seemed all right, so he got himself dressed…and then spun around 180 degrees and yelled "Ha!" in case Sweden was sneaking up on him. But he wasn't.
I'm getting paranoid, Denmark realized. That's no good. It's exactly what that treacherous bastard wants. Norway may have decided to be a jerk and abandon me in my hour of need, but he at least clued me in to that.
No, it certainly wouldn't do to be paranoid. Vigilant, but not paranoid. If Sweden wanted not only to exact revenge for the laptop prank, but to make Denmark live in dread of its arrival, then the only thing to do was…get on with his life normally, unperturbed by anticipation of the future. But also vigilant, of course.
His stomach growled insistently, and he remembered that he hadn't had any breakfast yet. He couldn't plot on an empty stomach. He needed fuel. He needed calories. Carbs. The most important meal of the day.
He needed beer.
Sweden wouldn't tamper with the beer…would he?
He charged back downstairs.
"Has Sweden been down here?" he demanded of the other three countries still gathered around the table. "Has he been in the kitchen? How about the cellar?"
"We haven't seen him," said Norway. "He's been in the office this whole time, as far as we know."
"Right!" said Denmark. "Right. He is a crafty one, isn't he? He wouldn't do anything so obvious."
"Eat something, would you?" said Norway. "You're incoherent."
"I'm on it!" Denmark crowed, disappearing into the kitchen.
"He was out of our sight for what, twenty minutes?" said Iceland. "Is that enough time for this sort of mood swing?"
"With Denmark? That's enough time for him to have every mood swing there is and end up right back where he started," said Norway.
A couple hours passed. Finland went into the rec room and turned on the TV, flipping through channels until he found one in his own language. There was still no sign of Sweden. Iceland and Norway decided that he had passed up his chance to call a meeting for the day and went off to jog and fish, respectively. Denmark was left to his own devices.
But he'd had two beers in the meantime, and was feeling pretty relaxed. Cocky, even. Stupid Sweden. I bet he isn't even going to do anything to me. He just wants to psych me out. Well ha! Won't he be surprised to find it not working!
Or maybe it was wishful thinking, since he hadn't made any headway on planning his counter-revenge.
More time elapsed. Iceland came back from his run, showered, and plopped down on the rec room sofa with the latest issue of one of his skydiving magazines. ("INSIDE: Our Panel Of Experts Rates This Season's Ripcords") Sweden was still holed up in the office. Then around midday, Norway returned, thumping his cooler with barely contained pride and announcing that the lunch menu was settled. While Iceland fired up the hibachi and Finland and Norway set about cleaning the catch, Norway told Denmark to go let Sweden know lunch was in preparation.
Actually, he told him to "suck it up" and go let Sweden know. Denmark groaned, but it was better than being in the vicinity of people gutting fish, some of which were still technically alive. Plodding like a condemned man, he ascended the stairs and knocked on the office door.
"Yes?" came Sweden's voice.
"Uh…it's me. They're making lunch. Norway caught some trout or something. He figured you weren't going to call the meeting."
"Sorry, I can't hear you. Open the door and talk. It's unlocked."
I can hear him just fine… Denmark thought in annoyance. He opened the door a wide enough to admit his head and peeked in.
Sweden was hard at work on his laptop, typing so rapidly that his fingers were blurred. He hadn't opened the curtains, and the screen image reflected off his glasses like in that scene in pretty much every action movie where the hero has to convince the hacker to break into the terrorists' network and wreck their security. Scrolling lines of code, shrunk down and backwards and thus illegible (not that Denmark would have been able to interpret them anyway), blocked his eyes from view and gave him an eerie, alien appearance.
"Oh, it's you," Sweden said matter-of-factly, without looking up. "You were saying something about lunch?"
Denmark started to get nervous again. Sweden was acting like he wasn't even mad. He had to be up to something. "Uh…yeah. It'll be ready soon. We're grilling some fish Norway caught."
"Tell them I'll be down in a few minutes. I'm almost done here."
Denmark was only too glad to leave.
Sweden compiled the code for the fourth time and ran his test images through the brand-new program he had just created. Excellent. It was finally working perfectly. He connected his laptop to the other one on the desk—the one Denmark hadn't even noticed was there—and set up parameters to process a much larger collection of images.
Save edited image?
Save Don't Save Save All
Lunch was scrumptious. (You can be as creative as you want in finding ways to preserve fish for long-term storage, but nothing beats it fresh out of the stream.) It was also surprisingly cordial. Denmark and Sweden passed each other drinks and condiments without a peep of discord or sarcasm.
Except for that one bit where Denmark innocently asked "So what were you working on all morning, Sweden?"
Sweden turned to him slowly, with a grin that was frankly creepy. The temperature at the table seemed to drop by about ten degrees. "Wouldn't you like to know…?" he said.
Denmark was taken aback, but he recovered quickly. "Not especially," he said disdainfully. "I was merely ma—"
"Knock it off, you two," said Norway, cutting short the change in atmosphere. "Some of us neutral countries are trying to eat."
Things settled down after that, and midday shaded into early afternoon. Iceland returned to his magazine, Finland to his TV programs. Norway cleaned and maintained his fishing gear. Denmark had another beer—why not?—and then announced that he was going to indulge in some "Little Denmark time" and headed upstairs.
"TMI!" Iceland called after him.
"Would you rather he didn't mention it, and you walked in on him?" Sweden pointed out.
Iceland shrugged and went back to reading.
Several minutes later, the peace was shattered by an anguished cry from the bedroom. Norway sprang to his feet and charged up the stairs.
And Sweden only smirked.
"Oh my god…" said Iceland. "You didn't!"
"Oh, I most certainly did," Sweden replied, standing. "Though maybe not what you assume. Would you like to come have a look?"
Finland came along also, and the three of them discovered the scene thus:
Denmark, on the bed, flat on his back with one hand flung theatrically across his forehead, yet genuinely distraught. Norway, sitting beside him, patting his other hand consolingly while interestedly clicking away at Denmark's laptop.
"Every single one of them…" he said as Sweden entered. "This is what you were doing all morning?"
"No," Sweden said smugly. "This is what my computer was doing during lunch. What I was doing all morning was programming it so that it could."
"Okay, I gotta see this," said Iceland, hopping onto the bed beside Norway. "What exactly did you do?"
What Norway was studying so intently, and what Denmark was upset over, was a rather large collection of photos, featuring people showing lots and lots of skin…but the particular points of interest had been hidden, rather efficiently, behind black bars.
Well, mostly black bars. About every tenth photo or so had blue bars, with off-center yellow crosses. And there was even one where the cross was replaced with text reading: Stay the fuck away from my computer, Dane Devil.
"You did that to his whole collection?" said Iceland. "That's harsh. But impressive. I would've just deleted them all. You programmed this in a few hours?"
"It wasn't that difficult," said Sweden. "My webcam already has a face-recognition function. I just pulled the code from that and changed it to recognize…other things. Once I got that working, it was almost trivial to automate the drawing of rectangles."
"You know what?" said Iceland. "I bet you could sell this to America. He's always freaking out about pictures in magazines and things."
"I can't help but notice," Denmark mumbled, "that everyone's talking like he didn't test this amazing new program on my personal porn collection!" He sat up suddenly. "Not cool, Sweden! Not fair! Do you have any idea how long it took me to download all those? Some of them aren't even available anymore! All I did was mess with your computer a little; I didn't permanently change anything!"
"You permanently changed my brain," said Sweden. "I'll never be able to un-see that. I think this is perfectly fair—poetic justice, even."
"Well, mark my words," said Denmark. "This isn't over. You want a war, do you? Just you wait, Sweden…just you wait."
"I quake with anticipation," Sweden deadpanned before leaving the room.
"Well, guys?" said Denmark, sniffling a little at his decimated erotica. "Are you sure you won't stand by me? I mean, now that you've seen how brutal he is…you're not going to make me face that alone, are you?"
"You know, you could just concede," said Norway. "This is Sweden we're talking about. I bet if you make a proper apology, he'll let the matter drop."
"What? No way!"
"Then we shall all derive great entertainment from watching the show," said Iceland, clapping him on the back with false chumminess. "Thanks a lot, Denmark! And here I thought this was going to be another long meeting week without much to do."
Denmark scowled. "Get bent, Iceland."
"Don't needle him," said Norway. "You can't call yourself neutral if you do that."
"What if I pick on Sweden equally?"
"Nope. Then you're a dirty rotten war profiteer."
"Well, I definitely don't want that," said Iceland. "I'll see you around, Denmark." He exited. Finland followed, snickering.
Norway got up to leave as well, but paused in the doorway. "Will you be all right?" he asked. "We can't have you of all people sexually frustrated."
"Is that an offer…?" Denmark said, waggling his eyebrows.
"Not at this time of day. I'm just a little concerned."
"Hmph. I guess I'll manage. I've got a few spares saved to my phone."
"I'll leave you to it then. Try not to make a mess, all right? We all have to sleep in here." He ruffled Denmark's hair as a friendly gesture before taking his leave.
Denmark pulled out his phone and opened the photo gallery, but he just wasn't feeling it anymore. His defeat at Sweden's hands had been such a boner-killer… He glared at his laptop, where a boudoir shot of a gorgeous redhead was ruined by those damn automatically generated Swedish flags. Sweden had just had to twist the knife in such a fashion. How would he like it if Denmark slapped his flag indelibly on some important possession?
A sly grin slowly grew on Denmark's face.
He wouldn't like it at all, would he…?
Another day, another morning. Breakfast was quiet, without much conversation on anyone's part. Sweden noted with some satisfaction that Denmark looked like he hadn't slept well. Victory was indeed sweet.
He finished up his scrambled eggs and rose from the table. "I'd best get to work. Assuming everyone's up to it, we're continuing the meeting today." A few grumbles met the announcement. "We have to get around to it sooner or later, and it's better done sooner so we can spend the rest of the week relaxing. I trust I won't find any nasty surprises on my computer this time?"
"Of course not, Sweden," said Denmark. He sounded chastened…maybe a little too much so. There had to be sarcasm involved…which didn't necessarily mean he was lying, just that he was being a dick as usual. Whatever. Sweden moved his dishes to the kitchen sink and went upstairs to get properly dressed.
He pulled open his drawer of the dresser and stopped cold. It was full of Denmark's shirts. Was that the other nation's idea of counter-revenge? Lame! Sweden checked the other drawers, but there was no sign of the blue and yellow button-downs he favored. Denmark must have hidden them somewhere less obvious. As to why he thought it would be a good idea to leave his own shirts in their place, where Sweden could easily take them hostage…there was no accounting for the man's idiocy at times. Sweden grabbed one of the red and white tees and a pair of scissors and prepared to go back downstairs and threaten the shirt until Denmark gave up the goods.
No, on second thought, he had better take two of them, so that if Denmark assumed he was bluffing, he could prove otherwise and still have another bargaining chip right at hand. But as he turned back, he noticed something odd about the shirt in his hand. It wasn't a tee-shirt at all; the sleeves were too long and had buttoned cuffs. And bits of red were flaking off and showing the…blue…underneath…
Paint. It was paint. Denmark had painted Sweden's shirts, stamping them with his own colors. No wonder he looked so poorly rested; he must have stayed up late doing it. The horror of it began to sink in. I have no clothes! I can't get dressed without looking like one of his territories! I'm going to have to drive into town IN MY BATHROBE in order to get something decent to wear for the week!
"DEEENNNMAAARRRRRRRK!" he bellowed. He heard the explosion of laughter from the dining room.
No. There's no point in being angry about this. This is war—I declared it. I'll just have to suck it up and get back at him even worse next time. He thought for a few moments. Well, since I have to head into town anyway…
He started making a list. The first item on it was paste.
Several minutes later, Sweden stomped downstairs, still pajama-clad. "I need to do some emergency shopping," he explained. "I'll be back in a little while. It looks like we're not continuing the meeting today after all. Norway, keep Denmark away from my things while I'm gone."
"No can do, Sweden. I'm staying neutral, remember?"
"Fine! But let the record show that I asked!" He made sure to slam the door on his way out.
"You'd better hope he's not out buying a gun," Iceland told Denmark, who had his head buried in his arms on the table, shuddering with laughter.
"Don't even joke about things like that," said Norway.
Sweden returned from his shopping trip in a plain blue shirt a size too big for him, which had been the closest thing he could find in the small shopping center. With any luck, it would shrink in the wash and he could add a cross later. But for now, he had other things to do.
He found what he was looking for in the pantry, took the cans out to the workshop, and spent some time peeling and pasting. Then he put them back almost where he had found them. He could just imagine how Denmark would react.
In fact, he felt moved to quote one of his national culinary heroes.
"Dinner is served, bitches."
Around mid-afternoon, Denmark felt a little peckish. He poked around in the pantry and came up with rye bread and canned herring. Perfect! He ripped the lid off the can and upended it over a slice of the bread, then took a big bite.
Just as he was swallowing, the smell hit him…
Moments later, he was bent over the toilet bowl, heaving his guts out (when there's something rotten in Denmark, it rarely stays long and usually takes everything else with it), with Norway rubbing his back comfortingly.
"Would it be too weird if I finished this off?" asked the large man, holding the bitten piece of bread covered in mislabeled surströmming.
"God…just get it out of here," Denmark groaned. "It's stinking up the whole house. If you don't get rid of it soon, I'm going to end up sleeping in here tonight just to be on the safe side. Damn that Sweden!"
"You have to admire how he exploits your weaknesses," said Norway.
"Oh, yeah? Two can play at that game. As soon as I can stand up, I'm making a shopping trip of my own! Air the house out while I'm gone, would you?"
The next morning, Denmark (who hadn't, after all, slept in the bathroom) went from dreamland to fully awake in less than a second, courtesy of the blaring of an air horn right beside his ear. He sat bolt upright, clapping a hand to the ringing appendage. "How did you know?" he demanded groggily of the annoyed-looking Sweden.
"Because a real can of shaving cream wouldn't have a little megaphone attached to the nozzle," Sweden replied. "Dumbass. You didn't actually think it was going to work, did you?"
"I…maybe…" Denmark admitted.
Sweden tossed the badly disguised air horn onto the bed and went back into the bathroom. Denmark lay back down and tried to get some more sleep.
A few minutes later, he heard Sweden's shocked exclamation, and smiled to himself, snuggling further into the pillow.
Sweden came down to breakfast looking as festive as Christmas: his face beet red…and his hair streaked with green. Finland took one look and snorted so hard with laughter that his Screwdriver came up his nose. He growled at the stinging sensation while reaching for a napkin.
"Niiiiiiiice," said Iceland. "Going a little punk?"
"Shut up," Sweden grumbled. "You know perfectly well what this is."
"What did he do—put the dye in while you were asleep?"
"No, the little bastard actually managed something sneaky for a change. He spiked my comb…and he left an easy-to-spot decoy prank so I'd be off my guard."
"You shouldn't underestimate him," said Norway. "He acts like an idiot, but he can be quite cunning when he wants to."
Sweden gave Norway a flat look. "Thank you. That might have constituted useful advice half an hour ago." Norway raised an eyebrow at him. "Right. Neutral. Forget I said anything."
"If it makes you feel any better," said Iceland, "it's a good look on you."
"Hey, gimme one too, would you?" said Denmark, seeing Norway take a beer from the case.
"This is the last one," said Norway.
Denmark's jaw dropped with horror.
"From this case, Denmark. We have more in the cellar. Of course we wouldn't let ourselves run out of beer!"
"I knew that," Denmark lied, already heading toward the cellar. He flicked on the light, descended the stairs, located the nearest new case of beer, and heaved it off the cheap shelving unit.
Beady eyes gleamed in the dark space behind where the case had rested. Their owner blinked and then, profoundly irritated at having its sleep interrupted, launched itself at the culprit.
Denmark shrieked in abject terror.
"Ow! Shit, that stings!" Denmark hissed as the medicated cotton swabbed over his arm.
"Sorry. I'm trying to be gentle," said Norway, unwrapping another disinfectant pad. He might have been officially neutral in the conflict, but he could still provide foreign aid when there was a clear need. Plus, he was severely annoyed with Sweden at the moment.
"Does he need stitches?" Iceland asked gleefully "How about a tetanus shot?" Denmark and Norway both glared at him, the former paling a little at the thought.
"None of the above," Norway said firmly. "They're just squirrel bites, for Christ's sake."
"Sounds like a good reason for a tetanus shot to me. Or—ooh! Rabies vaccination!"
"And scratches," Denmark added, flagrantly disregarding Iceland so that he could turn his glare on Sweden. "Don't forget the scratches. What the hell, Sweden?"
"I'm actually with you on that," said Norway. "What the hell, Sweden? How low do you have to be to drag a poor innocent woodland creature into your feud?" ("Innocent? Yeah, right," Denmark retorted under his breath.) "Not to mention all of us! It could have been anyone who went for more beer!"
"I figured the odds were in my favor," said Sweden.
"I'm surprised you managed it," said Iceland. "Squirrels are really hard to catch."
"Yes, well, it's amazing how close you can get to a wild animal when you have built-in camouflage," said Sweden, pointing to his variegated hair.
"Are you going to get it out of there and let it go outside?" asked Norway.
"Naturally. The last thing we need around here is another hyperactive rodent."
"You are so getting yours for this, Sweden," Denmark said darkly. "I've been playing nice up until now. Ow! Jesus!"
"Sorry," Norway said again. "Last one, I promise. Finland, hand me the box of band-aids."
"Or we could call an end to the whole thing," said Sweden.
"Oh-ho-ho, look who sees bloody revenge on the horizon and is trying to avoid it!" said Denmark.
"It's not that," said Sweden. "We're running out of time to finish up the meeting. And to be honest, I am getting tired of constantly having to be on my guard. Not to mention always trying to think of ways to one-up you."
"If you want to surrender, just say so," said Denmark. "Don't pretend you're doing me any favors."
"Aren't I, though? You're the one bleeding."
"You all heard that, right? He's proud of injuring me!"
"Denmark, cool it," said Norway.
"Whatever," said Sweden. "I'm extending the olive branch. Take it or leave it."
"In your dreams, meatball-face. You can beg for peace after I dish out what you've got coming!"
"Suit yourself," said Sweden, getting to his feet and heading for the door.
"Where do you think you're going?" Norway demanded.
"For a walk!"
"What about the squirrel?"
"It'll still be there when I get back!" The door shut loudly.
"If I do get rabies, I am definitely biting him first," Denmark muttered. "You guys are all with me now, right?"
"You should know better than to ask," said Norway as he affixed one final band-aid. "Frankly, I think you should have agreed to the armistice."
"Why? So he can get away with this?"
"So you can stop escalating before one of you does something worse!"
"Oh, I want to do something worse to him!" At the sight of Norway's thundercloud face, Denmark continued, "But…I might settle for just equally bad. Then we can talk about calling it quits."
"That's the best I'm going to get, isn't it?" said Norway, starting to pack up the first-aid kit.
"Probably," said Denmark.
"Hey, Denmark?" said Iceland. "If you have a delayed allergic reaction and your throat swells up, can I perform the emergency tracheotomy?"
"Mind if I join you?"
Finland didn't make a sound, didn't shrug, didn't even look at Denmark. That was his way of saying he had no objections. He was good at letting people know when he did have objections.
"Thanks. Everyone else is in bed already. I got bored," said Denmark, sitting down on the porch beside the other nation. He leaned back and looked up at the sky. At this time of year, night fell like a feather rather than a brick, and there was still a hint of twilight even though the moon was high and the sane people had gone to sleep.
"I was gonna do something hilarious to Sweden's glasses, but he hid them. I'm out of good ideas and it sucks."
"I'm not trying to get you to come up with anything for me, by the way. I get it, everyone's neutral…" Denmark sighed heavily and took a swig of his beer. His extremely hard-won beer.
(There was no small amount of irony in Finland being completely uninterested in a campaign to humiliate Sweden. Ordinarily, he would have been all over that sort of thing…but Denmark's opening move had pissed him off and he had no intention of encouraging any more such shenanigans. Even if it was just a commercial release.)
"He's such an asshole," Denmark muttered, rubbing the band-aid on his face. The superficial squirrel-inflicted wounds were starting to itch. "I haven't done anything this bad to him. But I sure will now! I just have to figure out what."
By this time the very last of the daylight had faded, but something remained—a thin, faintly green, undulating tracery in the sky. As auroras went, it was nothing special—certainly nothing like the coruscating multihued curtains so beloved of National Geographic photographers—but any aurora is more interesting than none. Denmark fell as silent as his companion for a moment, watching. It almost looked like the vapor trail from a rocket, or like a leaky electrical wire. Denmark's mind began to wander.
"I forget how the aurora works…is it electric or magnetic? Or both? Or am I thinking of St. Elmo's Fire?" Between the beer and the frustration, he couldn't quite think straight.
But that wasn't the point. The point was that he suddenly had the perfect idea for his next prank.
His last prank, with any luck…
"That's it!" he said, springing to his feet. "Thanks, Finland! You know, you may not talk much, but that's what makes you such a good listener! See you in the morning!"
Finland could only assume that Denmark was just being weird again, because to be perfectly honest he had hardly paid attention to a word the other man had said.
20 hours or so passed uneventfully.
"Denmark…pause if you don't want to die," Sweden said curtly.
Denmark quickly pressed the necessary button as Sweden stepped between him and the television set.
"Here's the deal," he addressed the room at large. "I am going to make some coffee. Then I am going to go upstairs and type up the agenda for tomorrow. We are having that meeting, come hell, high water, or squirrels in the cellar." That last bit was technically hypocritical, but he forged ahead. "Do not bother me for the next half-hour or so. Got it? Good."
Sweden left the rec room. After a moment of blinking at the abruptness of it all, Norway rose from the couch. "I guess I'll turn in now, then," he said. "The earlier we manage to get up tomorrow, the sooner we can get it over with."
"I'll come with you," said Denmark. "Just gimme a minute to get back to a save point." Norway smiled and sighed tolerantly for the required time, and then the two of them left the room together.
As they passed the kitchen, Denmark started to snicker. Fortunately for him, the noise of the coffee machine covered it.
"Oh, no…" Norway groaned. "What did you do to the coffeemaker?"
"Nothing," Denmark said innocently. "Seriously, I didn't do anything to the coffeemaker."
"Okay then, what did you do to Sweden's computer this time?"
"Not a thing." They arrived at the bedroom. "Come on, Norway, you're zero for two. Guess better!"
"I give up."
"Aw, you're no fun. Okay, what I did was—shit! He's coming up the stairs!"
"The suspense is killing me," Norway said dryly.
They heard vague bustling noises from the other room as Sweden juggled his notes, his coffee, and whatever else he was carrying. Denmark leaned close to Norway and said in a low voice that wasn't quite a whisper, because whispering invites eavesdroppers, "Just wait till he turns the light on. I fiddled with the wiring—he's gonna get zapped!"
Norway was actually appalled. "You did what?"
"Relax, Norway. I'm not stupid. I followed a manual. It won't be any worse for him than running into a sheep fence."
A low crackling sound filled the rooms of the house, and the lights flickered and died. This was followed by a loud thump from the office, as of a body hitting the floor.
"Shit," said Norway, leaping to his feet. He grabbed a flashlight and ran for the office, with Denmark close behind.
"Oh, God…" Denmark was mumbling. "I didn't mean to—!"
"Don't panic," said Norway. "We'll just deal with the situation. You can panic later, if there's time."
Sweden had left the office door ajar, and Norway carefully pushed it open. "Sweden? Are you okay in here?"
The other man was lying on his side, roughly parallel with the desk. He was unnaturally still, his glasses knocked askew. Norway crouched beside him and gently shook him. "Sweden? Can you hear me? Hey, wake up." He really was distressingly motionless. In fact… "Denmark," Norway said with a rapidly drying mouth, "call Emergency; I think he's not breathing!"
Denmark made a horrified bleating sound and grabbed at all his pockets, in sequence. "I don't have my phone!"
"Then go get it, or use someone else's! Just hurry! Here, take the flashlight!"
As Denmark fled the room whimpering, Norway snapped into action. First he had to fight a growing sensation of white noise for control of his brain. That was Step 1: Remain calm. He found another flashlight in the desk, switched it on, and rolled Sweden onto his back, fully prepared to render whatever first aid was necessary. "Come on, Sweden. Don't die on me," he muttered.
"All right, I won't," said Sweden, sitting up and straightening his glasses.
Norway jumped so hard that if he had been standing, he might have literally hit the ceiling. (Height does have a few disadvantages.) "Son of a bitch, Sweden! You were faking it?"
"Obviously." Sweden pulled a heavy rubber glove out of his pocket with a triumphant flourish. "The idiot left the toolbox in plain view. It wasn't hard to guess what he'd done."
"I can't believe you would do something so boneheaded! What if I'd started CPR? I would have broken your ribs over nothing! I thought you were supposed to be the smart one!"
"Well, it didn't come to that, so no harm done. Look, I'm sorry I scared you, but Denmark needed a harsh lesson about playing electrician. You want to talk about boneheaded moves…"
Something suddenly occurred to Norway. "Is that more or less boneheaded than making someone place a bogus call to Emergency Services?"
"Besides," Sweden was saying, "it makes the perfect counter-prank, doesn't—" It dawned on him what Norway had just said, and he smacked his own forehead. "Let's go stop him, shall we?" he said, clinging stubbornly to his dignity.
They hustled downstairs, calling for Denmark. When no response came, they returned to the rec room. The flashlight beam showed a surreal scene—no power, the furniture in disarray, but Iceland sitting calmly in the easy chair, still reading his magazine (or maybe a different one) by the cool light of his own sparkles.
"What are you doing?" asked Sweden.
"Did you not notice the power's out?"
"Of course I noticed. Finland's checking the fuse box right now."
"Did Denmark come in here?" asked Norway.
"Oh, sure," said Iceland. "He came in, pulled all the cushions off the sofa, gibbered a little bit, knocked over some more furniture, and then ran back out saying 'I killed him, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to.' After that, I think he went outside."
"Great," Sweden groaned. "Why didn't you stop him?"
"As a neutral country in this war, it's none of my business what he does."
"Better drop the 'neutral' stuff, Iceland," said Norway. "It's all spiraling out of control." He started to explain what had happened, but Sweden stopped him.
"Chitchat later. We need to find Denmark before he does something stupider."
"If he didn't find his phone, maybe he had it on him after all and just didn't realize it," said Norway, pulling out his own phone and dialing Denmark's number.
It rang from under the sofa. "So much for that," said Sweden.
They went outside and resumed calling for him. "Maybe he decided to go to town for help," said Norway after a few minutes.
"I wouldn't credit him with thinking that clearly," said Sweden. "Anyway, he didn't take the car."
"Maybe he went on foot. We can look for him along the road."
"It's a plan, at least. I'll drive; you look."
The town was twelve kilometers away along the narrow country road. They allowed themselves to cover seven of them before deciding that Denmark hadn't gone that way. Even running all-out, he couldn't have made seven kilometers in the short period of time since he had disappeared.
Norway was getting really, really worried. On top of everything else, it was completely dark out, and some suspicious-looking clouds were moving in from the horizon. And Denmark didn't have long sleeves on, or a hat. "If he was as panicked as Iceland made it sound," he lamented on the return drive, "he might have gone anywhere."
"We'll just have to launch a more methodical search once we get back," said Sweden. "Goddammit."
They returned to the house to find the power restored and lost no time in explaining the situation. Flashlights were handed out, the area of forest surrounding the house divided up. Since Finland wasn't about to wander around shouting at the top of his lungs, it was agreed he should stay behind in case Denmark came back.
"Can you give us some kind of signal if he does? Or if one of us comes back with him, for that matter. Something that will carry even through all the trees." said Norway.
"I know just the thing," said Sweden. He ran inside and came back out a moment later with Denmark's prank shaving cream air horn. "Use this. The sound should be loud enough." He addressed the other two. "Now, we don't know exactly what—"
BWAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH! screamed the air horn, right behind his head.
Sweden rounded on Finland, whose face was the picture of innocence. But he couldn't think of a thing to be gained by saying anything, so he just made a disgusted noise and continued. "We don't know what state of mind Denmark will be in, so be prepared for anything. If you find him, do whatever you have to in order to get him back here—up to and including hitting him over the head and carrying him, if that's what it takes. We'll figure things out from there, and maybe we'll be lucky and there won't be anything to figure out."
"Sweden, I'm not going to hit Denmark over the head," said Norway.
"You probably wouldn't have to," Sweden pointed out. "All right, let's move!"
It was later. It felt like much later, but the time display on Sweden's phone proclaimed that he had been searching the woods for just over an hour. He had given up on calling Denmark's name some time ago, figuring that if he were willing and able to respond to it, he would have by now. With three of them calling over a wide area for at least twenty minutes, he couldn't have simply missed it by chance. Sweden was better off saving his breath and his voice for more urgent uses.
If only it wasn't so damn dark. The inability to see anything outside the small circle illuminated by his flashlight meant that Sweden had to keep stopping to make sure he still had his bearings. And that was getting increasingly difficult the farther he got from the house, and the more the threatening rain clouds drifted across the stars. He was on the verge of turning back and working out a different search pattern when he heard a loud clink of glass from somewhere behind him.
Sweden whirled around, aiming the flashlight where he had heard the sound. Something flashed in the pile of dead needles at the base of a large fir tree, several meters away. Sweden cautiously went to investigate, and found an empty liter-sized liquor bottle. The label was so badly weathered that he couldn't tell what brand or type it had been, but it was clear glass, so vodka or schnapps were the most likely contenders. One of Finland's "secret" stashes, probably. But then what had made it clink?
Sweden looked again. The bottle was only recently emptied; a few drops still remained. On a hunch, Sweden aimed his flashlight upward, into the branches of the tree.
Damn…I was really hoping Norway would be the one to find him…
"Denmark?" What with one thing and another Sweden didn't have a good view, but it was definitely him. He was perched on a stout branch a couple meters up, leaning against the trunk with his knees drawn up to his chest. While Sweden watched, Denmark heaved a deep sigh and sniffled a little.
Oh, god, he's crying…he drank that whole bottle of…whatever…and now he's not only drunk, but depressed and drunk. Why me? "Denmark, it's me. Why don't you come down from there so we can head back to the house? Everyone's looking for you and Norway's been worried sick."
It took a moment for the words to filter through to Denmark's alcohol-soaked brain, and apparently only some of them made it. Denmark's response was badly slurred but intelligible. "Oh, Sweden, it's you. Are you here to haunt me? If you are, it's okay, 'cause I totally deserve it."
"No, Denmark, I'm not here to haunt you. I'm actually not dead. I was just pretending in order to scare you." He felt his face redden with mild embarrassment—it had been a pretty stupid move, hadn't it? Almost as stupid as Denmark meddling with the wiring in the first place. "I didn't expect it to work this well. But I guess you didn't expect your trick with the wiring to be capable of cutting the power to the whole house and maybe killing someone, either."
"So now what?" said Denmark after another percolation moment.
"Like I said," Sweden said patiently, "come down out of that tree so we can go back to the house. It's the middle of the goddamn night."
"You mean that, right? You're not a ghost trying to trick me?"
"Of course not! If I were a ghost, I wouldn't need you down here because I could just fly up there! Besides, dealing with you when you're completely shitfaced is much too normal a situation to be any sort of afterlife. And on top of which, I'm not dead!"
"Okay, if you say so," said Denmark. He looked at the ground first on one side of his branch, then the other. "Um…I don't think I can climb down. I'm too drunk."
"Oh, for…" Sweden groaned. "All right. Just stay still. I'll be right up."
He propped the flashlight against a rock, grabbed the branch with both hands, and started to pull himself up. Only once he had taken his weight off the ground did he discover that it was too weak to support them both on account of being badly insect-eaten. It broke almost instantly, sending Sweden and Denmark both plummeting to the ground along with about fifteen kilos of splintery wood.
"…ow…" Denmark mumbled.
"For once," said Sweden, "I actually agree with you one hundred percent."
Denmark blinked. His eyes widened, losing some of their glaze. The pain of the fall had knocked a bit of sobriety back into him. "Sweden…it is you!" He suddenly flung himself at the other nation with a sob. "You're not dead! I thought I killed you but I really didn't and I missed you so much and I never wanted the war to get this bad but you were being so mean and because it was self-defense and it went too far and can we just stop playing pranks on each other now so you have to promise not to ever be dead again!"
Sweden was at a loss for words, not least because there wasn't a ball of string in the world that could show the way through that sentence Denmark had just uttered. "Uh…okay?" he ventured. He pulled himself together, helped Denmark sit up against the tree trunk, and sat beside him.
"Hey, did you just stick a sign on my back or something?" said Denmark.
"No, you're clean," said Sweden. "Look…Denmark…I didn't want things to get as bad as they did either. And…I'm sorry. About most of it. Some of it you genuinely deserved, though. But…I can forgive you for that as long as you're sorry."
Denmark was quiet for a while before saying, "Yeah, that. Everything you just said, only swap us around. Yeah."
Sweden decided that was as good as he was going to get with Denmark so addled by ethanol. "It's official, then. The war is over. Come on, you must be in a hurry to get away from all these trees and bushes and things." He got to his feet and dusted himself off, then extended a hand to help Denmark up. It took several tries before he managed to get the other country more-or-less upright and clinging to him for support. Then he realized that he wasn't holding the flashlight and had to ease Denmark down, pick the light up, and do the whole thing over again one-handed.
"Know what, Sweden?" said Denmark as they set out in wobbly fashion in the direction Sweden remembered the house being. "I'm really glad you're not dead."
"You know what, Denmark? So am I."
Right then and there, he came to a decision.
By the time they reached the house, Sweden was practically carrying Denmark, who was close to collapsing under the weight of exhaustion and emotional strain and an entire liter of hard liquor. Finland was waiting for them on the porch, and he had the air horn ready. He made sure to hold it much closer to Sweden's head than was necessary when he sounded it.
"Thanks," Sweden said ironically. "I'm just going to take him in and—"
Morning at the Nordic House.
Denmark awoke to a world of pain. His mouth tasted like someone had been using it to store moldy cotton balls and his head felt like an entire game of billiards was being played inside it, once per second. A beam of sunlight from the window was stabbing his eyeballs with a pair of pickle forks and he rolled over to escape it, only to find that—AARRRGGHHH!—he already had been facing away from the window, as the forks were upgraded to red-hot serrated pokers.
A wet washcloth mercifully landed over his eyes. "Here," said a whispering voice, "you'll need this." A familiar rattling plastic bottle was placed in his hand. "Get it together as fast as you can. Sweden says he has something important to tell all of us."
Sweden…Sweden…do I know a Sweden? Oh, right. That guy.
Gradually, with the aid of about twelve aspirin tablets, Denmark managed to insinuate himself into the land of the living. He crawled off the bed and into his pants and made his way down to the breakfast table, where he buried his face in his arms.
"Oh, good, that's everyone," said Sweden. "We can get started."
"This is the meeting, isn't it?" said Norway. "You really are ruthless, Sweden, ambushing us all at breakfast."
"We need to get through it so we can leave tomorrow as planned," said Sweden, producing a sheet of paper and handing it to Iceland. "Have a look and pass it around. I hope you can all read my writing. I didn't want to use the office until we fix the wiring."
"What is all this?" asked Iceland. "It looks like an agenda, but what are these other letters?"
"Projected voting results," said Sweden. "I realized that the items on the agenda were all recurring business and that we really do vote the same way almost every time. So I thought I'd try streamlining things a bit. If no one disagrees with the votes I predicted for them…" He took a deep breath. "…we can skip the meeting and go on a picnic instead. It's a lovely day and a special occasion, and it would be a shame to waste it indoors."
Four mouths dropped open. Even Denmark's, as he raised his head in surprise.
Iceland lifted an accusing finger. "Who are you, and what have you done with the real Sweden?"
"I'm going to assume that was a rhetorical question," said Sweden.
The chart made the rounds. Either Sweden was an amazingly good guesser, or they really were in a rut. But in a good way, of course. No one could find anything to disagree with. Even Finland approved the long column of abstentions (with a single emphatic, spiteful Nay) that had been predicted for him.
"Done!" said Sweden, rubber-stamping the paper. "Meeting adjourned!"
As the other three started assembling baskets and coolers, Sweden called Denmark aside. "Here…I have something for you." He tossed over a four-gigabyte thumb drive.
"What's on here?"
"It's…your…pictures. The originals, without the censorship. I saved them."
"You sly dog…you intended to give them back all along!"
"Not really. It's just that it's one of the cardinal rules of programming never to delete an earlier version. But now that we're at peace again…consider it reparations."
"I guess I owe you some new shirts, then. Hey…Sweden?"
"You mentioned a special occasion for the picnic. I assume this is it? Us making up and being friends again?"
"Not exactly," said Sweden. "I mean, I never stopped considering you my friend. I was just mad at you."
"Same here," said Denmark, "but then what's the special occasion?"
Sweden looked out the window. The sun was shining a buttery yellow, there was a cool breeze, and birds were singing. "Not being dead."
A/N: I've been wanting to write a "Scandinavia and the World" fanfic for quite some time. The biggest challenge was coming up with an idea for a plot, since the source material is all vignettes and one-offs. I needed a scenario that I could spin out to the length of a complete story while remaining true to the spirit of the webcomic. Fortunately, once you get these guys in the same room, they all just bounce off each other and the dialogue practically writes itself.
And I'm already wondering if I have a second one in my brain somewhere… If not, I may have to invent one just so I can write some good crazy-psycho Finland moments. (I couldn't include any here without losing focus.)
If you were expecting foreign language translations and explanations of obscure references here, I'm sorry to disappoint. I don't usually like to do that sort of thing—it feels somehow like I'm cheating on the readers' behalf. But if there's anything you don't get and can't figure out on your own, ask me and I'll explain it in a private message.
Special acknowledgements go to my sister, who has fully mastered the art of staying neutral in any interpersonal conflict between people she knows. Seriously, she should just change her name to Switzerland.