Ermergerd, another chapter has emerged! *GASP*
I know it's been a really long time since the last update, and I am really sorry. For the last two years or so I have been going through a major upheaval in my life that has left me with less time, and my muse for this fic comes and goes as I fall into and out of the Hetalia mood. I can promise you that this fic WILL get finished, I just don't know when. For now I am in the mood and have a bit more time for writing, so I HOPE to have the next chapter posted in the next month or two, but we'll see. In the meantime, if you like this story and want to speed up the updates, you can help by keeping my muse strong through reviewing. I am not holding chapters hostage or any nonsense like that, but it is easier to get excited about updating a story that I know people are reading and interested in.
January 5th, 1943
"You were supposed to be protecting her!" Ludwig raged, fighting to keep his voice down below a roar; enemy soldiers could be right across the street, and it wouldn't do to give away their position. Feliciano trembled in his grasp, pale, icy fingers prying futilely at the hand pinning him up against a frigid concrete wall by his throat. His feet, covered by standard Italian Army issue long black boots, dangled helplessly several centimeters above the floor. "It was literally the only job you had! Stay in that one barricaded room on the highest floor of the school and guard Svetlana with your life until I returned! A proto-nation could have done it! Yet you decided to take her out in the middle of a war-zone — in broad daylight — to the site of a battle between two nation spirits. You could not possibly have put her in more danger. And all because, what, she begged you to take her to me? You're so weak and spineless you can't say 'no' even to save someone's life?!" He was almost shouting, his breath taking the form of dramatic white puffs, and he mentally kicked himself for making such a racket. But damn, it was so hard to keep a normal volume in the face of such stupidity and cowardice, such utter insubordination. His hand tightened around Feliciano's neck, short fingernails cutting bloody furrows into soft flesh. The other country's eyes bulged.
Choking to death, and realizing finally that he had no prayer of freeing himself from his ally's iron grip, Feliciano gave up and pointed to his gasping mouth while reaching into his pocket. Moments later he was waving a little white handkerchief with one hand and making the universal gesture for talking with the other, thumb and fingers wagging into each other to approximate a speaking mouth.
So predictable. I wonder what stupid excuse he's going to give me?
Whatever it was it wouldn't change anything: Ludwig had already decided on a course of punishment, and nothing Feliciano did or said was going to sway him. The Italian had deliberately disobeyed orders from his commanding officer ( it didn't matter that they weren't in the same militaries: Hitler and Mussolini had agreed that he was unofficially obligated to obey Ludwig when the two fought in the same battles ) and abandoned his friends and allies when they needed him most, resulting in the death of one of said friends and allies. He was almost as responsible for Svetlana's death as Ivan, and were he human any right-thinking officer would have him put to death for cowardice and insubordination.
Luckily for him he wasn't human.
Eyes blazing, Ludwig released his hold and dropped his former friend onto his feet. Then he took a step back and watched with a hostile expression as that slender frame righted itself, as a long-fingered, artistic hand came up and rubbed at the slightly bloodied red marks on its owner's neck.
Feliciano coughed a couple of times and cleared his throat. Then he began speaking, and his eyes echoed the apology which spilled from his lips. "I'm really sorry, Germany. I never wanted anything bad to happen. But Svetlana said she knew a way to stop the fighting between you and Russia, one that could even help us win the war! She said that the two of you could call a personal truce and work together to kill each other's bosses. You'd both have to promise beforehand to have them replaced by men who would pull you out of war with each other and collaborate on a peace treaty. Then the Soviet Union would either join our side or fold out of the war. Either way, the remaining Allies would be much easier to beat. I thought —"
"You thought wrong," Ludwig snapped. His cheeks flushed with heat; Feliciano cringed like a dog in front of him. "You and Svetlana. Russia doesn't trust anyone or anything, including his own people. He also doesn't care about his own people — not as individuals, anyway. So long as he retains enough to stay healthy and strong he doesn't care how many my soldiers and I kill: he said so himself. You can't negotiate with someone like that. All you can do is put a bullet in their brain."
"But Germany, Russia is one of us-" At the deadly glower he received Italy instantly amended "A nation spirit! Russia's a nation spirit, like we are. That means he has to care about his people, even if he says he doesn't. Bosses sometimes don't care about their citizens, sure — and governments — but you better than anyone know we are not just reflections of our bosses and governments! I know you hate Ivan and I don't blame you after everything he's done, but he wasn't telling the truth. He knows you're young — he was trying to trick you. If you thought he didn't care about his people then you wouldn't go out of your way to do horrible things to them, wouldn't believe he had close friends you could target..."
"How do you know?" The question was pure, soft, and innocent, like something a curious little child would ask his father. "In war especially, when you're in a position of power the best way to protect those dearest to you is to pretend you don't care about them at all. I know, I've had to do it. It's hard, and it's painful, but sometimes it's necessary. But that's all it is: pretending."
"Wrong again." Ludwig reached inside his grey trench coat and withdrew his trusty dagger. Cleansed of Russian blood, polished, and sharpened to a razor's edge since its last use, it gleamed menacingly in the light of the fire that was burning a few meters away under a section of missing roof. Ludwig's mouth curved slowly, an ominous expression rolling over his features as he removed the glove from his left hand and drew two fingers gingerly — very gingerly — over one edge of the blade, appreciating its sharpness. The cold metal felt strangely pleasant against his warm skin.
"But it doesn't matter." His tone was much calmer now, but it was an icy, deathly calm; a ripple of satisfaction went through him as he noticed Feliciano watching him like a nervous rabbit a split second shy of bolting. He slapped the flat of the blade against his bare palm. "Whether Russia cares, whether he doesn't care — his fate will be the same. It's only a matter of time before he and his people are wiped off the face of the earth. No, what matters is that you…" A flick of his wrist and the dagger was pointing at Feliciano. "…disobeyed me not once, but twice, and abandoned me when I needed you most. You could have grabbed Svetlana and ran. You could have stayed and helped me fight Ivan. Instead you raced off like a rabbit fleeing a hound, and Svetlana died as a result-"
"You don't understand!" Feliciano gushed, wide, desperate eyes brimming with unspent tears. "I promised her! I promised her that I wouldn't take her away! She knew you'd command me to take her back, said she wouldn't be able to get through to Russia if I did-"
"How the hell did she even know I would be fighting Russia right then and there?" Prior to her death he hadn't seen her in over 24 hours, hadn't spoken a single word to her about the Private Residence or the likelihood that Ivan would be guarding it. She'd known only that his goal was to secure the closest strip of the Volga, and she'd had no clue whether he'd gone north or south.
"She didn't, but she knew that Russia was there, and guessed that that was where you might have gone-"
"How?!" Ludwig interrupted fiercely, flipping the dagger so that the tip pointed to the ground before drawing it up against his chest. Fresh anger and new suspicion deepening the already draconian frown he wore, he took a couple of steps towards Feliciano. "How could she possibly know Russia was there? Even you didn't know it…" He tilted his head slightly to one side, eyes narrowing. "Or did you?" The question came out in an acidic hiss.
Feliciano shook his head furiously. "No! Not before she did! We learned at the same time. A few hours after you left a group of wounded Germans sheltered in the room below us. We could hear their voices coming up through the floor. They talked about the Private Residence, about seeing a glimpse of the Ghost General shooting out of a window. They described the place well enough that Svetlana remembered seeing it a few times when she fought for the other side, remembered exactly where it was."
"And then she decided to go have a word with her general in private? Was that the plan? To face down one of the most powerful nation spirits on earth by herself?!"
"No! Not by herself! I was going to be with her-"
"As I said, by herself." Ludwig growled derisively, "You weren't going to grab her and run if things turned sour and you weren't going to fight Russia for her. You were absolutely no use to her at all: she'd have been better off with a Baltic, or, hell, even one of your soldiers, as backup."
"I would have helped if she would have asked me to! I wasn't going to just run off and leave her!"
"Except you did just that-"
"Because you were there! I-"
"What, would have fought Russia if I hadn't been there? Would have broken your promise if Sveta hadn't asked for your help?" Ludwig shook his head, dark scowl accentuated by the faintest glint of white at one corner of his mouth where his upper lip curled just a little. "You sniveling, gutless worm." His voice, low and dangerous, smoldered like embers in the frigid night air. "You were scared, plain and simple. Why I don't know: you're an immortal. You heal quickly. Yes, you're nowhere near as strong as Russia and I, but you're still one of the stronger nation spirits — stronger than Prussia in fact — and you're faster than me, Ivan, and everyone else in this war: hell, you might even be the fastest of our kind. You're in a much better position than a lot of countries right now, yet you piss yourself at the first sign of aggression and run crying from weaklings like Greece and Egypt." His voice went up an octave in mocking imitation of his ally's all-too-familiar call. "Germany, come help me!"He shook his head in disgust. "If it weren't for me you'd be occupied by all the countries you'd annoyed by now. Your people don't know how to fight, and neither do you. Rome would be embarrassed."
Cold tears spilled down Feliciano's cheeks, glistened in the flickering, dancing firelight. The eyes they flowed from stared at Ludwig in heartbroken disbelief. Frightened, repentant, and subdued, the Italian radiated weakness.
Ludwig couldn't believe it. How was it that he had ever come to consider such a cowardly, annoying, disobedient waste of life his friend? His friendship with Feliciano had been real, as real as his compassion for Jews had been. Had the smaller nation not played such an instrumental role in the death of Svetlana that friendship would have survived, at least for a while, in a weakened form. Italy was an ally, and though he wasn't nearly as effective as Japan and Finland at almost everything involving fighting and warfare, he did at least recognize Germany as his leader, and apart from Prussia he was the only nation spirit to regularly fight alongside him in the same battles. Though Ludwig often claimed otherwise when he was feeling particularly frustrated by the other man's flippant attitude towards combat and important tasks and chores, he had to admit that he wasn't completely useless, though the limited support he provided in the form of surveillance, meal preparation, medical help, and morale boosting were hardly vital, and should their relationship sour he and his men could get along just fine without it.
No, Feliciano, as an individual, wasn't valuable to the Axis war effort. Hell, he was barely valuable as a nation: two and a half years since they'd entered the war and the Italian military had embarrassingly little to show for their efforts. They were useful as auxiliary and nothing more.
So if Feliciano's loyalty and willingness to help happened to slip as a result of the punishment he was about to receive, it would be no big loss.
Feliciano swallowed thickly before shutting his eyes and slowly shaking his head. "I-I'm sorry." It was amazing how much emotion he was able to pack into two simple words: he either sincerely regretted his decision with all his soul, or else he had a sense of just how much trouble he was in. "I wish I was brave like you and Prussia. But I'm not. I've seen Russia do terrible things to people. Heard of him doing even worse things. And I know I'm immortal, and that I'll heal quickly from anything he does to me, but I will still feel the pain…" He shuddered as if caught in a sudden blast of icy wind. "Germany, I don't know how you can handle it. Fighting and war hurt so much! Bullets, bombs, explosions, knives, fire…being crushed by falling buildings and smashed by flying debris, scalded by boiling oil and chemicals …and that's just the regular stuff! Being viciously tortured…" He opened his eyes, and the uneven inflections of his brows strengthened the cold dread which had manifested across his face during his speech. He gazed at Ludwig imploringly. "Do you know what that's like?"
"Happily, no, because I am a strong nation who always fights to the death. The enemy can't torture you if they can't capture you." Ludwig's tone was prideful and unabashedly condescending. Italy had seen him in action many times: he knew very well how strong he was. Now he would feel that strength firsthand.
He was about to pounce, to make a split-second lunge and lash out at Feliciano's chest with his dagger-wielding hand, slamming his skinny, frail-looking body into the wall, when the other nation cried out in anguish.
"I'm really, really sorry Germany!"
"Not as sorry as you're going to be," Ludwig growled coldly, unmoved. His muscles tensed, primed with energy, prepared to launch him at the other man in a moment's notice. So long as he was precise, Feliciano's speed wouldn't save him. Backed against a wall with another wall to his right and a three-story drop into a treacherous pile of debris which included sharp glass and jagged pieces of pipe and twisted metal to his left, the Italian's only real option was to race right past Ludwig.
"I made a mistake! I was scared. I thought you could handle Russia. The hall was clear and Svetlana looked like she was going to run out with me. I honestly didn't know she was going to stay, that you weren't going to be able to-"
Ludwig lunged. Feliciano started to run, but he was too late: Ludwig was in front of him in an instant, swatting him into the wall.
"Oomphf!" All the wind forced from his lungs in jet of white smoke, the smaller nation somehow managed to quickly scramble to his feet, only to immediately screw his eyes shut and double over, clutching his chest.
Good, I didn't hit too hard. In order to properly pay for his actions Feliciano had to be alive, conscious, and aware. "I've had enough of your excuses, and your incompetence! Svetlana is dead because of you, because you made one stupid decision after another!"
A good, solid blow from his closed fist to the middle of the Italian's back sent the latter crashing belly-first — and face-first — into the unforgivingly cold and hard cement floor. Still unable to inhale or exhale, not so much as a squeak passed Feliciano's lips as blood spurted from his mouth, quickly forming a dark, steaming puddle around his face. He made no attempt to move as Ludwig flashed down and seized him by the back of his neck with his left hand, and when he was jerked to his feet he hung like a ragdoll in the German's grip.
Ludwig released him, but only for the split-second it took to swing around in front of him so that they were face-to-face. His hand was closing around the smaller man's throat before he had a chance to even register his freedom, the business end of his dagger flying up to hover a finger's length in front of the other country's nasion. Pain-ridden amber eyes focused weakly on it.
"I've been too easy on you too long. You think my commands are optional, that you can just do as you want without consequence."
Feliciano shook his head.
Ludwig ignored the feeble protest. "Well, not anymore." His words, and his gaze, were as hard as steel. He lowered the dagger a few centimeters, touched the tip gently to the dark, purplish-red sleep-deprived flesh under the inner corner of Feliciano's left eye.
Feliciano winced sharply, anticipating the worst, but did not resist. His lungs began filling again, drawing air into his body in slow, deep, stinging inhalations.
In spite of the questions and frantic pleading it was certain to bring, Ludwig allowed him to catch his breath. Angry as he was he looked forward to answering his ex friend's questions, to not only seeing, but hearing his reaction to his true self. Feliciano had never met the real him: no one had. He'd been diseased from the very moment of his creation, all the backward thoughts, greed, treachery, and wickedness of the subhumans infesting his land body shooting through his newborn mind and soul like veins of black sewage.
Somewhere overhead a cloud shifted, casting a real shadow over the spectral one which fell over his face as he continued in the same deadly tone. "From now on, no more leniency. You make a mistake, you disobey an order, you're going to suffer." He pressed down on the blade, applied just enough pressure to break skin.
The blood which spilled out of the cut formed a bright red bead, a tear.
With a slow swipe he traced a path for it to follow, curving over Feliciano's cheek and ending at the edge of his already-bloodied chin. "This is going to hurt."
Feliciano's face went white with horror; his pupils swelled with shock. He hadn't been expecting real, physical punishment. Not from the man whom he likely still thought of as his best friend. "Ludwig! Bitte! Es tut mir sehr leid!"(1) Struck wild with panic, he grabbed the arm clutching his throat in both hands and tried desperately to pull it away while his body jerked and thrashed with the frenzied terror of a cat caught in a snare. "Bitte verzeih mir! Don'thurtmedon'thurtmedon'thurtme!"(2)
Wow. Stronger than I thought. While Ludwig still easily overpowered him, keeping his arm still and his hand closed around Feliciano's throat took more effort than he had imagined. The realization made his blood boil all the more: Italy was strong enough, both physically and militarily, to put up a much better fight against their enemies than he had been. He'd always known he wasn't fighting to his true potential, but feeling that potential now it was clear that he could make real difference in the tide of war, both as an individual and as a nation, if only he wanted to.
That was just the problem: he didn't want to. He was half-assing this war just like he half-assed everything which involved any real work in life. He didn't care if he lost, didn't care if his allies lost. Hell, as many times as he ran away from them, and as easy as he tended to go on them when he did fight them, sometimes it really felt like he was trying to get on the Allies' good side in case the Axis lost and he suddenly found himself at their mercy.
Actually, that explained everything. Beautifully.
Italy was hedging his bets.
From the very beginning the auburn-haired country's entrance into the war had been more self-serving than Germany and his boss would have liked; though Mussolini and many of the Italian high-command either supported or went along with Nazi idealogy and had no qualms about helping Hitler's government accomplish its goals, their primary motivation had been territory: they'd wanted to expand the Italian colonies in North Africa by taking land from the British and French colonies. Germany had been scoring one decisive victory after another at the time, conquering and subjugating Poland in less than a month and France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands all within a span of six weeks, so allying with him had been particularly attractive. Mussolini had made no secret of the fact that he thought the war would be over soon and that he didn't expect his country to have to do much fighting. As for Feliciano himself, he had believed his boss, and in spite of his friendly, easy-going, and generally peaceful personality he hadn't been opposed to entering the war, figuring it was a great way to acquire land, resources, and a sizeable status boost with minimal effort. However, he had never been passionate about it, either, and the moment he'd realized he was going to have to roll up his sleeves, get dirty, and put in some real, honest-to-God blood-sweat-and-tears effort rather than just kick back and let Ludwig do all the fighting he'd changed his tune. He and his people didn't want new territory and the benefits they stood to gain from victory badly enough to die for them, and that was the single biggest reason why they were so liable to turn tail and run when confronted with any force which looked too formidable.
None of that in and of itself was surprising, given the Italians' track record of bowing down to any reasonably-powered nation which sought to dominate and/or subjugate them with little or no fight; people who viewed their own nation's autonomy as optional couldn't be counted upon to put their heart and soul into fighting for new wealth and living space, never mind another nation's ideals, and Feliciano had admitted more than once that, most of the time, he hadn't minded being a servant and letting someone else run his affairs and make all the big decisions for him. No, what was surprising — and infuriating — was the Italians' decision to hold back even when they had the upper hand, to shower their enemies with mercy to the detriment of not only themselves, but their allies. Every Russian, British, French, and American soldier an Italian soldier failed to take out lived to harass, maim, and kill German, Finnish, and Japanese soldiers. But Italy and his people didn't care, because they were looking out only for themselves. Never mind all the favors Germany had done for them, never mind all the times he and his soldiers had rushed in to save them when they'd gotten in over their heads.
Ludwig's eyes burned into Feliciano's like a pair of archangels' halos blazing with the blue fire of Heaven, scorching what tiny amount of courage, resolve, and dignity remained in him. "'Sorry' isn't going to bring Svetlana back." His hand flashed back, then forward as he stabbed the other man in the shoulder as hard as he could, nearly tearing him out of his grip in the process.
Feliciano screamed. A dark patch blossomed instantly on his uniform around the blade.
Ludwig threw him into the ground, watched with deep satisfaction as his head cracked the cement and his bones crunched wetly. Without missing a beat he pulled a strip of white cloth from one of his outer pockets. Cold and a bit stiff, it would nonetheless do the job he had in mind, the job of muffling Feliciano's cries.
Dazed, Feliciano rolled over just as he dropped to his knees over his body, some knee-jerk survival instinct kicking in. His eyes were screwed shut, his face twisted in a grimace. The side of his head that had hit the floor was covered in blood.
Moving quickly, Ludwig forced the cloth into his unwilling mouth and tied the back around his head. Then he grabbed the hilt of the dagger protruding from his shoulder.
Time to get carving.
1) Please! I am very sorry!
2) Please forgive me!