We made our oath to Vavilov
We'd not betray the solanum
The acres of asteraceae
To our own pangs of starvation
When the war came
-The Decemberists, "When the War Came"
The pipe crashed down, and the rat screeched away its last breath. Russia examined the broken body and offered it to the huddled figure beside the boxes.
"Here. I know it's not ideal, but it's better than nothing."
The botanist looked up and took the proffered meat. "Don't you want it? I don't think I've ever seen you eat."
"I don't really need to eat. Don't get me wrong, I miss the habit, but I won't die if I don't." Russia sat beside the man, blowing on his own cold hands. He hadn't lost as much weight as the siege victims, the health of his people outside the city holding up his own, but he was pale even for him, and looked smaller than usual inside his coat. "As long as even one Russian lives, so will I."
"Huh. We may end up testing that, in this war," the botanist said, mostly to himself. Even Ivan Braginsky himself could no longer frighten the man, after the horrors of the siege. He picked the fur off the dead rat and bit into it, crunching the bones.
Russia wiped the blood off the tip of his pipe, and curiously licked his reddened fingers. "Interesting. You dare talk back to me now?"
"Why not? I'm pretty sure you're just a hallucination."
Russia laughed. "I'm a hallucination who just fed you, yes?" He looked around at the boxes. "I think some of the seeds are going bad. You should probably eat the ones you can't salvage for planting, before they rot."
"Probably. No sense in keeping them if we can't use them." The botanist didn't get up. "I'll check later. I'm tired now. So tired." He blinked, and tugged his ruined coat tighter around himself. The two sat in silence for a long while.
"I don't remember Babylon."
The botanist stared at Russia, who in turn stared at the basement door. The only light came from the cracks in the weathered wood; the candles had run out long ago.
"They call the institute Babylon. I wish I could have known the original. I hear she was very beautiful. Even if the Book of Revelations didn't like her much."
"I'm impressed. I didn't know hallucinations could hallucinate."
"I'm not hallucinating. Just musing."
The two sentries fell silent again.
"Are you happy with what we're doing?"
It was Russia's turn to look surprised. "What do you mean?"
The scientist stared at the floorboards between his feet. "These seeds - most of them are edible. There's enough food here for the whole city. We could feed thousands of people with these seeds, but we're keeping them, and we're killing your children by it."
Russia looked at him. If the man didn't know better, there was a hint of sadness in that childlike face. "You're my children too, you know. My children, not my puppets. I can't make all your decisions for all of you. Though, if it makes you feel any better, if you gave up now I would think no less of you."
"What, really?" the man asked, disbelieving. "You wouldn't care if I broke my oath?"
"I've lived long enough to see better oaths broken for less," Russia said with a shrug. "You are a brave human, but still a human, and there is no shame for a human in wanting to live."
"I guess so, but ..." The man sighed. "If we opened the seedbank, we could feed thousands."
"If you keep these seeds, the work you've done with them could feed millions. Am I right?"
The man smiled weakly. "Yes, I suppose so. For the greater good. Does that make me a good communist?"
"I'd say it's more that you're a good scientist," Russia said, chuckling drily.
The scientist's smile widened a little; a weak but genuine smile, the first from him in a long time. "You know, it's funny, but now you've said you wouldn't mind if I ate the seeds, I don't feel so hungry anymore. I'm still tired, though, and my shift doesn't end for two hours ..."
Russia reached out and touched the man's hand, sticky with saliva from where he'd licked up the rat's blood. "Get some sleep. I'll keep watch."
The man, too tired to question the existence of his nation's representative anymore, rested his head against one of the boxes of seeds and started to drift away. Russia settled into a more comfortable position and took a firmer grip on his pipe.
The world's first and largest seedbank at Leningrad survived the nine hundred day siege. Nine of the twelve scientists, sworn to protect the seeds, starved to death, even inside the institute, surrounded by edible seeds. Thanks to them, the work of Nikolai Vavilov, one of the world's greatest botanists, survived the war, even as the man himself died in prison. Many of the seeds were eaten by rats or destroyed by the poor storage conditions, but many were preserved, replanted, and spread around the world.
Ivan Braginsky left Leningrad as soon as the siege ended, to join the war effort elsewhere. He never told his fellow nations that he had watched over the seedbank himself, and even if he had, they would probably never have believed him.
This story is true, except for the presence of a Hetalia character. Google the Pavlovsk Seedbank, and prepare to cry. What's particularly sad is that it survived the war, but now risks being shut down because of budget cuts. Vavilov would turn in his grave. With thanks for inspiration to Elise Blackwell's novella Hunger and the Decemberists' song "When the War Came", quoted above. Asteraceae, for the record, are sunflowers - I'm guessing that's why Ivan likes them so much. I'm also quite fond of the idea of Hetalia's Babylon being a woman, because of a combination of the Book of Revelations and some references in Simon R Green's Nightside books.