21 Guns, Pale, Somewhere, Safe and Sound, Memories, Paradise, Written in the Stars, Nowhere, Toy Soldiers.
Here we go, last bit!
Part Three of Three
Toris had built a Commonwealth based on agriculture with Feliks by his side. The world of the After wasn't very conducive to farming, but he was determined, and he was ready to use every available resource to make it work.
The first few months of trying to farm had ended in disaster: the toxic rain had poisoned the first major crop, inspiring a shift to smaller fields and staggered growing. They hadn't enjoyed a proper "summer" since Toris had come to the Americas, but they hadn't had to slough their way through a frigid winter yet either. As long as the wind didn't try to blister the slowly rising stalks then they could maintain a mixed-bag of crops. Rye was the cereal of choice, wheat had always been a favourite of the Americans but Toris was in charge, and he wanted a plant that he knew as well as his own hands.
Diversity was key in such an unstable, inhospitable environment: potatoes, turnips, onions and carrots all found their way into the burnt ground, with the first performing the best in the mild temperatures and minimal sunlight of the new world. The earth swallowed the ash, toxins be damned, and it was tilled and ploughed and trodden on until the dark, rich soil that had made this continent so strong was revealed. Toris kept his mind off things like cancer and tumours and birth defects: it was better that the next generation endure the pain of the toxic past than tell the current generation to starve in the name of genetic health. They had survived too much to give up now: contaminated food could still fill hungry mouths.
And a full stomach was the first step towards an active mind.
"Ve~, Lithuania, did Estonia really manage to rebuild those Soviet radios?"
"Ah! You heard about that, too? I'm not surprised."
Toris was walking back towards Camp when Italy asked the question, the two of them the last to leave the fields after a messenger had run out to call everyone back within the boundaries of the camp. It wasn't an alert and no one was panicking, that was why the nations had finished their work about five kilometers from the campgrounds instead of rushing off. It was good news, it was something they'd been waiting weeks to hear: one of the submarines was making its way down the coast towards home.
"So it's true?"
"Not sure yet. The working ones we had left were all installed on the submarines so they could communicate with each other, but Estonia's been tinkering with the broken ones for use here at home." They were quite a ways off from being able to make new radios, so restoring an old one would make Estonia king of the camp if he was successful. Maybe that was how they knew a sub was on its way? Had they made contact via radio?
Toris was getting ahead of himself, but as they trudged along under the grey sky he glanced up at the sunlight filtering weakly through the clouds. Rain clouds, he hoped, not ash getting ready to snow down on them like it still sometimes did. The rain was better now than it had been before: so toxic that it could burn skin, nevermind the crops they had struggled to take care of in the beginning. Mature plants could handle the sting of it now, but canvas tents were still set up to protect young patches of freshly seeded land. Italy jogged a few steps ahead of him now, a worn out blue cap resting on his head and a rough wooden rake propped against his shoulder. He leaned down to check the fraying cords holding up one such tent as they passed, frowning a little. It would need fixing...
"I'll take care of it later." Later Italy said, even with the daylight fading around them.
Toris didn't argue with him though, there was no point. He needed all the help he could get and he was prepared to defend Italy's work in the fields to secure it. Yes, he knew the Italian worked too much, anyone with two wits to rub together knew he worked too much: but he'd been doing that for months and months and it clearly wasn't doing him any harm, so why not let him? It filled something in him and it saved Toris the anxiety of having to do everything himself, so it was all good.
He... might have had this argument with Spain before. Maybe.
"You can leave it for the morning if you'd like."
"No, it's fine. After we get something to eat I'll come back out."
Don't argue. Toris fiddled with the flashlight hanging from his belt as the sun continued to sink over the horizon. Everyone else had been recalled hours ago, but there'd been so much recycled wash-water left behind that they'd spent the entire evening spraying it across the crops. Toris still had the modified bike-pumps hanging from his curled fingers, the coiled bodies of two reclaimed garden hoses slung over his shoulders. They were heavy, but Italy was visibly favouring his right shoulder after today.
"Let me check that arm of yours before you go." They kept walking at the same slow, tired pace, the the camp rising in the twilight and beckoning them home. "I don't need you straining yourself in the dark." Italy smiled and flicked his own flashlight on, the lamps and lanterns and torches of the camp all giving light for the final hour before people would begin going to bed. It was like how life had been before wide-spread electricity: up with the dawn and down with the dusk. Even if they couldn't see the sun, they obeyed it through the grey.
"It doesn't hurt."
"Really? Then take some of this will you?"
It was a simple test and Italy failed. He didn't just shift awkwardly with the rake on his good shoulder, trying to figure out which arm to assign the burden too: when Toris handed him the bicycle pumps the Italian's whole body feinted to the right. The metal pump hit the ground in a clatter and Italy winced sharply, Toris trying not to sigh as he smiled at his over-worked friend and clapped him roughly on his good shoulder.
"Liar." Bending down to retrieve the fallen pieces, he heard Italy tsk sharply under his breath.
"I don't mind the pain." Ah, so this was going to be one of those moments then? They didn't come around very often, at least not with Toris and the people who worked closely, day in and day out at Italy's side, but they still happened. This was going to be one of those moments where Italy would grow increasingly defensive about something that wasn't worth getting worked up about, and he would stop speaking so much as well. Italy still wasn't as chatty as he'd been in the Before, and he certainly had lost that lazy, care-free attitude of his, but he was still friendly most of the time. He was still Feliciano under all the grime and scars- except for when he was like this.
"Feli, hey..." Make a point quickly or don't try at all. Toris had been working by his side for several months now, he knew what he was doing: "I know what it's like to be half of a whole nation, and what it's like to lose that other person." Toris straightened up with his burdens and found Italy staring at the dark ground between them, the sky continuing to darken as they stood there, stalled a few hundred yards from the camp's light. "I know it's hard, but that doesn't mean you have to do the work of two men now that you're-"
He- guh, aaahh, had that been a mistake? The dissolution of the commonwealth had been a long time ago...
Italy had one hand part way up between them, his rake resting in his other hand with the working end sitting down on the ground. He rolled his wrist a few times as if looking for words, his eyes averted so Toris couldn't read his face, but he did hear a few soft words of Italian- or were they Latin? It sounded like an invocation: "God protect me". But there were a few sounds after that, bits that Toris just couldn't hear well enough to translate. Unbidden, the brunet thought "God save me from these idiots", but that seemed a bit harsh...
"I wonder why..." So soft...
"I wonder why Russia's the only one who understands?" Um.
"Wait." Lithuania felt a sharp pain pierce him between the eyes. No. He had not just heard that. "Please say that again?"
"Spain doesn't get it, it's shocking." There was a fire in those brown eyes as they came up, staring through Toris rather than at him. "Romano was part of his empire and he just doesn't get it. I can't tell if he's ignorant or just stupid." His tone was venomous but it was still very quiet, and all Toris could do was watch Italy's arms begin to shake, his shoulders bowing slowly as if under some kind of weight.
"I wasn't 'one half of a whole', Lithuania-" He heard but couldn't understand anything that came after that: Toris didn't speak Italian, and that was what Italy rambled off into before tossing the rake to the ground (his body swaying dramatically with the gesture) with a clatter and marching off with a messy stumble after he turned, still muttering. Toris didn't know what he was saying, he barely remembered Latin and most of that was reserved for church services; just terminology, not vocabulary, the things he'd learned from-
Oh wait- that- didn't that mean-? So he...?
He didn't understand the angry words but Lithuania suddenly understood the anger. Realization crashed down on him like cold water as he gasped behind his respirator mask and let his eyes go wide in the dark. He stared straight up at the sky and tried to get through the light-headed feeling of his limbs tingling and his stomach clenching. Stupid- he was so stupid! Had Spain really not known this? Where was everyone's head?
Toris closed his eyes and pressed his gloved hands over them, his empty stomach rolling over itself as second-hand frustration crackled through his system on the heels of epiphany. This shouldn't have taken so long to come out. Italy should have said something, Russia should have said something, Spain or Mexico should have figured this out months ago!
The dark road was empty when Toris called out, and he couldn't understand why: even if Italy had started running he still should have been able to see him against the camp's flickering lights. Long black shadows swallowed the ground at his feet, but as soon as he started walking forward one of those shadows peeled away. Italy'd dropped his flashlight?
No. Italy's flashlight was attached to his belt.
Ludwig never thought he would live to say this, but as the hatch opened to an almost blue sky and nearly clear air, the words just came:
"From the very bottom of my heart, the German people thank their Russian friends." His voice was husky and he kept his eyes on the sky, on the light, on the several metal rungs that would take him up out of the dark, silent deep where they'd been housed for the voyage across the ocean. The Russian captain standing next to him just smiled and nodded, eyes falling to his own boots.
"I doubt General Braginski will hold that against you, friend. Now please, you must hurry to the colony: there will be food there, medicine as well."
Ludwig had lost weight and mass in the months (in the years?) of starvation and rations, his body reacting as expected to the famine and mass extinction of his people. Still, he was not in a position to complain, and between himself and a very fragile England several trips were made up and down the throat of the submarine to bring their stricken companions out into the milky daylight. The raft-ride to shore was very quick, but to Ludwig it felt like hours, and the anxiety of sitting in the back of the transport was unbearable. The longest thirty minutes of his life passed with a crippled France dozing on the German's shoulder and another feverish head in his lap, Ludwig riding with eyes wide open watching the alien landscape pass them by in a cloud of dust.
He watched and, not for the first time, he prayed: please, please, please let it not all have been in vain.
When they arrived, Canada was loaded onto a gurney and England coaxed the youth in Ludwig's care out of the truck and onto his shoulders, Arthur's back buckling under the weight but refusing to give him up. Someone told him where they were headed with the sick, but Ludwig barely had time to process the information before:
No one-legged man should have been able to move that fast, but France seemed able to take being nearly bowled over by the leaping Spaniard, the first laugh Ludwig had heard in days sparkling in the air. He could barely make heads or tails of the sounds they made to each other, a confused mess of French, Spanish, Latin and some English babbled and laughed and yelled and wept between Spain's neck and France's shoulder. The armless and the one-legged danced for several minutes and it hurt to watch or listen to them for too long; the only thing that didn't need translation was the emotion. So much emotion...
"I-Is that you, Germany?" Spain's acknowledgement made the moment even harder to handle, because without Gilbert there the feelings just- "Heaven above, I think Feli weighs more than you now..."
Ludwig found himself pulled into a hug and didn't resist it, closing his eyes and letting Spain welcome him to the other side. It didn't last very long, just enough to make the moment feel real, and then he heard the former kingdom whisper kindly in his ear:
"I'm so, so sorry..."
"We're all sorry." Ludwig answered, willing his composure not to break and compromising with the tears as he made himself smile past Spain's head, eyes closed and ears listening to the chatter of voices and the laughter of children. "Except Prussia. He was never sorry for anything." This place had children...
His was the right answer to give and Spain released him shortly after, his hands still resting on Ludwig's thin shoulders, a lost smile on his dark face as he looked the German over.
"You must be starving. Come on, they're still serving lunch." Lunch. There was enough food here that they could actually distinguish between and name meals. Ludwig could breathe the air without his mask, and he carefully stepped to the side to avoid a round hunk of plastic and newspaper being used as a ball by the children.
If he was dead, then heaven was already much more than God had ever promised. France had the long bent piece of wood that Spain used as a crutch tucked against his one elbow, and Ludwig didn't question how he'd picked it up off the ground as it was passed back to the Spaniard. But Ludwig hesitated before they started walking, turning his blue eyes on his surroundings instead, searching. There were splotches of paint on what looked like a mail-box, and somewhere in the mess he thought he heard voices chanting and repeating words for a song, but...
"He's here." Spain said. But when Ludwig turned around to look at him again, he seemed lost. "I'll send someone to check on him."
"Check?" Ludwig repeated, and he felt pain begin to build up quickly in his lungs. Not blinding, not crippling or crushing, but pain. "Is he..?"
"Ah, no- don't take it like that." Spain gave his head a quick shake, his brown hair looked black under the dirt and the long ringlets smacked his cheeks as he spoke, holding one hand up for a pause. "It was just last night, he and Lithuania were coming back from the fields when he collapsed."
"Collapsed!-?" No! No this wasn't real! No! Not after everything!
"Non, Spain, answer him." France spoke decisively and Ludwig just lifted his rough, salt-burnt hands up to his face, trying to cover his eyes but afraid to go back into the dark. "This is important; is he alright, and where can we find him?" He could hear France but just barely, his harsh breaths drowning out the laughter and the voices of the camp. No, no this wasn't possible. His worst fears were not coming true.
'No, no, no! Don't let it end like this!' No, they couldn't lose their life-line like this. Italy couldn't die too...
"His tent is this way." Spain hobbled to show them the way and France followed, probably to keep an eye on Ludwig, but he really didn't care right now. "Did anyone else make it out with you?"
"Canada and America found their way to Germany and America stayed with Russia when he came to pick is up. They were headed to Gothenburg and should only be a few weeks behind us." Ludwig listened with half an ear as they moved down the straight, orderly lanes between blocks of canvas tents and leaning wooden structures, chicken wire fences and stacks of old tires decorating the dystopian neighbourhood. "Someone took Canada away, England followed him with-"
Spain turned and pulled aside the heavy flap of a large tent that looked no different from any other they'd passed, poking his head inside the dim interior before deciding it was the right one and moving inside. Ludwig followed and France quieted down, the three of them moving slowly as their eyes adjusted to the change.
Ludwig didn't doubt that when it was made, this tent had been meant for summer picnics and garden parties. The walls had been added after the fact; soiled canvas sheets stitched to the top and patched with all kinds of nylon and polyester fabrics. The outside was slicked with oils to keep rain from soaking through and ripping the structure down with the added weight. The floor was just the raked and hard-packed earth, the remains of a patio barbeque open on the floor with several lumps of hot charcoal burning away to provide heat in the closed space.
There were cots and beds and blankets and all kinds of things lining the walls. Everything seemed to be kept a safe distance from the fire, and even if they were strewn about and disorderly, Ludwig's compulsion for organization had no voice in his head right now. There was only fear, anxiety, and dread to occupy his thoughts. He didn't even know how many people were inside the tent with them, he just followed Spain towards the back of the long structure.
"He didn't have a bed, we had to..." Italy could have been resting on a bed of snakes for all the difference it made right now. Ludwig had no mind for such observations as the conversation faded to a low buzzing in the back of his head. He almost tripped over a pair of worn out black boots but just used that as an excuse to get down on his knees faster, hands reaching for the scarred red fingers resting outside the blankets.
Italy (Italy? Was this him?)- his body was swaddled in blankets; towels and sheets and quilts rewoven from shredded fabrics. His legs and torso were cocooned in the bedding where he was resting on top of several boxes, a long wool jacket like the one Ludwig was wearing making up the final layer. He had a grey sweater on under it all, a pair of tattered gloves and an old, worn out blue hat resting next to Ludwig's knees.
His face- his face... Italy's eyes were closed, his breaths slow and deep as Ludwig clutched his hand and looked down at the blotches and scales that coated his fingers, painting them the same harsh red as his cheeks and brow. Were these burns new? Would they hurt if he touched them? Somehow Ludwig heard France murmuring something along those same lines to Spain, who shook his head and said something the German didn't quite catch.
Pulling his own rough-woven gloves off, he placed his palm gently over Italy's forehead, brushing slowly down the side of his face and pushing away the thick dreadlocks that had taken over his head. Italy didn't stir, but he did take a deep breath in through the nose before he seemed to settle down even further in his slumber. The reaction, as small as it was, immediately put Ludwig's heart at ease: he was only sleeping...
"I'll have words for him when he wakes up, mark me." Spain was grumbling as Ludwig set his forehead down on Italy's shoulder, just resting like that with his fingers woven through the warm ones on the bed. He was willing to let France ask all the questions.
"Why would you do that? You said he's only been like this since last night."
"No, it only caught up with him last night. I got the whole story out of Mexico: he's been pulling stunts like this since he got here."
"This is hardly a stunt-"
Their voices dropped further and further away as the pair not only moved away through the tent, but they dropped their volume considerably as Ludwig lost interest in what they were saying. His concern was back, but he'd already caught enough tiny bits of information to satisfy his weak curiosity. Italy worked hard in the camp but he didn't rest, he worked until he reached the point of exhaustion, which for someone like them could take days, even weeks of hard labour to accomplish, and then he collapsed into a dead sleep. Ludwig had a hard time connecting that mental image to the memories he'd housed in his heart since the Calamity, but he just did not care enough about that right now to demand more information from Spain.
He was here. He was alive. He was in one piece. He was scarred but- really, what did scars matter? His hand was warm and his heart was beating, and as Ludwig just stayed like that with his head down on Italy's arm, he knew he smelled like sweat and dirt and whatever was on the blankets- but he still smelled like Italy. Not quite as sweet, and not as fresh as what Ludwig could have hoped for, but more real than the faded, worn out memories he'd been living off of for so long. Real and here and alive- but not awake.
Ludwig tried to hold on to the moment for as long as he could, but it had to end. Italy had to wake up; Ludwig had something to tell him that couldn't wait, so he had to wake up right now.
"Feliciano." But he wasn't going to do it roughly. Lifting his head up, Ludwig squeezed the hand he was holding and then reached out to Italy's face again, carefully brushing the unburnt skin under the slumbering nation's jaw. "Feliciano, wake up." No response, not right away at least. He repeated the action across the unwashed skin and spoke again, silencing himself when Italy's lips moved.
"Come back... back to Rome..." Tension pulled at the red skin between the Italian's eyes, but the words barely made it off his lips before he seemed to fall away again. And he didn't say 'Come back to Rome', he said: ritornare in Roma in standard Italian. Soft and simple, it was something Ludwig only recognized because he understood more Italian than he could actually speak. "Please..." Italian: per favore.
It took several minutes to coax Italy out of his dreams, several long, difficult minutes where Ludwig was slowly, painfully reminded of the last time he'd spoken to his best friend and former ally.
Feliciano's pleading with Lovino was a request for Benedict: "There's space,", "Please come,", "It's not far,". And the requests became a simple statement towards Mario: "Come right now to Rome,", "It's safer here,", "Don't do this," and developed into blunt orders, almost angry, against Carlino: "Don't argue with me.", "I'll send in the army!", "If I have to, I'll drag you back myself!".
His sentences became longer but the words were still a mess to understand. Ludwig let go of Italy's hand as he slowly twisted under the blankets, his teeth clenched tightly around the one-sided arguments and his blistered lips peeled back in pain. Ludwig just stroked his hair, mindful of the sensitive curl floating free and undaunted next to his head, and tried to talk him through it.
"Wake up, Feliciano. It's over, it was over a long time ago..." The tears were impossible to ignore and he wiped those away too, no crocodile tears or disarming whimpers: these were genuine. These were painful. These tears were guilty and lonely and angry, and even when he pulled Italy up carefully into his arms the crying didn't stop. When Italy finally opened his eyes he was quiet, and the tension seemed to drain right out of him as he was held, but the tears didn't stop and the Italian didn't say anything for several long, trying minutes.
The first thing he did was reach up and quickly touch his own face, as if to confirm the tears Ludwig was still carefully wiping away. And then, in whispered English:
"Did I say anything?"
"Nothing to be ashamed of." Ludwig answered.
Italy tensed up as soon as he spoke. He didn't move right away, but with his spine slouched and forehead resting against Ludwig's throat, the change was difficult to miss. His tears had already begun to slow now that he seemed fully awake, and Ludwig loosened his arms considerably once he felt his friend start to move and pull away. He hadn't actually climbed up onto the cot, so it was a simple matter of letting Italy shift from his hip onto his back again while Ludwig settled back down on his knees next to him.
"I don't... understand." His face was different but Italy's eyes were the same, or similar enough to the memories that Ludwig didn't care to notice the differences. Wide, confused, and staring, he felt the Italian's gaze scan him from the top of his head down to the grey coat that was identical to the one spread across his own lap. He scrutinized his shoulders and his cheeks and his eyes, asking plenty of questions but also asking Ludwig not to answer them just yet. "Did... I die?"
"But you're here...?"
"Barely, but yes." In terms of strength and size Ludwig was, quite literally, half the man he used to be, but he was still alive and Italy- "Can you stand?"
"How..? How are you-?"
"Please, you need to get up." He didn't want to interrupt but at the same time, this was too important. "Are these yours?" Ludwig gestured to the boots sitting next to the cot, picking up one as Italy slowly, awkwardly started pushing away the blankets keeping him down on the makeshift bed. Ludwig knew he was fully capable of tying his own boots, but as soon as his friend tugged the first one on the German took care of the laces, Italy handling the second boot on his own.
"Where are we going?" Italy asked, Ludwig helping him to his feet and watching him slip on his jacket with the same awkward touch he'd used on the blankets. He slipped his blue hat on over his hair and started tugging on his ripped and ruined gloves before they started moving through the tent, back towards the sunlit entrance.
"Back to the square, someone's waiting for you."
They stepped out into daylight and Ludwig jumped as Italy abruptly shot past him towards Spain and France, the pair having moved outside to speak and assure privacy for both parties. Italy's reaction made sense; Ludwig had been travelling with France for over a year and he still wasn't used to the sight of the Frenchman's missing limbs; one arm gone from the shoulder, the other ending at the elbow. Thankfully, like Spain's leg and Italy's burns the wounds were old and only caused him so much pain now a-days, so the blonde simply lifted his stump up in a halting gesture before Italy could do more than gasp in horror and choke on his disbelief.
"Hush! Not a word, mon chere, there will be plenty of time to weep over my astonishing beauty later!" France had lost a lot, but his flare remained. Ludwig mentally painted his other arm onto his torso, because France even had one hip thrust to the side like he was holding his hand there. "For now, quickly, take Germany to the place where you keep the sick in this camp, these tents are a terrible maze for us newcomers."
"The hospital?" Neither Ludwig nor France knew how to handle that word, the former just standing dumb while the latter rounded on Spain.
"Hospital? Are you telling me this place even-?"
"It's not really a hospital, France!"
"Do you know where it is, Italy?" Ludwig asked, shaking himself free of this place's spell. Food and sunlight and children and medicine...
"This way." Italy was not enlightened as to why they were going to the hospice, but Ludwig just focused on getting him there. He was well aware of his friend's attention repeatedly swinging back around to him whenever they approached a turn, but he resisted the urge to answer his questions. When they reached the square again Italy stopped however, and without the know-how to navigate the camp and figure out which of the half-constructed buildings housed the sick, Ludwig was stranded there next to him.
"Who's waiting?" Ludwig wasn't used to having Italy turn on him, it was strange and it shook the steady high he'd been feeling since his arrival. "Spain wouldn't make eye-contact with me, and France wanted me gone as soon as he saw me. What's going on, Germany? Who did you bring back?"
"I arrived here with France, England and Canada."
"And?" And... "Ludwig, answer me!"
"And your brother."
Italy's eyes went dark, empty and dark as the irritation in his face drained away, replaced with nothing but a vague, uncertain expression. He didn't look like he was processing the information, it was more like he'd just stopped processing all together. He just shut down right in front of Ludwig, and when he spoke again his voice was cold.
"Romano is dead."
"It's not Romano."
Italy scoffed, and his next words were sharp:
"Well he's the only one anyone ever remembers." It took a lot to make Italy mad. He wasn't quite there, but suddenly he was very close. "An entire household gone and everyone acts like it was just one death. The others aren't even counted."
Stupid people. There were stupid people everywhere, wasn't the Apocalypse supposed to have fixed that part? Ludwig wasn't sure how what Italy was saying could be true considering who his family had been, but he just shook his head and answered him.
"I remember." He said simply, and when Italy just scowled at him Ludwig proved it: "Benedict was the eldest, the Vatican City." Less like a brother, more like a father to the other members of Italy's household. Insular but out-spoken, not someone who would leave his house in Rome without a good reason, the figure head of the Roman Catholic Church. "I only met Mario a few times, because if Lovino was around they would argue and pick on each other." San Marino, the little republic whose constitution had existed longer than anyone else's. He'd been small and stubborn enough that his brothers had left him alone when consolidating their kingdom, and even Ludwig had neglected to pay him special attention during the Second World War. "Then Lovino, then you, and then-"
Ludwig didn't recognize the voice, and Italy didn't acknowledge it as he stood there. His critical expression melted into something surprised, then hurt, then dying as his eyes slowly welled up with tears. He looked like he was coming apart and the grief forced him to look away, his red lips curled back and yellow teeth locked like he was fighting off a scream.
"Italy hurry! You have to come quickly!" Was that Latvia? Ludwig barely recognized the young teen who ran up and immediately grabbed Italy's sleeve, jerking the Italian around as Ludwig watched the scene play out in front of him. Yes, that was definitely Latvia, he was panicking too hard to be anyone else. "Please, I can't calm him down! He's calling for you and-"
"Who?" Italy asked, sounding shell-shocked as he gasped the word out and looked down at the blonde. "Which one is he?" Ludwig almost answered, but then he saw the shy, bashful look on Latvia's face and was confused.
"I-I can't remember his name, but-!" Rage flashed through the Italian and he took Latvia by the shirt before Ludwig could stop him, the German jumping to grab the fist Italy pulled back to slam into the Baltic's face.
"Can't remember? You-!"
"Italy!" He shouted. Latvia shrieked as he was assaulted, Ludwig shouldering his way in between the two as Italy hissed and spat furiously in his own language, violent threats and filthy remarks he hadn't made since his fascist days sparking through the air like live wires. When Italy planted his hands on Ludwig's chest and pushed back on him, his fatigue and weak health couldn't match the effects of good food and hard work on the other man. Ludwig couldn't remember a time when Italy had been strong enough to out-muscle him, but feeling his boots slide back over the packed earth scared his tongue into action.
"Italy stop it, this is not helping!"
"Wah! I'm sorry! It's Peter's friend! I can't remember his name, I- I'm sorry but if you'll just-"
"CARLINO!" Italy bellowed, cutting them both off as he stopped trying to get at the trembling Latvian and settled for screaming at him in English. "His name is Carlino! And if you forget it again, Raivis I'll-!"
"Enough!" They'd drawn a crowd and Italy had his answer, shoving Ludwig away as he quickly stormed off in the direction Latvia had come running from. The trembling blonde didn't look like he knew whether to run away or follow him, but Ludwig quickly made up his mind and went after the Italian. As quick as he could, the German passed by buildings and tents and the groups of working survivors spread under the faint sunlight.
They heard shouting before they actually reached the 'hospital', a building made of reclaimed timber and concrete slabs. Ludwig heard one distant trill of Italian coming from inside before Italy started running:
"They're dead! They're all dead! Stop lying to me!"
As fast as he could, Ludwig charged after Feliciano and tried not to slam into anyone on his way. Small groups of fresh refugees were gathered about listening and receiving treatment in the small hospice from the staff of surviving doctors and nurses. More beds here, slightly better than the ones Ludwig had seen in Italy's tent. As they moved one crowd in particular immediately drew their attention with its screaming.
"You said he'd be here when I woke up! And he's not! Let me go!" England, bent and frail and scrawny as he was, had a solid grip on the youth who was fighting to get up off the bed. "Let go! LET GO! Mario! Lovino!" From a distance it looked and sounded like the screams were brought on by pain, the terrified Italian words falling apart as the screamer thrashed and sobbed. Ludwig immediately lunged again to grab Italy by the scruff when he saw the shorter man heading straight for the struggle, bringing him up short with a grunt before he let him continue forward, just at a slower, struggling pace...
"He has a fever," Ludwig rushed to explain, "he slashed his palm on a piece of metal and it's badly infected. He's just scared, they're not-"
Italy's elbow came around and smashed Ludwig's cheek just under the eye, the blow stunning him enough that he both let go and dropped to the swept dirt floor in a heap. Nothing was broken, but Ludwig's first thought after his mind scattered and came back together was forgiving: he should have expected rougher treatment for getting in the way like that.
England was much wiser because he backed off as soon as he saw Feliciano coming, allowing the red-head he'd been holding down to shoot up off of the bed. The screaming stopped instantly and it didn't even matter whether Seborga had meant to go anywhere after reaching his feet or not, because North Italy was already there to catch him when he fell. Ludwig wasn't even sure whether the stunned Micro-nation even knew who was holding him before he burst into loud, hysterical tears and collapsed in his brother's arms.
Ludwig had found the Italian Micro-nation and the handful of survivors from his ruined town wandering lost in the chaos near what used to be the German-Italian border. They'd been searching desperately for a way to Rome but, between the ash hiding the sun and the radiation wreaking havoc with even the most basic compass, they'd been headed in the complete opposite direction.
There had been no way of knowing if any of the other Italians had survived the Calamity. Seborga had almost killed himself with guilt remembering how desperately, how furiously, North Italy had tried ordering them all back to Rome. At least then they could have been together, but they'd all refused: the Republic of San Marino, South Italy, and the Principality of Seborga had all stayed within their own territories and look what had become of them. Only the horror that he might be the last Italian nation out of five had kept Seborga alive for so long: he'd already known the Vatican City State was dead because he had been one of the last to believe that maybe, just maybe, the Rapture was really the prophecy mankind had been promised.
"Papa! I want papa!"
"He's with God now- hush, hush..."
"He's with papa..." Ludwig couldn't tell if Seborga was cramming his face against Italy's chest, or if the older brother was holding him like that. He just knew that the two weren't speaking in English, soft Italian soothing screams and sobs in the same language. Seborga's good hand grasped again and again down his brother's back, his infected one swollen to twice its normal size, wretched and inflamed.
England drifted away, probably to find Canada, and the doctor who had been hailed to help with Seborga's hand was called to help someone else for a moment. Ludwig moved far enough back that he wasn't intruding, accepting a seat on another refugee's cot while the brothers kept crying. Seborga wept more names and Italy just rejected them one after the other, the two of them slowly sinking down until Italy was sitting on the cot where his brother had been laying.
The Micro-nation stayed wrapped up tight in the others' arms, cradled close against his chest. Ludwig watched Feliciano kiss him again and again with his scarred lips, touching his hair and his eyes and across both his cheeks. The brim of his cap kept Ludwig from seeing his face, but the tears still dripped from his chin and shone over his scars. When Seborga reached up like a child and touched the red marks crusting his brother's cheeks and brow, Ludwig's heart broke a little bit more.
"Your face... Your beautiful face..." Seborga's tears had slowed, still flowing freely but the sobs had left him, his expression dazed and sad as he brushed his fingertips where Ludwig couldn't see, and Italy tipped his head down as his brother mourned the scars. "Why...? Why did you do it? You used to smile..."
"The head should fall first." The Italian was complicated and soft-spoken, Ludwig could only roughly translate it, not really sure what he was listening to now. "I was the head of the Italian house, and I lost you..."
"I should have stopped you."
"Not hard enough..." They didn't argue beyond that, the Micro-nation just closed his green eyes and sank a bit further into Italy's embrace, his brother adjusting his hold so their foreheads were touching. Ludwig could barely hear them now, and he dropped his eyes to the dirt floor so he wasn't watching so closely.
"They... They're going to cut off my hand..." Seborga whispered the words and Ludwig was aware of Feliciano rocking his little brother gently, trying to keep them both calm. "Do you... you think I can still help..? Still work? It's just the left one..."
"The people need art," Italy whispered back, but he sounded very far away. "And the artists need a teacher. You know Papa's songs, and Lovino's dances, and Mario's star-charts-"
"But you can't see the stars..."
"You can here. I'll show you." Not right now though. Ludwig looked up and watched Italy place another kiss in his little brother's hair, his scarred hand stroking the teen's face as Seborga's eyes slipped shut. Italy lowered his head until his ear was down near his brother's mouth and nose, making sure he was still breathing as he fell asleep. When he straightened up again he kept rocking slowly, beginning to shake now as Ludwig stood up and crossed over to them.
He just watched Italy for a few more moments, listening to the fragile prayer he was whispering, his thumb hooked under a chain around his throat and a familiar old lump of black iron held against the palm of his hand. He'd rubbed the cross so much it had crumbled with use, just a hard black heart remaining, but Ludwig just took it as an sign of his faith.
"Thank you... Thank you..."
"You have to be careful now." Ludwig said softly, slowly lowering his hand and placing it on Italy's trembling shoulder. He could feel the half-formed sobs kicking in the Italian's chest, but his friend didn't turn to look at him. "You have to take care of him, you can't keep making yourself sick."
"You brought him back... you brought one back..."
"I understand-" Italy's voice was hoarse, reminding him of England's charred throat, but he was choking on tears, not ash. "I understand that I kept Seborga at home, and that San Marino didn't go out much, and I know that nations were renouncing their faith. But the only ones who remembered Vati were Greece and Russia- Orthodox nations, not even Catholic. I kept waiting but..." But no one remembered...
Sitting down next to his friend, Ludwig kept his hand on Italy's shoulder, watching him curl his body around his sleeping brother. Somehow he knew that what Italy said next hadn't been shared with anyone else. And he understood why...
"Even my own people... My children... They took one look at me and thought we'd lost nothing- they just assumed that all of Italy was-"
"Your strength gave them hope-"
"Ignorance is not hope...!" The words were squeezed past clenched teeth, and he wouldn't look back at Ludwig. He was crying again, but not like before, one burnt hand forming a fist in front of him. "I didn't mean to burn my hands too, I just-" Wait.
"They would see the scars first and know something was wrong." Italy was whispering the words into his brother's hair more than he was saying them for Ludwig's benefit. "But then they'd see that I was standing tall, and my body was strong, and my mind was clear, and that would give them real hope. They would know that they could survive anything because I'd survived everything." And that... was probably why there were so many Italians making up the camp...
"But your heart," he breathed, "your face..."
"Are not the same thing," Italy corrected, kissing Seborga's cheeks again and again. Ludwig scooted up the bed and brushed Italy's long hair away from his face, exposing the edge of the scars at the corner of his jaw. He placed one kiss on that spot, over that healed flesh, and when Italy untangled one of his hands from Seborga's side and reached to tug Ludwig closer to him, he obliged. He wrapped both arms around the two of them, Italy cradling his brother as close as he could, his head resting on Italy's shoulder, and Ludwig made sure to hold them together.
"This face can't, but..." But what? Ludwig set his head down on Italy's other shoulder, helping rock the other two, keeping all three of them close and calm. "But my heart is smiling, Germany..."
They were safe. They were together and they were safe in a place that had food, and clean water, and children, and medicine, and beds. There was paper for writing and brushes for painting, there were musical voices and expanding fields of green. This new world had flag-poles and town squares and sign posts. Their new world was missing a lot of things, but not love. They were not missing love.
I think it's done here. I'm wondering about adding something like the letter from the end of Gutters (probably from Italy's POV at last, or maybe from Seborga's) but I don't know. It'd be something really heart-warming though, like Seb telling Lovino that the first baby born in the New World was Italian and how Italy reacted when he found out.