So hot…so cold…
A tangle of images, sounds…memories? Is he dreaming? Fever dreams? Is anything real?
Does it matter anymore?
Leave me alone…no… Don't leave me alone here…I want to go home…so tired…so cold…so hot…
A voice cuts through the confusion, frantic, angry? Distant? Now closer, less angry but still frantic…
"God in Heaven, you're burning hot. Just hang on, Norway. It's over, I'm taking you home, but you have to hang on, do you hear me? I'll take care of you, I'll take care of everything…just hold on a little longer…"
Something trickles into Norway's eye, and the slight irritation prods him to wakefulness. He blinks it away. There is a rocking motion. There is dim light from a lamp. There is the creak of wood and the smell of salt and fish and tar.
He reaches to his forehead and finds a cool wet cloth. The fever is still with him, but it has subsided somewhat. He shifts his weight, and a little shot of stinging pain explodes in his back. He recognizes the sensation: his infected wounds have been packed with salt and bandaged. His head is resting on something soft. He is being cared for.
He is on a ship and being cared for. He's going home.
A bit of memory surfaces. Denmark…
His thoughts are still slow to pull together. Perhaps he dozes off again, but it cannot be longer than ten minutes or so before a hatch opens and someone climbs down the ladder. They are halfway to his bunk before Norway remembers to speak.
The second half of the distance is covered in a sprint. "Norway? Thank God. Are you awake for real this time?"
"You've sort of woken a few times since I bought you back, but you were so delirious I don't think it counts. I was worried almost out of my mind. Are you feeling any better? You must be famished…I got some soup in you before we cast off, but it can't be anywhere near enough. That bastard Libya…how dare he take you? Those African countries can do what they want to each other, but you're mine. We never trekked down to Africa and dragged them back home to work for us."
The rapid patter gives Norway something to orient on. "True enough," he says dryly—the West Indies aren't home, after all. "That was reserved for Ireland."
"Yes, and we were pretty good to him, all things considered," says Denmark. Norway isn't so sure—it's not like they ever asked the ginger Celt how he felt about captivity—but the other is still talking. "Did you know Libya tried to raise your price on me at the last minute? He said it was to compensate him for the trouble of disciplining you. The son of a bitch nearly killed you and expected me to pay extra for it! Obviously, I wasn't having any of that."
Norway smiles a little. How strange to be with Denmark again, and him chatting so easily, just like before. How strange that Norway is not more affected by it. "What did you do?"
"I held my pistol on him while I dug out my copy of the agreement we signed. It wasn't loaded, but he didn't know that." He pulls off one of his uniform gloves, takes the cloth away from Norway's forehead, and feels the dampened flesh. "You're much less hot now, that's good. Do you think you can sit up?"
"I'll try." Norway's head spins alarmingly with the movement and his back burns, but he manages to push with his elbows and raise his upper body a bit. It's not really sitting up, but it's enough for Denmark to lunge and wrap Norway in a fervent embrace.
"Four days," he says, suddenly emotional. "Two to get to the harbor and then another two since we've been at sea. That's how long I've been wondering if you were ever going to come out of it, or if I'd gotten there too late to save you. I've barely been able to steer the damn ship, I've been so worried about you. And before then, all that time, knowing you were trapped in that godforsaken place… How could you do that to me, Norway? How?"
"I didn't mean to," Norway murmurs.
They remain like that for a few minutes, until the ship suddenly lists. Denmark relaxes and, after another moment, pushes away. "I'd better check our bearing," he says. "I'll be back soon with some water and clean bandages, and then you can rest some more. You're going to be all right. I promise."
The voyage home is a long one. Denmark, not willing to take any chances with Norway's fragile health, hugs the coast and makes port practically every other day in order to maintain the ship's supplies of drinking water, fresh food, and medicine. Whenever the demands of commanding the vessel allow, he makes time to fuss over his best friend and favorite territory with all the affection he had to restrain when they met in the barred wagon. He brings Norway whatever he asks for—which isn't much, since he spends most of his time asleep. Despite Denmark's initial prediction, he still has little appetite, but in the interest of healing, he eats whatever he is given without protest. After such a long time of being handed only tasteless food, and too little of it, he almost forgot what pleasure could be had in a simple meal. His first pickled herring is a feast in itself.
Besides adequate food, he enjoys all the water he needs to quench his thirst, as much rest as his battered body demands, pleasant company and conversation—or quiet and solitude, as he prefers. In comparison with what he has been rescued from, it might as well be paradise…except for his infirm condition.
His treatment is the best that can be managed at sea—mainly cold compresses and whatever tonics are available in the ports they stop at. Twice a day, Denmark brings up a bucket of seawater to wash Norway's back. It burns intensely, but it's cleansing—purification by fire. The wounds weep continually at first, then gradually dry out and turn to lines of itchy, puckered scabs. The fever remains, rising and falling like the ship itself, but always present. Nearly a month passes in this fashion and Norway's recovery seems to have reached a plateau.
"You've got to keep fighting," Denmark tells him. "We're almost around the tip of Iberia now. I couldn't face your sister if I brought you home in anything less than top form."
"I'm sorry," Norway all but whispers. It's been a bad day for him—his temperature is spiking and plaguing him with dreams like the paintings of a madman.
"Something's wrong with you," Denmark continues, "and I mean besides the fever. It's like you've changed into a different person. I thought you'd be happy to be headed home and getting well—"
"I am," Norway says.
"—but you seem so dead inside, and you're not getting well as fast as you should be. All I can say is that I hope you're not angry with me for taking so long, because I pulled the money together as fast as I could. I called in so many favors…"
"I'm not angry, honest. Just…let me sleep for now. I'm so tired…"
"By all means, get all the sleep you need. But dammit, Norway, you'd better snap out of this soon. I went through all that to get you back, not some pitiful invalid." On that sour note, he leaves Norway to his rest.
Truth be told, the ill nation knows Denmark is right—he should be overjoyed to have been rescued, and the joy should be spurring his healing. But his responses are stunted. The most powerful one he can dredge up at the moment is guilt over Denmark's distress—he knows the sharp words and accusations are a cover for a worry so profound that it is almost terror. Norway wants to return to his old self, if for nothing else than to ease Denmark's mind…
At least, he wants to want to… Therein lies the rub. He trapped his emotions behind so many locks that he lost count, and the dam is as solid as a fortress.
He dreams of water. This is not unusual—he dreamed of water often during his time of servitude, and the habit has not yet left him. But this time the water is moving—a rapid stream somewhere deep underground. He wakes suddenly when the ship lurches over the crest of an oddly shaped wave, and in the confusion that accompanies the transition to consciousness, he realizes something strange.
He has been at sea for over a month, and not once has he seen it. There are no portholes in the cabin. All his other senses have enjoyed the ocean's presence, but he has not actually clapped eyes on the great blueness that he loves so much. The realization comes as something of a shock, which quickly translates into a need to rectify the imbalance, so intense that it is almost a physical pain.
It is the first thing he can remember truly wanting for himself, as a first-order desire, in many months. And he can do nothing to obtain it except wait for Denmark's next appearance…and hope he can hang on to this sensation in the meantime.
He is remembering what it feels like to feel.
When the hatch opens again, Norway calls out so abruptly that it hurts his throat and makes him cough. "Idiot," Denmark says gently, offering him a waterskin. "What's so urgent?"
"Take me above deck," says Norway. "I need to see it. The sea. Denmark, I need to."
"How? I can't carry you up the ladder and you're not strong enough to climb it yourself."
"Let me try."
"I don't think that's a good idea."
"Don't you understand? It's the one thing I missed more than anything while Libya had me…except for you, and I've seen plenty of you. Do you know what it's like in the desert? It's like a beach, except that it goes on forever and there is no ocean. I spent so much time walking on sand and never arriving at the water my feet were expecting. I think if I could just see it, I would be all right. Let me try."
"All right!" says Denmark. "Jesus Christ, Norway, it hurts me to hear you talk like that. Come on. Go slow. When was the last time you walked without help?"
"Yesterday. I had to use the privy and couldn't wait for you."
Getting to the base of the ladder is the easy part. Norway reaches up to grip a rung, and he can already tell it will be a struggle. His long period of illness and semi-starvation has cut his strength by more than half.
"Shall I give you a boost to start you off?" says Denmark.
"No…you go up first. If I fall, you can't really catch me, but if I don't, you can help me up the last bit."
"If you think you might fall, we shouldn't do it."
"I'm doing it whether you're up there ready to help me or not. Denmark, I need this."
"Yes. You said that. I see I can't change your mind. Just be careful, all right?" Denmark heads up the ladder and kneels beside the hatch, half leaning over it, ready to extend a helping hand as soon as it is required.
A climb that should take only a handful of seconds takes instead several minutes. With great effort, Norway can haul himself up, but he doesn't trust his grip to hold through the pitching and rolling of the ship. Each ascent from rung to rung is a victory of its own, seized through expert timing, with nothing for him to do between them but thread both arms through the ladder and cling. Finally he reaches the top, with a bit of a hoist from Denmark.
"This is ridiculous," Denmark says. "You hardly weigh anything at all. You've got to start eating more."
"I think I wore myself out climbing. Help me stand?" Norway requests. Denmark gets underneath his arm so Norway can lean on him, and the two of them slowly rise. The ship's railings pass below Norway's gaze, and the vast expanse of the swelling ocean spreads out before him.
It brings tears to his eyes immediately. How long did he spend, gazing like this at a landscape that was as much a mockery of the sea, with its searing dunes in place of cool waves, as anything could be? And now here it is, the real thing, right before his eyes.
A few instants later, it hits him—it's real. This is really it, he's really going home, it's really Denmark acting as his temporary crutch, the nightmare is really behind him.
Against an ocean's worth of water, no dam can stand.
He thinks he can hear gulls squealing as they follow the ship for galley scraps, and only after a moment does he discover that it's actually him, whimpering, each cry the sound of another lock bursting. Then his legs give out. Denmark eases his collapse to the deck, where he sprawls, clinging to his sovereign, his body wracked with sobs as all the tears he held back for the better part of two years come out in a rush. The sea pours through him, washing away the harsh, abrasive sand the desert left in his heart, and returns to itself through his eyes. Denmark, for a change, remains silent without being asked and holds him close until the sobs turn to laughs.
Norway's fever breaks that night, drenching him and his bedding in sweat—more saltwater finding a long-awaited release. He wakes the next morning drained, but as ravenous as a bear in early spring—he eats enough for three that day, between bouts of tranquil sleep. Within two days, he has no trouble walking and climbing from the cabin to the deck and back again without help. Within a week, he is assisting Denmark with the operation of the ship. Two weeks after that, it's almost like he was never ill, except that he's still noticeably thin.
The character of the voyage changes completely—the frequent stops no longer necessary, Denmark charts a more direct course back to the North, and with both of them on deck, they make excellent time, even reserving some nights for singing and rum. Most days, they drop a small trawl net over the side and have fresh fish for lunch or dinner. The winds are fair and for a time at least, they can pretend the horror never happened.
Norway is actually the more skillful sailor of the two. When they run into a squall upon entering the North Sea—not big enough to sink them, but enough to keep them on their toes—it is Norway's deft handling of the sails that enables them to keep making headway when Denmark working alone would have dropped anchor and waited it out. Afterward, however, while checking the ship's seams for leaks, Norway is visibly troubled.
"What's wrong? You did fantastically," Denmark tells him.
"It's nothing. I'll be all right."
"Norway…don't try to hide things from me. If something's upsetting you I want to know about it."
"All right." He pauses to rehearse his statement. "Don't take this the wrong way, but when you were shouting orders like that, for a moment it felt like…" He trails off.
"Oh, God," Denmark says in sympathy. "I didn't realize… But you must know I'd never treat you like that. Not as a slave. I'd never give you any orders that weren't for your own good as well."
"I know, and I'm not accusing you, but…Denmark…"
"What is it?"
"I still have nightmares sometimes. What if I'm never the same again? What if I can't ever hear that from you without—"
"Don't talk like that! You will. It will fade in time."
"Yes, but…" He tries a different approach. "Do you know what the worst thing about being sick was? The total dependency. Having to rely on you just to bring me food and help me sleep, as if I were a new colony."
"You're better now. Aren't you? You're not relapsing?"
"No. What I mean is…Libya was a terrible master, and you're a good one. But what if I didn't have a master at all? What if I wanted to…to be my own sovereign? Independent?"
Denmark reels as if slapped. "Norway!"
"Don't take it the wrong way!" Norway says again. "Of course I'd still be your ally! I've just been thinking…"
"Do we have to talk about this now? I finally got you back, you're only recently back to your old self, and you're talking about leaving me!"
"Oh," says Norway. He can tell Denmark's not ready to consider the proposition, and no amount of conversation will change that. "I guess I didn't see it from that side. I'm sorry, Denmark. We don't have to talk about it now. But you asked what was bothering me and that's it."
"We'll see how you feel once you get home."
Norway expects to be overcome with longing when at last he glimpses the jagged tops of his fjords on the horizon. But the sea has always been his home away from home, and in that sense he's been back for weeks. Instead, all he feels is a deep satisfaction, like that of a job well done. How lucky he is, he thinks, to love both home and travel almost equally…although he will not be doing any more traveling any time soon.
Denmark climbs to the crow's nest and dispatches a pigeon with a simple message: Set two extra places for supper tomorrow. "Your sister's going to be a wreck, you know," he says upon descending back to the deck. "You should have seen her when you didn't come home on schedule. It really shocked me to see her distraught; you're both usually so calm."
"Well, now you've seen both of us brought to grief," says Norway.
"I know. Believe me, there's a lot I'd do to avoid ever seeing it again," says Denmark.
"Oh, right, I only had to go through it," Norway says, a touch acerbic. "You had to watch; that's so much worse."
"Don't be like that, Norway. You know damn well what I mean."
"You're right, I do. I'm glad I have you to rely on."
They stand in silence for a few moments, watching Norway's home coast draw slowly nearer.
"So," says Denmark, "does this mean you don't want to run out on me after all?"
"I guess not," says Norway. "It would be pretty ungrateful, wouldn't it? I think what I meant is that I wish I were powerful enough to do for you the sorts of things you do for me…if you needed it."
Denmark's smile could not be warmer as he sets a hand on Norway's shoulder in a gesture of pure camaraderie.
Norway feels a twinge of guilt for his fib. But, he reasons, they will have the rest of their lives to work out the matter of his independence.
And as the saying goes, today is only the first day of it.
A/N: Whew! I said back at the beginning that this might not be easy to read and definitely wasn't easy to write. The thing is, I hadn't actually written it yet—I was just assuming based on the mental outline I was working from. As it turned out, it kicked my emotional ass even more than I anticipated. You know how all those people who give advice to writers tell you not to be afraid to torment the characters you love the most? Screw that—be afraid, because when you do it right, that shit hurts. Do it anyway, because it's still good advice and it's a great way to challenge your writing muscles, just be aware that it's going to be an act of great courage and even masochism, not a pleasant exercise.
I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'd better get some great reviews for this. I put myself through the wringer for you guys.
Also, mega-super-duper-ultra-turbo THANKS to my fellow fanwriter Mekkababble for her encouragement and beta services! I don't know what I'd do without her at this point!
Also also, if you want to join the SatW fanfiction fun but don't know where to start, come to the SatW Writers' Workshop in the forums!