Roderich Edelstein's eyes flicked to the paper calendar that hung on the wall, observing it as if to make sure the numbers hadn't changed since he'd last looked five minutes ago.
April 12, 1948.
A heavy sigh escaped him. He had not seen Gilbert Beilschmidt since the day Prussia was formally dissolved. No one had. No one except Ludwig, of course. Roderich had talked to the younger of the two brothers every now and then, asking how Gilbert was, and the answer was always the same: "He's weak but he's getting better."
Roderich's eyes shifted next to the pair of letters on his desk. The first was a draft of the letter he'd sent to Gilbert about a week ago, written before he'd spilled a little wine on the corner. He read over it one more time, with the lingering question of "why?" playing out through his mind again and again.
I realize it has been a while since we have seen each other. I hope you have been doing well. I was wondering if I might stop by and visit sometime soon. Please write back and let me know.
"I've been worried about you," Roderich had wanted to write. "I want to make sure you're okay," he had wanted to write. But he hadn't. Of its own will, his hand had penned a letter that was terse and formal, as all his letters were.
The letter he had received back had been anything but terse and formal. It read:
So you miss me, do you? I knew you would. Sure, drop by Ludwig's house any time. I'll be around even if he isn't. It'll be good to be able to tease the little master again.
'Sincerely' is a really prissy word,
The language used in the letter was all Gilbert. It was the handwriting that worried Roderich. It was incredibly shaky, even sloppier than Roderich had remembered from the years when they were at war. The letters were jumbled together, falling on each other like shot soldiers too injured to walk on their own. And the single, small water stain near the center of the page was perhaps even more troubling. It couldn't have been a tear, could it? And if it was, certainly it wasn't one of longing –
No. Roderich cut those thoughts off before they could progress any further. It had to have been a stray droplet from the glass of water Gilbert had been drinking. They had been rivals for as long as they'd known each other.
Why, then, had Roderich wanted to visit Gilbert? That question – one he had asked himself a thousand times since he had started writing that letter – surfaced again in his mind as he rose from his desk chair, went to the closet to retrieve his coat, and slipped out the front door, his steps leading him to the train station to make the trip to Berlin. It felt as though something was amiss when that pair of bright crimson eyes was gone from his daily life. It couldn't be that what he was feeling was longing, he told himself time and time again. It couldn't be that he missed Gilbert's goofy grin, his laugh. He certainly didn't miss the way the albino fool always teased him and called him "Roddy" or "Specs," or the way those eyes of his seemed to sparkle when he wore a genuine smile –
The train's whistle blasted the air. Roderich, still standing on the platform with his train ticket balled in his fist, jerked back to reality, having gotten lost in his thoughts again. He hurried up to the train car's entrance, had his ticket punched, and stepped inside, eyes scanning down the aisles for an open seat. He had to walk nearly to the back of the train before he found one. After settling down, Roderich let his eyes slide shut. Such pesky thoughts. Such troublesome emotions. Roderich wanted to ignore them all for a while, at least until he got to Berlin. Maybe seeing Gilbert again would put those nonsensical thoughts to rest. With that in mind, he drifted off to sleep…
"Wilkommen in Berlin."
The voice jerked Roderich awake. He found himself slumped into his seat. Straightening up, he adjusted his glasses, feeling the imprints they had made on the sides of his nose as he'd slept. He gathered up the small bag he'd brought with him and exited the train, offering the conductor a little dip of his head as he stepped onto the platform.
His feet carried him toward a familiar home, one he had just moved out of a few short years ago. The bright sunshine of late morning seemed intent on making sure he was fully awake after having spent a tiresome night asleep on the train despite its jerks, bounces, and noise. The map was folded in his pocket in case he got lost, as he so often did, but today as if by some magic, he arrived at the Beilschmidt brothers' doorstep without incident. It was as though today, his feet were on some sort of special mission. They knew better than to lead him astray this time.
Roderich lifted his fist to knock on the door, but hesitated as his knuckles nearly brushed the wood. For a moment, he regretted having decided to come for a visit. This had been a bad idea; he just knew it. Yet he had already come all this way. He couldn't just go back to Vienna knowing that he had wasted the money for a train ticket. So, after a long sigh, he knocked softly.
Roderich shut his eyes and listened for sounds inside the home. Nothing. He knocked again, this time much more firmly. Then came the sound of shuffling feet, followed by a stray cough, and finally the creak of the door as it opened, just a sliver at first.
"What do you want –" It was Gilbert's voice. It was quieter than usual and weary-sounding, but it was Gilbert's voice, its accent unmistakable to the Austrian nation. "Oh. Roderich. It's you."
"Yes, Gilbert, it is…" Roderich had almost wanted to punctuate his sentence with a muted chuckle. But then he saw the albino fully as the door was allowed to open nearly all the way. His complexion was even paler than usual, if that was even possible. His cheeks were thin and hollowed out. Dark circles framed scarlet eyes that held none of their usual energetic spark. His hair was a disheveled mess and he was wearing a pair of blue and white striped pajamas, as though he had still been sleeping when the Austrian had arrived. It was past eleven o'clock in the morning. And though Roderich couldn't tell exactly, it looked like much of the Prussian's muscle had melted away from his body. "I'm sorry, is this a bad time?" Those words had come out too suddenly for Roderich to keep them from sounding a little worried.
Gilbert, suddenly looking self-conscious, reached up and combed his fingers through his tousled silvery hair. "No, no, I was just…sleeping. You came all this way. Come in," he said, stepping aside to allow Roderich to enter the home.
The door clicked behind the two. There came the sound of claws scrabbling against tiled floor, and in seconds, two German shepherds pushed their way in next to Roderich, sniffing him curiously. One wagged its tail enthusiastically. The other simply inspected the Austrian, its wet black nose quivering. "Boys, boys," Gilbert said good-naturedly in a thin voice as he reached for the dogs' collars and tugged at them. But the weak jerks weren't enough to pull the dogs back away from Roderich. After a moment, they lost interest and trotted away, probably to curl up again somewhere in the living room.
"You remember Lud's dogs," Gilbert said. Roderich dipped his head slightly in acknowledgment. "Well anyway…how has the little master been?"
For some reason, after all this time, the little nickname didn't seem so irritating anymore. Roderich knew it was merely meant to get a rise out of him. So he pretended he hadn't heard it. "Oh, I've been fine, I suppose. Trying to rebuild, as we all have. And you?"
"I…" The small smile on Gilbert's face evaporated in an instant. "I've been…" Gilbert sighed. Roderich frowned. In that moment, he thought he would have given anything to see the Prussian smile as he usually did. Those lopsided grins of his were maddeningly overconfident, but they would be far better than this. "You know…however well you can do when you don't have a country anymore," came the somewhat coarse reply at last.
"Gilbert, I'm sorry…" Roderich's voice was uncharacteristically soft. Damn it. He had only gotten here and already that damned Prussian was making him feel things he couldn't quite identify. Was it raw sympathy, or something more? Nevertheless, his lips continued to move as though they were no longer attached to his brain. "I told them they shouldn't do this but –"
"I know." Gilbert's smile resurfaced, but it was riddled with sadness. "But there was nothing you or Ludwig could have done. Thank you for at least caring, though."
Roderich's brows furrowed. Even if he couldn't control it, concern and confusion were mirrored in his violet eyes. Since when had Gilbert ever thanked him for anything? For a silent moment, he racked his brain trying to think of one time, and instead came up with nothing. There was something so unbearably painful about the Prussian he'd grown used to thanking him with a broken smile. In the back of Roderich's mind, an unconscious desire flickered to take away as much of that sadness as he could, even if it wouldn't last, like wiping someone else's tears away only for more to fall. Tentatively and in what felt like slow motion, he reached out and laid a few fingers against Gilbert's arm.
Gilbert gasped so mutedly it barely stirred the still air inside the home. His eyes traveled in slow motion to where the Austrian's fingertips made contact with the fabric of his pajama shirt, then lifting them to meet violet. They remained there, silent, meeting each other's eyes for a moment that seemed frozen in silence.
"Do you want to go for a walk, Roderich?" Gilbert said out of nowhere. "It looks like it's a nice day out."
"It is," Roderich replied as he withdrew his hand from its place on Gilbert's arm. "But we don't have to. You look tired."
"I'll be fine, I'll be fine," Gilbert said, waving a hand dismissively in the air. "I'll just get dressed. Besides, I don't want to make you sit around all day just because of me." He paused and raised an eyebrow teasingly at Roderich. "I promise I'll lead the way so you won't get lost."
There it was: a flash of the Gilbert he knew, the one he'd been waiting to break through that melancholy veil. Roderich felt the corners of his mouth curve upward ever so slightly. "All right. I'll wait here while you get dressed."
In a few minutes, Gilbert emerged from his room fully dressed, and the two slipped back out the front door. They walked in silence next to each other down the tree-lined, flower-dotted streets of the neighborhood located a little ways outside the center of the city, where it was a little quieter. Roderich's eyes moved from Gilbert's hollowed, exhausted face to the trees and then back to Gilbert. What could he even say to the other nation, who had so recently lost all that was his? "I'm sorry" couldn't heal wounds that deep. "I would have stopped them if I could" had no meaning. Roderich couldn't have stopped the dissolution of Prussia if he'd tried.
"This…this is good for me anyway." Thankfully, Gilbert again broke the silence for both of them. "I need to go for more walks. I hardly ever get out of the house." Another smile, but this one limp and thin. Everything about Gilbert seemed shaky, weak, ready to pull apart at the seams. He was like a worn piece of clothing trying to hold himself together with safety pins fashioned out of fake smiles.
"Yes…it is good for you…" Roderich echoed lamely, for lack of anything better to say.
Gilbert, too, seemed to be out of words. Gilbert, who had not so long ago seemed completely incapable of shutting up, bit softly down onto his lower lip as his body started to tremble faintly. "Shit." With the curse muttered under his breath, pale hands plunged into jacket pockets and emerged clutching a box of cigarettes and a lighter. He withdrew a cigarette and let the box slip back into his pocket, pressing it between two fingers. With the other hand, he lifted the lighter and clicked it to life. But his shaking hands couldn't quite let the tip meet the flame.
"Gilbert, here, let me do that for you," Roderich said in a firm tone of voice that left no room for debate. He pried the lighter from the Prussian's hand with ease and held it steady until the tip started to glow. "There you are. Though that's really an awful habit to get into."
The Prussian didn't respond. But judging by the distant look in his dulled crimson eyes, he knew. He took a long drag of the cigarette and then glanced away as he exhaled so smoke wouldn't blow in Roderich's face. Once three-quarters of the cigarette had been demolished, the shaking finally stopped.
Still, Gilbert's weak, halting steps could only barely keep up with Roderich's measured, smooth ones. "Are you going to be all right?" Roderich asked, now unable to shove his concern down.
"May I hold onto your arm?" Gilbert said bluntly, having ignored Roderich's question. "Haven't walked this far in a long time."
Roderich sighed but nodded, letting Gilbert link arms with him. He felt the warm press of body against body as the Prussian leaned into him slightly for support. Wanting to see more of the old Gilbert, Roderich summoned his best teasing tone in spite of the gloomy atmosphere between the two. "Are you sure you're not just doing this because you want an excuse to hang onto me, hmm?"
"Oh please, Priss." Gilbert rolled his eyes and snorted. Roderich chuckled a little. It had worked. "Why would I want to touch you? And risk letting some of my awesome rub off on you?" There was a brief pause. "Okay, maybe a little." Gilbert giggled. So did Roderich. That laugh of his was so infectious, as bright and warm as a Mozart piano concerto in D major, and it felt like forever since the Austrian had last heard it.
"There's the Gilbert I know," Roderich remarked, mostly for the sake of having something to say. He'd made nothing of it when the words left his mouth.
Abruptly, Gilbert stopped giggling. His arm was still linked in Roderich's, but his expression clouded over with distance. "That Gilbert is gone," he said quietly. "No one misses him."
"What if I said I missed him?" Roderich replied, just as quietly.
"You don't. You found him nothing but annoying."
"He was annoying sometimes, yes," the Austrian mused. "But I miss the energy." Roderich's words were a faint mumble. His face bore the thin shadow of a smile, but even the upward curve of his lips was as melancholy as the atmosphere of war and destruction that seemed to have chased the two nations everywhere.
"I'm not what I used to be," Gilbert replied dully. "Prussia is gone. It's never coming back. Soon enough no one will even remember me or care about me anymore."
Roderich fought the urge to let out a long sigh. Even if the animosity between them was so recent and present in the Austrian's mind, there was a pang of pain, a phantom squeeze at his heart. He never wanted to see Gilbert like this, his face missing that wide, goofy grin, his voice missing that teasing tone. "Don't say that," he offered. He didn't know if such a thing could help, but what else was there to say?
"But you know it. You have to."
"All right, then don't think about it," Roderich said.
There was silence for a moment. Aching silence. "How do I do that, Roderich?" Gilbert had used the Austrian's full first name. There was another squeeze at Roderich's heart. Usually, he rolled his eyes at the Prussian's little nicknames, but now their absence was just as painful as that wide, goofy grin and that teasing tone of voice. "It isn't as if our world is filled with nothing but flowers and sunshine…" Gilbert finished, trailing off at the end.
"We could pretend for a little while." Roderich couldn't quite tell why he'd said that. Pretending was such a silly and childish thing to do. Yet even he wanted to forget for a little while. Forget that there had been a war, that his economy and Ludwig's were limping along, that so many people had died.
"Pretend…" Gilbert mused. "The funny thing is, there's still flowers and sunshine outside. That hasn't changed. The darkness is only in our minds."
Gilbert was right. Roderich kept silent for another moment. "We could still pretend," he said at last.
"How – " Gilbert started to say. But before he could finish, Roderich had leaned in, closing the distance between them until his lips met Gilbert's.
At first, the Prussian froze in motion. Both their steps came to a halt as they stood at the edge of the street. But Roderich didn't pull away. It was as though his body moved independently of his mind. After a moment, Gilbert relaxed into the kiss, wrapping his arm around Roderich's waist to pull him in closer. His tongue pressed at the Austrian's lips, asking for entrance, and Roderich parted them with a little noise.
It was only when their tongues touched that he realized exactly what he was doing. He was kissing the man who was his sworn rival, whom he'd fought so many wars against. He was kissing the nation who'd once seemed hell-bent on humiliating him. Roderich jerked back in an instant. He placed both hands on Gilbert's chest to gently shove him away. "My apologies…" he mumbled, his cheeks heating up. "I don't know what's gotten into me." But as violet eyes once again met crimson, Roderich no longer saw a warmongering demon douche. Instead, the nation standing before him, with a shocked, almost disappointed look in his eyes, was soft and sincere.
Gilbert coughed purposely once or twice. "It's okay," he said.
The two stood there staring at each other and saying nothing for a moment or two. "Well, should we get moving again?" Roderich said, trying to pretend that never happened, that his heart wasn't still fluttering in his chest, that he didn't crave another taste of Gilbert's lips.
Roderich started to walk forward in slow motion. But Gilbert's hand shot out and grabbed the Austrian's wrist, pulling him back in. Before he could even react, their lips had met again, more forcefully this time. A little voice in the back of Roderich's mind screamed at him to resist, to pull away. But he found his body giving in once more, arms around the Prussian's neck, lips parted willingly. Their tongues met and tangled. Gilbert held onto Roderich tightly yet gently, as though he was the most precious thing in the world. And despite the voice of reason that continued to implore him to stop, the Austrian couldn't help but realize that it felt amazing.
This time, it was Gilbert who broke the kiss. Again, they stared blankly at each other as though they'd both jerked awake from a dream and were trying to decide if the kiss had been real, or part of the dream world. "Roderich…" Gilbert breathed, pronouncing the name carefully despite a frantic undertone to his voice. "I'm in love with you. I have been since the War of Austrian Succession. I only went on pretending like I hated you because you were married and it was easier than telling you how I felt. But I…I just…"
Gilbert trailed off. Roderich was caught speechless. He just wanted to run, run back home to Vienna, sit down at his piano, and let the music speak through him, let his confusion flow out through his fingertips onto the keys until he could tell exactly what he was feeling.
But then something clicked in his mind. Wasn't he in love with Gilbert, too? Why else would he have visited? Why else had he wanted to see the Prussian act as lighthearted and obnoxious as he always had? Why else would he have kissed Gilbert? Roderich drew in a shaky breath. Maybe he had known it for a long time, but had refused to admit it to himself until now. Or maybe all it took was Gilbert's lips against his to bring down the wall around the emotions he'd been repressing for fear that the other nation would leave him, just like all his previous spouses had.
"Gilbert…I think…I feel the same way," Roderich replied shakily after that long moment of thought.
"Don't you dare say it unless you mean it," Gilbert said. There was fear in his voice. Fear. Roderich had seen the former kingdom sad before, depressed even. He'd seen it when Friederich II had died. But he had never before seen the military superpower act afraid.
"I do mean it," Roderich said slowly, pondering over every word he spoke. "I'm in love with you, Gilbert. I…I love you, too."
He thought he'd need more time to think, more time to be sure if he returned those feelings. But as those words left his mouth, they felt exactly right. They felt like having struggled with the most challenging section of a piano piece for months and months of practice, then one day – it suddenly clicks, the fast notes line up, the chords ring in perfect succession. And Roderich, seated at the piano bench, would feel so awestruck by his own sudden ability that he'd have to lift his hands from the keys for a few moments, wearing a stunned smile at what he'd just been able to do. That was how he felt right now, with Gilbert.
Gilbert smiled again, but this time it was genuine. Roderich linked arms with him again, unable to keep from smiling a little himself. The weight that had been pressing down on his shoulders since perhaps as long ago as 1806, the one made of emotions he could never understand, had suddenly been lifted. "Let's go back now, okay?" he said. Gilbert nodded and led the way, leaning on Roderich again as he walked shakily.
When they got back to the house, Gilbert looked weary, his eyelids drooping slightly. "Do you want to lie down now?" Roderich asked, surprised by the gentle quality of his own voice. He supposed there were a lot of things he would have to get used to when it came to love.
"No, I'm fine." Gilbert even sounded a little tired, after a walk that had lasted only thirty minutes. "Besides, you're here now, so I don't want to."
"What if I lie down with you?"
"Hmm, that might work," Gilbert said with a nod, shivering a little. It hadn't even been cold outside.
Two minutes later, they were both lying on their backs on Gilbert's bed, staring up at the ceiling as though they were outside at night, admiring the stars. For a moment, they were simply silent, not touching each other or moving. It was sort of peaceful, just lying next to Gilbert. But then on a whim, Roderich found his fingers tangled through silvery hair, and then they both rolled over to face each other. Violet met crimson once more, and they both smiled.
But Gilbert's faded in an instant. "Roderich, what if I die soon?" he whispered, his voice cracking and nearly inaudible. His eyes glossed over with held-back tears. "Because, you know, if I don't have a country anymore…"
"No, no, Gilbert, you won't," Roderich soothed, still running his fingers through the Prussian's hair. "People still identify as Prussian. Plus, Ludwig isn't going anywhere, so I very seriously doubt you will, either." Still, the thought weighed heavily at the back of his mind. He wasn't prepared for a world without Gilbert.
"But what…what if I do?" Gilbert's efforts to choke back his tears failed, and a few slid down his cheeks. "What if I…what if…I don't want to go anywhere, Roderich…" More tears. He sniffled a few times and then let out a short sob or two before his tears fell silently again.
"If you do…" Roderich murmured, then he kissed Gilbert's cheek right where a fresh tear had fallen. "…then I'll just…" another kiss, "…be with you…" another kiss, "…for as long as you have left." He kept kissing each spot where tears had fallen until they at last stopped coming.
"And what if I don't die?" Gilbert asked, raising a single eyebrow. There was almost – almost – a smile on his face again. "What if I stay around?"
Roderich let his hand rest against Gilbert's cheek and repeated exactly what he'd said before.
"Then I'll just be with you for as long as you have left."
As always, thanks for reading, and reviews are love :)
A few notes. First of all, I'm guessing that the Anschluss is the time in which Roderich would have lived with Ludwig and Gilbert – from what I understand from my German history class, Germany basically annexed Austria at the time. I'm aware that Austria didn't regain full independence until 1955, but I did discover through a little research that Austria had a provincial government recognized by the Allies in 1945, so for the purposes of this fic, I'm saying Roderich had moved out by 1948.
Second, if any of you are waiting for a Covered With a Perfect Shell update, sorry it's taking a while! I've sort of had writer's block when it comes to that fic, so I'll be updating if/when inspiration strikes. Thank you all for your patience.