Chapter 1: Arizona, USA
His foster mom, Suzanna, didn’t visit for the first three days. Ludwig didn’t ask why. He overheard it, though, between two nurses. Everyone else in the car was killed. Everyone else but him.
He would like to ask what his injuries were, what were the things that were keeping him glued to this bed, with occasional pain shooting up his leg and through his chest, but the answer seemed to change day by day. Different treatments, different doctors, a different color bag hooked up to his arm.
For a while they were yellow. Now they were clear. In the beginning, they were red.
Ludwig didn’t get any other visitors, either. He didn’t know why he expected he would. He didn’t know anyone else in Arizona. He’d only been there for a couple of weeks, most of them in the summer. Hadn’t had a chance to make friends at school. Ludwig didn’t make friends easily, anyway.
Mostly, it was just him and the projector field that sat across from him at eye level. The news was on. The new was always on. Ludwig was sure he could find a way to change it, if he asked. He hadn’t asked. He was morbidly fascinated, in a way.
They kept covering a terrorist attack in Munich. Somebody had driven a car into the side of a state building where meetings were going on. A boiler had exploded, taking half of the building with it. Many important people had died. The country was hurting. They showed that in speeches and crying and flags set at half-mast.
Really, Ludwig wished they’d move on to something else. It was tiring, in a way, to see all of those sad people. The last thing he needed to see was more sad people.
But he never could ask them to change the channel. The strength left him whenever a nurse walked in and gave him another prognosis. It was always good. It was always better than they’d expected. Ludwig supposed he should be grateful for that, but he wasn’t. Maybe it was something about the way they said it, like they were jealous of nature healing him better than they ever could.
After three days, Suzanna visited him.
She kept it short, naturally. Walked in and sat down by Ludwig’s bedside. Didn’t say anything, but it was enough. She was there.
It ended the fear that Ludwig would see his caseworker walk in at some point and tell him they’d reassigned him, again.
Suzanna shut off the projector field on her second visit. She told him she was going to court and neglected to add what for. She said she was making them do blood tests and neglected to add what for. She said she’d bought flowers but neglected to add who they were for.
She’d walked into Ludwig’s room empty-handed.
After that, it was just Ludwig and his memories. He stretched them out, long over the summer, and tried to imagine he was a bird, looking over his life. There had been school, sufficiently interesting if nothing else. There had been the summer, full of long days and foster siblings. There had been the time before that, filled with other homes and other cities.
Ludwig tried to remember them, only to get caught on what his caseworker, Laura, had told him—he shouldn’t bother. He’d been through a lot, and it made sense for his brain to try and delete things that would only hurt him, anyway.
The only thing he’d taken with him from his past life was the scars that ran up and down his arms. There were other scars, as well, on his torso and legs, but those were mostly covered by the gauzy hospital gown. The scars on his arms, on the other hand, weren’t covered by his short sleeves. Everyone could see them now—Suzanna, the nurses. Ludwig couldn’t escape them now, either, so he might as well look at them.
Most of the scars were from burns. Little round ones—like someone had put out cigarettes on the surface of his skin. That had gone on for years and years, it seemed. Then, the cut scars started, going perpendicular across his arm, unaffected by the sunburn he’d acquired in Arizona. All of the scars were mostly on the inside, tender part of his skin. So. He must have made them himself.
Thinking about that made him restless. He sat up in bed, which pulled at his IV, so then he collapsed again, tired.
Then there were the scars that ran the other way down his arm, twisting like ropes, running parallel to his arties. He traced the scars with his fingertip, wondering what on earth had driven him to attempt suicide.
That thinking was exhausted, so Ludwig tried to remember more.
He recalled a string of piano notes in a minor key, hanging in the air. He recalled a summer breeze through an open window, hearing voices shout below.
Then, a nurse came in, changed the bag of fluid and turned the projector field back on. They were talking to the new foreign minister now, asking if he was going to put sanctions on the country of the terrorist’s grandfather.
They finally let him go after three days of the physical therapist telling him he was OK, but he should keep the cast on for a bit longer. Ludwig had, long ago, learned how to maneuver with it. He was going to be fine, which was a relief after so long. Ludwig wasn’t sure why it took the hospital three days for him to be released, but he expected it had something to do with Suzanna.
She didn’t talk the whole way home.
Ludwig felt nothing, surprisingly, when he stepped into the car. Part of him expected a flashback, or at least a grimace. He should have been affected in some way by the crash. Everyone else had died, and he hadn’t even been severely injured.
The car pulled up onto the driveway, with the gravel crunching underneath them. All of the windows of the small, stucco house he lived in currently were open. The door was open as well, with only the screen door locked shut, where the white tile floor could be seen through the iron swirls.
Ludwig got out of the car. He placed his cast foot on the gravel and swiveled it to move his good foot out as well. Then, he leaned on the side of the car as he closed the door and waited for Suzanna to get out.
Suzanna stepped out the other side and slammed the door. She walked up to the screen door, unlocked it, and stepped through. Ludwig followed her.
The outside air and light made the house look cleaner than it had been the entire time Ludwig had been there. Almost every table had a bouquet of flowers sitting on it and one by the entryway had been covered in cards. Right. They were in mourning.
None of the rest of the family was there, so Ludwig headed to his room. Or, at least, the room where he was staying for now. It was tucked in at the back of the house, with three beds jammed under a large window. The window was propped open now, the glass forming an acute angle with the screen. The beige shade still covered about a quarter of the window, so the room was fairly dark as well.
Through the left wall, Ludwig heard Suzanna turned the TV on. They were still talking about the terrorist attack in Munich.
Not knowing what else to do, Ludwig sat down on his bed. He looked at the small box under it. It was supposed to be full of his belongings, but he hadn’t really owned anything before coming to live here, so it was just full of paperwork. Laura would probably stop by soon.
She was a tall, Belgian woman, with a quick and precise way of speaking. Ludwig had met with her several times over the beginning of the school year and in the summer as well. From what he could tell, she was on very good terms with Suzanna, which seemed like a good thing.
The other thing under Ludwig’s bed was his backpack, shoved under there the day of Homecoming, when he’d gotten into that car. Ludwig sighed. How was he ever going to deal with this?
It wasn’t something he could figure out now. So, figuring he was probably behind on school, he pulled the book he was reading for English class— Dante’s Inferno —and started to read.
Over the course of the next hour and a half, the rest of the household came home. First was Nancy, Suzanna’s biological daughter. She was thirteen and a half and already starting to put on some of her mother’s weight. Her hair was a bright blond, and she talked very slowly but deliberately, as if every word she said was hand-delivered to her by God. She tended to wear single-colored tshirts and a small, silver crucifix around her neck.
The religious habit Nancy had picked up from Suzanna. She had driven all five of her kids to church every Sunday, where they had sat in overcrowded, hot pews and listened to the word of God. She had told Ludwig, on his first day there, that God was the reason why she’d started fostering, so he supposed he couldn’t complain.
Ludwig was happier that he was exempt from the youth group all of the younger kids were required to attend. It wasn’t that he was against religion, exactly, but he was under the impression that he wouldn’t particularly enjoy the other kids that went to a group like that. Maybe he should start, though, just to get out of the house and meet people.
Most of his negative attitude about youth group came from Regino, who was the second kid to come home. He had just started high school a few weeks ago, at the same school as Ludwig was going to. But, he’d stayed with the family for much longer, for a few years at least. Ludwig wanted to ask him about it but was under the impression his adoption was a touchy subject.
He tended to dress in bright pinks and turquoises and had gotten a new piercing about once every two weeks over the course of the summer. Regino had a high-pitched, scratchy voice, which Ludwig heard as soon as the screen door slam shut. This time it was about how his history teacher had acted when teaching them about Japanese Internment.
Ludwig turned the page, realizing he’d come to the end of a canto . Rather than continuing to read about Malebolge, he took out his American history textbook. Ludwig liked history. It came easily to him, like breathing. Now, they were focused on the causes of the Revolutionary War, which was just fine by Ludwig.
He was barely into the first chapter when the last of the foster kids—Emily—came home. She was only a year younger than Ludwig, which made him the oldest. He was now the oldest. But, anyway, Emily was sixteen, had short, limp brown hair that she tended to keep in a black hat that matched the rest of the black clothing she tended to wear. She didn’t often speak, but when she did, her voice was high-pitched and quiet, like a singing glass.
Every month, a box of manga was shipped to their house with Emily’s name on it. How she could still afford it baffled Ludwig. Her parents had died only a few months earlier in a horrific accident that Ludwig still didn’t know all of the details of.
She was a lot like him, really, more so than the rest of the siblings. And she demonstrated that when she walked over to the room that the three foster kids shared and sat down on her bed, the one in the middle.
“Ludwig?” she asked. “I didn’t know you were home.”
“They just released me,” Ludwig said.
Emily was already putting her massive, over-the-ear headphones on. “Oh,” she said.
Ludwig heard Suzanna and Regino talking on the other side of the wall. Suzanna said they’d released him , and Regino said that it was about time, anyway. Then he asked if they were going to meet with his caseworker. Suzanna gave a noncommittal answer, and then started pulling pans out of the cabinets.
Forty minutes later, the family sat down at the dinner table. The house was laid out in a rectangle, with the front door on one of the short side. Then, rooms were laid out in a linear fashion, first the living/dining/TV room, where the eight-person dining table was, as well as a large leather couch that had lost all semblance of shape several years earlier.
Then, there was the kitchen, which had beige laminate covering the floors, walls and countertop. The only color came from the small paintings of fruit that were located every three tiles. After that was an always-locked door that lead into Suzanna’s bedroom.
Running linearly along the other side of the house were the kids’ bedrooms. The first one belonged to the foster kids—Ludwig, Emily and Regino, and was generally dark and overcrowded, as they required three beds. The next one was Nancy’s and Stephen’s, which was covering in posters of boy bands and Jesus Christ. .
Because of Stephen, there were two empty seats at the dinner table. As always, the seat between Suzanna and Regino was open, but now there was another seat between Regino and Ludwig.
Ludwig tried not to stare at it too much.
Suzanna had made meatloaf, again. They usually had it about once or twice a week. Ludwig wasn’t complaining, as her meatloaf was actually pretty good. She’d also made two varieties of potatoes—mashed and fried—for the sides.
As per usual, Nancy and the other kids were drinking soda. Ludwig was drinking ice water, which was mostly ice. Even despite the roaring air conditioning, it was still too hot in the house. The climate was one thing that Ludwig just couldn’t get used to—the heat was dry, never-ending and cracked and peeled his skin.
“So,” Suzanna said after a few moments of silence. “How were you kids’ days at school?”
Regino went first. “Well, I got into an argument with Ms. Haysworth again.” He rambled on for a few minutes about various history teaching standards.
“Very nice,” said Suzanna. She turned to Nancy, her biological daughter. “How was it for you, sweetie?”
“Good,” she said.
The rest of the dinner continued in silence.
As always, the foster kids switched off who did the dishes. This night was Emily’s turn, and she soon found herself immersed in a pile of dishes, humming along softly to the music that was playing through her headphones. From what Ludwig could tell, it appeared to be some kind of emo music.
Having nothing better to do, Ludwig joined her, taking dishes into the sink and scrubbing them off with soap. It made sense to give back to family, considering what had just been taken from them. Soon enough, he found himself humming along in sync to Emily’s music.
Outside the small window above the sink, the night was so dark it appeared flat. Remnants of light—street lamps and windows—shone outside. Across the street, in another identical house, a man and woman were cooking together, swirling around each other and laughing.
A few days passed. The flowers that had covered almost all of the tables when Ludwig was brought home from the hospital wilted. New flowers were brought in. People knocked on the door at all hours, bringing flowers, cards and tearful stories. One enthusiastic neighbor showed up with a large casserole and spend almost a whole minute hugging Suzanna.
Ludwig still wasn’t allowed to go to school. He spent the time catching up on schoolwork. Then, when he finished that, he focused on getting ahead. Then, once he’d finished reading the Inferno and his American history textbook, he started reading through the old National Geographic magazines that were piled up at the bottom of a shelf in the living room. It seemed like a suitably impossible task—the oldest one was dated back from when Arabia was still ruled by the Saudis.
He was only about three volumes in when Suzanna took him to see his caseworker. Suzanna still hadn’t spoken to him, and Ludwig saw absolutely no reason for that to change now.
Ludwig had never been to the Child Protective Services Office, despite the fact that Laura worked their. This time, they were meeting in a small coffee shop, on a quiet street. The barista smiled when Ludwig walked in the door. He ordered a black coffee, and then went to sit where his caseworker already was.
She was dressed as she usually was—in a black blazer and black slacks, with a white shirt buttoned all the way up. In her right hand, she was holding a coffee with a decimeter of whip cream stacked on top.
Ludwig sat down across from her.
“Have you heard about the attack in Germany?” she asked. Her voice had a subtle accent to it. After he’d first met her, it had taken him about a day to put his finger on what it was—Belgian. Belgian French, more specifically.
“Yes,” he said.
“Dreadful thing, isn’t it?” she paused. “Must be very sad for the German people.”
“It was all that was on the news the entire time I was in the hospital.”
“Oh,” Laura said. “Well that must have been pleasant, while you were recovering.” That was the kind of subtle, biting sarcasm that she used all the time. It made it hard to tell when she was being serious, which was a trait Ludwig disliked in her.
“Mmhmm,” Ludwig said.
“Have you been taking your pills?” his caseworker asked.
The pills she was referring to were calcium supplements he was supposed to once a day, owing to the neglect his birth parents had given him. They were red, chalky pills and tasted awful. She insisted that they meet regularly for her to give him the pills.
“Yes,” Ludwig said.
She smiled. “Good,” she said. “Anything unusual or interesting happen to you recently?”
“Well, other than the car crash that I was the lone survivor of,” Ludwig said. It came out harsher than he’d expected.
“Yeah, well,” his caseworker started. “You know, these things happen. It’s sad, really, but some people survive and others don’t.”
“That’s why Suzanna took me here, isn’t it?” Ludwig asked.
Laura nodded, still keeping her head low. “She’s not handling it too well,” she said.
“Are you going to move me?” Ludwig asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Laura said. “You only have one year left, after all.”
“Yes,” Ludwig said.
His caseworker took another sip of coffee.
Ludwig took a sip of his.
“School going OK?” she asked.
“Yes,” Ludwig said. “But I haven’t been going since I was released from the hospital.”
“When do you think you’ll be back again?” Laura asked.
“Probably next week,”
“Good,” she said and smiled.
“I have been thinking about taking a foreign language class at the community college,” Ludwig said.
Laura stiffened slightly at that. “Which language?” she asked.
“Spanish,” Ludwig said. They were in Arizona, after all. 19% of people spoke Spanish.
“Hmm,” she said. “Why?”
“It seems like a good thing to learn.” Ludwig didn’t add that Stephen had been fairly popular at school; it didn’t seem likely that he’d get any warmer of a reception there than he had gotten at home. And there was only so much awkward silence he could take. “It would look good on applications, if I apply for college.”
Laura nodded. “Are you still thinking about going to college?”
“I don’t know,” Ludwig said. He would like to, certainly, but didn’t have the faintest clue of how to pay for it, or if he could get in after only one year of high school. His caseworker had explained to him that his birth parents had claimed they were homeschooling him but didn’t really teach him anything. If they had, it was deep and narrow into random topic, like the inner politics of the Holy Roman Empire, but nothing too useful. Luckily, Ludwig seemed to have picked up enough of the maths and sciences to be able to keep up.
“Well, you have time to figure it out. I could help you apply, if you want to,” she paused. “The financial aid for foster kids is usually pretty good.”
Ludwig nodded. It wasn’t that so much as the loans that he was worried about.
“So, they don’t have any Spanish classes at your high school?” she asked and took another sip of her coffee.
“No,” Ludwig said.
“That’s kind of surprising, in Arizona,” Laura said.
“it’s more of a technical high school,” Ludwig said. It was, though it was starting to have more humanities now that the main high school had been shut down.
His caseworker shrugged. “You’re probably not going to have enough Spanish after one year to do anything with it.”
“No, but it’s a start,” Ludwig said.
Laura stirred her coffee softly. Ludwig took a sip of his. “I’m not trying to talk you out of it,” she said. “I just want to make sure you’re thinking critically about this.”
“It doesn’t cost anything,” Ludwig said.
“OK,” Laura said. “How will you get there?”
“It’s only a few blocks away from the high school. I can walk,” Ludwig said. It was odd how little she seemed to understand about this situation.
“I guess,” Laura said. “Are they letting you drive yet?” she asked.
“No, not yet,” Ludwig said. “I don’t want to, anyway.” He remembered his first time driving—the open road, the speed, the sense of freedom, the gears shifting underneath him, the dirt clouding the windows. He used to love driving. Now it would probably just remind him of the accident.
“Oh,” his caseworker said. “It’s not like you can blame them.”
“No,” Ludwig said, looking away.
The days before the funeral passed by in a slog. Outside, the heatwave was intensifying, and Ludwig was slowly forgetting what it was like to feel cold or even a normal temperature. It probably wasn’t going to cool down anytime soon, either.
Almost all of the time was spent getting the house ready for visitors. And, while it was relieving to have something to do, there was never quite enough work to take Ludwig’s mind off the crash and Suzanna’s silence.
The other three kids had school, so most of the time it was just Ludwig and Suzanna, dusting, wiping down surfaces, setting up furniture. Suzanna’s mother, Claudia, was coming, so they set up an air mattress in the living room. For that, the couch had to be moved, which was a day of lifting and making little progress. Ludwig couldn’t help that much with his foot being the way it was, and Suzanna didn’t have much muscle mass, either.
Most days they ate lunch together, avoiding each other’s gaze at the dining room table. Other days, Ludwig didn’t bother to eat lunch at all.
He was getting awfully sick of Suzanna’s silence. It seeped quietly into all of the corners of the house, but particularly the back ones. He knew that Suzanna spent many hours back there, organizing or reminiscing, and that it really wasn’t any of his business.
Suzanna blamed him for the car crash. Why she couldn’t just tell him that was beyond Ludwig. He never understood why people danced around the subject. It was so much better just to get it out of the way.
And so, one day, he did.
He made eye contact with her one day when she was dusting the bookshelf. “Suzanna,” Ludwig said. “I’m sorry,” not knowing what else to say.
She looked at him and glowered. “What are—who are you? What gives you the right to live when my son—my lovely, baby son—is dead?” She looked at him, the pain clear in her blue eyes.
“I tried asking that French woman—”
“Belgian,” Ludwig said quietly for no reason at all.
“She’s not French, she’s Belgian. They’re different countries.”
This only served to make Suzanna more angry. “That stupid—woman! I don’t care where she’s from! She won’t tell us anything! This is ridiculous!”
“I—” Ludwig started.
“Don’t.” Suzanna said. “I know what you did. We had to get blood tests done, for the insurance. They were all drinking but—” she looked at Ludwig again, somehow managing to be even more angry. “You were sober. What are—”
That wasn’t true. Ludwig had been drinking, too. “I—”
“You have a driver’s license! You could have driven! You told me that you love to drive! But you didn’t, and look at what happened.” She shifted her weight. “Get out of here. I don’t want to see you.”
And Ludwig complied.
After that fight, the silence was deafening. Ludwig tried to avoid Suzanna as much as he could, and he was relatively successful at it. It helped her mother arrived a few days later, meaning there was even more work to do. She smiled a lot at him and pulled him aside at various points to whisper things in his ear and continually complimented Suzanna on the fact that she’d taken these kids in.
Suzanna didn’t even make eye contact with him.
The first night the six of them ate together, Ludwig took it upon himself to sit on the leather couch instead of the table. Emily, the second oldest foster kid, sat next to him without saying anything. The two of them ate in silence, listening to the laughter and conversation at the table behind him.
Suzanna’s mother asked Ludwig if he wanted to restart school. Ludwig told her he wanted to wait until after the funeral.
They ate desert that night and every night. Suzanna had bought the good ice cream, and Emily brought it over to the coffee table.
Ludwig slept a little better that night. He only woke up at three in the morning after a nightmare about that war and that car crash.
The morning of the funeral, the three foster kids dressed up in their best clothes. For Emily, this was head-to-toe in black, with black slacks and a black button-up shirt. Regino wore black jeans with a purple shirt, unbuttoned enough to show just a bit of his chest. Ludwig dressed in an old blue sweater and black pants. They were several sizes too big for him, and the pant leg stuck out awkwardly with the cast.
The funeral was held in a small old funeral home on the edge of the neighborhood. The people who ran it were there early that morning, dressed solemnly. They all took turns hugging everyone in the family, including the foster kids. Ludwig was surprised by that, in a way, though it was unlikely any of them knew about their situation.
They all, one by one, kneeled in front of the casket. It was closed. His body must have been completely mangled in the crash. Ludwig felt a phantom pain in his injured foot as he kneeled.
It fell on Ludwig to finish setting up the photos. The biological family—Regino, Suzanna, Nancy and the grandmother, Claudia—sat around, talking about Stephen in low voices. Emily was on her phone, and Regino was fidgeting so much it looked like he was about to burst.
The funeral workers thanked him for his help, and then people started showing up to the wake. Stephen had been fairly popular at school, so it made sense that a lot of people came. Most of them ignored Ludwig, or gave him and his leg cast one glare and then moved on.
Three of Stephen’s four best friends he’d had since elementary school were also killed in the crash. The fourth one—the one who’d refused to go to homecoming—was standing awkwardly in the corner, flanked by his parents standing guard over him. His hair looked wet, he was dressed in a grey sweater and pants and his face looked red from crying. He was going to give the eulogy, although right now, it looked like he could barely stand up.
Stephen had the opposite physique of both of his parents, tall and bony with limbs spread everywhere. That was his personality, too—spread everywhere, smiling, happy. Ludwig couldn’t remember a time that Stephen wasn’t happy. And, he certainly was nice to Ludwig on the first day there, when Stephen had asked what his story was, and Ludwig had explained that he had a lot of repressed memories. Stephen had actually believed him, which wasn’t something Ludwig was used to.
And yes, Ludwig was very sad that Stephen was gone from the world. It wasn’t though, like he could have done anything about it. Ludwig had been drinking just as much as the rest of them. Maybe even more, because he didn’t quite know his limits.
The priest, a younger, Asian man, named Father Johan, walked into the room and everyone stood up. He smiled and then walked over to where the family was sitting. He shook each one of their hands and told them how sorry he was for their loss. Stephen was a great kid.
He spent a bit longer with Ludwig. “God hasn’t abandoned you,” he said. “Even though it may seem like it. You can talk to me, you know.” He paused. “Everything happens for a reason.” Ludwig nodded. Then, Father Johan told him that he’d noticed Ludwig hadn’t been coming to church, and that was kind of a problem. He’d like to see him there in the future.
Now, driving to church meant spending more time with Suzanna, and that would be nothing more than awkward. It wasn’t like faith was comforting Ludwig right now, anyway.
The priest walked up to the podium and set his notes down. Everyone took this as a sign to sit in the seats arranged. Nancy and Suzanna took the seats on the side for the family. The foster kids sat in the front row. Regino was crying. He wasn’t even abashed about it; he was simply sobbing into a handkerchief. Also in the front row with them was Kalvin, the kid giving the eulogy. He was sitting next to Ludwig, looking over his notes. Almost every word on them had been crossed out at least once and the whole paper was covered with little wet spots.
Ludwig should have been crying. Or have been in pain, at least.
Father Johan started the sermon. He talked about how Stephen was a man, a boy really, cut down before his time, unfairly. He read from the bible, talking about how everything happens for a reason. How God has a plan, despite all of this, and that they shouldn’t worry. Stephen was in a better place now. He talked for a bit, more personally, about Stephen’s contributions to youth group, back when he’d been involved, and his contributions to the community as whole. He was the center of everything, and that was gone now. Then, it was time for the eulogy.
Kalvin could barely make it through the first anecdote—how he’d met Stephen in the third grade—without crying. By the second, his father was behind him, holding onto his back. He stopped altogether in the third.
Father Johan told them all to stand up and remember they were all in mourning together. They bowed their heads and repeated the prayer.
Then, there was the funeral procession. Suzanna drove. Regino was too young to have his driver’s license, and Emily didn’t have hers out of laziness. Ludwig could, but he hadn’t driven since the crash. He used to love to drive, though he doubted he would have loved this—bumper-to-bumper, with the police on both sides.
At one point, they reached the top of a hill and Ludwig caught a view of the procession behind them. It extended for a two and a half blocks down the street, the red lights blinking more or less in sync.
They drove to the cemetery without stopping, only slowing down once they reached its gates and windy turns. There weren’t too many trees in this part of the city, but plenty had been planted in the cemetery, for the dead. Most of them had some kind of complicated watering apparatus attached to their trunks.
And, the dappled, checkered shade on the ground looked peaceful.
The plot they were going to was located right under one of the trees. The headstone had the family name with all three names—Suzanna, Stephen and Nancy—inscribed. All of them had birth dates, but only the second to last had an end date as well.
Ludwig gave a thought to how strange that was, to have a living name inscribed on a stone for the dead. Then, he wondered where he’d be buried, and if it would be by himself. The dirt here seemed alien to him, somehow.
The funeral home had set up a small altar at the gravesite with some flowers on it. Suzanna, Nancy and Claudia were already there, hunched over and crying. It didn’t take Regino long to join them. Emily and Ludwig held back.
It was still insufferably hot, and the old blue sweater did nothing to deter the heat.
After the gravesite ceremony, they were back at the house for the reception. The air was cool, for once, but the ever-darkening red patches on Ludwig’s skin had him worried. He’d been horribly sunburned in his first week there, and Stephen had reassured him that he would be tan afterwards and it wouldn’t happen again. But it was.
Most people were still avoiding Ludwig. Josephine, a girl in their class who Stephen had sworn he didn’t have a thing for, talked to him for a few minutes. She wanted to know what happened to his leg, which seemed to indicate that she didn’t know about how he was involved in the crash.
When he finished explaining how he’d survived when everyone else had died, she smiled weakly. She said she was sorry about that. Ludwig smiled weakly back at her.
Then, another one of her friends pulled her away, and Ludwig was left on his own again.
Suzanna’s mother introduced him to several of the neighbors.
He smiled through that, too.
Afterwards, for dinner, they ate leftovers from the party trays.
Nothing really changed after the funeral. Suzanna’s mother kissed Ludwig on both cheeks as she left, reminding him to try hard in school and that he was going to do great things.
“Don’t mind her,” Nancy said of her grandmother. Then, after a pause: “she was an immigrant,” she said, like that explained everything.
“From where?” Ludwig asked.
“Germany,” Nancy said, looking directly into his eyes.
Two days after the funeral, Suzanna drove him to the doctor. The doctor’s office was on the other side of the warehouse district, where large, empty buildings hunkered down over interwoven tracks and a row of cheap hotels lined one side. Ludwig had brought a Spanish phrasebook to avoid conversation, and he read it in the car.
At a stoplight before a railroad, Suzanna asked him, “What are you reading?”
“I’m learning Spanish,” Ludwig said. On the horizon, two headlights appeared over the tracks.
“It looks like we’re going to be a while,” Suzanna said.
Ludwig didn’t know what to say to that.
“So, are you just getting started?” Suzanna asked.
“Yes. This school year will be my first year,” Ludwig said.
“Huh,” Suzanna said. “Does the school require it?”
“No,” Ludwig said. “I figure it would be a good thing to learn.”
“Hmmm,” Suzanna said. “I always thought it l was a little ridiculous to learn languages in school. I don’t know when my daughter will have to speak to someone in French.”
Another moment passed in silence. A box car went by, covered in intelligible graffiti.
“Where are you taking it, then? At your school?” Suzanna asked.
“No, at the community college,” Ludwig said. “The school doesn’t have language classes.” Now, most of the cars were open. Some of them had steel beams strapped onto them, but some of them were just open.The rest of the train passed by in silence.
Then, they arrived at the doctor’s office. The whole area smelled like antiseptics, reminding Ludwig of that hospital he’d stayed in. He wondered, briefly, what was happening in regards to the terrorist attack in Munich. They hadn’t been watching the news much recently, and it wasn’t on in the waiting room TVs.
The doctor, middle-aged Latina told him that his leg was fine and he could get rid of the cast. Ludwig mentally calculated the number of days since he’d been in the hospital, and how long they’d told him the cast had to be on. It had taken shorter than expected, which was good. Now he’d re-enter school without any indication of what had happened to him, save for a small, crescent-shaped scar above his ankle.
Ludwig’s first experience being back in school was when he went to talk to the principal about taking the Spanish class. He didn’t have to walk far to get to the principal’s office, which was a relief, since even being back at school overwhelmed him with memories. Every corner seemed to be a place where Stephen would have spent time, and everyone who walked past looked like one of his friends.
Luckily, the principal didn’t have a problem with him taking the class. Ludwig was even under the impression that the principal had some kind of impression of him being a good student. How that happened, Ludwig didn’t know.
He had a picture of Stephen behind him in a black, lacquered frame. It was probably just temporary. The principal probably couldn’t stand to have one of his dead students staring at the back of his head for the rest of time.
Somehow, Ludwig had only missed a week of the Spanish class. He’d missed two weeks of school but reassured the principal that he’d be fine. And smiled.
All of this smiling was starting to hurt his cheeks.
Maybe he’d build up his smiling muscles and then would stop getting weird looks from people when he didn’t return theirs.
The principal smiled back at him.
Ludwig’s Spanish teacher was an unusually short woman named Ms. Alvarez. Her hair probably would have gone down to her waist, if she’d worn it down instead of in a large, loose bun that jiggled with every movement she made. She began speaking to Ludwig in Spanish, only to quickly realize that he wasn’t understanding a single word she was saying. So, she smiled and switched to English, telling him how glad she was to have high school students in her class, and how he’d have no trouble picking up what he’d missed.
Based on her smile at the end of that phrase, Ludwig had to wonder if she believed that after their original exchange. He smiled anyway and thanked her for letting him take the class.
They stepped into the room together, where ten or so other students already were. Most of them were somewhere in their twenties, but there were two middle-aged guys in the back row, quietly joking to each other. One older lady sat in the front of the class, going over her notes from the day before.
“You can sit next to our other high school student,” Ms. Alvarez gestured with her hand open and sideways right down the isle of the classroom, to where a tall, rather imposing Mediterranean man was sitting.
Ludwig bowed his head and walked down the aisle to where the other boy was sitting and sat down on the other side. “Ludwig,” he said.
“Antonio,” the other student said.
“Now, today we’re going to continue working on some basic phrases to help you get by in regular conversation,” Ms. Alvarez started writing words on the board. “Practice saying these with the person sitting next to you.”
“So, what brings you here?” Antonio asked Ludwig.
“Nothing.” Ludwig said.
“I doubt it‘s nothing,” Antonio said, smiling.
“I wanted to take Spanish, but they don’t offer it at my school.” He shrugged. “They want to be rid of me anyway.”
“Really?” Antonio asked, raising one eyebrow.
“Yes, but we probably should be practicing. Eee-o zoee Ludwig.”
Antonio flinched. “That’s—that’s awful.”
“You mean …” Ludwig said, “You’ve heard Spanish before?”
Antonio sighed. “I don’t need to have taken Spanish to hear how terrible that was.”
“Oh, OK,” Ludwig said. “So …”
Antonio smiled and said, “Yo soy Antonio. Me llamo Antonio.
“¿Cómo sellama? ¿Cómotellamas?MuchosgustossoydeNuevaYork. ¿Estás contento?”
“What?” Ludwig asked.
“Are you happy?” Antonio said.
“Could you teach me?” Ludwig asked.
Antonio looked at him. “I guess.”
There were forty-two people in their class, which worked out nicely. Ms. Alverez put them into groups of two and assigned each one Spanish speaking country to do a project on. Naturally, Ludwig ended up with Antonio and Costa Rica.
Now they were sitting in the community college library, which had become their de facto meeting place.
“We should pick a topic,” Ludwig said. “That way, it will be easier to focus our project.”
For a moment, Antonio’s face seemed contorted and confused. Then, he jumped up with excitement and exclaimed, “True crime!”
Ludwig looked at him, trying to denote his skepticism by raising one eyebrow.
“Oh, come on,” Antonio said. “It’s really interesting. Like, I read about this one guy—he was really old—and someone killed him! They took everything in his house and killed him and you know why?”
“Money?” Ludwig guessed.
“Well, they don’t know because they never caught whoever did it, but it turns out the guy was an unrepentant Nazi war criminal,” Antonio said.
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “What was he doing in Costa Rica?”
Antonio shrugged. “A lot of the Nazis went to Latin America to hide.”
Ludwig would have guessed Argentina as the country, but it wasn’t like he really knew anything about this. “OK, but shouldn’t we pick a topic that has more to do with the actual country?”
“Like what?” Antonio asked.
“Politics?” Ludwig said. That was one of the things that defined a country, and it would be easier to write about than geography.
Antonio sighed. “I guess we can do that. What’s happened recently in Costa Rican politics?”
“Well, they had this election …”
“So, how is Spanish going?” Ludwig’s caseworker, Laura asked.
“Well,” Ludwig said. They were sitting in a small café, outside. The sun was covered, for once, and the heat wave appeared to have ended. Ludwig’s face was still bright red from the sunburn, though.
“You like it?” Laura asked.
“I guess,” Ludwig said. “I’m not the best at it, but I’m getting some help.”
“Really?” Laura said. She stirred her coffee, a fall-themed squashy drink. “From the teacher?”
“No, from one of the other students.”
She took a sip of the coffee, “What’s their name?”
“Antonio,” Ludwig said.
If he noticed the slight tension that spread through the muscles in her face at that moment, he didn’t comment on it.
“Well, that’s good,” she said. “Good to see you’re making friends.” The implication that Ludwig hadn’t been making friends beforehand hung in the air.
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. He took a sip of his coffee. “I’ve been thinking of taking a job.”
“All right,” his caseworker said. “Where?”
“Probably the coffee shop near my house,” Ludwig said. They had met there a few times already. It was closed-off and generally pretty dark and miserable, but they appeared to be hiring.
“OK,” she said.
“I’ll need my social security card,” Ludwig said.
“Oh did I never give that to you?”
“I have taken a job,” Ludwig said after Suzanna had stared at him for a few minutes. He’d just walked in the door, and she’d been sitting on the couch with her eyes trained on the door.
“Really?” she asked. “Where?”
“The coffee shop.” Then, because she still looked confused, he added, “The one about a block away,”
“Oh,” Suzanna said.
“I have to,” Ludwig said by way of explanation. “To pay for college.”
Suzanna, from what Ludwig could gather, hadn’t gone to college. Instead, she had gotten married right out of high school to Stephen and Nancy’s father, who was now out of the picture.
“Oh,” was all she had to say to this in response. More likely than not, she was upset that Ludwig was going on to have a future when Stephen wasn’t.
Stephen had been held back, once, he’d explained to Ludwig, so he was going into senior year already eighteen years old. Because of this, things hadn’t looked so bright for him for a while, but now he was on the right track. He’d told all of this to Ludwig on their first day of school, flashing one of those bright, American smiles that were probably empty but seemed friendly anyway.
Not that any of that mattered, anyway.
“Do you like it?” Suzanna asked bizarrely.
“Huh?” Ludwig said before he had thought of anything more articulate.
“Do you like working there?” Suzanna asked. “At the coffee shop?”
Customers had gotten angry surprisingly quickly, he was expected to smile all the time and the menu was damn near-impossible to memorize. “It’s alright,” Ludwig said. “It’s something, at least.”
“OK,” Suzanna said. “Everyone else is already home.”
Ludwig looked around for them. None of them were in the living room, which meant that Emily and Nancy were likely in their bedrooms, and Regino was probably in the TV room. Or somewhere else, where things were happening.
“I’ll start making dinner soon,” Suzanna said. Then, she stood up, off the couch.
Ludwig headed back to the foster kids’ room.
Predictably, Emily was in there, with her headphones on, browsing through another black, white and red manga volume. She didn’t even look up when Ludwig walked in. Regino was nowhere to be found.
Maybe Ludwig should ask Emily about her manga sometime. It must be nice, to have a hobby. Right now, it seemed like Ludwig’s life mostly revolved around schoolwork, and now regular work. It would be different, to have something to come home to like that. Nicer, probably, though it would also eat up a lot of time.
Ludwig had tried to start various conversations with Emily about her manga, but it seemed like she didn’t really like talking about it. Really, she didn’t like talking in general, and neither did Ludwig, so it seemed natural that any conversation between the two of them would feel stilted.
Being friends with Emily would help for the next year, while he was staying with Suzanna’s family. They hadn’t been shy about telling him that he’d have to leave after graduating high school, so he needed to get a job and an apartment.
Somehow, it always fell on Ludwig to make preparations when the extended family was visiting. Well, it wasn’t somehow—he started helping around the house, unprompted and without speaking. Suzanna never thanked him nor gave any indication that he was being helpful. Ludwig thought she appreciated it, or, at least, he’d like to believe so.
And so, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, he found himself dusting and sweeping again.
Suzanna and Regino had moved the couch without consulting him. He’d been in the room at the time, sweeping, and Suzanna had called over to the kitchen, where Regino was sitting, to tell him to help her pick it up.
The two of them had struggled the whole way, with Suzanna running out of breath and the couch slipping out of Regino’s hands. Ludwig had stood by, idly, wondering if he could just jump in and help when it was clear that Suzanna hadn’t wanted him in the first place. He was awfully strong—on one of his first days in Suzanna’s house, he had ripped the screen door right off of its hinges. And then spent the next hour apologizing and fixing it.
So, he hadn’t, and the couch was moved now. Regino had gone to one of his friends’ houses, muttering about an imbalance in labor, Emily was at one of hers, and Nancy was at after-school tutoring, so it was just Ludwig and Suzanna now.
After they’d finished moving the couch, while Suzanna was taking a break, Ludwig had gone into the linen closet and taken out the air mattress and laid it out across the floor. Then, he’d left to find the air mattress inflator. When he’d come back, Suzanna was gone, and there was a set of sheets laid out on top of the mattress.
Ludwig inflated the mattress, and the fan hum briefly became the only sound in the house. Then, he spread the cream-colored sheets over it.
Suzanna had gone shopping, and she came back with several bags of groceries, which Ludwig helped her carry to the kitchen. Then, she handed him a potato and a peeler. Ludwig worked on that for several minutes.
Regino and Emily came home. Emily was first with music still blasting from her massive headphones. She didn’t look at any of them, instead focused on walking back to her room. Regino was next. He’d brought over a friend, and they continued their conversation in low tones.
“Oh, yeah,” Regino said after a few minutes. “Jorge, this is my family. Suzanna and Ludwig,” he said gesturing at them.
Jorge smiled. “Very nice to meet both of you. I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Really?” Ludwig said before he could fully think through what he was doing.
“Yeah, sure,” Jorge said. “You’re Ludwig, the one that—” Ludwig watched him find a suitable replacement for saying he killed Stephen. “organized the magazines, right? That was cool.”
Suzanna looked at them both skeptically. She didn’t say anything, and soon they were gone into a different room.
Ludwig returned to peeling potatoes. He almost cut his finger on one of them.
Suzanna’s mother, Claudia, appeared early on Thanksgiving morning. Ludwig was the only was who was up, stirring his coffee in the kitchen. She let herself in with a key she’d gotten from somewhere.
“Hello,” she said when she saw Ludwig.
“Hello,” Ludwig said.
“It’s Ludwig, right?” She asked.
“Yes,” Ludwig said. Suzanna’s mother rolled her suitcase to the corner in between the air mattress and the couch. “Did you drive all night?” he asked. “We weren’t expecting you until nine.” The kitchen clock with the painted birds showed it was only six.
“No,” Claudia said. “I woke up at four and got antsy, so I figured I’d get here early.” She smiled. “Now, I can sit with you.”
Ludwig made a second cup of coffee and they sat across from each other at the dining room table.
“How’s school?” Claudia asked.
Ludwig took a sip of coffee. “Alright.”
“You’re taking classes?” She asked. Then, she clarified: “What classes are you taking?”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “Well, I’m learning Spanish at the community college.”
“That’s good,” Suzanna’s mother said. “Do you want to travel?”
Ludwig hadn’t really thought about that. “I guess,” he said. “I figured it would be useful, for talking to people in Spanish.”
“I always did want to see the world,” she said. “I’m too old now.”
Ludwig smiled, feeling the muscles in his face stretch out. “I don’t know about that.”
“You’re young,” Claudia said. “You still have time.”
“I wish I’d been to Spain,” she said. “Or anywhere, really. Europe was such a mess after the war.” She paused for a moment, deep in thought. “I wish I’d been able to see it rebuilt.”
It was so interesting, how people always referred to World War II as “the war,” like there hadn’t been any wars since then. And there hadn’t really, in terms of scale at least. The silence continued across the table. Ludwig reconsidered his last thought, remembering that he didn’t really know the full scale of the war.
Then, after another moment of silence, Ludwig decided to speak. “That must have been something to live through.”
“I was born after,” Claudia said. “After the war, I mean.”
“Well, seeing that happen, too. Everything getting rebuilt,” Ludwig said.
“Yes, it was quite the—” she paused for a moment. “A—I don’t know the English word—Hullaballoo?”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said.
“Something though,” she said.
Then, they sat in silence.
Suzanna did almost all of the cooking. She woke up much earlier than usual, to find Ludwig and her mother at the table, sipping coffee and having light conversation. She turned around without a word and pulled the frozen turkey out of where it was dethawing in the fridge.
She turned the oven on, pulled the vegetables out of the fridge and started cutting them. She cut up bread, too, and mixed that in a pot with mushrooms and broccoli. She turned on the TV, which was showing the parade in New York.
Emily woke up next, nodding at everyone before sitting down in on the air mattress in front of the TV to watch musical numbers from a musical on the life of Elvis Presley. Then, Suzanna called her into the kitchen, where she worked on chopping vegetables.
Ludwig took out the peeled potatoes from the day before and started mashing them.
Regino woke up. He was dressed nicely, in similar clothes as he’d been wearing at Stephen’s funeral. He helped Suzanna with the pie, mostly by helping the crust stay stuck to the pan.
The turkey went into the oven.
Then, Nancy woke up. She was wearing one of her Sunday dresses, a robin egg blue, modest one. She sat down in front of the TV.
Ludwig added a cup of sour cream to mashed potatoes. Suzanna looked at him, startled. “Where did you learn to do that?”
For a moment, Ludwig considered if he knew another way to make mashed potatoes. Then, realizing he did not, he also realized that he wasn’t really sure who taught him how to make them that way. It was probably just lost to the same vault as the rest of his memories.
Trying to recall how he learned to cook just summoned vague memories of … a kitchen? The smell of smoke? A girl in a green and white dress? Weird.
“Is that not how you make them?” Ludwig asked instead, realizing that Suzanna probably was aware of his past. She answered him with a glare.
Once everything was in the oven or a pot simmering on the stove, everyone sat down in front of the TV. Except for Ludwig, who stayed back in the kitchen, wiping up an unholy mix of sour cream and gravy.
Thirty minutes later, the turkey was done and they were sitting at the table. The announcers from the parade created a low background hum under the conversation.
“So,” Nancy said. “Are we going to say what we’re grateful for?” She looked at her mother and grandmother.
“I’ll start,” Claudia, Suzanna’s mother said. “I’m grateful for—” she looked at Ludwig. “For, these children. They’re good ones, Suzanna. And,” she paused for a moment, looking around the table. “This family.”
“I’m grateful for oxygen,” Emily said. “Without it, I’d be dead.”
Everyone looked at Regino, who was sitting next to Emily, next. “I’m grateful for ….” He trailed off, looking at everyone, but paying special attention to the cross around Suzanna’s neck and the crucifix around Nancy’s. “My friends. And family.”
“I’m grateful for God,” Nancy said. “And the fact that He gave us this food.”
All eyes turned to Ludwig. He hadn’t thought about what he was going to say. “I’m grateful for …” he paused. What was good about his life? Antonio. “my friends,” and … “the education I’m getting.” The stark, blank white walls suddenly stood out to Ludwig. “And for this home.”
“OK,” Suzanna said for no particular reason. “I’m grateful for my family,” her eyes wandered down the hallway, until they settled on her biological children’s room. Doubtless, she was thinking of Stephen, her son that had died. “And God, of course.”
On that note, they said grace.
Dinner conversation composed of Claudia asking each one of the children what they were learning in school, and then grilling them on everything she knew about the topic. Nancy’s slow but deliberate speech took up a majority of the time. Regino’s rambling, largely about unrelated topics, took up almost a quarter.
“This is good,” Emily said, eating a spoonful of Ludwig’s mashed potatoes.
“Yes, it is,” Regino said. “Very creamy.”
For desert, they had the pie that Regino had “made.” He gushed about that as well, high tones sneaking into his voice. Suzanna didn’t give Ludwig a piece, initially.
Then, after being asked by her mother about why she hadn’t, she informed the whole table that Ludwig didn’t want any, anyway.
“You’re going to starve the poor thing,” was Suzanna’s mother’s response. Ludwig soon found himself with a pie on his plate.
Desert conversation ended after that.
Suzanna and Nancy left soon after that, citing a need to get started on Black Friday sales. Regino and Emily took it upon themselves to help clean up the dishes. Ludwig tried to help them but was informed that he’d done too much already, and he was making Regino feel guilty.
So, Ludwig sat down on the air mattress with Suzanna’s mother and watching the last floats of the parade. Most of them were things Ludwig didn’t recognize. He supposed that came with the repressed childhood.
Suzanna’s mother turned the TV off. “It makes me so happy, to see the parade.”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. It struck him as kind of pointless and materialistic, but there was no need to mention that.
A few moments passed in relative silence. The bass from Emily’s headphones could be heard, just barely drifting through from the kitchen. Regino had headphones in as well.
“Suzanna is so funny with her shopping,” Claudia said. “She wasn’t like that when she was little.”
“Really?” Ludwig said.
“Yes, well, we had so little,” Claudia said. “There was nothing to pay for extravagant things.”
Ludwig backwards calculated ages in his head. Suzanna had to be around forty, which meant she must have been born in the eighties. Claudia must have been born in the fifties. “That must have been hard,” Ludwig said.
“It was,” Claudia said. “It was hard enough being away from home, but with so little …” she drifted off.
Claudia smiled, with all the wrinkles on her face condensing. “Berlin,” she said. “I should probably consider this country my home now, but … how I’d like to go back.”
“Well, you still could,” Ludwig said.
“I’m old now,” Claudia said. “And I don’t have the money.” She sighed. “I wish I could have gone when I was younger, but the wall went up, and, then …”
She paused for a little while, her eyes drifting off into the empty corner of the room.
“When I watched it come down, I was so happy … but, by then, I already had kids and a life here.” She paused again. “Promise me, you’ll see the world, Ludwig.”
“I will,” Ludwig said.
Suzanna’s mother stayed with them for another three days. During most of that time, Suzanna and/or Nancy went shopping. Regino went to his friends’ houses. Emily was usually at home, engaged in yet another volume of manga. This one appeared to be a rather depressing one about zombies and vampires living in Tokyo. At least, that was what Ludwig could pull out from looking at the back cover.
Ludwig spent most of the time working. He also spent a lot of time reading. Books, not manga. He’d found it was something he enjoyed. Or could at least stand. And cleaning the house. Twice. It seemed it had only just occurred to him how dirty it was.
Suzanna’s mother mostly sat around the house and complemented Ludwig on his cleaning. She never mentioned the conversation they had after Thanksgiving dinner.
Once, she made them vegetables wrapped in thin strips of beef. Nancy didn’t try to hide her disdain for it. Suzanna did, mostly by seeming embarrassed about having her feed the kids with it. Emily and Regino, the foster kids, were politer about it, but the piles left on their plate told a different story.
Ludwig actually liked it. The contrast between the rough meat and the soft vegetables was comforting, somehow. He didn’t say anything at the table, but he complimented her afterwards, when they both scraped the plates off over the sink.
“Thank you,” she said. “My mother used to make them.” Then, she paused for a while longer. “I should give you the recipe,” she said.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, she drove back to her small trailer near the border. Ludwig was at school when she left, and then had a four-hour shift at the coffee shop. When he came home, the air mattress was still set up and very much unmade.
Without saying anything, Ludwig started to put it away.
The beef thing is a real dish called rouladen. Thanks to those of you that reviewed, and thanks always to my betareader, APHTeavana.
I’m thinking of starting a new thing where I recommend a fic every week, due to the lack of fic recommendation tumblrs I have found in this fandom. (If any of you are into Death Note, there’s an amazing fic recommendation tumblr with the url Light-kun. She’s not doing it anymore, unfortunately, but her masterpost is a treasure).
Anyway. Your fic recommendation for this week is (Don’t) Write to Me by rdirf on AO3. (link ). It’s this really cute RusAme soulmate AU where they both lie to each other about who they are and drama insues. I don’t really ship RusAme (not that I have too many opinions on ships in this fandom, tbh) but I thought it was very sweet. It’s still being updated—had an update last month.
My other favorite RusAme oneshot is "Would You Like Fries with That?" orphaned on AO3 (link) It's really sweet. It's about food? And everyone is surprisingly in character for fluff.
Chapter 3: Arizona, USA
Sorry this is so late, guys. I was traveling and then got locked out of my Google Drive :/
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The month of December passed by in a blur. A gentle coolness seemed to settle into the air, staying longer and longer after each nightfall. It was just starting to get colder, but it was still too warm for Ludwig’s tastes.
In that time, Ludwig applied to college. Mostly, he stuck to local ones. Laura, his caseworker, continued to reassure him that he’d be able to piece together enough financial aid, somehow.
Ludwig kept working at the coffee shop.
Not too many major things happened there, either. He got better at dealing with customers, though it still seemed like he couldn’t smile right. Mostly, he’d given up, and that seemed to be working much better.
Antonio continued to tease him about his Spanish.
Ms. Alvarez pulled him aside one day after class and told him that his Spanish was improving. And it was, she reassured him. But not fast enough. He was going to have to work harder, do practice outside of class in order to continue improving.
Times like that made Ludwig jealous of Antonio. The words just came so easily to him, and half of the time he’d mention things that weren’t even on their vocabulary lists. When Ludwig questioned him about this and asked where he’d even learned them, Antonio would just shrug and smile.
It was infuriating.
But Ludwig did the extra work. He checked out books and Spanish tapes from the library and spent hours plugged into both of them.
Emily, most of the time, was reading manga next to him.
At one point, he walked in on Regino and Jorge making out on Regino’s bed. While that was unpleasant, it did at least answer some long-standing questions in Ludwig’s mind.
Suzanna and Ludwig still weren’t talking much. One notable exception to this occurred whenever Ludwig came home later than usual. Infallibly, Suzanna would be sitting in the kitchen, waiting for him.
“Where were you?” she would ask.
Ludwig would then give his whereabouts. Usually, the conversation ended after that. Once, it didn’t, as Ludwig said he was meeting with the college counselor from the school.
“Oh, really?” Suzanna asked.
“Yes,” Ludwig said, unsure how else to respond.
“What did he say?” she asked.
“She,” Ludwig said. The college counselor he’d been assigned to was a younger Korean woman, with a tendency to get very excited and use her hands as she talked. She’d told him that his chances of going to any college were pretty slim, as he’d only been in school for one year. Prior to that, his caseworker had told him, he was put in homeschooling that didn’t really teach him anything. As his birth parents had left no records, there was no way to prove that.
Now, he was a very good student, and the college counselor knew that would help him. That was the note their conversation had ended on—he had a chance, getting good grades in upper level classes, with strong recommendations and the community college Spanish class, at least at state school. State school was all he could afford, anyway.
Ludwig was at a loss about how to explain this to Suzanna. “It will be hard for me to get into college, as I’ve only had one year of formal schooling.” He paused. “But it’s possible, since I am doing well in class.”
“Good,” Suzanna said. “And you’ll pay for it with your job.”
“Yes,” Ludwig said.
There was a brief silence here, when neither of them knew what to say. Ludwig’s eyes wandered over to the National Geographic magazines, now meticulously organized by date. That was such an interesting article he’d read, on the continuing economic disparities between East and West Berlin.
“Are you going to talk about Stephen?” Suzanna asked. That was the first time she’d mentioned his name to Ludwig since the accident. Hastily, she added: “It might be good, so they don’t go and research it on their own.”
There had been news articles, Ludwig knew. Four young high school students, full of potential, killed randomly. It was the kind of thing that was like catnip to local reporters. He’d been left out of most of them because he was recovering. Still, it had to come up when anyone searched his name.
“Yeah,” Ludwig said, more because he agreed with the idea rather than he had any actual idea of implementing it.
Truthfully, he didn’t know what he was going to write his college essay about. There were no amusing childhood anecdotes to share, no concurrent themes complete with his whole life and no solid goals for the future. Ludwig had vague notions of becoming an accountant or engineer because it seemed like those professions made a lot of money.
He did like history, or reading, but it didn’t see like those would lend themselves to interesting essays. Moreso if he wanted to become an engineer.
And he could write about Stephen. There was nothing stopping him, technically. He could. It would be a good, valid subject.
Although it was probably too difficult to take on. Even if he could write about it, he couldn’t write about it well or eloquently, or in such a way that showed how he actually felt about it.
After much consideration, Ludwig did, eventually write an essay on Stephen’s death. It was the third draft of his essay. It was not the last.
Instead, shortly after finishing it, he Googled his name. The only article that came up was about a German official who’d gone missing almost a decade prior, apparently with the same name. So, Ludwig started a new essay. This one was on memory and family and a host of other things that Ludwig couldn’t say he was in the possession of. And that one actually got sent to colleges.
Then, the long waiting period started.
Ludwig worked Christmas day. This country, with its purported separation of church and state, had it as a federal holiday, so he got paid time and a half. On the whole, it was a pretty slow day. That was good, as Ludwig still hadn’t mastered his customer service smile. As a matter of fact, his manager had given up on him. Apparently, his attempts at smiling looked even worse than his perpetual frown.
He was probably still employed there only because he seemed to be the only one who actually cared about cleaning.
And that was, mostly, how Ludwig spent Christmas day.
After his shift was over, he realized he had about ten missed calls from Suzanna and his foster sister Emily. So, he called Emily back.
“Where are you?” her voice squeaked on the other side of the phone.
“At work,” Ludwig said.
“It’s Christmas,” Emily said.
“I am aware,” Ludwig said.
“Jorge’s family is here,” Emily said.
“I’ll come over,” Ludwig said before hanging up. Soon enough, he put away his apron and walked the one block over to where the adobe house was. All of the windows were open again, as they had been on the night that Ludwig had come home from the hospital. Through the screened off ones in the front, a vague sound of laughter and confabulation could be heard.
Ludwig walked in on this scene. Everyone was sitting around the square table. That included Emily and Regino, the foster kids, Nancy and Suzanna, Claudia, who looked meaningfully at Ludwig, and Jorge with who must have been his mother. Jorge kept stealing glances at Regino from across the table.
One seat had been left open. Emily, who was sitting next to it, pulled open the chair when Ludwig walked over to the table. Ludwig sat down on it.
“—and so yeah,” Regino said. “It’s not that I don’t want to go to college, but not yet, y’know? At least, I’m not sure yet. School is hard enough as it is.”
“And, what are you planning on doing after high school?” Jorge’s mother asked Ludwig. “What was your name again?”
“Ludwig,” Ludwig said. “I’m planning on going to college.”
“Community college?” Jorge asked. He looked at Ludwig in such a way that Ludwig was suddenly keenly aware of his memory of Jorge and Regino making out.
“Or regular college,” Ludwig said. “It depends on what I can afford.”
Jorge nodded. “What else is there about you?” he asked.
He looked at Regino. “I organized the magazines,” Ludwig said.
It was another few minutes before anyone tried to restart the conversation. This time, like usual, it was Regino, who spent a long time complaining about the traffic flow and speed limits around the time.
At one point, Jorge handed Ludwig the bottle of white wine that everyone else was drinking out of. Ludwig hadn’t tried alcohol since the accident. Part of him wanted to make eye contact with Suzanna, to ask for her permission, but that it would never be granted.
Instead, he poured himself about a quarter of a glass, and then handed the bottle on. Ludwig swirled the glass a few times, watching the small maelstrom form and un-form, over and over again in the small bowl. Then, he smelled the wine like a French connoisseur.
It tasted plain enough, clean and crisp. And it wasn’t enough to get him remotely tipsy, never mind actually drunk.
Most of the rest of the meal was the same as Thanksgiving—turkey, stuffing and cranberries. The mashed potatoes were not as creamy as the ones Ludwig had made. They were not as mashed, either, so Ludwig had to mash the potatoes further on his own plate.
Dinner finished easily enough. As did desert. This time, Ludwig was offered it, and he took it gladly. It was a cake that Suzanna’s mother had brought over. Sweet enough, but not too much so.
After dinner, they sat down around the couch. “Ludwig,” Suzanna said. He looked at her. “I got you something. Don’t let me forget.”
Ludwig’s stomach turned over. He wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. It had to be a good thing, of course, that Suzanna was being nice to him. He hadn’t gotten her anything, though, so that was a problem.
But it was one he could work out later. Maybe he could get her something later in the day, or in a few. Actually, he probably should have gotten something for Emily, Nancy and Regino as well, since they were his siblings.
What did they like? Emily liked manga, Nancy liked religion and Regino liked expensive clothes, or seemed to, at least.
“Anyway,” Suzanna said. “It’s been a pleasure to meet all of you.” She was looking at Jorge and his mother.
“Yes. It was nice to meet you to,” Jorge’s mother said. “You have a lovely family.”
Suzanna continued to smile, but it changed from being naturally pleased to being forced in a single, wave-like motion across her face. Stephen. She must have been thinking about Stephen.
And it had been a lovely family, or at least a lovelier one, when he was still alive, still lighting up rooms with his smiles and attracting people to him.
Ludwig shifted, trying to think about something else.
“Yes,” Suzanna said.
“What gave you the idea to start fostering?” Jorge’s mother asked.
“Oh,” Suzanna said. “A number of things.” She paused for a moment. Ludwig had never asked her. “We all have to give back, in some way.” She chuckled. “We’re Christians, after all.” For a moment, her mouth remained open and her tongue shifted around, as if she was planning on saying something else.
Jorge’s mother spoke again. “They pay you for it, don’t they?”
“Yeah,” Suzanna said. “Just enough to keep the kids fed, though.” She looked at Ludwig. “We’re not making a profit.”
They were just getting paid to take care of him, and he’d taken Stephen away from them. Right.
“It’s awfully interesting,” Jorge’s mother said. “Do you always have teenagers?”
“Usually,” Suzanna said. “It’s nice because they’re more developed.”
“And you don’t have to have us for as long,” Emily said.
“Yeah, I guess,” Suzanna said. “Always nice to see what they grow up to do.”
How long had she been fostering, anyway? How many of her foster kids had grown up to do anything? It would be hard, starting at the point that they were.
But Ludwig was in that group, too, and he was trying to do what he could. Still, he had no delusions of ever being an important person, or even a remotely successful one. He was going to continue to live, to provide for himself, and that was as much as he could ask for.
“Must be rewarding,” Jorge’s mother said.
“Sometimes,” Suzanna said. She looked over at Ludwig. “Here, I should give you your present,” she said. She got off the couch and walked over to the outer wall of the house, next to where the Christmas tree had been set up.
The tree had simply arrived one day, when Ludwig was at school, so he’d come home one day to see it sitting in the corner, a precarious-looking fire hazard mess of green needles interspersed with mostly gold and white decorations. Wrapped around it were some half-dead multicolored lights and long streams of stale popcorn. On the highest point, there was a porcelain angel with a contorted face that made it look like she either disapproved of the living room, or that she was in a great deal of pain. It shed several dustpans worth of needles daily, which had increased Ludwig’s cleaning duties significantly.
Suzanna had trouble squeezing through the space between the couch and the wall, and then further trouble leaning down to collect the small box off the floor.
It was about five centimeters thick, and twenty-five centimeters on the long side, and maybe fifteen on the short side. The box was wrapped in dark blue paper with little white silhouettes of Santa on his sleigh printed on them.
Suzanna handed the box to Ludwig. “You really shouldn’t have,” Ludwig said.
She smiled weakly. “I just wish that you were here to open it this morning.”
“You always give the foster kids presents?” Jorge’s mom asked.
“When we can,” Suzanna said.
Ludwig opened the paper, starting with the short end, where the edges were folded over each other and tapped together. He pulled open one of the edges, and then followed it down the back of the box.
It was a book, Ludwig realized, not a box. Moreover, it was a Spanish phrasebook.
“Thanks,” Ludwig said.
“You’re welcome,” Suzanna said and smiled.
After much consideration, Ludwig decided not to buy any of the rest of his family anything. None of his siblings had bought him or Suzanna anything, so it didn’t really seem to matter.
Antonio was a different matter. Ludwig wasn’t planning on buying him anything, either, but then on the first day back in class, Antonio pressed a small cylindrical box into Ludwig’s hands.
“What’s this?” Ludwig asked.
“It’s Three Kings Day,” Antonio answered with a smile. “So I got you something.”
“Alright,” Ludwig said. “I didn’t get you anything.”
Antonio was still smiling.
Ludwig started unwrapping the cylinder. The paper was all scrunched up on the ends. It figured that Antonio wasn’t that good at wrapping paper.
Underneath the paper was a can of jelly beans. The packaging looked old enough that they must have gone stale by now.
“Uh, thanks,” Ludwig said.
“You’re not going to open it?” Antonio asked.
Ludwig looked at him.
Then, he sighed and started untwisting the cap. When it was finally off far enough, an orange thing burst out of the container, hit Ludwig in the nose and then fell to the ground.
Antonio started laughing.
“You have to admit, that was pretty funny,” Antonio said. He bent down to pick up the thing off the ground.
Ludwig smiled, but only slightly.
“C’mon, give it back to me,” Antonio said. Ludwig handed him the container. “I have to give it to someone else, now.” He looked at Ludwig again. “You should have seen the look on your face.”
“I’m sure it was hilarious,” Ludwig said.
“It was!” Antonio said. The two of them started walking down the hallway. “Hey,” Antonio said, as they passed by a corkboard. “Did you see this?” It was a poster with picture of a red stately building, covered in alcoves, with two bridges in front of it. Over it was written: Language emersion program for six weeks in Sevilla. Fully funded w/travel included.
“Are you going to apply for it?” Ludwig asked.
“I mean, it’s free,” Antonio said. “You should, too. You need it.”
Ludwig sighed. “But my Spanish is improving, right?”
Antonio smiled. “Keep telling yourself that.”
Ludwig did end up applying for the Spanish immersion program. It was six weeks long, over the summer, and involved staying with a host family and taking classes at the university. The program was only open to college students—either current ones or those just entering college. So, in order to qualify, Ludwig would have to get into a college.
His first acceptance letter came the last week of January. It was from the community college he was currently studying at, so that was no surprise. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much to tell him in the way of financial aid, saying they’d need to reevaluate his situation.
During that time, he again met up with his caseworker, who didn’t have much to say except to remind him to keep taking his calcium supplements.
The next acceptance letters came in February. One was from another community college, further north. The other was from a smaller state college about an hour away. They’d excepted him into their engineering program, which was good. At community college, he’d probably just study to become an accountant, and that wouldn’t make as much money as an engineer, anyway.
During that time, Ludwig was spending every second of his free time working in the coffee shop. The job was the same as it had always been.
It was around then that the immersion program people told Ludwig they were moving him on to the next stage of the application, which was an interview.
They asked him why he wanted to learn Spanish. His original reason seemed too practical, too plain when dealing with these people. If he was actually going to get anything for learning Spanish, it made sense that he’d need a better—or, at least, a more romantic—reason for learning the language. Ludwig thought back to what Suzanna’s mother had told him.
“I want to see the world and meet different people, and I have to communicate with them somehow,” Ludwig said. Then, he cringed, but tried not to show it. There was no way they’d believe him.
But they did. They told him to start working on his passport.
That seemed easy enough: two days later, he walked to the post office with his social security card and driver’s license.
The post office worker—an older, extremely skinny man—spent quite a while looking at his documents.
“Is there anything wrong?” Ludwig asked.
“No, not really,” the post office worker said. He typed a few things into the computer. Then, he kept shifting his weight back and forth as he waited for the page to load. “We also need your birth certificate.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said.
“And actually, we don’t need a social security card. The driver’s license replaces that.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said.
“Yeah,” the post office worker said. “And, if you don’t have your birth certificate, you can bring your expired passport.”
“I don’t have an expired passport,” Ludwig said.
The post office worker looked at his screen and furrowed his brow. “Hmm,” he said. “It says here …” he looked back at Ludwig. “Well, it looks like we already have you in the system, but if a birth certificate would work better, you can use that instead.”
“Alright,” Ludwig said. He smiled back at the post office worker. “Thank you.” He said and took the documents away from him.
About a month later, he got a letter in the mail with the State Department’s insignia on it. It was a long and rather roundabout, starting off by mentioning that he’d applied for a passport, then explaining how he must have lost his diplomatic passport, then explaining that he should contact his home country. At the bottom, it was signed in blue pen—a real signature.
After that, he met with Laura to explain this situation with her.
She seemed upset. “Why didn’t you tell me you were applying for a passport?” Ludwig tried to answer, but she cut him off. “I could have helped you, you know.” Her Belgian French accent was even more pronounced on those words, and her breath smelled faintly of cigarettes.
“Alright, let me see this letter,” she said.
Ludwig handed her the letter.
Her eyes scanned it over, and she sighed.
“Why do you think they sent this to me?” Ludwig asked. He’d reread it several times himself, and they seemed convinced he was a foreign national. One who had, at some point, held a diplomatic passport from another country.
“You have the same name as a German diplomat,” Laura said. Right, when he’d Googled his name, the only results that had come up referred to a diplomat that had gone missing a few years ago. “I’ll work this out,” she promised.
“Do you need my driver’s license?” he asked.
“No,” Laura said. “I have all of the proper documentation. Now, Have you been taking your calcium supplements?”
“Yes,” Ludwig said.
“And things are going well with—” she paused. “Your friend, who you’re going to Spain with. What was his name, again?”
“Antonio,” Ludwig said.
His caseworker looked at him. For a moment, it seemed like her eyes were caught up somewhere else, trying to figure something out. “What’s his last name?” she asked.
“Fernández Carriendo?” Ludwig said.
Laura scrunched her face. “OK,” she said. Then, she shook off that facial expression. “How are things going with him?”
“Good,” Ludwig said.
Then, she asked him about what colleges he’d been accepted to, and he told her. He added that, while he was happy to have been accepted somewhere, they hadn’t told him about the money, which was going to be a problem, most likely. She smiled absent-mindedly through that conversation.
Apparently, she did have all of the proper documents, because she handed him the little blue-covered book on their next meeting. Ludwig thanked her, and then the rest of their conversation was very similar to the one they’d had the week before.
“Did you get into it?” Antonio asked.
“What?” Ludwig asked. They were standing in the hallway outside Ms. Alvarez’s room.
“The Spain program!” Antonio said. “I got into it. Did you?”
Ludwig looked at him for a long time. He had gotten into the program as well, but he was just imagining how inconsiderate that would be if he hadn’t. “Yes.”
“Great!” Antonio said. “I mean, that’s wonderful. Now we’re going to be in Spain together!” He paused for a moment and looked off into the distance. “I’ve always wanted to go to Spain.”
How incredibly romantic. “Come on, let’s get to class.”
“I’ve heard the guys in Spain are so cute,” Antonio said. “But not as cute as the guys in Italy.”
“Come on,” Ludwig said, pulling him into the classroom.
A few days passed and Antonio’s excitement did not dampen. It helped that they were going there together, it seemed, as Antonio didn’t seem the type to fly across the Atlantic on his own. Ludwig got an acceptance letter from the last college he applied to. It was out-of-state and a real stretch, but apparently, they had liked his profile well enough.
They also sent him his financial aid information, which showed that, even if he took out a dizzying amount of loans, he’d have to work more than full time until the beginning of the school year, and then would still fall short of tuition. With a sigh, Ludwig crossed that college off his list.
Then, a few days later, Antonio’s spirits had fallen. They were sitting on couches in the community college’s library. Or rather, Ludwig was sitting and Antonio was draping himself over the couch.
“They’re having problems with my passport,” Antonio said.
“Really?” Ludwig said. “They had problems with mine, too.”
Antonio looked at him with one eyebrow raised.
“Apparently, I have the same name as some German official who had a diplomatic passport and then lost it.” Ludwig said. “Actually, I saw some articles, and it seems like they lost the official, too.”
“Weird,” Antonio said. “They don’t think they can resolve mine before we’re supposed to leave.” That was in a month and a half.
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “Did you get your social worker involved?” Antonio’s social worker was the same person as Ludwig’s caseworker.
“Yeah, she was the one who told me all of this,” Antonio said.
“That’s weird. It only took her like a week to get my passport,” Ludwig said.
“Yeah,” Antonio said. “I guess it’s a big deal.”
“I guess so,” Ludwig said.
“OK, so what did you say the project you needed help on was?” Antonio asked.
It was the final project for Ludwig’s American History class. He was going to do it on American and German relations prior to World War I. “We should probably look at the history section.”
“We?” Antonio said. “I have a problem set to work on.”
“I thought you said that was due last week,” Ludwig said.
Antonio shrugged. “It was.”
Ludwig sighed. Then, he walked over to the history section. Most of the books were rather thick, with heavy, glossy covers. He picked up one. It was titled Twentieth Century History of the United States through Diplomatic Correspondence.
He started flipping through the pages. Most of them were actual letters from different people in various diplomatic roles scanned and printed into the book. Ludwig stopped about halfway through the book.
“Hey,” he showed Antonio. “This one’s in my handwriting.”
Antonio looked at it. Ludwig’s handwriting was very neat and regular, with wide vowels and very straight lines. “I guess,” Antonio said. “I mean it’s not like your handwriting’s very distinctive.”
Ludwig continued to look at the page. It was true, in a lot of ways, his handwriting was fairly plain. But, the closer he looked at the shape of every letter, the more it looked like his handwriting.
Naturally, it was in German, so Ludwig couldn’t really read it, anyway. The next page had the translation.
Two more colleges gave Ludwig their financial aid packets. Both of them stressed that it was as much as they could do. Both of them would settle him with thousands of dollars of loans, though those weren’t quite as bad as the others. Moreover, he’d still fall short of the tuition, even working full time.
Briefly, he remembered that the Spain program would only take him if he was going to college in the fall. It didn’t seem that likely that he was going to be able to go anyway; he would have to work over the summer.
Ludwig processed all of this information wordlessly. It didn’t seem like he was going to college, at least not anytime soon. He’d have to keep working at the coffee shop. Hopefully, he’d find a better job soon—one that didn’t require him to smile all the time. That was a pretty ridiculous complaint, though, wasn’t it?
Antonio’s passport troubles did not work out.
At least, Ludwig’s grades in the last semester were pretty good. His history teacher told him after he turned in his paper about how brilliant it was, and about how he should go on to study history in college.
Ludwig nodded politely throughout the whole exchange.
His Spanish was improving as well, and he had a whole conversation with an older lady in the grocery store entirely in that language.
That was the day the last of his financial aid packets came through. It supported the same as he’d heard from the others—significant loans, and still not enough to pay off tuition.
Ludwig dealt with this news by riding the stove of what must have been three years’ worth of grease. It was collected on the edges and corners, dyeing those places varying shades of brown while the center of the stove shone in white.
Suzanna walked in on him doing this. She looked at him. “You know,” she said. “You’ve been a really nice help around the house.”
“Thanks,” Ludwig said. Then, he returned to his cleaning, feeling Suzanna’s eyes on his back.
Just a few days later, Suzanna’s mother showed up at the house. Suzanna hadn’t told Ludwig, or any of the other foster children or Nancy, that she was coming. Judging based on Suzanna’s facial expressions when she saw her mother sitting at the dining room table with Ludwig, she hadn’t told Suzanna either.
“Oh, hello,” Suzanna’s mother said. “Sit with us.”
Suzanna pulled a chair out from the table and sat down on it, before pushing herself in as far as her stomach would allow. “Mom?” she said. “What are you doing here?”
Suzanna’s mother smiled. “I wouldn’t miss my grandson’s graduation.”
Suzanna looked at her. “Mom,” she said, putting her smooth hand over her mother’s varicose ones. “You don’t have a grandson. You have a granddaughter.”
“Why, yes of course I do.” She looked at Ludwig. Ludwig looked away.
Suzanna’s eyes drifted over to Ludwig. She gestured at him with her nose. Then, she turned back to her mother. “Mom,” she said.
Ludwig was under the impression that he should leave, so he did.
As he left, he caught a few snippets of their conversation. It seemed Suzanna was explaining the insurance policy to her mother, and how Ludwig was sober when everyone else wasn’t.
The last few weeks of Ludwig’s high school career went surprisingly fast. There were projects to turn in, tests to take, papers to fill out. He had to tell the Spain program that it didn’t seem likely he was going to be able to attend, as he didn’t have a college to go to. They told him to keep his mind open. Antonio’s passport continued to not work out.
Ludwig spent the first day Suzanna’s mother, Claudia was back in the house setting up the air mattress again. Suzanna was nowhere to be seen, but Claudia kept up conversation about where she thought his life was going.
She was also talking a lot to Suzanna, mostly out of Ludwig’s earshot. Ludwig would just hear them occasionally, as he walked around a corner or something, only for the conversation to halt as soon as he came into their view.
Ludwig hadn’t been asking for Claudia to randomly start referring to him as her grandson. She’d just started doing it, in that first conversation, and still did it, especially when Suzanna wasn’t around.
Regino and Jorge broke up. That was news, and it was rather sad. Ludwig didn’t really know what had happened, but Regino was pretty messed up about it. He spent most of the time in the three foster kids’ room, crying. It was so uncharacteristic of him that Emily and Ludwig shared a glance before walking away.
Ludwig had eventually talked to Emily about one of her mangas, an odd, tragic one about notebooks. He stored all of the information for later.
Nancy, Suzanna’s biological daughter, also got upset seemingly randomly a few times. When Ludwig finally asked her about it, she told him it was about Stephen. “He should be graduating,” she said. “I don’t know why we got you instead.”
National Geographic magazines were still arriving at their house. Someone was putting them in the wrong place, so Ludwig spent a few minutes putting them in the stack he’d created in the living room. The extra weight caused the stack to fall over. Ludwig spent almost a half hour rearranging them so it wouldn’t fall over again.
Then, the ceremony came closer. Ludwig had to rent a cap and gown, and since the local store was out of them, he had to take three buses to a different one.
The day of his high school graduation, Ludwig woke up early. The ceremony started at ten, so he needed to get ready. Or, so he told himself as he stirred his black coffee, steam swirling above it with a small crescent of bubbles around one of the outer edges, while sitting at the kitchen table at five in the morning.
It was still mostly black outside, with the night punctuated only by a few stars and a few streetlights. None of the neighbors were up, and neither was anyone else in the house. Only one light was on in the kitchen, a lone, golden beam that shone down on top of Ludwig’s hair. He couldn’t turn on any others without waking up Claudia.
For some reason, Ludwig began to think of his past. He would have liked to have one. Sure, he’d made the most of his time in high school and with Suzanna’s family. It would have been nice to be a student for a little while longer, as it seemed to be something Ludwig had a talent for. Or history, at least, but nothing much would ever come out of that field of study.
He enjoyed the one year of it he’d taken, though. And he had a friend in Antonio, which would help when he started to find a place and a way of his own. It seemed to be regarded that he would stay with Suzanna’s family for the rest of the summer, and then leave at around the same time he’d been transferred into their house.
Apparently, his eighteenth birthday had passed in October. His caseworker had forgotten to remind him of this until after it had passed, which left Ludwig feeling a strange kind of melancholy.
So, the past year had been alright. It wasn’t much of a past, but it would do. Ludwig was hesitant to push any further back in the past, knowing that he would likely end up with traumatic memories and no way to deal with them. His caseworker had told him as much. And, judging from his scars—Ludwig felt the one that ran along his left arm—it wasn’t a past he’d like to recall, anyway.
Finishing his coffee, he started doing the dishes. Then, he went back to get his clothes out of his room—the collared shirt and dress pants he’d borrowed from Regino, though they didn’t really fit him that well—and went to the bathroom to put them on.
Then, he went back to the kitchen and started making breakfast. That was what finally woke up Claudia.
She leaned over the entrance to the kitchen. “I’m so proud of you, Ludwig,” she said, her German accent altering the pronunciation of his name.
“Thank you,” Ludwig said.
All of Ludwig’s classmates were in good spirits at the graduation. They took a class picture, which took a while, and then the valedictorian gave her speech. Ludwig’s history teacher presented the graduation awards. Surprisingly, he’d been nominated for one of them.
They all threw their hats up in the air, and one of their corners impaled Ludwig’s hair. It stuck there for an incredibly long second before falling to the floor. No one seemed to notice.
Suzanna and her mother cooked a rather elaborate meal of meatloaf and potatoes.
“You didn’t have to do this,” Ludwig said, looking around at all of the food.
“Nonsense,” Suzanna’s mother said. “It’s your graduation.”
“Speaking of that,” Suzanna said. “We have … well, we’ve been thinking.” She looked at everyone else, who was just starting to sit down at the table. Nancy was wearing one of her Sunday dresses, Regino was in a different collared shirt, and Emily was dressed in a skirt and collared shirt. Only Regino, Emily and Suzanna’s mothers were sitting down.
After much scraping and banging of chairs, everyone was seated at the table.
“We don’t think its very fair that you’ve worked so hard to get into college only to not be able to pay for it,” Claudia said.
“And, besides, we didn’t know how much financial aid we’d get, so I’ve been saving up for Stephen’s college,” Suzanna said.
“Yes,” Claudia said. “And, I’m too old to possibly enjoy all of the money I have left.”
“It’s only three thousand dollars more than you have, right?” Suzanna said.
This conversation couldn’t be going the way it seemed to be. “Y—yes,” Ludwig said.
“Then, we’ll give you that much,” Suzanna said. She looked over at Emily and Regino, “And to you two, too, if you can get into college.”
Claudia looked at Ludwig, “And you’re going to Spain this summer.” She paused. “See the world. When you’re young.”
“Th-thank you,” Ludwig said.
Nancy looked at Ludwig, then back at her mother. “Does that mean …”
“We all make mistakes,” Suzanna said. “Perhaps we judged you too hard for yours.”
“To Ludwig,” Claudia said, holding up her glass. Everyone else repeated the gesture.
Thanks to APHTeavana for betaing.
Your fic recommendation for this week is Golden Boy by Lyingmonsters on AO3. (Link). It’s this really sweet GerIta 1980s AU that’s also really angsty, almost tragic. And it does a really good job of handling complex relationships between the characters. Still being updated, though it’s almost done.
The rest of that day felt surreal. Ludwig spent much of it calling various people, including the Spain program and Antonio. Antonio’s voice seemed far away and distant on the phone. He didn’t seem to be happy about it but rather jealous. Still, Ludwig wasn’t in much of a state to judge anyone’s tone of voice.
On the other hand, the Spain program organizers were very happy. They gave him his travel itinerary—a drive to Phoenix, then a flight from Phoenix to Washington, D.C, then another flight to Reykjavík, Iceland, then another to Paris, France, and then another to Sevilla.
Claudia gave him her old suitcase. It was made out of worn, brown leather, in the shape of a curved rectangle. Ludwig folded all of the clothes he’d acquired from Suzanna’s family and his own money in the suitcase. He didn’t own any clothes from his life before that. Well, actually, he didn’t own anything from his life before them.
But this wasn’t a very good time to reminisce over that. Ludwig carefully folded the clothes and put them in the suitcase, along with almost everything he owned. It all fit well, with room to spare.
Much of the evening and afternoon was spent talking to everyone. Suzanna’s mother was especially sentimental and gave him an old film camera, telling him to take pictures. Emily and Regino were pretty nice about it. Nancy wasn’t as much, but that was understandable.
The next day was even more surreal. It started off with another early morning conversation with Suzanna’s mother over coffee. Then, Ludwig saw Antonio for what would be the last time for a long while. He was nicer about it this time, and Ludwig got someone to take a picture of the two of them with the camera.
Suzanna drove him the two hours to the airport. She was more civil then she’d been in months, and they talked about Ludwig’s future and what he was going to do with the rest of his life. After that subject had been exhausted, she told him her life story—how she’d been raised in a loving household, married young only for her husband to leave her. Now she had her foster kids, which she wouldn’t get another of until Ludwig was firmly settled in on this side of the Atlantic. At that, she smiled.
The line for airport security was long, as was the line to get on the plane, as was the plane ride itself, as was the layover at the next airport, as was the next flight, as was the next line for customs and passport check, as was the next flight, as was the next layover and as was the final flight.
Twenty hours later, he landed in Sevilla, jetlagged and very, very tired. The pictograms and Spanish words on the signs swam in front of his eyes.
The Sevilla airport was laid out roughly in a square, with two hallways of gates and a third that lead to security jutting off of one side. It took Ludwig an absurd amount of time to find his way to the pick-up area, where an email from the program had promised him that someone from his host family would be waiting with a sign.
When he got there, the area was completely filled with people. Many of them were carrying signs, but none of them carried either Ludwig’s name or the name of the program.
So, he stood around for six minutes, looking for someone with a sign with one or both of those things on it. He didn’t find it, but instead made eye contact with a blond-haired, blue-eyed man. The man smiled as soon as he saw him and started walking towards him. He had a little bit of skip in his step, like he walked on the balls of his feet.
“Are you lost?” he asked in perfect English. He was dressed in some kind of leather jacket with fleece padding. Then, more excited, he added: “I can help you if you’re lost, y’know!”
“Uh, I’m fine,” Ludwig said.
“Really?” the man, said, looking at him. “What are you looking for?”
“I’m here to pick someone up. Don’t think he’s here yet, though,”
“I’m in Spain for a Spanish immersion program—”
“Oh!” the man said. “Ludwig?” he took Ludwig’s hand and started shaking it. “I’m Alfred F. Jones! I’m here to pick you up!” He showed Ludwig his phone’s screen, which had an email from one of the program’s organizers on it.
“Why didn’t you have a sign or something?” Ludwig asked.
“Well, I did, but I forgot it before I got here.” He paused. “But—anyway—debemos hablar en español, ¿no?”
Ludwig ignored him. “You’re part of my host family?”
“Not technically, no.” Alfred paused for a moment. “They took me in a couple of months ago. I had no idea what else to do—repressed memories of my childhood, you see—so I live with them now.” he shrugged. “¡Vamos!”
Alfred grabbed his suitcase and started leading him outside towards the car. It was a smaller silver European model. He put the suitcase in the trunk of the car and then unlocked the driver’s and passenger doors. “I’m still not used to driving stick,” Alfred said.
“What?” Ludwig said.
“It’s the gear changes, I think. I keep doing it wrong,” Alfred said, as he put on his seat belt and adjusted the overhead mirror.
“Why are you telling me this right before you’re going to drive me around?” Ludwig asked.
“You really like asking a lot of questions, don’t you,” Alfred said. He smiled again, one that seemed to take up his entire face, sending his cheeks and eyes running in fear. “Don’t worry. It’s not far.” With that, the car lurched backwards, and they were off.
It really wasn’t too far from the airport to the house, which was located in the old part of the city, by the cathedrals. On the way there, they drove along a wide street, with gardens in the median and consulates on both sides.
Ludwig muttered the names of the countries to himself, under his breath. “Columbia.”
“Colombia,” Alfred said out of nowhere.
“The country is Colombia.” Alfred paused. “In Spanish, at least. The university is Columbia, as is the American city.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. He saw the flag outside the next one. “Italie—”
“Italia,” Alfred said.
“Oh,” Ludwig said.
“You came here to learn Spanish,” Alfred said and shrugged.
Thankfully, the car ride didn’t last that much longer. The apartment, because it was an apartment, Ludwig realized, not a house, was in a whitewashed building with a red roof. It blended in seamlessly with all of the houses around it for several blocks. Alfred reassured him it was close to the university.
The door was off to one side of the building, from where they went up a flight of stairs before getting to a brown door, which Alfred unlocked. “We’re going to be sharing a room,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Ludwig shook his head and stepped through the door.
The apartment was small, but not terribly so. The exterior door led directly into the kitchen, directly facing the sink and the square window over it. The cabinets were whitewashed, with heavy ironwork for the handles and hinges.
On the floor was a knotted, multicolored rug, and on that was a whitewashed table with a light wooden top. There were four chairs pulled up to them and four placemats that matched the rug. On the left wall, there was one door, and on the right side, there was a small sitting area, followed by a small staircase with a door underneath it, which also lead to another door.
“Dolores!” Alfred called out as he walked into the apartment. “Dolores!”
The head of a small, old lady with braided hair peaked out from behind the door underneath the stairs. “Alfred?” she asked.
“¡Encuentro Ludwig!” he said, pointing at Ludwig.
“Oh!” She said “¡Bienviendo, Ludwig!” she looked back and forth at him and Alfred. “Veo que has conocido Alfred.”
Ludwig did not understand half of the words in that sentence. It must have been obvious from his face, as Dolores then added, “Would you rather talk in English?” she asked, stepping out of the door. She was wearing a knee-length, shapeless floral dress. Decisively, she walked over to Ludwig and kissed him on both cheeks. “We’re very happy to have you. We’ve waited … for a while. They almost said … we weren’t going to have you,” she said.
Then, she walked towards the staircase. “Here,” she said. “I’ll show you your room.” She went up the stairs and opened the door above them. Ludwig followed her.
The door lead to a quaint little room, simply adorned. There was one window, which was open, letting in a soft breeze from outside, which tickled the tapestries hanging on the walls. On each side wall, there was a bed. One of them was rather messily made, while the other was a complete mess. Underneath it was a roller suitcase, which had clothes exploding out of it.
“Sorry,” Alfred say, clearly noticing that Ludwig’s eyes were focused on that. “I should have cleaned up before you got here.” Ludwig put his suitcase on the bed he presumed to be his.
“You will share a room with Alfred,” Dolores said. “I’m sorry.” She paused. “This was my sons’ room, but they have both flown away, now.” She smiled. “You must be famished. I’ll make something for you to eat.” She left the room, so now it was just Alfred and Ludwig.
“Dolores is really nice,” Alfred said.
“She seems like it.” Ludwig said.
“I’m sorry I didn’t clean up at all—I totally forgot you were coming today.” Alfred smiled again.
“It’s alright,” Ludwig said. Ludwig walked over to the window. Outside, the city shone underneath a bright blue sky.
“You see those buildings through there.” Alfred pointed over Ludwig’s shoulder, at a collection of cream-colored buildings. “That’s the university.” One of the buildings had a ring of statues around its roof.
“Nice,” Ludwig said.
“It’s maybe five minutes from here,” Alfred said.
Ludwig nodded again and forced himself to smile. “So,” he asked. “How did you come to live with this family?”
“Oh,” Alfred said. “I had a really abusive upbringing. Child services had to move me.” He shrugged. “Dolores and José Luis took me in.”
That night, José Luis, Dolores’ husband, returned from the supermarket, putting food on the table. They all had dinner together, where Dolores and José Luis talked about their sons’ and their big jobs in foreign embassies.
They also regaled the story of how Alfred had come to live with them, describing the trabajador social that brought him to live with them. Alfred seemed pretty happy to be the center of attention.
Ludwig also thought it was a good idea to talk about his own past, so he did, explaining about his own unknown background and how Suzanna and her family had treated him. He talked about the college he was planning on going to in the States and the rest of the plans he had for his future. They were pleased to hear about that as well.
Dinner was very late and so Ludwig went to bed afterwards. He’d forgotten to take his pills down to the bathroom, so he swallowed them in the room, while Alfred sat on the bed across from him.
“Calcium supplements?” Alfred asked. Ludwig nodded. “They prescribed those to me, too. I don’t see why they don’t have us take the over-the-counter ones.”
His sleep that night was restless, largely because he was in a new place and because the bed was unimaginably squeaky. Though Alfred’s occasional bouts of muttering didn’t help. Most of it sounded like a foreign language, with occasional words that Ludwig could pick out, like liberty or common.
“Did you see the news?” Alfred asked Ludwig when he stepped into their room.
“No,” Ludwig said, putting his bag down on his bed.
“The president has put more tariffs on México, and now they’re doing military exercises in the gulf.”
Ludwig looked at Alfred. “The Spanish president?” he asked.
“No?” Alfred looked confused. “The American president?”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. Then, he figured he might as well ask: “You follow American news?”
“Naturally,” Alfred said. “I’m American.” On that, he smiled.
“You remember that, from your past?” Ludwig asked. He sat down on his bed and started picking at his nails.
“No,” Alfred said, shifting his weight. “I just, y’know, feel it, y’know?”
Ludwig looked back at him. “That’s not how nationality works,” he said. “I am American.”
Alfred looked skeptical. “I mean, I guess.” He paused. “You seem more reserved to me, more … European.”
Ludwig, offended at his American-ness being questioned, said. “Well, what do you expect me to do?” He smiled an American smile and said, “I love hamburgers.”
Alfred laughed. “Pretty good,” he said. “I just …” he looked off into space. “I don’t know anything about my past, so I figure I might as well have something to hold onto, even if it’s fake …” he paused again, looking around the room. “I’m pretty sure I’m not Spanish. I don’t have a Spanish name, and …”
“Your Spanish is good, though,” Ludwig said. “And you live here.”
“I guess,” Alfred said. “You don’t remember much about your past, either, do you?”
“I have repressed memories,” Ludwig said. But he still could recall some things, like that cute girl in the bandana and pinafore. “But I try to focus on the present and the future.”
“Yeah,” Alfred said. “I just … wish I knew more about myself.” He paused. “I have dreams, sometimes, that feel like memories. Most of them are really weird …” he paused again. “Like there’s this reoccurring one where I’m looking through smoke, trying to see red.”
“You talk in your sleep,” Ludwig said. Maybe that sounded kind of creepy, now that he thought about it. Alfred didn’t seem to be affected, though. “Most of it is nonsense.”
Alfred smiled. “I know. Someone at the hospital said it sounded like I was speaking a different language all together. Different than Spanish, at least.” Then, it seemed like a great inspiration hit Alfred like a lightning bolt that electrocuted his whole body. “You don’t mind do you? It doesn’t bother you?”
“No,” Ludwig said. He’d slept through worse. At least, he was pretty sure he’d slept through worse.
“Oh, OK,” Alfred said.
“What do you remember?” Ludwig asked. It seemed like the polite thing to do.
“Not a lot, and most of it doesn’t make much sense,” Alfred said. “I remember being caked in dirt and dust and smelling and just …” he paused. “At the same time, I remember being too clean, and having bright lights in my eyes. That might just be from my time in the hospital, though.”
“They took you to the hospital?”
“Yeah,” Alfred squirmed. “I was pretty badly beaten up, apparently.” He smiled again, almost luminously. “I got better, though, obviously.”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said.
“Have you been to the hospital recently?” Alfred asked.
“What kind of question is that?” Ludwig asked.
“An interesting one,” Alfred contested.
“I was in a car accident, about a year ago,” Ludwig said. Then, before he could stop himself: “Everyone else in the car was killed.”
“Oh,” Alfred said, pushing his eyebrows together. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Ludwig didn’t know how to respond to that. It was truly awful.
A few moments passed in silence.
“Well, I guess we should help cook dinner,” Alfred said.
“Yeah,” Ludwig said.
Ludwig was impressed with how well his Spanish was improving. Most of the time, he could read signs and things without focusing too hard. The words would just come together with their meaning in his head.
More surprising was how many people spoke English. It wasn’t just Alfred, José Luis and Dolores, or the people from the university. It was also random people that Ludwig ran into on the street, and the cashier at the grocery store on the corner. He didn’t know how they knew to speak to him in English, exactly. And, while it made things easier, it also prevented him from focusing too much on his Spanish, which was why he was here in the first place.
Still, with every day, his Andalusian accent was getting stronger, which would, no doubt, seem out of place with the frequent Mexican Spanish in Arizona. Ludwig tried to call Antonio to talk to him about this, but he didn’t pick up. All of his texts were met with one-word, conversation-ending responses. Antonio must have still been upset about his passport.
It was nice, traveling to different places, meeting different people. Refreshing, in a way. And, for the first week or two, Ludwig slept a lot better than he had in Arizona. That was probably because he was so much more tired from what he was doing all day.
Apparently he hadn’t brought enough calcium supplements because he ran out of them a little more than halfway through. He took Alfred’s suggestion and started taking over-the-counter ones. Around that same time, he started having nightmares that were as bizarre as they were terrifying. Half of the time, he’d wake up in the middle of the night in a coughing fit, still smelling garlic or hay or cigarette smoke. The other half of the time, he’d wake up in the morning with visions of red water running across tiles, or emaciated people locked in cement rooms.
Ludwig didn’t mention this to anyone. He remembered Alfred mentioning that he had weird dreams, so he figured it might as well have been part of that.
One of the weekends, Dolores and José Luis drove Ludwig and Alfred to Málaga, to the beach. But first, they stopped at the Picasso museum.
“You really didn’t have to do this,” Ludwig said.
“Nonsense,” Dolores said. “When you’re in Málaga, you have to go to the museum.” And so they did. Most of the paintings were two-dimensional, abstract, with lines crossing them at irregular intervals. They had shapes that suggested what they were supposed to be—like a young woman or a self-portrait.
One that they stopped at for a long time was a massive, largely black canvass on the lowest level of the gallery.
“Do you like it?” Alfred asked.
“It’s unsettling,” Ludwig said. It was. The colors were dark, and not much was visible except for a mess of limbs, human and equine.
“It’s supposed to be,” Alfred said. “He painted it after the Germans bombed civilians in Guernica.”
Sure, it was unsettling, but there was something else, too. Almost a sensation of motion sickness, like the ground was lurching away from him, and everything could drift away at any second.
Ludwig blinked, and it was gone.
“That’s what it says on the plaque, at least,” Alfred said. “I haven’t actually studied that much history, really.”
“I took one year of American history, in High School,” Ludwig said.
“Well, then you’ve taken more than I have,” Alfred said. “Maybe I will, when I go to university.”
“I liked it,” Ludwig said. “It’s pretty useless, though, as a field of study.”
“Yeah,” Alfred said. “I probably should take science or engineering or something.” He shrugged. Then, out of nowhere, he added: “tu español ha mejorada a mucho.”
“Gracias,” Ludwig said. “Estoy trabajando en él.”
After that, they went to the beach. Alfred spent most of the time swimming or talking to random people. He wore short sleeves and swim trunks, and Ludwig couldn’t help but notice the numerous scars that broke up his skin. Especially the ones on the inside of his upper arm, straight and even, like Alfred had made them himself. Ludwig shook the thought away.
Dolores and José Luis read, while Ludwig sat next to them, absentmindedly digging a hole in the sand. He couldn’t exactly go into the water, since he was wearing regular clothes instead of a swimsuit. And, while the long sleeves were making Ludwig very hot, they were also doing wonders to cover up the scars on his arms and chest. The sky shone above them like the largest gemstone in the world.
“Hey,” Herakles said. He was another American in the program, from a nearby town in Arizona. “Do you have your plans to travel back yet?” he asked.
Ludwig looked up from the Spanish book he was reading. Most of the words were drifting past him, anyway, unable to anchor themselves to a meaning. “Yes,” Ludwig said.
“Can I ask what they are?” Herakles asked. He flipped one of the other chairs at the table around and sat on it.
“Sevilla to London, London to Oslo, Oslo to New York, New York to Phoenix,” Ludwig said.
Herakles wrinkled his nose. “That’s a lot of flights.”
Ludwig shrugged. “It was cheap.” And he needed to save as much money as he could. Especially since it seemed like he wasn’t going to get on-campus housing, so he’d need to take the bus every day or get an apartment closer to the school. Suzanna’s family had agreed to host him for the first semester, while he got settled in, so that was nice, at least.
“I’m trying to find someone to fly back with,” Herakles said. “Since you’re going back to Phoenix and all.”
“Why can’t you fly back by yourself?” Ludwig asked. “How did you get here?”
Herakles shrugged. Ludwig probably shouldn’t have said that. “I flew here by myself,” Herakles said. “But I, uh, missed a flight because I slept too long on the airport chair.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “Well, I suppose we could fly back together.”
Herakles smiled. “Alright,” he said. “Thanks.”
On the last day he was in Spain, Ludwig cooked a meal with his host family and Alfred. They had Spanish music blasting and spent the evening chattering with each other. And cooking. Not knowing what else to make, Ludwig tried making the meat rolls Suzanna’s mother had cooked for him and the rest of the family at Christmas. They turned out surprisingly well, especially considering that Ludwig wasn’t sure that she’d ever given him the recipe.
While Ludwig was cutting the meat—a thick block of red beef—with the kitchen knife, the edge of the knife just caught the edge of Ludwig’s finger. A large drop of blood fell from it onto the cutting board, and a sizeable gash appeared in his skin.
Ludwig cursed. Then, he ran over to the sink and started washing it off. Dolores handed him a paper towel to wrap the finger in, and then Ludwig used another one to clean up the blood. It only landed on one piece of meat, thankfully.
Forty minutes and no more bleeding later, they sat down and ate.
“If you’re ever in Spain again,” Dolores said. “Feel free to come see us.”
“Yes,” José Luis said.
“And me, too,” Alfred said.
“Well, if you’re ever in America …” Ludwig said. At that implication, Alfred smiled brightly.
“And make sure to stay in contact with each other, you two,” Dolores said.
“Yeah, well,” Alfred said.
“Y divídete y sé trabajadora en sus estudios,” José Luis said.
“Gracias,” Ludwig said.
That night, Ludwig stuffed the remainder of his clothes into his suitcase. The corners of it were worn down, revealing much lighter colored leather.
Alfred was there, too, standing behind him. “You only wear long-sleeved shirts,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“No,” Ludwig said. Then, realizing his mistake, he corrected himself. “Yes.” He looked back at Alfred. Alfred’s blue eyes looked into his, asking an unspoken question. “I have scars,” Ludwig said. “On my chest and my arms.” Without needing to, he added: “I tried to commit suicide. I still have scars from it.”
“Oh,” Alfred said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Some of the scars went the other way, so he must have harmed himself before the suicide attempt as well. The cut on his finger still stringed. He must have wanted that at some point in time. What would that have been like? No; he shouldn’t think about that. Focusing on it would only bring those feelings back. Really, he shouldn’t even study his own scars.
“I don’t know why,” Ludwig said. “I don’t remember.”
“Oh,” Alfred said. It seemed like he had probably realized he’d overstepped his boundaries. “Were you serious about inviting me to America?”
“Yes,” Ludwig said. “I don’t know what my living situation will be like, but if you want to come …”
Alfred nodded. Then, no longer able to contain himself, he smiled.
A/N: Hey guys. Still locked out of Google Drive, so I might go back and edit these chapters if/when I get those files back.
Thanks as always to my beta APHTevana.
I was going to recommend you this sweet USUK Soulmate AU/human AU where America is super cynical about soulmates and creates a whole bunch of drama after his timer goes off … but I can’t find it. I think it was on AO3?
Instead, I’m going to recommend two of my favorite nationverse soulmate aus. One of them is First Words by Philosophizes on AO3. (Link). It’s so short it’s basically a oneshot, published a couple of years ago. Angsty GerIta with a lot of other complex relationships and a lot of history as well. And the ending—is really great. All of Philosophizes’ work is very good actually. A lot of interesting AUs as well.
The other one is In All But Name by cuneifire, also on AO3. (Link). Also really short, though still being updated. It focuses on a bunch of different characters. Very beautiful prose, and a lot of philosophical ideas about how the nations work.
The next morning, Ludwig woke up early, before everyone else. He made a cup of coffee and sat by the window, trying to memorize every detail of the skyline. It would be helpful, to come back to this place in his mind. And for the inevitable time, he’d have to describe it to Suzanna’s mother, Claudia.
He also woke up to find a text from his caseworker: make sure to keep me updated on travel. She tended to care about things like that, insisting that she was still there to take care of him, even though he was eighteen now, and Ludwig had diligently texted her at every stop on the way over.
Ludwig met up with Herakles about a block away from the house. From there, they took a cab to the airport. Herakles and the cabbie had a long conversation in English, during which Herakles kept stuttering and using the wrong words before correcting himself. Ludwig chimed in a few times as well, feeling oddly triumphant about his English-speaking abilities.
The airport was more or less the same as it was when Ludwig had landed there. The lines were shorter because of how early in the morning it was. All seemed to be going pretty well. Herakles was so chill he almost seemed spaced out.
Then, there was the announcement overhead that their flight was delayed due to a mechanical issue. They moved back the time twice, each by fifteen minutes, before saying that they were going to have to wait for another plane altogether.
Ludwig brought Herakles and himself up to the woman standing behind the desk. He explained, in shaky Spanish, that he and Herakles had several connecting flights, and it was looking like they weren’t going to make them.
The lady looked them up. “¿Sevilla a Londres, Londres a Oslo, Oslo a Nueva York, Nueva York a Phoenix?” she asked.
Ludwig nodded. That was their travel itinerary.
“Es una viaja muy larga, ¿no?” She continued to put numbers in the computer. “Puede cambia sus vuelos así que viajar a Frankfurt en lugar de Londres.”
“¿Está cierta?” Ludwig asked. Another country? That seemed kind of out the way.
“Desde allí, podéis ir al Nueva York directamente.” She said.
Well, if they could go directly to New York, it would only be three flights instead of four. “Ok,” Ludwig said.
The woman behind the counter hit a few keys on the computer. “Ok,” she said.
Three and a half hours later, they landed in Germany.
The first thing that Ludwig noticed once they were on the ground was the sky. It was blue, which struck him as a rarity, or at least something to be appreciated, but a different kind of blue than Ludwig had seen before. The edges of the sky were dusted with white, which faded into a bright center. There were a few clouds here and there, all of which were wispy and mostly see-through, drifting about as if in a dream.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ludwig saw the Frankfurt skyline. It was composed of several skyscrapers that reflected the sun and had striped telephone poles on top of them. The entire city was surrounded by a dense, green forest that almost looked like a carpet on which the feet of the skyscrapers rested.
Slowly, his eyes scanned the area, taking in every detail. The city was familiar, in a way, like he’d seen it in a dream.
Ludwig was so caught up in watching these sights he missed when the airplane beeped, signaling the end of the flight, and when everyone stood up and started trying to get their bags out of the overhead bins.
“Hey,” Herakles said. “Hey, Ludwig.”
All of a sudden, Ludwig was acutely aware of his surroundings and the fact that that was not the first time Herakles had said his name. “Yeah?” Ludwig said and turned to look at him. The people three rows ahead of them had already left the plane.
“Let’s get our bags,” Herakles said. He pulled his neon green monstrosity out of the bin, and then also Ludwig’s brown leather suitcase, which he then handed to him. They followed the rest of the passengers out of the airplane.
As soon as they were in the jet bridge, Ludwig could smell the air of the city outside. It was clean and cool.
They walked about one hundred meters through a hallway with a low ceiling until they got to the passport control line. There were three lines, one for EU, one for international people, and third for diplomatic passport holders.
“What’s a diplomatic passport?” Herakles asked.
“I don’t know,” Ludwig said. “Apparently, I qualified for one.”
“Hmmm,” Herakles said. “I would have thought those were reserved for diplomats.”
Eventually, they came to the end of the line. Herakles went up first. The passport official looked back and forth between him and his photo, then stamped it, and he moved on. Ludwig walked up next and handed him his passport.
The man examined it very closely. Then, he looked back at Ludwig’s face, then back at the picture. The picture was the same one as was on his driver’s license. It was before Ludwig had gained a normal amount of weight, so his cheeks and chin were hollowed out, and he had a haunted, serious look in his eyes. It really didn’t look that much like him, especially since he’d gotten sunburned again in Spain.
The passport official was still examining his passport. He started to feel around the edges of the paper with his fingernail, then started holding it to different angles in the light.
“I know I have the same name as some German diplomat,” Ludwig said. Then, he quickly added: “if that’s a problem.” The man didn’t even dignify that with an upward glance.
Eventually, he seemed to have tired of looking at the thing, so he left the booth. Ludwig stood there for another minute, incredibly conscious of every person standing behind him. Another part of him was still taking in the scenery—the scuff marks on the floor, the yellowed edges of the wall every line and dot in the German sign above him.
The passport official came back with an official-looking woman. She continued to examine the passport and Ludwig in careful detail. Then, she and the other passport official started to have a low conversation in German. They pointed at various elements of the passport. The words got harsher, and it seemed to turn into an argument.
Then, the woman left the booth.
Ludwig stood there for a few more minutes, still conscious of the line behind him. This wasn’t the only booth, of course. And, the way the light shined on that poster for Bavaria was really lovely.
Herakles was standing on the other side of the line, looking impatient. Ludwig shrugged at him, trying to communicate that he didn’t know what was going on, but then the woman showed up again, now carrying a black, government-issued laptop and a phone.
She handed the phone to the man and opened the laptop on the small desk inside the booth, then started typing a few words. Scowling, she typed a few more. The man had an increasingly passionate conversation in German. Then, she took Ludwig’s laptop and started entering in some of the data from it. She looked back at him, no doubt comparing him to the photo. Her eyes returned to the screen, and, for an agonizingly long moment, all of her motions were still.
Something must have come up on the screen that softened her features and relaxed her eyes. She shook off the previous indignation and stamped his passport.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” she said. “That we kept you waiting so long.”
Ludwig smiled at her, feeling all of the tension in his face. “It’s OK,” he said. “Thank you.”
He left the passport area and rejoined Herakles.
“What took so long?” Herakles asked.
“No idea,” Ludwig said. Then, he paused, thinking about the search results that had come up when he googled his own name. “I share the same name as some diplomat that disappeared like ten years ago, so maybe it had something to do with that.”
Herakles smiled. “You should have gotten the diplomatic passport. That line moved so much quicker.”
Ludwig smiled back at him. “I guess so,” he said.
From there, they started heading towards the gates. The airport was arranged in a U shape, with low, grey-colored ceilings that just barely obscured the electrical and ventilation components underneath them. Much of the walls were a warm, cement gray as well, and the floor was made up of grey tiles that had a slight shine to them, which complimented the silver metal furnishings.
“Hey,” Herakles said. “Where should we go now?”
“Oh,” Ludwig said, remembering what they were supposed to be doing. He led Herakles over to a large blackboard with the movable white lettering, where all of the flights were listed out. About three-quarters of the way down the third panel was listed New York. The flight was delayed by thirty minutes, but that was alright. It gave them more time to find the gate, which the board listed as, “A23.”
So, they headed down the hallway that the sign said led to the A terminal. Ludwig became acutely aware of everyone in the airport—the foreign tourists who were conversing in different languages, some of which his mind placed as Spanish or English or Cantonese, the many employees, running around in their uniform, each on a distinct course, yet deeply linked with everyone else. Even the cockroaches and the moths which no doubt lived inside the walls occurred to him.
“Ludwig?” Herakles asked.
That snapped Ludwig out of his train of thought. “Yeah,” he said.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. “Why?”
“Nothing; it’s just you stopped walking,” Herakles said.
So he had. Ludwig shook off his thoughts and kept walking.
By the time they found the gate, the flight was delayed by another fifteen minutes. They sat there for about ten minutes, at which point one of the gate agents made another announcement, delaying the plane for a full hour.
Herakles and Ludwig ate lunch at a sandwich place right next to the gate. It was so close, in fact, that Ludwig watched with mild disinterest as the gate agents made another announcement, delaying the flight for another hour. Apparently, according to one of the TVs behind Herakles’ head, there was a large storm in off the coast of Europe that they weren’t going to be able to fly around. Right now, they were just watching it.
Then, they took their seats back at the gate. Herakles was still uneasy, constantly pulling out his phone, just to put it away again.
“Hey, Ludwig,” Herakles said. “I’m going for a walk.”
“OK,” Ludwig said. He was wrapped up in watching the planes and other vehicles drive around the tarmac. Currently, there was a baggage cart that was trying to back up. A large, ugly purple suitcase fell out of it and crashed on the ground. Ludwig involuntarily flinched.
Behind him, an older couple was conversing in English. More specifically, they were arguing about German politics, their conversation slowly dissolving into a listing of names that Ludwig didn’t recognize, occasionally interspersed with ones that he would.
On his left, a young woman was reading a long novel in Danish. She had her blond head leaning against her boyfriend, who she would occasionally turn to in order to ask a question or say something.
Another announcement came over the loudspeaker. They were cancelling the flight. Everyone sitting the waiting area groaned collectively. Ludwig looked around. Herakles was gone.
“Can you believe this?” the woman sitting next to Ludwig said. She was older, maybe in her fifties and slightly overweight. She kind of reminded him of Suzanna in that way.
“No,” Ludwig said.
The woman wasn’t quite done complaining, yet, though. “They make us sit here for three hours, and then cancel the flight altogether! It’s ridiculous! Do you even know when the next one leaves?”
That question was probably rhetorical, but Ludwig answered it anyway. “Probably tomorrow.”
“And now we’re going to have to sit here, all day,” she sighed. Then, she looked back at him, apparently taking in his appearance. “What are you going to America for?”
For a moment, Ludwig was confused. The woman obviously assumed he was German. Well, based off of his name, he was probably of German descent, but there was no way for the woman to know that. They were conversing in English, after all. “I live there,” Ludwig said.
“Oh,” she said, seeming surprised. “Well, I’m going for a conference. Ridiculous, really. Last year they had it in Cologne, but this year it just had to be in Brooklyn.” She sighed.
“At least you’ll be able to see New York,” Ludwig said.
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” she said. “If they can find a plane that will take us.”
“I don’t think it’s the plane that’s the problem,” Ludwig said.
At that, the woman actually laughed. “Why were you in Germany?” she asked.
“I was just passing through,” Ludwig said. “From Spain. I went there to learn the language.”
“Ah, that’s so cool,” she said. “It must be nice, to be trilingual.”
Ludwig blinked. “I’m only learning Spanish,” he said.
She looked confused. “You said you lived in the states, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said.
She looked confused for a second. “OK,” she said.
The conversation broke off after that. Herakles came back to sit down. “What happened?” he asked.
“They cancelled the flight,” Ludwig said.
“They—they cancelled the flight?” Herakles said. “What are we supposed to do?”
“Wait out here, I guess,” Ludwig said.
“All night?” Herakles said. “Until the next one?”
Ludwig said. “I’ll talk to the agent.”
The two of them walked up to the desk together, both carrying their bags. There was already a line of people amassing, all trying to change their flights. Hopefully, many of them would so that Ludwig and Herakles could get a seat on the next flight to New York, the next morning.
“We should have just gone to Oslo,” Herakles said.
“I don’t know,” Ludwig said. Involuntarily, he added, “I like this country.” He wasn’t quite sure what caused him to say that, but it seemed right.
Herakles exhaled “You’re crazy,” he said.
Behind them, there was another group of students, and behind them was an elderly couple. In front of them was a dark-haired family, with a toddler daughter who kept falling asleep on the father’s shoulder.
“We have a connecting flight,” Herakles said as soon as they got to the front of the line. “New York to Phoenix.”
“Flight 6791?” the gate agent asked.
Herakles looked at Ludwig. “Yes,” Ludwig said.
“That’s already taken off. You’re going to have to reschedule for tomorrow, anyway,” she said.
“So, we have to stay here all night?” Herakles asked.
“I’m afraid so,” the gate agent said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
“Can’t put us up in a hotel?” Ludwig asked. He’d seen the airport hotel—a large, glass oval that looked like a cruise ship, permanently run aground by the edge of the airport.
“I’m afraid not,” The gate agent said. “We can’t control the weather.”
Ludwig thanked her, while Herakles looked at her bitterly. They sat back down in the waiting area. Herakles pulled out his phone and started to aggressively read it. Ludwig found an abandoned magazine on one of the seats and flipped through it absentmindedly.
An hour and a half passed, somehow. Herakles and Ludwig ate dinner. Herakles ordered beer, reminding Ludwig that this would be the last time he could legally drink for a while. He’d mostly avoided alcohol since the accident and had certainly not gotten drunk since then. He hadn’t been drunk that night, either, if Suzanna's blood tests were correct, which didn’t seem right. He remembered being drunk. But, then again, there was the trauma, and that could probably color things any number of ways.
Ludwig ordered the beer. It tasted good and stopped his hands from shaking.
“I’m going to get some sleep,” Herakles said. “The flight leaves pretty early next morning.” He laid down across a few seats, with the armrests holding up his legs.
Ludwig went for a walk around the airport. That night felt like a dream, like he could get lost in the shiny silver and grey surfaces of the walls and floor. Every person Ludwig saw he made eye contact with. In the beginning, he smiled at them, then remember that he didn’t have to that here.
Instead, he just looked at everyone. Several times, someone would ask him something, and they’d have a brief conversation. In that way, the entire night passed, and the airport was soon bathed in the orange and yellow light from the sun rising over the skyscrapers.
Ludwig walked back to the gate.
“That was awful,” Herakles said. He was shaking off and stretching out every part of his body, which was covered in crinks and cramps from his odd sleeping position. “One of the worst sleeps of my life.”
Ludwig didn’t say anything.
They got in the plane, through an orderly line and took their seats. Ludwig watched as the green landscape slowly drifted further and further below them.
It wasn’t until much later in the flight, when they were already well over the Atlantic Ocean, that Ludwig realized the cut on his finger had healed completely.
Sorry if this shows up as a double update; my computer glitched out and posted the chapter before I was done editing it. There's only one new chapter, and this is it.
This chapter brought to you by Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi. Also, I know Spain is in the EU, and there aren’t passport stops between EU countries so … willing suspension of disbelief. Then again, this story is set in the near future, so maybe Spain’s left the EU or Germany’s closed their borders, or something.
Thanks to APHTeavana for betaing and also helping me get my files back.
I’ve added some new tags, not because there’s new stuff in the story, but because there’s some stuff I realized I probably should have tagged for before.
Your recommendation for this week is the r/hetalia subreddit on Reddit. It’s run by some pretty great people, and they’re doing a pretty good job of reviving it. Most of the posts are fanart, and I think it’s a little easier to break into than tumblr where you need followers and whatnot. Besides, it’s always nice to have another place for the fandom.
Chapter 6: Arizona, USA
Special Tuesday update! I wrote the whole story before dividing it into chapters, and I didn’t want to make any chapters that were radically different in size, but I genuinely couldn’t combine this chapter with the one before it or after it. So …
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Before he could register for classes, Ludwig had to see his academic advisor. He looked like he was in his later thirties or early forties, with full, black hair and a wall in his office dedicated to pictures of him shaking hands with various important people. His name was McLaughlin, and he worked in the history department.
“What’s the problem?” Ludwig said after his advisor had examined his schedule for a solid three minutes.
“It’s just—” he said. Ludwig had registered for three engineering classes and one in Spanish, as that was what he wanted to study, and given the amount of loans he was taking out, he’d have to find a good-paying job. “You have to take a writing class; did you know that?”
Ludwig did not. “On what?”
“On whatever you can find one on,” McLaughlin paused. “They usually have a lot in the humanities.”
Ludwig mulled this over. “They don’t have any in engineering?”
His advisor thought about it. “That’s the other concern I have,” he said, biting his lip. “This isn’t a very balanced schedule.”
“Well, I know I want to study engineering,” Ludwig said. “And I have to fulfill the requirements to graduate.”
“I know,” he said. “But you have four years.” He paused. “It’s college, you know. You should explore some.”
“Spanish won’t count?” Ludwig asked, still hopeful.
“No,” McLaughlin said. He reached behind him and picked up a piece of paper that was sitting on a white, cardboard box of files. “Here are all of the classes that fulfill the writing requirement.” Then, he paused, “surely you have some interests besides engineering?”
Ludwig remembered all of his classes in high school. “History,” he said.
“Well, I’m teaching a history class, if you’re interested.” He pointed to it on the list: History of the 20th Century.
“Huh,” Ludwig said.
In the end, he registered for the class. It was probably a mistake, but he did need it for the requirement. That night, he walked the five blocks from the college to the bus stop. From there, he waited twenty minutes for a thirty-minute bus ride, then switched to another bus for another thirty minutes and then walked the three blocks to Suzanna’s house, remembering all the way that he needed to find closer housing. During the ride, his caseworker texted him, reminding him that they had to meet soon.
By the time he got home, everyone else was in bed. That was just as well, so Ludwig ate a slice of bread with peanut butter on it and then went to bed himself.
That Saturday, Ludwig met with his caseworker. They were in the coffee shop that Ludwig no longer worked at, as he’d gotten a job near the college, which becoming more and more inconvenient as he still hadn’t found housing.
“Hi,” she said. “How are things going?”
“Well,” Ludwig said.
“That’s nice to hear,” she said. “How was Spain?”
“Very good,” Ludwig said.
“You learned a lot of Spanish?” his caseworker asked.
“Yes,” Ludwig said.
“Good,” she said. She stirred her coffee slightly. “You didn’t text me on the way back.” She paused to take a sip of her coffee. “I’m assuming it was uneventful?”
“I’m sorry,” Ludwig said. “No, actually, we got stuck overnight.”
She looked at him. “In Oslo?” She started stirring her coffee again.
Ludwig didn’t remember telling her his travel plans. “No, in Frankfurt. They rerouted us.”
Laura dropped her stirring stick. “Frankfurt, Germany?”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said.
Her teeth clenched slightly. “You should have told me,” she said. “Ludwig, that’s a different country! What if something had come up? I should know where you are!” she was almost yelling.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was fine. I’ll tell you in the future.”
“You shouldn’t go to Germany,” she said. “They could detain you and not let you have contact with the embassy.”
That explained that charade at passport control. “They almost did,” Ludwig said. “Is that because I have the same name as one of their diplomats?”
She looked surprised. “Could be,” she said. “Have you been taking your supplements?”
He didn’t want to make her angry, but he didn’t want to lie to her, either. “Yes,” he said. Then, for the sake of honesty, he added: “I’ve found that the over-the-counter ones are easier.”
“Huh,” she said. “Well, I’d recommend for you to keep taking the prescription ones. They’re higher quality.”
“I guess,” Ludwig said.
“They have other nutrients that you need in them,” Ludwig’s caseworker said. She went back to stirring her coffee. “Anything weird happen to you this month?”
“Nothing much, really,” Ludwig said. “I’ve started having really weird dreams, though.”
“Hmm,” she said, taking a sip of her coffee. “About what?”
“They’re very violent, usually,” Ludwig said. And they were. His ears were pierced with screams and gunfire, and his nose assaulted with the smell of blood and rot. “Like a battlefield.”
“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry to hear that.” She continued to stir her coffee. “Maybe go back to taking the prescription supplements. The extra nutrients will help.”
That didn’t seem quite right. “I figured it would be good,” Ludwig said. “In case some of my memories start to come back through them.”
“Oh, those aren’t your memories,” his caseworker said. “I mean, obviously you haven’t lived through any wars. Trust me, it’s better if you don’t dream about those things at all.”
“OK,” Ludwig said.
A few days later, once he finally had time to go to the pharmacy, he started taking the prescription supplements again.
Ludwig was having a very hard time focusing. More specifically, he was having a hard time focusing on his engineering homework. That wasn’t because he was surrounded by distractions, as the carrel he’d found in the basement of the library was rather quiet and peaceful. It was simply because he couldn’t stop thinking about his history homework.
So far, they’d only gotten as far as the first world war when the professor assigned the first paper, which was supposed to be three or four pages long. Ludwig had written fifteen. He had a vague notion of cutting it down, but every time he tried to, he’d end up doing more research and the paper would get longer. Who knew that pre-war German political structures could be so interesting?
But none of that mattered right now because he had to learn vectors. And, after staring at the pointed arrows for ten minutes, Ludwig somehow found himself standing, again, in front of the German history section. He sighed and took another book from the shelf.
It wasn’t that he was bad at engineering. After having paid practically no attention in class and done all of the homework at the last minute, he’d gotten the second-highest score on the first quiz. Engineering just wasn’t that interesting to him. Or, at least, not as interesting as German history.
Ludwig added two and a half more pages to the paper before realizing that he should probably talk to the professor about it.
So, he did. His advisor, who was also teaching the class, was having office hours that afternoon, so Ludwig went into talk to him about it.
After McLaughlin read through all of the pages of Ludwig’s cramped but neat handwriting, he looked at him.
“This is very good,” he said. “But you do have to cut it down.” Then, after seeing the expression on Ludwig’s face, he added: “Part of learning how to write is learning how to do it concisely. I mean, not that this isn’t concise, but it’s too long for the assignment.”
“Alright,” Ludwig said.
At that point, his advisor decided to change the subject. “So, are you thinking about changing your major to history?”
Ludwig blushed. “Well, no.” He paused. “There’s no money in history.”
“Whatever you say,” McLaughlin said. “Just cut this down.”
After a few long minutes of looking through the documents, Ludwig was getting bored with the dense material, so he started looking at his phone. It was the absolute cheapest one he could find, so it was slow and probably more inconvenient than it would have been to pay a little more money each month, but Ludwig would have to figure that out later.
Not knowing what else to do, he played around with the default numbers on his phone, settling on calling voicemail. Surprisingly, he had a voicemail. It was from a little less than a week ago, from Alfred.
Ludwig hadn’t heard from Alfred too much. Occasionally, he would text him a picture of something or other, and they’d have a very short conversation. It was probably all Ludwig could ask for.
So, unclear as to why Alfred would have called him at all, he played the voicemail. It kept cutting in and out with static.
Ludwig … can’t talk … they’re coming … not safe … America … nations, please, don’t … pills.
That didn’t sound good. Then again, it could be some kind of prank. Still, to be on the safe side, Ludwig sent off a text to Alfred. And then he resumed reading.
The rest of the day was uneventful. Ludwig studied, then went to class, then worked, then visited an apartment from an online ad. Based off of the smell, the place had to have at least one infestation.
On the way back, the bus was late, so Ludwig stood around for a few minutes, surveying the bus station. It was a building with a low roof, with floors and walls that were probably supposed to be white but had been stained so many times it was hard to tell. There were chairs that lined each wall; blue plastic ones that were frequently missing pieces of varying importance.
The bus station wasn’t too crowded right now, as most of the regular buses had left for the day. However, crowded around the edge of the room were several homeless people. One, who was huddled under a pile of blankets and jackets, made brief eye contact with Ludwig. His eyes were bright red.
Then, the bus pulled in, and he was off.
Thanks to APHTeavana for beataing.
No proper recommendation this week. I’ve been watching HBO’s Chernobyl, and it’s really good.
Meanwhile, I have been unable to stop thinking about this My Little Pony fanfic I read a couple of years ago. It’s on FIMFiction, and titled “The Writing on the Wall” by Horse Voice. (Link.) It’s really good. I’ve never seen the show, (nor have I read any other fanfiction for it) but you don’t have to have seen the show to appreciate it. I don’t really know how to describe it without spoiling it, but it’s about their Indiana Jones analog trying to break into a tomb … but it’s really unexpected.
Chapter 7: Arizona, USA
Are you guys ready? I don’t know if I am.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The next morning found Ludwig on the bus even earlier than usual, due to the fact that he’d found three more apartment listings on the internet and wanted to at least see the buildings before his classes started.
As usual, he sat by the window of the bus. This time, though, he could watch the sun creep its way up the horizon, first dying the sky purple, then orange, then yellow, then blue.
The bus station wasn’t as crowded as it usually was in the morning. Almost everyone that was there seemed to be homeless, huddled against the wall with their piles of coats and other things.
Ludwig started to head towards the exit, when someone started calling out behind him. “Germany!” it sounded like he was saying. Ludwig glanced behind him; it was the same homeless as he’d made eye contact with yesterday. “Germany!” he yelled out again. What a strange thing to be yelling in a bus station.
“Germany?” He said again. No, that wasn’t quite right. It was more like—“Gertschland.” No, it was more like—“Deutschland!” Ludwig continued heading towards the door, unperturbed.
“Ludwig!” the same man said.
Pale, Ludwig turned around. “How do you know my name?” he asked.
However, before he could get an answer, the other man enveloped him in a hug. He was talking, too—“West, I’m so glad you’realiveIthought you were dead—”
Ludwig pulled out of the hug. He was tempted to hit the stranger, but it didn’t seem like that would end well. Evidently, the stranger was fairly strong, as he continued to hold Ludwig close to him. Their eyes met, and Ludwig realized that the other man’s were a bright red. Odd.
“Ludwig?” he asked. “Do you not recognize me?”
Ludwig took a step back. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I—” should he say that he had repressed memories? Maybe. It was an oddly personal thing to say to a stranger, but the man clearly thought he knew him.
Or he was completely insane. Either was possible.
“Oh my God!” the stranger said. “What did they do to you? Do you really not remember me?”
It seemed like the other man really expected him to answer him. “I’m afraid not?” Ludwig said, raising the inflection at the end of his voice.
“Germany, I—” the other man said. “It’s me, your brother? Prussia?”
Ludwig looked around them. Almost everyone was facing their direction, watching with various levels of disinterest. The homeless looked the least engaged, while one young woman seemed ready to pull out her phone and start filming the whole thing.
“Let’s get out of here,” Ludwig said. Then, he took his alleged brother’s arm and started pulling him towards the exit.
A few minutes later, they were sitting in a coffee shop about a block away from the college. It was fairly busy for how early in the morning it was, but most of the people were waiting in an ever-growing line for coffee, leading Ludwig and the other man thankfully separated off.
Ludwig’s alleged brother hadn’t taken his eyes off him since they’d left the bus station. He stared at him in a mix of disbelief and excitement.
“So, uh,” Ludwig said, trying to indicate that he wanted to hear more of an explanation for what had happened in the bus station. He took a sip of his coffee.
“I’m sorry,” the stranger said. “I—I—I—Do you really not remember anything?”
Ludwig shook his head. For explanation, he added, “I have repressed memories.”
The other man’s eyes met his again and some combination of their color and their intensity sent a shiver down Ludwig’s spine. “But really, not anything?”
Ludwig shook his head again.
“Um, well do you know what they did to you?”
“What who did to me?” Ludwig asked.
“Who, um, whoever took you?” he looked confused. “You really don’t know anything, do you?”
For a third time, Ludwig found himself shaking his head.
“Um, so, you’re the personification—or, uh, the representation, I guess—of the country of Germany.” He paused. Then, seeing the confused look on Ludwig’s face, he added, “You know, Germany? The country in Europe?”
“I—I know about the country of Germany?” Ludwig said. “I—that’s not the part I was confused about?”
“Oh,” the man who was claiming to be Prussia said. “I—yeah. So every country has personification? Who, like represents it? Like a person, though, who gets sick whenever there’s an economic recession and has to fight in all of the wars and stuff.” He paused again, probably trying to think of what else to add. “We’re, like immortal? But we just last as long as the county does. And have to feel the country’s pain.”
Apparently, his earlier thought that the man was completely insane was correct. Ludwig stared at him for a moment, while the man stared back. Eventually, Ludwig asked, “And you expect me to believe that?”
“Well, yeah,” the other man said. “It’s the truth?” he paused. “Do you not believe it?”
Ludwig nodded, his eyebrows knitted together.
“Ok,” Gilbert said. “I did some research on you before I got here. You were in a car crash, weren’t you?”
“Drunk driving?” Gilbert said. “And you were the only survivor? Why do you think you could drink twice as much alcohol as everyone else and get half as drunk?”
That was something he had been wondering about. “How do you know I was drinking at all?”
“I know my brother,” Gilbert said and shrugged. “Nations are a lot better at holding our liquor than humans are.”
What was he thinking? He was a country? No; this was absurd. Maybe he did have a high alcohol tolerance, but there could be other explanations for that, right? Like … how did one build up an alcohol tolerance? By drinking. Maybe he’d drank a lot as a younger child; that could explain the gaps in his memory as well. Nevermind what would drive a child to drink.
“You still don’t believe me?” Gilbert asked.
Gilbert pulled his phone out of his pocket. It was a very recent model, with a screen that wrapped around the back of the phone. He clicked through several of the apps until he got to the one he was looking for. “I have pictures of us together! See!”
He held out his phone. On it was a photo of Ludwig and the stranger standing on a stone path, with hills rolling and small stone structures in the background. The Great Wall of China, his mind supplied.
“Here’s us in China!” he swiped to one side. “And here’s us in India!”
They were standing in much of the same position, with the stranger leaning on Ludwig and looking slightly tilted with regard to the camera. Behind them, the Taj Mahal shone in the sun.
“You keep taking me on pity trips because—” he stopped mid-sentence. Instead, he started swiping furiously across his phone. “You see? That’s us when the Berlin Wall came down.”
Again, both of their faces were present in the picture. The stranger was still leaning on Ludwig, although much more than he had been in the previous photographs. Ludwig was leaning on him as well, though more subtly. Both of them were holding beer bottles. Their faces were illuminated to the point of being pure white, while the depths of the background were lost to the black of night, giving little indication of where they were. Although, come to think of it, the stranger’s complexion was plenty pale already.
The other man swiped one further on the phone. What followed was clearly a scan of an older, black and white photograph. It showed both of them again, standing side by side. The man calling himself Prussia was wearing a black coat with two buttons and a white collared shirt under that. Ludwig was wearing some kind of military uniform, with a thick collar and two buttons. It clicked inside his head. The uniform of Nazi Germany.
Ludwig took a sharp breath and leaned back.
“And that’s me and you at the 1936 Olympics,” the other man said.
Ludwig tried to collect his thoughts. With all of those pictures, it made sense that the stranger, was, in fact, his brother. Most likely, they’d both been abused horribly, probably by some kind of bizarre neo-Nazi cult. All of the country stuff was probably just his brother coping with it by creating some odd kind of delusions. That made sense. Ludwig had repressed his memories; his brother had re-interpreted them.
“What were you saying, again, about us?” Ludwig said. He had to look convinced, and then he could convince his brother to give up this nonsense.
“Oh!” Ludwig’s brother said, putting his phone down. “You’re the personification of Germany. And I’m the personification of Prussia.” Ludwig looked at him blankly, but his brother just kept talking. “We’re both immortal—you were born in the 1870s. I was born a long time before that,” he furrowed his brow. “I’m not sure when, though.”
“…Prussia?” Ludwig asked.
“Oh, yeah,” his brother said. “I guess I’m not technically a country anymore.” At that, he chuckled slightly. He had an unusual-sounding laugh, like it was composed of Ks and Ss rather than Hs and As. “I was the most awesome of the German states, West.”
That did interfere with the things his brother had said earlier. It was probably best to point this out. “If you’re not a country any more …” Ludwig trailed off, not sure how to finish that sentence.
His brother laughed that strange laugh again. “I—well, I—I’m aging now.” Something must have been off in Ludwig’s expression because his brother quickly added: “But I’m not dead yet, so don’t worry!”
That still didn’t make sense, but then again, nothing else this man was saying did, either. He was probably in his thirties, so a little old to be Ludwig’s brother, but it wasn’t out of the question. “Do you have a name?” Ludwig asked, figuring that it would probably be a good thing to know.
His brother’s smile didn’t falter. “Prussia,” he said.
Ludwig continued to study him. He clearly believed it, whatever it was. “I mean, like how my name is Ludwig?”
“Oh! My human name!” That was a good thing to know. Maybe his brother was able to keep the fiction out of some parts of his head by defining it as human. “That’s Gilbert.” He paused. “Gilbert Beilschmidt.” Then, absurdly, he held out his hand and Ludwig shook it.
Gilbert, Ludwig repeated as he studied the man in front of himself. Gilbert. It seemed to be a fitting name, more appropriate than any other. Maybe something about this exchange was hitting some deeply-forgotten part of his mind.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Ludwig said.
“Except you’re not meeting me, West,” Gilbert said. “Maybe you’ve forgotten everything—” he shook his head. “But whatever they’ve done to you—”
“‘They haven’t done anything to me,” Ludwig said. “I just … forgot things.” Maybe he shouldn’t be indulging him. Then again, what were you supposed to do when people had delusions?
“Well, anyway,” Gilbert said. “It’s nice to see you again.” He paused. “I do have to ask, though, why were you travelling through our country with a fake American passport?”
That was a concerning thing to say. “What?” Ludwig asked.
“They stopped you at passport control, right?” Gilbert paused. “Because your passport was fake, but then they realized it was you, obviously, and they let you through.”
“What?” Ludwig repeated. The German passport officials had given him some trouble, but he was pretty sure his passport wasn’t fake. Then again, it didn’t really make sense for his caseworker to have all of the proper identification lying around. And the photos on his passport and driver’s license were the same, which didn’t seem quite right. If that was all they needed, they should have been able to take his driver’s license as enough ID.
“You sound like a broken record,” Gilbert said. “Anyway.” He took a step closer to Ludwig and put his hand on his shoulder. “You know, you could have called me, you know, or something.” He paused. “I mean, whatever you got yourself into.”
Ludwig said, “Gilbert, I don’t—”
“Oh, right, well, even if you don’t know what the trouble was,” Gilbert said, taking his hand off of Ludwig’s shoulder. “Or you could call the embassy, and they’d put you through to me.”
“Alright,” Ludwig said.
“I still don’t understand, though, why—” Gilbert started.
“I didn’t have the right paperwork,” Ludwig said.
“Oh, right,” Gilbert said. “Because you’re not actually an American citizen, and you wouldn’t have known enough to get a German one.” Gilbert paused. “I guess. You’re lucky, though, they’ll give you prison time for forgery.”
Ludwig nodded, not feeling particularly lucky. Besides, his passport probably was real.
“That still doesn’t make sense, though,” Gilbert said. “How do you not know …” he shook his head. “Well, anyway. I’m here, now. We’re going back to Berlin.”
The fact that Gilbert expected him to go anywhere with him was appalling, never mind a foreign country. “Uh—no,” Ludwig said. What was he going to say? People got violent when their delusions were questioned. Didn’t they? That seemed like something he’d seen in a movie at some point. He needed an excuse. “How am I going to get to Berlin without a passport?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Gilbert said. “What, do you think that they’re not going to let their own country into the country? That’s ridiculous; we just need to call the government.”
Sure, the government probably dealt with wacky request all day, but that wasn’t a reason for Ludwig to create any more for them. “We’re not calling the government, Gilbert,” Ludwig said.
“What do you mean? Obviously? We are going to? They literally exist to serve us?” Gilbert said. “And it’s the least they could do, after they gave up looking for you. I mean they just though nations stopped existing—isn’t that ridiculous?”
Ludwig shook his head, then started nodding. He needed another excuse. “I mean, I have an entire life here.”
“A life?” Gilbert asked. Ludwig nodded. “Here?” Ludwig nodded again. “In America?”
“Yes,” Ludwig said. “Do you want me to walk out on all of this?”
Gilbert laughed again. “I mean—we’re—we’re nations, West. We don’t have lives—God, France must be rubbing off on you.”
Ludwig raised an eyebrow at him.
“Oh,” Gilbert said. “Right—right—you don’t remember him, either, do you? Well, he made friends with me and Spain in the nineteenth century, something about a friendship outside of alliances—God, the things a broken heart will do to people.”
There was so much information in that sentence that Ludwig didn’t even bother to analyze any of it. “Ok,” he said. “So, all of the other countries—they are people, too?”
“Yeah,” Gilbert said and shrugged. “France is an annoying, obnoxious flirt. Austria is downright manic-depressive—”
Ludwig pulled a face at that.
“Oh right, you’re not supposed to—sorry,” Gilbert said. “Really, though, he’s so moody. Hard to please. Constantly getting married.”
But who were these people, really? “A friend of ours?” Ludwig.
“Austria? Naw, he’s our cousin,” Gilbert said. That did make sense, as Austria was another country that spoke German. “Don’t think we’d associate with him otherwise. And then Denmark’s like a crazy party guy, and the Netherlands is always stoned, and Poland is like a valley girl or something, and Switzerland shoots anything that comes within one hundred meters, and Lichtenstein is the sweetest girl, ever, unlike Belgium and Czechia, and Luxemburg is a rich recluse, and I think that’s it.”
“It?” Ludwig asked.
“I mean, that’s all of the countries that border us,” Gilbert said. He proceeded to go on a rant about everyone else in Europe.
Ludwig pictured a map of Europe. His brother’s mind was off, but his geography wasn’t. Although he had never heard of Lichtenstein, so that was an area of concern.
The whole rest of the day passed like that, with Gilbert making increasingly passionate pleas for them to go to Berlin together. Eventually, Ludwig was able to convince him to give it some rest, as he still had to pack. And meet with his caseworker.
On Saturday, Ludwig met with his caseworker. This time, it was in the same coffee shop as he’d originally met Gilbert in, with the blank white walls and floor. It was less crowded now, which was a relief.
“Do I have any siblings?” Ludwig asked after greeting his caseworker.
His caseworker looked into his eyes, her blond hair spreading around her head and shoulders. “Why do you want to know?” she asked.
Ludwig shrugged. He hadn’t told Gilbert about his caseworker; it seemed only fair that he didn’t tell her about him, either.
“Yeah,” she said. “You have a lot of older siblings, mostly brothers. Your parents were very … prolific.”
A lot of siblings. That was interesting. It made Gilbert’s presence much more plausible. Ludwig nodded. “What are their names?”
His caseworker sighed. “I don’t know most of them. There really was a lot,” she said. “Are you thinking of looking for them, or is it something you remembered?”
Ludwig ran his tongue around his mouth. “You wouldn’t happen to have any of their addresses, would you?” Ludwig asked.
His caseworker shook her head. “What made you think of this?” she asked. “Did you remember something?”
The answer was no, but Ludwig could probably try to get more information out of her. “Was I raised in some kind of neo-Nazi cult?” he asked.
His caseworker paused for a moment. “Yes,” she said, smiling. Her teeth were tinted yellow. “I’m really sorry that you remember that part. It was really unfortunate, what they did to you.”
Well, that seemed to answer that question. Ludwig, naturally, still didn’t have any interest in finding out what they did to him. Given the scars that criss-crossed his body, and especially given the deep, self-inflicted ones on his wrists and arms, it must have been awful.
“Have you been taking your supplements?” his caseworker asked.
“Yes,” Ludwig said. There was nothing to add this time.
“Good,” his caseworker said. “How is everyone else?”
“Alfred left me a weird voicemail and hasn’t texted me in days,” Ludwig said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” his caseworker said. “Don’t take it too badly.”
“Oh, thank God,” Suzanna said when Ludwig walked in the door. “You’re here.”
Ludwig looked at her. “Did something …?”
“Yes,” she said. “My mother fell, and, uh, broke three of her ribs. She’s in the hospital.”
It took a moment for that information to sink in. “My God,” Ludwig said. “Is she going to be OK?”
“I—” Suzanna paused. “I don’t know. She’ll probably be in the hospital for a few months, and then we’ll see.”
“I know you two were close,” Suzanna said.
“Do you think I should see her?” Ludwig said.
“She’d like that, I think.”
“The regional one,” Suzanna said.
Ludwig nodded. “I should tell you—” he said, then paused, looking into Suzanna’s eyes. They were a clear blue, searching him over. “I found my brother,” he said.
Suzanna lowered her eyebrows. “Really?” she said.
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. “His name is Gilbert.” He paused again, not knowing how much to say. “He’s kind of … crazy?”
Suzanna continued to look worried. “How?” she asked.
“I—” Ludwig said. “I don’t know much about my childhood, but I can infer that it wasn’t good—I mean, it wasn’t good because I don’t remember it—I have repressed my memories of it. But, my brother … has made up delusions. He thinks we’re Central European Countries?”
Suzanna looked at him. She blinked and shook around her face, the motion rippling down to her neck and shoulders. “How does that even …”
“I don’t know,” Ludwig said. He exhaled. “I’m worried about him.”
“That is worrying,” Suzanna said. “Encourage him to see a therapist. There’s not much you can do about it.”
“Alright,” Ludwig said. “I’ll think about it.”
If only there had been a way for Ludwig to warn Suzanna’s mother beforehand of the craziness that Gilbert was about to bring into her life. Or, at least, a way to explain who this strange man he was bringing into her hospital room was.
But, such methods not existing, and Ludwig being unable to get rid of Gilbert for anything that wasn’t vitally important, he was going to be stuck in an awkward situation.
“Be nice to her,” Ludwig said. “She’s been injured badly.”
“Wow, you have so little faith in me, West!” Gilbert said. He had previously explained that he called Ludwig West because most of Germany was west of Prussia. It was also left over from the time they were East and West Germany.
Ludwig didn’t want to explain that that had been forty years ago, and that hearing himself called that made him uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. One of them being that it was a constant reminder of Gilbert’s delusions.
Part of Ludwig would not stop fantasizing about using this trip as an excuse to make a doctor see Gilbert. A doctor should definitely see him.
But, as it stood, such a meeting was generally impossible and probably unethical. Instead, Ludwig prepared himself to explain everything to Suzanna’s mother.
They were holding her in a small ward, one that mostly had other old people in it, tucked away in the northeast corner of the hospital. The window overlooked the zero-scape garden, with patients of various ages ambling about outside.
If Ludwig hadn’t been so worried about Suzanna’s mother—and he was worried, really—he would have appreciated all of that so much more.
Suzanna’s mother had sheets pulled all the way up to her chin. Most of her body was covered in the same shade of white that covered the bed and complimented the walls, with just her little face peeking out. Her eyes were trained on the projector screen above her head, which was showing the news.
“Hello,” Ludwig said.
She immediately perked up a little further, bringing her shoulders above the sheets as well. “Ludwig!” she said. “Sit down. Tell me—how is my grandson?” Then, her eyes landed on Gilbert. “Two of you?” she asked. “Who is this young man?”
Gilbert started to say something, but Ludwig cut him off before he got himself into too much trouble. “Gilbert,” Ludwig said. “My brother. From a very long time ago.”
Gilbert smiled. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
“Well, that’s lovely,” Suzanna’s mother said. “You are at college now, yes?”
“Yes,” Ludwig said.
“And you are learning a lot?” she asked.
“Yes,” Ludwig said. “I’m studying engineering, like I told you.”
Suzanna’s mother nodded. “And you, dearie?” she asked, turning to Gilbert. “Are you in college?”
“No,” Gilbert said. “I’m working, actually.” He paused for a moment. “I have a government job.”
Later on, in the hallway, Ludwig told Gilbert that he was so happy he hadn’t said anything about the nations to her. Ludwig did have to maintain the delusion, at least until he found a good way for them to discuss it.
“Obviously,” Gilbert said. “I know not to tell the humans about us, West!” he paused for a minute. “I’m so glad you found one of my citizens.”
Ludwig did not remember telling Gilbert where she was from.
Gilbert continued to talk through the hallway and to the outside. That involved walking though the psych ward, where several posters with different information on mental illness were shown.
They kept walking, out of the hospital and down the street. The regional hospital was perched at the end of town, not that far from the rows and rows of warehouses that ran alongside the train tracks.
“At times like that, I wondered what Old Fritz would have done,” Gilbert said.
Ludwig hadn’t really been listening to his brother. It was a difficult thing to do when Gilbert rambled on and on again about things Ludwig didn’t understand, frequently referencing various countries and historical events.
For some reason, though, that comment shocked Ludwig back into paying attention to him. “What?” he asked.
“Old Fritz?” Gilbert asked. “Friedrich the Great?” He paused. “He was the most awesome boss I ever had! He—”
Ludwig sighed. “Gilbert—” This had gone too far. “I’m worried about you.”
“What?” Gilbert said, not losing his smile.
“I, just—” Ludwig said. He had thought about this hundreds of times over the past week, but he still wasn’t sure how to phrase it. “You didn’t actually know any of these people. I don’t know where you’re—”
“Wait,” Gilbert said. He furrowed his brow deeply. “You mean, this entire time, you haven’t believed me? You’ve just thought I was crazy or something?”
“Uh, yeah,” Ludwig said. Then, he winced. That probably wasn’t the right reaction.
“What can I do to prove it to you?” Gilbert said, sounding genuinely shocked. “I’ve already showed you the photos, and asked if anything … I mean, really.” He sighed. “I mean, what else can I …” he drifted off and his eyes got wider. Then, he pulled a Walther P22 out of what must have been a holster underneath his jacket.
This probably hadn’t been the best time to bring it up, then. Before Ludwig could say anything, Gilbert held the gun up to Ludwig’s head. “No, no, no,” Ludwig said. “I’m sorry. I believe you. Please, can we just talk about this?”
Determination settled into his brother’s eyes. He clicked off the safety.
“Please,” Ludwig said. “I believe you. Let’s just talk about this?” Ludwig wished he sounded more confident and less like he was begging for his life, but what was he going to do about it at this point?
Gilbert lowered the corner of his left eyebrow. He pulled the trigger.
Ludwig was dead before the sound of the gunshot even hit his ears.
I said this was a high school AU; I never said it was a human AU. Really, though, based on the reviews at least, I think a lot of you guys figured that out in advance, so, cool. :)
One of the fics that inspired this story was Discovering Ludwig by SpeakingThroughWrittenWords on FFN. (a. Link). It’s a great story if APH Germany with amnesia is your thing. A lot of family feels for Austria/Hungary/Germany, and a little bit of very sweet GerIta. I started rereading it, though, as I was writing this, and let me tell you that the first chapter is very different than the rest of the fic.
It also has what has to be one of my favorite author’s notes of all time, on chapter 6: “Yes, Ludwig just pulled off a HRE just because Italy was in a smock. Do not question why, just swallow it like I know you want to.”
Ludwig woke up with a headache—the kind that burrowed deeply into his skull from the center of his forehead, reaching all the way to the back of his head, spreading pain all the way through. The outer edges of his head felt more tired than in pain, a feeling that was echoed across his body.
Especially now that he realized he wasn’t lying in his bed, but rather on a hard surface, with a crack running down one side of it. It almost felt like concrete. On a hard surface, somewhere far away from home? God, he had to stop getting blackout drunk.
Ludwig opened his eyes a crack, to the point where light was visible, but shapes were not. It was fairly dark, thankfully. Then, he opened them a little further and made out a while blob. His brother’s face.
The memory of the whole incident with the Walther P22 came back to him. He’d been shot. In the head. By his own brother.
Gilbert was on the phone currently. “I—no, you don’t understand—I shot Ludwig.” There was a pause, as presumably the person on the other end of the phone talked. “Well, what else was I supposed to do? He didn’t believe me.” Another pause. “I mean, he didn’t believe me! When I told him! Which I did! I don’t understand it either! But now I’ve shot him and there were a bunch of witnesses and the police are involved and can’t you just make it go away?” A third pause. Gilbert sighed. “Thankye,” he said.
Then he hung up the phone. “West, I can tell you’re awake.”
“What was that?” Ludwig asked, the image of Gilbert and the gun seared into his mind the way bright lights stayed seared into his eyelids. “A blank shot or something?”
The look on Gilbert’s face said everything.
And then it hit him. He was alive. He’d somehow survived being shot in the head but of course he had because he was really the country of Germany and immortal somehow which meant that Ludwig was alive somehow which meant that … which meant that …
At some point, Ludwig became aware of the fact that he was hyperventilating. It barely seemed to matter, not even registering over his racing thoughts.
“West?” Gilbert—no, Prussia said. “West. West. Lutz,” he was repeating, standing over him.
Ludwig took a moment to focus on his breathing, holding every inhale and exhale for a little longer.
“Are you OK?” Prussia asked.
No. Well, except for the fact that he was apparently a country and also that his brother had shot him. “Headache,” was all he managed to say.
“It’s psychosomatic,” Prussia said, pulling Ludwig out from under the Indian blanket he’d stuffed him under. “The country is fine. It’s psychosomatic.”
Ludwig decided it was probably better not to resist, so he sat up.
“It took you longer to heal than normal,” Prussia said. “I thought you were going to die!” He started enveloping Ludwig in a hug.
That was what—who?—what Prussia said he was. That was—that was—in Europe, right? In the center. A very flat country—with a lot of rain. What else did he know about it?
“Oh my God, and I’d thought something bad had happened,” Prussia said. “When you disappeared and I found you again but you didn’t remember anything.”
Ludwig straightened up, pulling out of his brother’s grasp. Still hyperventilating.
Prussia narrowed his eyes and tilted his head. “What is it?” he asked.
“The Holocaust,” Ludwig choked out.
“Oh, um,” Prussia said. “Yeah, that was a thing, that, well, that happened.”
Ludwig studied him, wondering if he was going to add anything else onto that. Air brushed past the scars on his arms, which he now realized were exposed to the air. And for the world to see. Prussia must have changed him into a short-sleeved shirt.
“Look—look, well,” Prussia said. “Do you really want—want to talk this—about this right now?”
No. He didn’t. But the question was still there, in the back of his mind, and it felt like it was about to burst, aching like the rest of his head. If he was the nation of Germany, then he must have had some part in killing all of those people.
Prussia stood up, then thought more about it and sat back down, cross-legged, so he was on eye-level with Ludwig. “So, well, those were—that was a bad time, for the country and for us.”
“That’s all you’re going to say?” Ludwig asked. It sounded so absurd—a bad time, like getting a phone call while in the shower.
“No, no, I just mean …” Prussia reached out and grabbed one of Ludwig’s bare arms. Out of instinct, he tried to pull it back, but Prussia held firm. “Do you know how you got these scars?”
Ludwig furrowed his brow and shook his head. “I assumed the burns were from child abuse. They seem to be from cigarettes and that’s a common form of child abuse.”
Prussia shook his head. “They’re all on the inside of your arm.”
Ludwig traced them with his eyes and found this to be true.
“You smoked constantly up until the Cold War,” Prussia said. “It was really bad actually. Got to the point where you kept getting lung cancer—” he shook his head.
“And the cuts are self-inflicted as well,” Ludwig said. They certainly looked like it.
Prussia nodded. “We’re—we’re countries,” he said. “And what do you think happens to countries that harm their own people?”
Ludwig thought on that for a moment, studying the scars on his arm that he’d spent so long looking at in the past, in the night and in the morning, trying to go to sleep or trying to get dressed. “I …” he said. “It’s not that simple, is it?”
“It is,” Prussia said. “I mean, the government didn’t think it was? One of them found out about it—saw you, or something—and, uh … told you that you don’t represent those people—or, no. That you shouldn’t? That you should stop—that you should stop representing those people—that was what they said. And I told them that that’s not how that works—but they didn’t listen, naturally,” he shrugged.
Ludwig thought about this, filing this information with what else he knew. “Except for the Polish Jews.”
“Yeah, well … Poland …” has never forgiven us, “and, well, it gets a little bit complicated in war when all of the borders shift around and …” Prussia sighed.
“And the …” Ludwig started, the words stuck at the back of his throat. “The suicide scars? That’s from that, too?”
“No,” Prussia said, leaning backwards. “That was—no, that was a really crazy thing. At the end of the war.”
“Yeah, that one,” Prussia said. “Your boss went kind of crazy—at the end of the war. He thought the whole country had failed him and deserved to be punished. Tried to destroy our own infrastructure.” He shrugged. “Nobody was really listening at that point, anyway.”
“Except for me.”
“We don’t really have a choice,” Prussia said. “It’s complicated. I—I’m sure you’ll understand. Soon.”
Ludwig looked at him.
“But, I mean it’s not like that anymore,” Prussia said. “Nobody’s asking you to commit suicide or anything—it’s just … well, we feel some kind of—well, I don’t know how to explain it.” He sighed. “Why do I have to explain this at all?”
“Because I don’t—”
“I know, West,” Prussia said. Ludwig flinched at the nickname, but Prussia continued on. “But why? Why don’t you remember anything? It’s just.” He paused. “One day everything was all fine, you were just traveling one day, and then you disappeared. You never came home, and I tried calling you, but you wouldn’t pick up, and some people just thought that the nations themselves were disappearing, like we were part of an old system that didn’t exist anymore, and some people thought it would be good because we don’t need national symbols,” at that point, Prussia ran out of breath and started panting.
The other topic seemed closed for now. Ludwig thought this over. “How long ago was this?” He asked.
“About ten years ago,” Prussia said.
“Diplomat,” Ludwig muttered.
“What?” Prussia asked.
“There was a German diplomat with my name that went missing about ten years ago,” Ludwig said. “That was me?”
“Yeah,” Prussia said. “Some elements of our government didn’t want to search for you so I got the press involved.” Prussia shrugged. Then, studying Ludwig more carefully, he asked: “How did you find out about that, and not realize it was you?”
Ludwig shrugged. “I Googled my own name once. None of the results had pictures attached to them.”
“Oh,” Prussia said. His eyes still looked intense, even more so with his low-set eyebrows.
“I’m sorry,” Ludwig said. “I haven’t been paying too much attention to what you’ve been saying.” Then, he looked into Prussia’s red eyes, asking for more of an explanation.
“Let’s walk and talk,” Prussia said, pulling Ludwig up all of the way.
“So,” Ludwig said.
“So,” Prussia responded.
“We’re immortal?” Ludwig started. It seemed the most pressing thing, especially because his head was still throbbing.
“Yep,” Prussia said. “We last as long as the country does.”
“So, you …” Ludwig said.
“Oh, yeah,” Prussia said. “I was Prussia for a long time, but before that, I was the Teutonic Knights.” He looked at Ludwig’s face. “It was a medieval order of knights? Well, anyway. I was the country of Prussia, but then all of the Germanic states unified and you were born and I started aging.” Prussia paused. “I was aging throughout both of the world wars and then I became the personification of East Germany. I think because I was still alive.”
East Germany had been disbanded forty years ago. “So now you’re aging again?” Ludwig asked.
“If I shot you in the head, you would die?”
Prussia laughed nervously. “West, don’t get any ideas.”
“Anything else?” Ludwig said. “Is there anything else I should know?”
“We can speak any language,” Prussia said.
“No, we can’t,” Ludwig said. Prussia raised one of his white eyebrows. “I know that’s not true. I’ve been learning Spanish for two years, and none of it has come easily to me.”
“Is that true?” Prussia said. “Hemos conversado en español.”
Ludwig thought about this for a moment, remembering back to all of the things Prussia had said to him. Now that he thought about it, they were different than he’d expected, but his mind had just connected the word to its meaning so quickly that he hadn’t noticed. Actually, it didn’t seem like the meaning was in a language quite like English either. Ludwig shut down that line of thinking. “Who were those people you were on the phone with?”
“Oh,” Prussia said. “Those are our assistants. Every nation has a few assigned to them.” He paused. “They mostly just try to stop people from inhibiting my awesomeness. And they’ve been worried about you, West.”
Ludwig nodded. “Every country has one?”
“A few, usually,” Prussia said.
“No. Every country has a … personification?” Ludwig asked.
“Yeah,” Prussia said. “And some regions, and the micronations, and some former nations like yours truly.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “And we all know each other?”
“Pretty much, though we’re on better terms with some than others, obviously.”
“And they all disappeared, about ten years ago?” Ludwig asked.
“Yeah,” Prussia said. “Everyone except for me.” He paused, his face unreadable. “I think it was because they didn’t know I existed? Whoever took you, I mean. Because I’m not a country anymore? But, yeah, everyone’s gone.”
Both of them thought that over for a moment, as Ludwig studied the shape of the gum on the sidewalk.
“Except you, I mean. I found you,” Prussia said. “So you’re not lost anymore.” He paused again. “The first one to disappear was France.”
“France?” Ludwig asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Prussia said. “But no one thought too much of it since he kind of had a habit of running off sometimes. I guess we’ll find out when we find him and figure out who did this to all of you.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “And you don’t have any leads on that?”
“No,” Prussia said. “I mean, if anyone did, it would be you.”
“Haven’t you spent the last ten years looking for everyone?” Ludwig asked.
Prussia bit the inside of his lip. “Yeah, well, no. I’ve been looking for you.” He smiled. “I wanted to find you before I died. So, no, I haven’t looked too much for anyone else. And I didn’t really have any leads until you showed up on our soil with that fake passport.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said.
“Yeah, so,” Prussia said. “It would be helpful if you remembered anything.”
Ludwig though back to the dreams he’d had in Spain. They could have been memories—well, they probably were. Memories of him fighting in various wars, which Prussia had said was one of the most common duties of the nation personification. Actually, he probably should stop taking the red pills, since they were probably suppressing those memories. Although, now that he thought about it, he didn’t have any particular desire to remember his history.
It was his caseworker that was always insisting on him taking the pills. She had to be connected to it, somehow.
That made sense, didn’t it? She was the one who had sent him to live with Suzanna, and, in order to do that, she must have taken him away from Prussia and all of them. And she got him that passport, which must be fake.
“My caseworker,” Ludwig said.
“What?” Prussia asked.
“My caseworker always insisted that I take these pills.” Ludwig paused, not quite sure how to phrase this next part. “They stopped me from remembering things. Or, rather, they stopped me from having dreams, which were really memories.”
“Really?” Prussia asked. “And you believed her?”
That had not been the reaction Ludwig was expecting. “Yes—well, she told me that they were calcium supplements.”
Prussia continued to look at him in disbelief. “And you believed her?”
They stared at each other for a moment longer, caught in an awkward silence.
“Yes,” Ludwig said. “What else was I supposed to do?” He probably shouldn’t mention that the dreams were distressing and that he didn’t want to remember them anyway. “Do you think she’s involved in this?”
“Almost certainly,” Prussia said. “But she probably couldn’t have done all of that by herself. She’s probably part of some organization.” He paused, thinking it over. “We probably should collect some more of us.”
They probably couldn’t do this on their own. Prussia wasn’t even immortal. “There’s—” Ludwig thought about it. “There’s—how many countries are there?”
Prussia shrugged. “Around two hundred.”
“There’s two hundred of us and eight and half billion people in the world,” Ludwig said. “That’s …”
“Like searching for a needle in a haystack? I know, West,” Prussia said.
A moment passed in silence. Ludwig noticed that they were completely alone on the street, with the pigeons on the telephone wires and the garbage in the gutters.
“It may be easier than that, though,” Prussia said. “On my second battle—as the Teutonic Knights, I mean—I ran into the Knights Templar—the personification of the Knights Templar.” He paused. “And, I mean England and France must have found Canada and America somehow. It seems that way a lot, actually, like two or more nations happen to run into each other when their countries are doing things.” He shrugged.
That was interesting. “Like a magnet?” Ludwig asked.
“What?” Prussia asked.
“When you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, it helps to use a magnet,” Ludwig said. Prussia’s face was still blank. “Because it attracts the metal in the needle?”
“Oh,” Prussia said. “Ja, like that. So, have you met anyone …”
“Anyone like what?”
“Anyone like us?” Prussia asked.
“How?” Ludwig asked. Suzanna’s family had all been very normal. But that made sense—his caseworker wouldn’t have put him with anyone else. So, who didn’t she know about? Well, there was Antonio. She’d seemed surprised when he’d mentioned Antonio’s full name. There was also people he met in Spain. Alfred certainly seemed like something else. “I met a guy who’d lived in Spain for as long as he could remember but thought he was American.”
“Oh,” Prussia said. “Blonde hair, blue eyes, glasses? Annoying accent? One lock of hair that always stands straight up? Smiles constantly?”
That was a weirdly accurate description. Ludwig nodded.
Prussia smiled. “You met America, then. Was he going by Alfred Jones?”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said.
“And where was this?”
“Sevilla,” Ludwig said.
Prussia paused, looking at Ludwig. “And you think he’s still there?”
Other than that odd voicemail he’d left him, it didn’t seem like he was moving any time soon. Ludwig nodded.
“Well, then,” Prussia said. He grabbed Ludwig’s arm. “What’s stopping us from going?”
Ludwig pulled his arm out of his brother’s grasp. “I have classes tomorrow.”
“You’ve already missed a week of them,” Prussia said. “Besides, you’re just going to drop out of college anyway.”
“No—no, I’m not,” Ludwig said.
“Well, I called the school and told them you were, so you are,” Prussia said. “Please,” he added, looking into his brother’s eyes. “I shot you in the head, so you believe me now.”
Ludwig sighed. He didn’t like where this was going, but it didn’t seem like he had a choice.
“We’ll stop at the house,” Prussia said. “Reassure everyone that you’re still alive.”
“Alright,” Ludwig said.
And, just like that, Ludwig was slated to leave the country again. He first insisted on Prussia replacing his shirt, so he wouldn’t get as many weird looks when he headed back to Suzanna’s house.
That didn’t work though because Suzanna was dying to know where he’d spent the past three days. Ludwig apologized and said he’d been staying with his brother. Then, for good measure, he added that he was moving into Gilbert’s apartment and needed his stuff.
All of Suzanna’s family watched as he meticulously folded the rest of his clothes and put them in the old suitcase that Suzanna’s mother had given him.
Then, he bid them goodbye and headed to where Prussia was, which was an abandoned warehouse, albeit a different one than he had kept Ludwig in after he was shot. From there, they headed to the airport, gathering a few concerned looks from the taxi driver.
Ludwig carried his fake American passport and showed that to all of the officials. It was different knowing that it was fake—that knowledge seemed to sit on his skin, seeping into every pore. Hopefully, it didn’t show on his face.
At security, they had a bit of a problem. For some reason, Prussia had come into the country armed to the teeth and now had to leave it that way. The TSA agents saw the several pistols and apparent broadsword he carried in his bag and immediately pulled him aside. Prussia reached into his pocket and pulled out his passport and started yelling something about diplomatic immunity.
The TSA agents started pulling him into one of the rooms on the outside of security, and Prussia decided to involve Ludwig in all of this by calling out to him and announcing that they were travelling together, so they pulled Ludwig into the room as well.
Ludwig sat there for almost an hour and a half as they examined Prussia’s diplomatic passport. Then, after deciding it was, in fact, real—they hadn’t looked over Ludwig’s as much, which he was grateful for—they got on the phone with the embassy, trying to find someone high enough ranked to prove his diplomatic immunity.
Eventually, they must have because the two of them were released.
As soon as they stepped out of the room, Prussia’s phone rang. Ludwig could just faintly hear a woman’s voice on the other side of the phone.
“What were you—” she said in a raspy voice.
“You knew I was travelling with weapons and I had a problem on the way here with them, so of course I would have a problem on the way back,” Prussia said, still not dropping that arrogant demeanor of his.
“Just because I knew it was going to happen doesn’t mean I can’t get angry at you!” she said.
“Don’t hang up on—” she said, being cut off by Prussia doing just that.
“Let’s go, West,” he said. “We’re going to be late for our flight.”
“You told me it was an hour ago,” Ludwig said.
“Well, I thought there would be some problems in security,” Prussia said and shrugged.
Thanks again to my betareader, APHTeavana.
Now that you know enough about this story I should say that I took some serious inspiration from Super Sister’s fic Human Curiosity on FFN. (Link.) Like really, though.
The flight was long but uneventful. Ludwig started to read one of the books he’d taken from the school library. Wait, he was going to have to return it now. How was that going to work, now that he was out of the country? Well, he’d have to figure that out later.
Then, they landed in Reykjavík. And then they switched planes. Prussia had a long conversation with one of the flight attendants in German. Now that Ludwig knew he could speak that language, he tried to understand it. Some of the words connected immediately with their meanings in his mind, but enough eluded him so that the conversation was pretty much incomprehensible.
About halfway through the flight, Prussia insisted that they stand up and switch seats with each other. Prussia had been sitting in the window, so now Ludwig was leaning against the curved white wall.
“If you cared so much about it, then why didn’t you make me sit here when we first sat down?” Ludwig asked.
“Shhhh,” Prussia said. “Look out the window.”
Ludwig did. Most of the ground was obscured by clouds, but the scenery that peaked out was very mountainous, and full of fjords. The water sparked and the green forests shined.
“I don’t see much,” Ludwig said.
“Shhh,” Prussia said.
The plane rolled to the starboard side, and the view changed. Now, they were flying over the sea between mainland Europe and those northern countries. The Estsea? Estia? Ostsee? No, it started with a B. The Bhel? The Bolto? The Balteus?
And then there was that little peninsula country, jutting straight off mainland Europe.
“That’s Sweden, right?” Ludwig asked, pointing at it.
Prussia’s face dropped into a horrified expression. “No,” he said. “That’s Denmark. They’re completely different, and they’d be so offended if you …” he paused. “You lived in America for a year and a half, and you’ve already forgotten all of your geography?”
Ludwig had no idea how he was supposed to respond to that.
“And you took out loans to go to college, so now you’re in debt, too. God,” Prussia said. “If we ever get out of this mess, we’ve got to tell America that he has to take better care of his people.”
Ludwig nodded, not really sure what else he was supposed to do.
“Keep watching,” Prussia said.
Now they were flying over a more metropolitan area, with the distant ground covered in the reliable grids of human settlement. A few minutes later, that gave way to more green farm land.
All of the sudden, the air of the plane seemed filled with an electric energy, almost like pollen on an early spring day. Prussia was grinning, now.
“You feel that?” he asked. Ludwig nodded. “Our airspace,” he said.
Ludwig looked down towards the ground underneath them. It looked positively idyllic, with small, round-shaped towns spread out evenly over the green countryside. “Hmm,” he said.
“Welcome home,” Prussia said.
Berlin was a much bigger city than Ludwig was used to. That was firstly evident in the airport. The place was crowded with all kinds of people, most of them dragging a suitcase or two behind them, chatting in different languages.
The knowledge that he could speak all of those languages didn’t seem to help. He tried to focus on all of them at once, which caused his focus to shatter, spreading all over the floor and walls. Ludwig sighed.
“Alles ok bei dir?” Prussia asked. Ludwig stared at him. “Is everything ok?” He asked again.
“Ja—yes,” Ludwig said, shaking off the feeling.
“Ok,” Prussia said. Then, more certain, he added: “Ok!” and started pulling Ludwig’s arm.
They walked through the airport. Once, a woman stopped Ludwig and asked him for the time. He gave it to her, which somehow lead to a conversation about the weather, and then another one about the airport. Then, Prussia started pulling him away from her.
“Stop talking to your citizens,” Prussia said. “We have to go.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “It’s weird to think of them as my citizens.”
“Obviously, they’re your citizens. You’re their fatherland,” Prussia said.
“I mean, I guess,” Ludwig said. “It’s still weird. It seems like they’d be… like, putting it like that implies that I’m the—” President? No, European countries didn’t have presidents. What were they called, again? “The prime minister or something.”
Prussia was horrified. “West, we don’t have a prime minister.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “What do we have, then?”
The answer did not appear to be forthcoming.
“We’re a democracy, right?” Ludwig said. “We don’t have a king or something, do we?”
Prussia somehow managed to look more horrified. “No, Ludwig. We never had a king.”
“We had Princes, and then we had a Kaiser,” Prussia said. “But that was a long time ago. Now we have a Chancellor.”
“What’s that?” Ludwig asked.
“But we mostly report to the President,” Prussia said.
Well, that answered that. “We have a President?” Ludwig asked.
“Yeah, but his power is mostly symbolic,” Prussia said. “He’s mostly in charge of the national symbols.”
Ludwig looked at Prussia, mortified. “Are we national symbols?”
Prussia shrugged. “Kinda.” He paused. “We don’t have real jobs, really. Mostly the government keeps us around to make sure we don’t randomly get sick or anything.” He paused. “That’s a bad sign for the country, if we get sick.” He paused again. “I mean they give us stuff to do so we feel useful and don’t get bored and shoot ourselves or something, but that’s about it.”
His mind was drawn back to the scars on his arm like a magnet. “Oh,” Ludwig said.
Now they were standing in baggage claim, as bags rotated around on a carousel to their left. Plenty of people were standing around with signs, looking for someone, but it was a dark-haired woman in a grey suit that walked up to Prussia and Ludwig.
“Hello,” she said to Prussia.
“I’m sorry,” Prussia said. “I was lecturing Ludwig on our government.”
“I’m sorry that my American education didn’t teach me about German government,” Ludwig said.
The woman looked at him. “Quite a shame, actually.” Then, she took Ludwig’s suitcase and started heading towards the door. “I’m one of your Nationalassistenten. Welcome home.”
Prussia followed her, glancing back at Ludwig.
It was a rainy day, but the city looked nice. Many of the buildings were four or five stories tall, matched in height by the trees that lined both sides of the street. Parks dotted the landscape, so every three or four blocks there was one dedicated to trees and grass.
They drove for quite a while. Then, in one of the suburbs, they pulled into the driveway of an imposing brick house.
Prussia got out of the car first and slammed the door behind him. He took his suitcase out of the trunk, slammed the trunk shut, and headed towards the door. It took him a moment to unlock it, and then he was inside.
By that time, the Nationalassistentin had taken Ludwig’s suitcase out of the trunk, despite his insistence that she didn’t need to, and was heading up the cement stairs that lead to the door. Ludwig had left the car, and it was locked now.
The Nationalassistentin headed into the door as well, closing it behind herself. All of that was more or less what Ludwig was expecting.
He wasn’t expecting the two dogs that greeted him as soon as soon as he opened the door. They were large, white fluffy dogs. One of them held back in the hallway, while the other trotted right up to him and started sniffing every inch of his legs. Then, it seemed to make up its mind about something, and began licking Ludwig’s hands.
Ludwig wasn’t really sure how he was supposed to react to this. For one, why had Prussia never told him that he had dogs? Were they his? Prussia’s?
Prussia was standing at the end of the hallway, to the right of the stairs, in the threshold for a different room. “Berlitz, heel,” he said. The dog that was licking Ludwig’s palms lowered his head and walked back to where Prussia was standing, his unclipped claws creating a ticking sound on the floor.
That seemed to create an opening, which the other dog immediately took advantage of. He bounded towards Ludwig and started jumping up onto him, landing his little claws into Ludwig’s hips.
“Aster, heel,” Prussia said. He snapped his fingers. “Heel, Aster.” He sighed. “Aster, heel.” he said, sounding like his patience was being stretched thin. The dog walked back to him.
Ludwig looked at Prussia, now with a dog standing at either side of him. “Are they yours?” he asked.
“No,” Prussia said, looking annoyed. “They’re yours.” He walked into the other room, which Ludwig realized was the kitchen. The wood cabinets were dark in color, as was the floor, and the only light came from a cubic window, which showed a dreary view into the garden. It was fall now, so almost all of the plants outside were shutting down for the winter. “You dumped them on me. For ten years,” Prussia said.
“Oh,” Ludwig said. One of the dogs—Aster?—had found his way back to Ludwig’s side, and he started scratching him behind the ears.
“Another nation?” A man who was standing in the kitchen asked, staring in disbelief at Ludwig.
“Germany,” the woman who drove them there said. “The actual personification of Germany, not Prussia. It’s ok,” she paused, “We like this one.”
Prussia looked at her. “I’m offended.”
The Nationalassisten ignored him. “He’s not the one we always have to bail out of prison for drunken antics.”
Prussia turned his attention to Ludwig. “Here, I’ll show you to where your old room was.” He paused. “You don’t remember, right?”
Ludwig shrugged sheepishly. It was kind of embarrassing, wasn’t it? That he’d lived in this house, for years if not decades, and was probably about to get lost in it. This house had sat in the suburbs of Berlin, without him, with his dogs probably missing him, for ten years.
At least he believed Prussia, now. Although, he was trapped in foreign country with a fake passport and a man he barely knew who had shot him in the face. That didn’t sound as good. But he could trust Prussia, probably. And he shouldn’t have been able to survive that gunshot wound, and the only explanation forthcoming was Prussia’s, so there was that.
Prussia now stood on the bottom step on the staircase, looking expectant. The bottom post of the handrail was very rectangular, and there was a dark green runner going down the middle of the stairs, which were dark in color themselves. All throughout the back wall of the staircase were photographs, which Ludwig noticed as he walked up the stairs.
The very first one showed a bored-looking Prussia standing next to an East African woman, with her hair tied up in a colorful scarf and dressed in a long, colorful dress, looking equally bored.
“Somalia,” Prussia said when he noticed Ludwig had been staring at it. “She was the last nation to be taken.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said.
“And she helped me look for you and everyone. But her government wasn’t having much of it, so,” he shrugged. “Since you’re still alive, she’s probably is too, at least.”
After that were a few photos of Prussia looking bored while standing next to various politicians, or so Ludwig assumed. Most of them were elderly, while it seemed like most of the nations were younger. At least, judging by himself, Prussia, Alfred and Somalia.
Then, there were a lot of pictures of him and Prussia. They were mostly taken in foreign locations, in front of some monument or whatever. In pretty much all of them, the two brothers were standing in the same position as the earlier ones Ludwig had seen, with Prussia leaning slightly on his left shoulder. Prussia didn’t tend to look as bored in those.
After that, there was a gap, and then there were black and white photos. Most of them had the two brothers in uniform and in more formal poses than the later photos. Ludwig watched, mildly unsettled as he continued to get younger in the photos, still wearing military uniforms of different eras. The majority were high-ranked, so it wasn’t like he was fighting in all of those wars, necessarily, but it was still strange.
At the top of the staircase, the height of the collection, was an oil painting of Ludwig, looking maybe ten years old. He was still in a uniform, complete with a miniature sword, and had a serious, level look in his eyes. The artist had signed the bottom in red pen and written above it: Deutsches Kaiserreich.
Ludwig paused to stare at it for a moment, but Prussia was already standing in a doorway on the far side of the upstairs hallway.
“Here’s your bedroom,” Prussia said. “Sorry about the mess.” He opened the door, and Ludwig stepped through it.
Much like the rest of the house, the room was dark, with the only light coming from a one-panel window near the corner. Most of the floorspace was taken up by a massive four-poster bed with intricately carved bedposts. A bookshelf with glass sliding doors took up another wall and a non-functional fireplace took up the last one. A fine layer of dust covered everything.
Prussia left the room as Ludwig was examining it.
Most of the furniture was heavy and dark, probably able to withstand much time and damage. Ludwig walked closer to the bookcase, examining it. The glass was clear, with little naturalistic motifs carved into each corner.
Ludwig grasped one of the inset brass handles and started pulling, only for the door to screech. That was far enough, anyway.
Most of the books inside were hardcover, and they all were written in languages other than English. Ludwig picked one up, feeling the weight of it in his hands. He flipped it open to a random page, seeing little pencil notes in his handwriting dot the margins. That was unsettling—to see his own handwriting in a language he couldn’t read.
Prussia burst back through the door, carrying two feather dusters. “Here,” he said, handing one to Ludwig.
Ludwig set down the book on top of the bookshelf and took the duster.
“I’m sorry about all of the dust,” Prussia said. “I had no idea I would ever see you again, and as soon as they told me you were in America, I rushed out there.”
Ludwig nodded, and they started dusting.
From what he’d seen of Prussia’s personality so far, it wouldn’t surprise him if he was a messy person or at least very chaotic in his actions. As it was, though, Prussia went over each piece individually, dusting in smooth, even streaks.
Only a few minutes later, the room was presentable. “Thanks,” Ludwig said.
Prussia smiled. “You should go to sleep,” he said. “Your states are getting here in the morning.”
“States?” Ludwig asked.
Prussia shrugged. “You have states, like America,” he paused. “Well, kind of, at least. They have personifications, too. And they’ll be here in the morning. It’s OK, though, they listen to you more than they listen to me.”
Ludwig was not quite sure how to respond to that, so he nodded. Prussia left. Someone had already brought up his suitcase, which was now sitting on a suitcase holder next to the door.
He sat down on the bed, starting at the floral posts. It was an awfully big bed, probably bigger than anything he’d slept in before. The room was large, too, and it was all his, no Alfred or Regino or Emily to share it with. Even the whole house was his, and the city, with all of those parks, and even the country, really, which seemed to extend in every dimension.
Ludwig sighed and looked at his suitcase. The leather was still worn down in the same places, as it had been when Suzanna’s mother had originally given it to him. The world had seemed so vast then, like Spain was a faraway place he couldn’t ever comprehend.
Actually, it still felt that way. And not just with Spain, but Germany as well, the country that was supposed to be his—him. None of it made sense. Just like the books in his bookshelf filled with his own handwriting.
Ludwig lied down on the bed and wondered who on earth had put a seventeen-year-old in charge of all of this. In all of the photos hanging in the stairwell, he looked so self-assured. Maybe he had been, once, but he wasn’t, now.
Ludwig fell asleep, still thinking of that level, blue-eyed stare.
Ludwig woke up in a cold sweat. For a moment the dark walls and bedposts seemed completely unfamiliar to him. Then, he remembered the dim, grey city and the dark, empty house. He sighed and sat up.
Most of the bed was taken up by a large, furry, white mass. Right. The dogs he’d met the day before—his dogs. One of them stirred slightly. He’d probably been awoken by Ludwig shifting around.
Ludwig didn’t know what time it was. There was no clock in the room. His phone was dead, as he’d forgotten to bring the charger converter for Europe. Still, the dark blue twilight that shone in through the window suggested early morning.
With nothing better to do, Ludwig got out of bed. The room’s air was cold to the touch. He put on regular street clothes. One of the dogs lying on the bed perked his head up. Ludwig walked over to it and patted it gently. As an afterthought, he took the film camera Suzanna’s mother had given him and took it with him.
Then he left.
If it was possible, the house seemed larger and colder in the early morning twilight than it had seemed the day before. Ludwig ran his fingers across a glass tabletop in the hallway, one that reflected a darkened, disappearing version of himself.
The pictures on the stairwell were illegible without light, which was helpful in a way, to see them as blank frames rather than a record of a life gone by. Ludwig stepped into the kitchen, where the stove was on and showed the time. It was fifteen minutes after four in the morning. Ludwig sighed.
Ludwig walked down the rest of the foyer and opened the front door. Overnight, a cloud had descended from the sky and now covered the streets as a thick layer of fog. Ludwig closed the door. He couldn’t lock it.
Then, again, if he owned a house, he would probably worry about getting locked out of it. The sensible thing to do to prevent that was to hide a key outside of the house. This was his house, so maybe there was a key outside of it, somewhere. He wouldn’t put it in some cliché place, like under a flowerpot or the mat—which, as soon as Ludwig thought this he realized the house didn’t have any of those things—but rather in a place that was known only to the residents of the house.
After searching for a few moments, Ludwig noticed a gap in the mortar between two bricks which had been hastily filled in with a smaller brick fragment. Ludwig poked it with his finger, realizing that it was loose. He plucked it out with his thumb and forefinger, then put in finger in the hole.
Sure enough, a small metal key was there, which proceeded to slip through Ludwig’s surprised fingers. He bent down to pick it up. It was fine, just with little splashes of rust creeping up the serrated edge.
Still, that key had belonged to a different version of him, one who had lived in that house and had known Prussia, and had taken care of the dogs, and knew what was going on and everything else. A him that was him, but also wasn’t. It was probably best to not overthink this too much.
Ludwig headed off into the fog. The city looked different in the early morning. It was greyer, darker, and the streets were deserted. The air was cool and clean but very damp as well, the fog filling up his lungs with every breath.
It wasn’t clear where Ludwig was headed that morning. He picked a general direction and stuck to it, noticing the frequent parks with the empty swing sets. Almost every storefront was closed, the windows turned into a black mirror, the German signs unintelligible.
Ludwig wasn’t sure how long he walked, either, or how far. At one point he was standing in front of a large wall with a mural on it. At another, he was standing in front of a large reflecting pool. And another point found him standing in a forest, in front of a small creek.
A few minutes later, he was back in the city again. The fog had risen up into the sky, which was now dyed grey. More people were out in the streets, setting up shops, walking one way or the other, and a few cars passed by the road at high speeds.
Almost everyone he passed said Hallo to Ludwig, and he responded by nodding. Occasionally, the conversation would last longer than that. Usually, it started with the weather, but then could quickly turn into politics or whatever else seemed to be on the mind of these people. Oftentimes, Ludwig didn’t know what to say, but the words would find themselves into his mouth anyway.
He arrived back at the house as the sun was rising. Luckily, he’d managed to find a convenience store that was open and buy a phone charger. He unlocked the door with the key that he’d locked it with, then returned it to its hiding place. The next Ludwig that found the key would probably—hopefully—remember who he was.
The smell of cooking overtook the foyer, and Ludwig followed it to the kitchen. The same Nationalassistent who’d picked them up from the airport was standing there, still dressed in a grey suit. She was cooking something on a skillet. “Hello,” she said, and Ludwig greeted her back.
“Where were you?” she asked, sounding more curious than upset.
“Taking a walk.”
“Oh,” she said, pausing to stir the pan. “Where?”
“Just around the city.”
“Be careful you don’t get lost,” The Nationalassistent said. “It would be ironic, if we found you after this much time to lose you again.”
“Ja—yes,” Ludwig said. “I figured I couldn’t get lost.”
She shrugged. “I tell you, you nations have some kind of uncanny ability to get lost. Once, Prussia went to a conference in Chicago and turned up three weeks later in the Australian outback.”
“Really?” Ludwig said.
“Ja,” she said. “And then there was the other time, where you, Italy and Japan and the Allies somehow all managed to get lost on the same island in the Pacific Ocean.”
Time to change the subject. “Well, I figured I couldn’t get lost in Germany.”
“I suppose,” she said. She picked up the frying pan off the stove and flipped its contents over.
“The states are coming today?”
“Yes,” the Nationalassistent said. “I’m sorry we’re wasting your few days here with it, but they wanted to see you.” She paused. “Everyone in this line of work wants to see you. America set up a taskforce to look for him after he disappeared, and they’re dying to meet you, as the one that came back.”
“Well, I’m not the only one that came back,” Ludwig said. “We’re looking for America.”
“Right,” she said. “And I hope you find him, if only so they’ll stop bugging us. Most countries got rid of the support staff for their personification after they disappeared, but we couldn’t because of Prussia.” She paused to stir the pan again. “The Americans and French didn’t either, but that was only because they are stubborn.”
“France disappeared first, right?”
“Yes,” the woman said. “And then England, Hungary, Poland and America.” She paused to stir the pan. “Everyone thought it was a kidnapping at first, then just that nations had stopped existing. You were lost after that point.”
Prussia entered out of one of the lower doors, still wearing socks and sweatpants. “Is Bavaria here yet?”
“No,” the woman said. Prussia disappeared back through the door again. “Don’t worry about them,” she said to Ludwig. “The most important thing to know is that Bavaria and Prussia hate each other.” She paused, thinking. “And Saarland does love you, regardless of what he says.”
“You don’t know anything about them, do you?”
“I didn’t even know that Germany had states until the day before yesterday,” Ludwig said. “Prussia isn’t one of them?”
“No,” she said. “He was split up after reunification into different states.”
“And none of them were kidnapped?”
She turned towards him and smiled. “No,” she said. “We called the other countries that have provinces, and none of theirs were taken, either. It’s weird.” Then, she turned the stove off and dumped the contents of the plate—eggs and potatoes—onto a plate. She set the plate down in front of Ludwig. “Here,” she said.
Bavaria arrived first, followed by Rhineland-Palatinate, followed by a few other hyphenated ones that Ludwig couldn’t keep track of, followed by Westphalia, whom he only knew because she told him this very loudly and then proceeded to lean on him. A few others had arrived after that, but Ludwig hadn’t noticed most of them because he was getting enthralled by an argument between Bavaria and Prussia.
“I tell you reasons like this are why getting rid of that Senat was a bad idea!” Prussia was yelling. Or it sounded like it, at least. The German words were starting to get mangled in Ludwig’s head.
“The Senat! No! That thing was elitist!” Bavaria yelled.
“Well, at least it wasn’t fucking stupid like all of your recent ideas have been!” Prussia yelled back.
“Fucking stupid? Well, at least I’m not dying!”
“Dying! They would have split you up, too, if you had any political influence.”
It seemed as if the argument had crossed a point there. Almost everyone turned to stare at Ludwig, as if expecting him to do something about this. He didn’t.
Prussia started yelling something else, but Saarland interrupted him. “You see, this is why I sometimes wish I could go back to living with France.” He spoke with some kind of hard-to-place accent.
“Like he was any better,” said Westphalia, her words dripping with sarcasm.
“Well, there weren’t any states to argue with!” Saarland shot back. It was French. His accent was French. “And I had Alsace and Lorraine!”
“Oh my God, are they still alive?” Westphalia said.
“You literally saw them a week ago,” Mecklenburg said.
“Be nicer to your sisters, Westphalia,” Brandenburg said.
“France is dead now. Get over it,” one of the ones with a long name—Württemberg?—said.
“I mean, we thought Germany was dead too.” Saxony said in an accent. “And Holy—” Prussia cut him off, and the two of them started arguing about politicians from the 19th century.
Ludwig turned to Westphalia. “Are they always—”
“Yep,” she said.
They spent the rest of the visit arguing with each other. All the time. Over everything. It was exhausting. They took a group picture with Ludwig’s film camera, which involved about a half hour of telling everyone to stay still.
And then, they left, one by one, all explaining some provincial issue they were needed on. Bavaria continued to argue with Prussia all the way out the door and then called him in the car because he’d thought of a new point. Ludwig didn’t know how he could stand it.
Once they were all gone, the house went back to its dark, empty state. There were still the dogs, though, and Ludwig got used to feeding them every day.
On his second-to-last day before leaving, Ludwig decided he had to read some of the books in his bookcase. He was getting more used to reading German and could usually manage with street signs. Besides, if he really was going to be the personification of Germany, it would be probably a good idea to be able to read the language.
Although it wasn’t like he couldn’t, exactly. All of the words were already in his head, he just had to connect them to their meanings.
So, with that in mind, he knelt down in front of the bookshelf, trying to make out the words in the dim light. He expected them to be books on politics or history or something else that would be important to know for someone who was clearly as entrenched in government as he was. But they weren’t.
How to Break Your Addiction to Conflict
When You Think You’re Not Enough: The Four Life-Changing Steps to Loving Yourself
They were self-help books.
The Five Languages of Apology
Why is my Dog the Happiest Person in the Room?
How to Stop Worrying and Start Living
How to Smile Naturally
How to Make PowerPoint Presentations that Don’t Make Everyone Fall Asleep
At least, that was the first half of the first shelf, which was in German. Upon closer inspection, the second half of it was in another language, maybe French. It wasn’t Spanish, Ludwig could tell. He took a deep breath, remembering that Prussia told him that he spoke all languages. So he focused in on the words and tried to attach them to meanings in his head.
The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem
How to Have Confidence and Power When Dealing with People
Friendship: East and West Philosophical Perspectives
Love and Friendship
Well, it was good to know he had a life outside of work, even if he did have trouble with that one too.
We Can Work It Out: How to Solve Conflicts and Strength Your Love for Each Other
Communicating with Your Partner
Well, that was a little odd. Was he dating someone? If so, why hadn’t Prussia mentioned it to him before? It probably was one of the other countries, which meant that they were kidnapped. That was probably something he should be concerned about it. It would only worry him to know about it, so Prussia hadn’t told him. He could accept that explanation.
The Couple’s Guide to Making Your Relationship Work
Dating for Germans
How to Date Italians
They were getting a little specific.
How to Date Men
The second shelf was full of romance novels. Ludwig took one off the shelf and flipped through it. There were little notes penciled into the margins, still in his handwriting.
“Ludwig?” Prussia called from downstairs.
Ludwig dropped the book on his bed and went down to talk to him.
“Have you packed?” Prussia said, walking through the door to Ludwig’s room. Ludwig’s suitcase was on the made bed, clothes neatly folded on either side of it.
“I’m right in the middle—” Ludwig said.
“Good,” Prussia said. He looked at Ludwig’s suitcase. “That old thing?” he asked. He walked to the other side of the bed, saying “You can use your old suitcase, you know.” He bent down reached under the bed, pulling out another suitcase, about as old as the one Ludwig was packing. It was made of black leather, with harsher corners and less worn down than Ludwig’s current suitcase.
“Umm, thanks,” Ludwig said. Should he ask about the books in the case? No, asking his long-gone brother about his love life seemed incredibly awkward to say the least.
“Something bothering you?” Prussia asked.
“Nei—no,” Ludwig said.
“OK, well, we’ll be off to Spain, soon,” Prussia said as he left the room.
Ludwig looked at the other suitcase. It was a bit higher quality, he supposed. He opened one of the brass fasteners and lifted up the top part.
Several sepia photos fell out of a loose silk patch on the top part of the suitcase. Ludwig picked them up off the floor and the bedsheet.
He was in all of them, dressed in uniform, looking anywhere from slightly displeased to very angry. Along with him were two other men—a brunette and a Japanese man. The Japanese man tended to sit in the background, with his eyes avoiding the camera. The brown-haired one was often in the foreground, smiling with his eyes closed and seemed slightly out-of-focus, like he was in perpetual motion.
Ludwig took the pictures outside of the room. He headed downstairs, glancing at all of the other photos of him, to the kitchen, where Prussia was.
“Who are they?” Ludwig asked, showing Prussia the photos.
“Italy and Japan,” Prussia said. “You three have been good friends since the war.”
“Do you know what happened to them?”
“They disappeared like everyone else,”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. Why was he the only one who’d been found? “You weren’t looking for any of the others, were you?”
“No,” Prussia said. “But we are now, so you need to pack.” And Ludwig did
I’m pretty sure that, when they were writing the German constitution, one guy was like “do we want a parliamentary or a presidential democracy?” and the other guy was like, “yes.” The President of Germany fulfills pretty much the same role as the Queen in British democracy but is elected.
As for the books, some of them are real, some of them are fake, some of them are canon and I’ve honestly forgotten which ones are which.
After I wrote this, I learned that three of the Germanic states (Hesse, Saxony and Bavaria) are actually canon and have little fandoms.
Thanks to my betareader, APHTeavana. I wanted to fix some things in this chapter, but it’s late enough already.
I’ve finally found a Hetalia fic recommendation tumblr. The url is heta-fics dot tumblr dot com. I’ve been submitting some of my recommendations from these author’s notes, so you might see some of the same fics there. (Link).
Somehow, the Berlin airport felt smaller the second time walking through it. All of the people were friendlier as well, though Ludwig suspected that was because he was more aware of it now. The flight to Sevilla was also much shorter, though the drive into the city was longer.
“What’s that one?” Prussia asked, pointing at a consulate. Ludwig was driving, even though Prussia had rented the car. He’d talked to the clerk in Spanish that was too fast for Ludwig to understand. Then, as soon as they’d walked to the car, Prussia had proclaimed he was a technophobe who didn’t know how to drive anything that wasn’t being led by a horse, so now Ludwig was going to have to drive him around.
So, far, Prussia had spent the majority of the trip quizzing Ludwig on the consulates.
Ludwig looked away from the road for a moment to see the flag. “Colombia,” he said.
“Kolumbien,” Prussia corrected.
“I don’t know if I should be driving,” Ludwig said. “I was almost killed in a car crash.”
“Were you driving then?” Prussia asked.
“Well, then that must be why,” Prussia said. “What about that one?”
“Italy,” Ludwig said.
“Italien,” Prussia said.
Ludwig sighed. “You know, telling me the country’s name in German is not really helpful.”
“I know,” Prussia said. “But I miss them.”
“We know Columbia?”
“We know everyone.” Prussia paused. “It’s weird, after being alive for long enough—well, I guess I know them better. Not existing anymore has its perks,”
Ludwig had no idea how to respond to that. “Oh,” he said. “You’re—you’re OK, though, right?”
“I guess,” Prussia said. “I wanted to find you before I died, and I did. Look—there’s the Kreisverkher.”
Ludwig turned onto it.
“You said Alfred’s house was somewhere around here, right?”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. He’d called Alfred in some of their last hours in Berlin but received no response. He hoped Alfred wouldn’t mind them dropping in. Then again, given his earlier obsession, it seemed likely that he’d be psyched to hear that he was the United States. “Do you want to go straight there?”
Ludwig exited the traffic circle and headed towards the cramped streets of the old city. He turned down the streets he remembered. Sevilla looked more or less the same as it was when he’d last left it.
He parked at the end of a long, narrow alleyway. They both got out of the car, which Ludwig locked, and then headed into the apartment building.
The three flights of stairs were shorter than Ludwig remembered, and soon they were standing in front of the door.
“I’m not sure about this,” Ludwig said.
“You called ahead, didn’t you?” Prussia asked.
“And they didn’t answer so there’s really nothing more you could have done,” Prussia said. “Really, West, don’t worry about it.”
“OK,” Ludwig said, and Prussia knocked on the door.
A younger woman answered it, with her crinkled hair pulled back into a bun. She looked at both of them expectantly.
“¿Buscamos Alfred?” Ludwig asked. The woman looked blankly at him.
“¿Alfred Jones?” Prussia tried. “¿Conoce un joven se llama Alfred Jones?”
“No, lo siento,” the young woman said, starting to close the door.
“¿Qué le parece un José Luis o una Dolores?” Ludwig asked.
“Lo siento,” the woman said. “Acabo de mudar aquí. Los daré el número de mi agente inmobiliario.” She took out a piece of paper and wrote a phone number on it and handed it to Ludwig. Then, she closed the door with a resounding thud and the click of a latch.
“Something’s wrong,” Ludwig said.
Prussia studied him for a moment. “Ja,” he said.
“I’m sorry that was a dead end.”
“At least we have a lead now,” Prussia said. They both stared at the piece of paper in Ludwig’s hand.
Apparently, one of their assistants had the foresight to book a hotel room for them, and a nice one at that. They got paid enough for Prussia to take him to a nice restaurant and not even look at the bill. It was probably a life Ludwig could get used to, if he wanted to.
They decided to call the real estate office in the morning, when it was more likely they’d be open. So, for the meantime, Ludwig took Prussia around the city. Some tourist took their picture in front of the cathedral. During that moment that she held the camera up, trying to frame them in the viewfinder, it occurred to Ludwig that Prussia was leaning slightly on his left shoulder. That was the position they were always in for photos.
There was nothing wrong with that, naturally, so Ludwig made sure their positions were reversed when another tourist took their picture in front of the Plaza de España.
After that, they went back to their hotel rooms and fell asleep. Ludwig dreamed of explosions, shrapnel, rivulets of blood and rats the size of a half-grown cat.
Surprisingly, Prussia got up at the same time as Ludwig did. It made sense, considering their similar positions in life, but Ludwig was used to having the early morning fog and dew all to himself.
The two of them ate breakfast together in the hotel. Prussia called the real estate agent on his phone, asking mostly the same questions they’d asked the woman living in the apartment yesterday. At least, until Prussia put the phone against his chest. “José and Dolores?” he asked, looking into Ludwig’s eyes.
“What?” Ludwig asked, dropping his toast.
“The people you asked about. José and Dolores?”
“José Luis. José Luis and Dolores.”
Prussia nodded. “¿José Luis o Dolores?” he asked. “¿los conoce?” He paused for a moment, listening attentively. “Ok,” he said. “Gracias.” He hung up.
Prussia turned his attention towards Ludwig, his face unreadable.
“What happened?” Ludwig asked.
Prussia sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I—there’s been a murder.”
Ludwig dug his fingernails into the enamel of the table.
“They were murdered in their apartment, a few months ago,” Prussia said. “She didn’t know anything about America.”
José Luis and Dolores. Murdered? Why? They were such nice people. Did this have something to do with Alfred, or him?
Pushing the guilt away, Ludwig rubbed his eyes. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know,” Prussia said. “Maybe somebody else has records of him? A job or something?”
Ludwig shook his head. “Not that I know of,” Ludwig paused for a moment. “They’ve been murdered?”
“Ja,” Prussia said. “She said the press covered it, so we could look up—”
Ludwig grabbed Prussia’s phone and searched for their names on the internet. A few hundred articles came up, most of them about the murder. They talked about the scene of the crime, which had been discovered by a neighbor, wherein a thin layer of the couple’s blood covered the floor of their apartment. Ludwig felt sick.
No one knew who did it. It seemed like a professionally orchestrated crime—no fingerprints were left on anything. The neighbors didn’t hear anything, either. They were discovered after not answering the door for three days, leaving the times of their deaths impossible to deduce.
This had all happened a little under a month ago, right when Ludwig was starting university. The idea that this had happened, and he hadn’t known about it, was horrifying. Although, there was no way for anyone to contact him.
A few of the articles mentioned Alfred, at least, as the lodger who had lived with them. He’d disappeared right around when they were killed; no one had been able to contact him. Naturally, he was wanted by the Spanish police, and many of the articles suspected he’d killed them.
Ludwig didn’t think it was very likely, thinking back to Alfred’s sunny disposition and smile. But, at the same time, he was the personification of the United States of America and couldn’t be a whole country without having some contradictory personality elements. And America didn’t have a flawless record as a country, with slavery, mistreatment of Native Americans and their own colonialism. There was probably more to Alfred than Ludwig knew.
The implication of that, and of what that meant for Ludwig, was chilling.
Ludwig stood up so fast he knocked over his chair, before catching it again.
“West?” Prussia asked. “Everything ok?”
Ludwig set the chair down. He was suddenly aware of how pale he looked, and how neutral his face must have been. “I have to go,” he said. Without further explanation, he headed up to his room.
About thirty minutes later, there was a knock on the door. “Ludwig?” asked Prussia voice from beyond it.
Ludwig was sitting on the floor by the bed, which now struck him as an odd place to be sitting, and one that would probably cause Prussia to worry about him.
“I’m sorry,” Prussia said. “I know they must have been awfully dear to you.”
How was he going to explain to Prussia that the reason he was so upset was not just that they were dead but also what that meant for his and Alfred’s personalities? He had rolled up his sleeves and spent much of the last half hour tracing the scars that lined his arms.
It probably wasn’t good to leave Prussia waiting outside, having to talk through a door. Ludwig walked over to it and opened it so he could come in.
If Prussia noticed his rolled-up sleeves, he didn’t mention them. “I’m sorry,” Prussia said. “I probably should have found a better way of telling you.”
A moment passed in a heavy, awkward silence.
“It’s ok,” Ludwig said. “In good news, we’ve found out more about Alfred.”
“I haven’t been able to look into that much,” Prussia said. “He disappeared sometime around the time they were murdered, and the Spanish government has been looking for him since.”
“And they haven’t found any leads,” Ludwig said.
“No,” Prussia said.
Another awkward silence passed in ticks of the hotel clock.
“Do you think he did it?” Ludwig asked.
Prussia contemplated this for a moment. “America …” he trailed off. “He acts troubled by his conscience, and like he doesn’t like to kill civilians, but he has.” Prussia shrugged.
That wasn’t very reassuring. “Oh,” Ludwig said.
“But, I mean, I don’t think he’d disappear afterwards. He’s not that smart,” Prussia said. “And he liked these humans, didn’t he?”
“Ja—y—yes,” Ludwig said.
Prussia smirked. “Well, there you have it. Shame we can’t find him again, though.” Prussia sat down on Ludwig’s bed. “I did have another idea, though, for another nation we could probably find.”
Ludwig sat down next to him. It would be nice, to think about something else for a little while.
“I’m sorry about the old couple,” Prussia said. “It happens though. People die.” He paused again. Ludwig could feel him shifting his weight on the bed. “We could try to find France. He’s probably got himself on some kind of registry by now.”
“What makes you say that?” Ludwig asked.
Prussia shrugged. “He’s one of my best friends and is not great at constraining himself.”
“Haven’t we invaded him several times?”
Prussia laughed. “We’ve invaded a lot of people. Doesn’t mean we can’t be friends with them.”
Ludwig continued to look at him skeptically.
“In the nineteenth century, alliances were shifting around so much that it seemed like it made more sense just for everyone to be friends with each other, regardless of policy.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “So, like a criminal record?” Ludwig asked. The Nationalassistentin did mention having to bail Prussia out of prison. “Like you have?”
Prussia laughed again in that strange way of his. “No, the government keeps erasing mine. France, on the other hand, shouldn’t currently have that kind of protection, so his is probably out there.”
“Do we have access to it?”
“We work for the upper tiers government. We can access anything, if ask nicely enough,” Prussia said. “I don’t think this is going to be one of those cases, though.”
“Really?” Ludwig said.
“Ja,” Prussia said. He typed Francis Bonnefoy into the search bar of his phone. Several news articles came up in different languages. “As I suspected. He tried to cross the border while drunk and also naked.”
“The border? Between where?”
“France and Spain,” Prussia said.
“So where is he now?”
Prussia smiled at that, showing more teeth than usual. “Guernica,” he said, and Ludwig felt the earth tilt slightly beneath his feet.
They spent another night in Sevilla, in almost complete silence. Ludwig could tell that the silence made Prussia uncomfortable. Well, it made him uncomfortable, too, though Prussia seemed as much bothered by the idea of silence as the silence that had spread over and dominated every aspect of their time in Sevilla.
The second night, Ludwig had nightmares again. They changed in subject. Still a war, but a different one, a warmer one, with planes flying overhead and the smell of blood in the air.
Disturbed, he woke up again. Then, after continuously shifting places and trying to settle his mind. He took the romance novel he’d taken from his room in Berlin and tried to read some of it, but the German words weren’t matching with their meanings. Ludwig figured it made the most sense for him just to get up.
Instead, Ludwig set out on a walk, like he’d done in Berlin. He remembered the Nationalassistenien saying that nations got lost easily, so he took careful count of every street and monument he walked by, forming a map in his head. Everything was closed, which made it harder, but half of the streets he knew beforehand, anyway.
It wasn’t very foggy on the hill where the brothers’ hotel was, so Ludwig walked down to the riverbank, where the fog spread like a white sheet. Little lights lined the cables and edges of the bridge, making it look like nothing more than a constellation in the morning air.
Ludwig was marveling at this, noticing the way the bridge’s lines were outlined and then reflected in the water, when he heard footsteps behind him. They were little, sharp ones, coming from a hard-soled shoe. He turned around.
Standing there, in the Spanish morning mist, with her blond hair spread out in a halo and her thick glasses outlining her eyes, was the Belgian woman. Ludwig’s caseworker. Laura.
She walked up to Ludwig’s left side and stopped by his shoulder, leaning on a street post. “It’s a lovely view, isn’t it?” she said.
Ludwig exhaled deeply. “What do you want?” he asked.
She faced Ludwig, leaning her back on the pole. “You’re in Spain, looking for Alfred.”
Ludwig didn’t know how to respond to that. It wasn’t a question.
“You’re not going to find him.”
“We know,” Ludwig said. “We’re leaving today.”
“You and your brother, right?” The way she said brother almost made it sound like the German word, the O dragged into a U, and the TH shortened to a D. “That is what he calls himself, although he hasn’t done a great job of taking care of you in the past.”
Ludwig said nothing. He was curious about his past, though it was the kind of morbid curiosity that drags five-year-olds to dead birds.
“What a strange idea, a nation personification,” Laura said.
“How much do you know about them?” Ludwig asked. It was supposed to sound like more of a demand than a question, but something about the emphasized letters just made him sound desperate.
“Let’s start with me, then,” she said. “I am part of an organization called IUEN,” she pronounced the acronym like it was a word with an extreme number of vowels.
“The ones who took them,” Ludwig supplied.
“Yeah,” she said. “I won’t deny it.” She pulled a box of cigarettes out of her jacket pocket. “Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked. Ludwig shook his head. She pulled a silver lighter out of her other pocket and lit the cigarette. Then, she took a long drag on it and blew out a cloud of smoke. “This is my real vice. The coffee was only a distraction.” She looked Ludwig in the eyes. “Do you want one?” she asked. Ludwig shook his head. “But, no,” she said. “You quit smoking in the early seventies, as hard as it was.”
Ludwig didn’t know how to respond to that, either.
“It stands for the International Union to End Nationalism,” Laura said. She pronounced every letter of those words, dragging the vowels out slightly. She continued to look Ludwig in the eyes. Her faced was unreadable. “And that’s why we exist—to end nationalism,” she said, taking another drag of the cigarette.
“What does that have to do with …” Ludwig trailed off, not sure whether to say us or me or them.
“The problem is all of the countries. All of those little lines drawn on a map. They don’t mean anything, really, they’re just an excuse for people to go to war with each other.” She paused here for a long time, looking back to the bridge. “And nothing really changes because of them.”
“I don’t know about that,” Ludwig said. “The government—”
“Well, of course you’re going to need to have government,” she said. “If men were angels and all that.” Ludwig recognized the James Madison quote. “But why so many governments? Why give them all a little parcel of land? Why bother with making people hate each other?” she took a drag on the cigarette. “That’s all the differences, do, really. Make people different to divide them, to conquer them.”
She paused for a little while. Ludwig tried to make sense of what she was saying.
“All we did, really, was envision a better world, one without that,” she said quietly.
“And what does that have to—”
“Without nations, there would be no need for nation personifications,” she said. “No need for flags, either, or national anthems. All those things are just symbols of nationalism, just trying to divide people.”
“So you took them,” Ludwig said.
“Yes,” she said, taking another drag on the cigarette. “We took you out of your context, your countries and brought you to another one. It helps get rid of the connection, that way. Besides,” she paused. “We wanted to give you a better life.”
Ludwig continued to stare at her.
“No one really wants that, do they? To have to represent an entire group of people? Answer to them, even if you don’t want to?” she took another drag of the cigarette.
Ludwig watched the smoke dissipate into the mist.
“You want to know the story behind the scars on your wrists?” That piqued Ludwig’s interest, though he tried not to show it. She turned around and looked back at him, meeting his eyes. “You didn’t attempt suicide, or, at least, not of your own free will.” She paused again. “You were ordered to commit suicide.”
That stung the inside of Ludwig’s brain. In a moment, it felt as if his blood had turned into thick sludge, and, in his stomach the answer to perpetual motion had been solved.
“I mean, do you really want to have that kind of life? To have to answer to whatever government the people elect, if they elect one at all? To answer to seventy-eight million people you don’t know?”
It seemed like the scars on Ludwig’s arms started to itch. Had it felt that way when he’d first made those cuts?
“And to be immortal, to watch all of your friends die,” she was still looking into his eyes. “Even if you have a leader or assistant that you like, they’ll die eventually, and you’ll go back to being alone.” She took a drag of the cigarette. “And every national trauma that your people go through, you’ll go through twicefold. You think the memories of World War I are bad,” she said, smiling. “Just wait. You have no idea what’s coming.”
“Is that it?” asked Ludwig, trying to seem more confident than he was.
She threw the cigarette down, then put it out with her heel. “We offered you a way out.”
Was there a way that he could return to the life he’d had before? Ludwig was too afraid to ask.
“You can take it back,” she said. She pulled out a small piece of paper—a business card—and handed it to Ludwig. “Keep taking the pills,” she said. “It helps to start on half-doses, and call me when you want out.”
Then, she strutted away, her heels making a uniform clicking sound
The population of Germany is currently eighty million people, but it’s supposed to decline in the next few years.
Thanks to APHTevana.
Raining FrUK on FFN is the weirdest Hetalia fic I have ever read. For starters, it’s an AU where France is an umbrella. And it gets weirder.
The drive up Spain took longer than it should have, or so it seemed. The landscape was dotted with windmills and grew more mountainous the farther north they drove. For the most part, the drive was silent, with nothing more than music. Prussia originally turned on some depressing classical, then seemed to remember that Ludwig didn’t like that very much, so he changed it to German-language heavy metal, which was more stand-able. It, at least, did a very good job of keeping Ludwig awake, which became more important as he became hypnotized by the pastoral landscape and the gentle winding of the roads.
Prussia didn’t seem to know what to say to him about José Luis’s and Dolores’s deaths. To be fair, Ludwig wasn’t quite sure how he felt about them, either. He was sad, certainly. They were very nice people, and it was a shame they were gone from the world. But it wasn’t like he’d known them very well, and he had to habitually remind himself that they were gone.
Alfred added another dimension to the problem. Ludwig didn’t see the annoyingly upbeat boy he’d met in Sevilla as a murderer, although he hadn’t seen him as the personification of a country, either. And, then there was Prussia’s comment about how Alfred tried to appease his conscience. That couldn’t have meant anything good.
And there was the meeting with the caseworker. Ludwig knew he should tell Prussia about it, but he couldn’t. She’d come to him. Besides, the life of a nation personification did really seem terrible when he thought about it. There was also the question of how she’d found him in the first place.
Bilbao was a nice city, with a wide river and two bridges spanning it. Most of the buildings were a tannish orange—or maybe that was from the sun setting—with a lone skyscraper punctuating the skyline.
“Do you want to stop?” Prussia asked, saying what was probably the first words for a few hours.
“We’re almost there,” Ludwig said. Prussia had, in what was probably a bout of technophobia more than anything, told Ludwig not to use the navigation system on his phone. Instead, he’d amassed a collection of road maps with different color highlights on them. They should about another half hour before they’d arrive in Guernica.
“I know, but we haven’t eaten anything,” Prussia said.
That was true. As immortal beings, Ludwig was not entirely convinced they had to eat.
However, now that he thought about it, Prussia was aging now, so he probably did have to eat.
“Ok,” Ludwig said.
They stopped at a small, touristy restaurant in the twisted shadow of Bilbao’s art museum. Prussia ate the first half of his meal extremely quickly, then seemed to realize he was making Ludwig feel guilty for him sitting in the car all day without food and slowed down.
Their dinner conversation was surprisingly bland for the first half as well.
“What’s France like?” Ludwig asked.
Prussia shrugged. “French.”
Ludwig sighed. “You couldn’t be a little more descriptive?”
Prussia thought about this for a moment. “He’s blond, and blue-eyed. Flirts with everything in existence. Insists he’s half of Europe’s big brother. I’m pretty sure he’s not seeing England, but it’s really hard to tell.”
That didn’t seem right. “Don’t France and England hate each other?” Or was this one of those acting-outside-of-policy-things?
Prussia took another bite of his food. “They used to, seriously. Now it’s more of a joking thing, I think. That’s why it’s hard to tell.”
“Oh.” Although, they clearly couldn’t act completely out of policy, or else he wouldn’t have cut up his arms.
Prussia nodded. And, in a few moments, they were back on the road again, now in the twilight. It was only another thirty minutes before they arrived at the small B&B their Nationalassistenten had booked for them on the edge of town.
An elderly Spanish couple, not too different from Dolores and José Luis, stood in the door frame as they pulled onto the gravel driveway.
“Ahh, you must be Gilbert and Ludwig,” one of them said. It was strange to hear Prussia’s human name after so long referring to him as Prussia. “Come inside,” she said.
And Ludwig did.
The sun woke Ludwig up early in the morning, peaking its way up the mountains and infusing brightness into every corner of Ludwig’s room. It was an old room, in an old house, with thick, brick walls, and that was more obvious with the sunlight entering the room. Ludwig got dressed and headed downstairs.
The elderly couple was already awake and cooking breakfast.
“¿Qué estarán haciendo?” she asked Ludwig. “¿Andar?” They must have gotten a lot of hikers here, with the beautiful mountains.
“No,” Ludwig said. Not sure what to say, he decided to tell the truth. “Estamos buscando alguien.”
“¿Un amigo?” he asked.
Ludwig nodded. It was possible they had some information. “¿Conocen un Francis Bonnefoy?”
“No, lo siento,” she said, looking disappointed.
“¿Un rubio?” Prussia said, heading down the stairs. “¿Con pelo largo? ¿Ojos azules? ¿Un acento francés?”
“No,” he said. “Lo siento.”
“¿Es el hombre que ustedes están buscando?” she asked.
“Ja—sí,” Prussia said. “Él esta en problemas.”
They both nodded solemnly, as if they understood perfectly what Prussia was talking about.
“¿Huevos?” the man asked him.
As it turned out, very few people had seen France recently. He’d done under-the-counter work at a local bar for a month and a half, but that was two months ago, and no one had seen him sense.
“He was odd,” the barkeeper said. “Saved every bit of money I gave him. Ate practically nothing. Was always facing north, towards the border.”
He had no idea where France had been for the past two months.
Instead, he sighed and shook his head. “He was one of those types. Restless, and going to get himself into trouble at a moment’s notice. Was probably running from something.” He eyed the two brothers with curiosity. “Was he?”
“Not that we know of,” Prussia said. “We’re just looking for him. It’s been a while.”
“Oh, well,” the barkeeper said. “Get a drink if you would.”
“Naturally,” Prussia said, and ordered for the both of them. Evidently, he knew what kind of beer Ludwig liked.
No one else had seen France much. A clerk at the grocery store said he’d come in once a week, bought very little food and flirted with her. She seemed to be interested in him, based on the way she was twirling her hair and leaning over the counter.
“Are you sure it was Guernica?” Ludwig asked. The town was very small, just a stretch of houses and shops in the middle of a spotchy Spanish forest on the side of a mountaintop. The sea was maybe ten miles away, and when the wind blew a certain way, Ludwig could smell the salt. Occasionally, the ground or buildings would seem to tilt away from Ludwig, or he’d be oddly aware of how it looked from the air.
“That’s what the news reports said,” Prussia said.
Ludwig’s caseworker had told him that they tried to take the countries as far away from their homelands as possible, and they were only about two hours from the French border. So, there must have been another reason France was here, if he was.
Ludwig should have told Prussia about his meeting with his caseworker, but he was mortified by the knowledge he had now and mortified by the fact that part of him agreed with her. He wanted the information to just disappear, for his caseworker to have never contacted him in the first place.
“He was trying to escape to the French border, right?” Ludwig asked. “Maybe he’s closer to there, now.” Or even in France.
“Possible,” Prussia said. “Seeing as no one’s seen him here for months.”
They decided to stay another night in Guernica, then drive further up the cost.
Ludwig’s phone rang at one in the morning. It was odd, hearing the colorful sound of his ringtone in the otherwise completely silent space of the ancient bedroom. The phone also lit up, showing like a spotlight on the ceiling.
Ludwig rubbed his eyes, trying to focus them on the screen. The name was a familiar one.
“Suzanna?” Ludwig said as he picked up the phone. It was one a.m. in Spain, which meant it was six p.m. in Arizona, where Suzanna was and where Ludwig was supposed to be.
“Hello,” she said.
“Why are you calling?”
“I just wanted to check in, seeing as you’re not living with us, anymore,” she said. “How’s college.”
“Good,” Ludwig said, sitting up. “College is good.”
There was a dead silence on the other side for a few moments, and Ludwig thought he must have said something that revealed where he really was.
“Good,” Suzanna said. “You’re the only one of my fosters to end up in college.” The unspoken expectation of further success laid heavily on the silence.
Ludwig wanted to ask if she was done asking questions, but Suzanna cut him off before he could. “How are classes?”
“Good,” Ludwig said. He turned on the lamp on the bedside table. What was he learning, again?
“Are they still making you take history?”
“Ja,” Ludwig said. Then, he cursed himself internally and added, “Yes—I mean, yes.”
“And how’s that going.”
“Well. It’s easy.”
“Good,” she said, sounding relieved. “And Spanish?”
“Also going well,” Ludwig said.
“Spending that summer in Spain is helping you, isn’t it?” she asked.
That and fact that he was apparently an immortal being who could speak every language. Not that he was complaining, since, now that he thought about it, some of those townspeople were definitely not speaking Spanish. “Yes,” Ludwig said.
“And your brother? Is he better?”
He had told Suzanna that Prussia was delusional. On some level, Suzanna would understand what and where he was. But, that would mean he had become delusional, too. “Ja—yes,” Ludwig said, aware of how painfully fake his voice sounded.
“That’s good to hear. Did you end up taking him to a therapist?”
The image of Prussia entering a therapist office, promptly jumping up on the furniture and holding a sword to the therapists’ neck was too much for Ludwig to bear, and he almost laughed. “Ye—yes, it’s going well.”
“All good to hear,” Suzanna said. Another moment passed in silence, and Ludwig half-expected Suzanna to call him out. “I should tell you—my mother’s gotten worse.”
Ludwig’s brow furrowed.
“Ah—she fell again, while recovering from the hospital. I think we’re going to move her to a nursing home.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I know,” she said. “You should visit her. She always liked you. Maybe develop your photos from Spain. She’d like that.” There was another long, asking silence after those words. “We could use your help, moving her in, if you’re available this weekend.”
“Uh,” Ludwig said. He was suddenly conscious of the distance between them. Really, he should be in Arizona. “I can’t, sorry.”
“Oh, alright,” she said. “Busy college student, I understand.” She paused. “Goodnight, Ludwig.”
The way she said his name sounded different than usual. Oh, right. That was the English pronunciation, which meant that Prussia had been calling him by the German pronunciation and he hadn’t noticed. “Ok,” he said. “Auf Wiederhören!” Ludwig pressed the red button the phone and dropped it on the mattress.
Then, he stared at the phone in horror, wondering what he had just said.
Ludwig woke up several hours later, sleeping patterns relatively undisturbed from the call. He didn’t have any nightmares, either, which was nice as the night before had him dreaming of heat with burning spires of smoke.
Prussia had woken up before him and was having a friendly conversation with the elderly couple who ran the bed and breakfast. It was odd, in a way, to see Prussia in such a normal situation.
The elderly couple wished them good luck on their search for France, and they headed further north.
It was another two hours in the car before they reached San Sebastián, the next big town. With straight driving, it was probably only an hour away, but Prussia insisted they stop at every town and ask the locals if they’d seen France. A few of them had talked about a wild-eyed Frenchman who’d only stayed for a day or two before heading north, always towards the border.
San Sebastián was on the ocean, and the sparkling waves of the Atlantic were visible from the highway. It was a peaceful little town, flatter than Guernica, interwoven with a large, winding river and several parks.
No one had called ahead a hotel reservation for them, so Prussia walked into every hotel and hostel in the city, starting always by asking about France. A run-down one on the south side of town said they’d seen him, though based on the smile the clerk was giving them, Ludwig wasn’t sure they could trust him. Also, he’d booked them a room with only one bed in it, which Prussia had to change.
Rather than continue to be dragged around to every public space and have to ask about France, Ludwig figured it would be more efficient if they went to the police station instead.
So, they did. The police station was located off of a traffic circle in a massive building with a white façade and reflective, square windows.
“Excuse me,” Prussia said to the receptionist. Except he said it in Spanish.
“¿Sí?” she asked.
“Necesitamos saber si ustedes arrestan a un hombre.” Prussia said. The news reports did say he’d been arrested.
“No puedo hablarlos,” she said, starting to pick at her nails. Naturally, their arrest records weren’t public.
Prussia took out his passport and showed it to her. She looked disinterested in it. So, he pulled out several euro notes and started sliding them to her.
“Ok,” she said.
Prussia rattled off a similar list of characteristics that he’d been saying all day. Blond. Long hair. French.
“Sí,” the receptionist said. “Hace quince días que arrestamos alguien que corresponde a esta descripción.”
“Ok,” Prussia said.
Ludwig smiled. They’d arrested him more recently than anyone else had seen him in, so they must be closing in on him. Maybe he was still here. “¿Es él está aqui ahora?”
“No,” she said. “Algos días después de su arresto, un hombre pagó su fianza,” She shrugged. “No vemos desde entonces.” Out on bail.
Well, that was considerably less useful. “¿Digo adónde ellos van?”
“No,” she said. “Lo siento.” She started typing on her computer, and, for all intents and purposes, Prussia and Ludwig were dead to her.
They left the police station soon after to eat lunch, which they found at a small, Spanish restaurant.
“What are we going to do now?” Ludwig asked.
Prussia stirred his drink with the straw. “It’s a start. The man who took him probably had something to do with all of this.”
All of the sudden, the memory of his caseworker talking to him in the morning mist rose from the pit of Ludwig’s stomach and into his throat, where it started to choke him. He knew something more about the people who’d taken him and had probably taken France. But he couldn’t tell Prussia—that would mean giving him an explanation as to why he hadn’t already told him, and the very thought horrified Ludwig, so, instead, he simply nodded.
Prussia sighed and leaned back in his chair, oblivious to his brother’s internal turmoil. “He obviously lived near here. Maybe still does.”
And maybe not. They would want to get him farther away from the French border, if Ludwig’s caseworker had been any indication.
“You know, maybe that man wasn’t caught up in anything. He could have just been a friend of France’s,” Prussia said.
That seemed reasonable as well. Ludwig nodded. “We might be better off searching for him in France,”
Prussia’s eyes grew distant for a while, then he blinked. “If he was in France, we’d know because the government would be able to find him.” He paused. “France’s government never gave up looking, unlike ours.”
Ludwig didn’t know how to respond to that phrase, so he responded to an earlier one. “Are you sure they’d be able to find him?” he asked. “Even if he crossed the border illegally?”
Prussia nodded. “France has never gone too long without interacting with the government.” “Nations can sense when they’re in each other’s territory. Somehow they rigged it with Elaß or Lothringen.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “Does that mean—”
“There’s no one in Germany, is there?” Prussia asked.
Ludwig closed his eyes and searched the back of his mind, pouring over his subconscious feelings. Nothing seemed amiss. He focused his mind on his body, as well, but everything seemed fine. “No,” Ludwig said. “Although I’m not sure I would know what I was looking for, anyway.”
“It’s one of those things where you just know,” Prussia said. “I mean, I guess. I’ve never had to explain this before to anyone.”
“Really?” Ludwig said. “Not even when I was a child?”
“No,” Prussia said. “It was easier back then because you didn’t know any different.” He paused. “Besides, like I said, it’s one of those things where you just know.’ He paused again. “So, there’s probably no one.”
“Spain, then,” Ludwig said. “We should keep searching in Spain, in case France didn’t go very far.” He thought more about it. “Maybe we should try a bigger city, as there’s a bigger chance he’d show up there. But ask everyone here, first.”
“OK,” Prussia said. “And I’ll keep checking the weird news sites.”
“Websites where they post weird news stories. Me and France and Spain used to have competitions where we’d see how many times we’d end up on one in a week.”
“And I let you do this?”
That made Prussia angry. “You don’t have that much power over me!”
They talked to everyone in San Sebastián, or so it seemed, and got a few more details of his arrest. He’d gotten drunk almost every night, a bartender told them. Stayed in a different hotel every two or three days, they put together. And, in the middle of the night, tried to run across the French border.
After that, they headed up the coast, stopping in another small town. Ludwig had a horrible nightmare there only night there, one that he didn’t even want to interpret. No one there had even seen France.
They went all the way to the French border. Prussia yelled at all of the border control agents and threatened to start an international incident if they didn’t tell him anything. They gave in, eventually, but only told them what they’d already heard before.
So, dejected, the two brothers drove back to Bilbao. Prussia found them a small apartment downtown. And, as soon as Ludwig put his head against the pillow, he starting dreaming of an even hotter war, with sweat running down his neck and back, while he stared at his fingers, feeling like they were, in some ways out of proportion.
He woke up in the early morning. The sun was just starting to rise over the mountains, and a few shiny faces of the massive art museum were starting to catch the light.
Ludwig got out of bed again and went for a walk. It would be nice for him to not dream about those things anymore, like he had before all of this started. Not that he would give up his current life for the one he’d had beforehand.
Wasn’t it nice? Having a brother, travelling internationally, driving for hours on winding roads with music he didn’t like, having responsibility and a slew of things he didn’t want to think about stuffed in the back of his head. And the dreams. He couldn’t forget that part of this immensely enjoyable experience.
Ludwig saw a supermarket, and, remembering the lack of food in the apartment, he decided to buy some.
Really, his meeting with his caseworker was another thing he just didn’t want to think about, and it seemed to make sense to push it out of his head, so he didn’t have to deal with the part of him that agreed with her.
Ludwig tried to remember what Prussia liked, then just decided that they seemed to have similar enough tastes that he could just buy what he wanted.
What was a country, anyway? It was just a bunch of land with some people living on it. Any special significance was given to it by people and could be taken away by them, too.
The cashier looked at him expectantly. Oh, right. In Europe, plastic bags cost money, and they’d rather take cash for it than credit. Ludwig reached into his pocket and took out several coins, not realizing how loose his hold on them was, and several slipped out and ran across the floor. One bumped into the show of the man behind Ludwig in line.
“Pérdon,” Ludwig said, picking them up.
“Excuse me?” the other man said. Ludwig was suddenly conscious of the fact that he was speaking English, which made him uncomfortable, so he pushed it out of his mind.
“I’m sorry,” Ludwig said. He glanced briefly at the man, who looked extremely out of place in the Spanish supermarket. Ludwig couldn’t help but noticed his eyebrows, which seemed to take up half of his forehead.
“You bloody well should be,” he said. “People in this country.”
Ludwig was not from this country, but he decided not to say anything. Instead, he focused his attention back on the cashier, who took his change and gave him the bags.
By the time Ludwig arrived back at their apartment, Prussia was awake and up.
“Where were you?” he asked.
Ludwig set the bags down on the coffee table. “Shopping,” he said.
Prussia looked at the bag and sighed.
He must have been worried that Ludwig had disappeared again, so it was time to change the subject. “There was this weird man at the grocery store,” he said.
“Weird how?” Prussia asked. He still seemed distracted by the other thing.
“Well, he spoke in English, for one, and—” Ludwig felt oddly guilty about talking about someone else. “he had these massive eyebrows.”
Prussia furrowed his brow. “Green eyes? Blond hair? British?” he asked, standing up.
“Y-yes,” Ludwig said, surprised by Prussia grabbing his arm and pulling him towards the door. “Is something wrong.”
Prussia looked him in the eyes. “Which supermarket?”
Ludwig told him, and they were off.
Thanks to APHTeavana. AO3 screwed with my chapter numbering, so I'm sorry if this shows up as a double update.
Luckily, it was a short walk from the apartment to the grocery store and the man had headed in the same direction they were in, so it only took a moment for Ludwig and Prussia to find the other man. Prussia had dragged him by the arm all the way there, much to Ludwig’s embarrassment.
“Hello,” Prussia said to him, in English. Was he going to launch directly into the people-that-were-countries thing?
The man looked back and forth at them suspiciously. “Hello,” he said.
“My understanding is that you and my brother had some kind of confrontation at the grocery store earlier?” Prussia asked. Apparently not.
The man glanced at Ludwig. “Er—yes,” he said.
“We’d really like to make it up to you,” Prussia said. “We’re brand new in this city and don’t know where anything is. Do you think you could meet us for dinner? We’ll pay for it, naturally.”
The man blinked, obviously surprised at the request. “Sure,” he said. Then, he looked back and forth at the two brothers, no doubt noticing Prussia’s albinism. “Where are you from?”
“Germany,” Prussia said before Ludwig could stop him.
“Oh, OK,” the other man said. “I’m not from around here myself.”
“But I’m sure you know better restaurants around here than we do,” Prussia said.
“Uh, yes,” the other man said. “Yes. There was this little place I ate at a week ago—seafood. It was quite lovely.”
“Seafood,” Ludwig said. He glanced at Prussia. “That sounds nice.”
“OK,” The other man said. “Here, I’ll give you the address.” He rattled off a name and a street number, which Prussia put into his phone.
“Danke,” Prussia said. “We’ll be there at eight. How does that sound?”
“OK,” the man said.
“What’s your name, by the way?” When no answer seemed forthcoming, Prussia added: “I’m Gilbert Beilschmidt, and this is my brother, Ludwig.”
“Err—” the other man said. “I’m Kirkland. Arthur Kirkland.”
Prussia smiled as the other man shuffled away.
“Think he’ll come?” Ludwig asked.
“Ehh,” Prussia said. “Probably. People don’t like to turn down free food.”
“I guess,” Ludwig said. “I wasn’t expecting you to handle that so well.”
“What?” Prussia asked, offended. “I handle everything well!”
“Not telling me, you didn’t,” Ludwig said.
“Well, when I saw you after so long …” Prussia trailed off. “It was really something, West.” His demeanor changed completely. “But I’ve never been that close with England, so I guess it doesn’t matter.”
“England?” Ludwig asked. “Is that who that was?”
Prussia looked confused for a moment. “Ja,” he said. “Did I not tell you?”
Ludwig tried to place England on the map of the world. “So, that’s like the UK, right?” he asked.
“No?” Prussia said. “England is only one of the kingdoms in the UK?”
“So why did they take England and not the UK?”
Prussia seemed to be getting more confused by the moment. “There’s no personification for the UK,” he said. “All of the kingdoms have their own personification, but England represents them at meetings.”
“I mean, you’ve met your states. They—they don’t get along,” Prussia said.
Ludwig tried to image all of his states at a meeting with other countries. Which meant that countries had meetings, which did make sense, even if Prussia had never mentioned it before. “No, I mean why doesn’t the UK have a personification?”
“I don’t know,” Prussia said. “Why am I still alive when Prussia was dissolved as a state one hundred and sixty years ago, and as a political entity ninety years ago? Some things just don’t make sense, West,” he said.
Ludwig shrugged. “I guess so,” he said.
Ludwig wanted to ask Prussia how he was planning on telling England, but Prussia kept dismissing him and saying that everything would be fine. Part of the reason Ludwig was having trouble accepting his nationhood—was that even a word?—was because of what the caseworker had told him. And, since he didn’t want to think about that, he was stuck with Prussia’s plan. If he had one.
So that resulted in the two of them showing up at the restaurant England had suggested at eight, with no idea what to say to him. Or maybe Prussia did have an idea, but it was not one he was willing to tell Ludwig.
Surprisingly enough, England did show up. He was a bit later than they were, so they’d already ordered their drinks by the time he got there. It was probably because he’d debated coming at all.
But he seemed definitive now. He walked directly over to their table and draped his black coat over one of the two empty chairs.
“Hello,” he said.
“Nice to see you again,” Prussia said. “We were starting to think you weren’t coming.”
“Uh—well,” England said.
“So how long have you lived in Bilbao?” Ludwig asked, trying to keep up an ordinary conversation.
England shifted his weight. “About four months,” he said. “It’s a lovely city, though,” he chuckled. “Can’t ask for much better.”
“¿Y tú hablas español?” Prussia asked.
“No, desafortunadamente.” England said. “Intento aprender a un día.”
That sentence was so absurd it almost made Ludwig laugh. Had he ever said anything that stupid in Spanish? He hoped not.
“I see,” Prussia said, “Well, my younger brother here speaks Spanish, so maybe he can give you some tips.” Ludwig smiled. He saw the reflection of his smile in England’s eyes, along with the horrified expression it gave him.
“Um, thanks,” England said.
“Where did you live before Bilbao?” Ludwig asked, stirring his drink.
“This is going to sound ridiculous,” England said.
Neither brother responded. England continued to look at them.
“But I don’t really remember,” he finished.
“Izvo zvinofadza,” Prussia said.
Cutting him off before he dragged the entire conversation into languages Ludwig could barely understand, Ludwig said: “So how does that work, exactly? What do you remember?”
England shifted his weight. “Not much. I was in a bad situation, apparently. My parents … raised me, then threw me in with a cult.” He shrugged.
“That’s quite unfortunate,” Ludwig said. “I was—”
Prussia cut him off. “So you’ve never been to England, right?”
“Britain?” England asked. “No.” he paused for a moment, stirring his water with the straw. “I’d like to go sometime, of course. It would be nice to be in a place where people speak English, but I don’t have the funds to go anywhere. I’m friends with a lot of British expats, though,” he added.
Remembering the earlier conversation he’d had with Alfred, Ludwig asked: “You identify as Spanish, then?”
“No,” he said. “Not particularly. I mean, I don’t speak the language, but it is all I’ve ever known.”
“Interesting,” Prussia said. Ludwig expected him to explain how he identified with Prussia but not Germany, but he didn’t.
The waiter came by and took their order for food.
“How have you lived in Spain?” Ludwig asked.
“I found a job,” England said. “Working with English-speaking tourists.” He shrugged. “I hate it, but it’s a living.”
“That must be difficult,” Prussia said. “Porque no habla la lengua.”
“No encuentro muy difícil.” England said. “Muchos hablan ingles.”
“I see,” Ludwig said. “And you have an apartment, too, I imagine?”
“Yes,” England said. “And a caseworker who checks on me regularly.” He paused. “What do you two do for a living?”
“Government,” Prussia said. Then, seeing England’s bewildered look, he added: “Government work.”
“What kind of government work?”
“Diplomacy, mostly,” Ludwig said. “Dealing with foreign heads of state and other important people when they come to our country.”
“Germany,” England said, looking directly at Ludwig. Ludwig felt a shiver run down his spine.
“Yes,” Prussia said. “Ger—Ludwig here actually just finished college.”
England looked back and forth at the two of them. “But he’s going to do the same work as you? A kind of family business?”
“Proba—” Ludwig started to say.
“Our family has a very long tradition of civil service,” Prussia said. “Going back for generations.”
It might have been inside Ludwig’s head, but England seemed to pale at that. “Ah,” he said.
“That was how we had the idea to go to Spain, actually,” Prussia said. “Lutz studied abroad here while he was in college.”
“In Sevilla, actually,” Ludwig said.
“That’s in …” England paused.
“Andalucía,” Ludwig said. “A little ways from here.”
“And they speak a different language?”
“Well, they don’t speak Basque,” Prussia said. “If that’s what you’re asking.”
“So, you two speak English, Spanish and German?” England asked. “I always admire people who can do that. I can’t even speak Spanish and I live here,” he chuckled at that.
“It’s pretty much required for our line of work,” Ludwig said.
“And I’m sure you’ll pick it up,” Prussia said. Then, looking directly into Ludwig’s eyes, he added: “I’m sure you already know more than you realize.”
From there, the conversation drifted to be about the weather, the political state of several of the countries around them. England seemed to know a lot more about German politics than Ludwig did, so that was kind of embarrassing.
It seemed like all was going pretty well, actually. Ludwig still wasn’t sure when Prussia was going to bring up the countries-as-people thing, but he was dreading it more and more by the minute.
“Here,” Prussia said, signing the bill and giving it back to the waiter. He didn’t even glance at it. Though, based on the conversation England and Prussia had just had, Germany’s economy was going strong, so maybe that meant they had a lot of extra money to spare.
“Why, thank you,” England said.
Prussia smiled. “Where do you live?” he asked. “We could take you back there.”
“Oh, it’s not far,” England said. “I walked over here,”
“We drove,” Prussia said. “Really, it’s no trouble.”
“OK,” England said.
They walked out to the car.
“Arthur,” Prussia said. “Why don’t you get in the back seat.” There was something about that sentence, maybe the lack of intonation at the end of it, that Ludwig didn’t like. England didn’t seem to like it either, but he didn’t complain.
“Germany,” Prussia said. It took Ludwig a moment to remember that he was referring to him. “Drive,” he said.
Ludwig got in the driver’s side of the car, and Prussia got into the passenger seat. He held the Walther P22 in his right hand.
“Why did you call him—” England started asking. Before he could finish, Prussia shot him in the head.
The car swerved to the side as the steering wheel slipped out of Ludwig’s hands. They went over a small bump—the curbside.
“Oh my God,” Ludwig said. He looked back at the blood-covered back seat, with the bullet hole in the head rest and England’s limp body spread out over the seat.
“It worked for you,” Prussia said and shrugged.
Ludwig shifted the car into reverse. England was going to be fine. They were countries; they didn’t die if someone shot them. “You’re sure he’s fine? Like, England’s not going to be in trouble over this or anything?”
Prussia didn’t respond for a moment. “Ja.” He said. “When bad things happen to the country, we get injured, but when bad things happen to us, the country stays fine.”
“Oh my God,” Ludwig repeated.
“What?” Prussia asked.
Unsure what else to say, Ludwig said what had just occurred to him. “This car is a rental!”
They parked the rental car at the base of the staircase to their rental apartment. Then, unsure how else to proceed, they drove to a housing supply store and bought a large tarp. Then, they drove back to the apartment, found a sketchy, dark alleyway and rolled England’s body onto the tarp. They rolled up the tarp and carried it up the three flights of stairs to their rented apartment.
As soon as they could, they dumped England’s body on the couch. It was white leather, and some of England’s blood was already starting to pool onto it.
“Oh my God,” Ludwig said.
“Relax, West,” Prussia said. That nickname sent shivers down Ludwig’s spine. “It’s going to be fine.” He walked over to their European-style mini-fridge and handed Ludwig a beer, which he took gratefully. Ludwig sat down in one of the matching chairs that faced the couch England was lying on. Prussia took the other one.
“What if he doesn’t heal?” Ludwig asked.
“He will,” Prussia said. “He’s recovered from worse, believe me.” Prussia paused to take a sip of his beer. “Although, you did take a little longer to recover than I expected. So that might be true of him, too.”
Ludwig balked at that. “And you’ve waited till now to tell me this?”
Prussia shrugged and took a swig of beer.
“How are we going to clean the car?” Ludwig asked.
“I don’t know; we’ll pay someone to do it,” Prussia said.
“Won’t that be suspicious?”
Prussia shrugged. “We have diplomatic immunity,” he said.
“I’m pretty sure that isn’t how that works.”
“Well, our government will get me out of anything.” He paused. “Believe me.”
“Just you?” Ludwig asked. That didn’t get a response. “So, do you make a habit of shooting random nations?”
“No,” Prussia said. “Though this may be a reoccurring thing if no one else remembers who they are and we can’t think of another way to persuade them.” He paused, taking another swig of his beer. “Besides, dying’s kind of awful. I don’t have to tell you that, though.”
“You should go easy on that,” Ludwig said, nodding at the beer.
“Oh, right,” Prussia said. “I forget, sometimes, that I don’t have the tolerance of a country anymore.”
“Countries have more tolerance?”
“Sure,” Prussia said. “Getting you drunk would be like trying to saturate all of the land of Germany with alcohol.” He paused. “Meaning it’s difficult, takes a lot of alcohol, and happens more frequently than you would think.”
Ludwig looked away. A half-forgotten memory of his time in Arizona surfaced to the front of his mind—five of them, sitting in a circle, drinking, Stephen telling him to slow down or stop or he was going to get sick.
Prussia sighed loudly, making Ludwig look back at him. “I wonder what there is to do in this town.”
Ludwig looked at him bitterly. “There’s staying here and sleeping.”
“I suppose so,” Prussia said and smiled. “Somebody has to watch the dead body.”
A week and a half passed more or less uneventfully. Ludwig spent most of the time inside the apartment itself, usually watching stupid dubbed American documentaries on the small, grainy television set. At around noon on the second day, he noticed that the hole in England’s head was not as big as it had been. The bleeding had already stopped, which was good, because Ludwig was sick of having to pad the couch with paper towels to sop up all of the blood. He’d assumed that was just because the blood had dried, but now it seemed like England was healing.
That night, Prussia came home with a newly cleaned car. Ludwig was not going to ask him about it, but then Prussia launched into a story about the Spanish mob and a group of contract killers he hired to clean out the crime scene.
Like almost every night he’d known him for, Prussia also used the opportunity to give a long, passionate lecture on German history, which Ludwig was fascinated by.
The next day, England took his first sputtering, shallow breath. It was odd; like his chest started to rise and fall, just subtly, with his mouth closed, and then, all at once, the upper part of his torso opened up all at once, and he took his first, shallow breath.
England regained consciousness that night. Ludwig had been worried about it all afternoon—a good break from his normal study of German history—and whether or not he and Prussia would noticed before England left out the window or something.
However, this wasn’t a problem because as soon as England woke up, he started cursing.
“Oh my God,” he said. “Oh my God!” he repeated. “Where the bloody hell am I?”
Prussia and Ludwig walked over to where England was now sitting up on the couch.
“German—tourists?” England asked.
“This is going to sound crazy—” Prussia started.
“You’re alive,” Ludwig said, having a brief flashback to Prussia’s explanation of his own nationhood. “We shot you with a real bullet, and you’re alive again now.”
England’s face contorted.
“Yes, this is really happening,” Ludwig said.
“Oh my God,” England said for a third time.
Then, for some reason, no one had anything to say and there was a heavy, uncomfortable silence.
“You’re immortal,” Prussia said bluntly.
“And—how?” England asked. “How did you guys know?”
“Oh, we just shot you and figured it out when you didn’t die,” Prussia said.
“We’re immortal, too,” Ludwig said, enunciating each word properly.
“And we remember you—” Prussia added in.
“From a very long time ago,” Ludwig said. “But you don’t remember us because you have amnesia.”
“Oh,” England said. For a moment, that seemed like it was going to be his entire reaction. But then, he added: “That explains so much.”
Ludwig and Prussia looked at each other.
They didn’t have to ask because England jumped into an explanation. “The fairies kept telling me that I wasn’t remembering things and I wasn’t myself and I told the doctors about them, but they just said I was crazy.” Ludwig sent a skeptical glance to Prussia, who didn’t respond. “They said they’d recognized you, too, but I figured I should ignore them and they were really racist about it and I’m sorry.”
“Uh—OK,” Ludwig said.
“I think my brother’s leaving out the most important part,” Prussia said. “Which is that we’re—”
“Countries,” Ludwig said. “We’re countries.” Then, remembering his own initial confusion, he added: “Well, we’re the personifications of countries.”
England glanced at Prussia, then Ludwig. “And what countries are we supposed to be?”
“Prussia,” Prussia said, pronouncing it Preußen.
That name did not seem to register inside England’s mind. He scoffed and looked at Ludwig. “What made-up country are you supposed to be?”
“Germany,” Ludwig said, noting the indecisiveness in his voice.
England sank back further into the couch. “So that explains that,” he muttered to himself. “And I’m—” his face contorted, like he was trying to figure out how to pronounce something. “Albion?” he asked.
“England,” Prussia said.
“England,” England said. “Well, that explains some things too, I suppose.” He scowled.
England was taking the whole people countries thing very well. He ate dinner with them on the first night, as Prussia explained the whole story of how all of the countries had been taken, and now they were all missing, including the part where he found Ludwig.
“Is my country still looking for me?” England asked. “Or …” Was it like yours? Was the unspoken question there. As usual, Prussia added in a few details that Ludwig had never heard before which, in this context, meant adding in that their Nationalassisten had pretty much given up on ever finding Ludwig. His mind went back to the pre-dawn conversation with his caseworker, and to the scars on his arms—the long, twisting ones that ran down the inside of his wrists.
“I’m not sure,” Prussia said. “They haven’t contacted me in a while, so that’s not a good sign. Don’t be too offended, though. It’s been a long time.”
That comment was probably half directed at Ludwig. But it wasn’t his pride that was injured when he heard about how they’d stopped searching for him. It was the scratches on his arm that itched instead.
“Huh,” England said. “And before me you were trying to find … France?”
“Yes,” Prussia said.
“We have no idea where he is, though,” Ludwig added.
“You wouldn’t have happened to have meet him, would you,” Prussia said. “He’s tallish, blond, long hair, blue eyes, French …”
“Can’t say I have,” England said. “How many are there of us?”
“A little over two hundred,” Prussia said.
“And they’re all missing,”
They all sat in silence, thinking about that for a moment.
“You haven’t been to school, have you?” Prussia asked.
“What?” England asked.
“Since you woke up on the beach. You’ve only been working?”
“Yeah,” England said.
“So you don’t know much about history?” Prussia asked.
“I guess not,” England said, confused about where this was going.
“Not even English history?” Prussia asked. England did not dignify that with a response. “So you’ve never heard of the War of Jenkin’s Ear? The War of the Roses? The Rough Wooing?”
“No,” England said. “Why were people fighting over roses?”
“I don’t know,” Prussia said. “That was your history, not mine.” Then he looked over at Ludwig, as if to reassure him that their people never fought over anything as silly as roses.
England took out his phone and typed something into it. “Wait.” He said. “The war wasn’t over roses. It was just that the two families both had a rose in their crest.”
Ludwig had to ask the obvious question. “Why were people fighting over families?”
“Things were different back then,” Prussia said. “simpler. People were aligned with one noble family or another, and the country went with them.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. That was definitely more information than he’d wanted.
They continued to talk into the night, mostly about idiosyncrasies in their various histories, and their past relationships with one another. That was one topic that made Ludwig extremely uncomfortable. It was odd to think of another him, one who shared the same voice and body, talking to people he hadn’t met before, making decisions based on memories he didn’t have.
That brought him back into the realm of thinking about what his caseworker had told him in the morning mist. Rather than continue to run in the same circles around the subject as he had been for the past few days, he decided to take out his phone and Google IEUN. After two pages of web results about alternate spellings of Ian and obscure Internet rappers, he found one about an NGO.
It had apparently only existed for two years. During that time, they made a lot of obscure, ridiculous comments—as in, comments they were ridiculed for—about how Australia should remove their national anthem or how France should tear down the Eiffel Tower.
Countries were just slabs of land, with no significance to them other than what they gave to them. There was nothing deciding that he was now in Spain, as he’d previously been in Germany.
The card with her number on it was still in his pocket. Ludwig traced out the numbers written on it, feeling the grooves created by strokes of a ballpoint pen.
But he couldn’t call it because that would mean turning them in. And that was bad, even if he couldn’t think of the specific reason right now.
They had been ridiculed for their comments—that was certain. It did seem kind of ridiculous, to talk about tearing down the Eiffel Tower when it was mostly just for tourists, anyway, and probably had nothing to do with French national identity.
However, at the same time, maybe all of the symbols were ridiculous. What were they symbols of? An abstract concept, with no basis in reality, that people died over. All of the wars Prussia had been telling him about—what were they all for?
Still with all of those thoughts swirling in his head, Ludwig fell asleep. He dreamed of a cold that seeped into his bones, froze every limb stiff and caused ice crystals to form across his fresh wounds.
Ludwig went for a walk the next morning, like usual. The sun rose slowly over Bilbao with individual beams sorting their way through the mountains to show on certain buildings like a spotlight. He’d remembered the camera Suzanna’s mother, Claudia, had given him, which now hung around his neck.
The only picture he took with it was of mist coming out of the river to shroud the art museum that had just begun to glow orange from the sunlight. After that, he remembered the wall of photos in the house in Berlin and all of the photos of him and Prussia. He really should be taking pictures of people. They were the things he wanted to remember. Although he should have some photos to show Claudia.
But was he even going back to Arizona? The heat was something that he wouldn’t miss, but it seemed absurd to drop his entire life.
That was what he’d done, wasn’t it? Dropped his entire life after his older brother re-entered his life and shot him in the head.
Somehow, England was actually taking the same treatment well. Based on what England had said about his life so far, he’d been missing something and constantly weirded out by the presence of the fairies.
If he was being perfectly honest, Ludwig thought his descriptions of fairies were evidence that England had completely lost his mind. It still didn’t seem right to question them, so Ludwig simply pretended he didn’t know but believed England on the matter. Prussia seemed to be onto him about this, based on the way he always sent Ludwig raised eyebrows when he thought England wasn’t looking, but had yet to broach the subject with him.
England and Prussia were up by the time Ludwig got home.
“So we don’t have another choice but to keep looking,” England said.
“I mean, we could—Hallo, West—we could try to find out who did this to everyone, but I don’t think we’ll have the manpower or whatever to actually do anything about it,” Prussia said.
Ludwig walked over to where they were sitting in the living room, on the same couch that England had bled to death on three days earlier. Large, red stains still clustered towards the top of the back cushions.
“So you think we should keep looking,” England said, clutching his mug closer. “For France or anyone.”
“Ja,” Prussia said. “You and West don’t seem to be in any kind of immediate danger. None of the people who took you even seem to be threatening or even in contact with you so …” he shrugged.
“Hey, West, that caseworker of yours never did say anything or anything, right?” Prussia asked, looking at Ludwig.
Ludwig shook his head. He should tell Prussia, he knew that, and the knowledge sank heavily to the bottom of his stomach. Meanwhile, the awareness that he’d have to explain what his thought process was behind not telling Prussia floated to the forefront of his brain.
“It’s weird,” Prussia said as Ludwig sat down in one of the chairs that faced the couch. “I want revenge and all,” Prussia continued, “but … well, I don’t know what we can do.”
“Maybe someone else will know more,” England said, looking over at Ludwig. “I’m sorry that we haven’t been very much help.”
“Oh,” Prussia said. “Oh, well, don’t, well …”
“How much have you started to remember?” England asked Ludwig.
“Not much,” Ludwig said. “Mostly just wars.”
“Me too,” England said. “That and a bunch of nonsense about America breaking my heart. Seems like the vaguest stuff comes first.”
“Ja—yeah,” Ludwig said.
Prussia started laughing. “America breaking your heart. America—” He took a deep breath in and stopped.
“Whatever happened to America?” England asked.
“He’s the reason we came here—to Spain,” Prussia said. “But we don’t seem to have anymore leads on him or France.”
But the way they had found the most leads so far was still available to them. “Weird news stories,” Ludwig said.
His brother and England stared at him blankly.
“Look up more weird news stories. About things we know nations have—like surviving impossible accidents or being able to speak a lot of languages,” Ludwig said.
“Huh,” Prussia said. “Like you being able to survive that car crash.” He paused. “Usually, though, random accidents that happen to a nation have some tie in to something that happened in their country.” He paused again. “Like how you got into that accident because of that terrorist driving the car into the government building in Munich.” He sighed.
Ludwig felt sick. Suzanna and Nancy were right. It was his fault that the car had crashed. Those people—Stephen—had died because of him. But didn’t that make sense; people were always dying because of him. Suddenly, he wanted to get out of this conversation and sit down and think about all of this. He tried to say I need to go now but all that came out was a strangled, “ich—”
“So what countries have been having problems?” England asked.
Prussia shrugged. “There were those protests in Ireland a few months ago. And that tsunami in Mexico.”
England thought about this for a moment. “What about that situation in Burma?”
“Myanmar?” Prussia asked. “Usually ongoing situations make us sick for a while but don’t cause a sudden tragedy. Myanmar’s probably just coughing and having trouble healing.” He looked over at Ludwig. “Looking up weird news stories, though, that’s a good idea.”
Prussia and England both took out their phones.
“Those protests—they ended two months ago, right?” England asked.
“Ja,” Prussia said.
England showed them a headline that ran. “Amnesiac with mysterious illness gets better.”
“Bolívia,” Ludwig said. “He’s in Bolívia.”
“So,” Ludwig said. “What, exactly, do we do as countries?” England had gone to bed a few minutes ago. He was sleeping on the couch, so Prussia and Ludwig were talking in the kitchen, with the door closed. Now seemed like as good of a time as any to ask about the scars on his wrist.
“Oh, you know,” Prussia said.
“Besides fighting in wars,” Ludwig said. “Which we haven’t too much recently, right?”
Prussia shrugged. “Not really, no. Just helping out NATO with things here or there, like the war in Afghanistan.”
“The American war in Afghanistan?”
“Ja,” Prussia said. “Except it wasn’t just Americans fighting in it, but you know that.” He looked intensely at Ludwig, titling his head to the side.
“So, what do we do during peacetime?”
Prussia shrugged. “Not much. Mostly just kick around the house, with our bosses waiting to see if we get sick or something.” He took a beer out of the fridge.
Ludwig sighed. “You had one last night.”
“But not tonight.”
“You can’t drink every night. You’re not a country anymore.”
Prussia tensed up at that. “You think I don’t know that? God, it was enough getting it from Brandenburg and Bavaria, but you too?”
Ludwig tried to picture his states again. “Branden…”
Out of nowhere, Prussia produced a bottle opener, and he took off the cap. “Now, naturally, it’s completely different with them. Brandenburg’s worried about me, and Bavaria’s only does it to annoy me. Like it’s evidence he won or something.” He took a swig of out the bottle. “Like you existing is evidence he won or something. I raised you, for God’s sakes.”
Prussia did tend to act drunk even when he wasn’t drinking. “So…” Ludwig said. “We don’t have any power to do anything?”
“God no,” Prussia said. “We have to do whatever our boss tells us to do.” He took another drink. “Me less so than you because … you know.”
“You’re not a country anymore,” Ludwig said. “Really? Whatev—”
“Ja, ja, regardless of whether or not we agree with it, or it’s morally wrong or whatever,” Prussia said. “It’s part of the job.” He took another drink.
“Oh,” Ludwig said.
“No fun explaining that to you the first time around. You thought it would be better, idealistic or something,” Prussia said. “I’m sorry.”
Silence descended on the kitchen, except for the refrigerator, which was still making that humming sound it always made when it was running.
“Even if it’s not healthy for us?” Ludwig asked.
“No,” Prussia said. “Even if it’s not good for the country, or us, or anyone.” He sighed.
“That …” Ludwig started. Then, he shook his head.
“It doesn’t happen too much, anymore, though.” Prussia’s eyes flickered to Ludwig’s arms. He knew! But, he must have. He must have been there when it happened.
“Dan—thanks,” Ludwig said. With that, he left the room and shut the door behind him, hoping Prussia wouldn’t drink too much that night.
They kept searching for more odd stories. England came to the same decision that Ludwig had—it would be best to look at unusual cases of people who had amnesia. It was unfortunate that the next country they found probably wouldn’t know what happened to all of them, either, but it was more important that they found the country first.
A few of the articles had pictures attached to them, which they’d show to Prussia. “Italy,” he said on the photo of a blushing, smiling brown-haired man. He was cute. For a moment, Ludwig’s brain was overloaded with memories of Italy, mostly from World War Two. A vision of one of his citizens, lying in a pool of his own blood pushed itself to the forefront of his mind, followed by one of a Frenchman he knew he’d killed and a sinking stone in his stomach.
His caseworker had told him that he didn’t have to remember any of that. He could go back to the life he’d had before, just living and working and going to school.
That and England, too, could just have a normal life. No confusing memories or dreams. No vague notions of something missing.
And living forever, watching everyone die while undergoing all the national pain—that didn’t seem to attractive, either.
Ludwig managed to avoid thinking of his caseworker for another ten minutes while he read through sensationalized stories about a man who’d remarried his wife after forgetting about her. At the end of that time, he found himself tracing the letters on the back of the card. And then he stopped.
The nearest country they found was Russia, who was apparently living in Algiers. He’d been found by a fishing boat a few years earlier. Since then, his life had been very straightforward, living more or less as England or Alfred or Ludwig had been. He’d been arrested after it was discovered he’d stolen a single sunflower out of a sunflower patch everyday for almost a year and a half.
Prussia got on the phone with their Nationalassistenten, who booked the three of them a flight to Algiers. He’d also realized that the nations were still going by their human names—an odd precaution they’d made up years ago to sound more normal. They agreed to reconvene in the morning.
Ludwig couldn’t sleep that night. Most of him was still focused on the house in Arizona, on college and Suzanna’s family. Germany, too, and the seventy-eight million people he was supposed to represent. The house in Berlin with its cold, dark surfaces and the smiling pictures of people he didn’t know. Deutsches Kaiserreich. And the collection of books in a language he couldn’t read.
So many things, really, he was supposed to do but couldn’t. And wasn’t this one of them? This life, with England and Prussia and travelling the world looking for other countries? How could he be expected to have anything to do with this?
Ludwig wasn’t sure he wanted to, anyway. See everyone he knew die? Including Prussia? Have to interact with these people that he already had complicated and intricate relationships with that he knew nothing about?
And what was that thing about how the German government had stopped looking for him? They really didn’t care about him, did they? And—he traced the scars on his arms.
Ludwig made a decision then. Really, he’d made the decision days ago, when he’d first talked to his caseworker. Or maybe it was even earlier than that, when he had decided Prussia was delusional, or it was tied to a memory that pressed against the edge of Ludwig’s consciousness, one with lights that shined in his eyes and a harsh fabric covering his body.
The decision was certainly made, Ludwig told himself, before he packed his black leather bag, before he England and Prussia got into the taxi to the airport, before he took a last-minute photo of England and Prussia in front of the airport, before Ludwig listened to Prussia talking about France in equal tones affectionate and annoyed, before they got onto the plane, before they got off the plane, before Ludwig saw the sunset drive the white buildings into darkness, before they got to the hotel, before Ludwig said he had to step out, and certainly before he dialed the handwritten numbers on the card.
It had already been decided. It was only a matter of time.
Ludwig woke again, early. The dream this time had been more disturbing than most, of screams from his women and children and blood and snow. His caseworker had told him a place to meet, ironically in front of a coffee shop.
He walked there, breathing in the cool morning air, with a hint of sea salt.
“I imagine you don’t have any of the red pills,” the Belgian woman said.
“No,” Ludwig said, and she pushed a bottle into his hands.
“We’ll take care of everything else,” Laura said. Ludwig had a feeling he knew what that entailed but figured it would be best not to think about it. “You’re doing the right thing. Really. A good thing, for the entire world.”
“We’ll arrange an apartment for you, in Arizona,” Laura said. “So you don’t have to worry about that part anymore. The rest of your life will be back to what it was before.
Ludwig nodded again. It seemed like, if he spoke, the moment would be ruined.
“Alright,” She said. “Who else is with you?”
“Prussia and England,” Ludwig said. England was probably fiddling with the tea kettle in his room. Prussia was probably still asleep, limbs flung everywhere and a line of drool coming out of his mouth. Prussia’s bed had been so warm, so soft when he was just a kid who couldn’t sleep. Ludwig sighed.
Ludwig’s caseworker ran her tongue across her teeth. “Prussia?” she asked.
“He’s still alive, somehow.” Ludwig said. “He represented East Germany while it existed.”
“OK,” she said. “But he doesn’t represent anything now?”
“No,” Ludwig said.
“Just checking,” she said. “There are two Italies, after all.”
Two Italies? How could he not know that? But he did, though, now that he thought about it. Veneziano and Romano, North and South. Which was the one he was supposed to be in love with? How could Prussia have not told him something as important as that?
“Well, thanks for telling us,” she said. “Everything will be fine.”
I should say that pretty much all of scenes where the nations are explaining themselves to people are heavily inspired by two stories Presidential Initiation by Car on FFN and "I Still Don't Believe You" by Night Train on FFN. Both of these stories are about America explaining who he is to the president, and they're both pretty funny. Presidential Initiation is a lot more over-the-top and uses much more common Hetalia crackfic plot tropes. "I Still Don't Believe You" is a little bit more understated and angsty. Also, it's about Obama, so it's technically RPF. Though I do believe that historical and present political figures are free real estate as far as Hetalia fanfiction goes. That's not to say there are any in this story, though, as it is set ten years in the future and presumably most of the main characters will have different bosses by then, anyway.
Thanks to APHTeavana for betaing. I'm sorry I haven't been as good about responding to reviews; I'm too busy this summer for my own good.
Chapter 13: INTERLUDE—Costa Rica
So this chapter is a little bit different. Hope you like it.
I should also say that I previously published it as a one-shot under the title “In Costa Rica” because it does stand on its own (though it is needed to understand this story as a whole). This version is a bit different though; if you read it there, you should read the last few paragraphs of this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“You have this backwards,” McLaughlin said. “Everything. You have it all backwards.”
Schnabel leaned back in his chair. Outside, the afternoon rain started, and the frogs momentarily fell silent. “They are dangerous, aren’t they?”
“But a lot of things are,” McLaughlin said. “You and I are dangerous, to a spider or a fly or a mouse or even a great deal of people.” He gestured broadly at the jungle on the other side of the railing. “I’m sure there are thousands of things out there that could kill you.”
Schnabel lit a cigarette with a silver lighter, making brief eye contact with McLaughlin to show how little he cared.
“And you know what to do when you encounter a poisonous—sorry, I mean venomous—snake?” McLaughlin said.
Schnabel refused to play along with whatever he was saying.
“Well, what they told us in Wyoming was to leave it alone.” He paused. “We’re not worth their venom. They’ll leave us alone if we leave them alone.”
Schnabel sighed and took a drag of the cigarette. “So that’s what you’re telling me,” he said.
McLaughlin started to nod passionately, as if Schnabel had finally started to agree with him.
“The only reason why Germany hasn’t appeared behind me and stabbed me through the back yet is because I’m not worth his time.”
McLaughlin leaned back into his chair. “Germany …” he started. “Look, they’re just trying to live their lives, same as you or me.”
“You don’t understand,” Schnabel said, taking in more of the cigarette. “They’re not like you or me. They’re not even people.” He let out the smoke as he talked, a trick he’d learned back at medical school.
“Maybe not,” McLaughlin said. “But that doesn’t mean …”
“Doesn’t mean what?” Schnabel asked, throwing the cigarette on the floor and putting it out with his foot. “One second you’re comparing them to dangerous animals, the next you’re saying they’re just like you or me!”
McLaughlin stared at the cigarette on the ground. “I worked with America for many years, and I can tell you that they don’t like killing people, especially their own citizens.”
That was true. Schnabel still remembered the one morning he’d come into work early, to find Germany still sitting as his desk, eyes unfocused and rimmed with red, while he stared blankly at his right triquetrum. But Schnabel wasn’t going to give him that, so he sighed. “America,” he said. “Don’t talk to me about America.”
“You know,” McLaughlin said. “That’s why I am here.” He focused his attention back at the cigarette on the floor of the porch. “When did you start smoking?”
Schnabel still remembered his first time, in the window well of the boarding school. It had just rained, and the hollow smelled like mud and tobacco. “A while ago,” he said.
“The teens?” McLaughlin asked. “The nineteen teens?”
Schnabel always hated the name of that decade but nodded anyway.
“Almost one hundred years? And you’ve never developed lung cancer or anything?” McLaughlin asked.
Schnabel shook his head. Smoking didn’t cause cancer, as unfashionable of an opinion as that was.
“I’ve—” he paused. “I was Alfred’s—”
“Don’t call him that,” Schnabel said.
McLaughlin gave Schnabel a level. “I was America’s advisor starting in the fifties,” he said. “I remember, I’d just gotten back from Korea.”
Schnabel leaned back. He didn’t care about McLaughlin’s life story.
“I’m still working,” he said. “I was in my twenties then. Most of the people my age have retired.” He paused. “That makes sense. They’re in their seventies. They have,” he gestured at his hair, which was mostly a dark black with a few grey strands mixed in, “grey hair, if any at all. And I don’t.”
He looked at Schnabel, expecting a response. Schnabel didn’t dignify him with one.
“We didn’t know, in the early days.” He paused. “In America, at least. They figured it out faster in Germany because of his dogs. You know?” he looked Schnabel in the eye. “His dogs?”
Schnabel did remember the dogs. There were two of them, massive things. Very badly trained; Germany let jump all over him, and almost every part of his house was covered in dog hair. It seemed a bit absurd to Schnabel, to keep dogs and not have them work—but maybe that was just his Saxon country upbringing showing itself.
“Well, they’ve been alive since forever. People have records of one of them living with the Holy Roman Empire.” McLaughlin studied Schnabel’s face, trying to gauge his reaction. Schnabel made sure he was still hard to read. “We originally thought they were different dogs, naturally, but then it started to happen to me, too and we knew.” He paused. “The nations are immortal. Their immortality rubs off on the living things closest to them. Dogs, birds, people—even plants.”
Schnabel kept his gaze focused on the ground. He’d suspected as much.
“You worked with Germany for what—ten years? 1934 to 1945? Eleven? And now here you are, over one hundred years old, living in Costa Rica and still smoking cigarettes.”
It was 1944, but there was no reason for him to correct him on that.
“Your wife died, right? Twenty years ago? She lived a long, good, human life.”
“Don’t bring her into this,” Schnabel said.
“But she’s at the center of this. Your kids, too.” He paused. “They’re the reason you started all of this,” he motioned into the door, no doubt at the boxes of research on nations Schnabel had piled up over the past few years.
Schnabel said nothing. To do anything else would have been to betray his wife, in a sense.
Somehow, McLaughlin was on the edge of his seat again. “I feel sorry for you, really,” he said. “With a top-secret position in the Nazi government—everyone must have assumed the worst.”
They had. His children had stopped talking to him over it. One night, late, his daughter called, and said she would forgive him if he’d just told her what he’d done. “It’s ridiculous,” Schnabel said. “I never agreed with their racial ideology.”
“OK,” McLaughlin said. Then, after a moment’s consideration, he asked: “How did you get the job then?” His hands tensed, the ends of his knuckles turning white.
“Politics is who you know, and I just knew the right people,” Schnabel said and shrugged. “I also—well, it’s easy to change your opinions when you realize they might be out for you. It wasn’t like I could turn them down.”
McLaughlin nodded. “I know—”
“You don’t.” Schnabel said. “And you don’t really know what it is, and you have to choose between your family and keeping it a secret—”
“It’s only natural that you’d start asking questions,” McLaughlin said.
Schnabel sighed, relieved that McLaughlin seemed to understand at least some of it.
“So, what do you want to know,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve spent my life studying this.”
“And I can’t?” Schnabel asked.
“No,” McLaughlin said. “The government knows where I am. They know I won’t betray their secrets. I liked Alfred too much anyway.”
“The government knows where you are?” Schnabel asked.
Evidently, he saw where this was going. “Well—”
“They sent you here? This wasn’t a personal call after all?” Schnabel asked.
“No, it was,” McLaughlin said. “Same as I said earlier.”
Schnabel continued to look at him levelly.
McLaughlin continued. “I noticed you were poking around in the files, and I came to talk to you about it.” He paused, probably trying to think of another reason. “Besides, it’s kind of a lonely position now.” He paused again. “They have young people doing it, ones that want to be spies. Get them to do it for two or three years, and the slowed aging doesn’t start to set in.”
“And what if they want to be immortal?”
“Then they’re not given the job,”
Schnabel weighed the options in his mind. He never trusted McLaughlin, but there was no reason for him not to take the opportunity to hear more about the nations. At the bare minimum, he could probably see if he was serious or not. “Prussia?” he asked.
“That’s a hard one,” McLaughlin said. “Because none of us really know. And it’s not like he’s willing to tell us.” McLaughlin paused. “He’s aging now that East Germany has disbanded. The government there adopted him as their personification.” McLaughlin shrugged. “Before that, I don’t really know. The kingdom of Prussia was disbanded in the eighteen somethings, right?”
Schnabel paused. McLaughlin was expecting a history lesson, wasn’t he? “It—he—conquered the rest of the Germanic states in a series of wars ending with the Franco-Prussian War, 1871. That formed Germany.” He paused again. “Prussia still existed for a while after that though, mostly as extra bureaucracy. Our government disbanded that.”
McLaughlin nodded. “We don’t really know how all of this works, after all. Nations have personifications, but so do states, or provinces or whatever they’re supposed to be called. You would know that, dealing with Germany.”
Schnabel didn’t. That did make sense, though, if the German states did have personifications, Germany and Prussia would have wanted to keep them secret from the Nazis. “And you with America,” he said.
McLaughlin smiled a weak, distant smile. “That was most of my job, actually. You wouldn’t believe the kind of shit California and New Jersey could stir up.”
Schnabel nodded, really having no idea what he was talking about.
“Anyway,” McLaughlin said. “It’s entirely possible that he represented the state (or province or whatever you call it) of Prussia during that time. Maybe when you disbanded it, he started aging and only reassumed nation status when East Germany was created.”
“Prussia wasn’t officially disbanded until 1947, by your people,” he said.
“Or maybe that,” McLaughlin said. “You wouldn’t know if he was immortal when you were working with him, would you?”
Schnabel shook his head. “I only worked with Germany.”
McLaughlin nodded slowly, like that proved some grand point. “Anything else?—I mean, do you have any other questions?”
Schnabel ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth. “Teleportation,” he said.
McLaughlin shifted his weight. “That’s another hard one to answer because none of us really know.” He paused. “All of the nations have supernatural abilities—Germany’s not special like that. Japan can read minds, America has super strength, etcetera. As far as I know, Germany has a supernatural ability to get lost. He can’t control it.”
Schnabel didn’t want to dignify that with a response.
“So,” McLaughlin said. “You were lost when you travelled with him, weren’t you?”
They were lost in a sense, although Germany didn’t make that clear to him until they were halfway through Siberia. And then again, didn’t ask for directions until they were on Sumatra. “We were supposed to drive to Königsberg, but he somehow went to Sumatra instead.” Schnabel said.
“Sumatra?” McLaughlin said. “Isn’t that an island?”
McLaughlin nodded. “That’s the way it is with Germany,” he said. “All nations have a supernatural way to—”
“How do you know? Did you get lost with him?”
McLaughlin shook his head. “I never met Germany. Plenty of other nations, but not him.”
“So they still have them meet with each other?” Schnabel asked.
McLaughlin laughed a little bit. “Oh, it’s gotten worse. Now, in addition to meeting with each other on policy matters, they also meet as a whole world every month or so. It’s chaos.”
“I bet,” Schnabel said, catching himself with a smile. This was ridiculous; he shouldn’t let this American under his skin like that.
“You probably only met Austria, right? And the rest of the Axis? Maybe the conquered nations?” McLaughlin asked.
Schnabel nodded. Hopefully he wouldn’t ask about Poland. The image of him, tortured and starved, was enough for Schnabel to ruminate on.
McLaughlin said. “And you were afraid of them.”
“What did you just say? Japan can read minds?” Schnabel asked.
“Well, the minds of his citizens. And Italy’s mind,” McLaughlin said. “But that’s not—”
“You don’t really know, do you? About him or any of them? How do we know that Germany can’t read minds? Or that Costa Rica doesn’t hear what we’re saying right now?” Schnabel asked. As if on cue, the rain stopped, and the jungle fell silent for a moment before the frogs started up again. “They can feel who’s in their territory.” How else would he explain that time Germany came running into his office, panting something about where is Austria and he used to be in my territory but now I can’t feel him anymore and oh God what have they done to him. Schnabel didn’t know anything because they never told him anything.
“That’s not the point,” McLaughlin said. “They don’t want to bother you or anyone. They’ll leave you alone if they can.”
Schnabel sighed. “And how do you know that?”
“You’re still alive, aren’t you?”
Schnabel leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees. “I’ve survived by being extremely vigilant.”
“Well, I found you, didn’t I?” McLaughlin asked.
Schnabel stood up. “I don’t even know why I’m talking to you.”
“All of the nations seem to have some mysterious way of travelling that gets them places faster than humans do,” McLaughlin said. “It’s not exactly teleportation, but many of them just kind of start driving and then end up where they’re supposed to be going. It’s hard to tell because they don’t have the same perception of time as us.”
“Am I supposed to feel safer because of that?” Schnabel asked.
“No,” McLaughlin said. “It’s the answer to the question you asked.”
“I would like—I wanted to, back in the day, meet other people who had this job.” McLaughlin said. “It’s lonely.”
“You’re not talking to me because you’re lonely,” Schnabel said.
“No,” McLaughlin said. “But that doesn’t make it any easier. Now they just have young people doing it, and most of the people our age—immortality didn’t treat them well, and most of them have lost their minds.”
“You come all this way and then you call me crazy,” Schnabel said.
“Get out of my house,” Schnabel said.
“One more question,” McLaughlin said. “I’m sure there’s something else you haven’t been able to research.”
That was true, as annoying as he was being. Schnabel sat back down. “The Holy Roman Empire,” he said.
“That’s another one that we don’t know much about,” McLaughlin said. “He used to own a house, lived there with Austria, Hungary and Italy. I don’t think he ever aged above about ten years old, and he died in the Napoleonic Wars.”
None of that information surprised Schnabel, even though he hadn’t heard any of it before.
“Or so a lot of people think,” McLaughlin said. “Some records seem to show that he survived the Napoleonic Wars, and died of disease in Prussia’s house a few years later.”
Evidently, there wasn’t much to the story.
“But, you know what I think?” McLaughlin asked. “I think he lost his memory and came back as Germany.”
“Why?” Schnabel asked, mostly offended that McLaughlin seemed to think he knew more about German history than Schnabel, especially after he’d asked him about Prussia.
“There are no records of Germany as a young child. Usually, nations appear out of the land, looking like toddlers but Germany appeared looking about ten years old.”
“That’s interesting, but it’s hardly evidence.”
“They look a lot like each other.”
“But so do all of the Germanics,” Schnabel said. There had been an oil painting hanging in one of the propaganda offices, with all of the countries labeled in red letters. Switzerland had his eyes and hair and Prussia his jawline. Lichtenstein and Belgium could be his sisters.
“I know, but they’re practically identical,” McLaughlin said. “All of the German states get pretty cagey when you ask about him, so that shows something. And they both had or have a relationship with North Italy.”
“How do you know all of this?” Schnabel asked.
McLaughlin shrugged. “I made some preliminary calls to people in the German government, to prepare for meeting you,” he said. “Besides, I’ve been studying this for years.”
Schnabel paused for a long time. He didn’t like this American. But, at the same time, his wife had died a long time ago, and moving every few years had shot his chances of even the most basic forms of connection with people. He’d spent much of the past seventy years thinking over that job. And there was one thing that had confused him more than any other. “Did America have any relationships like that?”
McLaughlin shook his head. “Sometimes he would flirt with England (or England would flirt with him) and he might have slept with Japan during the occupation, but no.”
“That’s kind of surprising,” Schnabel said. Evidently, the kind of relationship there was between Italy and Germany was kind of unusual.
McLaughlin shrugged. “America’s always been a bit isolationist.”
So Schnabel was right. “The relationship between Italy and Germany, then, was just a metaphor.”
“I would hesitate to say that,” McLaughlin said. “They had a close relationship because their countries did, no doubt. But,” he paused. “Don’t assume that they can’t feel love.”
What was McLaughlin implying? “You mean to tell me,” he started.
McLaughlin nodded, urging him to continue.
“That my country,” and he did think of Germany as his country, despite everything, “is a homosexual?” he asked.
McLaughlin shrugged. “Yeah,” he said.
Schnabel leaned back into his seat. That explained why Germany hadn’t wanted him to say anything about his relationship with Italy. Homosexuals were being arrested.
“But, I mean,” McLaughlin said. “It’s not like it really matters, does it?”
Schnabel had been terrified once he’d realized what Germany and Italy’s relationship entailed. Mostly, he was worried Germany would figure out what he knew and kill him for it.
McLaughlin was still talking. “They love each other.”
Germany had figured out what he knew. It wasn’t immediately obvious to Schnabel, but it became so when Germany followed Schnabel around, never breaking eye contact with him. Unprompted, Schnabel had asked if their relationship only represented diplomatic ties, and Germany had assured him that it did.
“They’re still together, you know. That’s a long time, for nations or humans.”
But what had he thought about it? He hadn’t really processed the information. Germany did seem happier he’d just been with Italy. Or, at least, he took a break in his constant chain smoking. And, while Schnabel had never met the other nation, he seemed like a good match, based off what Germany’s guards had said during that one trip. The idea that he was some kind of parent that had the ability to veto Germany’s relationships came into his mind, and Schnabel almost started laughing.
McLaughlin was smiling.
“Alright,” Schnabel said, the oddness of what he was saying finally striking him. Countries, able to fall in love with other countries?
“Yeah. It struck me as kind of weird in the beginning, too,” McLaughlin said. “But if countries can feud with each other and hate each other, why not love as well?”
It was almost like McLaughlin was reading his mind. Like what he’d said about Japan and reading minds. “Humans can’t pick up other abilities from nations, can they?”
“I don’t know; have you gotten horribly lost recently?” McLaughlin asked.
He had, but that wasn’t the point.
“It doesn’t seem like it,” McLaughlin said. “I haven’t noticed any super strength abilities myself. With one exception, though, and that’s that people like us seem to run into nations more frequently.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the nations have the ability to find each other easily, so they often run into each other, just randomly. I’ve noticed that’s started to happen to me, too,” McLaughlin said. “On the way here, I ran into Canada in the airport in America, and Mexico on my layover.”
“That must be annoying.” The only other nation Schnabel had met was Argentina, and he’d been sent to him by the Argentine government in their previous attempt to get him to stop researching the nations. He was tall, walked with grace and talked with the power of a government behind him. Schnabel had no desire to meet any others, which was part of the reason that encounter had him fleeing north.
McLaughlin shrugged. “You get used to it.”
“I guess I can always tell if someone is a personification, even if I didn’t know them before.” He’d recognized Argentina long before he’d introduced himself.
“That’s interesting.” McLaughlin said. “I don’t think I would be able to. Never was the most observant.” He laughed. “Do you have any other questions?”
Romantic relationships would have been his last question, but that was answered now. Instead, he figured he might as well ask something that had been bothering him, even though he knew he wouldn’t get a satisfying answer for it. “Why do they look like that?” Schnabel asked.
“I mean, who chooses how they look?” Schnabel asked.
“God, I suppose,” McLaughlin said. “Same as you or me. They do tend to look like their people, but not as an average or anything like that,”
Schnabel didn’t say anything, and, for a moment, the only sound was the croaks of the frogs and the birdsongs of the jungle.
“That does bring up nation birth, though,” McLaughlin said. “Nobody really knows how it happens, but usually when there’s been some kind of political or social upheaval, a new child, usually covered in dirt, is found in a rural part of the area affected.”
“Like Greek mythology,” Schnabel said, remembering reading it one night by the light of a dim lamp. The rain was beating against the windowsill and the roof of his attic bedroom where he’d spent so many of his adolescent nights. That was such a simpler time in his life, with days of trotting through mud and no greater fear than tracking it in on the carpets.
McLaughlin stared at him, his face blank.
“Greek mythology holds that humanity was made out of clay,” Schnabel said. “Maybe they are.”
Unexpectedly, McLaughlin laughed. “They are kind of like gods, of a sort, aren’t they?” But then his face fell. “Not really, though, but maybe people back then saw it that way.”
No photographs of the ancient nations existed, obviously, but Schnabel thought about how Ancient Greece had been described, with flowing, oil-black hair wrapped around a circlet. “OK,” Schnabel said. “What about genders?”
McLaughlin sighed. “It seems that many of the ancient nations were female, and many of the modern ones are too—the really modern ones. It’s hard to tell when nations were born, but,” he shrugged.
Schnabel looked at him and wondered what that had to do with his question.
“It seems like they come in waves,” McLaughlin said. “Right now, we’re on a female nation wave. They’re not absolute obviously (think about Hungary) but good as a rule.”
“OK,” Schnabel said. He tried to picture Germany as a girl but couldn’t. “When did that start?”
McLaughlin shrugged. “It’s hard to know because nations are born so infrequently, but it seemed to be around the nineteenth century.”
“So only very recent nations?”
“Yes, but there aren’t many,” he paused. “North Korea, for example.”
“But we really—” Wait. At what point had he and this American become part of a we? “don’t know, do we?” he paused. “They can’t represent ethnic groups, or else ones from thousands of years ago would still be alive. Like the Germanic states, for instance.”
McLaughlin shrugged, and Schnabel realized his mistake. “Most of the Germanic states are still alive, even though their borders are different now. Westphalia, Rhineland and Palatinate are all still their own personifications, even though the states are now Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhineland-Westphalia.”
Schnabel nodded, pretending he already knew all of that information.
“That’s states, though, and it’s more complicated with nations. To my knowledge, there isn’t a single nation that represents more than one country, although there are a few countries that are represented by more than one nation. Italy, for example.”
Schnabel nodded. “And Germany,” he added.
“Well, maybe. I suppose Prussia could just represent the Eastern regions of Germany, almost like a state, but,” he shrugged, “I don’t really know.”
“You’re very curious about Prussia, aren’t you?” Schnabel asked, not really knowing why. He didn’t want to help this American. “I’ve done a lot of research on him.” Prussia was one of the only nations he’d gone out of his way to read more about than just getting a basic file on him. By now, he’d collected all of the ones on countries.
“His existence (or, rather, continued existence) does show something interesting,” McLaughlin said.
“But you still don’t know why that is?” Schnabel asked.
“No,” McLaughlin said.
“You know, for someone who has studied this your entire life—” Schnabel started.
“Well, nations tend to be pretty cagey about their existence,” McLaughlin interrupted. “I mean, who can blame them? Humans generally don’t treat things they don’t know very well with much respect, and it’s probably the only reason they haven’t ended up on a dissection table.”
“I don’t know,” Schnabel said. “They’re national symbols. Would people treat them differently than how they treat flags? Or presidents? It’s all fundamentally useless, anyway, dividing people up by geography.”
“But they’re people, not flags,” McLaughlin said. “And they’re not like politicians because they have no power. You should—you do know that, I’m sure.”
Prussia had complained to him, in one of their only conversations, about how sick he was of Germany getting too sick to work, and then Prussia having to fill in for him on whatever was making him sick.
“And, I mean, how do you think of them? You’re afraid of them. People don’t respond well to what they’re afraid of.”
Schnabel didn’t want to see Germany being dissected. The thought turned Schnabel’s stomach. “Alright,” he said.
McLaughlin nodded. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you—you shouldn’t be afraid of the nations because the nations are afraid of you.”
Schnabel shifted in his seat. Germany had probably been afraid of him after he’d found out about his relationship with Italy. There was nothing stopping Schnabel for reporting him to the SS for homosexuality. Argentina, too, had not been too happy about his government sending him in to threaten Schnabel. “I guess,” he said.
“You probably had more power in the German government than Germany ever has,” McLaughlin said.
“They don’t want to deal with humans,” Schnabel said, remembering Argentina.
“No—well, not in a negative context, by any means. Most of them love interacting with their own citizens, but …” McLaughlin paused. “I think most of the problem is governments, really. They don’t know what to do with this immortal personification of their people. Maybe it was easier, in the old days, when the nations just travelled with the court.”
“It was,” Schnabel said. He’d fought constantly with Germany over appearing in propaganda, and, in a larger sense, what he was supposed to do in the government as a whole. “I’m sure,” he said. “I was there for the transition.”
McLaughlin smiled weakly. “I was also America’s first nation advisor, though other countries had them by then. And, I can tell you, he certainly wasn’t used to the idea.”
Germany’s skepticism of him seemed to come from more than just unfamiliarity. “I wonder if they see us—saw us—as an agent of government control.”
“Hmmm,” McLaughlin said. “I always thought I was just there to help Alfred navigate the human world, but … maybe … you …”
Schnabel saw where he was going and cut in. “I thought the upper level party members were just trying to get rid of me,” he said. “So they gave me a useless but dangerous job. But maybe Germany …”
“Saw it as them trying to control him,” McLaughlin said. “That makes sense.” And it explained why Germany had been so distrustful of him. “What did you do to upset them?”
Schnabel sighed. “I don’t know—it was so hard to tell back them, since Operation Hummingbird had just happened—I didn’t want to take any chances. I had never been as … passionate about their ideology as everyone else was at the time.”
McLaughlin mouthed the word operation, probably trying to remember what that was referring to.
“The Night of the Long Knives?” Schnabel offered.
McLaughlin nodded. “I see how … you could think that. And how he could think that, too.”
“But the nations still aren’t too trustful, are they?”
McLaughlin shook his head. “I think it does make sense, given everything.”
“I suppose,” Schnabel said. “Maybe it would make sense just to go public with everything.”
“That would just cause more fear, for the populace and for them. I think they’re happy with their lives now, especially that they can see each other more frequently than they could before.”
Schnabel had asked Germany how Austria was, expecting him to answer with the weather or the political situation. Instead, Germany had gotten upset and said that he’d seemed depressed. “You think they like seeing each other?” Now, Germany had fallen in love with Italy.
“I think it’s a lonely job,” he looked at Schnabel and smiled. “Kind of like being a nation advisor. And they can better relate to each other than they can to us humans.”
“It’s not a job,” Schnabel said. “Being a nation. It’s their whole existence.”
“Yes,” McLaughlin said. “But I suppose that only makes it lonelier.”
For a moment, the two of them sat in silence. The frogs’ croaks sounded like a metronome, with the occasional bird calls adding in crescendos.
McLaughlin said, “Must have been hard, living with so many secrets. For you, I mean.”
Schnabel wasn’t going to respond but then changed his mind. “And for you, too, I mean.”
“I know,” McLaughlin said and sighed. “But I, at least, knew what I was getting into. You didn’t.” he paused. “And—these last sixty-five years—they must have been hard on you.”
They were. Schnabel had no idea how much time he’d spent just ruminating on these things, how many nights he’d woken up in the middle of, expecting to see Germany in the corner of the room. His wife had died; his children had left him. “Yeah,” he said.
“You’ve spent a lot of time just thinking these things over, haven’t you?”
That had been his primary job for all of that time. He’d worked, occasionally, using the half-forgotten medical degree he’d never wanted in the first place, but even then he’d most just think about the job, deconstruct everything that had happened to him and Germany, analyze each and every of their moves. “Yeah,” he said and sighed.
“That’s not too much of a life, is it?” McLaughlin asked. “Being assigned to this job that you didn’t want to do, anyway, and then spending years trying to figure out what it all meant. No, more than years. Decades. Your whole life, really.”
It sounded pathetic, when he said it like that. Schnabel sighed again.
“Why don’t you just … let it all go?” McLaughlin said.
“What?” Schnabel said. “There is more to learn about …”
“Well, do you have any more questions?” McLaughlin asked.
Schnabel didn’t, so he didn’t say anything in response.
“Then, what other reasons are there for doing it?”
“I’ve spent a lot of time on it,” Schnabel said. “This would make it all for nothing.”
McLaughlin sighed. “You have spent a lot of time on it,” he said. “I don’t know how much time it must have taken to collect information on all the nations of the world. You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this job you took when you had no choice. You’ve wasted much of your life on it, when you could have been watching your children grow up, growing old with your wife.”
“It was a very long time ago,” McLaughlin said. “Look,” he pointed out at the jungle that surrounded them. “You live in a beautiful place now. Why can’t you just enjoy that?”
Schnabel looked over the jungle. The sun was just beginning to set, the tops of the trees were lit up like emeralds.
He had spent a lot of time thinking about that job. For the first few years, he’d tried to forget about it, but his mind just couldn’t move on. The whole thing had felt like a bizarre dream, so he started to look into it. But then the Argentine government had found out and sent their nation personification after him. The whole family had fled to Costa Rica in the middle of the night. His research was the only reason he was in this beautiful place to begin with.
But it was true that almost all the major decisions he’d made for the past sixty-five years had been based on that. It was exhausting, just thinking about all of the things he had done to keep it all secret. Maybe it was time to take a break from that. “Alright,” he said.
McLaughlin smiled. “Alright,” he said, probably very pleased to finally be getting what he came there for. “You should give your research to me.”
“Why?” Schnabel asked.
“I’ve got a job, teaching at a small university in Arizona,” McLaughlin said. “I can keep it safe.”
Schnabel had already found someone who wanted to take the research, but he wasn’t sure what they wanted to do with it. McLaughlin would probably just give his research to the American government anyway.
Instead, Schnabel stood up and walked into the entryway of his house. The whole front hallway was covered in files of varying lengths—about two hundred of them, each labeled with a country name in thick marker strokes, He took the one that was labelled PRUSSIA from a stack near the door. Schnabel walked back outside and put the box at McLaughlin’s feet. “Here,” he said. “I’ll destroy the rest of it. I’m sure it’s stuff you know anyway.”
McLaughlin thought about this for a while, staring at the box. “Alright,” he said. “Thank you.”
Schnabel smiled. “It was nice to meet you,”
“Yeah,” McLaughlin said. He pulled a small card out of his pocket and wrote a number on it, adding an 01 to the front. “If you think of anything else, you can call me.”
“Alright,” Schnabel said, taking the card from McLaughlin.
“And it was nice to talk to you,” McLaughlin said.
Schnabel nodded, already deciding that he was never going to call McLaughlin. “You have a way to get out of here?”
“Yes,” McLaughlin said. “I rented a Jeep and parked it just down the road.”
They said their goodbyes to each other, and Schnabel watched as McLaughlin’s form receding down the winding front path to the main road.
For a moment, Schnabel looked out at the jungle, noticing the red and orange rays streak across the canopy. Then, he headed back inside to the black landline phone which was attached to the wall.
First, he called his daughter, but she didn’t pick up, so her slow, syrupy voice told him to leave a message after the tone. He told her that he’d done some reflecting, and he wanted to talk to her about his life. Before he finished the message, he already was formulating the explanations and lies he’d tell her.
Then, he called the number for the people he was planning to give his research to.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to destroy the files instead.”
“What?” asked the woman from IUEN.
I got the name Schnabel from the works of Cameron Kennedy (on FFN). I think This Hurricane is still one of the best pieces of fanfiction I have ever read. It’s a relationship study of GerIta during WWII, and a fairly dark one at that.
Thanks to APHTeavana for beta-reading.
What Schnabel refers to (well, one of the things) is that the pre-Nazi German president was kind of a replacement Kaiser. Therefore, I headcanon that the German bros were with the Kaiser, and then the Weimar president without much of a change in their role or position. Obviously, this would be different with America, due to the fact that the head of state and government are the same person.
The reason Germany would keep the German states secret from the Nazis is that they were nationalists, and, as such, disbanded pretty much all of the local governments in Germany.
It wasn’t exactly like Ludwig had just woken up on the airplane. He was conscious, he knew he was conscious, and he didn’t have any of those sleep after-effects, like the eyes that wouldn’t stay open or a crink in his neck.
No, it really just felt like he’d lost his train of thought. What it was, he had no idea, but, well …
Ludwig was sitting in the economy section of the plane, by the window. Outside of the window was a black landscape, cut in with little dots of light that were arranged in circles. Quaint.
Sitting next to him was an overweight man, who was fast asleep. Next to him was a woman with headphones in, nodding gently to the music.
After her was an aisle, then another row of five seats, and then another three-person row. This was a big plane.
Ludwig didn’t have anything underneath the seat in front of him, but he had a book in his lap. It was covered in cloth, with the title embossed on it: The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I. A sticker from the library was coming off the bottom of the spine. The numbers D530.T8 were printed on the sticker. That wasn’t the Dewey decimal system, so it must have been from a university library. He opened the cover, and, sure enough, there was the name of the university he was studying at, in Arizona.
Maybe he was going back there now. He remembered his brown suitcase—no it wasn’t brown. It was black, with silver fixings—up there. Where had he gotten that suitcase? The room had been cold and dark. It had smelled of mothballs when he’d first picked it up, and been full of—photographs? His? Someone else’s? They must have been his, but no one printed out photographs anymore, and he didn’t have any from the time before he lived with Suzanna.
Oddly enough, his phone was wiped of all text messages and numbers except for his caseworker’s and Suzanna’s. He hadn’t texted Suzanna yet, apparently, but he’d sent a few messages to his caseworker, telling her he was on the plane and it was taking off. She’d responded by reminding him to keep taking the pills, which he remembered now. They were round, red and tasted chalky. And they were in his suitcase that was above his head.
The only other thing left on his phone was in his voicemail box. Ludwig was surprised he was even able to find it, and even more surprised that someone had actually left him a voicemail. It wasn’t much of one, however, just a male voice he didn’t recognize saying something about America, countries and pills. Ludwig deleted it.
Then, after flipping through a few pages of the book, he found a passage he sort-of remembered and started reading about German navy strategy during the beginning of World War I.
At some point, Ludwig must have fallen asleep on the flight. He woke up as the sun was rising over the more familiar landscape of green and brown squares of agriculture, arranged like the squares of a quilt. The landscape was incredibly flat, so he was probably over Kansas. In the United States. Because Kansas was one of the United States, but no one really talked like that. It made the United States sound not as much like a country, even though it was one. What a stupid name for a country. That made it sound like it was a supranational organization, like the United Nations or the European Union and naturally one would say that Germany was a state in the Europäische Union, for example.
Ludwig looked away from the window. That was where he was coming from, wasn’t it? Europe. He’d lived in Spain for a while, right? Maybe he’d gone back there. He’d lived with a boy in Spain, hadn’t he? Blue-eyed and … and … and …
Ludwig couldn’t remember too much else about him.
He’d also spent some time in Germany. Ludwig could still remember how the morning fog over Berlin smelled. Although, it was more than a memory. It was like parts of the fog were still stuck in his nose, and everything he smelled had just a faint whiff of car exhaust and rain. He shook away the thought.
There was probably another hour or so until he was in Arizona. That would be good, being home, with Suzanna’s family. It wasn’t his family, exactly, but it was close enough. Especially now that he was so close to Suzanna’s mother.
He did have other family, though. There was his—brother? Cousin? With the white hair and red eyes? That was probably who he was visiting in Europe. He lived somewhere near there.
There were more brothers, too, and sisters. What were their names? Bra—Brandon? Was that one of them?
The idea that he couldn’t recall most of his siblings’ names was a little bit distressing, but it soon faded away from his short-term memory and never found a place in the long term. Instead, Ludwig went back to reading the book that he’d left on his lap.
No one picked Ludwig up from the airport. He briefly stopped at the room where all of the people stood with the signs, waiting for someone to arrive. Most of them were just standing there, in the last throes of missing before they were reunited with whomever they were waiting for.
Ludwig took a bus from the airport to the town where the college was. He texted his caseworker to tell her that he was in town. She texted him back an address. There was something important about it, Ludwig was sure.
He put the address into the maps of his phone and then got off on the bus station nearest it. The walk to the address itself was fairly short and led to a cement-block apartment building, with carports underneath three floors with tiny windows.
His address was on the second floor. This was his apartment, it seemed. Ludwig didn’t remember living in this apartment specifically, but why else would his caseworker have texted the address to him? He even had the key in the pocket of his coat. Besides, there were a lot of things missing from his memory, like where he’d gotten that old, black monstrosity of a suitcase. There was a story behind it, or in it, he was sure.
The apartment was arranged around a tiny, square kitchen. It had a bedroom on one side, with a made bed on the floor, and a supposed sitting room without any furniture on the other side.
Most of the apartment was fairly empty, with nothing hanging on the walls, or personal in anyway. That did make sense; Ludwig had just moved in. He wasn’t sure what kind of personal details he’d add to the apartment anyway.
Ludwig set down his black leather suitcase, which seemed to have all of his personal belongings he owned in the world, on his bed and started unpacking it, mostly just curious to see what was in it.
Not much, apparently. Most of it was clothes. All long sleeves, which would get annoying in the Arizona heat. Why was he so obsessed with long sleeves? He was wearing some right now.
Ludwig rolled them up, only to be greeted by the sight of long, pale scars writhing and crawling up and down his arms. Right. The ones parallel to his veins were especially frightening. His arm hovered over a white sink, a straight razor in his other hand. Right, because cutting that way spilled more blood and was deadlier. He rolled the sleeve back down again.
The most personal thing Ludwig found in the suitcase was an old film camera. There was no way to tell how much film had been used, as far as Ludwig could see, so he placed it on the top shelf of his closet, promising himself that he’d develop the film soon.
By the time he’d stepped into the kitchen to see if there was any food, the camera had already slipped Ludwig’s mind. The fridge and pantry were empty, so Ludwig ordered takeout.
He ate that and went over what he’d knew about his life so far. The trip to Europe was important—he’d been seeing his siblings? Or he’d been with his brother? Or he’d been with his brother and had gone to see his siblings? That must have been it. He’d been to Germany, then Spain. And he had class tomorrow, so he should get to bed early tonight. And he should meet with his advisor. And all of his professors, to see what he’d missed while he’d been on his little sojourn.
Ludwig checked the calendar on his phone. It was near the end of October, so he spent about two weeks in Europe.
“Where were you?” His advisor, McLaughlin, asked.
Being surrounded by all of those black-and-white photos tugged at the back of Ludwig’s memory. “Europe,” Ludwig said.
“The administration got a phone call saying you were dropping out.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Ludwig said. “It was my brother. He’s …” Ludwig had talked to Suzanna about this before. What had he said? “kind of delusional.” he added, not knowing why.
Ludwig’s advisor tented his fingers. “And you went to Europe with him?”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. “It was OK, though, really. And it wasn’t like he gave me much of a choice.”
His advisor’s chair creaked as he leaned back in it. “I’m sure the school will forgive you, as it hasn’t even been a full month. Attendance isn’t mandatory in college, in case you were wondering.”
Ludwig wasn’t too concerned about that. “OK,” he said. “And, what did we—”
“It’s on the syllabus,” his advisor said. Then, he asked, “Are you still liking engineering?”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. “It’s very easy.”
“Good.” His advisor paused. “That’s not a thing I hear from too many people, so maybe you have a natural talent for it.”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. “Maybe.” It did seem almost like he’d seen all of the principles before.
On the second night Ludwig was alone in the apartment, it suddenly occurred to him how small it was. The living room was four paces, the kitchen three and a half, and the bedroom another four. He paced that distance, back and forth, feeling trapped. Then, he paused to take a breath in the kitchen and completely forgot why he was standing there.
Suzanna should probably know he was back in Arizona, so he called her on his telephone, holding it up to his ear. She picked up on the second ring. “Hello,” Ludwig said. “I just wanted I just wanted you to know that I’m back in Arizona.”
“Oh,” she said, seeming surprised. “Where were you?”
Ludwig hadn’t told her? “I was in Europe, with my brother—”
“The brother with the delusions—” Suzanna asked.
He tried to remember what she was referring to. A late-night conversation, something about steep rolling hills and dense forests. “Yeah—”
“Of being central European countries? He took you to central Europe?”
That did seem vaguely familiar. “Yeah,”
“Is he better now?” she paused. “Who paid for all this, anyway?”
Right. Suzanna’s family was paying for his college, so they’d probably be very disappointed now that he was apparently playing hooky for two weeks. “He did.” That didn’t seem quite right, so Ludwig added: “And our extended family. And he’s fine, now, by the way.” Ludwig tapped his fingers against the countertop. He didn’t know that, as he had no way of contacting his brother now, but it seemed like the right thing to say.
“Alright,” she said. “I’d prefer it if you didn’t lie to me.”
What did that mean? No matter. “I’m focusing on my studies now.” Ludwig said. “Now that I’m back here.”
“So, that’s why you couldn’t help us move my mother into the nursing home?”
“Yes,” Ludwig said. “I’m sorry about that—”
“You should visit her, sometime. She really did like seeing you.”
“I know,” Ludwig said.
“And bring your pictures from Europe,” Suzanna said. “Both trips.”
“OK,” Ludwig said. He opened the photo app on his phone, only to find it pretty much empty.
“OK,” Suzanna said. “Study hard. Please. And wait until break to go on trips.”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. “Thank you.”
He then proceeded to make good on his promises by working more on his engineering homework before going to bed early.
The other person Ludwig had to check in with was his caseworker. They met in a coffee shop near Ludwig’s apartment. She drank two cups of coffee over the course of their meeting and smelled faintly of cigarette smoke.
“So,” she said, after having heard Ludwig recap everything that he had to catch up on in all of his classes. “Have there been any times where you’ve felt kind of confused? Like you’ve forgotten something important?”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. “Pretty frequently, actually.”
The Belgian woman nodded. “That’s normal, for someone like you.” She clarified: “You had a bad childhood, and you’ve repressed a lot of the memories from it. It only makes sense that you’ll have problems with memory now, as an adult.” She stirred her coffee and took a sip of it. “Anything been bothering you in particular?”
“No; not really.” Most what he could remember from his childhood was actually pretty pleasant—that man playing the piano, the woman reading him stories, or that cute girl in the pinafore and bandana.
“Good,” Ludwig’s caseworker said. She took another sip of her coffee. “Do you know why you were in Europe?”
“Naturally,” Ludwig said. “I was visiting my brother—no, I was with my brother, and we were visiting my extended family.”
“Yes,” she said. “You and your brother have had a bit of a falling out.”
“Is that why his number isn’t on my phone?”
“Yes. It will be better if you don’t contact him for a while,” she said. “I know you probably don’t remember what it was about, especially since it involved both of your childhoods.”
“Do you know?” Ludwig asked.
His caseworker shrugged, taking a sip of her coffee. “I think it would be better if I didn’t tell you,” she said. “Your mind deleted this information for a reason. Now,” she paused, sipping her coffee. “Have you been taking your calcium supplements?”
The pills were round, red and tasted like chalk that had been left on top of a blackboard for the better part of a century. “Yes,” Ludwig said. “There’s no way I could switch to over-the-counter medicine, is there?”
His caseworker froze for a moment, then loosened her muscles and took another sip of the coffee. “No,” she said. “I’m afraid those are a special mixture, designed specifically for helping you, so no.” she took another orange-tinted bottle out of her handbag. “Here’s your next batch.”
Ludwig took them from her. “Thank you,” he said. “So I guess I will have to keep meeting with you in order to get these?”
“Yes,” the Belgian woman said. “It will be good, for me to help you settle in.”
He was in college now, well into it, knew what he was going to be studying and everything. “You don’t think I’m settled in?”
Ludwig’s caseworker shrugged and took another sip of her coffee. “I know you’re doing well in college, but if you’re going to be running away to Europe with your brother, who you don’t have the best relationship with to begin with, then, yes, I don’t think you’re settled in well.”
“But you were just supposed to help me settle into high school—” Ludwig couldn’t remember the exact reason why. “after my parents …”
“Yes,” she said. “You were taken away from your parents by Child Protective Services. And I will continue to be your caseworker until you are settled in fully as an adult.”
That didn’t seem right, but Ludwig nodded anyway.
Suzanna’s mother was bedridden. Her room overlooked the courtyard of the nursing home, one filled with green plants. On the right wall, the evening news was showing the outside of a house with several ambulances and police cars. She was ignoring that, however, instead watching elderly people ambling over cobblestone paths them through her window, with a faint smile on her face.
When Ludwig walked in, she turned her head. “Hallo,” she said.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m sorry that—”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s good to see you. Sit down.”
Ludwig pulled an ugly green chair from beside the projector field and carried it to Suzanna’s mother’s bedside. Suzanna’s mother used the remote to shut the projector off.
“How have you been?” she asked.
“Well,” Ludwig said. “I’ve been in Europe for the past few weeks.”
“Suzanna told me,” she said. “I’m glad you found your brother.”
“I am, too,” Ludwig said. Then, remembering what his caseworker had told him, he added: “We don’t have the best relationship, though. We fought a lot.”
“That happens with siblings,” Suzanna’s mother said.
“Yes, but we’re no longer on speaking terms,”
“Oh,” she said. “Other than that, how was it?”
“Good,” Ludwig said.
“Where did you go?”
It took Ludwig a moment to remember. “Germany and Spain.”
“Lovely,” she said. “I always wanted to return to Germany.”
“Maybe you still could,”
She smiled, the same kind of faint smile as earlier, but melancholier this time. “I’m dying,” she said.
“You don’t know that,” Ludwig said, too quickly.
Suzanna’s mother sank back into the fluffy pillow that supported her head. “Ah, but I do,” she said. “Everyone must die, and it is my time.”
Ludwig felt the color drain out of his face. That sentiment bounced off the back of his head, reminding him of something he’d heard not long ago, from someone else, in a different context. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, though.
“I’m happy I met you,” she said. “You remind me of home.”
Ludwig did not know how to respond to that.
“Have you developed your pictures yet?” Suzanna’s mother asked.
Ludwig looked at her blankly.
“Your pictures from Europe? Have you developed them?”
“I didn’t take any pictures in Europe?”
“Oh,” she said. “So you never used the camera I gave you?”
Ludwig didn’t even know he had a camera. “No,” he said. “Or, I don’t think so. I don’t remember too much of it.”
Suzanna’s mother studied him. “Hmmm,” she said. “Ok,”
They sat there for a few more minutes in silence. Then, Suzanna’s mother told him more about her childhood and how Europe was when she’d last seen it, which Ludwig compared to his own experiences.
Only when the sun set over the mountains and covered the room in orange-yellow rays of light did Ludwig leave.
The next few weeks at school seemed impossibly busy. Ludwig had to catch up on his homework. History was harder than he expected, as he had to read two and a half books. Then, he had to talk to everyone that sat in his row before he found someone willing to give him their notes on the lectures he’d missed. It also took longer than expected for Ludwig to actually learn what the lectures had been on.
Despite all of that, Ludwig was still enjoying history. It was bizarre, in a way, to see how all of the pieces of the world had come apart and back together again and formed the world now. He started looking at the cork boards that were posted around the history building and the Internet, and slowly, a decision started to form in his mind.
At one point, Ludwig went back to the coffee shop he had been working at. The owner did not approve of his sudden two-week vacation, and he was informed he’d be unable to work there ever again. An note of urgency was added to his job search when his first bills came in from the utilities.
He ate Thanksgiving dinner with Suzanna’s family. It was odd to see his foster siblings again after so much had changed. Emily was the same, spending the entire dinner with her headphones in and her eyes trained on her plate. Nancy was infatuated with some boy and left dinner early to talk to him. Regino seemed more reserved than usual but still spent much of his time gabbing on about something.
Suzanna was as welcoming as ever, with unfriendliness curled up in the rolls of her body. Her mother was missing because of her illness, as Suzanna explained at the beginning of their dinner.
Afterwards, Suzanna lead Ludwig into one of the closets of one of the back bedrooms. She grabbed a piece of cloth, which unfurled to reveal a set of boxes. “It’s a closet organizer,” she said. “We found it when we moved my mother. None of us have any use for it, so it’s yours, if you want it.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. “Thanks.” He took it from her.
“Still living with your brother?” she asked.
“No,” Ludwig said. “We had a falling out.”
“Oh,” Suzanna said. “Well, anyway. I’m sure you still have a use for it. We were going to throw it out.”
After Thanksgiving, Ludwig didn’t have anything to do, regretting that he couldn’t work and get the extra pay. Instead, he went back to his apartment and hung up the closet organizer. He went through everything he’d shoved in there after his last trip. The clothes he folded on the bed and put into one of the boxes in the organizer.
Once everything was put away, Ludwig noticed a small, black box in the corner of the closet. He took it out. Surprisingly, it was a camera, mostly black with a faux leather front and a silver band running across the top. Letters near it informed Ludwig that the camera was film, and the little window that showed where the film was indicated it was full.
The next challenge would be finding a place that would actually develop film. Ludwig found one, but it was three hours away by car and almost six by bus. So, instead, he set the camera down on the window, promising himself he’d deal with it later.
After applying to three coffee shops, Ludwig found one that would take him. The work was as miserable as it had always been, with Ludwig struggling to smile at every customer and genuinely enjoying when he was supposed to clean the store.
The last month or so of school was also incredibly stressful. Between papers and final tests for his classes, Ludwig met with his advisor.
“I think I’m going to change my major,”
“To what?” his advisor asked. The black and white photos behind him continued to unsettle Ludwig, especially now that the glint off their surfaces was getting into Ludwig’s eyes.
“History,” Ludwig said.
His advisor smiled. “I’m glad,” he said. “It seems like you’re really liking the class. And you’re well-suited for it, too.”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said. “I guess I will still be able to find work as a history major.”
“Yes,” McLaughlin said. “Although it probably will be harder than with an engineering degree, it’s by no means impossible.”
“What did you do?” Ludwig asked, gesturing to all of the photos posted around the office with his advisor standing next to historical figures.
“I had kind of a weird job, working for a very specific member of the government,” his advisor said. “I don’t think it exists anymore. The job, I mean. It was a sign of the times.”
“Oh,” Ludwig said. That seemed important, but not for any reason he could think of off the top of his head.
“I’m glad you’re changing your major,” his advisor said. “No sense in spending all of that time and money on something you don’t love.”
“Right,” Ludwig said.
And it did make sense, if not completely practically. He had to get a degree in something, so it might as well have been what he was spending the most time on, anyway.
Ludwig spent the first morning of his winter break on the bus, carrying the old camera in his lap. The winter sun rose over the Arizona landscape, throwing everything into harsh relief. Shadows had firm borders, and the sunlight bounced off of everything. And, although Arizona was still hot in the winter, the sunlight seemed cold and unforgiving.
The bus stopped at a bigger bus stop in a bigger town, and Ludwig got off there and onto another bus. That one he rode for another hour and a half, which took him to the city outskirts, where he stopped at another bus stop and took another bus.
By the time he got off that one, it was almost noon. It dropped him off near an almost abandoned strip mall, with only a Columbian restaurant and the camera store, which there was no one else in.
The walls of the camera store were empty. They looked like large, imposing off-white canvasses that were ready to collapse the store at any moment. Much of the merchandise had been moved to the middle of the store, where it hung off wire frames or crowded cheap, metal shelves.
An overweight, middle-aged man with acne was standing behind the counter than ran alongside the store.
“Hello,” Ludwig said. “I heard you develop film?” he put the camera on the desk.
The man looked at it carefully. “Yeah,” he said. He picked up the camera, rotating it between his hands as if to feel its weight. “I haven’t seen one of these in a long time.”
“It was an heirloom,” Ludwig said without prompting.
“Yeah, OK,” he said. “It’ll take about three hours to develop.”
That was disappointing. “Oh,” Ludwig said.
“Yeah, I know it takes some time, but you know it’s the only way to do these things, the old-fashioned way,” he ran his hand over one side of the camera.
“I guess so,” Ludwig said. He paid almost a third of a weeks’ paycheck to the man, then proceeded to attempt to find something to do for the next three hours, as the man disappeared behind the counter.
Ludwig spent a half hour looking around the store, knowing full and well he couldn’t buy anything. It was an odd collection of ridiculously overpriced camera supplies and posters of pretty places. Most of them were landscapes from different parts of the United States. That information was interesting, but Ludwig was unable to reason with why.
He spent another half walking around the rest of the shopping mall, only confirming it was mostly empty. Then, realizing he was bad at trying to entertain himself, he spent the next two hours reading the news on his phone.
The man came back to the counter. “Here are your photos,” he said, handing a full, paper envelop to Ludwig.
“Thanks,” Ludwig said.
“Be sure to digitize them,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to lose them when you lose the paper copies.”
“Thanks,” Ludwig said again.
He walked to the bus stop. The bus wouldn’t come for another fifteen minutes, and Ludwig’s curiosity was starting to get the better of him, so he opened the envelop.
Most of the pictures were of people, surprisingly enough. Many of them were group pictures, with Ludwig standing with some people he didn’t recognize. The first one was one of him and a Spanish-looking man standing in front of a blocky building. A community college library, his mind supplied. At a community college near Suzanna’s house.
He couldn’t quite remember what that one was all about, so he moved on to the next one, which was of him, standing with a blond, glasses-wearing young man and a Spanish-looking older couple. Behind them was a blue sky and the ocean, lapping at a white sand beach.
There were a few pictures of landscapes or stately buildings, and then another one of Ludwig with a whole group of people. In each corner, there was someone standing in a suit. Two men and two woman. In the exact middle was Ludwig, standing with an albino man, who seemed to be in his late thirties. They were surrounded by a group of sixteen people most of whom were blond and blue-eyed, and well, looked a lot like Ludwig. Most of them seemed to be in their early teens, with a few that were older.
After that there were a few more photos, just of him and the albino man. In two of them, the albino man was on his right, and in one of them, he was on his left. Behind them seemed to be different tourist destinations in Spain. There was one final picture of the two of them, joined by a green-eyed Englishman.
Naturally, there were a few landscapes too, which would be good for him to show to Suzanna’s mothers. None of them were that interesting, though, and he kept coming back to that massive group picture.
He was still looking at it when the bus pulled up and almost missed it. Then, the same thing happened at two stops. Somehow, the time passed much quicker as he studied their faces. He’d seen them before, he was sure.
It was about the time when he reached his apartment that he realized two things. One, he could digitize the photo and do a reverse image source on the internet to see if any of the people in it had posted other pictures of themselves. Two, they were likely his extended family he’d gone to Germany to see. It did seem a little odd that they were all more or less the same age, but maybe they were all cousins or something.
Oddly enough, only three of the people in the photo came up in the reverse image source. One of them was the albino man standing next to Ludwig, who was a match with a photo from World War One. Although the resemblance was uncanny, the ages clearly meant that these were two different people. Another was one of the suited men, who showed up in a few group photos from across the Internet.
The last one was the blond girl standing on Ludwig’s left. She was apparently a big deal on Instagram, with thousands and thousands of followers under the username @sofiainwestphalia. Most of her pictures were either of the landscape or ridiculously airbrushed model-like pictures of herself.
The updates she posted tended to be vaguely worded and only a few words long, but none of them suggested anything about out-of-country family visiting or a large family reunion. With a sigh, he digitized the rest of the photos.
Only one of them had any more matches at all—and that was the one of him with the couple and the other man. The couple had lived in Sevilla, Spain and was recently murdered. Interestingly enough, the other man in the photos was a major suspect, as he’d gone missing shortly before their bodies were found. He also had one other match, in a commercial for hair straighteners from the 70s. Again, the resemblance was uncanny, but the age difference was impossible.
There was something else about that photo, something that teased at the edge of Ludwig’s consciousness without fully entering it. He studied it until it got hard to see, as the apartment was darker now. Without moving, Ludwig reached for a lightswitch.
The photo showed the four of them standing in front of the beach. Twenty-two umbrellas—the kind that were installed into the sand itself—were behind them. Sixteen were open; eight were closed. Sixty people were in the photo behind them: forty on the sand and twenty in the water. Above them, the cloudless sky shone like a gemstone.
Why had he turned the light on? The room had plenty of light from the windows, and he could get a better view of the photo without the lamp glare on it.
It was something about the other man. His eyes were as blue as the sky, although not exactly the same as the sky in the photo. They more reminded him of the sky in Arizona, which was darker from the lack of humidity. Although it wasn’t that his eyes were dark. If anything they seemed to be lit up from the inside with some knowledge that Ludwig couldn’t think of right now.
It was dark again now. Ludwig turned the lights back on.
The Spanish couple—José Luis and Dolores—were in his mind, too, or rather pushing at the edge of it. She was leaning slightly on him, and he had one hand on her arm. Despite their somewhat advanced age, they almost looked like a pair of newlyweds.
Both of them were dressed in swimwear, as was the other man. Ludwig, however, was wearing clothes very similar to the ones he was wearing now—long sleeves and long pants. Thankfully, they were light-colored, so he couldn’t have been too hot.
That did make sense. Ludwig certainly didn’t want to show his scars now, so why would he have, then?
The room was well-light again, and the extra brightness made Ludwig rub his eyes. In turn, then, he looked out the window. The sun was up.
Wait. Ludwig stood up in a hurry, then immediately felt unsteady and nauseous. And hungry and tired. He checked the clock on his phone. Two days had passed while he was looking at the photos.
Ludwig rubbed his eyes again. And was suddenly overcome by a sudden urge to leave the apartment and do something.
So, before he could look again at the photos and be engrossed with them, he put on his shoes and left the apartment, closing and locking the door behind him.
After leaving the apartment, he started walking in the opposite direction of the way he walked to school, desperate to go somewhere else.
Three blocks later, he walked in front of a convenience store. It was an old-fashioned one, with a picture window and a large sign above it that read Pharmacy. Stacked in the window were boxes and boxes of microwave ovens, which suddenly reminded Ludwig that he hadn’t eaten for three days and was quite hungry.
He walked into the store.
There was a woman in her fifties or forties talking on her cellphone in the front of the store. “Yes, yes,” she was saying. “I’ll remember to pick up the rice.” She paused for a short while. “Oh, are they still coming over for dineʼeʼáahgo daʼadánígíí?”
Ludwig froze as he realized that woman was not speaking English.
“Da’ bisóodi bitsįʼyį́yą́?” she asked, looking at package of the meat.
There was something about that language. Well, for one, it was odd that he understood the first sentence without thinking about it too hard. And he could understand the second sentence, too, if he thought about it. Bisóodi bitsį—wasn’t that Schweinefleisch?
But he’d heard that language before, somewhere? Alfred.
Ludwig paused in the middle of the vitamin section. Alfred. Alfred was the other boy in Spain, with the blue eyes. He’d talked in his sleep—an annoying amount. And he’d talked too much when he was awake, too. What had he told him—something about—Ludwig looked up at the shelf. Calcium supplements. He’d told him to take the over-the-counter ones.
So, not really knowing what else to do, Ludwig took the bottle of pills of the shelf. He also bought a ready meal, so he’d have something to eat that night.
On the way out, he ran into the woman.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, her English a bit accented.
“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s ok.”
As soon as Ludwig stepped back into the apartment, he realized how tired he was. So, without eating anything or even drinking any water, he started to get ready for bed.
I’m so sorry if I messed up any of the Navajo. It was pretty hard to find resources online, so I ended up just taking the Duolingo course. If any of you know better, I’d be happy to change it.
Thanks to APHTeavana for beta-reading
Ludwig dreamed of a cell. It was about five paces diagonally, three paces long and four paces across. The ceiling was a metal grate from which water dropped every half hour or so, resulting in a small puddle, about the size of both of Ludwig’s feet added together, in the middle of the cell. If he stood up on the narrow metal cot he could just reach the grate with his fingers.
There was no indication of what lay beyond the metal grate. Most likely, some pipes carrying water and probably some wires, too. It didn’t really matter, as Ludwig could reach any of them.
Three of the walls, along with the floor, were uneven cement. All of them appeared to be constructed hastily out of poured concrete and then painted while. The last wall—the one directly opposite the cot—was a metal door. Two slots were cut into it, each about the size of Ludwig’s two hands. One of them was at eye-level and had a sliding door mechanism which Ludwig couldn’t open from the inside. The other slot was on the ground, and had a lifting mechanism, which opened up slightly to reveal a hallway that was also white concrete, lit up by florescent lights, and a matching door on the other side of it.
Ludwig’s cell was lit up by a bright florescent light that was located to the right of the middle of the ceiling. The light from it reflected off of all the white and metal surfaces, making Ludwig’s eyes hurt, even when they were closed.
Ludwig didn’t do any of those measurements in his dream. They all just came to him as he was sitting there, on the cot.
Some tapping came from the right wall. It was Morse code, which Ludwig also somehow knew in the dream.
ALLEMAGNE the taps said. R U THERE
For some reason, Ludwig slid over the side of his cot and returned the taps, knocking hard against the cement with his knuckles, YES.
His mind knew who he was talking to, and the image came to him quite clearly. Blond, blue eyes, longish hair, French. France.
DO YOU KNOW … the taps faded out.
Evidently, Ludwig did know because he started tapping letters back to him, ones which he knew translated to THEYRE TESTING SOME KIND OF DRUG.
There was a brief silence on the other side of the wall, as the knowledge faded into France’s head. FOR WHAT he tapped back.
MEMORY Ludwig tapped back. It made sense; IEUN had been trying to erase their pasts for months now. They’d just found a chemical way to do it.
WELL JUST FIGHT IT France tapped back. THE WAY WE ALWAYS DO.
Ludwig settled against the wall of his cell. I DONT KNOW FRANKREICH he tapped against the wall. IF THEY ERASE MY MEMORIES he stopped tapping, unsure how to finish the sentence. IM NOT GOING TO WANT THEM BACK he paused again, mostly to indicate the end of a sentence. ILL PROBABLY JUST ACCEPT WHATEVER THEY GIVE ME.
Ludwig looked down at his arms, in that moment. The long, white scars ran from near his elbow, down the length of his arm to his wrist. He’d been in Hamburg while his army tore up telephone lines and railroads in the west, he tore the veins in his arms apart.
He sighed and leaned against the wall. Things had gotten better since then. Much better. But it still would be a stretch of the imagination that he’d be willing to fight. Really, since they’d kidnapped him, chloroform and all, in what must have been six or seven years ago, there’d been a nagging part of his mind that had insisted on just giving up.
Right now, he couldn’t. France was in the next cell over, and he had long hair and a flirtatious voice and was the most annoying person on the planet. Prussia was out there somewhere, probably insisting on telling everyone how awesome he was. He didn’t know where Prussia was; how could he not know where Prussia was? There were plenty of countries he didn’t know the whereabouts of, but that was his brother. Italy was suffering through this, too. He wouldn’t give up, though, and, if Ludwig could make it out of this, Italy would probably be waiting there with a smile.
However, if he lost his memory, he wouldn’t care about any of them. All he would see would be the scars on his wrists—the ones from the suicide attempt and the earlier ones, from hurting his citizens—and would probably assume the worse.
Thinking about the scars did give him another idea, no matter how crazy it was. He stood up on the cot and reached into the grate, finding a small piece of sharpened metal there.
ITS OK France tapped from the other side of the wall. I WILL KEEP FIGHTING FOR THE BOTH OF US. Ludwig smiled at that. If there was one thing about France, it was that he certainly had a way of keeping the fight going long after he’d surrendered.
Ludwig sat down next to the wall. I KNOW he tapped in Morse code.
France was different, after all. France was a flag-on-every-building kind of country, and it showed in the way its personification carried himself. And in the way they treated him. There was no way France could give up on being France, even if he wanted to.
Ludwig settled further into the wall and sighed again.
When Ludwig woke up, the room was still dark. A little bit of pre-dawn light had started to seep in through the slats in the blinds, but he still needed to turn on the light to see anything.
He got out of the bed and headed into the kitchen, when his dream from the night before came back to him. It was so odd, especially given how mundane it was.
The developed pictures were sitting on the kitchen counter, next to the coffee maker. One of the ones with him and his brother was sitting on top.
Ludwig picked it up and held it closer to his face. Prussia. That was his brother’s name. He set the picture down and started making coffee.
Naturally. Prussia. How could he forget that? After traveling all that way to Europe to see him and look for France. Right. France, from his dream. And they went to Northern Spain.
France was north of Spain. Ludwig knew that. But they weren’t looking for France the country, they were looking for—long blond hair, flirting. France.
Right. That guy in his dream was France and he was Germany.
The coffee machine filled the air with a horrible sound, snapping Ludwig out of his train of thought. What was he thinking? He was a country?
But, now that he thought about it, he could remember Prussia explaining the same thing to him and to England. More memories tugged at the back of his mind, from different wars and different time periods. He could remember a lot of specifics about historical figures that he’d met.
Ludwig poured a cup of coffee into an off-white mug and took a sip out of it.
German history. What was he thinking? That he’d been there for all of that?
The mug slipped out of his hand a hit the ground with a crash. The dark coffee spread across the tile floors, mapping out the hairline cracks and crevices in between the tiles. Standing over it reminded Ludwig of flying on the plane, over the green hills and dense forests of Germany—of home. The way he’d felt seeing them all again—there was no way to fake that.
Ludwig pulled some paper towels off the rack and started to mop the coffee off the floor. He was here. In Arizona. That sense of place occurred to him, and he could feel the arid landscape spreading underneath him, hear the breathing and perspiration of every plant and animal.
Arizona was where they were expecting him to be. IEUN.
Ludwig mopped the coffee off the floor and picked up the shards of the mug, throwing them into the trash. What could he do with that?
His caseworker had talked to him in the Spanish morning mist. She’d brought up good points, about ending nationalism, ending countries …
Prussia’s red eyes caught Ludwig from the photograph.
There were still a lot of gaps in Ludwig’s memory. The past few weeks, with England and Prussia, in Spain were clear, as was his human life before that. Before that, he could remember scraps of history and some of the collective memory of his people. Starving under Nazi rule, the fall of the wall, hyperinflation. That time in he’d told his engineering teacher that 6x40 was 240 million.
Ludwig rolled up his sleeves and re-examined the scars. Some of them he could remember making after being told that he wasn’t who he was, and that some of his people were not a part of them. Many of them he couldn’t remember at all.
But he remembered his betrayal and how he’d left England and Prussia to IEUN.
Ludwig was surprised the library was open at all, considering it was winter break and the day after Christmas. The receptionist—a brown haired woman who wore glasses with rhinestones—smiled at him as he walked in.
“Can I help you find something?” she asked.
Ludwig nodded. “I’m looking for—” he wasn’t quite sure how to phrase it. “a nonfiction book. On a very specific subject. Probably too specific for there to be a section on it.”
“Alright,” she said. “We have a total index on the internet.” She handed him a bookmark that had a short web address written across the top. “Go to this address on any computer on the network, and you can search it.”
“OK,” Ludwig said. “Thank you.”
He walked down to the basement, where the computer lab was. Most of the students these days had computers of their own, so the college’s were all at least twenty years old. They still worked, though, and that was what really mattered.
Ludwig typed the web address into the search bar of the web browser. It came up, explaining that it was a catalog of every index of every book in the university library’s system.
IUEN came up with many results, most of which were about Welsh naming conventions. But that wasn’t it. It stood for something.
International … International Unison—no, Union to End … Patriotism—no, Nationalism.
International Union to End Nationalism. IUEN.
When he typed the full name in, there were only four results, mostly from periodicals that tracked NGOs. All of them were located in the same room, on the same shelf of international politics-related periodicals.
The periodical room was also in the basement, with hundreds of identical-looking volumes stacked on metal shelves. McLaughlin was standing in the international politics section. “Hello, Ludwig,” he said. “Surprised to see you here, since it’s break and everything.”
“Yeah,” Ludwig said, still surprised that he was there. “I could say the same about you.”
McLaughlin shrugged. “I’ve got nothing better to do. Spent the whole rest of my life studying this stuff.”
“National symbols,” McLaughlin said. “And what impact they have on national identity.”
“And what impact do they have?” Ludwig asked.
“It’s a little complicated,” he said. “They mostly increase it, naturally …” McLaughlin trailed off. “What are you here for?”
“I’m looking up a specific NGO,” Ludwig said.
“Out of curiosity? Don’t tell me you failed one of your classes?”
“I was only taking Engineering,” Ludwig said. “No, just out of curiosity.”
Ludwig figured he probably wouldn’t have heard of it, but said, “IUEN,” anyway.
“Hmmm,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve heard of that one. They were quite infamous for a while.”
Ludwig tried to smile.
“They’re an interesting one, though,” he pulled a red volume off the shelf and handed it to Ludwig. “This should help.”
“Thanks,” Ludwig said.
“And remember to spend time with your family this break,” McLaughlin said. “One of those things that never seems as important as it is.” He took a book off the shelf for himself.
Who was his family, anyway? That picture, with Ludwig in the middle, surrounded by all of his—states? States. Or provinces or whatever. Länder. And Suzanna’s family. And Prussia. Ludwig nodded.
“Goodbye,” he said, walking away.
“Merry Christmas,” Ludwig said. McLaughlin didn’t respond except to wave.
Ludwig sat down on one of the nylon couches in a corner of the room. He flipped to the index of the book and looked for the listing for IUEN. It was on page forty-seven, in an article that explained the differences between civic and ethnic nationalism using France as an example and somehow managed to fit all of those words into its title.
The authors regaled a story of a start-up NGO that stated its purpose as ending nationalism but seemed unable to differentiate between a healthy sense of national identity or patriotism and nationalism. Its true purpose, the authors insinuated, was to end the national system as a whole, and rather than work on cooperation between existing nations or better international framework, they’d decided to go about it through destroying national symbols.
Yes, Prussia had said. Yes, he guessed they were national symbols.
Ludwig closed his eyes and put the book down, trying to process this information. Then, unable to do so, he took another volume off the shelf, then another.
All of them seemed to repeat the same information. One of them printed IUEN’s manifesto in full, which just reiterated the points that he’d already heard from his caseworker.
Maybe he should talk to her again. Her number was still on his phone, untexted to except for the few messages he’d sent as he’d traveled. It wouldn’t even be that hard.
So, after staring at the screen for so long his eyes still saw the rectangle of light when he closed his eyes, he sent her a brief message, asking when she’d be available for a meeting.
Ludwig would have to say he had a problem, but what could that be? He was having trouble picking classes for next semester? No, that wasn’t big enough. What about—he was having trouble making friends? Yes, that made sense. It was true, too, as he hadn’t really had a friend since Antonio, who’d stopped replying to his texts months ago.
Even if he was still replying, Ludwig wouldn’t be able to be friends with him anyway, since he was a nation and all. He’d probably have to move back to Berlin, to that large, cold house, with the wall of photographs of people he didn’t know. Suzanna’s family—all of them he’d have to say goodbye to.
Ludwig put down the phone, the totality of his realization suddenly occurring to him.
Sure his caseworker texted back. When is good for you
Ludwig sighed. If all else failed, he could always go back. He wouldn’t give away the fact he knew to his caseworker. Then, if he changed his mind, he could always go back to taking the red pills.
Ludwig was waiting for his caseworker in the same coffee shop as the one where he’d originally talked to Prussia. The walls were still a shiny white, which reflected the light in massive, jagged strips.
In his mind, Ludwig went over what he was planning on telling the caseworker. He’d written out the most important questions on flashcards, and then spent a half hour practicing them. His memory showed that he didn’t tend to be the best at subtle communication—or, really, most forms of communication—so he figured he had to try his best.
“Hello,” Laura said. She slipped her purse off her arm and sat down in one fluid motion.
“Hi,” Ludwig said.
“So, what kind of problem are you having?” the Belgian woman asked, her brown eyes staring intensely into Ludwig’s.
“I—,” Ludwig started. Then, realizing how silly he was going to sound, he said. “I’m—well, I’m lonely.”
“Oh,” the caseworker said, taking a sip of her coffee without breaking eye contact.
“Ever since Antonio stopped contacting me, I haven’t had any friends,” Ludwig said.
“Oh,” the caseworker repeated. “I suppose that makes sense.”
“It’s starting to be a real problem, too,” Ludwig said. Now, he just had to bring up the scars on his wrists.
“I understand,” the caseworker said. “I’m here to help you adjust to life, however that may be.” She tapped her finger against her chin. “You should do something to meet people. Join a club or something.”
“For what?” Ludwig asked.
“How about … drawing? Are you still into that?” the caseworker asked.
This was news to Ludwig. He did have some memories of a brown-haired man—Italy?—painting in his house and getting paint everywhere. “No, why would I—” but, if the caseworker said so, he probably had been into that at some point. “I guess so,” Ludwig said and forced himself to smile. “Seems like kind of a solitary activity, though.”
The caseworker nodded. “I’m sure there’s a club for it, an art club or something. You’d be surprised the kinds of things people will come up with to get funding from the college.”
Another few moments passed in silence. Actually, it was a minute and a half of silence, which Ludwig timed on the digital clock above his caseworker’s head.
“Is that it?” the caseworker asked. “I can give you more advice, if you’d like.” Then, deciding she had to, she added, “talk to people in your classes, maybe. That won’t be as time consuming and could help your studies.”
“OK,” Ludwig said. “I’m doing fine in them, by the way.”
“Good,” the caseworker said. “do you know what your classes for next semester are going to be?”
Ludwig didn’t, but he figured she’d ask and had made up a fake schedule in advance. “The next level of His—Spanish and three more Engineering classes. Civic, mechanical and software.”
The caseworker sipped her coffee. “Still into Engineering, I see. That’s good.”
Ludwig nodded, not quite sure why he’d lied. Another thirty-four seconds of silence passed. “I do worry about …” he paused for a moment. “Loneliness.”
Laura’s face was unreadable.
“I have scars on my wrists, and I can’t remember how I got them,” Ludwig said.
The caseworker nodded slowly. “It was a bad period of your life. It’s honestly better that you don’t remember it, although we never would have gotten you out of that situation if it hadn’t happened.”
But it wasn’t Laura that had pulled him out of that bathtub in Hamburg. That had been France. With his blond hair just catching the sun, Ludwig’s oxygen-depleted brain could have sworn he was an angel. Other than the fact that he was France. And he’d then unceremoniously dumped him on the floor and run out of the room, calling for the rest of the Allies.
“And it was a really bad situation that you were in,” she said. “Your parents were in a neo-Nazi cult.”
Part of Ludwig wanted to believe that so badly. “I’m just worried,” he said. “How will I know if I start to feel like that again?”
“If you start feeling like you want to hurt yourself, I guess,” she said.
“And what should I do, if that’s the case?” Ludwig asked.
“Call me,” the caseworker said. “And we can meet in person.”
“You don’t have an office or anything ...?” Ludwig asked, trailing off.
“No,” she said.
Ludwig made sure to create a worried expression by knitting his eyebrows together. “Really?” he said. “Child Protective Services doesn’t have an office in this area?” Then, he chastised himself for sounding more skeptical than concerned.
She bought it, though. “Well, we do,” she said. The caseworker went into her bag and pulled out a pad of white paper and a cheap ballpoint pen. “We’re not really supposed to meet with clients there,” she said, writing an address on the piece of paper. “Here,” she said, handing it to him. “Only for use in emergencies, OK?”
Ludwig nodded solemnly, trying to look relieved by relaxing all of his muscles. In reality, he was excited and could already feel his heartbeat speeding up.
“You’ve been taking your supplements, right?” she asked.
“Yes,” Ludwig said. He wanted to know what was in them but already knew the kind of answer she would give him, as she’d already told him several times. Most likely, his best result for that would be to do a chemical analysis himself, maybe using some of the college lab’s materials. Even then, though, it wasn’t like he’d have the knowledge to know what any of the compounds did. And, regardless of whatever they did individually, taken as a whole, they were clearly supposed to erase his memories.
“Good. As long as you do, you should be fine,” the caseworker said. “I would have brought more for you, but it was hard to get them on short notice.”
Ludwig nodded. Now, all he had to do was get out of this conversation. “Thanks,” he said. “It was good talking to you. I will try what you said, about joining the art club.”
The caseworker nodded. “Alright,” she said. “Goodbye.” Then, she walked up to the counter and tried to get a to-go cup to take the remainder of her coffee in.
Ludwig looked down at the address she’d given him. There was a chance it was just some random location, but it was worth checking out anyway.
Thanks to APHTevana for beta-reading.
Chapter 16: Arizona, USA
This part of the story gets a little gruesome. I would like to say it gets better from here, but this is probably the level much of the rest of the story will be at.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was week before Ludwig could even muster up the courage to look up the address on Google Maps. During that time, the card seemed to burn a hole in his pocket and the idea of what he was trying to do lurked behind every thought. Not even cleaning his apartment could take his mind off of it, which he did three times during that week.
More memories came back to him as well. Mostly, they were feelings, or just a hint of sensory perception. The feel of horsehair fabric, flashes of light from bombs dropping, Prussia playing a military march on the flute.
Prussia and Ludwig had known nothing about IUEN, not even its name, when they first started to look for the other countries. That was something Ludwig could fix now. Maybe they would have some kind of record of where all of the countries were, and then they could find the rest of them.
His brother had wanted to take revenge on IUEN and knowing more about them would certainly help with that. Ludwig wasn’t sure about this idea, though. It was hard to see that the life he’d had in Germany was better than the one he was currently living in Arizona. Whenever he stopped to think, the memories came back to him—his people dying, he himself dying, starving to death, mass suicides, money being used as wallpaper …
Ludwig sighed. His life was simpler, now, that was true. And it would be even simpler if he took the red pills that were stuffed in the back of the bathroom cabinet.
But then one of his states from the photograph would catch his eye, or he’d notice the browser where he’d never closed Westphalia’s Instagram page, and he’d feel some familial duty to these people.
Besides, despite all of his idiosyncrasies, Ludwig did like spending time with Prussia. And, he would still be the nation of Germany, whether he remembered it or not. Remembering was—could be—a way of avoiding what happened with Stephen. If he’d known that he could drink a lot without being affected …
In the end, what made him decide to look up the address was the idea that he could still turn back. His caseworker didn’t suspect anything. As long as he didn’t get caught, he could break in, look at their files, satisfy his curiosity and go back to the way everything had been before.
The address was a suite on the first floor of a low-rent office building, whose façade was clumpy, ribbed concrete. Apparently, the building as a whole closed at six p.m. and opened again at six a.m., so, if he was going to break in, he’d have to do it between those hours.
If he broke a window or something, that would create clear evidence that the building had been broken into. He could pick a lock instead, using his knowledge of mechanical engineering, which might take them a little longer to figure out. Although, they wouldn’t be able to use the lock afterwards anyway.
The plans for the building were publicly available at the city hall. Apparently, the office with the number that his caseworker had given him only had an internal door—which wouldn’t have as good of a lock. The more serious lock separate out that office with the three nearest it.
One of those offices was currently available, one was for a travel agency and the third was for an insurance company.
If only IUEN’s office was broken into, it would look suspicious because they had nothing of value to steal. However, if all four offices were broken into, and he took things from the insurance office, they would assume they were the true targets.
This whole plan hinged on there being little surveillance of the place. There were no security guards that walked the premises, as Ludwig found out while he sipped coffee from a diner across the street. Security cameras were placed at each of the building’s corners, but the door was in the middle, so it wouldn’t be that hard to move in such a way that never showed his face to either camera. He could wear a hat to cover his blond hair.
The idea did seem kind of ludicrous, as Ludwig didn’t seem like the kind of person to go breaking into office buildings. He gave himself three minutes to think of another plan, timed on the neon-edged clock that sat above the diner’s defunct jukebox. The time ran out, and Ludwig returned to planning.
Ludwig was going to need gloves, too, so he didn’t leave any fingerprints. It seemed easiest—and least suspicious—to buy a pair of winter gloves. Arizona, though, was too hot for anyone to ever need them, as even the darkest days of the year still had Ludwig sweating like he was under that blanket of humid heat that covered Berlin in the summer.
Eventually, he did find a pair of sleek, dark brown ones which weren’t too expensive. Although money was probably going to stop being a problem once he broke into that insurance place. God, he hoped Prussia was right about how diplomatic immunity worked. And that everything was insured in these offices he was about to break into.
Then, there was the issue of how he was going to take any files that he found. Ludwig considering bringing in reams of paper and printing out the pages on IUEN’s printer but that would count on them having a printer. And he might have to take ink as well, depending on how much he wanted to print out. Not to mention having to stand there, potentially for hours.
A flash drive could work as well, but again, that would count on them having the right kind of USB port. Eventually, he bought an external hard drive from a sketchy but untraceable foreign company, along with different cables for different generations of different brands of computers.
Soon enough, Ludwig found himself ready to pull a heist on an office building. New Year’s Eve seemed like as good a time as any to do it; everyone would probably leave the office early.
And so, dressed in a hat and the gloves, Ludwig sat in the diner across the street, waiting for the sun to set. The last person to leave the building—Ludwig’s caseworker—left the building at half past five. By then, the last rays of sunlight were starting to fade into the mountains on the west side of town. Ludwig stood up, then reminded himself to wait another thirty minutes.
At ten to six, the building manager drove by in a sleek black car and locked the outside of the building and drove away again. Ludwig got off his seat, tipped the waitress and then crossed the street.
No one was around at this time of night, so he walked around the block once, then went to the door. The lock was easier to pick than he would have originally thought, and it probably looked to the people on the other side of the street like he was just opening it with the key.
IUEN’s office was the first one on his left. A logo with a blue United-Nations style earth dissolving into those letters reassured Ludwig that he was in the right place. After a moment of hesitation, Ludwig realized it was probably best to start with that office, as he had no idea what he would find on the inside, or how long it would take to download the files.
The office was sparsely decorated with folding chairs and tables. Three fairly new computers lined one wall, while one was in a back office. Each of the three computers was password protected, which Ludwig might be able to get around, but the one in the back office had been left logged in.
As it turned out, one of the cables he brought fit into one of the computer’s ports. Then, there was just the matter of deciding which files to take. The desktop of the computer just had the blueish default background, and one folder on it, which turned out to contain about three PDFs. Ludwig took those.
There was a much larger collection—hundreds of files—on the online drive of the computer. It didn’t seem like there was any extra security to download those, so Ludwig did. The loading screen said it would take an hour and a half to download all of the files.
Ludwig took that time to break into the other offices. The empty one was the next one he picked. Two and a half centimeters of dust covered the carpet, which Ludwig made a point of walking all over and stirring up as much as he could. Wait. He was leaving footprints there. Could those be traced back to his shoes?
It wasn’t impossible, but there was probably someone out there who owned the same shoes but had a worse criminal record.
The travel agency was next. Their office was arranged a little different, with a reception counter that had a map of the world over it. It seemed a little sketchy. Besides who used travel agents anymore? Maybe it was front for something. He could find out for what, and that could be more cover to cover up the IUEN break-in.
Ludwig walked back into one of the offices and opened up one of the file cabinets. It was stuffed with travel guides stacked there. A glance at the back wall and the names of the countries on the guides seemed to indicate that this was the Europe office.
One of the magazines had a picture of an external structure composed of columns with a statue of horses and riders on top of it. The title read, in all capital letters, GERMANY.
Ludwig traced his fingers up and down the columns. He could remember the name of that place; he was sure. It was named after one of his states. Palatinate? No, it started with a B. Bavaria? No. Baden? No. There was at least one more, but he couldn’t think of it right now, so he opened up the cover. Brandenburg, it said in the photo credits. The Brandenburg Gate.
The next page had an image of the federal washing machine building—no, that wasn’t what it was called. According to the caption, it was the Bundeskanzleramt, or Federal Chancellery.
What was in the rest of the book? He’d only been to the Frankfurt airport and walked around the suburbs of Berlin. Ludwig started to flip through the pages, pausing at an image of Munich at sunset, an idyllic whitewashed town on a green hill, and a river winding through Nuremberg. Ludwig sighed.
He tried putting the magazine back in the file cabinet, but he couldn’t fit it in all of the way. If only the one about Germany was misplaced, that would be kind of suspicious.
Ludwig took all of the magazines out of the cabinet and threw them up in the air, making a complete mess of the office. He continued to do that to all of the rest of the file cabinets, one of which was actually full of a plastic bag filled with a suspicious white powder, which Ludwig took with him. They would think he was stealing the drugs.
The insurance office was next. About seven hundred dollars in cash were in a black safe that was fairly easy to pick the lock of. Ludwig took that money as well, making a mess of the whole office as he went. He hoped they had insured everything.
When he got back to IUEN’s office, the files were done downloading. He poked around a bit on the rest of the computer, almost filling the entire hard drive with the files he found. Then, he clicked the “safe to remove hardware” button and unplugged the hard drive and cable.
It would be suspicious if IUEN’s office was the only one not trashed, so Ludwig took whatever paper he found and threw it all over the place. In the process, he knocked one of the tables over. The computer spilled and crashed on the ground.
For a few agonizing seconds, Ludwig stood perfectly still, listening to his heart race in his ears. A scraping sound came from somewhere above him in the apartment building. Ludwig took that as his que to leave.
He walked for three blocks to take the bus, which, thankfully, drove right by his apartment building.
The smell of cleaning supplies greeted him when he came back home. Setting the drugs, cash and hard drive on the counter, Ludwig took off his hat and gloves. They would be disposed of, but later. For now, he needed to rest.
Besides, he wouldn’t be able to look at the hard drive without going to the school’s computer lab.
Winter break still wasn’t over, somehow, so the computer lab was almost completely deserted. Well, it was also deserted when school was in session. Ludwig knew he was in the tiny minority that didn’t have their own computer.
Over the night before, he’d downloaded two hundred and seventy-eight files from IUEN. He’d also stolen seven hundred and fifty-six dollars, and about a kilo and a half of what seemed to be cocaine. Ludwig had flushed the drugs down the toilet, hoping that was the least suspicious to get rid of it. It probably would have fetched good money, but there was no way for Ludwig to sell it without attracting a terribly large amount of attention. He had a feeling he was going to need a ridiculous amount of cash soon for some reason.
Most of the files on the hard drive were PDFs, named only with a sequence of numbers and letters, all dated within the last two years. Ludwig clicked one at random.
It appeared to be a scan of a paper document. The page was divided into several rectangles of different sizes, with either typed or values. In the left-hand corner was a picture of an emaciated Italian man. The top of the page was labelled ITALY ROMANO, and the first box gave his human name as Lovino Vargas. The next boxes after that listed his height, weight, eye color and similar information. One gave his address as a house in Rome.
Ludwig shook his head, trying to process what he was seeing. He closed that document and opened up another one, listed as 18-B-LK.
That one was Belgium. The picture showed a serious-looking girl with reddish blond hair and green eyes, staring defiantly at the camera.
Ludwig scrolled to the second page. The first half of it was taken up by similar information to the previous page, along with “Place of Apprehension” and “Apparent Age.” However, the second half was blank, with scanned handwriting that looked like a doctor’s scrawl.
Day 1 was the first title, written in thin strokes. Subject arrived in facility. Placed in cell 186, next to 65-F-FB and 197-UK-AK. FB had to be moved for discipline issue, see file. Subject LK administered morphine dose, fell unconscious for two hours ten minutes, awoke screaming from apparent nightmare.
Subject LK administered syringe of air mixture. Heart stopped for ten minutes before restarted. Subject had to be restrained, placed back in cell.
It was at that point that Ludwig started to realize what he was reading. Day by day, the log went.
Subject LK given four days of rest. Heart Rate returned to normal levels. Given a 3,000vlt electric shock. Results were similar to that of subject 198-USA-AFJ. Brain activity returned to normal, heart restarted again after ten minutes. Preliminary tests showed no damage to nervous system.
Every bone in subject LK’s legs were broken via crushing mechanism. Healed slower than subject AFJ, indicating that personification strength is related to military. Physical strength, as indicated on day 67, is unlikely to damage or kill the nations.
Subject given first dose of sodium petronoyl.
Sodium P. has begun to take effect, flu-like symptoms have manifested in subject.
Flu-like symptoms have faded. Could have been linked to economic downturn, as is suggested in Schnabel report #37 regarding subject 69-G-L. Subject’s immortality remains in full effect, was tested with a crash test.
Physical removal of vital organs and regions of the brain resulted in subject death for twenty hours. Subject seems to stay dead longer—could be result of petronoyl or extended experimentation. Also has occurred in several other subjects such
The file went on like that for a long time. Over and over again, they were trying to find a way to kill the nations.
Ludwig rubbed his eyes. That should have been so obvious—it was exactly what they said in their manifesto. They wanted to destroy national symbols. Naturally, that wasn’t the way he’d—
Prussia and England.
Where were they? Where was Prussia? He wasn’t a nation—not anymore! Any day of what they were doing to Belgium would be enough to end his life permanently and then there wouldn’t be any more Prussia which meant no more discussions of history or of that overbearing spirit of his which was somehow really sweet and no more of that sincerity that he sometimes
It was about then that Ludwig realized he was standing up. His chair was on the ground, probably from the force from him standing up. Lips. His hand was touch his lips and he was hyperventilating. Zweckdienlich.
Yes, this whole thing was very zweckdienlich, whatever that meant.
He straightened his chair and sat back down. There were only two other people in the computer lab, both of whom had lifted their heads and were looking in Ludwig’s direction. There was nothing to worry about now, he just had to … sich beruhigen. No, he needed to become ruhig. It was simple. One, zwei, three, vier, fünf …
Now, calmer, Ludwig closed the PDF. He glanced through the rest of the files. There were two-hundred and twenty-two files, each named with a number between one and two-hundred twenty-two, and then either one, two or three letters, and then one or two letters. Except for 198-USA-AFJ. He opened that one. United States of America. Alfred F. Jones.
That file was almost fifty pages long.
He had to read them all; he had to know what they’d all been through, what England and Prussia were currently going through. Maybe it made sense to print them all out. He probably should destroy the hard drive, and he couldn’t stay in the computer lab all day, or however long it would take to read all of the files. Probably more than one day, since they all seemed to be at least twenty pages long.
Good thing the school didn’t charge for printing.
Five hours later and Ludwig had been through ten reams of paper. And yes, he was starting to wonder if this was a good idea. The end result sat next to him, sixty centimeters high, staples separating each country’s files.
Towards the end, the printer started running out of ink, which wasn’t that big of a deal, but all of the countries after South Sudan had their pictures faded to the point of illegibility. The writing was still clear though, except for some of the boxes on the first page, like the human names for Spain and Suriname. Ludwig couldn’t find more printer ink as easily as he’d been able to find more paper, although the woman working the library desk probably started to get suspicious after his sixth trip there.
Ludwig carried the ten reams of paper on the bus, to his apartment, thankful the entire time that he wasn’t still living in Suzanna’s house. Everyone stared at him, but Ludwig ignored them and started reading the files. Afghanistan. A girl with light brown skin and wide-set eyes stared back at the camera with a hint of a smile on her face, like she knew something everyone else didn’t.
He was on Argentina by the time the bus came to his stop. From there, he took the ten reams of paper and carried them to his apartment, where he set them down and kept reading.
France’s file appeared to be the longest. It went on for just under a hundred pages, generally filled with disciplinary action needed. Most of the files were written in one handwriting, with a switch towards the end, but France’s tended to change handwriting every year or so, until it finally settled down into a woman’s neat, regular cursive. Usually, the files were updated every day, with an occasional break of a few days. France’s never missed a day and were sometimes even hourly. That took a while to get through.
By the time he was done reading that file, the sun had come up again, so Ludwig turned off the lights. And kept reading.
Between Georgia and Ghana was his file—Germany. Ludwig paused a long time at that one, trying to decide whether or not to read it. The picture caught his eye. It was him, obviously, having lost a lot of weight …
Probably the same amount of weight as he’d lost when he’d stared at his bony, scarred wrists in the hospital. After Stephen died. Not only that but that was the same photo as was on his driver’s license, his passport.
Naturally. That was the photo IUEN had of him, so it was the one they’d put on his ostensibly fake documents.
His caseworker had given those to him. But, naturally, she was tied up in all of this. She was at the center of all of this. This polite, blond woman who’d had coffee with him every month or so …
That became abundantly clear when he read the last entry in his file.
Subject requested emergency meeting. Expressed distress over lack of ties to Antonio, believed to be subject 173-S-AFC and over scars. (Never found out what caused them?) Pressed me for office, gave him address. Petrocarbon oxygeniate shows no signs of wearing off, subject firmly believes he is human.
That was good, though, really. They still believed he didn’t know anything. And, if this information was up-to-date, so was the rest of it, probably. And maybe in there somewhere would be the address of where they took Prussia and England.
Prussia and England. He had to stay focused.
Ghana. Greece, Grenada. Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana. Haiti. The Holy See. Honduras.
They’d impaled Jordan. Blown up Kiribati. Sold twenty-two of Lesotho’s livers. He had type O- blood, apparently. Drowned the Maldives and kept her underwater for two weeks while she sputtered back to life before inhaling more water. Skinned Namibia. Where they related? He’d certainly lived with her—a dry section of desert where his skin was perpetually stuck to his clothing.
The memory disturbed Ludwig so much that he sat up. It was around noon, though there was no doubt more than one day had passed since he’d started reading the files. Ludwig wasn’t hungry at all, but it made sense to eat something, so he did.
Among the files was one that described a tracking device, placed in the neck of the nations. It didn’t have any diagrams to show exactly where, so Ludwig would have to guess beyond the general area. If he wanted to take it out. Which he would have to, if he was going to go anywhere.
All of this was assuming he actually had one. He did. It was pretty obvious where it was when he held his phone’s flashlight up to his neck. A small square stayed black instead of red.
In order to get it out, he’d have to cut into his neck. Ludwig stood in front of his bathroom mirror, with a kitchen knife in his right hand. Memories of that cell came back to him, of a little sharp piece of metal with a small handle, of blood dripping down his arm, in the shape of letters. Ich bin Deutschland, he’d carved into his skin, over and over again. He’d even written them of the cell walls, staring at him in their shape contrast.
He didn’t want to lose …
He didn’t want to lose what he’d lost. What he’d spent all of those months looking for, in the stucco house in Arizona.
He had known that, if he was given the chance, he would abandon it all. Leave Germany, leave nationhood, leave everyone.
And he was right. Wasn’t that why Ludwig was here in the first place? He didn’t want to be a nation.
Nein, ich will nicht sein Deutschland.
But no. If he did want that, if he did want to go back, if he did want to save England and Prussia from the fate he’d left them to …
He’d have to cut the damn thing out of his neck.
So, he took the blade and laid it levelly across his neck and made a cut.
There was more blood than expected.
There was a lot more blood than expected … so much … when did it cover the floor? At least he had the damn thing in his hand …
And that was the last thing Ludwig thought before he fainted all together.
He woke thirty-four minutes later, disorientated. All he could think about was the bathroom in Bonn, with his blood on its floor. Parkour floors and a club-footed bathtub underneath a window. A window that showed a group of men taking down a swastika.
Ludwig rubbed his eyes, forcing the memories back down. He had a tile floor, and a shower instead of a bathtub and the only windows in the apartment were in the living room. The microchip sat on the floor, black, square and surprisingly innocent looking.
He stood up, still wobbly and narrowly avoided stepping on the thing to get to the bandages he kept in his medicine cabinet. Blood was still coming out of the wound, and the clothes he was wearing would be ruined forever.
Then, he returned to reading the files.
He looked at the photo of Poland for a long time. His face floated at the back of his consciousness like a half-remembered moment from childhood.
There was no file for Prussia. Nor was there any mention of him in any of the rest of the files.
Ludwig’s caseworker hadn’t known about him before he mentioned him. He could have stayed safe forever, if Ludwig hadn’t said anything. As it was, he was probably …
Qatar, Romania, Rwanda—Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia. By the time he got to Zimbabwe, part of his vision seemed permanently seared with the shape of the page.
Zimbabwe had been through much of the same cycle as the rest of them had. First, they’d killed them, over and over again. Then, they’d started administering drugs, trying to get them sick, or have them not heal as quickly. They did stop healing as quickly, with the exceptions of Uzbekistan and Costa Rica. After a while, IUEN seemed to catch onto the idea that the reason they were still healing at the same rate was because they were keeping all of the countries in either Costa Rica or Uzbekistan. Therefore, Costa Rica and Uzbekistan, who were still inside their borders, healed much faster than the others.
IUEN figured this out and moved those two countries. Then, they realized that it would be possible—fairly easily, actually, to get the nations to never return home if all of their memories were erased. They started working on a drug for this.
Mostly, they had tested that one on Germany, which meant that most of his information on the subject was from his own file. What he’d told France was true—he didn’t want to remember, so he would forget sooner than everyone else.
They had set up the caseworker system—five nations to a member of IUEN, scattered all across the globe. The files per country didn’t say where each nation was now, but there was a separate list for that. Not all of them had exact addresses, but, as Prussia had said, nations tended to find each other on their own.
In that moment, surrounded by hundreds of sheets of paper spread all over the floor of his tiny apartment living room, it became so incredibly obvious to Ludwig what he had to do. The world narrowed to a point around him, all of the information becoming focused in his mind.
Rescue England and Prussia.
That was going to be hard. There was no need to rush, though, as England was immortal and Prussia … well, they’d already … already … or he … von uns gegangen.
So, then, it would make sense to regroup. A bigger group would probably make it easier to take on IUEN at one of their bases.
He had a list of all the countries of the world and where they were located. Now, a better question would be—who was allied with Germany?
Well, there was Japan and Italy.
But that was during the war.
But they were probably still allied with each other. He would have heard if they were at war with each other.
A quick Google search did, in fact, confirm that they were still allied with each other.
Well, what did he remember of each of them? Italy … calling him to tell him he’d forgotten how to tie his shoelaces? Always asking for his help? Disguising himself as a tomato crate and expecting Ludwig to believe him?
Japan it was.
The list put him in Oaxaca, Mexico. Ludwig had no way of getting there. A plane, a train, a boat … well, there were plenty of ways to get there, but they’d probably have to go to IEUN’s base in Costa Rica after that, which was just listed with a set of coordinates. A car would make the most sense, but he didn’t have enough money to buy one. If only he’d sold the coke …
Ten minutes later, Ludwig found himself standing by an old Volkswagen, the pile of papers leaning on his leg. If he was willing to do something illegal anyway, it might as well be something that was directly correlated to getting a car. This one was old enough to not have a sophisticated alarm system, anyway. All of the knowledge needed to hotwire it was somehow already in his head.
Prussia had sounded so crazy, when he’d first explained the concept to him. Ludwig thought it was so ridiculous—and that it was a ridiculous reason to go to Europe. And now here he was, the idea having taken such a hold on him that he was ready to commit another major crime.
Ludwig shrugged and put his fist through the window. The door was easy to unlock, and he followed the instructions in his mind to open the bottom of the dashboard and connect two of the wires.
The car turned over twice before it started. Ludwig started pulling out of the spot. The last time he’d driven had been … with Stephen, to the convenience store, while Stephen explained to him how much he hated living in a small town and how desperate he was to get out of it. No, that wasn’t right. He’d driven in Spain, with Prussia, winding through low mountains and forests with the smell of salt water.
Automatically, he seemed to know where to go. He turned left, then right. Then he stopped at a stop sign, next to a rather large pickup being driven by a muscular, tattooed man with a little girl in the passenger seat. She smiled at him, hopefully not noticing that the front window of the car was broken. Wasn’t that an obvious sign a car was stolen? Was he about to get arrested, right now? What would he do? Yell about diplomatic immunity and demand to speak to the German embassy? What would they do if showed up? What were the Nationalassistenten doing, now that he and Prussia were gone? Looking for them, hopefully, but they hadn’t been, earlier.
Ludwig tapped his fingers against the steering wheel, trying to calm himself. There wasn’t that much to this. This was Arizona, it was hot, some people liked driving with the windows down. He pulled onto the highway.
Highway. Was this the same highway he’d been on when Stephen had died? It didn’t seem like it, but there weren’t that many highways in Arizona. Unlike Germany. The dirt had stuck to Ludwig for weeks when they were building the first Autobahn. It wasn’t good that they’d insisted that he and Prussia be on-site for all construction. Prussia had yelled at everyone afterwards, arguing that the progress on the car-only road was taking too long and they were needed elsewhere.
The speedometer crept forward, reaching almost eighty miles per hour.
It was more rural here, with little hills rising on either side of the road.
He could turn back, fairly easy. Pull the car off the road and push it into a ditch. Wipe all of his fingerprints off it, so no one would ever know that he was involved in a relatively mundane car theft. Get out of the car, walk back in the hot desert sun. Feel the tug of thirst at the back of his throat and the heatstroke on his face, like he had all of those years ago in Namibia.
But he wouldn’t have to worry about those memories any more. He could go back to his apartment and take the red pills. The memories would fade from his mind, without Ludwig ever missing him.
He’d be too busy. Going to history classes. Sitting in the front of the room. Hearing his professor talk about wars or recessions or coup d’états. Studying in the library. Reading books. Meeting with his advisor. Having dinner with Suzanna’s family. Visiting her mother. Talking to her. Listening to her stories about Germany, never thinking more of that country than it being the one she was from.
It wouldn’t be like that forever. One day, he’d have to graduate, and then he’d find some kind of job. Work nine to five. Clean the apartment weekly. Go home to a clean apartment. Meet a nice boy, a cute boy. One who smiled all the time. A brunette, maybe. Marry him. Buy a house out in the suburbs, one with a xeriscape lawn and a brightly colored door. Adopt a kid or two, maybe from some foreign country where they didn’t have anything. Or maybe foster. He could explain that to his husband, in low tones, that he’d been a foster kid himself.
He never would have to explain the black and white photo of him and Prussia standing in those Nazi uniforms. Never have to think about that argument he’d had with that man, the one with the Saxon accent—what was his name?—about how unbecoming it was of a country to wear the uniform of a party. Never have to remember killing people. Never remember that bathroom in Hamburg, watching blood pour out of his own body and into a bathtub and over the walls of it and spread across the floor.
For a moment, everything in the car, in the blurred landscape outside the window, seemed to grow still. Ludwig reached for the turn signal.
He could feel his people, under his skin, breathing, living, their own hearts beating in their own bodies. Feel his land, its hills and valleys and the mist and heat that covered it like a blanket in the summer or winter, in a way that he hadn’t back then.
Berlin, with the sprawling suburbs and parks. Frankfurt, with the skyscrapers and telephone poles that reached for the stars. Munich, with the façades that were touched so perfectly by the morning sun. At least in pictures.
And the rest of the places he’d never been. They started to pile up in his mind, a complete inventory. Aachen. Hanover. Cologne. Hamburg. Annaburg. Stuttgart. Monsheim. Dresden. Mannheim. And a thousand other places, some too tiny to be named before they had to be placed on a map.
Besides, Prussia was out there somewhere, suffering and wondering why his brother had betrayed him.
Ludwig pulled off the highway. He turned onto side streets, taking one left and four rights. There was a stoplight, then a roundabout than a retirement home.
He parked in one of the spots far away from the door, leaving the car running in case he wasn’t able to restart it.
The receptionist had her hair tied up in a bun with a sparkly clip. Ludwig asked her if he could see Suzanna’s mother.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “She’s too sick to take visitors.” Her eyes softened. “I could give her a message.”
“Alright,” Ludwig said. His heart was pounding in his ears, the force of seventy-eight million people behind it. “Tell her—tell her I’m going to see the world.”
During most (all?) of the imperial period in German history, Poland was partitioned between Russia and Germany. I think that, for APH, it would make sense for Poland to go between living Germany and Russia. Also, sometimes from this period (like in All Quiet on the Western Front) Poland is referred to as a region of Germany.
The countries’ numbers are not random; it’s from the Wikipedia page. The numbers are how far they are down a list alphabetically. So Afghanistan is 1, the US and UK are right next to each other at 197 and 198, etc. Yes, Germany really was #69 once you take out the repeats. Really.
At one point, when I was planning for this story, Germany was going to get rid of the drugs by doing them all. And then Prussia was going to ask him, “Wait, didn’t you die?” and the Germany was going to be like, “Yeah, a couple of times.” I deleted this idea for being wildly out of character, but if anyone could work that dialogue into another story, it’s yours to take. :)
Thanks to Tevana for beta-reading. I’m going out of town on Monday, so if the next update is late, that’s why.