The two brothers wake up at four in the morning sharp. The younger one wakes early out of preparation. He rises to take his array of dogs on a morning jog through Großer Tiergarten, then to prepare a sturdy breakfast, and some time to catch up on some reading to wake up his mind before the busy day ahead.
He has been raised to do this well by the elder brother, who wakes early because his life once depended on it. He instinctively wakes for the early Masses of his youth, the ticking of a soldier’s pocket-watch on the battlefield of his prime, and the nerve-wracking jolt of cold premonition of his post-dissolution.
Some mornings they wake from the dreams that seem closer to memory than fantasy, from the ghosts that rightfully haunt them and the scars that feel fresh even though they have been long torn down and painted over--the past that shapes their present.
This morning, the younger brother jolts awake. It is still dark, and the window is an almost luminescent blue from the snow mirroring the sky outside. He can hear one of the dogs whining from the kitchen, which means that it is time to take them out. The day’s duties run thick in his mind, as if opening his eyes also opens the floodgates to his thoughts, and by the time he finishes freshening himself up in the bathroom his mental schedule has bullet points and appendices. If he takes the dogs out on a quick loop around the pond, he might have time to get everything done within twenty-four hours.
The kitchen lights are already turned on. The pot of coffee is leaning towards lukewarm and there is already a mug in the kitchen sink. Turns out that the dachshund is whining because the elder brother is teasing it with bits of cold sausage. He looks up and grins.
“Hey,” Gilbert says. “We’re all out of cereal. Wanna go to the bakery?”
The younger brother hesitates apologetically. The idea of a soft morning with his brother makes him ache with want. But the dogs are growing impatient; the doberman is growling at a bird outside the window and the poodle is already getting into mischief out of boredom. Not to mention that there is so much to be done, problems to fix and compromises to obey, and it is only Wednesday.
But Gilbert looks hopeful. He also looks sleep-deprived, which is nothing new since he had moved in back in 1989. And yet it twinges tenderly, this past that carries on to the present in the form of shadows under the eyes and cheeks that never properly filled back in before the curtain came down.
“All right,” says Ludwig, “but we’re taking the dogs.”
Multi-tasking often becomes its own trial; the dogs are getting their exercise, but Ludwig should have given Gilbert his own leash to keep his brother from racing the doberman and the German shepherd and nearly running into the fountain. Ludwig calls out his name, and Gilbert will come jogging back in all laughs and huffs, and then five minutes later will run off again, with the dogs nipping at his heel.
“How do you have the energy for this?” Ludwig says. He flinches every time Gilbert’s shoes slip on the snow as he darts from one amber glow of a streetlight to another, and disappearing in the blue-gray dark in between.
“Come on, West!” Gilbert says. “I know you can catch up.”
They manage to fulfill their task with a quick jaunt to the bakery. Their arms are full of pretzel rolls and poppy seed loaves in brown paper bags. The aroma is warm and Gilbert's laughter is warmer, until Ludwig feels already full. The streetlights are still bright when Ludwig’s work mobile buzzes, reminding him that a long day has already begun. He probably does not have the time to enjoy the spoils of their morning.
“Boss calling you in early?” Gilbert says before Ludwig can even reach for his mobile.
“How’d you guess?” says Ludwig.
“You always get a constipated look on your face when you get a call on your off hours,” Gilbert says. “Which honestly means that you look like that constantly.”
“Yep,” says Gilbert. “Just like that.”
“Come off it,” says Ludwig. “I’d rather be constipated than trying to calm down all of my political parties.”
He sets the rolls down on a bench to check the mobile in his coat pocket. Gilbert reaches into it and grabs two pretzel rolls. He waves one in front of Ludwig’s nose.
“Still warm,” Gilbert says.
“Just a minute,” Ludwig mutters while he goes through the messages.
“More for me, then,” Gilbert says. But when Ludwig still does not look up, he rams the roll against Ludwig’s mouth, and Ludwig bites it automatically without missing a beat in his answering of texts.
They sit on the bench in silence as Ludwig finishes replying to his messages, and Gilbert trades the poodle crumbs for tricks. The only sound between them is Gilbert’s occasional coughs and Ludwig’s mobile buzzing sharply when replies piled in. Before anyone else could fire back a reply to Ludwig, he shoves his mobile into his coat pocket, tears off a bite of his roll, and leans against the back of the bench with a sigh.
“Coal can shove it,” is all he can say.
“The Climate Accords going well, huh?” he says.
“If we do one thing, half the people will be furious,” says Ludwig, “and if we do something different, the other half will be furious. But it’s still necessary, otherwise this whole planet might as well go up in smoke, especially with America dropping out.”
He crams another stress-induced bite into his mouth. Gilbert gives a low whistle.
“Still can’t believe that we’re seeing the end of coal,” Gilbert says. “That used to be all that we ever knew.”
“We may not even see it anytime soon,” Ludwig says. “2038 might be too unrealistic of a goal. Considering how much we depend on it now, and how we are struggling to make a plan of how to get there, twenty years might not be enough time.”
Gilbert hums, relishing the moment; he had always done that in thought, when Ludwig was young and would run to Gilbert asking for advice on how to deal with the bearings of governance, or with trade, or with France. Gilbert’s chest would swell with pride and self-congratulations of being an experienced mentor before rolling out a forty-two step plan complete with comparison charts, pros and cons lists, and timetable of next steps to guide Ludwig through the growing pains of being a nation.
“Maybe you can start with deciding what are your goals with each mile marker,” he says. “Break it into doable pieces so that you know how to check that you’re on track and also so you don’t get overwhelmed of saving the world in a matter of minutes before you give yourself a migraine.”
When Gilbert is instructive, it reminds Ludwig of the past, like a well-loved childhood blanket. For something so sharp, it is strangely comforting.
“I did,” Ludwig says.
“What, get a migraine already? Shit, West, maybe you should be the one slowing down.”
“I meant make a schedule of goals. I haven’t reached migraine level yet.”
Gilbert raises his eyebrows.
“Quantifiable goals?” he says.
“Yes,” says Ludwig.”We’ve set ten-year plans.”
Gilbert makes a sound of approval, which to this day still assures Ludwig.
“Look at you,” Gilbert says. “Doing everything just right.”
“I’m a fully grown nation now, Gilbert,” Ludwig says. But he takes the approval and pockets it, for the rainy days.
“I know that ,” Gilbert says. “But you gotta understand, I once taught you how to wipe your own nose. Now you’ve got it all under control.”
“Now that’s being a little optimistic.”
Gilbert laughs and shakes his head.
“No, you do,” he says. “You will.”
He leans away from Ludwig as if to get a better look at him. His grin softens.
“Damn,” Gilbert says. “Looks like you don’t need me anymore.”
Ludwig looks down at the half-eaten roll in his hands. Gilbert, having already grown bored of the bench, runs off to play fetch with the dogs, wrestling with them in the snow until he frees the stick from their mouths. As Ludwig watches his family--a man and five dogs--he realizes that he doesn’t want to eat anymore.
“Let’s go back home,” he says. “It’s getting too cold.”
“Wait,” Gilbert says.
Gilbert shakes the snow from his equally white hair, which looks silver in the paling light. Ludwig wishes that he reminded Gilbert to wear a hat and gloves, not that it ever makes a difference.
“Let’s watch the sunrise first,” Gilbert says.
Ludwig does not protest. He stands from the bench and whistles for the dogs to follow him. The two of them make their way towards the River Spree, talking about football and Marlene Dietrich, forgetting for a moment the worlds that rest (or had once rested) on their shoulders. By the time that they stand upon the Ebertbrucke, the baptized sun re-emerges from the skyline, and the river is veined with gold.
Gilbert exclaims with glee as Berlin steps into the spotlight. Snow and breadcrumbs dust the front of his old coat; he looks like a child in this city that is far younger than him. Ludwig’s heart swells, but he cannot put his finger on why. It feels too large, and fit to burst.
“Are you even watching?” Gilbert says.
Ludwig looks towards the east, while buses rumble behind him. He has seen better; sunrises are best on the Oberbaum Bridge. Here, it feels like the metropolis is in the way.
“Ready?” Ludwig says.
“Yeah, let’s go,” Gilbert says. He tugs at the dogs’ leashes to get them to follow. “Before you freeze your ass off.”
While Ludwig works, Gilbert has dabbled in a variety of activities. So far, he has taught himself woodcut, horology, SEO (for his blog), baking bread, and how to make GIFs. He almost mastered parkour and tattoo artistry before Ludwig caught him. The overall list could have run longer if he could keep his attention on them for longer than two hours.
Gilbert keeps his pet projects ambitious. He wants to build a miniature mansion for the birds. He wants to carve out his own chess set. He wants to perfect the sweet dumpling recipe. He wants to make something nice for Ludwig; Gilbert is only just realizing how when Ludwig was a child Gilbert darned woollen socks to keep his feet warm, made blocks that help him learn his numbers, and fashioned a knife of Ludwig’s very own, but Gilbert never had the chance to make toy soldiers for his brother.
Instead, any minute not spent on cleaning or errands (if he remembers to do them) is spent scribbling on sheet music. It physically pains Gilbert to think that focusing on a musical skill makes him like Roderich. It doesn’t mean that he does not enjoy it, but that is not the point. It is the one thing that Gilbert knows he can do and not clumsily hurt himself in any way, because the cut on his hand is not healing.
He scribbles down notes on how to perfect the trill, on how to pucker the lips and control the vibrato. He tries not to focus on how he had wanted to fix Ludwig’s watch, or even make a new one entirely. Something that would outlive Gilbert, even if its entire purpose is to count down the minutes. Instead, he focuses on pieces of music, and writing down all the notes on the sheet music so that Ludwig could remember the beat and measure counts whenever he would pick up the mantle.
Ludwig catches him at work at one point--flustered, he reminds Gilbert that he has much less musical talent than Gilbert, to which Gilbert rolls his eyes.
“For crying out loud, West,” Gilbert says. “We’re Germans. We don’t schmooze on natural talent to get by, we work like hell. Now bring that flute over here and show me your breath work.”
Surprisingly, Ludwig obliges. He holds the flute gingerly, and the notes squeak by self-consciously. Gilbert coaches him through the warm-up, drawing from his memories of how Old Fritz taught him.
“It’s such delicate work,” says Ludwig. He flexes his fingers, afraid that he could crush the instrument if he pressed down a little too hard.
“Oi,” says Gilbert. “Who are you calling delicate?”
“No one, just the art. You need to get your ears checked.”
“What was that?”
“I said you need to get your--oh, come on.”
Ludwig was an exceptionally good learner, ever since he stood only up to Gilbert’s waist and would look up to him with big blue eyes, hopeful for approval. He sat dutifully at his desk as Gilbert lectured him on politics, economics, how to fight instead of flee and how to flee instead of fall.
The other German states--Saxony and Bavaria in particular--complained about how they wanted to have a go at raising Ludwig, and that just because Gilbert spearheaded the unification did not mean he had to be the sole guardian. Gilbert disguised his fear of letting go of his brother with insufferable over-confidence.
“Anything you want to teach him, I’ll teach him ten times better,” Gilbert said.
Saxony rolled his eyes.
“Bet you can’t teach him Aperschnalzen as well as I could,” Bavaria said.
“Yeah, because whipping snow from his feet is really going to help him out in life. Sure did you a solid, didn’t it?”
Bavaria scowled. The three of them were watching a young Ludwig fish in the lake. His golden head tottered over the clear lake and gave the impression of a second sun rising over the waters.
“He needs to learn more than warfare,” Saxony said.
“O ye of little respect,” said Gilbert. “How do you think the little man learned how to read so well?”
His face lit up when Ludwig came running towards them, his bare feet muddy from the edge of the lake. His small brow was furrowed with concern, but Gilbert couldn’t suppress his grin when Ludwig ran straight for him.
“Brother, I can’t get any fish,” he said. His voice tensed with disappointment. “What am I doing wrong?”
“Show me what you’re doing,” Gilbert said.
Ludwig took Gilbert’s hand and pulled him towards the lake. Because Gilbert was not above many things, he stuck his tongue out at Saxony and Bavaria from over his shoulder. Saxony responded with a rude hand gesture.
“They won’t even bite,” said Ludwig.
“What are you trying to catch?” Gilbert said.
“Bass,” said Ludwig. “Watch.”
He tiptoed onto a fallen log that was half-submerged in the lake, where he had positioned his rod to dangle the lure placidly in the water. Judging by the way his shoulders were nearly up to his ears, Gilbert reckoned that Ludwig was holding his breath.
“What are you doing that for?” Gilbert said.
“I don’t want to make the bass suspicious,” Ludwig whispered.
Gilbert laughed, which made Ludwig jump.
“Bass are fighters,” he said. “If you prod at them enough, they’ll snap. You don’t need to tiptoe around them like that. Actually, you want to annoy them into fighting you.”
“Like how you fight Roderich?” Ludwig said.
“Exactly. Now look--”
German took off his boots and rolled up his trousers to his knees. He waded into the water next to Ludwig, and pointed to the corner of water that Ludwig was targeting.
“Now,” said Gilbert. “Take out the lure, and keep putting it in at different angles in the cover.”
“But what if I pull it away right when the bass wants to get it?” said Ludwig.
“The bass won’t get it until you start pulling it away and putting it back in,” said Gilbert. “It’s like how if I kept pretending to punch Roderich in the face, a couple of times. Sooner or later it’ll get him so angry, he’ll punch me back. Not that he’ll win that fight because I’d wipe my floor with his face, but you see what I mean?”
Ludwig nodded. He took up the fishing rod in his hands, stern with determination.
“I’m ready to try,” he said.
“That’s my brother,” said Gilbert, ruffling Ludwig’s hair.
He returned to land, the long grass and weeds crinkling under his steps. Bavaria wrinkled his nose at the dirty water that had dampened the edges of Gilbert’s trousers. Saxony shook his head with disgruntlement.
“If he grows up to be another you, I’m going to voluntarily put myself under the rule of France,” said Saxony.
“I’d be doing the world a favor for raising him like me,” Gilbert said, surreptitiously wiping the mud from his leg onto Bavaria’s coat.
“Does that mean he’ll be as dirt poor as you at times too?” Bavaria said.
“It means he will overcome you,” Gilbert said sharply. “He will be so much more than all of you.”
Neither Bavaria nor Saxony contradict. Instead of retorting, Bavaria’s face grows solemn. This puts Gilbert at unease. He would rather argue and make a fuss than to worry.
“You do realize,” said Bavaria, “that the more that you raise him to be as strong as you, he will one day fight you?”
“He’s just a little tyke right now,” said Gilbert.
“Of course he is,” said Bavaria. “But he’s growing at the blink of an eye. One day he won’t be dependent on you. And if he’s not dependent on you, he will grow to be your rival. Just look at Arthur and his colony.”
“That’s where Arthur had it wrong,” Gilbert said. “West isn’t my colony. He won’t be subject to me.”
“But he may want your land, and your name,” said Bavaria. “He may grow so well that he will destroy you to grow stronger.”
Gilbert said nothing. He had seen nations come and go, whether by brute force or by time eroding their existence. He faintly remembered Germania’s stern hand but even less the color of his eyes. He had held the Holy Roman Empire when he took his last breath, in the same arms where Ludwig took his first. Few days passed by where he did not wonder if that would be him.
Instead, he grinned at Bavaria, ever defiant, perhaps ever denying.
“Then I’d give him a hell of a fight to remember,” he said.
Bavaria pursed his lips. Before Gilbert could muse longer on Bavaria’s point, Ludwig let out a cry of delight. He waved his fishing rod about, a bass dangling like a heavy pendulum on the other end.
“Brother, look!” Ludwig said. “I caught one!”
“Look at you!” Gilbert said. He ran forward, scraping his feet on the coarse rocks and mud of the lakeside to reach his brother. He swiped his hands in the water before mussing Ludwig’s hair with them, making Ludwig shriek in surprise of the cold water in his hairline. “I knew you’d get a hang of it!”
“What do I do now?” Ludwig said.
“What do you mean, what do you do now?” Gilbert said. “We’ve got to gut it.”
“How do I do that?” Ludwig said. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Come on,” Gilbert said, taking Ludwig back to shore. He looked up to see that Bavaria and Saxony were gone. His heart steeled with vicious love. “I’ll show you how.”
“Whoa!” Gilbert says.
Ludwig jumps in his seat. He nearly drops the flute, or rather, fling it away from himself.
“What?” Ludwig says. “What am I doing wrong?”
“No, West,” says Gilbert. He leans excitedly towards Ludwig. “That trill was on point.”
“Really?” says Ludwig.
“Why would I lie? It brought me straight back to how Old Fritz used to do it.”
Ludwig’s cheeks turns red.
“Now you’re just being ridiculous,” he says.
“I’m serious. You got it. Who taught you how to play the flute so well? Oh that’s right, me.”
Ludwig looks down at the flute. Then he holds it out to Gilbert.
“Please help me with this part,” he says.
“Hm?” says Gilbert. “As great of a concert as I’m sure that will be, don’t you want to give it a try?”
“I’m still not good enough,” says Ludwig. “Show me how it’s done, please.”
Gilbert takes the flute.
“Which measures?” he says.
“Twenty-seven to forty-three,” says Ludwig. “I can’t get through the finger work.”
Gilbert plays the measures. He can get past the sticky parts that tangled Ludwig’s fingers, but only just. He hates to admit it, and he will most certainly not, but this is as well as he knows how to play. Ludwig watches hungrily, and when Gilbert pulls the flute away from his lips, expecting Ludwig to eagerly take up the flute for hands-on learning, Ludwig turns the page back to measure twenty-seven.
“Could you do it again?” he says. “I still have so much to learn.”
Gilbert gives a wry smile. Yes, you do, he thinks as he obliges against his better intuition. But not from me.
When Ludwig steps across the line between east and west, his heart always skips a beat. Although it shakes him, it does not surprise him. This is where his heart broke; it should not be a far cry that this is the place where his heart stops.
Judging by the way that Gilbert’s gait suddenly imitates a swagger, Ludwig suspects that he feels it, too.
It is Friday night, which is the brothers’ pub night. Gilbert had insisted that he pays (apparently he gets pocket money from his woodcuts) and that they visit one of his old haunts from the eighties; the owner just had a grandson and Gilbert wants to congratulate them, or something like that. Ludwig is about to ask Gilbert if that just means he misses it, but he bites back the question before the answer can unsettle him.
“Look at those funky little guys,” Gilbert says, suppressing his laughter as he points to the flashing Ampelmännchen that advises them to cross the street. He does this every time they come to the east side. “Them in their little fedoras. God, look at them go.”
Ludwig holds onto Gilbert’s arm so that he will not fall behind. He wonders if it is his own begrudgement that makes him doubt the genuineness of Gilbert’s praise of the architecture or streets of east Berlin. This is still part of his heart, and yet it only reminds him of lost time, and decades of pressing his back against the graffitied concrete wall and straining to hear his brother’s heartbeat somewhere on the other side.
He begrudges it, but he cannot bring himself to curse it. He owes it his life, and that of his brother’s.
Gilbert sings his own entrance when he pushes open the pub doors. He waves gaily to the patrons; most of them are older folk who remember the scar that runs through Berlin back when it was an open wound. He coos over the photos of a newborn baby that the pub owner shows him on the mobile. Ludwig trails after him quietly; although he can sense the intrinsic bond he has with these people, he keenly notices how more amiable Gilbert is with them.
They order two beers after a long day of work--work for Ludwig, and whatever shenanigans Gilbert has interested himself in this time. When Ludwig asks Gilbert what he has been up to, Gilbert simply shrugs and mentions something about uploading digital copies of his diaries from 1487 to the Cloud.
“Where do you even keep these diaries?” says Ludwig. “I don’t have enough room for a library in my place.”
“You’d be living in a library if I kept them all at your place,” Gilbert says. He takes a sip from his beer. “Let’s see. The diaries from 1190 to 1226 I gave to the archives with the current Order. Up until 1806 I keep them in the archives with the Humboldt University of Berlin. 1712 to 1890 are my favorites and they’re under my bed. I’ve lost everything after that up to 1918 by now.”
“And?” says Ludwig.
“And?” Gilbert raises an eyebrow. “I didn’t keep up with it after that.”
Ludwig wipes the ring of cold water from underneath his tankard of beer with a napkin. Diary or not, this already tells him everything.
The door to the pub opens, letting in a fresh gust of winter air. Gilbert suppresses a shiver, but poorly. Ludwig looks around the pub and points to a table in the corner, farther away from the door.
“Let’s move there,” Ludwig says.
“I can’t see the door from there,” Gilbert says.
“But it’s cold here.”
“That’s what you get for being ninety-eight percent muscle, West. Should have packed a bigger coat.”
Ludwig grits his teeth but he does not push it. Instead, he takes Gilbert’s old coat that he had thrown over the back of his seat and drapes it over Gilbert’s shoulders. Gilbert instinctively moves to shrug it off, but his shoulders slump and he wordlessly draws the coat closer around him. Moved with sympathy, Ludwig pulls his coat over his own shoulders in camaraderie.
He looks around the pub. The lighting is warm; the walls are old but cozy, keeping them snug and bordering claustrophobic in this hole-in-the-wall. But he suspects that that sort of aura has more to do with where it is rather than how it is.
“You said you used to come here?” Ludwig says.
“Yeah,” Gilbert says. “You like it?”
“Yes,” Ludwig says without thinking about it. It is strangely quiet here, which is unlike his brother. When Ludwig tries to picture Gilbert drinking alone in this aging establishment, it constricts his chest.
Gilbert coughs into a napkin. Ludwig rubs his back, and Gilbert does not immediately brush him off. After the wall fell, and Gilbert returned to Ludwig’s home with a small beaten suitcase of patched clothing and mementos that he had hidden from Ivan, East Germany’s economy crumbled as did Gilbert’s health, and to this day his cough still has not gone away.
“Feeling under the weather today, sir?” the pub owner says.
Gilbert smiles wryly.
“If I was under the weather, do you think I can do this?” he says, before downing the rest of his beer in one gulp.
“Yes,” Ludwig says.
Gilbert slams his mug onto the counter.
“You’re damn right about that,” he says.
The pub owner--a bespectacled man whose eyes still gleam tiredly with Ostalgie, turns to Ludwig.
“Is this the brother you had talked about?” the owner says.
“Sure is,” Gilbert says. He throws an arm over Ludwig’s shoulders. “Isn’t he a brickhouse now?”
“You do not look very similar at all.”
“You should have seen him when he was born. Effing adorable.”
“Gil, please,” Ludwig says. His face reddens.
“He’s a busy hot-shot, so I’m going to treat him,” says Gilbert. “With the finest beer and food in this establishment. Tell me, Henning, what are your specials today?”
“I’ve got just the thing for you,” says the owner. “Perhaps the finest delicacy that you will ever know.”
“Do you now!” Gilbert says. “Go on, what is it?”
“It is my secret menu item,” says the owner. “Only to the most important guests will I serve this. But since we are celebrating your brother, I think now is as good of an occasion as any to bring it out.”
“Well, don’t leave me hanging,” says Gilbert.
The owner makes a show of furtively ducking under the bar counter. He looks to the left, looks to the right, and on a white plate he presents a banana.
Gilbert laughs until he cries at the sight of it. Ludwig sits stiffly beside him, staring down at this speckled fruit that is already peeling at the top. Gilbert elbows him in the ribs as he wipes tears of mirth from his eyes.
“Get it, West?” he says. “It’s because we used to--”
“I get it,” Ludwig says, and to accommodate, he offers one soft ha. He does not know why he should find this funny. Then again, he supposes that seeing Gilbert turn thin and obsessively stockpiling on grapes or fresh tomatoes every time he runs errands would sour any joke for Ludwig.
Gilbert settles with treating Ludwig to spicy kebabs and an extra round of beer. Gilbert hiccups through the meal and jokes even more frequently. Ludwig would go so far as to suspect that Gilbert is trying too hard, almost defensively so. But it would take the butterfly effect for Ludwig to find the Iron Curtain funny.
They leave the pub with fuller stomachs, and only then does Gilbert fall uncharacteristically quiet. He walks wordlessly alongside Ludwig back to the west, his gaze trailing past the old pre-war facades of buildings in the rusting streetlight. The mirth has left his face, but it is too simple to say that it had been entirely dishonest.
“Used to go there whenever I could have a moment to myself,” says Gilbert. “Except there wasn’t always beer. Henning would moonshine when he couldn’t get access to beer. The man made a mean samogon.”
“Does he still?”
“Beats me. I’m not that nostalgic to drink something other than a real beer.”
Ludwig grows quiet. In his spirit he knows that these streets are his people and his heart, and yet he is terrified to reclaim it. The Ostalgie will fade in several generations, and with enough hard work so will the streets that move through the city like a healing dislocated shoulder. The economies will run seamlessly into one, instead of bleeding into each other. His heart will no longer feel like a stranger’s, but then it will become his, and not Gilbert’s. And he dreads what that would mean.
“Thank you,” Ludwig says.
“Hm?” Gilbert says.
“For the meal. And for your company.”
“Oh, of course. Aren’t I the best brother?”
Gilbert sniggers. He draws his scarf tighter around his neck; traces of their breath cloud in front of them in the cold. They walk in comfortable silence in the cold, the tips of their noses becoming red and chilled. Gilbert is still shivering, so Ludwig takes off his hat and pulls it over Gilbert’s head.
“I’m fine,” Gilbert says.
“No, you’re not,” says Ludwig.
Gilbert tugs it off and yanks it back onto Ludwig’s head.
“You’re it,” he says, before sprinting forward.
Ludwig curses, but he runs after his brother anyway. Gilbert darts out of Ludwig’s range, slowing into a proper walk whenever they approached a crowded street, and once the last pedestrian turned the corner immediately picked up his pace.
They run all the way to the Oberbaum bridge, from this time capsule to the west side, where all these ghosts of the Cold War and the wall would fade away. On the other side of the Spree, there are no reminders to Ludwig of the lonely separation. One day on the east these wounds will turn to scars which will turn to a memory that only Ludwig will remember, and east and west would only mean the direction of the sun.
Don’t let him disappear, Ludwig suddenly thinks.
Gilbert is running in front of him, and beats him to the Oberbaum. Ludwig’s heart skips a beat--he can see Gilbert still shivering despite running for minutes--and he knows he has stepped over his brother’s grave.
“Brother, wait,” Ludwig calls out.
If the east meets the west, if that distance between them closes and ceases to exist, will his brother do the same?
Please, Ludwig thinks, don’t let him disappear.
“Wait for me!” Ludwig cries.
Gilbert turns around, just as Ludwig races onto the Oberbaum bridge. His face breaks into an easy laugh as he holds out his hands out towards Ludwig, and Ludwig is tempted to take them before he skids to a stop on the copper-colored bridge.
“What’s the big worry?” Gilbert says. “Can’t catch up?”
Overhead, a train rattles the rails and thus drowns out Ludwig struggling to catch his breath. His heart pounds desperately in his chest, as if he is running away rather than running to. Gilbert’s smile flickers but regains its balance, and he thumps Ludwig on the back.
“Easy there,” he says. “I got you.”
By the time they reach the other side of the river, Ludwig’s breathing has returned to normal. His heart rate has not.
The two brothers never assume that the past is too far behind. The ghosts in the east may be made of concrete and metal, where their people wake and walk and work. But the west is not devoid of ghosts, either. Gilbert fights down rising vomit when Ivan does so much as drop a line to the federal offices. Ludwig does not restrain himself from yelling at political gatherings that spew a terrifyingly familiar ideology. Sometimes on bank holidays, when they wake up early, they both pick the weeds from the memorials before the sun can catch them.
But that is the thing: the brothers face the music of their past and the endless expanse of the future together, even if they are not side by side.
When the skin on Gilbert’s hand finally smooths over, his cough gets stronger. As his cough gets stronger, his knees grow weaker. One day, when he is visiting Elizaveta’s home and his knees buckle under him, she catches him before he can fall to the ground. They meet each other’s gaze and remember the Holy Roman Empire like a heavy blanket pulled over their heads.
“I’ve got to go back to my brother,” Gilbert says. His smile shakes. “God, I’ll miss you.”
Elizaveta drives him back to Berlin, and they keep the radio off so that they could do nothing but talk and argue and make oaths together. When she drops him off, she hugs him for too long, and blasts the radio at full volume on the drive back to Budapest so that it drowns every noise that comes from her, whatever they may be.
The past is close behind them. Gilbert remembers keenly his cold and hungry youth, of biting metal and scrambling for survival as his name changed in order to cling onto his place on this earth. He had always been desperate to live. He imagined that if he were to die, it would be such an end, of splintering shields and one last battle cry before crumbling into oblivion in the middle of a desolate field.
Gilbert has seen enough nations die to know that he should count himself lucky. The future is just a stone’s throw ahead, and he spends his days walking the dogs with his brother and calling those he now finally knows as friends late into the night.
He does not rise at four in the morning as often as he used to. He drags himself out of bed at a snail’s pace, until Ludwig tells him that he left breakfast on the stove and he has to run now, have a good day. As time passes, he groans and turns off the alarm and sleeps for another two hours. As time passes, he does not even stir at sunrise. Ludwig cleans the memorials on his own.
“There must be something I can get you,” Ludwig says. He stands straight and tall, but his voice does not hide his emotions as well as he thinks it does. “Medicine, or food, or a drink.”
Gilbert looks up to Ludwig from his pillow and nearly laughs, because Ludwig says it as if he has not already been doing these things for Gilbert, whether or not Gilbert is in this state.
“Well, West,” he says, “you can be responsible and keep up with your flute practice like I taught you.”
Ludwig immediately drops everything that he is doing and brings the flute and sheet music to Gilbert’s bedroom. Gilbert watches Ludwig fiddle with the scales, whistle his way through a simple Bach piece that Gilbert had taught him, and remembers with a jolt that Old Fritz had taught Gilbert this piece. Ludwig never met Old Fritz--Old Fritz was well before Ludwig’s time--and yet Ludwig is learning from him, three hundred years later.
When the weather thaws, he asks Ludwig where he would like to go.
“What do you mean?” Ludwig says.
“Somewhere,” says Gilbert. “We’ve been in the same place all winter. Let’s stretch our legs. Let’s go somewhere far.”
He is still cold, but he does not mind it. Ludwig furrows his brow.
“You mean...Neukölln?” he says.
“No, I don’t mean your backyard, West,” says Gilbert. “Somewhere where you don’t have any access to work. Va-ca-tion.”
“I have a meeting with the Parliament tomorrow.”
Ludwig sits down on the bed next to Gilbert. Ludwig is easy for Gilbert to read, a map that takes Gilbert exactly where he is looking for. There is worried tension in Ludwig’s face, which makes Gilbert want all the more to take him somewhere to relax.
“Remember where we used to fish?” says Ludwig. “When I had just been born?”
“Oh yeah,” says Gilbert. “They turned that to a nature park by now.”
“I would like to go there,” Ludwig says. “Get out of Berlin for once.”
“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Gilbert says. “Although, you want your one free day to go fishing? Standing around dead quiet? Typical.”
“Let’s just get out of this damn city,” Ludwig says.
They start their day trip with argument as is typical. Gilbert only remembers how to get to the lake on horseback and insisted that roads are guidelines. Ludwig spends half an hour trying to find an adequate address to enter into his GPS. By the time they start driving, they are in such a rush that they grab McDonald’s for a lunch, which Ludwig makes Gilbert swear never to tell anyone.
“I used to take you to this lake all the time,” Gilbert says under the sun. It is quiet enough today that it reminds Gilbert of those years, except instead of riding boots and britches they are wearing jeans and drinking water from a plastic bottle. “Especially when Bavaria would demand to visit you. He hated this place.”
“He didn’t like when we would go hunting,” Ludwig echoes. He walks slowly, and sticks close to Gilbert’s side as they walk, even though he could probably run clear through the hills without batting an eye. “He would try to get me to come to his house all the time.”
“Yeah. The bugger thought I was a fool with no tastes for never taking you to the Black Forests instead,” Gilbert says. He leans against a hiking stick, reveling in the sweat gathering along his hairline. He has missed the feeling of struggling, and pushing through anyway. “Jokes on him. I would just take you there when he wasn’t looking.”
Ludwig snorts softly. They weave through the shadows left by the trees, convicted to stay on the paths that their people had carefully paved and itching to wander the woods as one ought to.
“How much do you remember of your other brothers, anyway?” Gilbert asks.
Ludwig takes some time to think about it. He stops to take a sip of water.
“I remember some things,” Ludwig says. “I remember Hesse coming to visit often. Thuringia would teach me theology and harpsichord every time that he could. And Bavaria would teach me how to play a game with a whip.”
“Dammit, that’s the one thing I hope you would forget.” Gilbert nudges Ludwig in the back of his head playfully. “That’s not bad. You were tiny when they were all around.”
“I wasn’t a baby,” Ludwig protests. “I still remember what they all look like.”
“Do you really? There were thirty-nine of them.”
“I mean, I think I do. You can’t prove me wrong.”
“Which one always wore his hair in a braid and always had his sleeves rolled up to get to work?”
“Er--was that Brunswick?”
“Damn, you really are a genius. No one remembers Brunswick.”
Ludwig scoffs, and Gilbert laughs, but he is also proud. He doesn’t know why such a simple thing would relieve him. Ludwig really was very young when he last saw their brothers; how much more he will remember now.
“You know, you kind of do that,” Gilbert says.
“Do what?” Ludwig says.
“You know--” He mimes rolling up his sleeves, which he does not do with his jacket because he isn’t warm enough for that right now. “Let’s get to work. And keep our sleeves clean while we’re at it, sort of thing.”
“I think just about anyone would roll up their sleeves before they go mining like Brunswick had done,” Ludwig says.
“But even the way you do it,” Gilbert says. “And you really do love studying things like Thuringia did. Hell, you’re even good at that stupid-ass sport that Bavaria was mad about.”
Suddenly it is as if he sees his brother in a new light, like he is a thirty-nine-faceted diamond and the light is sparkling off of him. Ludwig has a part of every single one of his predecessors, and together he has become something far more valuable.
“You’re staring,” Ludwig says, shielding his gaze with his hand.
“This is so effing weird,” Gilbert says with a weak laugh.
“I happened to enjoy that snow sport, actually.”
“That part is weird, but that isn’t what I meant,” Gilbert says. “It’s just, we haven’t seen any of those brothers in nearly two hundred years, and yet I do see them now. Because you are right here.”
Ludwig’s pace slows to a stop. When Gilbert looks back at him, Ludwig stares at him with his cornflower blue eyes, and Gilbert sees a child again. There is a strange sadness in Ludwig’s eyes, but Gilbert cannot understand why, and he feels suddenly uncomfortable.
“Thank God I kicked Roderich out of there before you could become a little like him, too,” he says.
It makes Ludwig shake his head exasperatedly, and that is enough for now.
They hike until Gilbert’s legs creak, and his breath grows too short. They sit by the lake to catch his breath, and when he cannot, Ludwig supports him on the walk back to the car.
The drive back to Berlin is quiet; Gilbert is tired, and he wants to sleep. Ludwig urges him to, and insists that he does not need Gilbert to stay awake. They will be back home in an hour tops. So Gilbert cranks the seat back a little and lets his mind wander as he watches the stretches of farms and forests; his bones feel so weary that he could be floating in nothing and still feel too heavy.
They drive back facing the sunset, so Ludwig squints at the windshield. Gilbert takes his sunglasses off of his head and hands them to Ludwig.
“You keep them,” Ludwig says. “Your eyes are more sensitive.”
“I prefer the word ‘extra-perceptive to everything including the light,’” says Gilbert.
“That is seven words.”
“I overachieve. Take them before you go blind.”
Ludwig still refuses the shades with a wave of the hand. Out of stubbornness, Gilbert places them on the dashboard and pulls his jacket hood over his eyes.
“How are you feeling?” Ludwig says.
Gilbert shrugs. He adjusts his seat back to sitting position.
“Well-exercised,” he says.
“That’s good,” Ludwig says.
A beat. Gilbert clears his throat.
“You liked it?” says Gilbert.
“Well, of course,” says Ludwig. “It’s a nice park.”
“I mean, was it a good day off?”
“Yes, it was. I missed having time like that.” Ludwig sighs. “I don’t think I’ve had much time off since the eighteen hundreds.”
“The eighteen hundreds was when you were born, West.”
“Are you surprised? When was the last time that you had a decent time off?”
“Yesterday was pretty chill. I caught up on some TV shows while you were working.”
Ludwig hummed. Gilbert held out a hand in front of his face to shield his eyes from the setting sun ahead of them.
“You should go back to the Black Forests again for a rest,” Gilbert says. An afterthought. “Maybe invite Feliciano along so that the more, the merrier. You should have some more fun for a change.”
“Perhaps,” Ludwig says. “That would be nice.” A beat. “You should come with us, then.”
“I would,” Gilbert says. He lets his hand fall to his lap. “But you’ll have more fun without me.”
“Since when did you ever believe that?” Ludwig says.
Gilbert gives a crooked smile. He runs his fingers over the back of his hand. The skin is smooth, but there are still moon-shaped shadows where the dog’s teeth sank.
“But I would like that,” Gilbert continues.
Ludwig does not answer. Gilbert considers dozing off again, but his heart twinges. He casts a sidelong glance at Ludwig and realizes that his brother is gripping the steering wheel so tightly that the bones on the back of his hands are shaking.
“Hey,” Gilbert says.
Ludwig mouths what ? but he has no voice to say it.
“Pull over for a bit,” Gilbert says. “Let’s at least wait until the sun isn’t in your eyes anymore.”
At first, Gilbert thinks that maybe Ludwig will ignore him, until the Volkswagen slowly peels from the lane to the shoulder of the country road. It slows to a stop, and when Ludwig parks the car, he immediately unclips the seatbelt and gets out.
He sits on the hood of the car, his back towards the windshield so that he blocks the setting sun from blinding Gilbert. Gilbert takes in a deep breath, giving Ludwig a moment to himself, before he too gets out of the car. He leans against the hood next to Ludwig; the road is smokey with the gold and mauve aftermath of the sun.
“West,” Gilbert says.
Ludwig chokes. He turns his face away sharply from Gilbert. Contrary to popular belief, Ludwig has always worn his larger heart heavier on his sleeve; when the wall fell, it was Ludwig who sobbed the loudest.
“I still need you,” Ludwig says.
His voice is strangled, and it sounds so much like the little one who Gilbert would push behind him when nations attacked, when storms fell down. Gilbert cannot fool himself into thinking that Ludwig has not noticed how Gilbert has been dying this whole time. His brother is not a little boy anymore. Gilbert stares evenly at Ludwig, who is so much taller than he is now.
“You don’t,” Gilbert says.
“Don’t say that,” Ludwig says. “You don’t know that.”
“But I do,” Gilbert says. “You’re a leader now, helping other nations get back on their feet and trying to make this world better. You’re juggling the damn UN and EU and the European economy like a champion. You don’t need me.”
Ludwig shakes his head. He presses a hand against his mouth. Gilbert puts a hand on Ludwig's shoulder; hell, his brother is so tall.
“You don’t want to depend on your brother for your whole life,” Gilbert says. “However awesome I may be. You can do better than that. You’ve already had.”
“I always had you,” Ludwig says. “Since I was born. I never not had you. I don't want to not have you. What will I do?”
Gilbert’s heart swells. He remembers well the time that he did not have Ludwig, and they might as well be counted worthless compared to when he does have his brother. Ludwig is not unappreciative, but Gilbert would be lying if he said he never wondered if Ludwig is embarrassed of him, or has long outgrown and outrun him. Truthfully, Ludwig has not needed his older brother in a long time, and only now Gilbert learns that Ludwig actually, and simply, wants his older brother.
“You know, West, you hardly ask for help in the first place,” Gilbert says.
Ludwig mutters something miserably. Gilbert laughs, and is surprised to hear how wet it sounds.
“The truth is, I don’t know squat about renewable energy, or internet privacy laws, or any of these things that you are now the master at,” Gilbert says. “I’ve given you everything I know. And I see you do better than use it. You grow it. You take these things I taught you and you do better with it. You’d be the only one who could ever improve on it. And I always knew that.”
Gilbert realizes with a skip of a heartbeat that Saxony and Bavaria had it wrong the whole time, and so had he. Gilbert had delighted in raising Ludwig to be just like him, dreaming that his younger brother would become another loudmouthed, daring Gilbert. But what they got is even better--his brother became Ludwig.
He reaches out his arm and wraps it around Ludwig’s shoulders, pulling him close. Ludwig groans inwardly, shielding his face with his hand as if Gilbert could not possibly tell he is crying if he hides the evidence.
“I thought I hated what became of my legacy,” Gilbert says. There will be no gold pinned to his burial clothes, nor a victory dirge. “But it was never about an empire, or lack thereof. It shouldn’t have been about land. It was you. I got to be your brother.”
Ludwig shakes his head. It is a love too kind for his soul to take.
“I have a legacy,” he says. “It’s made of ash.”
Gilbert grips Ludwig tighter.
“Ash leaves stains and you won’t be the one to wash them off. You will remember it. You will change for it. But that’s not what you’re made of. You fell down on your knees in front of the world to repent, and you never forget or hide it just to be proud of yourself. You open your home to people who need a safe place and you fight to do better no matter how hard it is. There’s more. You like to bake sweets for other people, you take care of everyone no matter how idiotic they are or if you’re fighting on opposite sides, and you cry at romance novels, don’t think I never caught you.”
Ludwig shoots Gilbert a reproachful look before his face crumples and he hides again. Gilbert grins; he ruffles Ludwig’s hair and presses his forehead against his.
“Fine then,” Gilbert says. His vision blurs, and when he squeezes his eyes shut his cheeks go hot. “Cry as much as you need to. I won’t stop you. But hell, I’m proud of you. More than you’ll ever know.”
They sit together until the sun lays itself down before them. It stings their eyes for a moment, and then with a flash of light it is gone. The dusk is gentle.
“Ready?” Gilbert says.
Ludwig nods. He wipes his face with his sleeve.
“Let’s go home,” Ludwig says.
The two brothers go back inside the car. They remember to turn on the headlights, as the sky turns to dark velvet. They drive again, away from the ghosts, to follow the sun.