Gilbert could feel the wall crumbling. His brows furrowed, beaded with cold sweat, his hand clutching at his chest; each fissure in the concrete partition was a cut into flesh. Yet he smiled. For his children, for their happiness, he could bear the pain.
“It is a miracle that you have lasted to see this day.”
Gilbert twisted around, startled. Ivan was standing behind him, smiling his usual smile, a gloved hand wrapped around the neck of a clear bottle of vodka. Russia’s own frigid soul.
“You – ”
“Do not worry, I am not here to retrieve you.”
Ivan’s breath clouded the frosty winter air, and only then did Gilbert realise just how cold it was. He wrapped his arms around himself and shivered; it did not go unnoticed. Ivan raised his bottle in wordless offer, and Gilbert, though wary, accepted it. The bottle was already three quarters empty, Gilbert noted. He swallowed a mouthful, grimacing as the spirit burned his throat, and Ivan shifted his gaze towards the wall, his bloodshot eyes unblinking and unreadable, hands clasped behind his back.
“Why are you here?” Gilbert asked suspiciously. Ivan flicked his eyes towards him, a strangely distant expression on his face.
“Tell me something, East,” he said quietly. “How are you still here?”
“You are but a remnant of a past glory, a fallen kingdom,” Ivan continued. “How are you still standing here, able to watch as your children desert you?”
Gilbert said nothing. He took another draught of the alcohol and gave the bottle an absent-minded twirl, swirling the last of its content.
“They are planning to bring in industrial equipment to remove the rest of it,” Ivan said with an offhand gesture in some vague direction. He stopped.
“Yeah, I probably won’t survive it.” It had been on his mind. Gilbert downed the last of the vodka.
“And you are all right with that?”
“It’s not like I can do anything about it!”
The empty bottle smashed at Ivan’s feet, scattering into many glittering fragments. Ivan watched with his blank expression as Gilbert’s hand flew to his chest, his face twisted in pain.
“I am sorry,” Ivan said quite sincerely.
Gilbert turned away, clenching his jaw. He regretted that outburst. He sounded bitter when he felt far from it; he was to be granted his freedom, he was to be reunited with West; hell, if anything, he was overjoyed!
“Don’t be,” he said through gritted teeth. He forcibly looked upon the wall again. It was time he joined his children on the other side.
He took a trembling step forward, stumbled. Ivan was immediately at his side, aiding him with gloved hands resting on the sides of his arms.
“No, let go!” Gilbert snarled, pulling away roughly.
“East, you can barely stand.” Ivan sounded so hurt, so sad. Gilbert turned and wrenched him forward by his coat, the glass pieces crunching underfoot as their faces came within inches apart. He watched as Ivan’s red-rimmed eyes widened, surprised, his alcohol-laced breath mingling with his own in bursts of white. Gilbert felt the corners of his lips tugging into his signature smirk.
“I don’t want your pity,” he spat, and spitefully added, “I’ve always hated you, you know?”
Something stirred in those cold violet eyes, something that betrayed Ivan’s otherwise impassive mask. He looked for all the world a lost child, eyes beseeching, staring mutely, hungrily. For all the might and military backing at his disposal, he was so starved for warmth. It was pathetic.
Gilbert shoved him off, disgusted, staggering backwards. Ivan righted himself, still staring, then he looked down out of some vague respect. From his pocket he slowly drew something. He held it for a moment, gazing at it wistfully, then offered it to Gilbert as he had with the vodka moments before.
“This is yours. I am sorry I took it. You may have it back now.”
Gilbert stared. Recognition dawned on him, and he practically tore it from Ivan’s extended fingers. It was a cross, a simple silver ornament embedded with a black jewel, one he had worn for nearly all his life and had held so precious. He pressed it to his lips, eyes closed in silent gratitude.
Ivan had prepared to leave, his back already turned, when Gilbert called to him, “Hey!” He paused, and half-turned to face the other.
“Why aren’t you stopping me?” Gilbert demanded.
“Do you want to be stopped, little East?”
For a moment the two nations stood in silence, Gilbert uncomprehending and Ivan smiling faintly, sadly. Then he gave a small nod towards the wall.
“Go, your brother is waiting,” he said. He turned back and walked away.
Gilbert watched as Ivan receded into the night, leaving no trace of ever being with him. He looked at the cross in his palm, gripped it and held it tight to his heart, and turned to face the wall once more. He pictured the upturned expectant face of West, his dear little brother, ruddy-cheeked from the biting cold and stoic among his celebrating children.
He was going home.