Ludwig Beilschmidt sat on a bench outside the meeting room, sipping black coffee that his assistant had given to him. Heaven knows he needed the extra caffeine today. Little had been accomplished in yesterday's gathering and to make things worse, America had decided to drag everybody to the nearest bar much to the dismay of Germany. Thinking back now, Ludwig would have to say it was his own fault for wasting himself. And it didn't help that he was still fighting jet lag.
Closing his eyes, he leaned back and sighed. Just above the office din were the booming voices of America and Britain with the latter thoroughly cross with his former charge. It was only in a matter of minutes when France and… that other country would join them.
Germany glanced at his watch. 8:37 AM. Precisely fifty-three minutes before the meeting.
The voices grew louder. Britain would understandably be early to the Annex as he and Japan (who had yet to make an appearance) were the ones to prepare for the meetings. Germany would follow thereafter. But why on earth was America early? The younger nation typically burst in five minutes before the summit even when serving as host. Speaking of preparations, where was Honda? The man had been sober last night, and he with the help of Italy was the one to drag an intoxicated Germany back to their hotel. (Japan had left an apologetic note on the desk.)
Who was he to worry? Anything out of routine was part of routine.
Finishing the last of the bitter caffeine, he pushed himself up and ran fingers through his hair as he watched America and England appear around a corner. The Briton bore a perpetual scowl reserved for America and France while the younger nation boundlessly ran circles around the United Kingdom. In a minute, the two English-speaking nations had reached Germany. Ludwig rose from his seat and tipped his head in greeting.
"Good morning, Herr Kirkland. Herr Jones," he said. He turned to Britain. "Is Japan here? I have yet to see him this morning."
"I'm afraid I haven't," Kirkland replied. By miracle, the Brit had stayed away from liquor last night. "He mentioned an errand run to the Trade Center and would return soon as he could. Though I find it a bit odd of him to be running this late." He gestured towards America. "I ran into this bugger instead. And unfortunately, I haven't been able to begin this morning's preparations. I was wondering if it'd be possible for you to assist me."
At this, Jones whined and slung an arm over Britain's shoulders. "Why didn't you ask me in the first place?"
"Since when did you have any interest in paperwork? You'd rather shred than sign them."
"Don't call me that!"
"Of course, Kirkland," Germany cut in. He didn't need to witness another squabble. "And now would actually be a good time to bring up–"
A muffled grunt followed by a hard thud on the ground broke their conversation.
It was Jones. Bent down over his knees with one hand clutching half of his face and the other balancing himself against the floor. His glasses were pushed up and his eyes were shut tight in pain, his breathing ragged and his teeth gritted. Without second thought, Germany and England knelt by America. Ludwig stretched out a hand in case Jones toppled over. Kirkland immediately hovered over the American, gripping a shoulder and reaching for the younger man's face.
"What's wrong?" Germany asked.
Jones' breathing hitched a little faster. Kirkland hushed the younger man and began rubbing his back. Germany bit his tongue from cursing. The pain was clear enough to elicit tears from Jones. Now Ludwig knew they wouldn't be able to move him at all.
"Alfred," Kirkland spoke up. He had something in his eyes akin to building hysteria if not worry. "Please, you need to tell us what's wrong. America–"
"Financial District," Jones forced out, "Something… so fast…" He took in another painful gulp of air. "They didn't even know what hit them…"
A chill shook Germany's frame. Centuries of living never prepared him or any of the nations against the initial shock. Or what came after it. "What?"
Jones' head shot up, and he gripped Ludwig's sleeve. "Johnny. You need to get to Johnny."
Johnny. Johnny as in John. J. Jones. The personification of New York.
"America," Ludwig began.
"Please… he needs me, someone to be there with him," his face scrunched up against another wave of pain. "I've got Iggy to cover me so I'll be fine. Just go."
Britain's disbelieving 'what?' was soon drowned out by Germany's phone. Ludwig answered after the second ring.
It was Italy. "Germany please get over here really quick and fratello and I don't know what to do because Johnny is hurting on the inside and the emergency people aren't responding and something's happening–" the rest of the babble was lost in Italian.
"On my way," he cut off the other, "Just make him comfortable as you can–"
"That's what fratello and I did but it's not helping please you need to hurry–"
"Where are you?"
"At his place near–"
Germany ended the call and shoved the phone into his pants pocket, rising to his feet and dashing to the nearest exit. "Call me if there's more trouble," he barked over his shoulder. He didn't bother to hear an answer.
Five minutes into the taxi drive, and no one still had a grip of the situation. The driver had turned on the radio, craning for any news. Alfred had mentioned the Financial District. Surely, the damage couldn't' be that bad. Americans took the smallest hurt and exploded with patriotic fury. Countless examples even reaching back to World War I. And he more than once had been the recipient of that vengeful spirit.
He wouldn't see the cause of America's torture, but the highway bridge offered a great view of the Manhattan skyline. He craned his neck to the right.
"–has crashed into the World Trade Center–" came the female voice from the radio.
The Twin Towers of the Financial District. The North Tower spewed forth choking black smoke from a gaping hole. A dark omen in the midst of a peaceful morning. His mind went back to an earlier show announcement. Before he'd gone to the Annex.
"Other than that, it's quiet around the country. We like quiet. Well, quiet. It's too quiet."
Not so quiet anymore, was it?
His stomach churned, and he willed himself not to gag. The hole had to be an accident. Malfunctions of the aircraft. Poor judgment on the pilots' part. Miscalculations of the air traffic control. And all of these were impossible because it was a cloudless sky. And surely the people were not that incompetent. If that wasn't the case–
"Whoever did it, it was on purpose," the driver spoke up. Underneath the monotony was a threatening tone. That blood thirst. The radio droned on with the situation and the possibilities.
Ludwig turned to the other man. "Then why–"
"I don't know. But they sure will regret it when I'm through with them." The man choked a second later, glancing over his shoulder with an apologetic look. "I… I shouldn't have said that. I'll just charge less for the fare."
"There is no need," Germany lifted a placating hand, "It is understandable that you would react in such a way." He paused. "I have been to this city on a number of occasions, and I have never seen anything like it."
Ludwig saw the man's grip on the wheel tighten. His jaw was locked. "I had a friend from Berlin working on one of those floors. I doubt…"
Casualties. Again, centuries of living never hardened him against human fragility. "I'm sorry for your loss," he said quietly. A flicker of light in the corner of his eye grabbed his attention, and he whipped his head around.
Just in time to see a red ball explosion engulf the midsection of the South Tower.
"Oh my god!"
"Another plane! There was another–"
"No… no way…"
"We're under attack, people–"
"–can't be an accident. That has to–"
Germany was slightly jerked back when the taxi picked up speed. The driver swore; without a doubt, the man was furious and blind from rage. The rest of the commute was in silence as they listened to unbridled emotions fume over the scenario.
Was America like this when Pearl Harbor happened?
Ludwig didn't know whether to find the front door open a comfort or a concern but regardless, he barged in and called out for Jones. But the words died on his lips, and his heart constricted at the sight that met him in the living room.
The only furniture displaced was the coffee table in the center. The television set was buzzing with the news of the Twin Towers and verdammt, the Pentagon was also in flames. What was the next target? The White House?
"What the hell you doing here, potato bastard?"
The familiar greeting shut Germany's mouth. It was an agitated Lovino Vargas. And he protectively cradled a wheezing young man that could've been Britain's double. Except his pain-clouded eyes were America's. Rapid shallow breaths escaped his lips. His frame was stiff but riddled with small convulsions while his left hand had Romano's shirt in a tight grip.
New York was crying.
And he was begging them to stop.
Sharing in his pain was North Italy. Flanking the American's left side, the younger brother shed tears and muttered prayers under his breath. New York's other hand he clasped in his own and kept close to his lips. Germany fought back the involuntary shudder. Feliciano had done the same for him. When the Italian and the Allies had found Ludwig half-dead in Hitler's underground bunker.
Germany discarded his suit coat on a nearby sofa and took his place next to the northern Italian. His hand hesitated before tentatively squeezing New York's knee. After that, he didn't know what to do. America had asked him to be there for New York. The German nation was the last of the G8 to be providing moral support for anyone, let alone a fellow Nation. True, he'd been subject to pain if not recently, as a nation divided between two superpowers. He'd felt his people suffering under the grip of a feared regime. The persecution. The deaths. But then again…
This attack on New York and America didn't occur in the middle of a war. Be it literal or ideological.
John Jones bit back a sob as he curled himself into a ball, tears rolling down his tormented face. "Stop them… please. Somebody, tell them to stop…"
Germany surprised himself when he spoke. "Just… just hold on, Jones," he said uneasily. "We will be with you until the end." When would it end? "I promise."
New York's eyelids twitched before opening, his focus disoriented before finally landing on Ludwig. "Ger–Germany?"
"Ja, I'm here. You're going to be fine." False reassurances. Were any of them going to be fine after this? Truly?
"Th–then can you please stop them? They know... but…"
"Just shut up, you bastard," Romano growled.
They could do nothing but wordlessly embrace New York through the pain and horror until they witnessed the second Tower crumble down and envelop the city horizon in smoldering ash.
The Nation Guards were adamant that Germany and the Italians be escorted to a secure location, but Ludwig managed to wave them off. They remained in New York's home though John had been driven to the nearest hospital. With the majority of lower Manhattan being evacuated, it was impossible to return to their hotel. The compromise was that a single agent be present with them. Their own safety wasn't the problem. What of the others?
He tried to contact the rest of the G8. France had sought out America and England once he saw the news on television; he was at a hospital in DC, waiting with Kirkland. Canada (the country that wasn't attacked) stayed with his brothers whilst helping his people with airborne travelers suddenly forced to land in his territory. Russia was with two Nation Guards and had been in the hotel near the Annex when the first plane crashed into the North Tower; they were still in the city.
Germany heard Romano curse for the tenth time that day. The Italian came stomping from the kitchen, distress becoming more prevalent on his face. "Honda's phone isn't working. No one in the Annex has seen him, and he hasn't been to his hotel room."
Ludwig felt his heart clench when he abruptly remembered England. The Brit said Japan had been heading towards the Financial District that morning. He mentioned this to Romano. The latter swore again.
Immortality for the Nations didn't mean they couldn't die. It meant they'd always live until their culture and people ceased to exist. In other words, they could die under certain conditions before they revived again. Germany had shot France in the head during World War II before imprisoning the man in Paris. Bonnefoy was alive and rampant by the time the Allies liberated him.
He decided to ring China before he let his mind go frantic over Honda.
"Why do people alway think I know where Japan is?" Wang snapped once Germany inquired of the other Asian. "Just because he was my younger brother does not mean I babysit him."
Germany refrained from growling. "I tried to contact him before I came to you. His phone is out of service, and I have not heard from him since this morning so please forgive me if I inconvenienced you in any way."
The man on the other side wasn't fazed, letting out an exasperated sigh. "You know impatience will get you nowhere, young man, so I suggest you calm yourself while I answer your question." There was a pause. "As a matter of fact, Brother is here with me. As to why you fail to contact him, he lost his phone during evacuation. We are at hospital near the Trade Center, but he cannot speak at the moment."
"But he is well?"
There was hesitation from the Chinese man. "Only small injuries. He was in the lobby of the Tower when I found him. He has not said a word."
It wasn't until evening when they finally left Brooklyn.
Once the Italian brothers were settled back in the hotel, Germany headed towards New York Presbyterian Hospital. The closer he got to the Financial District, the more Manhattan looked like a war zone. Ash and paper blanketed the streets and rooftops by inches, and mild damage from falling debris were evidenced by skeleton vehicles and shattered windows. Something was burning.
He'd been listening to the radio during the ride. The Americans were calling the disaster an act of terrorism. The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century. A declaration of war. And the people's reaction was clear now. A palpable wave of sorrow accompanied by that iconic American bloodlust and vengeance. Nothing was getting in the way of their objective. This time, Ludwig's people would be on the Americans' side.
Germany was no stranger to terrorism as he'd been subject to its atrocities during the Weimar Republic and the Cold War. But neither was America, nor were the others.
As soon as the car stopped, Germany dove out and sprinted into the hospital, calling for Kiku Honda and Yao Wang. He was directed to the waiting room and pleased to find the missing Asians. Wang stood at the sight of Germany approaching. At first glance, the Chinese might've been mistaken for looking apathetic if not aloof. Ludwig knew Wang long enough to recognize the weariness that came with age. China had seen it all since the Ancients. He merely accepted the situation.
"It's good to see you two alive and well," Germany couldn't deny the relief he felt.
"I'm glad as well," China dipped his head in small thanks. "I just wish to leave this place immediately." He turned to the Japanese man beside him. "Didi, it's time to go home now."
Honda didn't move, arms wrapped around his thin frame with eyes blank and unseeing. His haircut was left disheveled and peppered with ash. Japan's dress shirt and pants were unkempt and torn, the right sleeve missing and revealing a lightly bandaged hand and arm. Much like his Asian neighbor, Japan was known for being levelheaded in any situation. In the World Wars, that quality was Germany's first impression of Japan. Only two select times did Honda show his weakness to Germany.
This was the second time.
Though feeling at a loss, Germany took his place in front of the Japanese man and crouched down to make eye contact. "Japan… Kiku. It's time for us to leave."
Honda lifted his head as if hearing Ludwig for the first time, brown eyes adjusting and then widening "Fear. There was so much of it. And people were jumping…" A shudder ran through his body, and the man looked promptly sick. "I have seen bad before, but this… this is really bad."
Then it made sense.
"I wish God had made man with wings so he could fly," Italy had said in Brooklyn, once New York had passed out.
John's cries for them to stop.
He was begging the people trapped not to…
A new sense of empathy and hurt for New York, for his people, left him dazed on his knees for a good three minutes.
Terrorism had done its worst yet. So much that even Japan and China were shaken.
It happened three days later.
America still hadn't woken up, and Germany and Russia had decided to pay a visit in DC. Everyone was exhausted, but the situation was far from over. Calls from their bosses and governments and preparations for the days ahead. With France, his work was doubled with handling both his own and the United Kingdom's affairs as the British personification took vigil by America's side. And for that, Canada looked after France. Once Germany and Russia reached the hospital room, Ludwig dismissed Bonnefoy and Williams and took his place at the foot of the bed.
Jones lay there, garbed in the standard gown and semi-covered with a thin sheet, an IV in his left arm and a nasal cannula wrapped around his face. His skin was alarmingly pale, and his dishwater blond hair was disheveled. His glasses lay on a nearby nightstand.
"How is he?" Germany spoke to break the silence.
Kirkland flinched upon hearing the voice, sitting up in his chair next to America's bed. One hand clung onto the patient's. "He should be waking up any day soon. At least, that's what the doctors said yesterday."
Braginski had taken to the other side of the bed, watching America's still form. He briefly glanced at the fatigued Nation."You do not look well yourself, comrade England."
Sighing, Britain leaned forward to brush America's hair from his face. "Well, I can't just leave him alone when–"
His words were choked out when savage hands seized his throat.
Germany and Russia shot forward and tackled a foaming America to his bed. Once the American's death grip was removed, Britain proceeded to stumble back and crash to his knees, coughing and taking in greedy draws of air. Jones continued to writhe and rage, swearing revenge and murder to those responsible for his children's' death. Braginski's harsh orders fell on deaf ears.
The struggle lasted no longer than thirty seconds, and the aftermath left all four occupants exhausted. Germany released America and staggered back while England collapsed back into his chair, closing his eyes and burying his face in his hands.
Russia kept his hold on America, and the younger nation didn't seem to care anymore. His expression was a mix of anguish and frenzy. Germany watched as America snaked trembling arms around the Russian's waist. Braginski did nothing to stop Jones but raised a hand to the back of the American's head and drew the hurting man to his chest. The gesture was enough for Jones to give into tears he'd been holding the moment he awoken. He let out a heart-wrenching sob and buried his face into Russia's shirt, his entire frame once again shaking.
"We will get them, America," Russia whispered, "You get your strength, and we will get them."
Ten years after the Cold War, only to be staged against another enemy. What a way to enter the 21st century.
"Thank you, Ludwig Beilschmidt," Bonnefoy said before they parted ways. They had shared a flight until Paris. "I do not think any of us would have come this far if you had not stepped in."
"I simply did what I could," Germany said quietly.
US airspace had reopened on September 13, two days after the attack. A majority of the nations didn't leave until the week after. Despite his government's plea to immediately return for his own safety, Germany remained on American soil until he made sure the rest of the G8 secured flights for their journey home. The Italian brothers wouldn't leave until the personification of New York had awoken. For the first time, Japan and China returned to their side of the world together. Russia followed once he deemed America strong enough to stand on his own two feet. England was forced by Germany and the remaining Nations to return to London for a much-needed respite. And Canada remained with America, aware their governments would soon collaborate.
Somehow, Germany had become the implicit overseer of the nations' whereabouts and responsibilities, a job usually reserved for the host country. With America recovering and England by his brother figure's side, everyone had turned to Ludwig to handle the situation.
There were signs of mutual trust in his leadership during the late 1970s though he still felt insecure of their relations. Now, he appeared to be the only one stable to maintain order. It was a testament to Germany that the world faced a different problem, one that didn't hold him responsible anymore. One that made his nation a part of the civilized world against the terrors of extremism.
He didn't realize this until France had addressed him.
The other man hummed thoughtfully. "To think that roles would be reversed, and you have come so far. I understand you can only do so much, but it is your turn to help l'Amérique. I have the feeling I'm not going to like his definition of support, but… we will see."
France uncharacteristically offered a hand. Germany shook it. "I will see you in six months, Bonnefoy."
The other man looked grim. "I should expect sooner."