Chapter Nine: Being Human
_____ zipped her suitcase closed, pressing down on the top so the parts of the zipper would meet each other. When she finally closed the thing, she sighed loudly and sat down on it. She looked at Feliciano, who was sitting on the floor across from her.
“Do you really have to go, sorella?” he said.
She smiled apologetically. “Sorry, sugar. I’ll be back in two or three days, okay?” She stood back up and grabbed her suitcase, struggling with it for a moment but adjusting it in her hands to make it less difficult to carry.
Feliciano frowned, looking down at the floor. “Okay. . .”
There was a knock as Ludwig came in. “_____, are you ready?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“Alright.” He took _____’s suitcase, turning and motioning for her to follow. “Come with me.”
They went downstairs, _____ saying goodbye to Gilbert, Lovino, and Kiku, and walked outside.
“So, whose house did Alfie decide I’m going to next?” asked _____ as the two walked down the sidewalk.
Ludwig glanced at a small slip of paper he had drawn from his pocket. “House 128,” he replied.
“Who lives in there?”
Ludwig looked at her with an uncharacteristic smirk. “You will find out in a moment. The house is right over there.” He pointed to a house not far from them.
_____ sighed. “Whatever.”
When they arrived at the front porch of the house, Ludwig gently placed _____’s suitcase on the ground and turned around. “I will see you soon, _____,” he said. “I. . .wish you a wonderful time while you are here.”
_____ smiled. “Thanks, Luddy. And I promised Feli that I’d come back to your house after I’m done here. I already told Alfie, so he knows.”
“Alright.” Ludwig nodded politely toward her and began to walk back. “Tschüß, Fräulein.”
_____ looked at the closed door of the house in front of her. She sighed, lifting her hand to knock. Her knuckles gently tapped the door the first time, making an almost inaudible sound, then she repeated the movement several more times with more force. She waited a moment before hearing voices behind the door.
“Hey, is that her?”
“Yeah, I think it is!”
“You guys better act normal. I don’t want her being freaked out.”
“Ha, don’t worry. We’re gonna be completely normal. Do you think she’ll want any beer?”
“What? No! That’s exactly the behavior I was talking about!”
“Shh, quiet! I’m going to open the door now.”
_____ blinked when the door opened, revealing a young man with golden blond hair and chocolate-brown eyes. He wore a warm, genuine smile. “Tervetuloa, _____!” he said. “We’re so glad you could stay with us! Come in!”
She took up her suitcase and stepped through the doorway. “Thanks. . .”
“Ah! Right, you probably don’t remember our names.” He held out his hand. “I am Tino Vaïnämöinen. It is so wonderful to meet you! We weren’t really officially introduced at the mock conference.”
“No,” _____ agreed quietly. She turned her head to see four other men sitting in the living room nearby. “And, I’m sorry, but I don’t really remember their names either.”
Tino smiled. “That’s alright. We understand that you had a lot of names thrown at you at one time. That would be difficult for anyone.” He led _____ to the living room where the other men were, and began introducing them. “_____,” he said, “this is Mathias Køhler.” He gestured to a man with spiky, cream-colored hair and blue eyes.
Mathias smirked at her. “Hej, pige.”
Tino then gestured to the man beside Mathias, a much shorter male with lavender eyes and a cross-shaped burette in his dirty-blond hair. “And this is Lukas Bondevik.”
Lukas nodded. “Hello.”
“And this is his brother, Emil.” Tino pointed to the man beside Lukas. He had sea-green eyes, and silver hair covered his head.
Emil gave a half-smile. “Halló.”
“And last but not least”––Tino gestured to the blond man sitting in a chair near the couch––“is Berwald Oxenstierna.”
Berwald looked at _____ through his stern blue eyes that were covered partially by his eyes. He nodded, grunting.
“Okay,” said Tino, “now you’ve been introduced. It’s alright if you still don’t remember our names sometimes. We still understand.”
“Thanks,” _____ answered. “I think I got them now.”
Tino smiled. “Good. Now how about some lunch? You must be hungry.”
The group of six ate lunch, the men telling their guest about themselves. She mostly smiled and nodded as a response, seldom talking back. Mathias would try to strike up a conversation with her, but _____ would just reply with short answers and wait for someone else to speak. Tino, for reasons beyond her understanding, was able to read her and see what she was thinking or trying to imply. He would smile and say things like, “Oh, you mean like so-and-so?” And _____ would blink at him and say, “Y-Yeah.”
They had all finished lunch, and Tino and _____ put the dishes away while the others were in the living room.
“What would you like for dinner, _____?” asked Tino when they finished cleaning dishes.
“U-Um,” she stammered, uncertain. “Whatever you’d like, I guess.”
Tino chuckled. “Alright. I can’t argue with that, considering we always have whatever Mathias concocts.”
_____ grinned at his choice of words. “Okay. Do you think you’ll need help with it?”
Tino smiled. “That would be very much appreciated.”
A few hours later, the two began preparing dinner, a simple chicken-noodle soup. _____ blinked when she heard Tino say. “Not feeling too good, Tino?”
“No, I’m fine,” he said. “I just wanted something simple. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.”
“Loistava,” he said as he reached into the refrigerator for a whole chicken. He struggled with it but managed to carry it to the counter on the other side of the kitchen.
_____’s jaw dropped slightly when she saw the large chicken. “Damn,” she said. “That’s a big chicken.”
Tino laughed. “Yeah. The food they provide on this campus is wonderful. Our food supply back home was not so abundant.” He broke the chicken apart so it would fit inside the pot on the stove and gently plopped each piece in the warm water. “We’ll just let that sit for a while.”
“By the way, Tino,” said _____, “you never said where you were from.”
“Finland,” he replied. “I am from a small town in northern Finland. We did not have much there, but we were happy.”
She smiled warmly. “Me, too. I don’t have much back home, but I’m perfectly fine with my life.” She laughed quietly. “It’s like when people ask me what my favorite toy was when I was little, and I always say, ‘Dirt. And I was happy.’”
Tino laughed. “I know what that is like. I always played in the snow when I was little, while the others would usually go inside and play with their toys.”
Their conversation continued for a few more minutes until Mathias walked into the kitchen with Lukas’s arm in his hand. “What up, people?” He sat down in a seat at the bar table. Lukas stood behind him with his arms crossed.
_____ smirked and leaned on the bar counter. “Mathias, what was your favorite toy when you were little?”
Mathias made a short, exaggerated laugh. “Pfft! Me, of course!”
Everyone else’s eyes widened at him; even Lukas’s stoic eyes were widened by the Dane’s odd––and quite possibly vulgar––answer. The awkward silence was broken by _____’s laughter. She leaned back as she laughed loudly. She stepped back to keep her balance and wound up running into the refrigerator. She slid down onto the floor and continued to laugh, and Tino and Lukas had joined in the laughter at this point, Tino laughing heartily and Lukas chuckling lightly into his hand.
When Mathias saw everyone else in the room laughing at him, he raised an eyebrow. “What’s so funny?”
______ tried to stand back up, but failed miserably when her hand slid from under her and she fell back onto the floor. Her laughter was louder for a moment, then she attempted to calm it down enough to let her speak. “Y-You,” she stuttered as she continued to laugh, “you u-used to. . .play with yourself?!” The concept struck her as absolutely hilarious and she burst out laughing once again, falling completely on her side on the kitchen floor.
“What?!” Mathias looked at her, dumbfounded. “What gave you that idea?!”
“You said your favorite toy when you were little was yourself,” said Lukas, still grinning.
Mathias blinked, then his whole face turned a bright shade of red. “No! I meant––I-I thought you asked who my favorite boy was when I was little!”
_____’s laughter began to subside, and she sat up on the floor. “Why would I ask something like that?” She giggled one more time and stood back up. “And such a vain answer!”
“What’s all the commotion in here?” Emil asked as he and Berwald stepped into the kitchen.
_____ grinned. “Nothing. Just that Mathias here liked to jerk off as a kid.”
“I did not!”
Emil looked at Mathias repulsively, saying, “Okay,” and taking a seat at the second bar stool. “So, what’s for dinner?”
“Chicken-noodle soup,” answered _____. “By the way, Tino, when are we going to cut up the chicken?”
“Ah!” Tino walked over to the stove and pulled the chicken carefully out of the pot. “Right now. _____, would you please take care of that? I just realized we are out of drinks.”
“Alright.” He started to go out of the kitchen. “I’m going to get more drinks. Any requests?”
“Coke or Pepsi,” said _____.
“Any kind of fruit juice,” said Lukas.
“Beer,” said Mathias.
“We already have plenty of beer, Mathias,” said Tino. “I’m going now. See you.” He turned and walked out.
_____ stepped toward the counter where the chicken was. “Later, gator.” She glanced around on the counters. “Hey, guys. Where are the knives?”
Emil pointed to a group of drawers under the counter near her. “The top-left drawer over there.”
_____ opened the designated drawer to see dozens of cooking utensils. She filed through the knives until she found just the right one. She held it up to examine it, checking it for anything that would make it any less functional. No, it was perfectly fine. Nice and fine and sharp. Just like a knife should be. Just like. . .
“Hey, Lukas,” said Mathias, “do you wanna get me a beer?”
Lukas raised an eyebrow at him. “No, I don’t.”
“Maybe you should get up and get it yourself, Mat,” said Tyr.
Mathias groaned and slid off the bar stool. “Hey, _____,” he said as he walked toward the refrigerator, “have you ever tried Danish beer before? It’s really––”
He cut himself off as the knife in _____’s hand fell onto the floor, making a noise that echoed through the room. _____ shook violently. She placed her hands on the edge of the counter and leaned there, trying to keep from falling. Her head was down, and her eyes were frozen on one place.
“_____?” Mathias closed the refrigerator door and stepped toward her. “Are you alright?” He gently placed his hand on her shoulder, but she shook it off.
“I’m fine,” she replied quietly, her voice an entire octave lower. “I just. . .need some air.” She turned, her head still down, and left the kitchen and walked out of the house.
None of the men followed her, and she was glad they didn’t. She needed to be alone. She kept walking even after she passed the front yard. When she reached the front sidewalk, she followed it for a good long while.
She came to the front gate to the dorm houses and sat down on the ground by the gate. She allowed herself to lift her head to see the late afternoon sky. It was so bright. Was it always this sunny in Italy? She had never really paid attention to the weather until now, but she frowned when she realized it did not match the way she was feeling.
She looked up into the bright blue above her. “Damn you,” she whispered. “You just won’t go away, will you? No matter where I go or what I do, you always seem to follow me.” She scowled. “You even haunt me in my dreams. I was this close to scaring Feli when I almost woke up screaming from a nightmare you were in. Poor kid would worry his sweet head off if he ever found out.” She sighed. “I’m done with this. Please, just leave me alone. You chose to end it all. That was your choice, not mine. So let me live with my choices, and I’ll let you die with yours.”
_____ froze when she heard the familiar voice behind her. She looked at the blonde, wearing a fake smile. “Oh, hey, Tino. Back already?”
Tino looked at his new friend worriedly. “Well, you sort of met me halfway here.” He placed his groceries on the sidewalk and sat next to _____. “Is everything alright?”
She sighed. “I’d rather not talk about it. It’s kind of personal.”
Tino paused, but nodded. “Okay. I understand. But. . .if you need to talk to me about it––or anything––I’m here. So. . .”
_____ smiled slightly, her head downcast. “Thank you, Tino. I appreciate it.”
Tino smiled back. “You’re welcome, _____.”
After a moment, _____ stood up and grabbed one of the grocery bags. “Okay. We should be getting back, don’t you think?”
“Yes. . .Of course. . .Alright. Goodbye.”
Lukas put the phone back on its spot on the table. He was silent for a moment, then sighed. He had just been in a conversation with Alfred, one that was far too sobering for the dirty-blond American boy. He had explained to Lukas what had happened to _____’s brother, and why she would sometimes act strangely. The news was hard to take, and Lukas’s chest ached when he imagined being in _____’s shoes. Of course, he would never show that side to anyone. He was too tough for that. . .Right?
“What was that about?” said Mathias, who was standing in anticipation for an answer along with Berwald and Emil.
Lukas sighed again and slowly explained. Emil made a similar expression as his brother, and Berwald stood there, seemingly unfazed by it but secretly feeling a deep sympathy for _____. Mathias stared at Lukas, evidently unable to comprehend what the Norwegian had said. He blinked and lowered his head a few degrees.
“Alfred told me that we shouldn’t let _____ figure out that we know,” said Lukas. “She apparently doesn’t want anyone ‘pitying’ her.”
“But we wouldn’t be pitying her,” said Mathias suddenly.
“Then what would you call it, Mat?” said Emil.
“Being human,” Berwald interjected. They blinked at the Swede, a bit surprised at the fact that he actually talked. “It is only human to feel sorry when something bad happens to someone, ja? This is no different.”
Emil sighed. “Já.”
The group heard the tumbler in the front door move and the door open, followed by two familiar voices.
“Yoo-hoo~! Lucy, I’m home~!”
Mathias was the first to greet the two. “Hey, you two!” He wrapped his arms around _____, giving her a gentle squeeze before letting go and asking Tino, “So did you get my beer?”