Title: The Next Best Thing to Normal
Fandom: Hetalia
Rating: U
Summary: Germany and Italy have invited Switzerland and Canada to dinner as thanks for the help they have provided as interpreters for EU meetings. Switzerland, it must be said, is less than thrilled at the prospect of spending the entire meal translating across three languages and relying on Canada to communicate in a fourth. Yet even he is willing to admit that a small attempt at normalcy -- if only for part of an evening -- is better than nothing at all. Sequel to In Hell, the Simultaneous Translators Are Swiss. (Germany/Italy, implied France/England) Also available at AO3.
Disclaimer: All original works are copyright of their respective owners; I lay claim only to this particular story.
Notes: Originally written for a Hetalia anon-meme prompt in which the nations are suddenly confronted with language barriers that prevent them from communicating with each other. Additional notes are at the end.


The Next Best Thing to Normal

'And I will conclude my remarks by passing along a message given to me by the American ambassador, who informs me -- '

' -- informs me that Amérique is coordinating a team of cognitive scientists, neurologists, linguists, and other experts in related fields to conduct an in-depth investigation into our current -- '

' -- our current communications difficulties. Within the next month, you should receive a set of forms from Amerika, through your Washington ambassadors, describing the direction of the research and formally requesting your cooperation with the investigation.'

England's chair squeaked as he sat down, the noise sounding overly loud in a room where only the soft shuffle of papers and the scratch of pens greeted his remark. Germany's chair made no noise as he stood, but when he cleared his throat before speaking the sharp sound seemed to echo off the walls like a gunshot.

'Thank you, England, for your remarks and for the message from Amerika.' He nodded to England, who returned the nod with tight courtesy. 'I am sure that all present will freely provide any assistance required for his research. That said, after the events of this morning, I think it might be sensible to recess for -- '

' -- recess for lunch a few minutes early, and resume our discussion at the scheduled time. This afternoon will begin with a brief presentation from Autriche on the preliminary agenda for his upcoming turn as Council President, followed by -- '

' -- followed by a few words from Estonia on the most recent developments in the microtechnology patent dispute, and then as written on the schedule. If there is nothing further, I move that we recess until the afternoon.'

Even before Germany had finished speaking, Belgium put up her hand to second the motion, followed by nods of agreement from the other German-speaking nations. Moments later, other heads were nodding and voices were muttering assent in more than a dozen languages, and then there were only the sounds of more chairs being pushed back and the rustle of papers being slipped into folders and briefcases as the nations started to leave the room.

Up in the translation booth, Canada switched off his microphone and reached up to remove his headset, yawning deliberately to clear his ears and ease the ache in his jaw. Beside him, Switzerland had set aside his own headphones and was finishing the last of his glass of water.

'Any left?' Canada asked, his voice rough and tired.

Switzerland set his glass down, then picked up the mostly empty carafe near his elbow and held it out to Canada without a word.

'Thanks.' Canada splashed the rest of the water into his glass and downed it in a single gulp. It wasn't cold, or even all that refreshing, but after three hours of speaking any liquid was welcome if it helped soothe his dry mouth and throat.

Ever since the nations of the world had suddenly lost their ability to speak or understand any language other than their own official languages, he and Switzerland had found themselves acting as interpreters for the European Union meetings. No one had formally requested their assistance, but after the disaster of the first post-crisis EU meeting -- which saw two fistfights and Belgium's near nervous breakdown in the space of less than thirty-six hours -- it seemed only logical to step in and offer their services.

(At least, Canada had offered his services. As France later informed him, Switzerland's offer had been closer to an ultimatum, and in the circumstances there had been no question of refusing it.)

After some trial and error, the system they had worked out was a modified version of the pivot translation approach that the EU and other multinational bodies favoured for their simultaneous interpretation. In the conference room, a speaker would present in his or her language, which an interpreter would translate into a single 'pivot' language that would then be retranslated and relayed out by the other interpreters. With French as the pivot language, Switzerland and Canada could work back and forth in German and English respectively, alongside a group of carefully selected human interpreters who provided translations to and from the other EU member-nations' official languages. No one was entirely pleased with the arrangement, but it was the most reasonable solution they had found to date.

Reasonable or not, though, it was still tiring to concentrate for so long without a break, speaking almost nonstop for an entire morning or afternoon. The early recess for lunch was especially welcome, since the 'events of the morning' that Germany had spoken of were still fresh in everyone's minds.

As long as Germania knows that I love him, I'll be happy. The last words of Italy's tearful message, translated into German by Switzerland, broadcast over the room's public address speakers to the entire assembly of EU member-nations. Even those who could not understand German or Italian had been moved by it: there was only one thing that Italy could be saying to Germany, and it was echoed wordlessly in their desperate embrace in the meeting room shortly thereafter. Every word that they had left unsaid -- that all of them had left unsaid, to friends or family or anyone else -- found a voice in that moment. It wouldn't last, and it couldn't last, but it lasted just long enough to matter.

The meeting had started half an hour late to give the assembled nations a chance to compose themselves. France and Luxembourg found tissues for those who needed them; Austria and Hungary walked with Germany and Italy to the toilets to give them a chance to wash their faces and recover in private; Netherlands took Belgium into a quiet corner and silently held her hand until her tears dried. Those who shared languages murmured a few meaningful words to each other, while others drifted around the meeting room and tried to say with smiles, handshakes, and other gestures what they could not express aloud. Regional and minority languages were never reliable, and were a strain on both the speaker and the listener, but Poland managed to whisper something to Lithuania that made the latter's smile wobble briefly before reappearing like a burst of sunlight on a damp and dreary day. Even Canada had found that he needed to duck out for a moment and get a breath of fresh air before returning to the close darkness of the translation booth -- and to his fellow translator, who grumbled something that sounded like already behind schedule before switching his microphone back on and loudly ordering the remaining stragglers to return to their seats.

Any observer would have found it difficult to reconcile that Switzerland with the one who had translated Italy's message with such patience and care. Even now, Switzerland was all business, mobile phone in one hand and a pen in the other as he scrolled through his missed calls and jotted down notes and figures on a bit of scrap paper. However, there was one guaranteed way to get his attention, and Canada tried to put a pleasantly conversational tone in his voice as he set down his water glass and said:

'I believe I owe you lunch today.'

'Lunch and dinner for a month, you said,' Switzerland corrected him, not looking up from his phone. 'I will hold you to that.'

Canada managed to refrain from rolling his eyes. 'Right, right, a month. I remember. So if I go to that cafe down on Rue -- '

'Svizzera! Svizzera!'

Both Canada and Switzerland turned at the sound of Italy's voice, which was followed shortly by Italy himself. He all but bounced through the door and into the room, towing a slower-moving Germany behind him like a boat bobbing in his wake.

'Svizzera! Oh, and Canada, too!' Italy beamed at them, his smile as wide and blithely cheerful as it had always been in the days when there were no language barriers between them. 'I'm glad you're still here. We wanted to talk to you before you left for lunch -- I was worried that you'd left already, so we ran all the way up here, and it's a good thing we did because it means that we can talk to you both together now!' He glanced over his shoulder, and tugged encouragingly on Germany's hand. 'Germania, don't be shy, say hello to Svizzera and Canada!'

Germany blinked, looking somewhat dazed from the effort of trying to process the torrent of incomprehensible words quickly enough to figure out what he was being asked to do. The difference between him and Italy could not be more pronounced: for all that Italy appeared to be back to his old exuberant self, Germany seemed drained to the point of exhaustion, as if he had not yet managed to recover from the emotional onslaught of the morning. Nonetheless, he still had enough presence of mind to pull himself together, and he nodded politely to the two seated nations.

'Schweiz,' he said, in a low, careful voice. 'Kanada.'

Canada nodded back, and quietly replied, 'Hello, Allemagne.'

'Deutschland.' Switzerland shifted his gaze to Italy. 'Italia.' He paused, waiting, looking from one to the other, and then made an impatient gesture, leaving the unspoken yes, what is it? hanging in the air.

Germany cleared his throat. 'Italien -- Italien and I, rather -- '

Before he could finish the sentence, Italy bounded forward and thrust a folded piece of paper into Switzerland's hands.

'We want you and Canada to have dinner with us!' he said brightly. 'I thought of it in the middle of the meeting, and drew this picture so I could tell Germania my idea, and when I showed it to him he understood what I meant right away!'

Switzerland unfolded the paper and peered at it, tilting it to see it better in the dim lighting of the translation booth. It had been torn from a notepad, rather hastily if the jagged edge of the tear was any indication, and it featured a rough pencil sketch of four figures -- Germany, Italy, Canada, and himself, drawn with just enough detail to make them identifiable -- all seated around a table and helping each other to servings of what appeared to be long strands of pasta from a single large bowl. As a means of communicating his suggestion, it was crude but undoubtedly effective.

Germany cleared his throat again; the habit was starting to sound like a nervous tic. 'Italien and I,' he said, as Switzerland looked up from the paper, 'would like to invite you and Kanada to dinner this evening as a small gesture of our gratitude for the invaluable assistance that both of you have provided to us of late.'

Switzerland's gaze flickered back down to the paper, then up again at the two nations standing in front of him. He took in the weary lines around Germany's mouth and eyes, and their stark contrast with Italy's broad, hopeful grin, before he turned to address Canada. 'We've been invited to dinner tonight.'

'To dinner?' Canada glanced at Germany and Italy. 'That's a very kind offer, but I'd planned to eat with France and Angleterre.'

'Then invite them as well.' Startled, Canada opened his mouth to protest, but Switzerland didn't let him get a word in. 'Given the choice of making forced small talk with all of you,' he said, 'or sitting by and watching those two make sad cow eyes at each other across the table all evening, the former option seems somewhat less likely to put me off the idea of eating entirely.'

Canada had to bite down on his tongue to keep his amusement from showing too plainly in his smile. 'If Allemagne doesn't mind,' he replied, once he was sure that he could maintain a straight face, 'I'm sure they'll agree to come.'

Switzerland nodded curtly, then turned back around to face Germany. 'Kanada accepts, provided that England and Frankreich are also welcome if they wish to join us,' he declared. 'Is that acceptable?'

'Certainly,' Germany said, and nodded for Canada's benefit.

'Very well.' Switzerland looked over at Italy, who had been waiting with remarkable patience throughout the discussion in French and German. 'Francia and Inghilterra may be coming as well, so I hope you are willing to eat at a restaurant that has more than just pasta on the menu.'

Italy's eyes lit up. 'Oh, yes, I know a wonderful place!' he exclaimed. 'Germania and I have eaten there before, and I know he likes the food there, too, even if they don't have wurst. The waiters are all very nice, and the food is yummy and they give you lots of it, and there's salads and seafood and they make their pasta fresh every day, and their desserts are -- '

Switzerland held up a hand, stopping Italy before he could rattle off the entire menu. 'Just meet us outside our hotel at eighteen-fifteen, and don't dawdle getting there.' To Germany, he said, 'Eighteen-forty-five, outside our hotel. I've built in some leeway for Italien's general lack of punctuality.'

A few of the worry lines in Germany's forehead vanished, and he gave Switzerland a small smile that was equal parts grateful and relieved. 'Understood. Eighteen-forty-five it is.' It was his turn to pull on Italy's arm, steering both of them out the door.

Italy allowed Germany to lead him away. 'Have a nice lunch!' he chirped, as his head disappeared from sight.

Switzerland waited until he heard them walking down the stairs before he switched to French. 'Eighteen-thirty this evening, outside our hotel,' he said. 'Tell France and Angleterre whatever time you think best to get them to arrive by then.'

'I'm sure they'll agree to come,' Canada said. His smile softened, turning a little wistful. 'It'll be nice for all of us to have dinner together for a change, eh?'

Switzerland raised an eyebrow at him, as if he couldn't tell whether Canada was trying to be facetious, but then shrugged and pushed back his chair, getting to his feet. 'On the subject of food, if you are planning to purchase it from the café on Rue Archimède, I'll have my usual. With the lentil soup if it is available, or the potato otherwise.' He picked up his rifle case by its strap and slung it over his shoulder. 'I will return shortly -- I have a few phone calls to make.'

'Will do.' There was a slight pause before Canada added, hesitantly, 'Give Liechtenstein my regards.'

Switzerland froze in mid-turn, shoulders stiffening as if he had suddenly caught his breath. He regained his composure almost immediately, but his momentary lapse was all the more conspicuous for the speed with which he recovered.

'I will do so,' he said, and left the room.

****

When the six of them assembled outside the hotel that evening, and Canada passed along the name of the restaurant that Italy had chosen, both France and England made approving noises. Nearly all of the EU nations had eaten there at one point or another during their various trips to Brussels. It was a little too small to be suitable for larger, full-group dinners, but it was a perfect venue for two or three nations to adjourn to when the meeting negotiations ended up spilling over into the dinner hour.

'Espagne and Portugal and I sorted out a tricky tariff problem there not so very long ago,' France said, his eyes glazing over with memory. 'With the help of their small but excellent wine list, as I recall. Even Angleterre's deplorable palate should find something to satisfy it there.'

England's praise was of an altogether different character. 'Decent place to get a plate of steak and chips. No funny sauces, no fiddly carved vegetables or other nonsense like that. Good beer, too, even if they do serve it so damned cold you can barely taste it.'

Canada thought it prudent to not provide a verbatim translation for either of them. 'It sounds fine,' he said to Switzerland, who conveyed their approval to Germany and Italy.

The restaurant wasn't far from the hotel, but it had been a long day for all of them and not even Switzerland was willing to walk more than a few blocks on an empty stomach. Fortunately, there were taxis waiting at a nearby stand, and they hailed two of them, with Canada, England, and France taking one and Germany, Italy, and Switzerland taking the other. In deference to Canada and Switzerland's need to rest their voices after the afternoon's work, the journey to the restaurant took place in near-complete silence -- which did little to dispel the uneasiness and uncertainty that had been steadily building among them since the meeting had adjourned for the day and their thoughts began to turn towards the evening's meal.

One-to-one simultaneous interpretation during individual presentations was one thing. Trying to sustain some semblance of casual conversation in four languages across the dinner table was another matter entirely...and not one of them had any idea of how they would make it work.

It was still early in the evening, and the restaurant had only a handful of other diners by the time they arrived. Italy wasted no time in finding the head waiter -- an Italian, who greeted him with evident delight -- to confirm their reservation. They were shown to a table near the front of the restaurant, set slightly apart from the rest, where six places had been laid on a crisp white tablecloth and teacandles in frosted glass holders were flickering with a soft, welcoming glow.

The table was long enough to fit all of them easily, but sorting out the seating arrangements required a good deal more thought than they once would have put into it. Out of pure habit, Canada and Switzerland took chairs next to each other, and the others arranged themselves in the most sensible pattern that presented itself: France across from Canada and Germany across from Switzerland, with Italy to Switzerland's right at one end of the table and England to Canada's left at the other end. Italy pouted at first at not being able to sit immediately next to Germany, but Switzerland gave him a warning look that seemed to quell any thought he might have had of complaining aloud. Soon enough, he was smiling again, humming happily under his breath as he skimmed the menu in search of his favourite dishes.

Another waiter brought bottles of still water for their table and started to fill the glasses. As the water was being poured, both France and Germany reached for the wine list, but Italy moved with surprising speed to whisk it out of their hands.

'Svizzera gets to choose!' he said cheerfully, and held the leatherbound folder out to Switzerland with a flourish.

'I really don't -- ' Switzerland began, but Italy gave him an encouraging grin and waved the wine list almost under his nose. Left with no real alternative, he took the list, murmuring in French, 'Apparently, I get to choose,' which prompted quiet chuckles from France and Canada and an amused huff from England when Canada translated the remark. He ran an eye down the restaurant's selection, trying not to grimace as he converted the prices from euros to francs in his head, and then looked up at Germany.

'One bottle should suffice for the six of us, I would think,' he said, with cautious formality. 'Frankreich and Italien will protest, of course, but if you are paying for all of this then the final say in the matter should be yours.'

Germany's mouth twitched. 'That is hardly a concern tonight,' he replied. 'Two bottles might be better shared amongst six -- perhaps one red and one white for the table, to start?' The smile he gave Switzerland wasn't as openly encouraging as Italy's, but it did convey a similarly reassuring sentiment. 'So please, order whatever you think best.'

The head waiter was hovering in the periphery of their table, so Switzerland made a rapid decision and pointed to two of the more moderately priced wines on the list. 'The Spätlese Riesling...and the Riserva Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.'

'An Italian red and a German white,' France remarked as the man departed to fetch the bottles. A knowing smirk, just shy of an outright leer, flitted across his face. 'How very appropriate, Suisse.'

Switzerland glowered at him. 'Do you intend to simper at me all night?'

'I was not planning to, but you must admit that you are not making it very easy for me not to.'

'Don't be an imbecile,' Switzerland snapped, and buried himself behind his menu.

France seemed to be on the point of saying something more, but all of a sudden he jolted upright in his chair. Stifling a curse, he looked from England to Canada, suspicion narrowing his eyes at how the two of them were poring over a menu with studious and single-minded concentration, occasionally murmuring to each other in English. With a sigh, he picked up his own menu, and reached down to massage his aching shin.

They were still looking over the menus when the wine arrived. The head waiter presented the bottles to Switzerland, who confirmed the selections, but stopped the man before he could open the first one.

'This gentleman will sample the red' -- he said in French, and indicated Italy with a nod of his head -- 'and the gentleman opposite me will sample the white. I defer to their personal knowledge on the quality of the vintage.'

The head waiter, too well trained to even show a hint of surprise at such a request, did precisely as he was asked. He poured out small amounts of the white and the red into Germany and Italy's glasses, then stood back to let them inspect and taste at their leisure. Judging by both nations' expressions after the first mouthful, Switzerland's choices had been well made.

'Very good,' Germany murmured solemnly, nodding his approval.

'Yes, it's excellent!' Italy chimed in, waving his glass with enough enthusiasm to make everyone glad that there were only a few drops left in it. 'Everyone should have some!'

On further consideration, it made more sense to split the bottles evenly down the table. France and England followed Italy's suggestion and chose the red, while Canada and Switzerland held out their glasses for the white. Once the wine was served and the bottles were set aside, it was time to order the meal.

The restaurant's bill of fare held up to Italy's glowing recommendation: they all found something that looked appealing. England ordered his steak, as planned, and Italy went straight for pasta and seafood in a spicy fra diavolo sauce. France chose duck confit, and on his recommendation ('Angleterre would have you order them with frites as well, but I think that à la marinière is a little easier on the stomach after a long day') Canada ordered mussels in white wine. Germany, ever careful, double-checked his order with Switzerland before pointing to the veal stew. And finally, having compared prices across the menu and weighed several possible options for portion size and quality, Switzerland settled on baked trout.

After the menus had been collected and the restaurant staff had departed, Germany was the first to pick up his glass of wine, raising it in a formal salute.

'To Schweiz and Kanada,' he declared, his voice firm and clear. 'With our thanks.'

There was no need for translation. France, England, and Italy instantly understood the meaning of his actions and his words, and raised their own glasses with open and unashamed gratitude to the two nations who had been their voices for so many months.

'To Suisse and Canada.'

'To Switzerland and Canada.'

'To Svizzera and Canada!'

Neither Switzerland nor Canada looked especially comfortable at being the centre of so much attention all at once, but they duly raised their glasses in return and drank the toast proposed to them.

'Thank you, everyone,' Canada said warmly, once they had all set the glasses down. 'Suisse and I appreciate this very much.'

'Kanada expresses his thanks and his appreciation, as do I,' Switzerland said to Germany, in a far cooler tone.

After they had repeated themselves in English and Italian, Canada and Switzerland had nothing further to say -- and the six nations were left staring at each other across the table.

They had put off this moment for as long as they could. Now that it had arrived, the silence stretched out before them like a chasm.

England was the first to reach for his wine glass, followed straightaway by Germany, both of them taking long, deep draughts that did little to conceal their underlying apprehension. France took a smaller sip of his own wine and raised an eyebrow at Canada, but Canada merely responded with a lopsided shrug and a small shake of his head, as if to say I haven't a clue what to do here, either. Switzerland studiously avoided touching his wine or looking directly at anyone else, and his rigid posture conveyed the frank message that he had no intention of being any more social than he absolutely had to be. Someone else would have to make the first move.

Even Italy's earlier good cheer was starting to fade as he looked from one nation to the next, watching his hopes for an enjoyable evening dwindle down to nothingness. He caught his lower lip between his teeth, worrying it nervously, and jiggled his wine glass in his hand. But before he could fidget himself into tears, his eyes brightened with a sudden, eager light, and he set his glass down so abruptly that Germany and Switzerland both startled from the impact.

'Oh! Guess what, guess what?' As everyone at the table turned to look at him, he waved his hands in a flurry of excitement. 'I knew there was something I wanted to tell you all about -- I had the funniest thing happen the other day, when I was meeting with my boss to talk about our conference!' And without waiting, he launched into his story.

France and Canada immediately looked to Switzerland, prepared for his simultaneous translation into French. The barrage of Italian would have defied their best attempts to understand it even when they could have understood it; now, it was truly beyond comprehension. But Switzerland said nothing: he was completely silent, his attention entirely focused on Italy.

France and Canada exchanged baffled glances. England and Germany looked equally lost. Canada even went so far as to tap Switzerland on the shoulder -- rather gingerly, knowing his fellow interpreter's hair-trigger reactions -- but Switzerland held up a hand for silence, not even turning his head to look at Canada. Once it was clear that no translation was forthcoming, there was nothing for the other four nations to do but follow Switzerland's lead and devote their full attention to Italy himself.

Italy, now well into his tale, was thoroughly warming to it. His voice kept alternating in pitch, squeaking into higher registers or dropping into lower ones, as if he was trying to imitate different people talking (or arguing, from the sound of it) in turn. His gestures and facial expressions became increasingly elaborate as he punctuated each new sentence with what appeared to be corresponding motions: he rolled his eyes, wrinkled his nose, waggled his fingers, shook his fists, sketched vague figures in the air, and mimed actions that the others could only begin to guess at -- twisting things open, slamming things shut, pushing and pulling against invisible forces. One of his more sweeping gestures only narrowly missed colliding with his wine glass, prompting Germany to hastily whisk it out of reach before Italy could send Montepulciano cascading across the tablecloth. And still he kept talking, and Switzerland said nothing, so they all sat in dumbfounded anticipation of wherever the story would end.

The bizarre recitation rattled on for what seemed like hours before Italy finally worked himself up to the climax. For all that had gone into his story, it was over quite quickly: a single furious shake of his fist, two sternly declarative sentences, and then he folded his arms across his chest and sat back in his chair, breathless and flushed pink from the exertion, his eyes sparkling with mirth.

A moment later, Switzerland sat back in his own chair and closed his eyes, letting out a long, slow breath through his nose.

Canada couldn't contain himself any longer. 'Suisse?' he said anxiously, his voice coming out half-strangled with tension.

Switzerland glanced over at him, taking in his strained expression and the similarly desperate looks that the other nations were giving them, before he waved one hand dismissively and said:

'His boss had left the folder in the men's room, and the civil servant who found it shortly thereafter never even opened it to see what was inside.'

Whether it was the fact that Italy's entire story could be boiled down to a single sentence, or Switzerland's deadpan delivery of it, something about the final summary made both France and Canada burst out laughing.

Italy, elated by their reaction, started laughing along with them -- and then England joined in as the sheer absurdity of the whole situation hit him as well. Germany eyed the four of them in hopeless confusion until Switzerland translated his own single-sentence summary for him, and then he too got the joke and chuckled with genuine amusement. The sound of Germany's laughter excited Italy so much that he made a grab for Germany's hand, forcing Switzerland to dive in and rescue both of their wine glasses from imminent disaster.

Some of the tension seemed to fall away from the table after that. The wine glasses were restored to their rightful owners and topped up (though not before Switzerland gave Italy a sharp scolding for his carelessness), baskets of bread were handed around, and the six of them soon found a new subject that relied as much upon emphatic gesture as it did on literal translation: their respective teams' prospects in the qualifying tournaments for the upcoming World Cup. The subject of football brought England and Germany more into the conversation, and Switzerland and Canada even managed to add some commentary of their own as they took it in turn to pass the others' statements back and forth. By the time their main course came out, they were all content to stop talking and concentrate on the food, and the silence that descended over the table was nowhere near as oppressive as it had been when they first sat down.

****

Always a fast eater, Italy cleaned his plate well ahead of the others. Once all the pasta was gone, he set his fork down with a contented sigh, and used two pieces of bread to scoop up the last bit of tomato sauce from his plate. He washed the final bite down with the rest of his wine, and whisked his napkin off of his lap to wipe his fingers clean.

'I'll be right back!' he said to the table at large. Without waiting for a response, he slipped out of his chair and started to weave his way past the other tables, heading in the direction of the toilets at the back of the restaurant.

'I'd forgotten how nauseating it can be to watch Italien eat,' Switzerland muttered to Germany, over his glass of wine. 'Does he always bolt his food like that, or is it from the excitement?'

'It didn't seem any faster than normal.' Germany looked down at his own mostly empty plate, then over at Italy's pristine one. 'But if he has his appetite back, it's a good sign. I haven't seen him enjoy his food like that for....' A shadow passed over his face, deepening the lines in his forehead. 'Well, for some time.'

Switzerland, unsure of how to respond to that comment, took the opportunity to hide his uncertainty in the remainder of his glass of Riesling. As he set the empty wine glass down, out of the corner of his eye he saw Canada giving both of them a questioning look. A slight shake of his head -- not worth translating -- was all the reply he felt comfortable making.

Canada frowned, unsatisfied, but any thought of pressing the matter had to be set aside not half a moment later when he caught England trying to skewer France's hand with a fork, in retaliation for the latter's brazen theft of a frite from the former's plate. Dealing with the rising squabble required all of his attention, and by the time it was settled Germany and Switzerland had returned to eating their own meals in unemotional silence.

One by one, they finished their food and wine, and allowed the wait staff to clear their plates and cutlery as they sat around in the peaceful near-stupor that often follows a good meal. Switzerland had picked up his water glass and was on the point of turning to Canada to ask whether they should enquire about ordering coffee when he heard the low hum of conversation at the nearby tables suddenly fade. Ever alert, he started to look round for the reason behind the abrupt change in the mood of the room --

'Svizzera!'

-- and he nearly dropped his water glass when he saw Italy striding back across the restaurant in the direction of their table, followed closely by the head waiter...who was carrying a large serving plate crowned by a protective glass cover.

Stunned speechless, the five seated nations watched as Italy closed the distance between them. His smile was bursting with pleasure and pride, and the head waiter seemed equally pleased if far more subdued in his display of emotion. Most of the other diners, intrigued by the unexpected spectacle, were making no attempt to be discreet about watching whatever was about to unfold. So when Italy came to a stop behind his own chair, and motioned to the head waiter to stand a little to one side with the serving plate held aloft, he had the attention of every eye and ear in the restaurant.

'I wanted to do something extra-special for you, Svizzera!' Italy said, clasping his hands in front of his chest. 'You were so nice to me this morning, and you made me and Germania so happy, and I spent all day thinking about how I could say thank you to you again. So when I called to make the reservation for tonight, I asked if their pastry chef still made this Monte Bianco cake, the one I liked best of all their cakes, and she did! So I asked if she could make a whole one just for me to give to you -- and here it is!'

At those words, the head waiter placed the covered plate immediately in front of Switzerland and lifted the heavy glass dome.

Italy's choice of confection was an enormous round layer cake, covered with a sea of light brown frosting and dotted with soft white peaks of freshly whipped cream. The cake's sides were reinforced with a thick crust of what appeared to be crushed almonds, and the whole plate was adorned with slivers of shaved white and dark chocolate and a drizzle of some kind of glossy brown syrup.

For a breathless moment, no one made a sound -- and then everyone at the table seemed to be talking all at once.

'It's a little like an opera cake, with vanilla sponge layers -- '

'Ah, Suisse, will you let big brother France have a bite?'

'Schweiz, please believe me when I say that I had no idea -- '

'If he starts shooting, you and I are getting out of here -- '

'England, you're not helping -- '

' -- and the filling is chestnut cream!' Italy finished triumphantly, bouncing on his toes with barely contained glee.

Switzerland gave no indication that he had heard a single word that any of his fellow nations had said. He was staring at the cake with an almost murderous expression, as if he could will the entire thing out of existence purely with the force of his thoughts. But after an interminably long pause, he raised his eyes from the cake and slowly turned his head to look at Italy.

'Italia,' he said, in a perfect monotone.

The other four seated nations held their breath.

Quizzically, Italy tilted his head to one side. 'Yes, Svizzera?'

'Thank you for the cake.' A beat of silence. 'Don't ever do it again.'

Italy beamed, delighted beyond measure. 'You're very welcome!'

The other four seated nations let out a collective exhale of relief.

The noise was enough to attract Switzerland's attention. In a flash, he rounded on them with a scowl no less vicious than the one he had directed at the cake.

'Well, don't just stare at me like a pack of halfwits!' he snapped, switching back to French by default. He included Germany and England in his frustrated glare, and then gestured to the serving plate. 'Help me eat this damned thing.'

****

There was more than enough of Italy's cake to go around, even with a generous hand in cutting the slices. With the help of several cups of strong coffee and tea, the six nations managed to eat their way through almost half of it. But there came a point where they could eat no more, and after a quick request to one of the waiters they arranged for boxes for them to take the rest home -- or, in their case, back to the hotel.

'It will fit in the room fridges, won't it?' Canada murmured worriedly to Switzerland, as the boxes were handed round.

'If it doesn't, you may as well find someone else who might want it,' Switzerland said, taking a box for himself. 'Belgique might care for it, or Luxembourg. Fortunately for me, Autriche almost never turns down cake, and it would not take much persuading for Allemagne to give me his slice to share with Hongrie as well.'

Canada looked relieved at the thought. 'And I'm sure Italie wouldn't mind in the least. It's a very good idea, Suisse -- thank you for suggesting it.'

'No sense in wasting food.' Switzerland's mouth twisted wryly. 'For that matter, it will be interesting to see whether Autriche's limited Hungarian vocabulary is more versatile when baked goods are involved.'

The waitstaff were swift to collect the remaining cups and plates and dessert forks. Germany held out his hand for the bill when it came, and waved away both France and England's attempts to contribute at least a portion of the final total. 'The invitation was ours,' he said simply, as he skimmed the bill to check the figures and make sure that everything had been included. By the time the translation made its way through Switzerland and Canada, Germany had handed both the bill and his credit card to the waiter, and there was little point in pressing the matter further.

When they finally emerged from the restaurant, cake boxes in hand, it was well past dark. The evening air was cool on their faces, a pleasant change from the close warmth of the restaurant, and it helped to clear their heads of some of the post-dinner sleepiness that was starting to creep up on all of them.

Italy in particular seemed revived by the fresh air. 'It's such a nice evening!' he said, and tugged on Germany's sleeve. 'We should all go for a walk.' To help convey his idea, he wiggled two fingers in a quick walking motion.

Switzerland glanced at Germany, just long enough to confirm that the latter had managed to understand the combination of the gesture and the hopeful look on Italy's face, before he turned to Canada. 'Italie wants to go for a walk now,' he said, sounding weary but resigned to his fate. 'Do you have any interest, or should I make your excuses?'

'I -- ' Canada began, only to be stopped short by a yawn that he couldn't quite cover with his hand. 'I...think we'll be heading back,' he said sheepishly, once he had recovered. 'I need to help France and Angleterre finish up a few bits of paperwork, anyway, before we all turn in. Will you please thank Allemagne and Italie for us again?'

'Of course.' When Switzerland turned his attention to Italy once more, he fought back a sigh at the familiar sight of Italy doing his best to cuddle closer to an uncomfortable-looking Germany. 'They're going back to the hotel, so you'll have to say your final thank-yous now.'

Italy gave a soft whine of disappointment, but he detached himself from Germany's arm and hurried over to shake hands and kiss cheeks in farewell.

England, who was all but lost in a haze of digestion and had long since stopped listening to a conversation that he could not understand, was more than a little startled by the sudden onslaught of Italy's affectionate gratitude. He fended off most of it by holding up his cake box as a shield, using it to manoeuvre out of range and over to the safer and less demonstrative handshakes favoured by both Germany and Switzerland. Canada let out a surprised 'oof!' when Italy hugged him, and even though he returned the hug he seemed only too happy to settle for a solemn handshake from Germany once he was released. France was better prepared than either England or Canada, and was considerably more receptive to Italy's sentiment. Italy's eyes were noticeably damp by the time he let go of France, but once he had dabbed them away with his sleeve he was all smiles again.

France, however, was not yet finished. 'And now, Suisse, I must thank you for looking after our dear little Canada through all of this.' Beaming, he grabbed Switzerland by the shoulders, and before Switzerland could utter a single sound of reproach France had kissed him firmly on both cheeks. 'Angleterre and I know that he is in good hands when you are around.'

Switzerland gritted his teeth, standing stiff as a board in France's embrace. England winced, and Canada's face went scarlet as he raised his voice in feeble, embarrassed protest. 'France, please....'

France chuckled and let go, taking a nimble step backwards before Switzerland could raise a hand to swat him away. His smile had its usual teasing quirk, but the light in his eyes was more melancholy than amused, and Switzerland found himself checking the first two or three truly unpleasant replies that came to mind. Instead, he wiped off his cheeks with the back of one hand and muttered, 'Compared with your hands, I should hope so.'

Canada, still red-faced, hurried forward and took France by the arm. 'We'll b-be g-going now,' he said, stammering in his haste. 'Good night, Suisse. I'll m-meet you in the lobby at quarter to eight, as usual?'

'Yes, fine.' Switzerland clearly had no interest in further pleasantries. 'Good night.'

The two groups went their separate ways, one to hail a taxi and the other to take the long way back to the hotel.

The dinner hour was giving way to the nightlife, and even in the middle of the week the restaurants and cafés of Brussels were well populated with the city's usual mix of residents, tourists, and diplomats, all finishing their meals and cups of coffee before heading home or going on to someplace else for their evening's entertainment. The three nations, with boxes of leftover cake in hand, blended in easily with the other pedestrians. And if any of Belgium's people thought it odd to see two businessmen in suits and ties holding hands as they strolled past, not one of them appeared to give it a second thought.

They had been walking in silence for several blocks when Switzerland noticed that Germany and Italy were slowing down. More than once, he had to adjust his normal stride in order to match their pace -- not as much as if he had been walking with Canada, or even the hopelessly slow Austria, but at the rate they were going it would truly be late when they reached the hotel. Something of his impatience must have shown in his face or his walk, for when they came to a corner where they had to wait with the crowd to cross a busy thoroughfare, he felt a tug on his sleeve and turned to see Italy giving him a brave but tired smile.

'I'm sorry, Svizzera,' he said. 'I was so excited about seeing everyone this evening that I didn't take a nap before dinner, and I ate so much food and the wine was so good, and I thought that walking back to the hotel would make me feel less sleepy but it really hasn't....' His eyelids drooped, and the sentence trailed off, as if the effort he was expending to stay awake and upright left him with too little energy to complete the thought.

'I'll find a taxi.' Even as he spoke, Switzerland had one foot in the street, preparing to signal the nearest unoccupied cab. But before he could raise his hand, Germany's voice stopped him.

'Wait.'

Italy blinked, startled back to awareness, and his expression grew puzzled as Germany shifted his cake box to his left hand and unbuttoned his suit jacket. Once his jacket was open, Germany took a half-step back, bending his knees in clear preparation for some sort of action, and waved his free right hand over his shoulder.

'Here,' he said, looking at Italy. He waved his hand over his shoulder again -- and the repeated gesture was enough for Switzerland to realise that Germany was inviting Italy to climb onto his back.

Italy, for his part, certainly seemed to understand Germany's intention. His eyes widened in astonishment at the all-too-rare invitation. But instead of accepting it on the spot, as anyone might have expected him to do, he bit down on his lip, and his face screwed up in a look of painfully intense concentration. Just as Switzerland was about to ask him what was wrong, Italy gulped down a deep breath and opened his mouth to speak.

'R-Really?' he said, in thick, halting German. 'I...I c-can?'

Germany inhaled sharply, almost letting go of his cake box in his surprise. Switzerland was equally taken aback, for in all of the months that had passed since their communication problems began, Italy had never managed to string together more than a broken sentence or two in any language but Italian. Even though he had a handful of enclaves along his northern border where German was regarded as a regional language, all of his attempts to actually speak or understand German had produced nothing but incomprehensible sentence fragments and bitter, frustrated sobs. Germany's slowest and most patient efforts to communicate with him had ended in floods of miserable tears, and after watching their fruitless labour none of the other German-speaking nations had wanted to press him further. It was sheer desperation that had made Italy beg Switzerland to translate for him that morning -- but it was another kind of desperation that pushed him to try once more to break through the language barrier, if only to stutter out a few fumbling words.

Judging by the wavering, too-bright light that had appeared in Germany's eyes, even those fumbling words were more than he had expected -- or hoped -- to hear. He nodded again, as encouragingly as possible.

Switzerland found enough of his voice to salvage the situation before it could dissolve into an overly emotional mess. 'Here, Italia, give me your cake,' he said firmly, and took first Italy's and then Germany's cake boxes. He busied himself by stacking the boxes while Italy clambered onto Germany's back. By the time he had arranged all of their leftovers to his satisfaction, Italy had settled into place with his arms over Germany's shoulders and Germany's hands supporting his legs. Germany held his weight easily, and Italy nestled in, resting his chin on Germany's shoulder with a sleepy, contented mumble.

'Are you ready?' Switzerland said in German. The cake in his hands gave him something to focus on, preventing him from glowering at any passers-by who might have paused to stare at them, but there was no use in standing around on this increasingly congested street corner any longer than was absolutely necessary.

Italy's eyes were already closed, asleep or nearly there, and he barely stirred when Germany replied, 'Yes, I think so.'

With that, they set off again.

By the time they reached the other side of the street, Switzerland and Germany had found a steady pace that suited both of them, one that would allow Italy to sleep undisturbed and still get them back to the hotel at a reasonable hour. When the streets were more crowded, Switzerland took the lead and went in front, breaking a clear path for his two companions with an efficiency that owed much to his long years as a mercenary and bodyguard. When the crowds thinned out, he dropped back a step to walk at Germany's side. The arrangement could not have worked better if they had planned it that way from the start.

It was during one of the quieter moments, when there were fewer people around and they could walk side by side without difficulty, that Germany said in a low voice:

'Is there anything that I can do to make things easier for you and Kanada?'

'If there were,' Switzerland replied, without turning his head or breaking his stride, 'I would have said so by now.'

'Of course.' Germany let the matter drop.

They continued walking, in silence as before. But they had not gone more than a few hundred metres before Switzerland suddenly spoke.

'I....' He coughed, because the word had come out rough and forced, and started again. 'I spoke with Liechtenstein earlier today. Since the communication problems began, she has not left home much -- she has only German, as you know -- and I have not been able to spend much time with her. I have asked her if she would like to accompany me to the next EU meeting. It would not be in any official capacity, of course,' he hastened to clarify, before Germany could respond. 'She would prefer it to remain more of a social visit, without the demands of formal representation.'

'She is always welcome at my place, if she would like a change of scenery,' Germany said.

'Your brother -- ' Switzerland began doubtfully.

' -- would be on his best behaviour, I assure you.' Germany was almost too quick to finish the sentence. He continued, more calmly, 'To be honest, I think he would appreciate visitors, too. We have both found it...somewhat difficult to adjust.'

'Then I will inform her of your suggestion,' Switzerland said. After a moment's pause, he added, 'I hope that she and Belgien will have an opportunity to spend some time together at their leisure, if she agrees to come to here for the next meeting.'

'It can certainly be arranged,' Germany said. 'I will speak to Belgien about it tomorrow, before we begin the meeting.'

Switzerland nodded once, in confirmation. 'I sincerely appreciate your consideration in this matter.'

In spite of Switzerland's stilted-sounding thanks, the silence that followed felt far more companionable than before. Italy slept on, and Germany carried him without difficulty -- and without any of his usual self-consciousness over such a visible display of affection. Whether it was the lateness of the hour, or the mellowing influence of a substantial dinner and several glasses of wine apiece, or the simple fact that any opportunities for non-work-related discussions were few and far between for most nations these days, Germany found himself more inclined to continue their conversation.

'Do you expect that anything will come of Amerika's research?' he asked.

'I do not have very high hopes for it,' Switzerland said, shaking his head. 'But if nothing else, it will keep him occupied and out of trouble, which I think will ease Kanada's mind somewhat.'

'The two of you work well together.'

Switzerland huffed a short breath through his nose. 'So it would seem. But he should not have to come all this way to Brussels just to live out of a hotel the entire time.' His voice was suddenly sharp, almost angry, though Germany could tell that the irritation was not directed at him. 'If England and Frankreich are so reliant on him for communication, they ought to find more private accommodations for him when he is over here on their business. There is no reason for him to be shackled to them as if he were still under their sovereignty.'

It was an uncharacteristic outburst of concern on Switzerland's part, but Germany was well aware of his southern neighbour's strong opinions on maintaining one's independence. At the same time, he also understood France and England's reluctance to make more permanent accommodations for Canada's visits to Europe -- it would be too much like admitting that their current language difficulties were here to stay. As long as they could keep telling themselves that things would soon return to the way that they had always been for centuries, they could look upon all of these translation and interpretation measures as little more than temporary inconveniences. But Switzerland, with his usual bluntness, was not nearly so inclined to cling to the wishful thinking that had been keeping all of their hopes alive.

'Perhaps Belgien could suggest something for him,' Germany said slowly, turning these sobering thoughts over in his mind.

'Perhaps.' Switzerland huffed again, though it came out sounding more like a sigh. 'He would never ask for it himself -- they have him too well trained for that. But for all of the help that he has provided in the past few months, he deserves some semblance of normality in all this madness.'

Germany said nothing at first, but carefully adjusted his grip on Italy's legs, allowing the warm weight against his back to rest more securely across his shoulders. Only when he heard and felt the soft, snoring flutter of breath against his ear did he finally reply.

'I think we all do, Schweiz,' he said. 'Or at least, perhaps we owe it to ourselves to try to find the next best thing.'

***

Notes
This story, as with others in this series, operates on the premise that the nations of Hetalia used to be able to speak to and understand with each other without the need for translation, until an unexpected (and deliberately unspecified) incident deprived them of that ability and has forced them to cope as best they can. This story takes place about six months after that incident, later in the same day of the events of In Hell, the Simultaneous Translators Are Swiss.

The following is a very rough summary of the state of nation-to-nation communication in this world:
- Nations who share official languages can speak directly to each other in those languages: Switzerland and Canada (French), Belgium and Netherlands (Dutch/Flemish), and so on.
- Nations who do not share official languages require an interpreter to communicate, preferably another nation with multiple official languages.
- Nations who do not have a de jure official language have effectively been locked into their primary de facto national language (e.g., English for Australia, German for Germany), with the same communication rules and restrictions applying as above.
- Nations with regional/protected minority languages have an extremely curtailed nation-to-nation communication level in those languages, with very little working vocabulary and great comprehension difficulty. For example, even though German is a regional language in northern Italy, a nation whose official language is German would not be able to use German to communicate with North Italy very easily.
- Because some, but not all, U.S. states and territories have designated official languages, America's speech as heard by other nations generally fluctuates among English, Spanish, and Hawaiian, as the three languages with official language status in parts of the United States. His comprehension levels fluctuate as well -- and do not always coordinate with his spoken language.
- Although humans might be able to get around these communications problems with a little creative thinking, it does not work that way for nations. Some sort of mental 'official language barrier' is preventing nation-to-nation comprehension and communication, except as according to the rules described above. However, all nations can communicate with their human bosses and citizens without difficulty, much as they could before.

Many thanks go to the readers and commenters on the original anon-meme version of this story, for their kind words on successive and thoughtful analysis of the lesser and greater nuances of this fic-verse.


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