Title: And Parallels North
Fandom: Hetalia
Rating: U
Summary: Caught in a sudden squall while visiting a decommissioned DEW Line station high above the Arctic Circle, America and Canada are forced to spend the night in one of the abandoned outbuildings near the airstrip. Even if the giant s'mores are a disappointment, they might still be able to salvage something out of their long night in the Far North.
Notes: This story was originally written as a belated entry for the Canadian Shack 2011 fic collection, with the working title Putting the Canada Back in the Canadian Shack Fic (which is still a reasonably accurate description of it). Additional historical and cultural notes are at the end.


And Parallels North

'Want some Stroganoff?'

Canada eyed the opened foil packet that America was holding out to him. Faint wisps of steam rose from it, wavering in the frigid air. 'No, thanks,' he said, a little warily. 'I'll stick with the veal.'

'Went with the fancy stuff tonight, huh?' America shovelled another spoonful of noodles and gravy into his mouth, chewing and swallowing quickly. 'Veal and mushrooms -- is that the brown lumps in gray sauce or gray lumps in brown sauce?'

Canada, not surprisingly, did not want to look down into his own foil packet to find out which one it was. 'You'll make yourself sick if you keep eating that fast,' he said instead.

'The faster I eat it, the less time I have to spend tasting it.' America scraped the inside of the packet with the edge of his spoon, seemingly determined to excavate every bit of his cold-weather ration from its packaging. 'Though throwing up into it might actually improve the texture.'

'And I think I've officially lost my appetite,' Canada muttered, though he managed a few more bites of the lukewarm meal before his stomach roiled at the thought of choking down another gray (or possibly brown) lump. America was still digging into his entree, chomping his way through its contents, until he licked his spoon clean and crumpled the empty packet in his fist.

'Clean plate club!' he crowed. 'Well, pouch club. Whatever.'

Canada's stomach lurched again, half in protest and half in sympathy. 'Is that really something to be proud of?'

'Hey, my army's worked really hard to make nutritionally complete, high-energy meals for all kinds of combat situations! They just have to work a little harder to make them actually tasty, that's all.' America set the packet and spoon aside, and began to rummage in the inside pockets of his parka. 'Besides, everyone knows you can't have dessert until you eat all your dinner, and I have the only dessert worth eating for literally about a thousand miles.' His face lit up as he hit upon what he had been searching for, and with a triumphant flourish he pulled out a sealed plastic bag and waved it in the air. 'Ta-da!'

Canada peered at the bag, squinting through his half-fogged glasses. There was something large and white and puffy inside it, and something brown and squarish, and something else that also looked brown and squarish...and then it all came together.

'You brought s'mores.' There was no need to make it sound like a question; the disbelief in his voice was all too evident.

'Not just any s'mores,' America replied proudly. 'Giant s'mores. With marshmallows the size of your fist.' He stuffed the bag back into his parka and pushed himself to his feet. 'Now, where'd I put that stove?'

As America began to dig through their bags, humming snatches of whatever Top 40 tune had settled in as his most recent earworm, Canada dropped the remains of his dinner into the ration box and wrapped his arms around his legs, letting his chin rest on his knees.

There wasn't much to look at from where he was sitting. Just the four uninsulated walls of the storage shed, dimly lit by their lantern, and the scraps of fibreglass and metal that they had shoved aside to make room for their ground mats and sleeping bags. The air stank of rust and empty winter diesel tanks, the sour smell of half a century of neglect. It was cold, and it was dark, and the wind outside was showing no signs of letting up, and for all of his brother's enthusiasm for dessert Canada simply could not muster an interest in anything more ambitious than curling up and going to sleep as soon as possible.

He and America hadn't planned to spend the night in a glorified shack. Their original mission had been to check up on the environmental decontamination process at Bright Harbour, a decommissioned DEW Line station in the far north of Nunavut, right on the edge of the Beaufort Sea. They had flown out in a bush plane from Tuktoyaktuk that morning, landed at the station's old airstrip around noon, and spent most of the day taking soil and water samples and photographs of the small landfill near the site. But a sudden squall had come rolling through while they were still on the ground, and they had barely had time to secure the plane and grab their survival kits before they were forced to take cover in one of the few remaining outbuildings on the edge of the airstrip. It had been several hours since they'd run for shelter, and though they were in radio contact with the airport at Tuktoyaktuk the controller had informed them, in no uncertain terms, that they would be grounded until morning.

The practical aspects of cold-weather survival were easy enough to deal with: drink enough water, eat hot meals, keep your clothing dry and your feet clean. The temperature outside was only in the negative single digits, positively balmy for a late spring squall. All things considered, Canada knew that he and America could have had far worse luck than this for their night in the shack -- but even that knowledge was doing nothing to improve his mood.

'Wanna fire it up?'

Canada lifted his head, and saw that America had finished assembling the squat camp stove that had come with their plane's cold-weather kit. They hadn't used it to prepare dinner, since their ration boxes contained chemical heating packs for each meal pouch, and the small bottle of fuel that came with the stove was still full and unopened.

'I'd prefer to not be asphyxiated, thanks,' he replied. 'There's hardly enough ventilation in here for that.'

America made a face at him. 'Worrywart. I can't remember the last time I even got so much as a headache from one of these babies, and I know you've used them in much tighter spaces than this.' He held up two wooden sticks -- a pair of cheap disposable chopsticks -- and reached into his coat for the plastic bag that held the marshmallows. 'Now c'mon, grab a stick and start roasting.'

The little stove did its best to toast the marshmallows, but they were so massive that the heat it emitted only succeeded in softening the outsides without actually giving them a crispy crust. America held his marshmallow so close to the flame that it kept threatening to either catch fire or melt off his stick, until finally he declared it done and hurriedly sandwiched it between a piece of chocolate and a graham cracker before it could cool and harden.

Canada followed suit, trying to get as much of the marshmallow onto the graham cracker as possible. The marshmallows were far too big to eat in one bite, but he gamely tried to fit at least half of the s'more into his mouth without choking on it. America had done the same, and was chewing furiously, racing against time to finish the other half while it was still mostly warm.

After a minute and a half of marshmallow stubbornness, they managed to eat their first s'mores. Canada assumed that America would immediately go for seconds, but instead of spearing another marshmallow America ran his tongue across his teeth, smacked his lips several times, and frowned down at the s'mores ingredients still stuffed into his coat.

'Huh,' he said, puffing out a cloud of breath. 'These marshmallows are a little...well, they might not be....' He smacked his lips again, and looked over at Canada. 'I mean, do you think -- '

'They're terrible.' Canada wasn't about to mince words; eating that s'more had been like trying to eat a fistful of sweetened styrofoam. 'Hadn't you tried them before?'

'Thought I'd wait for a special occasion -- and what'd be more special than eating mammoth s'mores at the North Pole?' America ran his tongue over his teeth once more, and wrinkled his nose at the aftertaste. 'But these are...yeah, as far as marshmallows go, they're kinda crappy.'

It was classic America, jumping right into something without thinking it through, and for some reason Canada found it more irritating than usual. 'When are you going to learn that bigger isn't always better?'

He regretted the words the second they left his mouth. He didn't dare meet America's gaze, but he could feel America staring at him, and as close as they were sitting he could sense that his brother was almost vibrating from the effort of holding back no fewer than a dozen witty retorts.

'You're really leaving it at that?' America finally said, incredulously, when he realised that Canada wasn't going to say anything more. 'Just...hanging out there?'

Canada's eyes narrowed. 'First crack about Manifest Destiny,' he snapped, 'and you're sleeping outside tonight.'

'I was gonna say Fifty-four Forty or Fight, but you'd probably take me up on that offer.' America tossed his toasting stick into the ration box and plopped down on top of his sleeping bag. 'What gives, bro? You've been biting my head off ever since we left Fairbanks.'

'It's nothing.' Canada could hear how sulky he sounded, but couldn't bring himself to care. He bent his head over his boots, picking at the laces to start untying them. 'I'm just tired -- let's clean all this up and go to sleep.'

'Nope, not playing that game with you,' America said, so casually cheerful that Canada knew that there would be no escaping this conversation. Not that there was much room to escape from it in the first place. 'Whatever it is, say it now and let's get the yelling over with.'

Under most other circumstances, Canada would have done his best to rise to the occasion. But that one moment of snappishness had taken a surprising amount of his energy, and so he was left with the first response that came to mind. 'What was the point of all this?'

It wasn't the response that America had been expecting. His head tilted in confusion. 'All this what?'

'This.' Canada waved a hand, indicating their makeshift shelter. 'All this junk. This shed. This airstrip.' His mouth tightened. 'The whole damned DEW Line.'

America frowned, and leaned over to turn off the camp stove. 'Is that what's been bugging you? Coming back up here?' All of the flippancy had gone out of his voice, replaced with something closer to sympathy. 'You and me and Russia -- we talked it all out, remember? It was what we thought we had to do at the time, and we did it, and now it's done. Even Russia doesn't hold it against us anymore.' He paused. 'Well, he doesn't hold this against us anymore. There's probably other stuff he's still sore about, but as far as I know we're cool on this.'

'But that doesn't mean it's over,' Canada protested. He was starting to feel sick to his stomach again, and this time it had nothing to do with their makeshift dinners or failed attempt at dessert. Without the extra flicker of light from the stove, the shack suddenly felt much smaller, four frozen walls pressing down on them in the darkness. 'We took the stations out of commission, but how much money have we spent on cleaning all of them up? How much money, and how much time, and it's still not done?'

America was silent for a long moment. 'I was wondering why you were so gung-ho about coming up here and doing all this yourself,' he said slowly, as if turning the thought over in his mind. 'They're giving you a hard time about it again, aren't they.'

'Well, why shouldn't they give me a hard time?' Canada shot back. They had a name -- more than one name, for that matter, even if their complaints all amounted to much the same thing. And it didn't take an environmental assessment report or a formal tribal nation council to tell him what he already knew: when it came to the DEW Line, everything that he and America touched had turned to poison. 'It's not like they're wrong about any of it.'

'Maybe so, but we didn't mean to -- '

'Didn't mean to what?' Canada cut him off, viciously. 'What did we even need these stations for? All that time and money to put them up in the first place, and now we're tearing them all down again, and what did we think we'd get out of them? Oh, that's right, a whole two extra hours of warning before -- '

Words failed him, and he could only finish the sentence with a short, violent flail of both hands. But in his rising frustration, he had all but forgotten their surroundings, and the back of one hand accidentally smacked the battery-powered LED lantern that was their sole source of light inside the shack. It toppled over, hitting the grease-stained concrete with a sharp crack -- and went out.

For several seconds, there was no sound in the pitch-dark shack but Canada's quick, agitated breaths. Then, there was a metallic scrape and a clunky rattling noise, and the lantern flickered back on in America's hands. He held it up and peered more closely at it, gave it one more experimental shake for good measure, and then set it back upright on the floor at their feet.

'You're right,' he said, glancing over at Canada. His mouth had a wry twist, but his eyes were entirely serious. 'It's still a mess. And I probably don't even know the half of it, because most of the stuff's on your land. But we're working on it, okay? I mean, that's why I came all this way out here -- to work on it with you.'

'And because I promised that you could fly the plane.' It was only a half-hearted retort, with a half-hearted smile to match. His outburst had left him feeling more worn out than before, anger giving way to shame.

'Okay, maybe that was also part of it,' America admitted, not willing to back down completely. 'But once we get these samples back to Tuk' -- and he nodded in the direction of their bags, packed with all the tubes and jars and other containers they had filled earlier in the day -- 'we can send them on to the labs, and figure out what else needs to be fixed here. And once we've got that going, then we can figure out what to do at the next clean-up site, and the one after that, and the one after that. One bit at a time, y'know? That's all they can expect you to do.' He scooted closer to Canada, his sleeping bag rustling against the ground mat, until they were side by side. 'That's all you can expect from yourself.'

Canada stared at him, momentarily at a loss for words -- and then he let out a soft snort, and nudged America gently with his elbow. 'You should come up here more often,' he said, and this time his smile was a little wider than before. 'The cold's good for your brain.'

That prompted a full-on scowl. 'The minute I get back in the Lower 48, I am going someplace warm and staying there for a month.' Seeing Canada's tentative smile, however, made America's moment of grumpiness melt away into his usual bright-toothed grin. 'And speaking of warm, let's figure out how the heck we're sleeping here tonight.'

It would have been just as easy to sleep in their individual bags, but America insisted that they zip both bags together and share them as a single large one. Canada had to agree that the extra body heat and the added layers of two parkas on top of the combined bags would go a long way towards mitigating the shack's relative lack of insulation from the icy temperatures outside. It wouldn't be the most comfortable night of sleep that either of them had ever had, but it would guarantee at least a few hours of rest until the squall finally died down.

While Canada finished cleaning up the remains of their meal, making sure that all of their trash was sealed away in airtight plastic, America assembled their sleeping arrangements. The former task took a bit more time than the latter, so America was the first to remove his boots and take off his glasses before crawling into their shared bag. He rolled over a few times until he found a suitable spot on the edge of the foam mat, then hunkered down until only the top of his woolly hat was visible at the mouth of the bag. As Canada prepared to follow suit, he couldn't help but smile to himself when he saw that America's preferred method for stowing his glasses -- tucked safely into the right boot, under the laces and on top of the tongue -- mirrored his own.

'Hurry up and get in here,' came a muffled voice from the sleeping bag. 'I'm not warming this up all by myself.'

'You're the one with a foot in the tropics,' Canada said, as he unzipped his parka. 'Think about palm trees or cactuses or something.' His suggestion was easier said than done; without his outermost layer, the air in the shack felt colder than ever, so he stuffed his glasses into his still-warm boot and joined his brother in the relative shelter of the bag. All that was left to do was to reach over and turn off the lantern, and pull the quilted nylon up and over his head.

Their ground mats had been designed for insulation and weatherproofing, not cushioning, and Canada soon concluded that it would be best to lie back to back with America to minimise his contact with the foam. But no sooner had Canada settled in than America suddenly rolled over, draping his arm across Canada's side and pulling them closer together. At first, Canada squirmed at the contact, more surprised than uncomfortable, but even though America loosened his hold slightly he didn't seem inclined to let Canada pull away. His nose was so close to Canada's neck that Canada could feel the warm puffs of air tickling the little hairs at his nape.

Canada twisted, trying to look over his shoulder, until he remembered that he wouldn't be able to see much of anything without the light on. 'You're not planning to get handsy, are you?' he said. America wasn't one to shy away from physical affection, but in the circumstances the old joke about the best way to keep warm on a cold night seemed a little out of place.

'What?' America twitched, and made a disgruntled noise as he bumped the back of Canada's head with his forehead. 'Ugh, no way. Too freaking cold. I'm not getting all sweaty and having it freeze on me.' Shivering, he tucked his knees up under the backs of Canada's legs. 'Also, I'm waking you up in two hours to switch sides, so make your little-spoon time count.'

Two hours wasn't much time to sleep, but the sun would be coming up soon enough. They had enough water and breakfast rations -- Western omelet and ham steak with mustard, if he remembered the labels right -- to make a mostly adequate meal before they went out to check on the plane. By that point, it would be almost like their usual routine. America would insist on running the instrument checks while Canada packed up the tie-down kit; they would probably argue about the best way to load the environmental sample boxes into the plane to keep them from shifting during the flight. And once they were back in Tuktoyaktuk, he would have to deliver the samples and steel himself for the unpleasant results of their analysis. There would still be those who condemned the damage done by the stations, whether to the land they had been built on or the people they had harmed over the years, and there was little he could do about that. But he owed it to them, and to himself, to make an effort to put things --

His train of thought was interrupted by another bump to the back of his head.

'Thinkin' too much.' America sounded barely awake, his voice slurring into a yawn right in Canada's ear. 'Go to sleep, y' dork.'

Canada had to smile as America's breathing evened out, and he let himself relax into the warmth of the arm that held him close. 'G'night,' he said softly, just loud enough to be heard over the Arctic winds.


Notes

The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line was a series of manned and unmanned radar stations built across the Canadian high Arctic and the Aleutian Islands during the early Cold War. The stations were designed to give advance warning of Soviet invasion from the north, but as missile technology improved in the late 1950s and 1960s the stations' functions gradually became obsolete and many were decommissioned. The creation of the stations had a severely negative impact on the environment of the high Arctic, and also affected the local First Nations and Alaska Native populations who had long relied on hunting and fishing for survival. Responsibility for cleaning up the old stations has been a point of contention between the Canadian and American governments, and the long-term social and environmental effects of the stations are only now becoming fully known.

Bright Harbour is a made-up installation, but it is based on several decommissioned DEW Line stations in Nunavut, including Bernard Harbour and Cape Young. Like many stations of its type, it would have been abandoned several decades ago, with only a few falling-down buildings and the remains of an airstrip to indicate where it once stood.

Also, on the subject of s'mores made with giant marshmallows, the disappointing nature of said giant marshmallows is a fact learned from sad personal experience. Bigger, in this instance, certainly does not always mean better, even where s'mores are concerned.


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