Character(s) or Pairing(s): America, Germany, brief appearances by Austria and England
Warnings: Hopelessly inept music geekery
Summary: A kink meme request that absolutely exploded and ate my brain: America, Germany, and America's gaudy music, plus a little bit of tasty wartime denial.
"Ok, so it goes kinda like this," America says, hunching eagerly over the keyboard of Austria's piano. Austria, standing at his side, leans over a bit himself to listen politely, hands clasped behind his back. Germany hangs back, leaning in the doorway with arms crossed, so he cannot see either of their faces when the first notes rise up in the room, light and clear and confident.
"See," America is saying, just over the sounds of his own playing, "something really simple and neat, you know, something classy, yeah?"
Austria nods serenely. "You have been listening to the masters, I see," he says with some approval. "It is unfinished, of course--"
"--Oh, oh, but that's not all of it!" America protests giddily, and the music picks up effortlessly in tempo and volume as though to mirror his own excitement. "Just wait, there's this great bit right here where it's all--" Germany gives a little start despite himself when America slams down on the keys, transforming the notes into something grand and bombastic. He doesn't wait to hear what Austria has to say about that; just keeps playing like a man possessed. The music is as unpredictable as he is, now a thundering march, now a delicate dance, but always weaving back and forth to that same melody, and Germany can hear trains and traffic and great, towering steel buildings in it when he closes his eyes, but he doesn't say any of this.
"You're right, though, it's not complete," America is saying, even as he moves into a new section, toying with the keys as though expanding on some crazy whim. "You've gotta hear it when Gershwin does it, he's such a genius, Austria, and then it's even better when the whole band's there--"
"Orchestra, you mean," Austria corrects, sounding slightly affronted.
"Yeah, whatever," America chuckles, easing into still another key change with nothing short of delight in his voice. Germany (who has not had nearly enough time to enjoy music even since the War ended) resents him a little for it.
"America," Austria says slowly, as he straightens up after another moment of listening. "Are you making this up as you go?"
America twists around a bit to look up at Austria, and even at the back of the room Germany can still see the fearless gleam in his eye. "What," he grins, fingers still playing over the keys, carelessly teasing new sounds out of them. "Don't you?"
Germany doesn't stay to listen much longer than that, even when the music shifts once again into something more serene and familiar. He has work to do, after all.
- - -
Years later, he has even more work to do, and the pressure to get it all done weighs upon him more heavily than ever, so he almost doesn't stop when he first hears the saxophone on his way to work one morning. It's not until the noise registers in his brain as something so out of the ordinary that he stops and doubles back a few steps to stare.
And there he is, in his un-ironed shirt and second-hand shoes, standing on Germany's street corner playing his gaudy unrefined music without a care in the world. America's hat looks tired and worn on the ground by his feet, but it's not entirely empty of money, and Germany's lip curls disdainfully. So that's what you've reduced yourself to, he thinks. Good riddance. This is your fault, after all. So when he lingers there just a little longer than he should, he tells himself it is to savor America's likewise impoverished state, not the untamed, defiant sounds coming from his instrument.
America happens to open his eyes then, and he lets the last note fade warmly as he catches Germany's eye. "Hey!" he says brightly, pulling back from the mouthpiece with that same old easy grin. "Spare a dime?"
Germany turns on his heel and storms off, not quite sure with whom he is more furious. He does not look back, even when America laughs and calls out that a nickel would do, too.
- - -
Eventually he decides that there's not much to be done about the whole thing, so he leaves America to his playing and concerns himself with other, more important things, and there are so many of those these days. Finally, life is moving quickly again for Germany. It's enough to make him feel almost optimistic about the future (even if something nagging at the back of his mind still keeps him awake some nights), and he can't remember the last time that happened.
It's even enough, just barely, to make him tolerate being followed on the way home one evening. America trails casually in his wake, moving in careless loping strides as the saxophone case swings genially from one hand. The other hand adjusts the tilt of his hat, then moves to pluck the remains of his cigarette from his mouth. "So how's it goin'?" he offers when Germany maintains silence.
"Better, I believe," Germany concedes, with a hint of smugness. "Yourself?" he adds, with more composure.
But America does not cower away from the question. "Ahhh, you know. Hoover." He laughs, shameless as ever. "Poor guy, he's gotta be itching to be on his way by now." He pauses, taps the ashes away from the end of his cigarette. "Uh, hey, I don't suppose you...?"
"No," says Germany, turning to fix America with a cool stare. "Since when do you smoke, anyway?"
America shrugs. "I dunno, since it looks cool." He pinches the last futilely burning end out against a statue as they pass it. Germany watches the embers scatter and sniffs.
"The new Chancellor disapproves of smoking," he says gravely.
"Is that right?" hums America, fishing around in the expanses of his overlarge coat. He pulls out the flask and takes a long swig from it. Germany refuses when he offers the bottle to him, and they part at the next corner with nothing more than a friendly, one-sided, wave.
- - -
Germany keeps working over the next days, weeks, months. At the start of yet another hectic day, he is so focused on the new stack of papers before him begging for his attention that the first fluttering notes don't quite click in his head as being notes, not even when they lift into a blaring siren's call (for sirens are nothing new to Germany), but then he listens harder and the noise keeps going, dipping and sweeping lazily, and there come the trills, those wretched wonderful trills, and Germany slams his office door when he comes out into the hallway.
He finds America perched in the window in the next office, leaning against the frame, one leg swinging back and forth in the room with just as much indolent abandon as the music still sauntering out of his clarinet. He must notice Germany standing in the doorway, must feel the disapproving glare following his every move, but neither of them interrupts the solo. The last notes rise and fall smoothly, sweetly; Germany wills his head not to move in time with them.
"How did you get in here?" He says, accusingly, when the last echoes have faded enough for him to seize control of his own tongue again. America turns slightly in the windowsill and shrugs.
"You invited me," he says, all smiles. "Ages ago, remember?"
"Well, I think you've been here quite long enough," Germany counters, eyeing the clarinet with distrust. America's fingers are still fiddling with the keys, and even that faint clicking sets his teeth on edge.
"Ah, come on, Germany," America murmurs, watching his own fingers as well with a sort of offhand amusement. "You can't tell me you don't remember that one. You used to love it." He looks up, blue eyes shining from under tousled, uncombed hair. "Bet you even still know how the next part goes."
Germany huffs and rubs at his temple to dispel some of the pressure building there. "That was a long time ago, America. Things are changing. I'm changing. And just because the people might enjoy some, some of that, that racket you insist on calling music, that doesn't mean you can just come in whenever you please and America, stop playing while I'm talking to you."
For America has lifted the clarinet again and is now improvising a soundtrack to Germany's woes, flighty dangerous snake-charmer trills, and his eyes shine with laughter. Get a load of you, say those eyes.
"This is why nobody takes you seriously," Germany snaps.
That stops the music, but not the problem, because now America is laughing again, face splitting into an unrepentant grin. "Germany!" he gasps, between bouts of mirth. "Germany, oh my God, man, if you could just see your face right now--!"
He's still cackling helplessly when Germany storms forward and pushes him out the window, slamming and locking the pane behind him. After a further second's deliberation, he draws the curtains shut as well.
Germany goes back to work and doesn't bother to worry about the two-story fall. He knows America will have landed on his feet. He always does.
He wishes he could hate him just a little more for that.
- - -
Germany's pen scratches on the paper, inscribing every line with practiced efficiency. The radio crackles softly next to him on the desk, filling the room with strains of Elly Ney. She's playing Beethoven again, he notes with satisfaction. Good. She's got quite a knack for it. The piece comes to an end and his pen keeps scratching in the interval between songs.
When the clarinet, mocking, breaks the silence, he stops writing abruptly, but does not look up.
"That was not an invitation," he says calmly, over the music.
"Really?" America answers cheerily. "'S'funny, it sure sounds like it."
Germany lays the pen down with a sigh and looks up now to scowl at America, sitting cross-legged on his desk in front of him. It's a guitar of some sort he's got strapped to his back today, but Germany doesn't care to know any more about it, so long as it stays in its case where it belongs. "One song on the radio hardly constitutes my approval of all of this," he mutters, moving his papers carefully out of the way of America's feet.
"Oh, please, Germany, just admit you like it!" America chuckles, elbows on knees, chin in hands. "Nothin' wrong with it. Just means you've got good taste, is all. I mean, come on, it's Goodman. No one does it like ol' Benny."
"They aren't playing it because I enjoy it," Germany hisses. "They are playing it to appease those few deluded souls who still consider this"--he jerks a thumb sharply at the radio--"music." Looking back down, he picks up his pen again and resumes writing. "It is a phase, and it will die out. It's only slightly better than the rest of that senseless jazz savagery, after all."
"Y'know, I still don't get your whole deal with jazz," America pouts. "What's your problem with it, anyway?"
"It's not my sort of music," says Germany simply, filling out another form with grim enthusiasm. "Nor is Goodman's." He glances up long enough to raise a critical eyebrow at America. "It's hardly even your music," he points out.
"Whaaaat?" America snorts in good-natured disbelief. "Of course it's mine! It came from me, didn't it?"
"You understand nothing."
"I understand that some of your people've got better taste than you."
"Alright, now see here," Germany snarls, slamming the pen down. It bounces off the desk and lands on the floor to roll away somewhere, unnoticed. "I've had quite enough of you barging in and trying to impose these absurd little fancies of yours on me, thank you. I don't need your music or your musicians, and I certainly don't need you to tell me what's in good taste and what's--"
He stutters to a stop when America, who has been watching him curiously, lunges suddenly forward and grabs ahold of Germany's head in both hands. Before Germany can protest, the hands start moving, quickly, deftly, combing through his carefully groomed hair and ruffling it mercilessly until his vision is impaired by the limp strands.
"Huh!" America leans back to observe his work and whistles admiringly, hands still on either side of Germany's head. His teeth flash a brilliant white. "Never realized you had such long hair, Germany! Awful unbecoming of a good little soldier, isn't it?"
But America is already off the desk and halfway down the hallway, leaving only the last echoes of his mad snickering and a disheveled hairstyle in his wake.
When he has gone, Germany gets up and slams the door shut, locking it from the inside. And while he's at it, he unplugs the radio.
- - -
But now it seems that everywhere he goes, America follows, or is waiting for him. Germany hears him, sees him in homes and clubs and on street corners; watches that creeping influence make a mockery of everything he knows he should be striving for right now. At least, he thinks that's what's happening. It's hard to tell sometimes, because the voices on the streets keep telling him different things than the voices at the office, and America is so shrewd and clever and invasive in ways Germany's never even dreamed of...but no, no, Germany knows what's best for him.
Try as he might, though, he can't completely banish the sounds from his home. Now it's the saxophone, now the drums, now a blaring trumpet solo, rending the tranquil Berlin evening with high, tinny cries of why not. For a while, Germany tries to reach a compromise with himself and focuses on the bass when his ears are so assaulted, grasping for some kind of order and regularity amidst the grander cacophony of decadence. Too late, he realizes that this is a mistake, because now he can pick out the other elements as well, study them individually, feel how they work together and against each other to make something entirely different.
And now he's forced to admit that he is listening, too.
- - -
"See? See?" America crows one night, waving at the gramophone in utter triumph. "D'you hear that? Try to tell me it's not your kinda music now!"
Germany stays in his chair and keeps studying the album jacket . "Where did you get this, America?" he asks cooly, turning it over in his hands.
"Huh? I dunno, I found it. But don't you try to change the subject!" America taunts, wagging a finger at him. "You just listen to this and admit that it is absolutely, totally--"
"It's not my music."
America stops, open-mouthed, his momentum all but completely stolen from him. "The hell do you mean, it's not yours?" he cries in frustration. "They're singing in your language, aren't they? And the rest"--he points again at the gramophone as the music plays, gesturing desperately--"that's everybody's language, man."
"It's an old recording," says Germany simply, setting the album aside and rising from his chair. "From when Kok still led the orchestra." He lifts the needle, and the sound skips to a sudden halt. "So it is not my music."
America just stares at Germany's hand, uncomprehending. When he looks up, his face is that of a thwarted child. "It's great music, though."
Germany says nothing.
- - -
"No, really, just try it," America pleads, leaning on Germany's chair and peering over his shoulder at him (but not at the newspaper on the table, because America does not like to talk about the news all that much). "Bet you'd be good at it."
"Oh, come on." America brushes imaginary lint off Germany's collar. "You know you want to."
"I'm quite sure I don't." He picks up his bread again, but America snatches it from him with quick, clever fingers before he can take a bite.
"Know what I think?" says America, from around a mouthful of Germany's breakfast. "I think you're in denial. Seriously, with how much you like to say the rest of your life sucks, you'd think all you needed was some way to blow off steam, right?"
"I don't need to dance to relieve my stress," Germany mutters, eyes squeezing shut in exasperation. "And even if I did, it certainly wouldn't be the revolting display you try to pass off as dance. I, unlike you, have my dignity."
He goes back to the paper, not actually registering most of what he reads. America keeps dropping crumbs on his shoulder.
"Bet you a new pair of shoes you're just scared you can't do it."
Breakfast more or less completely fails to go as scheduled that morning.
- - -
"I don't think this is quite right, America."
"Welllll," America muses, tilting his head to one side and looking in the mirror with Germany, "it's pretty darn close. And I mean, it's not like you can get all the same stuff here that they've got back at my place, so I guess all the kids've gotta improvise, don't they?" The reflection of his face brightens. "Plus it suits you."
"It's a little outlandish," Germany grumbles, picking at the wide lapel of his jacket. America just laughs.
"Isn't that the point?"
- - -
Louis Armstrong, he thinks, and wonders just how guilty he should feel for recognizing it. But then, nobody else in the club seems terribly upset by it, least of all America, who is standing next to him leaning against the bar and looking around at the chattering crowd of people with shining, gleeful "I knew it" stamped across his face, so Germany does not voice his concern.
Instead, he clears his throat and says, "There are more of them than I expected."
"Isn't it great?" breathes America. He taps out a rhythm on the bar top that Germany suspects only he can hear.
Over the frenetic sounds of Tiger Rag, Germany clicks his tongue skeptically. "It may be a problem," he says.
"How so?" He doesn't have to turn to feel America's eyes on him, curious.
"Well, they're hardly being subtle like this," he cautions, watching the kids--his kids, he reminds himself in wonder--flouting every convention they can, simply because they can. "And if word keeps getting out to the authorities about this behavior--"
"--Screw the authorities," scoffs America, more out of general principle than any specific current interest. He turns now and plants himself in front of Germany, places his hands on his shoulders, looks him straight in the eye. "Listen to me, man. Music's not something you're allowed to listen to, alright? It's something you make damn sure everybody else can hear."
Germany shakes his head slightly. "And what happens when those in power don't approve of what they hear?"
"Then they can have their own stupid party," America drawls, rolling his eyes. Then he leans back in, intense again, until their foreheads nearly touch together. "But this isn't about them. It's about you. Come on, let go for two seconds. Live," America commands, and from his lips it sounds like the easiest thing in the world.
"I really don't understand you," says Germany, resigned. But when America grins and lets go and drags him over to a table in the corner to socialize with his own delinquents, he lets himself be led without further protest.
- - -
And it really isn't about them, he reminds himself, as often and adamantly as he can. Not because he fears their disapproval (for he already knows they disapprove), but because he can't bring himself to let them occupy his every thought like that. He needs something, anything that isn't drenched in their careful order, if only for a few blessed, furtive moments. He needs it because he needs to breathe, because those few belligerents call out for it and they are wrong, wrong, wrong but somehow simultaneously right.
He'll never admit to as such, of course. Still, the growing tension plucks at his nerves and refuses to relent, a constant tug-of-war inside of him. Sometimes he watches them fight with the Youth groups and nearly forgets whom to cheer for.
- - -
"The way I see it," America says one night, from the floor of Germany's office. He's come in through the window next door again, and only Germany had the presence of mind to lock it afterwards. "The way I see it, is you basically just need to get everyone to calm the hell down for three minutes and listen to some Artie Shaw. Totally solve everything, you just watch."
"I'm afraid it's not that simple," sighs Germany, taking another sip from America's flask. It's no longer contraband, but that hasn't done anything to dull America's enthusiasm for the contents. He crosses one ankle over the other on his desk, careful not to lean back too far in his chair lest it tip over backwards, and stares up at the ceiling. "Besides, I'm sure they'd never listen to Shaw by this point."
"God, I don't get you guys over here and all your baggage," America grumbles, shifting slightly to sit up a bit straighter against Germany's desk drawers. "You all've always gotta make everything so complicated. I mean, geez, it's just music."
Germany shrugs. "But it matters to them," he mumbles, handing the flask back down to America. "And it's not just about the music," he adds, "it's disobedience for the sake of disobedience."
"See? Makes perfect sense to me," America snickers, throwing his hands up nonchalantly. "What's wrong with that?"
"Everything." Germany groans and pulls his hat down over his eyes to block out the suddenly blinding light in his office. He rocks, restless, and his chair creaks warningly with the motions. "I can almost understand why they insist on acting up like this, America, I really can. Can you imagine what that must do to them, living every day as a drill session? All those rules, and the meetings and organization and utter, total control over everything they do so they'll turn into the kind of people he needs them to be--"
"Machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts," recites America, but Germany either does not hear or does not understand, so he continues.
"--But it's necessary. It has to be. And the longer they refuse to see that, the worse it will be for them. For me."
"And I still say it's just music," America mumbles back at him.
Neither of them speak for a while. The flask passes from America to Germany and back again, and the soft swishing of liquid is all either of them hears, for Germany's radio still lies unplugged and ignored.
"I think I'll have to march again tomorrow," Germany says at last, and is not sure whether or not it is a complaint. But America doesn't care to talk about such things, so they both drop the subject.
- - -
It's not just music. If he is sure of anything, it is that. And every time America says it, Germany has to fight the urge to tell him that it's because of you, because there's too much of you in it and now they think that the music is you because that's all that matters to them, and I can't take this anymore, why won't you just get out and leave me alone, can't you understand that I don't need you I don't Idon't--
When the order comes, he is almost relieved, just as soon as he stops feeling sick.
- - -
America steps slowly across the floor, edging carefully around bits of shattered glass and broken furniture which he looks upon with minimal concern. He stops at a safe distance and just watches, hands deep in his pockets.
"It's over," says Germany softly. He brushes some dust off his uniform sleeve. "They've shut down the club."
"Oh," says America. And Germany can feel him trying to catch his eye, so he keeps looking down and brushes at nothing. "So what about those guys in the vans? What's gonna--"
"--They will be sent away," says Germany, now concentrating on his gloves. He inhales sharply, then looks up and sets his jaw, looking America straight in the eye. "And I think it would be best if you left now."
America doesn't look away like he expects, doesn't cringe or gasp or grimace, just kind of stares and nods, half to himself, and raises one hand in casual acknowledgment.
"Alright, man. Whatever you want. Seeya, then." He waves, and does not pretend to wait for Germany to return the gesture before turning and leaving. Behind him, in the remains of something subversive and broken, Germany takes another deep breath, adjusts his cap and kicks out at a pile of debris.
True to his word, America goes home, and neither of them gives much thought to the matter for a while after that. Especially not America, who does not care to think about such things.
- - -
Only a few months later, America has to.
He's in his bed one night, later still, trying to squeeze in just a few precious hours of fitful sleep before another day of fighting and riveting and scavenging and god only knows what else, when the phone rings. England, he knows, because only England would call him at this hour despite (because of) knowing about the time zone difference, so he doesn't feel a shred of remorse when he picks up the receiver from his bedside table and grumbles a sleepy "I hate you, too" into the speaker.
"Shut up, America," responds England in kind, but it lacks some of the conviction it usually has, and America sits up a little straighter in bed.
"So what's up? Anything new on your end? Have we won?" He blinks dully, and fumbles for his spectacles. "Lost?"
"Neither," England sighs, oddly muffled by distance and technology. "It's just--listen, America, I know you don't often pay much attention to this sort of thing, so I just wanted to warn you before you heard it and got upset--"
"Upset about what?" America huffs, pinching the bridge of the nose. "It's too early for this, England. Just spit it out."
Even over the phone, he fancies he can hear England bristling indignantly. "Excuse me for showing a little concern for your feelings, you whiny git." But he doesn't go off on a bitter tangent about colonial ungratefulness, so America knows something must be wrong and bites back any retort. "Look, just...turn on the radio when you get a chance, alright?"
"Why?" says America, growing concerned. He reaches over again, flailing at the radio dial just out of his reach. "England, seriously, what's wrong, what am I listening for?"
"You'll know it when you hear it," England mutters, and now America realizes that his voice is so indistinct because someone in the background is laughing, someone who sounds distinctly like Churchill--"I only thought you might like a heads up, that sort of thing. I'll get back to you later when there's more news, alright? Get some sleep."
And before America can say anything else, England hangs up and the line dies. Dumbfounded, America puts down the receiver and leans further out, flips on the radio switch. He toys with the dials for a minute or two, ears pricked for anything out of the ordinary, and finally he does stumble across something interesting.
America blinks at the soft strains of swing music, his music, wafting back to him from the radio. It's pretty, he thinks, pulling back to listen curiously. Nice arrangement, catchy; Elmer's Tune, he recognizes. This couldn't be what England was talking about, could it? He's just reaching out to change the stations again when the lyrics start.
Why are the ships always sinking and blinking at sea?
What makes the British start thinking of their cup of tea?
It's now the season to reason, it's plain what it means:
America gapes, fingers still extended towards the dial. His mouth works wordlessly, trying to articulate what he has just heard, if only to himself, but nothing comes out. Finally, he sits back, brow furrowed, then turns and lies back in his bed to listen. The music is still the same, jaunty and light, and he remembers every bit of the tune, even if the rest has changed into something wholly unfamiliar.
Can't you hear the sound, they're never missin'...
"It's alright," America whispers, smiling up at the ceiling in the dark. "It's really, really alright. I swear."
- - -
Meanwhile, miles and miles and further still away, Germany sits at his desk, stares at the unplugged radio on the floor in the corner of his office, and pours himself another drink.
Notes: Jazz and Swing music had an odd relationship with Germany, to say the least. The Nazi regime generally disapproved of the styles, both for their connections to Western lifestyles and their roots in less-than-Aryan culture. The stuff still had a pretty big following, though, and it was hard to outright ban jazz because "jazz" was such a loose term to begin with, so gradually they started simply banning jazz from the wrong sort of musicians.
Later, groups like the Swing-Jugend built up a dangerous counterculture around supposedly inappropriate music, more to lash out against the establishment than to stage a formal resistance. They still faced a rather nasty series of crackdowns from 1941 on.
The piece referenced in the beginning and the window scene is Rhapsody in Blue, an early classic and arguably one of the sexiest things to come out of America in the 1920s. (Mnf, dig that glissando.) The song subversion at the end is trufax. Nazi Germany wasn't completely lacking catchy music, just mostly lacking scruples. Goebbels, you asshole.
Finally, here is the art fill I did for said kink meme request, because apparently I wasn't fooling anyone for a bleeding second.
The end. Srsly.