Chapter 1: A Strange Meeting about Some Strange Children
Calling the conference a "Group of Eight meeting" would have been inaccurate for several reasons. There was a woeful lack of proper formalities, and the Nations that were present weren't even eight, much less the correct countries. It also couldn't be called a WURLD assembly, even though the topic at hand seemed to be relevant; meetings for the relatively new World United Recovery and Lending Division were almost strictly held in the two security bases on Sealand's ship or Switzerland's house and usually required more preparation.
Despite Germany's sudden yet methodical gathering of all relevant documents and quick rental of a meeting hall in the heart of Berlin with heavy security measures, there remained a level of disarray that separated the gathering from the typical conference. Their kind usually hesitated to use such personal words due to the sensitivity of their positions, but really, he couldn't help but think of it as a gathering of mentally and physically exhausted friends with a similar goal, assuming whatever Britain wanted to discuss was not a complete waste of their time.
The room wasn't large, but it wasn't small, either. The lighting was decent, and there were no nearby windows, only the pale walls around the long wooden table that wouldn't have looked out of place at a banquet. Guards were stationed outside the room at both ends of a long, windowless hallway that assured both their safety and an inability to eavesdrop. It had been three years since anything had given them cause to be so careful, but Germany would not risk a repeat of history.
He had laid folders with identical contents out at everyone's designated seats just before they had started arriving. Germany sat hunched over and with his forehead resting in his palm. He could hardly remember a time in which he felt so drained. Although, he was hardly surprised. Shouldering the economies and safety of three major countries would have been impossible for even people like them before seven years ago; still, it was nothing he wouldn't handle. He had noticeably slimmed, although not enough to be considered skinny, and his eyes rested over the dark shadows of someone who had not seen a proper night's sleep in a long time. Despite that, he made sure his appearance was professional and collected with meticulously combed hair and appropriate business attire. He pulled himself back up as soon as he heard the first set of footprints.
Romano, Germany's designated partner, was escorted in by the German's personal soldiers. Typically, the two of them would try to avoid any amount of separation given the general set of rules and regulations of which he continually stressed the importance, but Romano had been working more in the past several years than he had in a millennium. His exhaustion was possibly even deeper than Germany's; so, with adequate guards posted, he had granted the Italian a few more hours to rest.
South Italy had seen better days himself. He hobbled into the room, not even bothering to dismiss the soldiers as he fell into his seat. Germany signaled the men to return to the hallway for him. Romano yawned loudly, and his appearance suggested that he had barely woken up. He was in his old brown military outfit instead of a proper suit, and his hair was pitifully unkempt. One hand held a coffee that he sipped from every few seconds as he leaned back in his chair. Germany didn't approve of the disorganization, but he also couldn't blame Romano- after all, Britain had called in a panic asking him to set everything up less than twenty-four hours ago. It was last minute for everyone, and the fact that everyone was coming could testify to the urgency with which he spoke.
"Why the hell did the uglyass eyebrow monster want to meet all of a sudden? I've got a hell of enough work on my plate without any delays. I'd like to have a vacation sometime this decade, you know," Romano grunted, his voice raspy in the early hours of the day.
Germany gave an exhausted sigh. "Britain didn't tell me anything. He refused to talk over the phone as a security measure despite being in a total frenzy. If he was that worked up, I assume it must be a big deal."
The Italian took another sip of his coffee and tipped his head back to look at the German. "And you've got no clue what's going on on your own? If something big really did happen, it'd be on the news or something. Or you know, some news about a disaster that relates to whatever he's freaking out about."
Germany shook his head. "Well, even the British and French news channels have been the same as always. If the information is this confidential, then it's for the best that we gather."
Another set of footsteps. Romano huffed as the next two Nations reached the doorframe and dismissed the soldiers escorting them. Flown in straight from Moscow was its country's namesake and China. Both were dressed in proper suits, and Russia wore his signature scarf, but their appearances were still somewhat haggard. That wasn't a surprise, though, since they had been abruptly called and chartered an overnight private jet immediately. Save the flight, it's unlikely they got any sleep. Germany noticed Romano shiver as soon as Russia sat down next to him as the temperature in the room dropped several degrees.
"Why the hell are we here again? You know we're busy. If this isn't worth my time you get to do the next pile of Japan's paperwork," China grumbled with a wide yawn. Like the rest of them, tired bags creased under his eyes, although his weight had not changed much. Russia seemed to be the same as ever with his warm yet unsettling smile as he glanced at the files in the folder at his seat, not that his outward appearance spoke much for his health, physical or otherwise.
"Scold Britain for this, not me," Germany huffed, begrudgingly leafing through his own folder despite having the contents long-since memorized. "Funny that they should be the last ones here, though…" he muttered with little humor.
"Germany, what are these files for? They're all about seven years ago!" Russia flipped to another one of the documents in front of him and tipped his head. "Oh? And this one is about three years ago."
There was a sudden shift in mood as everyone paused in a moment of heavy silence and renewed interest.
Romano, in particular, set down his coffee with fresh energy as he shuffled through the various old papers in his own copy of the documents. "The hell? These are! I thought we were supposed to leave these investigations to our governments for security reasons or some shit. Was there some new lead?"
"Calm down. You don't want to get your hopes up. Like I said, ask the two that requested these files, not me," Germany finally replied, setting the folder back down with a carefully neutral expression. The tension was palpable as everyone contemplated the taboo subject matter.
"Speak of the devil~" Russia hummed in a sing-song voice as the final set of Nations could be heard dismissing their guards with hushed voices down the hall five minutes before the meeting was scheduled to start.
Even though he had seen them just a few weeks ago, it was still difficult to believe how much France and England had deteriorated. They were about tied with him, perhaps slightly worse, if waning health were a competition.
"Fucking hell, you guys look God-awful," Romano said as he took another drink of his almost-empty coffee, morbidly impressed.
The Nation of love's entire form was sickly with dark shadows and messy hair. His hands seemed to tremble slightly as he held six identical folders all labeled "confidential" in large, bold letters. He was obviously on-edge as he glanced quickly to both ends of the hallways and the soldiers from various regions that dutifully guarded their posts before shutting and locking the door behind him. Despite the outward appearance, his blue eyes, with the slightest hint of lavender purple were as lucid and somber as the day Germany had confronted him in Paris back in 1940.
Britain seemed less exhausted but more starved. Despite wearing his old military outfit as well, it seemed to hang off his frame rather than be worn by him. His cheeks were somewhat sunken in, and what little parts of his arms that weren't hidden by sleeve were bony enough to make it seem like he hadn't eaten in two or three weeks. Of course, that wasn't the case. England had plenty of food for himself, and France likely slept for at least a few hours every night, but with their current situation, it wasn't shocking that they'd suffer such afflictions.
England's emerald green eyes scanned the room warily as he took his seat across from Germany without even a word of greeting, with France sitting next to him.
After a moment of tense silence, England flipped through his folder provided by Germany and finally spoke.
"This room is completely secure, correct?" The words were not in English. In fact, they were not in any single language. Instead, words and syllables coming from English, French, Latin, and otherwise were meshed together in what would normally sound like an incoherent mess with no real meaning. But to their kind, it was a language. It was one where they communicated with words but was much more about understanding their minds. It was the individual culmination of all of a single Nation's history, different for each one of them and possessing no literal meaning or means of translation. It was understandable only by and between their kind- their National Language: a tongue only spoken in the most somber or personal of conversations.
Romano flinched, China gaped, Russia tilted his head curiously, and Germany stiffened. The latter of the group spoke first, responding in kind with his own mismatched assortment of words from many different languages and eras. "It is. I know my guards personally, and I checked this room for any tapping devices beforehand. I haven't heard you speak the National Language in years. What is so serious?"
France sighed, closing his eyes as he placed his hand on his own stack of folders he brought before speaking in his own coded tongue. "We're not sure, to be honest. This whole mess started a week ago… Angleterre and I were in Paris- since last month we were in London, and we usually rotate monthly- when we ran into a child. I had a trusted friend of mine follow them around, and he sent me these yesterday."
Russia was the next one to speak. "It seems like this meeting is going to be a very secure one, da ? I haven't spoken like this in so long!"
"Well, I don't see why a child is so important! Get to the point, I have work to do!" China whined.
"By all means, if you know how to properly handle this situation, tell me. Because we sure as hell don't," England snapped, snatching the small pile of folders and sliding one across the table to each Nation.
Germany wanted to blame his shaking hands on the cold Russia was emanating. But everything about the way the two Nations were acting was unnerving and wrong. He couldn't help but fear that he didn't want to see what was in the file. Finally, he unwrapped the small thread from the button holding it shut as he pulled out a set of pictures and papers.
There was a muffled crashing sound as Romano dropped his all-but-empty mug on the carpet, shattering it to pieces. Nobody made a move as they looked at the pictures with a variety of emotions. Hope. Confusion. Shock. Sorrow. Fear.
"And now you understand why we're talking in code," Britain commented snidely, although his voice sounded more tired than venomous.
"A-Are these… is this?" South Italy gasped, as still as a statue.
"Who… who are these kids?" China murmured, voice cracking slightly.
"This is very, very interesting," Russia sang, yet even his voice was unsure and subdued.
"F-France. England. Please… This had better not be a joke."
England snorted. "If it is, I'm definitely not laughing. Wouldn't be the first time nature's toyed with our emotions. But no, these photos are real, and so are these kids. France's friend is keeping tabs on them with a high-authority card.
"What happened? Is this really them?" Romano squeaked in a wavering voice, his voice barely above a whisper as he visibly trembled. "Is that really… him?" He looked up, "How did you even meet them?"
"We only met the older one," France replied in a sullen and stressed voice. "It was Picardy that took the pictures of the younger kid."
"I'm particularly interested in the 'older one,' personally," Russia hummed, his voice both pensive and threatening, though not directed to anyone in the room. "He bears an uncanny resemblance to more than one person, after all. And the implications of that are very interesting!"
"I don't really know what to think, looking at these," China mumbled dejectedly. "I've not seen anything like this, and that's saying something. But are these the only two you saw?"
France looked at the Chinese man with some sympathy. "Yes, these are the only two we saw. But any lead is better than no lead, yes? Although I don't think the answers we'll get are anything pleasant."
"You two really should tell us what exactly happened," Germany grunted, being careful to keep his voice steady and emotions in check.
England was the one to speak up. "Like the Frog said a minute ago, we bumped into the first child a week ago…"
"Really now, Angleterre! You need to try and loosen up a bit! Enjoy the sights of my wonderful city! Relax!" France skipped a step ahead of England and did a small twirl, gesturing to the grand and bustling city around them. The crowd of tourists created some decent background noise and allowed them to remain discreet without much trouble. Despite the Nations' somewhat sickly appearances, for the most part, they were able to avoid drawing much attention to themselves with a combination of concealing clothes and a small masking spell. Britain had to admit that Paris remained as elegant as ever despite everything that had happened in the past several years. "Worrying yourself during your free time helps nobody!"
"Piss off, I haven't had room in my schedule for leisure since I got paired up with you," the Brit retorted in English rather than French, shoving him aside to continue his trek down the path. "And this is hardly free time. You really ought to be paying more attention to the orphan refugees in your alleyways rather than ogling at yourself if you ever want your own sorry state to improve," he huffed with his arms crossed.
"Come now. I'm paying plenty of attention to those little children, rest assured. I just happen to also be watching out for our personal health. You're going to drive yourself insane if you keep working like this! Not to mention, walking around glowering at everyone isn't exactly the best way to be 'discreet,' as you so politely told me to be when we left this morning," he continued in his own sing-song voice, enjoying the banter. "No amount of parlor trick magic can hide that scowl."
"Forgive me if I'm having trouble being chipper when we both have a mountain of North American paperwork to do," Britain crossed his arms, glaring at his smiling ally.
"We got plenty of it done at your house! Come on, their citizens won't get better if we don't take care of ourselves. How about we stop for an early lunch and just relax for a little while?"
"It's nine in the morning, idiot." The Englishman's face turned a light shade of red as his stomach audibly growled at the mention of food.
France grinned triumphantly. "To your favorite café of mine we go! You need some calories."
"In case you haven't noticed, I always need calories you dumb frog. This will hardly help."
"And yet, you're the one that is always stressing about us staying in pairs, so you have to follow me!"
England huffed indignantly as the French man sped up his pace, shuffling by peppy tourists and natives alike. "Those rules are meant for safety, not for being abused to drag me on your little escapades!" he shouted, earning some strange looks from the people around him. He knew it was odd that his companion was speaking in French and him in English; usually even if people spoke a similar set of first and second languages, conversations were easier to follow if they stuck with a single tongue. Despite that, he couldn't bring himself to care all that much.
"Wipe that shit-eating grin off your face, you stubborn asshole. You're paying if you're dragging me along like this."
"Whatever you say, Angleterre ," he hummed proudly, slowing his pace as England finally gave up trying to change his mind.
The café France chose was indeed one that England liked quite a bit. Aux Cerises was its name, and it was one of the less touristy restaurants and didn't give the impression they were trying too hard to impress their customers through anything other than good service. The staff was friendly, and one lady behind the counter welcomed the two of them with a smile and French greetings. The interior was homey and reminiscent of someone's dining room except with the small circular yet detailed tables one would find in a restaurant.
England decided he really didn't care about the employee's opinions of him, and that he'd rather satiate his hunger for the time being. A couple of hours without the void in his stomach would be welcome. That, and he didn't mind burning a bit of a hole in his annoying partner's pocket. If the lady behind the counter was judging him for ordering enough separate meals for a large group of people, she didn't show it.
France whistled merrily as the two took their seats in the room, farthest away from the door and any open ears or prying eyes.
"Are things really so fine and dandy for you to be acting like this? You've been more irritatingly chipper than usual," England grunted as they waited for their food.
The romantic across the table from him paused, clicking his tongue thoughtfully as he stared out the window for a brief moment, lavender eyes full of emotion, listening to the hearts of his people. "Morale is high today," he answered simply, sighing as he rested his tired head on his hand. "People are exhausted, both here and at Matthieu's house. More so at his, though, with all the spikes in crime, disaster, and death rates... " France spent another moment carefully thinking through his words. "But his people are optimistic. They're not going to let themselves stay down; and mine… well, you know how I am," he added with a wink.
"Bloody hell, the day I learn how you can be so damn peppy while dealing with all this shit is the day the Devil dies of frostbite," England rested his head on his wrist, staring out the window at the photogenic city. "Where do you think they are, right now?"
France's expression sobered a bit. Not quite to sadness, but perhaps a more thoughtful melancholy. He quieted his tone just enough so nobody else in the café could hear them speak. "This question again? Well… If you want a literal explanation, we know they have to be either in North America, Japan, Lithuania, or international lands or waters. But since that's not the answer you want…" he paused, staring out the window again. "I don't know. Sometimes it feels like they're so close to me yet so far at the same time."
"It's probably just because of the links with their countries," the Englishman chuckled, a hint of nostalgia in his voice. "America will not be happy that we intervened so drastically in their governments and economies." A small smile. That was a slap on the wrist he couldn't be more excited for. He was more than ready for this whole mess to be over.
"You're fairly moody today yourself. More than usual that is. Are you feeling okay?" France tipped his head a bit more from the window to his friend but not much else.
"Antsy, I suppose. Restless. I don't know. Nothing is going on back home, or even in the States, I think; I can't quite place my finger on it, but I do feel more strange than usual."
"Well, tell me if you're going to pass out again. I'm not in the mood to explain why you're fine to the paramedics again," a small smirk.
"Fucking hell, I just want this nightmare to be over. They have to be somewhere! Why is it so bloody hard to find them?" Britain hissed through gritted teeth for the sake of keeping his volume low. "What possible situation could cause six of our kind to drop off the grid for three god damn years?"
"The same possibilities we decided upon at the last WURLD meeting. Come now, Angleterre . Getting worked up won't do you any good. Relax for a while."
Right on queue, their order was ready. The server continued to do a reasonably good job at hiding her surprise at England's appetite. A variety of French foods were laid in front of him, and he noticed France try to conceal his expecting gaze as he took a few bites. He shrugged. "I've had worse."
His partner grinned. "At your house, maybe."
"Piss off, I'm eating."
Their conversations mostly subsided while England ate. He made a conscious effort to not eat improperly, but it was hard to not shovel down as much food as possible as quickly as he could. There was no food left on his plates by the time he was done. France, expecting that to happen, had thoughtfully ordered some takeout "for some friends" when he finished his single dish. England could imagine the bill wasn't pretty, but the Frenchman was in an unusually generous mood, so he didn't question it too much.
It was when they were leaving the restaurant, leftovers wrapped securely in England's arms, that their world suddenly decided to turn itself on its head.
France was the first one to freeze, stopping in his tracks as he snapped his head up, cutting off mid-sentence with his expression changing entirely. England raised his eyebrows, stopping in his tracks shortly after to see what was distracting his friend. "Something wrong? Did something happen?"
France knit his eyebrows in confusion, shaking his head. "No… nothing happened, but…" he trailed off, concentrating intensely.
"Bl-Bloody hell, where are you going?" Britain nearly shouted, switching to sloppy yet comprehensible French after the mild profanity as the man suddenly started walking in a completely different direction. "Have you gone mad?" he asked, catching up to him with little difficulty but plenty of irritation at nearly needing to run. It looked anything but dignified and subtle.
"Quite possibly," he muttered distractedly, whipping his head around wildly, searching for something. "Do you not feel it?"
"Feel what, you bloody frog? Quit being vague and tell me what you mean."
"That's just it, I don't know… I've been feeling it all day, I think, but I only just noticed it…"
"How does that work?" Britain sighed, getting frustrated as he shifted the takeout in his arms to allow for easy carrying.
"It got stronger! Look, I know I'm spouting nonsense, but I feel something! Old Friend, please. If this turns out to be a waste of our time, drinks and dinner will be on me again."
"Hmm. That important, huh? Fine, but I'm holding you to that, you'd know better than me if your country were self-imploding" the Brit finally grunted sarcastically, resigning himself to following France as he darted across the road and almost getting hit by a honking car in the process.
It was when they had been running for a couple miles that France finally froze as he rounded a corner packed with a hushed crowd. England's eyes widened, and he blinked a few times just to make sure he wasn't going crazy.
There was a-once elegant red car lying upside down on the sidewalk. At this point, though, it looked more like a hunk of scrap metal than a vehicle. The smoking point of collision with the once-elegant building, however, was several meters in the air. The fire department was doing a good job keeping the damage to a minimum, but the sight was still bizarre.
"Ah, France… is this?" England's eyes softened as he saw the country's eyes melt into sorrow as a Citizen, presumably French, was loaded onto an ambulance.
"No… this isn't it… but I think this is related…" Suddenly, he straightened up and pushed his hair back as he strode over to the police members speaking on the sidelines.
"France, you bloody idiot…" England muttered again, under his breath, as he trailed behind.
"Gentlemen," France began, getting the attention of the four officers, one of which had just returned from speaking with the men about to take the victim to the hospital. One of them blinked in surprise, while the other three looked confused. "Is the man in the accident going to be okay?"
The one that had just spoken with the doctors cleared his throat. "Yes, he should be fine. Surprising, really, given the severity of the wreck. He's got more than a few cracked bones but didn't seem to be in danger of dying. Can I help you? Did you know the man?"
"Not personally, no, I didn't know him. But it would be a huge help if you told me what happened." France inhaled quickly. "But where are my manners?" He paused, and pulled out a wallet from his pocket, in which he stored a government ID card. "My name is French Republic, or France, if that's what you prefer; I was made aware of this accident and think it might be relevant to something I'm looking into. I'd be delighted if you could help me."
The officer that looked the least confused gaped, taking the card for a moment as he examined it like it were a great treasure. "I, er… It's an honor to meet you, Sir. I never thought I'd get the chance to meet you in person."
"The pleasure is all mine," France responded with his usual suave tone and a flamboyant bow.
"Hang on a moment… The French Republic? You mean all that chaos about Personifications of countries from seven or so years ago was true? And you expect me to believe…" the other officer was cut off by the first.
"Ah, my apologies, he's new to the team. Sorry, Sir."
"It is no problem at all, now, if you could, it is of the utmost importance that you tell me what happened here," he replied with infinitely more patience than Britain could ever fake. Even still, he could tell the Frenchman was getting antsy. After all, England could hear a bit of his "influence" subtly lacing the words.
The officers exchanged a few glances and relented. "Ah, yeah, that's the problem. See, we don't really know what happened. There's no sign of another car involved in the wreck; hitting another car with this much power would be impossible to pull off without losing a few parts if it's even possible to cause all this at all."
Another one spoke up. "And this poor car was run straight into the third floor. Hate to say it, but this is going to take a bit more investigating before we got anything useful."
France bowed again with his kind smile. "You have been more than helpful. May I have one of your cards? I'll need to come back for more information once you investigate a bit more."
The policeman that initially knew about France piped up, hastily grabbing a business card from his wallet. "Er, here you go, Sir! Just call or email me at any time and I'll be sure to get whatever you need!"
"It's most appreciated. Now, my friend and I really must…"
"Sir? One more thing?"
Two minutes later, France was leading Britain away again on his wild goose chase. "This can't be that urgent if you had time to take a bloody photo with that man," he whined, not bothering to switch to France's language.
"Maintaining my image is important." was all he said to justify his actions as he kept moving, the humor mostly lost thanks to his somber expression.
"Vain bastard. How much farther is this 'anomaly' you're sensing, anyway? I'm getting tired. At this rate, I'll burn through all the calories from that meal."
"Near. It's near. Do you feel it yet?"
"No, of course, I don't…" England trailed off, suddenly overcome with a wave of familiarity that transcended just his mind playing tricks on him. "What in God's name…"
France nodded. "I told you I wasn't crazy. I think it's coming from that alleyway," he muttered, suddenly and perhaps unintentionally shifting to their National language as his unnerved nature was tangible.
"Calm down, it's probably nothing. Even still, be wary…" The street they were on was one less populated by tourists and in a bit poorer section. There was not a lot of people on the streets, and the area radiated a shady atmosphere that seemed to be influencing its Nation.
They stood shoulder to shoulder against the brick building that rounded to the dark alley. Reluctantly, England's free hand trailed to a concealed holster with a tiny gun he kept for self-defense- magic could only get him so far in a dangerous situation.
They finally, silently stepped out at the same time to face the source of the strange energy. What they saw was the last thing they expected. They saw a child.
He was leaning against the dirty wall, mostly concealed by shadows as he hugged his knees in a tight ball, rocking back and forth a bit as he muttered something, talking to himself in English. The Nations had to strain their ears to understand what he was saying. "I knew we shouldn't have come here… let's just go back to the apartment… What if we get caught? But we won't, don't worry. How can we be sure?"
France and England exchanged an unsure gaze. France was the one to speak up first. "Excuse me, my darling? Are you okay? Are you one of the American refugees?"
The boy snapped his head up and jumped to his feet. "What? Who are you? How did you find me?" he began in a distinctly American accent. "Ah… sorry if you live here, we were going to leave quickly…" he continued, although he had abruptly switched to French with a noticeable Canadian accent instead.
France was quick to raise both hands in a friendly gesture. Putting more of his charm into his words, he offered some comfort to the strange boy they couldn't see, this time in French. "No, we were just passing by and heard you. Are you lost? We could help you in some way, I'm sure. You're quite the clever child, aren't you? Bilinguality in one as young as you is impressive."
Despite his usual calming effect, the child didn't step forward. "No, we're not lost, thank you for the concern, though."
"Well, these streets aren't safe. Is there somewhere you would like us to lead you? We'll make sure nothing happens."
"Generally, stranger danger means don't let yourself be taken home by strangers, even if it's to protect you from said strangers," he sneered in English, taking several steps back.
England decided to speak up. "You're obviously from North America. But you're not fond of the refugee program? Can't say I blame you." He ignored France's indignant huff. "My name is Arthur Kirkland, and the crazy frog here is Francis Bonnefoy."
Much to his surprise, he heard the child snort. "Kirkland and Bonnefoy… those last names sound ridiculous. Ah… er… sorry, I didn't mean to offend you… I'm sorry…" England blinked at the child's change in demeanor between sentences. He decided to swallow his pride for the time being and focus on coaxing the child out of the alley.
"Normally, I'd be mad but insulting Francis brings you back down to neutral, so don't worry. Now, if we can't make you return to the program, would you at least like a bit of a snack? We have some leftovers."
That got the kid's attention. "Leftovers? From where?"
"A café a few blocks down. We left not too long ago, so these are still good. Come on out of that nasty alley, and you can have them." He was aware of how creepy that could sound in the wrong context, but honestly, he was more concerned with the child at this point. It was apparent he was struggling in several areas of life at the moment, and he needed to know why France and him were feeling so strange near the boy..
England's heart stopped when the child finally stepped forward into the light, curious about the food. "Woah, you guys look terrible… that's a lot in that bag… are you sure you're okay giving all that to us? You kinda look like you need it more than we do. That or you're some druggies trying to get us in your free candy van." The strange child switched from English the French then back to English as he spoke with a mix of paranoia and nervousness.
"Ah… we are… a bit of a mess, I know. But don't worry about that," France began, stuttering slightly as England was at a loss for words. The masking spell that had worked like a charm earlier barely seemed to affect the child, much like France's influence. "Arthur here has a metabolism issue that makes it hard to gain weight, and I don't have time to get enough sleep nowadays. I assure you… it isn't drugs," he added a lighthearted chuckle at the end, doing much better to hide his shock than England, who had to settle for trying his best to not make a strange expression.
The twelve, maybe thirteen-year-old child had dirty wheat-colored hair that curled inward at the bottoms in a slight blond ombré. Where his hair parted in the front, two long tufts of hair, one significantly more so than the other, poked up and forward, almost like it was curled and gelled to stay that way despite his apparent lack of access to such hair products. Over his ratty and simple clothes that hung off his skinny and underweight frame, he wore a brown bomber jacket that was, despite the scuffs and tears on the rest of his outfit, was still in mint condition. There was a star patch over his heart, and two flags were securely stitched to each shoulder.
On his right sleeve, there was a Canadian flag. On his left was an American one.
But that wasn't the most surprising feature of the child. By far, his most remarkable trait was the pair of mismatched eyes shining behind his glasses. His right eye was a deep, saturated purple like the final hours of the day stared at through a lens of amethyst. The left eye was a bright blue as clear and vivid as an autumn sky on a clear day.
The boy was all-too-familiar, and neither Nation knew how to act about it.
Unfortunately, Britain had stared a moment too long, and the child that had only just come out into the light took one more step back, his expression guarded. "What are you looking at?"
Inwardly slapping himself, the Brit decided he'd gawk at the child later. "Ah, nothing, my apologies. Heterochromia is quite rare, and I've not seen a case of it in a long time, is all. Here. You can have these." He quickly offered the child the giant bag of leftovers, who, after a moment of hesitation, snatched it up and peeked inside.
"Thanks. I dunno why you'd give me all this, but whatever. This is really nice of you, and I can't thank you enough," he finished almost in a murmur, once again flipping languages mid-sentence.
"It's no issue. Are you certain you don't want us to walk you home?"
The boy nodded. "I'm fine, don't worry. Thanks," he responded in a rush, clearly still on edge. He turned to take a few steps past them, but before crossing the street, he paused. "Thanks again, Mr. Kirkland and Mr. Bonnefoy. Er… I guess it's only fair to tell you my name… it's Alfred Matthews. And… uh… I'd really appreciate it if you didn't sell me out to that program. It's… not for me."
Before France or England could react, he ran across the street, around the corner, and out of sight.
The tension in the conference room was palpable as Britain finished the story.
"After this 'Alfred Matthews' ran off, the frog and I had to sit down and discuss what to do. We decided it'd be best to use France's new ability to track the boy by calling his friend and telling him where to look so he could keep an eye on him."
Germany interrupted as he turned to France. "And this 'friend' of yours, are you sure…" The Frenchman held up his hand, cutting him off.
"I trust Picardy with my life. He is as loyal a friend to me as you are to Veneziano." That shut Germany up almost immediately, but France continued. "I offered him the job with compensation, and he immediately accepted when he saw I was serious. Nobody is better than him at tracking someone down and keeping an eye on them."
"Interesting ability to put on one's resumé," Russia sang from the sidelines.
"Regardless, give him a physical description and a general location, and he'll be able to find the subject. By this time yesterday, he had been monitoring the apartment the kid stayed at and had a full written report on his observations. That's how we got a picture of the other little boy. I believe everyone's folder has a copy of his reports and pictures."
"Ah, dammit… French sucks...," Romano whined as he sifted through the papers, although he didn't hesitate to start reading the file as he looked back and forth from that and the sheet of pictures of the second boy. He seemed to be about five years old, had rich brown hair that was tinted orange with a single curl extending from his left temple, and vibrant golden eyes the shone with more life than the sun.
".Full name unknown, but often referred to as 'Feliciano' or 'Feli' by Alfred Matthews," Germany read, translating the French into their National language without possibly even intending to do so.
The child was identical to Romano's little brother. It was Italy Veneziano.
"The strange thing about that child, save the obvious… read the fifth paragraph of Picardy's description," France instructed, waiting for the questions that would arise.
"He hasn't been seen walking at all?" China asked, parroting the document he read without looking up.
Britain nodded. "Any time he's had to move a significant distance, the Alfred Matthews child carried him. He's presumed to be crippled."
Romano winced, suddenly more aware of the painful soreness in his left ankle that had haunted him for over a year. "My foot got all screwed up after that earthquake in Venice that caused a shit ton of damage to the canals and bridges a few months back; it still hasn't been fixed up completely. Maybe that kid has the same injury…"
"It's possible. They quite literally washed up on shore ten months ago, give or take a bit. There are some files from when they were entered into France's refugee program, but they 'disappeared' before their registration was complete. Nobody was sure how they even survived, since they were holding onto each other and unconscious, apparently."
"I think we need to decide on a course of action to take," Germany said, his voice stony and all-business. "This friend of yours is still keeping tabs on these children, correct?" At France's nod, he continued. "Well, since England and France are 'on vacation,' they should be able to get away from their governments long enough to bring the subjects to a more safe location. After that, we'll hold an official WURLD meeting and use that as an excuse for some of us to stay away longer."
England huffed in irritation. "Easier said than done. You should have seen the little brat. He wasn't exactly quick to trust us. And if we kidnap him, that certainly won't help. Where would we even bring them?"
Romano jumped to his feet, ignoring his ankle as he slammed his hands on the desk and leaned towards Britain. "I'll come with you bastards! And I won't take 'no' for an answer!"
France smiled warmly. "Glad to have you aboard the operation, then. Thoughts, Germany?"
He hummed thoughtfully for a moment. "As much as I would love to help, I think it would be best if China, Russia, and I worked with Switzerland to prepare a WURLD meeting. We can set up a safe place for you to bring the kids in Liechtenstein, as long as her brother allows it. Then, we'll just go from there, I suppose?"
Everyone nodded, except Russia, who had been unusually quiet since seeing the pictures. "Hmm. I have no issue with that plan. But there's something else on my mind."
"Like what? The sooner we get this one with, the sooner we find the other missing Nations," China snapped, sneering. Russia was unbothered.
"Are we going to ignore the obvious questions? Like why these two look-alike children just appeared at France's house? Or why they're children? Or why they seem to have no memories? Or my personal favorite, why one of them is 'Alfred Matthews' and bears an uncanny resemblance to both of our North American comrades?"
Nobody had an answer for that.
"I suppose a more concise way of asking my question would be by asking 'What happened to the missing Nations over the course of three years to cause this?'"
The silence was so thorough that the buzzing of the lights in the room may as well have been a siren.
Britain sighed. "That is the million-dollar-question, isn't it?"