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Eyes of Earthly Spirits

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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?"

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 2: The Good Old Days

"I hate that damn American. How the hell does he afford so much food?" Britain whined emptily as he ate his third sandwich on the private flight to Paris, barely bothering to keep his voice quiet enough to keep from disturbing the Frenchman across the aisle in one of the lay-down seats, not that anything short of an air raid would wake him from his deep slumber.

Romano shrugged nonchalantly, staring out the window at the sea of clouds, not bothering to reply.

"Douche," Britain huffed between bites. "If small talk doesn't interest you, then how about actually discussing your theories with me about what happened to them, instead of treating it like some taboo burden that you alone are cursed to bear? The narcoleptic frog doesn't ever share very complex ideas despite his usual melodramatic contemplations by the windowsill," he remarked, glancing irately at the disheveled romantic.

"Fuck off. You know I don't know enough about this shit to weigh in. Quit rubbing it in," Romano heaved a melancholic sigh, shifting in his seat a bit as he held his head.

"You probably know more than I do. You and Veneziano are both representatives for one country, after all. You're probably the best example we have for something similar to whatever the hell happened to America and Canada," England explained, his voice speeding up a bit as he relayed his thought process. South Italy huffed.

    "I don't know what you think Veneziano and I are, but it's definitely not anything similar to that. Really, we're the polar-fuckin'-opposite. Closest I've seen to having one rep for two countries would be… I dunno. Holy Rome, I guess. He was a representative for a bunch of mini-territories, but I think those territories also had Nations. God, I don't fuckin' remember much, except that my brother loved that kid…"

England saw a mix of emotions, positive and negative, overcome his features as he slumped back in his chair with arms crossed.

"It seems to me like you've got plenty of opinions to share on the subject," the Brit urged, pushing the small folder of pictures and documents about the children across the table. The Italian made no move to grab it.

"Plenty in my head, none to share. North America is your problem, I'm only here for my brother." Arthur was unconvinced.

   "Right, of course. Foolish of me to think you'd care about what happened to loudmouths like America or Prussia."

"Can you piss off? I don't hear you jumping to volunteer your ideas as to what happened either. I say let's slide that topic neatly into the 'nobody wants to bring it up' folder and focus on just getting those brats on a plane to a safe place where we can figure out what the fuck happened when we can actually ask them instead of driving ourselves crazy wondering if they were kidnapped by demons or something," Romano's voice stayed steady and flat despite his words; his general weariness with the whole situation made it difficult to get worked up.

"Do you think it could be demons?" the mystic country asked a bit too genuinely.

"What? Hell no. I just threw that out there because it only makes slightly less sense than any of the obvious theories that both of us have, but neither of us actually wants to say out loud. Can we change the damn topic already? I'm sure you've already thought of anything I have."

England rolled his eyes as he took another bite of his meal, deciding to drop the subject for now.

"Fine. Instead, I guess we'll go over what the frog and I decided to do when we find the children. Might as well be productive in some way."

The Italian groaned. "Fuck. We need a plan?"

"Unless you think telling two probably amnesiac children they're the missing immortal personifications of three landmasses and that they need to come with us at all costs, I'd say it's not a bad idea."

"Goddammit. Amnesia is the dumbest, bitch-ass excuse. That's not even how amnesia works anyway, right? That's all just videogame nonsense! How do you not realize you are the physical embodiment for the will of a bajillion people?"

England snorted, taking a sip of tea with a sly smirk. "Spoken like someone who had a grandfather to teach them what they were instead of bumbling around alone on an island for centuries."

Romano groaned, slouching in his chair. "Wiseass."

He was met with a cocky grin. "Ninny."

The Italian couldn't care less about etiquette as he crossed his arms over the table and laid his head in them, staring up at the amused Englishman.

"Fine, whatever… what's the grandmaster plan, oh lord of bastards?"

"It took quite a bit of debating on the way to that first meeting, but we decided that for now, we'll tell them that we're immortal but not explain that we're Countries."

Romano didn't move as he raised an eyebrow, "Why?" he asked, dragging the "I" sound out.

"Blame the frog for wanting to hide stuff. I wanted to be honest, but France says 'they might not be able to handle it right now,'" he sneered, doing air quotes as he spoke. "I will cede that they were strangely jumpy and… delicate? For our kind, at least. It's probably nothing that exposure to like-minded people or recovery of their memories could solve. That, and stabilization of their countries and fixing… whatever the fuck is wrong with America and Canada."

"You certainly have some simple-sounding game plan, huh? Whatever… this stuff is way over my head. I guess we'll just see how they act and go from there." At England's nod of agreement, Romano sighed, which turned into a thoughtful hum. "Although, we probably need to be careful trying to get them to trust us the first time, right? If they don't come with us, and they run off, then they certainly won't trust us if we follow them around like some creepy fucking stalkers."

"Very true. Given the child can see past my parlor tricks and the Frog's words, it's not like we can make ourselves seem any less suspicious. As it stands, though, I think we'll answer whatever questions they ask but try to avoid mentioning the link to our people. Just for now. It's not like we can hide that we exist nowadays. Not for very long at least. But until we've got things figured out, let's try to keep this low-key. Assuming they don't know what they are in the first place."

"Ugh. My head is spinning from all that nonsense. Whatever, I'll keep my mouth shut as much as I can. But I'm not smart enough to pull off a good lie. Let's just get this over with. I want my fucking dipshit brother back. And I'm sick of seeing the Potato Bastard so down in the dumps all the time."

"You and me both. We'll yell at our brothers together when this is all done."

"Oh fuck me running!" The ruby-eyed albino shouted in German, throwing the game controller down, thankfully onto the couch cushion instead of the floor. "That combo is total bullshit! And so is that character! Nobody should be allowed to force me into an SD like that!"

"Suck and cuck my dude, I'd think you'd learn your lesson! These are the pro strats!" The bright, sky blue-eyed teenager retorted in English as he wore a shit-eating grin.

"You know, with how in-touch with the pro Smash scene you are these days. The day I see that horse shit in comp is the day Its will cook Chef Boyardee and call it Italian." From the corner of the living room, Veneziano perked up at his nickname, unburying his nose from the diary for a moment as he watched the argument with a mixture of amusement and confusion in his amber eyes.

"Look, that stuff might be disgusting," America ceded, the smile not leaving his face, "But it's cheap, and that's all that matters! And you might have meant that as an insult but if we can see the pro scene then I consider it a win-win, so thank you, oh ray of shining optimism! Now put on your big-boy pants and play me again!"

"You are the worst fucking winner ever. Let's Fox and Falco that shit and see who's laughing!"

"Pretty sure it'll be me! Let's do this you German son of a bitch!"

Italy decided to stand up and stretch at that declaration; after tucking their journal under his shoulder, he lazily meandered over to the sofa and stood behind it next to Lithuania. The Baltic was watching their entire fight on the Switch, looking tired but more or less relaxed as he propped his arms on the top of the cushion, his grass-green eyes drooping slightly.

"Yo, Its! Lit! JP, you all sure you don't want in on this? There's enough for everyone if we split the controllers!" America offered a moment before he and Prussia were about to start another game in a last-minute attempt at thoughtfulness.

Japan shook his head, nestling himself further into the corner of the soft, pale green couch. The polar bear cub on his lap didn't stir from the movement. "Thank you, America-san, but you and Germany-san can play. It's more than fun enough just watching how immersed you two get in the competition, for now," he responded in his own preferred tongue, his chocolate irises fixated on the character select screen of the large television in front of them. America shrugged and looked to Italy and Lithuania.

"Eh… I'm not that good at the game yet. I'll play in a little while! I like watching you and Germany fight!" North Italy shifted his weight from foot to foot. "It's exciting to watch! Really!"

Lithuania smiled and held up his hand in a polite "no" gesture. "I do vote that whoever of you two loses has to do the dishes next time, though. And it has to be after Feliciano cooks. All you two ever make when you're on dish duty is grilled cheese sandwiches for everyone while wasting a pitiful amount of paper towels."

"Grilled cheese is a perfectly suitable source of nutrition!" Prussia protested; America made a sound of agreement. Lithuania and Italy both laughed, the latter substantially louder than the other. The albino grinned and bore his malevolent gaze into America's soul. "But whaddya say? Loser's gotta clean up tonight?"

"Oh, you're fucking on."

-Is what he would have said if the intercom didn't suddenly crackle to life, interrupting them before they could actually start the game. Alfred dropped the controller onto the table and scooped Kumajirou off Kiku's lap before the automated message could even begin; the cub squirmed and groaned in protest.

"Please return to your living quarters in the next five minutes." Commanded a monotone, static-filled voice. Prussia rolled his eyes.

"Since you asked nicely. Jesus, it's about time," he grumbled, stretching as he put the game console into sleep mode and followed America out of the living room around the bend that led into the hallway. Italy bounced up and down as he impatiently shuffled alongside Japan down the same corridor; their dorm was the farthest away, as the third one on the right.

"That took a while…" Veneziano muttered though any gloom was immediately replaced with cheer. "At least that means he might be able to have dinner with us!" Japan nodded calmly in agreement.

Lithuania smiled warmly. "Hopefully. We can always wait a few hours or until he's ready as a worst-case scenario."

"Hey, that's a few hours Statesy gets to put off doing the dishes," Prussia teased, giving America a slight elbow in the side as he passed him in the hall as he and Lithuania made their ways to the second door. Alfred huffed.

"You wish, Dipshit" was all he said in response, already turning around in his door frame with Kumajirou dozing in his arms some more. Prussia yawned, cracking his knuckles as he stretched his arms out in front of him.

"Just give us the okay whenever you're ready. We'll be on standby," the German said after he was already halfway to his room. He raised one arm halfway up in a lazy wave. Lithuania poked his head out of his room as Prussia entered and glanced nervously at Alfred, then gave him a thumbs-up of encouragement before retreating into their bedroom. The metal door slid down and locked a moment later.

The American retreated into his own small but not uncomfortable room, flicking on the light and glancing at the mess of what he referred to as "organized chaos" before gently setting the polar bear in his arms on the blue covers neatly folded across the bottom of their bunk bed. It groaned again in protest.

"Stop moving… will ya…?" Kumajirou muttered in a strangely high-pitched voice, still half-asleep.

"Oh quit complaining, you entitled lapdog," Alfred retorted halfheartedly, pressing a button on the keypad next to the door frame that caused the metal door to slide down from a gap in the wall above with a dull thud and lock the next moment.

"Hmph. You say that like I'm the one wearing a collar," the bear quipped back, finally sitting up and using one of its fuzzy paws to rub its eyes.

"Oh, low blow; you are a really, really shameless polar bear, you know that?" Alfred snapped back, unwilling to acknowledge the sheer absurdity of arguing with a polar bear. It gave him a bemused look as Alfred decided to crawl under the elaborate setup of pillows and blankets creating some silly, makeshift pillow fort rather than lie on top of the proper bunk bed. From within his makeshift shelter, he grunted in annoyance. "I can feel you staring at me, you fuzzy freak! You're not allowed to judge!"

"I'm not, I'm not," Kumajirou said, his childish voice belonging to someone who was, indeed, judging.

Alfred muttered some spiteful words under his breath and rested against one of the moderately sized pillow pile. The bright lights of the bedroom couldn't pierce the thick layers of blankets, leaving him in total darkness. He sighed impatiently, tapping the side of the bed frame that helped support the pillow fort to the tune of "The Halls of Montezuma" while humming along.

He sat that way for what he would guess was three minutes, given how far he got through the song; he was interrupted by the muffled sound of the main door unlocking. He kept his ears peeled as he rubbed the top of his left hand as a nervous habit.

There was some shuffling of footsteps and a dull thud. As per usual, his brother's return was relatively quiet. Save the crash. That was atypical of him. America furrowed his brow, came out from his safe haven, and noticed Kumajirou watching the door with a perplexed stare. Now they were both getting restless. He heard the metal door from which his brother came close again.

Thankfully, the tiny red light on the mechanism to control the door flickered to green with a quiet beep. Alfred wasted no time; he pressed the button to open the door and power walked into the living room with Kumajirou trotting along next to him. His brother was approximately two feet from the re-locked door, lying on the ground in a heap.

"Bro! Jesus fuck are you okay?" America kneeled down in front of him and was about to check his vitals when he heard a soft groan.

"Mm… mm-hmm… n'ver better," Canada slurred, trying to sit up only for his arm to give out under him. America made sure to catch his head before it hit the ground again, gently propping it on his leg while he tried to figure out what was wrong. Canada's amethyst eyes were unfocused, and he remained limp on the floor. If Kumajirou wasn't frowning already, it was now; Alfred leaned back as the polar bear placed a paw on his thigh, and leaned near Canada's face, sniffing intently.

"Hiya Kumaaa… You're sho cute… 'm glad you're here..." Matthew slurred again, now fumbling to try and pet the bear while muttering something in broken and inaudible French. A moment passed.

"He's drunk," Kumajirou concluded, taking a few steps back with its nose wrinkled.

America blinked. Of all things, that was not what he expected to hear.

"Seriously? You sure he's just not, like, super high off all that weird shit like last week?" Both of them were relatively light drinkers, though, so it wasn't exactly difficult to get either of them wasted.

The bear grunted. "His breath. Smell for yourself if you're so unsure."

"I'll take your word for it. Hey, Mattie? You okay, Bro? I'm gonna get you to the sofa. Let me know if you're gonna barf, kay?"

Alfred thanked the universe that Matthew was relatively quiet when drunk; he was going to have a terrible morning, though. Carefully wrapping his arms around his brother, America planted his feet on the ground and lifted him bridal style with a small grunt of effort despite not really finding Matt to be all that heavy.

"Hey, you guys c'mon out! It's chill today!" Al shouted down the hall as he set Matt on the couch, who was babbling something incoherent all the while.

Prussia was the first one out, wearing a shit-eating grin. "Methinks I heard talk of booze. We finally got the good shit? 'Bout fuckin' time."

Lithuania was the next one out, looking much more sympathetic than Prussia when he saw Canada on the sofa. "Don't listen to him, Canada. I'll go get some water."

"S'okay…" the Canadian muttered distractedly, half sitting up and half lying across the couch as he fussed with his thin green gown. For now, Alfred decided against grabbing him his usual clothes. Italy and Japan rounded into the living room; the former of the two immediately surged forward and leaped onto the sofa next to the tipsy Nation, looking stressed as he wrapped his arms around the other and pulled him into a big and clumsy hug.

"Are you okay? Did you actually drink a bunch? What was it? Did it taste good, at least? Did anything else happen? Are you alright? If you're feeling sick in a few hours, we can wait until tomorrow for me to cook! Oh yeah, America and Germany are having a competition in the game to see who has to do the dishes then, so even though it's your turn one of them will do it instead!" Veneziano rambled excitedly to Canada, who couldn't keep eye contact to save his life. A few seconds later he just… fell on top of Feliciano's shoulder, humming as he began to play with the Italian's hair.

"Ahm 'll g'd. No worr's. Your hair's pretty…"

"Sorry 'bout him," America added, looking mildly embarrassed as he leaned against a wall. "He gets snugly when he's buzzed."

"It's fine! As long as it makes him happy!" Feliciano perked up, tipping his head to the side, so his hair was a bit easier for Canada to run his fingers through. Lithuania laughed softly as he came back with a large, pink bottle of water that had one of those lids containing a rubbery straw on the top. He set it on the coffee table in front of Matthew and Feliciano before sitting down on the floor next to Alfred.

"I don't see Canada get drunk all that often. It's quite a sight."

Prussia vaulted onto the arm of the sofa, flipping himself, so his head was hanging off as he stretched. "Really though, was the booze any good at least?"

"Mmno... tasted grossh." Prussia visibly deflated, making a point of poking his lip out in a pout.

"Aw. What's a Nation gotta do to get some beer around here?"

Japan, who had been silent since coming out of his room, looked much more grave than the others; he finally spoke up, speaking not in Japanese, but instead in his National Language.

"We do need to be wary, though. Try to maintain composure and watch your tongue if this happens with anyone else. Canada-san, did you say anything revealing while out of the apartment?"

Much like how whispering to someone makes them more likely to respond in the same manner, Canada switched to his own National Language without thinking, though equally as slurred as his English and French. "Nope! Not a s'ngle word from meh… I mean maybe some but nothin' important, prolly… " He resumed playing with Italy's hair as he leaned against him, turning it into short braids while humming his national anthem.

"Well, that brings me confidence," Prussia said with a laugh, still upside-down on the couch arm with his head almost on the ground. "Merry, you're just as shit at holding your liquor as Candy, right?"

America huffed indignantly. "Leave me alone, jackass. Sake boy over here gets tipsy after a single glass of wine."

Lithuania smiled in a way that was both teasing yet warm. "But yes, that's right. If anything, he's worse."

"Look, I rarely fuckin' drink, what do you expect?"

After a brief round of chuckles passed over the room, it was Italy, of all people, that sobered first. "I hope I can remember what I'm supposed to do, then, if I have to do this…"

"You'll 'b great, 'Tly… 'dun worry." Canada muttered with a dopey smile; he leaned in and wrapped his arms around Feliciano, giving him a huge and clumsy hug that the Italian was happy to return.

"Damn, wish I had a camera. That shit's adorable," Prussia grinned, letting himself sink to the floor upside down before vaulting back to his feet; he gave Japan a light pat on the shoulder as he walked past. "And don't worry so much Cherry Blossom; the bad mood doesn't suit ya. If we're stuck in this hellhole, we may as well have some fun!"

Kiku finally relaxed at that, his somber expression changing to something calmer. "You're right. My apologies, Germany-san… I'll try not to be more negative."

"Okay, now you're backtracking. Say the important shit but just don't stay down in the dumps. No need for the apology shit. Anyway, wanna help me make some grilled cheese since we're probably gonna have to wait a bit for Feli to cook? If we don't want Canada to puke all over it, that is. I give it two hour tops until he's over the toilet in the bathroom."

Japan smiled in earnest at that. "Of course."

The two meandered over to the nearby kitchen, leaving Lithuania, America, Canada, and Italy alone in the living room, which was quiet save Canada's humming. Eventually, though, Italy decided to start chatting with the intoxicated Nation, leaving the first two Nations to speak in relative privacy as long as they spoke in their National Language.

Tolys sighed. "You know, it's Japan's birthday next week. It's a shame it's under these conditions."

"Wait, seriously?" Alfred asked, somewhat incredulous until he wrinkled his brow, concentrating for a  moment. "Oh wow, you're right. Can't believe it's been that long," was all America replied with, suddenly much more downtrodden.

"We'll probably need to celebrate a couple days after. That, or before."

"After," Alfred stated without hesitating. "Would make for a half-decent mood booster." He smirked, staring at the floor. "I get the feeling he wouldn't like my baking, though."

"No, probably not," Lithuania agreed. "We'll save the bright red frosting for your birthday."

   "Damn, you think we'll still be here when that time rolls around?"

   Tolys shrugged. "I'm baking you a birthday cake either way, and you can't stop me."

   "Fuck yeah, your baking is the best. Y'know, if JP has to go out for a bit around that time, we can probably bust out the construction paper and glitter glue shoved in Feli's drawer and pimp this place out."

   A light laugh. "I don't understand how even your National Language manages to find such colorful ways of describing something so mundane."

   "You should hear Arthur when he speaks. I swear to God, for someone that invented the fucking language, doesn't seem like anyone speaks English there. Like, 'cheeky nandos with the lads?' Like what the hell even is that shit?" Alfred retorted with his own cheerful snicker laced with longing and nostalgia.

   "How does the expression go? A kettle told the pot it's black? That's you."

   "Close enough, and you're not totally wrong." America stretched, letting his legs slide out from under him as he sank to the ground next to Lithuania. He switched to English, smirking as he watched Canada and Italy have some incoherent back and forth. "Okay, so. Bets on how long until I'm running him to the bathroom?"

   Tolys hummed. "Germany guessed two hours, right? I have a bit more faith in Matthew than that. I say three."

   America scoffed, "Wow, you have more faith than me. I know my brother. I give it one."

   As it turns out, Prussia was fairly spot on. About an hour and forty-five minutes had passed when America noticed that Canada had gone from cheerful and snuggly to extremely pale. America gave Lithuania a lopsided grin and set the controller for the game the two of them had been playing in the meantime on the table. "Damn, I'm glad we didn't put money on this. Gilbert would be making bank."

   From the other side of the living room, Prussia shouted without looking up from the sketchbooks he and Japan were drawing little pictures in. "Don't worry, I'll collect my fee somehow!"

Italy, who had been chatting endlessly with Canada, suddenly frowned, as though he was just noticing for the first time that Canada was staring at the table with his mouth half opened.

   "Oh," he muttered in a quiet voice before perking back up. "America, can I help you get him to the bathroom, please?"

   Alfred gave him a thumbs up, standing up and stretching. "Yeah, sure! Better than me having to bridal carry him. Last time I tried to do that I think I hit Germany's head against the doorframe."

   "Yeah, thanks for that, I can still feel the bump" Prussia teased, still not looking up from his drawing. "Page me if you need some help, though. I'll be heading to bed in a few, but if ya need me... Unless it's for cleaning up puke. That is all on you. That shit's nasty."

   America rolled his eyes, then crouched down to his twin's eye level. "Yo, Bro, you hanging in there?" he asked Canada, who was somehow doing even worse at maintaining eye contact.

   "'M doin' jus' great, th'nks Alfie…" he muttered, his voice raspy. Then he tried to stand up; that went about as well as everyone that wasn't Canada expected.

   "Alrighty we're going, I guess!" America exclaimed, jumping to catch his brother before he hit the ground. Veneziano made a tiny yelp and scrambled to help, draping one of Matthew's arms over his shoulder while Alfred did the same, although America carried significantly more of his brother's weight than the Italian as they shuffled down the hallway.

   "Mm y'know, wouldn't it be aw'shome if… if I had shuper strength 'nd could jus' pick up a bunch of maple trees back to my house, 'n got 'll the sap from them that way? Make a happy 'lil forest..."

   The drunken Nation's brother rolled his eyes. "Bro, I helped you set up like three or four personal maple trees at like five different houses. You don't need another."

   "Maple syrup does sound pretty yummy, though…" Italy admitted sheepishly as he pulled Canada along, who was not so much walking as he was moving his legs while being dragged along. "I wanna have pancakes for breakfast soon!"

   "Ooh me too!" Canada declared, his voice childishly excited. "Though mah s'rup is better than the bottled shtuff here… you should come o'er and we'll eat tons of p'ncakes! Hey Alfie, when c'n we go home a- any… 'ny.. 'nyway?" he stuttered, suddenly groaning pathetically.

   America huffed as they reached the bathroom hallway "Let's worry about getting you sober first, Bro;" he could feel Canada trembling despite his enthusiasm, and wasted no time in pressing the number five button on a small metal keypad, corresponding to the number tattooed onto the top of his brother's right hand. There was a soft beep, and the metal door slid open, letting the three of them into the decently large restroom. It looked like it belonged in any standard household, complete with pleasant tan wallpaper, a sink, shower, and toilet, along with personal toiletries for all six of them, which Italy and Prussia had carefully organized and labeled with several plastic boxes and cases. The only out of place feature was the door.

As soon as Alfred closed the door behind them, the small red light on Canada's collar turned green. He decided to prioritize helping Matthew situate himself in a kneeling position over the toilet before undoing the clasp on the back of the metal neckband. He was only a little bit careful not to damage it as he "gently" dropped it into the sink.

"'m fine… 'dun worry..." the Canadian muttered unconvincingly.

"Bro, your face is whiter than your sassy polar bear's fur." America deadpanned. Italy muffled a snickered.

It was only a few minutes until he began to retch, and a few more until he finally started to vomit, his body not at all appreciating all the alcohol put into it. Italy wrinkled his nose at the pungent odor, but otherwise crouched next to Matthew and rubbed the back of his thin green gown, muttering comforting words in Italian. America couldn't help but smile as he used a washcloth to wipe down the neckband for the sake of making sure it was clean, despite no apparent blemishes in the shiny surface. Several minutes later, after Canada had emptied a fair amount of his stomach's contents, Alfred cocked his head and grinned. "Thanks for the help, Feli. It's appreciated, dude."

He looked up briefly and smiled. "Whatever I can do to help!" It was literally impossible to not feel cheery and hopeful when he said that. Those golden eyes that radiated joy could affect any room. "I just want him to feel better."

"You know he will. No need to worry. He's just drunk," America teased, making sure his brother's hair was pulled back and out of his face.

"Mm… water…" Canada eventually muttered, his voice hoarse.

"Oh shit, right! Damn, I forgot the water bottle Lit made," not wanting to put the collar back on just yet, the American instead stood up and looked around the bathroom briefly. Thankfully, they had learned from past experiences, and Prussia had made sure there were always some bright green cups on top of the cream-colored counter. He filled it full of tap water and handed it to Mattie, who downed the whole cup in one go, gasping for air once he emptied it. Alfred snatched it back before it could fall from his brother's feeble grasp.

"Wanna go home…" Matthew muttered, his head lolling back to look up at his brother. "I miss e'ryone..."

America sighed and flashed a small smile, sitting on top of the edge of the bathtub. "I know, dude. Just hang in there, okay? I'm here for ya. We'll be outta here in no time." He patted Matthew's back, who leaned into his leg.

"Me too! If I can ever help you, I'm always here to help too!" Italy assured, his cheery voice putting both of them at ease.

"Now, are ya gonna barf again or can I take we take you to your bed?"

"Dunno, 'dun think I've eat'n much…" he slurred in French, wrinkling his nose.

"Yeah, sorry dude, but we're gonna have to keep that stomach empty for now, kay? C'mon, clean up." Alfred grabbed a washcloth off the rack and offered it to his brother, though his utter lack in dexterity meant he needed more than a little help. There was no doubt he needed a shower, but that'd have to wait until he could actually operate the faucet. "Stay still then, I gotta put the band back on, kay?"

"Mm." He didn't react as Italy handed America the device, who carefully fastened it into place. The internal locking mechanisms slid together with a light click; green light on the side turned red. After Veneziano scrambled to press the open button, the metal door to the restroom slid up.

He and America had Matthew in his bed a minute later. Kumajirou, who had been waiting by sleeping on the pillow, huffed. "You smell terrible," he remarked, backing up and making plenty of room for the clumsy Nation. Despite his words, the bear snuggled up to his side with little hesitation.

"S'rry…" Matthew muttered, though he wrapped his arms around his childhood companion and sighed happily. Alfred threw the covers over him and gestured for Italy to follow him to the door.

"Alrighty, bro. Have fun with the inevitable hangover. If you do end up puking again, aim for anything that isn't the pillow fort!" Matthew muttered some incoherent French as the other two Nations let the door slide shut behind them.

The Italian sighed, making a quiet, breathy "ve" as his shoulders visibly relaxed. He switched to his National Language. "I'm tired… and I need to take a bath…"

Alfred huffed and switched as well while the two of them hobbled lazily over to the living room. Everyone else had indeed made their ways to the bedrooms. "I say wait fifteen or so minutes. The ventilation in the bathroom is a godsend, though I do wish we had some candles. "

"You don't want it first? I don't want to make you wait…"

America shook his head. "It's been, like, a week since it was my turn. I wouldn't be surprised if I gotta go in the next few hours. No point."

The European Nation visibly deflated, mumbling to himself as he counted on his fingers. "Oh yeah… Germany and me on Thursday, then Lithuania on Wednesday and Japan and Germany again on Monday… Canada and you were on Saturday, right?"

A nod. "Guess I would be curious too, what we say when shitfaced. Well, they should've gotten Britain if they wanted to test that," he chuckled at his own joke, sliding back in the sofa. "You gonna go off to bed soon? It's like, ten at night at your house, right?"

Italy nodded lazily. "What time is it at yours again? You should sleep too!"

"Who knows with my forty million time zones," America grinned. "And besides, I'm a creature of the night. Bedtime for me is whenever I want it to be!" He shot Italy a thumbs-up then a finger gun. "I'd call the fuckface German back out for some more one-v-ones, but he's passed out."

"I really hope he sleeps well, then…" Italy yawned, his mouth opening wide as he held his hand up.

"Oh no," America said in mock fear. "You'd better stifle that sleepiness quick! Or else I'm gonna ca-" he was cut off by an equally as obnoxious yawn on his behalf. "Dammit."

Italy laughed wholeheartedly. "You need your rest! Sleep is important!"

"You sound like Spain." America retorted, though he finally gave up. "But fine. I guess I'll hit the hay, then. You're going to the shower soon, right?" Italy nodded. Alfred pushed himself off the sofa and onto his feet. "Okey dokey then, Its. If you need something… I dunno. Scream in my face or something? Whatever.

"You sleep too heavy to wake up to that!" Feliciano giggled at Alfred, who feigned offense while opening his door again.

"How dare you call me heavy, you lucky bastard of a skinny boy?" He ruffled the hair on the Italians head and was about to close his door when his friend lunged forward and wrapped his arms around the American's back, beaming with hope.

"Goodnight! Sleep well, America! Don't worry! Everything will be a-okay!"

He returned the grin and hug. "Same to you, Its."

He went to bed smiling.

   The children stilled as someone gently rapped on the door to their tiny apartment. Feliciano, who had been in the middle of coloring at the old, wooden table with some cheap supplies, inhaled sharply; he gripped his red crayon with all his might and whipped his head around to where his friends were resting on a mattress. Their gaze flickered from the door to Feliciano, then back to the door again.

   They wasted no time. Alfred and Matthew slid off their shoes to avoid making extra noise. Feliciano stifled a nervous whimper; it was never good when someone was at the door. They rushed to him, their lips forming a tight line. Alfred scooped the little Italian off the chair on which he sat; Matthew quietly carried him behind the mattress on the opposite side of the room from the door. The knock echoed again, this time marginally louder. Feliciano had just been placed out of sight between the bed and the wall. Their visitor spoke up.

" Mon chéri ? Are you there? I hate to intrude, but we must speak with you." It was a male's voice speaking in English but with a definite French accent, and one the Italian didn't remember but sounded found pleasant nonetheless. He would have been tempted to meet the man himself were it not for the panic on Alfred and Matthew's face.

   Noiselessly, Matthew gestured for Feli to stay where he was before creeping up to the door. The Italian held his breath, paranoia bubbling in his chest. Nervousness, and also something else, some other new and confusing emotion. He couldn't describe it, the almost tangible feeling in his chest.

   The French man's voice was muffled by the door as he spoke again. "It's me, Francis Bonnefoy with Arthur Kirkland from several days ago. We also have one other friend with us, but that's all. His name is Lovino. I know the timing is inopportune, and you have little reason to trust us, but please, we really must talk."

   Unsurprisingly, Alfred and Matthew kept quiet, giving no indication they were home. Cautiously, Feliciano poked his head above the mattress, just enough to be able to see them frozen with their hand half outstretched to the doorknob, stuck between whether or not to answer the door.

   "My lovelies, please. I only wish to help you. If you're worried about us taking you back to the orphanage program, we would never do that. In fact, we retracted and deleted all your files, for both you and little Feliciano. We have reason to believe you're in danger, and we really want to help you."

   Danger. Danger. Danger. That word echoed around in Feliciano's mind, setting off sirens that caused his heart to race. They knew he was here too, despite everything he did to stay hidden. Alfred and Matthew recoiled, taking several steps away from the door, their hands being held close to their chest as he stood, unsure what to do.

   Then finally, their visitor said something else. "We're like you." Alfred and Matthew were utterly at a loss, shaking intensely as they most likely silently argued with each other. Or maybe they were both just as confused; Feliciano wasn't sure. After several seconds of total silence from both sides of the door, the two finally approached the door, curiosity getting the better of them. In the blink of an eye, Matthew unbolted the lock and cracked the door open ever so slightly. Alfred made an about-face and ran to where Feliciano was hiding, standing in front of the bed with arms outstretched protectively.

   "How did you find us? Why do you know about Feliciano? What do you mean 'you're like us?' We're just some kids trying to get by with you poking around in our business!" Alfred was anything but welcoming in his tone as the French man from the other side of the door slowly pushed it open. He had blond, wavy hair that was tied into a ponytail, and he wore a fashionable brown jacket with a dark yet desaturated blue button up and pants to match. He looked nice, save the dark bags under his eyes; he looked tired. His eyes were a saturated mix of blue and the tiniest hint of purple. Just as he had said, though, it was only him and two other people. There was no army of policemen about to take them away. Feliciano dared to release his held breath.

The first of the two was also blond, though his hair was a bit closer to a wheat color than the first. It was also shorter, barely reaching past his ears. His more casual clothes seemed to hang off his skinny frame, and he looked so hungry that Feliciano wished so desperately that he could jump up from where he was standing and make him some authentic Italian dinner that would fill him right up. His eyes were a vibrant green, deeper and more mysterious than some new uncharted wildlands.

The third man made Feliciano's heart skip a beat. Colors and sounds he didn't have time to recognize crashed down on his mind, only to vanish the next moment, leaving him confused and disoriented. It was like a full-power blow hit him in the back of his head and knocked him out, only for the pain to vanish by the time he woke up. The stranger's hair was a messy dark brown, and his eyes nervously darted all around the room. But when the two sets of amber eyes connected, Feliciano couldn't ignore the way his chest was pounding.

The feeling vanished, replaced with terror and confusion that matched Alfred's. He didn't know these people. He didn't recognize these feelings or why he was feeling them. There were too many unknowns, and for all he knew, they could be trying to lull him into a sense of safety only to separate him and his only friends. He looked up at them, waiting.

"We found you by having a friend of mine that's good at finding people look. I apologize for the suspect method, but we were busy looking into removing your old files in the meantime. We found out about Feliciano both by his reports and your files that were still in the program. By 'like you,' we don't exactly mean 'able to hurl a car several stories high into a building,' but something close in its own way," the skinny, green-eyed man explained in an English accent, trailing behind the French man, watching Alfred and Matthew carefully.

A car? The little Italian watched Alfred and Matthew's eyes widen and back up, grabbing his wrist. "I don't know what you mean about a car. Why would w… I take anything you say as honest? You spied on us! We didn't do anything!" They were not good liars in situations like this, not that Feliciano knew what they meant when talking about a car.

The British man remained calm. "If we were trying to fool you into trusting us, I don't think we would have told you we sent someone to track you. We are completely honest. We have photos of the scene of the crash; there was no sign of another car involved. We saw you soon after."

Alfred and Matthew were freezing up; their motions were jerky as they stuttered for a response. Veneziano stifled a squeak as the grip on his wrist tightened. He could feel a slight force that was ready to yank him upward. "L… look. We don't know you guys, and we don't know what you want. But please, just leave… leave us alone…"

The brown-haired visitor stiffened. "I'm not leaving without you guys! You realize you're in a ton of danger, right? This whole 'kids hiding in an apartment' thing is already breaking the law, and you don't want the wrong people finding out about that wreck!" There was something in his voice, save the… Italian accent. Veneziano had never met another Italian before, and the desperation in his voice sounded so genuine. His head and gut were at odds on whether to trust him. He didn't say anything, avoiding eye-contact with that man; instead, he hunkered down further behind the mattress.

The French man smiled warmly as the British one glared at the Italian. He slowly started approaching, doing his best to appear inviting as he took careful steps forward. "My lovelies, please understand that I'm not going to hurt you. We just want you to be safe. If the wrong people find out about what happened to that car, it could be trouble."

"Get back!" Alfred shouted. "How do we not know you're the wrong people? Stay back, I swear to God stay back!" He crouched down, planting his foot on one wall and his hand on the mattress.

"We're like you, remember? We all have strange gifts. That's how I was able to find you- when you used yours. Please, it hurts us to see you live like this. You deserve so much more, and we want to help you."

"Leave us alone! You're lying! Leave us alone! Go away! Please!" They were crying now; Feliciano noticed hot tears were leaking down his cheeks, too. He could only imagine what they were saying to each other as his friends tensed up more. In one violent moment, everything seemed to explode.

Alfred's strength surged, and he launched the mattress at the visitors as though it weighed nothing. Feliciano screamed, feeling Matthew jerk him off the floor and onto his back.

In that same instance, two other things happened. The British man shouted something in another language. Latin, Feliciano believed. " Incremento Gravitatis !" There was a flash of green light he could see through his shut eyelids, and a dull thud as the mattress immediately hit the ground.

The other thing was the French man shouting something at the top of his lungs. "Please! Enough! We do not need to fight!" The words felt strange- like there was something palpable in them. A familiar feeling washed over him, as though it were trying to calm him down. Feliciano dared to crack his eyes open.

The British man had his hands outstretched, the faintest green glow already fading away. French man had barely moved, and the Italian had fallen on the floor, his arms brought up part way to defend himself. Alfred and Matthew froze where they were.

"It was you! It was you making that feeling when you were talking to us! You were trying to control us?"

Francis' eyes widened. "Oh, no! My ability cannot do that to someone as powerful as you. Nor can Arthur's magic hurt you in any significant capacity, though it is good for stopping flying mattresses.

Arthur grumbled. "Bloody hell, it can do a lot more than that. No need to make me sound so pathetic." Francis only winked at him as the Brit helped Lovino to his feet. "Lovino, are you okay?"

"Y-yeah. I'm good. Startled me is all." He stretched, laughing as he turned back to them. "Kids, listen… there aren't a lot of people like us. So, freaks like us gotta stick together. Please… let us help. I know we seem sketchy. I know you have no reason to trust us, but we really can't let bad people get their hands on you, or things will be worse for everyone."

Alfred and Matthew hesitated, not sure what to do. Feliciano dared to look at the man named Lovino one more time. He felt something there; he didn't know if it was fear, or happiness, or something else entirely, but there was something in his chest, and he couldn't ignore the tears on the man's face as he pleaded with them. He tugged Alfred's shoulder. Matthew leaned his head back.

"I trust them, I think," Feliciano whispered in their ear, quiet enough for only them to be able to hear it. They looked at each other, and then his friend spent a moment staring at the mattress in the middle of the apartment.

"I… okay. Okay. Yeah, Okay… We'll go. But you're not allowed to lock us up! And we expect some answers!"

"Seems more than fair to me. We have a flight prepared if you want to leave now. We can help you gather your things," Francis grinned, looking more than triumphant. Arthur sighed in relief, his shoulders sagging. Lovino hunched over, looking relieved as well.

"A… A plane?" Alfred perked up, looking curious. Excited, even. "I've always wanted to go on a plane," he muttered, almost shyly.

It was Arthur's turn to smile. "We can show you how to fly one at some point, if you like. After we get you a safe place to stay and some better clothes."

"But I'll be the one cooking. Arthur can't make real food to save his god damn life!" Lovino interjected, already bumbling over to the little table on which a bunch of Feliciano's art supplies was sprawled. He glanced to the child for approval, who nodded, before putting crayons and pencils back into the box and stacking the paper together.

"Oh, shut the hell up, I'm not that bad!"

"Language, my dears! There are children present!" Francis scolded, crossing his arms.

"Fuck off," they retorted simultaneously.

Alfred and Matthew finally laughed, relaxing a bit. Feliciano rested his head on their shoulder as he watched the exchange. He couldn't help but feel good about his decision. Maybe they could finally get some answers now.