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You Either Die a Hero...

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“How come you’re always the one leading the meetings? I think the hero here should be the leader!”

England sighed irritably, rubbing his temple with one finger as he watched America interrupt poor Canada (again) in order to challenge Germany to leadership rights (again). Germany for his part just stared back at America exasperatingly before responding.

“Because I don’t interrupt other countries when it’s their turn, America. Now sit down and let, um,” he paused, brow wrinkling in confusion. “Whose turn was it again?”

“Does it matter?” Prussia drawled, balancing on the last two legs of his chair so precariously that England found himself vehemently wishing it would tip over, if only to knock that self-satisfied smirk off his arrogant face. Honestly, why he bothered coming to these meetings was beyond him; all he did was doodle, make snide commentary, and distract America whenever he finally got serious. “It’s lunchtime and the awesome me is starving.” To England’s great disappointment, instead of falling, his chair righted itself onto all four legs. “I’m feeling like pasta. What do you think, Italy?”

“Ve~!” Italy cooed happily, hopping out of his seat. “I love pasta!”

Prussia’s smirk widened. “I know.” He pushed back his chair noisily and started to saunter out of the meeting room after Italy. “You coming, West?”

Germany rubbed his face tiredly and sighed, resignation written across his face as he organized his papers. “Fine. We’ll break for lunch. Everyone report back to this conference room in no less than,” he glanced at his wristwatch, “one hour and thirty minutes. We will pick up with, um, whoever America interrupted.”

“It’s Canada,” the blond huffed softly, hugging Kumajiro tighter to his chest as America laughed loudly and hit him on the back.

“Sorry about that, bro. I forgot you were even here!”

“What else is new?” Canada muttered under his breathe.

“Anyway,” America continued unrepentantly. “You wanna grab some lunch? I’m dying for a burger. I’m sure we can find a good burger place if we hurry.” Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed Canada’s arm and dragged him out of the room.

“Eh? A-America, I don’t want-!” the closing door silenced the rest of his sentence, but England didn’t imagine it was hard to guess what he had been about to say.

A glance around the room confirmed that the only people left were Germany and Japan, who were already on their way out to catch up to Prussia and Italy, so that left-

“Mon Angleterre!”

France.

England closed his eyes slowly and counted to ten. However, when he opened them again he was still met with the sight of France’s leer less than six inches from his face. Irritated, he pushed him away. “What do you want, frog?”

The other blond just smiled in what England supposed he thought was a charming manner (it definitely wasn’t anything close, especially with England’s hand still pressed into the center of his face). “I was just wondering if perhaps mon Angleterre would be interested in catching up to the boys with me, hm?”

That made England pause and remove his hand. “You want me to spend my lunch watching America force those atrocious hamburgers onto Canada, with you?” He sneered. “I would actually like to be able to enjoy my meal, France.”

“Don’t be like that, Angleterre,” England absolutely hated the way he purred that, “I was thinking that perhaps, if we were there, we could distract America long enough to let mon petit Canada actually eat something befitting his sophisticated inherited palate.” He ushered England through the door, -when did they start moving? - before continuing. “Of course, I know you know nothing about those sorts of things…”

“Just wait one bloody minute, frog!”

England just knew this was going to be a horrible lunch.


 

To his great, bitter disappointment, he had been right. Lunch had proven to be a disastrous affair from the moment they walked into the restaurant America had whisked Canada into, only to realize it was the same place the others had gone to get their lunch as well.

When the distinct “kesesesesese” rang through the air, England was sorely tempted to turn around and walk out. He almost did, but France had grabbed his arm in a surprisingly iron hold and had dragged him to the table where the North American twins were –thankfully- sitting apart from the rest of the G7.

The relief was short-lived however, once he realized that America had managed to somehow strong-arm Canada into an eating contest while Kumajiro judged. The only help France, the treacherous snake, had provided was in talking them into ordering from the entire menu instead just hamburgers. He then got to spend the rest of their lunch break steadily getting more and more nauseous watching the youngest blonds at the table devour plate after plate of Italian food, with the occasional desert thrown in for variety.

His headache had only increased once Prussia had wandered over, beer in one hand and a bottle of wine for France in the other. Then he got to enjoy “keseses’s” and “honhonhon’s” along with sounds of half masticated food being swallowed until Germany had marched over, Italy slung over one shoulder and Japan besides him, to inform them that Italy had eaten too much gelato and he had to take him back.

When England had protested about the rest of the meeting, Germany had slid his gaze to the rest of his table and commented dryly on how he was sure “Italy wasn’t going to be the only one unable to continue today.” Glancing back, England had had to agree with him. Canada had been face down on the table, arms clutched tightly around his middle, groaning pathetically. Even America was looking a little uncomfortable, making drowsy pained noises every time he moved in his seat.

France and Prussia head been surrounded by empty bottles and well on their way to being uproariously drunk, their conversation a bastardized mixture of German and French, with a random Spanish phrase thrown in every once in a while, as if they kept on forgetting they were short one idiotic bad influence.

In the end, England had been very put-upon to gently lead Canada into a taxi and not-so-gently throw America in along with him, instructing the driver to take them to their hotel; they could find their ways to their rooms from there.

After abandoning France and Prussia to their debauchery, he had headed home, where he continued to ignore his grumbling stomach and had passed out in an undignified sprawl on his couch.

Now he woke to the morning sun shining cheerfully in his face, courtesy of the curtains he had forgotten to draw the day before. Grumbling, he stumbled off the couch, cursing colorfully when he stumbled into the coffee table.

“Of all the sodding inconvenient places…”

Rubbing his shin with one hand, he squinted at the grandfather clock tastefully placed near the opening into the hall.

“Nine forty-three?” He sighed, abandoning his shin to rub aggressively at his face. “I’m already behind today’s bloody workload and the day hasn’t even had the chance to properly begin. Brilliant.” He stretched, letting a self-satisfied “Ah” once his back popped, and then dragged himself into the kitchen to snatch up a scone and set his tea kettle on the stove before heading into his study.

Entering the room, he sighed once more at the sheer size of the mountain of paperwork that had accumulated while he had been preparing for the G7 meeting.

“Of course, why I’m even arsed to do this anymore is beyond me. Bollocks is what it is,” he muttered to himself as he flopped gracelessly onto his chair, listlessly shifting the papers into piles based on the immediacy of the attention they demanded, absently munching on his admittedly crunchy scone. Damned if he ever admitted it though.

Halfway through the first pile however, he looked up, brows furrowed in confusion. He could have sworn that he heard something underneath the crumbling of his pastry and the rustling of paper, something that sounded suspiciously like the floorboards in the hall giving underneath someone’s weight.

And there it was again, the subtle shifting of aged wood whispering tellingly to his alert senses. Whoever this was, they were trying to remain unheard. Someone had broken into his house.

The blond gently placed the papers back on the desk, steadying his grip on the remains of the scone. Alfred had once said they would make good baseballs, and unfortunately, the only other things he could use in his immediate vicinity were office supplies. Office supplies, didn’t he have an old letter opener around here, one that Antonio had given him once as a gag gift?

“Un regalo, amigo, to remind you that you used to defend your people with a different type of sword, once.”

Like he could forget, he mused as he started rummaging through his drawers. His cutlass was one of his prized possessions. He still polished it monthly and liked to pull it out every once in a while just to run his fingers along it, remembering the way the sunlight used to dance on its edge like fire.

His fingers were just grazing cool steel as the doorknob began to turn, causing him to still with his hand hopefully out of sight. He turned his upper body to face the opening door, steeling his expression. The last of his hope that he was just overreacting disappeared with the appearance of the person in his doorway; they were dressed in black clothes and heavy boots, but the most alarming aspect of their appearance was the simple black half mask covering their eyes and the leather gloves on their hands. This person meant business.

“Who are you,” Arthur began coolly, “and why are you in my house? This is private property.” He made a show of flicking his eyes up and down their person. “I should advice you, that there are more, diplomatic, manners of bringing my attention to personal agendas. My secretary is very good at getting messages to me promptly.”

The figure in the doorway just took a steady step into the room and closed the door with surprising gentleness. The click of the lock was finite in the silence that followed Arthur’s words.

“This is not a matter that I would take up with your secretary, or any human you employ.” Arthur’s eyebrows almost met his hairline. He hadn’t actually expected this man, -definitely a man, their voice was very deep- to answer him, let alone with such eloquence. He was dressed like a common cat burglar, for crying out loud, but he sounded like Roderich when he was on a roll.

“Surprised?” the stranger chuckled, adding even more to Arthur’s confusion. “I suppose you would be. You have no idea who I am, or what I’m here for, and yet here we are, having a nice chat in your home” there was something off about the emphasis he placed on the word, “office, while you brew tea downstairs. I’d ask if you would offer me some, but I much rather we cut to the chase, shall we?”

“For someone who wants to ‘cut to the chase,’ you have done a fine job of dodging my questions,” Arthur snapped, feeling his scone slowly turning into ash in his hand as he tightened his fist. “I do not want to repeat myself again; who are you and what do you want?”

“Who I am isn’t your concern, and I don’t want anything at all. I’m merely here to right a wrong.” With that statement he drew a long knife from a previously unseen hostler at his hip.

Arthur couldn’t help jerking back a little, stunned at the sight. “’Right a wrong’? Are you mad?” He narrowed his eyes. “You can’t kill England with a ruddy knife.”

“No, I don’t suppose I can.” The tilt of his head hinted that he was admiring the flat of his strangely dark blade even though he couldn’t see his eyes through the whited out eyeholes. “So it’s a good thing this knife is meant for Arthur Kirkland instead.”

Arthur had heard enough. He shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet, bending his knees slightly, and waiting for the other man to make the first move. He didn’t need to wait long; his attacker apparently truly meant business because he wasted no time in flipping the knife in his hand into a reverse hold, rushing at him around the wider opening to his desk. He was trying to back him into the bookcase on the narrow side, Arthur realized, where it’d be harder for him to run quickly.

Well, it was a good thing he didn’t plan on running. Arthur whipped the remains of his scone at his assailant’s face, using the momentary distraction to pull his hand out of the drawer, blocking the drastically slowed upward swing with the recovered letter opener. He had thought it a bit of a gaudy thing when Antonio had presented it to him, a nine and a half inch steel replica of a common pirate cutlass, with a mother of pearl handle carved with the image of a storm-blown ship, and bas relief crossbones decorating what little space was left on it. Now however, he was just thankful that the Spaniard had gone the extra length to get him something made of a sturdy metal, although the jolt he felt up his arm as he pushed his opponent’s knife to the side let him know it probably wouldn’t stand for too much brutality.

He shifted his grip on his weapon and readied himself not a moment too soon, hand already up to block the next attack. He could feel the muscles in his arm tensing in anticipation of the shock of metal meeting metal, his feet automatically adjusting and distributing his weight evenly to compensate for his weaving upper body. It was a dance he had never forgotten and he was glad for it.

He smirked slightly as he swiped another blow out of the way, taking an offensive swing at his attacker’s leading arm, catching part of the sleeve before he took a step back. Arthur didn’t give chase, choosing instead to ready his stance for a leap. Whether it be at this man or over his desk he had yet to decide.

“Right a wrong, you said?” He asked keeping his green eyes locked on the eyeholes of the black mask. “I don’t think I recall ever having met you before. Certainly I couldn’t have slighted you; you’re human, aren’t you?”

The masked man simply flipped his knife into a forward grip, squaring his shoulders. Arthur gritted his teeth. He wasn’t sure his letter opener would be able to stand blows with the amount of strength a few of those swings could deal.

“If you’re so insistent on killing me, the least you can do is tell me why.”

The man merely lunged forward, bringing his weapon down with a force that could surely shatter bone. Arthur leapt forward, right into the cradle created by the man’s outstretched arm and chest and sliced into the arm, catching him from mid-forearm to shoulder, before shoulder checking him as hard as he could manage. The man cried in pain, but to his credit tried to catch Arthur with his uninjured arm as he slipped past.

Arthur avoided it with all the slipperiness of an eel, pivoting on his heel to face his opponent once more from a safer distance, his letter opener in a defensive hold in front of his face, edge dulled with red.

“Next one is for your throat,” he stated calmly.

The intruder seemed to be assessing him with a calculating look, but it could have easily been scorn; it was impossible to tell with that mask.

“You don’t fight the way I expected you to,” he finally said, fingers tightening and relaxing around the dark hilt of the knife in the first show of hesitation that morning.

“Oh?” Arthur asked lightly. “And how did you expect me to fight?”

The man ignored him in favor of rushing around the desk for him again. This time however, Arthur was expecting him. He jumped onto his desk just as he got within arm’s reach, immediately swinging a leg out at his head, and bringing his letter opener down across his uninjured shoulder when he predictably dodged. This time when he stumbled, Arthur grabbed the back of his head and brought it down with his entire body onto the desk, staying in a crouch as he howled in pain and scrambled back.

It had been too long since he had felt so much bloodlust, and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t relishing it, savoring the way the adrenaline flooded his system and his senses turned razor sharp. However, the man’s next words cut his reminiscing short.

“You’ve just proven to me that our purpose is a true one.”

“I have no bloody clue what you’re on about,” Arthur snapped.

His intruder sneered. “You have tainted ancient blood in you, abomination, and you have sullied this world long enough with it. The time has come for a clean slate.”

Arthur just gaped at the man, at an utter loss for words. What the bloody hell was this lunatic talking about?

“‘A clean slate’?” Arthur was starting to feel like a parrot. “Killing me won’t destroy England; this land will continue to exist without me-,”

“I’m not talking about England,” the man was clutching his injured forearm, blood glistening on his leather gloves. “The time has come for you, Arthur Kirkland, to pay for your sins. All of you who took and pillaged what didn’t belong to you and plunged innocents into misfortune. You have all existed unpunished for far too long.” With that he lunged at Arthur again, catching him by surprise around the middle. Arthur felt the air leave his lungs, cursing vehemently for letting himself be caught off-guard. The force of the tackle slid them right off the desk, and in the moment they were airborne, Arthur was sure he caught the glimmer of something around his attacker’s neck, but they met the ground again far too quickly for him to spare it much thought.

He could feel the scrambling of the man above him, seeking the weapon he must have dropped. Quickly, Arthur wrapped both his arms tightly around his bleeding shoulders, throwing his weight back, planting his feet firmly on the ground. The man immediately arched into the hold, trying to ease the hold on his shoulders and separate the rest of his body from the dangerous one beneath him.

Not missing a beat, Arthur dropped his hips and curled his legs into the gap momentarily created between their bodies, unfurling his legs into a powerful kick, launching his opponent over his head, and straight out the window behind his desk.

Ignoring the glass falling over him, Arthur stumbled onto his feet, throwing himself at the windowsill just in time to see the quick-moving black shadow speeding away from the house.

Arthur slumped against the wall next to his broken window, allowing himself a moment to pant and assess his injuries. His arm felt heavy and his fingertips tingled, and his back and shoulders were still throbbing in time with his heartbeat. His face and palms also stung from the glass, but that hopefully wouldn’t prove to be anything more than an irritation. All in all, he had walked away from that better than he could have possibly hoped for.

Now though, he had time to reflect on what had just happened. A stranger had just broken into his house and attacked him with intent to kill. But why? Arthur grunted as he pushed away from the wall, absently recovering his letter opener and sticking it in his waistband. He had made it sound like he was part of a group, with talk of “our purpose.” A group that had sought him out, specifically him, Arthur, not England. This had been personal.

Distantly, his tea kettle began to whistle.

“All of you who took and pillaged what didn’t belong to you…”

Arthur froze. “All of you,” he breathed, eyes widening in panic. He wasn’t the only target.

Abomination.

Tainted ancient blood.

Arthur ran out of his study, practically jumping down his stairs and skidding into his living room. His jacket was still where he had left it the day before, thrown absently over his armchair. He dove for it, dirtied fingertips leaving smudges of red on the cloth as he dug into the pockets for his cellphone. A few quick swipes found him holding it to his ear, muttering under his breath as he listened to the ringing on the other side.

“Come on, Francis, pick up, pick up…”


 

Francis hummed softly to himself, setting the flour onto his kitchen counter. He took a step back and admired the spread with a critical eye.

“I should add some nutmeg,” he murmured, turning to the cupboard, rummaging for a bit before retrieving the correct bottle with a soft, “Aha!” Setting it on the counter, Francis let a content smile spread across his lips. Now he had all the necessary ingredients to make the perfect breakfast puffs.

The blond glanced at the clock on his oven as he pulled his hair back into a low ponytail. Nine-thirty, plenty of time to make the puffs before he had to meet Antonio. And, if he timed himself correctly, he had just enough time to take some to a certain grumpy Englishman before he finally killed himself trying to eat one of those atrocious scones. Francis shuddered at the memory of watching Alfred eat burnt and undercooked scones indiscriminately, Arthur smiling smugly as he nibbled on his own charred concoction.

Francis could only be thankful that Mathieu was more scrupulous about what he put in his mouth, even if he did have an unfortunate penchant for smothering everything in maple syrup.

Perhaps he’d save him and his brother some of the breakfast puffs, if they could stand to stomach anything after yesterday. Francis chuckled. Two of the world’s strongest nations, yet they still fell victim to such silly childish behavior when they were around each other for too long. Not that Alfred needed much encouraging, but it always lightened his heart to see his Mathieu shed his bashfulness and get feisty. It made Arthur’s influence stand out much more clearly in his personality.

Thoughts turning to the older blond-haired nation, Francis frowned slightly as he began sifting his dry ingredients together. Arthur had vanished not long after Ludwig had left, not even bothering with a “by your gone” as he herded Mathieu and Alfred ahead of him. Not only had it been incredibly ungentlemanly of him, he had stuck Gilbert and himself with the bill for the boys’ eating contest as well!

He turned on his mixer, watching the butter and sugar mix for a beat before adding an egg. Honestly, Arthur was still every bit the ruffian he had been years ago underneath all that stiff upper lip posturing he did. It was just a matter of badgering him just the right amount in the right atmosphere to get him to reveal it. It could be terrifying, Francis mused, smoothly alternating adding the dry ingredients and milk into the mixture with just a dash of vanilla, but at the same time it could be riveting to see those green eyes shining with the threat of violence. It made teasing him all that much more fun.

Francis poured his mixture into the greased muffin tins and promptly slipped them into the waiting oven. There, now he had twenty-five minutes to clean up a little bit. It wouldn’t do to have anyone see him like this, hair messily tied and sleeves wrinkled where they were rolled up, flour streaked across his pants. He was wiping his hands on a dishtowel when he heard the kitchen door opening and closing behind him.

“Tonio, you’re a little early, mon ami…” Francis trailed off as he turned around. This man wasn’t Antonio. He was the right height and he appeared to have brown hair, but that was where the similarities ended. This man was quite broad across the shoulders, and he stood at the other end of his kitchen with an aura of danger around him, only emphasized by the suspicious black mask he wore and the long knife he held in one hand.

“I’m not the conquistador.”

“I take it you’re not selling delicious girl scout cookies either, monsieur?” Francis asked lightly, slowly setting the dishtowel on the counter, eyes not leaving the intruder for a moment. He kept his hand on the counter as casually as he could, quickly estimating how long it would take him to get to the knife block on the kitchen island versus how quickly the man’s admirably thick legs could get him across the kitchen. It would be a pretty close call, he mused grimly.

“No, I’m not,” his unexpected visitor grumbled, and the tensing on his frame was the only warning he gave before he was coming at him at full-speed. Francis’ eyes widened at the lack of preamble, but he threw himself over his kitchen island and out of the way of an outstretched gloved hand just in time. Rolling on his shoulder, Francis stuck his hand out and thankfully felt his fingers wrap around a cool wooden handle, landing on his feet lightly, the sharp shlitk of the slicing knife echoing in the kitchen.

“Now, let’s not be rash,” Francis started, “I don’t even know your name and I would hate to bloody my floors.” He flicked his free hand around. “I just had them cleaned, you know, and Gilbert won’t be so easily fooled twice.”

“Your kind never takes anything seriously.”

Francis blinked. “My kind? Les Françaises?”

“You nations,” he hissed the word like a curse.

Now Francis was even more confused. “I take it you must have not met Germany yet.”

“Enough talk!” the man snapped. “Your tyranny ends now.”

“Monsieur Bonaparte died almost two-hundred years ago,” the blond dead-panned, adjusting his grip on the knife, “I believe there may be a misunderstanding here.”

“There is no mistake; the time has come for the ancient regime to fall.”

Before Francis could say another word, the man rushed around the island, bringing the knife down over his head. Francis ducked to the side, bringing his knife up to block the redirected swing coming at his ribs. He gritted his teeth against the shudder the impact rang up his arm, and threw a punch at the man’s face. He felt his fist make contact with the soft flesh of his cheek as he turned away, but the force still had his attacker stumbling back a step. Francis almost laughed at the sound of surprise that escaped that mouth, but didn’t have any time as he gave an enraged shout and lunged at him again, this time aiming the long knife straight at his stomach.

Francis turned on the ball of his foot, feeling the flat of the blade skim his shirt as ran his own knife across his attacker’s upper arm, jerking back in surprise when the man executed a surprisingly nimble turn to grab his forearm. Francis grunted as he was thrown into the island, the marble surely bruising his back. His attacker didn’t give him any time to recover his breathe before he fell upon him, one hand immediately going for the wrist that held the slicing knife, the other bringing the long knife towards his neck. Francis grabbed for that arm, stopping it a scant few inches from his pounding pulse.

They stood like that for a moment, neither man giving an inch to the other. This close, Francis could see the sweat beading across his assailant’s upper lip, the snarl twisting his thin lips and the surprisingly straight white teeth behind them. However, Francis’ eyes were drawn further down, where he could see a ball link chain gleaming at the other man’s throat. It was tucked underneath his black collar, but Francis could just make out a thick golden band. Too asymmetrically thick to be a wedding band, but familiar nonetheless.

Francis paid for his momentary lapse of attention when the man pushed the knife with a sudden renewal of strength, skimming the pale skin of his throat before he managed to stop it once again. He could feel the blood oozing out of the shallow cut with each beat of his heart. Looking back up at the man, Francis could see no hesitation on the uncovered portion of his face. This man intended to kill him, doubtlessly.

Well, greater men had tried and failed as well.

The blond flipped his knife through his fingers, -a littler clumsier than he would have liked, but they were going numb- and flicked it as hard as he could with his limited mobility. To his relief, his aim proved true and his knife sailed into the injury he had caused earlier. It wasn’t an incapacitating attack by any means, but it was enough to startle the man into loosening the hold on his wrist, which was enough.

Francis wrenched his wrist free and threw another punch at his attacker’s face, landing his fist into the same place he had before, this time with a satisfying crack. Ignoring the howl of pain, Francis threw his hand back and grasped for the mixing bowl left on the island, slamming it into his attacker’s face as well.

The force sent him tumbling a little before he released his own hold on the dizzy man’s wrist, but he turned his stumble into a spin, ending in a firm kick that sent the other across the floor.

“Now, monsieur,” Francis panted a little more harshly than he would have liked, picking a boning knife from the block this time, other hand still gripping the mixing bowl, “would you like to enlighten me as to why you’re here?”

The other man just spat at his feet. “I owe you nothing,” he intoned. “I’m just surprised your kind bleeds after all.”

Francis raised a dainty eyebrow. “Of course I do. I’m alive, oui?”

“For too long,” he sneered, sitting up. “But that will change soon enough.” Francis watched wearily as he slowly got onto his knees, his eyes once again being drawn to the glitter at his throat. This time he could see the ring, for it truly was a ring, had slipped out of his shirt, laying in sharp contrast to all the black. It was a thick ring with a flat head, the type worn by university alumni.

“That is a lovely ring,” he gestured with one of the fingers holding the bowl. “To what university does it belong to?”

The man froze suddenly at the question, the visible parts of his face paling. Before Francis could ponder this any further, he suddenly lunged forward, grabbing the abandoned slicing knife on the floor and hurling it at the nation with full-force.

Francis yelped and brought the bowl up, both hearing and feeling the force of the knife skid across its smooth surface, nicking one of his fingers in the process. He heard the kitchen door slam, and he knew without looking that his assailant was gone. Lowering the bowl he was proven right when the only thing that met his sight was a still trembling door, and a smear of blood on the floor. Regardless of the severity of the situation, Francis couldn’t help the pang of irritation that shot through him. “My floor…”

Striding across the room, Francis locked the door and cautiously peeked out the window, not knowing how to feel when the only thing that met his eyes was his own undisturbed lawn. Nothing gave any indication that a mad man had just assaulted him.

Sighing, Francis turned back to his kitchen, surveying the discarded knives and the thick leftover batter that had splattered when he grabbed the bowl. The electric mixer stand was lying on its side on the island, covered in flour from the upturned bag. A true mess.

His musings were interrupted by the shrill ringing of his cellphone, surprisingly untouched by the chaos in the rest of the room. He made his way to where it was charging on the counter, absently dropping the bowl into the sink next to it. Picking it up, he ignored his shaking fingers as he brought it up to his ear. “Allo?”

“Francis! About bloody time you answered me! What the hell were you doing?”

“Arthur?”

“No, it’s the blasted Queen of England,” the voice on the other end snapped.

“I’m sure you look dashing in your gown,” Francis laughed forcefully, running a hand through his tangled hair.

“Francis? Are you okay?” Arthur didn’t phrase it so much as a question as a demand for a positive response.

“Honestly, mon cher? I have no idea,” Francis turned to survey the room once again, eyes hesitating on one specific spot.

“Were you attacked too?”

Francis paused. “’Too?’ You were attacked, Arthur?” His heart picked right back up. “Are you alright?”

“I could hardly be speaking to you if I wasn’t, don’t be daft.”

Francis let out a breathe of relief. “I’m glad. This man did not appear to be playing games when he came in.”

“So it was a man as well?” Arthur’s voice was sharp. “Black clothing? A mask?”

The Frenchman had made his way over to his oven. “Oui, and a peculiar long knife.”

Arthur swore. “Same here. What time?”

Francis tucked his phone between his ear and shoulder, opening his oven gently. “He just ran off not two minutes before you rang.”

“So not the same man, then.”

“Non, I do not believe that would be possible.”

Francis suddenly let out a laugh, startling the blond on the other end into fumbling with his phone. “What’s wrong?”

“Rien, rien,” Francis continued to chuckle, “It’s just that despite everything, my breakfast puffs are still perfect.”

“Be serious, frog!”

“Desole, mon cher.”

“And stop calling me that,” Arthur snapped. “Did the man that attacked you say anything useful? I don’t think this is going to end with us.”

That sobered Francis right up. “Why?”

“Because the man who attacked me said it was time for ‘all of us who pillaged what wasn’t ours’ to pay, and for a cleansing of ‘tainted ancient blood.’”

That made the hairs on the back of Francis’ neck stand up. “The man who attacked me mentioned that it was time for ‘the ancient regime to fall,’” he said slowly, casting his memory for more little details he may have missed. “He called me a tyrant, said our kind didn’t take anything seriously.”

“The French?”

Francis could feel his lips twitch upwards at Arthur’s weak attempt at humor. The other man knew how well he took the subject of tyranny. “Non, although I asked the same thing.”

“Anything else?”

Something tickled the back of his mind. “When I heard him come in, I thought he was Antonio. He said he ‘wasn’t the conquistador.’” Dread pooled heavily in his stomach. “You don’t think-?” But Arthur was already cursing up a storm.

“Bloody hell, this a right cock up,” he exclaimed. “Is Antonio supposed to be headed your way?”

Francis busied his hands mechanically dipping the puffs in cinnamon sugar, ignoring how his trembling was making the coverage uneven. “He should be; we were supposed to meet at eleven.”

“Well see if you can get him to hurry up,” Arthur paused, his breathing causing static to buzz down the line. “And then both of you head back here.”

Francis’ eyebrows flew up. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“The Ritz continues to employ the security measures from the G7 meeting for a few days afterwards,” Arthur explained impatiently. “We can stay there while we sort this out, at least for the next couple of days.”

“Somehow, mon amour, I don’t believe this will be over that quickly.”

For once Arthur didn’t snap at him for the pet name. “No, I don’t think so either, but it’s what we have to work with for now.” There was another pregnant pause. “I-I’m going to check in on Alfred and Matthew.”

Francis felt his heart leap into his throat before frowning pensively. “You couldn’t possibly think they would be a part of this; they’re too young.”

“I just want to make sure,” Arthur bit back. “Francis, what we know right now is, quite frankly, nothing. We don’t know who these men are, or why they’re doing this. The only thing we do know is that they would have happily killed us had we been less prepared.

“And if they intend to try again,” he continued, “then it’s in our best interest to be overly prepared.”

There was a beat of silence where the only noise was the soft slithering of cinnamon sugar sliding together before Francis broke it. “In that case,” he sighed, “it would be best to check up on the rest of the G7; perhaps we can get a better idea of who exactly is and isn’t a target if we start with who’s already there.”

Arthur made a noise of approval. “That’s actually a good idea. Alright, I’ll call Alfred, Matthew, and Kiku. I’ll leave Gilbert, Ludwig, and Feliciano to you.”

Francis nodded absently, forgetting Arthur couldn’t see him. “I’ll call them after I call Antonio, mon cher.”

“Of course,” Arthur conceded. “Keep me updated. And,” a pause, “keep safe, alright, Francis?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say my name so often, mon amour,” Francis teased lightly. “It sounds magnifique.”

“Shut up, you git, I’m serious. Don’t let your guard down; the last bloody thing we all need is to have to hold the doubtlessly distasteful funeral you have planned.”

Francis chuckled. “Very well. I’ll stay on my guard, just for you.”

“I’m hanging up now,” Arthur said flatly, already sounding far away.

“Wait Arthur!” Francis cried. When the phone continued to display the continued connection, he let out a breathe. “Just, let me know how the boys are? S’il te plait?”

Arthur let out an irritated hiss. “Of course I will, stop asking stupid questions. Call me when you’re on your way.” Francis opened his mouth, but was met with the dial tone before he could respond.

Huffing softly, Francis wiped his hand absently with the long abandoned dishtowel before plucking the phone out of the cradle created by his ear and shoulder. He stared at Arthur’s contact name for a beat –“Rosbif”- before scrolling down on his call log and hitting Antonio’s name, holding his breath as the line rang.

“Hola, Francis!” Francis closed his eyes, his breath escaping his chest in one long, thankful sigh.

“Dieu merci, Antonio, are you alright?”

“Um, si, I just left my house. Is everything okay?”

Francis rubbed his eyes with the back of his wrist. “I’m afraid not, mon ami.”

“Did Gil get arrested again?”

Francis laughed shortly. “Non, at least, he hadn’t been when I last saw him. He would probably be safer in a jail cell right now, however.”

“Francis, what’s wrong?” Antonio really wasn’t the type of person suited for being worried, and it made the blond hate to be the cause of that wary note entering his voice.

“We may have a bit of a complication on our hands right now, Tonio.”

“How much is ‘a bit’?”

“Big enough that we’re going to the airport as soon as you get here. Which you should be doing as quickly as you can. And possibly don’t venture far from well-populated streets on your way, if you can.”

There was a pause on the other end, teeming with all the questions Francis knew Antonio no doubt had by now. However, he only asked one.

“Should I bring my axe?”

Francis could have kissed him. He probably would, actually. “Oui, mon ami,” he admitted quietly, eyes falling onto the drying red streak on his floor. “That’s probably for the best right now.”

Chapter Text

Ivan hummed happily to himself, admiring the changing leaves on the trees around him as he walked along his path, enjoying the give of the fallen leaves underneath his feet. He stepped down a little more forcefully on a particularly dry leaf, smiling at the muted crunch it gave before it was ground to dust.

It was a good day for a walk, he mused. Nice and crisp, just chilly enough for him to comfortably wear his scarf and coat, but not cold enough to warrant having General Winter hovering over his shoulder just yet. An even better day for visiting friends, which made Yao’s invitation ever the more lovely.

Ivan’s smile dimmed a little. It was almost enough to take him mind off the fact that his other friends were having a G8 –or G7 now- meeting without him, and that he couldn’t even look at his older sister anymore without having her run away in alarmingly shoulder-shaking sobs.

He shook the unpleasant thoughts away as he approached a small wooden bridge over a lazy river; it was just a short way to Yao’s home from the other side. His trip was off the main path, but it was a much more scenic route that allowed him to enjoy the changing leaves and the sharp air. Plus, it had the additional bonus of leading him straight into Yao’s backyard. Watching the smaller man jump three feet in the air never got old. 

Smile brightening again, Ivan started across the bridge before slowing down. There was a man already making his way across the bridge, and quite determinedly as well. Perhaps he was late for an appointment? Although the kind of appointment that required all black clothing and a mask couldn’t possibly be a good one.

Ivan felt his brow furrowing in confusion as the man showed no signs of stopping as they both approached the middle of the bridge. Surely he didn’t think that he could force him out of the way; the man was admittedly a big man, broad-shouldered, thick-necked and at least as tall as him, but he was Russia

“Ah, prasteete-,” Ivan cut himself off as his hand automatically shot out to catch the sudden swing at his neck. He blinked at the snarling face before switching his glance to the long black knife centimeters from his jugular.

“You are quick,” he commented lightly, giving the thick wrist in his grasp a squeeze, feeling the bones grind together, “but I am quicker.”

Ivan tilted his head to the side, giving the struggling man a closer look. He was just as big as he had guessed, and tall enough for him to easily peer into the whited out eyeholes of his mask. Despite all appearances of a common thug, Ivan could tell this man was not lacking in resources; the clothes he wore were neither faded with age nor were they in any particular stage of wear. In fact, Ivan was sure he had seen Alfred wear more ragged clothes to world meetings than this man was wearing right now. He narrowed his eyes. Something was not right.

“Who are you?” he pulled the man closer, “And why did you try to attack me? Poorly, may I add.” He couldn’t help but giggle at the end.

“You are a monster,” the man spoke in surprisingly unaccented English and with little prompting.

“You are not the first to call me that,” Ivan told him pleasantly, “but that did not answer my first question. Who are you?”

“I owe you nothing.”

“No?” Ivan hummed thoughtfully. “You did try to kill me.”

“I haven’t failed yet,” and with that, the man pulled out a small dagger and stuck it deep into Ivan’s right forearm, twisting his other arm out of his hold once it slackened in surprise.

He didn’t waste any time in swinging his freed knife at Ivan again, this time aiming for his injured side. Ivan leaned out of the way, grimacing slightly. This man was smart too, he concluded as he continued to back away from the frenzied swings. Every time he tried to grab for him again with his left hand, he’d redirect his aim for his injured arm, forcing him to choose between twisting to grab him and placing himself in a vulnerable position, or backing up once more. He couldn’t figure out if that man was purposefully trying to get them back to solid ground or if he was honestly hoping one of his swings would land.

Regardless, this was getting annoying. Ivan grit his teeth behind his scarf and took a big leap back, visibly startling the other man as he groped for the rope railing as the bridge shook precariously. Wasting no time, Ivan ripped the dagger out of his arm, ignoring the fresh stream of blood now running down his arm, and pulled his pipe out with the other. Holding a bloody dagger in one hand and a steadily bloodier and bloodier pipe in the other, Ivan was sure he cut an impressive figure. Sure enough, the other man was shifting on his feet, finally looking a little unsettled.

“Vy khotite chtoby tantsevat?” Ivan asked pleasantly, a sharp grin cutting across his face. “Khorosho, my tantsuyem.”

Do you want to dance? Fine, we will dance.


 

Arthur stormed into his bedroom, ripping a small duffel bag out of the closet and throwing clothes into it seemingly at random, intently focusing on the ringing coming from the phone nestled in his shoulder. After a small eternity –during which he swore he could feel his hair whitening- the call finally connected. 

“What?” Arthur never thought he’d be as happy as he was to hear Alfred’s whiny disgruntled morning voice at that moment.

“Alfred, are you still at the hotel?”

“Uh, yeah, I think so.”

“What do you mean ‘you think so’? This isn’t a bloody guessing game; you either are or you aren’t!”

“What pissed in your tea this morning, jeez,” Arthur could hear the slow shifting that doubtlessly accompanied the younger man flopping over like a dead octopus. “I just woke up; I don’t even know what day it is. Where’s Texas?”

“How the bloody hell should I-,” Arthur found himself reflexively spitting back before snapping his jaw shut. It was too easy to fall into this habit with Alfred, but time wasn’t on his side.

“Alfred,” he started again, tossing a few pairs of socks into his duffel on his way to his closet. “I need you to listen closely and answer me. Are you still in the hotel?”

“Well dude,” he could hear the exasperation in the drawl, “I just said I woke up and everything around me is still fancy and British, so I’m gonna say yeah, still at the Ritz.”

“Is your brother with you?”

“Mattie?”

“No, the other one,” Arthur rolled his eyes, pulling an old richly stained box from the top shelf. “Yes, Matthew!”

“Jeez! Shoot a guy for asking a question!” Alfred was starting to sound more and more awake. “Yo, Mattie! You in here-, oh, there you are. Why didn’t you say anything?”

Arthur could hear a groggy voice croaking something in the background that didn’t sound quite like English.

“Bro, English. I don’t speak desperate pervert.” A longer, much more coherent sounding stream of French followed. “That was just mean, man.” A pause where Arthur assumed Matthew had spoken too softly for the speaker to pick up. “Well yeah, but I can tell when I’m being insulted.”

“I’m sure you have plenty of experience on the matter,” Matthew must have moved closer to the phone.

“Cold! See if I ever let you crash here again!”

“BOYS! Focus!” Arthur yelled, finally losing his patience.

There was a pause before, “Is that Arthur?”

“Oh, yeah. He’s being all weird and shifty.”

“I am not being weird, you wanker, I was checking up on you,” Arthur could feel the vein Francis had dubbed “North America” throbbing on his forehead.

“Why?”

“What happened?”

Alfred sounded completely confounded while Matthew’s voice spiked with just the beginnings of anxiety. Good lad, at least one of them had a level head on his shoulders.

“I don’t have time to explain on the phone, but I need both of you to stay put; I’m on my way there,” he set the box he had still been holding onto the bed gently, opening the cracking lid with the utmost care.

“Woah,” Alfred sounded alarmed, “It was only one floor, the manager even said it wasn’t a big deal.”

“Wha-,” Arthur stopped himself. “You know what, no; I don’t want to know, actually.” The lid opened the rest of the way and he was left looking at a cutlass nestled in velvet. “I just need both of you to stay in …the hotel.” Asking them to stay in the room would have been too much, he realized. Alfred would go streaking down the halls just to spite him. As it were, Arthur just hoped Matthew would be able to keep his brother in the building. “I’ll be there soon.”

“Arthur, what’s going on?” Arthur’s heart wrenched at the concern layered in Matthew’s tone. He wished he could offer them some words of comfort, but the boys were too old for empty words now.

“I’m not entirely sure,” he strapped the scabbard around his waist, ignoring the twinges of pain still pulsing across his back. “But it might be bad. All I can tell you right now is that we’re going to be staying at the Ritz for the next few days, as a precaution.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Francis, Antonio and myself,” Arthur picked up his still quite light duffel bag and made his way out of the room. “And possibly a few more. Do you know if the other blokes are still in the hotel, by chance?”

“I heard Feliciano running down the hall last night,” Matthew offered, “And Ludwig chasing him. I don’t know about Gilbert or Kiku though.”

“Kiku’s still here,” Alfred’s voice sounded fainter, as if he were leaning away from phone. “He just texted me asking if I wanted to grab breakfast.”

Arthur let a sigh out through his nose. Three out of four wasn’t so bad. “Hopefully Gilbert’s still around as well. Or in a holding cell,” he muttered thoughtfully.

“Arthur, man, what the fuck is going on? You’re freaking me out.” The shrill note of panic was starting to edge into Alfred’s voice.

“Asking me continuously won’t magically grant me the answer, lad,” He locked the door to his office as he walked past. “I’ve told you all I can over the phone.” Arthur bypassed the jacket still lying on the couch and instead went into his hall closet. He pulled out a dark, quite ordinary looking coat from the back, wrinkling his nose at the musty smell lingering on the thick cloth before pulling it on. “Put Matthew back on, if you would.”

Matthew must have been leaning over Alfred’s shoulder because there was immediately the sound of a muffled struggle before Matthew’s voice flooded his ear once more. “Yes?”

“Matthew, I need you two to listen to me and do not leave the hotel under any circumstance. And if you see any of the others, please pass along the message.”

“I-uh, of course, but,” Arthur could hear Matthew chewing on his lip, “Arthur, are you alright?”

Different means than his brother, but still asking for the same information. “Go have brekkie with your brother and Kiku, Cub,” Arthur said instead, hoping the roughness of his voice didn’t strip the words of the lightness he intended. “The Ritz has buffet style breakfasts; there should be just enough food to keep you two entertained.”

There was a pause on the other end. “Arthur…”

“Matthew. Please.”

“…Fine. We’re not saving you any, so you better have already eaten.”

He winced as his stomach gave a rumble on cue, reminding him that he’d only had half a scone for breakfast. “I believe I’ll manage.”

Something in his tone must have given him away because Matthew’s voice immediately lost its edge. “Or if you really want something, I can always ask Papa to whip something up when he gets here.”

Arthur snorted, locking the front door behind him. “Like I’d voluntarily eat anything the bloody frog makes. Keep him out of the kitchens, Matthew. Him and Antonio both. Heaven knows they very well can’t leave anything alone, and those chefs know what they’re doing. You know, too many cooks-,”

“‘Spoil the broth,’” The echo let him know Alfred had joined in as well. “Yeah, we know, Arthur.”

“Good.” There was lull as he walked around his car, mindful of any tampering that could have occurred. When everything appeared in order, he slid into the driver’s seat. “Alright lad, I have to go now. I’ll see you in a few.”

“Ah, right,” Matthew agreed.

“...Cub, you have to ring off, now.”

“Right.”

“Alright,” Arthur coughed. “Good bye.”

“Just, be careful, eh?”

“I will be, don’t worry.”

“Never thought I’d see the day where I wouldn’t believe him,” Alfred muttered in the background. Arthur chose to ignore him.

“See you soon, Arthur.” Matthew said softly.

Arthur waited until the phone beeped before pulling it away from his ear, staring at the screen as it flashed briefly, announcing that he’d been on the line for twenty-three minutes and fourteen seconds with “Bloody Yankee.” No messages from Francis, he noticed, frowning.

Arthur let his head thump softly on the steering wheel, closing his eyes and ignoring his protesting stomach for the time being. He took a deep breathe, and then one more, trying to enjoy what he strongly suspected would be the last moments of peace he’d have for a long time.


 

“What do you mean he’s not there?” 

“Exactly what I said,” Ludwig grumbled over the phone. “He left last night.”

“How?” Francis demanded, ignoring the vulgarities flying their way from passing cars as they swerved in and out of traffic.

“I received a call at midnight that our private plane left the airport, with only one passenger, G. Beilschmidt,” Ludwig answered automatically before he audibly paused. “Why are you so concerned?”

“So he should already be in Germany, oui?” Francis ignored him, mentally calculating the amount of time it would take to get from London to Berlin. A little under two hours, especially on a private plane.

“I don’t think I want to be answering any of your questions if you won’t answer mine,” Ludwig said tersely. “Now, why do you want to know where my brother is?”

Francis smoothly flipped off a driver who honked at them a little too aggressively, before looking over at Antonio. “Can you go any faster, Tonio? Our plane leaves in thirty minutes.”

Antonio smiled sunnily at him, taking his eyes off the blurring road for one heart-stopping second. “Of course!” He pressed on the accelerator and yanked the steering wheel to the side, practically skimming the side of a minivan full of screaming women and gawking children.

“Francis,” Ludwig’s voice was full of steel. “Why is Antonio driving?”

“He drives faster, and we’re in a hurry,” he grabbed for the overhead handle as Antonio executed a hairpin turn at the last minute, the axe and sword in the back shifting dangerously.

“He’s had his license revoked in France!”

“In Saint-Germain-en-Laye, actually.”

“That’s where you live!”

“Well, yes,” Francis conceded, “but we’re no longer in Saint-Germain; we’re in Paris.”

“Saint-Germain is in Paris,” Ludwig grit out.

“We do not have time to worry about silly things, Ludwig,” Francis snapped, “I need to know if Gilbert has landed or not.”

“And I need to know why you need to know so desperately, and what it has to do with you breaking the law in your own country.”

“Arthur and I were attacked, and I presume you weren’t, if you’re asking me so many questions.”

“Attacked?” Ludwig’s voice rose. “And you think Gilbert might be as well?”

“We don’t know,” Francis admitted, bracing himself daintily with one foot on the dashboard as Antonio hit the brakes dry to avoid a jaywalker. “So far, only Arthur and myself have been, but we have reasons to suspect there will be others.”

“So you think the rest of the G7 is next?” Ludwig sounded skeptical. “Spain isn’t a member.”

“Non,” Francis agreed, waving off the cursing jaywalker as they sped up again. “But my attacker made it clear that Antonio might be next.”

“What does that-,”

“We’re on our way back to London now,” Francis interrupted. “Arthur says the Ritz will hold their high security for a few days.”

“So you want to call my brother back to join us?”

“Well, non,” Francis shrugged at Antonio’s raised eyebrows. “If he is out of the country, he may be safer back home.”

Francis could practically hear Ludwig turning ideas and worst case scenarios over in his head, so much so that dread had already pooled in his stomach before Ludwig spoke up again.

“His plane landed in Vienna, not Berlin.”

“Putain!”


 Roderich sifted through his mail, mouthing addresses to himself as he made his way leisurely down the hall. It was a nice day for some cake and coffee, he mused to himself, humming along to the music drifting from his study. It was not the type of music he would normally listen to, but even he had urges to listen to modern music from time to time. It was just a matter of making sure nobody ever caught him doing it; he would never hear the end of it, especially from one particularly annoying breed of Prussian.

Roderich stopped in midstride just past the opening to his living room; he tilted his head back and yes, that was the sound of a snore. Backing up, Roderich peaked into the room and his eyes fell on a sprawled mess of limbs and white hair on his couch. Closing his eyes, Roderich counted backwards from ten, but when he opened them again, there was still a snoring albino in his living room, at ten in the morning, when he should have been in London.

“Gilbert!”

Gilbert gave a rather impressive spasm right off the couch, landing on the floor in a flurry of colorful curses. Roderich only stared impassively, gracing him with a slightly raised eyebrow when he glared.

“What the hell was that for, Specs?”

“I think the real question here is: why are you in my house?” Roderich countered. “I was under the impression that your stay in London would extend over three days; you’ve only been gone two.”

Gilbert shrugged. “I got bored."

“You got bored.”

“Mhm,” he sat up and stretched his arms over his head leisurely. “The topics weren’t nearly awesome enough for me, so I left. West can handle the last day without me.”

“You can’t just leave in the middle of a G7 meeting; that’s uncouth.”

“’Uncouth’? Seriously?” Gilbert stared incredulously at him. “Do you and Arthur get together and agree to talk like you have sticks up your asses or something?”

Roderich sniffed. “I’m sorry if the idea is beyond you, but a sophisticated vocabulary is-,”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re a priss, I get it,” Gilbert ambled to his feet. “Besides, I think the meeting was actually cancelled or something. Francis also went home, and Arthur disappeared in the middle of the day.” He smirked. “The Wonder Twins ate themselves into a coma or something too.”

“Roderich rubbed the bridge of his nose. “And how exactly are you the seven leading powers?”

“Good looks?” Gilbert shrugged. “Hey, that means you have a shot at getting in!” He slapped Roderich on the back as he stopped next to him.

Roderich shot him a dry look, ignoring the flush he could feel trying to creep up his neck. “You never answered why you were in my house.”

Gilbert’s expression brightened. “Oh yeah, I brought you a present!”

A present? For me?” Roderich was skeptical. “From London?”

“Nah,” the albino slung an arm around his neck. “From Poland.”

Roderich furrowed his eyebrows. “You had time to go visit Feliks?”

Gilbert snorted. “Hell no. This was something I picked up the last time I was there.”

“Weren’t you arrested the last time you were there?” Roderich could vaguely recall Ludwig running around, yelling about having to go bail his brother out a few months ago. “Something about public nudity?” Was that in Poland or Turkey that time?

“Nein, that was Pakistan, I think. I was taking a piss and some lady thought I was flashing her.”

“Charming.”

“Anyway,” Gilbert said loudly. “Feliks was having an exhibit on the Teutonic Knights in one of his museums, and guess what I found?”

“Mein Gott, you stole from a museum?” Roderich gaped at him.

“Hey!” Gilbert finally pulled away in order to cross his arms. “It’s not stealing if it was mine.”

“I find it hard to believe that defense actually worked.” Roderich crossed his own arms, frowning disapprovingly right back.

“I still have it, don’t I?” Gilbert shot right back, jerking a thumb behind him.

Roderich glanced behind Gilbert and then did a double-take. “Is that a sword?”

“That’s my sword,” Gilbert puffed out his chest proudly. “Still in awesome condition too.”

“Why is it on my wall?” Roderich couldn’t believe he had missed it before; it stood out like a sore thumb among the rest of his rococo interior. It was over three feet long and polished to a shine, the light blade a sharp contrast to the black leather wrapped around the handle. Even from this distance, Roderich could see the inlaid cross gleaming in the pommel.

It was an ordinary sword, quite frankly, a functional blade made of steel with a straight cross guard and a well-worn handle. None of the pomp and circumstance of the swords they all carried years later, but very obviously well-cared for, if it had survived this long in that condition.

“I thought it would add a little awesome to your uptight house,” Gilbert interrupted his musings, still standing there with all the bearings of a cat that had brought home a dead bird expecting praise.

“And what made you think I would possibly want your old Crusader sword as part of my décor?” Roderich waved a hand elegantly at the rest of his living room, where velvet and gently swirling designs dominated, not a single medieval thing in sight.

“Well, I was your knight, once,” Gilbert said it with such a self-satisfied smirk, Roderich had already opened his mouth to tell him off before the words processed.

“I-,”

The shrill ringing of the phone interrupted him. Thankfully, he thought privately.


 “You fight well,” Ivan regarded the man before him with curiosity, noting that although he now stood in a way that obviously favored one leg and his ribs, he still held the knife in an offensive manner, ready to strike should he let his guard down. He could feel the loss of blood acutely himself, along with the offbeat throbbing from the various other nicks and scrapes he had accumulated. He was a little more hurt than he was comfortable admitting, even to himself; he knew he would be feeling these injuries for days.

“You are quite strong too,” he titled his head to the side, “Where did you learn to fight?”

“That is none of your concern, abomination,” his foe rasped out before running a tongue over bloodied lips.

“Nyet? But you have attacked me unprovoked-,”

“None of this is unprovoked!” the other man snarled in a burst of emotion that startled Ivan.

“You’ve all been asking for this, you especially!”

“Me?” Ivan’s furrowed brows and confused pout would have been endearing had he not been pointing at himself with a bloodied pipe. “I do not think I even know you. In fact,” his frown became more pronounced as he started forward again, “I am starting to feel insulted.”

The other began to back away, matching Ivan’s advances step for step. “I don’t really care what you think you feel,” he snapped, “you’ve been allowed to do what you want for too long; that ends now!”

Ivan turned the odd words over in his head. “Big words,” he finally started, “for someone scurrying away like a rat.”

“That’s what you’d like, right?” he sneered back. “Watching me cower beneath you, like everyone you’ve ever touched.” His lips turned down in clear disdain. “You’re disgusting.”

“I am getting very tired of hearing you insult me,” Ivan said mildly, clenching his fist around his pipe until his leather gloves squeaked.

“You won’t be hearing anything for much longer,” was his only response, right before he lifted his knife high. But instead of rushing at him as Ivan expected, he brought it down over the railing and through the rope, slashing diagonally through everything like a hot knife through butter.

“Chto ty delayesh?” Ivan demanded, eyes wide as he watched the man continue to slice through rope like a man possessed. “You are going to send both of us down!”

“That’s the plan!” he grunted as the bridge began to sway dangerously beneath them.

Ivan started running towards him, “Are you mad?!” he barked, reaching out to snag the edge of a swinging sleeve.

He didn’t consider that his weight might be the last thing the weakened bridge needed to snap in half.


 Roderich didn’t take his eyes off Gilbert even as he picked up the phone, narrowing them as Gilbert just rocked back on his heels, smirking. “Hallo?”

“Roderich! Tell me that Gilbert is there, s’il tu plait!”

“Yes, he is,” Roderich blinked. “Why? What did he do?” He shot a disdainful look at the man, who had perked up.

“Is that Francis?”

Roderich ignored him, listening to Francis relay the message to someone away from the phone. His stomach churned when he recognized the Spanish lilt. “Is Antonio with y-,” a series of violent honking interrupted him, “Is Antonio driving?” His outrage was met with a slew of unnecessary French cursing and a quirked eyebrow from the albino. “Are you lot in some sort of trouble?” The “again” was unsaid but hung heavily in the air regardless.

“Not necessarily, non.”

“That’s not a ‘no,’” Roderich snapped, feeling a headache beginning to take shape. ‘What did you do, Bonnefoy?”

“Moi?” Francis actually managed to sound offended. “I didn’t do anything. That is, however, not stopping the mad men after me.”

What?” Roderich would go to his grave denying the pitch his voice reached just then. “What men?” He shoved at Gilbert’s face as he tried to take the phone from him. “Hör auf damit, Gilbert!”

“Stop being a priss, Prinzessin,” Gilbert grunted, trying to dislodge Roderich’s fingers. “Those are my friends there-,”

“I’m still not convinced this isn’t your fault,” Roderich could feel the throbbing in his temples getting fiercer.

“Hey!” Gilbert’s eyebrows were starting to dip dangerously, “I left the damn country last night, besides, I don’t even know what the fuck is going on!”

“OI!” Francis’ voice rang loud enough that Roderich had to jerk the receiver away from his ear. “If you two are quite done,” his voice was threaded with enough steel remnants of Napoleon Bonaparte that Roderich found himself biting his tongue, “I was calling because there have been some attacks over here-,

“Terrorists?!” Gilbert slapped his hand over Roderich’s on the receiver and pulled it closer to his ear. “Is everyone okay? Where are you?” he was barking out demands more than asking questions, his grip unyielding even when Roderich tried to pull away.

“I’m fine, we’re fine, it has just been Arthur and I, for now. We’re going back to the Ritz, Arthur is holding the rest of the G7 there for now. They were personal attacks; it did not appear to be an act of war, against either of us,” Francis added hastily, already anticipating the next slew of questions, “It was two different men, black masks, with-,”

“-A long, black knife?” Roderich interrupted shakily.

“O-oui! Comment, c'est-à-dire,‘ow did you know that?” Francis fumbling with his words would have been something Roderich would have cherished any other day, had he not been looking at a wiry man leaning against the doorframe, dressed entirely in black, from a mask with weird eyelets to his thick-soled black boots, lightly tossing a black-bladed knife from hand to hand.

Gilbert took in the rapid paling of Roderich’s face. “Was ist los?” He hissed, although the wide violet eyes darting back and forth between his own and a point over his shoulder told him he probably already knew.

“Wir haben einen gast,” Roderich whispered back, warily watching the knife as it was twirled with an unnecessary flourish. “And a show-off too,” he couldn’t help but scoff.

“Really, Roderich?” Francis’ incredulous response was complemented by Gilbert’s unimpressed stare. “What is he doing?”

“Standing there,” Roderich answered, a little confused himself as the man continued to lean against the wall nonchalantly. “Just, watching us?”

“What?” Gilbert glanced over his shoulder. “Enjoying the view or something?”

“Gilbert!”

“What?” Gilbert shot back, raising his voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “I’m just saying, it’s a nice view.”

“That it is,” the masked man finally spoke. “But then again, who would be surprised that the Habsburg whore was actually pretty?”

There was a beat of silence before:

“Did you just call me a whore?”

“Did you just call him a whore?”

“Who’s calling whom a whore?”

Gilbert turned the rest of the way around, never breaking eye-contact with the other man. “Francis, I’ll call you back.”

“Wait, Gilb-!” But Gilbert had already yanked the phone out of Roderich’s slackened grip and slammed it down.

"Now who the hell are you?" Roderich could see the muscles coiling underneath Gilbert's clothes, his shoulders straightening, and his jaw squaring; despite the graphic t-shirt and the wrinkled jeans, he was staring at the man who had been born to die a soldier, and he couldn't help but feel apprehension. That level of seriousness from the normally boisterous man had only ever preceded destruction.

The masked man only smirked, apparently not seeing the same things that Roderich was. "I should be asking you that."

"You have honestly gotten that backwards," Roderich frowned. "You're in my house, insulting me, and you're asking who we are?"

"Oh, I think you know that I know who you are, Roderich Edelstein," the way he said his name made Roderich want to shower, "I'm just not sure who your friend is." He pointed the knife at the albino. "Gilbert, was it?"

Roderich could actually see the moment Gilbert physically swallowed down his usual response ("That's the awesome Prussia to you!") and instead just shifted to stand a little more in front of him. "Ja, Gilbert. What's it to you?"

The move didn't go unnoticed by the other man. "Gilbert, huh? Now, Gilbert and Austria, why does that sound important?" Roderich wasn't sure why, but he really didn't want this man to make the connection.

"Again, what's it to you?" Gilbert snarled with a ferocity that Roderich found alarming enough to warrant fisting the back of Gilbert's t-shirt in warning. Unnecessarily provoking someone with a knife when both of them were unarmed was not in their best interests.

"Not much, really," the man shrugged. "Just curious."

"What do you want?" Roderich asked, already knowing he wasn't going like the answer.

"You to stop hiding behind your latest boy toy, for starters," the man said lightly.

"Not gonna happen," Gilbert snapped, stepping completely in front of Roderich and throwing an arm back, as if to stop him if he actually tried to move.

"You," the man finally stepped fully into the room, "are starting to get on my nerves, Gilbert. You can still leave, you know. My business isn't with you."

Gilbert snorted, "Not fucking likely. I'm not in the habit of leaving damsels in distress alone."

Roderich scoffed softly, but he let himself relax just a bit all the same. He was more relieved than he wanted to dwell on that Gilbert wasn't planning on leaving him. He clenched and released the shirt in his grasp, just a little, in silent thanks, and fought down a smile when he felt the shoulders underneath his hand roll back into his hold.

You're welcome, Prinzessin.

"Your funeral then," the man shrugged once more before crossing the distance between them quicker than they expected, sweeping the knife horizontally, right into their sides.

Roderich felt his center of balance shift as he was pushed forcefully back, reorienting himself just in time to see Gilbert meet the swing forearm to forearm, stopping the knife dead in it's tracks.

Before the man could even glance down, Gilbert's punch was already connecting with his face, tossing him back a few feet.

"Well," he shook his head roughly, "I didn't see that coming."

Uncharacteristically, Gilbert didn't reply before he rushed at him, ducking underneath a swing and delivering a swift undercut in the space of a breath.

Roderich had known that Gilbert hadn't let his status as an ex-nation affect his militaristically brutal training regime, but actually seeing him in action was still a little shocking. And a little humbling as well, given his own current levels of inactivity. He was usually nonchalant about letting Ludwig or Elizabeta fight his battles for him, but he was starting to regret it now.

"Specs, I know the view is nice and all, but stop standing there and move!" Gilbert's growl was all it took to jolt him back to the present, where Gilbert was fending off two-handed downward swings with his arms. Although his poise showed no weakening or trembling, Roderich could see the pale birth of bruises on his forearms, and the sweat beginning to shine at his temples. "Get out of here, Roderich!"

"And leave you alone? Who do you think I am?" Roderich snapped back, trying ignore the blooming dread at hearing his full name coming from the other. "This isn't even your fight!"

"Like hell it isn't-," Gilbert started, sparing him a glance over his shoulder. However, that second that his attention was diverted was all the other man needed.

He pulled his knife out of Gilbert's cross block, throwing the albino momentarily off-balance as he readjusted to the lack of pressure, and instead redirected an upward swing into his stumble.

"Scheisse!" Gilbert shouted, weaving out of its way only to meet the other's boot in the rib-cage as he re-purposed his energy into a spinning kick.

"Excuse me, thank you," he said as Gilbert crashed into an armchair, leaving his path to Roderich wide open. He was in front of him in a heartbeat, flashing a wide, white smile inches from face. "Just who I wanted to see."

Roderich saw the swing coming out of the corner of his eye and before he was even conscious of it, he was ducking out of the way, already sidestepping the next one as he went, and spinning around the next. It seemed at least his instincts were still sharp, thank God.

He stopped a short distance away, painting lightly. He had never valued nor cultivated the brute strength that Gilbert had, so physically blocking the swings wasn't an option. He would have to rely on his speed then. He could only hope his stamina held up until he thought of something else, or Gilbert recovered. And, he thought grimly as he avoided swing after swing, he hoped that was sooner rather than later; he was severely out of practice.

"Why. Can't. You. Just. Stay. Still!" His attacker was losing his cocky edge and was starting to sound frustrated, his swings much more choppy than he had begun with.

Roderich frowned at him. "Has anyone ever told you that you talk too much?"

"Only everyone I've ever met."

"You should look into that then," Roderich snapped, spinning behind him and a few feet back, trying to ignore his swiftly dampening clothes sticking to his skin.

"I really don't think you're in a position to judge me," was all the other offered before aiming the next swing at his legs.

The screech of metal meeting metal filled the brunet's ears before his eyes registered the white hair and broad shoulders blocking his view.

"Yeah, it's never stopped him during our fights, I doubt he's going to stop now," Gilbert shared, batting the knife away with a simple flick, and when his arms came back into view Roderich could see why. While he had been leading the man back towards him, Gilbert had apparently found the opening to recover his sword.

Now, he spun it one-handedly, a little clumsily, but with much more fluidity than Roderich would have expected for a weapon that hadn't seen battle in almost five hundred years. Indeed, Gilbert looked completely at ease as he settled into a defensive two-handed stance, and Roderich finally let himself hope that they could come out of this without a major loss.

Their assailant on the other hand had backed up, holding the knife out in front of himself, openly gaping.

"You...how...you're...The Papal Ghost?!" He stuttered, stabbing the knife accusingly at him.

Roderich could hear Gilbert quirking an eyebrow. "Haven't heard that one in a while."

Roderich sniffed. "It sounds better in Latin."

The other man ignored them. “Devil’s Fury!”

Gilbert tightened his hold on the sword. “Let’s go back to the other one; I liked it better.”

“You, you’re, you’re not supposed to be here!” The other man looked close to a stomping his foot in anger. “You’re supposed to be in Berlin!”

Roderich could see Gilbert’s shoulders lifting and dropping in a shrug. “I do what I want. I’m too awesome for restrictions.”

Roderich on the other hand, focused on a much more important part of that statement. “And how did you know where he was supposed to be?”

The other seemed to shake himself out of his stupor. “That doesn’t matter,” he shifted on his feet, a move Gilbert met with a shuffle of his own, “I’ll take care of this too.” He leapt at Gilbert again, the knife getting too close to his face for Roderich’s liking before he blocked it.

“Specs!” This time, Roderich listened to the unspoken command and jerked back, giving Gilbert more space to move. The other two men didn’t even spare him a second glance. Indeed, it looked like the masked man had lost all interest in him and was focusing all of his energy on trying to hack Gilbert’s head off, filling the room with loud clanking as knife met sword over and over again.

Roderich clenched his fists at his side. He didn’t know what to do and he hated it. Trying to get involved would just make Gilbert lose focus again, and the attacker had already shown that he wasn’t above taking advantage of that. But just standing on the sidelines watching wasn’t something he wanted to do, not for this fight.

He glanced around, trying to find something, and his eyes fell on the armchair. Gilbert’s fall had jerked it across the floor, and along with new scuff marks, it revealed what had been underneath it. He made his way to it, keeping an ear on the fight now across the room.

“Why are you even defending him?” The masked man sounded like he was spitting his words out from between clenched teeth. “You don’t even like him!”

“Who told you that?” Gilbert asked lightly, “I like Specs just fine.”

“You’re not supposed to! You’re Prussia!”

“So?” Gilbert snorted. “I do what I want. Plus,” there was a pained gasp from the other, “ I told you, I don’t leave princess’ unprotected. It’s not awesome.”

Roderich wrapped his fingers around his new acquisition and made his way behind the two. Gilbert seemed to have finally gained the upper hand and the other man was sporting a new cut on his shoulder, but his swings were coming more and more frenzied, and if Roderich had learned anything in his long lifetime, it was that desperate men were dangerous men.

As if to prove his point, the masked man faked a side swing and instead thrust his knife straight at Gilbert’s chest, ripping the shirt and leaving a smear of red in its wake as Gilbert sidestepped it and parried it. “He’s just a whore!”

Roderich saw an absolutely livid expression explode across Gilbert’s face, and he seized his opportunity and swung.

The frying pan made a dull yet sharp sound as it connected with their attacker’s face, sending him flying across the room and onto his back.

“I don’t appreciate being called a whore,” he told the prone figure tightly, shifting the frying pan into a more comfortable hold. Meanwhile, Gilbert was just staring slack-jawed, his sword still raised.

“What the hell?” He finally rasped. “Does she leave those stashed everywhere?”

Roderich had the decency to flush. “No, ah, I may have, accidently, when I cleaned-,”

“Of course,” Gilbert interrupted. “You’re shit at cleaning, Roddy.”

“I resent that!”

He finally lowered his sword into a more comfortable resting pose, still pointed at the unmoving figure on the floor. “Hey, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing or anything-,”

Roderich caught the sudden movement before him. “Gilbert-!”

“Scheisse!” Gilbert barked, sword already up to block the dagger that had been flung his way, sending it flying in Roderich’s direction. “Head’s up!”

Roderich swung again, catching the small knife and sending it into the floor, right where the other man had been. The echoing sound of shattered glass let them know where he had gone.

“My window!” Roderich snapped around to stare, eyes widening in horror as his beautiful wide-paned window finished crumbling onto the floor.

Gilbert rushed to the window, peering out and cursing under his breath. “He’s a quick fucker, I’ll give him that.” He turned around to quirk one of those expressive eyebrows at Roderich. “The window, Roddy? Really?”

“Those things are expensive!” He protested hotly, letting the frying pan drop to swing at his side. “Now what?”

Gilbert shrugged, making a face as his shirt shifted across his chest.

“Oh!” Roderich moved towards him. “Are you okay?”

Gilbert shrugged again, but didn’t try to stop him from coming closer. “It’s just a scratch. See?” He pulled the shirt down at the new slit, letting him see the already scabbing line. “I’ve had worse.”

“Still,” Roderich scolded him gently, “You should be more careful.”

“Me?” This time both of Gilbert’s went up to meet his hairline. “That guy was here for you. What’d you do to piss him off?”

“I had never seen him in my life,” Roderich rolled his eyes before frowning. “Although he seemed to know a lot about us.”

“You got a point there, Specs.” He frowned back. “Guess I should call Francis back, see what he knows.” He started digging in his pocket before stopping suddenly. “Do you hear that?”

Roderich immediately felt apprehensive, holding the frying pan tighter. “Hear what?”

“Is that,” Gilbert tilted his head towards the hallway, “Is that, Taylor Swift?” A truly horrifying smirk spread across his face as Roderich’s heart dropped into his stomach. “You like American pop, Roddy?”

He whacked him weakly with the frying pan. “Shut up, Gilbert!”

“Or what?” Gilbert snickered as he raised the phone to his ear. “You gonna shake it off, Prinzessin?”

“Gilbert!”


 Arthur parked a few blocks from the Ritz, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. He wanted to call Francis to ask him where he was, but realistically knew he should already be halfway there. And he would only be putting himself up to deal with his incessant cooing if he did.

He pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket, only to almost drop it as it started ringing in his hands. He fumbled with it for a few seconds before answering it. “Hello? Francis?”

“Ah, no. It’s Yao?”

Arthur frowned. Yao? Why was Yao calling him? Unless… “Are you alright?”

“Me?” the confusion was palpable across the line. “I’m fine. I was just calling to ask if you have seen Ivan?”

Arthur’s brows furrowed more. “Ivan? No, not at all. Why would I have? He’s still suspended from the G8 meetings.”

“I know,” Yao had perfected the art of sounding world-weary without sounding particularly offensive over the years, and Arthur envied him for it. “He has been coming to my house on the days of the G8, or seven, I suppose, meetings. I invited him, you see, because he has been very upset about it, and he’s not here yet.”

“Alright…?”

“Arthur, when has Ivan ever missed an opportunity to visit anyone who actually wants to see him?”

“Bloody hell!” Arthur jerked up in seat. “Do you think he’s alright?”

“Ah, I assume so?” Now Yao sounded even more confused. “I was just calling to ask if he had shown up at the meeting. I guess not.”

“No, but-,”

“Ah, hold on, I think I hear him,” Yao interrupted him. “Yes, that’s him. Ivan, I’m over here! Where have you bee-, Aiyah! What happened to you?!”

Arthur could hear Ivan’s voice in the background, just loud enough for him to hear. “Oh hello! I hope I did not keep you waiting long; I got held up on my favorite bridge.”

“Did you fall in?!”

“Da. The other man cut the bridge.”

Arthur could hear Yao sputtering. “Other man, aiyah! Are you hurt?”

“Oh this?” Arthur could just picture him looking down at himself. “Do not worry; it’s not all mine.”

“That makes me worry more! Did you kill him?”

“No, he fell into the river. I got this, though.”

“I don’t ca-, is that a ring?”

Arthur had heard enough. “Oi!” He shouted into the speaker, “We’ve been attacked over here too!”

There was silence on the other end. “How many?”

“As far as I know, just Francis and I. Though Antonio was threatened too.”

“Aiyah,” Yao sighed, and Arthur could just picture him pinching the bridge of his nose. “Now what do we do?”

Arthur chewed on his lip for a beat, mulling over the possibilities before sighing himself. “How quickly can you two get to the Ritz in London?”

“The Ritz? Why the Ritz?”

Ivan’s voice butted in before Arthur could respond. “It is where the G7 meeting is being held, da?”

“Yes,” Arthur valiantly fought down the instinct to ask how he knew that. “The security from the meeting is still in place, we should be safe for now. So when should we expecting you?”

“I don’t kno-,” Ivan interrupted Yao this time.

“We should be there in less than eight hours; we will take the jet plane Yao believes we do not know about.”

“And how do you know-,” The call cutoff before Arthur could hear the rest of Yao’s indignant reply, but he got the gist of it.

He let the phone drop onto his lap with a sigh, and just because he could, he let out a bigger sigh, slumping over his steering wheel. What a right mess this was all turning out to be. His phone buzzed twice on his lap before going silent.

“What now?” he asked the heavens before unlocking the screen. A new text message flashed on the screen.

From: Frog
Received: Just now

Gilbert and Roderich are on the way. See you soon, mon cher.

Arthur let his head drop back onto the steering wheel. Great. Just, great.

Chapter Text

“So what the hell is going on?” The sight that met Arthur's eyes as he walked into the room was of Alfred standing less than four feet from the door, hands on his hips and a stubborn set to his jaw. Beyond him, he could make out Matthew hovering over his shoulder, worried frown at full force, and Kiku sitting on the edge of the bed further back.

"Well hello to you too, mum," Arthur rolled his eyes, leaning to peer around his elbow. "Hello, Kiku."

The Japanese man inclined his head at him. "Good afternoon, Arthur-san."

Alfred took the reins once more. "We did what you told us to; we're still here and Ludwig and Feli are on the way, so I think you should finally tell us what the hell is going on!"

Arthur was the middle of opening his mouth to reply -what he didn't know, but it would have been scalding he was sure- when Matthew butt in.

"Arthur, what happened to your face?"

Alfred did a double-take and Kiku leaned forward noticeably. Arthur frowned, lifting his hand to his face self-consciously. "What's wrong with my face?"

"Dude, you look like you got attacked by a cat," Alfred frowned, letting his hands drop. "You need some antiseptic or something?"

But Arthur wasn't paying attention anymore, racing past the twins to the dresser mirror across the room.

"Well, bugger," It wasn't quite as bad as Alfred had made it sound, but there was a clear smattering of faint red lines on his face, just visible enough that he was bound to get stares in public. "That's bloody inconvenient."

"Arthur," Matthew's face was tight with worry in the mirror, "Please, just tell us what's going on."

Arthur sighed, fighting down the twinge of guilt that please sparked in his stomach. “I was being honest when I told you that I’m not entirely sure,” He turned around. “All we really have to go on are guesses, at least until the rest get here.”

“The rest, who, Francis and Antonio?” Alfred raised his brows, a painfully familiar expression that said he knew he was being lied to. And he would know it well; it was the same expression Arthur himself had worn throughout most of Alfred’s childhood.

“Not just them,” Arthur rubbed a hand down his face, ignoring the sting. “From what I’ve gathered, Ivan, Gilbert and Roderich have been attacked as well.”

“Attacked?!” Matthew and Alfred’s voices reached an identically high pitch. Arthur was slightly impressed.

“You never said anything about being attacked!” Alfred pointed at him accusingly while Matthew made an aborted motion of reaching towards him. Even Kiku had stood up and walked closer at that point.

“Are you alright?” Arthur waved away the concern, annoyed that he had let it slip like that.

“I’m fine. I wouldn’t be standing here if I wasn’t, would I?” This conversation was starting to sound familiar.

“Yeah,” Alfred snorted. “He sounds like himself, alright,” Alfred lowered his arm, but Arthur could see him clenching his fist into his pants.” But dude, what the fuck?”

“What happened?” Matthew had his arms crossed, but the set of his shoulders was anything but casual. “What aren’t you telling us?”

“I think,” Kiku spoke softly, “That you should start from the beginning, Arthur-san.”

Arthur leaned against the dresser at his back, blowing his bangs out of his face. “There isn’t much to tell, quite honestly,” he ignored the twin scoffs. “I was at home, and I was attacked. We fought, I won, and then the blasted tosser ran. Francis was attacked at the same time, and it sounded like Ivan was as well.” He frowned. “I’m actually not sure about Gilbert and Roderich; all Francis told me was that they were on their way.”

“And everyone’s coming, here?” Matthew asked. “Why?”

“The high security,” Kiku wondered out loud. “It is still in effect, is it not?” At Arthur’s nod, he frowned. “But it will not last for too many days. Have you extended it?”

“I’m afraid not,” Arthur confessed. “Maintaining this level of high security is too much work, especially for a hotel like the Ritz. It’s too busy, and too large.”

“So what are you going to do?” Matthew’s fingers were twitching in the crooks of his elbows, and Arthur spared a thought for Kumajiro’s whereabouts. “You have what then, two, maybe three days left, at most?”

“Two,” Arthur answered automatically. “And I don’t think that will be much of an issue; I can’t speak for the others, but I’m not going to lie around waiting to be hunted down.”

“So you’re what, going rogue?” Arthur chose to take slight insult to Alfred’s incredulous tone.

Matthew however caught onto the underlying message. “Wait, so you think this is going to happen again?”

“I have a feeling it might,” Arthur confessed. “The man who attacked me, he made it sound like he was part of a group, and the coordination of these attacks couldn’t be a mere coincidence.”

“A group?” Alfred echoed. “Like that animal cult that thought you were their zombie king a few years ago?”

“No, you dolt,” Arthur snapped. “This is nothing like the Order of the Bear. Whoever they are, they attacked us when we were the most vulnerable, and they meant to kill us.”

That sobered Alfred right up. “But, why? None of you guys have done anything. I mean, yeah, I can see the commie being on, uh, anyone’s hit list, I guess, but you guys?” Alfred shook his head. “You sew and talk to imaginary friends,” he ignored Arthur’s cry of indignation, “and I don’t even think Antonio knows how to frown, let alone hurt anybody. It doesn’t make sense.”

“But,” Kiku frowned pensively. “They have not always been that way. You were some of the most feared forces around the world at one point. The earth trembled beneath your feet.” The solemn note in Kiku’s voice sent a shiver down Arthur’s spine.

“But they’re not that way anymore,” Alfred protested.

“And that was the empires, not them,” Matthew added. “That wouldn’t make sense.”

“It makes perfect sense, actually,” Arthur shifted through everything he knew so far. All of you who took and pillaged what didn’t belong to you and plunged innocents into misfortune. You have all existed unpunished for far too long. “We were the biggest, the most powerful. Russia, Austria, Prussia, France, Spain, the British Empire, we were on top of the world, and we got there through bloodshed.” He glanced at his hands, calloused and worn, so unlike the rest of him. “We’re being hunted for the blood on our hands.”

“But that still wasn’t you!” Alfred insisted. “Mattie’s right; that was the country, not you.

“Do you think,” Arthur asked seriously, “That we stood by and just let everything happen, without taking part? No lad, we led the masses.” He clenched his fists closed. “We plundered, we stole, we killed, and we relished it.” He looked up, catching first Alfred's, then Matthew’s uneasy stares. “Being a world power meant something different than it does now, back then.”

Kiku was nodding along with Arthur. “They were different times. And,” he made sure to catch Arthur’s eyes, “You were different people.”

“Not different enough,” Arthur countered. “We still did it, and now we’re being held accountable for it.”

An uneasy silence followed, only to be broken almost immediately by a ruckus in the hallway.

“Roderich, I must say, you are looking rather fetching in that overcoat.”

“Don’t touch me, Francis.”

“So rude!”

“Hey, that’s Feli! Hola, Feli!”

“Ciao, Antonio! I didn’t know you would be here!”

“Yo, West! Did ya miss me?”

“Are you alright? What happened to your shirt? Are you bleeding?”

“One question at a time, West, jeez. Don’t worry, big brother’s fine. Specs wouldn’t let us leave until he bandaged it, even though it’s just a scratch.”

“Made by a filthy knife.”

“Knives? That sounds scary, ve~!”

What is going on?”

“I believe Arthur said it was a group attack.”

“What, like that cult that thought he was King Arthur?”

Arthur groaned.


 

Arthur tossed his head back, glaring at the ceiling as the noise around him continued to fluctuate. When it showed no sign of subsiding, he redirected his glare to the bowl in his lap. It had been thrust into his hands by Francis when everyone had finally burst in.

“Oh, mon amour,” Francis had looked unnecessarily sorrowful. “What has happened to your face?”

My face?” Arthur could only continue staring, not even daring to blink at the sight being presented to him. Francis had streaks of white powder on his slacks, and deep wrinkles in the sleeves of his shirt. The collar was stained a dark rusty brown on one side, leading up to the fresh scab on his neck. Even his hair looked like Pierre had used it as a nest recently. “Have you glanced in a mirror lately? You look like a mess.”

That had earned him a steely-eyed glower and a huge bowl to the sternum. “Here, I made breakfast puffs.” When he had opened his mouth to argue, Francis had leaned closer and hissed, “Eat, you look like a stick.”

The slightly mad gleam to his wide eyes and the frizzing hair falling out of its band had been what had kept him silent in the end. Now, he sat in one of the plush chairs scattered around the room, as everyone spoke over each other. He had shared his suspicions with everyone else, and after hearing Francis’ version, and then Gilbert and Roderich’s, everyone had devolved into yelling their own theories, questions, and general insults at each other. That had been twenty minutes ago.

Now the noise was at a manageable level, but still going strong. A glance around the room revealed Roderich perched on another of the armchairs, looking exhausted as Feliciano rambled about God knows what at him. Meanwhile Gilbert looked to be dividing his attention between him and his interrogation with Ludwig, who, from the sound of it, was going through every single incident of conflict in Teutonic, Prussian, and East German history and demanding to know of anyone who would still be looking for vengeance. Antonio had apparently dropped out of the conversation and was instead furiously texting, brows slightly furrowed in concentration.

Francis was on the other side of the room, casually looking through Matthew’s luggage, lifting shirt after shirt up to inspect it before tossing it back in. The twins were hovering over his shoulder, watching his every move and bombarding him with bursts of questions. Kiku was the only other person removed from the main group, standing near the window, and, he might have been on the phone?

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, West, I don’t know if anyone from the Livonian Order held a grudge,” Gilbert groaned. “The way I remember it, I don’t think I ran across anyone who didn’t want to see me run through.”

"That's not funny, Bruder," Ludwig frowned.

Gilbert threw his hands up. "Who's laughing? It's true!"

"That's reassuring," Roderich muttered under his breath, before turning back to Feliciano. "No, Feliciano, I don't think trying to make pasta in the coffee pot would make anyone feel better."

"Mon petit, why do you own so much plaid?" Francis sighed. "Surely I taught you better than this," he gave the two shirts in his hands a slight shake.

Matthew huffed softly. "I'm sorry Papa, but I wasn't expecting to have to join a fashion show while in London."

"What about my stuff? You haven't even looked at it," Alfred pointed to his own untouched suitcase. "And how many people would you say you've pissed off so far?"

"A countless amount, but possibly a little less than mon petit lion," he tilted his head in Arthur's direction, glancing at Alfred's clothes. "Did you only pack novelty shirts?"

"Don't call him that, it's weird," Alfred squirmed. "And they're not novelty, they're superhero shirts!"

"I think I'll pass, all the same," Francis smiled tightly.

"But I won't!" Gilbert turned in their direction. "This shirt is starting to itch. Toss me one!"

A red shirt flew over Arthur's head. “Hope you like Wonder Woman, bro."

Gilbert snorted, tossing his ripped shirt at Ludwig. "Who doesn't?"

"Bruder, please," Ludwig folded it crisply. "This is a serious matter."

"You think I don't know that, West?" He pointed at the square of gauze on his chest. "This wasn't a love tap, you know. Point is," he pulled the shirt on, "that we really don't know shit. All we have right now is the same masks and weapons, and a simultaneous strike time. And unless Braginsky has something solid to share, our only choice is retreat. Which is what we're doing right now." He ran his hand through his disheveled hair with a sigh. "We can't plan a counterattack until we have all the details. I taught you that, West."

"Wait," Feliciano jumped in. "You're not really going after them, are you?"

Gilbert turned to him. "Of course we are."

"But it's dangerous!"

"So is sitting around waiting for them get a second shot at carving us up," Gilbert crossed his arms, his serious expression at odds with the bright, youthful shirt. "Artie's right; this was too well thought out for it to just be a one-time thing. Not to mention that it's really fucking stupid to go after any of us in the first place. No," Gilbert shook his head. "They're definitely going to try again. They have too much to lose, whoever they are."

It was easy to forget, Arthur reminded himself as he finally picked up one of the pastries, that Prussian military tactics had once been the envy of world, and that in turn meant that Gilbert had been at the head of it all, soaking up the best of Friedrich and von Bismarck, storing it, learning from it, bettering it. An army with a country indeed.

"But you don't even know anything about how many there are," Feliciano insisted, the worry audibly weighing his words down. "They could have an army, or guns. There's only nine of us-,"

"Hold up," Gilbert held up a hand. "You, West and Kiku aren't part of this."

That got the attention of everyone in the room. Feliciano jerked back as if struck, eyes wide, and even Ludwig looked surprised. "Bruder..."

"Nope," Gilbert shook his head, lips pressed into a thin line. "And neither are the Wonder Twins."

"What?" Surprisingly, Matthew was first to react. "You can't be serious!" He stepped around the bed, eyes flashing. His brother was at his side in a flash.

"Dude, what the fuck? We can help!"

"Hell no," Gilbert stood his ground. "This is Europe's problem, and it's staying that way."

"What the fuck does that even mean?"

"It means," Arthur cut in, "that this seems to be an Old World issue. It doesn't make any sense, logically or reasonably, to involve the other side the world."

"How about tactically, eh?" Matthew countered. "We're strong, we can help-,"

"And who's talking about sides of the world anyway?" Alfred cut in. "You said this was personal. This is a man to man issue, and having more people in your corner definitely helps."

"I don't think you're fully grasping the situation here," Arthur started slowly. "We're being attacked for things in our histories, things we've done. This isn't a fight where there are sides to take; this is an execution."

"And you don't want help?" Alfred sounded incredulous.

"You don't volunteer for an execution, lad," Arthur grit out. "You'll just be getting in the way, and the last thing we want is more bodies." Both boys were still looking mutinous, so Arthur continued, "Think with your heads, for once. This isn't some pub brawl between two unknown blokes. We're political symbols, we're visible."

He shook his head. "Gilbert made a good point as well; you don't attack our ilk with a half-cocked plan. No, there's more to come, and I'm willing to wager that it's going to a right mess. And," he silenced Alfred with a hard look, "That is not the kind of mess you will be involving yourselves in at a whim. Think of your responsibilities and your people, if not your own lives. It's going to be bad enough dealing with the fallout if any of us go down," he added under his breath, picking up another puff.

"I can understand containing this to Europe," Ludwig spoke into the tension, "But how does that exclude us?" A look of unease crossed his face. "We were the Axis Powers. If anyone's next, it's us."

"Over my cold, stiff, unmoving-,"

Feliciano interrupted Gilbert. "Luddy's right! We," his lower lip trembled but he powered on, "We did a lot of bad stuff, and although we know it was wrong and we're really sorry, we still did it, and that's what these men are after, è vero? Punishing us for things we regret?”

“Were you a target, you would have been attacked by now,” Francis pointed out. “These were coordinated assaults.”

“But we’ve been here the whole time,” Feliciano argued. “And this place is safe; we could be attacked the minute we leave.” The color drained from his face as he spoke, hands reaching for Ludwig’s sleeve. “Ve~, we could be next for real!”

"No, that's not right," Roderich looked thoughtful. "We were all attacked in our homes, and the man who attacked us," he flicked his fingers between Gilbert and himself, "expected Gilbert to be in Berlin. But by all accounts, all of you should have been here." He frowned. "I don't think they knew about the G7 meeting."

"So, you almost got killed, because they got lucky?” Matthew looked slightly ill at the thought.

"But we haven't been home yet," Ludwig pushed, automatically raising his arm to let Feliciano curl in closer. "We can't know if any attempts were made or not in our absences."

"I cannot speak for Berlin or Venice," Everyone's head snapped around to stare at Kiku, "But I can say that my home is untouched." He lifted his phone. "Tsukomi-kun has checked for me. Additionally," his slightly furrowed eyebrows were the only indication that he was uneasy, "Sadik-san was not attacked. Heracles-kun is with him, unharmed as well. I was unable to get in direct contact with Ulan-san, but his secretary assured me that he has been in the office all day.”

“Hey, we had the same idea!” Antonio piped up, looking up from his own phone. “Gabriel's okay, and I talked with Tino. Berwald’s been home all day, and they’re all fine. Lovino sent me a bunch of curses, so he’s okay too,” he turned to Feliciano, “He’s dropping by your place to check on the security system.”

“Il mio fratello shouldn’t risk himself like that!” Feliciano patted himself down frantically, only to have Roderich hand him his phone with an unimpressed look. “Ah, grazie!”

Antonio looked back at the varied incredulous looks he was getting. “Qué?”

That’s what you’ve been doing?” Arthur asked. “This entire time?”

“Well, yeah,” Antonio frowned. “What else would I have been doing?” He looked back down at his phone. “I haven’t been able to get in touch with Bastiaan, though.”

“Hai, I have had the same problem.” Kiku tightened his grip on his phone. “Have you been able to reach his sister?”

“Charlotte? No,” he shook his head. “But Lovi said he was going to meet her after-,”

“Fratello!” Feliciano’s voice cut across the rest of the Spaniard’s sentence. “Stai bene?!”

“SE IO STO BENE?!” Lovino’s voice exploded through the room, causing Feliciano to pull the phone away from his ear with a yelp. “THIS FIGLIO DI PUTTANA TELLS ME THAT EVERYONE’S HIDING FROM ASSASSINS IN SOME HOLE IN THE WALL IN LONDON, AND YOU’RE ASKING ME IF I’M OKAY?”

“Ah, si?”

“CHIARO CHE STO BENE, FELICIANO, ARE YOU OKAY?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine!” Feliciano waved his free arm frantically, whacking Ludwig in the chest. “We’re all fine, well, mostly anyway, but we’re safe here!” He rushed on. “We’re also at the Ritz, not a ‘hole in the wall,’ Lovino.”

“I DON’T GIVE A RAT’S ASS. IS THAT BASTARDO STILL THERE?”

“Eh, Antonio?”

“MADONNA SANTA. SI, ANTONIO.”

“Si,” Feliciano looked up at Antonio, who was making frantic throat slashing motions at him. “Would you like to talk to him?”

“JUST GIVE HIM THE DAMN PHONE.”

Feliciano tossed it like it was on fire, and Antonio caught it with as much care. “Ah, hola-!”

“STA ZITTO, COGLIONE!” Lovino barked. “WHAT THE FUCK MADE YOU THINK TELLING ME THIS SHIT OVER A TEXT MESSAGE WAS A GOOD IDEA?”

“Ah, I was talking with a couple of people at the same time-,”

“I DON’T GIVE A FUCK. YOU DO NOT TELL ME THAT YOUR SHIT FOR BRAINS FRIENDS ARE BEING HUNTED DOWN AND THAT MY BROTHER’S WITH YOU OVER A TEXT MESSAGE. CHARLOTTE WAS READING OVER MY SHOULDER AND FREAKED OUT.”

Antonio immediately felt guilty. “Is she okay? Are you both okay?”

Lovino let loose a groan that only the truly put-upon could manage. “YES, WE’RE FINE, WE’RE ALL FINE. FELI’S HOUSE IS FINE TOO, NOTHING’S HAPPENED OVER HERE. BUT WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON, BASTARDO?”

“We think it’s a group,” He told him helpfully. “It sounds like they’re targeting Old World Powers, at least. Arthur and Gilbert think so, anyway.”

“WHO ELSE IS ACTUALLY THERE?”

“Uh,” Antonio glanced around. “Well, Arthur, Francis, Matthew, Alfred, Gilbert, Roderich, Ludwig, Feli, Kiku and me. Ivan and Yao are on the way too. But don’t worry!” He brightened. “Only Arthur, Francis, Ivan, Gilbert and Roderich have actually been attacked!”

Lovino audibly took a breath. “AND YOU HAVEN’T?”

Antonio blinked. “No…?”

“SO WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU THERE.”

“Well, I could be.”

“...YOU COULD BE.”

“Si. The guy who attacked Francis said so.”

“AND YOU’RE GETTING INVOLVED, ON THE WHIM OF A TERRORIST.”

“I don’t think they’re terrorists, actually,” Antonio mused aloud. “They’ve been personal attacks, and everyone was attacked far away from the offices.”

“DIDN’T I TELL YOU TO SHUT UP?”

“Perdón, Lovi!”

“JUST, UGH,” Lovino let out another groan. “WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?”

“Well, I think we’re going to stay here for now, and we’ll figure it out as we go along.” he shrugged.

“SEI PROPRIO SCEMO, SAI?”

Antonio let out a breath of laughter. "I don't think it's stupid to help my friends, even if I'm not really a target."

Alfred gesturing in the background was promptly ignored by everybody.

"AND MY BROTHER?"

Antonio rubbed his head. "I'm...not sure, but the guys who aren't involved aren't staying here. Maybe they'll be heading home...?" He trailed off at Gilbert's firm head shake. "Ah, actually, tactics says otherwise."

"YOU BETTER NOT BE TALKING ABOUT THE OTHER POTATO BASTARD."

"You bet I am," he saluted Gilbert with a grin. "By the way Lovi," he continued before Lovino could really pick up steam, "Have you talked to Bastiaan?"

"DO I SOUND LIKE THAT CHEAP BASTARD'S KEEPER?" His snort was quickly followed by a squawk of pain. "WOMAN, THAT HURT, DAMN IT."

"Oh, is Lola with you?" Antonio leaned forward. "Has she heard from him?"

Lovino grumbled something inaudible under his breath before continuing in his preferred tone. "NO, SHE HASN'T, BUT SHE'S TALKING TO THE SMALLER GREEDY BASTARD-," another yip interrupted him, "-CRISTO, CHARLOTTE! AND HE SAID THAT BASTIAAN MENTIONED SOME BUSINESS HE HAD TO TAKE CARE OF, EARLIER THIS WEEK."

Antonio felt something finally settle in his stomach. "So he may be out of town."

"WHO THE HELL KNOWS, IL TUO RAGAZZO DOESN'T CHECK IN WITH ME. SHOULDN'T YOU KNOW THIS SHIT?"

Antonio smiled sadly down at his knees. "We haven't seen each other for a few weeks."

"AND THIS IS OFFICIALLY GOING SOMEPLACE I REFUSE TO GO WITH YOU," Lovino somehow managed to get even louder. "LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU ALL FINALLY STOP MOUTH BREATHING IN A CIRCLE AND FIGURE SOMETHING OUT."

"Ah-," but the dial tone was his only response. “Well, Bastiaan may be out of town, but I’m not sure,” Antonio told the room at large before handing the phone back to a nervous Feliciano. "Good news, though; your house is okay."

"We heard," Ludwig commented dryly. "So we haven't been targeted yet; that doesn't mean we won't be."

"Which is exactly why you're not going home," Gilbert cut in. "You'll have to go someplace else, the three of you."

Kiku stared at Gilbert impassively for a moment before nodding slightly. "Precaution does sound like the best course of action."

"Ve~," Feliciano sighed softly, rubbing his face into Ludwig's jacket. "If I have to."

Ludwig met Gilbert’s gaze steadily. "Bruder, I'm not sure how I feel about this..."

"If you three are potentially in danger," Roderich cut in, "then this is the best course of action." He frowned. "I don't particularly like it either, but it's for best." Seeing Ludwig's unconvinced expression, he offered a small smile. "We'll be fine, Ludwig."

"Specs is right," Gilbert nodded. "Don't forget who taught you everything you know, West," he smirked. "These wannabes don't stand a chance."

"No, this isn't cool!" Alfred had apparently reached his limit. "You guys can't be serious about doing this on your own!"

"And why the bloody hell wouldn't we be?" Arthur asked, keeping a critical eye on Alfred's shaking shoulders.

"Because this is crazy!" He exploded. "There's a bunch of dudes running around who want to chop you up, and you guys want to tough it out between you five, or six, counting the big guy." He waved his arm chaotically around the room. "You guys could use all the help you can get!"

"Look here you little-," Gilbert started angrily before Arthur cut him off.

"Alfred," he said slowly, "You need to get off of your high horse and accept the reality of this situation. This is not about you, or your delusions of grandeur, or your pride; this is about us," he made a wide sweeping gesture with his free arm. "Us, who have been fighting these battles and playing these games for far longer than you've been alive. Before you were even an idea, we were veterans of an endless number of wars.

"You forget, lad," he continued. "That not all of us were born into the coddled life of a colony. We," he leaned forward, "were born of bloodshed and conflict, learning to run and kill or be killed. We have fought armies of men who would have liked nothing less than our heads on stakes, usually on our own, and now, as you pointed out, there are six of us. That is more than enough, and frankly, that you seem to think otherwise is quite insulting."

He settled back into the chair. "Honestly Alfred, I know you're still a child, but do try to think before you speak; you'll upset less people."

The atmosphere in the room immediately grew tense and quiet, with everyone either glancing between Arthur's silent appraisal of the bowl in his lap and Alfred's red face, or looking everywhere but at them.

It continued like that for a handful of minutes before Francis ventured to break it.

"Ah, mon coeur, which do you think would look better, the red or the blue?" He lifted the two plaid shirts he had been contemplating.

Arthur snorted, swallowing the bite in his mouth before answering. "You and I both know you're going to pick the blue one, to match your eyes. Why are you even bothering to ask?"

Francis looked at the shirts with a thoughtful hum. "You're right..."

"That's it, I'm out," Alfred stormed towards the door.

"And where the hell are you going?"

"What does it matter, this isn't my problem," Alfred snapped over his shoulder, wrenching the door open just to come nose to collar bone with a blinking Russian, fist poised to knock.

"Ah, privet-,"

"Move it, Ruskie," Alfred muttered, pushing past him and disappearing down the hall.

Francis hurried to shrug into the blue shirt, waving Arthur back into his seat as he hurried past. "Ne t'inquiétez pas; I'll go after him. Stay here with Mathieu." He slipped past the two still in the doorway, murmuring a greeting as he went.

"Aiyah," Yao finally breathed. "What is going on here?"

Arthur slumped back, returning his gaze to the ceiling. “Well, we’re being sought out by a group of mad men with knives who seem to have taken it upon themselves to serve us our comeuppance in the good name of history, there’s only six of us, Alfred is mad at me because I won’t let him throw his lot in with us, and we have no idea when, how, where, or what their next move is going to look like.” He brought his fourth breakfast puff up to his lips without moving his head. “Have I forgotten anything?”

“Antonio hasn’t been attacked, but given what Francis said and the fact that my attacker called me ‘the Habsburg whore,’ we’re assuming that he avoided it by chance,” Roderich added, tone forcibly light.

There was a beat of awkward silence as everyone shifted awkwardly. “I do not think you were acting the part of a whore for doing what was needed for your country,” Ivan finally spoke.

“Thank you, Ivan,” Roderich sighed.

Gilbert coughed indiscreetly into his fist, before speaking loudly, “So, Braginsky, got anything to add?”

“Well,” Ivan frowned. “It does not sound like my experience was much different. I was on my way to Yao’s house, and a man assaulted me on the bridge. He was quick,” he gestured to the bandage sticking out of his sleeve, “And he was determined. He cut the bridge, while we were both still on it, with no regard for his own safety.”

“Great, so they’re suicidal too,” Gilbert rolled his eyes. “Awesome, that’s great. Any more good news?”

“I did manage to grab something before he fell away from me,” Ivan said, reaching into his pocket. “However, I believe Arthur should see it first.”

“What?” Arthur brought his head around with a furrowed brow. “Why?” His hand shot up automatically to catch what was tossed at him. “What’s this?”

“It’s a class ring,” Yao told him. “And it is from Oxford.”


 

Francis found Alfred at the end of the hall, sitting on the floor with his chin on his knees. The pose along with the frustrated pout and crossed arms made him look just like a scolded child, and they both knew it.

Francis bit back a sigh as he bypassed the very comfortably looking chairs just a few steps away to slide down the wall next to him. “Are you alright, Alfred?”

Alfred glanced at him briefly before returning his scowl to the opposite wall. “Why is he such a dick?”

Straight to the point then. “You know Arthur,” Francis let his sigh out freely this time. “He has a, ah, stunted, you would say, manner of showing he cares.”

“That’s such bullshit though!” Alfred sat up and turned to him, fire burning in his eyes. “I get that you guys are all, you know,” he flapped an arm around. “Old and knowledgeable or whatever, but that doesn’t mean he has to jam that stick so far up his butt that he can’t accept a little help.”

“Who are you calling old?” Francis scoffed, before smiling slightly. “Mon cheri, Arthur is worried, much more worried than he wants you to know,” He reached out to touch his shoulder. “For all of his big talk, this is unlike anything we have faced before, and we have, truly,”  he admitted, “faced much. We just do not want you boys to get hurt.”

Alfred glared at him, but didn’t pull away. “And we’re just supposed to be okay with that? Me and Mattie are just supposed to go play some video games while you guys go all Grand Theft Auto meets James Bond in London?”

Francis grimaced. “I do not expect to be stealing cars or killing prostituées; Gilbert does not need another warrant for his arrest right now. Regardless,” he continued before Alfred could interrupt, “I know it doesn’t excuse what he said, or the way he said it, but Alfred, you are young.” He let a small smile slide across his face. “And that is not a bad thing. You are young, but you are already such a strong, brave, and loyal young man, that I can barely fathom how much greater you’ll be with time.

“But that’s just it,” he made sure to catch Alfred’s blue eyes with his own, “You have a beautifully bright future ahead of you, but you need to allow yourself the time to grow into it. We, we have done much and seen much, and although we held the world in the palms of our hands at one point,” he curled his other hand into a fist briefly, “you and Mathieu may be the only things we can look back on with genuine pride, and we still failed you both in so many ways.” His smile grew nostalgic. “And yet, here you are, already a much better person than Arthur or I could have ever hoped to be. Can you blame us if we would like to keep you away from those parts of ourselves?”

“But we’re not little kids anymore,” Alfred told him quietly, eyes wide and bright, although he’d surely deny it later.

“Non,” Francis agreed, “But you’re still ours, and neither your height nor your impressively broad shoulders will ever change that.” He patted the shoulder under his hand lightly, smile still in place.

Alfred took the moment to look at Francis, really look at him. He had cleaned his face and neck almost immediately after walking in, but the cut still stood out, red and raw against the white of his skin. Alfred also couldn’t help but wonder if Gilbert’s little bird had gotten caught in his hair; even after taking out the band and running his fingers through it, it still hung frazzled and wayward, instead of cascading like a waterfall around his face.

Looking closer, Alfred could even see lines of strain around his eyes and mouth; not exactly wrinkles yet, more so creases that had the potential to become them. All of that paired with the blue plaid that hung just a little too big at the shoulders made Francis look older and much more tired than he was used to seeing him. He had seen Francis in worse shape -World War Two hadn’t been a walk in the park for any of them, Francis especially,- but that had been the stress of being a country at war weighing him down. Right now, this was a man who knew he was in over his head and couldn’t quite do anything about it.

It hit Alfred just then, that this might be the last images he had of his former guardians. Of Arthur with his stiff shoulders and a frozen, scratched face, and Francis, tired and pale, in a borrowed shirt, so distant from the forces of nature that had raised him, and that, more than anything else, terrified him.

Francis felt the air leave his lungs as Alfred lunged at him, burrowing into his arms like a particularly affection-starved puppy. He didn’t let his surprise stop him from lifting his own arms and pulling him closer, however, resting his chin on the crown of hair presented to him. “It’s going to be quite alright, mon petit. You shouldn’t worry yourself so much.”

Alfred’s voice was muffled by his chest, but still clear enough. “Yeah, I don’t believe you.”

“I suppose I don’t blame you,” Francis answered wryly, holding Alfred just a little tighter. His boy was a great deal taller and much broader than he had been the last time he had let him hold him like this, back when he and Mathieu had still been small enough to both fit on his lap, and he was going to cherish this moment for however long he was allowed to.

He nestled his nose into the golden strands, breathing in the spicy scent of whatever celebrity-endorsed fragrance was popular that month, and underneath that, the hot summer winds winding through Midwestern fields of wheat, a scent so fundamentally Alfred that it would never leave him, no matter how much his country changed. And if he concentrated hard enough, he was sure he could still detect the damp, cold air of the English cliff sides, and the subtle perfume of the sun-warmed lavender of Provence.

These were his boys -their boys, he corrected himself absently,- and he would be damned if he let anything happen to them for the sake of their own sordid pasts. “I can swear to you, Alfred,” he told him seriously, “That Arthur and I will try our hardest to end this as quickly as we possibly can, and in a manner that will not do wrong by you or Mathieu.”

“Can you promise that you’ll both come back in one piece?” Alfred asked half-heartedly.

Francis hesitated. “I would rather make promises I know we can keep.”

“Figures,” Alfred muttered. “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain, right?”

Francis lifted his head to gaze down at him in confusion. “Quoi?”

“...It’s from Batman.”

Francis chuckled, and if he sounded a little choked, well, it was one more thing they wouldn’t talk about. “Never change, mon petit aigle, s’il te plait.”


 

The first thing Francis and Alfred saw once they gathered themselves enough to return to the room was Ivan sitting at the little vanity dresser, hysterically looming over the delicate swirls and designs that dominated the space. He was also happily tapping away on a computer that he had definitely not brought with him.

“Hey!” Alfred shouted. “That’s my laptop!”

Ivan glanced over his shoulder at him. “Oh, privet, Alfred. Are you feeling better?”

“I’m fine,” he snapped. “But that doesn’t explain why you’re on my laptop! Or how you got my password,” he added suspiciously.

“Oh, that?” Ivan turned back to his task. “It was ‘Captain America hit first,’ captain spelt ‘c, p, t, n,’ and the numerical spelling of ‘first.’ It did take me three tries to figure that part out, though,” he admitted humbly.

When Alfred just gaped at him, Matthew decided to take pity on his brother. “Ivan managed to get a ring off of his attacker,” he told him. “It’s an Oxford class ring, so he’s trying to see if he can get into the Oxford archives from 2009.”

“Why 2009?” Alfred asked, moving to peak over Ivan’s shoulder.

“It has a year,” Arthur told him, having moved from perching to pacing. "And initials: JL." He rubbed his thumb over something in his palm.

"Is that it?" Francis peered curiously at his hand. "Let me see," His fingers darted and snatched the small object before Arthur could blink.

"Hey! Give that back, Frog," Arthur snapped, growling when every move he made was just met with Francis dancing out of his reach. "Stay still, damn it!"

"Oh hush, Rosbif, and let me take a look," he brought it up to eye level, watching the familiar way it caught the light. "I think my assailant was wearing one of these." He gestured at his neck. "On a necklace."

Arthur finally managed to grab it, glaring at Francis' pout. "I think mine did too, although I can't be sure," his expression soured as he looked back at the ring. "I still can't believe this flagrant foolishness might be coming from Oxford. I was there when they bloody started as nothing more than a flock of priests wishing to learn. I laid the cornerstone of the first true, sodding building they ever had." He clenched his hand shut. "This doesn't make any sense."

"But it's a lead,” Antonio pointed out. "The only one we have so far."

"And so will it remain," Ivan made a noise of disgust deep his throat. "This university does not appear to have digitized all of their yearbooks yet, and their school database is very secured." He turned his head, going momentarily cross-eyed as he came nose to nose with Alfred. He watched, bemused, as Alfred yelped and scrambled to his brother's side, before continuing. "I will have to get closer in order to gain access.”

“How much closer?” Gilbert crossed his arms with a scowl.

“Onto the campus,” Ivan admitted. “One of the school computers would be ideal, actually.”

“Oh, so we’re going onto the grounds of the people trying to kill us?” Roderich pulled away from his phone to roll his eyes at them. “That sounds foolproof.”

“Are you done talking to Yosemite Sam yet?” Gilbert asked. At Roderich’s scowl, he smirked. “Then get to it, Prinzessin. He’s not going to convince himself.”

Francis narrowed his eyes. “Qui?” Alfred however, seemed to immediately understand.

“Vash?” He looked confused. “Why is he talking to Vash?”

“Vash-san is the best candidate for us to stay with,” Kiku answered him. “He has long remained politically removed from our conflicts, and he has an impressive firearm collection should the need for defense actually arise.”

“He’s a kinda prickly guy though, isn’t he?” Alfred pointed out. “Is he really going to take all of us?”

“Actually,” Yao cut in, calling attention to himself from where he had made himself comfortable in the middle of the bed, a random cup of tea steaming gently in his hands. “You and your brother will be coming with me.” He nodded his head at Arthur. “Arthur presented the clear argument that if they had come so close to my home in order to attack Ivan and yet I was left unharmed, then I am probably not a target either. You will be safe with me.”

Alfred stiffened, sudden enough that Arthur watched him warily and Matthew placed a hand on his arm. He took a deep breath, and then another one just because he could, before letting the tension out with a sigh. “When do we leave?”

Yao kept his own eyes on him over the rim of his cup. “As soon as you pack.”

Alfred’s shoulders sagged. “That soon, huh?”

Yao dipped his head. “The more time that passes between my departure and my arrival, the harder it will be to land the plane without calling too much attention to us.” His eyes softened as he saw the dejected expression that crossed Alfred’s face. “It is my understanding that you have a piloting license, aru? Would you like to fly the jet?”

Alfred and Matthew’s eyes both went wide.

“You’d let me do that?”

You’d let him do that?”

The Chinese man shot a look of mild irritation at Ivan’s smiling face. “Couldn’t be much worse than Ivan’s flying. I swear I gained a new white hair for every law of physics he violated.” He sipped at his tea aggressively.

“No, Vash,” Roderich grumbled irritably. “I will not be bringing my ‘pasty cheap ass’ onto your property. And no,” he continued loudly, “Gilbert will not be going either.” He paused to listen to something on the other end. “He has how many-? You know what, it doesn’t really matter, I just told you he’s not going. I’m not trying to trick you; it’s really just Ludwig, Feliciano, and Kiku. They just need someplace to lay low until this mess is resolved.” Another pause. “I’m going to stay here, of course.” He flushed. “Stop laughing!”

“Mein Gott, give me that,” Gilbert grumbled, reaching for the phone. “I’ll talk some sense into that midget.”

Ludwig calmly wrapped an arm around his brother’s waist and hauled him away before he could reach Roderich. “Let’s not do that, Bruder. We actually want Vash to agree.”

“Are you quite done?” Roderich was asking dryly. “We’d like an answer sooner rather than later.” He frowned. “There’s no need to get rude, now. Yes, I’ll tell him. Of course I mean it; having him shot defeats the purpose, don’t you think? Ja. Alright, danke, Vash.” He ended the call, glancing at the former Axis Powers. “Vash agreed to house you three for the time being. He suggests you leave as soon as you can.” He let his eyes settle on Feliciano. “He also suggested you keep your clothes on if you want to avoid being showered in lead upon arrival.” Feliciano squeaked.

“If you’re all ready, we can leave together,” Yao unfolded himself out of his lotus pose, easily getting to his feet without spilling a single drop of tea.

“How did you do that?” Antonio asked curiously, pointing at the cup. “And where did you get that anyway?” He looked around. “I don’t remember calling room service.”

That’s because we didn’t,” Yao took another sip. “I brought it with me.”

“Of course you did,” Arthur rubbed his temple with his fingers. “So are we alright? Does everyone know where they’re going and what they’re doing?”

“Ludwig, Feli, and Kiku are going to Vash and Lili’s place in Walendstadt,” Matthew ticked them off on his fingers. “Me and Al are going with Yao to his summer home outside of Beijing. Al is piloting and I call shotgun. All of that, and you six are going to try to break into Oxford to catch the serial killers after you. Did I miss anything?”

Arthur hummed thoughtfully. "Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves; no one said anything about breaking and entering, but the rest sounds about right. Are you all packed?” He directed his question to the room at large.

"Aussi," Francis jumped in, "how many of you still have your room keys?”

“We’re all packed,” Ludwig gestured to Feliciano and himself. “But we turned in our room keys this morning.” He looked as sheepish as he could possibly get, which meant a faint dusting of pink on his cheeks and a downward glance. “We were going to leave right before Alfred called us.”

“I have my key,” Kiku added. “And I did not get to unpack, so I’m ready to leave.”

“I’m packed,” Matthew gestured to his immaculately put together suitcase waiting by the door. “And I still have my room key too.”

“I have the key,” Alfred was rushing around the room, tossing things into his open suitcase. "It’s on the dresser,” he pointed in the general direction of the mirror Arthur had used earlier.

Francis walked over to it, tossing Alfred a shirt absently as he picked it up. "I returned mine when I left, and I presume you never had one?" He glanced back at Arthur.

Arthur snorted. "I live in the bloody city, why would I get lodging here?"

Francis rolled his eyes, but continued anyway. "So we have three keys, and six of us." He looked around. "I suppose we will be pairing off."

"And that is our cue to leave," Yao declared, walking towards the door. "Are you done, Alfred?"

"Almost..." Alfred was pushing down on the trembling lid as Matthew tried to close the latches.

"And done," the Canadian declared as he clicked the last one. His triumphant expression was quickly overshadowed by worry. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"

Arthur smiled ruefully. "Not really, no. But it's the best we've got."

Matthew looked like he was going to say more, but Francis blindsided him, throwing himself at both boys. "Now! Let Papa say goodbye!"

Arthur saw his chance as Francis proceeded to smother the twins. "Yao," he spoke softly, continuing when the other turned to him. "I know this is asking for quite a bit, but could you possibly keep an eye on the boys?"

He could see Yao's eyebrows go up out of the corner of his eyes. "I thought that was what I was agreeing to."

"No, not just lodging them, although I am thankful, truly. It's...just...the boys..." he grit his teeth as he tripped over his clumsy tongue. "The boys can be a handful," he settled on finally. "Alfred is reckless, you know that, more so when he feels so strongly.

"And don't let Matthew's countenance fool you; he's just as prone to foolishness as his brother, and when they're together, it can be an absolute madhouse."

"I think you forget exactly who I've raised," Yao commented mildly.

"It's not the same," Arthur snapped. "This is new, dangerous territory that we're dealing with here, and there's too much that we don't know. It's, they're-,"

"They're yours," Yao finished for him. "And you're scared." He looked over to where the twins were half-heartedly protesting Francis' enthusiastic affection. "That's understandable; you don't know what's going to happen, or if you can protect them." He smiled softly. "I'll take care of your family, I promise."

"You don't have to be so bloody smug about it," Arthur scoffed.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Yao told him serenely, sparing a glance to the side again. "Oh look, here they come now." He made to move away, but Arthur stopped him.

"I'll keep in touch," he told him sternly. "I'll try to call every day. I can't be certain it'll be possible, but I'll try."

"I would expect no less," and with that he slipped out of his hold, ignoring the boys' curious gazes on his way past them.

"What was that about?" Matthew asked.

"Just Yao being a cryptic tosser," Arthur rolled his eyes before softening at their matching downtrodden expressions. "Come now, boys. No need to look like you're going to a funeral, is there?"

"Who knows, we may be going to yours soon," Alfred muttered. He got his brother's elbow to the ribs for his trouble.

"Are you sure you want to do this? Like this?" Matthew asked, eyes wide and worried. "With all of us splitting up?"

"There's safety in numbers," Alfred added, rubbing his side with a pout.

"I'm sure this is the way that'll keep most of us safer," Arthur stood firmly. "If they truly are only after us six, then no one else will be caught in crossfire. And if they do intend to go after all of us," he grimaced at the thought,  "Then they'll be forced to split their forces between England, Switzerland, and China. They'll be weaker and easier to take out in small numbers in that case."

"You thought about this already," Matthew realized.

"Of course I have," Arthur sighed wearily. "Did you think I was asking you to go with Yao for my personal jollies?"

"Well, no," Alfred shifted. "But you gotta admit dude, you really sound like you don't was us here."

"I want you out of this mess," Arthur confessed. "But I'll take what I can get.

"Now," he straightened his posture, watching with no little satisfaction as Alfred and Matthew unconsciously mirrored him. "I don't think I need to tell you boys to look after each other-,"

"No shit," Alfred snorted. "Of course I'll protect Mattie; everyone knows he-,"

"Finish that and I'll let Kumakiko into your Big Macs again," Matthew said flatly.

"Nonetheless," Arthur pushed on. "Watch each other's backs. Keep alert, and keep each other well-informed of anything you notice or suspect. Even if it appears trivial, it may be more important than you think.

"Also, keep an eye on Yao. I think he’s gone senile in his old age,” he directed the last part at Yao’s back, who predictably ignored him with a pointed sip of tea.

“Are you ready?” Kiku asked from the doorway, where his unruffled manner was hysterically at odds with the sight of Ludwig trying to pry Feliciano’s arms off of Antonio and Roderich’s necks right next to him. “We are, unfortunately, pressed for time,” he bowed to the room at large. “I am sorry our meeting had to end in this manner. Hopefully, we will all be able to meet again soon. Ganbatte kudasai.” He took one of Feliciano’s arms and firmly pulled him away, murmuring something unheard to him as he led him out.

Without Feliciano as his immediate priority, Ludwig just looked aimless for a beat before he composed himself. “You will keep me informed, correct?”

“Of course, West,” Gilbert told him, a little too quickly.

Ludwig narrowed his eyes. “I mean it, Bruder.”

“If he doesn’t, I will,” Roderich rubbed his neck, staunchly ignoring Gilbert’s glare.

“Danke,” Ludwig sighed. “Just,” his eyes bounced around the room before lingering on Gilbert once more. “Be careful.”

“When am I not?” Gilbert spread his hands innocently.

Ludwig just closed his eyes. “Please.”

“Stop worrying, West,” Gilbert smiled. “I’m too awesome not to know what I’m doing. Now go help Kiku before Feli runs back in here.”

Ludwig nodded once, before turning around and marching out.

Yao was next out the door, only pausing to give Ivan a stern look. “Be more careful; you’re not actually as invincible as you think.”

Ivan just tilted his head slightly. “Thank you for the salve; I can barely feel it anymore,” he lifted his bandaged arm and smiled.

“Incorrigible,” Yao muttered as he disappeared.

Arthur turned back to the twins. “I suppose this is it for now,” He told himself he wasn’t memorizing their features as he made himself take a step back. “Go on now, don’t keep them waiting,” he added when they hesitated.

Alfred was the first to act, setting his jaw and tucking his suitcase underneath his arm. “Guess we’ll hear from you later?”

“Of course,” Arthur agreed. Alfred nodded back, finally moving only to stop when Arthur placed a hand on his shoulder. “Chin up, poppet,” he whispered, letting his hand fall away almost immediately afterwards. Alfred spared him one last glance before walking out the door.

Matthew walked up to Arthur next, hands clenched at his sides. “Please, think about this...”

Arthur was already shaking his head. “Too late for that one, now.”

“Dad…” Matthew pleaded.

Arthur ignored the dull pain that spread throughout his chest at that, instead choosing to grasp Matthew’s head and plant a dry kiss on his forehead. “Take care of yourself, Cub. Try to keep your brother from accidentally killing himself, why don’t you?”

Matthew’s laugh sounded more like a bark when he pulled away, rubbing at a red cheek. “I’ll try. Look out for Papa?”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “The last thing the Frog needs is more attention,” he offered Matthew a smirk to lighten his words.

Smiling back, albeit a bit unsteadily, Matthew strode to his own suitcase, lifting it and Kumajiro -who had found the rest of the breakfast puffs if the brown sugar on his muzzle was any indication,- and then the door was finally closing with a soft click behind him. An odd silence fell upon the room then, the kind that usually followed the sudden withdrawal of purpose and activity, where everyone would be trying to awkwardly determine what to do next.

A loud growl broke through it, and when all eyes turned toward the source, Antonio just smiled sheepishly. “Ah, I haven’t eaten all day, lo siento!” He looked at Arthur. “Is there a kitchen I can use around here? I can make us some dinner.”

“Ooh, I’ll help!” Francis raised his hand.

“Sod off,” Arthur snapped. “You can order room service as soon as we divvy up the rooms.” He looked around. “Any suggestions?”

“Dibs!” Gilbert grabbed Roderich. For his part, Roderich just rolled his eyes but didn’t protest.

Francis slithered up to Arthur and leaned right into his face. “I think it goes with say, mon lion, that we are sharing this room.”

Arthur pushed his face away. “Stop calling me those ridiculous names; Alfred is right, they’re bloody weird.”

Meanwhile, Ivan turned to Antonio with a pleasant expression. “I suppose that means we will be sharing a room, then.”

“Sure looks like it!” Antonio laughed lightly, completely oblivious to the growing looks of alarm on Francis and Gilbert’s faces. “I’ve been told I snore sometimes, so I hope that doesn’t bother you.”

“Not at all,” Ivan assured him. “I am a very heavy sleeper.”

“Bugger it all,” Arthur muttered, glancing around desperately. “These rooms have to have scotch someplace.”


 

A few hours later found an unfortunately sober Arthur in bed, glaring at the unlit ceiling, with the only sound being the running shower water in the background. He had opted to shower before eating, while Francis had been desperately trying to talk Antonio into getting his own room, or rooming with them. Arthur was quite frankly glad Antonio had just laughed the suggestion off; if he would have had to put up with Francis and Antonio throughout the night, he would have probably jumped out the window and saved their attackers the trouble.

Dinner had been full of Francis’ melodramatic moaning over the quality of the food, and while that had made him want to stab the frog a little more than he usually did, what really got under his skin would be the moments when he wasn’t saying anything, just silently chewing and staring at him. A Francis who bid his time was never a good omen.

He heard the water shut off just then. “Speak of the devil,” he muttered to himself, closing his eyes. It was only a few heartbeats later that he heard the door open slowly and then felt the bed sinking.

“What exactly are you doing, Frog?” He asked flatly as the covers rustled around him.

“Making myself comfortable, évidemment,” Francis answered promptly, splaying himself across Arthur’s chest like a spoiled housecat. “Why does your face smell like aloe?”

Arthur was immediately aware of the cool gel drying on his face. “It’s that salve Yao gave Ivan. Apparently it’ll help with the redness and it’ll speed the healing up a bit.”

“Ah,” Francis grew quiet after that, but it was the loaded sort of quiet that Arthur was all too familiar with. It would sit heavily in the room until Arthur felt like he was choking on it and he’d be forced to act, while Francis just adopted a scandalized expression at his “unwarranted outburst.”

He sighed heavily, tugging his arm free from underneath Francis and bringing it around his back. Feeling an odd roughness underneath his palm, Arthur tugged him closer, glancing over his damp hair to peer at his back. “Are you wearing a Batman shirt?”

A beat of silence. “...Oui.”

“Is this Alfred’s?” Arthur rubbed his hand down the material. It caught slightly on his callouses, but not the way a worn shirt would. “This feels new, how did you get it off of him? He loves Batman.”

“Well, I imagined he would notice if one of his Captain America shirts went missing,” Francis told him loftily. “So I took the next best thing.

“Plus,” he added softly. “It reminded me of something he said to me.”

“And what’s that?”

“‘You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’ He said it was from-,”

“The Dark Knight,” Arthur interrupted him.

“And how,” now Francis sounded amused, damn him, “did you know that?”

“I, may have watched the movie,” he groused. “Alfred forced me though!”

“I’m sure,” Francis snorted before sobering up. “Don’t you think you were too harsh on the boys? You sounded like a sergeant.”

“I did not,” Arthur went back to staring at the ceiling. “It was an ‘I’ll see you later, don’t do anything stupid until then’ situation, not a military drill.”

“Arthur…”

“Anything else would have felt like a goodbye,” he insisted. “And the last thing I want the boys to think is that I don’t think we’re going to survive this.”

Arthur could feel Francis turning that over in his head as he tapped a beat out on his chest. “That is surprisingly considerate of you, Monsieur Cynique.”

“Oh belt up,” Arthur scolded him. “We don’t need to be giving them any more ideas that we’re not capable of taking care of this.”

“We might not be able to, however,” Francis pointed out.

“I know that,” Arthur admitted. They lay like that for a bit before Arthur sighed and grabbed Francis’ wandering hand, bringing it up and against his chest. “Good night, Francis.”

He got a chuckle in response. “Bonne nuit, Arthur.”

Chapter Text

Francis took one look at the bleary eyed, freshly woken faces around him and could only come to one conclusion.

“We need new clothes,” he announced.

Roderich raised a finger into the air. “I agree.”

“You would,” Gilbert yawned loudly, scratching his stomach and spearing more sausage onto his plate in jerky motions.

"Unlike you," Roderich glared, "Some of us aren't comfortable wearing the same filthy clothes day in and day out.” He glanced at the wrinkled Wonder Woman logo across his chest. “You slept in that shirt too.”

“Woah there,” Gilbert glared half-heartedly. “I would’ve taken it off last night, but I didn’t want to offend your delicate, pansy sensibilities.”

“So about those clothes...” Antonio said loudly, cutting off Roderich’s retort. “What did you have in mind?”

“I think we have more pressing issues at hand than your wardrobe, Francis,” Arthur cut in, buttering a scone with swift, harsh strokes. “Like what we’re going to do about the men after us, perhaps. Besides, I have clothes.”

“Oh?” Francis raised an eyebrow. “And you mean to share them with us? All of us?” He gestured to everyone else around their table, making sure to end with Ivan, who made a thoughtful noise.

“I do not think your clothes will fit me,” he finally said, shrugging apologetically.

“Besides,” Francis continued, “You hardly packed anything actually wearable.”

“I beg your pardon,” Arthur sputtered. “There is nothing wrong with what I packed.”

“Have you even looked at any of it?” Francis asked incredulously. “There are barely any socks, no underwear, and everything else is in horrible condition,” He gestured to his own lap. “I am wearing the best jeans you packed, and the ends are completely frayed.”

“Why are you wearing my bloody clothes?” Arthur looked underneath the table and noted that the jeans were in fact, not a pair of his best. They were worn to a faded light blue, with some patches that were only a handful of wears away from becoming threadbare, and the bottoms were pretty tattered. Bugger.

“Because mine are ruined,” Francis sniffed. “Which is why we need new clothes. Aussi, we cannot be walking around looking the way we usually do. We may not be célébrités , but there are still people who know our faces.”

“I am not wearing a costume,” Roderich declared with disgust.

“I don’t know, Prinzessin,” Gilbert snickered. “I think those legs would look great in some sto-OW!” He yanked his hand away and rubbed gently at the red mark left by Roderich’s suddenly deadly spoon. “The fuck, Specs!”

Roderich just returned to calmly spooning more sugar into his coffee. “Shut up, Gilbert.”

"Changing our clothes is hardly going to make us unrecognizable," Arthur spoke over Gilbert's grumbling. "We can't change our faces."

"You're right," Francis murmured, squinting at Arthur's face. "Perhaps you should shave your eyebrows, mon cher."

To no one's great surprise, Gilbert immediately started guffawing, half-chewed sausage on display for the entire table to see, while Antonio laughed just as heartily but at least had the decency to pretend that he wasn’t looking at Arthur’s eyebrows.

“Perhaps,” Arthur snapped, face bright red, “ You should shave that ridiculous patchy mess off your face; you bloody well know I’d look much more ridiculous without eyebrows.”

“Ah, oui, the Stir Fry Incident of 2003,” Francis hummed. “Mathieu still has you barred from his kitchen, non?”

Ivan perked up. “I have never heard of this. What happened to Matvey’s kitchen?”

“Well you see,” Francis started with a flourish, “Arthur had convinced himself that since a stovetop meal would be out in the open the entire time, he would be able to tell when it was done cooking without having to rely on a timer. Little did he know that splashing oil onto a pre-heated pan-,”

“Don’t you dare finish that, Bonnefoy,” Arthur slapped his palms on the table, leaning over it menacingly. For his part, Francis just blinked leisurely at him while taking a sip of coffee.

“In exchange for what, mon petit pyromane?”

“Don’t you even start, Francis-,”

Francis turned back to Ivan, “So there he was, with a pound of atrociously cubed beef in one hand-,”

“Alright!” Arthur valiantly ignored the hacking sounds coming from his right and Antonio’s concerned questioning. “Alright, fine! Have your bloody way and go shopping,” he slumped back into his seat with a huff. “I must be going completely mad if I ever thought it was a good idea to tell you that."

"You were, how you say, arse over elbow , when you did," Francis offered with a smirk.

Arthur winced. "Never say that again."

"Is it really a good idea for you to go out, Francis?" Antonio asked, looking away from where he was pounding on Gilbert's heaving back. "You've already been attacked once."

Francis frowned. "Well, what do you suggest then? We cannot stay in these clothes much longer," he plucked at his Batman shirt. "We will stand out more."

" I could go," Antonio reasoned. "I haven't been attacked yet, and as far we know, they have no idea where I am; they may not be looking for me yet."

" Yet ," Roderich repeated, "But they'll be looking for all of us, and sooner rather than later they're going to realize that we're all together."

"Cierto, but for now, I'll be the last one to raise any alarms," Antonio pushed back. "Besides, if they really belong to Oxford, then I should be fine going out for a few hours to buy clothes."

"Make that one hour, two tops," Gilbert finally managed to wheeze, face slightly purple. "And you're not going by yourself." He straightened up and took a deep, sausage-less breathe. "It's the buddy system from here on out, men; no one's going anywhere without at least one other person watching their backs."

Antonio frowned. "That kind of defeats the purpose of me going, then."

"Gilbert is right, however," Roderich swatted at Gilbert absently when he leered at him. "Like I said, they're going to realize we're all together sooner rather than later. Rather you be safe than us stay hidden for a little longer."

Antonio immediately beamed at him, causing a passing waitress to slam into the table next to them. "Ah, gracias Roderich!"

"You're a menace," Arthur muttered under his breath as he helped the flustered woman straighten her tray.

"I will go with you," Ivan volunteered, raising his hand slightly.

Francis and Gilbert exchanged a glance. "Uh..."

"I make the most sense," he told them.

"How?" Gilbert eyed him warily. "You're the most injured."

"Well Arthur can not go because this is his city, and whoever is looking for him may still be here," Ivan started. "You stand out too much," he flicked his eyes meaningfully between Gilbert's red eyes and white hair. "Francis would spend all of our money on overpriced clothing," he ignored the blond's indignant gasp, "And Roderich," he smiled apologetically at him. "I am sorry, but I do not think your sense of style affords us much 'blending in.'"

Roderich turned his nose up, a flush spreading high on his cheekbones. "No appreciation for fine wear, the lot of you."

"Aw, lighten up, Specs," Gilbert snickered. "I'm sure all the ladies at the bingo hall think you look just dandy. That being said," he cleared his throat noisily, "I never thought I'd be agreeing with you, Braginsky, but you're right.

"Besides," he looked him up and down, "You're our bruiser; if anyone can fight the good fight while looking like a train wreck, it's you."

"Ah, thank you?" Ivan blinked. "I think?"

"That's a good thing," Gilbert nodded resolutely.

"Si tu le dis," Francis rolled his eyes. "So what will the rest of us do while you two get our clothes?" He apparently couldn't help but add a little sniff of distaste to the end.

"We should do more research, see what we else we can find concerning Oxford and cults," Arthur chewed on his cheek thoughtfully. "We're limited to the computers they have for the public here, but two of us can go to the London Library afterwards, look through their periodicals, see what they have that may have slipped through the cracks of time."

"I love it when you take control, mon capitaine," Francis purred, earning himself a disturbed glance from Roderich.

"Keep it in your pants, Franny," Gilbert snapped before leveling Arthur with a contemplative look. "So you are thinking it's a cult?"

"I'm actually not sure," Arthur pursed his lips. "But I've been thinking this over, and one thing doesn't really add up." He glanced around the table, eyes lingering over the various nicks, visible and not, that he knew his tablemates bore. "Why knives?"

"What do you mean, 'why knives?'" Roderich asked. "They were trying to kill us, what does it matter with what?"

"Because there's a higher chance of failing with a knife," Antonio said slowly, eyes brightening in realization. "You have to get close to the person, and you have to deal a fatal enough blow."

"Exactly," Arthur nodded. "Why risk it? If the intention is just to kill us, why not a gun? I mean, skilled as we all are, we still can't outrun gunfire, at least not for long. All it would have taken was a shot to the leg," he pointed at his own thigh, "then one to the head," he pressed his finger to his temple. "Problem solved."

"So the knives are important to their plan," Ivan picked up where he left off. "And I cannot speak for all of you, but I have never seen a knife like that before," he grimaced, a foreign expression on his normally placid features. "I have seen many weapons in my life, used for many purposes, and knives are usually the choice of the desperate, or the passionate."

"Two things that do not work in our favor, certainement," Francis conceded with a twisted expression.

"Well, sitting around and talking it to death doesn't work in our favor either," Gilbert slapped the tabletop once before standing. "We're burning daylight; let's get moving."

He smirked at them, red eyes bouncing between wrinkled clothes, disheveled hair, and disgruntled expressions. "May the odds be ever in our favor."

Arthur shot him a refreshingly dry look amidst the confused stares. "That was distasteful."

He shrugged. "We need all the luck we can get."


 

Lovino Vargas sometimes really truly hated his life.

Just in general, if asked, he would say his lot in life was pretty shitty. He was the eldest of a dually represented country, but the one who carried the name was his younger brother, who, while he loved him dearly, was pretty much a total ditz, to the point that on particularly wine-filled nights Lovino couldn't help but wonder if he was only still alive because the Almighty Father favored him.

To add insult to injury, Feliciano had some obscene obsession with the steroid poster child potato bastard, which meant that not only was Lovino himself in constant contact with him, but also with the older actual felon potato bastard, who brought the cheese-eating pervert, who inevitably brought the heathen alcoholic and their bastard blond tornadoes of destruction.

Then there was the fact that his own best friend was his previous jailer-slash-father figure, who he couldn't take anywhere because he didn't know how to control his stupid charming face, and by the end of the night, Lovino would be fending off (or running away from) a mass of love-struck women, men, ambiguously gendered individuals, stray dogs, cats, birds, turtles, and once, a particularly amorous ostrich at the zoo.

Not to mention that said best friend must have swallowed too much sea water when he and the heathen alcoholic were having their creepy "it wasn't anything sexual, Lovi, tight pants, open shirts and glistening pectorals was just the style in those days" cock fights, because he obviously had some sort of impairment in forming relationships, starting with his marriage to the stuck-up prick who raised Feliciano, to his disgustingly close friendship with the cheese-eating pervert and the actual felon potato bastard, to whatever he was calling what he and the cheap bastard did these days.

All of that without taking into account the shit he had to deal with concerning the mafia, and the ancient lady-faced dragon hermit randomly showing up just to sip tea around him and make off-handed remarks about how similar to his grandfather he was.

Lovino Vargas also had a history of making his therapists cry, drink, quit, or a combination of all three.

“Lovino,” Charlotte’s soft voice cut through his thoughts. “Are you okay?”

“Hm?” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Why?”

“Because you’re making this face,” she scrunched her eyebrows together, grit her teeth and puffed her cheeks out, “And it’s your angry face.”

“I do not look like a rabid squirrel when I’m angry,” he deadpanned, scowling when she smacked him on the arm. “Ragazza, I’m going to need ice for that you know, and the stingy gun-toting maniac probably won’t let me have any.”

Charlotte rolled her eyes and continued walking. “Vash has always been hospitable when I visit; you’re just being a baby. And didn’t your therapist tell you to stop calling people stuff like that?”

“That one’s in rehab now,” Lovino shrugged. “I was actually thinking that it’s about time I find another one.”

“That’s surprisingly mature,” Charlotte looked over at him, talking over his indignant reply, “Especially since you threw the last one’s chair out the window.”

“Tch,” he looked away. “Bastard didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Charlotte hummed unconvincingly, reaching over to snag his fingers, her signature smile curling her lips. “Come on, you’re walking too slow.” That was all the warning she gave him before nearly yanking his arm out of the socket in her brisk march.

Lovino forced down the slew of profanities that clawed up his throat and instead looked around for five green things -a trick his fifth therapist had taught him before quitting to become a monk or something-, finally settling his eyes on the back of Charlotte’s head, where he could see her green bow peeking through her hair.

Looking closer, he could actually see the tension threaded through her shoulders and running into her legs, turning what would have normally been a fluid stride into something much more choppy and sharp. She was also looking straight ahead instead of glancing around and admiring the foreign countryside the way she normally would.

She was nervous, and she had every right to be too, he reminded himself sharply. They had both seen Feliciano and the potato bastards off three days ago the way they normally did; last minute packing, ignored breakfast, some cursing, dodged hugs, reluctant promises to keep the dogs alive, dodged silverware, nothing special. They had seen Antonio just the day after that, making plans for brunch later in the week.  Bastiaan they hadn't seen for a bit, but that had never been a reason for concern before. The cheap bastard liked to drop off the map every once in awhile, just to be a dick.

But he usually answered Antonio, especially nowadays, and he always answered his siblings.

Lovino thumbed at his phone, the little red icon indicating that he had seven unread messages, all from Antonio. A quick glance let him know that he hadn't heard from Bastiaan yet, and that Arthur had apparently burned his eyebrows off once, what the actual fuck.

"Charlotte," a little head tilt told him she was listening. "Has Christian heard anything yet?"

She bit her lip before shaking her head sharply. "No, he hasn't. Big Brother's phone is just going to voicemail now." She glanced at the phone still in Lovino's hand. "Has Antonio...?"

Lovino shook his head with a growl. "No, he hasn't even gotten a single text this entire time. I know you love him and everything, but your brother's a douchebag."

To her credit, Charlotte didn't even try to defend him. "I know," she sighed. "But I'm still worried."

"Not saying you shouldn't be," he muttered, "I'm just saying." He cleared his throat. "So what's Christian doing?"

"Nothing," Charlotte said vehemently. "I told him to stay in Luxembourg; there's no reason for him to involve himself."

Lovino furrowed his eyebrows. "And what'd he say about you involving yourself?" A guilty silence was his answer. "You didn't tell him, did you." It wasn't a question but Charlotte responded anyway.

"I didn't lie!" She protested hotly. "Me and you," she poked him hard on the chest, "are not 'getting involved,'" she mimed air quotes with her unoccupied hand. "We're just going to see your brother."

"Who's practically in witness protection, hiding from terrorists, on a gun fetishist’s private property," he added dryly, gesturing vaguely to the silver fence gleaming in the distance.

He rubbed pointedly at his chest before something occurred to him. “Wait, you didn't actually tell him you were with me, did you?”

He was met with another loaded silence.

"Charlotte, are you actually trying to get me killed?"

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Lovino,” Charlotte actually had the audacity to roll her eyes at him, like he was being the unreasonable one between them. “Did you really think Christian would have agreed to stay in Luxembourg if I didn’t tell him I was going to be with you, especially with Big Brother missing?”

Lovino had a moment to preen over the fact that Christian apparently thought him capable enough of protecting his sister in their brother’s absence before the true weight of the sentiment came crashing down over his head. “You do know that when all of this blows up in our faces, because it’s going to, don’t give me that look,” he jabbed a finger at Charlotte’s scoff, “He’s going to kill me? You do know that right?” He frowned at the smirk he could see twitching to life at the corners of Charlotte’s mouth. “What’s that look for now?”

“Oh nothing,” Charlotte practically sang the words, going as far as to swing their joined hands a little. “Just that it’s kind of cute that you’re so worried about what Christian thinks of you, that’s all.”

Lovino graced her with an unimpressed look of his own. “I’ve seen what che truffatore can do with darts when it's just money on the line,” greedy little bastard; the only good part of going to a bar with him was that Christian would actually use the money he'd robbed everyone of to buy their drinks for the night, not that even drinking Bastiaan's money away was enough to soothe his injured pride at losing to a twink who couldn't even be bothered to push his hair back before shooting, the cocky fucker, “What do you think he’s going to do to me when it's his precious eeler Shwester ?”

Charlotte smacked him on the chest - hard , what the fuck,- and opened her mouth, looking more than ready to chew him out, -probably for everything  from calling her brother a conman to his butchered Luxembourgish,- but he didn’t get the chance to find out, a decisively harsh click piercing the air between them.

Looking up, he was met with the business end of a very menacing rifle, and an irate blond maniac at the other end, Lili standing not that far away, but at least having the decency to not look likes she was just waiting for an excuse to squeeze the trigger on the gun she was holding, and really che palle?

“What the actual fu-”

“Shut up,” Vash snapped before Lovino could even finish his very well-deserved exclamation, shifting his gun in a way that could only be taken as a threat. “Why are you here?”

“Why the fuck do you think we’re here?” Lovino snorted, desperately trying to avoid drawing attention to his trembling hands, clenching his free one into a fist. “My brother is here because that criminal potato bastard thinks everything is going to go to shit; you think we were just going to sit around after that?”

Vash just frowned harder, brows dipping dangerously underneath his stupid fringe. “Roderich said it would only be those three.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’m not putting up with anymore of you.”

“Like you don’t have the space, Zwingli?” Lovino couldn’t have helped the response even if he had wanted to, so it was a good thing that he had no regrets, because if Vash didn’t put a hole in his head right now, then he was going to die from whatever organ was about to be punctured by Charlotte’s pointy as fuck elbows, OW.

“We’re sorry, Vash,” Charlotte spoke over his yelp of pain, “We should have called to let you know we were coming, but things, ah,” she bit her lip, voice dropping, just enough to prompt Lovino to tighten his grip on her hand. She squeezed back once, shooting him a short grateful glance before continuing, “Things have been a little crazy, and my phone died last night.” She gave Lili an apologetic half smile. “I would have at least texted you to let you know, but it slipped my mind.”

Seeing the tightening around her eyes up close, Lovino could tell she was remembering exactly why she had burned out her phone’s battery, and Lovino couldn’t help but hate Bastiaan a little bit more for putting that expression back on Charlotte’s face without even having the decency to be around to take responsibility. Inconsiderate bastard.

“It’s quite alright,” Lili’s soft voice distracted him from his steadily rising temper, reminding him that he still had a loaded gun pointed between his eyes by a trigger-happy midget with rage issues to rival his own. “From what I’ve managed to gather, this is an unfortunate situation, and it’s starting to appear that it affects everyone,” her eyes settled on him, making him shift uneasily under her sympathetic gaze. “Feliciano told me that Alfred had quite a bit to say about it.”

“Then you know more than we do,” Lovino sighed, suddenly very tired. “I only know what Antonio is telling me, and that bastard has the attention span of a fruitfly.”

“And my brother isn’t answering anyone,” Charlotte’s smile was a brittle parody of her usual little grin. “We didn’t want to just wait around for news, you know?”

There was a beat of heavy silence between them after that, as Vash visibly turned their words over. Lovino finally shifted uneasily, meeting Vash’s piercing green glare with one of his own. “Do you mind, cafone? You’re pointing that at a lady!”

Vash snorted, “I’ve met more than my fair share of ‘ladies’ more dangerous than the Tatzelwurm,” he finally lowered the rifle, shooting Charlotte a short glance. “No offense.”

“None taken!” She chirped, looking disturbingly more chipper at being compared to a scaly half-cat dragon thing than she had any right to be. “Does this mean that we can go in to see Feli?”

“In a bit,” Vash shouldered his rifle, waving Lili over with a flick of his wrist. “We’re going to search you first.”

“Search us?!” Lovino gaped. “We’re not the enemy here, sciocco, or did you miss that part?”

Vash jabbed a finger at him, green eyes hard as flint. “You’re first. Spread them.”

And it was right then, braced against a chain link fence with an overly aggressive Swiss man practically slapping his way to a sexual assault case on his thighs with Charlotte shooting him apologetic glances to the side while getting her much more humane pat down from a contrite Lili, all just so they could talk to his younger brother who had somehow managed to get himself embroiled in some old world conspiracy, that Lovino Vargas came to the conclusion that his life truly was an utter shit show, and he was definitely going to have to find another therapist after all of this crap blew over.

Merda.


 

Ivan cast his gaze over to Antonio, who had his nose once again buried in his phone, for the third time since they had set out on their little field trip a few minutes ago. Ivan briefly considered being offended by the seeming lack of interest in engaging with him, but if he had learned anything in the past twenty-four hours, it was that the other nation was likely not as air-headed as he tended to appear.

“Ah,” Antonio brightened suddenly, looking up at Ivan with a wide smile. “It looks like Lovi and Lola just got to Vash’s place.” He chuckled a little, casting a fond gaze back to his screen. “They had a little trouble getting past Vash, but it seems like they’re okay.”

In Ivan’s personal experience, a “little trouble with Vash” could mean anything from getting a passive-aggressive tongue lashing, to getting a shower of lead as a greeting, so he felt rightly concerned about Lovino’s well-being.

And as someone who had also had the misfortune of having crossed paths with Lovino Vargas when he was in a bad mood, he was rightly worried about the state of Vash’s house as well.

“Ah, are you sure?” Ivan watched as Antonio hummed, swiping at his screen for a little before stopping with a nod, turning the screen toward him with a smile.

From where Ivan was walking, he could clearly see the all caps message taking up most of the screen, making it that much easier to pick out the multitude of curses peppered throughout, in both Italian and English. Lovino, if nothing else, was a creative soul.

“He was...frisked? That is the right word?” At Antonio’s nod he continued, “Charlotte as well, but everyone has made it there safely, da?”

“Seems so,” Antonio turned his attention back to the phone, a small smile still ticking up the corners of his mouth as he quickly tapped something out in response. “Lovi’s threatening to sue Vash for sexual harassment, but I don’t think Lili would have let it get that far, so he’s probably just being silly.” He paused thoughtfully. “Also, I don’t think Vash would risk it; Lovi has expensive taste.”

Ivan had his doubts about that, but even he couldn’t argue with that logic.

He did however, have a question that had been nagging him since last night. “May I ask you a question?”

Antonio turned his bright smile his way again, and distantly, Ivan was aware of the sound of someone cursing, and the sound of several boxes hitting the floor. “Claro que si!”

“Why are you friends with Lovino?” Ivan was sure the confusion he could see spreading across Antonio’s face was reflected on his own as well. “He does not seem to be very nice to you. Or anyone else,” he admitted with a wave of his hand. “I do not understand it.”

Antonio, to his surprise, just threw back his head with a laugh. In the background, a car swerved violently, followed by aggressive honking. “Well, because I like him, of course!”

Ivan blinked at him, still not understanding. “I thought you were in a relationship with Bastiaan Jansen?”

“Oh, I am,” Antonio’s smile did not exactly dim, but the skin around his eyes did tighten, just a bit. “I meant that I liked Lovino as a person, sabes?” He shrugged. “I’ve known him for so long, and he’s just always been really caring and passionate, and the best friend I could ask for.”

That did not sound like the Lovino Vargas that Ivan knew, but he was strangely hesitant to attempt to contradict Antonio when he was smiling like that. The young man they walked past who whispered “fuck me” appeared to agree with him.

“But is he not physically violent?” Ivan pushed on anyway, brows furrowed in confusion. “I am sure I have seen him throw things at you.”

Antonio shrugged again. “Lovi throws things at everyone.”

“That is not as reassuring as you may think it is,” Ivan admitted.

“I guess I can see why it might not be,” Antonio laughed lightly, “It’s just, you know, that’s just the way Lovi is.” His smile widened as he glanced at Ivan out of the corners of his eyes. “He yells and throws things, but in the end, you know he’d yell and throw things at someone else if you needed help, too.”

Ivan turned that over in his mind. Lovino Vargas had well-known, and very poorly controlled anger problems, but he also had the loyalties of both Antonio and Feliciano, two of the kindest and warmest of them all, and that was without mentioning the obvious soft regard that Charlotte held for him as well, favor made all the more remarkable when taking into account just how protective her brothers were.

Something that Lovino did was working for him, and suddenly, Ivan was filled with a deep and yearning desire to know what it was.

“But how do you know?” he asked. “How do you know that he will not just turn on you?” How does he keep your loyalty?

Antonio hummed, eyes cast up in obvious thought. “Well, I guess I just have faith,” he finally said, the words coming out slowly, as if he were testing them out.

“Faith?” Ivan echoed.

“Yup!” Antonio was warming up to the idea now, face beaming. Ivan could just barely see a woman tripping and falling across the street from them. “ Fe . You need to trust that the people you love are going to be there for you when you need them to be, and also when you don’t.” His nose wrinkled, expression thoughtful, “The same way that they trust that you’ll be there for them too.”

Ivan thought about that one, thinking back to his many, and often failed, attempts at establishing and expanding relationships with the other nations. Antonio made it sound deceptively simple, but in his personal experience, relationships were tricky, and he often found himself empty-handed and broken-hearted more often than not, with a collection of fearful expressions to keep him company after he was left alone once more.

Natalya and Yao were his longest uninterrupted relationships and, he reminded himself with a small grimace, his sister’s expressions of affection often...complicated their ability to spend much time together, so truly, he only had Yao most of the time. Yao, who was terrifyingly busy and had a multitude of family he was struggling to keep in touch with, often at the expense of being able to host Ivan with any sense of consistency.

“I do not think I know how to do that,” he admitted finally, sighing sadly. “I fear that I am not very good at being a friend.” He peeked over at Antonio, only to be surprised by the soft smile aimed his way. “Shto?”

“Nada, nada,” Antonio shook his head genially, smile never dimming. “It’s just that you seem like a pretty good friend to me.”

Now it was Ivan’s turn to stare incredulously. “Shto?” he repeated himself, voice cracking a little.

“Pues, claro,” Antonio nodded, a surety in his movement that Ivan envied, “You care about the people around you, si?” he barely waited for Ivan to nod in response before going on, “And you’re willing to stand up for them if they need help?” Another nod. “And you like spending time with them even when nothing important or cool is going on?” He was nodding along with Ivan by now. “Even if all you end up doing is sitting around and talking about nothing over a bottle of ice cold beer?”

“I prefer vodka,” Ivan interrupted mildly.

“And I sangria,” Antonio laughed lightly. “But it’s the sentiment, el sentimiento, that really matters.

“And besides,” Antonio’s smiled grew another fraction, “You came with me today, even though you’re the most hurt, just to have my back. As far as I know, that makes you one of the most caring people I know.”

Ivan was blinking owlishly at Antonio, a faint stinging making itself known behind his eyes. “Does that mean we are friends?”

“Claro que si!” Antonio slapped a hand on Ivan’s shoulder, shaking him slightly. “Tu que si eres chistoso, sabes?”

“Spasibo,” Ivan cleared his throat, voice rougher than he would have liked. “You are a very kind man, Antonio.”

Antonio shrugged easily. “I think I’m just honest, really. Honest and a little blunt maybe, at least according to Lovi and Bastiaan.” He winked with a careless grin tossed Ivan’s way, and two cyclists promptly crashed into each other right next to them. “Wow, people are really clumsy here, aren’t they?”

“Right,” Ivan took Antonio’s arm and started steering them into the nearest clothing store he could see. “We should probably be getting back soon, so this should do, da?”

They were trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves, Ivan reminded himself, and if this was what a normal trip out with Antonio was like, he was sure he was starting to understand at least some of Lovino’s rage issues.

Antonio hummed thoughtfully, looking up at the clothes they could just see through the open doors. “This is an American store, right? I think I recognize the moose.”

“Even better; it is guaranteed to be both cheap and trite in that case.”

And as Antonio threw his head back with another rich laugh, Ivan decided that even with all the various aches and the trail of misfortune they had just left behind, he was happy, really and truly happy, and that no masked men or cults were going to take any of these people from him, not while he still had something to say about it.

Because that’s just what friends did.


 

“Like, are you planning on making a hole in that, or are we actually going to eat sometime today?”

Toris paused, looking past the newspaper he had pressed against the window to see Feliks reflected behind him, impatience clear on his expression even despite the blurry quality of the surface.

“It’s Tuesday,” he finally offered, swiping the wrinkled paper across the pane in front of him one more time.

“And I’m hungry,” Feliks retorted with a rather unattractive snort that Toris reminded himself to point out later. “I like, don’t know about you, but I still eat lunch on Tuesdays. And I like to do it before,” a pause that Toris distantly figured meant Feliks had walked away to glance at the clock in the hallway, “Three pm.”

That made him turn around. “It’s three already?”

Feliks graced him with raised eyebrow and plenty of sass in his response, “Uh, yeah? That’s only what I’ve been trying to tell you for the past half an hour?” He frowned and crossed his arms, giving Toris a rather hairy eyeball. “What’s gotten into you, Liet? I know you’re a total neatfreak, but even this is too much for you.” He flapped a hand dismissively toward the bucket of cleaning supplies still sitting at the base of the large kitchen window Toris had just been cleaning. “You know we can pay people to come and use machines to do that now, right?”

“Newspaper doesn’t leave streaks,” Toris muttered absently, frowning as he pulled his phone out. Three-fifteen blinked cheerfully up at him when he unlocked his screen, changing to three-sixteen briefly before going black once more. “Something’s wrong.”

“You mean besides the fact that we’re not eating yet?”

“Feliks,” Toris sighed, casting the blond man a beseeching look. “Why are you here?”

Feliks, for his part, just looked at him like he was stupid. “Because you made Burokėlių Sriuba,” his Lithuanian was, predictably, annoyingly flawless, “and you know I love your beetroot soup. Besides,” he jerked a thumb behind him, in the vague direction of the dining room. “I brought Naleśniki, and I know you love that too.” Of course he did, Toris thought helplessly, Feliks only used his crepes to bribe his way into just about anything he wanted to do. It was practically a conditioned response at this point.

“And anyway,” Feliks continued loudly, making a show of looking around, “Where’s tall, cheery, and creepy anyway? He’s usually here by now, and I’ve been looking forward to medovik all week.”

And there, was the crux of Toris’ problem.

“I don’t know,” he admitted, hand tightening and loosening around his phone nervously as Feliks’ eyebrows shot up again.

“You don’t know?” he parroted, tilting his head to the side. “Did he like, forget to tell you that he wasn’t coming or something?”

Toris rubbed his free hand down his face with a sigh. “Feliks, Ivan never even tells me that he is coming; he just shows up, every Tuesday, at one pm, like clockwork.” He waved half-heartedly toward the hallway. “I set that clock by him.”

“Creepy,” Feliks hummed, “but useful.”

“I guess, but he’s not here.”

“Normally, I’d say that’s a good thing, but we had a pending conversation about the Vyatka.” He frowned. “We were going to go over the finer details of his conservation project.”

Eventually, Toris would find the energy to be concerned that Ivan and Feliks both apparently spent enough time in his house that they had standing conversation dates about horses, but that day was not today.

“Something’s wrong,” he insisted. “Ivan never misses these lunches, unless he’s going to be away, and even then, he usually tries to Skype me.” Sometimes even turning on his personal computer’s webcam on remotely, scaring the ever loving soul out of him with cheery singing from across the room.

Feliks shifted his weight to one side, finally starting to look serious. “Are there any G8 meetings this week?”

“G7,” Toris corrected absently, bouncing his phone on his palm. “Russia’s been suspended, remember?”

“Right, right,” Feliks waved a hand absently. “Are there any this week though?”

“I think so,” Toris frowned thoughtfully down at his phone. “I think my boss mentioned something about it last week.”

“And I haven’t seen either of the Beilschmidts this week, so I’d put money on that.”

Toris shot him a dry look. “I thought Gilbert wasn’t allowed back in Poland after the thing with the museum.”

“Eh,” Feliks, rolled his eyes and blew his bangs up with an irritated huff. “Technically, it was his, so he got off on a technicality. Technically. Besides,” he shrugged, “I don’t have any problems with Ludwig, so if he’s there, I like, don’t mind having a drink with them.”

“But you haven’t seen them.”

“But I haven’t seen them,” Feliks repeated with a nod.

Toris grimaced, watching as the time flashed three-thirty on his screen. “I don’t like this, Feliks.”

“No kidding, you’re starting to give me the creeps too,” he shuddered a little theatrically before moving closer, peeking at his screen over his shoulder. “Who are you going to call?”

“Who said I was going to call anyone?” Even as he said it, he was unlocking his phone and pulling up his call log. “Do you think Natalya would know anything?”

“Murder Barbie?” Feliks snorted again. “I’d actually place money on her being the last person Ivan would tell if something was wrong. Try Katya. Actually,” Toris heard some shuffling, and a quick glance behind him proved that Feliks had pulled out his own phone as well. “I’ll call Katya. You call one of the G8-”

“G7-”

“-Whatever,” Feliks interrupted, “One of those guys.”

“Who should I call?”

“How about one of the North American brothers? Ooh!” He could hear Feliks snapping his fingers rapidly behind him, “Call the hot one!”

“The hot one?” Toris cast a curious glance back over his shoulder. “But they’re twins; they look exactly the same.”

“Oh Liet,” Feliks sighed forlornly, his own phone already up to his ear. He reaching over Toris’ shoulder all the same, swiping at his screen until he ended up near the M’s. “Shows how much you know.”


 

“Mon amour, are you sure this is a good idea?”

Arthur rolled his eyes, asking himself for nth time why he had thought bringing Francis along was a good idea, and then promptly ignoring the answer as it presented itself. “For the last time, Frog, no, it truly isn’t, but we haven’t much of a choice, have we? The computers at the Ritz were rubbish.” He shot a quick glance over at a group of young men walking by, only looking away when they were quite a bit past them.

“Your paranoia is showing, mon coeur,” Francis commented lightly.

“Besides,” Arthur continued as if Francis hadn’t spoken at all, “We’re less than ten minutes from the hotel, and we’re only going to take a quick look around.” He gave a short nod at the librarian they passed on the way in, receiving a quick tip of the head in return. “They know me here, we won’t be disturbed.”

“Not the context I would like to hear you speak those words in, malheureusement,” Francis sighed sadly, wrapping his arms around himself as Arthur led them through the veritable maze of floor to ceiling bookshelves.

“You know,” he made a show of wagging his fingers at a group of young women staring at them a little too closely, smiling in the wake of their tinkling laughter, “You should truly treat me better, mon lion, or someone else will snatch me from under your nose.”

“If only,” Arthur muttered under his breath, coming to a stop just before entering the Reading Room, gazing at the occupants with a discerning eye, noting uneasily that majority of them seemed to be from the nearby universities, if the abundance of sleep-deprived stares and logoed sweatshirts were anything to go by.

Making up his mind, he turned on his heel, and started in the other direction. “Come on, Francis, this way.”

“Quoi-? Where are we going?” he could hear Francis hurrying behind him all the same.

“Periodicals.”

“I, but they were right there,” he didn’t have to turn around to know that Francis was most likely looking back toward the Reading Room, where more than one person was pouring over stacks of bound magazines.

“Too new for what we’re looking for,” he finally offered, holding the door in front of them open for Francis, waving him through impatiently. “We’re going to the Times Room.”

Francis eyed him warily as he walked past. “The musty dungeon room?”

“The musty dungeon room,” Arthur agreed with a smile just this side of wicked. Francis narrowing his eyes at him just made his grin even sharper. “I do remember how much you enjoyed being there the last time we did this.”

“I know you surely aren’t talking about the time Gilbert got my hair caught in your atrocious rolling stacks.”

“You damn well know that’s exactly what I’m talking about.” Ah, what a lovely day that had been. He had gotten to see Francis looking less than perfectly put together in public for once, and managed to get Gilbert banned from one more public building in his city. “Incidentally, that’s why you’re here, and not Gilbert,” he added absently, moving around a young man getting up from his work station on their way past, “he’s still not allowed back on the grounds.

“That,” he amending, catching sight of Francis’ unamused scowl, “And some of the really old ones are bound to be in French. You know everything was in French back then.”

“And both you and I know that you are perfectly capable of reading French as well, mon manipulateur, so why am I really here?” Francis shot right back, hand on his hip, still managing to look like something right out of a fashion rag, instead of the vagabond aesthetic Arthur was sure he himself was rocking right then.

Arthur shot him an exasperated look over his shoulder, “Because we’re not going anywhere by ourselves right now, and Antonio and Ivan are buying our clothes? Because Gilbert wasn’t going to let Roderich out of his sights and he couldn’t come? Because I exhausted the online resources available with my membership already, and we need to look at the physical copies? Take your pick.” At Francis’ continued unimpressed stare, Arthur sighed, heaving a bound copy of something with the word L’Organisation scrawled up the spine in faded gold letting off the shelf in front of them. “Because I could really use your help with this stuff, and I know you can be meticulous when you bother to be.”

“So,” Arthur really hated that self-satisfied curl of the lips that Francis got when he thought he’d won something, “You needed me.”

“Isn’t that what I just said, Frog?” He held the bound copy out to him, shaking it impatiently when Francis just stood there. “So are you going to help, or not?”

“Of course, mon amour,” Francis practically purred, fingers curling around the offered book. “All you had to do was ask.”

“Pretty sure I did, actually,” Arthur snorted. “You started going off about your hair and your clothes until I dragged you out the front door.”

“You did not ask, menteur,” Francis had already added another copy to the one Arthur had given him to the crook of an arm, running his fingers across the titles in front of them. “You informed me that I would, in no uncertain terms, be coming with you, and that you did not ‘give one single flaming damn’ if I was ready or not.”

“If you ‘thought’ you were ready or not,” Arthur amended, already amassing his own collection of periodicals into his own arms. “No one should take thirty minutes to get ready, only to look exactly the same by the end of it all.”

“Excuse-toi,” Francis actually sounded offended, god spare them all, “I do not look ‘exactly the same,’ after I am done, I am magnifique, a piece of art essentiellement!”

“You’re a piece of something, alright-”

“-And right now I am neither,” Francis sniffed dramatically, turning around to meander back toward the work stations, a respectable stack in his arms. “I am just a poor man, dressed in fashion-less plaid, taken from my own obviously troubled son.”

“Come off it, Francis,” Arthur scoffed, catching up with his own stack of periodicals. “You know you look fine.”

“You,” Francis paused dramatically, “are a liar, mon lion.”

“Why the bloody hell would I bother lying about that?” Arthur retorted, setting his cargo down as gently as he at the first open work station he came across. “God knows your ego doesn’t need it.”

“Arthur,” Francis sighed, like he was the one being ridiculous. “I look like un clochard dressed like this.”

Arthur glanced up, incredulous eyes taking in the way that the worn denim of his old jeans hugged Francis’ hips, Matthew’s borrowed flannel shirt hanging softly from Francis’ shoulders, open at the collar, barely noticeable underneath the black jacket he’d also taken from his duffel bag, to the way tendrils of soft hair slipped out of his hair tie to frame his tight blue eyes.

That tired expression was ultimately what made him pause, turning Francis’ words over in his head. Francis, he knew, was as vain as they came, and he prided himself on his appearance, both as the “nation of fashion,” and as a well-groomed man. Oftentimes, when the world had been falling apart around them, the only thing any of them could count on would be that Francis would show up to whatever world meeting was in order, looking as fresh and put together as he always had, bandages, limp, and all.

And now, that small, reliable luxury had been taking from him, and he didn’t even have his own clothes to fall back on for comfort. Not for the first time, Arthur felt familiar bloodlust roaring through his veins, but for the first time, it felt much more personal, and suddenly, he was exhausted.

“Francis,” he sighed, waving the other man down next to him, “You look fine, love, you know you do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you looking less than absolutely breathtaking in all the time I’ve known you.”

Francis for his part just tipped into the proffered seat, blue eyes wide and cheeks faintly pink, to Arthur’s slight amusement. “Quoi?”

“Don’t make me repeat myself,” Arthur scolded, much gentler than he would normally prefer, but Francis’ sudden bashfulness was forcing his hand. “You’re bloody well gorgeous, and you, and I, and everyone in this damn library knows it.” He jerked his eyes away from Francis’ softening gaze, scowling down at the first bound copy on his stack. “Now get to work so we can get out of here.”

Faintly, he registered the sound of paper shifting next to him, and Francis’ soft chuckle. “Bien sûr, mon amour.”

And if he returned Francis’ brush of fingers against the back of his hand with his own, well, no one would be able to prove it.