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Gold or Clay?

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Author's Note: The Higurashi portion of this story is based on anime since that's what I've seen. As such, there may be things I've gotten wrong due to differences between the anime and the source material. It takes places sometime before the end of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai but not during any particular arc. The Hetalia portion of this story is obviously based on the Hetaoni game, and it takes place sometime before the playable loop. Considering the two properties involved, there is mention of blood and gore, but nothing too excessively graphic. It's barely a spoiler to tell you that there will be character death.

Now that all of that is out of the way! I'd like to thank my beta reader JuniperGentle for betaing this story for you and me. Thank you, JuniperGentle.

Finally, gentle readers, on to the story!

“The furnace which melts gold, also hardens clay. Before blaming thy fate, therefore, find whether thou art gold or clay.”

Ivan Panin, Thoughts

Rika Furude could never guess when or where she would appear after leaving the void. Sometimes, she would be in the classroom or cooking or playing with Satako and the others. All she knew for certain was that she would be in town and that the time until the cotton drifting festival would grow ever shorter. The last time, Hanyuu had brought her back, there had been barely a month before the festival.

Not that the amount of time truly mattered much: if the world was a dead end, it was a dead end regardless of how much time she had to spend in it. The last world had been one of the harsher ones, although it had taken a while for her to realize that fact. While there had been a sort of liberation in being the one to decide the manner of her own death, she would have preferred not having to resort to suicide to escape torment at the hands of one of her friends. Again.

She was lying on grass, the sun shining down on her face. Despite the brightness of the sun, the air felt chill, as though summer were waning and autumn would soon be at hand. Which was impossible, of course. It had been May and June for such a long while now. Rika sat up and opened her eyes.

The fact that she did not immediately recognize her surroundings was a cause for concern. She was intimately familiar with most places in Hinamizawa … and she was fairly certain that, had there been a huge European style mansion in Hinamizawa, she would have noticed it long before now. She spun around. “Hanyuu?”

Her god was nowhere to be seen.

She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the breeze cutting through the thin material of her summer dress. It felt like there was some kind of barrier between her and Hanyuu, but Rika could still sense their connection, even if she could not sense Hanyuu's presence. Hanyuu wasn't here—something was keeping her away—but she wasn't gone.

Voices. Male voices. She hid behind a bush, not certain it was wise to be seen in light of the fact she had no idea where she was. She watched as four men crested the small hill that led up to the mansion. Three of them were obviously foreigners—perhaps European—while the last was Japanese, dressed in a white uniform. A long sword in its sheath hung at his side. If the other men were armed, it wasn't immediately obvious.

“Vee,” sighed the auburn haired man in the light blue uniform. He looked young, and his half lidded eyes gave him a stupid appearance. “We're here.”

“I thought it was just a rumor,” the Japanese man said quietly, sounding as though he rather wished whatever he was talking about had just been a rumor. “I never thought we would actually find it.”

“It has such a desolate feel,” the silver-haired man in the dark blue uniform said with a grin. “Not bad.”

The tall blonde man wearing a teal uniform was frowning. “Why did you drag us all the way out here to see this? It's not very interesting.”

“I agree,” the Japanese man said. “I'll take a picture, but I see no reason to go inside.”

They were getting too close now for Rika to keep watching. She turned back, facing the building. Unfortunately, her hiding spot would soon outlive its usefulness, but she saw nowhere else to go. She would just have to hope no one looked back after they passed her.

“Aww,” the auburn man pouted. “After all the trouble we had finding it? Besides, the others are already here, right? W-we shouldn't keep them waiting, right?”

Rika watched them pass on the way to the door. All seemed to be going well when the blonde man turned his head. His ice blue eyes locked onto hers. “Who are you?”

His question stopped the others at the door. They all looked confused, but the auburn man's horrified stare drew her attention.

She stood, brushing some grass off her dress. “Furude Rika,” she said, bowing. She smiled cutely. “Nipahh!” Seeing their faces soften, she felt a little safer: no one truly evil could appreciate cuteness. “Who are you?”

The Japanese man returned her bow. “I am Honda Kiku,” he said.

“I am the awesome Gilbert Beilschmidt,” the silver-haired man declared grandly. He threw an arm around the blonde who seemed startled by the action. “And this is my little brother, Ludwig.”

By this time, the auburn-haired man had seemed to recover himself. Once more, his eyes were half-closed and a stupid looking smile curved his mouth. “I'm Feliciano Vargas.” He got down on his knees in front of her. “You can call me Feli, if you like.” Then he frowned with concern. “What are you doing all the way out here? Where are your parents?”

“I'm lost,” Rika said simply, deciding it was neither the time nor the place to discuss her personal history. “Could you help me get back home?”

Feli bowed his head. When he looked up, his face was apologetic. “We need to meet our friends inside. Just, just wait out here—we'll come back and help you.”

He was lying and not very well.

“Nonsense,” Honda said sharply. “Am—Alfred and the others can wait--”

“We need to let them know where we are,” Feli argued, sounding somewhat desperate.

“Then let's bring her with us,” Gilbert said. “We'll find the others, let them know what's going on, then we can leave.” He laughed. “Knowing Alfred, he'll want to help us—being a hero is what he's all about.”

“And he'll probably pretend it was his idea in the first place,” Ludwig added with a sort of fond annoyance. “What do you say, Kiku? Is that agreeable?”

Honda nodded.

The sound of Ludwig clapping his hands startled Rika. “Then we are decided!” He put a hand on Feli's shoulder. “You keep an eye on her, Feliciano—no fooling around. You need to be more responsible.”

“Y-yeah.” Ludwig probably would have been startled by the abject despair on Feli's face had he been in a position to see it. Quickly, the younger man's expression became one of stupid happiness again, but the deception was far too late to fool Rika. He stood and took her hand in his own, his grip gentle, as though she were delicate china. The other three men let him go first. As they passed the threshold, his hold on her hand tightened. “God, forgive me,” he whispered in a voice so soft she definitely hadn't been meant to hear it.

She wondered what he was doing that he needed forgiveness for.

Once they were all inside the mansion with the door shut behind them, his hold loosened, but Rika was certain that she wouldn't be able to free herself without his cooperation. Despite how small and weak he looked compared to the men he was traveling with, he was certainly strong enough to hurt her if he wanted to.

“Cleaner than I would have thought for a haunted house,” commented Ludwig.

Gilbert ran a gloved finger down the barrister of the staircase. “Maybe this is someone's summer home, and it isn't haunted at all.” He shook his head. “Am-Alfred will believe anything, won't he?”

“I wonder where the others are,” Honda said quietly. “I hope they aren't making a mess somewhere.” He turned his attention to Rika. “Rika-chan, where is your home?”

“Hinamizawa,” she answered promptly, seeing no reason to lie about that much.

Something Rika couldn't identify flickered in his eyes.

“Is something wrong?” Feli asked.

Now, Honda looked surprised. “I've heard of the place,” he admitted, “but it's--”

“What is that thing!” Gilbert shrieked. “What is it!”

Rika caught a flash of something hulking, gray, and terrible before Feli scooped her up and started running in the opposite direction. Rika didn't think she'd ever seen anyone run as fast as the man carrying her in his arms. She watched the white walls flash past in a dizzying blur. Up a staircase, down a hall, and through a door into what looked like a library.

Finally, Feli set her down before running to the door and locking it behind him. He slumped against the door, sliding down into a sit.

“Feli,” Rika asked, having recovered enough to speak, “what happened? What was that thing?”

He was looking down, and Rika could see him start to shake. “Monsters,” he said, sounding close to tears. “Terrible, terrible monsters.” Before Rika knew what was happening, Feli was hugging her tightly. “I'm so sorry for getting you involved in this! I should have thought of a way to keep you outside.”

Her shoulder became wet as Rika awkwardly pet the back of the young man's head. “I'm here now,” she said, not unkindly. Whatever Feli was expecting to happen to her, it was obvious he felt really bad about allowing it to happen. However, feeling bad was not going to help. “Just tell me what's happening.”

He shuddered and loosened his hold. “You won't believe me.” He let go, falling back so he was sitting in front of her. “They wouldn't believe me, and they're my friends.”

“Tell me anyway.” Rika looked down, allowing her true voice to break through. “I'm prepared to believe a lot of things, Feli.”

Feli hiccuped. “Th-there's something evil in this mansion. I'm not sure what it is, but it wants to kill us all. That monster you saw; it's only one of dozens. They can't be killed: they can only be sent away for a short while until they come back.”

She turned her head to look Feli in the eyes, eyes that were now opened wide and filled with tears. “How do you know so much about them?”

He closed his eyes. “This isn't the first time I've been in this place. My friends are strong—not weak like me—but even they aren't strong enough. They always die.” Something like laughter spilled from his mouth. “I always survive because I'm good at running away, and they always try so hard to protect me.” He bowed his head. “Hetalia, Hetalia, Hetalia! It's like Kiku always says: I am Useless Italy!”

The clues formed a strange picture but one that Rika had far too much experience with. “But you keep returning to save your friends.” She tilted her head. “Useless Italy?” That was the part that didn't make sense. It said something about Rika's experiences that this was the only part of Feli's explanation that she needed explained.

“All I can do is run away and make white flags,” he spat, ripping something from his pocket. Sure enough, a small white flag clattered to the floor. “I have to call Germany to tie my shoes!”

This young man had sinned—that much was plain. Was that why she was here? Of course, that assumed she was actually here for some particular reason and not because fate didn't think she'd suffered enough yet. In any case, he seemed to know what his sin was already. “You don't know how to tie your shoes?”

He blinked. Then he smiled, chagrined. “No, Rika, I've never had to learn.”

Well, there was one thing she could do anyway. If Feli wanted to repent, he would accept her offer. If not, then there was nothing to be gained by staying here with him. “I can teach you, if you want.” When he gave her a blank look, she elaborated. “I can teach you how to tie your shoes.”

He looked worriedly at the door they'd come through. “Vee,” he said, uneasy. “I don't want to wait too long before trying to find the others.” Then he looked back to her. “Would it take long?”

She shook her head. “It's easy, Feli.”

After another moment's hesitation, he nodded. “Show me.”

In the end, it took a bit longer than Rika had expected. For a grown man, Feli acted younger than Satako. She could understand the rather harsh nickname he'd been given by his friend (the 'useless' part, if not the 'Italy' part). Still, it had been clear he wanted to learn, which helped. After dealing with children for so long, Rika was somewhat immune to that kind of frustration.

“Done!” Feli exclaimed. “Is it right this time?”

She nodded her approval. “Well done, Feli.”

He smiled happily. “Now, I'll be less of a burden.” He hugged her. “Thank you, Rika!”

“Maybe we should find your friends now,” Rika suggested, uncomfortable with this energetic display of gratitude.

His whole manner abruptly changed. The smile was gone, replaced with grim determination. “Yes,” he said. He stood and held out his hand to her. “I will do my best to get you and my friends out of this place, even if I am useless.”

She took his hand. “Understood.” Allowing him to lead her back out into the hall, she realized that he hadn't included himself in that promise. “How many times have you done this, Feli?”

The grip on her hand tightened but he didn't stop or turn around. “Twenty times,” he stated with an awed sort of horror in his voice. “Nothing is exactly the same. Small things are different each time.” He turned long enough to give her a sad smile. “But this is the first time...” he trailed off and stopped walking.


He turned fully this time and stared down at her. “You're new.” He said the words as if only now realizing how important they were. “You've never been here before.”

That was a relief, in a way—Rika had her own seemingly endless summer to die over and over in: she didn't want to be a part of someone else's! “If it helps,” she said, trying to remain calm in the hopes that the man in front of her would remain calm also, “I'm as confused as you are.”

He nodded slowly, as though uncertain whether or not to find this suspicious. He started walking again. “How did you find this place, Rika?”

She wondered how she should answer this question and how long Feli would wait for that answer before his suspicion won out. In the end, she decided to be honest, since he had been honest with her. “I don't know how I came to this place. I woke up here after the last time I died.”

He stopped short. “What?”

“I have a similar problem to yours,” she said, keeping her voice steady. “I'm also trying to save my friends, but I have to save them from themselves.” She couldn't keep herself from sighing as she thought about how pointless all of those deaths had been. “They can't accept their sins, and they lash out. They kill each other, and they die, and I haven't been able to stop it yet.” Indeed, she'd come to the conclusion long before that she'd never be able to stop it: now she was just waiting for a perfect world to materialize.

Slowly, he turned back to face her. “How many times...?” He seemed unable to finish the question, but she knew what it was anyway.

Seeing the naked fear on his face, she suddenly wished she had better news to tell him. “Hundreds of times. Maybe thousands.”

Feli dropped her hand. New tears were forming in his eyes. “How... how can you bear it?”

Rika put her hand on her chest. “I love my friends—they are dear to me.” She closed her eyes. “I want to find the perfect world for us, where we can always be together: to live and to play. A place where they won't be destroyed by their sins.” Of course, it wasn't only their sins and their inability to recognize them that kept the world from being perfect. There were other forces at work in Hinamizawa, forces that she and Hanyuu had yet to completely uncover and understand.

But that was more than Feli needed to know.

Suddenly, she was being hugged again. Were all Europeans this affectionate or was this something particular to Feli? At least he wasn't simultaneously declaring how cute she'd look in a maid's outfit.

“You're so brave!” His hold on her tightened. “I wish I was as brave as you.” She could feel him shudder. “I think I'm going insane.”

She pet the back of his head. “Just remember what you're enduring all this for, Feli,” she said encouragingly. “That will give you all the strength you need.”

His shoulders stiffened for a moment before he relaxed again. “Y-yeah.” He let her go and stood before taking her hand once more. Silence stretched between them as Feli led her down hallways that lacked all sign of personality. Blank, white walls became menacing as she waited for something to happen.

At last, Feli found what he'd been looking for. Or, rather, who. “Ludwig! Thank God, and Gilbert!”

Ludwig looked worse for wear since the last time she'd seen him. His shoulder was bloody, but the whip clasped in that hand told Rika that the injury was superficial. Gilbert had fared better, though the blood mixed with his silvery hair looked quite alarming.

“Ita-chen,” Gilbert greeted with a tired smile. “Still have the tag-along, I see.”

“Feliciano,” Ludwig said, relieved and surprised, “you're unhurt.”

Feli nodded. “I have fast feet.” Judging by the amusement on their faces, neither Ludwig nor Gilbert had heard the undertone of bitterness in the words that Rika had. “Have you seen anyone else?”

Ludwig nodded. “We ran into Eng-Arthur.” He grimaced. “If not for his magic, Gilbert and I may not have been able to defeat that monster.”

“Never fought anything that strong,” Gilbert added. “Even with my awesome skills, we still needed that limey to bail us out.” He shook his head. “Very unawesome.”

“Where is he now?” Feli demanded.

Ludwig put a hand on Feli's shoulder. “He went to look for Alfred. I'm sure he'll be fine.”

Feli was already shaking his head. “We have to find them. Now.”

Ludwig smiled, the sort of smile one might use to comfort a child, “Gilbert and I will find him. Just keep yourself safe.”


Gently but firmly, Ludwig pressed a key into Feli's palm. “This is the key to a piano room down the hall. Take the girl and lock yourselves in.”


“Please,” Ludwig interrupted, his tone harsh but his gaze fond, “if you're locked in a room, I won't have to worry about keeping you safe, will I?”

Feli bowed his head, his shoulders slumping. “All right, Ludwig.” The fight had gone out of him, and Rika realized she'd been mistaken: Feli's sin wasn't the only one in this place. She wondered if Ludwig had been the one tying Feli's shoes for him, too.

“Be careful, Feliciano,” Ludwig said.

“You, too,” Feli replied before walking in the direction Ludwig had indicated.

Once they were far away enough not to be heard, Rika asked: “Are we going to the piano room, Feli?”

He jerked with surprise. Then he smiled down at her. The expression was pained. “No. I want to get everyone together—I can't do that from there.” He sighed. “I can barely do it from anywhere else.”

“What do you mean?”

“My friends... are not always friends with each other.” There was a sort of second-hand embarrassment in his voice. “They don't always get a long, so it's hard to get them to work together before it's too late.”

Rika watched the shadows carefully, hoping that they wouldn't run into any of those monsters. She'd been tortured to death before, but something told her that dying at their … whatever they had would be worse. She shuddered.

“Feli,” she said at last, both hoping to have this final mystery solved and to take her mind off her bleak surroundings, “why did Honda call you useless Italy?”

The silence was long enough to make her think he wasn't going to answer when he finally did. “It won't make much sense to you—I'm not sure I understand it myself—but I am Italy.” He reconsidered. “Well, I'm the northern half, anyway.”

Well, he was right about one thing at least: it didn't make much sense. “You're a country?”

He nodded, as though this was nothing strange to claim. “Although, I don't feel like one here.” He put his free hand over his heart. “I can't feel my people here, and,” he dropped his hand, “we can die here. My friends don't understand how much danger they're really in!”

It was tempting to just decide he was crazy and leave it at that, but Rika found that she couldn't. He seemed sane enough, and she was hardly in any position to deem his story unbelievable: she was a dimension hopping reincarnation of a god, after all. Still, this was something incredible he was expecting her to believe! Besides the part about him somehow being a country, well, even a god wasn't immortal. “Everyone dies, Feli.”

He nodded again, agitated. “Vee, I'm explaining badly.” After a long moment, he tried again. “Nations can't be killed like humans—we can die and we can be killed, but it takes a lot. As long as our people, our culture, our lands still exist, then so do we.

“I've been executed before,” he continued, almost distractedly. “It hurts, but even for me, it's not long before I'm all right again.”

Rika considered it. “But here... here you can die like one of us?”

The tightening of his hand around hers was her answer. “Oh!” he exclaimed suddenly, pulling her forward. “Japan! Japan, are you all right?”

Honda was clearly surprised and pleased by the greeting. “I'm fine, Italy-kun.” The bloodstain on his side belied the words, but he seemed not to be having any trouble moving around as he approached. Then he frowned. “Where's Rika-chan?”

“I'm here, Honda,” Rika said, stepping forward. “Feli has been taking good care of me. Nipahh!”

Honda patted her head. “I'm glad.” He turned his attention to Feli. “Have you found anyone else? The front door won't open.”

“I saw Ger-er-Ludwig and Gilbert,” Feli said, “and they saw Arthur, but he wasn't with them.” He hesitated. “Did you find anyone?”

“Hello, Feliciano,” a soft voice behind Honda said.

Rika honestly hadn't noticed the young man standing there until he'd spoken. Even now that she was paying attention to him, he seemed almost fuzzy around the edges. He was tall, but the way he was slumping to hug the large stuffed bear he was holding made him look shorter. He peered at her from under blonde bangs. “Where did she come from?”

“We found her outside, Alfred,” Honda said. “I wish now we had done as Feliciano had suggested and left her outside.”

“I'm Matthew,” Matthew insisted quietly.

“I'm sorry, Matthew,” Honda apologized.

Matthew sighed. “I ought to be used to being mistaken for him by now.”

The stuffed bear turned its head up, and Rika saw that it was actually alive and not stuffed at all. This realization did nothing to prepare her for what it did next: it spoke. “Who are you?”

With another sigh, Matthew slumped further. “I'm Canada.” Then he shook his head. “I mean, I'm Matthew. I'm Matthew, of course.”

Rika doubted she would have been fooled even if she were as mentally young as she appeared. Even if the idea was still bizarre and insane, the way Matthew... the way that Canada was acting convinced her that Feli's... that Italy's story had been true. She smiled widely. “Mii, Canada,” she said, keeping her voice young and sweet, “may I pet your bear?”

He seemed startled. “Of-of course, Rika.” He stooped down so she could reach the bear's fur. “What happens now?” he asked over her head. “Do we try to find the others first, or do we try to find another way out? Those monsters are strong, but we're not in any real danger—this kid is.”

“We have to find the others first!” Italy exclaimed. “We can't leave them here: they are in danger.”

“What do you think, Japan?” Canada asked, ignoring Italy entirely.

Rika looked to Honda … to Japan. He was thinking deeply. “I agree with Italy-kun,” he said at last. “If we knew how to get out, that would be the wisest course. Since we do not, there is strength in numbers.”

Perhaps getting his friends to cooperate with each other wouldn't be as hard as Italy had thought! These two, at least, seemed reasonable.

“Canada,” Italy said, his tone still sounding very worried, “who came with you? Do you know who else is here?”

Canada looked faintly annoyed before sighing with defeat. “England, America, and France were with me, and I overheard Russia and China saying they might stop by, as well.”

“Vee,” Italy breathed. “So, everyone came again.”

If either man noted the quiet words, neither remarked on it.

“We should go to the top floor,” Japan said, “and search every room as we go down.”

This earned a tired laugh from Canada. “Should be quick enough: most of the doors are locked.”

“Japan,” Rika asked as they started walking up the stairs, “you know Hinamizawa?”

“I've heard of it, Rika-chan,” he said, sounding a bit uncomfortable. “I didn't think anyone still lived there—not after the disaster.”

Rika felt the blood drain from her face, but she managed to keep her voice child-like. “What disaster?”

Japan didn't say anything for a long moment. “I don't remember the details, but in the 1980s, everyone died there. A gas leak of some kind.”

“Well,” Canada offered, “thirty years is a long time: people were living in Hiroshima again a lot sooner than that.”

“Yes.” The word was clipped. Then, more gently: “Rika-chan, Hinamizawa is all the way in Japan. Are you vacationing with your parents?”

Everyone died. The thought, the realization, the understanding of what that meant… This world, this world that she was stuck in with no Hanyuu to help her move on to the next, was yet another dead end. All the pain, the torment, the endless summer—she'd endured it all for nothing. Everyone she'd known in Hinamizawa was gone in this world: the townspeople, their families, the children she'd gone to school with, her precious friends; they were all gone.

And there was no way to find a world now where that wasn't so.

Tears dripped down her face, and she stopped walking. Although she'd lost some measure of hope every time a new world had turned out to be a dead end, she'd always had faith that, one day, a perfect world could be found.

Everyone died. Everyone.

“Rika-chan!” Japan said, sounding alarmed.

She felt Italy pick her up, cradling her against his chest. “Vee, maybe we should worry about that after we find everyone else.” He handed her a soft, blue handkerchief.

“Y-yes,” Japan agreed.

“The poor thing,” Canada whispered.

Rika took the handkerchief and blew her nose. “Th-thank you, Italy.”

He didn't ask for it back.

Rika had decided by the time they'd made it up to the top floor, that she'd been premature in losing all hope. After all, Hanyuu, while not present at her side, still existed somewhere. It was possible that Rika would see her again, and they'd be able to leave this dead end world. It was also possible that this world wasn't a dead end at all. Japan could have mistaken Hinamizawa for another town with a similar name. It was foolish to abandon her dream because of a half-remembered memory.

Even so, it was difficult not to feel discouraged.

However, the living lump of mochi on the fourth floor was certainly bizarre enough to distract her from her distressing thoughts. Far from being incredibly creepy, the mochi was absolutely adorable. It gazed up at her through tiny glasses perched on a nonexistent nose, and Rika had to smile. Rena definitely would have wanted to take the thing home.

The mochi was stuck in the floor, but it seemed unhurt and unconcerned about its plight. Neither Japan nor Canada could free it with their bare hands. Apparently, some sort of tool was required. Italy, still holding on to her, didn't make an attempt, although he seemed as smitten with the strange creature as Japan.

“What's this lever for?” Canada asked from the other side of the room. He'd set his bear down next to him, and he idly reached down to pat its head.

Japan and Italy left the mochi behind to stand near Canada and the mysterious lever.

Canada was frowning at a piece of paper near the device. “Up is heaven,” he read, “the middle is earth, and down is hell.” He scratched his head. “I wonder what that means.”

Before anyone could move, Italy darted forward. “I think,” he said as he took hold of the lever, “that Earth is where I want to be.”

“Wait,” Canada shouted softly.

But it was too late: Italy moved the lever to the middle. It came off in his hand. “Vee,” he sighed, sounding vaguely apologetic, “it broke.”

“Oh, Hetalia,” Japan said heavily.

“Ouch!” Canada whimpered. “Something just hit me in the head.” Italy turned in time for Rika to see Canada pick something up off the floor. “A key.” He turned the small thing over in his hands, studying it. “It's the key to the--” He broke off, his eyes going wide. “Behind you!”

Italy ran towards Canada, not even turning back to see what he'd been warned about. She looked over his shoulder and immediately wished she hadn't.

It was huge and gray with large bulbous eyes the color of pitch. Its mouth was a saw blade lined with tiny, razor-sharp teeth. As far as she could ascribe any kind of human emotion to the inhuman thing, it seemed amused as Japan drew his sword. Then it spoke, adding a new auditory horror to the old visual one: “YoU...WOn't...ESc...aPe...”

Rika did not see much of the battle that ensued—Italy kept her pressed tightly to him and had forced her head down to his chest—but she heard it. She heard the rip of cloth, the clang of metal, bellows of pain, and shouted nonsense, as though Japan and Canada were from a fighting anime.

Finally, there was silence, and Italy set her down.

Japan's leg was bloody and he limped a little when he walked towards them. “Italy-kun, Rika-chan, are you all right?”

“Yes,” Italy said. “But your leg--”

“It's not serious,” Japan said, a pained smile curving his mouth. “I've been through much worse.”

“Even so,” Canada said, picking up his bear, “I'm starting to wish we had a first aid kit or something.”

Italy's mouth formed a silent 'O', and he slapped himself in the forehead. “Wait here!” he shouted, running from the room.

Japan was shaking his head tolerantly. “Where does Italy-kun find all of that energy?”

“I don't see why he wouldn't be energetic,” Canada complained, “since we did all the fighting.” He hugged his pet closer to him. “There's something wrong with this place.” His cheeks flushed. “I mean, beyond the obvious.” He sighed. “I just can't put my finger on what it is.”

“I'm back!” Italy announced, as though the three of them wouldn't have noticed his return otherwise. He held out a plastic first aid kit to Japan. “We should bandage your leg.”

“It's fine for now, Italy-kun,” Japan said gently. “It won't take that long to heal.” Then he smiled. “But I appreciate the thought.”

Italy definitely looked downcast, but he didn't argue. He tucked the kit under his arm and took Rika's hand once more. “No one else is on this floor.”

“Well,” Canada said, “I have a key for the second floor, but we might as well stick to our original plan, right?”

“Yes,” Japan agreed. “We will search the third floor next.”

More wary now, Japan led the way and Canada took up the rear, leaving Italy and Rika in the middle. She noticed that, despite the complaint about Italy not fighting along side them, Canada didn't seem to mind the fact that Italy was in the safest spot. The preparations turned out to be unnecessary, and the trip to the third floor past without incident.

Japan had been about to open the door nearest to the staircase when a shout coming from within stopped him.

“Goddammit, England!” the voice cursed. “What the hell are you trying to prove!”

“America,” another voice chided, “stop acting like a child. Angleterre will be just fine.”

Rika felt Italy's hold on her hand tighten.

Japan knocked quietly on the door. “Let us in,” he said, just loudly enough to be heard through the door.

Silence. Then the door opened to reveal a harried looking man with long blonde hair. He smiled instantly. “Japan, Italy, so nice to see you.” His smile widened. “Canada! Good, maybe you can talk some sense into your idiot brother.” He stepped back so they could enter the room. “Come in, come in!”

“Someone shut that frog up,” another voice growled, “unless you want to let all the bloody monsters know exactly where we are.”

Stepping through the door, Rika saw that the room was mostly empty, save for a white grand piano in the middle of the floor. She heard a clicking sound and turned enough to see Italy lock the door. This must be the piano room Ludwig and Gilbert had wanted them to hide in.

He looked down at her and smiled thinly. “Only four missing now,” he said quietly. “This is going better than last time, I think.”

“Last bloody time I let you talk me into going anywhere,” groused the man sitting on the piano bench. He was blonde with bigger eyebrows than Rika had ever seen on an actual person. His uniform was an olive sort of green.

Another blonde, wearing glasses and a bomber jacket, crossed his arms. “Because everything is always my fault, right, England?” He scowled down at the other man. “Well, I don't remember asking you to jump in the way.”

England closed his eyes tiredly. “America--”

“Maybe next time you'll go deaf too,” America interrupted, “so you don't have to listen to me either.”

“That is enough,” the long-haired blonde cried. “It's not like he's permanently blind.” He hesitated, suddenly unsure of himself. “Right, Angleterre?”

England considered it. “Usually, I would say, of course not—but there's something about this place. It almost.... It's almost as though it's not part of the world at all.”

The long-haired blonde bit his lip and looked away. His eyes widened as he caught sight of Rika. He crouched down to get a closer look. “And who is this pretty little mademoiselle?”

“Furude Rika,” Rika said, hoping he'd give her a name to use in return.

“Eh?” England sat up straighter. “Sounds a little young for you, Francis.”

Francis smiled cheekily back before the expression faltered. “In love,” he said with excessive and false sounding cheer, “age is only a number.” He stood. “Where did she come from?”

“We found her outside,” Japan answered, his voice breathy and his face paler than before. “She was lost and asked for help, but we'd decided to find you first.” His smile was somewhat strained. “It was a mistake.”

America walked over and squatted down in front of Rika. “Don't worry,” he assured her, “we'll get you out of this place and back home. So, stay brave a little longer, okay?”

She nodded gravely. Being brave was unlikely to change the outcome of all of this, but she'd come to desire dying with dignity when she could. “Okay, America.”

He seemed startled. Then he shook his head with amusement. “So, the cat's out of the bag, huh?” He ruffled her hair and stood. “Now that we have a civilian to protect, I think it's about time we got serious about ditching this place.”

“But what about Germany and Prussia!” Italy was sounding desperate again. “And Canada said that Russia and China might be here, too—we can't leave without them.”

America raised an eyebrow. “You want to risk a kid's life to find Russia?” He shook his head. “No can do, Italy. As a hero, it is completely out of the question to put an innocent in that much danger for no reason.”

“It's not like Russia can't take care of himself,” Canada added.

“China, too, for that matter,” Francis chimed in.

“We need to find them,” Italy insisted. “They don't understand the kind of danger they're in!”

“And I suppose you do,” England said unkindly.

“Yes!” Italy cried, exasperated. He let go of Rika's hand so he could wave both of his around wildly. “Don't you feel it, England? Don't you feel it? This house, this place, is evil. We're not ourselves here. Don't you feel what's missing?”

For several long seconds, England only stared at Italy. Or, at least, his head was turned in that direction. Rika could tell that he wasn't actually looking at anything. Which made sense, since they'd said he was blind. Then his unfocused eyes widened. “They're gone,” he whispered, his voice full of sick horror. “How-how is that possible?”

“What are you talking about?” America asked, worried and confused. “What's the problem, Iggy?”

“I should have realized it myself,” England continued as though America hadn't spoken, “when my magic was so weak.” He rubbed his temples. “Does anyone else... can anyone else sense their people?”

None of the other men in the room took the realization any better than England had. Rika looked up at Italy who was watching the proceedings with a sad look on his face. “A nation without its people isn't a nation at all, Rika,” he said quietly. “It's like there's something precious that's been stolen from you. No, it's like someone stole a part of you, your soul.”

Rika nodded. She didn't think she could truly understand what the men in front of her were going through. She was glad she couldn't. “Will they be all right?”

A shrug. “I hope that leaving the house will make things right again.”

Finally, Canada spoke. “So... so, we are like ordinary humans here.”

“It seems so,” Francis said, sounding subdued.

Japan limped over to the piano bench. He sat down heavily beside England.

“Hey!” England nearly fell off the bench in surprise. Blind eyes made a futile search.

“I'm sorry, England,” Japan apologized. His face had grown ashen and sweat was collecting on his forehead. “I hurt my leg in the last fight I was in—it's not healing.”

“Oh!” Italy came forward with the first aid kit. “I can bandage your leg for you.”

America took the kit from him with a smile. “Let a hero handle this.”

Rika hoped for Italy's sake that he would not have to wait for his friends to acknowledge their sins before he succeeded in saving them. If so, Italy was in for a long wait.

“We can't stay here forever,” Francis said suddenly. “Whatever we decide to do, we should decide quickly, non? We'll be found if we stay too long in the same place.”

“We're safe enough for now,” Italy said. “Germany gave me the key to this room, and I've locked the door.” Then his shoulders slumped and his eyes became suspiciously shiny. “I hope they're okay.”

“I'm sure they're all right,” Canada said. “I mean, Prussia's so tough that he doesn't even need to have a country to keep going strong!”

“Thanks, America,” Italy mumbled, clearly uncomforted.

“I'm Canada,” Canada corrected, the weariness in the tone told Rika that he was used to correcting people. It was a little strange though: outside of having the same color hair, Canada and America didn't look that much alike. He was still fuzzy around the edges, however.

“All done here,” America announced. He clapped his hands. “Right, so I think the best thing to do is split up into three groups.” He pointed at each man as he named him. “Italy and Canada can go look for Germany and Prussia, and France and I will look for China and Russia.”

“Vee,” Italy said, distressed once more, “it's not a good idea to split up. Shouldn't we stay together?”

“We'll cover more ground this way,” America argued reasonably. “The less time we spend wandering around out there, the better, I say.”

“I agree with America,” Japan said.

“You always agree with America,” Francis... France pouted. “Still, I suppose he has a point this time.”

“Wait a minute,” England spoke up, “what about us?”

“You and Japan will stay here with Rika,” America said, his tone allowing no argument.

Immediately, England stood. “You're just going to leave us behind?” He glared into the middle distance. “You're not going to be happy until you get yourself killed!”

America scoffed. “Look who's talking. Oh, wait, you can't.” Even he seemed to realize that he'd gone too far but he didn't apologize. “You and Japan are injured. Besides, we don't want to bring a little girl into a war zone, do we?”

England continued to glare. Then he threw up his hands and sat back down. “Fine,” he spat. “Go and play hero—see if I care.”

America looked stricken and, for a second, it seemed like he was going to say something more to England. The second passed, and he squared his shoulders. “Time's a wasting! Let's get going.”

Italy handed Rika the key to the door after unlocking it. She wasn't surprised when, a moment later, he had his arms wrapped around her again. “Thanks for everything, Rika,” he whispered. “If we don't see each other again, I want you to know I'm glad I met you.”

She pat his head. “Me too, Italy. Take care of yourself.”

“I will.”

A minute later, the door was tightly locked, and Rika was alone with England and Japan.

“Damn it,” England said softly. He closed his eyes. “I suppose it's my fault he's like that.” Opening them again, he smiled. “Rika, was it?”

“Yes, England,” Rika said. “Nipahh!”

He chuckled. “She sounds like one of yours, Japan.” He leaned back against the piano. “Where are you from?”

“Hinamizawa,” she said, glancing at Japan. “My parents and I were on vacation here—we went for a hike, and I got lost.” It wasn't a very convincing story and it wasn't very convincingly told, but Rika hoped that the two in front of her would be too distracted by their own problems to notice the fact that she certainly wasn't dressed for hiking.

Japan was frowning in thought. “Hinamizawa,” he repeated.

“Is there something the matter, Japan?”

“Hmm?” Japan shook his head. “There was something else about that place I remember hearing. Besides the disaster there in the 1980's. Rumors about mysterious deaths, or demons, perhaps.”

England smiled sardonically. “Oh? You admit there's something supernatural on your islands after all?” He didn't wait for an answer before returning his blank gaze somewhere above Rika's head. “Tell us, Rika, are there any demons in Hinamizawa?”

Only human ones, she thought but didn't say. “Mii,” she said as she considered her options. A part of her wanted to tell them the truth: if England really had magic, maybe he could send her home. However, she didn't know England—it was entirely possible that telling him the whole truth could be dangerous. In the mean time, though, she needed to give him some kind of answer to the question he'd actually asked. “No demons,” she said at last, “but we have a god.”

“A god?” Japan was giving her a slightly disappointed look.

She stood a little straighter, feeling a bit insulted on Hanyuu's behalf. “Her name is Oyashiro-sama. I'm in charge of her shrine.”

“That's a big responsibility,” England said. Surprisingly (considering Japan's reaction), he didn't seem to be humoring her. “Have you ever seen Oyashiro-sama yourself?” He smiled gently. “I'll believe you if you say you have.”

“Yes,” Rika admitted slowly. “Why, England?”

He hesitated. “I have a suspicion about what's wrong with this house, but since I can no longer see, I need someone sensitive to the spiritual world to be my eyes.”

“What?” Japan seemed annoyed now. “There are no such things as demons or ghosts or spirits.” He rubbed the bandage wrapped around his knee. “Those creatures look more like America's alien friend than anything.”

England rolled his eyes. “Spirits are nonsense but aliens are completely believable?” Not waiting for a response, he reached his hand out. “Come here, Rika.”

Rika could not deny feeling nervous as she took his hand. She wasn't entirely certain she wanted to see more than she already had. “What do I do?”

“Relax,” he said kindly. “I will do everything else.” He paused. “Try not to be frightened—nothing you see will be able to hurt you.”

“All right,” she said, grateful that she was not the little girl she appeared to be. She wondered what the Rika of that first world all those years ago would have felt in this moment. But she couldn't remember that girl anymore: it had been too long since she'd been her.

Warmth spread through her body, starting with her hand. Then her vision turned blue which made the splashes of crimson that appeared everywhere all the more jarring. She gasped, seeing one of those monsters from before suddenly appear in front of her.

Don't be afraid, said England in her head. It can't hurt you.

Images started flashing before her eyes. Blood, death, hatred. Hate and pain and rage. The individual images themselves became an incomprehensible blur, but she suddenly understood that this... this demon wanted to kill Italy most of all. A final trophy. A trophy that had been claimed once but then unfairly stolen.

All at once, the demon came into sharp focus once more, its teeth bared. YoU... Won't … ESc... aPe... She saw bodies at its feet. Men she recognized as Italy's friends. It reached out for her. dIE!

Rika felt hands on her shoulders, shaking her roughly. Her vision swam into focus, and she saw that the world was no longer blue, and that the one shaking her was Japan.

“Rika-chan!” he shouted. His face was pale and his eyes were afraid. “Rika-chan, answer me!”

“J-Japan?” She put her hands over his. “Pl-please st-stop sh-shaking me.”

He breathed a sigh of relief and stopped the motion. “Are you all right now?”

Rika wasn't entirely certain that she actually was. She felt tremulous and sweat had matted her hair. “Wh-what happened?”

“I'm sorry,” England said. His face looked much older than it had before they'd made this attempt. “You were more attuned than I'd expected, and the demon in this mansion is more powerful than I'd thought.”

Japan was clearly skeptical. “A demon?”

England nodded. “And a rather angry one at that.” He pursed his lips. “It seems to have some kind of grudge against Italy.”

“Italy-kun?” Japan seemed shocked by the suggestion. “Why?”

“He stole something... I think,” England said slowly. “It wasn't very clear.” He half smiled. “All I really know for certain is that it's a powerful demon and it wants to kill us all.”

While Japan still looked skeptical, he didn't protest the idea again. “Can we kill it then? Or free ourselves from this place?”

“I don't think I could kill it even at full strength,” England admitted. “But there must be a way to escape without having to do that.”

“Mii,” Rika said, not bothering to hide her dismay. “How can we do that then, England?”

He jerked. Maybe he'd forgotten she was there. He directed his answer to her question to Japan. “As much as I hate to say it, we can't. We'll have to wait for the others to get back.”

Japan sighed. “Twice now, we should have listened to Italy-kun's advice.”

“Even a broken clock is right twice a day,” England quipped. Then he sobered. “I'm starting to think Italy knows more than he's telling us.”

“Perhaps,” Japan allowed, “but I don't believe that Italy-kun is trying to do anything to hurt us.”

“But he may end up doing so anyway,” England countered. “How long has he realized we were like humans here? Did he say anything to you and Canada about it?”

“No,” Japan said after a moment.

“He keeps saying we ought not split up,” England continued, “but he hasn't said why we shouldn't.”

“Italy-kun is afraid,” Japan said simply. “I would be more surprised if he did want us to split up.” He shook his head. “He does not like to be alone in any case, and this place actually poses a threat to us.” A sudden frown creased his brow. “I am surprised that he agreed to go back out there so easily.”

“He said that Germany gave him the key to this room,” England said, as though only now realizing what this meant. “I would have expected him to lock himself in at the first opportunity.”

“It was irresponsible of him not to,” Japan declared. “Rika-chan could have been hurt.”

These were Italy's friends? Even Japan, who seemed fond of Italy, spoke badly of him. She supposed that it wasn't fair to judge them harshly—they were scared, too—but what they were saying now wasn't fair either.

“Italy was worried about you,” she chided quietly. “Germany sent him away to hide, but he knew he couldn't do that while the rest of you were in such danger.” She frowned, letting her disapproval show. “I don't know Italy very well, but I know he cares about you, and he is doing his best to help you.”

England was shaking his head. “That may be true, Rika, but even his best isn't very good.” Then he smiled self-deprecatingly. “Of course, I've proven that my best isn't good enough either.”

“Rika-chan, your point is well taken.” Japan bowed his head briefly. “Unfortunately, Italy-kun will not be able to help. He is not a fighter.”

“And that demon probably won't be defeated by pasta,” England added. Although the amused tone softened the words, the statement was still unkind.

Then again, when Italy had opened up to her, he hadn't been very kind about himself and his abilities either. He'd said he was useless, a burden. He was willing to learn, willing to try bettering himself, but she could understand why the two men in front of her doubted he'd be able to help against the demon. The only real question was could he learn enough to actually save his friends on his own? Or would his struggles be as useless as her own?

For all that Italy seemed less wise, less brave, and less sensible than she was, he was undoubtedly physically stronger. Physical strength wasn't everything, true, but it could count for a lot when it came to protecting the people who were important. While Rika would never become anything more than a weak little girl until she broke her fate, Italy was a grown man (albeit, a rather young looking one). The point was, he could learn to defend himself, just like he'd learned to tie his shoes. Despite the expression he seemed fond of wearing, he wasn't a total idiot. He wasn't completely hopeless. He wasn't completely useless.

Unlike herself.

A banging on the door interrupted her thoughts.

“Feliciano!” a voice cried from the other side of the door. “Open the door!”

Rika recognized the voice: it was Ludwig. Quickly, she went to the door and unlocked it. Throwing the door open, she saw Ludwig, blood streaming down his face. Thrown over his bloody shoulder was Gilbert, who was unconscious. Ludwig's arm hung awkwardly at his side

Ludwig entered the room enough for Rika to shut and lock the door behind him. He set his brother on the floor and looked around in growing confusion. “Kiku? Arthur? Where is Feliciano?”

“Out there somewhere looking for you,” England said, sounding worried himself now. “Is anyone else with you?”

“Just my brother,” Ludwig said, irritated. “Can't you see that for yourself?”

England brought his hand up and waved it in front of his face. “I'm blind now, Germany. I can't see anything.” He lowered his hand, his own irritation leaving him abruptly. “Prussia is here? He's being awfully quiet.”

Ludwig... Germany (he had been the one who'd kept tying Italy's shoes!) seemed annoyed for a moment before an anguished expression took over. “He... he isn't in a good way.”

Japan limped over to where Germany had lain his brother, first aid kit in hand. “We don't have much, but maybe it will help.”

Germany took it gratefully. “Thank you, Japan.” He looked from the kit to Prussia's uniform. “Please help me with his coat. My arm hasn't healed yet.”

“Your arm might take a while to heal, Germany,” England said gently. “Things are different in here than they are outside.”

Japan had finished unbuttoning Prussia's coat, and he made a sound of dismay. Rika could see that Prussia's chest was all blood.

“What are you talking about, England?” Germany didn't look up from the first aid kit he was opening.

“We're not...” England looked pained as he trailed off. “Take care of your brother first.” He leaned back against the piano and closed his eyes.

In the end, Prussia died of his wounds without waking up. Germany didn't cry or shout or show any emotion at all. He sat, slumped against the wall, by his brother's body. He didn't answer England or Japan when they spoke to him. Rika had considered going over there herself, but Japan told her not to. He told her that, in many ways, Germany was more emotionally reserved than he was himself. Germany needed time.

Rika wondered how much time he would get. She couldn't shake the feeling that the demon knew exactly where they were and that a locked door wasn't going to provide much of a challenge once it got tired of waiting.

As for what it was waiting for... she shuddered.

“Are you all right, Rika-chan?”

Rika considered the question. “I think so, Japan, but,” she felt herself lose her childlike aura, “I fear that we won't be safe here much longer.”

Japan nodded. “England says the same.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “I don't know what we can do in that case. My leg is better now, but I can't win against one of those monsters alone.”

And he, unfortunately, was the only one here who could fight. Germany, even if he hadn't been trapped by grief, was too injured. England was blind. And she...

She was a hundred year old woman in the body of a ten year old girl.

But she supposed it didn't matter: for Italy, this world had already become a dead end with the death of Prussia. What she didn't know was what would happen to her when Italy realized that, assuming she survived that long. She realized that she didn't know the mechanism by which Italy was able to come back to this place time and time again.

Did he travel to new worlds like she did with Hanyuu? Did he actually travel backwards in time somehow? How had he obtained this power, whatever it was? What did this demon want with Italy in particular? Did the demon know that Italy kept coming back?

There were all questions that she'd like to have answers to. Unfortunately, the only one who could answer those questions wasn't here.

“Rika?” England called out. “Will you come here, please?”

“I'm coming, England!” She walked over to the piano where the man had chosen to remain. “What is it?”

England's expression was grave. “I think the demon will attack us soon.” He reached out, and Rika took his hand. “I would never even suggest what I'm about to unless there were no other options.” He bowed his head. “There is a power in you—I felt it when you were my eyes. I think... I think I can tap into your power to fight the demon.”

Rika instinctively did not like the sound of this. It was obvious what the power he'd felt was: Hanyuu. What wasn't obvious was what drawing on that power would do to her or her god. Hanyuu's senses were tied to hers: what would become of Hanyuu if she agreed to allow England to use her power.

Besides the risk involved, there was the fact that the attempt wouldn't make a difference for England's and the others' survival: Italy would be trying again anyway. Still, she thought she might as well find out what the dangers were. This was a desperate time for England. He might decide not to take 'no' as an answer. “Will it hurt?”

England shook his head, but the motion wasn't the answer to her question. “I honestly don't know, Rika. I've never done anything quite like this before.” He tightened his hold on her hand. “I promise you that I will be careful.”

Rika didn't try to pull away, but she would have if she'd thought she'd succeed. “England,” she said, letting her childlike demeanor fall away, “you're only trying to salve your conscience, aren't you? It doesn't matter what I want, does it?”

He let go of her hand as though it had burned him. “It's not like that at all,” he denied, although the guilt in his sightless eyes made it clear that the thought had occurred to him. His shoulders slumped. “The thought had occurred to me,” he admitted, stunning Rika with his honesty, “and there was a time when I would not have hesitated to just take what I needed.” His hands formed tight fists on top of his thighs. “However, it's been hundreds of years since I've been that selfish. I've learned the hard way the cost of being so self-centered.”

Rika blinked. It wasn't often that she was caught completely off guard. “England,” she said, uncertain what she actually wanted to say to him. Since he had been so honest with her, she would give him that same honesty in return. “My power comes from Oyashiro-sama. I don't know what your plan would do to her.” She laid a hand on top of his fist. “I can't risk her to help you.”

“I understand.” His smile was melancholic. “Forgive an old man,” he said. “Being so powerless is frustrating for me.”

“I forgive you, England.” She made her decision. While it wasn't her story to tell, and while she didn't know much of it to begin with, she felt that, under the circumstances, there was no reason left to keep it a secret. “Italy told me that he'd been here before.”

England raised an eyebrow. “Really? I can't imagine why he'd ever step foot in this place again if he had.”

“He didn't say much about it,” Rika said slowly, giving herself a chance to choose the right words. “But he said that you—all of you—keep dying, and he keeps coming back to save you.”

“You mean,” his brow furrowed with skepticism, “time travel?”

“I think so.”

England rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It's not unprecedented, I suppose,” he said at last. “But it would require a lot of magic.” He frowned. “Did he tell you how he managed it?”

Rika shook her head before remembering that England couldn't see it. “I didn't ask.”

“I wonder where Canada and that pasta lover are, anyway,” he said. “With Germany and Prussia here, they're on a wild goose chase.”

“Maybe I should go look for them,” Japan said from behind Rika, startling both of them.

“How long have you been standing there, Japan!” England demanded.

Japan put a hand on Rika's shoulder. “Long enough, England.”

“That's not an answer!” England crossed his arms. “Anyway, you're still injured, aren't you? I don't know how much good it will do to have you limping around out there.”

“Someone should let them know that their search is futile,” Japan countered. He looked down at Rika. “Rika-chan, why don't you keep Germany company? England and I need to speak in private.”

“Mii,” Rika sighed. This wasn't the first time she'd been treated like a child and it wouldn't be the last. “All right, Japan.” She left Japan and England to their discussion to seek out Germany. Since Germany hadn't moved since the death of his brother, he wasn't hard to find.

His eyes were open, staring at nothing. If not for the steady rise and fall of his chest with his breathing, she might have thought he was dead, too.

“Germany?” she ventured, not expecting any response.

Having not expected a response, she was surprised when she received one. His eyes locked onto hers. “Rika, right?”

She nodded.

He pat the floor next to him, opposite of where his brother lay. “Sit down with me.”

Cautiously, she did so, uncertain of his motives. She did her best not to look at Prussia's body as she sat down beside Germany. While she had seen a lot of death and had become fairly inured to it, it was still not a sight she enjoyed.

He draped an arm over her shoulders.“You're handling all this better than I would have expected.” It seemed to be only an idle observation.

“I'm being brave,” Rika chirped, playing up her child-like aspect. “Nipahh!”

The display earned a sad chuckle. “Of course. I'm not feeling very brave myself right now.” His eyes settled on his brother's body. “I can't believe he's dead. Even after his land disappeared and his people became mine, he was still there.” He smiled wistfully. “I was starting to think he always would be.”

From what little Italy had told her about this, it had been pretty amazing that Prussia had outlived his country, so to speak. Even so... “Everyone dies, Germany,” she reminded him gently.

“I know that.” The words were spoken without anger. “And he died the way he probably wanted to die: in battle. I'm sure he would have said that was awesome.” He shook his head. “But I shouldn't be burdening you with this kind of talk.”

“It's not a burden,” Rika said. While the topic was depressing, it was nice to be spoken to like she was an adult.

He considered her for a moment before looking away again. “I feel useless. It's too late for my brother, and I'm in no condition to help Italy. I don't know what to do.”

What a strange thing to say when he was injured and Italy, with any luck, was not. “Germany, aren't you the one who needs help?” At his surprised look, she elaborated, “You're the one who's hurt. Surely, Italy can take care of himself for a while.”

A smile of disbelief curved Germany's mouth as he shook his head. “He can't even tie his shoes!”

“He can now,” Rika returned, keeping his tone matter of fact.

Germany's brow furrowed. “He can?”

She nodded. “I taught him.” Saying those words now made her wonder if this man had ever made that attempt himself. Had he tried but then had lacked the patience to allow Italy to succeed? “Didn't you ever try teaching him?”

Germany's mouth formed a thin, humorless line. “It's nearly impossible to teach Italy anything. During the war, for instance... No matter what I tried, he would not learn how to be a proper soldier.” He half-laughed. “All he ever wanted to do was make white flags to surrender with, eat carbohydrates, and flirt.”

Despite the annoyance in his voice, Germany was smiling now. “He was always calling me to help him out of this trouble or out of that trouble. 'Germany! I've been captured by England, and he's forcing me to eat his cooking!' or 'Germany! We used up all our water to boil pasta!'” He shook his head. “It's been like that ever since I met him.”

Yes, it had been harder to teach Italy than she'd expected, but he'd been a diligent (if distracted) student. Rika couldn't imagine that she was that much better at giving instruction. Of course, when it came to learning, success was often determined by desire. “Maybe he didn't want to be a soldier, Germany.”

“Of course he didn't,” Germany said, as though this had been obvious. “He's a coward!”

Germany had known Italy for a long time, she had no doubt, but she knew that he was wrong: Italy was not a coward. If he'd been a coward, there was no way he'd have subjected himself to the dangers of this house twenty times and counting.

Then again, perhaps what she was seeing as bravery was nothing more than hopelessly optimistic stupidity. Either way, that had no bearing on what she wanted to get out of this conversation. So far, none of Italy's friends seemed to think much of him. She was having trouble figuring out what made these people so precious. “But you care for him, right?”

He flushed. “He was my first friend. The first person to offer his hand of friendship to me without wanting something I had.” There was a tenderness in his smile now, and Rika understood that Germany did actually care for Italy very much. “Even if I cannot always rely on him, I can always trust him.” The smile disappeared. “Where is he, anyway?”

“He's out with Canada looking for you.” Rika wondered if Germany had been too focused on his brother to listen properly. “Japan is talking with England right now about going out to look for them.”

Germany sat up. “Out looking for me?”

Rika nodded her head slowly. “England told you so when you arrived.”

“That's right.” Germany sounded distracted. “I remember now.” Then his eyes returned to hers. “Please help me stand, Rika.”

It took some doing, but she managed to help Germany to his feet. His arm still hung awkwardly at his side, but if his injury was painful, he hid it well. He walked over to where Japan and England were still talking. His stride was uneven, and the blood staining his pant leg made clear the reason why. Rika followed him, wondering what about what she'd said had drawn him out of his fugue state. She wondered what he was planning to do.

“It's just not a good idea, Japan,” England was saying. “You shouldn't go out there alone—it's not safe.”

“He won't be alone,” Germany broke in, startling both men. “I'll be going with him.”

“I thought you were injured,” England said.

Germany looked down at his hanging arm. “I'm well enough to handle this.”

Japan was shaking his head. “I know you are worried about Italy-kun, but you shouldn't push yourself.”

“You can't force me to stay behind,” Germany said simply. “You will either allow me to accompany you, or I will go myself.”

“Don't do something rash,” England said tiredly, “just to prove a point or because you feel guilty—you won't help anyone that way. Believe me; you won't.”

Germany remained impassive. “I have nothing to prove, England, and I'm not doing this because I feel guilty. I'm doing what needs to be done.” His smile was grim. “Italy and Canada are out there looking for me: I should be out there to be found.”

It really was a fair point as Rika doubted Italy would be willing to return empty-handed. But England was right as well: neither Japan nor Germany were in any condition to be wandering the halls.

England's shoulders slumped. “I suppose I can't physically stop you, and you seem impervious to reason, so maybe you should go with Japan.” He turned to look at no one in particular. “Japan, watch him. Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid.”

Japan bowed. “Of course, England.” He smiled down at Rika. “Rika-chan, unlock the door for Germany and I.”

She did so, wondering if she'd ever see either of the two men again. A significant part of her doubted it: neither man was in anything like peak condition, and even when they'd been in peak condition, neither had been able to send off one of those monsters alone.

Still, in this case, like in so many others, she was powerless to change this outcome. All she could do was watch as the pieces fell where fate had chosen them to fall. She locked the door tightly behind them.

The waiting was terrible. Rika and an increasingly anxious England sat on the piano bench together since there was nowhere else to sit. Once, England had played a tune on the strangely undusty piano but the resulting echoes of the notes in the mostly empty space had been too disturbing to continue. Besides, he kept missing the right keys.

At length, Rika couldn't bear the silence any longer. “England, when do you think the demon will attack us?”

“Oh, any time now, I should think.” England's voice was nonchalant but his expression betrayed his trepidation.

“Do you think we ought to move on then?” Rika wasn't anxious to expose herself to the dangers of the hallway, but, if they were going to be attacked regardless... Besides, maybe they could find out what had happened to the others.

England considered the idea. “If we leave, we'll be more or less defenseless. Also, we may miss the others when they come back for us.” He stood. “On the other hand, I don't fancy waiting around on my arse like a sitting duck.” He held out his hand. “Come on, Rika, let's get ourselves moving.”

Rika took the hand. “All right, England.” They had decided to leave the key to the room on the piano bench in case one of the others returned hoping for refuge. Without having discussed it, Rika knew that England didn't intend to return. Since she was the one who could see, she took the front.

However, what she noticed first was the silence. She could hear their footsteps echoing, but it felt like she and England were the only ones in the mansion. Or, came the unbidden, unwelcome, thought, the only ones still alive.

She shuddered.

“Do you see something?”

“No,” Rika said, forcing her feelings back under control. Of course, now that she'd thought the thought, she couldn't help but share it. “England, do you think... do you think we're the only ones left?”

“Not at all,” came the immediate reply. Rika didn't turn around, certain that the man's expression would give lie to his words. “Nothing can stop America when he sets his mind to something.”

Rika didn't ask whether or not England thought the same about any of the others.

It didn't take long to reach the staircases. England had suggested going down as that was where the exit was, but Rika had argued that if Japan hadn't been able to open the door, they probably wouldn't be able to either. In the end, they'd agreed to go up to the fourth floor and conduct the search Japan had started.

The search of the fourth floor was quickly done. There were only two rooms, after all, and little of interest in either. Rika had shown England the mochi, but he hadn't had much interest in the thing. There were clearly other matters on his mind, which she could appreciate. Besides, much of the creature's appeal was in its appearance, which was meaningless for England. Seeing it again, she noticed it bore a slight resemblance to America, which was odd. But then, so was a living piece of mochi.

The search of the third floor was was likewise quickly completed. England had bemoaned the fact that the large library they'd found was inaccessible to him, but Rika hadn't minded the complaints—the silence was growing more menacing in her mind than the empty rooms and blank white walls.

It was on the second floor where they'd finally found someone else. Canada was slumped against the wall of the hallway to the left of the staircase they'd come down. His head was touching his chest, blood matted his blonde hair, and more blood had pooled around him. His pet was languidly licking an unresponsive hand as its own wounds stained its white fur. It looked at them with a glassy stare before letting its head loll.

“Canada?” Rika called out, not having much hope that the man in front of her was still alive. She felt England tighten his grip on her hand.

Incredibly, Canada looked up, his purple eyes filled with surprise and pain. “R-rika?” His voice was whisper; his face was ashen. Then he smiled. “England,” he greeted. “It's good... to see... you.” Every few syllables, he had to take a shallow breath.

England let go of Rika's hand and came forward onto his knees. “Canada, how bad is it?” He reached out for Canada, and Rika set his hand on Canada's shoulder. England was trembling.

“It's... bad,” Canada rasped. “Pretty... pretty bad.” He coughed and blood dribbled down his chin. “I... I... I think... this might... might... be the... end... of me.”

England shook his head in fervent denial. “Canada, you'll be fine.” He took Canada's other shoulder. “You'll see. We'll take care of you.”

Canada smiled gently, almost pityingly. “I'm... I'm sorry, Eng... England.” With what looked like a supreme effort, he put his hand on top of England's arm. “Please... please tell... my brother... I... I... lo--” A coughing fit interrupted his words. His hand slipped from England's arm as the fit subsided and Canada became still.

Despite England's cries and the violent shaking he gave him, Canada didn't speak again.

“England,” Rika prompted once the man's rage at the world for stealing Canada away had faded a bit, “we need to keep moving.”

For a moment, he turned angry eyes in her direction. Then his anger melted into sad acceptance. “You're right, Rika.” With an effort, he picked himself up. He held out his hand. “Let's go.”

Rika took the hand, doing her best to ignore the blood there.

Their search continued. Several of the doors would not open, and Rika knocked on them to make sure no one was hiding in the room beyond. It was perhaps unwise to be making so much noise, but she was finding the silence heavy, oppressive, and of desperate need of being broken. She carefully did not look at the place where Canada's body sat.

The second room they'd actually been able to enter in the next hall held a grisly surprise. Japan lay sprawled out on the floor. His stomach had been rent open, exposing his insides. France was on the bed, motionless and white. His arm was gone up to the shoulder, as though it had been bitten off. While someone had obviously attempted some kind of first aid—a sheet had been shoved against the gaping wound and tied there with strips of cloth—it hadn't been enough to stave off the inevitable for long.

England listened to Rika's description of the scene without interrupting. While these deaths had clearly upset him, he seemed to be taking them better than he'd taken Canada's death. “Someone must have survived,” he said reasonably once she'd finished. “And if anyone could have survived this, it'd be America.”

Rika hoped that he was right: she wasn't sure what England would do if he discovered America dead, and she wasn't anxious to find out. But, if he had survived, where was America? For that matter, where was Germany? And Italy—had he moved on to another world, or was he still here somewhere?

One of those questions was answered with a visit to the next room. If it hadn't been for the all encompassing silence, Rika was certain that she wouldn't have heard the soft, rasping sounds coming from the closet. As it was, the noise was as noticeable as a ringing bell.

“What is that coming from?” England asked quietly, sounding unnerved by the strange sounds as well.

“The closet,” Rika muttered. “What should we do?”

“We need to take a look inside,” England replied in a firm whisper.

He was right, of course, but Rika couldn't deny feeling some trepidation as they approached the curtain that hid the closet's contents. Those monsters who had killed Prussia, Canada, France, and Japan were no doubt capable of ending her life before she had a chance to realize she was in danger.

She reached out to grasp the curtain and noted that her hand was trembling. In a quick motion, she ripped the curtain open before she had a chance to convince herself not to.


And it was. Outside of a new stain of red on his side, he seemed well enough. He was alive at least, and standing under his own power. “Rika? What are you doing here?”

“I could ask the same of you, Germany,” England said, his voice angry. “Exactly how long were you planning to leave us in that blasted piano room?” He stepped closer and glared over Germany's shoulder. “Did you ever plan on coming back to tell me that Japan and France were dead?”

Germany raised a hand in a futile effort to signal England that he had something to say.

“Canada is dead, too,” England continued. “He died out there in the hall while you were in here hiding!”

“I wasn't hiding!” Germany denied with enough force to startle England into silence. “The last time I saw Canada, he was fine—he and Italy were supposed to go back to the piano room. I don't know why they didn't.” He sighed, looking sad and tired. “Japan and France... America had run into us after we'd left Canada and Italy. We'd decided to continue looking for China and Russia on the first floor together.” His face darkened. “They were already dead.

“We decided to return to the piano room, but we were waylaid in the hall by two of those monsters.” He bowed his head. “They backed us into a bedroom. We tried everything, and we were able to send the monsters off, but it cost us.

“Japan's death... it was hard for me,” Germany went on. “I left America to tend to France, and I felt... drawn to this place.” He gestured around himself, and Rika saw for the first time that quite an extensive carpentry project was in progress. A staircase had been built into the wall behind Germany, and it was leading into a new room which was taking shape there. “I made a promise to, to someone,” his voice had taken on an almost dreamy quality, “to create a place where we could all be safe together.”

“It's a little late for that!” England almost shrieked. “At this rate, we'll all be dead before you finish whatever it is you're doing in here!”

Germany shrugged as though this wasn't something he was concerned about. “Never the less, England, I have work to do.” He turned his back on them and picked up a planing tool. “Please leave me.” Then he returned to planing the board in front of him, recreating that noise they'd heard.

England was speechless with fury, but he didn't fight the pull on his hand as Rika gently led him away. It wasn't until they were back in the hallway that England found his voice. “That irresponsible, suicidal kraut!”

“Shh!” Rika looked around herself and was satisfied that the shout hadn't drawn any undue attention. “We don't want to be found, England.”

He flushed. “Right,” he said more quietly. “Right.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Right, now what?”

Rika was unused to being asked for advice—having the body of a young child tended to make people unlikely to seriously consider her a potential source of wisdom. It was a lofty responsibility. “We should continue on to the first floor: we still need to find Italy and America.”

England nodded. “True.” He inclined his head. “Lead on, Rika.”

Since they'd already searched the unlocked rooms on this floor, she led England directly to the stairs that led to the first floor. The trip down was uneventful until they'd reached the last steps and heard gunshots.

England jerked. “That's America's gun!”

While it went against Rika's instincts to run towards gunshots, it was either that or allow England to run passed her and drag her with him until he hit a wall. She ran as fast as she could, confident that England would have no trouble keeping up.

“Yippe-ki-yea, mother fucker!” America's shout was accompanied by several more gunshots.

By the time she found herself in what looked like a kitchen, the battle was over. America stood in the middle of the room, the flush of victory making way for confusion. “How'd I beat it alone?” He reholstered his gun.

“America!” England exclaimed. “Are you all right?”

America turned and a happy grin lit up his face. “I'm fine, Iggy.” He frowned briefly, the confusion returning. “I'm not sure how, but I am.” Then he tilted his head. “What are you doing here? Where's Canada and Italy?”

Immediately, the blood drained from England's cheeks.

“What's wrong?”

England made no obvious effort to hide his grief. “Canada... Canada is dead, America.”

For what seemed like a long time, America's expression didn't change. Then his blue eyes hardened behind his glasses. “That's not a very good joke, England.”

“I'm not joking,” England said, a strange mixture of sorrow and frustration making his voice shrill. “America, I wouldn't make jokes about this.”

America crossed his arms. “I don't believe it. Canada's not dead.”

“We were with him,” Rika said quietly. When America turned the full force of his glare onto her, she didn't shy away from it. “We were with him when he died, America.”

The anger went out of him like a candle flame in a strong wind. His brow furrowed and his mouth formed a thin, tight line. “I want to see him. I won't believe it until I see him myself.”

“All right.” England reached out for America, and America clasped his hand tightly for a moment before releasing it.

“France and Japan are dead,” America reported sadly. “Our groups got together, and we ended up getting trapped by two monsters.” He shook his head. “Germany and I survived, but...” he trailed off, perhaps seeing no need to repeat himself. “I'm not sure what happened to Germany after that.”

“We spoke to Germany,” England said. “He told us that China and Russia were dead, too. Is that true?”

America nodded. “I think they were ambushed. They were... they were pretty messed up.” Then he frowned again. “Where's Italy, then?”

England shook his head. “I don't know. Germany said Canada and Italy were supposed to return to the piano room... They didn't make it there, obviously.”

“Well, he's not on this floor,” America asserted. “I've been into every unlocked room, and I haven't seen him.” He put his hands on his hips. “We should regroup with Germany—the more of us together, the better. Then we can find Italy and Canada.”

“Germany won't help us,” England spat. “He's busy faffing about in some closet on the second floor.” Then his expression softened. “But I can take you to Canada.”

“Sounds like a plan,” America said approvingly. “Lead the way.”

The trip back to the second floor was made in silence. Rika still went first, so America could watch behind them. This was why she was the first to see, as they turned the corner in the hall, that Canada's body was missing. A gradually thinning line of blood led from where he'd sat to the stairwell leading up to the third floor. It looked like he'd been dragged.

She stopped in her tracks. “Canada is gone.”

“What!” England exclaimed as he came to stand beside her.

“Hah, I told you he couldn't be dead,” America crowed. He stepped into the hall with Rika and England. “It looks like he went upstairs. I wonder why.”

Rika didn't argue with America, deciding to let him believe what he wanted. It seemed that he would anyway despite the clear evidence in front of them that, wherever Canada had gone, it hadn't been under his own power.

“Okay, let's get moving—maybe we can catch up with him.”

Carefully, mindful of the slick blood, they made their way up the stairs.

They'd followed the trail all the way up to the third floor. There was enough of the trail to lead them into the direction of the staircase to the fourth floor, but they hadn't needed it anymore by that point. Sounds of heavy breathing and grunting were coming from the stairwell.

Rika hadn't been surprised when they found a red-faced, panting Italy dragging Canada's body up the stairs. She had no idea why he'd be doing such a thing, but it had been fairly obvious who had moved Canada: there was literally no one else it could have been.

“Italy!”she called up to him.

“Canada, why are you letting Italy drag you around?” America demanded. Even now, it seemed, he would not admit Canada was dead.

Italy stood and smiled down at them, but it was a grim expression. “Oh. I didn't think anyone was left.”


“Way to be morbid, Italy!”

Rika recognized the look in Italy's eyes—she'd worn it so often herself: Resignation. While he still cared for his friends, he knew that it was too late to save them. He was trying to harden his heart so that, when they finally died too, he would not be so devastated.

It never really worked.

“Italy,” she called up again, “what are you doing with Canada?” A thought occurred to her. “Do you need him to go back?”

“Go back?” America asked. “Go back where?”

“Apparently,” England explained tiredly, “we've all died here several times before. Italy has been coming back to try saving us all But it hasn't gone well thus far.” He gestured vaguely upwards. “Do I have that right, Italy?”

Italy flashed Rika an accusing look, but he didn't seem angry about her candor. “Yes,” he admitted. “We've even had this conversation before.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” America said, raising his hands in front of him. “You're telling me Italy gets to be the hero here?” He shook his head. “You were right, Iggy: this place isn't part of the real world!”

Unsurprisingly, England didn't appreciate America's humor. “Oh, just be quiet.”

Italy just stared at America blankly. Then he shook his head. “I could use your help.”

“To go back?” England prompted.

“Yes,” Italy replied. “There's a clock, a huge clock, and I need to... to wind it.” He gestured to Canada. “But I can't do it alone—I need people to stand on some of the numbers.” His face darkened a bit. “Or lay on them.”

That explained why Italy was moving Canada's body at least.

“Canada?” America climbed up the steps to where Canada's body lay. Rika couldn't see his face, but from how cautiously he approached, it seemed that he'd finally realized something was amiss. “You're not looking well.” The words were choked. He put a hand on Canada's cheek. “I guess I couldn't save you either,” he said sadly. “I guess I really am useless here.”

“No, you're not.” Italy's facade of detachment shattered, leaving his sorrow and guilt laid bare. “I'm the one who's useless. You all gave so much to protect me, and I didn't deserve it. That's why,” tears formed in his eyes, “that's why I'm going to save you.” He wiped suddenly wet cheeks with the heels of his hands. “I won't make you throw your lives away to save me any longer: I'm going to stop being so useless.”

Stunned silence greeted his vow.

“I believe in you, Italy,” Rika said quietly.

“Thank you, Rika.” Then he looked stricken once more. “England, you have to help Rika get home!”

England frowned. “I don't see how I'll be able to do that. Unless you know some way to get out of this place.”

Italy shook his head. “Rika doesn't belong here. I've done this twenty times now, and this is the first time she's ever been here with us.”

“Twenty times?” America whispered. “Jesus.” Then he shook his head. “Guys, let's go back to the piano room and finish this there. It's not a good idea to hang out here in the open like this.”

While neither England or Italy looked particularly happy about the idea, neither argued with America's reasoning. Once they'd returned to the piano room, Rika noticed that Prussia's body was missing. She realized before she had a chance to voice her confusion that Italy must have moved Prussia first. The only strange thing was how Italy had managed to do so without being spotted during her and England's search.

The key had still been on the piano bench where Rika had left it, and she scooped it up quickly so she could lock the door. When that had been done, the three men relaxed infinitesimally. “Now,” America said, “what's this about Rika?”

Italy looked at Rika. “England can help you, but I think he'd understand better from you than from me.”

“Rika?” England asked warily.

Rika sighed. She knew that Italy was right: if anyone here could help her, England could. She supposed she had no reason left to hide the truth from these people. “I... I have a problem like Italy,” she admitted. “I have been returning to my home of Hinamizawa for the last hundred years trying to find a world where my friends don't succumb to fate.”

She closed her eyes for a moment to collect her thoughts. Perhaps there was no need to go into as much detail as she was about to, but maybe understanding her mechanism would help. “I am the reincarnation of the god, Oyashiro-sama. She is the one that has allowed me to keep moving on to new Hinamizawas. After I die in one world, and I always die, I am sent to a void while I wait for Hanyuu to help me move on to the next.”

America was looking confused. “Wait, so you're you, and you're Oyashi-something, and you're this Hanyuu? Is this some kind of Catholic trinity thing?”

Rika wasn't exactly sure what America was talking about, but she could see that he'd misunderstood her connection with her god. “Not exactly, America. I'm Oyashiro-sama's reincarnation, but what that means is that she was allowed to have influence in Hinamizawa with my birth, and that her continued existence is tied to mine. But I also call Oyashiro-sama Hanyuu. We are connected, but we are not the same person.”

America still looked confused, but he shook his head. “Okay.” He turned to England. “You think you can help her?”

“I have some ideas.” England was frowning. “Is there anything else you can tell me?”

While she only truly had a suspicion, it had been growing ever since Japan had spoken about the disaster that had happened 'sometime in the 1980s.' The Hinamizawa she kept returning to lately was Showa 58, which was 1983. If it were still 1983 here, Japan would not be talking about something happening in the 1980s.

And maybe... maybe the reason Hanyuu wasn't with her here was that Hanyuu was still in Showa 58.

“I think I may have traveled through time as well,” she said slowly. “It's Showa—It's 1983 where I come from.”

“Wow,” America said with a grin. “This is just like back to the future. Awesome!” He held his arms out wide. “Welcome to 2010!”

“That's not helping, America,” England chided wearily. He returned his attention to over Rika's shoulder. “You say you're connected to Oyashiro-sama. Is she here with you now?”

“No.” Rika considered how best to explain. “She... she's not completely gone: I feel our connection still. But something is keeping her from me. Or maybe she's very far away.”

“Hmm.” England rubbed his chin. “Well, there's one thing we can try. I think we can use your connection to her to contact her. Maybe she'll have some suggestions for us.”

America groaned. “Ugh, not more witchcraft.” He ignored England's protest at the slight and turned to Italy. “Let's go wind that clock of yours. I'm not interested in hanging around while they're summoning Satan.” He paused, then glanced somewhat guiltily at Rika. “No offense.”

Rika shook her head, finding herself smiling at America's antics. He'd been face to face with horrible monsters, had even defeated one all by himself, but it was the idea of being present while England attempted to contact Hanyuu that frightened him.

“Vee.” Italy looked from America to England uncertainly. “Will that be all right, England?”

England waved his hand to indicate they should go. “Go ahead. This will work better without skeptics in the room anyway.”

“Okay,” Italy said solemnly. “Goodbye, England, Rika. Thank you... thank you for everything.” Abruptly, the matching solemn expression on his face slipped away, and he came at England, arms out stretched. He hugged England and kissed his cheeks.

“Wh-what in bloody blazes do you--!”

But Italy had already released him to wrap his arms around Rika. He kissed her forehead. “I'll always remember what you taught me.”

“How to tie your shoes, Italy?” Rika teased.

He grinned as he let her go. “I had to start somewhere.”

America's goodbyes were far less dramatic. “Try not to get yourself killed, Iggy.”

England rolled his eyes, but there was definitely fondness in them as he did it. “I'll see what I can do. Try not to do anything stupid out there.”

America saluted. “Yes, sir!” Then he ruffled Rika's hair. “I don't really understand what's going on with you, but I'm sure England can get you home. Take care of yourself, kid.”

Rika smiled. “You too, America.”

Then America and Italy left the room. Rika locked the door and handed the key to England. He took it without questioning the change in the status quo. Then he sat on the floor and directed that she should sit beside him.

Once she had done so, he held out his hand to her. “I want you to take my hand and close your eyes.”

Rika reflected, as she grasped his hand, that she'd done a lot of hand-holding today. She could feel that same feeling as before, when she'd been England's eyes. A warmth spread through her, and she was surrounded by darkness, a darkness deeper than what came from simply closing her eyes.

“Now,” England continued, his voice gentle, “I want you to focus on your connection to Oyashiro-sama. I want you to think of it as a rope, or a cord running from you out to her. I want you to see it in front of you.”

And suddenly, Rika could see it. A bright line of light, stretching from her belly button out into the darkness. It wasn't like a rope or a cord, but more like a hose: something sloshed along inside its length as flashes of rainbow color.

Very good, England said. She noticed that his voice was no longer coming from the outside world, but from somewhere behind her. I want you to send her a message through your connection.

Rika hesitated. What should I say?

Just say, 'hello'.

She felt the flow within the hose and thought, as hard as she could, Hello.

Immediately, a sense of shock came coursing back into her. The feeling was so strong, Rika felt nauseous. Then disbelief and hope made her feel dizzy. Rika? Hanyuu's voice 'sounded' like it was coming from a long way off, but it was undeniably hers.

Rika felt tears forming in her real eyes, and she struggled to remain in the darkness. Hanyuu, it's good to hear you again.

Rika! Au au, auauau! What happened to you! I looked everywhere! As she spoke, it seemed to Rika that Hanyuu was getting closer and closer. Where are you?And how are you talking to me from this distance?

England coughed, and Rika turned to see that he was standing in the darkness with her as well. He looked different now. The green uniform he'd been wearing had been replaced with a white toga. Large white wings had sprouted from his back, and a halo floated above his hair. I used some of my magic to strengthen Rika's connection to you. He fidgeted with the wand he was holding. I can't do much more than this, unfortunately. I was rather hoping that you, Oyashiro-sama, could do something from here.

I owe you a debt of gratitude, Hanyuu said as her figure appeared in the far distance as a shining star. I had lost hope that I would ever see Rika again. I knew she couldn't be dead, or else I'd be dead, too. But I couldn't move on to another world either. I was stuck where I was.

Do you have any idea how I ended up here? Rika asked. I'm nearly 30 years from Showa 58.

As I get closer, Hanyuu revealed, I'm starting to get an idea. Someone in that place has made a deal with a demon to travel to other worlds.

Italy, England supplied. What has that idiot done?

This person passes through the realm between worlds, Hanyuu continued as though England hadn't spoken. Undisciplined, unfocused, and full of a desperate will.

Rika stared at the shape in the distance that was now about the size of her pinkie nail. How do you know all that, Hanyuu?

Because he's just done it, Hanyuu said, sounding a bit annoyed. This Italy of yours has just torn through the void.

So, it had been Italy himself who'd dragged her here.

Wait, England said, his voice full of horror, you mean he's dimension hopping? Not time traveling?

Yes, Hanyuu said simply. He's moving from one world to the next, as Rika and I have done. Then her voice took on an uncertain quality. But I think the demon has more power over his destination than I ever had.

So, England murmured, he's not actually going to be able to do anything for America and I: we'll still die here.

Hanyuu shook her head. You will die in this world, but there is only one version of your spirit. When you die in this world, your spirit will pass on to the next along with him.

But I won't remember being in this world. England did not seem especially comforted. Italy told us he'd done this twenty times already—I don't remember any of that.

It is possible for there to be a miracle, Rika broke in, having to smile at the memory of it. In one world, Keiichi remembered what he'd done in another world, and he was able to make things better with that knowledge. Of course, that had only ever happened once, and it hadn't made a difference in the end anyway: that world had turned into a dead end as well. Still, a miracle could occur!

Germany! England exclaimed excitedly. Germany said he'd made a promise to someone to build a safe place for us. Maybe he remembered something from another world!

It could be so. Hanyuu was close enough now for Rika to make out her expression. She was grinning with happiness. Au au, auauau! Rika, I've missed you!

Rika had no trouble returning either the grin or the sentiment. I've missed you, too.

Will you be able to take her from this world? England's form was starting to waver.

Yes, now that I know where she is.

Good, England said. I won't be able to keep this up much longer. My magic is weak here.

And then Hanyuu was holding Rika's hand. She nodded to England. I can do it now.

Thank you, England, Rika said, feeling that any amount of thanks she could give voice to would not be enough.

England bowed. God's speed, Rika.

And he was gone.

Or, rather, she was.

Rika Furude blinked in the sudden brightness of an afternoon sun. She was sitting on a picnic blanket, a napkin with a riceball on it sitting in front of her. Mion and Rena were laughing at Keiichi's and Satako's antics as each tried to steal the last anpan from the other. Glancing around, she saw that their picnic was situated in front of the Furude Shrine.

She was home.

We made it! Hanyuu shouted.

“I'm glad,” Rika returned quietly—her friends were too involved to notice her talking to 'herself'. “I was worried I'd never leave that place.” She took a bite of her riceball. “I wonder when Italy and his friends will.”

Hanyuu made a distressed noise. You don't want to get involved in that too, do you?

“No,” Rika said. “I'll leave it to him.” While Italy clearly had a long way to go before he'd succeed, now that he'd recognized his sin and how to atone for it, she had no doubts that he would eventually prevail. For all his faults, he wasn't content to just wait until a world where his friends survived appeared. He was willing to keep trying to make the world he wanted a reality.

“Satako! You better not take a bite of my anpan!”

Rika looked at her laughing friends under the bright sun and felt her heart swell with love and purpose. “I have my own business to attend to.” Eventually, she would find a world where she could stay with them—such a world was worth waiting for.

No. Such a world was worth fighting for.

Italy had tried and failed to convince anyone not to come to the mansion, but he'd expected that. After attempting it twenty times before and failing every single time, there wasn't much hope that suddenly things would be different.

Except that things would be different.

He walked a short distance behind America and Japan as the three of them made their way up the mountain path to the mansion. As his friends chatted idly about world affairs and what video games were best, Italy started making notes in his journal. The journal seemed to be the only thing that didn't reset when he went back in time, so he could start keeping track of his mistakes. He wasn't going to keep walking into that place with just the hope that he'd be able to lead them all out again before they were killed: he was going to make a plan.

If he could keep track of all his mistakes, then he should be able to prevent them. He wasn't going to be a burden any more. Rika had shown him that he could do more for himself than he'd thought. Tying his shoes was just going to be the start! There were things already written in this journal, things he hadn't been able to understand. He would learn to understand what was written there. He would learn how to save his friends.

He clasped the journal to his chest. Yes, this time, it would be different.

And someday, they'd all be free.