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The (Wrong) Color of Money

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High up on the list of things that America hated, not far behind tyranny and injustice and honeydew melon, were being stuck in confined spaces and waiting for anything. Unfortunately, his current situation was doing a very good job of combining those two latter pet peeves into one very aggravating package.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing was pretty spacious, as far as D.C.'s federal buildings went, but the room that he and Switzerland were sitting in was tiny, barely big enough to hold the two of them and a few pieces of old furniture. The furniture wasn't much to speak of, either -- there was the slanted desk Switzerland was working at, and a separate table, and a couple of worn-out chairs that didn't seem to match either the desk or the table. There wasn't a clock on the wall. There wasn't even a newspaper he could read. He should've asked for one when he and Switzerland were first setting things up, but he hadn't thought about it at the time.

Then there was the waiting. He hated waiting. He especially hated waiting when there was nothing else for him to do but wait, since he didn't have his phone with him to play Candy Crush or mess around on Facebook or even check his email. That was the stupid part of being in a secure room. And he had to stay in the room as long as Switzerland was there, because the half-dozen Secret Service guys waiting outside had been very insistent that the only reason they were allowing Switzerland in the secure part of the building at all, let alone in this particular room, was because America would be with him the whole time.

Of all the people to be stuck in a tiny boring windowless room with, the only good thing about having it be Switzerland was that he didn't take up that much space.

There wasn't enough open floor area to pace back and forth, so America picked the least battered of the available chairs at the table and flopped into it, tilting his head back so that it rested against the wall. 'Got everything you need?'

Switzerland didn't look up from his work. One hand reached out and set a small black jeweler's loupe aside, high up enough on the desk to keep it from sliding down too far. 'Mm.'

America crossed one leg over the other, jiggling his foot against the side of his knee. 'Okay with the light and everything?'

The light and everything, in this case, was the only decent piece of furniture in the entire room. It was a extremely bright industrial task lamp, positioned low over the desk and shining down on it with such radiance that the reflected light from the desk's surface almost made Switzerland's hair glow. 'Mm,' Switzerland said again, without so much as a glance in America's direction.

Jiggle, jiggle, jiggle. The chair America was sitting in had a busted spring that was starting to dig into his butt. 'How's it look?'

Switzerland reached up to adjust the angle of the lamp slightly, and picked up the loupe again. 'If I hear one more word out of you before I'm finished,' he said, without turning his head, 'I will shove this loupe so far up your left nostril that it will take at least two of those overconfident security agents of yours to extract it.'

There was no real heat behind the threat, but America decided that it was better to give him space to work. Switzerland had been crankier than usual all morning, probably because he'd had to turn over all of his weapons in order to pass through the building's security checkpoint. And he was here to help out, so the more that he could concentrate on the task at hand, the sooner he'd be done and the sooner they could leave.

All of this was fine and dandy, but none of it helped America very much. His fingers itched for something to fiddle with -- a pen or pencil to click, a bouncy ball to throw against the wall. Finally, in desperation, he took out his wallet and started to pull out all of his credit, loyalty, and membership cards. Starbucks, Target, American Express, even his driver's license...he'd made card houses out of them before, in other situations where death from boredom had been a very real danger, and maybe this time he could get beyond the fourth stack.

For a time, there was no sound in the room except quiet breathing and the occasional soft scrape of a credit card against the tabletop. Finally, just as America had managed to set up a solid second level and was about to move on to the third, Switzerland straightened up and set the loupe aside. He switched off the task lamp -- America squinted at the sudden loss of extra light, which made the room seem even smaller and dingier than before -- and turned around in his chair. Nothing in his expression gave America any hope of hearing good news.

'I could make an educated guess, but that is all it would be -- a guess.' Switzerland gestured to the desk, where two hundred-dollar bills lay side by side. 'No more accurate than one of your own people would be.'

'Goddamn it,' America muttered. As if in agreement, his teetering house of cards collapsed onto the table in a clatter of plastic.

'Why are you so surprised?' Switzerland said, frowning. 'I have some experience with counterfeit detection, but I am not an expert on your printing techniques or materials.' He waved a hand in the direction of the closed door. 'There are any number of people in this building whose word you should trust more than mine, in this matter.'

America sighed, and swept his cards off the table to stuff them back into his wallet. 'I guess I just thought you'd have a better...I dunno, feeling for it. Like a spider-sense or something.' He wiggled his fingers in illustration.

The frown deepened into a look of exasperation. 'If I had anything of the sort, I would have known the false bill the instant I touched it. Just as you did. Just as any of us would, if it were our own currency.' Switzerland folded his arms across his chest. 'You know how this works. Would you be able to tell the difference between one of my true hundred-franc notes and a counterfeit one?'

America blinked. 'I thought you used the euro.' Instantly, Switzerland's face went black with fury, which was exactly the reaction that America had hoped for. 'Oh, no, wait, is yours the one that looks like a Lisa Frank poster threw up on it?' he continued, grinning unrepentantly. 'You guys use all those goofy colors on your money.'

'In part, to deter counterfeiting,' Switzerland snapped.

'Yeah, so how's that working out for you?'

'Evidently, about as well as it is working for you.'

This time, the silence was a lot more strained. After a moment, America stood up and jammed his wallet back into his pocket. It was his turn to scowl, though the real force of his glare was directed less at Switzerland and more at the pair of hundred-dollar bills on the desk behind him.

'It's all You-Know-Who's fault,' he said sourly. 'And I don't mean Voldemort.'

Switzerland looked faintly baffled for the few seconds that it took for him to make the right connections to understand the reference. 'You received these from Macao, then?' he asked, nodding at the bills. 'I had not thought he would be quite so helpful, all things considered.'

'Yeah, well, I didn't think you'd be this helpful, either,' America said, with a pointed stare.

Switzerland pressed his lips together, clearly biting back some sort of nasty retort. Gradually, though, the angry lines of his mouth smoothed out into his usual flat, indifferent expression. 'Because I permit You-Know-Who's people, to use your turn of phrase, to have accounts in my banks?' he said. 'Or because you thought that I would not care whether the bills were real as long as they were in my possession?'

America said nothing, but scuffed at the dented table leg with the toe of one shoe.

The lack of a reply was enough for Switzerland. 'Whatever you may think of my banking practices,' he said firmly, 'I will never condone false currency. Counterfeiting costs my watch industry hundreds of millions each year alone; what on earth makes you think I would turn a blind eye when it comes to my money?' He made a face, wrinkling his nose. 'I shudder to think of the number of fraudulent five-franc coins that are in circulation even as we speak.'

'Five francs...' America repeated. 'That's like, what, a cup of coffee at your house? A hot dog?' The thought of paying for either of those things with a single coin these days was just plain weird.

Switzerland glowered at him, and pushed his chair back so abruptly that it jolted the desk. The force of the impact made the jeweler's loupe topple over, and it started to roll down the slope. 'If there is nothing further you would like me to examine,' he said, coldly, as he got to his feet, 'I believe that I have done all that you asked me to do.' He caught the loupe as it rolled over the edge, and held it out to America with an air of finality.

America took the loupe, tossing it from one hand to the other. It was true, there wasn't anything left for them to do here, and yet...and yet there was one thing that was still on his mind. 'What does it feel like, to you?' he asked, more seriously.

Switzerland's eyes narrowed at the unexpected question. 'Feel like?'

America tossed the loupe straight up in the air and snagged it just before it could start to fall. 'When you pick up a fake franc,' he said, 'what does it feel like?'

Switzerland paused in thought, and an uneasy look crossed his face. Unconsciously, his right hand twitched, fingers brushing against each other as if he were rolling the memory of a franc note through his hand. 'Repulsive,' he said at last, his mouth twisting around the word.

America's eyes lit up. 'Ugh, I know, right?' he agreed fervently. 'Canada said that when he had to touch a fake one of his, it was like picking up some wet, slimy leaf that's been rotting in a roof gutter for weeks. And this' -- he snatched one of the two bills from the table, holding the very tip of one corner between his thumb and forefinger as he waved it in Switzerland's face -- 'this one feels like...okay, so you know when you've got a cold, and your head's full of snot, and you go to blow your nose, but the tissue's kinda crappy and it starts to fall apart -- '

'Enough!' Switzerland batted the money away, stepping back as if to ward off the imagined contagion. 'I take your point.'

Satisfied, America dropped the fake hundred back onto the desk, and wiped his hand on his pants. 'At least you get what I mean,' he said with a shrug. 'I tried to explain it to my boss, and he looked like he was trying to understand me, but you can't know what it's like unless you've really, actually felt it.'

Switzerland's expression turned thoughtful, and somewhat rueful. 'Counterfeiting and false coining have existed for as long as any of us have been around,' he said. 'Some might say that it is a backhanded compliment to have one's currency forged -- a sign, especially these days, that our fiat money is worth the time, risk, and expense incurred in falsifying it.' His gaze fell on the bills again. 'I think I would prefer not to be in such high demand.'

'I'll say,' America grunted. On a whim, he held up the loupe, peering at Switzerland through the lens to watch his face go all blurry and distorted. 'So is it true that you used to keep a whole extra set of francs stuffed away, just in case it got too bad? Did you, like, have them stashed under your mattress or something?'

The flat look was back. 'If we are finished?' Switzerland said, and shot the cuffs on his uniform jacket. 'I would like to reclaim my personal possessions.'

'And people say I'm the gun nut.' America pocketed the loupe and reached for the money on the desk. He took extra care to pick up the real hundred first, using it to grab the fake one and minimize his contact with it, before he folded both of them over in his hand. 'Sorry I can't show you around here some more. I bet you'd like this new digital engraver we're testing out. It's got a totally kickass laser.' Thinking of the phalanx of Secret Service guys waiting outside, he chuckled to himself. 'I don't think they'd let you see it, though.'

'What if I offered to purchase it from you?' Switzerland said, with a sidelong glance that was almost conspiratorial.

'Then they definitely wouldn't let you see it.' America smiled. 'Anyway, I owe you lunch. You okay with burgers?'

'If you are paying for it,' Switzerland said, matter-of-factly, 'there is very little I will turn down.'

America's smile widened. 'Awesome.' He clapped Switzerland on the shoulder, ignoring the startled hiss the other nation let out, and steered him toward the door. 'Five Guys it is.'