from russia, with love


"Okay," said Alfred out loud in a very calm and collected and not at all flipping the fuck out way. "Okay. Okay. Okay okay okayokayokayokayoshitohshitohshitshitshitshit…!" A sudden stinging pain in his scalp informed him that he was tearing his hair out again.

Okay. Okay. Calm down. Calm down. Let's assess the situation like a cucumber would. How would a cucumber asses the situation? In a cool and calm way, of course! All he had to do was be like a cucumber. That was easy. Cucumbers didn't do anything. They just lay there cucumbering and occasionally met a choppy end in a salad or upon the sagging eyes of superficial aging women who truly believed that laying vegetables over their lids would to something to combat the gradual migration of their under-eye skin south. Okay.

Okay.

Now it would appear that he had just committed UNSPEAKABLE SINFUL ACTS with a certain Russian dude. That's what all the clues suggested. He had just woken up next to Russia's scarf, yes. This was his bed at home, yes. It was only just daylight, and upon squinting, the digital clock at his bedside table informed the world that the hour was 5:16, yes. Oh dear.

But…where was Russia? There was no Russia in sight. Under the bed? Unlikely. In the closet? There was so much shit in there, even an ordinary not-huge person wouldn't be able to squeeze themselves inside without exploding like King Henry VIII. No Russias here!

As his breathing slowed to only slightly above normal, Alfred realized with staggering, enormous relief that he was fully clothed and very much decent and strapping-looking in his best ten-gallon-hat-themed pajama set that he usually saved for special occasions and didn't remember putting on. On shaky legs, he stood back from the bed and surveyed the cluttered floor around it. No clothing strewn about that hadn't already been there for weeks. No particular sign of any struggles of a passionate nature. Stopping to think about it, Alfred didn't even feel sore or strained in any area of his body, including the parts not meant for young maidens' eyes – perhaps the most relieving thing of all.

But no! He couldn't let his guard down just yet! If a lifetime of bad-movie-watching had taught him anything (well, maybe not a lifetime, but more like every year since moving film had been invented) it was that situations like these usually happened in a certain way:

The dazzling hero or heroine gets drunk alongside Mister/Miss Unpleasant Adversary. Subsequently they wake in confusion, sleep-tousled and alone. And then, just as they are laughing off the wild conclusion that their surroundings seem to infer as a bad dream, Unpleasant Adversary appears in the doorway with a towel around their waist/mid-body looking very sexy with their hair dripping water everywhere and says something positively earth-shattering like, "Shower's free" or "I made you some coffee".

The closest bathroom to his bedroom in the enormous house was a little ways down the hall, and any sounds of a shower probably wouldn't make it that far through the walls. But wait! What was that smell? Dear god, it was coffee! It was normally masked by the smell of not-towel-wearing people not making coffee in his house! His hyperventilation recommenced without delay.

No. It was probably just Tony, dutifully making breakfast as always. Right? Wasn't it? Oh god, if it wasn't Tony – he was banking on this—

"Tony," he called loudly, trying to keep the panic from his voice, "Tony – Tony!" The sound ringing in the air, he closed his mouth and listened.

Sure enough, after about twenty seconds tiny steps became audible, and then Alfred's door opened. Tony came inside. Through hazy eyes, Alfred noted that Tony's scrawny jointless knees were brown-tinged, and he held a pair of children's gardening gloves—

Tony hadn't been in the kitchen!

At a sprint, Alfred cannonballed out the room, down the hallway, around the corner, into the main hall and skidded into the kitchen. It was a good thing he no longer slept on the second floor (he'd officially moved his bedroom of occupation downstairs a few years back after a particularly terrifying movie about murderous hauntings on higher ground), because had any stairs been on the way of his glasses-lacking journey (should've looked for Texas before setting off on his marathon, bah, dumb), he would certainly not have been left with much in the way of vertebrae.

And now, in the kitchen there was— No one.

The kitchen was empty. A bowl of pancake mix rested next to the stove, ready to be cooked, and the electric coffee maker was steaming, dispersing its pleasant aroma throughout the household…but there was no Russia, nor any other towel-clad, hair-dripping individual within view.

Tony entered the kitchen at his own pace, gazed blankly at Alfred who was frozen in a ready-to-attack pose, then set the gardening gloves aside, walked to the sink, cleaned himself off, and started up the stove to make pancakes.

Alfred's arms, both of which had been raised in a predatory manner (so as to deploy immediate defensive tactics if necessary), flopped uselessly to his sides and he discovered he was still clutching Russia's scarf. He looked at it. Even the scarf's shape was indefinite without his glasses on.

"Tony," he said, "Where's Russia?"

Tony opened a cabinet, pushed some bottles around, removed a can of non-stick cooking spray and spritzed the frying pan he was setting onto the stove.

"Tony," said Alfred, "Is Russia here?"

The alien checked the burner and then opened a drawer in search of a pancake flipper.

"Tony," said Alfred, becoming bemused at the lack of response, "Where's Texas?"

After spooning the first glob of pancake mix into the pan and adjusting the heat, Tony turned to Alfred and stared at him. Was the alien going to have a rare moment and talk? No, it didn't seem like it…but somehow, just from looking in his eyes, Alfred could usually tell what he meant…

"What do you mean, call him?" Alfred asked, even more bemused. "So he's not here? So we didn't actually— uh, I mean – how am I even supposed to call him? I don't know his cell phone number or anything, and I can't exactly use the Hot Line…unless you wanted me call his house or something, I guess I could find that in our little nation-phonebook thing…"

Tony nodded and looked over his shoulder to check on the pancake's progress.

"But he's not even in Russia – he's here in D.C., isn't he? The meeting's supposed to start at 10, and some of the countries wanted to talk beforehand at 9-ish—"

Tony shrugged and turned back to the pancakes. Alfred stood confused. Call Russia's house in Moscow? That didn't make any sense. But then again, Tony knew best…

Alfred walked back into the hallway where the telephone sat on a small table and, after some fumbling (damn it his eyes were bad he should have put his glasses on before coming downstairs), called Russia.

Surprisingly, the line picked up before the first ring had even stopped. "Da, Braginski slushaet—"

"Russia?" Alfred interrupted in incredulity. There was a silence.

Then, with buzzing long-distance background noise to accompany the English, "America, I find myself very confused."

"Where…where are you right now?" Alfred asked the phone receiver.

Another silence. "…I believe I am at my home. In…Russia, that is."

Alfred made what was probably a very comical Huh? face at the phone that no one was around to see. "What? Why are you – how did you get there – unless – wow, you teleported again? I wish I could do that! Uncool!"

The silence was even longer this time. "…What are you saying, America? That does not make any…"

"Nevermind," said Alfred quickly, "I thought – uh – nevermind. Wait, so why – did you hop a plane last night or something? I really don't remember anything, to be honest, so—Why'd you go back to Russia? There's still the last day of conferences here, at like 10 AM or something?"

"…I did not come back. Well, I do not think that I did." The phone line paused. "And yet, contrariwise, I am here."

"…Uhhhh…wow. Okay…I guess."

"I am having difficulty recalling the events of last night as well," Russia continued on through the phone. "We were sharing company at that little drinking establishment…we brought out the vodka. The memory fades. All I can remember in certainty is an intriguing grayness…and redness…"

Funny, Alfred kind of remembered something like that too. Grayness and redness…wasn't there something familiar about that? Grayness and…

Still pressing the phone to his ear, Alfred leaned sideways a bit to look through the doorless opening into the kitchen. Within, a small alien with a kitchen apron tied around his waist and looped around his neck was pattering about, stacking pancakes upon a plate. The small alien was very gray. Tony faced him as he turned to put the plate of pancakes onto the table. His eyes were very red.

Huh.

Russia had stopped talking again, and Alfred wasn't too keen on explaining his sudden suspicion that a certain gray-and-red alien had some otherworldly hand in the mysterious happenings of last night and sounding totally crazy, so he said, abruptly, "I have your scarf."

As Russia replied, Alfred noticed that his voice had been freed of a tenseness that he hadn't noticed at all until it was gone. "Is – is that so? I see, so it is in your…I was searching for it, I could not find it, I thought…well, nyet." Russia stopped. "Please do treat it with care, I will collect it later today when the nations meet." He stopped again, then, as if it only just occurred to him, he added, "Do you find yourself missing your spectacles, America?"

Alfred automatically reached up to where his glasses would be. "What? How did you know? I forgot to put them on this…wait." He was figuring something out here.

Russia's next sentence confirmed it. "I seem to be in the possession of them … I suppose we will exchange items at the meeting later?" Russia had his glasses? No! Tragedy!

"Urgh…okay, I guess, yeah. Wait, speaking of the meeting, are you going to be able to make it? I mean, you're kind of…you know…in Russia, Russia."

Another silence. "What is the time the meeting is directed to begin, and what is the time where you are right now, America?"

"Um—"Alfred fumbled the phone before catching it. "It's supposed to start at 10, and it's…almost half past 5 AM now, somewhere around that?" He looked at the grandfather clock in the hallway with him. "Yeah, around that time. That's…wow, that's like 4 ½ hours, that's definitely not enough time at all…unless you teleported…you know…"

This was kind of bad. The world conferences traditionally held each month – attended exclusively by the world's leading nations such as himself (basically, the old ally-axis gang plus a few) – were possibly one of the most important unpublicized political gatherings there was (despite the very little that was ever accomplished at them, shockingly). A country not attending them was a big thing, and usually an offense to the meeting host's administration (though once in a while Japan would suffer a bout of Not-Wanting-To-Interact-Publicly-itis and everyone kind of just coughed and let it slide while the Japanese envoys bowed and apologized and bowed some more at a feverish rate) – Alfred and Russia had boycotted their fair share of each others' meetings a few decades back. Their own issues were one thing, but if Alfred's boss took offense at Russia's absence from the meeting…especially now, with their respective governments' delicate post-Cold War relationship with one another…

From the silence and white noise that was once again emitting from the other line, Alfred surmised that Russia was thinking along the same lines. "How soon can you get here, do you think?"

"I cannot say," said Russia, and Alfred dared to think that the man actually sounded a little troubled for once. "A normal passenger plane…that would be over 10 hours, da? It is the afternoon here…perhaps I could procure a military flier or something similar, but there would be much explaining to be done, and the clearing of airspace…"

"I can talk to someone," Alfred offered. "I'll get you the all-clear for flying and landing so no one freaks out and thinks you're gonna bomb us or something. I think I can push the meeting back a bit too, maybe – no one should mind too much, they're all in the area anyway and I know Greece'll probably be pretty happy about the extra sleep, not that he's ever awake during the meetings anyway. Is that…is that good? Is that enough? I mean…there has to be a way around this."

"Yes," said the phone, "If we move quickly, while there is still time, this situation may come to mend itself." The line crackled. "America, if I may receive your cellular telephone number?"

Alfred was about to ask "Why?" as an almost-reflex, but he knew why, of course – they had to keep up correspondence during this potential political disaster and keep each other in the know. "Alright," he said, and rattled off the digits to Russia. "You know, it's kind of weird you've never asked me this before. You being as bizarrely stalkerish as you are."

The phone line crackled again with what may have been a laugh on Russia's end. "The tumultuous weather here during winter is frequently disruptive to telephone signals. I did not feel particularly bothered to ask you. Besides, sending a letter ensures that the recipient will at some point concede to their own curiosity and read its words; cellular phones are far easier to shut off and ignore! I must leave now if we are to accomplish this in time – I will be in contact with you shortly, dear America." The line went dead.

Wow. Okay. Phew. That was a whole lot of thinking for such a short period of time. Alfred had to wind down a little.

Now, what just happened here?

To start with, last night, Alfred had been at the bar with England. England had gotten totally smashed and passed out. Alfred then proceeded to get drunk with Russia. A big blind spot after that…then Alfred had woken up at home, with Russia's scarf and without his glasses. Tony had advised him to call Russia in Moscow via an emergency book of nation contact numbers, and he did. Russia was discovered to be there with Alfred's glasses and without his own scarf, thereby proving that the terrifying evidence that they had gotten it on was NOT TRUE THANK GOD.

However, Russia being in Russia made no sense whatsoever. Both of them couldn't recall the previous night, except for a lot of gray and red which equaled a lot of dubious arrows pointing at Tony the household alien. Putting aside this totally impossible incident/miracle, though, a bigger problem was upon them. Russia had to make it here, in the USA, in time for the meeting. They had to make it happen.

Also apparently Russia could not teleport. Whaaaaaaaaat?

…Alright. It was still half past five, the face of the grandfather clock told him. The folks at work were probably only just starting, or maybe not even up yet, Alfred wasn't sure, and Russia's doing of things that had to be done first would probably take a little while. He had some time to ponder things out. Figure out some mysteries.

"…Tony, I want to ask you something," he said, reentering the kitchen.

Tony, who was finishing pouring out two cups of coffee, gave him a look that seemed to convey that the alien did not approve of his tone whatsoever.

Stay strong, Alfred F. Jones! Don't be intimidated! "Tony…did you have anything to do with how I ended up home after last night and how Russia is all the way on the other side of the world?"

As an answer, Tony walked over to Alfred, took hold of the corner of his shirt, dragged him over to the kitchen table, sat him down, and pushed his chair in. He then placed fork and knife in Alfred's hands, disappeared from the kitchen, reappeared with Alfred's cell phone, put it on the table within reach, then removed his apron, picked up the tiny gloves he had discarded, and vanished, presumably to go work in the garden.

Alfred was left shaking his head in a doglike way, feeling as though he had just come out of a trance. Man. Tony had prevailed once more, successfully subduing Alfred as well as avoiding his question and exiting the scene. He could never win against Tony. Tony was way too high level for him to handle. He'd have to try harder in the future.

Feeling a warmth on his lap, Alfred looked down to see a fuzzy beige something – Russia's dearly coveted scarf resting on his legs. Setting the eating utensils down on the table, Alfred slid the chair away from the table to gain some space and picked it up.

The wool was soft to the touch, and despite its high capacity as a cold-warder, it was light and airy and not heavy at all – pretty much the polar opposite of Russia, ha ha, if Russia were a scarf, though that would admittedly be kind of unnatural. Alfred still stood by what he had thought when seeing the scarf at a greater distance – the quality of scarf was definitely too good to have seen hundreds and hundreds of years of action. (Then again, with all the craziness that had unraveled today in just ten minutes or so, what was he to say about impossibility?)

It was hard to make out, even with the scarf practically pressed up against his face – god damn, his eyesight was bad without his glasses – but here was that wine stain he kept seeing again and again. It stood out from the otherwise clean and immaculately kept material like a sore thumb (how did sore thumbs stick out, by the way? Never made sense to him), and somewhere inside Alfred he felt a teensy tiny twinge of what might have been regret or guilt. The stain was no fault of his, of course; if he remembered right it had been Russia who spilled the wine and created the stain. But it was obvious that this was a really important thing, something seriously sentimental, and with this marring imperfection…it just felt like a shame.

Because…those wooden soldiers…that musket…that old uniform…the leash of the first dog he had ever owned, given to him for Christmas by England when he wasn't even three feet tall. Despite all of his previous insistence that he just forget and move on, he still kept those things shut away in a closet somewhere, still unable to throw them away. Alfred could understand the preciousness associated with…stuff like this.

The cell phone rang and Alfred jolted slightly in surprise. Russia was calling already. "America," came his phone, "I have just held a telephone conversation with my superior and the officials – they almost immediately approved my request without any trouble. It is rather strange how they almost never question anything I say, but no matter. I am not yet certain how long the journey will take, but for now, action on your end is needed."

"R-right," replied Alfred, returned to the neediness of the situation. "I'm on it right now, talk to you in a bit."


Phew, thought Alfred, dropping the phone with a clatter onto the table for what felt like the first time in about fifteen years and finally allowing himself to relax in his seat.

The situation was all clear. Disaster averted, everybody! High fives and fist bumps and chest bumps and frat boy handshakes all around!

Looked like the Russian Federation would in fact be attending the third day of the American world conference after all! Yes, Alfred's boss and the higher-up office in general had been pretty damn bewildered at the nonsensicality of the situation ("What, Al? What do you mean he's in Russia? I thought he was here yesterday!") and no, Alfred had not done too awesome of a job coming up with an excuse to explain it ("What, Al? What do you mean he had to go back to feed his dog? Now that is just not good pet ownership!"). But he had bought Russia some O.K. and some air clearance as well as some extra time by pushing the meeting back until noon. Mission Accomplished! Apocalypse Averted! Props to solidarity and teamwork, yeah!

It was kind of cringe-worthy to think about, but Alfred hadn't been able to help thinking (and cringing) as he and Russia ping-ponged back and forth with short calls to each other and to the ones in charge that, when it came down to it, they were actually pretty good as a team. Joint-efforting and collaboration and all that, y'know? Both of them being able to lay aside whatever personal issues and unrelated thoughts and normal creepiness entirely for the sake of focusing on the greater good, for the sake of saving the delicate, ever-teetering balance of political standings and relationships. That was what was most important, after all…as England would say, and as Russia may or may not have touched upon last night (he wasn't sure if they had actually discussed the subject or if it were all a dream).

…Speaking of England…

Uh oh. He'd definitely ditched him at the bar, hadn't he? Alfred hoped the man had gotten back to his hotel okay. Unless England had also "mysteriously" awoken to find himself at his hotel or in the United Kingdom or something (unlikely, as he hadn't received any bewildered phone calls from that region of the world yet). Well, Alfred would just have to apologize at the meeting, no biggie. He hoped England wasn't mad at him. That'd definitely be a downer on any potential, y'know, relationships, cough, that might possibly maybe have a tiny slim possible chance of forming, possibly, maybe. Y'know.

Cough.

…In other news, Alfred was totally blind. Thankfully, making heroic phone calls and saving the governmental world didn't require too much effort from the optical areas of the body, nor was shoving bites of pancake with Canada-and-Kumajiro-gifted maple syrup into his mouth between calls particularly taxing (he did poke himself hard in the nose a few times with food-laden fork though, admittedly). But that stage of his day was for the most part over already, and what awaited him now was being very very very unable to see which sucked a lot. How was he going to make it until the meeting when Russia could give him Texas back? Those streets were dangerous! Someone could be pickpocketing him at any moment, a stampede of forest deer could run him over without warning, and he wouldn't even know.

Russia was right. He'd said something last night before everything Alfred remembered kind of fizzled out – he said that Alfred's absolute inability to cope with life in general without Texas was inconvenient, and he was right. (Russia also said he looked good with them off, but jeez that was just weird so Alfred decided to pretend he didn't remember that part.)

Alfred depended way too much on his glasses, and look at where it got him when they were gone. He made a mental note to fix this devastating Achilles heel of dumbness so it wouldn't happen again.

He wondered how Russia was coping without his scarf.

Comet to think of it, Alfred had never seen the man without his scarf, not once. Was it even possible? Sure, Alfred now knew that Russia was in the possession of a neck and the parts obscured by the scarf weren't just empty space, since Russia had removed the scarf in his presence before…but he'd never been completely departed from it, had he?

Alfred looked at the scarf again, held it in his hands again, and took in once again how soft it was, how clean (sans stain) it was, how warm and potentially comforting it could be…it wasn't hard to imagine this scarf in place of a teddy bear, or a security blanket, or just…something like that.

Hardly realizing what he was doing, Alfred pressed the soft wool to his cheek and breathed.

There was a noise at the kitchen doorway and he almost choked, coming back to his senses immediately, standing abruptly and dropping the scarf onto his vacated chair and trying to move away from it inconspicuously quickly, nonchalantly acting as if he totally had not just been nuzzling Russia's scarf and breathing in its scent (which was herb-like and soothing, by the way). Of course, being quite handicapped in his eyesight, he failed to see the other chair directly in his way, tripping over it and barely avoiding crashing onto the floor by slamming his elbow against the surface of the table, which hurt a lot.

Standing at the entrance, Tony took all this in without comment.

Alfred, sounding as casual and cavalier as he could with his complaining elbows and awkward position, said, "Hi, Tony."

Tony did not say anything. His eyes, however, were fixated upon Russia's scarf which had been hastily thrown down onto the chair, and they did not waver as he approached it.

"Tony?" Alfred asked cautiously.

The alien picked the scarf up. "Um, Tony, I don't think that's a good idea – that's not mine, you know, that's Russia's, so…"

In complete disregard of his words, Tony took the scarf and left. Alfred was left standing there wallowing in amount of life he had remaining, which was probably not much at all, because if something happened to Russia's scarf…good god, who knew what would happen to him, good god!

It had barely been any time, however, before Tony was pattering back on his tiny gray feet with the scarf in tow. He handed it back to Alfred, who looked it over carefully. What did Tony just do? There was no damage, no dirt, no nothing on the scarf's surface, which was as perfect and untarnished as ever…

Oh.

The wine stain wasn't there anymore.

"How did you do that?" Alfred asked Tony, although he knew quite well that no illumination would be given. The past few dozen years of the alien's company had clearly shown that the small gray being was chock full of mysteries that would probably be a lot less effort to leave unexplained rather than pursue some answers from. True to expectations, Tony didn't say anything but blink unconcernedly up at Alfred before pointing towards the center of the house.

"…The garden?" interpreted Alfred as Tony's meaning. "Now? I don't know…then again, the meeting is at 12 now…and the courtyard does need to be weeded. And the weather's already this warm…we could start pre-planting things. I think there are some trays somewhere…" What was he hesitating for? Clearly his mind had already decided to do it. "…Well, okay then…just for a little bit. Lead the way…I guess."

A bit of gardening before the rest of the day started wasn't such a terrible idea, after all, even if he probably wouldn't be able to tell weed from dirt from brick wall about to be walked into. He could tone down a bit, collect himself before the meeting, after all that Waking-Up-and-Narrowly-Avoiding-Epilepsy-ing and Russia-Being-in-Russia-ing and the more recent What-the-Fuck-Was-He-Just-Doing-with-Russia's-Scarf-ing. Urgh. Yeah, a little weeding break was definitely a good idea. Something familiar and easy and reassuring. Yeah.

Following Tony out of the door, it was barely two seconds before he tripped over a very obvious coat rack, smashing his face against one of its pegs as he brought the whole thing, including himself, crashing to the floor.

God damn it. He couldn't see.

"Ugh, hold on, Tony," Alfred sighed, extremely frustrated now, "I've got to find some spare glasses or something. Also, this shit needs to stop immediately and never happen again, so there's one more phone call we're going to need to make here."


Navigation.

Alright. Doorway to meeting room was right over there. Just a few feet. Walk, now. He knew this building by heart, or at least he should. Hallway…hallway…doorway, doorway, doorway. Okay. Slowly now, pass through doorway…okay, he was inside.

Brandishing his hands out in front of him like some sort of diseased bird, Alfred carefully picked his way around the conference room, moving towards the large mass at its center that he assumed was the meeting table. His eyesight was bad. His eyesight was terrible. If he had a knife right now, he would stab it into his wrist with great justice. Although he would probably not be able to see where his wrist was and kill some poor bystanding dog or tree or senior citizen instead.

Yes, Alfred had managed to scrounge up a pair of age-old glasses from somewhere, one with gratuitously thick coke bottle lenses that may or may not have belonged to one of the first ten Presidents. Wearing them did indeed enable him to see more clearly, but they also provided him easy access to head-splitting nausea and pain, so he was trying to wear them only on an absolutely necessary basis. The basis right now, no matter how much unwanted contact his extremities were making against pieces of furniture and pieces of people, was not absolutely necessary. It just bruised. A lot.

"Shit, sorry, Japan," Alfred apologized after colliding with the shorter man. "I mean, if you are Japan – oof – sorry, Belgium – whoa – sorry about that, whoever you are!" ("…Alfred…it's me…Matt…")

Japan stopped with an "Ah – it is fine – are you alright, Ameri—" and a concerned face turned towards Alfred, who had already stumbled away before Japan could get the rest of his sentence out. ("Eff it – sorry, Spain!")

Finding his seat at the head of the conference table, Alfred groped around the back of it before easing himself down with a sigh. Only a little while longer would he have to put up with his inability to utilize his corneas. Hopefully Russia's high speed plane had already landed and he was on his way here.

"Alright there, Alfred? Where are your glasses?" Indistinct thick shapes were perched upon the upper half of the speaker's face. England.

"Hey, Arthur. Um, it's a long story – I'll have Texas back in a bit though, so no worries."

"Oh," said England airily, "Oh, that's fine then, that's good, what a relief, glad there's no problems here, glad everything's okay, because since that's out of the way I can stand here and ask you now why in blazes exactly did I wake up at three in the morning in a rubbish American bar with an unconscious, overly tanned woman passed out in the seat next to me and no you anywhere in sight?"

He looked quite livid. Alfred would have found this slightly cute had he been capable of seeing it properly (although England not being mad at him might have helped as well). "Ooh, yeah, that…um…damn, I'm really sorry, Arthur. I tried to – well, you wouldn't wake up – and then, well...damn it, I'm really, really sorry, Arthur, believe me!"

Sniffing at the apology, England went on, "Where did you go? And, pray tell me, why was today's meeting delayed by two hours? That phone call from some secretary or other, one of your people I suppose – that call to the hotel was a kick in the teeth, a right shock, mind you – after all government staff don't often get involved in our world meetings at all – if all of a sudden the administration is deciding to stick their noses in nation-only business, then at the very least they could provide accommodations for all us attending blokes rather than leave us to fend for ourselves, you know, I mean, really, the euro isn't going as strong as it once was nowadays and dipping into the treasury every month—"

"Seriously, I'm sorry about leaving you there, Arthur," Alfred cut in, stopping what was on the way of becoming a long and winding rant that, following England's regular pattern, would probably end up being some self-argument about the importance of preserving traditional elf culture.

England huffed. "So then, where were you? What was the huge, drastic emergency that was so urgent you had to abandon a poor English gentleman such as myself in an establishment filled with absolutely foul company?"

"Umm." Alfred hesitated, thinking of aliens and vodka and mysteriously waking up at home and/or in Russia. "There was – there was something I had to do," he said lamely. "Nothing important. Doesn't matter now."

England was frowning at him in a dubious way, but Alfred didn't see this because there was at that moment a small commotion at the door.

"—Eluosi," a resigned-sounding, slight figure – was it China? – was sighing, "Baituo, baituo, please, if you can controlling your people who are enter my country, it will be very helpful thing, so disrupting all the time—"

"—But how unreasonable of you, Yao," replied a voice that Alfred had very recently heard from the speaker function of his cellular phone. "You are as well aware as I that the individual actions of each and every one of my children cannot all be easily monitored."

"Laziness," China declared tiredly. "Past emperor have once say, Rongyi bu rongyi, hai dei— Where you going now? I'm not finish lecture yet!"

Russia was coming towards Alfred. "This is a topic that can be discussed when the meeting starts, dear Yao," he called over his shoulder to the door, where China stood shaking his head and saying to Belgium, "Aiya, always the impudence, impudence, with that one, ever since child ager."

Alfred took in the unclear sight of Russia as he approached. Scarfless, Russia looked strange. Diminished. It was like he had lost a large chunk of body mass – Russia hadn't been without his scarf since Alfred had known him, and Alfred found that he had associated Russia with Russia always wearing a scarf. Seeing him without it was like seeing him without a vital part of his person, such as an arm, or an eye, or buttocks. Apparently, many of the other nations shared this sentiment, as heads were turning in obvious incredulity as Russia passed them, taking in this stunning new development.

"Do you have it?" Russia asked immediately upon reaching a distance of four feet from him, without so much as a howdy-do.

Well, it was understandable. Alfred supposed he would let it slide. "Yeah, here," he said, opening his briefcase and rummaging in it before pulling out a malleable brown package.

"You have wrapped it?" observed Russia, surprised.

Alfred shrugged, muttering, "I mean…didn't want it to get dirty or anything, I guess." Quickly he added, "Can I have Texas? My glasses?" Finally, being able to see! Would reuniting with Texas be like suddenly being bathed in heavenly light? Would it be like one of those 24-hour allergy medication commercials where a blurred, low-quality bit of scenery suddenly became crisp and clear and you were like Oh what because you hadn't even noticed that the first image was that poor until after it had improved by so much?

"Oh – da, of course, allow me to…" Russia patted through his pockets and paused. "Ah."

That didn't sound good. The liberating images in his mind were dispersing.

" 'Ah'?" Alfred repeated warily. "What 'ah'? What's 'ah'? Russia…"

Russia looked at him, smiling in a sheepish sort of way. "Ah…dorogaya moya…I apologize, but it seems that I may have left your glasses in my home…"

"What?" gasped Alfred in horror, shooting up from his chair. No!

"I suppose, in my haste at being so pressed for time, and the exigency of the situation, I simply…forgot."

"How do you forget? How do you possibly forget? We must have gone over it at least ten times before you left for the plane, you were the one going scarf-scarf-scarf, don't forget the scarf – how do you forget to bring the glasses?" Good god, he was going to be blind forever! Never again to watch another comedy with extremely poor taste, never again to fumble the controller during a boss battle and have his last life blasted to bits by bone-flinging skeleton soldiers that weren't even strong! "You're forgetting the Alamo, Russia, which is exactly what you're not supposed to do!"

Russia was listening to him rage while unwrapping his scarf (pah, that dumb scarf that Alfred had gone through such pains to fold up and wrap carefully in brown paper to protect it from harm, for instance assaults by stainable liquids and/or mountain lions), and Alfred could almost swear the Russian was trying not to laugh. Oh, sweet merciful mother, don't tell him that Russia hadn't brought the glasses on purpose, just to see him suffer! The man knew he couldn't live without Texas, Alfred himself had stupidly admitted as much to Russia last night – and already he was extorting the information for everything it was worth while Alfred paid the price!

But then something in the Russian's face changed.

"…You cleaned it," he said. A statement, not a question.

Still stewing to himself, Alfred didn't absorb his words right away. "What?"

"The stain here—" Russia pointed to where the wine discoloration had been, "—is gone. You cleaned it."

"Uh, yeah, I guess. I mean, no – well, it was Tony who cleaned it, actually, I have no idea how he did though…don't tell me you're mad about it now? Should be damn grateful in my opinion, especially with forgetting my glasses and all the favors I pulled for you this morning, like, jeez—"

"Nyet," said Russia quietly. "Nyet, I am…I am grateful."

Alfred creased his eyebrows at him.

Russia folded the scarf into a smaller rectangle, slowly and meticulously, and draped it over an arm before speaking again. "…Would you like to come to my home, Amerika?"

About to reply, it was only after Alfred had opened his mouth that he realized he had absolutely no clue what the hell to say to that.

Russia watched him stand there with his mouth opening and closing like a suffocating trout. As Alfred reached his twelfth mouth-flap and still apparently was at a loss for words, Russia decided to explicate. "…Well, since you seemingly cannot cope with being parted from your spectacles as a result of your own patheticness…my intentions were to send them along by air post to you, but if you were to accompany me and recover them in person, you would be reunited far more quickly. Oh – it occurs to me now, there are also some documents my superior wished me to pass over to you – I am not quite finished with them yet, but I could complete them quickly and then you could collect them in turn, it would also be greater in convenience than sending them by mail… Unless, of course, you disagree?"

Alfred was still gaping at him. It was taking a while to process all this information – his brain had already been run decently ragged with all the hubbub that morning. Finally the rusting cogs in his brain gave a little mechanical groan and shut themselves down, and he found that yes, as a matter of fact, he had heard Russia correctly, and then he thought to himself I must be out of my goddamn mind, because his mouth flapped once more before it said, "U-um, no. I mean – uh – sure. Sure, I'll go."

They blinked at each other.

Russia broke the brief silence with a slightly rueful chuckle. "Did you know, Amerika – I should mention – it occurred to me this morning, as I was running out of the head office – I was admiring your uncharacteristic calmness during our little event, there, and then I thought – we work well together."

"…Yeesh," said Alfred, with a small grimace, but then again he sounded pretty rueful too. "Maybe. Let's not go crazy here. Let's say it's…situational." Russia chuckled again while Alfred made an affronted and grossed-out face. He didn't want to admit that the very same thought had gone through his head that morning too. It was true. They really did work well together. How bizarre.

"Ahem," said someone sharply.

That someone was standing very near the two of them, arms crossed over his chest and one leather-shoe-clad foot tapping irritably, the sound of the small impacts dulled and muted by the carpet. The person's abundant eyebrows had all but vanished into their fringe of blond hair, and he stood with the air of one who had been there for a good amount of time while being wholly ignored—

Oh wow, thought Alfred, feeling incredibly ashamed and mortified at himself. He'd forgotten all about England.

"What's up, Arthur?" he asked weakly, filled with self-loathing. Imagine, having these embarrassing kind of feelings for a person and then neglecting their very presence for the sake of some stupid Russian guy who didn't even bring Texas with him…way to go, Alfred F. Jones, chickenshit extrordinaire!

England's eyebrows were still steadily climbing on his forehead. His eyes, however, were unreadable. He seemed to be gathering his thoughts before speaking.

"What are you two discussing right now, I wonder?" he asked finally.

Almost hit by another bout of wordless mouth-flapping, Alfred was beaten to the punch by Russia, who cut in smoothly, "Nothing of importance to you, Mr. England, so there is no need to concern yourself."

If possible, England's eyebrows shot up even more. "Oh," he said, sounding very unconvinced. "Is that so? Well, sorry there, Russia, but I'm asking Alfred here, you see, and so—"

"Really, it's nothing important, Arthur."

"Alfred," England started to say, sounding taken aback.

Alfred glanced at his watch and yelped aloud. "Holy shit, we should have started already! Is everyone here? Is that France who just came in? I can't tell – it kind of vaguely sort of looks like his fly is down though, someone tell him please – seats, seats – Hey, good morning, guys," he called to all the occupants of the room as they rushed to join the table, and with a resigned sigh he fished the ancient backup glasses he was carrying from his breast pocket and put them on his face. "Welcome to day three in D.C.; looks like everyone made it here okay with the delay and all, sorry about that by the way, unforeseen circumstances and stuff like that, nothing major so don't worry about it! Alrighty, let's start off with talking about Greece's financial situation right now, he's in a tough spot – um, someone wake him up, please? Italy, grab that pen and poke him? No, not you, Romano, I mean your brother – you might kill him by accident, Tomato Boy, you're crazy, haha – no, I was kidding, I was kidding, seriously – Spain, heeelp!"

Rather preoccupied with diving out of his seat and barrel rolling across the carpeted floor to avoid a deadly flying pen onslaught via South Italy, Alfred failed to notice Russia, who was not paying any attention to Alfred being in serious danger of losing his life at all and was instead gazing at his newly cleaned scarf and running his fingers over and over it again, nor did he catch the highly troubled gaze that was being fixed upon both of them by a brooding England.


"—away battling large dinosaurs in New York City or rescuing hot girls from helicopters right now, so leave a message after the beep! If you happen to be a hot girl who needs to be saved from a helicopter, or someone being assaulted by a large dinosaur in New York City, press the pound sign for—uh hey, does that noise mean the tape's running out, I think I just hea—"

The recorded message was cut off with a digital beep, and Arthur Kirkland stared at his phone. During the entirety of America's rather stupid-sounding and overly long answering machine response he had been unable to think of what he would say when it ended, and now it had ended, and he still hadn't a clue.

Arthur switched the leg he was crossing from the right one to the left, straightening his back against the uncomfortable and very shiny plastic airport seat. A young lad of about six went charging down the row of seats holding a model Boeing airliner bought from one of the duty-free shops aloft, roaring like a madman, and knocked Arthur's carry-on suitcase sideways to the ground. The boy's harassed-looking mother came hurrying along behind him, pausing to upright Arthur's fallen suitcase and apologizing profusely to everyone else waiting in the boarding area (many of whom were shooting the little tyke murderous glares over the top of their newspapers) before scuttling after her son. Oh, the woes of economy class traveling…but it would be too extravagant to borrow from the national coffers for first class when the Prime Minister or the royal family wasn't even involved, especially with times as they were…

America's answering machine, apparently tired of waiting for him to say something, clicked faintly before redirecting his cell phone to a single dull tone; reportedly, the call session had been terminated. Arthur let the phone fall to his lap and stared out of the massive airport windows at a plane that was just pulling up to the building.

He had a lot to think about.

Last night…

Last night he had invited America to go drinking with him, because Arthur had wanted to find some evidence – any evidence – that what he feared was not true. But he had been a fool, he had drank too much, succumbing to the alcohol and thus did not make much headway with his extremely cunning and brilliant plan.

Still, America had been rather… forthcoming…with Russia, hadn't he? Despite all of his past whinging and carrying on about how much he disliked him. He certainly had not seemed all that troubled by the fact that Russia had followed them to the bar of their choosing. During those first few drinks, America seemed to have been keeping a close eye on the Russian as well. And the rapidity with which America waved off all of Arthur's questions, as if he had something to hide…

Then Arthur had been lost to the world for some time before waking up with an inhumanly busty woman with skin the color of Indian curry practically sprawled over him bearing the signs of having been recently ill, and there had been a dreadful throbbing in the back of his brain, and that prat America had not been anywhere in the vicinity, at all. And the same had held true for Russia.

Where had they gone?

Arthur had been in no fit state to go adventuring around the capital questing for them (honestly, the only reason he could get by now was credited to the seventeen overdoses of painkilling medication he had downed a few hours prior), and had somehow made his way back to the hotel to collapse exhaustedly into bed, dreading the early meeting the next day and plotting out the many ways he was going to beat America about the head for leaving him there. But then somewhere around seven in the morning some official had called his hotel room informing him that the meeting had been pushed back by two hours due to "certain events" and then at the meeting America had been remarkably shifty and then he and Russia were going on about how they made a "good team", not to mention they were exchanging scarves or glasses or balderdash or something for some reason…and Russia had invited America to his country to pick up some "papers", which he had mentioned in an aside to gaining back America's glasses, apparently…

Quite curious, indeed.

And, with a few phone calls to certain people, Arthur had discovered that the United States government had been in quite a tizzy that morning, and had given clearance for a Russian military jet to land within the capital's borders.

It…it couldn't really…

Arthur had dialed America's home number once again without even realizing it. As he held the phone to his ear, listening to that absurd answering machine message once more, he thought dully to himself that he still did not know what to say.

"—City, press the pound sign for—uh hey, does that noise mean the tape's running out, I think I just hea—"

The beep sounded, a short and high-pitched note, and Arthur thought perhaps he'd best just hang up, he would not be able to think of anything anyway, because he still did not know what to think…

"…Alfred," he said, finally, softly, "…Please. I don't want to be led to believe…just… Please.

"…It's dangerous."

His thumb found the button and he ended the call.

A sudden familiar voice made him jump. "C'est dangereux, Arthur? Pourquoi? What could be provoking such frightening warnings?"

France had settled into the seat next to him, and Arthur shot him a tired glare. "What are you doing here?"

"We share a flight, ma fleur, isn't it wonderful? But back to the matter at hand – I don't suppose you have just been sending some cautionary words sailing in the direction of young Alfred, now?"

Arthur exhaled and turned to look at France full in the face. Despite the man's ornate tone and airs, his face was serious. "…You noticed?"

"Of course. C'etait pas possible, je pense, that there was any individual who was not sneaking at least a bit of a peek over at our dear garçon Amerique's little chat with that man, not after he came dancing dans the room without that ridiculous scarf of his," France said, examining his nails.

"…What do you make of it?"

France fanned his fingers out and made a sweeping motion away from his body, as if ridding himself of some invisible cloud of dust. "Moi? What do I make of it – I make of it that it is not any of my business. I make of it that mon mignon Alfred has lived through enough anniversaires that he knows his boundaries, and besides, this is Alfred, now. What, dear Arthur, do you make of it?"

The plane had docked and was now being relieved of its passengers. Watching the sleepy-looking travelers file by, Arthur relied, "I – I agree. It's not our business. Alfred wouldn't— Alfred…Alfred wouldn't."

"But you don't believe that at all, do you, cher?" France said quietly.

Arthur said nothing.

"Whatever tu voudrais, Arthur. Do whatever you feel you must. I have already cautioned the boy, and you may feel free to consult with me, but that is all the part I will take here. The rest is yours."

Arthur stared at the cell phone he was holding, as if wondering if it was really there.

"…This is nonsense. Of course…of course it's nothing like that. But – but maybe – for Alfred's sake, mind – for his sake…"

France shook his head, as if to say, Whatever you like, and Arthur, feeling strengthened, raised his phone.

"Perhaps…just a call or two to some of the other countries. Just – just to gauge their opinions. So we can…I mean, this is all for Alfred's sake, of course. For his protection. We don't want him to be…mind you, it's for the best. For – for his best, I mean. His best."

"C'est your own decision, Arthur," said France, sounding perfectly indifferent to whatever may be, but his face as he turned away to watch a mother snatch a model plane away from her misbehaving son and lecture him over his growing wails did not look as if he were very comfortable with the situation at all.