Author's Note: This is not the last chapter. Originally it was meant to be, yes, but considering how long it was getting and how everyone was patiently waiting, I've broken it up. This chapter ends at the start of the final scene instead. I hope to have that scene all finished and written up within the next month.

Thank you very, very much to everyone who has stuck around to read this. I cannot apologize enough with how slow I've gotten these final few chapters out, and it means a lot to me to know that there are people who still read it.



At first the tap tap tap at the window startled America. It crawled under his skin and curled around his nerves, cold and damp and unshakable. His eyes snapped open, frozen in a petrified stare, seeing nothing but the black of the sheets he was hidden beneath. His fingers twitched and gripped, grabbing handfuls of bedspread as he listened.

It was halfway between intentionally rhythmic and a natural noise without a beat, nearly lost beneath the sound of the wind outside, howling as it squeezed through too-small places. But there the tapping was, ready to return when the sounds outside died down. It itched and clawed, dragged itself across the pane of the glass and spoke to America.

It spoke to the fear in him, replayed all the images he'd watched through the day. He thought of decayed skin, fleshless fingers and it made his entire body quiver with unpleasant anticipation. He counted the seconds in his head, got them mixed up with his rapid fire heartbeat.

It was there, in his blood and ears and at the window, and then it wasn't. America had started counting on his fingers, like a child. Five minutes, he promised himself. If it doesn't go away in five minutes, I'll get up. He kept starting over, losing his place, then chastising himself. By the time he pulled it together there was simply nothing more to listen to than his churning insides and the wind.

A tree, America figured. Nothing more than the scratch of branches. His imagination was running wild with him these days, and his movie marathon hadn't helped. He slowly inched the covers off as he steeled his nerves, ready to pull them back up in case the noise should start again.

He eased out of bed, bare toes curling against the hardwood floor when they touched down. He crept as quietly as a mouse to the door, cringing as the knob groaned and squeaked under his hand.

The hallway was dark and empty, the floorboards groaning under America's steps. He stumbled onwards, one hand on the wall for guidance, the other in front of him feeling for obstacles. He edged along, making his way towards England's room.

He knocked lightly on the door when he reached it, holding his breath as he pressed his ear against it, listening for a response. Nothing. He tried a second time, and when he found again that there was no response, he quietly opened the door.

The scent that hit him when he peeked inside was stuffy and hot, like it'd been breathed too many times. There was a sickly, underlying stench, like old, molded bread and yeasty smell of beer. America suppressed a gag as he entered the room.

"England?" he whispered. "You awake in here?"

"I am now," came England's muffled reply.

"Uh, okay. Good, I guess. Do you mind if I come in for a sec?"

"You shouldn't have watched all those movies."

"This has nothing to do with movies," America said.

"If you say so."

America shut the door behind him and shuffled toward the sound of England's voice, squinting against the darkness in the hope that he'd be able to make out where he was going. His feet tangled on soft lumps as he went. Clothes, he assumed. And there was the occasion crinkle of a food wrapper underfoot.

He crawled into England's bed without a word, weaseling his way beneath a single sheet on the bed. The mattress was bare beneath his skin. America could feel the quilted pattern of it, polyester scratching at his skin. England drew the sheet to him, hugged it close to his body as he scooted away to make room for America.

"Is there a tree outside my window?" America asked.

"Bleeding hell," England mumbled. "You woke me up to ask about trees?"

"Well, no. Not exactly but─"

"America, do you want to sleep in here tonight?" England's voice was gruff, bleary with exhaustion and edged with annoyance. He was skipping the games, going straight for the jugular.

"Kinda, yeah."

"Then go to sleep."

America nodded in the darkness, staying silent for fear of putting England in an even worse mood. He tried not to think of when he was little, when England would tuck him in tight and talk him through his fears, promise there was no boogeyman under the bed, check three times to be sure of it.

England had seemed so big back then. Larger than life. A man that had walked from the pages of a children's book of tales. He'd been the gallant knight and the ruffian pirate. He'd lived all walks of life and had gained knowledge from them all, knew each answer to America's questions. He was a wise man with all the courage of a lion and the quick wit of a fox.

But he'd become someone else. A man with a temper and no patience for trifling matters. He was bold, curt, and yet somehow reserved. His emotions seemed locked away now, like an embarrassment, a shame he couldn't bear. The gentility America remembered from his childhood was gone.

Even now England was edging away. Each inch America made was another inch that pushed England further from him. He tried to be sneaky about it, roll slow as a snail, quiet and unobtrusive, yet England appeared to be all too aware of the movements. He was less subtle about his own, huffing and puffing, grunting as he scooched across the bed.

America gave up on getting any closer when England had reached the end of his side. There was no use in kicking England out of his own bed, he'd only stay in his mood all that much longer. His default tended to be grumpy anyway, and America had no desire to kick it up a notch.

Instead, he lay quietly under the sheet, wondering if he was imagining how it was slowly being taken from him, stolen inch by inch. America curled up on his side, eyes burning holes into the back of England's head. He was definitely, most assuredly, being a cover-hog.

A warm embarrassment settled in America's chest, thick and cloying and overwhelming his thoughts. Here he was, a grown man hiding out in the bed of the person who had raised him, somehow surprised by the fact that he wasn't being coddled as he had been when he was a child. He wrestled with the fact that England had no interest in sharing his bed. He wanted his single flimsy sheet and his dirty mattress all to himself, and America was not part of the picture.

There was a ghost in America that wanted to get out of the house. That wanted to leave his body and mind and do nothing but dissipate, fade away into a nothingness that had no worries or problems. But he was stuck in this uncomfortable bed in this uncomfortable house with a man who had a talent for making him uncomfortable. America's discomfort seemed to have found itself in an unholy kind of trifecta that there was no escape from.

America did his best to sate the ghost by rolling out of bed, feet thumping softly on the floor as he left the room. His fear had been lessened by embarrassment, muted and watered down by England's silent rejection. Not that he was about to go to sleep in his own room, though. Maybe, when the morning came, he'd solve the mystery of the tree branch. Until then he was crashing on the couch.

He doubled back to his room to snag the covers from his bed, dragging them through the hallway and into the living room. He flung them across the couch, creating a rumpled nest of covers he could hide under. He eased beneath them with a sigh, kicked out with his legs and curled his toes, buried himself as deep as he could. The cushions he fashioned into makeshift pillows.

America shut his eyes, but sleep refused to come. Instead thoughts of England ran through his mind. He thought of how insistent he was that America stay with him. That soft, mad glow in his eyes. How overbearing he was, all the time distancing himself. It drove America crazy in the most terrible of ways.

Gritting his teeth, America set to counting sheep again. He'd do well up until about fifteen or so, and once even got to twenty-four, but without fail his mind would stray, the gentle sheep morphing into his worries. He worried about what he was supposed to do, what tomorrow would bring. When would he see Russia again? How could he see Russia again?

He yearned to go back to a simple life where he made his own decisions, planned his own life and slept in his own bed in his own apartment and played God to a measly ant farm. Someone else was probably living there now, in that place he'd called home. He hoped they were nice people with nice lives.

Faintly, America registered the sound of someone moving about. He burrowed deeper into the covers, eyelids heavy while his mind still worked. A weak light trickled out of the kitchen, and America he heard the beeping and whirring of the microwave.

The lights turned back off just as his eyes were getting used to them, and there was the steady noise of footsteps approaching the couch. A hand found its way next to America's head, not touching it, but there. Like it could move at any second, give America's hair an affectionate ruffle or pat his head, but it had the self control to abstain. England cleared his throat.

"You still awake, boy?" he asked.

"Don't you know it," America said, stifling a yawn.

"I brought you something to help you sleep," England said.

The hand by America's head moved, found his wrist for the briefest of seconds and gripped. The touch was cool and impersonal, almost clammy. A gesture done out of force. His wrist was held up and a glass was pushed into his hand. America sat up and gripped it, England's hands falling away when he did.

He lifted the glass to his mouth and sipped. It was filled with warmed milk. It brought back faint memories of being a child, of waking from nightmares to find England already at his bedside. And like in his childhood, the milk had a strange undercurrent, a slightly burnt note hidden beneath it that made America think of oak trees. As a child he'd chalked it up to England's unusual talents in the kitchen, but now he knew exactly what it what.

"Did you put whiskey in this?" America said.

"Only a touch. It always settled you down as a boy."

America's lips pressed together, set into a thin pale line. It was so like England to pull this sort of thing, decide he knew what was best for America without consulting with him. He called the shots and wouldn't be questioned. Not like Russia, who'd hand America a bottle of vodka and tell him to gab his heart out. He wouldn't edge away in bed and act like America was pestering him.

"Well, uh, thanks," America said as he took another sip.

He listened as England fussed about in the dark, his nails clicking and scraping against a table near the end of the couch. There was a soft static and buzz as a radio was turned on, the volume too low, then too loud, then too low again before finding a balance. A steady voice began to drone about weather and shipping routes.

"I didn't mean to get so cross with you earlier," England said, and it was the closest thing America had heard to a genuine apology from him in years.

"S'cool, it happens."

"It does," England said with a sigh, turning the radio up. "Now you get some sleep, lad. We have much to do tomorrow." And as he walked again, footsteps light and nearly soundless, he stopped to add, "And there's no tree outside your window."

The buttery-yellow light of the early afternoon sun woke America. There was a bad taste in his mouth, morning breath and mucus combined. His hair stood sideways when he went to run a hand through it, and his glasses had fallen off while he slept.

He migrated in a great thump to the floor, hands blindly patting the ground. The sound of the voices on the radio was gone, instead replaced by the clang and clatter of pots and pans, the rousing smell of food and the sudden, high shriek of the smoke alarm.

America found his glasses hiding beneath the couch, taking a moment to polish them off before putting them back on his face. There was a laziness in his bones that made his body leaden, made the floor so much more comfortable than it should have been. He took a moment to let his consciousness flutter in and out of sleep, barely kept awake by England's cursing as he battled with the smoke detector.

As the continued screams of the detector went on and England fought a losing battle, America finally forced himself to his feet. He trudged along to the kitchen, feet dragging along the floor, one hand slipping up under his shirt to scratch at his belly. He tottered into the kitchen with a sleepy wave.

"G'morning," he said around a yawn.

England was standing on a stool, hands held high over his head as he fiddled with the smoke detector. There was the smell of charred toast and melting plastic, and flames danced on burners covered with frying pans. As England continued to go at the detector, America went to the stove, turned everything off and plucked the burnt bread from the toaster.

He grabbed a plate and spooned rubbery eggs onto it. He found some fresh bread and buttered it. The tea he passed on. The alarm stopped as America took his seat, England grumbling triumphantly under his breath as he held before him a pair of batteries, as though they were dog tags ripped from around an enemy's neck.

America dug into his food with an unreserved gusto. It wasn't the best he'd ever had, wasn't anything like McDonald's or the food Russia could cook up, but it was something. He took to eating more quickly as England settled himself, putting away the stool and smoothing down his blotched apron.

When England sat across from him, America took to staring at the table. He looked over the design of the tablecloth, made out faces and animals in the repeating pattern. He took in only snapshots of the newspaper that was spread on the table, glancing over words like 'military' and 'upheaval' without much interest. It wasn't worth getting worked up over. At least not around England.

He did notice the puppies and the kittens though, the highlighted streaks under their names. They were newspaper clippings, carefully cut and arranged. America leaned in to look at their cute, fluffy little faces. One was named Duke; he was lonely and scared and wanted a forever home. Then there was Daisy, who was found in a dumpster with her siblings, friendly as anything.

"Pick out which you'd like best," England said.

America looked up at him, gnawing on the tines of his fork. "What d'ya mean?"

"One of the animals. They're all up for adoption. I know you and your animals, always needing something to take care of."

A flush of anger swept up America's neck. Look who's talking, he was tempted to answer, but he bit his tongue. He picked up the clippings one at a time, letting himself get lost in those dark, doleful eyes and found himself taking in their stories, his heart curdling and crying at some of their tales.

He found he especially liked a dog named Rupert, seven years old and still full of life. One eye was clouded with glaucoma, his left leg withered and odd. There was a chunk missing from one ear and his lips pulled back in an unmistakable grin. He was a soldier, a fighter, struggled on past all the tiny Chihuahuas and sweet-faced cats to sit himself in front of America.

"I kinda like him," America said, pushing the clip over to England.

"I thought you might. I'll take you to see him at the shelter today after we get you some new clothes."

America's teeth pulled at his lower lip as the reality seeped into his thoughts. New clothes, a dog. Those things were tethers, reasons for him to stay. They were tangible guilt trips that could be held up when he left. Why let England buy him clothes if he didn't plan on sticking around long enough to wear them? Why adopt a dog he'd abandon in a day or two?

"I don't really wanna do much today, y'know? I'm kinda tuckered out with jet lag and all," America said, the tiredness in his voice no act at all.

"That's fine," England said, his smile small and conniving, barely hidden behind his cup of tea. "I'll pick him up for you."

"I─ Look, that's a cool offer. Really, it is, but getting a pet is a big decision, don't you think? I mean, what if I have to book it for some reason? I don't want to end up dumping some dog off with you."

"His name is Rupert, America. He is not 'some dog.'"

"Right, right. Rupert. I don't want to dump Rupert on you and have that hanging over your head."

"You needn't worry about that in the slightest," England said airily. "You won't be going anywhere."

"You can't just say that, England. I know it's been awhile since we chilled and all, but have you ever thought that maybe I have a life I need to attend to? I can't put things on hold for the sake of making you happy."

Before the words were out of his mouth America regretted them. England was big on tact, on hiding behind fancy, inoffensive words that meant diddly-squat. But one wrong step and the claws came out. The gentlemanly facade melted away, exposing the bitter person beneath who had all the cruel words in the world at his disposal.

"You're acting like a child," was England's first, and most familiar, blow.

"Great, let's start with that again. Here, how about I get it all out of the way? You call me childish, I call you controlling, you say something about it being for my own good or whatever. Then we have a shouting match and you pretend I don't exist for a few hours."

England's face turned a ruddy, sickly hue reminiscent of ham.

"Do you think you're clever, lad?" he hissed.

"No. But I do think I don't want to go through all of this. It doesn't get us anywhere. Because I'm not a kid, I'm not childish. I don't think you get that."

"You never listen to me─"

"No, I don't really do that anymore," America cut in.

"Children don't listen," England returned, teeth gritted and eyes narrowed.

"Children listen. That's all they do. They get up when you tell them to, sit at a desk for eight hours a day, take notes when the teachers says so and go to lunch when the bell tells them to. When do they go to sleep? You guessed it, when they're told to. That's all children do, listen and get bossed around and don't think for themselves.

"I'm tired of listening to other people, England. I don't need to be babied or told what to do. I'm old enough to manage on my own without anyone else making sure I wear clean underwear every day and brush my teeth. You need to just─ just let me be me, okay? And maybe 'me' can't stick around long."

"Is that what this is?" England said, rough and nasty. "Your way of saying you're leaving? That's so very like you, waltzing in only to skip right out."

"No, it's not like that at all. Sometimes people have to leave. Like, remember when I was little? You would visit only to be back on the boat a day or two later. And you had to leave. You had to do your thing, and even if that meant leaving me behind, that didn't stop you. Have you ever thought I need to leave?"

"Right. I see. This is a revenge thing of yours. You're leaving me because I had to leave you."

"Oh my God," America sighed, burying his hands in your face. "You are missing the point. Like, the point is here─" He slapped his hand against the table. "─and you are all the way in China or something. That's how frickin' far you are from my point."

England sniffed, his index finger tracing around the rim of his teacup. "Travel is so fast these days," he mused. "You can get on a plane and nip to another country and back in an hour or two. Not like how it used to be, with the weeks and weeks of sailing."

America nodded absently. There was a point hidden somewhere in England's words, a suggestion carefully woven in, but it wasn't hitting home with him.

"How about this," England said. "You go do your little thing, and come right back here. That's not too much to ask, is it? I would've come back to you in a heartbeat if I could."

"It's kind of an extensive something that I need to do," America said. "Let's leave it at that."

"So about Rupert─"

"I told you already, no dog. A dog is something I gotta stick around to take care of."

England didn't argue. He didn't frown or curse or scowl. The bubble of anger that had crept into his eyes simmered and died off. He took on the serene expression he always did when he was struck by a sudden, genius moment. It was a look America had come to dread.

"I'm getting Rupert," England said sternly. "You can stay here or come with, but either way I'm getting your dog."

America spent the day haunting England. It was a necessary evil. This was war now, a battle of the wits. England was dead set on America staying, willing to manipulate and pull the strings to make things work his way. The thought of staying any longer than he already had made America's heart hurt in all the wrong ways.

He could already envision their daily bickering, the mind games and the constant struggle for power between the two of them. England would tell him when to wake, how to comb his hair and carry on during the day. If America tried to fight back by saying he was a grown man, England would be quick to bring up the fact that he was living under England's house and had to follow his rules.

The dog was what would keep him from leaving. It was an anchor to keep America there.

At first America debated going along for the ride, feigning resignation until they got in the car. That was when he'd mention that, gosh, he did want some clothes. He'd take his time in the store, try on all sorts of things and lollygag. In the end he'd shrug his shoulders and sigh, claim that nothing fit right and they'd have to try again tomorrow. Maybe by then the shelter would be closed.

But England was smarter than that. Knowing someone for two hundred years taught you their tricks, and England knew all of America's. He'd see through it all and zip straight to the shelter. It was a pretty lose-lose situation, no matter how much America tried to mentally finagle it.

So instead he watched England's every movement, hawk-eyed and paranoid. When England looked at his shoes, America tensed. When England happened to glance at the keys to his car, America's heart slithered up his throat. Each moment was a concentrated practice in not losing his cool. Being a monstrous brat to keep England from bringing home the dog would only make him more childish in England's eyes.

But it was hard to keep tabs on England. It was hard to stay calm. It was hard to keep Russia from overwhelming his thoughts. They said you didn't know what you had it until it was gone, and America found that to be growing truer and truer as the day passed.

He missed how Russia would come up behind him, place kisses on the back of his head and nuzzle against his hair. He missed the sweet words that always came in soft whispers, the gentle touches the skimmed his side and skin. Most of all, he missed Russia himself.

There was a part of him filled with a cold, righteous anger. A part that wanted to wrap its fingers around Russia's throat and squeeze. It was the part that had slept, so deeply and soundly that it had slipped America's mind. Now it was stirring, groggy and weak but there, no longer smothered by Russia's constant, kind affections.

Like a spear in the side of the dragon, the headlines had woken it. Russia wasn't as innocent as he had seemed, hadn't been as perfect as he appeared. And America had been the one to play into it. He'd wanted to trust so badly, to think that Russia wanted him, him. Not his country, not what he represented.

That was all it ever boiled down to. Land and power and politics with a side of money thrown in.

Through it all, America wondered if things hadn't gone according to plan. If it was all a ploy for control on Russia's behalf, would he have been so gentle throughout? What had stopped Russia from using force, from taking his pipe to America and making him to sign his life away?

It was all too much for America to process, and for once when England offered, America accepted a cup of tea to steady his nerves.

America made it until two in the afternoon before England announced he was leaving, with or without America. He twirled his keys around one finger, smile small and cunning. There was a muted madness in his eyes America couldn't bring himself to look at. On the outside England looked better, all freshly pressed clothes and sleek shoes.

The wrongness was in the way he carried himself, in how his shoulders hunched and the edgy glances. It was in the mess of his house, the single sheet of his bed and the stale, musty smell of the rooms. Most of all, it was in the way he was as adamant about keeping America in his sights and America was about keeping an eye on him.

When America found he had to leave the room, England would inevitably drift in only a minute later, and their eyes met too many times for England's glances to be coincidental. He was so insistent, so dead set that America stay with him. So when America watched England open the door and tip his head, a plan struck him.

"You better not leave," America warned.

"I'll only be a bit, America, surely you can handle yourself long enough─"

"I'll blow this joint if you ditch."

England paused in the doorway. "Beg pardon?"

"Go on, get the dog if you really want it," America said. "But if you leave I'm not going to be here by the time you get back."

"Think you're clever, lad?"

"Only when I gotta be."

"Well I'm sure Canada won't mind visiting for a few hours while I'm out," England said, closing the door. His smile turned stiff and disingenuous, something akin to a grimace.

"I've decided Canada and I aren't really on speaking terms."

"That's nice, you can tell him that yourself when he comes over. He does miss you so very, very much. And he deserves to see you more often, don't you think? He'd been so good after all, letting me know when you popped up. I was beginning to think you'd slip right out of my hands."

America mirrored England's false smile, watching as he went for the phone and dialed. He only half-heard the conversation as he worried his lower lip between his teeth. Why was it so hard for him to leave? Why did he feel so bound by England's insistence that he stayed?

He was a grown man. He could leave any damn time he pleased. There was no physical barrier keeping him within the house. Sure he had no money, no place to stay, but he could manage something. It wasn't like how it'd been with Russia. There wasn't the fear of freezing in the night to stop him, the knowledge that the closest town was hours away.

What was he supposed to do when he left? Returning to Russia jumped to the front of his mind, but shied away as the thought of being free cropped up as well. He could ditch now, walk right out the door and do his own thing. Somehow he'd manage to get back to America, back to what America had become.

He could never return to the America that was, the one he'd left. The notion sent a cold pang through his blood, shivered in his bones. The land and the people remained, but the United States of America didn't. America ran his hands through his hair, shook his head softly as he tried to clear his mind. He couldn't even begin to reconcile the Russia he'd come to know as one who would change him at his very core.

But Russia had done that, hadn't he? Taken America from his home, from his cushy, careless lifestyle and thrown him into a house in the middle of a white wasteland. And somehow America had grown fond of it, had come to call it his home. He'd stopped thinking about how he got there, the fear and the anger that he'd suffered in the beginning.

He wondered how he'd ever worked past that, how he'd come to love Russia and forget what he'd done.

"England," America said with a weary voice, "have you ever─ have you ever had something really bad happen to you, and you mean to tell someone, heck, you want to tell someone, but you never get around to it? And then by the time you can tell them, it's like, not such a big deal anymore for some reason?"

"Can't you see I'm on the phone?" England snapped, putting a hand over the receiver.

"But I need to tell you─"

"Quiet down," England hissed before he turned his back on America. "Oh, don't you worry, Canada. You know your brother, always interrupting. Now what was it you were saying?"

America stared at England's back, any kind of desire to spill the truth fading away. Why had he thought England would understand to begin with? He'd probably find some way to pin it on America, say it was his fault in the first place for being out alone at night, or that he should have tried harder to escape. Most of all, he'd use it as proof that America wasn't old enough or mature enough to handle himself, that he still needed to be babied and watched over.

"Your brother says he'll stop by to visit tomorrow," England said when he hung up the phone. "He seemed surprised that you were still around. You wouldn't happen to know what that's about, would you?"

"Can't say I do," America said.

"If you say so," England said, hardly convinced. "Now what was it you wanted to speak with me about?"

"Oh, uh. I forgot," America said weakly. "I'm sure I'll remember later or something."

England cleared his throat, his posture rigid, frozen as he looked America over. There was something soft in his eyes, concerned and caring. It failed to translate to his face, to ease the thin line of his lips and the harsh furrow of his brows. When he stepped closer, it was stilted and short.

"I don't know why you've done this, or what's happened to you," England said. "But if you ever want to tell me, I'll listen. And I'm sure it hasn't been fun for you, and that we all make mistakes. I'm piss at all those fancy words that make people feel better, but I can try."

America stared on. Was England comforting him? Or at least trying to? Maybe this was supposed to be a moment between him and England, where the walls finally came down and they became equals. He'd spill the beans to England and somehow things would resolve themselves, neat and packaged like in a thirty minute sitcom episode.

"I won't be cross with you," England said, and that was when America closed up.

He'd heard those words so many times through the years. They were in his first memories, found themselves etched into conversations in times of peace to periods of war. Those were the words England told him when he wanted the truth, and was willing to coax it from America with false promises.

When America was still small and received word that England was returning, he'd tried to make tea. England always liked tea. But his favorite tea set was so very high upon the shelves on the cabinet that held it, and even with a chair America's limbs had barely brushed it. He'd leapt, once, and tried to grab. His arm went sweeping across the shelf and toppled the seat to the floor, and his heart seized as he heard it explode into a shatter of glass.

He'd held a funeral in the garden for it and prayed England wouldn't notice.

But England did, and when America feigned ignorance, he'd said those words. America fessed up, and England was more than 'cross.'

America fell for the same trick again and again until he was older, believing each time that England meant what he said. But then he wizened up, learned to keep his mouth shut or simply fib. And while he still bought into it from time to time, when England's voice was particularly kind, or his expression soft, America wouldn't be caught this time.

"There's nothing to tell," America said.

"There's always a story, lad," England said, taking a step closer. His arms moved at his sides, spread slightly as though he were welcoming America, ready to hug him.

America dodged to the left, giving England a wide berth. "I think I'm just gonna hang in my room," he said.

"You did that all day yesterday."

"No, I listened to you rag on me and did gardening yesterday. And I watched movies. Today, I'm only going to do the latter."

"Really, I don't know what to do with you sometimes," England sighed. "And don't think you can hole yourself up in your room all day, I didn't bring you here so you could hide from me."

"Well why am I here?" America asked as he paused. "Is there something you want from me? What do you want me to do? 'Cause we're doing nothing but wasting time now, England."

"Is that how you think of it then, America? Are you too big and tough, too much of a man to spend time with me anymore? Or is there someone else you're pining to run back to?"

America went numb.

"Is that it? All this talk about needing to go home, needing return to your work. Why now, America? You haven't been at your apartment in ages. We've been looking after it for you, you know. We never could figure out why you left your wallet. Maybe you thought you could start a new life with someone, get away from all this, but you can't. And it's too late to go back to how it was, America. It'll never be the same."

"Can you stop?" America asked. "If I'm stuck here, I'm going to relax, okay?"

"Relax all you want, America, but you've made your bed and you'll be sleeping in it sooner than later."

America rolled his eyes and made for his room, his pulse thumping away in his left ear. He hadn't even touched his bed, Russia was the one who made it. He changed the sheets and pillow cases and made it nice and comfy for America. Not that he'd bothered to ever mention it.

But England hadn't been entirely wrong. Things couldn't go back to how they were. Ever. There was no reset button to put things back. The United States of America was no more. It was a name on maps and in text books, fresh in the minds of those who had lived there. But that was all it was, a memory.

America flopped down in his bed once he reached his room, a boneless mass that bounced against the mattress. He didn't turn on the TV, or look out the window, or do much of anything. He instead stewed in his thoughts, had conversations that would never happen, where he was the smart one who knew what to do, and others looked up to him. He would be in control.

He wasn't though, and that was the problem. After centuries of staying on top of it all, poring over each newspaper headline and memo sent his way, he'd fallen out of the loop. He existed in another space now, where there was no freedom, but also no responsibility.

Only a small group of people held him accountable, people that shouldn't have existed. People like him, who were secret things that weren't spoken of, even by those who knew of them. The president and his aid, the occasional intern, none of them held him accountable.

America wasn't even sure how much power he truly held as a person. He wasn't sworn to any codes, hadn't taken any oaths with one hand on his heart and the other on a bible. He had input, attended meetings and made powerpoint presentations. How much of it mattered though, how much clout did he have? Most of the time he viewed himself as nothing more than a figurehead, a person who went through the motions but never accomplished anything.

Sure he'd signed on the dotted line for Russia, given his John Hancock a go without bothering to read the fine print. But how did that change things? He was only one person, and the same went for Russia. Their governments were the ones in control, the ones with the final word.

Maybe Russia had only done what he had to, worked his hardest to make things easier for America. Sure he could've mentioned it, given America a heads up, but that was easier said than done. There was no simple way to let someone know that, technically, they didn't exist anymore. And seeing as to how their relationship was still fragile and fresh, it only made sense that Russia would keep in on the down low.

America huffed and buried his face in his pillow. Everything was so up in the air, out of place. It made America's blood run hot, then turn ice cold, alternating between the two as his emotions tumbled together. One thing was for sure, he had to get out of here.

If it meant sleeping on park benches and using his charm for change, then so be it. He wasn't sticking around for any more of England's nonsense, his cut throat insults, words, and no nonsense criticisms. America wouldn't be around when Canada stopped by to babysit him, didn't want to look his brother in the eyes and ask why he'd called England.

The jury was still out on whether he wanted to go back to Russia. America missed him with a feverish intensity, something akin to an addict going cold turkey. And yet he could think more clearly without Russia around, without those big hands on his waist and those soft lips at his ear.

People change, America told himself.

England went from caring and kind to distant. Canada had gone from a brother to nothing more than a man willing to turn him in. Russia was the biggest change. He'd gone from the villain in America's nightmares, the one he was conditioned to distrust and loathe, to someone America wanted to map out with his hands, taste with his lips, and love with his heart.

A thought sprouted in America's mind, small and quiet but there. Had he changed too? Why would he be immune to it? There had been a time when he was close to Canada, strove for England's respect. He'd loved hiking and flying kites and being outdoors, soaking up the sun and hiking along dusty trails.

He couldn't recall the last time he'd done any of those things. Now all he thought about was Russia. Spending time with Russia, curled around his body in bed, fingers threaded together, legs dovetailed. Sitting with Russia as he worked, pen scribbling away as America sat beside him, ever the faithful dog. It was a little sickening to realize it.

How had he reached this point? When had to gone to nothing more than a captive, someone who constantly thought of escape, to nothing more than a kept pet, happy to be doted on and cared for.

Russia played on all of America's insecurities. He knew what words would tame him, kind whispers in the middle of the night, a sudden compliment dropped in the middle of a meal. He never grabbed at the flab that tended to settle on America's stomach, or called him 'soft.'

No matter how kind he'd become, it didn't erase the past. The fear and adrenaline that had surged through his veins as Russia came up from behind him, held that chloroform-soaked rag over his face. The memories of being locked in a room, unable to see clearly without his glasses were still fresh, still festered in his nightmares.

America went through his day on autopilot. He brushed his teeth without toothpaste, stood under the shower head until the water ran cold and only then remembered to wash himself, and put his clothes from the night before right back on. He flopped back in bed without so much as combing his hair, hardly caring when his clothes and bedding grew damp.

He was a grown man without control over his life.

While the world went on, America had handed his life over to Russia on a silver platter in exchange for love and affection and being wanted. He'd neglected the needs of the many for his own selfish reasons. He was tired of taking care of others, being the one who smiled and laughed and smoothed things over.

There'd been a quiet relief in America's blood while he lived at Russia's. It was buried beneath the initial fear and hostility, still remained even as he found himself coming to enjoy Russia's company, to look forward to it. It'd been the relief of not knowing. Ignorance was bliss, after all.

America stilled worried and fretted, terrified that the lack of his presence would be somehow catastrophic, that wars would start and people would die. But as time passed he found that he was only one person, a person with no power. He said and whittled away hours, enjoyed movies and food and being able not to think about meetings and conferences and socio-economic issues.

And traded freedom of responsibility for the freedom of his life. He wasn't sure he wanted to trade back now. He'd grown comfortable, used to having not to worry about anyone but himself and Russia. Those outside of the bubble weren't quite real in his mind, more like the characters in a TV show, people whose lives were put on hold the second they stepped out of the shot.

When there was a knock at the door, it hardly registered in America's mind. He grunted in response, body barely stirring. The hinges on the door creaked as it opened, following by the shuffling sound of stiff steps. He watched lazily as England entered, his head poking in first, tentative and careful. The rest of him followed belatedly, like an afterthought.

"Supper's ready," England said. "I made your favorite⌐ what did you do to your bed? Good lord, America, you've gone and soaked it right through. Good heavens boy, what've you done?"

"I took a shower," America said flatly, forcing himself to sit up, body protesting all the way.

"And didn't bother to towel off? Bleeding hell, there's still shampoo in your hair. Just─ just get up," England hissed, both swatting and grabbing at America's arm, pulling him to his feet.

America let himself be dragged back to the bathroom without a fight. He was done fighting, done with every step being a constant struggle. It was easier to go with the flow, go where others took him. That was the only thing that seemed to make people happy these days, control over others.

England took America's glasses and set them next to the sink as he ran the water. Winding the fingers of one hand through America's hair, England forced his head under the tap. The water was a cold shock, a jolt back into reality. America's muscles tensed as he gripped at the counter, water running in rivulets down his face as England took to scrubbing his hand, nails too long and touch too rough.

America's eyes went wide, wild and white for a second when England scratched against the spot of his scalp that had been slammed against the alley wall. He jerked away from England's touch, gritting his teeth and grunting. Rivulets of water streamed down his neck, soaking into his already damp collar as he righted himself.

"What's that bump on your head?" England asked, pulling his hand away.

"Nothing," America said. "Nothing, hit my head the other day. S'fine. Don't worry about it."

America grabbed his glasses and put them back on. England handed him a towel to dry his hair with, but America did nothing beyond draping it around his neck. His pulse echoed in his ears when England made his usual huffing and puffing noises, trying to adjust the towel while America rolled his shoulders to get him to stop.

"You can't so much as wash up properly or keep from knocking your head," England sighed, full and dramatic. "What is wrong with you, boy?"

"A lot," America snapped back. "You don't know the half of it. I don't know the half of it."

"No need to get uppity, I was merely asking," England said, his voice tight, guarded. "Now go eat your supper while I change your sheets. I've half a mind to send you to bed without any food, so don't dilly dally."

America didn't need to be told twice. He dragged himself to the kitchen, feet weary and numb, his head swimming. How was he supposed to tell England what happened to him? How was he supposed to tell anyone what happened to him?

He'd had the conversations a hundred times in his head, picked out perfect words, imagined the reactions of those he told. Their expressions would turn concerned, wide curious eyes and tender voices. There was never pity, instead plenty of well-expressed sympathy and promises that things would get better, that things would be alright.

Yet when America envisioned the conversations as real, a thing that would truly happened, his mind went blank. His carefully chosen words melted into mumbles, stutters without meaning. His confessions were under lock and key, unable to be revealed. One day, he decided, he'd be able to get it all out.

But when would that day come?

America took a seat at the table, his plate already made up, decorated by multiple forks and the usual cutlery. Apparently 'his favorite' was a mysterious brown lump flanked by veggies. He prodded at it, cut it open, scooted it around on his plate. The best he could figure was that it was meat. It was lukewarm in his mouth, chewy and tasteless with the texture of a sponge.

He slogged through the meal without making a fuss, going so far as to pretend he enjoyed it when England joined him. They ate without speaking, the scrape of fork tines against plates and the rustle of napkins dabbing at mouths their conversation.

There were still questions though, in the cant of England's head and the way he watched America. He spoke with stares and muffled coughs, by how he'd put down his fork and pat at his shirt as though he were brushing away crumbs. He wanted to know where America had been, who he'd been with, the person he'd become. He wanted to know why America was so different, but America had the same question for England.

Neither of them mentioned it.

England collected the plates when they were done, America mumbling his thanks as he tried to clear off the table while England batted his hands away. Silence fell heavy again when all was done, the two of them standing about with nothing to say or do.

"I'll be in my room," America finally said, edging away slowly.

"And I, in mine," England returned, fingers going to pinch at the bridge of his nose, as though America's few words were an irritant. He expected more from America, he always did. Whatever he said and did was never good enough for England.

America retreated to his room without a sound, peeling off his clothes and tossing them in the hamper. He found his suit, fresh-smelling and freshly-ironed, hanging in the closet. He pulled on his slacks, buttoned the jacket. His fingers were steady and he put on his tie and put on his shoes.

He lay down on his bed fully dressed, head propped up on a pillow, fingers resting on his stomach, fingers interlocking. In the back of his mind, where he still cared about what England thought, that measured the disapproval in his glances or the downturn of his lips, he wished things had gone better.

He yearned to live a linear life. For time to pass in neat, interesting chunks. Problems could be resolved in a half hour, dictated by writers. The boring bits would be skipped completely, fading to black before they could start. At the end up the day, relationships would be neatly wrapped, cut crisp and clean. England and America would see eye to eye and gain a mutual respect. There would be closure.

Except there wasn't. Closure was left for the end, the final page in a book, the last line of dialogue before the curtain fell. It was for when the characters ceased to be, lived on in imagination only. It wasn't something meant for him and England. As long as they both breathed and ate and lived, closure could never be something they benefited from.

Lost in his musings, America let his eyes close, thoughts melting into senseless, muted daydreams. The settling of the house, the creak of floorboards and England's steps faded away until they were nothing. The traffic dwindled, the scurrying of critters nothing but whispers to his mind. Life seemed a distant thing that paused for him in that moment as he slipped into slumber.

America woke twice that night. Once when England cracked his door open a fraction, his voice bodiless as he wished America a somber goodnight. The second time was when Russia came for him.