Soluble Chapter Twelve: Difficult Decisions, Blackmail, and... Ponies?

"[There will] come a time when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy."

- Albus Dumbledore

The two young men had been following the figure in front of them for the past few blocks. The taller of the two, a sharp-faced young man with red hair, chewed absently on a thumbnail as they followed, half a block behind.

"I don't like this," he muttered uneasily to his companion. "You said he was old. And those clothes don't look like they're worth much. I bet he doesn't have anything valuable."

"Shut up, Markus," the shorter growled in an undertone. "We've almost got 'im to where we want him. An' he looked old. His hair was white, an' he had some kind of cane. An' he's got an old military uniform under that coat. It'll be worth something."

"He's a veteran? Erik, we can't rob a veteran –"

"I said shut up," Erik said, tone dangerous. "Come on, let's pick up the pace a bit. He's almost at the alley we want."

For a moment, it looked as though Markus was going to object, but he closed his mouth after a moment and shoved his hands in his jacket pockets, scowling. He ran his fingers over the smooth handle of his switchblade, as if to reassure himself. The two young thieves increased their pace slightly, eyes fixed on the only other person walking down the lonely street.

When the man with white hair paused directly in front of the mouth of the alley they had been herding him towards, the shorter of the two smiled. Markus, on the other hand, was not so confident.

"I don't like this," he said again as they paused for a moment, lurking next to a tree on the boulevard. "It's like he knows we're following him."

"How could he know that? I saw his face when I marked 'im, an' he's probably half blind."

"Blind doesn't mean oblivious," the taller said under his breath, though he did nothing more to protest the fact. He watched the man stand in front of the alley for a moment, and then sucked in his breath slightly as he turned and walked into it.

Beside him, Erik chuckled softly. "Idiot. There's no other way out of there. Come on, let's do this." With a pointed glare at Markus, the dark haired young man started off towards the alley. After a moment's hesitation the redhead followed, pulling his switchblade out, trying to ignore the uneasy feeling curling in his gut.

"… and then I was like, totally prepared to come get you, but…"

Lithuania didn't pause in his paperwork as the other nation continued to talk, though he did take a moment to shift the phone to his other shoulder. It wasn't as if the other nation actually expected him to contribute; Poland was quite happy talking to himself, so long as the Baltic nation on the other end made a noise of agreement every once and a while.

"That's nice," Lithuania said, smiling despite himself. Though he had long ago learned to tune most of what Poland said out, it was still nice to just hear his voice. It had been a long time since he had been able to pick up a phone and call whomever he wanted without fearing the consequences.

"Are you, like, even listening to me? You're doing paperwork again, aren't you, Liet? I knew it!"

Lithuania rolled his eyes, though Poland couldn't see it. "I do have a lot of it to get through, Felkis," he said teasingly, signing off on yet another document. "Getting the rest of the world to recognize my independence is taking a lot more effort than it should."

"Pah, they're just stupid. You haven't been living with him since, like, the Wall fell." Toris could almost see the blonde nation lying on his bed, kicking his feet in the air while he was talking.

Lithuania sighed. "Their relative intelligence aside, the paperwork is mandatory. My boss wants it done last week, and there's still repairs to be done, and Latvia and Estonia to keep track of…"

"How'd you end up their babysitter anyway?" Poland laughed. "They have their own houses, don't they?"

Toris put down his pen, leaning back in his chair. "Well, I am the oldest, so it makes sense, and I'm not about to kick them out. It's nice, having people around."

Felkis snorted, and Toris caught the sound of something hitting the floor. "You've been living with them for, like, fifty years, Liet. Haven't you all gotten sick of each other? 'Specially Estonia, he makes dry toast look exciting."

The Baltic nation shrugged, before remembering once again that he was on the phone, and that physical gestures were somewhat pointless. "Neither of them have said anything, but I think they just don't want to be alone. We aren't related by blood, but…" He paused, chewing absently on a thumbnail. "Well, it's nice to have people around the house, and they do pull their weight. We all just have so many other things to deal with right now…"

"Hey, if you, like, want to get rid of them for a few days, you can always send them over to me! The pink in my house is starting to look completely un-fabulous, and I can't do the whole thing over myself."

Toris laughed softly. "I'm not hiring them out to you, Felkis," he said, leaning back further in his chair. "If anything, they're going to be painting my house; it could use a new coat of paint!"

There was a pause on the phone, filled with the same sound of something hitting the floor, and then – "It's nice to hear you laugh again." The cross-dressing nation's voice was soft. "I thought you'd forgotten how." Another pause, in which Toris wasn't really sure what to say. "But you're right," Feliks continued a moment later, apparently unbothered by the silence. "Get them to paint your house. Your walls always were totally tacky, and I doubt the years have improved them, unless they, like, rotted all the paint off."

"Hey," Lithuania said in mock anger, privately glad that Poland had changed the subject. As airheaded as the blonde nation was, he showed insight at the best times. "Don't go beating on my walls! They were the height of fashion when I redid them last!"

"Which only, like, dates you even more, revealing you for the moldy old man you are!" There was a cackle from the other end. "Isn't that right, Princess? Is Liet an old man? Yes he is. Yes he is." Toris swore he heard a whicker in the background.

"Felkis, do you have a horse inside you house?" he asked, eyebrows raised.

"Princess isn't a horse," the Polish man said, sounding almost offended that Toris didn't know that. "Princess is a Shetland pony, and she's a beautiful one at that, aren't you? You're the most gorgeous pony in the world!" There was another sound of what Toris could only assume was pony for yes.

"You will never cease to amaze me, Poland," he said, happier than he could remember feeling since this century had begun.

"I should hope not," Felkis said, sounding even more offended at the suggestion that he could ever be anything less than wildly impressive. "But I guess I should let you, like, get back to your paperwork. Even if it's boring. Hey, there's an idea! Why don't you make Estonia do it? Since they're both, like, totally boring, he'd probably love it!"

"Because Estonia has his own paperwork to do, and I don't need to add mine to his. And last time I checked, my boss still required my signature on official papers, not his." Toris leaned forward again, reaching for his pen. Already he could feel his fingers and shoulders aching. "Hey, maybe I'll drop by for a visit when all of this gets sorted out. I'd like to see you again."

"That'd be, like, completely awesome!" He could practically hear Poland's smile. "I'll go easy on you, old man, don't worry!"

"Oh, shut up," Toris teased. "But seriously, thanks for calling. You're a godsend."

"Well, duh. As if I didn't already know that. But you're totally welcome."

"I'll talk to you later, then."

"Totally. Later, Liet!"

There was a click in Lithuania's ear, and the line went dead. Sighing to himself, he replaced the phone in its cradle. His pen was in his hand, but all of a sudden he didn't feel much like filling out forms and reading minute print. There were so many details to look after when it came to getting the rest of the world to acknowledge him.

"To think I thought it would be as easy as just coming home." Toris put the pen down, and stood. Perhaps now would be a good chance to grab something to eat. It was already getting late outside, and if he delayed much longer, he would probably forget entirely.

The house was quiet around him, despite the other two nations occupying it, and Lithuania wondered if Latvia weren't already asleep. He was the youngest, and had taken the journey from Russia the hardest. For a while, both Lithuania and Estonia had feared that his coughing had been more than a simple cold. But it had passed, and the little blonde nation was as active as ever, though the stress of putting their lives back together tended to tire him out.

Toris couldn't help but smile at the thought of his adopted family. It was true, what he had said to Poland. They weren't related by blood, and even their customs were quite different. But maybe, he thought, maybe that wasn't what made them family. They had survived something together, and in surviving it, had become close enough for them to qualify as family, at least in their minds.

"Now the next problem is getting the rest of the world to admit that we're individual nations again," Toris grumbled to himself good-naturedly. It was a bit of a sore point, considering he had once been a fairly strong power himself, but it wasn't worth getting truly angry over. It would happen in time.

He stepped into the darkened kitchen, listening to the soft hum of the refrigerator before flicking on the light. It was a small room, meant for the single occupant who normally lived here, but the three of them had been making it work. A dining table had been squished into one corner, though they had yet to use it. Work was a continuous affair, and they rarely had time to sit down as a group.

Toris had just opened the fridge to see what was left to eat when he felt a prickle down his spine. He straightened slowly, hand reaching for the first thing he could find. As his fingers closed around the object, he whirled, heart hammering.

"Oh, come off it," said the other nation, rolling his eyes. "What're you going to do, try to kill me with that tomato?"

Toris could only stare, eyes wide and expression bewildered. "Britian?" he said incredulously, dropping the tomato in his surprise. "Why're you – how did you – what the hell are you doing sneaking around my house?"

The English nation straightened from his slouched position by the other entrance to the kitchen. "I would hardly call it sneaking," he said, sounding somewhat affronted. "I just walked in right through the front door."

I keep telling Latvia to lock it when he comes in, Toris thought, sighing. "That still doesn't explain why you're here. Or why you didn't bother letting any of us know you were coming." He reached down to pick up the vegetable – where it had hit the floor it had gone squishy, but otherwise it was alright.

He missed the Englishman's shrug as he turned around to replace it back in the fridge. "I didn't want anyone to know I was coming," Arthur said simply. When Toris turned back to face him, the English nation had seated himself at the table. "I'm here on some… shall we say sensitive business."

It must have been some kind of business, for Britian to come all the way out here for it, Toris reflected. As far as he could remember, he and Arthur had been polite but distant from one another. Their countries and affairs had always been going in different directions.

"And what business might that be?" He was getting slightly irritated, which wasn't like him, but Toris figured he was justified. Having the living daylights scared out of him was not something he appreciated, sensitive business or no.

Arthur's expression was serious as he met the Baltic nation's gaze. "I need you to tell me everything that you know about Gilbert Beilschmidt and the Prussian Empire."

The Empire smiled as he turned into the alley, good eye gleaming wickedly. Did they think him stupid? Did they really believe that their pathetic attempts to chase him in a certain direction had worked? If they did, then they would be sure to follow him, expecting an easy steal from a scared and pliable mortal. There was always the chance that they had figured it out, that it had been him doing the leading, not them, that he had chosen this place to turn and fight.

"I gave them plenty of opportunity to turn around," he murmured to himself, retreating further into the darkness. The alley wasn't long, but a sturdy brick wall rose up at the end, sealing off any easy escape. But of course, the Empire wasn't looking to escape.

If they hadn't decided to follow me, I wouldn't have to do this, he thought to himself, turning to face the entrance. Of course, he was sure they were armed with something considerably more deadly than the broken piece of cane he was carrying. But then, the Empire doubted they were as proficient with weapons as he was.

"This'll go a lot easier if you just do what we say, old man." That was the voice of the short one, the one the Empire had identified as the leader.

"Is that so?" he asked, shifting in the shadows. He was getting a strange sense of déjà vu, remembering another alley, one with armed guards shouting, bullets flying through the air and blood spattering across sunwarmed cobblestones –

Wrapped up in his thoughts, the Empire just barely managed to dodge the fist that came flying towards his face. He jerked back, and felt his head connect solidly with the wall. Cursing mentally, he took a few steps back. Maybe this hadn't been the best idea. He was infinitely stronger than mere humans when he was at full strength, but he wasn't at full strength.

"That was a warning, old man. You know what we want, so just hand it over before someone gets hurt." The short one was leering at him in the darkness, and the Empire felt his own expression twist in response. This puny, greasy little mortal dared to threaten him?

"First of all," he said softly, "I'm not an old man. Secondly," he continued, shifting his body ever so slightly. "You really should choose your targets better. I have nothing that you could possibly want." That was true. He hadn't quite thought through his escape, and as such had only what he was carrying.

"You talking back to me? It's two against one, and we're armed, so I'd watch your mouth if I were you." The short one was unconsciously responding to the Empire's subtle movements, not realizing that the nation was manipulating him into a particular position.

"Oh, I noticed the odds," the Empire sneered, trying to ignore the pounding in the back of his head. "They're dreadfully unfair." For you, at least, he finished silently, smirking.

For the first time, a flicker of apprehension crossed the shorter youth's face. His tall companion had taken up a position closer to the mouth of the alley to prevent the Empire from running.

"You could leave, if you want," the Empire offered, still wearing a smirk. Might as well give the idiot another chance. "Take your hand off the switchblade in your pocket, and find someone else to harass."

"You're threatening me? I could break you in half, you little bitch." And he did take his hand out of his pocket – but the telltale gleam on metal betrayed the weapon.

The Empire's own fingers tightened around the smooth wood of the cane he had been carrying. The broken end was splintered, but it was sharp. And it certainly gave him more reach than the puny knife the other was holding.

"Markus," the short one barked, eyes not leaving the Empire, "If he tries to run, stop him."

"Erik, I –"

"Just shut up and do it." Erik's tone was short, and the Empire's smirk widened. "This little bitch wants to play, so I'm going to make him bleed."

"Funny," the white haired nation said softly. "I was just thinking the same thing."

"Why do you want to know about him?" Lithuania sighed again, wondering absently if he was ever going to get something to eat. Between his paperwork, talking to Felkis and now the unexpected appearance of Arthur, he hadn't had much of a chance to eat.

Arthur raised his eyebrows slightly. "Do I need a reason to ask about him?"

"You do if you sneak into my house specifically for that reason," the Baltic nation countered. He didn't like the look in the Englishman's eyes. Gilbert had been in that house with them, and for that reason, he was as good as family to Toris. And he was nothing if not protective of his family.

Arthur's eyes flickered to the side for a moment. "Well, considering his current… predicament… I thought it might be a good idea. To get to know who he is now, I mean."

Oh, don't even try that, Toris thought to himself. I'm not a complete idiot, Arthur, whatever you might think. He crossed his arms, shifting to lean against the counter. "Why? You were around when he was going through his Teutonic phase. Why do you need me?"

"Because you had more… personal… contact with him than I did. I had, thankfully, very few face to face encounters with him when he was a… knight." This time, to his credit, the Englishman held his gaze.

Toris snorted. "If by 'personal contact' you mean after I split from him, he tried his hardest to kill me and all of my people, then yes, I suppose I did." He shrugged. "Honestly, we might have been close as children, but we grew out of that. He spent most of his later years trying to kill me."

"That's exactly what I mean." Arthur leaned forward in his chair. "You know how to fight him."

The Baltic nation raised his eyebrows. "As much as Hungary, Austria, and most every other nation in his vicinity did. And knowing how to fight him is very different from, ah, getting to know who he is now." You aren't getting easy answers out of me, England. I don't owe you anything.

England relaxed slightly, though there was a frustrated gleam in his eyes. "I was lead to understand that they were basically the same thing when he was at the height of his power."

Toris shrugged again. "It's true that he spent most of his young life fighting. He certainly didn't have many friends, but that doesn't mean he was the same off the battlefield as he was on it."

"Ah, so he only had a few close friends that he could turn to?"

Damn. Toris frowned. "I assume he did. I was busy trying to build my own life, and wasn't paying much attention to his."

"So he wouldn't come here, then." England was nodding to himself. "And Austria is living with Germany at the moment, so it can't be him…"

"Is there something you're not telling me?" Despite his usual mild mannered attitude, Toris's voice had a sharp edge. Decades of living with Ivan had hardened him considerably.

"It's nothing that should concern you," the Englishman said dismissively. "After all, you're busy trying to rebuild your life. Gilbert Beilschmidt's problems shouldn't be your concern."

Lithuania grit his teeth so hard he thought he heard a few crack. "His problems are mine since you condemned him to live in the same hell-hole as me, Arthur Kirkland. Everything that's happened to him is in part thanks to you, so don't you go telling me what should and shouldn't be my concern." Somehow, he managed to keep his voice from rising into a shout.

"I know it's partially my fault," the Englishman said, eyes flicking to glance at the floor this time. "Which is why I'm going to make this right before anyone else gets hurt. Minimize the casualties, as it were."

"He's not with Germany anymore." It wasn't a question. Toris hadn't had much time to keep up with what was going on with Gilbert, but he did remember getting a brusque note from Ludwig, letting him know that the white haired man had gotten home safely. Toris had responded, promising to stop by soon, but somehow he hadn't managed to find the time.

England shook his head. "No. Matthew told Alfred that he… left. Smashed out a second story window. Apparently he wasn't as weak as he had been leading everyone to believe."

That sounded like something Gilbert would come up with. He would have hated it, Toris knew, pretending to be helpless, but it had given him a chance to get away. "Is that why you want to how to fight him?" The realization hit home abruptly.

"I'm going to fix this," England said softly. "He cannot be allowed to exist as the Prussian Empire. We just barely survived the World Wars, and the Cold War pushed us to the limit. The Empire is a creature of violence and war, that much I know. This world won't survive another conflict. And if he's allowed to run amok –"

"That doesn't give you the right to kill him," Toris said flatly. "He's only been back for a few months. That's hardly enough time to decide if he'll snap out of it or not."

"It's been years, Lithuania," Arthur said, voice equally as flat. "And he's shown no sign of coming back. Even if he did… who's to say he wouldn't start something else?"

"What's to say I won't start a war tomorrow?" Lithuania pushed off the counter, uncrossing his arms. "You're just looking for an excuse to erase a reminder of your guilt, and you're using a temporary condition as an excuse."

"Regardless. He's a danger to everyone around him, and you and I both know who he's going to go after first. The world can't handle that, not right now." England pushed his chair back, standing.

"I won't help you," Lithuania said, gaze steady. "He's my family now, Arthur, and he's been through enough. You have no right to look at him, let alone the right to decide that he's beyond saving."

Arthur's smile was humorless. "You know, that's what Francis told me. He won't help me either, not anymore. I didn't bother asking Spain or Austria, because I know where their loyalties are."

"Well, now you know where mine are as well." Toris's eyes narrowed, but his gaze didn't waver. "I'll do everything I can to stop you, you know. You might have kept this plan from Germany until now, but –"

Arthur sighed. "I came here because I thought you of all people, Toris, would understand the consequences of letting this go on. The world just survived one Soviet Russia. It doesn't need a second one."

"Those two are nothing alike," Lithuania said, anger stirring in his gut. That was crossing a line. "Don't even try to compare –"

"What do you think is going to happen when the Empire destroys the threat Ivan represents to him? Did you think he would just step back and let other nations rise or take over that land? The Prussian Empire's goal was expansion, always expansion. And he won't stop at Russia, once he has it. He'll come knocking on your door next, and then you'll be right back where you just escaped from."

"He wouldn't –" Despite the anger England's words were fueling, Toris found himself rooted to the floor.

"What, do you think he'll have sympathy for you?" Arthur was walking towards him. "That he'll be a compassionate master? Need I remind you that he's trapped in his head at a time when the two of you are enemies? He'll grind you into the dirt, Toris, and your so called family right along with you." England was right in his face now, eyes dark. "You and I both know that the Russian has morals buried deep down inside. He loved his little pet family. He liked pretending that you were all friends. Ivan could have dissolved you, but he didn't." Arthur leaned forward to speak directly into Toris's ear. "But the Empire never had much use for friends or family, now did he?"

The Englishman drew away, expression grim. He moved back to the table, pushing his chair back in, as if he had never sat at the table. He straightened the collar of his shirt, and glanced back at Toris, who was staring at him with a mixture of anger and fear.

"Think on that, Lithuania," England said, pausing on his way out of the kitchen. "If the rest of your family and the new life you could build together is worth sacrificing to protect a madman."

Move, move, move!

Every instinct was screaming at him to run, but Markus found that his feet were rooted firmly to the ground, every muscle tense and immobile. His wide eyes couldn't look away from the scene unfolding in the alley before him. Some part of him hoped that a passerby would see what was happening and call the police, but of course they had chosen this neighborhood precisely because it was largely empty at night.

It had started off all right. Sure, their target wasn't as old or weak as they had previously assumed, but he hadn't appeared to be armed either. Erik had managed to cut his face straight off, a slice that cut right through the vicious scar already covering the white haired man's face.

The man had sliced his partner right back, moving faster in the small space than seemed humanely possible. Even worse, he kept doing it; waiting until Erik got a strike in, and then mimicking it. Every time he moved, it was fluid and deliberate, and he always hit the first time.

Their own target was toying with them.

"You're pathetic," the white haired man was saying casually, not even winded. "And you're actually trying, which makes it even sadder." His words were accompanied by a soft laugh.

"Just… just shut up," Erik panted, sweat running down his temples. Markus could tell he wouldn't last much longer. "I'm… just… getting started."

"Ah, well, there's a problem." The target laughed again, grin wide despite the blood running down his face. "Because I'm getting bored with you."

"What's that –"

Markus winced, eyes growing even wider as his partner's words were cut off by a wet sounding gurgle. The white haired man had moved with another burst of his frightening speed, and was using… something… to…

"Erik?" his voice was soft as he stared at the scene before him: his partner pinned against the wall, limbs twitching slightly. The target leaning on something that was protruding from the would-be thief's neck, twisting –

Oh god, oh god, oh god…

The man pulled back, a slight squelching sound echoing strangely in the confined space. Markus watched as his partner slumped against the wall, sliding bonelessly to the ground with another pathetic sounding gurgle. The man kicked at the shape absently, snorting.

"A nation is only as strong as it's people," he muttered, more to himself than to Markus, but the alley was quiet now, and the words carried. "You were a waste of a human being. Unnecessary. Your absence will strengthen the rest."

What the hell is wrong with this guy? He tried telling his feet to turn around and run – he was close enough to the street that he just might make it, no matter how fast this stranger was. But his blood seemed to have frozen in his veins, and no matter how much his body wanted to turn and flee, he couldn't move.

In the alley, the white haired man turned to face the entrance. In the faint light coming from the street, Markus could see that his eyes were a dark, clouded red. The man took a step forward, blood gliding silently down his cheek from a cut, head tilted slightly. All at once the paralysis that had held Markus in place seemed to shatter. The young man let out a sound that was somewhere between a moan and a scream, and whirled on his heels.

He had just managed to step onto the sidewalk when he felt a hand lock onto his collar and yank him sharply back into the darkness of the alley. He tried to make a sound, but something hard and… wet?... pressed against his lips. Markus tried to see what it was, but the white haired man was barely an inch away, eyes boring into his. Only one was red, Markus realized absently. The other was a vibrant shade of purple.

"… Brandenburg?" the man's voice was filled with surprise. "What the hell are you doing here?" The thing pressed against his lips was lifted slightly.

Markus blinked, wondering who the hell this madman thought he was. "… Um…" His voice was little more than a whisper. He automatically licked his lips – and nearly retched as he tasted blood.

"I heard that nations could come back, sometimes." There was a funny note in his voice, and Markus couldn't tell whether it was a good thing or not. "I would like to know why you were wandering around with that piece of shit." The white haired man sighed, rolling his eyes. "But then again, I suppose that's your business. You always were a private bastard, weren't you? I suppose dissolution hasn't much changed that."

Agree with him. Markus twitched, eyes still impossibly wide, as a voice sounded in his head. Had he finally gone over the deep end? Of all the times to start hearing voices… The man holding onto his collar raised his eyebrows slightly, clearly waiting for a response.

"Er… yeah," Markus said, voice shaky. Even if he was going crazy, it didn't seem like a bad idea. "It… it hasn't." Good. This time he had to physically restrain himself from turning his head at the sound.

"I think it's addled your brain a bit, though." The man grinned all of a sudden, the motion opening the cut on his face further. He didn't seem aware of the blood that was running down his cheek and neck, soaking into the collar of his shirt. "Not to mention your face. You're certainly uglier than I remember." He let go and stepped back a few feet.

This time Markus waited for the voice to tell him what to do. Laugh, it said. Act like this is normal. Tell him that he's as hideous as he's always been. The youth's eyes grew even rounder, if possible. He should tell this lunatic what? Wouldn't that just set him off again?

Just do it, the voice insisted. It'll work, trust me.

Every instinct was still telling him to run now that there was space between them, he repeated what the voice had told him to say. To his credit, his voice only shook slightly. The man in front of him didn't seem to notice.

Tell him that you have to go. You were just making sure he hadn't gotten soft since you left. Give him a bow, and wait for him to leave.

This took a bit of nerve, seeing as it required that Markus take his eyes off the white haired man, but he did it. Listening to the voice hadn't gotten him killed yet, and he really didn't want to end up like Erik, lying further back in the alley, silent now. At his words, the white haired man rolled his eyes again.

"Like I'd let myself get soft. You give yourself too much credit, Mark." He grinned again. "If anything, you're the one who was always advocating mercy." The white haired man shrugged, as if it didn't matter. "Whatever. I've got my own things to finish. You go get back to being dead, ja?" He gave Markus a casual salute, before clapping a hand on his shoulder and pulling him into a loose embrace. "It was nice talking to you again, Mark," he said into the young man's ear, voice low. "But next time try actually showing up. Using this snotty brat as your mouthpiece is nothing short of pathetic."

Markus felt his entire body stiffen. What the hell was that supposed to mean? The embrace tightened slightly, and he felt something sharp jabbing pointedly into his ribs. The white haired man drew back, expression still set in that faintly maniacal grin.

"Remember this, you worthless human. I am allowing you to live. I could snap your neck right here, and I promise, I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. You will tell no one of what happened here. You will forget me, and Brandenburg." The man's fist was suddenly curled into his collar again, dragging their faces close. "And you will make something of your life, or I will come for you again."

Markus staggered back into the wall as the stranger let go of him. Without a backward glance, the white haired man stalked out of the alley, disappearing around the corner.

"What… what just happened?" Markus mumbled to himself, keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead. If he let his gaze wander, he knew it would fall on the shape crumpled in the back of the alley, and he didn't want to see.

I believe I just saved your life, boy. The voice again, sounding somewhat amused.

"Who the hell are you?" he said into the quiet of the alley, part of him wondering why the hell he was answering the voice that was in his head. "You can't be real," he said firmly, when there was no reply for a few moments.

There was a chuckle. If it's easier for you to think that, go ahead. Though a thank you would be nice. I could have let him gut you. That's what he wanted to do, you know. The voice sounded almost sad. It's what he always did to people that annoyed him. Your friend was the lucky one.

Markus shuddered. The voice was getting fainter as it spoke, and he shook his head, as if to dislodge it. "I'm dreaming," he mumbled. "I must be dreaming. This can't be real."

Ah well, I wasn't expecting one anyway. I'd get moving, if I were you. Don't want to be found here in the morning. Rest assured, you are entirely sane. You won't be hearing from me again.

He barely caught the last part of that sentence, but he had to admit that the voice was right. Still keeping his eyes fixed in front of him, Markus levered himself off the ground, still shaking. "But… but who are you?" he asked once he was standing. He took a careful step towards the entrance of the alley, and then another one.

Another chuckle that sounded almost like the wind. I'm what's left of the March of Brandenburg. Mark Schäfer, very briefly at your service.

The Empire made it several blocks, before his body remembered that he had cracked his head against a brick wall none too gently. The world swam before his eyes, head pounding insistently to remind him of this fact.

"Shit," the Empire muttered to himself, bringing a hand up to touch the back of his head. It throbbed painfully on contact, and the nation cursed again. This was not what he needed right now. His strength was already depleted, and though bursts of adrenaline had been keeping him going, there was only so far that he could go. Since escaping the house they had been keeping him in, the Empire hadn't stopped walking. He wasn't sure how long it had been exactly, but at least a night had gone by.

His head throbbed again, and the Empire groaned, hand reaching out to blindly grasp the first object it came to. His fingers met with the smooth wood of a bench; one of the sort that seemed to appear every few blocks here. The Empire stared at it for a moment, before sitting down with a faint huff. He hated feeling weak, but there was no sense in pushing himself to the point of collapse. He would just close his eyes for a moment, and then keep going…

"You're too eager! Stop dropping your guard when you attack, dummkopf." An older man frowned at the child who had fallen to the ground, panting. A thin cut was on his cheek, blood welling at its surface. A sword was lying where it had fallen when the child had been disarmed.

"Sorry, sir," the white haired boy on the ground said, scrambling to his feet. When he stood, it was clear that he wasn't much older than eight or nine, but already faint scars were visible on his bare arms. "I'll remember."

The older man snorted, sheathing his own sword at his hip. "I should hope so. You're a disgrace to your country the way you fight now, Prussia." He turned smartly on one heel and started out of the clearing. "Same time tomorrow. Don't be late. And perhaps try to retain what I've taught you."

"Yes sir."

It was only when his instructor was gone that the young boy retrieved his sword, tilting it so the blade caught the sunlight coming through the trees. The clearing had been made specifically for this; it was far enough from the castle that the distractions of everyday living were muted. The boy scrubbed absently at his cheek to wipe away the blood. He entertained the idea of leaving, but the scornful look of his instructor came back to him.

"Maybe I should just practice…" he mumbled to himself, sliding into a ready stance, imagining the enemies surrounding him, each wearing the face of his teacher, each uglier than the last…

The sunlight was disappearing and the sword heavy in his hands by the time the young nation finally cut down the last of his foes. Pushing his sweaty bangs out of his face, he sheathed his sword. His muscles were already starting to ache, but it was a long way back, and if the sun was already going down…


The unfamiliar voice made him whirl, sword out and ready before he'd really thought about it. His red eyes met a curious pair of hazel, staring at him from across the clearing. The other boy was leaning casually against a tree, but pushed himself away when Prussia spotted him.

"Who're you?" the white haired nation demanded, eyes narrowing. "What're you doing here?"

The other boy shrugged. "I'm Hungary," he said simply. "And I didn't think anyone else was here, until I found you. Kind of deep in the woods to be playing with swords, isn't it?"

The Prussian blinked, straightening out of his stance slightly. Another nation? He hadn't seen many besides himself. "I'm not… playing." The word was unfamiliar. "I'm training."

Hungary moved a bit closer. "D'you want to put that away? I'm not going to hurt you."

"As if you could," Prussia replied, snorting. He put the blade away after a moment of hesitation. His king was always telling him that other nations would seek to crush him the instant they saw him; that was why he was learning to become a fighter.

"So, what's your name, then?" the brown haired boy asked, grinning. There was a smudge of dirt across his face, as if he had done a face-plant at some point during his forest wandering.

"Me? I'm Prussia. Soon to be the Empire of Prussia, once I get strong enough." He puffed out his thin chest, trying to look impressive.

Hungary only laughed. "Pah. Never heard of you."

That took some of the wind out of his sails. "Never?"

Hungary shook his head. "Nope."

"Oh." Prussia grimaced, somewhat put out, but then shrugged it off. "Well, you will one day. I'll be the strongest nation in the world."

"Second strongest nation," the brunette said. "Because I'm going to be the strongest! I'll be the Empire of Hungary!"

"Not if you spend all you time running around the woods, you won't," Prussia said, resting a hand on the hilt of his sword. "You need to get stronger, and to get stronger you need to train. Discipline needs to be a part of your life. What?"

Hungary was staring at him as if he had sprouted a second head. "You're a serious little weirdo. Don't you ever relax?"

It was Prussia's turn to stare. "Relax?" He spoke the word like it was poison. "I don't have time to relax. I need to train, become a better warrior. It's what my people expect of me."

"Then your people are a bunch of serious weirdos too," the other nation said decisively.

Prussia had half drawn his sword before he had thought about it. "My people have had to fight for the right to exist from the start, and I'll gut anyone who tries –"

"Whoa, whoa, calm down!" Hungary had shifted his stance slightly; ready to dodge if the white haired nation should try attacking. "It was just a joke, I didn't mean anything by it!"

"Oh." Prussia blinked, and took his hand off his sword.

Something about the other boy seemed to change. A weird expression crossed his face for a moment, but Prussia couldn't place it. "My people have had a pretty hard life too," Hungary said eventually. "But…" His words trailed off, and then he seemed to shake himself. "Hey, you want to come exploring with me? There's a river not too far from here!"

Prussia glanced back at the wooded path that lead back to the castle. "I don't know if I can," he said slowly. It was already getting dark, and they might be expecting him back…

He twitched violently as Hungary grabbed him by the wrist, and had to physically restrain himself from reaching for a weapon. Narrow, suspicious red eyes stared into hazel, looking for some hint of an ulterior motive. He had been taught to trust no one, especially those who acted friendly. It was just a mask, and they would crush him sooner or later.

"Come on," Hungary wheedled, looking earnest. "We won't be long, if that's what you're worried about. You'll be back before you're missed."

"I'm not worried," Prussia snapped, pride stung. He doubted if anyone had missed him anyway; it wasn't unusual for him to be gone late into the night training. It was practically expected of him. "I just don't trust you, is all."

"You don't need to trust me," the other boy said. "That happens over time. You just need to have fun!"

"…Fun?" Prussia repeated the word slowly, confusion evident on his face.

The other boy was wearing that look again, and Prussia decided that he didn't like it. He didn't have much time to dwell on it, though, as Hungary started off, practically yanking his arm out of his socket in the process, jabbering about something…

… "Shit, shit, shit," the teenaged nation hissed, pressing his head further back into the tree behind him. The rough bark dug into his skull, but he didn't even register that pain compared to the agony radiating up from his mid section. One arm was curled protectively around his stomach and his free hand was locked in a death grip around the hilt of his sword, knuckles white.

Despite his best efforts, blood was steadily soaking through his white uniform. The worst of it was concentrated around his middle; already half of his tabard was stained a red so dark it was almost black. It was running down his leg as well, from several smaller wounds, but what was most worrying about that was way his ankle was throbbing. Every time he had tried to put weight on it, spikes of agony had driven into his brain. Of course, that had been before he collapsed here, so his inability to stand was rather a moot point at this moment.

"Oh… you've done it this time… Prussia," he muttered through gritted teeth. He couldn't even move his arm to bandage up his side; any movement would rip open whatever clotting had happened, and then he would probably faint from bloodloss, and that was the last Gott-damned thing he needed right now.

"Prussia?" His head whipped around as he heard his name. Red eyes frantically scanned the thick forest around him, trying to find the source. If it was an enemy, he at least wanted to know where the attack would be coming from…

And he was a sitting duck here, he knew. Clenching his jaw so tightly he thought it would crack, the white haired nation shifted as quietly as he could. Using his free elbow, he started to lever himself into a sitting position. From there, biting his tongue the entire time, he wedged his bad ankle securely between a few gnarled roots. He struggled into a half-kneeling position; at least he would have a decent chance of getting enough force to get off one decent surprise attack before he was killed…

"Prussia!" A face appeared through the trees, hazel eyes wide with worry. Hungary pushed his way through the undergrowth, heedless of the leaves that caught in his hair. Horror shortly replaced the worry. "Prussia, what the hell happened to you?"

The white haired nation spat out blood and bared his teeth. "Put your… sword and bow… down," he hissed, sweat running down his face.

"Prussia, I'm not going to hurt you! Seriously, I was hunting, and I heard you'd gotten into a battle…" Despite his words, Hungary unslung the bow from his back, and carefully unsheathed the short sword at his hip, placing it deliberately on the ground.

"Damn… border skirmish… I won, though." Prussia hissed again, wincing at the pain of simply speaking. "Y'should see… y'should see… the…"

His eyes rolled up in his head, and he never finished his sentence, collapsing face first into the dust.

When he came too, he was lying on his back, staring up at a darkened forest. Groaning, Prussia turned his head slightly, eyes fixing on the small fire next to him. He noticed that his sword wasn't at his hip, or even at his side as it would be if he were sleeping. With a hiss, he tried to sit up, only to find a pair of hands on his shoulders, pressing him into the ground.

"You're going to ruin all my hard work, idiot," said a familiar voice. Prussia looked up to see Hungary glaring sternly down at him. "Just lie there and shut up. The soup's almost done."

Ah, so that was what that smell was. Prussia sighed, and allowed his body to relax slightly. "How long… has it been?" His throat felt dry.

"'Bout a day and a half. I had to cauterize a few of your wounds, and you did wake up while I was doing it, but I guess you don't remember. You screamed like a baby, I'll have you know." Hungary laughed, the sound swallowed up by the immenseness of the forest around them.

"You try getting nearly cut in half, and we'll see how you react," Prussia muttered, turning his head to stare into the fire. "Bet you'd cry, like the sissy you are."

"Watch it, or this sissy is going to cut you in half. You'd still be unconscious and bleeding if it weren't for me." The fire sizzled, and Prussia caught sight of Hungary pulling something out of the flames as a rank smell filled the air. "Shit," he heard a moment later. "Soup's burnt."

"How'd you manage to burn soup?" Prussia taunted, ignoring the sharp twinges that were started to come from his side. Oh, it was going to hurt in a few minutes. There was silence for a long moment. "Why're you doing this, anyway?" Prussia asked suddenly, trying to see beyond the fire to figure out where Hungary had gone.

The other nation appeared above him all of a sudden, a strange look on his face. "Do you need to ask? You might be a thickheaded, arrogant idiot who gets on all my nerves, but we're friends. And friends help each other, no matter how much certain individuals might deserve every injury they got. Border skirmish my ass. You just wanted to antagonize someone, didn't you?"

Prussia rolled his eyes, not denying the fact. A moment later, a small smile appeared on his face. "Friends," he said, suddenly not missing the sword at his side as much as he might have. "I like sound of that…"

The Empire's eyes flickered open, only for the nation to realize that the sky had gotten significantly lighter since he had nodded off. Scowling at the wasted time and at his own weakness for having fallen asleep, the white haired man practically jumped off of the bench –

Only to find his head was still pounding ferociously. All of a sudden, the bench seemed much more inviting than it had, and the Empire sat back down. This was not what he needed right now.

"I can't face Braginski like this," he mumbled to himself, hating the realization even as he saw the logic in it. He might have been impulsive, but he wasn't stupid. His body might not have been as weak as he had been leading everyone at that house to believe, but it was a far cry from what he was like at full strength. Ten years of running and slowly starving himself behind that Wall had taken their toll.

But it wasn't as if he had a variety of options available to him. He would die before he went back to that house. The Empire had no idea where Francis might be now, and he had precious few other allies that he could go to. There had been no sign of the dwelling that he remembered living in; only this endless parade of strange looking houses that for some reason seemed perfectly normal to him.

There's one person you could go to.

His head jerked around at the voice in his head, the rapid movement only making his headache worse. The Empire's red eyes scanned the empty street. It had been in his head, then? But it hadn't been his thought, and where else would it have come from if not –


His scowl only deepened. That other presence, the one he could feel in the back of his head even now, stirring restlessly. The presence that had taken over his body when that awful despair had washed over him without warning. It had been there since he could remember awakening in this strange place. It had been a shivering, broken thing then, barely there at all. It hadn't shown any sense of awareness for nearly ten years, so what was causing this sudden change?

"Come on then," he growled out loud. "Stop hiding back there and show yourself, why don't you?"

There was no response. The presence was still there, but it felt no different. Perhaps it hadn't said anything? The Empire muttered something vulgar. This was too complicated to be thinking about now, not to mention that it was making his headache even worse. Regardless of where the thought had come from, it was a valid point.

The Empire made a face. Well, it would be nice to see Hungary again, he had to admit. It felt like ages since he had seen the nation last, and it would be nice to see a familiar face whom he actually considered friendly. Roderich had been his only lifeline in that house full of strangers he couldn't understand, but whatever had diseased the Austrian's brain to the point where he thought they were actually on good terms had not gotten to him.

Snorting, the Empire stood again, this time being more careful about the movement. For a long moment he stood, red eyes narrowed, facing where Russia would be if he continued on. The anger that had been coiled deep in his heart since that bastard had cornered him in that cell all those years ago rose up, burning in his throat.

"I will come for you," he promised, wishing the wind would carry his words so that Ivan Braginski might hear them. "You and I have some unfinished business."

For a moment all he wanted to do was to continue walking, straight to the Russian's house, but after a long hesitation, the Empire turned slightly, and began walking in a slightly different direction. He pushed the anger back down; not to extinguish it, but to nurture and feed the fire. By the time he was physically ready to face the Russian, there would be no stopping him.

"On the bright side," the Empire muttered, drawing his jacket tighter around his thin frame, "this way I can bypass that Polish freak's nation entirely."

In the silence, the nation stirred, eyes almost luminous in the darkness as they flickered open. There was the soft clunk of a glass bottle hitting the floor, but the Russian hardly seemed to notice. One hand, the bones slightly more pronounced than usual, reached up to touch the left side of his chest.

"Oh, such anger," he whispered, voice sounding cracked and dry. "Such hatred you have within you, Empire." The Russian let out a rasping chuckle. "It's been a long time since the world has known something like you…"

The bedframe groaned under him as Ivan pushed himself into a sitting position. A pause, and then he levered himself to his feet, boots clunking heavily on the weakening floorboards. He figured it would only be a few months before the second level floors would begin caving in if he walked on them. Though the nations that he had adopted over the course of the last half-century were not by any means entirely independent, the rot had already started, and his house was reflecting that.

But for the moment, Ivan had little concern for collapsing floors and the empire that was crumbling around him. He made his way painstakingly downstairs, avoiding the steps that already had holes through carpet and wood. The physical exercise was somewhat difficult, though that wasn't too surprising. A diet of vodka and whatever he happened to feel like eating, which wasn't ever much, did not promote a healthy form.

Finally he made it to the door, and slowly pushed it open. The heavy thing groaned in protest, its hinges having gone untended for some time. Drawing his scarf about his neck tighter, the fingers over his heart digging into his jacket, Ivan faced the direction in which Germany lay. He was heedless that, across the many miles, a pair of mismatched eyes were staring straight back in his direction.

"I'm waiting for you, Empire," Ivan said, voice little more than a whisper against the cold spring wing that had started blowing. A smile curved his lips for a moment, and he leaned his head gently against the doorframe, hand clenching protectively over his heart. "I know you'll come home. You still belong to me, after all."

The Baltic nation let out a sigh, letting his head fall into his hands. It had been a completely sleepless handful of nights for him since England's visit, the other nation's words till ringing in his ears.

"Think on that. If the rest of your family and the new life you could build together is worth sacrificing to protect a madman."

He hadn't seen Gilbert in years, but Toris had not forgotten his last encounter with what the white haired nation had become. He could still clearly recall that bloodstained figure coming up the steps, the red eyes that had stared into his without a flicker of humanity. He remembered the Empire. Remembered what Gilbert's people had turned him into during their quest for expansion and their seemingly insatiable desire to fight.

"He was a madman," the Baltic nation murmured, running his hands through his hair. "Not a madman of his own choosing, but still…" Gilbert had eventually returned to an approximation of normal; his people had settled down, and he had slowly slipped out of the long bloodlust that had consumed him. But he had been different; there had always been a shadow of the Empire lurking within him. Everyone who had known him during that time had at some point feared that he would return –

"That he would return to being this." Lithuania finished the thought aloud, groaning. This was too difficult. He couldn't sacrifice his whole family over one nation, but that one nation was also family. "What's to say England's even right?" he asked his empty office, as if it would supply answers. "He may not even go after Ivan!"

He had argued this to himself for hours already. Even Toris knew the chances of the Empire not going after the Russian were about as great as a snowball's chance at the centre of the sun. And of course, with the USSR slowly falling to pieces around Ivan… if the Empire recovered quickly enough from his time behind the Wall… it would be simple for him to take over. He had been created to fight; and while many of the older nations had been the same way, most of them had forgotten what that was like. Not to mention the world was still reeling from the disasters of this century, which would leave it completely unprepared to deal with something on the scale that the Empire could create –


The sound of the phone going off was something of a relief to the stressed nation. Finally, he could put this aside for a few moments and deal with the administration of his own country, or chat with Felkis for a few minutes…

"Hello?" Toris leaned back in his chair as he picked up the phone. His eyebrows rose as he heard the other voice on the line. "This is… unexpected," he said eventually. "No, no, I'm not in the middle of anything." He paused. "No, there isn't anyone else here. Honestly, what's all this secrecy about?"

A few moments later, and he was no longer relaxing back in his chair. Toris was sitting bolt upright, surprise written across his face.

"You found him?" he asked, tone incredulous. "How on earth did you manage that – what do you mean it's not important?" Toris chewed absently on a thumbnail. "Well, have you called Ludwig or Roderich – no, of course you haven't. That would just complicate things, wouldn't it?"

Lithuania listened into the phone for a few more minutes, the surprise slowly fading from his features. "Well, you seemed pretty confident about what to do last time we spoke," he said slowly, wincing as he bit too deeply into his nail. What was said next made his eyes widen again, and his grip on the phone became tighter.

"He's what? You can't be serious." Another pause. "No. I know. I just… didn't think it would happen so quickly." His bleeding thumb was all but forgotten, and the Baltic nation let out a long sigh. "I haven't stopped thinking about it, actually," he said at last. "No. No, they're like my younger brothers. They need to be protected from this. They're just getting back on their feet after… well, you know."

A strange feeling was developing in his gut, and all of a sudden, the sleepless nights seemed pointless. He knew what to do; had known it all along.

"I know," Toris murmured, the strange feeling in his stomach growing heavy. "Alright. I'll help you."

Long after he had hung up the phone, Lithuania sat in his dark office, feeling the silence around him. The silence of peace and healing. His brothers would probably be asleep by now. There were still nightmares, of course, and moments of waking up in cold sweats and expecting to see the Russian around every corner, but given enough time, that too would heal.

And as he stood, quietly rearranging his papers so as not to disturb that fragile silence and knowing he was headed for another sleepless night, Toris wondered if he had done the right thing.

A/N: Aka the chapter that is not only out pretty quickly and whose title is too long to squish into the drop-down menu, but where things actually start happening!

So, this is my gift to you guys who have stuck with this story since the beginning, even when I took forever to update. This chapter is dedicated to you. That's right, you, the person reading this right now. You decided to read this fanfic for whatever reason, and you've stuck with it until this latest author note. You're fantastic, and I'm flattered that you like what I write enough to stick with it. If it weren't for you, I probably wouldn't be writing this.

I know this'll come up, so... Why can The Empire understand the two supposedly German kids? 'Cause they're not speaking German. They're part of the generation that grew up behind the Wall, and as such (in my historically inaccurate fanfic, anyway) have also grown up speaking Russian.

A note on Brandenburg - I'm taking some liberties on how deceased nations can communicate. I know Rome actually shows up, but he's a flashy sort of guy. I imagine Mark is just being more subtle, and also attempting to keep our dear Empire from killing someone else. (Markus won't be back, by the way. He and his short lived friend were merely handy plot fodder.)

There was a happy moment or two in this chapter! It's been so long, I almost forgot how to write one! I also tried to cut down on my use of dashes... and I think I did pretty well!

The Empire will, in the present, know that Hungary is a girl. I'm sort of... ignoring parts of the anime, and making it so that Prussia figured it out later than he did in the canon, so that's why I'm still using "he" as a pronoun for Hungary in that last flashback.

So... a few new faces, a few old. No Germany or Austria this chapter, but they'll be back!

If you've read, please review!