The chair squeaked quietly as America swiveled slowly back and forth. Three weeks. Three weeks of war negotiations. America could accept that maybe three weeks wasn't that long, but it sure felt like an eternity when the weather outside was clear and sunny while he was stuck inside, watching Japan and Russia glare at each other from across a table. America rubbed his temples wearily. If only Roosevelt was here. At least he knew how to lighten the atmosphere.

But there was no point in wishing his boss could come to the negotiations. Teddy was the one doing most of the hard work behind the scenes, wiring Japan's boss one minute and Russia's the next, trying to pick at and tinker with the whole mess to keep everything from falling through and back into war again. America would be the first to admit that the little fiddly details of other people's politics weren't his favorite subject, so he left that work to Teddy and did his own part by attending the negotiations personally to keep things running smoothly and to break up any fist fights if things weren't running smoothly.

Lady Luck had so far been on his side. Three weeks in and no one had punched anyone yet, though Japan often looked like his rigid manners were the only thing holding him back from doing so. Russia looked calm in contrast, concerningly calm, but after a few weeks of watching from across the table, America had come the conclusion that the big guy was just completely exhausted.

Not that America had any idea how Russia was actually feeling. He had been doing an excellent job of avoiding America from the very first day he arrived with the rest of the Russian delegates. But there were dark, heavy bags under his eyes that seemed to have become a permanent feature of his face, and his normally pale cheeks had taken on a gray tinge. He had acquired a cane recently too, and after weeks of watching Russia trying to disguise a limp he knew the object had nothing to do with the nation's interest in fashion. You didn't have to be a genius to tell that the guy was feeling lousy.

The whole situation with Russia had gone past the point of being concerning and gone straight to the infuriating level. Russia was undeniably ignoring him, and had been for nearly year now, when he stopped responding to America's usual monthly letters last November without warning. America wasn't too worried at first. Russia's last letter had involved a lot of complaining about the war with Japan, how it was costing so much more than he originally though, how he might have to go over to the east personally if things didn't improve. He could have just been too busy to write that month, so America sat back to wait for Russia's next letter.

It never came.

Instead he got word in January of a disaster in Saint Petersburg. The story America heard was that there had been some great big demonstration outside the palace. The people had been unhappy but nonviolent; no one had so much as thrown a stone to provoke the guards who were there to keep the peace, but someone lost his head and opened fire, and the rest followed suit. The result had been a bloodbath, more than a thousand dead, if the report he heard could be believed. America remembered the Boston Massacre from so many years ago, remembered how much that handful of lost lives had hurt, and sent another letter to Russia that very day. There was still no reply. His monthly letters turned into weekly, sometimes daily. They all had dissolved into a plea for a response, just a line or two to let America know that Russia was alright and still in one piece.

There was still no word from him when Teddy had called for the end of the Russo-Japanese War, or when the negotiations were planned...and then America was passed a list of the delegates set to attend from both countries and nearly cried with surprised relief when he saw Ivan Braginski on the list.

He had expected an explanation and heartfelt apology when he finally saw Russia again. He hadn't expected Russia to walk right past as if he hadn't seen him on the very first day. He hadn't expected Russia to conveniently disappear after every meeting, to make himself scarce every time America went looking for him around the hotel. He seemed like a ghost who was only visible at meeting and vanished as soon as they were over.

...Maybe Russia really was a ghost. Oh god, America hoped he wasn't really a ghost. That would make everything a thousand times worse.

No, don't think like that. America shook his head to clear out the cobwebs and tried to catch up to the current debate.

"Our demand for 600 million yen to pay for war expenses still stands," said a short, sharp eyed man seated next to Japan. His eyes flickered briefly over to his nation, who gave the faintest nod of agreement. His hands stayed beneath the table and out of sight. America had seen the thick white bandages around Japan's right hand earlier, when there wasn't a table for the island nation to hide it under. Whatever had happened to it seemed to be taking a long time to heal.

"We will not pay a single kopek. And I am growing tired of repeating myself," a massive Russian delegate replied flatly. America glanced down at his notes, where he had scribbled down names he needed to remember. Very short, Japanese, glasses, that guy was Jutaro Komura. And the gigantic Russian who might even be an inch or two taller than his own country was Sergius Witte. Okay.

"Is it so unreasonable to expect the nation who started the war to pay for the expenses?"

America's eyes shot up from his notes. Japan himself spoke this time, his gaze steady and piercing across the table to where Russia was slouching in his chair.

"How interesting that you believe this war is our fault, when it was your ships who attacked ours first." Russia didn't sit up straighter to answer, but there were barbs in his voice.

"Japanese ships may have struck first, but will you try to deny that we have been provoked and threatened by the Russians for-"

"Settle down now, Mr. Braginski, Mr. Honda," America said hastily, looking back and forth between them both. Teddy had stressed again and again that it was important to show that he wasn't playing favorites. Japan immediately stopped and bobbed his head apologetically in America's direction. Russia didn't even acknowledge him.

"Braginski-san, how is your foot?" Japan said again, breaking the thick silence that had fallen over the room.

Russia's eyes iced over, but he kept his voice even. "It is healing."

"I see," Japan said lightly. "And when my doctors treated your injury-"

"I did not ask for them to help me," Russia interrupted sharply.

"But they did, Braginski-san, as they did to nearly 100,000 of your wounded countrymen. And did they treat you courteously while you were under their care?"


"And would you agree that we have treated our Russian prisoners of war, both wounded and not, with respect and dignity?"


"And would you not also agree that this level of care for so many men is very expensive?"

"I refuse to pay you back for-"

"Would you rather I had let your men starve rather than spend money feeding them?"

"Honda-san," Komura said sharply, touching his nation's shoulder to stop him. Japan immediately fell silent, but his eyes didn't soften in the least.

Witte cleared his throat and straightened his papers. "We refuse to pay the indemnity," he said with a note of finality.

"In light of the circumstances," Komura began, glancing briefly the 'circumstances' (i.e., Japan and Russia,) "we are willing to settle for a bit less."

"And we will agree only if the 'bit less' is nothing at all. The Motherland owes Japan nothing."

"That is unacceptable," Komura said shortly, and for a second America thought that soft spoken man was about to lose his temper.

"If we will cede half of Sakhalin Island to Japan, will you drop the indemnity?" Witte asked quietly. "This is our final offer. Half of Sakhalin for Japan in exchange for dropping the indemnity. If you refuse, Russia is no longer interested in these negotiations, and we will continue the war from where we left off."

America inhaled slowly through his nose and looked over at Russia who was sitting up straight at full attention for a change.

The decision was in Japan's hands now. America turned to the island nation, who had rest his uninjured hand on the table. His fingers were curled tightly into his palm as he looked to Komura and nodded once. The delegate sighed heavily and turned to face Witte once more.

"If this is our choice, then Japan accepts."

The entire room seemed to exhale all at once. And that was it. That was how wars ended.

At least that was the way it should have ended, with a crescendo and a flourish. The real ending involved a disgusting amount of paperwork and signatures and fussy details that made America want to tear his hair out. It didn't help that at some point in the middle of all the paper signing and hand shaking, Russia had managed to scurry off yet again. It made America want to tear Russia's hair out. And maybe punch him too.

America inched away from crowd of delegates and leaned his forehead against the warm glass window, watching thrown hats raining down through the air like confetti. Guns were being fired in celebration, a bell had been ringing for close to an hour and had shown no sign of stopping. That was more like it.

"Is there something interesting out there, America-san?"

America beamed at Japan over his shoulder; the jubilation outside was contagious.

"Yeah, come over and take a look! They're having one hell of a party out there," he laughed, waving the other closer.

"So they are," Japan said quietly, with a tiny wistful smile. It was the first time America had seen him smile for the entire conference.

"Bet you're glad it's all over too!" America's gaze drifted down to Japan's bandaged hand on it's own accord. "You two really beat each other up good, huh?"

"This is only frostbite," Japan said crisply, his smile cooling but not vanishing. "Russia can't claim any credit for an injury the weather caused."

"But it's August!" America peered out the window to the warm green trees as though to confirm that fact for himself. "When did you get frostbite? Shouldn't it have healed...uh...a long time ago?"

"This February. Gangrene set in, unfortunately. You must have never had gangrene, America-san, or you would be familiar with how long it takes to heal with our kind when it becomes severe."

America shivered, from the thought of part of his body decaying and the way Japan said it all so calmly. "At least the war is over now!" he said with forced cheer. "What a relief. You don't have to worry about Russia's crazy weather anymore!

"That is one thing to be glad for," Japan agreed, turning his attention back to the celebration in the streets.

"The world sure is changing fast, huh?" America muttered as he watched, to no one in particular.

Japan didn't look away from the window, but his mouth pursed thoughtfully. "How do you mean?"

"Well...uh..." America floundered, unprepared to explain his stray thought. "You know, the century is still pretty new, and all this stuff is going on...and the Wright brothers made a new plane! Did you hear about it? It's called the Wright Flyer III, and they're using the same engine from the last plane they made, but they changed the wing camber to..." he trailed off awkwardly when he saw Japan raising his eyebrows at him.

"You are...very passionate about this topic." The corners of Japan's mouth twitched ever so slightly.

"Yeah, aren't you? People can fly now! After centuries of being told we couldn't! And if these things become mainstream...the future is looking awfully exciting!"

"So you believe that all these recent changes in the world...are for the better?"

"Not all the changes...but most of 'em! Just look at you! You're all...tough now!"

"Was I not tough before, America-san?" There was a hint of warning in Japan's voice.

"No, I'm sure you were tough before!" America insisted, slapping Japan on the shoulder by way of apology. "I mean, I didn't know you all that long ago, but you've got all those block prints of the samurai guys and everything, so you must have been tough in the past too. But when I first met you, you were all quiet and shy, and now! You're still quiet, but you took on Russia and won. And you don't let him in intimidate you or anything!"

"You sound very pleased about this. I was under the impression that you and Russia were friends?"

"Sure we are. Or at least we were the last time I checked," he elaborated when Japan tipped his head questioningly. "Russia is the world's biggest moron about how to be friends. Like, if you need somebody to teach you how to play chess, or plant sunflowers, or tell you everything you ever wanted to know about vodka, then he's your man. But then he doesn't get really basic things about people. Like how friends aren't supposed to just stop talking to friends for no reason. Especially when their friends are really worried about them..."

"Then you two are fighting?"

"No, no, no! Hell, we don't even talk enough to get in a fight these days."

"Then why do you imagine Russia is avoiding you?"

"Because he's stupid, I already told you!" America snapped, bristling up like an angry tomcat. "Why else would he treat a friend like this?"

Japan's eyes turned quiet and strangely sad. "Companions can change over time."

The sudden weight of Japan's age hit America like a freight train. Maybe it knocked the wind out of him, because he couldn't speak for a second.

"So I guess, a guy as old as you..." he mumbled, dropping his eyes to the ornate carpet. "I guess you've seen a lot of stuff come and go, right? And...people too?"

"People are one of the least consistent things in the world."

"So you don't believe in things lasting forever? L-like friendship and...and love and stuff."

"I have yet to see a bond that can last for millennia," Japan admitted. "Th-that is not to say that it can't exist. I have simply never witnessed it myself," he added hastily when America's shoulders wilted.

A heavy weight had developed in America's stomach. In the stories, love could last forever and friends could stay loyal until the world ended. And he had believed in all that...that he could have friends who would last as long as nations do. He had believed Russia was one of those friends. Was that wrong?

"...Are we still buddies, Japan?" he asked, haltingly uncertain.

"As much as we have ever been," Japan answered vaguely.

"Oh good!" America said, forcing a laugh. "I was a little worried about that."

"But you are more worried about Russia?"

America picked at a button on his sleeve and avoided Japan's eyes. "Y-yeah, I guess. And not just because we haven't talked lately. He looks like he's not doing too good. I know he just lost a war and all, but still. That dummy's probably not taking care of himself, skipping breakfast and just drinking vodka instead, you know, that kind of thing...and if I could just see him for a bit and talk..."

"I saw him headed toward the bar not long ago."

America's face didn't light up. It felt more like his entire body lit up. "Really? Are you sure? Because I've been checking the bar all the time trying to catch him and he's never there."

"I am positive. I was speaking to Takahira-san out in the hallway when he passed by. It hasn't been very long at all. Unless he is only drinking a single shot, and I find that unlikely, he should still be there."

"Japan, I could just about kiss you!" America exclaimed, clapping his hands down on Japan's shoulders. "You're a pal! I-I gotta go. See you at the treaty signing later!"

He took off too fast to hear Japan's response, weaving past men on his way out of the conference room and breaking into a full run out in the hallway. No way was he going to miss Russia again! Not this time! Forget all Japan's gloomy talk; Russia was still a friend, and America was going to get through to him one way or other.

The hallways were nearly as crowded as the conference room. Delegates had started to filter out, mingling and congratulating each other to the end of a successful negotiation. America hurried past them, and narrowly avoided walking smack into Witte, who was smiling widely and shaking hands with another Japanese delegate.

"Ah, Alfred Jones!" the large man called cheerfully, offering his hand. "You have been most helpful to the negotiations. And everyone has been very hospitable here. Lovely country, it has been a pleasure."

"Oh, uh...thanks!" America said awkwardly, shaking Witte's hand and wondering just what he was being thanked for. Thankfully Witte was already turning to someone else before America had to puzzle any more about what the man knew about 'Alfred Jones.' America took advantage of that to jog the rest of the way to the bar, luckily with no more delays.

The bar was dim inside, and too quiet. The celebrations outside were a muffled hum, just skirting the edge of being audible. There was no sound in the bar to mask them, except for the quiet clinking of a glass, and then a gravelly voice that America knew all too well.

"I want another one." Only it came out as 'I vant another vone.' That was the first sign that alcohol was starting to soak into Russia's bloodstream: he'd start mixing up the 'v' and 'w' sounds all over the place. America would have called it cute, in better times.

"S-sir, I think you've had enough," another voice pipped up, much higher and more nervous. The bartender, America assumed. He poked his head around the corner, and his suspicions were confirmed. A thin, jittery looking young man was behind the bar, staring with muted horror at the large customer seated before him. America could only see said customer's back, but if the voice hadn't given him away, the trademark scarf would have.

America moseyed his way over and leaned against the counter, giving Russia a very pointed glare (which was thoroughly ignored) before turning back to the pale bartender. "What seems to be the trouble over here?"

"He's had five Conference Cocktails already! And now he says he wants another one!" the bartender almost wailed.

America's eyebrows flinched up. "Aren't those the ones that are said to bring peace-"

"-Because anyone who takes a sip immediately falls asleep. That's the one."

Both men looked over at Russia and the five empty glasses in front of him. He certainly didn't look unconscious. In fact, he looked tipsy at most.

"I-I don't think he should have anymore," the unfortunate bartender babbled, wringing his hands. "And I'm supposed to lock up early today on account of the celebrations..."

"You can go ahead and shut up the place. I'll take care of him," America said with an apologetic grin. He turned a less friendly grin to Russia. "Come on, big guy. Knock it off. Your alcohol tolerance is scaring the bartender."

The bartender looked at the pair doubtfully, but began locking up the liquor cabinets and putting away glasses all the same.

"Go on!" America encouraged when he had finished and continued to hover around uncertainly. "There's a party outside! I told you, I've got this stupid lug under control."

"Stupid lug, am I?" Russia rumbled, as the bartender fled the scene.

"Yup. Sums you up perfectly, I'd say. Now clean your ears out and listen up. I've got a bone to pick with you. Lots of bones, actually. I've got a whole skeleton to pick with you."

"Then pick," Russia sighed, tilting his empty glass around and around, catching the light and sending it scattering across the room. The casual gesture made the angry little knot in America's chest flare up.

"I don't think you have any idea how mad I am," he snarled, snatching the glass out of Russia's hand and slamming it down on the counter. "If you did, you'd be pissing your pants in fear right about now. I am livid, big guy."

"And vhat did I do to earn such fury from you? I have done nothing. I have not even spoken to you since-"

"Exactly! You've been ignoring me for practically a year and you don't get why I'm upset? Honestly? I send you letters by the bundle and you don't have the decency to respond-"

"Vhat letters?"

America's mental track tripped and fumbled momentarily at that. "Wh-what do you mean, 'what letters?' Our usual letters! Y'know, the ones we exchange every month? We've been doing this since my civil war. You can't tell me you forgot about them!"

"Nyet." Russia seemed to be shrinking down slightly into his coat. "Of course not."

"So why did you stop writing?"

"Th-there vas nothing to say. And I did not think that this vould...would upset you so much." Russia's voice had deteriorated into a mumble.

"I haven't heard from you in over a year, and with all the mess over at your place these days? Of course I'm upset. Don't you remember what you said to me when we first started writing letters?"


"So you remember how you said you'd be super angry if I stopped writing to you all of a sudden? Because it would make you worry?"

"This is not the same situation," Russia snapped, pushing his many empty glasses around the bar with his fingers. "That was after your civil war. You were weak then. I needed the letters to..." He paused to clear his throat, adjusting his scarf restlessly. "To reassure me that you were well. Even when I could not stay with you."

"This is totally the same situation! Just now I'm the one worrying about you instead of the other way around."

Russia sank his chin down behind his scarf, like a turtle pulling his head into his shell. "You should not worry about me now."

"Then when am I supposed to worry about you? Because I'd say losing a war and having all kinds of troubles back at home is more than enough reason to worry."

"It is reason for me to worry. You should not. It is not your concern."

America was struck by the sudden desire to punch Russia, but he looked too thin, too gray, too sad and inexplicably embarrassed for America to punch him in good conscience. He settled instead for pinching both of Russia's cheeks, tugging his mouth out into an awkward almost-smile.

"You are so annoying," America said flatly, tugging a little harder at his victim's cheeks with every word. "So, so, so annoying. And dumb."

Russia just stared at him in wide-eyed confusion, before his comically stretched lips twitched into something closer to a real smile as he began to laugh.

"That wasn't a joke," America tried to growl, but the giggles were catching and he quickly succumbed to them. Russia's cheeks were turning a little pink from the abuse, and America quickly let them go. His laugh was a little too jerky and high, almost hiccup-like, and his smile was a little too strained and unsteady, but a smile and a laugh still counted as an improvement in America's book.

"I forgot how absurd you are," Russia chuckled, slumping against the bar as though laughing had sapped all his energy.

"You're one to talk about being absurd!" America retorted with a roll of his eyes. "And you wouldn't have forgotten if you had stayed in touch."

"I am sorry for worrying you. I would have written at least a short letter if I had know how upset you were."

"Did those billions of letters I sent you earlier this year not give it away?" America snorted. He wasn't quite ready to let Russia off the hook yet.

"I did not get your more recent letters. The last one I received was in December."

"Come on, you can't expect me to believe they all got lost in the mail! I sent tons, and I know I got your address right at least half the time-"

Maybe it was a trick of the light, but Russia's face seemed to be getting a little grayer. "I have not been staying at my usual house in Saint Petersburg lately. If you sent all your letters there, that is why I have not been getting them."

"Why the hell not?"

"I have been in the east, fighting with Japan." His tone was casual enough, but his shoulders were too rigid, his eyes too hooded. "I believe I mentioned that in my last letter, da? That I might have to join the war personally? That is all. I was not around to receive your letters."

It made sense. It did, but a flicker of doubt kept nagging at the back of America's head. "Fine," he allowed, "but you still should have sent me a letter while you were over there, just to let me know that you were okay-"

"And if I was not okay?" Russia had probably meant that to come out as a joke, but the last word wobbled slightly and gave him away.

"Then it would have been even more important for you to write to me! How am I supposed to help you if you don't tell me-"

"And if it is something that you can not help with me? Something you can not fix?"

"Don't be this way," America pleaded, resting a hand against Russia's arm. "There's got to be something I can do to help. There's always something."

Russia didn't answer, except to pull his arm away from America's touch.

"What's happened to you?" America breathed. The sick, heavy feeling in his stomach had returned with a vengeance.

"I lost a war. I have wasted money I couldn't spare on it and now I have been humiliated in front of the entire world," Russia growled darkly. "Is that not answer enough?"

"No, it's not. There's something else, I can tell! You just won't let me know what it is! Now spill it!"

Russia was pretending he couldn't hear, and America took advantage of the silence to wrack his brain for an answer.

"Is something up with your boss's kids?" he finally tried. "I know you're really soft about them. Hell, you used to write about them in your letters all the time. 'Ooh, Tatiana invited me to her pretend tea party yesterday and little Anastasia said my name for the first time last week,'" America mimicked in his best Russia impression. Russia only lowered his head wearily. "Is that it? Is something up with them? I heard a rumor that the youngest kid, whatshisname, Alex or whatever-"


"Yeah, that. I heard that he was sick. Is that what's got you upset? Is he in bad shape?"

"I would not know how he is. I have not been allowed near him, not since January." America noticed a suspiciously wet gleam to Russia's eyes before he looked away.

"Why?" America pressed. "What happened in January? I know there was a massacre then, but-"

"What do you know about it?" Russia asked sharply. His hands had balled into fists, and there was a definite tremble in his voice.

"What do I know about what? That massacre thing?"

"Da. There are..." He hesitated, and ran a hand roughly through his hair. "There are many stories circulating about it. I would like to know what you have heard."

"Just that there was a big demonstration going on," America shrugged. "I dunno what they were marching about, labor rights or something like that, but they were being pretty peaceful and well behaved about it at first. Then..."

"Then?" Was America just imagining it, or had Russia started to shake?

"Then some crazy guard lost his head and fired into the crowd. And the rest of the guards started shooting too, they say, the rest is history. A bunch of innocent people were mowed down, just like that. For no real reason."

A hysterical giggle interrupted him. America turned to stare at Russia, who was hugging his elbows and shuddering. A cold wave washed through America's stomach.

"Is that it? Is that what...?" America wasn't even sure what he was trying to say. "What happened? Were you there? Were you part of the march? Did someone shoot you too?"

"I d-do not want to discuss this anymore," Russia choked thickly, suddenly turning in his chair to stand. What happened next, America wasn't sure. Russia must have put too much weight on that foot he had been limping on for weeks in his haste, because he crumpled almost as soon as he stood. America lept up and seized his arm to try to stop him from falling. He managed to catch Russia from falling all the way, and eased him down the rest of the way to the floor. Russia shrank away once he was sitting, awkwardly pulling his knees up to his chin. He looked terrified, and something clicked in America's head.

"You were there, weren't you?" he whispered. Russia nodded jerkily, but didn't look up. "But not with the demonstrators, right?" Another nod. "Were...were you with the guards? Did you...were you..."

"Th-that c-c-crazy guard who sh-shot first?" Russia finished for him. He pulled his knees up a little tighter and made a quiet noise that sounded entirely too much like a sob.

America was convinced that the bottom of his stomach had fallen out. "Oh my god."

"I-I did not want you to find out." Another tiny sobbing noise. "I d-did not w-want you to know..."

"Oh...oh, don't," America breathed, concern overwhelming his shock. "Come on, big guy. Please don't cry." America touched his back gingerly, and Russia coiled up into himself, reminding America of a hedgehog. He tried again, reaching out of the violently trembling nation, and earned a little flinch for every touch. Finally he just threw an arm around Russia's back and dragged him into a hug, ignoring the way the larger country went rigid. After a few minutes, America's patience was rewarded; the tension began to slowly leak out of Russia's body as he allowed himself to slump against America, shoulders jerking with suppressed sobs.

They sat together like that for what felt like hours to America. He hadn't felt so helpless in a long time. He could handle anger from Russia, and his sullen dark moods and his unpredictable drunken fits, but crying was another situation all together. Russia never cried, at least not when America was watching.

Eventually the muffled weeping died down and Russia extracted himself from America's arms, inching back and keeping his face carefully averted.

"L-look what you do to me," he croaked, fumbling a handkerchief out of his pocket and pressing his face into it. "I have been so g-good for months and now you come in and...and make me this way. Soft."

America couldn't think of a damn thing to say to that, so he just put his hand against Russia's back again, trying to ignore the hitching breaths and damp sniffles as Russia mopped up his face.

"I have not been to my house in Saint Petersburg since then," he said at last, having calmed down enough to speak. "Too many people saw my face then might cause a fuss if someone recognized me."

"Is that why you went out east to fight Japan? To get away from all that?"

Russia nodded and blew his nose before stuffing the handkerchief back into his pocket. "I was hoping that things might have...calmed down a little in my absence." His mouth curled up into a bitter smile. "Not that it changes anything. The people who matter will always remember what I did. Nicolas knows and he is terrified of me now."

America worked his mouth like a fish while struggling to think of something comforting to say. "I-I'm sure he's just kind of shocked about it. He'll calm down after a while-"

"It is not just Nicolas. Everyone who knows is frightened of me now. They are all scared. I am scared." He spat the last sentence out like poison, like it scalded his mouth.

'Scared of what?' America wanted to ask, but held his tongue for once.

"He won't let me near the children anymore," Russia continued hollowly. His finger traced a spiral in the dirt on the floor. "Nicolas, I mean. I was going to say goodbye before I left for the war, and he said..." A harsh, barking laugh here. "He said it was not a good idea. And he gave some half baked reason, but I know, it is because he is afraid of me, of what I might do to them. And I-I could maybe understand with Alexei, because he is so tiny and sick. It is normal for parents to be overly protective of a weak child, da? B-but why can I not see the girls? I would never hurt them, never!"

"S-so talk to him!" America tried helplessly. "Tell him that, see if-"

"And why should he believe me? Why should he trust me? Why should anyone?" The wobble had returned to Russia's voice, threatening another wave of tears.

"What happened in January?" America finally blurted out. The question had been ricocheting around the inside of his brain ever since the truth had come out, and if he hadn't said it, the question might just have bounced right out his ear. "I know what happened, but what happened to you? I mean, it's not like this is the first time you've ever killed some of your own people, right? 'Cause everybody has to do that from time to time for some reason or other."

Russia's body was starting to curl inward, into that defensive hedgehog posture again. America could feel the muscles in his back tensing under his hand. "But I always had a reason before. Sometimes good reasons, and sometimes bad reasons too, but I never killed my own without a reason. This time I had none. I-I killed them because I was upset with them for being unhappy with me. Because I lost my temper. And that is no reason at all. That...that is only monstrous. And I do not want to be a monster." His voice cracked painfully on the last word and he had to stop there, blinking rapidly.

"You're not a monster!" America almost shouted, struggling to rein his voice back in. "You're just...going through a rough time with the war and all the junk going on at your place. I remember doing some crazy stuff during my revolution and civil war. Major national upheaval, it can mess with you."

"I know," Russia whispered. "I have felt a little like this before, when times are hard. But it was never this bad before. I-I never felt that I wasn't myself. That I had no control over myself. But I did in January. And I-I now always feel...what is the word? Unbalanced. As if I could slip back into that again."

"Probably just means you're going through some really big changes, then." It was a challenge to sound casual and confident after listening to Russia spill his heart out all over the bar floor, but America thought he managed pretty well. "You'll go back to normal after all this is over."

"And if I do not? I am changing, America. I-I think...I think I might be close to having a revolution."

The words sunk into the air, shifted something in the very atmosphere of the room.

"Well," America finally said. "That might not be such a bad thing. You know I've never been a big fan of monarchy. If you think you need a new government then hey, go for it."

"Even if it means war? Even if it means I could change for the worse? I do not know who I will turn into if I have a revolution. I barely know who I am now."

"Well, I know who you are. You're Russia. You're ridiculously tall and you can drink vodka like it's water. You're the best chess player I know. You think you can sing when you're drunk (and I hate to tell you this, but you can't.) You're ticklish behind your knees. You've only got a green thumb when it comes to sunflowers. You're a big softy about kids. You snore like a bear. You look like a creepy weirdo at first glance but actually, you're a pretty swell guy who isn't scary at all." He paused to catch his breath and grinned up at Russia. "If all of that stays the same, then I think you'll be okay. You'll still be you."

"You are not scared of me?" Russia's voice was soft and tiny, tentatively hopeful.

"Of course not! I'm only scared of ghosts, and you aren't a ghost. I'm not scared of you."

"That was what I was afraid of," Russia whispered, staring out at the empty bar with glassy eyes. "That you would hate me or fear me after you found out about what I did, like Nicolas and my sisters and Lithuania and ev-everyone. And I could not bear that if you...y-you...I-I had nightmares about this. Truly."

"About me being scared of you?" America repeated incredulously. "Geez, you have the craziest ideas sometimes. How could you possibly think I'd be scared of you? What happened at the protest might have been awful, but you're still you, and you're still my friend-"

America gave an undignified yelp as Russia grabbed him into the tightest bear hug of his entire life. It took a little squirming to adjust into the rib-snapping embrace, but eventually he managed to find a position that wasn't painful and wormed an arm out to pat Russia on the back.

"See, this is why you need me around," America muttered against his shoulder, just to fill up the silence. "You need somebody to vent to every once in a while. It's good to let this stuff out, otherwise all the stress will make your hair turn gray and give you ulcers and hemorrhoids and stuff. I should just build a gigantic motor and attach it to my east coast, drive my whole country over across the Pacific and park next to you so I can keep you company all the time. Wouldn't have to worry about you forgetting to write me letters then."

"You would run over Japan," Russia giggled. America could feel the vibrations through his chest. "Not that I would mind too much."

"Come on, I can steer better than that! I'd just aim north and presto!"

"What about Mexico and...that other country north of you?"

"What about 'em? My engine would be so strong, it would break me right off from 'em."

"It would not be a clean break. And it would cause earthquakes. Kill millions."

"Dammit Russia, stop ruining my brilliant plans with your logic!"

Another rumbling laugh, and Russia finally let go. His skin was still a sickly gray and bags still hung under his eyes that were now slightly red from crying, but he was finally smiling again, like he always used to. America was willing to accept that if he couldn't actually fix Russia's problems for him, he could at least still make the big guy smile. That would have to be good enough for now.

"Listen," America said seriously, leaning closer. "What's happened has happened. It's over, and the war's over too, I don't know about you, but I'm feeling seriously cooped up in here. Everybody is having a huge party outside to celebrate the negotiations coming to a successful end, and I heard there was going to be fireworks later. I'll be damned if I miss any fireworks."

"I would not dare keep you from your precious fireworks, my dear friend."

America hastily stood up from the dusty bar floor and stretched his arms. For some reason, his face had gone red all of a sudden. "We better get going then. And we should invite Japan along too."

"Do we have to?" Russia's voice had turned downright petulant.

"Yes, we have to," America said firmly, turning back now that the inexplicable blush had faded. "It shows good will. And he's a pretty neat guy, when you get to know him. Need a hand?"

Russia held his hands out in reply, and America grabbed both, tugging him up from the floor. He might have pulled too hard; Russia staggered forward into America, wincing when most of his weight came down on his bad foot.

"Sorry, big guy," America laughed sheepishly as Russia leaned against him for a moment to regain his balance. The blush came flaring back up when Russia continued to lean against him for a different reason entirely.

"I am glad that you are with me." The words came out on a whisper, so soft that America was almost unsure that Russia had said anything at all.

"That isn't going to change," America promised. "Never. Cross my heart."

Historical Notes:

The Russo-Japanese War lasted from February 1904 to September 1905. At the time, the commonly held belief was that Asian countries were naturally inferior to Europeans; few believed that Japan would stand a chance in a war against Russia. Japan's victory proved that myth false and greatly increased their global prestige. On the other hand, the war was a humiliating defeat to Russia. It destroyed two of their three fleets, damaged their reputation as a world power and wasted money when their economy was already weak. It is often regarded as one of the triggers that finally lead to the 1905 Revolution.

Theodore Roosevelt called for an end to the war in June of 1905, and the negotiations began on August 9. He offered to mediate the negotiations, and the conference took place in the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Two of the delegates who played the biggest role were Jutaro Komura from Japan and Sergius Witte from Russia. One of the major topics of debate was the subject of an indemnity, in which Japan wanted Russia to pay for the war costs. Witte had little room to negotiate on the topic, because he had strict orders from Nicolas II to not pay an indemnity under any circumstances. In the end, Nicolas II decided that if the topic wasn't dropped, he wanted to continue the war. When faced with those circumstances, Komura agreed to drop the indemnity in exchange for half of Sakhalin Island.

The people of Portsmouth were pretty excited about all the important international affairs that were suddenly going on in their typically quiet city, and really rose to the occasion as hosts. A drink was made specifically for the negotiations, called the Conference Cocktail. According to rumor, it would bring peace and end the war by putting anyone who tried it to sleep. During the last day of the conference, a crowd gathered outside to wait for the news about whether the war would continue or not. When word reached them that the delegates had successfully negotiated an end to the war, the crowd went wild, firing guns in celebrating, ringing bells and so forth. Ironically, they seemed more excited than the people in Japan and Russia. The Japanese felt extremely cheated by having the give up the indemnity, and many of the people in Russia were too bitter about losing the war to be comforted by the fact that they had gotten a pretty good deal out of the negotiations (and there were plenty of other problems to keep them busy besides.)

The Treaty of Portsmouth was signed on September 5, officially ending the Russo-Japanese War.