Disclaimer: I don't own Hetalia or any of the prompts and themes I'm borrowing from the movie "Inception." I'm just walking proof that an idea is the most intrepid parasite. Enjoy.
Chapter Three: The Pre-Job Part Two
Liechtenstein found herself in the woods.
It was cool here; not cold, but cool, shaded by the trees encircled her little path and stretched into the sky. The forest was thick and the trees were twisted and ancient. She'd never seen a forest like this before, not even in the rare occasion she was allowed to wander through the thickest woods of Europe. It seemed to be completely wild, untouched by human hands, and filled with the kind of darkness and mystery that had long ago been sapped from the world she knew.
Stepping into the place, even with its all-devouring shadows and distant howls of unknown beasts, felt as though she were setting foot on hallowed ground. Thus, Liechtenstein moved as silently as she could through the trees, hesitating at every branch and leaf that was crushed beneath her steps, and resisted the urge to hold her breath. She seemed to be alone, but she knew that to be impossible. This was America's Dream, so America had to be here somewhere. Didn't he?
She licked her lips and called softly into the trees, not daring to give her words true voice, "Mister America?"
Her words did not echo. They seemed to be absorbed by the wood; but after a moment another sound reached her ears instead. It was the cry of a baby. No, not one baby. Two.
Liechtenstein lifted her skirts and broke into a run, darting through the trees with grace and speed. Her heart pounded in her ears as the cries grew louder. Were there really children – infants! – in place like this? And they kept on crying…were they alone?
Finally, she found them: two infants not even old enough to walk, wrapped snugly together into a single contraption of leather and wood. They were nestled together so tightly within the warm ties and blankets that she could only catch a glimpse of their pale faces and golden hair, one slightly paler than the other as though it had been frosted with silver. Slowly, Liechtenstein stepped closer, creeping across the scattered remnants so as not to disturb the now-silent infants. The crying had stopped now and they were so quiet that she feared that something was wrong. Then she was close enough to see their sweet, round little faces and saw that they were merely asleep.
She took in a little gasp and tried to hold in the childish desire to squeal. They were adorable, precious little angels, folded up against one another as though they had been born to fit that way. As she leaned over them, the closest one to her, the one whose hair was bright gold – without the touch of frost – suddenly turned towards her, yawned and opened his eyes.
Liechtenstein knew those eyes.
"Mister America," she breathed.
Liechtenstein jumped a foot. She twisted around and found America approaching from behind her, resting a hand on the tree trunks as he passed. The other one moved to rub the back of his neck. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"It's…It's okay," Liechtenstein said, releasing her gasp with a sigh. She looked from America, the full-grown America, to the once-more sleeping babies that slept peacefully against the tree. "Is that really you. And…And Mister Canada?"
America's gaze softened. "Yeah. That's us."
He stepped closer with an odd look on his face. Liechtenstein stepped out of his way. He knelt among the leaves without making a sound and stroked the soft cheek of his brother's former self. "When we were newborns, right after the first Europeans set foot on our continent, we were just like any other babies. We couldn't speak or get food or even walk on our own. A couple of the native tribes – there were hundreds of them, back then – passed us around in a cradle board until we finally got old enough to run off on our own."
Little Canada stirred under his touch, but did not wake, curling closing to the sleeping form of his brother. A sad smile crawled onto America's face. "You know, it's funny," he said, even softer than before. "When I'm awake I don't even remember this. Not really. It's amazing how far back your subconscious can go, in dreams."
Liechtenstein swallowed anxiously. "Does that mean you remember about Mister Canada?"
America shook his head, standing and brushing the dirt from his pants. "No, nothing important; and certainly not from that time. These are just the flashes I get when I try to think of him."
"These?" Liechtenstein asked, but America did not respond. He turned away and set off into the woods, following some hidden trail familiar only to him. Liechtenstein took one last look at the sleeping babies they left behind, then followed him through the trees.
"I guess you found me sleeping," America said, after they'd been walking for a few minutes.
Liechtenstein flushed with embarrassment. "I'm so sorry."
America laughed. "Don't worry. There're a lot worse things you could see."
A matched set of childish giggles echoed through the trees. A moment later, two small children, still in their white nightgowns, came loping in on the back of a polar bear cub barely large enough to hold them. They rode without taking note of either America or Liechtenstein, bursting across the path and turning circles in the road before lumbering off into the darkness once more.
"What is this place?" Liechtenstein asked, hoping that America would silence her if her curiosity wandered too far.
"You know that feeling you get, when you forget a name or word, and it's right on the tip of your tongue or you can picture the face it belongs to, but you just can't seem to get it out?"
"This is where that memory happens to hide. At least, it is for me."
A young America, now a strapping young boy old enough to go to primary school, darted across the path in his britches, suspenders and a button-up shirt. His feet skidded into the dirt as he slid to a stop, turned around and shouted into the trees, "C'mon on, Mattie, hurry up!"
"I'm coming!" the young shade of Canada called in response, stumbling behind with the polar bear in his arms. "Don't run so fast, America!"
Young America laughed out loud and dove into the grove across the path. America, the grown man, stopped to watch as the young memory of Canada staggered in his brother's footsteps, huffing and puffing as he clutched his bear like a security blanket. The smile on America's face turned sad, his longing seeping into every pore of his expression.
Liechtenstein watched him and the memories as carefully as she could, absorbing all of the details. "Is this where Mister Canada came from before? The one that I met in the alley."
America shook his head and his expression turned dark. "No. He's something else entirely."
"Something like what?"
They started walking again. It was neither humid nor cold in this forest. Liechtenstein hadn't quite noticed before but, now that she was trying to be aware, she realized that it felt no differently in here than it did in the hotel room. Maybe that was because their minds had already accepted the unreality, willing to accept the oddness as long as it was only a harmless dream.
"I'm not sure exactly," America said, blowing up his bangs with a sigh. "He started turning up when I went looking for my memories. At first I thought it was Mattie, trying to help me find him, but now…I'm pretty sure that's not right at all."
There was a snap from the trees to their right, which made Liechtenstein jump. Two figures, shadows wavering as though backlit by an old oil lamp, moved among the trees.
"I'm leaving," said one, gripping something that could only be a gun. "Come with me. We can be free together."
The other figure shook his head, voice barely rising above a whisper. "I can't."
"You can. We'll fight together."
Another shaking head, moving more quickly this time. "I can't. I won't. Just go."
America moved quickly away, leaving the shades behind where their voices would carry no more. Liechtenstein hurried to keep up and tried to ignore the noise that sounded like a gunshot in their wake.
"What is he then?" she asked again, pressing close to America, not wanting to lose him at this speed. "A memory?"
America shook his head. "No, something else. Some manifestation of my own mind, like the Projections, but worse. Every time he shows up, he wrecks everything. And he's ruthless. I could never remember Mattie that way."
A gunshot rang through the air, startling Liechtenstein so badly that she grabbed America's arm like a frightened schoolgirl. With a crash, two teenagers in clashing army uniforms – one red, one blue, both blood-stained and tattered – slammed into the ground in front of them, a musket clutched between them. They rolled over each other with such viciousness and fury from both sides that it was impossible to tell who was defending and who was trying to wrap their hands around the other's throat.
"You bastard!" one of them shouted, though Liechtenstein could not tell who had given the cry. "You burned it all, you son of a bitch! How could you do that to me?"
America went rigid as a cliff and white as the foam of the sea. Through clenched teeth, he hissed a painful, "Stop."
And then forest was gone.
They were in the hallway of the hotel where the World Meeting was being held. Liechtenstein glanced around and, as near as she could remember, it was all but perfect. Everything was exactly the same, from the well-groomed carpet to the perfect blossoms sitting in their vases along the wall.
America was breathing hard, his muscles tense, even the arm that Lichtenstein held. She hung on for a moment, gave it a supportive squeeze and stepped away to give him a little space. America clenched his fists, looked at the floor and forced his muscles to relax.
"Sometimes," he said, as an explanation, "memories can be hard to face."
Liechtenstein nodded in understanding.
The voice came from England, of all people, advancing from the other end of the hall. He walked towards them briskly, adjusting his tie with a distracted expression.
Liechtenstein squeaked. "Mister England, what are you doing here?"
"It's not him, Lili," America said. "Not really."
"You git," England said again. "Would you look at me when I'm talking to you?"
America lifted his head and looked directly at the Englishman. England walked right past him without even a glance, moving instead to catch the man behind him by the arm. The blonde turned around with a surprised expression. It was Canada.
He blinked his wide violet eyes and turned his head to the side in confusion. "Ah, England. Did you need something?"
England dropped his arm and looked quite flustered, tugging at his tie once more. "Oh, Canada. I'm sorry, I thought you were your good-for-nothing brother there for a moment. You look so similar from behind."
"It's all right," Canada said with a laugh. "At least you always know my face."
"Yes, yes, of course, how could I possibly forget you?" England said with a chuckle. "Now, I don't suppose you've seen your good-for-nothing brother anywhere? I've been meaning all afternoon to talk with…oh, what is his name again…?"
Canada blinked owlishly again. "Why, I don't know who you're talking about England."
"You know, the fellow who looks like you. Strange, his name was on the tip of my tongue just a moment ago…"
Liechtenstein stared, baffled, at the projections of the two men and at the figure they spoke of, who stood off to the side without a single word. America stood only inches away, yet neither England nor Canada seemed to notice his presence. A few moments later, France appeared and it happened all over again, the three nations walking straight past America even as they laughed about not being able to remember who they'd been talking about.
Finally, she said, "I don't get it. Why can't they see you?"
America shrugged. "They never do. I figure it's punishment, for all of the times that I ignored him or forgot him or stole everyone's attention. It's for all the times I made him feel like he was nothing. When he was invisible."
He went to the door and gazed inside, watching the projections of his mind and memories flock around Canada the way that the real nations came to him in life. America blinked and two thin trails of moisture rolled down his cheeks, sinking into the curves of a smile that did not make its way to his eyes.
"Sometimes I really hate myself, for the way I treated him back then," he said, his voice barely louder than a whisper. "I guess my subconscious hates me too."
His expression was so mournful that it made Liechtenstein's heart thump painfully in her chest. "Mister America…"
He turned his smile to her. It still had not made its way into his eyes. "Never mind all my gloomy shit," he said, waving it off as though his sadness were a bothersome fly. "What did you want to tell me?"
Liechtenstein was startled. "I…How did you know I wanted to…"
America's smile widened. "I can't think of any other reason a nice girl like you would be wandering into my room in the middle of the night."
Liechtenstein flushed. She looked at the carpet beneath her feet and shifted awkwardly in her Mary Janes, feeling like a schoolgirl who'd been called out passing notes in class. "I, um. I just wanted to tell you that I still want to help. And…And I'm sorry for how big brother reacted today. He didn't mean it, really."
"Yes he did," America said with a chuckle, resting a hand on her shoulder. "Vash just wants to look out for you, is all."
"I know he does," she said. "But I still want to help."
"I appreciate that, hun," America said, slipping into just a hint of his Texas accent. He leaned forward and gave her a brotherly little kiss on the forehead. "I really do."
Liechtenstein's cheeks were so warm they felt ready to burst into flames at any moment.
"Now," said America, pulling away from her. "I think it's time we woke you up so you can go get some real rest, in a nice bed."
Remembering how she'd been woken during her first Dream, Lichtenstein's throat tightened in anticipation. "Does that mean you're going to…kill me here?"
America chuckled. "No, no, no. All you need is a kick."
Without even a hint of explanation, America stepped forward and swept Liechtenstein into his arms. She let out a little squeak and moved to wrap her arms around his neck, but he shook them off and gave her a little wink. "Sorry to kick you out like this, but the last thing either of us wants is for your big brother to come in and get the wrong idea. You sleep tight, okay?"
"O-Okay," Liechtenstein sputtered. She had the sneaking suspicion that she wanted, no, needed, to as America something else but, before she could get her thoughts together enough to try, he dropped her.
( - )
Liechtenstein opened her eyes. She was back in America's room, the PASIV machine still beeping quietly to itself in the darkness. According to the clock on the bedside table, it had been ten minutes since she'd entered the Dream. America was still asleep and had not moved from his place on the bed.
It took a moment for Liechtenstein's mind and body to adjust to being awake again. She sat up, rubbed her neck and turned to peak out of the heavy hotel curtains. The streets of Rome were quiet and covered in snow.
She turned back to the bed. At the very least, America seemed peaceful again, hardly stirring in his sleep. She brushed a few golden hairs from his forehead and left a gentle kiss beneath them. "Good night, Mister America."
Then she locked his door and made her way back to the room she shared with her brother.
( - )
America looked down at Liechtenstein's crumpled form, lying sprawled across the hotel carpet in a tangled pile of her own skirts. Kicks were always unnerving, if you lingered behind after they were gone. As soon as he turned his eyes away, he knew, her 'body' would vanish; but for now it was as if she had dropped dead somewhere between his arms and the floor. The thought of doing something like that to a girl, a child, as innocent as Lichtenstein…it made him sick.
Feeling eyes boring into the back of his neck, he finally turned away from the motionless form and faced the man who watched him from the shadows. "Hey Mattie. Sorry to keep you waiting."
Canada – or at least, the projection of him created by America's mind – slid around the corner. His arms were crossed over his chest like a barrier, holding America at a distance. The way that his shoulders were set against the striped wallpaper made the defense even stronger. His violet eyes, when they flickered in America's direction, were cold. He did not smile.
"Let me guess," he said, voice dripping with derision and disgust. "You're going to tell me to leave the girl out of this, playing up your heroic resolve and completely ignoring the fact that you're the one who got her involved in the first place."
America gave a little smirk and tilted his head to the side. "Have I ever asked you to leave any of them 'out of this'?" he asked rhetorically. "They're all grown-up nations with their own GDP and everything. They know the risk."
Matthew's gaze narrowed to a harsh point, which tried its hardest to pierce America's soul. America tried to steel himself against it, like the hard blackened crust of an overcooked burger, but it didn't matter. This Canada was only a part of his subconscious, after all. He knew everything that America knew.
"You're a manipulative bastard," he spat, "And you know it. You're a manipulative, lying, selfish bastard."
"Call me whatever you want," America said with a shrug. He narrowed his eyes to mimic the projection's, reinforcing his resolve. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes. I just want to find Canada."
"No," said Matthew cryptically. "You don't."
Then he turned on his heel and walked out of America's dream.
( - )
"Good afternoon, dear."
"Oh," Lichtenstein said in surprise, freezing in the front door of the hotel suite like a rabbit stumbled upon by a fox. A moment later, she remembered her manners and curtsied to England politely. "Good afternoon, Mister England."
"Arthur is fine," England said with soft chuckle. Once again, he was sipping from a cup of tea. Liechtenstein wondered if the man was ever not drinking tea. He seemed to drink so much that it must have replaced his blood by now.
The World Conference had wrapped up that morning without a hitch. Germany was quite pleased at this development and was therefore willing to overlook the commotion of the day before. Most of the attending countries were returning home this afternoon, but America had made special arrangements with Italy and his government to extend the stay for Lichtenstein, Switzerland and the rest of his "Dream Team" for at least three weeks. That, he said, was how long they would need to school Lichtenstein on the Dreaming specifics, plot their course through the three layers of the Dream and, eventually, make their descent.
Lichtenstein folded out of her coat and hung it in the closet, looking around the suite. "Where is Mister America?" she asked, a bit apprehensive. She was still concerned about her big brother's reaction to this new development, especially after his disastrous trial encounter, but America had promised to take care of everything.
"Alfred won't be joining us for the next few days," England said, setting his tea aside and rising from his seat. "He's busy organizing the rest of the team, arranging things with the Italian government, and drafting a few last-minute recruits."
"Oh?" said Lichtenstein, surprised. "Like who?"
"I'm not sure." England gave a gentlemanly little shrug and made his way across the room to the PASIV machine, which sat in the middle of five small black-leather recliners, the couch and the bed. "Though I do know that we require a good chemist. Japan is an excellent technician, but he's not particularly well-versed on the medicinal side of things, and a delicate balance will be required to go three levels deep without putting anyone into a coma."
"I see," Lichtenstein said, filing the information away in her head. "So Mister America's gone to recruit a chemist."
"And deal with your brother, I should imagine," England said. He drew a pair of white gloves from his suit coat pocket and pulled them on before he opened the PASIV. His touch was more delicate than Japan's had been, almost as though he were afraid to touch the thing. "But we shouldn't dwell on that right now, we've got your training to worry about. Suffice it to say, for now, that both Switzerland and whatever poor clod America's chosen to mix our cocktails are about to find themselves rather taken aback, and we'd both be better to sleep through it so we can get some real work done."
Lichtenstein fell back into her usual chair, wringing her skirt nervously in her hands. "U-Um," she stuttered. "What kind of surprise to you mean?"
"Well," said England with a sigh. "Let's just say that America is not the most subtle nation in the world…"
( - )
"What do you mean I can't check out?"
"I am sorry, Mister von Bock," said the receptionist in surprisingly good Russian, bobbing her head. "We've been asked to inform you that your stay in this hotel has been extended for at least two weeks, with the request that you not leave the building for the rest of the day."
Estonia folded his arms across his chest and drummed his fingers against the inside of his elbow. His rolling suitcase, with his laptop computer packed safely inside, sat at his foot like a loyal pet begging to be released. Behind him, the residents of a large television let out a howl of canned laughter, mocking him for his inability to get out even the hotel's front door. "This is ridiculous. I have to check out. I'm about to miss my flight!"
"Ah, yes," said the receptionist, clicking through the notes on her desktop. "The gentlemen who extended your stay also asked us to inform you that he will be compensating you for the cost of your current flight and that he will also be happy to purchase the ticket for your return flight once his current business with you is concluded in two to three weeks. And he would like us to stress that this new return flight will be in first class."
Estonia pushed his glasses up thoughtfully. He'd never flown first class before. The most his government had ever allowed him was business class.
"Just who is this 'gentleman' you're talking about?" he asked wearily.
A hand, large and warm, descended onto his shoulder. "He's standing right behind you, Eduard old buddy."
"I should have known," Estonia said with a sigh, glancing over at the blond-haired, blue-eyed young man beaming at him like some fool talk show host. "Alfred Jones. What on earth do you want this time?"
"Auw, Eddy, I'm hurt," America said and pantomimed clutching his heart with a melodramatic swoon. "You act like I never come to talk to my old movie buddy unless I want something."
"You don't," Estonia said flatly, shoving his glasses up with a huff. "And you certainly don't divert my flight for two weeks just to have a chat. Also: don't call me Eddy."
America's grin widened and he chuckled, putting his arm around Estonia's shoulders and steering him from the front desk. "Dully noted," he said. "And you're right, of course. I do need a favor. But, as the pretty lady told you, I fully intend to compensate you for your effort and time."
"You always do."
"And I always deliver."
This, Estonia had to admit, was true. America had always been prone to wild flights of fancy and bizarre outbursts, but he was also intelligent enough to know when he was unable to complete the plans on his own, and he always, always paid up what he promised to those who helped him.
He sighed and rubbed his neck. "Okay," he said. "What do you need?"
"For a Dream?" America nodded and Estonia raised an eyebrow. "What, you're not trusting Kiku with that anymore?"
"Kiku's got the mechanicals. It's the chemicals we need."
"With a PASIV it's the same thing."
"Not for this."
Estonia's eyebrow snaked further up, and his glasses slid down his nose. Normal Dreams were easy enough, you just used the assigned chemical materials the way the instructions said and it turned out fine. To need non-standard chemicals meant digging into black market territories… "What are you planning now?"
America held up his left hand, pinky and thumb curled against the palm. "Three levels down."
Estonia clicked his tongue. "You always were one for treading risky frontiers."
"You can do it, right?"
"Of course." Estonia shoved his glasses up his nose. "I've got a contact in Israel who knows the recipe for an herbal concoction designed for exactly that purpose. It's illegal, of course…"
"Let me worry about the laws."
"…And I don't have the materials I'd need to prepare it here…"
"Whatever you need, name it. It'll be in your hotel room before the end of the week."
"You're really serious about this, aren't you?" Estonia stopped and turned to America. They were alone now, hovering outside the hotel elevators, but he still kept his voice low as he asked, "What's this really about."
America slipped his hands into his pockets. His stance was open, but not relaxed. He had nothing to hide, but he also had no reason to be complacent. "This is my last chance, Eduard. After this try, England's pulling the plug. If this doesn't work, my memories will stay right where they are, and I may never see my brother again."
The frankness took Estonia by surprise. America wasn't trying to play to his emotional side. He knew that Estonia was a logical man. So he was doing the logical thing, and stating the facts. No ifs, ands or buts about it.
He shook his head, flipped his hands in defeat and let them thump against his sides. "All right," he said. "I'll do it."
With a whoop, America clapped Estonia on the back so hard that he nearly fell over. "Good old Eduard!" he enthused, punching the elevator button. "I knew I could count on you. All right, you head on back to your room, make yourself comfortable and start writing out that list of whatever you need for this to work. I'd come with you, but at the moment I kind of have a date with an angry Swiss man."
Estonia stumbled, falling against the elevator doors, and fumbled with his glasses. "What on earth did you do to Switzerland?"
"Lichtenstein agreed to be the architect."
"Oh," said Estonia with a blink. "Well. Maybe I should have waited to see if you survive your encounter with him before I agreed. You can't exactly dream with a bullet in your skull."
America laughed, brushing away the concerns with a flip of his hand. "Relax, I know how to deal with Vash."
"I certainly hope you do. He's there on the stairwell, and he seems to be looking for you."
America turned. Switzerland was indeed on the stairwell, with a shotgun in one hand and a pistol in the other. "Well," he said. "No time like the present. Hey, Vash!"
The elevator arrived with a ding, and Estonia tumbled in, not interested in getting caught in the fallout. As the doors slid shut, he caught a final glance of America advancing on Switzerland with a friendly wave. Then there was a gunshot, and Estonia fell back against the rear of the elevator, wondering just what in hell he'd managed to get himself into this time.
( - )
"Right, then. As I was saying: today we start your basic training."
Lichtenstein nodded, falling into measured steps behind England. They were walking through a fashionable business building in what she recognized to be the modern side of London. It was sleek, it was shiny, and it was made primarily of windows, which were so clean that they might as well have not existed. People in suits, high-heels and ties – the projections of England's mind – bustled about, muttering things about memos and meetings. They hadn't noticed the two nations, and Lichtenstein rather hoped that they wouldn't. Ever.
"You've got a pretty good hang of the basic conjuration, it seems," England continued, neither noticing their surroundings nor turning to Lichtenstein. "But there are a number of tricks to keep in mind during your designs. After all, there are no limits in dreams, so you ought to make your environment work for you. That's why it's important to learn about paradoxes."
"I know about paradoxes," Lichtenstein said automatically. They were heading up a flight of stairs now, sleek things made of white metal and class that seemed almost to be suspended in mid-air.
England chuckled. "Logical paradoxes, you mean. Thought experiments, where the facts don't quite seem to agree with one another."
"Yes," said Lichtenstein, pleased that she didn't have to be schooled in something. "Like Locke's socks, or Schrodinger's cat."
"Indeed." England nodded approvingly and advanced up the stairs, the hollow heels of his slick black shoes clicking against the polished, eggshell-white metal stairs. They reached a platform, took a sharp right and continued up, perpendicular to their original flight. "That's a good start. Now, the next step is to apply those aspects to visual design."
Lichtenstein frowned at that, her lips quirking into an uncertain pout. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"Think of it as an optical illusion given form," England said, taking another sharp right on the next platform and continuing his way up. He paused a moment, three steps up, and dragged his heel across the third stair. It left a long black scuffmark on the formerly pristine white surface and earned him a nasty look from the guard stationed below them. England gave the man a cheeky wave and continued on his way, the lecture picking up without pause. "The trick is to make your impossible surroundings work to your advantage, to confuse and get the drop on those who would pursue you."
They took another sharp right, still going up. Lichtenstein gave a little sigh. And she'd been doing so well…
"I don't understand," she said softly. "Perhaps if you showed me and example?"
"Why, my dear, that's exactly what I've been doing."
Lichtenstein stopped, blinked and glanced around in confusion. England chuckled and retreated a few stairs to take her by the elbow, leading her further up the stairs like the loyal escorts in his Victorian movies. They reached another platform, which once again had a second flight of stairs rising up on the right.
"Look there," he said, nodding to an angle directly between the two branching flights.
Below them, the stairs that they had traveled before continued to rise, forming rectangular shape that continued to go up and up, with the landings in each corner. There was no sign of where the stairs began, where they'd entered, nor of where they ended. They simply continued to rise.
"This is the paradox of the Penrose Steps," England said with a pleasant chuckle, continuing their ascent. "A never-ending staircase. It's a classic trick, and very effective."
"But doesn't it leave you trapped as well?" Lichtenstein asked, increasing her speed to keep up with England as they rounded the corners much more quickly than before. "If the staircase never ends, then you can't get away."
"Ah, but you forget: this is your Dream, and you can change the rules however and whenever you wish it."
They'd returned to the England's scuff mark on the third step in the flight of ten. England led Lichtenstein to the platform above it, then placed a hand on her waist to hold her steady and motioned to the floor again. She peered over the edge.
The illusion was broken. The platform hung in the air without stairs leading to or from it. Far below, she saw an identical platform placed directly below this one – this place where they'd started. From the right angle, the Penrose steps would reappear; but for anyone else, there was only a drop.
"Rule Number One," England said with the matter-of-fact air of a school teacher. "Create paradoxes as you needed them, and when you don't need them anymore, allow reality to reassert itself. It's as simple as that, my dear. Simple as that."
( - )
Dodging bullets was not a simple thing, but America – as a nation who had never known a world without the bullet and had indeed won his own independence and many wars beside among a hail of them – was quite good at it, as one can be good at such things. It was serving him well enough now, as he darted through the cement-walled service hallways that wound behind the lavishly-decorated main halls. Switzerland hadn't hit him yet, though there had been some close calls.
The enraged little Swiss man snarled blasphemies, reloading his shotgun with a snap. "Where are you, you bastard?" he demanded of the air. "I know you're here, Jones! Come out and take what's coming to you."
America laughed, his back pressed against a cement support beam that served as both cover and concealment. "Dude, you suck at persuasion."
Switzerland fired off a shot in the vague direction of his voice. It left a spray of gunpowder across the wall behind the pillar. America didn't even flinch. "Seriously man, 'Come out here so I can shoot you'? What kind of diplomacy is that? And really, when you're the one shoot at me for no good reason."
"I have a damn good reason!" Switzerland snapped. His next shot was closer, exploding past America's left ear and causing him to flinch. He tumbled out of his hiding place, clutched at his ear and found himself staring up the muzzle Switzerland's luger. Switzerland narrowed his eyes and hissed, "You…You bastard. Dragging my sister into your stupid plans!"
"I didn't drag anybody," America said reasonably, holding up his hands in mock-surrender. "Lichtenstein came back on her own. She said she wanted to help, and she's real excited about it. You should be proud to have raised such a sweet and helpful girl."
Switzerland's steady hand wavered, his pistol bobbing from its target. America took the opportunity to knock it straight up and dodge away with a backwards somersault. The gun went off and the bullet ricocheted off the celling to bury itself in the wall.
A second later, America darted forward and disarmed Switzerland with a few twists of his wrist. The two guns clattered to the floor. America shoved Switzerland and the smaller man's shoulders hit the wall. Then America was on him again, pinning him against the cement in a way that was almost playful.
"Now then," he said, quirking his lips into a smile. "How about we talk, like reasonable adults, eh?"
Switzerland's scowl deepened. "Why the hell should I?"
"Because if we keep on fighting like this, all it's going to accomplish is upsetting Lichtenstein."
The scowl faltered. Switzerland's tense muscles went slack. His lips fell into an expression that, on anyone else, would be called a pout. "Fine," he huffed. "Talk."
America released the smaller man and straightened, but didn't step away. He wasn't going to give Switzerland a chance to go for the guns again. He did, however, fold his arms across his chest. "Right then," he said, his tone slow and diplomatic. "I didn't trick Lichtenstein. I made her an offer, and she took it, maybe because she's curious, or maybe because she wanted to help me out. One way or another, she's more than old enough to make decisions on her own. She's a big girl."
Switzerland's pout deepened and his eyebrows pushed together. "She's my sister."
"Then you understand where I'm coming from, with this project," America said, lowering his voice to match the other's. "I'm not doing this for me, Vash. It's for my brother. He's out there somewhere – alone, probably hurt, probably trapped and scared. This is the only chance I have to find him, and I need Lili's help to make it work. She understands that. You can too, right?"
Switzerland glared up at the taller man. His eyes gleamed with anger and frustration, but there was something else beneath it, something warmer. Empathy, perhaps.
He glared for almost a full minute, his lips twisted into a tiny knot below his nose. Then, finally, he said, "If you do this, I'm going too. To keep Lili safe."
"I'll agree to that," America said, running through the calculations in his head. With Switzerland, they'd have six going in, assuming that Japan remained awake as a monitor. It would be a chaotic trip, but they could manage it. At least, he was pretty sure.
Switzerland pressed on. "And you let me wake her up at the first sign of trouble, you understand?"
"You can try," America thought, but what he said to Switzerland was, "If Lili agrees to that, then I will too."
With a huff, Switzerland pushed away from America and went to collect his guns. America sat on the stairs and grinned as the Swiss man bustled away, and it never crossed his mind to feel guilty about the information he'd held back.
( - )
From the endless staircase, they made their way to a straight hallway with half-a-dozen doors on each side, all of which looked completely identical. England seemed almost bored as he lead Lichtenstein to the center of the hall, motioning to the doors with long sweeps of his arms.
"This one is something of a recent classic. America is quite fond of it," he said, with a droll roll of his eyes. He opened the door to their left and stepped through, motioning for Lichtenstein to follow. They took two steps, closed the door behind them, and then stepped out again, from the door three rooms down the hall and on the other side.
Lichtenstein giggled, delighted by the trick. "It's like a cartoon!"
"Indeed," said England, stepped through the door ahead of them and reappearing at the other end of the hall. "It's a clever way to conceal your path, once you get the hang of it. The projections get so turned around in these things that they can't find their own heads, let alone yours."
Lichtenstein walked down the length of the hall, resting her hand on each doorknob and memorizing the way they felt against her bare fingers – cool, sleek and very real. Already, the wheels in her head were turning, planning out the mazes she would design for each level, piecing together the worlds…
"Now that you have a decent understanding of the paradoxes," said England, stepping through a certain door and beckoning her to follow. "It's time that we start on the heart of our operation. The key elements, if you will."
Lichtenstein followed him, stepping into a pleasant lecture hall that would not have seemed out of place in Cambridge or Oxford. England took a place at the dark green chalkboard and Lichtenstein, taking his cue, settled into the front row.
"There are two critical elements to keep in mind while working on your designs," England began, inscribing the chalkboard with the caricature of a bank safe. "The first is the safe. On each level, you will need to place a secure location – such as a safe, or a bank, or any sort of secret, hidden, locked location – in the heart of each maze."
"Okay," said Lichtenstein, already adjusting her mental plans. "And what do I put in it?"
"Nothing. Alfred's mind will do that on its own." England continued to draw on the board, almost as much to have something for his hands to do as to assist in his explanation. "When such a location appears in dreams, one's subconscious will automatically fill them with secrets. That's how Extraction works, you see."
"But how do we know Mister America's subconscious will put his memories in there?"
England smiled approvingly. "You already caught on to that. You really are a clever girl."
Lichtenstein flushed, her face turning as dark as her wine-colored dress. England leaned against the chalkboard and set down the chalk. "That, my dear, is where the second key element comes in," he said. "For that, we'll be using emotional cues."
He licked his finger and traced a maple leaf in the chalk dust that stained the board. He surrounded it with a rectangle, and then separated the rectangle into three horizontal bars. "Tell me, what does this bring to mind?"
"Mister Canada," said Lichtenstein with a nod. The tracing was crude, but it did resemble the Canadian flag.
"Precisely," England said, stepping away from the blackboard and dusting the chalk from his hands. "A nation's flag can work as an emotional cue, if a vague and generalized one. When placed strategically throughout the Dream, these cues will prompt America's mind to think of Canada which, in turn, will cause his subconscious to place his hidden memories of Canada into the safes."
"I see," said Lichtenstein.
"Of course, that's much too general to be of any use." England heaved a sigh, nodding to the crudly-drawn flag. "You'll be working with France for that. He knew Matthew better than anyone but Alfred himself and – as amazing as it seems – he is quite good at subtlety, when it's important. But don't you ever tell him or anyone else that I said that."
Lichtenstein giggled, pressing a hand over her mouth. "Of course."
A school bell, ancient and tin, clanged somewhere in the distance. England turned his head towards it, then tugged up his sleeve to check his watch. "My my my, is it time already?"
"Time?" Lichtenstein asked. The bell was still ringing and growing louder every second, making her head pound and her heart thump. "Time for what?"
"Time to wake up."
( - )
Lichtenstein opened her eyes. She was back in the hotel suite, but a haunting feeling nagged at the back of her mind. Was she awake? Really?
America was there, sitting in the armchair beside her and tugging off his tie. He looked tired, but satisfied. The snow outside the window behind him glowed orange in the faint sunset over Rome. "Welcome back," he said. "I trust everything went well."
"Naturally," said England, sitting up from the couch. He rolled his shoulders, plucked the IV out of his arm and said, "I could go for a spot of tea."
America rolled his eyes. He leaned over to gentle remove the IV from Lichtenstein's arm. He paused a moment, looking into her eyes as his hand lingered on the crook of her arm. His eyes were very blue, both bright and dark, and in the red light of the sunset they seemed almost violet. Lichtenstein's breath caught in her throat.
"You okay there, hun?" America asked, his tone gentle. "You look kinda freaked."
Lichtenstein swallowed. Her throat felt very dry. "Am I awake?"
America quirked his head. He leaned back in his chair and drew the double-headed silver dollar from his pocket. It spun into the air with a whirring song, like a tiny bell. He caught it in his palm and pressed it into the back of his other hand. George Washington gazed up at them both.
"Well, I'm awake," he concluded, pocketing the coin. "That oughta mean that you are too."
"We really should get you a totem prepared," England said, bustling from the couch to the silver tea-set that sat on the bedside table. "Disorientation among dream levels can be dangerous."
"Mm," said America, almost agreeably. "We can worry about that tomorrow."
Tomorrow. There would be weeks' worth of tomorrows from now on. Tomorrows full of lessons, of training, of plans; full of questions, of mazes, of paradoxes; full of dreams. Rising from her chair to unsteady feet, Lichtenstein wondered if she would be up for it all.
She supposed she would just have to wait and find out.