Dro: Getting so close to that last major turning point. Can't wait for it! Have at it, people!

Chapter Summary: There's a lot of talking. And a lot of tension.

Warnings: None

Disclaimer: Dro still doesn't own APH, guys. My random breaks were not trips to coerce the owners of APH to give it to me. I promise.

Alfred tiptoed down the stairs. This house was old, and each board creaked slightly as he pressed on them with the pads of his toes, but he moved as quietly as he could. The silence, while it did allow him to think clearly, was rather disorienting. He was sure things hadn't been this quiet since he'd been back in the abandoned farm house. That seemed like a decade ago already, and it gave Alfred a strange feeling of nostalgia that he found ironic. He'd been nearly immobile back then and equally as restless, and he'd been dying to get out of that place and back into the world. Now, he just wanted peace again. He hated this constant threat of death and injury that seemed to trail them everywhere they went.

He knew that if they successfully made it past either front, they would likely be home free, but at this point, he had no idea where he was going or how he was going to get there. Ivan's mind was mangled from Toris' death, and he didn't seem to be interested in keeping prisoners any longer. So where did that leave them? They could easily slip away from the Russian and head back toward France, though it was likely they were further away from France than they were from the eastern German border at this point. He honestly wasn't sure which direction to go. With the SS hot on their trails, he wasn't sure they could even go back west to begin with. For all he knew, heading toward Russia might very well have been their only remaining option.

He shook his head. He needed some more noise. Too much thinking was just confusing him further. He scouted the living room. The house was still lit with a few sparse lights, though most of its current occupants were asleep. At least one other was still awake, however. He'd heard Ludwig's lumbering gait descend down the stairs a few minutes prior, and he'd quickly followed. He didn't know where the German man had gone after he'd made it to the lower level, but he found out pretty quickly.

Ludwig sat in his direct line of sight, splayed out on an old couch. Alfred was slightly embarrassed that he couldn't tell whether Ludwig was awake or not at this distance. And probably not at any distance, for that matter. "Sight" was a bit of a stretch. He could see colors and shapes—technically—but everything was so blurry that he might as well as been peering through a sheet of paper. From his position at the bottom of the stairs, he could Ludwig only as a flesh-colored blur covered with a huge dark blotch—his clothing. The lamp on the table nearest to him was just a bright ball of light. What he guessed was a coffee table looked like a big, square-like brown blob. A lot of the colors seemed to blend together, and many smaller objects were undistinguishable from the things next to them. He couldn't tell where some things ended and others began, and there were probably a multitude of things that he couldn't even tell were there.

But it was better than darkness. Anything was better than the darkness.

He quietly shuffled into the room, unsure as to whether Ludwig could hear him or not. He got his answer as the blur moved.

"Alfred?" He sat up and—Alfred assumed—stared.


"Why aren't you asleep?" He yawned as he spoke. Apparently, Alfred wasn't the only one who needed sleep.

"Same reason you aren't, I guess." He moved toward the sofa and sank down as Ludwig moved out of the way to make him room. Even at this distance, Ludwig was nearly featureless. His shape became slightly more defined, but there was no proximity at which Alfred's vision actually came into focus. His eyes were too damaged to have recovered to that point. He'd probably never see much better this. But he would take what he could get. He was able to refinish Ludwig's portrait in his mind now. He'd been rather close, but now he could see exactly how tall, how wide Ludwig was. He could see the exact shade of his hair, and if he got close enough, he knew he'd be able to see Ludwig's eye color. Just a glimpse was all he needed.

Before he could get it, Ludwig embraced him gently. "Are you all right?" Ludwig sighed into his ear.

He smiled. "Fine. A few bruises. A few scratches. But I'm fine. You?"

"Slightly worse off than yourself. But I am also well." Ludwig moved away from him and resettled into his former position. "How is Arthur doing?"

Alfred frowned. "He's…okay. But he lost a lot of blood. He might be unconscious for a while. But he'll live. If we don't get attacked again soon." Alfred leaned in closer, trying to get that one glimpse. "How's Gilbert?"

Just as those blurry blue irises became to visible to him, Ludwig replied. "He is very much alive and still himself. He has lost much, but he has not given up. Even with an arm missing, he still maintains his usual demeanor."

Satisfied, Alfred pulled away, grinning. "Sounds like Gilbert. I'm glad he's all right. I haven't had much time to talk to him yet."

Before he could react, Ludwig leaned over and kissed him softly. "I have regained some of my faith now, Alfred, and I firmly believe that at some point in the future, you will have all the time in the world to talk with him."

Alfred felt himself blush and nodded. "I hope so. I really do. I'm ready to get out of this mess."

"As am I."

"So, does this mean that…that you're coming all the way with us? Both you and Gilbert? You're going to officially defect now?"

Ludwig chuckled. "Alfred, I defected a long time ago."

With morning came a rush of activity, and Alfred washed and dressed him as best he could, redoing his remaining bandages quickly. Most of his minor burns were long gone, but the worst ones still looked rather nasty, at least from pseudo-sight's point of view. He crept down the hall and peaked through a crack in the door of the room where Arthur had been placed. Arthur had not awoken yet, and Mattie was asleep in a chair at his bedside. Smiling to himself, Alfred turned around to head downstairs, only to come face to face with Ivan. With some hint of vision returned to him, Ivan suddenly seemed a lot more imposing.

He'd been imposing before, of course. But now Alfred could see the mountain of a man that stood in front of him. Ivan apparently caught on. "How do I look to you, American boy?" He seemed mildly amused, but his usual zeal was lost, his typical act damaged from Toris' death.

"Like a very wide, tall, pale…person." Ivan looked slightly different than he'd imagined. They were as close as he was willing to get to the man, and he noticed several things that made him reevaluate Ivan. Ivan's hair was a pale shade, closer to a white than a blond. And his eyes. Alfred could see them glinting in the light that shone in through the window behind him. Ivan's eyes lit up like amethysts. There was something very…cold about the color. He wasn't sure why that word seemed to apply here, but for some reason…it just…did. He'd expected to see the heat and fury and spark of cockiness that came through in Ivan's voice and actions, but it just wasn't there. It wasn't reflected in his eyes.

He knew Ivan's personality was a mask, but he hadn't known it was quite this bad, nor he had known it was quite this obvious. When he'd had no sight whatsoever, he'd been forced to slowly decipher Ivan's act, but now…now it was just out there for everyone to see. Perhaps that was the way he intimidated people. Perhaps this coldness and his playful heat worked in tandem. The thought made him shiver.

"You are feeling fine, da?"

"Yes…" He wasn't sure what Ivan wanted with him today, and his mind flashed back to their kiss again. He forced himself to concentrate. "How about you?"

"I am feeling better for the moment." He turned his head to the side. "I was going to see your brother, but it appears he is still sleeping."

Ivan wanted to see Mattie? What was that about? Of course, Ivan had done something to Mattie, something he still hadn't figured out yet.

"I will be returning later then." He whipped around and marched off down the stairs before Alfred could stop him.

Great. Just what he needed. Another mystery to solve.

Matthew awoke to the sound of the door creaking open. He blinked tiredly and turned toward the sound, only to see Ivan emerging through the doorway. He sat up, gasping, trying to remember where he was. It all came back to him a moment later as he spotted Arthur still laying—pale and unconscious—on the bed before him. He began to relax, but he kept a close eye on the Russian.

"Can I help you?"

Ivan wouldn't meet his gaze. Instead, he stared warily at Arthur. "Meet me later, da? Outside on the deck is fine. Just make sure you are alone. Perhaps come to me after breakfast? They are making it now." With that, he turned around and marched out the room, looking more awkward with each step.

Matthew sat still, completely confused as to what had just occurred. It had almost sounded like Ivan's last few "invitations," but there was something else in his voice that had most certainly not been there before. He'd heard about the man called Toris, and he wondered just what kind of effect the man's death had had on Ivan to make him act so out of character. Rubbing his eyes, he blinked away the last tendrils of sleep and gazed down at Arthur's motionless form. He was still white as a sheet, and that scared Matthew greatly, but the older man had told him that Arthur would survive, and at this point, he had no choice but to trust these people.

He rose to his feet and made to leave the room, but he paused before he took his first step. He glanced at Arthur and then to the open door. Before he could stop himself, he bent down and kissed Arthur's cheek. "Wake up soon," he whispered in the man's ear. He excused himself before he let it go any further.

He met Al and the others at the breakfast table, and he hugged his brother tightly before settling down in his chair. If he had anything at all to be happy for right now, it was that they were back together again. During the escapade with the river, Matthew had been terrified that he was going to lose track of Al again. Now that that was no longer a possibility, he allowed himself to feel a hint of peace for the first time in a long while. It was refreshing. As far as he knew, the SS wasn't still hot on their trail and there were no more rivers they would have to be floating down. At least for now. All of that could change as soon as they left this house, but for now, they were here, and there was food and medicine, and a place to sleep. And Al and Arthur. And those were the only things he needed to live.

He surprised himself by heading toward the deck after he'd finished eating. He'd asked Al to go check on Arthur, telling a little white lie that he was seeking out Gilbert. The morning air was cool, and he spotted Ivan leaning against the railing, eyes focused on the nearby trees. He cautiously approached.

"You wanted something?" He hoped that something didn't involve any touching.


When Ivan said nothing more, Matthew started to fidget. "Well, what is it?"

Finally, Ivan turned to face him, and Matthew froze. There was something in Ivan's eyes that he had never seen before, and it shook him. Hard. Because it was something he wasn't sure the man could possibly feel.

True and absolute regret.

"I wanted to tell you that I am sorry."

Dro: Ah, Ivan, you're bipolar personality is quite amazing.

Next Chapter: Arthur wakes up. Matthew tries to talk to him. They're interrupted.