"I am a despicable human being!"

-Rapunzel, Tangled

Honestly, this is exactly how I feel right now. T.T If you still want to put up with my unecessarily long and rambling author's notes, please give me a chance to explain my absence, as well as why this chapter is much shorter than the ones before it. You see, I did expect to have a lot more time to create better and faster updates for this story this summer (that seems logical, right?). But the fact is...I just don't. 0_o Somehow my schedule got plugged up with random crap that has left me little time for writing. What writing time I do have, I've (perhaps unwisely) devoted to my original project as well as others. This one somehow slipped under the radar, and before I knew it, it had already been six weeks since the last update. And on top of that, I've been having a dash of computer trouble recently, which also hindered things. Guys, I know this isn't by any means a worthy excuse, but I hope you'll take it into consideration as you angrily storm my house with sporks.

On a much lighter but somewhat related note, not only has the one-year anniversary of this story come and gone (as one lovely reviewer so kindly brought to my attention), but while looking back at my older stories one day I realized that I have reached the milestone of recieving 200 reviews collectively on my stories! TWT You do not know how ecstatic I was, and all credit is entirely due to you guys. Your support is amazing, particularly for followers of this story who have stuck with it since it began early on. Please know that come hell or high water, I am determined to finish this one, because you guys deserve it so much! Just...gah...just THANK YOU ALL~! ^3^

(And I hope this quasi-filler chapter at least makes up a little bit for my putting this story on hold so much...I guess it is about a topic a lot have been asking about, if that holds any value? ^^')


He lay sprawled on the ground, head encircled by a growing sphere of moist red gore, the deformed crimson halo of a fallen angel. As he looked up from where he had fallen on the asphalt surface—what would soon become his cold and uncaring deathbed, he was sure—he noticed that in the gaze of his attacker standing above him, there was the most eerie and unnatural tranquility.

And then, as a tremor slithered its way up his spine, he noticed how much that utterly terrified him.

A killer should not simply look down upon one of his dying victims—someone whom he was about to banish from existence, someone whose body would soon become a fleshy haven for maggots and worms—a killer should not look upon that and feel calm. There should be some other recognizable emotion floating like flotsam on the unconcerned waves of his eyes. There should have been horror or satisfaction or fear or bloodlust or (in a few rare cases) remorse.

But the expression that touched the face of the too-familiar young man known as Japan was unabashed as a boulder enduring the lashings of a storm, as blank as a white page that had never known the caress of an ink pen. In fact, he had the audacity to appear almost bored.

And yes, to him, that was quite frightening indeed…because if Japan could remain unaffected by such a sight as watching another human being dribble life out into the street, what other spectacles could he endure? What other disgusting acts could he commit without batting an eyelash, without any feeling that such deeds were out of the ordinary?

"I always did think that you were too old to manage yourself…that's how you've been ever since I can remember."

With great effort, China raised his head from the pool of blood, his ponytail dripping scarlet like the paintbrush of a particularly macabre artist. He realized that one side of his cranium now felt slightly lighter than the other, but he knew the reason for that. Glaring a bright hazel glare at the younger man before him, he responded scathingly, "Would someone too old to handle himself have been able to deliver bruises like that?" He gestured to the fresh purple mark that now adorned Japan's lip like a strange and hideous tattoo, one of many injuries that had sprouted all over his body. China's fist had planted each one there, including the blow that had initially thrown the younger of the two nations into unconsciousness, if only for a few seconds.

Japan's mouth twitched, curved into a slight frown. "But when you were ready to finish me off for good, you hesitated. That's always been your problem: you hesitate."

As much as China did not want to admit to that fact, it had been all too true. Just minutes ago he had managed to fight and incapacitated Japan. He had poised himself for a definitive strike, had been perfectly ready to send the vicious point of his long blade on a pitifully short journey through his fellow nation's innards—if he had gotten lucky, perhaps he could have popped a lung like a pin to an unfortunate balloon or even dipped his sword into the rich, beating vessel of life in his chest.

China had been prepared for all of that, prepared for revenge…and then he had paused. He paused before he could skewer Japan's heart, just as his had been all but ripped apart in the past.

He did so because before his eyes, Japan had changed...oh, his bodily form had remained the same, but the way that the older country saw him did not. He had not seen the Japan that had betrayed him, had not seen the one that had begun the trend of all the people around China tossing him away like so much wind-tossed trash into the filth of the alleys. No, for the first time in what must have been an eternity, he had seen the broken but promising young man whom he had brought into his half-destroyed home shortly after the rise of TERRA, shortly after the beginning of the dark times.

He had seen the Japan that once upon a time had asked him for help.

And recognizing that Japan, there was no possible way that China could have ever murdered him so brutally, no matter the brutalities the latter had forced the former to endure before.

His moments of indecision had allowed Japan his chance to suddenly seize China's weapon, throwing him backwards. Before the amber-eyed nation could even begin to react, he heard the whoosh of sharpened metal slicing the air next to him like a remarkably gentle breeze, whispering brief words of violence to him.

And China knew for sure then that it must be a truly fine and clean blade as well, since he was surprised by how little he felt at first when his ear was smoothly cut off.

From that point, there had been no contest, despite China's fervent efforts to resist. Even though Japan appeared sickly and skeletal, even though his rib and hip bones jutted out defiantly against the frail skin that contained them…every one of those bones was stronger, younger than those of the old country. So now he crouched there, defeated and bound like an animal on the sidewalk, looking down at his own newly detached body part that would perpetually hear and never find the words to respond. He sat, waiting impatiently for a finishing blow and fearing that it would not be mercifully quick.

"You never did explain to me why you left us," he growled, simply because he was anxious to provoke some sort of reply from the horrifically stoic man.

He received one. " 'Us'? I do not see the others here with you…they've left you as well. They have, haven't they?"

And it was those few simple words that penetrated him more deeply than any knife could ever hope to, burned him more than the chafing ropes that Japan had used to subdue him, now coiling serpentine around his wrists and ankles. That one statement had allowed the deluge of memories to wash over and overpower him, the waters leaving behind a bittersweet taste as they filled up his mouth. As the current tossed and carried him along, he passed by the faces of those who had once looked to him as a leader. Hong Kong. Taiwan. The Korea brothers. Vietnam. These were the nations that he had salvaged after the government had begun hunting down their kind, the ones whom he had invited to stay with him and stay at least relatively safe.

But Japan had been the first. Japan had been the first that he had taken in and assisted, the first one that China had tried to make strong again.

And Japan had also been the first one to thrust a dagger into the older man's back one night as he slept.

After that, all the other countries seemed desperately anxious to leave as well—Japan had always been the most distant and the most independent, but gradually they, too, all chose to depart from him until he was at last left alone…and it seemed that in an attempt to heal the mental wounds each disappeared nation had inflicted upon him when they had left him behind, he had hastily tried to plaster over the gaping holes in his soul with bitterness and hatred.

"That isn't what I asked you. I asked you why you chose to leave!"

Japan raised his eyebrows slightly, condescendingly, as though the answer were painfully obvious. "What have you ever done to try to change the situation of the world? None of us were content to live with you forever…we would've only wasted away, trying to dodge TERRA's soldiers but doing nothing to actually stop them. You were too weak to try rebelling against them. That is why we all left—it is because you were foolish and content to preserve the status quo. We weren't."

China turned away slowly, refusing to reply. For a moment he chose to turn his attention to a collection of beetles marching dutifully across the ground, all sporting iridescent black shells that would be no defense against a boot bearing down on them to crush them. Their exoskeletons would crumble and split like shattering eggshells, their guts oozing out. He wondered, vaguely, if he would look like that once Japan at last finished him off. He wondered if these few bugs would be the last thing he would ever see in the worldly realm, before the pall of darkness were carefully pulled over him.

"At least…" Japan began, causing China to look back up. "Even if you are weak in other ways, at least you are not showing your pain. You never have shown anyone your pain."

To his amazement—perhaps it was a trick of the light, but he wanted so terribly to believe that it was indeed real—he thought he saw some sort of hint of humanity springing up like a tiny bud through the seemingly fallow soil of Japan's eyes. Maybe the younger man even had some rather fond recollection of his past with China. Maybe Japan didn't truly want to kill him…after all, he had not attempted to land the final blow yet, had he? Perhaps Japan had some sort of reluctance after all, and maybe he—

Japan raised the sword high above his head, and as he did so he immediately caused whatever semblance of hope that had been building up in China's chest to plummet to earth, like a fowler shooting down a young bird that had only just begun to fly. "But then, you haven't felt any real pain yet, have you?"

Drops of fresh blood dripped slowly down the blade poised above him, coursing down the metal surface like tears, as though it regretted the fact that it now had to kill the person who had once wielded it. If only, if only Japan felt that way as well.

…Oh. He saw it now. In reality there was nothing, nothing in Japan's ocher orbs that suggested that he had any feelings after all. They were two barren wastelands, fit only for the production of rocky earth and disloyalty.

And then down it came. Down, down, down came the flashing liquid silver-a hot torrent of metal surging wildly through the veins in his leg, the fresh products of a fiery kiln splitting his thin, pale flesh.

Oh, how he wanted to scream. Oh, how he would have loved to unleash the anguished and furious yell that had been ignited in the back of his throat and clawing its way up to the tip of his tongue, to give it life and a voice. He wanted to launch that stream of agonized sound, just as the warmth was flowing from his deadly wound in a pulsing river of vermillion chaos...

But he refused. He caged the bestial screech behind gritted teeth, even as it fought desperately to break its way out of its enamel prison.

Do not show pain.

"I see...it is a bit impressive, how stubborn you are. Not even a yelp." A voice as hollow and unfeeling as the desert gusts, as the eyes of an ivory skull. "If you're still conscious enough to hear me, know that you'll bleed out within minutes."

Do not show any pain. Never, never, never...

"And know that I've done this for my survival. Nothing more, nothing less. Sayonara..."

That was all. No great speech of victory, nothing that would indicate that Japan received any satisfaction from what he had just done. And as the young man went away for the final time, and as the world before him was stripped away from China like scraps of paper scattered on the air, he realized one thing that he should have years ago: Age and death did not come one after the other. They traveled together, united, a two-headed viper.

He had died long ago.

And still he did not show pain.

He thought, for a moment, that he saw the form of a human...perhaps even one that was walking toward rather than from him, at long last. But that visage, like all others, was drowned in the blackness as a permanent sleep weighed down upon him.