Vash raised the birches in the air, his face set into an impassive frown as he brought the twigs down hard on Gilbert's backside. SWISH, THWIP!
Surprised by the unexpected sensation Gilbert's head shot up and he gave a cut off yelp, his hands gripping the chair handles tightly as his feet kicked upwards in reaction to the thousand needles that suddenly stung the entire surface of his bottom.
Lucas yelled, his head lifting from the pillow and his eyes scrunched tight as the burning stripe rippled along the roundest part of his backside, the pain shockingly localised to that fine, fiery line. He dug his fingers hard into the pillow and howled through the next one, this time right on the crease were his bottom and thighs met.
Gilbert whimpered, the stinging becoming a hot, horrible burn like a nettle rash all across his rear and the top of his thighs. Tears gathered at the corner of his eyes and he pressed them closed to try to fight them, knowing he would die of shame if the older nation were to see him cry.
The fourth stroke fell on Neuchâtel's thighs, making him kick his legs and squirm uncontrollably as he bawled out his pain into the pillow. Indistinguishable words of remorse came out in a babbled mess but he stopped when a calming hand rested on his back.
'I will continue when you are calm, Kleiner,' Frederik's voice was gentle but firm and he waited patiently as the little canton settled.
'You are bearing this well,' Gilbert heard Vash saying over the sound of the pounding of his own heartbeat in his ears. 'You have already taken more than half of your punishment.'
The words, meant to encourage, only served to panic Prussia more. Five strokes already and only half way to the end?! Who could bear such a monstrous ordeal? With a glup of resignation, Gilbert caved in, gasping his right arm with his left hand and cradling his head in the crook of his arm as he began to sob.
Lucas drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, repeating the action several times until he felt himself calming. He let his muscles relax and lowered his legs, his body still once more aside from the hiccups of his remaining tears.
'Well done, Junger,' Frederik's voice said above him. There was a pregnant pause and then...
The last two strokes came fast after each other, giving the boy no time in between. This came as a blessing as well as a shock for the poor canton who collapsed into a stuttering heap onto the settee, fresh tears gushing. He felt himself being lifted and held, his sore bottom resting gently against a leg whilst arms wrapped him up in an embrace. He clutched the King's collar, weeping uncontrollably into it and trying not to squirm at the throbbing pain in his backside. Old Fritz patted the child's shoulder and whispered replies to the babble of apologies that flowed out of the youngster as rapidly as his tears.
Gilbert shook at the stroke, not even knowing what number it was in the endless torment. He whimpered softly, his tears all shed, his legs only jerking a little to the pain, completely broken. Vash had covered his rear from tail to the backs of his knees and Gilbert wondered if he would ever grow back the skin he felt had been flayed right off him with the vicious little twigs.
He heard a little sigh behind him and wondered what was running through Switzerland's mind as he lay there; humiliated, broken and utterly miserable.
Gilbert howled so hard he thought that he might summon all the soldiers in the army to the room, the last hard stroke worse than any before it. In the blurriness of his tear-streaked vision he saw Vash standing to the side of his chair, reaching out and holding his shoulders, helping him to his feet. Prussia stood unsteadily, moaning and sniffling into his sleeves as he tried his hardest to control his emotions. After a second in which he felt rather than saw the older nation hesitate, he was wrapped up in a rough hug which he sank into gratefully despite his pride which stung as much as his poor backside.
After a long pause where the only sounds in the room were his stifled sniffles and Switzerland's gentle shushing, Vash pulled away.
'This isn't over, Gör,' he said, kindness in the tone. Prussia, his heart sinking, let himself be led away, out into the hallway and along the corridor, trying hard not to let his pained limp show.
Lucas looked up when he heard the door to the scullery open and then away again in embarrassment as he saw his cousin and even worse, his brother, enter. He sat on a hard wood stool, clearly in a great deal of discomfort but unwilling to squirm too much in fear most likely of further reprimand.
The scullery held a long marble sink where the palace kitchen boys cleaned dishes and pans, large wooden slats were placed before them, tall enough for the boys - usually eleven or twelve years of age - to reach the sink. Massive copper pots shone brightly from the walls and a fire at one end crackled, turning the room muggy in the summer heat.
Vash directed Gilbert to another stool, sharing a businesslike nod with King Frederik who had turned from where he had been standing, admiring the window's view when they had entered.
'Boys,' he began as Gilbert took his place, steadfastly ignoring his boss as his cheeks burnt with shame. 'Yesterday Herr Zwingli and I were disgusted by the coarse language and foul innuendo that we were witness to prior to your discovery. You have so far been punished for your lies and misdeeds, now you shall face the consequences of your unpleasant manner. Before you both is a bar of soap, large enough to wash your mouths clean. With any hope it will reach your minds for by the sounds of some of the lyrics in your songs-,' Fritz paused, letting the boy's discomfort grow at the idea of what they had done, '-they are also in sore need of cleansing.'
'You will each take your soap and lather it, then place it in the cups before you,' Vash said calmly. 'You see they both contain water. You will rinse your mouths with this soap water – not forgetting to gargle of course – until there is none left.'
Cheeks flaming red Gilbert nodded, tears of regret pricking at the corners of his eyes. He winced, standing from his stool and walking to the sink. Eyeing the soap and the mug in displeasure he took the hateful bar up and soaped it well, knowing a half hearted effort at this stage would lead to painful consequences. He saw his young cousin step up beside him and heard the sniffing as the boy tried in vain to hold back more tears. Dropping the soap into the cup Prussia took it up, gritting his teeth before taking a bold swig, sloshing the nasty mixture around his mouth with as much bravado-born gusto as he could manage. When he could bear it no longer he spat, coughing at the taste and chocking a little as bubbles popped in his throat. There was an eruption beside him and Neuchâtel half vomited his mouthful into the sink, spluttering and coughing, the water had gone up his nose and his eyes ran fast with tears of a mixture of pain and embarrassed guilt of his actions.
Another swig and Gilbert had drained his cup, finally spitting out the liquid and gasping, his own eyes filled with tears. He didn't dare rinse until his boss gave him leave though and waited in silence until Lucas was finished, both turning to the adults in hope of a swift reprieve.
King Frederik nodded at the task well done, his face impassive. 'Take up your bars of soap,' he said to the disbelieving boys, 'place them in your mouths and then sit back on the stools.'
Neuchâtel broke into tears, rubbing his hands miserably over his eyes. Gilbert bit his lip in shame, knowing that the majority of this had been his fault. He put a hand on the boy's shoulder, picking up the soap and placing it in his hands, giving his cousin an encouraging smile and quick wink which went unnoticed or at least unmentioned by the two adults. Sniffing bravely Lucas nodded, his lips curved down in a mournful grimace as he made his way back to the stool and scrambled up, yelping at the renewed pain in his back end.
Turning back to the soap Gilbert snatched it up, determined now to act brave for his cousin's sake. He bit down on his tongue as he sat back on the hard stool, trying to make the move seem relaxed even though inside he was screaming and bawling like a five year old. He hesitated for a barely noticeable second before putting the soap in his mouth.
The minutes ticked by in agonisingly uncomfortable silence. Prussia tried not to wriggle but was finding it increasingly difficult to remain stoic. He could see out of the corner of his eye that Lucas had started to cry again in earnest, the tears silent but utterly wretched. He felt the same way, his body trembling with the effort to keep his emotions in check.
Ten minutes passed before Vash spoke. 'Lucas, you may remove the soap and rinse your mouth.'
Lucas leapt from the stool, spitting the soap into the sink and pumping the sinks handle furiously to get the water to wash out his foam-filled mouth. When he was done Vash headed towards the door, instructing his young brother to follow him.
Gilbert shifted uncomfortably but to his credit waited until the door had closed behind Neuchâtel before he let the first of several sniffling whimpers escape his lips.
It was a few more minutes before King Frederik spoke.
'Gilbert, you may rinse your mouth.'
Rising unsteadily from the stool Gilbert eased himself slowly over to the sink and tried to spit out the soap, but found it stuck to his tongue! He scraped the offending material from his tongue, pawing at it in between pumping his water and eventually holding his head under the tap to gargle the water straight from the spout.
When he was done he straightened but did not face his boss.
'Gilbert,' Old Fritz said quietly and the boy flinched.
Gilbert did not respond, merely holding onto the sink's edge and keeping his head bowed.
'Gilbert,' his king repeated, the tone a little more forceful.
Prussia drew in a long sniff. 'Old man?' he asked, his voice quavering as he finally turned and looked up at his boss, his eyes filled with regret and fear.
The King blinked back surprise and then his expression softened and he spread his arms wide, a gentle smile on his face.
His ward rushed forwards, wrapping his arms around the man and hugging him tightly, tears running anew down his face and onto the king's shirtfront. He didn't speak but simply cried out all of his remorse as Old Fritz gently caressed his silver head.
'I disappointed you,' Prussia said when his tears has slowed to a trickle.
'I'll get over it,' Old Fritz chuckled stroking the head and giving his shoulders a reassuring squeeze. 'As will you, Bose.'
When Gilbert's tears were done with he stayed with his head buried in his mentor's shirtfront, treasuring the comfort he felt after the lonliness of his earlier punishment. He shivered,
remembering the wicked sting of the birch twigs.
'Are you cold?' Fritz asked in concern; the room was stiflingly hot thanks to the fire.
Gilbert shook his head. 'Please,' he mumbled.
The young teen blushed furiously. 'Please don't let Switzerland punish me again.'
Frederik frowned, he looked down at the boy and tilted up his head, his fingers under the boy's chin. 'Did he hurt you very badly?' he asked, shocked that the man would have been so cruel.
Gilbert shook his head, pushing it into his boss's chest once more. 'He wasn't you,' he said quietly.
'You'd prefer that I would punish you?'
Gilbert nodded minutely. '...and your cane,' he said, the words almost lost in the folds of Frederik's shirt.
Fritz could have laughed. 'I see,' he said, pulling the boy close, 'were the birches worse than my cane.'
'Lots worse!' Prussia said earnestly, staring up at the king with his defiant red eyes. 'It was awful!'
'Hmm, perhaps I ought to consider it, seeing as it has left such an impression on you,' the king suggested in mock deliberation.
'No!' Gilbert said, more commanding than he had leave to be, and quickly followed it with a whining, 'please.'
'I think I'll stick to my cane,' Frederik said with a smile. 'I wouldn't know how to make one anyone, since Herr Vash burned his.'
Old Fritz nodded kindly. 'But don't you worry, Kleiner, my cane is ready and waiting, should the need arise.' He laughed lightly as Gilbert ducked his head in embarrassment. 'Now, I suggest you go and rest in your chambers for a while. I instructed the staff to draw your curtains and it will be wonderfully cool just now. Once you are awake we shall eat lunch together. What do you say to a picnic? By the lake?'
'Really?!' Gilbert asked incredulously. 'What about our lessons?' he didn't want to bring up the subject of lessons but after yesterday's disaster was not taking chances.
'I admire your eagerness,' the king said with humour, 'but to make you and your cousin sit on a hardwood bench for hours after such chastisement is beyond the necessity of your punishment. Besides,' Fritz stepped back a little, giving the boy some space. 'I would be grateful for a swim in the lake. I assume it is quite refreshing in this weather?'
Gilbert had the good graces to blush once more as he ducked his head in a nod.
'Good,' Frederik manoeuvred the boy toward the door and gave him a gentle shove, 'so now get to your bed.'
'Um...' Prussia stopped as if suddenly remembering something. 'Do we still have those bathing suits that the Englander's wear?' he asked nervously.
This time Frederik did not restrain his laughter. 'Don't worry, Junger, we'll find something for you boys to dress in to cover those naughty bottoms of yours.'
'Alte!' Utterly embarrassed again Gilbert rushed out of the room, followed by his boss's peals of laughter. But quietly he smiled to himself, everything was back to how it had been and the boy knew he had been forgiven.
Later that day Vash watched as the King of Prussia and his ward splashed in the lake behind the palace. Beside him and resting against his hip, lay Lucas, sleeping despite his earlier nap thanks to the warm weather and good food. Vash smiled benevolently at the boy. Despite being harsh on the child he enjoyed the warmer side of their relationship and was glad that the hard part of his parental role was over for now. Lucas had forgiven him, for both his role in punishing Gilbert – whom Lucas looked up to as a dubious role model – and for letting Frederik loose with his malin canne as the boy referred to the implement as. He had been made to promise faithfully to speak with Frederik about never using it again, even extracting a small confession from the boy that he thought the birches preferable. Vash shook his head in wonder. The child dozed in the sunlight, a small smile on his face, and Switzerland leant back against his rest, closing his eyes in peaceful sleep.