Warning about the direction this story is taking: The rating will be T for several more chapters, but eventually, the rating will go up to M for sexual violence.

Warning for offensive homophobic utterances in this chapter.

17. The guards

After breakfast the next morning, Lithuania gave Latvia a pack of tobacco that he had kept hidden under the straw of his bunk. It was part of his and Poland's loot, and the group had kept this secret hoard for unforeseen events. Latvia applying for Prussia's old job in the laundry definitely qualified as an affair where a bribe could be of help.

Beside the breakfast table, Lithuania was giving Latvia some last instructions. "If no-one's gotten wind of the vacancy yet, you stand a good chance." Lithuania dipped his hands in the jug of drinking water and ran his fingers through a rebellious strand of Latvia's hair to smoothen it out. "All you have to do is go up to the officer and ask him. It's important to make a good impression."

"Lithuania, do you really think it's necessary to spiff him up like that?" Bulgaria was sitting at the table, with his cup of coffee still in front of him, and watched the two with an amused expression. "A polished scarecrow will still be a scarecrow."

"Nothing can beat a good first impression." Lithuania looked up for a second. "Po, wouldn't you like to lend me a hand getting Latvia ready? Your good taste is much needed here."

"No, I don't feel like it," came Poland's voice from the direction of his bunk.

It pained Lithuania to hear his closest friend's voice all small and subdued. He tried not to show his worries to Latvia as he went on doing his hair. Ever since yesterday, when the group had decided that Latvia should get the job in the laundry, Poland had seemed somewhat dispirited. Usually, he liked to apply his refined taste and sense of fashion, and it wasn't like him at all that he had just declined the offer to help doing Latvia's hair. Lithuania's face frowned with concern.

"Lithuania, don't overdo it. The guards won't decide on the basis of how his hair looks." Estonia had lifted his head from the shoe he was mending. "They're more impressed by strength and height. Sorry to say that, Latvia, but you don't stand much of a chance concerning the last aspect."

Latvia blushed. He knew he was small; Estonia needn't have reminded him of it.

Lithuania cast a reproachful look to Estonia. "That was unnecessary." He turned his attention from Estonia back to Latvia. "Don't listen to him, Raivis, you're fine." His hair was okay now, so he started to inspect his clothes. "Where was I? Ah yes, you go up to the guard room and demand to speak to the officer who leads roll call. It will either be the big blond one who's always so distasteful and unpleasant, or the tall and thin one who's so strict."

"I'm not stupid." Latvia shrunk away a little from Lithuania.

"I know you're not," Lithuania took Latvia by the shoulder and busied himself with brushing some dust off of his jacket. "But keep in mind to watch your mouth. One rash word can be enough to make the officer mad and take his temper out on you."

"You're scaring him," Bulgaria interjected.

"I'm just reminding him of how cruel these guards can be." Lithuania wetted his hands again and began to rub out a stain on Latvia's shirt.

"Toris, I believe you're more nervous than he is." Bulgaria chuckled. He turned around in an attempt to catch Prussia's eye to get him to join the banter, but Prussia was standing in the darker part of the room with his back to the others, ruffling the flattened straw on his bunk. There was an air of distance surrounding him. Bulgaria remembered how disappointed he had seemed the night before when Estonia, Lithuania and Poland had not shared his joy about his new job with the commander. Bulgaria kept watching him as he turned to folding his blanket. He seemed almost haughty, as if what the others were doing was none of his concern any more, now that he had moved on to a better job.

Prussia wasn't the only one who did not take part in the conversation. Bulgaria became aware of Poland sitting quietly in a corner of his bunk. He was sitting with his back leaned against the wall and his knees pulled up, but his eyes were attentively following each of Lithuania's movements. He seemed shy, Bulgaria observed, but at least he seemed to have calmed after his last night's bad temper. The night before, Lithuania had spent considerable time talking to him, again explaining to him why it was best to let Latvia do the laundry job. The result was that Poland had finally come to accept that he wasn't going to get a better job. But he had also seemed frailer than before, as if most of his remaining energy had left his wiry body and usually so active mind. Although Lithuania had tried to reason with him and get his mind away from camp and onto more pleasant things, he hadn't responded much to that. He hadn't said much during breakfast.

Bulgaria focussed on Lithuania and Latvia again, but refrained from tossing in any further remarks. Something about seeing Prussia and Poland had snuffed out his playful mood.

Lithuania adjusted Latvia's shirt collar with skilful movements before he leaned back and gave Latvia a last appraising look-over. "Now you look presentable." He ushered Latvia to the door.

"Oh, one word before you go, Latvia." Estonia coughed slightly. "Try not to look like you're in desperate need of the job. Be polite and friendly, but don't forget to show confidence. As much as you would like the job, remember it won't be the end of your life if you don't get it. That's all." He turned his attention back to mending his footgear.

"You heard him. Now off you go." Lithuania held the creaking cabin door open for Latvia. A gush of cold air entered the cabin. "Good luck, Raivis. Let's hope we won't see each other in the forest today." He looked after the small nation as he set off and scurried along the dark road. In the spots under the street lamps, the road shimmered white with frost. It was pristine except for the large dark footprints the nightwatchman had left on his round, and now Latvia's footsteps were adding smaller imprints as he walked in the direction of the guard room. Lithuania could see it at the end of the road. Under the light post in front of it, a number of early guards had already begun assembling for roll call.

"Look, there's a prisoner coming," Lithuania heard a guard say. He could see the guards plant themselves at the foot of the stairs that led up to the guard room.

Latvia approached the group of guards and as they didn't move out of his way, he stopped before them.

"Go back to your cabin. You're supposed to stay there until roll call."

"I'd like to speak to the officer on duty," Latvia said.

Lithuania heard a guard snicker. "Look how cute he is." The guard took a step closer to Latvia and bent down to him. "I'm the officer on duty." He leered in Latvia's face and tried to pull his ear, accompanied by the others' laughter.

Latvia took a step back. "No, you're not." He knew the badges on the guards' uniforms and could tell apart normal guards and officers. "Where can I find the officer on duty?"

There were jeers and utterances of disappointment by the guards when Latvia didn't prove to be an easy target.

"Ah, don't let me down, cutie." The guard drew back and threw his hands up in an exaggerated gesture of hurt pride.

Another guard laughed. "He gave you the brush-off. Probably doesn't like your beardy mug." He laughingly patted the guard that had spoken to Latvia on the back.

"Where's the officer on duty? I want to speak to him," Latvia persisted.

"Oh no. He's serious about it. How will I deal with this blow?" Now the guard feigned heartache, with his hand put on his heart.

Latvia had enough. He pushed his way through the guards and climbed the stairs that led to the guard room, closely followed by one of the guards.

Lithuania saw them walk past a guard who was standing on the stairhead, smoking a cigarette. He waited until they had disappeared inside the guard room before he turned around and got back inside the cabin to get ready for roll call and work.

Inside the guard room, the guard led Latvia to the officer on duty. "This here prisoner wants to talk to you." He briefly introduced Latvia and left.

"What is it?" the officer asked. "Another case of pneumonia?"

It was the big blond one. "No, sir, it's not that. I came to ask if I could work in the laundry. There should be a job vacant there because my bunk mate, who worked there, got a new job yesterday."

The officer perked his eyebrows. "What's his name, and where does he work now?" He had not heard about it yet.

"His name is Prussia. He works as the commander's personal assistant now."

"That's interesting. Isn't he the one with red eyes, who got shifted to the laundry job only a week ago because he was unfit for any hard work?"

"Yes, that's him." Latvia nodded.

"Quite a career." The officer examined the small prisoner standing in front of him. Maybe he could get some more information out of him. He would be willing to talk, since he wanted something from him in return. "How come he became a personal assistant to the commander?"

"He said the commander asked him because his work was so good."

This had the officer slap his hand on the table, snorting with laughter. He peeked out of the window to the guard on the stairhead. "There's something you need to hear, comrade," he shouted, rapping against the window pane.

"What is it?" The guard appeared in the door.

"This prisoner here," the officer spluttered breathlessly, pointing to Latvia, "tells me that Comrade Queer got himself a new servant. It appears he told him that he liked his work."

The guard squinted. "Are you sure this isn't some trick or misinformation?"

"Oh, come on. Look at this prisoner. Are you suggesting that someone with such an innocent face would lie to me?"

After a short examining glance at Latvia the guard said, "Probably not. Who did Braginski choose?"

"Do you know the troublemaker who made such a fuss when he found out about our business?"

"The obnoxious one with the strange red eyes?" The guard seemed interested now.

"Yes. It's him."

The guard whistled through his teeth. "To each his own. Wonder what he sees in him, though."

"You have a dirty mind. I prefer not to think about that. But I'd say it serves the red-eyed devil right after causing us so much trouble."

The guard swayed his head. "Braginski will have a tough time with him."

"You think so? Andrei says he was meek as a lamb around Comrade Queer when they were in his office."

"Oh, was he? Hard to imagine. Anyway, Dimitry will be glad to be out of Braginski's line of fire. I need to get going now. See you." He raised his hand in greeting and was gone.

Latvia had stood by and looked from one to the other, trying not to let on his confusion. He didn't know what to think of this.

The officer turned his attention back to Latvia. "So you want your friend's job in the laundry, eh?" He scrutinized the nodding prisoner standing before him. "You're small, but you look pretty strong and robust. I dare say with your strong arms and back you're pretty good at chopping wood. You look like you were made for work in the forest and I think you should continue working there."

"I could use my arms to wash clothes and hang them out to dry, too."

"Oh, I have a smart one here. Clever kid are you, eh? How old are you?"

"I'm sixteen."

"And tell me, what makes a young man like you want to work in the laundry? You know, most people think of it as a job for sissies. Is there a chance that you are taking after your red-eyed friend here?"

"I thought it would be better than working in the forest. Warmer, you know."

"I see, I see. You're alright, kid. But there's a little problem. I can't remove everyone from forest work. 'Cause where would we be if nobody worked there any more? This camp was built to produce wood. Last time it was your friend, now it's you. At this rate, there'll soon be nobody left to do the actual work."

"Working in the laundry is work that needs to be done, too," Latvia said, reaching into his trouser pocket and pulling the pack of tobacco out so far that its tip showed. "It's only me. There are still many prisoners left who work in the forest."

The kid was clever indeed. And so curteous. Knew how to behave. "I'll see what I can do for you. I can't promise anything, but you're lucky that I happen to be friends with the captain." The guard stood up and walked up to Latvia. He sneaked out his hand, and Latvia gave him the tobacco, hoping he would keep his word. "Come along with me," the guard said, tucking the tobacco in his pocket. He walked towards the door and called, "I'm gone for a minute."

"Why?" the other guard asked back.

"Urgent business." The officer grinned and opened the door. "I'll be back in a second."

Latvia followed him to another office, whose walls were plastered with huge charts and schedules.

"Good morning, Andrei." The officer greeted the captain who was bent over a notebook.

"Good morning." The captain looked up at them questioningly.

"I have a prisoner here who wants to work in the laundry. Apparently, there's a job vacant there."

"Is there? Grisha didn't mention anything."

"The news is still fresh. As of today, the red-eyed one, Prussia, works for Comrade Queer."

"You should come up with such news every morning. Then I wouldn't be so bored whenever I catch a glimpse of you." The captain sneered. "Comrade Queer and a prisoner." He shook his head.

"That's what this prisoner says, and I don't think he's lying."

"Oh, I do believe you. It's just that it's strange to work for and take commands from a faggot. Someone like him shouldn't be in that position."

The officer muttered his approval. "It's high time he gets kicked out."

"Yes, and better sooner than later." The captain turned to Latvia. "What's your name, prisoner?"

"My name is Latvia."

The captain checked a book. "It says here that he works on the logging squad. I can't withdraw him from that work. I need people there."

"But he has already paid." The officer tossed the pack of tobacco on the desk. "Let's go halves."

"Well, I guess I have to make allowances for interesting news. But still, I'm going to ring Comrade Queer up first. I want him to tell me all by himself that he's hired a prisoner before I make anything official." The captain took up the receiver and dialled a number. "Good morning, Commander," he said. "Is it true that prisoner Prussia is working for you now?"

Latvia and the officer could hear the scratchy sounds of a voice speaking back from the phone, then the captain asked, "So I can re-assign his old job in the laundry?" There was a short reply, upon which the captain hung the phone up.

He turned his attention back to the officer. "What the prisoner said is true," he said. "Not that it surprises me, though." He opened the pack of tobacco and took out half of its contents before he passed the remaining half back to the officer. "Still, this is the last time I can do that for you. There aren't enough people working in the forest as it is. I can't afford to lose any more of them to other kinds of work." He noted something down in his book and snapped it shut. "Take him to the laundry, and give Grisha my regards."

When they arrived at the laundry, they found out that the officer in charge had not heard yet that Prussia wouldn't be working for him any longer. If he had known, he would have liked to mend his wages by recruiting a replacement by himself, but obviously, it was too late for that now. So he welcomed Latvia, angry with himself for not having been fast enough.

A/N: Thank you for reading! Please note that the views voiced by the guards are not mine. In case you were waiting to read about Gilbert and Russia again: They are going to appear in the next chapter when Gilbert starts his new job.