Lithuania put a hand over his eyes, wincing at the bright morning light. His head pounded, a sickening rhythm that made him want to do nothing but burrow beneath the blankets for the rest of the day. He groaned and pulled them up about his ears. The wine last night must have been bad, he thought weakly. He'd just sleep a while longer, and then have something light to settle his stomach.
"Poland," he said in a thin, sick voice. "Tell the servants I'll want plain bread and broth in an hour."
There was no answer. Lithuania groaned in misery and opened his eyes. Maybe Poland was ill as well. He squinted up at the canopy of the bed, and after a moment, frowned. He could see the ceiling, but it wasn't his ceiling. No beams were visible, just a flat white plastered surface. He sat up slowly, the room swimming in his vision. There were no corner-posts on the bed, and it was smaller than it should be. Clearly he was the only occupant and no one else had slept in it during the night.
"Poland?" he said, looking about him in confusion. This wasn't their room – it was too small, with plain painted walls and one oddly large window. "What -" he muttered, shoving back the blankets. They weren't blankets, he realised, but a strangely light, warm quilt. He clambered out of bed, staggering as he misjudged its low height from the floor. His feet touched carpet, and he saw that it extended over the entire floor. He stood in the centre of the floor, staring round him at the strange chamber with its furniture that wasn't his. It was all wrong and yet – and yet it felt like his house. No nation could ever mistake the feel of their own house. He took the few steps that were all he needed to reach the window and stood there, more bemused than ever. The glass was in one large pane with no leading at all. He looked out, wincing again at the sunlight. It was his territory, he knew at once – and it was wrong. He felt alone, no trace of Poland at all, and his skin felt tight and itchy. Turning around too quickly he knew he was going to throw up. There was no chamber pot anywhere in sight; he grabbed a box and emptied the contents out, sending shoes bouncing across the floor. Afterwards he was left feeling drained and a little shamed. The box was skillfully made of thick, stiff paper and was now ruined. He put it gingerly upon the floor and went to the door, his head still aching but feeling at least that he had no more to vomit.
"Hello?" he called. "Poland?" There was still no answer. Well, he needed someone to clean up the room and to give him something to eat to settle his stomach. "Ukraine? Belarus?" He opened a door to find another bedchamber, and another to reveal a white enamelled tub and a white basin and – thing – made of some very fine pottery. He looked into the inexplicable object seeing clear water pooled in the bottom and carefully closed its double lid. Thick cloths hung on a rail, the only spot of colour in the stark white room. Towels, he thought, looking back at the tub. It was very large, and he found it difficult to imagine the amount of water needed to fill it. No one in the kitchens would be able to do anything all day except heat water for his bath. It must have been Poland's idea, he decided.
The final door showed him a smaller room with a plain table and a single chair, a glass-fronted box sitting on the table. It was all quite plainly coloured but for the portrait hanging on the wall. He had never seen such fine work, he thought, peering closely at the image of himself and Poland. He could see no brush marks at all, and was taken aback at the sharp truthfulness of the likenesses, though he was embarrassed by the conduct of Poland and himself that was depicted. Why they had offered the artist such an insult as to be grinning widely he couldn't imagine. And what were they wearing? They were practically naked, wearing short breeches and flimsy-looking short tunics with sleeves that didn't even reach the elbow. The beach on which they stood didn't look as if it were at either the Baltic or the Black Sea. They weren't even wearing shoes, their toes curled into the sand like little children. He turned away to have his eye drawn to the shelves packed with – With books, he thought, and sat down hard on the chair. How had they grown so immensely rich? There were more books on the shelves than he had seen even in the studies of the most learned men in universities. They were cheaper now than when they had to be written by hand but to have so many - He pulled some off the shelf and looked at the thick paper covering them, the brightly coloured pictures and strong black print. How strange, he thought, opening them and reading. They're in Lithuanian. All of them. He opened one after another, finding tales of people's everyday lives and travels, all seeming nonsensical. The words looked odd as he sounded them out carefully, unused to seeing his people's language in print. He felt both vaguely proud to read such a torrent of words printed in Lithuanian, and obscurely embarrassed, as if it made the words too sharp. It was humbling to discover he couldn't read his own people's language as quickly as he could that of Poland's people. Maybe if Poland had ever shown an interest in his language, he thought, and then caught the annoyance before it could blossom. He didn't want to be irritated with Poland, he wanted to find him and make sure he was all right. Anyway Poland would roll his eyes at the thought of so many books in Lithuanian, he thought, and give him more familiar ones in Polish and Latin.
He put the books back and went back to his chamber. He couldn't go searching any further while naked; he would dress and then find everyone. A little investigation rewarded him with plenty of clothes in the tall cabinet, none of them his. They were somehow outlandishly showy and like the clothing of the drabbest peasant at the same time. There were no pairs of hose or proper shirts, and no doublets at all. He pulled on a pair of dark green breeches and, after experimenting, managed to close the peculiar fastening. It had little teeth that joined together when he pulled on a small metal attachment. It was very clever, he thought, and he could not figure out how it worked no matter how often he opened and closed it. A shirt of unfamiliar design went on next. The material and stitching were very fine, the stitches so small as to be almost invisible. He found no stockings, so put on a pair of the ugly shoes on his his bare feet, tying the laces tight. Everything fitted perfectly, which made him feel more and more confused. The comb and hairbrush on the little table by the bed had strands of long brown hair in them, the exact colour of his own; he brushed his hair and searched round for a ribbon. Finding none he left his hair loose and ran down the stairs, looking in every room, seeing unfamiliar furniture, the too-big windows and things he had no names for. In one room he paused, seeing something he at last understood. A loaf of bread stood on a table, wrapped in a clear material that crinkled when he touched it. Suddenly ravenous, he searched for a knife, discarding several with rounded blunt blades, and cut himself a piece, opening cupboards as he chewed. Platters and cups of thin, fine pottery, glass jars with pieces of paper on them with pictures of fruit, metal containers with paper adorning them too. How anyone could feed a household from such a small kitchen was beyond him.
"Strawberry preserve," he read out. He stood there, the jar in one hand, casting his eyes up in frustration. "Why would anyone waste paper on something like that?" he asked the empty room. He peered at the jar again, wondering why anyone would print such a thing, or why it was necessary to note the ingredients. He found a half-empty jar and spread the preserve on another slice of bread, opening a large white cupboard to discover it was cold and bright inside, and filled with other containers. He shook his head in disbelief at the box labelled "milk" and felt better at the sight of some completely comprehensible cheese. Some bottles on a shelf were labelled "beer" and he took one out. It took some effort to prise the top off with his knife, but finally he sat at the table and had a breakfast that was at least somewhat satisfying, even if the beer was stronger than he usually liked in the morning. After, he went outside and walked through the garden, which was smaller than it should be and not the neat, well-tended park he had walked in only the previous day. There was no orchard, no vegetable garden and the only fruits he saw were some large, dangerous-looking red berries on plants growing in a sunny spot against the house wall. He was totally alone, that was obvious, in a house that felt like his but was far too small and not right in any way.
He was left with two immediate problems – it seemed he would have to clean his bedchamber himself, and he had a growing need to relieve himself. He reluctantly went upstairs and carefully brought down the stinking box. He had seen no chamber pot in any of the rooms, nor a midden outside, which would have solved both his problems. Finally he left the box in a distant part of the garden and relieved himself against a tree. I should go into Vilnius, he thought, and immediately found himself shrinking from the thought. His heart was beating far too fast, leaving him a little light-headed. He pressed a hand to his chest, feeling breathless, his pulse racing far faster than it should. Something was wrong with Vilnius, he thought as his heart raced uncomfortably and he could take no more oddness just at that moment. I should find Poland, he thought, and felt more relieved. If he's not with me he must be with the king. If he weren't alone he'd feel much better. He looked about him once more, in the hope that the stable yard would suddenly reappear and he could ride, then he resignedly looked at the sun and started walking in the right direction.
He knew immediately when he had stepped from his lands to Poland's. It was shameful, he thought, how his eyes threatened to well up, as if he hadn't let himself think how alone he had been till he felt Poland's presence once more. He bent down to caress the earth. "Oh, Polska, what's happening?" he said, then called out, "Poland! Polska!" In the distance he saw a small house with a neat garden. The door opened, and a familiar head popped out. Poland looked round as if he'd heard someone calling, then went back inside. Lithuania felt his spirits lift and he ran down towards the house. When he reached it he pushed down the odd feeling at having to knock, and hammered on the door.
"Hold on! Sheesh, I'm coming, I'm coming," he heard, and then Poland opened the door himself. "Whoa, Liet," he said. "Were you just calling me? I rang but there was, like, no answer." He waved a small object at Lithuania in a way that seemed meant to convey some meaning. "Uhh, hi," he said as Lithuania flung his arms round him.
"My house is all wrong and no one's there, and you have a different house, and the garden's wrong and the stables have gone and where is everyone and it's far too small and why do you have a separate house?" Lithuania said.
"Um," Poland said, patting his back. "Huh? Liet? I didn't catch most of that." He pulled back a little to peer into Lithuania's face. "Dude, have you been drinking?"
"Only beer," Lithuania said."It's still morning." Poland was dressed in the same sort of clothes he had found in his chamber, and he sounded a little odd. "Why are you talking like that?"
Poland raised an eyebrow. "I'm not the one who's theeing and thouing. And, Liet, I know you're not a dedicated follower of fashion, but did you, like, get dressed in the dark or something?"
"No, it was quite light," Lithuania said. "Why are you keeping me on the doorstep?"
"I'm not," Poland said. He looked more closely at him and frowned. "You're totally in a tizz. Come on, in you come." He took Lithuania's arm and pulled him inside. "What's up?"
Lithuania looked round at the hallway. Poland's house was as wrong as his own; the hallway was too small, there weren't enough doors leading off it, and it was painted in peculiar colours. It was obviously a different house, and all Poland's – it should feel like it was his too, and it just didn't. "Poland," he said, "something's wrong. I woke up feeling so sick – is there a war? Why are our houses separate? Where are all the people in our household gone? If someone's trying to drive us apart why aren't you with the armies?" He looked round the unfamiliar hallway, feeling more and more panicked. "I can't even remember who's king," he said. "Who's our king right now? Why has he let this happen to us? Why does the Commonwealth feel so wrong?"
" - What?" Poland said. "Liet, I think maybe we'd better sit down." He took Lithuania's arm and led him into the kitchen, pushing him gently down onto a chair. "Have you had anything to eat?"
"Some bread and cheese, some beer and preserved fruit," Lithuania said. "Hardly anything. Why are we in the kitchen? Can't we sit in the sitting room?"
"If you want," Poland said. "I was going to get you some food, make you something to drink."
"You were going to get my food," Lithuania said blankly. Poland never did that kind of thing, he waited and had his dinner served to him. "Are the others not here?"
"Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Moldavia -" Lithuania started, feeling with dread that he already knew the answer. Poland was looking at him very strangely.
"No, Liet," he said. "They're not here. They have their own houses."
"They rebelled?" Lithuania said in mixed horror and anger. "What, even Latvia?"
"No - well, yes, some of them, but not Latvia," Poland said.
"But who does the laundry?" Lithuania said in bewilderment. The idea of Poland scrubbing his own stockings was too bizarre to be considered. "Who mucks out your stables? There is someone here instead? There has to be!"
"Liet, you're talking, like, total nonsense. No, no, wait-" Poland pushed Lithuania back down into the chair. "Liet, stop, you're totally upset, what's going on?"
"Please, tell me," Lithuania said. "I'm telling you, I woke up and the world has gone mad." Poland was so stand-offish, he thought in unhappiness. He hadn't even offered the most formal of kisses. "Polska, please tell me -" he said, pleading.
"OK," Poland said, with a grin. "I'll go with it; you woke up and you thought we still had the Commonwealth. Have you, like, been drinking that stuff Estonia makes in his shed again?"
"What's wrong with the Commonwealth?" Lithuania whispered. "What do you mean I think we still have it?"
Poland stared into his face, the smile fading. "What's the date, Liet?"
"It's two days to the Nativity of John the Baptist," Lithuania said.
". . . OK, but what's the year?"
"The year? It's the year of Our Lord 1575, of course."
Poland gave a little laugh, and at once bit his lip. "No. It's 2009. Here, look -" He picked up a thick folded mass of printed paper, pointing to a line at the top. 9th July, 2009, it read. Lithuania shook his head.
"I don't understand, why are you joking? Yesterday we heard Mass, we went riding, we came home - to our house, our real house - we had lunch, we played chess and you cheated, and when it was evening we played music and had dinner, served by Ukraine, and then we went to bed." Believe me, he thought, you're the one who makes up wild things, not me. "And when I woke this morning I was sick, and you weren't there, no one was there and everything was wrong, Poland. Everything!"
"Dude, you went home two days ago, you said you had, like, a mountain of work. You rang last night for a chat, around about ten o'clock. And since when do I cheat at chess?"
Lithuania folded his arms. "I wasn't talking to anyone at such a late hour. We went to bed at the usual time, we lay together in love, we fell asleep - what?" Poland was looking at him even more oddly.
"Nothing," Poland said. "You're not usually so blasé about, you know -" He reached out and tucked a lock of hair behind Lithuania's ear. "Tell me you're kidding, Liet."
"I'm not, I swear," Lithuania said, taking his hand. "Help me make things go back to the way they should."
"Liet-" Poland said. He took a deep breath. "I'm not kidding either. It's over four hundred years later than you think it is." He pursed his lips, putting on what Lithuania had always thought of as his thinking face. "We look much the same, so that's no use. Let's see - Come with me." He pulled Lithuania out of the chair and out of the kitchen, up the stairs and into a bedchamber. Lithuania blinked at the pink ruffled pillows and the bright embroidered quilt. Clearly this was Poland's private room. "Take your shirt off," Poland said. "Here, let me help -" He started unbuttoning the shirt. "Sheesh, you had it buttoned wrong." He pulled it off and spun Lithuania round scrutinising him. "Yeah, you're, like, not a time traveller anyway."
"A what?" Lithuania said.
"Doesn't matter. Look -"
Lithuania found himself positioned in front of a long mirror set into a cabinet door. It was as clear and bright as the mirror he had found in his own house. Poland turned him so he had to look over his shoulder. He took a sharp intake of breath at the sight of the silvery scars crisscrossing his back, feeling his face go slack with surprise. He reached back to put a hand between his shoulder blades, feeling how one patch of skin felt peculiarly numb. In the mirror Poland's eyes went wide and round.
"Shit! Shit, Liet, you're serious - you didn't know they were there." He pulled Lithuania round so he couldn't see the mirror. "Don't look, it's freaking you out."
"Tell me," Lithuania said. Now that he had seen the scars he found he couldn't help but concentrate on how the numb patch felt. "You tell me now, Poland, what's going on. Why have our household gone and why weren't you there this morning?"
"Things have changed," Poland said. "The household, um. I guess we're all happier to be in our own houses right now - we all had to live in the same house for a while, someone else's house, and it totally sucked. We're not - I mean, you totally stay here most of the time, but we have separate houses and we're, like - separate."
"What?" Lithuania said, his misery and horror deepening. "Have we quarrelled? What did we fight about?"
"No," Poland said. "Well, not all that recently - wait, you're going to have to look at the scars again -" He turned Lithuania round to the mirror again, tracing a finger down the long scar that looped under his right arm and down his side. "This one," he said, and pulled off his own shirt, pointing to his own left shoulder where a wide scar came across the point and across his ribs, and to another lower down on the same side. "Put your arms round me," he said, and pulled Lithuania close. "Look."
Lithuania looked at their reflection, seeing how the scars matched up, starting on Poland's shoulder, coming down to run down his side, and crossing back over to Poland, ending in a trail over his kidney. "Polska -" he said. "What in the name of God happened?"
"They tore us apart," Poland said, stepping back. "Russia took you away, and wasn't a good guy about it. And then me -" he indicated fainter lines running across his body. "They cut me up." He shrugged. "I got better. Mostly. It wasn't, like, yesterday."
Lithuania stepped against him again, looking at the reflection in sick fascination. He'd lost his real house, his household and Poland too. It was easier to focus on Poland's injuries than on the rising despair. "Who hurt you?" he said, cupping a hand over the lower portion of the shared scar on Poland's side. It was slightly raised and felt strange to the touch. Poland shivered a little as he traced it, then held himself still. "Was it Russia?"
"Doesn't matter any more," Poland said.
Poland looked at him very straight. "Prussia, Russia and Austria," he said, then grinned. "Prussia got himself dissolved sixty years ago, Austria doesn't do much of anything any more - Russia got bigger and meaner than anyone expected, but two out of three totally isn't all that bad." He draped the shirt round Lithuania's shoulders. "Let's go back downstairs and have our breakfast." He smiled as Lithuania held on. "I'm OK, you know me."
"I know you," Lithuania said. "You don't complain about the things that really hurt you." He tightened his arms. "I'm going to kill them." He'd start with Austria, he decided. Once he had the armies of the Holy Roman Empire under his control it wouldn't matter how big and mean Russia was. How could I have let this happen to you? he thought, and kissed Poland in silent apology. Poland took a sharp, squeaking breath, then for one brief moment he responded, tilting his head to make the angle better, his hand rising to cup the back of Lithuania's head, and then stepped back quickly, looking almost comically dismayed.
"I should put on a pot of coffee!" he said, overly cheerful. "You've totally forgotten coffee, right?" He grabbed up his shirt and practically ran down the stairs, leaving Lithuania to follow, wondering what had just happened.
Downstairs Poland bustled round the kitchen, staying just out of arm's reach. "These are bran flakes," he said. "Modern science shows we need more fibre, dude, and coniferous forests just don't cut it. And bread, and jam, and I know I have more cheese in here -" He started rummaging in a white cabinet like the cold one Lithuania had found in his own house. "Hey, would you like eggs? I can totally do you some eggs, and I have this cool smoked kiełbasa - here's the milk, and I'll put the coffee on -"
Lithuania managed to take his arm as he slipped past. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Poland said with a sunny smile. "Except for you, Liet - I'm just, like, worried what happened to you. Maybe you hit your head and it made you forget four hundred years of stuff. Does your head hurt?"
"It did, earlier," Lithuania said, and squeezed his arm. "You're upset."
"You just forgot four centuries and got a nasty shock with the scars," Poland said. "Just showing some natural concern, dude."
Lithuania let him go back to his foraging in cupboards. Poland's usual idea of showing concern was to laugh at problems till they gave up hope of being taken seriously and slunk away. It was almost as if he were embarrassed by something, which was as ridiculous as the idea of him cooking for himself. He smiled peaceably at him, and sat when urged to. Given enough time Poland would blurt out what was on his mind, and Lithuania could fix it for him. He started eating the food that was put in front of him, and grimaced at the bitter, black liquid poured into a cup.
"Don't you have any beer?" he asked.
"Beer," Poland repeated, and then beamed. "Hey, yeah! We totally used to drink beer at breakfast!" He took bottles from the white cupboard and poured Lithuania and himself glasses. "This'll help with dealing with the boss," he said happily, taking a drink. "Thinking back, how did we ever get anything done after breakfast?"
"This is stronger than we're used to in the morning," Lithuania reminded him. "Polska, are you sure it's not 1575?"
"Let me show you," Poland said, getting up. "No, you stay there, have something more to eat, I just have to find something." He left the kitchen, purpose in his face. Lithuania crumbled a piece of cheese between his fingers, thinking, I've lost my home, I'm sitting in Poland's too-small kitchens, and Poland seems to be used to doing his own chores. It was horribly strange.
"Here we are!" Poland sang out, coming back. He plopped a book on the table in front of Lithuania, and blinked as Lithuania scooped it up protectively.
"You can't just put a book down surrounded by food!" Lithuania said, horrified. "What if the butter gets on it?"
"Dude, who cares? If it gets too buttery I can always buy another one," Poland said, then, "Oh, right. Don't worry, they're like, a zillion times cheaper in real money than they used to be."
"Real money?" Lithuania said plaintively as Poland wrestled the book away from him. "What's unreal money?" Poland flipped through the pages, and waited for a space to be cleared on the table before he put it down again, open to brightly coloured pages.
"This is a historical atlas," he said. "This is us as you remember us, right?"
Lithuania wiped his hands and bent over the book, looking at himself and Poland, arms tight round in each other in a close embrace, then let his eyes focus differently so he could see the borders and territories. "Yes," he said, looking at the vast and spacious lands. "This is us."
"And -" Poland said, taking the book up again and flicking forward. He paused, looking at another page, a sour expression on his face. "Well, maybe not that one," he muttered and went to a page nearer to the end. "This is us now."
Lithuania looked at their borders, the thick black line separating him from Poland. He frowned at the sight of the neighbouring territories. "Can Latvia really manage his own house?" he said. "Or Belarus?"
Poland made a rude noise. "Oh, yeah, your eye goes right to Belarus, like that's a surprise." He grinned. "You used to totally check her out every time she bent over."
"I did not!" Lithuania said. Poland laughed at him again, which was so much better than the odd way he'd been acting before that Lithuania shrugged a little sheepishly. "Well, I only ever looked." He turned his attention back to the map, the feeling of loss and disorientation growing. "Our houses are so small," he said, "and this -" he traced a finger above the border. "Why do we allow it?"
Poland didn't answer for a moment, then, "You like your independence. Russia made you live in his house for ages and you, like, wanted your own place."
"I want to go home," Lithuania said, closing his eyes for a moment. "Not that little house, our home. You wanted to go hawking today, and I wanted to see you get all tangled up in the jesses as usual."
"Thanks," Poland said sarcastically. "I, like, never got tangled up."
"Always," Lithuania said, and closed the book. Poland was leaning forward, one hand on the table. He didn't look any older than Lithuania remembered, but the unfamiliar scars on both their bodies and all the strangeness in both their houses made him feel very far from home. "Let's knock down the fence between our houses."
Poland looked at him sidelong. "So if I said, Dude, let's totally get the Commonwealth going again -"
"Yes, of course."
Poland shook his head. "Ninety years, I wait for that, and it's way too late. Our people wouldn't go for it, Liet. Which sucks." He patted Lithuania's hand. "You wouldn't go for it either. Spilt milk, no crying. Let's just get you up to speed on the modern world before we go out later. We're supposed to be meeting people tonight, how about I be the one to choose your party clothes?"
"That's the same, at least," Lithuania said. "I'm not sure I want to meet anyone."
"You totally have to," Poland said. "We have trade meetings tomorrow and we need to be sociable tonight. It'll be people you know, Hungary and - OK, maybe some of them you won't know, but you have to be there. Just smile and let me do the talking. We don't need people asking why you're all, Forsooth, I know not what yon serf thinketh he be doing. Oh, by the way? No one's a serf any more."
"Is that why you do your own chores?"
Poland shrugged. "I guess. Come with me, I totally need to something about your clothes."
"Do you have proper clothes?" Lithuania asked, following him into the hall and back up the stairs.
"Duh. Unless you mean middle ages stuff." Poland looked over his shoulder, pursing his lips at Lithuania's incomprehension and added, " - Stuff you're used to wearing."
"Do you at least have a ribbon?" Lithuania sighed, brushing his hair back from his eyes.
There was a smile in Poland's voice as he replied. "I have ribbons. I'll pick you a pretty one." He opened the door to another bedchamber and beckoned Lithuania inside. "This is your room - do you remember anything now you see it?"
Lithuania shook his head, looking around. The bed was too small, the window too big - Poland did something to the wall and a bright light came on overhead. Lithuania stared at it, entranced, trying to see where the candle was.
"OK, clothes off," Poland said, opening a tall cupboard and revealing more unfamiliar clothes. "If you go out half dressed in uniform like that people will think you're making some sort of point."
Lithuania sighed and knelt to unlace the shoes, taking them off gratefully. He fumbled with the odd fastening of the breeches and pulled them down at last, looking up again to meet Poland's sceptical gaze.
" - Dude," Poland said, raising one eyebrow, "there's getting half-dressed and there's, like, getting half-dressed. I'd better find you some underwear as well." He rummaged in a drawer and tossed some skimpy and uncomfortable-looking things to Lithuania. "Here you go."
Lithuania turned them round and round till he was sure he had them right, and climbed into them. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and found he wanted to laugh, for the first time that day. "These are the most ridiculous things I've ever seen," he said. "It can't be good for the private parts to be so confined." He caught the next things Poland threw and looked at them quizzically.
"On your feet, dude!"
"People don't wear proper stockings any more?" Lithuania said, pulling them on. His reflection now looked more ridiculous than ever.
"I do, but you've always refused to let me put a garter belt on you. C'mere -" Poland unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off. "This is totally out of fashion, I don't know why you keep it. Put these on, I bought them for you so they actually look like clothes. You can put on something nicer when we go out." He helped Lithuania dress, humming happily. This hasn't changed, Lithuania thought with relief. Poland had always loved dressing them both up, spending a great deal of money and time making sure they were both what he deemed as presentable. He looked in the mirror when Poland was done and pretended he could see the difference. He supposed the breeches did sit better on him, and the shirt was soft and comfortable, but they still weren't what he was used to wearing. "A ribbon," Poland said. "Wait a mo -" He went into his own room and soon reappeared with a length of red velvet ribbon. "Sit down, I'll fix your hair." Lithuania obediently sat in front of the mirror and watched as Poland brushed his hair, his face intent as he pulled it back and tied the ribbon. "There," he said, and brushed one hand quickly over Lithuania's head. "It's been a long time since I did that."
"You did it yesterday," Lithuania said softly. Poland met his eyes in the glass, and his nostalgic little smile died away.
"Liet -" he said, his voice quiet. "Ah, never mind. It's OK."
It was too much to see Poland look sad when he should be laughing and carefree as usual. He never looked sad, not even when Lithuania was giving him a piece of his mind for being lazy and willing to let others do his work. Lithuania turned and took his hand. "I want something familiar," he said. "I'll listen to whatever you say, I'll believe you that it's four hundred years in the future, I'll be quiet and let you speak for me this evening, if you want that, but I want something familiar right now, something of home."
"No," Lithuania said, standing, and put a hand on the side of his face and kissed him. "What?" he said in frustration as Poland drew back. "What is it?"
"Nothing," Poland said, and leant forward, a careful space between them, to press his lips courteously and passionlessly against his, as if he were returning a favour.
"Oh," Lithuania said, as hopeful realisation hit him, "did I embrace you too tightly before? Do your scars hurt? I'm sorry, Polska, I'll be more gentle -" He put his arms carefully round him, kissing him again, and feeling a knot grow in his stomach as it became clearer and clearer that Poland was merely allowing him to do so. "We have quarrelled," he said unhappily. Or, he thought in sorrow, Poland's enemies had hurt him in ways he didn't want to think about. "You're safe with me," he said. "I'd never hurt you. Polska - dearest, did someone - hurt you?"
"No - no, no, don't worry, it's just - dude, you know me, I'm selfish and tactless and like, take no one else into account, as this pal of mine from Lithuania frequently reminds me," Poland said ruefully, "and I don't want to upset you. You don't really want to kiss me, Liet."
"I want to do a lot more than kiss you," Lithuania said in relief, stroking his face. "I remember you as you were last night," he murmured in Poland's ear. "There was no hesitation then, except when you tried to hold back from coming to completion for just a little while longer." Poland went a bright and remarkable pink and Lithuania felt a helpless smile cross his face. "So lovely," he said, nuzzling into his hair.
"My God," Poland said. "God, Liet, you never talk like that."
"Yes I do."
"You don't!" Poland spluttered. " - Not for a long time."
"Why not?" Lithuania said, kissing his temple. "Have I become so old and staid that I no longer enjoy the act of love?" He laughed a little against Poland's skin. "Maybe you've become a monk and feel warm only in the company of young nuns? Polska, don't be silly, why are you embarrassed that I want you? You're my own -" he said, punctuating his words with little kisses, " - sweet - Polska." Poland was relaxing in his embrace, a look of yearning in his eyes. "Help me take off these ugly clothes you helped me put on," Lithuania said, sure of his victory.
" - We can't," Poland said, and began to slip free.
"God's wounds, you'd think I'd tried to bend you over the kitchen table and ravish you!" Lithuania cried in angry unhappiness.
Poland winced and stepped back, then started to laugh, patting at Lithuania's arm when he got more annoyed. "Liet, Liet," he wheezed, "d'you, like, remember Ukraine's face?"
Lithuania glared at him, then smiled, half-unwilling. "She swore she wouldn't cook one single more meal and she'd rebel right away unless we scoured the table ourselves," he said, "and then she made you wash the floor. I can still see you wrestling with that mop - I don't know if I'd ever seen you wetter except when you were swimming. And after all that she and Latvia chopped the table up anyway and we had to get a new one. I never understood how he didn't cut his own foot off, he's the clumsiest boy I've ever seen."
"Dude, I can still hear the horrified shrieks coming from the kitchens every day," Poland sniggered. "Latviaaaaaaaa!" He took a breath. "We fought," he said. "I tried to make you come back too soon and we fought and we went to war. I mean, we're friends again now, but, I guess I learnt my lesson for once about rushing things."
"We went to war," Lithuania repeated. "We went to war?"
"And then we didn't talk for years," Poland said. "It sucked."
"I don't know anything about that," Lithuania said, horrified at the idea. "I just know you're my dear partner - what did we fight about?"
"I, um," Poland said. "I sort of seized Vilnius."
"You wanted my heart?" Lithuania said, taking his hand and pressing it to his chest, feeling again the unfamiliar, fast rhythm. "Why didn't you just ask? Let me love you, Polska." With his other hand he tucked Poland's hair back behind his ears, stroking his fingers lightly over his face. The idea of Poland seizing Vilnius was ridiculous; all he remembered was them so recently becoming one nation, no matter what the evidence of his own, little house had told him earlier. "You know I can't refuse you anything."
"I've missed us; when I ask you to go to bed with me you say I have to wait just a bit longer. I mean, we're not, like, fighting and I think you want to, but it's just - I just don't want you to be upset," Poland said.
"I have no desire to wait," Lithuania said.
Poland stroked his hand over his chest, pressing down over his heart. "You still totally have my heart - do I have yours?"
"Are you sure?" Poland said, sounding like someone holding back from a longed-for treat.
"I'll try to say it in your modern manner," Lithuania said, pulling him closer. "Like, totally."
The last traces of sadness slowly cleared from Poland's face and he smiled sunnily as he willingly came back into Lithuania's arms. "Hey, if I take you at your word, just promise you won't, like, slap me from one end of the house to the other afterwards," he said.
"Shhh," Lithuania said, and kissed him quiet.
They were faster at getting the clothes off again than Lithuania had been in putting them on, and he was pleased to find that the bed, although not as big as their real one, was soft and comfortable, and had more than enough space for both of them.
Lithuania kept a close arm about Poland's shoulders as they strolled to the inn in which Poland had said they were to meet the other people with whom he had trade talks. Poland had a dreadful thing called a car that he had wanted to travel in, but they had barely moved a dozen yards before Lithuania had insisted they stop and either ride or walk. Poland wasn't much good about the directions, showing little inclination to do more than snuggle against his side and giggle if Lithuania squeezed him closer or kissed the side of his head. It made him feel both amused and rather smug, and he wished Poland hadn't arranged to meet anyone so they could have just stayed wrapped up together and he could pretend they were in their proper bed in their proper house. "Are we lost?" he said teasingly, as Poland gave no indication they were anywhere near their destination.
"Um," Poland said, looking around, obviously not having paid any attention to his surroundings, "are we, like, still in Warsaw? - That way." He clumsily steered them both to a brightly lit doorway, and fell against Lithuania with a laugh as he was tugged aside.
This new Warsaw was too bright and lacked proper patches of shadow, Lithuania thought, but he didn't care, he would kiss Poland in the street and be damned to everyone. Poland eagerly pressed against him, almost trying to climb into his embrace, cured of his silly worries and hesitations; he had earlier cried a little when Lithuania first took him, but that had soon turned to joy and laughter, and Poland had sworn it had only been because he had been lonely so long. The second time there had been no tears at all, and then there had been no time to worry, as they had got ready for this meeting. Lithuania grinned down at Poland at the memory of the thing he called a "shower", which wasn't as good as a proper bath, but had been entertaining both because Lithuania had never stood under hot rain before, but also because Poland said it would be quicker if they both used it at the same time. It hadn't been quick at all, and both of them had been in danger of slipping and hitting their heads on the wet tiles, but it had been a lot of fun. He steered Poland through the door and looked around, pleased to see Hungary sitting at a table by the far wall, two glass goblets of red wine on the table before her.
"Hungary, good evening," he said, depositing Poland on the bench opposite her and bowing slightly.
"Good eventide to you too," she said with a laugh. "You're being formal."
Lithuania smiled vaguely as he sat and tried to think how Poland sounded in this strange new time. "A shame we must meet our friends in an hostelry," he said. "If we had a larger house you could be entertained in the proper fashion." Poland squeaked and poked him in the side. "I stay with you betimes, don't I?" Lithuania murmured. "I can describe it as our house?" He looked at the way Hungary was watching them both and decided that perhaps Poland had been right and he should keep quiet for a while. He put an arm about Poland's shoulders again and pulled him a little closer, smiling peaceably. A serving wench came over to the table, and Poland asked for a bottle of wine of a type Lithuania didn't know and some paluzski, nuts and crisps. "Crisp what?" Lithuania whispered.
"Just crisps," Poland sniggered. "You'll see."
They were made of some sort of highly flavoured fried vegetable, Lithuania decided, trying one when the wench returned. He sipped the wine she poured for them; it was good, he thought, looking at the bottle when she had gone.
"Chile?" he said, questioningly.
"One of the nations over in what you still probably call the new world," Poland whispered, and cuddled up even closer against him, making him smile happily. The smile dropped away as Austria appeared. Lithuania tensed and half-rose, only to discover Poland hanging on to him like a dead weight. "No!" Poland said. "No, no!"
"Pardon?" Austria said politely, recoiling slightly from the death-glare Lithuania sent his way. He sat as if he had a perfect right to take his ease with them, willingly shifting to make room as a little group Poland whisperingly identified as Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic came up, smiling in a friendly way.
"Aren't they in the Holy Roman Empire?" Lithuania murmured. "Are they really our friends? What if Austria's planning to attack -"
"Be nice," Poland whispered, cuddling closer. "We're all EU nations so far. It's that thing like a guild I told you about earlier, we're all totally friends."
"Austria hurt you," Lithuania whispered back. "I'm going to eviscerate him. In a friendly manner."
"Eep," Poland said, and started to giggle, which was inappropriate, Lithuania thought, but probably a response to stress. "Liet," he whispered, "you have a totally fierce face on. Don't kill anyone, please. Pretty please?"
"Maybe," Lithuania said, diverted by the sight of other people approaching. "May I kill Russia?"
"Dude, he's like one of our biggest non-EU trade partners," Poland said. "Play nice!"
Russia came up to the table and smiled at everyone. He took off his coat and sat, the scarf still wrapped round his neck. Lithuania thought it was the same one he remembered. Belarus sat primly beside him, letting her gaze sweep over everyone already sitting. She seemed to look at him with contempt, and he was glad that Poland was still holding on to him to remind him that he apparently no longer had the right to chastise her for such impertinence. Another man came up after them, stealing a stool from another table when one of Poland's people inadvertently stood up for a moment too long, and squeezing in beside the Czech Republic.
"Hey, Bulgaria," Poland said, grinning. "Hey, Russia."
Bulgaria made a non-committal noise and grabbed the bottle of wine, looking round for a goblet.
"Good evening!" Russia said, cheerful and mild as he straightened his scarf. His smile widened as he met Lithuania's eyes. "Good evening, Lithuania! You look very nice."
"Good evening," Lithuania snapped and glared at everyone generally for fear he would say something ill-considered to Russia in particular. Poland spluttered and hid his face against his shoulder as everyone paused for a moment, Austria's glass frozen half-way to his mouth. "It is pleasantly warm this evening, is it not?" Lithuania said, wondering if he could decoy Austria and Russia off one at a time and smash chairs over their heads. Things would be a lot easier if people still wore swords, he thought. He would be calm, he decided. He had Poland safe by his side, and not one of his enemies would be allowed to touch him. "You're looking stout," he said to Russia. Russia stared at him and his cheeks went slowly very pink.
"He called you fat!" Belarus said in anger, patting Russia's arm. "You're not, you're just solidly upholstered."
"Like a sofa," Bulgaria suggested as he filled a glass goblet he'd found, earning a venomous stare from Belarus.
Lithuania shrugged. He had just meant Russia looked healthy, but he wasn't displeased to see he had got in a blow that stung. "Don't scowl so, Belarus," he said. "It's unattractive in a girl." Everyone froze again, so he smiled pleasantly at them all and drained his wine in one, refilling his goblet from the bottle Poland had ordered. Wine had become somewhat weaker, he thought. Beside him, Poland had started to shake in the way that indicated a full-blown fits of giggles was imminent. "Shh," Lithuania whispered, "not in front of our friends." He pressed his lips to Poland's temple and gave him a little encouraging squeeze round the shoulders. "Didn't you want to do the talking?" he murmured.
"Mmh," Poland said, gnawing on his own hand to stop the laughter. Everyone stared at him instead for a moment. Russia reached curiously across the table to try to prod him with one finger, and Lithuania slapped his hand away. Everyone went back to staring at him. The stillness was broken by a loud call from the door.
"Hey, Lithuania! Good to see you!"
Lithuania smiled at the tall, fair-haired nation approaching and whispered, "Who is he?" in Poland's ear.
"'Me-'merica," Poland wheezed round his chewed hand. "Lots - lotta trade, be nice!"
America? Lithuania thought. Wasn't he a child? America stopped by the table and grinned at everyone.
"Hey, guys," he said. "Is everyone looking forward to the talks? Can I squeeze in there with you and Poland, Lithuania?"
"Of course," Lithuania said politely. America seemed to have become a friend of his, from the way he familiarly clapped him on the shoulder and sat close with no apparent desire for other than cheerful amity. "You must have something to drink," he said, hoping it would go on Poland's account. "Let me get you some of this wine, unless you would fain have something with more bite?"
"None of your crazy eastern European death liquors for me," America grinned. "Wine'll be great."
Lithuania looked round for the serving wench and caught her eye. "Girl!" he yelled in his battlefield voice, to carry across the noise of other revellers, "another bottle of this wine, and a goblet for my friend!" Everyone in the entire inn turned to stare at him. "What?" he said. "People no longer entertain their friends?" Poland squeaked, shaking more than ever as the wench grimly brought what he had requested to the table. "You're as flushed as you were earlier," Lithuania said to him in a cheerful aside, pouring wine for America, "it's very pretty."
Poland erupted in giggles, drawing people's eyes back to him. "Oh, oh, Jeez," he whimpered, and hid his face against Lithuania's shoulder.
"Poland?" Hungary said. "Have you been eating sugar from the bag again?" She raised an eyebrow quizzically at Lithuania. "What's wrong with him?"
"I swived him silly," Lithuania said. "Would anyone else like wine?" People were staring at him again so he just smiled and poured for Hungary, pointedly moving the bottle out of Austria's reach. He wondered if he were a good enough friend to thump America on the back, as he seemed to be choking on a mouthful of wine. He kept his mouth shut as Poland took a few deep, rasping breaths and finally got the giggles under control for a time.
"Has everyone had a good day?" Poland asked brightly.
"Oh, yes," Russia said happily. "Although I did not spend much of it in bed with anyone."
While most people were staring at him and trying not to look at Belarus, Austria murmured a vague excuse and rose from the table, walking towards the back of the inn. Lithuania watched him go then whispered to Poland, "Is there a place to piss?"
"Dude, language," Poland said, which mystified him, "back there." He waved a hand in the direction Austria had gone and Lithuania smiled.
"I won't be long."
He swiped a knife from another table as he passed by, slipping it up his sleeve. For once the blade was sharp. He put on a burst of speed, seeing Austria go through a door. Following him, Lithuania found a white-tiled room. A human was pissing into one of the porcelain objects fixed to one wall, which at least told Lithuania what they were for. The door of one of the small cubicles along another wall closed as Lithuania entered, letting him know where his prey had gone. He followed the example of the human, giving himself a reason for being there, then washed his hands, remembering from Poland's house how the ingenious mechanism for delivering water worked. He kept washing his hands till the human was gone and the sound of rushing water from the cubicle alerted him to Austria's imminent reappearance. He smiled innocently at Austria in the mirror as he started to wash his hands at another basin. Lithuania wiped his hands on his breeches, cast a careful glance towards the door, then shoved Austria hard, pushing him back against the wall of the cubicles.
"What -" Austria said in startled amazement, and then Lithuania cut his air off, jamming his forearm up against his throat.
"Be silent," Lithuania said. "How dare you come here, like a friend?" Austria only croaked and pried ineffectually at the arm pinioning him; Lithuania increased the pressure and watched him turn an unpleasant shade of purple as he gasped for air.
Please, Austria mouthed. Lithuania cursed the fact he knew German.
"Ask in Polish," he snapped.
Austria didn't seem to have heard properly, mouthing, Bitte, bitte again. Lithuania eased the pressure on his throat, allowing him to take a lungful of air. "You hurt my partner," Lithuania said. "How dare you put your hands on Poland?"
"What?" Austria croaked. "When? I don't understand -" Some sort of realisation came into his face, and he looked shamed. "Talk to Germany," he said.
"Who?" Lithuania said.
"You don't mean -" Austria pushed at his arm but couldn't dislodge him. "What do you mean?"
"You let us be separated," Lithuania hissed. "You carved him up."
"That?" Austria said in disbelief, earning himself enough pressure to cut off his air again. When Lithuania let him breathe again he gasped, "That was over two hundred years ago!"
"I find I have only recently had the liberty to bring this up with you," Lithuania said. "I was a captive of Russia's until recently, was I not?" Austria nodded, a little frantically. "I shall discuss that with him hereafter," Lithuania said, and let the knife slip down into his hand. "For now, we have business."
"You're insane!" Austria said, struggling against his hold. "You're going to regret this, let me tell you -"
"You dare threaten us even now?" Lithuania said, his anger going cold and hard. He wished Austria was wearing a sword; it would be good to inflict lasting damage.
"I'll cut off trade relations!" Austria snapped. "With you and Poland both, if he put you up to this! And I'll get Hungary to do the same -" He fell silent as Lithuania put his arm back against his throat and shifted his hold on the knife. Austria's gaze flicked down to his hand and froze in horror. "Lithuania -" he gasped, "don't -" He went still and silent, then, "Everyone acted like that," he said desperately. "You did! You and Poland, you had your brothers, and Ukraine and Belarus in your house! And others - what makes my actions so different?"
"He still has the scars," Lithuania said, "and I lost someone I loved. It's time for you to pay."
"I'm sorry," Austria breathed, his eyes wide and fixed on the knife. "Forgive me."
Lithuania glared at him. There was no way he could use a blade against an unarmed man, and it was more and more obvious that even if Austria had been carrying a weapon, he could no longer use one. He stepped back and watched Austria's knees buckle as he slid down the wall to the floor. "You have no idea," he said, "How it feels to suddenly discover you have lost everything and everyone you care about."
"I'm sorry," Austria whispered again, "I do know, now. Hungary -"
"You made her work as your maid," Lithuania said in disgust. "Don't pretend -"
"I still think of the day they made me give her up," Austria said, looking up from the floor, sombre and miserable. "She wasn't my maid then; she was my wife and they still made us part. I'm sorry, Lithuania. If I'd known what that felt like, I -" he looked down at the floor, rubbing at his throat. "I can't say I wouldn't have fought you, but maybe I'd have tried to keep you together." Something more like the Austria that Lithuania remembered came back into his face. "Why now?" he said. "Before we have trade talks? You must think no one would believe me if I said anything - and who would?" he finished more ruefully.
"Get up," Lithuania said. "And never touch him again." He stepped back and waited for Austria to scramble away. Feeling more than a little disgusted with himself, he wondered how much damage he'd done to Poland's trade talks, and if Russia had become as shamefully weak as Austria. He didn't think so, but he had lost the stomach for fighting for the moment. He went back to the main room of the inn, sliding in between Poland and America again, wishing Poland had thought to entertain his friends at home, like a civilised person. Then again, he mused, he would have been constrained by the bounds of courtesy there, and would not have had the opportunity to frighten Austria even as much as he had. He sighed. It was demeaning to have attacked the kind of person Austria had become, and confusing. Austria had never been the best of fighters, but he had never been such a coward, either. He should, Lithuania thought, have at least tried to fight back. The guild of nations Poland had also joined, the EU - perhaps it had convinced Austria others would fight for him. If other nations were of like mind he should persuade Poland to take it over and regain his rightful place in the world. He drained his wine and picked up the bottle, noting it was empty.
"Let me attract her attention," Hungary said, just as he was about to call the serving wench once more. "She might hit you over the head with it."
"Huh. The same calibre of servant as Belarus," Lithuania said grumpily, and Hungary let out a guilty little laugh, her eyes flicking to the side. Lithuania followed her gaze and found Belarus staring at him, her brows drawn together in a frown. "Was serving in your brother's kitchens so much more attractive than in mine?" he said, thinking back to the things Poland had said earlier about their neighbours' histories. "Perhaps the challenge of trying to stretch his stores to feed so many more people drew you?" Belarus sat back, looking like she'd been slapped, her face white. I've grown so unpleasant that now I must insult women? he thought in anger at himself. She stood up, brushing down her skirts as if she were brushing away his words. "Belarus, wait -"
"I'm tired," she said. "Brother, I'm going to the hotel."
"Hmm?" Russia said, barely looking up from a selection of little pictures Slovakia and Slovenia were showing him, "Ah, goodnight, Belarus. I'll see you in the morning."
She paused, her hand hovering near his shoulder, the realisation that he wasn't going to walk out with her dawning on her face. She stood there a moment longer, looking as if she couldn't decide whether she wanted him to avenge the insult she'd been given, or whether she wanted someone to persuade her to stay, then scowled and walked out, back straight. America poked Lithuania in the ribs.
"Whoa, Lithuania," he said, "you really got out of bed the wrong side this morning, huh? I've never seen you so bad tempered."
"I've had a very strange day," Lithuania said. "Very strange," he muttered, glaring down at the table as the serving wench put a bottle of wine in front of Hungary and swept off again.
"Yeah, but to upset Belarus - that's not the way to get her to like you."
"She's never liked me. The first time I had glass put in the windows of my house she broke one and ground it up to add to my dinner," Lithuania said. He paused and peered at America in suspicion. "What do you mean, like me?"
"Oh, I remember you in the Twenties, sighing over the pretty girl you longed for back in Europe," America grinned.
I visited his house in the "Twenties", Lithuania thought, wondering which century it had been. "Belarus?" he snorted. "No! I'll admit she's pretty when she's not frowning, and her arse can draw the eye, but the only thing she has in common with my tastes is the colour of her hair." He pulled Poland closer for a kiss, then realised everyone had gone quiet again, and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again everyone was still watching him.
"Umm, Lithuania?" Russia said in his mild, cheerful voice, "Are you really discussing my sister's -" he dropped his voice, "- border regions? In public?"
Perhaps, Lithuania thought, he will challenge me. Polska won't be upset if I'm not the one to start the fight. "And if I was?" he said. Russia looked dumbfounded, as if he hadn't actually expected an answer.
"Well - please don't," Russia said, in a surprised voice.
"Or he'll get jealous and might cry," Bulgaria said to the Czech Republic in what, Lithuania thought, was probably intended to be a whisper but for his steady drinking at Poland's expense. They sniggered together, elbowing each other as Russia transparently pretended he had gone deaf in one ear and couldn't hear what they were saying.
"Why are you talking so oddly?" Russia said, a shade of desperation in his voice as Bulgaria began to eulogise the beauties of loving one's siblings, while the Czech Republic hiccoughed with laughter into a goblet.
"I am not the one talking oddly," Lithuania said. "Everyone else is."
"Forsooth, dude, he be totally right," Poland said happily. He laid his head on Lithuania's shoulder and smiled at Russia. "You'll sign whatever I ask you to tomorrow if I make sure you're still, like, totally drunk by then, right?"
"On Polish vodka?" Russia said disbelievingly. "I've brought my own for tomorrow - I will be drunk, it makes things so much more bearable, but I'll sign what my boss wants me to sign, Poland."
"It was worth a try," Poland said unrepentantly. He twisted his neck to peer up at Lithuania. "You were totally trying to start something with him," he whispered, and kissed his jaw. "Remember, be nice."
"I was discourteous to Belarus," Lithuania said quietly. "I think she's really upset - I should see if she has really left." He gently dislodged Poland and murmured an excuse to America as he rose and stepped past him.
"Hey, Poland," he heard America say behind him, "is he OK? He's sort of - not himself this evening."
"Dude, you wouldn't believe how much himself he is," Poland said, in deep satisfaction. "It's just like old times."
Lithuania heard no more, crossing the floor and smiling as pleasantly as he might at the serving wench who rolled her eyes and ignored him. At the door of the inn he paused, but there was no sign of Belarus inside. The street was filled with people going about their business even though it was fully dark. Lithuania looked about at the lights in doorways and windows - the bright, flameless candles Poland called electric lights were wonderful and clear, but he had to wonder when people found time to sleep. Belarus had gone indeed, he thought; he would apologise to her at the morrow's meeting.
"Come on, come on, we're late," he heard, a voice at once familiar yet a little strange.
"S-sorry," came the gasped response.
Lithuania turned about to stop Estonia in his tracks. "Estonia," he said, and stopped. Estonia looked - older. As old as Poland looked, and prosperous.
"Lithuania!" Estonia said with a wide smile. "Good evening! - oof," he finished as Lithuania embraced him hard in relief at having someone from the household look pleased to see him. "It's good to see you," he said, sounding amused as he returned the embrace. "I'm sorry we're late."
"That's all right," Lithuania said, his eyes closed as he pictured a younger Estonia, his voice still that of a boy heading for manhood. If this was Estonia now, he thought, then the youth with him, hanging back shyly -
He turned, smiling. "Latvia," he said warmly. "How tall you are!"
"I am?" Latvia said in bewilderment, and then squeaked as Lithuania embraced him in turn, suddenly tightening his own arms and pressing his face against Lithuania's shoulder. He had always been a child who stayed close to one's heels, Lithuania thought, longing for affection. It didn't seem to have changed. He patted Latvia's back, wondering how on earth he could have grown so much.
"Did you see Belarus on the way?" he said.
"No," Latvia said against him.
"You shouldn't keep trying to catch her attention -" Estonia said, pausing then and adding, " - well, it's not my business. We didn't see her."
Lithuania sighed at the thought that it seemed to be true that he had so lost control of himself that he was enamoured of a servant. Someone who had been a servant, he corrected himself. People were supposed to take care of their households, not exploit those in a vulnerable position. He tried to extricate himself from Latvia's hold, feeling wonder again at how the boy had grown. He looked almost as old as he himself and Poland had seemed at Grünwald, he thought. "I miss you being in my household," he said. "Wouldn't it be good if we all lived in the same house again?"
Estonia smiled; it was the sort of polite smile that masked a sharp response, Lithuania thought. "You know you're always welcome to visit, and I'd hope we were always welcome to come to your house," he said. "We know you're joking, Leedumaa, but I hope you didn't say that to Valgavene! To Belarus," he said, as Lithuania blinked at being addressed in Estonian; it was at least a more subtle retort than Estonia could have given. Latvia squirmed back into a tight hold, thwarting efforts to dislodge him.
"Can I?" he said eagerly. "Really? Will you run my economy for me?"
"Now look what you've done," Estonia grumbled fondly. "Lätimaa, don't be silly. Let poor Lithuania go, he was just being nostalgic." With his aid Lithuania was finally able to get free of Latvia's embrace. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly. "You seem a little - off." He pushed his glasses up his nose and peered at Lithuania curiously. "And you keep slipping into mediaeval Polish."
"I've had a strange day," Lithuania said, which didn't seem to satisfy Estonia, but he at least didn't ask again. They went back inside and he sat by Poland once more, resolved not to say another word to anyone. By dint of drinking wine and eating the fried vegetables he managed to stay silent for most of the evening, letting Poland chatter to the others. Everyone knew he and Poland had quarrelled, he thought, and they were all surprised to see them be properly affectionate. Everyone thought he was in love with Belarus, everyone thought he spoke in a strange way, he had to be polite to his enemies, the world was full of strange and disconcerting things and, he thought as another tune started playing despite no musicians being in sight, he hated the music. It was a relief to leave at last, Poland hanging tipsily on to his arm.
"Perhaps I should stay far away from your meeting tomorrow," he said, thinking of how everyone would stare at him again. He followed Poland morosely into his hall, misery rising within him again.
"Dude, no way," Poland said. "Trust me, you need to be there. I'll run over to your house and pick up your notes, you make us a snack and I'll be back before you know it." He held out a hand. "Give me your keys."
"I don't have them," Lithuania said. "I didn't lock the door."
"Huh," Poland said. "OK, be back soon. Probably no one's invaded." He grinned. "Just kidding." He skipped back out, leaving Lithuania alone.
Poland was voluntarily doing something that cost him some effort, after a long day, after he had been drinking and was ready for bed. Lithuania shook his head - this was indeed a strange and wondrous time. He went into the kitchen and tried to recall how Poland had made hot food earlier. Perhaps - he pressed a button on a white box connected by a cord to the wall. It made a loud ringing noise and Lithuania backed away. Perhaps Poland would be happy with bread and cheese, he thought. He cut slices of bread and took cheese and meat from the tall, cool cupboard, wishing there was a fire in the kitchen as he remembered, so he could make Poland the ale posset he liked at bedtime. Cold milk would have to do, he thought, pouring two cups from the paper box of milk and setting it all neatly on the table. He sat and waited, cutting a slice of bread into smaller and smaller pieces until he heard the front door open again.
Poland skipped into the kitchen and triumphantly put a sheaf of papers in front of Lithuania. They were covered in close, small black print, with an occasional colourful image of a circle cut into sections, or jagged lines heading up or down the page. Lithuania stopped leafing through them and put them down, a great feeling of incomprehension washing over him. If these were his notes, why had he gone to the expense of having them printed instead of just using what he had written out? Surely they weren't meant for others to read, he thought. They were in his own language rather than Latin or Polish, and just from the first page he could see that the printer had spent an awful lot of unnecessary time making sure that words were spelt the same way each time they were used.
"Don't look so worried, they're fine," Poland said round a mouthful of bread. "You're really going to have to, like, change your computer password one of these days, Liet." He grinned."Just make sure to tell me what you change it to. Oh, here you go -" He put a bunch of keys on top of the papers. Lithuania picked them up, curiously, weighing them in his hand. They felt right, fitting well into the hollow of his palm. He closed his hand tight around them, feeling suddenly a little more secure.
"Thank you," he said. "I don't know what these papers mean. What's a tractor, and why do I want to buy one from Belarus? Why do I have to sell things to Russia? Why am I selling things to you? Why can't we both just give each other things? What -" he flipped through the pages, " - what is the hospitality industry and why am I buying things from other nations to improve it?"
"You know, tourism. Tourists like their exotic foreign holidays to have the same sorts of things they have at home," Poland said, not clearing things up at all, in Lithuania's opinion.
"Which foreign holy days?" he said, mystified.
"It's like -" Poland paused," - tourists are like pilgrims, only they want to go to sunny places -"
"Like the Holy Land?"
"Yeah, but for, like, the sunshine, not religion. Or ski resorts! Dude, it's a pity you don't have mountains, skiing's totally good for tourism."
"Skiing?" Lithuania said piteously.
"Yeah! Norway came up with it; you, like, strap wooden boards - though these days it's usually fibreglass - on your feet and slide down a snowy mountain. It's totally more fun than it sounds," Poland said, looking at Lithuania's horrified expression. "Dude," he said, "you have this I hate the modern world look on your face."
"I do," Lithuania said. "I want the world to make sense again. I want us to wake up in our proper bed in our proper house and to wear our proper clothes and -" He shut his mouth, embarrassed by his outburst.
"Hey," Poland said, and stroked his hair gently, "it's OK, Liet. When you remember everything you'll feel much better."
"I don't want to remember all those terrible things you told me about. I want us to live in 1575."
"Yeah," Poland said. "That'd be fun. We could go back and try to make sure the bad things didn't happen, but you know - I'd like to say I'd do some things different, but you know me. This isn't such a bad time, Liet. Anyway, we didn't have running water or flush toilets in 1575. Things will make more sense tomorrow; I'll help you go over your notes before the meeting. You didn't do too badly tonight, you can totally swing it tomorrow, or you can always pretend you've lost your voice and let me talk for you."
"Can we go to bed?" Lithuania said, not wanting to think about the disconcerting evening, his bizarre notes or the meeting for one moment more.
"Yeah," Poland said, reaching for his hand. "I hope you're not too sleepy."
"Coffee?" Poland said chirpily, holding up the jug of steaming black liquid.
"No, thank you," Lithuania said, drinking the beer he had watered down to make more suitable for breakfast. He shuddered as Poland drank two enormous cups of the coffee one after the other, ladling in sugar to lessen the bitterness. They ate in companionable silence - food was still among the few things that could stop Poland talking, Lithuania noted - making their way through much of the contents of Poland's cupboards.
"Whew, I'm totally stuffed," Poland said. "How did we manage to eat that every day?"
"We usually have a bit more," Lithuania said. "We need to keep our energy up for fencing and other martial pursuits and riding and dancing in the evening -"
"You're making me feel guilty for, like, vegging out in front of the TV," Poland said, no guilt in his voice at all. "Let's get you properly dressed."
"Let's not go to this meeting," Lithuania said hopefully. "Do you still like horses? We could ride out and be by ourselves."
"I love horses," Poland said with a wide grin. "We can go riding after the meeting. C'mon, Liet. Up those stairs and into a suit."
Lithuania obediently trailed up the stairs, thinking how much he hated the clothes deemed appropriate for men, how naked he felt wandering round without a weapon and how disconcerting it was that when they went back downstairs the food and dirty plates from breakfast would still be on the table and they would have to clean them up themselves. He let Poland dress him as if he were dressing a doll and sat glumly before the unnaturally good mirror to allow Poland to brush and tie back his hair.
"There now," Poland said, his hands warm on Lithuania's shoulders. "You look lovely." He dropped a light kiss on the top of Lithuania's head.
"I don't," Lithuania said. "I look ridiculous. I look like a fool. No one wears proper clothes any more, Polska."
"I suppose you'd like me to be, like, dripping with velvet and lace?" Poland smiled, striking a pose.
"And Hungary to wear something down to the floor, and Russia to have been wearing one of those things with the really long sleeves?"
"He's tall enough to carry it off well enough," Lithuania muttered. He sighed as Poland laughed. "I'm being foolish, I know."
"Remember," Poland said, "this is your real time, your memory is just on the futz. You know I'm telling the truth." He lightly traced the path of their shared scar down Lithuania's side. "Bad things happened, Liet, but we're still here and we're still friends. You just have to remember, and you totally will." He patted Lithuania's shoulders encouragingly. "Let's go. There's nowhere to put horses, or I'd say we could ride, but as it is -"
"I'm not getting back in that "car" thing," Lithuania said firmly.
"We'll be there in the blink of an eye," Poland said. "I can show you round modern Warsaw another time." He tugged Lithuania up and pulled him by the hand back downstairs, where he quickly put the food away and piled the plates and cups up to be washed later. "Your notes," he said, handing the papers to Lithuania, "and my notes, and we're off!" He tucked an envelope of papers under his arm, took Lithuania's hand again and led him to the front door, opening it to show a busy street, people and awful cars everywhere. "Be brave," he grinned. "Remember, you're the Republic of Lithuania."
"I'm the Grand Duchy of Lithuania," Lithuania corrected him, and stepped through the door. They ran across the street and into the building Poland indicated, a massively tall edifice made, it seemed to Lithuania, almost entirely of glass. It was a relief to see solid walls inside. Poland led him to a large room, where several nations were already gathered, some looking weak and hungover. Hungary turned from speaking with Ukraine, and smiled at them over a cup of what Lithuania could smell was strong coffee, and he blushed scarlet, looking away quickly.
"What in God's name is Hungary wearing?" he whispered. "I - I can see her knees, Polska!"
"That's a totally flattering cut," Poland said, eying up Hungary's scandalously abbreviated clothing. "Hey, Hungary, Liet likes your skirt."
"Polska!" Lithuania hissed.
"Good morning," Hungary said, looking amused. "Are you all right, Lithuania?"
"Thank you," he said, fixing his eyes firmly on hers and not allowing his gaze to move in any direction. "I fare well." Ukraine's clothing was as bad, too tight and making the shape of her body indecently clear. "Excuse me." He walked off a little, pretending to feign an interest in the table on which more jugs of coffee and some little cakes had been laid out to tempt those who felt it a long time since breakfast.
"Is he upset I couldn't come along last night?" he heard Ukraine say in worried tones behind him. "My boss doesn't like me socialising with my brother -"
It sounded like she was close to tears. Lithuania got a very clear image of how she would quiver in her scandalous modern clothes when she cried and kept his eyes on the table.
"Unggh," Bulgaria said beside him, swallowing an entire cup of coffee down and looking a little ill.
"Good morning," Lithuania said, decoding it as a greeting.
"Unnngh," Bulgaria said in a more warning tone, nodding at something behind him before grabbing a plate of cakes and another cup of coffee and staggering off.
"Good morning, Lithuania!" Russia's happy voice said. "Do you have a hangover? So many people do - it's so funny!"
Lithuania half-turned to glare at him. It would not be politic, he reminded himself, to fight with him at Poland's carefully arranged meeting. "Have some of this coffee," he said.
"Pour me some," Russia said, a cheery smile on his pink-cheeked face. "I miss the days you would bring me my breakfast."
"Pour it yourself, I'm not your damned servant," Lithuania snapped, outraged.
"Not at the moment," Russia giggled.
Poland materialised by Lithuania's side before he could raise his clenched fist. "Hi!" he chirped, holding tight to Lithuania's wrist. "Have a pastry, Russia, the ones on the end are filled with strawberry and vodka preserves."
"Maybe Lithuania will get one for me," Russia said happily.
"Maybe you can fuck yourself," Lithuania said in such a sweet tone of voice that it took a few glorious seconds before it registered on Russia's face. He grinned at the look of sheer astonishment in Russia's eyes and the way he didn't seem able to close his mouth. "Good morning!" he added, and swept off, leaving Poland to try to convince Russia he was still drunk and hadn't heard properly. He sat in the place at the table marked with his name and waited for the meeting to begin. Finally everyone was seated and people began to report about the state of trade in their houses. He smiled at Poland and pressed his knee against his until he got a forgiving grin in return. He listened as best he could to other people, trying to make sense of what they talked about. When it was his turn he looked beseechingly at Poland who rose and said,
"Liet's got a cold and a sore throat, so I'll, like, read it for him." He took the papers from Lithuania and made sense of the notes and pictures in a way Lithuania knew he never could. After everyone else had spoken America rose and talked about what he wanted to sell and what he'd buy from everyone's houses, and what help he could give if people needed it. When it was all finally over everyone trooped into another room where food was laid out on a long table. Lithuania watched people fill plates and stand in little groups, chatting. He followed suit and watched everyone else as he ate bread and meat.
"Hey, Lithuania," America said cheerfully. "You're not eating much, here -" He handed his own plate to Lithuania and went back to get more for himself, returning quickly. "So, what gives?" he said, round a mouthful of sausage. "Russia looks like someone smacked him in the face every time he looks at you, Austria's been avoiding you and looks scared if he meets your eyes and you've been really, um -" he went red, " - obvious about, er, you and Poland."
Lithuania smiled, a little shamefacedly. It was different talking about such things when people weren't drinking, and America seemed to be more easily embarrassed than he'd at first realised. "Russia and Austria," he said, "offered insult to both me and Poland. I let them know my opinion." There was no point in saying the insult was two hundred years in the past. People took satisfaction and vengeance when they could, after all.
"Good for you," America said. "You should come to visit my house. You and Poland," he said quickly.
"Thank you," Lithuania said. "You must visit our - my house too." He tried to remember anything he knew about America from his own time. England, he thought. He was sure he'd heard that England had visited the territory that America now lived in. "Do you stay in England's house when you come to Europe?"
"No," America said, looking surprised. "Not unless I've come on business to do with him."
Lithuania made a non-committal sound, not wanting to display his ignorance. "Do come to stay," he said, both out of obligation to return promised hospitality and because he found he liked this apparent friend of his. He wondered if he should ask England's permission, then decided such a small island nation should be glad the Commonwealth showed amicable interest in his colony. "You should visit both of us -" He looked round and gestured to Poland to come over. "Polska, you would think it very good for America to come for a friendly visit, wouldn't you?"
"For sure," Poland said, flashing a quick grin and turning his attention back to the little thing he called a phone. "Don't mind me," he said, pressing its tiny buttons, "I'm just checking on clothes shops." He pursed his lips and nodded decisively, closing it with a snap. "Come and stay," he said to America. "I'll give you some real food."
"Hamburgers are fine," America said in alarm. "You people over here eat bits of animals no one was ever meant to eat."
"Ah, there's Belarus," Lithuania said. "If you will excuse me a moment -"
He bowed slightly and went towards her, hearing America behind him say in a worried tone, "Say, do you think we'll have to put him back together? She looks in a mean mood."
Belarus did indeed look as if she were annoyed with the world, Lithuania thought, her fine features drawn down in a scowl as she looked around. He stood a respectful distance from her and bowed.
"What do you want?" she snapped. "I'm looking for my brother."
"I must apologise for being discourteous to you last night," he said. "Fortune changes for all of us, and it was not the act of a gentleman to remind you of a time when you were not independent." It would be equally discourteous, he told himself, to show how scandalised he was by her clothing. While her skirts were not as short as the garment Hungary was wearing, her calves and ankles were clearly on show. At least she was wearing thick stockings, but if she had dared to wear such an outfit in his house he would have had to chastise her for indecency. She glared at him as if she would attack, and he thought of her as he remembered her, with a vile temper and all-too-ready to reach for the kitchen knives when irritated.
"You should apologise to Russia," she said. "He didn't mean to do it."
"Do what?" Lithuania said.
"Make me feed so many people," she said venomously. "He didn't mean to take all my food. Everyone has to do what their bosses say. It wasn't his fault."
He saw he had offended her in some way he didn't understand, yet that could not be left unaddressed. "I am sorry to have caused such offence, Belarus," he said. "Accept my apologies, I pray you. I won't trouble you further." There was hurt in her eyes under the anger, he saw. He'd ask Poland about it, he decided, and bowed again before leaving her. When he rejoined America, Poland was nowhere to be seen.
"I've been told you're under the weather and I should take care of you," America said, sounding rather more gleeful than Lithuania liked. "Poland said to tell you he had to pick up some clothes. Come on, I'll get you some lunch that'll really build you up." He grabbed Lithuania's elbow and pulled him from the room and down to the level of the street. Lithuania saw they would have to cross the street, so he took a deep breath and walked out amongst the cars with America, trying not to show how terrifying it was. He had barely breathed a sigh of relief when they safely reached the far side before America dragged him after him down the street and into a brightly lit hostelry of some kind.
"Sit!" America said. "How many Big Macs do you want? And which shake?"
" - you decide," Lithuania said. He sat and looked around at the other people eating. They seemed to be eating meat between pieces of bread; it didn't seem that different from what Poland had supplied for the meeting, but if America was happy he supposed it was all right. America returned quickly, carrying a tray with food on it. Lithuania didn't voice his opinion of the obvious sloth of the serving girls and boys.
"I got eight, is that all right?" America said. "You eat what you want, I can always get more." He unwrapped one of the packages, devouring the meat and bread inside with clear enjoyment.
Lithuania took a cautious bite of another of the pieces of food. The bread was soft and oddly sweet, and the meat and cheese dressed with pickled vegetables and a mild sauce were not very flavourful, but it wasn't bad. The strips of fried vegetable were tasty, especially when he followed America's example and salted them well. He paused after his first mouthful of the thick, milky drink. "What is this?" he said.
"You've never had a chocolate shake before?" America said in horror. "You're not like France, are you? You're not going to pretend you're dying of food poisoning? Because that was really rude -"
"It's delicious," Lithuania said.
America's smile was wide and bright. "I'll get you another one!" he said, and shot back to the counter. He soon returned in triumph, bearing several more of the drinks. "Don't let them melt too much, drink up!"
Lithuania smiled and did his best, though he found it difficult to match America's appetite. It was impressive how much food he could eat in such a short time, Lithuania thought. If their pace had been more leisurely he was sure he could have eaten more, but as it was it was hard to eat so quickly.
"You know, it's not my business, but I figure, seeing as we're friends -" America started, keeping his hands off the last of the meat and bread packages with clear difficulty, "when you were in my house you said Poland was awful bossy, and hogged all the blankets and that sort of thing."
Lithuania snorted a quiet laugh. "Yes," he said, "that's what Poland's like." America must be a good friend, he thought, if he talked like that about Poland to him.
"Last night -" America said, and went red. "He's not bossing you round into being his boyfriend, is he? Or is it because of the recession? Because you don't have to put up with that, and if you want to come to my house till things settle down -"
Lithuania deciphered what he'd said and shook his head as America went redder. "He's not that bossy," he said with a laugh. Then, as it seemed he and America were good friends indeed, "Don't worry - I know perhaps in recent years things have been different between Poland and me, but we were together for a very long time. Even when he really annoyed me I didn't want that to change." He patted America's arm. "It is good of you to be concerned, but Poland isn't always so bossy. There are times he does exactly what he's told to - at least when he knows he'll have as much pleasure of it as will I."
America mumbled something in a flustered way, then cleared his throat. "I'm going to get another couple of burgers - do you want one? No? I'll get dessert too - you can manage a few apple pies and McFlurrys, right?"
He was already at the counter when Lithuania said, "Thank you, but -" He shook his head in amusement, and made himself eat the small pies that America came back with. They were almost finished when something about America's person played a jaunty little tune and he fished out a small device that seemed similar to Poland's "phone". He fished it out and squinted at the glass panel on the front before raising it to his ear. "Hey, Poland!" he said into it. "No, I haven't stolen him, he's right here enjoying some good American food. We'll be back soon. Yeah, see you then." He slurped up the last of his drinks and ate the last few mouthfuls of his food. "Poland wants you back," he said with a grin. "I guess he's scared you might be having such a good time you'll want to come back to my house for good. Are you feeling any better now?"
"I'm all right, thank you," Lithuania said, which wasn't really true, but he didn't want to burden anyone else with his problem.
"Hey," America said as they left, "you know I'll do my best to help you out if you need it, right?" He blushed a little, looking at him from under his eyelashes, and Lithuania could see how young he was.
"Thank you," he said, touched.
When they returned to the building the meeting had been in, Poland was sitting on the desk in the hall on the ground level, swinging his feet as the guardsmen tried to do their work despite his chattering to them. He jumped down and skipped over, a satisfied smile on his face.
"Did you have fun?"
"We sure did," America said. "Right, Lithuania?"
"Yes," Lithuania said as Poland linked arms with him and cuddled close.
"I've got to go," America said. "Russia wants a word in private. Any idea where he is?"
"Belarus was closing in - he said he needed a drink," Poland said. "The nearest bar's just down to the right, about fifty metres."
"Thanks," America said and made an odd gesture Lithuania didn't know how to interpret, holding his fingers to his ear. "Call me if you want to chat, Lithuania."
"Yes," Lithuania said, as some sort of response seemed to be called for, and watched him leave. "Did you get your errands done?" he asked.
"Yup. How many burgers did he make you eat?"
"Nearly four," Lithuania said, "and some fried vegetables in the French style, with fruit pies and sweet cold drinks and something called "ice cream". Have you ever had that? It was very good."
Poland laughed at him. "No ice cream in 1575, dude. See? The modern world totally has advantages." He swung Lithuania round cheerfully. "Let's go home, I've got something to show you."
They went back to Poland's house by way of several shops, Poland buying little gifts for him until Lithuania had to laughingly tell him to stop. He felt laden down with pens that mysteriously contained their ink within them, new ribbons for his hair, bright pictures of Warsaw on stiff paper and bag after bag of sweets. Poland just grinned and pulled him along, pointing out tall buildings and busy people. It was very like, Lithuania thought suddenly, the days before they had first joined together, when Poland had been eager to show off his fine cities and fashionably dressed citizens.
"Your city is still beautiful," he said, and Poland looked pleased.
"I totally had my depressed grey concrete phase, like everyone," he said, "but it's looking nice again, huh?" He grinned at Lithuania's incomprehension, and pointed at a stolid grey building. "That's concrete. Kind of bleh, huh? We should, like, go to Krakow too."
"And on to Vilnius," Lithuania said. His cheerful mood died. "I should have gone straight to Vilnius. Who knows what's happening there?"
"Everything's fine," Poland said soothingly.
"Then why does my heart race so?" Lithuania said, and held Poland's hand over his heart. "Feel -"
"It's not really any faster than usual," Poland said. "The pace of modern life is hectic, Liet. Quit worrying, I totally checked things out when I was getting your notes." He winked. "You can trust me, but like I said, you've really got to change your password! Let's go home first, then we'll go wherever you want, OK?" He pulled Lithuania down a side-street, unlocked an unassuming door at the side of a shop, and revealed his own hallway beyond.
It was a relief to be out of the crowds, Lithuania thought. Everyone seemed to walk so fast, to be in such a rush to get where they were going. Poland's house was blessedly quiet, apart from Poland humming to himself and then exclaiming in glee over something in the hall cabinet. When Lithuania tried to see what it was, he was unceremoniously pushed into another room.
"No peeking!" Poland said in excitement. "Here, you watch TV for a while -" He fiddled with a device covered with buttons, and a glass box suddenly came to bright, noisy life. Lithuania jumped in startlement and glowered as Poland laughed at him. "Dude, no need to look so scared, it's just daytime kids' programming. Press here -" he indicated buttons on the device, "- to change channels. I won't be long." With that, he was gone, leaving Lithuania staring warily at tiny people behind the glass.
"Have you ever wondered," a miniature, bizarrely-dressed woman asked, "where cheese comes from?"
"No," Lithuania said. "I've always known where -" She didn't seem to require an answer, however, as she vanished suddenly to be replaced by cows in a sunlit field. Lithuania gingerly pressed a button on the device Poland had left with him, and the cows vanished as well, earnest people appearing in their place to talk about the intimate details of their lives. "Stop," Lithuania said in horror, and pressed buttons at random. "I don't like this," he muttered to himself, pressing each button in turn until finally the box went dark and dead once more. He wandered round the room, wondering if he should go after Poland, and knowing that he'd be scolded for spoiling whatever surprise was in store. "I'm not sure I can take any more surprises, Polska," he sighed, and sat quietly, closing his eyes. After a little he slipped to his knees, thinking he could at least pray for things to make sense. It was a comfort to lose himself in the familiar recitation of his prayers, and when he opened his eyes again he heard Poland coming down the stairs.
"Liet?" Poland called from outside the door. "I'm ready - if you laugh at me I'll be bummed, OK?"
"Why would I laugh?" Lithuania said. The door opened, and Poland came in, his face a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment. Lithuania covered his mouth with his hands, not wanting to laugh at all. Poland raised an eyebrow as he stood there in żupan and kontusz, its sleeves thrown back, and looked more defiant than embarrassed.
"You said you wanted me to wear something proper -"
It wasn't quite right, Lithuania thought. Poland would never have worn such a plain green coloured kontusz that fought with the colour of his eyes, and the żupan should have been covered with embroidery, but the cut was neat enough, the linen shirt collar just visible was pristine and white, his hose were close-fitting and unwrinkled, and the hand that clasped the top of a silver-pommeled walking stick was brightly adorned with a ring on each finger. His hair hung in careful ringlets and Lithuania felt his eyes fill with tears at the sight of his own Polska standing before him. "Oh, Polska," he said.
"Hey, don't start crying," Poland said. "I thought you'd be pleased -" Lithuania hugged him tight. "I guess you are. We can go riding tomorrow morning, how does that sound? I bet I can find someone with a hawk if you want to go hawking."
"You look - yourself," Lithuania said, holding him at arms length and looking him up and down.
"I had to go to, like, four different costume shops," Poland grinned. "And then I bought some cheap bling -" he waggled his fingers at Lithuania so he could see the jewels were paste of some kind, set in base metals. "Most of mine got stolen," Poland said ruminatively. "Or I had to pawn them. This one I kept, though." He held his hand up and Lithuania looked at the thin gold ring set with a small, rounded garnet. It had never been worth much, but it had been one of the first presents he had given Poland, back when he'd been recovering from civil wars and unable to match the gifts that had been given to him. "I'm never pawning this one," Poland said, and, "Oh, Liet, it's all right, don't be sad -"
Lithuania got himself under control and kissed Poland soundly. "You look very fine," he said. "Very fine."
"I totally used to wear shinier stuff than this, and so did you. People act like the past was all muted and sepia, with these boring colours," Poland said. "Still, it's what they had in my size. It's what they had in your size too, want to go and change?"
"You got me proper clothes?" Lithuania said in delight. "Do you think they'll fit?"
"Dude," Poland said and smiled in a way that made Lithuania blush, "I know your size very well. Let's go, c'mon!" He bustled Lithuania up the stairs and opened the door to his chamber with an air of revealing great mysteries. Laid out on the bed were a shirt, a russet velvet żupan and matching hose, and a plain red kontusz. Lithuania eagerly let himself be helped out of the horrible modern clothes and into the proper ones, lifting his hair as Poland settled the kontusz neatly on his shoulders. The soft shoes were a little tight, but not uncomfortable. When he looked at his reflection he felt utter relief to see himself as he should have been - or at least, as he might have dressed if he were seeing absolutely no one at all, and was wearing his oldest, plainest clothing. Poland brushed his hair unmercifully and tied it back again neatly, grinning in delight at how his surprise had been appreciated.
"Let's go out," he said. "Let's go to Krakow."
"Dressed so plainly?" Lithuania said, and laughed, feeling himself once more. "Poland, people might jeer at you."
"Pfft, it's my house and I'll wear what I want in it. We can go to Mass in the cathedral this evening if you like?"
"Yes," Lithuania said. "I'd like that." He let himself be whirled round and pulled back down the stairs.
"We'll, like, go to the old town and you'll feel right at home, and then we'll go to Mass and then have some dinner and then we'll come back!" Poland said, pulling another cloak from the hall closet and throwing it about Lithuania's shoulders. "It'll be fun!" He opened his door to show buildings Lithuania had seen only days before, shining and new, now looking older, yet still familiar. "Oh, Liet, just one thing, don't start acting all shocked in church, but it won't be in Latin, OK?"
"It won't?" Lithuania said in surprise. He looked at Poland suspiciously. "We haven't become Protestants, have we?"
Poland laughed, and pulled him out into Krakow.
Lithuania covered his eyes as the bright morning sunlight streamed in. His head protested in pain with every breath, his neck ached from trying to hold himself perfectly still as he slept. He tried to move the pillows to make himself more comfortable and was overcome by nausea. He staggered from the bed and out the door, and turned the wrong way, staring blankly at the wall instead of the bathroom door. His legs recognised Poland's house before his mind did, and he got into the bathroom to fall to his knees by the toilet just in time to throw up. He felt a hand touch his shoulder, and then his hair was being pulled out of his face, Poland making meaningless sounds of comfort. Even through his misery Lithuania could tell he was trying to hide his disgust.
"Can I get you some water?" Poland said and made a soft ewww noise as the mere thought made Lithuania heave again. "You're going back to bed, no riding this morning," Poland said, and left him alone. Lithuania gasped for air, then felt a cold shiver deep inside himself, and managed to get up to sit on the toilet in time. He was still there when Poland came back. "Eww," Poland said, not trying to hide his grimace. "Let's get you cleaned up, Liet."
Lithuania let himself be hauled up and endured Poland tucking his hair into one of his silly bath-caps before putting him in the shower and turning the water as hot as he could stand. It felt good after the first shock and he obediently washed and then let himself be pulled back out and wrapped in a towel and vigorously dried.
"Brush your teeth," Poland commanded, and when he'd done so, "Back to bed, come on!" Lithuania wandered into the doorway of his room, confusedly registering that the bed looked unslept in, and then let himself be led into Poland's room to see the bed turned down and waiting. "In you get, I've put nice clean sheets on it for you," Poland said, and tucked him in, making sure the pillows were at the right height. He swished the curtains closed and Lithuania felt better in the dim room. "I'll go and deal with the laundry," Poland said, pulling on a dressing gown, "and I'll bring you something in a little while to settle your tummy." He stroked Lithuania's hair, which Lithuania thought was nicer than being bossed round, and patted at the pillows one last time. He gathered up the pile of sheets that had been deposited on the floor and stood there, hugging them to him as if he would rather hug Lithuania. "Try to sleep," he said, sounding worried.
When Lithuania woke again Poland was sitting on the edge of the bed, holding a mug. "Hey," he said quietly. "Try some of this -" Lithuania struggled into a more upright position and took the mug, sipping at the bland broth it contained. It did help, he thought, and he made himself finish before sinking back against the pillows.
"What the hell were we drinking last night?" he said.
"Not much," Poland said. "I mean, we had beer, wine and vodka, sure, but it's not like we went on a binge with Russia or anything. We ate the same things - maybe your fish was off. How do you feel?"
"Like someone kicked me in the head," Lithuania said. "Can I have some paracetamol?"
"Yeah, just a mo -" Poland said, jumping up. He paused, looking down quizzically, then shook his head and ran off, returning moments later with a glass from the bathroom and a packet of painkillers. Lithuania swallowed a couple down and thought that he might move in an hour or so if they started to work.
"Thanks," he said. "Poland, could you go online and check my economy hasn't crashed? I feel awful."
" - Sure," Poland said. "Hey, Liet? Do you know what day it is?"
"Monday," Lithuania said, closing his eyes.
"Actually, it's Wednesday; what year is it?"
"Huh?" Lithuania said, cracking an eye open. "It's 2009, what year did you think it was?"
"Ah," Poland said, sounding - a little regretful, Lithuania thought. "I'll go and check on your economy. Go back to sleep." He leant over and plumped the pillows again, and left the room quietly.
Lithuania got up at last, still feeling weak, driven from bed by a growing hunger. At least he didn't feel sick any more, he thought as his stomach rumbled. He found Poland downstairs, folding wet sheets into the laundry basket, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt; clearly he hadn't been out of the house, Lithuania thought. "I'll make some warm milk," he said.
"You'll sit," Poland said, "I'll make you some breakfast. How's the head?"
"Sore," Lithuania said. "Not as bad as it was." He watched Poland heat milk for him, and drop slices of bread in the toaster.
"Unless you'd like some beer," Poland said with a little smile as he put the toast and milk in front of him.
Lithuania looked at him in bewilderment. "Why would I want beer at breakfast?" He sipped the milk and spread butter and jam on a slice of toast, nibbling it carefully. His stomach didn't rebel, so he happily finished it. "Did you check my economy?" he said.
"Yeah - nothing unusual. You're back to normal." Poland looked at him a little wistfully, then stole one of the slices of toast, crunching it up before it could be reclaimed.
"Mm," Lithuania agreed, "I'm much better, I don't feel sick at all. I should get my notes for the meeting, we can go over both of ours today. Could I have some more toast, please?"
"The meeting was yesterday," Poland said, not looking at him as he went back to the toaster. "It went OK, you don't have to worry." He turned to Lithuania, taking a breath. "You've totally not been yourself that last couple of days, but I said you'd feel better soon, and you do, which is, like, great! I was kind of worried, and I wanted you to be yourself again, so you know, it's really good you feel so much better." He tucked his hair behind his ears, muttering, "Would have been nice to get to go riding with you, though."
"Yesterday?" Lithuania said. "Why can't I remember? What happened? Poland, tell me you didn't wear a skirt!"
"Sheesh," Poland said. "You totally worry too much about my clothes and not enough about your own. You asked me to speak for you so I did and for your information I was wearing a suit. With trousers. For the last two days you thought it was 1575 - it was kind of cool, actually. You didn't take shit from anyone."
"For real, dude. You slapped Russia down, you did something to Austria, but I guess Hungary will sort that out, you -"
"I was rude to Russia?" Lithuania said, quivering. "How? Why?"
"He was in your face," Poland said. "You know, looming at you and being funny. You were spoiling for a fight the night before as well."
"I was?" Lithuania said, horrified. "Why?"
"Because of the partitions," Poland said, off-hand. "You took that news totally badly."
"I did?" Lithuania said.
"Well, you thought it was the start of the Commonwealth and that you loved me," Poland said, even more studiously off-hand than before.
"I -" Lithuania put a hand over his eyes. "I thought it was the start of the Commonwealth," he said flatly. "I thought I was in the sixteenth century."
"Verily, thou sure didst," Poland said. "You were all, 'Hands off my paramour, sirrah! Base wretch!' It was cute."
Lithuania felt his headache attempt to come back. "Wait," he said, "hands off what?"
"Me, dude," Poland said. "You were real clingy and possessive, but don't worry, I know you're not interested in that sort of thing usually."
Lithuania pursed his lips at the careful nonchalance and looked at him more closely. "Poland, you know you're my best friend. You know how fond I am of you. Just how fond of you have I been acting?"
"Whoa, I'd better come clean," Poland muttered. "I totally did not take advantage of you. No way. I was, like, the shrinking maiden in this whole deal. Till I knew you were serious." He took a deep breath and said, "You were serious and I know maybe I should have said 'No' more often but I did a few times and I ran off a bit and you got real sad and I was, like, already worried about you and I thought, Dude, you should totally not let him get any more upset and you probably think that's just a justification which all right it so is 'cos I miss that so much, but on the other hand I was worried and you looked like you'd been hit in the head with a hammer you were so freaked out by everything and every time something beeped or you saw, like, running water or underpants you got a worse case of culture shock, so I -"
" - I woke up in your room," Lithuania said holding up a hand.
"Did we -"
"Poland," Lithuania said wearily. "Oh, Poland."
"I'm sorry," Poland said, and sat down. "It was just - when I've asked you've always said you're not saying 'No', you're just saying, 'Not right now.' For the last couple of days you were saying 'Yes'. You really did want to, it was just like -" he sighed. "It was like old times, and I miss that a lot. I'm very sorry, Liet."
"How . . . often?" Lithuania said, putting a hand over his eyes.
"Per day or, like, in total?" Poland sounded worried. "Liet? Hey, Liet? Are you pissed off? It's OK, don't worry, I don't expect -"
"Shh," Lithuania said and, rather to his astonishment, Poland shushed. He still looked worried and unhappy, both of which were unusual expressions for him and neither of which suited him at all. He wondered if he should stalk off in offence or settle for shaking sense into Poland's selfish mind and felt exasperated with himself that he found himself worrying more about Poland being upset by the whole thing. He knew Poland missed sleeping with him - he missed it himself, but it wasn't as if either of them had had much privacy or free time over the last fifty odd years, and he had only felt perfectly healthy and energetic for a few years before the recession struck. He tried to remember; he couldn't tell when the memory was from, all he could bring to mind was Poland's breathy laughter, warm against his ear. When he thought back before they were separated he could put images to that laughter, Poland's face joyful and happy, Poland's arms tight around him. He found he was not unhappy to have been able to make Poland smile like that again. In any case, forgiveness was a virtue, he thought, and after seven hundred years he was good at forgiving Poland. It was far too long a friendship, and he loved Poland too much not to forgive. "I'm not annoyed," he said softly. "Just surprised. You do know I never stopped -" He felt his cheeks flush. "Well, you know what I mean."
"You're such a man," Poland said. "You won't die if you say 'love', you know." He patted Lithuania's arm. "And Liet, I, like, never doubted it. Much."
"I'm not making any promises about, well, bed -"
"It's OK," Poland said and hugged him, then drew back, looking over his shoulder at something beyond the kitchen window, frowning.
"You have to tell me everything that happened," Lithuania said. "And we have to find out why - tell me I didn't do anything to start a war, at least -"
"All in good time," Poland said. "Maybe you can tell me what you said to Latvia."
"Latvia?" Lithuania said.
"Yeah, he's coming up the path dragging a huge suitcase behind him," Poland said dryly. "Seems like someone invited a long-term guest?" Lithuania looked out the window, feeling vaguely guilty. The case looked bigger than Latvia himself. He looked sidelong at Poland and was glad to see he was giggling. "Come on, Liet," he said. "Time to repel boarders."
"Verily, consider my loins girded," Lithuania said.
Poland gave a bark of laughter and led the way out to deal with the situation.