Two figures trudged silently up a long, gentle, brush-covered hill that was dotted with small trees on either side of the dirt road. There were no clouds that day, and the burning harvest sun never ceased its barrage of scorching rays despite its near-hidden state behind the forested horizon. The young men were covered in dirt the same color of dark brown as that beneath their bare feet, and sweat ran over round muscle in bright lines through the grime they’d accrued from their day’s work. Their plain, sleeveless shirts, rumpled and filthy like their equally plain, baggy pants, were balled in their hands, baring the tattoo that each bore on his right shoulder-blade: a simple logo consisting of two fisted hands pressed knuckle-to-palm and the letters ‘KL’ above a ten-digit number.
The more muscular of the two was brown-haired and brown-eyed, his locks shorn close so they prickled in every direction. He was tall and lanky, his frame filled out with muscle and perfectly trim, his skin golden. His name was Sanosuke.
The other was only slightly shorter, stockier and less well-developed but still undeniably strong from the huge amount of hard labor he and his fellow slaves performed day after day. His long black hair was tied up to keep it out of his face, which visage was somewhat gaunt and tired-looking. His skin was darker than his friend’s, his eyes clear blue. This was Katsuhiro.
As they began to speak, it was with perfectly mixed accents; they had lived in the slave complex for so long that their national origins could no longer be determined; it was possible that they themselves did not remember what those were.
“I know what you’re thinking about.” Katsu was looking anywhere but at his friend — at a lizard skittering across a rock nearby, at the half-obscured tire tracks in the dust beneath their feet, at his own work-hardened hands as they swung beside him.
“Fuck,” was all Sano replied. His gaze was steadily forward, but he didn’t seem to see anything — at least, not anything actually ahead of him.
Katsu sighed. “I know it hurts you to watch her like that, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Throwing him a dour look, Sano replied, “So I should just forget it, huh?”
Katsu’s eyes fell again to the ground they walked. “I don’t know.”
“I swear that bastard did it on purpose!”
“They told him Kaoru was Kenshin’s woman, and he bought just Kenshin on purpose to hurt them both.”
“He did seem pretty cold-hearted,” Katsu admitted.
“Cold-hearted? The man was a fucking sadist!”
Katsu sighed again. “Sano, this isn’t helping.”
“I’ve gotta do something, though… she’s still sick, and now they’re making her work the fields already!”
“Sano, I told you, there’s nothing you can do!”
Sano seized his friend by the shoulders and shook him. “What the hell are you saying, man? What would Souzou think to hear you say that?!”
“Why do you think Souzou’s dead, idiot?” replied Katsu in a defensively loud tone, pain filling his eyes.
Sano’s face contorted in an angry growl. “Coward!”
“Is there a problem?”
Both slaves turned to look at the source of the deep, Sorratian-accented voice, and observed a guard watching them. He’d obviously been heading down to the fields from the barracks for the night watch, for the crisp cloth of his uniform was as yet unmarred by any of the dust that would certainly stripe it by the end of the night. He’d apparently come upon them just as the shaking and yelling had begun; fights between slaves were absolutely not tolerated, and the guard was touching his holstered gun, slung left-handed, in silent warning.
Slowly the two calmed and shook their heads, resuming their steady pace toward their sleeping quarters. But as they passed the grey-clad enforcer, Sano could feel the guard’s eyes carefully and approvingly traversing his body before the man chose to walk on.
“Now I’ve done it,” Sano grumbled.
Their brief argument was forgotten. “Hey, he was looking at me too,” Katsu reassured him. “It’s a fifty-fifty chance.”
“I’ve never seen him around here before.” Sano fought the urge to look back at the tall, unfamiliar figure. “Suppose he’s new?”
“I guess.” Katsu gave in to the temptation Sano had resisted and turned his head to glance at the man. He snorted. “If they’re going to let their guards use us as their personal whores, they should at least get good-looking ones.”
Sano was startled. “I thought that guy looked pretty good; you didn’t?”
“He was freaky… didn’t you see? his eyes were yellow.”
Sano had seen, and shrugged. “Not like it matters much once they’re fucking you.” And he thought no more of it, for his mind had returned to the disturbing matter of Kaoru.
His heart ached for her, seeing her weakening daily from her mysterious illness. The doctor hadn’t been able to give any real diagnosis, which was why the slavers were forcing her to continue work, but Sano knew exactly what she was suffering from: a broken heart. Ever since that white-haired bastard had shown up looking for a strong but pretty man and taken Kenshin away from her forever, Kaoru’s spirit was entirely broken. Sano knew she couldn’t last long. He’d seen it before, in the years he’d spent here, but it had never hurt him like this. Kenshin had been a good friend to him, and Kaoru was like a sister, despite the fact that he’d only known the two of them for just under a year. It was difficult that no matter what he did, Kenshin was destined to live out a life of slavery to some rich sadist somewhere never knowing that his lover had wasted away without him.
Today she had collapsed in the field shortly after noon, and though they had not feared for her life — she’d been open-eyed and relatively lucid as she’d been helped back to the quarters by a couple of grumbling guards — naturally Sano and Katsu were worried that her condition was worsening. And of course there was no communication between slaves in one part of the complex and those in another, so they had no idea how she’d fared for the rest of the day.
As they drew nearer to the cluster of slave quarter buildings that semi-circled the mess hall, their pace subtly increased as they threaded their way through the influx of people to the latter and headed for their own quarters instead.
The building, identical to the other four, was a plain rectangle divided into two long rooms succeeding a small set of chambers that belonged to the quarter-warden. The main rooms contained little more than the rows of cots on which the slaves slept; as nobody stayed in the complex long before being sold, there were few belongings to be seen, and no personalization whatsoever. And everything, even what had started out another color, had faded to the same uniform grey.
Against this, Kaoru’s dark hair and pale skin stood out, as did the similarly dark hair of the stranger that sat beside her on the cot. Sano and Katsu slowed momentarily as they entered the room, surprised. Kaoru looked up at them and smiled slightly. Deciding for the moment to ignore the unfamiliar young man at her side, the two hurried over to her.
“You’re sitting up; you look OK,” Sano said as they reached her.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she replied, reaching out to squeeze his hand. “It was just the heat, I think.”
“I hope you’ve been drinking lots of water,” Katsu said.
She nodded, and gestured to the stranger, who, they noticed, was holding a half-full glass bottle. They both took the time now to study the fine features and short, even black hair of the young man that looked to be about their age. He must have been well-treated, wherever he came from.
“You new?” Sano asked him.
“My name is Soujirou,” the newcomer replied with a nod, and even in these few words his Touschan accent was clear. “I just got here today, and they didn’t give me anything to do, so I’ve just been sitting with her since she came.”
“Thanks for helping her,” Katsu replied seriously. “I’m Katsu and this is Sano.”
“You feelin’ up to supper?” Sano asked Kaoru after he’d completed his half of the introduction with a nod to Soujirou.
“I think I could manage it,” she said softly, the only problem with the statement being that she didn’t seem to care whether or not she ate that night or ever again. Sano, deciding to ignore this and how helpless and miserable it made him feel, extended a hand to help her up, and at her side Soujirou also stood.
“Anyone show you the way to mess hall yet?” Sano asked as he started toward the door.
“They pointed it out to me,” Soujirou admitted, “but I’m a little disoriented now.”
“You must have come from someone nice,” Katsu commented as he fell into step at Soujirou’s side.
Soujirou nodded. “Actually, I’m a little nervous about all this… I never had to do much hard work…” A slightly shaky laugh accompanied this statement, and Sano couldn’t help pitying him. He’d find out soon enough what real slave labor was.
There wasn’t a day when the topic of escape didn’t come up at some point, facetious, sardonic, or hopeless as such conversations usually were. The mess hall was usually the setting of this, and, despite having a new addition to their little circle, tonight was no exception. This discussion was led, as was quite often the case, by Yahiko, a boy that usually shared their company and always had a grand scheme for getting out.
“No, I swear it would work,” he was insisting, emphatically waving a piece of bread at the skeptical Katsu beside him. “All we’d have to do is get to the top of the windmill and–”
“Listen, kid,” Sano interrupted him with a shake of his head, “don’t get your hopes up with crazy plans like that. Unless we come up with something that would actually work, we’re not likely to ever escape from here, and that’s reality.”
“Don’t tell him that,” Kaoru chided, observing the eleven-year-old’s downcast expression with pity. “I’m sure there’s some way out.”
Katsu only shook his head as Sano had done.
Yahiko was determined not to despair even in the face of jaded discouragement. His was a strong spirit that had yet to be broken, he having been here only a few months or so after the relatively kind owner he’d been born serving had died. He idolized Sano, for some reason, to the point even of trying to imitate his hairstyle, though his locks were black. And he was determined to escape. “No, seriously, hang-gliders work really good — you strap it to your back and glide for a mile or something.”
Sano smiled wanly. “Don’t you think they’d notice if we took all our blankets outside and started tying them onto sticks and stuff?”
“I think it’s a good idea,” Kaoru said.
“See?” Yahiko demanded.
Soujirou, who had been listening in intent silence, now joined the conversation. “If you could escape, though, where would you go?”
“Yeah, exactly,” Sano said.
“Back to Touscha, of course,” said Yahiko hotly.
“How would you get there, though?” Soujirou pursued. “This place is in the middle of nowhere between Touscha, Baiza, and West Sorrat, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” Katsu confirmed, a little surprised; most slaves didn’t have any clear idea of the complex’s geographic location.
“Wouldn’t it be a long, hard hike, then?” Soujirou asked. “And what would you eat? And what if something ate you?”
Seeming a little dismayed at these questions, Yahiko struggled to find answers.
“And if you got to Touscha,” Soujirou pressed on, “what then? Do you know how to live like a free man? Could you blend in well enough that when Ketterect Labor came looking, they wouldn’t suspect you were an escaped slave?”
This was another surprise; few slaves knew what the KL on their backs stood for.
“And how would you support yourself? Touschans don’t hold jobs until they’re eighteen, you know.”
“Is this really necessary?” asked Kaoru quietly. Katsu noticed absently that she hadn’t eaten much.
Sano sided with Soujirou. “No, he’s just being realistic.” And though it did seem odd that Soujirou could play devil’s advocate so persistently with that mild smile on his face the entire time, Katsu had to agree that realism shouldn’t be argued against. A lot of the time — as in this situation, evidently — those that had just arrived were the most pragmatic; anyone that lasted longer, went through a couple of dealer cycles without being sold, often had their perspective skewed. As for Katsu and Sano… he didn’t know whether their history at this place rendered their perspective dead-on, or skewed even worse than most.
Yahiko was staring at his plate unhappily; Katsu found his eyes lingering on the boy for quite some time. The prudence of practicality notwithstanding, maybe the newcomer had been a little too blunt. Katsu’s gaze rose to find that young man, and discovered Soujirou looking similarly at Yahiko. The smile was gone from his face, and the expression there in its stead was one of sorrow and pity that Katsu couldn’t help but appreciate; maybe Soujirou also thought he’d been too hard on the kid.
As if feeling Katsu’s gaze, Soujirou looked up and caught his eyes, and the light smile returned, the sadness vanishing as if it had never existed. Katsu thought this odd, but there was no use staring any further; he was finished eating and had somewhere to be.
“Well,” he announced as he stood and picked up his tray, “I’ve got barracks-call.”
“Oh?” Sano looked up quickly. “That guy?”
“He was on night-patrol, remember? It’s Akamatsu, of course.”
“Oh,” Sano glowered.
“Yeah. See you all tomorrow.”
After tubbing his dishes, Katsu headed for the doors, glancing back at his friends as he exited. He found Soujirou watching him very steadily, and gave a little wave. Soujirou didn’t seem to have any idea what he’d meant by ‘barracks-call,’ and waved back with that same smile. Katsu sighed as he trudged away from the mess hall up the hill toward the guards’ quarters. He’d find out soon enough.