Why did he treat him like that, like he cared about him, then leave him with a promise he couldn’t possibly fulfill?
Having been slaves for most of their lives, they know that love is both a luxury and a weakness they can’t afford; with Sano obsessing over a guard and Katsu enchanted by a newly-arrived fellow slave, however, they may not be able to help themselves. But something bigger than that is going on around them, and their growing feelings may be the least of their problems.
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.
The next day, Sano couldn’t help thinking a little wistfully about Yahiko’s hang-glider plan as he walked with Katsu and Soujirou past the windmill on the way to the fields in the clear dawn. The kid was always thinking up crazy ideas like that; in some ways it was refreshing, and in others terribly frustrating.
Yahiko was also constantly talking about the outer world as he’d known it. Sano had never been to Touscha, at least not as far as he could remember, and therefore those stories were interesting almost to the point of being painful. For what was the likelihood of Sano’s ever being able to find out for sure whether or not Yahiko was making them up?
It didn’t make matters any better that Soujirou was new to the complex and had all sorts of nosy questions. Some weren’t so bad… the ones about how the farming here worked and whether KL sold the grain to anyone or just used it to feed the slaves and the guards, and whether they knew which country KL bought the commodities they couldn’t produce from (incidentally, Katsu did know, because he had a seemingly superhuman ability to pick things like that up and remember them), and whether there was ever any recreation for the slaves, and all sorts of other irrelevant things… Sano just listened as Katsu patiently answered it all, in between the comings and goings of guards, until Soujirou happened upon a subject neither of them were going to want to discuss.
“Your friend Yahiko seems hell-bent on escaping. Has anyone ever escaped from here before, that you know of?”
Both Katsu and Sano shook their heads.
“In Touscha, slavery is a very touchy issue,” Soujirou remarked. Sano found his smile, at such a moment, almost uncanny. “It’s technically legal, but lots of people are against it… if something big were to come up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it banned. That’s why I was wondering — if there were to be a mass break-out, it would stir things up there and might accomplish something… Has anyone ever tried anything like that?”
“Yes,” Sano and Katsu answered at once.
Soujirou paused, looking at them. Sano only saw this out of the corner of his eye, as he’d become very intent on his work and guessed Katsu had as well. Undoubtedly they were both trying to keep their faces from betraying the pain that still lingered.
“What… happened?” Soujirou wondered a little hesitantly. He was obviously no fool, and had read enough in their mutual tone, even in that single syllable of affirmation, to make him cautious.
Neither of the others answered for a long moment until finally Katsu said briefly, “Almost everyone involved was killed.”
“Oh.” Soujirou cleared his throat and then made a slight and obviously deliberate change of subject. “Lately — before my master went bankrupt, anyway — I was hearing about some anti-slavery groups doing things like kidnapping slaves and supposedly taking them to West Sorrat and conditioning them for free life. He worried about sending me on errands outside his property!” he added with a slight laugh, clearly unaware that a guard had appeared not far off, that he was talking too much. “I heard that not much was being done about these people because–”
“Would you shut the hell up already?” the guard said as he stepped forward and gave the cheerful young man a rough shove. “You new fucks with your stupid chatter. God.”
“Sorry, sir,” Soujirou said unnecessarily, turning his unfaltering smile toward the guard.
“Yeah, yeah, just get back to work.” The guard was perhaps taken somewhat aback by that incongruous expression — which, Sano thought with a faint touch of amusement, was maybe its point — and only eyed Soujirou a bit more before continuing his walk of the field.
Soujirou, still smiling, did as he was told. Sano was a trifle relieved.
Like all newcomers, Soujirou would undoubtedly become accustomed to this place very quickly, Sano reflected, and not by asking a lot of questions — just because no day was ever any different from any other, and the nights were similarly all the same. Week after week it was nothing but work while the sun was up (Soujirou had proven today that he was capable of that); get fucked by some guard at night (Soujirou undoubtedly had the face and figure for that); and hope to survive to see the next season roll in.
Soujirou, in that last area, was a matter of question. He was too obviously accustomed to being treated well, and was therefore a little too flippant toward the guards. Not that slaves were routinely killed by guards, but the enforcers would go out of their way to make sure they didn’t get any attitude from those they ruled. Sano had seen some slaves die of pure indifference as their spirits were thus broken. He wasn’t to that point yet, though he didn’t know why — his must have been a stronger spirit than most — but he could see the day coming. And he wasn’t looking forward to watching it happen to yet another person that had joined their little group. Soujirou had better smooth himself out before someone else did it for him.
Kaoru seemed worse than usual that night, and Sano fervently hoped that the guards would forget about him for just this evening. Just let him sit by her side a little longer. If he couldn’t bring Kenshin back, the least he could do was try to fill the void, however inadequate he was. Yahiko seemed to be out of ideas for the moment, Soujirou was weary and quiet on the cot behind Sano, and silence reigned in their part of the room.
Kaoru was very pale as she lay curled up on her side in the little cot, eyes open but unmoving, and she shivered occasionally. Sano and Katsu had given her their own thin blankets, but she never seemed to be warm enough at night, even in these sweltering months. Sano’s face was blank as he stared down at her, but his mind wasn’t. Thoughts raced through his head like suicidal flying creatures — crashing into each other, into the ground, into trees, until he thought he was going crazy. Just like every night.
His reverie was broken when Kaoru sat up slowly. “Water?” she mumbled a little blearily.
“I’ll get it,” Katsu replied, stilling Sano and rising. He walked down the long line of cots past other slaves, who ignored him, to the end of the room. Pausing for a moment to stand directly in front of the electric fan that was all the ‘air conditioning’ they were allowed, he then moved on to where a few buckets sat in the corner full of water for their use. Sano watched him tiredly, for no particular reason, and when Katsu held up an empty bucket for him to see and headed for the door, he nodded absently.
“Katsu’s going to the pump,” he assured Kaoru. “It’ll just be a minute.”
“Thanks,” she replied, and her vision seemed to drift away to something she couldn’t actually see. He was sure it had something to do with a red-haired, violet-eyed man with pale skin and a gentle demeanor. Tears slowly filled her eyes as she closed them, and she brushed fitfully at the few that slid out down her cheeks.
Sano took her hand and squeezed it, knowing he could give no real comfort but wanting her to feel his presence. It was awkward and more than a bit painful watching a woman cry when there was nothing he could do about it, though, and he let his eyes drift around the room.
As it generally did at this time of day, the false serenity of weariness lay over the slave quarters — over the small group of companions as well as the others that sat massaging their feet or lay exhausted on their cots. The noise level, as always, was low; conversation during the work-day was discouraged, and the fear of reprisal carried even into the night when no guards were present. There were a few children in one corner carrying on some kind of quiet activity with their backs to the adults, but even their game — or whatever it was — was nearly devoid of energy.
Katsu, stopping just inside the doorway to set down his burden and observing the subdued scene, reflected that, in his eyes at least, his friends were the only part of the room that had any color; everything else appeared hopelessly dull. He wasn’t sure what he would do in a place like this, would have done all these years, without those he’d become close to — even coming and going as they always did — and especially Sano.
He transferred the big metal drinking ladle from an empty bucket to one of those he’d just filled, and went over to Kaoru. She accepted the ladle gratefully and drained it slowly. When she was finished, she sighed and returned the utensil to Katsu. Glancing from his face to Sano’s and then down to Yahiko, she remarked, “You all take care of me so much. Thank you.” Sano nodded, but couldn’t say anything. Yahiko, sitting on the floor, was looking down, sad and awkward, at his crossed legs and feet. Katsu nodded, like Sano, and went to put the ladle back in the bucket.
“I heard some guards talking,” he said quietly when he was seated at Kaoru’s side again, “out there. There was water in the trough, so I didn’t have to use the pump and they didn’t hear me. They were on the porch, and didn’t know anyone could hear them.”
They waited for him to continue, Kaoru easing herself down onto the cot once more and Yahiko watching him curiously.
Katsu looked around to make sure no one else was listening. Soujirou was evidently not paying attention (though Katsu felt fairly sure he could trust the newcomer anyway), and nobody else was within earshot. Finally he continued. “I didn’t hear everything, but they did say something about a break in the perimeter — out across the east field.”
Sano’s brow furrowed. “What do you think?” he asked.
Katsu shook his head slightly. “I don’t know. It sounds dangerous, but it could be our best chance yet.”
Yahiko opened his mouth as if he wanted to speak, but then didn’t say anything.
Sano was nodding slowly. “But we’d have to do it soon… they won’t let something like that sit for more than a day or so.”
“Oh, I forgot…” Their attention was all drawn to where Soujirou had stood up abruptly. “A guard told me to come to his room after dinner. I guess I’m late.”
Katsu and Sano exchanged unhappy glances.
Soujirou’s own face went slightly pale at sight of that. “I heard what you were saying yesterday… Does that mean…”
“Yeah,” Sano said quietly. “Sorry, man.”
“But, I…” Soujirou bit his lip.
“No choice,” Katsu said darkly. “Hopefully it was one of the nicer ones, and not Akamatsu.”
“I heard you say his name last night too,” Soujirou faltered. “Is he…”
“He’s a horny pervert and a complete bastard,” Sano said.
“Gets off on making our lives hell,” added Katsu.
“What does he look like?” Soujirou asked, even more faintly.
“He’s short, kinda big,” Sano informed, “got all kinds of scars on his face.”
The young man let out a breath of relief. “It wasn’t him, then. But… what happens if I don’t go at all?”
“You’ll probably get beaten then raped,” Sano told him grimly. “Best to just go and get it over with.”
Soujirou took a deep breath, then nodded. “Good night, then,” he said in a tone that was evidently struggling to sound strong as he turned for the door and headed off to face his doom.
“Poor guy,” Katsu muttered. “Second night here, too.”
“At least he’s old enough…” But despite the pity in his tone, Sano evidently couldn’t keep his mind on that matter. “Anyway, what about that break? Do you think we should go for it?”
“Yes!” Yahiko said, a little too loudly. His eyes were sparkling. “We could get out and make a run for it!”
“You should,” Kaoru agreed, and Katsu saw that her wide-open eyes were clear and filled with some emotion he hadn’t observed there for some time.
“We’ll go get help,” he said. “Soujirou was saying earlier–” He didn’t have time to explain it, though. “Well, we’ll find something, come back, and get you out.”
She smiled. “I don’t need your promises,” she said softly. “Just get yourselves out.”
Sano frowned. “No, we will come back for you.” But she shook her head. His frown deepened at that, and Katsu thought he was slightly hurt. “Fine, don’t believe it. But we will.” Turning to Yahiko then he said, “I’m sorry, kid, but we can’t take you with us.” He continued swiftly, not allowing the protest to make its way out of the boy’s mouth. “You know if we get caught trying to escape they’re likely to kill us, and I refuse to have your death on my conscience, even if I’m dead too. Plus, you’re not strong enough or fast enough to keep up with us.”
Yahiko gritted his teeth with an angry blush, abruptly fighting back tears. But not only was there no argument against Sano’s blunt points, he probably believed the insistence that Sano and Katsu would return to rescue them — maybe even more than either of them did. Finally he nodded.
Sano pulled him against his chest in a sudden hug. “I’ll miss you, kid,” he said.
“If we get out, it’ll be worth it,” Katsu nodded, reaching out to ruffle Yahiko’s hair.
“Yeah,” Yahiko stammered.
Sano then leaned down and kissed Kaoru on the brow. “Goodbye,” he said.
“We’ll be back,” Katsu promised again, squeezing her hand.
“Goodbye,” she replied, and closed her eyes so as not to see them rising and heading for the door… given that she obviously believed she would never see them again.
They planned quietly as they made their stealthy way across the dirt yard between the slave quarters and the guard barracks and onward. Heading north, they determined that they would cut through the orchard and come onto the field from the south, crossing it at the lower end where they would less easily be seen by patrols. Thence it was into the thick, hostile forest that surrounded the complex, and hopefully they could find the break in the perimeter fence soon enough to slip through and start running before someone realized they were gone.
After that, they had no idea what to do. It was only logical to assume that, as the complex lay at the juncture of three nations, whatever direction they chose to take would eventually lead them to one of those… Touscha would be preferable, given what Soujirou had said about slavery there, and they understood that it was to their northwest — but while northwest was easy enough to find in a place they’d known for a decade, things would be very different in a dark forest with many hours before dawn. With this in mind, they resolved not to be too particular about where they ended up, as long as it was somewhere other than here, and not dead.
But as Soujirou had pointed out last night, what then? Ketterect Labor Complex had been their home for ten years, and of what lay beyond they really had no concept other than what they’d been told and what they vaguely remembered from their childhood. Would they be capable of blending in, coming up with some way to support themselves, and finding help for their friends here in time?
They could not allow themselves to doubt that somewhere in the great beyond would be help for Kaoru. At the very least, if they could raise enough money somehow, they could buy their friends and bring them to freedom. And perhaps someone would have heard of a mistreated red-headed slave that pined for a love lost at the hands of a cruel white-haired man. Or even if that could not be, if they could get her out, Kaoru could receive better medical attention. The taciturn doctor that tended to the slaves was gentle and fairly adept, but cold and distant, wrapped up in thoughts no one could guess.
They had one close call as they scaled the orchard wall and Katsu nearly fell, but the guard below merely walked on without noting them. “This would be a lot easier,” Sano grumbled a bit later, when he could without being heard, “if they didn’t wear dark grey and we could see them better.”
Katsu shook his head with a wry smile. “Idiot.”
They crossed the orchard with little trouble, and darted across the dirt road between it and the sunken level of grain that was the east field. This was going to be a bit more difficult, as guards actually patrolled up and down the lanes between the plots, and it was there Katsu and Sano also had to walk — as going through the grain itself would make too much noise on this windless night and could not be risked. By the time they made it to the ditch that separated the field from the forest, they were sweating as much as if they’d been working in the field, not sneaking through it, but they remained unseen.
Clambering across the ditch, they took one last look around before plunging into the forest.
“Do you think we’re actually going to make it?” Katsu asked when they were a few minutes into the dense foliage, fighting their way forward with determination.
“I don’t know,” Sano replied, looking for a path through a particularly nasty tangle. “But I’ve gotta try. For Kaoru. And Kenshin.”
“And Souzou,” Katsu added softly.
The perimeter was drawing nearer, and the frenzy of Katsu’s heart spread to a flush throughout his entire body. This could be the moment he’d dreamed of his entire captive life, the amazing moment when he looked for the first time beyond the pale of slavery into freedom. Of course, all he was likely to see was forest, but that was immaterial. Now, if only they could find the break!
The tall, imposing barbed-wire electric fence appeared suddenly in front of them, the trees cleared away around it and the foliage hacked back. They peered cautiously out from the forest’s shelter, and saw what they were looking for off to their right: a tree had fallen into the fence, snapping wires and creating a bridge to freedom. It wasn’t obvious how the tree had been tipped, but they weren’t about to argue with such good fortune. Scanning the area for any sign of life, they both looked again at the fallen trunk, then at each other, and slowly moved forward.
“Did you two idiots really think there wouldn’t be a guard here?”
The unexpected sound stopped them short just a few yards from their destination. They might have risked the chance that the speaker was armed and run onward if the voice had not come from in front of them — indeed, from exactly where they were heading.
The guard stepped casually from behind the fallen tree, where boughs and shadows had combined with his dark uniform and black hair to render him completely invisible.
“Shit,” Sano growled.
It was the same guard that had been admiring them yesterday. Despite the blackness, his golden eyes glowed with a deadly gleam. He stood nonchalantly regarding them, a cigarette marking the darkness in his right hand, his left lying lightly on the holster at his hip.
Sano didn’t waste time between his next phrase, “Let’s take him down!” and his sudden sprint toward the man, but neither did the guard waste time in drawing and calmly firing a single perfect shot that flew straight into Sano’s shoulder.
Katsu was less inclined than Sano to physical combat, and so had held back at first, but upon seeing his friend fall to the ground in a burst of blood he leapt forward. However, the guard had, with the same calmness, pointed the gun directly at him, and was advancing slowly.
“K-katsu…” Sano choked out, grimacing as he clutched at his shoulder and tried to rise. “Run… get out…”
“Idiot!” Katsu replied in a desperate hiss, falling to his knees at his friend’s side when he saw that attacking an armed man was futile. “I’m not going without you!”
The guard loomed over them, a tall shadow stretching up to two amber points. What little light there was in the lee of the great trees gleamed off the barrel of his gun as it was leveled at Katsu’s head. “Get away from him,” he commanded.
“If you want to kill him, you’ll have to kill me first,” Katsu replied, leaning over Sano protectively.
“That would be easy enough,” the infuriating voice drawled out of the dark. “But if I wanted to kill him, don’t you think I might have aimed for a more vital area?”
There wasn’t really a logical answer for this, and the next moment a long arm snaked around the obstruction Katsu presented to seize Sano’s shirt and pull him all at once out of his friend’s clutching grasp. The guard lifted Sano easily and slung him over his shoulder. Sano must have blacked out, for he made neither protest nor attempt to escape, and his arms hung limp.
“What are you doing?” Katsu demanded, jumping to his feet.
The man looked at him briefly. “He’s bleeding; he needs to be treated. What do you think I’m doing?”
Katsu stared at him, baffled. “But… what should…”
The guard gestured at the fallen tree. “You’re free to continue your escape attempt if you wish to do so without your companion. Otherwise, I would advise you return to your quarters before dawn.” And with these words he turned and walked away calmly into the trees, carrying Sano with him.
The pain was terrible, and in large part, he thought, stunting his progress toward full consciousness. Combined with this, the other sensations of soft bedsheets around him and something grazing the bare skin of his chest left him at a total loss as to where he was or what was happening to him. The last feeling, as if someone’s hand were slowly running over him in a light, almost absent caress, he dwelt on longest; it was soothing, especially compared to the agony in his shoulder.
Wait… he’d been shot, hadn’t he? Because… because he’d been trying to escape, and Katsu…
Sano sat up, giving a grunt at the increased pain and surprise at suddenly being completely awake, his hand flying immediately to his wound as a soft blanket slid down his body and a set of infinitely familiar objects came into focus: the plaster ceiling and walls, plain light fixture, and brown door of a barracks interior. “What the…? Where am I?”
“In my room.”
Sano started away from the guard that was seated immediately beside him on the bed, leaning against the wall behind them and barely looking up from the magazine he was reading. The startled motion nearly made Sano fall to the floor, and preventing himself from doing so caused him quite a bit of discomfort. “Ow… shit…”
His first thought was that the guard must have brought him back here to have his way with him before he turned him in for trying to escape, but it was obvious that he hadn’t been raped in his sleep. Beyond that, as he took stock of himself, he found that his gunshot wound had been cleaned and bandaged. For all the pain he was in, the way his shoulder and arm were moving led him to guess that the bullet had missed everything vital and left him to heal back to what would probably be a normal muscular condition. It must have been an amazingly precise shot to do so little damage.
Dizzy and confused, he lay down again, flat on his back, looking up at the other man. “Why?” he asked softly.
“Because I didn’t feel like treating your wound outside on the ground in the middle of the night.” Once more, the guard didn’t even look at him as he answered.
“If your friend has any sense, he’ll have gone back to his quarters long before this.”
It felt like a stupid thing to ask, but, given the circumstance, Sano couldn’t forebear — “Are you gonna turn us in?”
The man put his magazine down at last, and regarded Sano with his uncanny golden eyes. “I’ve been watching you and your friend for several days now,” he said, but his words didn’t seem to be meant as any sort of answer to Sano’s question. “How did you come to be here?”
Although confused, Sano saw no reason not to tell him, so he replied, “Katsu and I were living on the streets in LeMere in Baiza, and these guys picked us up.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Ten years? Eleven? Something like that.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “I find it hard to believe than a strong and attractive young man wouldn’t have been sold in such a length of time.”
“Those are the exact reasons I wasn’t. I’m strong, so I’m useful for all kinds of work…” Sano’s eyes flicked up toward the ceiling rather than the man’s face as he blushed. Why exactly he was blushing, he couldn’t be quite sure; it might have been because of what he was about to explain, but why that should be, when it was something he basically took for granted, he didn’t know. “And I’m attractive, I guess, so I’m useful for all kinds of other stuff too. I’ll never get sold. Matter of fact, somebody always locks me and Katsu up when the dealers come by, just to make sure we don’t. I don’t think the higher-ups know they do that, though.”
“How old are you?”
“Nineteen, I think.”
There was a brief silence, and Sano was almost afraid to look over again, but did so anyway. He found the man staring down at him with a piercing gaze that he did not understand. “Are you saying,” the man asked, with peculiar emphasis, “that these guards have found you ‘strong and attractive’ since you were nine years old?”
Sano was blushing even more than before. Maybe it was just that no one had ever really talked to him about it like this; it had always just been… the way he lived. “Yeah. Well, not like it’s been the same guards all this time. You guys come and go too.”
More silence. Then finally, “How many slaves would you say there are here?”
“About a hundred.”
“And how long do they usually stay — the ones who don’t routinely get raped?”
“I’ve never known anyone to stay more than a year, but sometimes they go after a month even. The dealers come all in a group once a year and pick out lots of people, but sometimes individual ones come some other time when they’re running low or whatever.”
“Do you know anything about where the slaves get sold to?”
“Nah… usually the buyers don’t come up here in person. The dealers take the slaves they pick back to wherever they do whatever they do, and the buyers get what they need from there. Every once in a while a buyer wants more selection, and’ll turn up here looking for something specific, but that doesn’t happen much.” He thought of the asshole that had bought Kenshin.
The yellow-eyed man was nodding. “And when do most of the dealers come?”
“After harvest. Won’t be more’n about a month now.” Sano, by this point, was really at a loss to explain all these questions, which reminded him vaguely of Soujirou’s endless curiosity earlier this very day (for all it felt like weeks ago)… didn’t guards get briefed on all this stuff when they took the job? Maybe not. Maybe he was just too accustomed to the ones that had been here long enough to figure it all out.
“Do you know the date?”
“It’s just… after harvest…”
“I mean, do you know today’s date?”
The guard’s lips tightened. Sano was confused.
Abruptly the man stood and set his neglected magazine down on the table, then reached up to tug on the chain that turned off the light. The interrogation was probably over, then, and it was time to get on with the reason Sano was sitting here naked. A strange feeling began to grow in the pit of his stomach at that thought, a sensation he didn’t quite recognize. It was almost as if he didn’t feel ready for it, despite the fact that he was as ready as he ever was any night.
But all the man said next was, “Go to sleep.”
Sano blinked several times into the darkness, recognizing by the shifting of the bed and the blankets that the man had lain down beside him. “What?”
“I said, go to sleep.”
“Yeah, I heard you, but…”
“Or stay awake all night, if you think that will help you heal quicker.”
“I thought… Aren’t you going to fuck me?”
He might have been imagining things, but it seemed there was a pause that felt almost indecisive before the man replied in a tone half amused and half… something else… “Why; do you want me to?”
“Why would you ask, then?”
“I wasn’t asking you to do it; I just figured you were already going to.”
“Well, you obviously want to…” At least, that was how Sano was reading the man’s expressions and tones.
Baffled, Sano had absolutely no answer to this.
“You’re injured,” the guard said, as if that explained everything.
Sano was motionless with shock. No guard in the history of the slave complex would have cared that he was injured — indeed, to some it would have been an added bonus. And this one, while not bothering to deny that he wanted it, didn’t plan on taking him just because of a clean and well-treated wound in his shoulder?
“Who are you?” he managed to ask at last.
“A guard, idiot.”
“Yeah, I know that, but when did you get here? I never saw you before yesterday. What’s your name? Why did you ask me all those questions? Why didn’t you turn us in?”
“You’re noisy. Go to sleep.”
But Sano, feeling strangely fearless, was not going to relent just yet. “If you didn’t plan on fucking me or turning me in, why did you stop me escaping?”
The guard said nothing; it seemed he didn’t intend to answer.
Finally, despairing of finding out what he wanted to know, Sano lay down with a slight sigh followed by a grunt of pain. He was acutely conscious of the warmth of the man immediately to his left; the guard still wore a robe and had his back to Sano, yet the arrangement felt very… intimate… and without the activities that generally preceded going to bed thus side by side, that intimacy was disconcerting. Sano wasn’t sure he’d actually be able to sleep like this. He couldn’t even turn away from the other man, as that would put him on his hurt shoulder.
It didn’t help that he was inexplicably naked.
Why was he naked, if the guard hadn’t planned on fucking him?
This question nagged at him until he was forced to ask it aloud.
“Your ratty clothing was covered with blood,” was the reply whose tone seemed to suggest that the answer was obvious and Sano should really shut up.
“But they won’t issue me any more clothing until–”
“I’ll make sure they do,” the man interrupted. “I’ll tell them in the morning that my gun went off by mistake and wounded you.”
“You really aren’t going to tell anyone that we tried to escape, are you.” Sano hadn’t been aware, up until this point, that he hadn’t really believed it up until this point.
“No, I’m not. It would be a good idea for you not to mention it to anyone either.”
“No shit… But I still don’t get why you stopped us. It doesn’t seem like you care whether we escaped or not.”
“Maybe I just wanted some company for the night.” By now the guard sounded exasperated.
“You could have had anyone!” Sano’s tone was very similar, but his was tinged with desperation, maybe even anger.
“I wanted you.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to.”
“But you could have had someone who wasn’t trying to escape, dammit!”
“I told you; I’ve been watching you for days. I didn’t want anyone else. I wasn’t going to let you escape.”
“What the hell kind of motive is wanting my company for keeping me from my freedom?”
There was a long silence, and Sano thought the man was once again not going to answer him, until finally the reply came out of the darkness in the softest tone the guard had yet used: “You won’t regret it. I swear.”
The words made him shiver, for some reason, and that strange sensation in the pit of his stomach was growing. “Why?” he wondered, almost in a whisper.
“You ask too many questions.”
Sano had to give a snort of laughter. After the day he’d had… “I ask too many questions?”
But this time there really was no answer.
Once he’d resigned himself to the conversation’s end, he found discomfort, irritation, curiosity, and confusion fading, or at least going temporarily dormant, as he drifted away from consciousness much sooner than he’d expected.
The pre-dawn wake-up siren brought him to his senses in an empty bed; reflexively he sprang up before remembering the events of the night, then sat down again abruptly with a combination sigh and moan. His shoulder roared with pain, and his entire body felt stiff. He wondered if he’d moved even once the entire time he’d been asleep.
He looked around, but the guard was gone. Back to Sano came the oddly serious and almost gentle words that had been nearly the last thing he’d heard before going to sleep: “You won’t regret it. I swear.” Logically, he should be feeling regret, should be bitter or irate… but, besides the pain of his wound, the only sensation of which he was conscious was a strange sort of coldness that was more like an emotional void than anything brought on by the chill of morning. He touched the bandage on his shoulder gently and wondered where he would be by now if yellow-eyes hadn’t stopped them. He didn’t really know how to feel.
But the sun was certainly rising, and he would have time to think as he worked. Not that he was particularly looking forward to harvesting grain with this throbbing pain. He stood again, slowly, moving his arm a bit to test the muscles and grimacing at the result. No, not looking forward to it at all.
At that moment, the door opened, and a blank-faced girl entered without preamble. She didn’t seem to care that Sano was totally naked, only held out the bundle she had brought. “Here,” she said emotionlessly.
Sano knew well the look in the kid’s eyes, having seen it many times in countless faces since he came here: total, soul-deep apathy. He didn’t have to know her personally to be aware that she always did exactly what she was told, rolled with every blow, and could not care less where her life was going. It was the ultimate face of slavery: the death of all that was human in an individual.
“You won’t regret it. I swear.”
Yeah, buddy, you’re gonna hafta work pretty damn hard to live up to that one, Sano reflected harshly as he looked at the girl and thought of so many others like her, not to mention those that hadn’t yet reached this point, whose wills could still be saved, that might have been helped by his escape. He thought of Kaoru…
“Thanks,” he said, taking the clothes, old and used but clean and new to him.
“Coord’ told me to tell you to work in the wash-house ’til you’re OK.”
Sano nodded and began to dress as the girl turned and left.
As he stepped from the room and closed the door behind him a few minutes later, listening to the click of the latch with an indescribable rising emotion, the first of the morning, stretching out his healthy arm with a yawn, his attention was drawn to movement at his left. A guard had been standing very still close by and was now approaching.
“What’s your name?” the man asked in a flat tone; his accent was Sorratian like that of the other guard.
“Sano,” he replied promptly, puzzled and a little worried. Was he in trouble after all? He refrained from searching the man’s face, as guards generally didn’t like that, but from the short dark hair and cold blue eyes he’d taken in with his first glance he knew he’d never seen this man before.
“Quarter 4-12 tonight,” the stranger informed him in the same tone.
“Yes, sir,” Sano said dully, and watched in minor stupefaction as the guard turned and walked away without another word. They’re lining up for me outside each other’s doors now, he was reflecting, not without a touch of weary amusement, but how the fuck did he even know I was in there? He would have had to… well, maybe yellow-eyes told him this morning… Even with this explanation, though, it was disconcerting. But he’d deal with it as he always did.
Noting that the sun was by now risen, the slave made haste away from the barracks and down the hill toward the wash-house, hoping the excuse of having been wounded and needing to wait for new clothes would be enough to keep him out of trouble for being late.
Katsu’s endless horrified conjectures about what had happened to Sano last night, and what might happen to both of the would-be escapees today, were to a certain extent interrupted by a very pale Soujirou joining him on the way to the fields just before sunrise. Looking a little lost and a bit the worse for wear, he fell into step quietly at Katsu’s side.
The latter was far too inured to the way they lived here to feel any intense remorse for Soujirou’s plight, but that didn’t make him totally unsympathetic. “Good morning,” he offered softly. “Are you all right?”
“I…” Soujirou’s face was blank.
Katsu put a hand on his shoulder, knowing full well that there was nothing he could say that would really mean anything.
Apparently attempting to rally his spirits, Soujirou managed a faint smile and, “Where’s Sano?”
Katsu tried not to frown. If Soujirou had been three minutes earlier, had come to the quarters, Katsu could have told him. Out here, however, with more guards around and so many slaves moving in the same direction, it was difficult to determine who was or wasn’t listening. “A guard came in for him right after you left last night,” he lied. “He’s probably already in the field.”
“So, how often should I expect… that…?” Soujirou wondered in response to this, trying to keep his voice even.
Katsu had to admit that he was somewhat glad of the distracting conversation. “Sano and I are their favorites,” he replied, “and we don’t usually get called up more than about three or four times a week during warmer parts of the year.”
Soujirou looked away with wide eyes, and Katsu, glancing over, could see him mouth the words, ‘four times a week’ with an air of disbelieving stupor.
“That’s actually not all that often, if you think about it.” Katsu tried to reassure him a little by explaining the system as he understood it. “There’s about forty guards, so it could be a lot more. But most of them don’t like men, I think. So since sex between women and men isn’t allowed here — because pregnant slaves don’t sell as well, and it isn’t like there’s a shop around the corner selling condoms — those ones don’t bother us. And except for Akamatsu, the rest of them don’t all feel like fucking every night.”
Whether or not Soujirou was reassured, he did seem a little calmer. “You really know how this place works, don’t you?”
“I have been here most of my life.”
“Most of your life?” Soujirou echoed in surprise. “How can you have gone so long without being sold?”
“I told you Sano and I are their favorites,” Katsu replied a little grimly. “Like they’d ever let us go.” Though that could have been subverted last night if not for that strange guard. And where was Sano? Katsu was scanning the field for him without any luck.
Soujirou, who hadn’t had any reply to Katsu’s last statement (for what was there to say?), followed his gaze across those that had already started working, then those just arriving, and shook his head. “I don’t see him.”
Tried to sound casual, Katsu agreed and added, “I wonder where he is…” And he continued to look.
“Katsu, the guards are watching.” Soujirou tugged on his arm. “Let’s go.”
Katsu couldn’t think that Soujirou’s indifference toward the guards’ influence had been completely reversed already, but evidently the barracks-call had taught him something. He allowed the younger man to pull him away from his search.
Once they were safely working and no guard was immediately nearby, Soujirou asked, “Why wouldn’t he be here?” Of course not knowing the story of the previous evening, his tone was nothing more than curious.
The only answer Katsu could come up with was that Sano was in bad enough condition that he couldn’t work the fields — but he couldn’t say that to Soujirou without explaining everything that had happened and risking being overheard… “I don’t know,” he replied at length, not bothering to hide his concern; Soujirou should be able to understand it, if he picked up on it, even without all the details.
Katsu caught a glance from the other slave that suggested he had picked up on it. “How long have you known him?” Soujirou asked deliberately, perhaps attempting to cheer Katsu up or at least distract him.
“As long as I can remember.” Katsu was not averse to being cheered up or at least distracted. “We met as orphans in LeMere and watched each other’s backs for a few years before KL found us.”
“You were homeless, then? Without any living relatives?”
“I see you know how it works.”
Soujirou smiled and rolled his eyes. “If the laws are the same in Baiza as they are in Touscha, yes. They claim anyone would rather be a slave than be homeless with no one to go to.”
With a shake of his head, Katsu remarked darkly, “I wonder if any of the people who make laws like that have any idea what it’s like to be either a slave or homeless. Anyway,” he continued, “Sano always claimed he had an uncle somewhere, but we were kids… even if he wasn’t making it up or remembering wrong, we didn’t have much of a chance at finding the guy. We were barely just staying alive.”
“And given the choice between barely staying alive and slavery, what would you take?”
Katsu had to smile a little, wryly, as he answered. “That isn’t a fair question to ask me. It may not look like much of a life I’ve got here, but compared to the horror stories I’ve heard from so many people–” He cut himself short and turned wholly to his work as a guard went slowly by.
As soon as the grey figure was gone, Soujirou broke into protest with a skeptical smile: “Katsu, men like that rape you three or four times a week. How can you say you have a better life than anyone?”
With a sighing laugh Katsu replied, “I can tell you came from a nice master who let you do things like not get raped, easy work, and keep up with national politics, so you obviously don’t know what it’s like for most slaves. Sure, I’m a free whore, but I don’t get beaten much, I don’t get starved, I’m capable of the work I’m assigned, my ownership isn’t going to change hands once every sixth months when my master gets tired of me… Most of the slaves I meet here can’t say any of that.”
“But wouldn’t you like to take a chance at finding a good master?”
“I don’t want any master.” He said it more fiercely than he’d thought he would. “I’d take a chance at freedom — nothing less.”
“For some reason, that’s exactly what I expected from you,” Soujirou said thoughtfully.
Katsu turned to find the other slave regarding him with a pleased smile, and somehow felt like he’d just received a flattering compliment; he returned to his work unexpectedly gratified.
Sano never appeared. Katsu hadn’t really expected him to, after the first half hour, but couldn’t stop watching for him. Soujirou didn’t miss this endless, worried impatience, and succeeded in distracting him from it yet again by asking sometime in the late afternoon completely out of the blue, “Is Sano your lover?”
“No!” said Katsu in surprise. “No… we’re really more like brothers.”
And Soujirou nodded, still, of course, smiling. Katsu spent the rest of the workday wondering why he’d wanted to know.
He was more anxious than usual to get back for dinner, as he anticipated answers there, good or bad, to the day’s questions. Soujirou hurried along at his side without a word as he strode through the twilight in that direction.
“Katsu!” Yahiko cried from where he waited on the mess hall porch. He didn’t shout anything further, as the door guard turned to glare at him just for the name. As the two field-workers joined the boy where he stood, Yahiko said quietly, “Sano’s not in there, and I haven’t seen him.”
“Neither have I,” Katsu admitted.
“Do you think he’s–”
“Are we eating tonight,” the guard interrupted almost at a growl, “or having a party on the porch?”
At this insistence, they all turned reluctantly to enter the building. Soujirou was inside and Katsu was just about to step through the doorway when Yahiko looked back over his shoulder, then hurled himself from Katsu’s side with a cry of “Sano!!!”
Katsu whirled at the name to see Yahiko hugging the person in question, who looked as if he hadn’t even known the kid was there until just now. Sano’s shoulder was bandaged, and other than that he seemed unharmed.
“Where the hell have you been?” Yahiko was demanding.
Sano hugged him back, looking to Katsu and then to the door guard. “Come on,” he said. “I’m starving, so I’ll tell you inside.” The armed man, though glowering, was looking simultaneously curious, so Sano continued over-loudly, “Some guard’s gun went off and wounded me, so I got treated last night and worked in the wash-house today.” And pulling Yahiko off him, he moved from the post-dusk darkness into the dimly-lit interior of the mess hall.
“What did he do?” Katsu asked immediately when they were inside and making their way across the crowded room. Soujirou was already several spots ahead of them in the line, and gave a smile and a shrug when Katsu caught his eye.
“He did this,” Sano was answering, pointing to the bandage on his shoulder. “Then he asked me a bunch of questions, mostly… about this place and the people here, and me…”
“But why didn’t he…” Katsu began in a marveling whisper, cutting himself off before saying anything possibly incriminating in a crowded room. “If he just wanted information, he could have gotten it from any other guard, or the staff.”
Sano shook his head. “I have no idea. It was confusing as hell.” And, indeed, he had an air about him of underlying perplexity like Katsu had never seen.
Once they had their thick bread and thin soup, they made their way over to where Kaoru sat at the end of a bench saving places for them; Soujirou had found a spot across from her, and the two were conversing quietly. Katsu still couldn’t help but appreciate the concern Soujirou seemed to show for Kaoru. She looked paler than usual this evening, but her unhappy face took on an amazingly relieved expression when she saw Sano.
“Hey, missie,” the latter said softly as he took his seat beside her.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” she remarked. “I was getting ready to go find that guard and beat him up.”
Sano smiled. “Getting some of your spirit back, I see,” he said amusedly. “But he really wasn’t so bad.”
“I missed what happened,” Soujirou said with a smile of his own. “What guard are we beating up?”
“The one Sano spent the night with,” Katsu said quickly. “His gun went off by accident, and you can see the result.” He jerked a thumb at his friend.
Sano took the hint that Soujirou was not in the know and added, “But it’s really OK. I get to work in the wash-house for a while instead of baking in the sun.”
“The wash-house…” Soujirou said thoughtfully. “So you’ve been doing laundry all day? Please tell me they don’t make you do it by hand.”
“Nah, there’s machines in there,” Sano assured him. “Just no dryers. We gotta hang out all the clothes, with clothespins and everything, only it’s inside so nobody steals ’em, and the whole place smells like… well, wet laundry. Then we take the dry stuff down and fold it and organize it by size in this huge wall of compartments. It’s boring as shit, and I was getting my ear talked off all day too.” He gave a slight chuckle at the end of this explanation, but Katsu thought his mind was not entirely on this conversation, that something was wrong.
“By those nice old ladies, right?” Kaoru asked, looking amused in her turn.
“Well, yeah, and there’s some new girl too who just went on and on the whole day.” Sano started to reach up with his right hand, winced, and switched to his left to scratch his head. “She wasn’t actually talking to me, but it wasn’t like I couldn’t hear her.”
“Oh, I think I know who you’re talking about,” Yahiko put in. “I saw her the other day when they were assigning her — the one with the long black braid?”
“Yeah, that’s her.”
“Well, I’m done,” Soujirou declared suddenly, standing and stepping back over the bench, then looking down at Katsu. “You coming?”
“You eat too fast,” Katsu replied with a slight grin. “We’ll be there when we’re done.”
“OK.” Soujirou leaned over suddenly and kissed Katsu on the mouth before turning and walking away.
Katsu was speechless for a very long moment while that brief pressure seemed to linger teasingly, worrisomely on his lips and the others stared at him, their previous conversation entirely forgotten.
“Katsu…” Sano began in a worried tone.
“Katsu, don’t,” Sano said. “You know what’ll happen.”
“It was just unexpected, that’s all!” Katsu protested. “And he’s only been here a couple days! It’s not like…”
“Yes, it is like,” Kaoru contradicted. “I can tell.”
“You know what’ll happen,” Sano repeated darkly. He did not add what Katsu knew he must be thinking: Don’t make me watch another one of my friends go through that.
“It’s nothing,” Katsu assured them, especially Sano, attempting at the same time to assure himself of the same thing. “Don’t worry about me, OK?” And he turned his full attention to eating as silence fell heavily among them.
Eventually they all finished, and with very few words rose together and left the hall — each of them, from what Katsu could gather by furtive glances, pensive with a different emotion: Yahiko seemed to feel awkward at that last exchange, not knowing what to think or say on the subject; Kaoru appeared very sad, even paler than before and moving at a slow pace — she understood better than anyone why Katsu should be careful; and Sano still looked confused, maybe a bit angry on top of it, and rather worried.
Katsu went to walk at his best friend’s side. “Are you all right?” he asked in a low tone. “You seem…” But he didn’t quite know how to describe it.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Katsu thought Sano’s reply was a little absent.
“Are you sure? That weird guard… did he rape you?”
“No…” Sano said slowly, thoughtfully.
“But nothing. It was just strange and confusing is all.” Sano seemed to shake himself out of his reverie, for a few moments at least, long enough to reiterate his warning. “You just worry about yourself and pretty boy over there.”
“I told you, it’s nothing,” Katsu said with a slight frown. “You notice I didn’t tell him about last night.” OK, so that was a misleading statement, but if it made Sano feel better…
It appeared to. “Yeah. Good.” Sano had slowed, and now as Yahiko and Kaoru caught up with them he stopped walking entirely. “I’ve got call tonight, so I’ll see you all at showers tomorrow. Well, except you,” he added with an emotionless smile at Kaoru. “You I’ll see at dinner.”
Katsu shook his head sympathetically. A barracks-call was going to be even worse than usual for Sano with a shoulder he could barely use. “Good night,” he said.
As the other two echoed the goodbye, Sano turned away in the direction of the guards’ quarters while Katsu continued toward his own. It was troublesome that so few of the questions he’d awakened with today had been answered… not only that, but a new and totally unexpected issue had come to light: on top of being worried still that the guard might report what they’d been trying to do, now he had to figure out whether Soujirou might not already have led him onto the road to heartbreak.
The blank door opened at his knock to reveal the equally blank face of the guard within.
“Hey,” Sano greeted him, trying not to sound too unenthusiastic. The guard gestured him inside without a word, then returned to the task of undressing in which Sano had apparently interrupted him.
There was always a tired, almost morbid curiosity in Sano’s mind regarding the sexual organs of a good-looking guard that hadn’t fucked him before, so he waited in watchful silence to find out how well this one was hung. But for some reason, the man stopped at his boxers and turned to the slave. “Sit there,” he said in an emotionless tone, pointing not to the bed as Sano had expected but to the chair that every guard had in his room and few seemed actually to use.
“OK,” he replied, obeying.
The man looked him over slowly, not a trace of what he was thinking evident on his face. Finally, just when his scrutiny was beginning to make Sano a bit nervous, he spoke again. “My name is Aoshi. I expect you to do everything I say.”
Sano nodded. That was normal.
“You can sleep in that chair,” Aoshi continued, reaching up and turning off the light. “Just stay quiet.”
Sano blinked. That was not normal. He opened his mouth to question as he heard the unmistakable sound of the guard getting into bed, then forbore. It seemed as unwise to go against what Aoshi had just commanded as it seemed completely illogical for the guard to have called Sano here for no reason in the first place.
As he adjusted his position in the uncomfortable chair, his head was slowly starting to ache. Up until twenty-four hours ago, his life had been so straightforward… he hadn’t been confused about anything since Yahiko had tried to explain triangle geometry math to him a couple of months ago. And now…
He’d spent the day trying to ignore both the pain in his shoulder as he worked and the chattering braid-girl, and the whole time a wheel of confusion had been endlessly turning, endlessly repeating, in his tired mind:
Why would a guard that was willing to shoot him casually through the shoulder, willing to prevent him escaping this whorehouse of a life, hesitate to fuck him, though obviously wanting to, just because he was hurt? There was always the possibility that yellow-eyes found injuries or blood a turn-off, but he hadn’t seemed the squeamish type to Sano… and otherwise, such consideration seemed so nice… or at least reasonable…
But wouldn’t it also have been nice or at least reasonable to let him escape? Or if he wasn’t going to allow that, wouldn’t it have made sense to turn them in like a normal guard would? Well, some normal guards… Akamatsu wouldn’t have turned his favorite sex toys in to be executed. But yellow-eyes hadn’t wanted sex. No, even less comprehensibly, he had wanted it — as if Sano couldn’t tell after all these years when somebody did! — just hadn’t taken it. It really didn’t add up.
The answer, he thought, lay in that impossible promise. But that was as easily decoded as the rest of the man’s behavior. Why wouldn’t Sano regret it? What lay in his future important enough that it was worth shooting him to be sure he was here for, and not turning him in to be sure he was alive to see? Something that yellow-eyes knew about and would swear by, as if he, a mere guard, could personally guarantee it? Something better than freedom? And why, if it seemed so offhandedly impossible, was Sano inclined to believe it? He had no reason to trust the man, and several reasons to be suspicious of him…
But what exactly was there to suspect him of, when he’d done no worse than any other guard would have done, and in at least one respect better? Maybe Sano just wanted to believe, because it was better than the despair he might have felt at having been thwarted three yards from escape. But how could he believe something that he didn’t even understand?
He started to sigh, but then, remembering his situation, restrained it. Why the hell was he here, anyway? Of course Aoshi probably had no idea that Sano had already had one inexplicably sex-free night in a guard’s room and more than enough confusion for one week… but what in the world was the point of calling him here and then telling him to sit in a chair all night anyway? Did that turn him on or something?
This was an unpleasant way to try to sleep. Sano couldn’t say he’d rather have been raped, and at least in this case it wasn’t totally nonsensical — as Aoshi had shown no signs of actually wanting him — but still he could have done without additional strange behavior after last night. For a few moments he toyed with the notion that there might be some connection between the two circumstances, but abandoned it when he couldn’t come up with anything logical. Of course, none of this was logical…
Aoshi had probably just changed his mind about finding Sano attractive. But that wasn’t logical either, for not only had no other guard ever done so (or at least bothered to tell him, or not fuck him, if they had), but wouldn’t it also have made more sense to send Sano back to his quarters at this point?
If they’d been successful in escaping, Sano wouldn’t have had to puzzle over Aoshi’s behavior. He wouldn’t be desperately confused about anything. He wouldn’t be in quite so much pain; he wouldn’t be brooding in the dark over, of all stupid things at this moment, whether he was becoming less attractive and was that good or bad? and he certainly wouldn’t have a hole in his shoulder. But, then, he wasn’t going to regret all that.
Sitting like this really wasn’t the best way to encourage his wound to heal, and besides, he’d love to spend a couple of nights with his friends just to keep an eye on things. He restrained another sigh. This timing…
He’d seen the attraction between Katsu and Soujirou yesterday, but hadn’t really recognized it as such until today when Soujirou had startled him into looking back a little more critically. And though he should trust his best friend not to make any stupid mistakes, Katsu seemed to be in denial about it. Sano wasn’t sure what there was to be done, especially as Soujirou was in their quarters, but he just couldn’t let Katsu get attached to someone that was going to be sold in a month. It was as much for his own sake as for Katsu’s — how could he watch another friend break and fade away?
Of course, if they’d managed to escape, that wouldn’t have been a problem, now, would it? They would be on their way to Touscha or something, and Soujirou would be forgotten. Guess I’m not supposed to regret that, though, he reflected bitterly, ’cause you’ve got something better than not watching my friend get hurt, right?
“Damn you,” he whispered inadvertently.
In the darkness, Aoshi stirred, but whether he was actually awake and disturbed by Sano’s comment, the slave could not tell.
With yet another stifled sigh, he rearranged himself again and wondered for the second night in a row if he was going to get any sleep.
This question was answered when for the second morning in a row he awoke to the siren alone in the room. He groaned as he stood, for his shoulder was in agony. Today was a bathing day, and after that he thought he should go see the doctor again. He’d gone yesterday — she’d taken a quick look, applied some desperately painful alcohol of some sort, and changed the bandages — but he thought it was actually hurting more now than it had before. “Thanks a lot, Aoshi,” he grumbled.
The showers building adjoined the wash-house; it was a noisy, wet facility that always smelled of soap and mold and was a pain in the ass to clean if you happened to be assigned to it. Sano usually enjoyed bathing, which only happened every three days, but today he was uncertain about what to expect. What he found, though, wasn’t too surprising.
“Good morning, Sano!” Why did Soujirou have to be so damn cheerful? Especially when he was making no visible effort not to ogle Katsu?? The latter greeted him with a nod as Sano deliberately stood between them. Sano couldn’t help noticing that Katsu’s glance strayed more often than not in Soujirou’s direction as well.
Damn naked bathing was going to fuck everything up. Sano couldn’t help noticing also that Soujirou, though he finished cleaning up about twice as quickly as the others, stuck around for no apparent reason other than watching Katsu. Of course Yahiko was relatively oblivious to what was going on, but even he could sense the tension, and didn’t say much.
It was difficult for Sano to clean his shoulder without getting the bandages soaked, so he was doubly frustrated as well as in pain by the time he was finished. Well, at least he knew what he needed to do. Not that the doctor was likely to lessen the pain, and not that letting Soujirou know exactly how things had to be was likely to lessen the frustration… but it was better than nothing, wasn’t it?
It was a relief when everyone was dressed again, and just as they were all leaving the building was Sano’s moment. “Soujirou.”
The latter must have recognized the trouble in Sano’s tone, for his smile was worried as he turned toward him.
Sano gestured him three steps back into the entryway, making sure Katsu and Yahiko were out the door before speaking. “I like you, OK? But you’re exactly the kinda guy who’s gonna get sold first the next time there’s a dealer up here. So I want you to leave Katsu alone. See, I’ve already got one friend who’s dying from being lonely. I don’t think I can handle two.”
Soujirou nodded with a very serious expression. “I understand. All I can tell you is that you’re going to have to trust me.”
“What?” Sano glowered.
“Trust me,” Soujirou reiterated. “There’s no way I’m letting Katsu get hurt.”
The really strange thing was that with the way the guy said this, Sano had this uncanny urge to believe him. That actually made him angrier. “I don’t know where you came from and what kind of freedom you had there, but around here you ain’t in charge of whether or not someone else gets hurt. There’s no way you can promise not to let him get hurt and make it mean anything to me.”
Soujirou’s face did not change. “I’m sorry, Sano,” he said softly. “You really are just going to have to trust me.” And with that he turned and walked away.
“Soujirou!” Sano growled. “Who do you think you are? Dammit, Soujirou, come back here!”
When he did not find his order obeyed, Sano ran out the door after him. He came up short just outside, though, finding Katsu there and Soujirou standing with him. Well, it was no good continuing now; it would only start a fight for which he had neither the energy nor the heart. He merely let out an angry breath and hastened heavily away.
Katsu watched him head off toward the other side of the building with a frown, his heart heavy. He’d heard everything that had just been said; he wasn’t sure Sano had even attempted to keep it from his ears. And now he found he couldn’t quite turn toward Soujirou.
“Let’s go,” the latter said, taking a few steps in the direction of the fields.
The long-haired slave was torn between following Sano and following Soujirou. It didn’t help that either choice would end in awkwardness. He just didn’t know how he felt about this. On the one hand, he perfectly understood Sano’s reasoning and appreciated his concern; on the other, he also perfectly understood how things worked around here and wished Sano would have a little more faith in him. He wasn’t sure where the fact that he did like Soujirou fit in…
Finally, with an unhappy shake of his head, he joined Soujirou.
“I’m sorry if I’ve made things difficult for you,” the latter said after several silent paces.
Katsu sighed. “It’s OK. Sano always gets — Sano and I both always get pretty protective of each other.”
“I do like you a lot, you know,” Soujirou smiled over at him.
Was it a good or a bad sign that this made Katsu’s insides feel so damn warm? He cleared his throat. “That’s kind of… sudden.”
“We’re slaves,” Soujirou replied. “We don’t have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love.”
“Sano’s right, though… you’re sure to get sold after harvest. Not falling in love at all is a better option.”
“And if we could escape?”
Katsu had to laugh, bitterly, at this unexpected and absurd question. “Don’t you start with that too. It doesn’t work. Period.”
With a return of that careful tone that suggested he wanted to know but wasn’t going to push too hard for it, Soujirou remarked questioningly, “You’ve had some kind of personal experience with that.”
Not sure he’d rather be discussing this than the philosophy of romantic attachment between slaves, Katsu was silent until they were safely working and he could make a reply with his back to Soujirou and no guards immediately present.
“When Sano and I first came here, we didn’t want to trust anyone. We’d been on the streets with only each other for so long… We were miserable and scared and didn’t know what was going to happen to us, and we had this attitude that anyone around us was out to make things worse for us somehow. But there was this man in our quarters named Souzou… He was just a slave like everyone else; I think he was from West Sorrat, and he’d been a slave all his life like most people… he wasn’t better educated than anyone else… didn’t have any particular abilities more than the rest of them…” Katsu trailed off with a slight shrug, feeling the ache that always accompanied this subject and surprised he’d even managed to get this far.
“But he was special somehow,” Soujirou prompted after a few moments, “right?”
“Yeah.” Katsu struggled to continue. “He didn’t seem like a slave. When you were around him, you didn’t get the sense that he belonged to someone, that his whole life had to be directed by a master of some kind. It was like he was a free man who was putting up with slavery, for now, for some very good reason of his own. It wasn’t anything he said or did; it was just the way he was. Of course we couldn’t stay away from a guy like that.”
“Of course,” Soujirou echoed. “And he gave you the same attitude.”
“You think so?”
“You and Sano don’t seem so much like slaves either, you know.”
Katsu smiled faintly. “I don’t know if that’s because of Souzou or just because we’ve been here so long. We’re practically part of the staff these days.”
“True,” admitted Soujirou. “But go on.”
“Well, Souzou sort of took us in. He was like a father, almost, though as old as we were it really would be more like an older brother, I think. He helped us adjust, made us feel like part of a family with him and his friends. You wouldn’t think you’d want to feel like part of a family at a place like this, but it turns out it’s better than feeling like everyone you see is out to get you. Anyway he was better family than anything Sano or I had had, and we loved him like we were really related to him. We weren’t the only ones, either.”
Soujirou maintained a patient, anticipatory silence.
“Eventually,” Katsu continued, steeling himself for the rest of the account, “he and some of the other adults started making plans to escape. A lot of them were thinking what you were talking about the other day: if there was some kind of mass break-out, the governments wouldn’t be able to ignore the issue anymore, or people would speak out against slavery, or something. A lot of the people in the quarters were going to go along with it, and it seemed like it was going to work pretty well… until we got near the main entrance and…” Even if a guard hadn’t passed by at that very moment, Katsu would not have been able to articulate the rest of those events.
“So you were actually there,” Soujirou marveled pityingly, quietly. “When you said before that almost everyone involved was killed, I guessed it must have been somebody close to you, but…”
“Yeah, we got to watch.” Katsu wondered if this pain lingered so much because of that — the first and most traumatizing event in his life — more than any other reason. He couldn’t say another word for a while, and Soujirou did not make any further inquiries.
“The only reason we survived,” continued Katsu at last, figuring he might as well finish the story, “is that Souzou sent us off into the trees when he realized what was about to happen. We didn’t want to go — Sano especially didn’t want to leave him — but what could a couple of kids do? It would probably have been better if Souzou hadn’t let us come along in the first place.” He added quietly, “Or maybe if we’d been shot along with him.”
“You don’t really think so,” Soujirou answered immediately in the same quiet tone. “You don’t really think you’d be better off dead, or you wouldn’t be here.”
At this assessment Katsu gave a wry smile. “I can’t say that for sure. It’s possible I just never thought about it enough to know one way or another.”
“Or maybe you live for people like Kaoru and Yahiko.”
This idea was a slight surprise that Katsu had to ponder for a while. And into his thoughtful silence Soujirou continued, “Because you must realize that you’re doing the same thing for Yahiko that that man did for you…”
Right down to trying to escape and getting shot, even. But things had gone better for them than they had for Souzou; did that mean there was more hope for Yahiko? It was a fanciful idea that smacked of some kind of silly karmic theory or other, and yet it was, strangely enough, vaguely comforting.
“Maybe,” Katsu admitted with a smile as he continued working in an oddly improved mood. “Maybe.”