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.