sparsenicjade
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Thanks: First and foremost to teaforbryony for running this and pretty much making all my dreams come true. Definitely to shaggirl, who really helped me get started and encouraged me all the way through. Last but so not least, untappedbeauty who not only beta’ed the fic in record time, but did it with incredible thoroughness, making the language of the fic far clearer and just completely whipping it into shape in ways I would never be able to. All mistakes and bad choices still contained in the fic are completely mine.

Notes: There isn’t a time period for this. It’s sort of an amorphous AU world.

***


Brendon should have waited for Spencer. After all, it was Spencer's idea that Brendon go in the first place, his insistence that this was what Brendon needed to do. Brendon should have put off the trip to the slave house until Spencer wasn't dealing with an unexpected fire on his lands. The summer had been oppressively hot. If rain didn't come soon--

Brendon cut off the thought and made himself deal with the task at hand. Despite how he felt about the ownership of other sentient beings--Spencer had had to hold his hand while buying a cow, which every landowner within the country seemed to have laughed at Brendon about--Spencer was right, Brendon did need help with his land. Particularly if the summer continued to be so brutal.

Brendon took a deep breath and stepped into the courtyard of the House of Sales. There were always a few slaves--the strongest of the workers, the prettiest of the pleasures, that sort of thing--on display—but Brendon didn't look at those. He couldn't afford them and it made his stomach hurt, the way other buyers were coming up and perusing, fondling.
Brendon hurried inside the house and turned toward the section for discounted slaves. Maybe he could find someone older, someone who would otherwise end up on the street, or, even worse, in a mill. Spencer had lectured Brendon all about how the slave needed to be in good condition, and Brendon understood. Realistically, though, his finances couldn't stretch to a brand new worker, and his morals shied toward someone who needed a safe way out of the slave house.

Brendon was looking for just such a slave when his gaze fell upon a long, elegant neck. He liked to think he wouldn't have noticed, only the neck was intricately tattooed, bands of black weaving into each other, thick and lovely. Brendon had heard stories of masters who inked their collars onto slaves' necks, but he'd never seen one, not in the township where he'd grown up, nor here, closer to the city. The sight was mesmerizing, and Brendon couldn't help moving a little nearer to the slave.

The slave didn't look up, which only made it easier for Brendon to notice the sharpness of his shoulder blades and the redness of his skin. It was almost as if--
"Were you burnt?" Brendon asked, horrified at the nearly blistered state of the skin.

The slave's face whipped up and then down, but not before Brendon saw that his neck wasn't the only place he was tattooed. The marks on his face were also black, although there were also red accent lines, bright and somehow sinister.
Brendon sucked in a breath and looked over the other faces in the holding area. There was a woman, stout and solid, with one arm held closer to her torso than the other. There was a man who looked to be in his sixties, maybe older, his posture brittle and his skin seeming to wilt on his frame. There were children, too young to be of much use for anything but the most sickening of crimes. There was nothing significantly more pathetic or horrifying about the man in front of Brendon, and he certainly was not likely to have much knowledge of working the land, nor the immediate strength to do it.

All the same, Brendon called to a sales clerk and said, "I am considering a few of these." Spencer had explained that he could not appear too interested in one slave; that would only drive the price up. Brendon picked four, largely at random, but the boy with the marked face was the third choice.

The sales clerk talked smoothly about the advantages of each slave, and Brendon made himself remember Spencer's advice: They're trying to sell you a product, Brendon. Believe them no more than you would the manufacturer of a plow.

The boy was a pleasure slave, of course he was, but if the clerk was to be believed, he was also literate. Brendon narrowed his selection down to two--Spencer had said, make them think you can walk out at any time--and said, as evenly as he could, "They're discounted for a reason."

The sales clerk did not miss a beat. She pointed out the boy's marks, how some people were adverse to that, how he was getting a bit old for the business of a pleasure slave, but of course, some people liked that, as well. Brendon said, "And the burns?"

She smiled. "Will heal."

Brendon’s stomach hurt and he made himself breathe before he said, "I meant, how did he acquire them?"

"Ah. One of the younger processing clerks left the merchandise too long in the sun upon its arrival. You can be certain he was dismissed from his position. The unmarked ones are being rested until sale is appropriate. You're welcome, of course, to come back and look for something more suitable from that lot."

Brendon heard the hope of a larger sale in the clerk's voice and thought, for one terrifying moment that he might lose his breakfast on the woman's shoes. Then he said, "As you pointed out, the damage will heal."

She looked at him oddly, and he suspected he hadn't fully been able to keep the censure out of his voice. He distracted her by asking about the other slave, and when he was fairly sure she had forgotten the exchange, he managed to barter for the slave he wanted. He ended up paying only a little more for him than he had budgeted—which, seeing as how he had fully planned to buy a field slave and was walking away with a pleasure slave, seemed to him something of a victory.

A price agreed upon, Brendon said, "Very well, draw up the papers."

*


Ryan's new master was taking an awfully long time looking over the slave contract. Ryan could not, for the life of him, imagine what could be worrying the man--he was the master, after all; the papers basically said that Ryan was his to dispose of at will--but whatever it was, he was being meticulous in making sure all was in order.
Ryan wanted to tell him that if he was buying a discounted slave, there really wasn't anything hiding in the contract, but the last time Ryan had spoken during a sale, the buyer had forfeited the purchase and the house had driven a heated needle through Ryan's tongue to prove a point. It hadn't hurt as badly as some of Ryan's punishments, and his mistress had really enjoyed the curved endings the smith had melded into the needle, but Ryan wasn't a fool, and he was too tired to be punished for the sake of making himself feel more human. It was easier, sometimes, to accept that he wasn't.

He did wish that his new master would at least call him to heel, allow him to kneel for the signing, but the man seemed to hardly realize Ryan was in the room. That could be a good or bad sign, and Ryan was too dehydrated to make any logical conclusions.
At some point, Ryan must have fallen asleep, because the next thing he knew, someone was shoving at his back. It wasn't even a hard shove, but the sun yesterday had been intense, and Ryan had stood with his back to it for hours, perhaps even most of the day. He bit his tongue, trying to counterbalance the pain, but there were spots of black in his vision and he tripped over something--maybe his own feet.

His knees hit the pavement, the sound more alarming than the feeling. He was used to this, being on his knees, but when the enforcer's quirt hit between his shoulder blades, Ryan couldn't help but moan.
He was surprised to hear a voice say, "Good lord! Stop it!"

The quirt didn't fall again, and Ryan breathed through the pain, trying to get himself back to his feet. There were words being exchanged, but Ryan could not hear, didn't care. When his mind had cleared a bit, what he got was, "--the law. Even the most docile ones cannot be trusted to know what is best for them."

"He is hardly able to stand--"

"Sir," the clerk said, and Ryan did his best not to shiver at the irritation in her voice. He was no longer property of the house, and she could not do anything to him, not so long as his master stood in the way. She continued, "You may choose the type and you may fasten it, but until he has your identifier and a way to restrain him to your property, he must wear a collar."

In the silence that followed, Ryan very carefully glanced upward with his head kept down. His new master's jaw was clenched. Either he disliked collars, or he wanted something more personal. Ryan didn't think about the feel of the needles against his neck, his cheek, between his eyes. He didn't consider what else could be done. It didn't pay to think of those things; the masters would always do it for him.

Finally, his master said, "Have you something light? A chain?"

"We have a few delicate choke collars, if it would please," she said. Ryan closed his eyes and didn't pray. Praying was a stupid thing to do if nobody was listening, but the thought of those links against the back of his neck right now was nearly enough to make him beg, without permission.

"No," the man said, shortly and firmly. "Have you anything in cloth?"

"Some of our products are lined, but they are far too expensive for a damaged product, sir."

"Bring me the thinnest one with a cotton lining," the new master ordered. Ryan thought he sounded young and not as sure as he wanted to seem. Uncertainty in a master could lead to cruelty to those with whom he could assert himself. Then again, it could be to Ryan's advantage. His master did seem to be trying to exert a certain mercy in choosing a collar.

The clerk came back and passed over the collar and Ryan did his best not to tense as it was fastened around his neck, lying over some of the worst of the burn. The hands that buckled the collar were gentle, pulling the buckle to a tightness that wouldn't choke Ryan but would also lessen the friction against the injured skin. It still hurt. Ryan breathed deeply and didn't think of anything, nothing at all. He had found it reassuring over the past few years.

A lead was attached to the collar, but instead of pulling, the man said softly, "Come with me," so Ryan did.

*


Brendon was glad the ride home was no longer than an hour. His new employee, for lack of a better word, was clearly trying his best to stay silent as he rode behind Brendon. But he was clad only in the barest and roughest of robes, and the movement of the horse against the back of his legs and his backside had to be agony.

By the time they reached Brendon's lands, the man was panting, his eyes dilated and when he slid from the horse, he fell straight to the ground. He stayed there in a position of obeisance, and Brendon--entirely unused to it--did what he did best when faced with uncomfortable situations, which was to ignore it. Instead, he did his best to help the man to his feet and said, "Let's go inside."

The man followed at a close distance, and Brendon didn't look back. He went straight to the kitchen and grabbed two cups, then went to the well to pump some water.
He was turning to go back when he realized the other man was already there. "Oh," he said, and handed him the cup, heading back toward the house. When they were standing inside, the structure providing some comfort from the heat of the day, Brendon pretended not to watch as his purchase sipped slowly at the water, seeming to savor every drop.
Brendon winced inwardly, realizing the burns must be causing dehydration. He'd have to go pump more from the well, make sure there was water in the house until the man had healed.
He said, "So, uh. I'm Brendon. Brendon Urie. This is my home. It's not much, I suppose, but as youngest son I was expected to go into the clergy, so I haven't done so badly, I think."
The house was a sore spot. It was older and rundown, and Brendon never managed as many crops as the landowners around him, but he worked as hard as any of them, and he held his ground. That was what mattered.

The slave gave a small dip of his head. Brendon wasn't sure what he had expected, but as a response, it left something to be desired. Brendon tried, "What's your name?"

After a moment, the slave's lips moved, but nothing came out. He took another sip of the water and then tried again. "I have always responded to whatever designation my owner deemed appropriate, master."

Brendon frowned at that. "Oh. Ah. Is there a name you would like? Something that would be...deemed appropriate by you?"

Brendon tried to read the resulting stillness of the man in front of him, but he couldn't. Softly, the man said, "Ryan. I-- Ryan is a-appropriate."

"All right, Ryan." Brendon bit back his sigh of relief. A name was something. "May I take that collar off you? I haven't any salve for your burns, but I have to visit my neighbor later this morning. His sisters are forever burning their skin, so I'll see if he has any I can borrow."

Ryan did not say a word, but he managed to bow his head even further. Brendon took it for implicit permission and did his best to remove the piece gently. Ryan's skin was giving off a wave of heat that suggested how uncomfortable the burn must have been.
Brendon said, "I know that by law you must wear a sign of ownership, but I don't suppose you'd mind if I gave one to you a bit later? Putting anything to your skin just now seems cruel."

Another slight nod of Ryan's head. Brendon could see that he had finished the water. Brendon took the cup and refilled it. Without handing it to Ryan he said, "You need to rest if those burns are to heal. Follow me."

Ryan followed. There were only two bedrooms in the house, one clearly meant for parents and the other for children. Brendon had made up the children's room as best he could for an adult, but it was still small. All the same, it had a bed with clean linens, a basin for washing, a rug by the bed, and a dresser.
Brendon placed the cup on the stand with the basin, next to the bed. "This room is yours. If you close the door, I will not enter before knocking. I have to visit my neighbor, as I said, but you know where the kitchen and the well are, and you are welcome to anything from either. I do suggest you sleep, though. You look as though you could use it."

Brendon nodded and made to leave him, when Ryan surprised him by rasping out, "Master."

"Brendon," Brendon said firmly. Master made him feel old and scary and awful.

Ryan's shoulders tightened. Brendon asked, more gently, "Was there something else?"

Softly, ever so softly, Ryan said, "Leaving me here, alone, with no marking of your ownership. It is...unwise."

Knowing that he had invested in Ryan his hopes of staying independent, warm and fed throughout this winter, Brendon simply said, "Nobody has ever once accused me of an overabundance of wisdom."

*


Despite his warning, Ryan had little ability to run. He'd tried, once, in the days after his third master had laid ink and needle to his skin, and had gotten all of a day's walk away when he'd been returned. The slavemaster of the house had driven acid and lye into the webbing of Ryan's toes, where the skin was sensitive, but the marks would go unnoticed. He'd done so in front of the other slaves, making his point.
Brendon didn't seem the type to get his hands dirty torturing a slave, and Ryan doubted he was hiding a slavemaster somewhere else, but Brendon was within his rights to return Ryan to the House of Sale--any time in the first thirty days, a defective product could be returned for improvement--and that was more than threat enough.

And, in all honesty, even if Ryan had the nerve to run again, he wasn't sure his body could carry him. The heat sickness was bad enough, but he hadn't had a dose of whatever it was his last mistress had kept him on in days and his head felt as though it were trying to climb out through his eye sockets. The drug had made him itchy beneath the skin, eager to please with his tongue, his cock, his ass, constantly just a little bit sore, but it was preferable to the agony in every muscle, the way his stomach wouldn't stop flipping about.

Had he been feeling better, Ryan would have taken time to consider if Brendon had been serious about his offer of a bed in a room that was entirely Ryan's own, but Ryan didn't have the luxury. He needed to take off the coarse robes that had rubbed at his legs until they bled while on the horse, and to lie down. If he was to be beaten for taking the temptation of the bed later, Ryan supposed he would cross that bridge when he came to it.

The bed had cool, clean linens, a cup of water next to it and a basin, should he need it. Some things were worth being beaten over.

*


Brendon found Spencer in his fields and whistled, the sound low and concerned.
Spencer shook his head, though, and said, "At least we caught it." He was filthy, soot and ashes over nearly the whole of his face, but Brendon could see what he was talking about--the fire hadn't spread nearly as far as it might have.

Far enough, to Brendon's way of thinking. "The girls are all right?"

Spencer nodded. "Everyone is fine."

Brendon couldn't stop himself from settling his hands on his friend's shoulders, just to make sure. Spencer didn't throw him off or look at him oddly. Instead, the expression on his face was quietly grateful.
All Spencer said, though, was, "Did you go this morning?"

"Yes," Brendon said.

Spencer waited for a moment. "Brendon."

"And I purchased a slave." He hated the word. He hated it even more now that Ryan's face came to mind with it, his eyes over-large and the ink over his skin nearly dangerous in its sharp angles.

"A field slave," Spencer specified.

"He can work the fields," Brendon said. He didn't think it was a lie. Nothing seemed to be wrong with Ryan that some rest and food and perhaps a little kindness wouldn't take care of. Then again, he had only known Ryan for a few hours, so it was hard to say.

"Brendon," Spencer said again, his voice carrying worry this time.

Brendon smiled for him, making it as sure as he could. "Spencer."

Spencer rolled his eyes. "Come on, then. I need to clean up, and Crystal wanted to ask you something about her new song on the harpsichord."

Brendon nodded, always pleased to have the chance to talk of music. "I was also wondering if either of the girls had any aloe salve."

Spencer glanced sideways at him, already walking toward the house. "Aloe salve?"

"Ah, my-- Ry--"

"Brendon," Spencer said. "Brendon, you said you got a field slave."

"No, I said he could work in the fields."

"Field slaves are generally inured to burns."

"Generally doesn't mean--"

"Please don't tell me you bought a child. Please, Brendon. I know, I know the system's horrible, but we can only help so much come winter, especially now, with the fire, and--"

"I didn't buy a child."

Spencer still had his suspicious face on. "I'm cleaning up, and then we're going back to your place."

Brendon blanched, but Spencer was going to find out he'd spent his money on a pleasure slave sooner or later—and the sooner it was, the sooner Spencer would get over being frustrated with Brendon. Brendon shrugged. "With salve."

Spencer sighed.

*


Ryan woke up a second before the first wave of sickness hit, just long enough to scrabble for the basin and miss. He caught the side of it and it tipped off the stand, the heavy clay chipping but not shattering as it landed. The sound was deafening to Ryan's ears and he thought maybe he should be terrified--breaking things, being sick all over the floor. But the best he could manage was a weak twist of fear that had nothing on the bladed hand squeezing his insides.

It was cold, he thought, terribly cold, only he was burning and that wasn't possible, it wasn't, but Ryan couldn't think straight enough to figure it out. All he knew was that he was maybe dying. All he knew was that if it would just hurry up, he wouldn't mind so much.

*


By the time Brendon returned with Spencer, the worst heat of the day had passed, and Brendon thought he might be able to draw Ryan a relatively cool bath, to help ease the pain. But no sooner had they made it inside Spencer took a breath and asked, "Is something rotting in here?"

Brendon frowned. His house did smell somewhat similar to a midden heap in late August. "Not that I know of." Brendon didn't have the funds to waste food. He bought only what he could afford, cultivated the rest and was careful never to gather too much.

In the silence that followed, a sound that Brendon couldn't quite identify came faintly from the back of the house and Brendon's eyes widened. He shot off with a murmured, "Ryan."

When Brendon knocked on the door--and opened at what he now recognized as the sound of vomiting, rather than at Ryan's permission--Spencer was right behind him to say, "Christ's teeth."

Brendon looked down and saw one thing--Ryan was bringing up blood. He said, "Spencer, will you stay? I have to get the doctor."

Spencer nodded, Ryan’s violent vomiting seemingly enough to keep him from lecturing Brendon.
Brendon said, "I'll return quickly," then hurried to his horse, and set out for the house on the outskirts of town.

*


There was someone in the room. Ryan could hear it--not the voices themselves, but their echoes. The sound beat at the base of his skull, behind his eyes. He put his hands to his head to try to stop the pain, but even the touch of his own hand was too much. The air felt rough against his unharmed skin, violent against the burnt portion. Ryan could hear himself whimpering even though he knew better--letting anyone know how much it hurt was the best way to get hurt more--but he couldn't help it. Ryan's stomach twisted again, and nothing came out, but he heaved anyway.

A soft voice said, "Easy," calm and low. The noise hurt, but something about the cadence was soothing. Ryan tried to breathe. Breathing hurt, but it also made things feel better. Ryan wasn't sure how that worked, but he didn't much care, so long as it did. Strong, callused fingers took one of Ryan's hands, and Ryan made himself not jerk back, but all that happened was that he was given the cup of water that Brendon had put by the bed. The voice--not Brendon's, at least, Ryan didn't think so--said, "Slow sips. It'll help with the heaving."

Ryan knew the voice, or thought he did. Something about it felt familiar. He put the cup to his lips and followed the instructions. The heaving came back, but the voice had been right, it was a little easier. Ryan tried to remember to drink in between, the voice reminding him steadily. There were other noises, like whoever was speaking to him was doing something, but Ryan couldn't track it, except to realize that at some point the basin had been placed in front of him. The white hurt his eyes. He closed them.

The voice said, "I'm going to put some salve on your back, try to reduce the heat. It should help."

His back burned and stung with whatever was being put on it and for a second Ryan tried to remember what he'd done to deserve punishment--he was new here, he was pretty sure--but it didn't matter. Maybe his new master just liked making others scream. He did his best to take it, not to cry out, but the sensitive place where his neck met his shoulders caused him to moan.

The voice said, "Damn it."

Ryan tried not to worry too much about what he'd done. He couldn't fix it, so he kept working to breathe. He was so tired. He slumped to his side and tried not to make a noise as he hit the ground. It was hard and his bones felt fragile against it. The voice said, "Come, I'm going to help you up."

The same pair of hands that had given him the water took him beneath his elbows and lifted him up, onto the bed. He tried to open his eyes, tried to figure out what was going on. When he managed, he realized that he'd been hallucinating, and he was probably still on the floor of the room by himself, or perhaps even dead--although if death weren't any better than life, Ryan was going to feel terribly cheated. In any case, what was not happening was that Spencer was not standing over him, looking concerned.

Hallucination-Spencer looked confused for a good moment and then asked, softly, "Ryan?"

Ryan liked this hallucination. He hadn't had a nice one in a long time. He smiled, or at least, he tried to. His face hurt. "Spencer," he said, his tongue thick and the sound of the word not quite right, but Spencer was his hallucination, so he'd probably understand.

Spencer's eyes got sad, which Ryan didn't like at all, and he tried to change the hallucination to a happy Spencer. It didn’t work and he was exhausted. He didn't want to close his eyes, not with Spencer standing there. It was crazy, but he didn't know if the delirium would hold out after he'd slept. Ryan said, "Spencer," again.

Spencer said, "Ryan," sounding broken and wrong, and Ryan wanted to tell him that things were okay, that this was a good thing, but his body betrayed him and pulled him into sleep.

*


Dr. Way's house was nearly a forty minute ride from Brendon's farm, but he made it in half that time. He was aching and short of breath when he all-but fell off his horse. Dr. Way must have heard him approaching, because he was at the door before Brendon could knock.
"Brendon? Are you all right?"

"Fine," Brendon managed to gasp.

Dr. Way looked--understandably--dubious. Brendon shook his head and worked the word, "Friend," out of his throat. "A friend."

There were many, many things that Brendon liked about Dr. Way, but one of the foremost was how, despite how he was always asking questions, he knew when it was time to just act. He said, "I'll have my bag and be following you momentarily. Is he staying with you?"

Brendon nodded, and got himself back on his horse, leading the way. It was slower on the way back--Dr. Way was not the most comfortable on a horse. When he threw back the door to his house, it smelled better, and Brendon made haste to the room. Spencer had clearly cleaned up, and opened a window. To Brendon's surprise, Spencer was sitting on the edge of Ryan's bed, his hands twitching every time a tremor ran through Ryan's frame.

Dr. Way pushed Spencer gently out of the way and asked, "How long has he been unconscious?"

"Twenty minutes? Perhaps a bit longer." Spencer was biting his lip, which Brendon had never seen, even when Jacquelyn had gotten lost on a walk and gone missing for an entire day. "He was heaving, and I-- I gave him some water."

Dr. Way nodded distractedly, but he said, "Good thinking, Spencer." He touched carefully at the burns on Ryan's back. "When did he get these?"

"The--" Brendon was loath to talk about Ryan being sold, but he supposed the marks on Ryan's face and neck made it clear enough. "The traders. They left him in the sun. Yesterday."

Dr. Way continued his examination for a while before straightening with a frown. "Did the traders mention any sort of chemical dependence?"

Brendon had read all of the papers, every last one of them. "No. But would they have?"

Dr. Way sighed. "Most likely not, even if they knew." He sounded angry. Brendon knew he was adamantly opposed to the slave trade, often went so far as to write articles about it or go to larger towns to help the growing movement against the sale of humans. It meant he could trust Dr. Way with Ryan, but it also meant feeling ashamed at his own choice to take advantage of some--sorely needed, but still immoral--free labor.

Realizing how it must look to Dr. Way, Brendon started to say, "I didn't-- I wasn't going to--" but he stopped as Spencer made a small noise in the back of his throat. Brendon looked at Spencer, who looked away. Brendon wanted to ask him if he was all right, but it seemed strange to do so with Dr. Way in the room, and Ryan so sick.

After a few more minutes of silence, Dr. Way spoke without looking away from Ryan. "He was most certainly taking something, or being given it. Regardless, the withdrawal is not being easy on him, and the heat is not helping. May I assume that you are willing to take responsibility for his care?"

Brendon had never heard Dr. Way's voice so chilly before. He was about to respond when Spencer said, "I will. If-- I will. This is my fault."

That made absolutely no sense, but Dr. Way didn't seem to care. In fact, he was still looking at Brendon. Brendon made himself face him and say, "Of course I'll care for him. I-- When I brought you here, I said he was a friend." And perhaps Brendon was exaggerating his relationship out of guilt, but the fact remained that Dr. Way hadn't needed to guilt him into saying yes. He would have cared for Ryan regardless--he had, after all, gone for a doctor he couldn't really afford when the man got sick, hadn't he? And there was no law saying a slave must be provided for medically. There were no laws stating a slave need be provided for at all.

"Having two caretakers can't hurt," Dr. Way said, and some of the chilliness slipped from his tone. He started detailing what must be done, pointing out that, "He's likely used to people assuming his body is theirs, so you should talk to him when you need to touch him, let him know what you're doing. He may not be awake or understand, but he might. You want to keep his stress level as low as possible."

Next to him, Brendon noticed that Spencer had grown pale. When Dr. Way finished his instructions, Brendon asked softly, "Are you feeling all right? You were tending the fire--"

"I'm fine," Spencer said, and although he did not sound it, the assertion was strong enough that Brendon found himself unable to argue.

Dr. Way asked, "Fire?"

Spencer waved his hand. "My fields. Everyone is fine."

The doctor's eyes went wide and he said, "I'm sorry, Spencer, I hadn't heard yet."

"It's nothing," Spencer said, his eyes on Ryan.

Dr. Way tilted his head, but in the end all he said was, "I will come by tomorrow to check and see how he is doing. Perhaps he will be awake then, and able to tell us more."

Brendon nodded and said, "Thank-- I--" He swallowed and tried again. "We'll discuss payment at a later date?"

Dr. Way looked at Brendon for a long time before simply turning to go. Brendon waved helplessly at his retreating back.

*


Ryan was hot. Had he been put in The Box? He didn't remember having done anything wrong. Not that he really had to.

The Box was too small to fit in, unless you were bent and curved, and it was black, all black, dark even in the middle of the day with not enough air and too much heat. Ryan always vomited from it, and they left him in there even then. The guards always said it was for mouthing off, but Ryan hadn't, not after the second time, at least. Spencer would have told him to learn from his mistakes. Spencer was smarter about people than Ryan. In The Box, sometimes Ryan imagined Spencer was there with him, that he told stories and made Ryan laugh.

Something cool touched against the back of his neck and Ryan panicked. Not The Box, nothing cool ever came in The Box, but then where? And with whom?

Ryan tried opening his eyes. They were heavy, ridiculously so, and his head hurt, warning him what would happen if he actually managed. A voice said, "Shh, relax." Ryan wasn't sure if it was the voice that belonged to the hands putting cool cloths on his face, his back, but it didn't sound familiar.

Ryan fought with his eyes and won, even if it was Pyrrhic, light attacking his senses with a vengeance. Ryan closed them back up. After a second he tried again. The pain wasn't any less, but he was expecting it this time. The voice belonged to a man with dark hair and dark eyes and Ryan felt like he'd seen him before, though he couldn't remember where. It was a terrifying thought. A slave's survival depended on his ability to remember names and faces and, most especially, preferences.

"Ryan?" The man asked, and Ryan tried to act calm, like he knew where he was, and to whom he was speaking, and why he'd been punished. Mostly he did this by saying nothing.

The man asked, "Will you drink some water?"

Ryan tried to think the question through--his head hurt so much, the pain was bleeding through to his face, his teeth. Water was safe. He tried to say, "Please," because he wasn't sure who this man was, and politeness seemed like a better response than anything else. His throat rebelled, though, and he found himself coughing, gasping, and then man was helping him to sit up, which was pure agony, but clearly necessary.

"Ryan?" A different voice asked, but Ryan was concentrating on breathing, on anything but the pain.

The first man said, "He needs water, but he--"

The second man came around to Ryan's other side, and Ryan didn't like that, didn't like being surrounded, but there was nothing he could say. Had his owner given him to someone else? Why was nothing making sense? He still couldn't breathe, but he was trying and the second man said, "Ryan, look at me."

It wasn't an order, exactly. Ryan had learned there was a tone for everything, far more important than the words themselves. But Ryan also wasn't sure he trusted his instincts at the moment. He looked at the other man and said, "Spencer?" Something stirred in his mind and he remembered the illusion. "Oh. Fever."

The Spencer Thing shook its head. "No, Ry. You are fevered, but I'm real."

Ryan figured his mind wasn't exactly going to admit that it was making things up, so he didn't argue. Spencer Thing said, "Take a small breath."

His memories of Spencer had been the parts of himself that Ryan had fought most vehemently not to lose, but the last time he had really seen Spencer had been when he was twelve, almost ten years earlier. For the most part, they had grown somewhat hazy over the years. What Ryan did remember was that Spencer didn't give advice just to hear himself talk, and when he did give it, it was almost always right. Ryan tried a small breath. It wasn't nearly as hard, nor did it hurt as much as the gasps from earlier.

Spencer Thing said, "Good. Now another."

When Ryan was breathing somewhat normally, Spencer Thing brought a cup of water to his mouth and held it there, helping to sip slowly. Ryan couldn't take much and was exhausted by the effort. Spencer Thing and the other man lowered him down onto the bed again and Ryan, even knowing slaves weren't supposed to touch freemen without explicit permission, couldn't help reaching out, curling his fingers around the wrist of Spencer Thing. He said, "Missed you," because what could it hurt, telling a figment of his fevered imagination?

Spencer Thing said, "I won't let you be taken again."

Ryan felt his smile more than he suspected it actually graced his face. It was such a Spencer thing to say. It made Ryan feel like it was safe to go back to sleep.

*


The third time Ryan fell into something that at least resembled sleep--even if it wasn't necessarily that benign--Brendon bit his lower lip for a moment and then made the leap, saying to Spencer, "I. Uh, I thought Ray was your only slave."

Brendon had something of a hero-worship for Ray, which almost everyone but Ray made fun of him for, but Brendon didn't care--Ray was fantastic. There were a million stories of how he'd been bought by the Smiths, but his favorite one was the one Ginger told, the one that Ray always listened to semi-indulgently, like he could say something, but chose not to. In that story, Ginger and the kids had been on a picnic, and the field they'd been in had been on a road sometimes traveled by slave caravans.

A caravan had stopped near their picnicking site and Ginger had been teaching the kids not to stare, that the people on those lines were still people, and deserved respect, when Spencer said, "They're hurting that one, Mommy."

Ginger had turned to find Ray being beaten by one of the guards--Ray would not talk about the reasons, but Crystal always swore he'd been protecting another slave, a smaller one--and had offered to buy him, right then and there. Ray had come home with them, and once recovered, helped with their farm and to raise the children, and no matter how many times the Smiths had offered to arrange his freedom papers--a process easy on neither slave nor owner--Ray had just shook his head and said, "No, thank you. I like it here."

Spencer looked at Brendon, clearly confused. "Ray is our only slave."

"Then, ah. How is it that you know Ryan?"

Spencer must have caught on to what Brendon was thinking then, because he looked thunderous. "We never owned Ryan. We don't sell people. We don't--" Spencer's fingers reached out, nearly touching the marks on Ryan's face, but then drew back. "He wasn't my slave."

"Oh," Brendon said, not sure how to keep up his line of inquiry.

Spencer, though, said softly, "He wasn't a slave at all."

"He--" It wasn't exactly uncommon for people to be sold, traded into or punished by slavery, but it also wasn't something most people talked about. It was hard to maintain the idea that slaves were subhuman if, at some point, they had laid claim to a fully human status.

"Bryar's lands weren't always his." Spencer swallowed. "He bought them from the government, after they had been repossessed. Ryan's father-- Those were Ross lands, as far back as my mother or father or grandparents can remember."

"Ross? That's Ryan's family name?"

Spencer nodded tightly. "His father, he-- Well, I was a child and my parents wouldn't speak of it, but I think he had a fondness for liquor. He wasn't unkind to Ryan, or any of us. It wasn't like that, but he was no good with money, and when he died, they came and took Ryan away."

"They?" Brendon asked, shivering. It had been scary enough to leave home and strike out on his own, largely against the wishes of his parents and the morays of society. He couldn't imagine being taken away by people he didn't even know.

"My parents wouldn't say. I was only eleven. I think they must have taken him to debtor's prison, though. I asked Mikey, once, as a hypothetical, and he said that it was most likely the heir would have to serve the term, regardless of having created the debt or not. But I suppose he must have been sold from there, somehow. Perhaps to make up the debt?" Spencer was clenching his fist. "I don't know; I just don't know enough about any of this."

Brendon reached out, unsure if his touch was welcome, but needing to do something. He settled his hand lightly atop Spencer's shoulder. Spencer turned the slightest bit into the contact.
"How did you-- Why him? He's not a field--" Spencer's voice broke.

Brendon could feel a flush at the base of his neck. "I, well, see, he was--"

Spencer turned sharply on him and Brendon blurted out, "He was burnt and marked and I couldn't leave him there, Spencer. I just couldn't." Brendon made himself at least keep eye contact.

Some of the worst of the tension flowed out of Spencer then and he said, "Oh."

Brendon was about to open his mouth and ask when it occurred to him what Spencer must have thought. "That isn't fair of you to think that of me, Spencer Smith, not fair at all." He hit Spencer's shoulder, maybe a little harder than he'd meant to, but that was a terrible thing to think of someone.

Spencer rubbed at his shoulder and looked down. "I'm sorry, Brendon, I shouldn't have-- Well, I'm sorry."

Brendon nodded, not entirely over it, but knowing he would be soon. He said, "I'm sorry about your friend."
Spencer just turned back and found one of Ryan's hands, holding it in both of his.

*


Ryan had learned long ago to awaken with his eyes still closed. He wasn't sure how he had taught himself, only that it had been imperative that nobody else know he was awake, so he had learned the skill. He had no idea where he was. The last thing he could remember--

Ryan made himself breathe, slow and easy, and hoped that nobody had noticed the hitch in its pattern. He made himself work backwards. He could remember his last mistress selling him--he'd gotten too old for her--and being packed into the wagon, the heat, and the slave who had gotten sick on the way to the town, had died two days before they'd arrived and whom nobody had cared to remove.

He was fairly certain he had arrived at the sales house. He made himself concentrate--yes, yes, there had been the cages, too many of them all in one, and most of them not quite desperate enough to get out, which had scared Ryan even more than the times when other slaves had all-but mauled him to make sure they would get first-viewing.

And then... Then the boy with the dark eyes. Ryan tried to think if there had been papers. There must have been. He wasn't at the sale house any more, and he wasn't dead, so he had to have been sold. After that, there was just heat and pain and sickness and the weird delirium of a grown Spencer, as gentle as the child had been, but nowhere near as happy.

If he was in his new master's home, and he had been sick for some time, the fact that he was in a bed was most likely a good sign. There weren't voices, or anything obvious to let him know that someone else was in the room, but he could smell the faint scent of coffee--maybe from a room nearby--and there was a breeze, so a window must have been open, or a door, to allow for a cross-breeze.

Cautiously, Ryan opened one eye just a sliver. There wasn't anyone in his direct line of vision, so he let his eyes open all the way. The room seemed vaguely familiar, but Ryan couldn't place it. He was considering letting himself be lulled back into sleep by the weight of his own exhaustion when the dark-eyed boy came in the room and caught him awake. Ryan was almost sure, splotchy memory and all, that this was his new owner, so he started working to get himself up, to offer some gesture of obeisance, but he was stopped in his tracks by the enormous grin that spread over his probably-owner's face.

"Ryan?" he asked.

Ryan said, "Master," or at least tried.

"Oh, you must want, here," the other man said, moving toward the table next to the bed. "I realize it still can't be that comfortable to move, but if you just--" He helped Ryan roll a bit on his side, then brought a cup of water to Ryan's lips, so he could drink slowly.
Ryan wondered if he had gotten something wrong. Was the boy another slave? Someone who had simply been sent to the sale house to find a pleasure slave and bring him back? It was a lot of trust to place in a slave, but Ryan knew that sometimes owners did. The idea that an owner could trust a slave that much was reassuring, assuming that those slaves with seniority weren't cruel to those who were new. Then again, Ryan was in a soft bed sipping cool water, so he had no reason to be terrified yet. Ryan closed his eyes for a moment, fighting against the onset of a headache.

"Are you still tired? Dr. Way said we shouldn't wake you, that you should be left to sleep until you couldn't anymore. Do you need more sleep?"

Ryan did, but even more than that, he needed to know where he was, what his position was. Unfortunately, he didn't see any good way of getting those answers. He made himself keep breathing. Pete had taught him that--always keep breathing, no matter what. Pain, fear, anger, there was nothing that breathing couldn't get you through to the other side of.
The boy set the cup on the dresser and said, "Ryan?"

Ryan nodded, bending his head so that if this was his master, it would seem a measure of humility. It couldn't hurt in the case of a more beloved slave, either. But the boy just put his fingers to Ryan's chin and tipped his head back up. Then he asked, "Do you remember where you are?"

It could be a trick question. Slaves were meant to know what they needed to know, and if they didn't, they were meant to find out. It didn't matter how, so long as nobody noticed. Ryan nodded once, trying for all the world to look like the answer was obvious.
The boy frowned and said, "Well, all right. I just thought, you know, with how sick you were, that maybe you would have forgotten that I, uh, I, back at the sale house, and you were on sale and I needed a field-hand?"

Which told Ryan that this was his master, but a field-hand? Ryan considered the fact that he might still be mildly-delirious. He tried his best to keep his face blank, but some of his confusion must have bled through, because the smile he'd witnessed on his master's face earlier was back in full.
"I can see not. In that case, let me reintroduce myself. I'm Brendon, and this is my home. This is your room in my home, and I really need some help with my farm."

Ryan swallowed, not sure of how to tell Brendon that he'd picked himself the wrong type of slave. It seemed preposterous. Nobody had ever mistaken Ryan for anything other than what he was, not even when he'd been fourteen and new to it.
Brendon, though, was talking again, "...not, at least, until you're fully better. Dr. Way should be here later; he's been checking in every evening. You're feeling better, though, right?"

Ryan wasn't sure what his feeling better had to do with anything. He certainly couldn't remember the last time anyone had asked him. He supposed he was feeling better, though, as most of his memory was filled with the notion of absolute misery. He said, "Yes, master."

Brendon frowned, but whatever was bothering him, he just said, "In any case, you should sleep more, or at least try. Dr. Way said you needed to catch up on years of sleep, and you've only had three days."

Three days? The last slave Ryan had known who'd fallen that ill had been killed the second day in--slaves weren't considered worth the extra reserves if they couldn't perform their duties.
Brendon was saying something about the glass of water by the bed and calling if anything was needed and Ryan couldn't process what the words meant all strung together. Brendon said, "Sleep," one more time and then disappeared through the door.
Ryan thought, well, at least that's an order, and gave into the comfort of knowing what to do, if only for the moment.

*


Brendon was in the fields when Dr. Way's carriage made its way up the lane, so he saw him from a distance. He drove the oxen toward the edge of the field and let them free of the yoke, bringing them to the water. It was late enough in the day that he could reasonably stop, even if he hadn't gotten all the tilling done. He never really managed to do so, so he wasn't sure why today should be any different, particularly when he'd been in and out to check on Ryan all day.

By the time he made it to the front, Dr. Way was unhitching his horse and leading him toward the porch, where he could be tied. Brendon brought some water, and for the first time since Brendon went to get him about Ryan, Dr. Way smiled at him. Brendon grinned back, taking what he could get of the forgiveness and said, "He woke up. He-- He drank some water, and even said a few things."

"And they made sense, these things?" Dr. Way asked.

"Well, um." Brendon frowned. "I'm not sure how much he remembers. He seemed confused. And he called me master."

Dr. Way tilted his head. "By law of purchase, you are his master, Brendon." His voice was cold again, and it made Brendon want to apologize.

"I-- I know, but I told him my name was Brendon. When I, uh, when I brought him back."

Dr. Way paced a little, which looked odd out on front of the porch, almost as though he was walking in circles. Brendon asked, "Doc--?"

"You can't know much about pleasure slaves, I don't imagine, not growing up expected to be part of the clergy."

Brendon shook his head. If one of his older siblings hadn't told him forbidden stories, or Spencer filled him in when they'd begun their friendship, Brendon's knowledge of the world would have been considerably narrower than it already was.
Dr. Way sighed, a sound that seemed to run through his entire body. He said, "Brendon, that boy you bought, he will call you Brendon should you order him to, but the likelihood that he might just say it at the mere suggestion--"

Dr. Way shook his head almost violently, his hands making helpless, concerned pinwheel-type motions. "He's been trained Brendon. Tortured, if the things I've found are any indication."

"The things you've--"

"You can force him to tell you, but I'm his doctor. Slave or no, my loyalties are to him. And there’s nothing, nothing you can do to convince me otherwise." Dr. Way glared at Brendon. It was scarier than Brendon would have expected it to be.

Brendon blinked at the doctor’s intensity. "Of course you should protect his privacy." Dr. Way was acting a little crazy, even considering the situation. Sure, he'd heard the rumors of the older Way brother, but the doctor had never been anything but helpful and considerate to him, even if he did have some pretty unusual ideas. Brendon did too. He liked people who weren't boring.

Something about the response seemed to calm Dr. Way, which relieved Brendon. Spencer was much better at getting people to stay calm, but he'd had to go help his family out. His family's lands were more expansive than Brendon's, and with the fire, they had a lot of land-turning and replanting to accomplish in a short period of time. Brendon knew Spencer would be back--he had stayed with Ryan every night--but it probably wouldn't be until after nightfall.

Dr. Way said, "I-- Yes, that's right. In any case, he's been treated very badly, and I doubt a few kindnesses are enough to overturn that."

The assertion made Brendon’s stomach tighten. He hated the thought of abuse, in any situation, but it seemed that much worse to inflict it on another human, someone you knew felt things just the same as you. And if Spencer was right, Ryan had most likely been barely out of childhood when he'd been sold into the position. Brendon sighed quietly and followed the doctor up and into the house.

Ryan was sleeping, but he awoke when Dr. Way called his name. He mumbled a, "Master," and shrunk in on himself. Brendon felt the unusual urge to hit something, but not Ryan, certainly not.

Dr. Way said, "I'm a doctor," and told Ryan that he had been heat sick. "Also, Ryan, I think you may have been on a drug. Can you remember anything?"

Ryan looked over at Brendon, and Brendon realized, after several long moments, that Ryan was waiting for something from him. "Ah, yes?"

"Per--" Ryan coughed and Dr. Way helped him to some water. When Ryan had recovered he tried again. "Permission to answer, master?"

Brendon's eyes widened. "Brendon. I'm Brendon. And yes, I mean, yes, answer all his questions. You can always-- You don't need to ask, uh, I mean. You're allowed to talk."

Ryan swallowed and said, "She, my mistress, she put something in my food. It was bitter. That's all I--"

"What did it do, Ryan?"

Brendon wished he couldn't see Ryan's eyes, the flat sheen of them, the way his skin never so much as pinkened when he said, "Made me burn for her. All the time. Sometimes too much to eat or sleep. Never enough to push me to the end. She liked me to wait."

Brendon didn't understand, not really, but he could hear Dr. Way's words, the word torture, and he suddenly understood that there were all kinds. He suspected this type had something to do with the dirty jokes Jon and Tom were forever telling when they came back from University, the ones that Brendon laughed at despite not getting them at all. It didn't seem funny when Ryan talked about it.

Dr. Way was talking. "...and make sure you drink plenty of water. If you run out, have Brendon bring you some more. That's an order, isn't it, Brendon?"

Brendon nodded. "An order, yes."

Ryan said, "Sir. Master."

Brendon went to go prime the pump. He needed some air.

*


Ryan was terrified, moreso than he'd been in years. Owners who were violent were frightening, but they were also understandable. As were owners who were verbally abusive, or worked a slave too hard, or had a specific fetish, or any one of the many things that Ryan had run into over the years. Owners that Ryan couldn't read, though, those were by far the worst, because if Ryan couldn't anticipate needs and desires, then he was better off dead. It was a lesson he'd learned early and without much guidance. Pete hadn't come around until after that.

Ryan's new owner was a mystery. He was worse than the mistress who had bought him for the pleasure of displaying him, and had transformed him into "art" on a regular basis for her friends. She'd been crazy, so far as Ryan could tell, and it was never clear when her desire for "art" was going to turn into something that left Ryan in positions no human was meant to be put in. The unpredictability of her whims had nearly driven Ryan crazy, and he had, in fact, been sold at a discount after her. That was before the face markings, of course. She would never have bought him after those.

It wasn't so much that this new master had shown a tendency toward unexpected violence. It was more that he showed an almost unnerving reluctance to have a slave. After all, what kind of master who wanted to keep a slave had him treated by an abolitionist doctor? But if his owner had no real intentions of keeping him, why buy a slave who couldn't realistically be set free, would always be confined by the marks of his servitude? Nothing about the situation made sense, and now that he could think somewhat rationally about it, it set Ryan on edge.

He was considering how to deal with the situation when there was a knock on the door. Ryan asked, "Yes?" and bowed his head by rote. There had been a time when every little submission had been worth fighting over, and even after that, there had been a time when the big ones were still, at times, worth fighting over. Ryan was long past those times, though. Mostly, he just wanted to go unnoticed. That would be harder in a house where he was the only slave.

The person who opened the door wasn't his new owner, though. The person who opened the door was part of Ryan's delirium. Only, Ryan wasn't sick anymore. His throat stuck on the question it had. Slaves weren't supposed to ask questions.
The man said, "Hi, Ryan," softly, and Ryan knew that he wasn't imagining things.

He didn't know what to say any more than he had the moment before. What came out was a simple, "Spence." Then he remembered, remembered what he was, and how long ago that had been, and said, "I mean, Mr. Smith. I-- Sorry."

Ryan heard the creaking of the floors and then Spencer--Ryan couldn't think of him any other way--was sitting on the bed, next to him, lifting his face so that they were looking at each other. Ryan had gotten good at seeing even with his eyes on the floor, but this was better, getting to see who Spencer had become. The blue of his eyes was the same, but the shape of his cheeks was slightly less soft, the brown of his hair lighter. He looked good, better than Ryan had even imagined, and he had, often, let himself think about how Spencer would look now, what he would be doing. It was almost a disappointment to find out, to not have that avenue of imagination anymore, but Spencer seemed to be doing well, and that was something.

One of Spencer's fingers came up to Ryan's cheek to trace at the tattooing. Ryan couldn't help his flinch, but it was more controlled than it had been early on, when he'd first started making himself become accustomed to them. Spencer said, "Ryan," again, and then, before Ryan even knew what was happening, he was being hugged.

The last person who had hugged Ryan had been Pete, and it had been quite some time. Ryan wasn't always certain about years, but he thought he probably hadn't seen Pete in seven or so. Now with Spencer, Ryan wasn't certain as to how to react. Was he supposed to respond? It seemed only logical that someone hugging Ryan would want a hug back, so Ryan did what he wanted to do and tightened his arms around Spencer.

Spencer said, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

Ryan didn't have any idea what he was talking about. It didn't matter. What mattered was that Spencer was here, and they were hugging, and Ryan would figure out his new owner's needs if it meant staying near to Spencer. He would become his master's ideal slave, make himself invaluable. For now, though, he was going to let himself feel safe, just for a moment, just this moment with Spencer here, grown and real and better than any of the stories Ryan had told himself over the years.

*


Brendon wasn't eavesdropping, it was just that Ryan was talking to Spencer, and Brendon was sure that if he let his presence be known, Ryan would turn back into the silent, wide-eyed shell he kept being whenever Brendon walked in the room. Ryan wasn't really talking a lot. Mostly he was listening to Spencer, but when he talked, he said things other than, "yes, master" or "please, master," and the difference was heartening.

Of course, Brendon was caught eventually. Spencer must have heard something--maybe the creak of the floor, maybe Brendon's stomach--and said, "Stop hiding, Brendon."

Brendon did his best to act like he'd just walked down the hall, but he was a terrible actor. Ryan's eyes were huge and Brendon was terrified he was going to do something like apologize for being a person, so he said, "I, ah, I just made dinner."

Or, well, he'd burnt dinner, but there was no reason to get Ryan dispirited before he even saw the food.
Spencer said, "So that's what smells like charred oxen?"

Brendon glowered. He told Ryan, "Spencer just thinks he's superior because he can do things like...whip eggs."

"I think he means make a souffle," Spencer said.

"Whatever," Brendon waved his hands.

"Seriously," Spencer said. "Did you burn dinner?"

Brendon looked down at his feet. "Only a little bit." He had really been trying. He didn't want Ryan to think he'd come somewhere where he wouldn't get enough to eat--from the look of him, he'd had enough of that.

To Brendon's surprise, it was Ryan who spoke up. He said, "I could learn to cook, master."

Brendon blinked at him, and Ryan bowed his head. "That is, if it would help." His voice was soft, clear, but oddly all in one key.

"I need all the help I can get." Then, "And it's Brendon, really. I-- I needed help with my farm, not a slave. Just, well. There's really not much for-hire help, is there? My brother can remember when it still existed, before the slave markets grew to their current size, but--" Brendon realized he was rambling and clamped his lips shut. Spencer was looking at him in a vaguely amused manner, which was at once reassuring and made Brendon feel about twenty times stupider.

Ryan's face was blank. He said, "However I may be of assistance, Brendon."

Brendon had never heard his name said like that, like it was still a title. He didn't like it, but it wasn't as though he could tell Ryan to change it. Or, well, he supposed he could, but it wouldn't mean anything. For a second, Brendon felt a burning line of jealousy between his shoulders. Of course Spencer would know his new slave, would be the one person he seemed to feel safe with. Spencer with his stupid hair, and his stupid blue eyes and his hips, who didn't need anyone to help with his farm, or a friend to stay with him.

Brendon let it go, though, because it wasn't in his nature to hold on to jealousy, and even had it been, Spencer made it impossible just by being the friend who dropped off leftovers from his (unburnt) dinners, and helped Brendon find solutions to his problems, and never seemed put upon when Brendon rode up, just needing some company. Brendon certainly couldn't fault Ryan for liking Spencer, particularly not when Spencer was something from before--well, before whatever Dr. Way had hinted at had happened.

Brendon said, "Dinner is burnt, but there's plenty of it. If you'd like, that is."

Ryan said, "Please, Brendon," and started to move off the bed.

Spencer pinned him back with a hand, and Brendon said, "No, no, I'll bring it. You two just, ah, go back to whatever you were talking about before I interrupted." This time, Brendon didn't stay around to listen.

*


The burns took the better part of the next few days to heal. Ryan tried to get up on the second day of full consciousness, but Brendon said, "No, no, no. Dr. Way said at least four days. You haven't been around him when he's mad, but I do not want to be the target of one of his lectures."

Then, once Ryan had been put safely back in bed, Brendon had said, "I can make oatmeal without burning it, I swear. And we have apples and cinnamon. You don't mind oatmeal, right?"

Ryan's brain had been so turned around by the low-lying thrum of pain in his back and muscles that he had just blinked for a moment before saying, "Ah, yes, Mas-- Brendon."

Something had flickered over Brendon's face, but he hadn't said anything, just pulled up a quick smile and said, "Great. Breakfast will be ready in a bit."

The oatmeal was warm and thick and good, and the apples fresh. Ryan had to make himself stop eating before his stomach hurt. He considered whether there was any way for him to squirrel some of the apple away--it wouldn't keep long, but for a bit, maybe, he would have something if he needed it--but there was no way, not with Brendon sitting right there.

Instead, Brendon cleaned up for them and said, "I have to go work. It's just me right now, until you're feeling better. I'll return later, make us something for lunch, yes?"

Ryan couldn't imagine why Brendon was asking him, as though he needed permission. He did the only thing he could think of to do and bent his head in acquiescence.

Which was pretty much how things went for the next few days, until the doctor came back and determined that Ryan could start helping with light duties. He got a very serious warning not to engage in anything more, and Ryan could tell that the doctor had plans to admonish Brendon if he found Ryan with so much as a toe outside the lines he'd drawn. Brendon seemed all right with that, though, teaching Ryan how to milk the cow and feed the oxen.

Ryan remembered some things from his childhood with Spencer, and he was able to start helping sow the fields a week or so after he'd woken up--regular meals and good nights of sleep healing him more than he would have imagined, not having had either in at least ten years that he could remember. Some owners had been more generous than others, but Ryan's selling point had been his fragility, the way he seemed so easy to break and yet wasn't.

Still, it made no sense that Brendon should have bought himself Ryan, frail-seeming Ryan, to help him with his fields. Nobody bought an obvious pleasure slave simply for manual labor.
Ryan's suspicions were only confirmed when, instead of having Ryan collared or even shackled--anything that would effectively mark him as Brendon's property--Brendon slid a band of solid metal over Ryan's finger. The band was marked "BU," but that was it. It wasn't burnt to his finger, there were no clamps, and nothing to make sure he didn't leave the grounds. The only reason not to mark a slave extensively, really, was if one preferred his slaves unmarked. And lord knew, Ryan was already marked enough. Brendon probably just hadn't been able to afford something cleaner with what he had.

If there was one thing Ryan had learned about Brendon in the week or so that he'd been able to observe him, it was that he acted more sure of himself than he was. He seemed to let his guard down when Spencer was around, but Spencer had that effect on people. Ryan had never had a master who hadn't known how to order Ryan to see to his pleasure, but he was fairly certain that was why he was still only helping out on the farm. Ryan knew what he was good for, and the reasons why someone would pay good cash for him, and he wasn't risking Brendon getting tired of not being able to work up the nerve to ask. Risk or not, Ryan was going to have to be the one to make sure that Brendon got what he wanted.

Ryan wasn't entirely sure how to go about that venture, given that his past owners had just put him where they wanted him and done what they wanted. If Brendon wanted something more than Ryan's mouth or his ass, Ryan didn't know how to read that desire from what Brendon was giving him. With any luck, Brendon would be pleased with the most basic of services, but Ryan could do and had done just about anything one could imagine doing, so he was well-prepared.

When he couldn't stand worrying about it any longer, Ryan chose a moment in the evening. Brendon was going over the budgetary concerns for the farm, his eyes nearly closing, clearly in need of some relaxation. Ryan said, "You seem tired," softly, and sank to his knees, between Brendon's legs. He put his fingers gently to one of Brendon's thighs, giving himself a little more room.

Brendon looked down at him with wide, unsure eyes, which wasn't really the reaction Ryan was going for, but he was marked and it had been a bit since he'd done this. He slipped a finger beneath Brendon's shirt and stroked at the skin beneath. "You work so hard."

"Uh," Brendon said, but Ryan cut off that thought with a kiss to Brendon's clothed cock, which was clearly swelling through his trousers. Brendon, well, Brendon squeaked was the only word Ryan could think of, and that wasn't a reaction Ryan was used to, either, but Brendon didn't seem distressed, precisely, so Ryan began unbuttoning Brendon’s trousers, which was when Brendon pushed him hard enough for Ryan to stumble backward.

There was a split second where Ryan didn't understand the surprised horror on Brendon's face. Then the realization filtered into his mind and he felt only sheer terror. He couldn't imagine how he'd forgotten that one did not do, one waited to be done to.

"Ryan." Brendon was saying his name, but until he was told, Ryan couldn’t move out of he position of penance he’d taken, his head and his knees on the ground, waiting, waiting for the beating or whatever punishment Brendon saw fit.

"Ryan, please," Brendon said, and that didn't make any sense, none of this made any sense. Ryan's chest hurt from his attempts to breathe.

"Ryan, it's okay, it's-- You don't have to do that. Ever." Brendon's voice was shaking. Owners' voices shook when angry. Ryan kept himself curled up. It wouldn't protect his kidneys, but his lungs, his stomach would be all right.

There was a hand on his shoulder, gentle, but Ryan flinched at it anyway. Brendon said, "Ryan, look at me, please."

However it was couched, that was an order, and Ryan made himself obey.
Brendon said, "Ryan, I--" He took his hand away then, a flush high on his cheeks, and Ryan didn't understand. All the signs said that Brendon wanted Ryan, wanted pleasure, but he was saying, "That's not what you're here for. That's not-- You needn't do that."

Ryan had no idea of how to argue, how to explain that that was what Ryan was for. Instead he said, "I'm sorry, Master."

"Brendon," Brendon said, and it sounded terribly sad.

Ryan said, "I'm sorry, Brendon," and that time, he wasn't even entirely sure what he was apologizing for.

*


The only people Brendon knew who owned a pleasure slave were Bob and Mikey. Brendon had never been entirely sure what they did with Pete, since, so far as he could tell, they were happily and monogamously married. Also, Dr. Way still spoke to his brother and in-law, which didn't seem likely if they were abusing their rights over another human. But Bob and Mikey had one, and that was enough to make Brendong leave Ryan with Spencer one afternoon and ride out to the Bryar estate.

It felt strange--awful--knowing that all of this was once Ryan's, should have been Ryan's. Not that Brendon blamed Bob. Bob was one of the most honest, hard working, and neighborly people Brendon had ever known. Bob could hardly have realized the history of the land, and even if he had, there was little he could have done to change it by the time he was purchasing it. Still, an emptiness that Brendon had never known before settled in his chest as he rode up to the manor house.

The man Bob had bought to handle the horses came right away to take Brendon's. He smiled and said, "Brendon. Haven't seen you around in a bit. Been busy?"

Brendon nodded and shook Joe's hand. "That time of year."

Joe smiled knowingly--rumor had it that he'd owned his own lands until they'd been taken by the government when he'd been found guilty of growing and using illicit plant-life substances in his fields. Joe said, "That it is." He stroked his hand along Clover's back. "She's looking good. Better than she ever did with Walker."

Brendon smiled. Jon had sold him Clover when he went to school. There was no point in him having two horses while at the university, and Brendon really had needed one. All the same, Jon spoiled Clover to a ridiculous extent. If she looked any better, it was only because Brendon actually worked her, built her muscle. Softly he said, "Spoil her a little?"

Joe leaned his face into the velvet softness of Clover's nose and asked, "What else would I possibly do with such a pretty girl?"

Brendon clapped a hand to Joe's shoulder and continued toward the house. His knock was answered by Mikey, who looked confused at Brendon's arrival. He said, "Hello. Were we expecting you?"

Brendon wished that he could sometimes remember conventions beforehand. He flushed and said, "I should have sent a calling card."

Mikey blinked at him. "I didn't realize you had calling cards."

Brendon didn't, but he could have manufactured something. "I just meant--"

"Oh, no, I just was wondering if I'd forgotten. Sometimes I forget."
Mikey wandered in the house, then, and Brendon followed him, since it seemed strange to just stand at the door. He shut the door behind him and trailed behind Mikey until they reached the kitchen. Bob was there, as well as Pete, their cook, Alex, and Bob's business associates, Frank and Jamia, who seemed to do most of Bob's actual trading. Bob largely worked behind the scenes, so far as Brendon could tell, but then, he didn't know much about being a merchant.

Pete grinned and bounced up to hug Brendon. "Been long enough! I have things I want to show you."

Brendon hugged back and did his best to return Pete’s grin. Pete was all loose limbs and ease and friendliness, everything that Ryan seemed scared of. Bob must have seen something, because he pulled Pete gently off and said, "Didn't you promise Patrick you would help with the correspondence this afternoon?"

Pete made a face, but everyone knew that Patrick held grudges about being deliberately abandoned for a good time, and Pete hated when Patrick was upset with him. He traipsed off with the air of the defeated, but when he called back, "Soon, Urie. Don't imagine I'll forget," he sounded perfectly fine.

Frank had risen by this point, saying, "We'll handle the transfer and contact you when we return. Perhaps a fortnight?"

Bob nodded. Alex disappeared as Frank was leaving, and suddenly it was just the three of them. Brendon said, "Ah, I'm sorry, I should have--"

"Sit down, Brendon," Bob said. Mikey was already pouring another cup of tea. Brendon took it gratefully, as much to give himself time to think as because he was thirsty after his ride over.

After a considerable stretch of silence, Mikey said, "Gerard tells me you bought a boy to help with your farm."

Brendon grimaced. "I imagine he said more than that."

Mikey's smile was a small thing, but it was there. Bob said, "We both admire Gerard's stance on slavery, Brendon."

Brendon waited. There was definitely something Bob hadn't said. Mikey and Bob shared a look before Mikey nodded. "Gee has the advantage of having a profession that supports him but does not require help. He does not have the moral dilemma of buying another or starving."

"It's easy to have ethics when nothing makes them complicated," Bob said softly.

"It doesn't make him wrong," Brendon said, and couldn't help thinking of Ryan's eyes, the clouded, caged look they got nearly every time Brendon opened his mouth.

"No," Mikey said, "But it does not make his stance--that those of us who see slaves as human beings simply stop buying them--viable, either. What then, Brendon? Only those who support the system would buy? And how many of the people you grew up around were inured to the system, raised to understand it as proper?"

"But if we all accept--"

"There is an ocean's worth of distance between open rebellion and complete acceptance," Bob said.

Brendon considered Joe's love of the stables, and the way he, Alex, Patrick, Ryland and Pete all had days off, rooms to themselves, relationships and lives, and if Brendon wasn't mistaken, even salaries. He wasn't sure it was the same, not really. They all wore the Bryar crest on ribbons around their necks, had none of the rights of a freeman once off the property, but Bob was right in saying that it was something between acceptance and total rebellion. Brendon just didn't know if it was enough.
He also didn't know what there was to do other than to start somewhere. Which was why he said, "Was Pete-- When you, um. That is, Ryan, my-- The man I, well, he was a pleasure slave and he tried to, ah, even though I said that wasn't, you know, and he almost never speaks or--"

"Take a breath, Brendon," Bob told him. Brendon nodded and did as told.

Mikey was the one to say, "Pete was nothing like he is now," and there was something low in the statement, torn and ragged the way Mikey's voice never was. Bob stood and came around behind Mikey, to place his hands on Mikey's shoulders. Mikey tensed up into the touch, but slowly unwound. Bob was silent, and it was Mikey who said, "Pete and I knew each other for a time in school. He was...well, like you see him now, except moreso, louder and more aggressive and friendlier. Most people found it off-putting, but I was quiet and bad at making friends, and Pete never took no for an answer. He was my only friend other than Gerard for two years, and then he went off to university.

"Only, it wasn't good for him, being away from everything he knew, having to start over. He drank too much, far too much, and one night he drank so much that he ended up having to be treated, medically. It cost him everything, and his parents turned him out for his actions. He couldn't make the payments to the university, nor the hospital, and he saw no option but to sell himself into slavery to cancel the debts. Pete was always a bit impulsive, and he probably just--" Mikey cut himself off. "He probably didn't really think of what it meant."

Mikey was quiet for a few moments. He took a deep breath and said, "Bob was-- We attended a business dinner and Pete was offered to us. For the night."

Mikey looked brittle, and Bob said, "I bartered to have him for considerably longer," his words tight and cut off.

Brendon was almost afraid to speak into the stillness that followed this statement, but he couldn't help asking, "And he just, he was better? Because, um. He knew you?"

Mikey's gaze slid away, and Brendon noticed Bob's hands tighten ever so slightly around his shoulders. Bob said, "That was six years ago." The words sounded like they hurt. "The first year, we regularly found that he'd stuffed rags in his mouth before sleeping so as not to scream. He wouldn't smile except if he thought it was what we wanted. He shook when anybody touched him. It was two years before he would call us by name, three before he would ask questions. It's only in the last two or so that he's come out of his shell, and even now, it doesn't take much to send him back into it."

Brendon's mind flashed back to the gentleness Bob had shown in sending Pete off so that they could speak. He asked, "How did things get better?"

Bob's smile was bitter, distant. Mikey said, "Patience."

Without knowing where the idea came from, or how he got the nerve to ask, Brendon asked, "Do you think maybe you could visit some-time? With Pete? I just thought, you know, it might help."

Mikey glanced up at Bob. Bob said, "We'll discuss it with Pete. Only if he wants to."

Brendon nodded. "Of course. Of course."

Bob walked to his seat and sat back down. Mikey, after a moment, said, "Drink more tea. It's a bit of a ride back."

*


Ryan didn't like being at Spencer's house. It had Spencer, and that was certainly a point in its favor, but it made Ryan uncomfortable. None of his masters had ever pretended like he was anything other than a slave. With Brendon, Ryan had no idea how to proceed because there were no clear guidelines. But when he was at Spencer's, it was as if he was not a slave. He felt almost as if he was a friend who left for another part of the country and had come back to visit.

Spencer's mother made him eat the moment he walked into the room. Spencer's father didn't say anything, but he looked Ryan over with careful eyes, and an expression that held no ill-will, simply concern. Jacquelyn and Crystal were both shy around him in a way they never had been as children, in a way that nobody was around slaves, because slaves didn't warrant that type of social reaction.

And then there was Ray. He had introduced himself with a first name and a last name. He had shaken Ryan's hand. He was clearly a slave. Ryan couldn't remember the Smiths owning slaves, but Ray had marks of abuse on his arms and a thin strip of softened leather with the word Smith embossed on it around his wrist. He also sat to Mr. Smith's left and talked agriculture with him throughout tea, helped himself to a second portion without asking, and generally acted like a free man.

Nothing at Spencer's made sense, and the only thing that kept Ryan from pure panic was the fact that Spencer was there. Ryan knew he oughtn't trust Spencer to the extent he did--he hadn't seen Spencer in ten years, and clearly things had changed--but it was like his brain refused to accept that Spencer could have changed.

After tea, Spencer said, "I have to go back to the fields. Want to come along?"

Ryan certainly didn't want to be left in the house without Spencer, no matter how nice his mother and the girls were. He nodded. "Please."

Spencer's mouth twisted up. Ryan wasn't sure what he'd done wrong, but he said, "Sorry," just to smooth over whatever it had been.

Spencer shook his head shortly. "Come along."

Ryan followed him out and when they got to the patch of field that Spencer had left so he could collect Ryan for afternoon tea with his family, Ryan said, "Spencer," softly enough that Spencer could ignore it if he so chose.

"Help me out with this?" Spencer said, holding out a hoe.

Ryan took it in his hands and followed Spencer's movements, learning. When they had established a rhythm, Spencer asked, "You had a question?"

The idea terrified Ryan. The last time he'd asked a question, he'd taken a dozen blows with a cane, and that had been a relatively mild consequence, compared to a few early on in his training. "No, not a-- It's only. I'm no good at any of this."

And that scared him more than asking questions. He'd been bought for something he was all but useless at. Ryan knew what happened to useless slaves, especially if they weren't worth much in resale value.
Spencer said, "Nobody is good at something they've just learned, Ryan."

Ryan wasn't sure what he could say to that. It was one thing for a person to need practice, another entirely for a slave. Ryan kept his eyes on the ground and did his best not to remember his lessons in giving a man pleasure. He'd choked the first time. The trainer had made sure to break him of that response.

Ryan's eye caught on the band around his finger, the one that fulfilled Brendon's legal obligation to mark Ryan. It was scant, as markings went. And the initials on it weren't terribly specific, not like a name or a crest. Ryan could probably take it off, lose it, probably make his way off Brendon's grounds with nothing to tie him there, but in the end people would notice the marks that weren't even Brendon's.

Ryan dug the hoe into the ground, forcing his anger into the dirt. It did him no good. None of this did him any good, not the relative freedom, nor the kindness, nor the proximity to Spencer, not when it was all bound to end, and he was stuck just waiting for it.
Spencer said, "Oh, don't, you'll hurt your back--" and then his hands were on Ryan's arms from behind Ryan, and Ryan froze.

Spencer's hands fell as quickly as they'd settled, and he said, "Ryan?"

Ryan shook off the vestiges of what does he want and would Brendon want me to service him and reminded himself that this was Spencer. "Sorry."

"I was just going to--" Spencer approached again, and this time when he laid his hands on Ryan, Ryan was expecting it. He corrected Ryan's posture. "Like this. You won't be as sore. Sore, of course, but not-- You were hurting yourself."

Ryan wondered what Spencer thought pain was.

*


Brendon arrived home before Spencer returned with Ryan. In fact, it was well after dark when Spencer brought him back. Ryan followed Spencer in the house and stood behind him, and Brendon couldn't tell if his posture hinted at exhaustion or fear or anger or any mixture of those and perhaps something else. Ryan was a mystery to him.
Still, Brendon said, "Hello. How was your day?"

Ryan had been at best skittish and at worst jumpy ever since his attempt to pleasure Brendon. Brendon, for his part, was glad that Ryan hadn't come to him knowing how to or insisting he do laundry, because Brendon was perfectly fine taking care of his own sheets and washing away the evidence of his perverse need for a man who had been tortured by sex for most of his life.

Spencer shrugged. "Father thinks we're going to have a considerable crop even considering the losses. Things could certainly be worse. How's everyone at Bob's?"

"Patrick was hiding away with work, but otherwise, they all say hello. I'm sure he would have, as well."

"And you got what you needed?" Spencer tilted his head. Brendon hadn't mentioned what he was going out there for, just that he needed advice, but Spencer was always too smart about Brendon. It was annoying all the times when it wasn't really helpful.

Brendon smiled as best he could. He said, "You seem tired, Ryan."

Ryan stiffened a bit. "I am sorry, Brendon."

Brendon remembered what Mikey and Bob had said about it taking a year before Pete would even say their names, and he wondered if maybe it was a good sign that Ryan would at least say Brendon’s, even if he made it into something else, into the acceptance of an order. Brendon couldn't be sure of anything. He made himself try again. "I could make some tea, if you wanted, or if you'd prefer, you're welcome to sleep."

There was a moment wherein Ryan was so still Brendon wasn't sure he wouldn't shatter at a touch. He said, "Whichever would please you more, Brendon."

Brendon wondered if he could push, or if it would simply be cruel to make Ryan decide when he so clearly wasn't sure if there was a right choice. Brendon closed his eyes and wished that something, anything about this could be simple. He said, "Spencer and I would certainly enjoy your company, but not at the expense of your rest. If you’re tired, you should feel free to sleep." He nearly winced at his own word choice, but managed not to.

Brendon was watching closely enough that he didn't miss the discreet flicker of Ryan's eyes toward Spencer. Brendon wondered if maybe he should give Ryan's papers to Spencer, or ask Ryan if he wanted his papers given to Spencer. Spencer would probably be willing to ask Ryan to help in Brendon’s fields, and even though Brendon would be alone again in his home, something he had been hoping this would change, Ryan might be happier, might heal. Brendon put a hand to his stomach.

Spencer said, "Brendon?"

Ryan looked up for a moment. "Master?"

Brendon didn't miss the slip, but he also wasn't going to mention it, since Ryan was already looking at the floor again, shoulders tight. Brendon said, "I like the sound of tea. Are you staying, Spence?"

Spencer frowned, but he nodded and said, "For a bit."

Brendon hated that he still wanted Spencer there, that he had nobody else, and that Spencer would head home to his family and even his dogs, who greeted him with an enthusiasm Brendon both understood and envied. He pasted on his brightest smile and asked, "Tea for three, then?"

Spencer put a hand on Ryan's shoulder. Ryan said, "Please, Brendon," his voice clear but somewhat shaky.

Brendon said, "Yes. Right."

*


Ryan was not snooping. The book had been lying out on the kitchen table the morning after his day with Spencer. He hadn't even turned the page. He just missed reading.
It was a book about maximizing crop productivity, which wasn't that interesting, but Ryan imagined it probably had some information that he would find useful in helping Brendon. Still, he wasn't going to look without permission. He hadn't even realized he was touching the pages--until Brendon came in and said, "Oh that's right, you can read."

Ryan was too panicked at being caught to register tone of voice--something he was generally strident about listening for. He hit the ground, knees first, head to the ground as soon as he could get it there. He thought about pleading his case, but slaves weren't allowed excuses anymore than they were questions, so he just kept breathing, thinking about his breath: in, out, in, out. When he managed to hear something beyond his own breathing patterns, it struck Ryan that he couldn't hear anything.

Peeking just the slightest bit, Ryan could see Brendon's feet, but he wasn't standing. Softly, Brendon said, "It'd be nice if you sat up. I mean, if-- I guess if you need to stay down there, that's okay, but, um, sitting would be...better, I think."

Ryan took another deep breath and straightened out torso. Brendon was sitting cross-legged, facing him. He held the book out to Ryan. It was closed, but he wasn't making any threatening movements, not gesturing as though he were going to hit Ryan with it.
Brendon said, "I borrowed it from Ray a while back. He's always trying to help me. I think they all feel a little sorry for me, over at the Smiths’. I wasn't exactly raised to this, and I'm not always very good at it." Brendon made a self-deprecating sound. "Usually, really."

Ryan didn't know what to say to that. It made him feel even more helpless, nothing like what Brendon needed. Brendon said, "You're welcome to read it. You're welcome to read anything."

Ryan's chest hurt with all the words he wanted to say, none of them making the kind of sense he wished he could. The idea that escape of any sort might be open to him again was overwhelming. There wasn't a good way to thank someone for giving him space inside his own head, so he said, "Maybe if I read it I could help more?"

Brendon grinned. "Couldn't hurt. I mean, you're help enough, just being an extra pair of hands, but if you can actually make heads or tails of some of this, be my guest."

Ryan looked down at his hands and thought about the things they'd been used for, how nobody had really valued them, definitely far less so than his other parts. Brendon shifted and Ryan went back to paying attention to him, not thrilled with himself that he'd stopped for a moment.
Brendon asked, "Your, um, I-- Your previous owners. They didn't want you to read?"

Ryan had been accused of trying to steal a book once. His third owner, he'd been a gift to a young, spoiled aristo who liked to share Ryan with his friends. He hadn't been stealing the book, he'd just been reading it, but the boy had kept him blindfolded for nearly a week, in total darkness while he was forced to perform his duties, saying if Ryan could learn to read without his eyes, he could have all the books he wanted. Ryan had been unable to see people coming at him, had bumped into others and taken punishment for "impertinence." He'd been a mass of bruises and welts by the end of it, and desperate, utterly, for even a sliver of light. He hadn't touched something that wasn't his since then. He couldn't imagine why he'd touched the book.

Ryan shook his head tightly. Even when it hadn't been an issue of property, he had been told often enough what he was good for, and it had nothing to do with his mind.

"Oh, well. Are there any kinds of books you like? Dr. Way and Mikey both have considerable libraries and they're always willing to let me borrow books when I want. And Crystal has quite a few as well, books of all kinds. When Jon comes home from university he brings back his favorites and leaves them with me and Spencer for a while. Something should catch your fancy, I'd imagine."

Just the idea was enough that Ryan couldn't help it; he smiled slightly. Well, his lips turned up, and he felt something like warmth in his cheeks. Brendon's matching smile probably could have lit every torch in the region. He looked down at the book in his lap and flipped to a page, then turned it around so it was facing Ryan. He said, "So, um, does this make any sense to you?"

*


Brendon was going to hell. He had always tried his best to live by the principles of respect and kindness for others that his parents had raised him to believe in, but faced with true temptation, it was clear that he was a weak and rotten person. For three nights straight he awoke gasping, his sheets wet, the ghosting touch of Ryan's fingers on his thigh. Just that touch had been enough to crumble his defenses.

He did his best to at least act normal, but Brendon was an awful liar, so it took less than a day for Spencer to take him aside and say, "What is going on with you?"

Brendon did his best to seem confused. "Have I done something?"

"Other than acting like Ryan has the pox--" Spencer stopped. "He isn't sick, is he? Something--"

"No." Brendon shook his head. He was certain Dr. Way would have checked. "No, he's fine."

"So it's just you that has the problem."

"Perhaps he would be sa-- happier with you."

Spencer blinked. "Has he said something to you?" He held up a hand. "Don't answer that, of course he hasn't. Whatever is going on, it’s entirely on your part. He seems somewhat improved."

Brendon looked at Spencer, desperate for him to understand. He had always assumed that Spencer knew of Brendon's illicit thoughts toward him and said nothing out of respect and friendship. But surely if Brendon was a danger to Ryan, surely Spencer would say something. Spencer did say something, but it wasn't precisely what Brendon had hoped it would be. Instead, it was, "Brendon. What is wrong?"

It was times like this when Brendon missed being a child, when it had been easy to sidle up to his mother or his older siblings and take comfort physically, from a hug or a touch, not even have to speak. He couldn't stop himself from taking a step toward Spencer. Spencer didn't hesitate; he reached out and pulled Brendon to him, holding him tightly, his hand coming to the back of Brendon's neck, a little too warm, but sturdy.

Later, when Brendon replayed it in his mind--and he would, many, many times--he wouldn't remember what had given him the nerve, or exactly how he had managed to move his lips to Spencer's, kiss lightly at the corner of his mouth. Spencer stilled for a moment at the contact. Brendon started, trying to pull back, but Spencer said, "Finally," and shifted just enough for their mouths to meet full-on.
Brendon stopped breathing for a second, needing nothing more than Spencer's lips, his tongue. Brendon had imagined kissing time after time, but it had never been quite this warm, or sensuous, and Brendon had certainly never been so unsure in his fantasies.

Spencer broke it off after a moment, smiling. Brendon spent a few seconds staring at him, then said, "Finally?"

"I have been wanting to court you since a month after you bought your land, since I knew you."

Brendon opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. "Then why haven't you?"

"You're affectionate, Brendon. I couldn't be sure if you were welcoming of my...interest, or just my friendship."

Brendon looked at the ground. "I was young when my older brothers approached their partners. And my sisters, their marriages--"

"Were arranged?" Spencer nodded. "I should have thought."

Brendon brought his gaze back up. He managed to hold back his grin for all of a second. "But you, that is, you do wish to court me?"

Spencer laughed softly, then stepped back into Brendon's space where he could take up kissing him again.

*

Ryan was trained to anticipate his owner's needs. He found that this was often an oversimplified way of saying that he was supposed to pay attention to any and all signals his owner gave, and figure out how to read them. He was fairly certain, though, that he would have interpreted the looks Spencer and Brendon had started giving each other even if he’d never been trained.

Ryan tried not to conjecture about the clear fact that they were courting--something announced officially less than a week after he had put the pieces together. He learned that he could work himself well past exhaustion in the fields, which not only had the benefit of keeping him from any sort of supposition, but also seemed to please Brendon. He kept happily pointing out all the ways in which Ryan's extra pair of hands was helping to bring the crops along.

Brendon talked about it both to Ryan and to Spencer. Ryan suspected that he did the latter because Spencer worried about Brendon and his ability to survive. Nobody had said anything, but Ryan was almost wholly sure Brendon had come to the slave house to buy a worker, that Ryan had been a mistake.

Ryan appreciated that Brendon had grace about it and didn't take the mistake out on Ryan. And so long as Brendon kept allowing Ryan the freedom of the fields, to take things at his own pace, Ryan wouldn't have to think about what would happen if Brendon and Spencer married. If they joined their lands, Ryan didn't know if he would still be needed. If he wasn't necessary in the fields, Brendon had already shown that he had no interest in the one thing in which Ryan had expertise.

Ryan refused to think about whether Spencer wanted him like Ryan’s former masters had wanted him. Ryan couldn't imagine why Spencer would, not when he would have Brendon, but Ryan had been bought for too many dissatisfied husbands to ignore the possibility. He locked the thought away, in the same place where he kept the worst of his nightmares hidden.

Ryan figured all that not-thinking was probably what caused him to be so oblivious the day he heard a vaguely familiar voice yell, "Ryan? Ryan!" before he was being bodily attacked. He made himself still against it. Fighting never got a slave anywhere, and Brendon hadn't called out to stop the man, which meant he either approved or was elsewhere, and either way, it wasn't like a slave was allowed to fight back.

Shortly, though, a voice he didn't know was saying, "Pete. Pete, let him breathe," and then he was free, stumbling back and trying to calm himself.

After a moment or so of trying--failing--to get his breath to even out, Ryan glanced up. He'd meant it to be quick, a stealth check of what he was dealing with, but when he saw who was in front of him, the man's words from the second before came to him. "Pete?" he asked.

Pete grinned. Ryan had never seen him smile like that. Normally his smiles were edged with danger, and not a small hint of madness, but this one was just happy.

"Ryan," Pete said, and this time Ryan understood the attack for what it was--a hug. To his surprise, it was the easiest thing in the world to just get back up and return it.

*

"I think they know each other," Brendon said. He felt stupid a second later, but Mikey and Bob were both nodding with surprised looks on their faces--well, Bob looked mildly taken aback, Mikey mostly looked the same as ever, but his head was tilted slightly to the side.

Brendon shook himself. It was ill-mannered to stare. He asked Bob and Mikey, "Would you like to come inside?"

"Is this a bad time?" Bob asked, gesturing at the fields, where Ryan and Brendon had been working.

Brendon shook his head. "Sun is setting anyhow. I was going to find him anyway in maybe half an hour." He said, "I don't have much in the way of dinner, and I'm sure you know--"

"We stopped by the inn," Bob said. "The hamper's in the coach. All of Pete's favorites, so an unusual meal, but so long as you don't mind, it's yours to share."

Brendon flushed. He'd never asked for charity, not even the first winter, when his crops had been fledgling and he'd spent most of the season starving. Still, it was nice of them to bring food, not to draw on his resources, and he suspected they knew that. Quietly, he said, "Thank you."

Bob called, "Pete, come in the house when you're ready."

Mikey said, "Bring your friend."

Pete didn't respond, but Bob and Mikey just began walking to the house. Brendon caught a glimpse of Ryan opening his eyes to look after them, but he didn't let go of Pete. Brendon gave Ryan the best smile he had and went after Mikey.

They had finished setting up the table and the food when Pete pulled Ryan through the door, their hands linked. Pete took one look at the spread and smiled both shyly and enthusiastically at Bob, who just said, "You should eat."

It was Mikey who put a hand to Pete's lower back and guided him a little toward the food. When Pete was where he needed to be, Mikey didn't pull away, and Pete carefully stayed within reach. Brendon bit the inside of his lip. It was probably nothing, the way they treated Pete, probably he just liked touch that wasn't harmful, or it was their way of reminding him they wouldn't hurt him.

Brendon turned to Ryan and gestured toward the food. Ryan nodded, and Brendon noted that when he went to fill his plate, it was still more as though he had been given an order, rather than just being a man who'd worked a long day in the fields and needed sustenance.

When they were seated, Bob was the one to ask, "Want to introduce us, Pete?"

Pete said, "Oh," and looked genuinely surprised, as though he'd forgotten Mikey and Bob had never met Ryan. He put his hand on Ryan's shoulder and told them, "This is Ryan. We knew each other years ago, maybe a year or two before you took my contract?"

Brendon did not miss how Pete did not call it "buying him" or anything that would suggest he was owned. Ryan was looking at Pete, clearly wondering about it, but Pete just smiled and shook his head. "He could read," was all Pete said.

Brendon wondered what that meant between the two of them, what he was missing. Mikey said, "Someone to talk to?"

Pete said, "That, too."

Ryan went back to eating, slowly and methodically.

*


Pete's voice had always meant safety, before. Now Ryan wasn't sure what it meant, and he hated not knowing one more thing in a flood of things that were utterly uncertain. He didn't hate Pete, though. Ryan knew all the scars on Pete, and which ones were his fault. (Pete would have argued. Pete was an argumentative man.)

After they had eaten, Brendon and Pete's owners had disappeared somewhere. Ryan suspected that had been the plan all along. He thought maybe Pete would help him figure out what he was supposed to be doing. He had before, when Ryan had been barely fourteen and fresh from the debtor's prison, illegally sold to "cover the debts." Everyone knew that was a euphemism for lining the warden's pockets.

Ryan asked, "When did you-- I mean, how long have you been with them?" It was odd to feel secure asking anything, but this was Pete.

Pete smiled a little sharply, but nowhere near the level of cutting he'd once had. "Still asking questions, little Ross?"

Ryan shook his head. "Only of you, swear." It had taken Pete intercepting and taking not one, but two beatings, for Ryan to remember that particular lesson, but he had. "And it's Ryan."

"Nah, Ross is still in there somewhere. Brendon just hasn't found him yet."

Ryan did his best not to gape. Pete laughed, but it wasn't mocking laughter. "Bob and Mikey bought me a little over five years ago."

"You service their household?" Ryan asked softly.

Pete snorted. "I'm in love with them and they dote on me, so depending on how you interpret that, I guess it's a sort of service. Just not like anything I ever knew with anybody who forced me to my knees or gave me to their friends. Sometimes it's a little harder, because they found a way to mark everything inside me, which none of the others got even close to, but, I--" Pete shrugged. "It's hard to mind."

Ryan shook his head. "My-- Brendon doesn't want that. I tried. He's, I mean, he and Spencer, they--"

"I know. Everyone in the township knows. Everyone thinks it's well past time."

"So you know," Ryan said, wondering why Pete had made him make the point.

"I know that you know even less about love than I did when Mikey found me and Bob was willing to spoil him."

Ryan didn't want to think of Pete's empty eyes and his flat words about how to make an owner happy, his gentle lessons of acts that would never be that kind or that easy. He looked full now, like someone had fed him with more than just food. Ryan said, "You knew things."

"Not the right ones."

Ryan wasn't so sure. "I should have thanked you. I don't remember thanking you."

"I would have hated you for it."

Ryan swallowed. "And now?"

Pete tilted his head for a second. He moved his knee to knock against Ryan's. "Now, if you really want to thank me, you'll do me the courtesy of trusting Brendon."

"I don't know how," Ryan admitted.

Pete looked apologetic when he said, "There are some things I can't teach you."

Ryan had known nothing could be that simple.

*


Brendon couldn't figure out how to approach the subject of Pete to Ryan, so he was glad when Spencer arrived before they left. Spencer said hello to everyone as Ryan whispered something to Pete.

Brendon sidled up to Spencer and caught him up with a quick, somewhat desperate-feeling, "They know each other," just as Pete grinned, "You grew up with Ryan, Spencer."

It wasn't a question. Brendon would never have noticed before, but Pete didn't really ask questions, not unless he absolutely had to. Spencer flushed and said, "He was my-- Yes. Yes, we were friends."

Brendon realized that Spencer had been about to say Ryan had been his neighbor, but aside from Brendon, Spencer only had one neighbor, and that was Bob and Mikey. Then, Spencer said, "We are friends," but it was more of a question than Pete's statement had been.

Ryan blinked at that. Pete said, "See?" softly to him, and it was a question, Brendon noticed, with a bit of a pang.

Spencer joined them, then, for the coffee Brendon had made once they'd finished eating. Shortly enough, Mikey announced that he was tired, and Bob was up from his chair, Pete at their side, before Brendon really knew what had happened. Mikey shot Brendon a look that Brendon suspected was knowing and slightly sardonic. He just hugged Mikey for good measure, and shook Bob's hand. Then he waffled around Pete, who hugged him and said, "I'll help if I can. Take care of him."

Brendon squeezed a little tighter than he normally would have, but Pete didn't make a noise or try to wriggle away, so he took that as implicit permission. Brendon, Spencer and Ryan walked the other three out to their carriage, then headed back inside.

There was a long moment where Brendon felt it was pretty clear that he had no idea what to say. Luckily, like normal, Spencer saved him, asking, "You and Pete know each other?"

Ryan looked unsure of how to answer that, if Brendon was reading his expression correctly, which he wasn't at all certain he was. After a moment, Ryan said softly, "He-- We had the same owner. Once."

Facial expression or no, Ryan wasn't saying something. If Brendon had to guess, he would imagine Ryan wasn't saying a lot. He wasn't going to push, though, not when Ryan would think he had to answer. He was going to ask something that had been preying on his mind since his meeting with Bob and Mikey, though.

"Ryan, um. Mikey, he said that Pete-- Well, I mean, if you had the same owner, and Pete hid his nightmares, um, you're not--"

"Ryan?" Spencer asked.

Ryan looked between the two of them. "I wake up. Before I-- I don't have to hide them, mas-- Brendon."

Brendon swallowed. "You're safe." He knew it didn't really mean anything. He knew that he was going to have to be patient, like Bob and Mikey had told him. But he couldn't help saying it, couldn't help wanting Ryan to know. "You're safe here."

Ryan nodded slightly. Spencer said, "Christ," and wrapped Ryan up in a hug. Brendon watched to make sure that Ryan wasn't struggling or stilling unnecessarily. When he had ascertained that this wasn't the case, he very quietly left the two of them alone. Spencer would come back to him, Brendon was pretty sure of that.

*


Ryan hadn't exactly lied about waking before the dreams got too bad. Once, early in his years of being owned, he'd woken a more expensive, more highly valued slave, and he'd been forced to stay awake for three, maybe four days after that. Ryan had lost track of time, lost track of everything important in the mental muddle that followed the first twenty four hours or so.

To make sure that never happened again, Ryan had bet on the fact that he probably struggled against the dreams--if he was given a blanket, it was forever twisted up in the mornings. He'd learned to find something spiked enough to be uncomfortable--the fork he'd been given, or a lost child's jack in the houses with children, something small that would not be noticed--and to place it on either side of him. That way, if he moved too much, he would awaken.

At first, it had meant little sleep, as his body learned not to move at all if not in distress. Once his subconscious had managed, that, though, it was the perfect way of making certain he never woke anyone with his own unguarded fears.

Nobody had ever noticed because nobody had ever cared. Ryan should have thought to be more careful after Brendon had asked about the nightmares.

Ryan's mind went completely blank with terror the day he came back to the house to discover that Brendon had come in from the fields early to do laundry. Both beds were stripped and Brendon must have been at the creek, washing, because Ryan could find him nowhere. It was near dark, but Ryan thought he could probably find his way, help with the wash if nothing else. That might mollify Brendon enough that Ryan could explain that he hadn't stolen either the fork or the horse brush.

The fork was the one Brendon had set for him that first night, and he washed it and used it every night for dinner, like he was supposed to. The horse brush belonged in the barn, Ryan knew, but he returned it there every morning, even using it to groom Clover before she was needed in the fields. She liked being brushed. It made her nuzzle Ryan, soft and sweet, with her big, silken nose.

Ryan was running over the length of the fields, careful of the crops, when Spencer rode up and greeted him. "Where are you going?"

Ryan was so desperate to get where he was going, to try and explain--if he was allowed--that he made a bow to Spencer and tripped over his own feet, landing on the ground, hands in front of him. He pushed himself back to his feet and wiped his hands off, even as he kept going.

Spencer said, "Whoa, whoa, Ryan," and turned his horse in the direction Ryan was heading.

He reached a hand down to Ryan and said, "C'mon, I'll take you."

Ryan tried to think, just for a second. Horses were faster than humans. He took Spencer's hand. Spencer pulled him into the saddle, and Ryan said, "Stream. Please. I-- Please."

Spencer had already spurred his horse into action, and soon they were there. Ryan jumped off--fell from, really--the horse and stumbled to Brendon's side. He was breathless, despite having run only half the way and he said, "Didn't steal," each word taking a breath and the force of Ryan's will to get out.

Brendon looked a bit startled. He said, "I'm doing laundry."

Ryan knew that. Even if he hadn't, the shirt that Brendon was cleaning right in front of them would have given it away. Ryan swallowed and tried to breathe enough to say, "Fork," just thankful that the brush was still in the stable, and would be until after Ryan helped Brendon put Clover in the stall for the night. Then, again, "Didn't steal."

Brendon looked past Ryan to where Spencer was standing. Spencer must have done something, maybe shrugged, because Brendon looked back and said, "I think we have to talk about why there was a fork in your bed, but I don't think you stole it. And even if you did, it's not as though it's silver or even pewter. I can replace it if you really need a fork."

It took a few seconds, but the understanding that Brendon wasn't mad trickled through to Ryan. He made his breathing slow, made himself calm down. He said, "I can do the laundry, M-Brendon."

"You can do all sorts of things. Doesn't mean you should have to do them." Brendon turned his attention back to the shirt. "And stop avoiding the topic of why you sleep with a fork."

Ryan swallowed and said softly, "It helps me sleep." That wasn't exactly a lie. Ryan couldn't get to sleep without having something at his side so that he knew he would wake up if he needed to.

"How?" Brendon asked, without even looking up, like he didn't care. But Ryan was learning that Brendon rarely asked questions if he didn't want to know the answer. He was a curious person, so there were a lot of questions, but they were all important to him, it seemed.

"They keep the nightmares away," Ryan hedged.

"How?" Brendon repeated.

Ryan wasn't sure how to answer that. He was still trying to come up with an answer when Spencer, who Ryan had almost forgotten was behind him, said, "That's how you wake up." He sounded both awed and disgusted, and Ryan couldn't sort those reactions out. He kept his back to Spencer, feeling safer that way.

Brendon looked up, back at Spencer, and then at Ryan. He said, "You're welcome to all the forks in the house. I can't pretend I wouldn't prefer you didn't sleep with pokey things, but that's your right."

Ryan didn't mean for the words, "I don't have any rights," to come out of his mouth, but they did, sounding more bitter and frustrated than Ryan would have even pegged himself as being.

Brendon wrung out a shirt with a considerable amount of vigor and said, tersely, "Technically, you have the ones I give you."

Spencer had begun to make his way over to Brendon at some point without Ryan noticing, and was now crouching beside him, a hand at Brendon's lower back. Ryan looked away. There was no use in staring, no use in thinking about Spencer's touch. Ryan said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean--"

But Brendon cut him off. "No, I'm sorry, that was-- I shouldn't have--" Then he just sort of crumpled, leaning over the branch that he was hanging the shirt over. Spencer was still standing by him.

Ryan had never once, in all his years as a slave, cared a whit what his owner felt like, except to worry that he might be angry at or disappointed in Ryan. But the line of Brendon's back made something in Ryan's stomach clench, the muscles of his back tighten in a way that hurt after a day in the fields.

Ryan said, "I won't sleep with the fork." He would even try leaving the horse brush where it was. The thought was overwhelming, as scary as being bought by someone whose habits he didn't know, as trying something that had gotten him into trouble before. But the thought of leaving Brendon hunched over and hurt like that was somehow worse.

Brendon turned around and looked at Ryan. After a long time, he straightened and said, "We'll figure something out."

Ryan wasn't certain exactly to what Brendon was referring, but Brendon was offering him a small smile, and when Ryan tipped his lips upward, it burst into one of his usual, Brendon-sized smiles. The worst of the ache let go of Ryan, and it didn't really matter all that much what Brendon thought they would figure out, so long as it gave him ease.

Ryan said, "I really can help with laundry."

Spencer shook his head. "Let's get back to the house and make the both of you dinner before you starve from the effects of Brendon's cooking."

Ryan didn't laugh, but he didn't make Spencer wait this time when he offered Ryan his hand from atop his horse.

*


Brendon told Spencer, "I'm not fit for this. I know-- I know why I made the decision, but I'm horrible at it."

Spencer glanced at where Ryan's door was closed. He'd gone to bed early every night since their discussion about the fork, and so far as either of them could tell, wasn't taking sharp objects to bed anymore. Brendon kind of doubted Ryan was actually sleeping, though, as he looked progressively more exhausted as the days passed.

Spencer looked back at where Brendon was mending a shirt, badly. Brendon was horrific at mending, but it was that or go naked, and Brendon thought that might make a bad impression with the neighbors--at least, the ones who weren't Spencer.

Spencer said, "I don't think I'd court anyone who was fit for it, Brendon." Then, after a moment, "Glad as I am that you found Ryan, I didn't mean for it to be this way, you must know that."

Brendon sighed and gave up on stitching for the moment. He said, "I don't blame you."

Spencer just looked at him, which, after a moment, released some of the tension in Brendon's body and made him laugh. "Okay, maybe a little, but just when I'm really tired."

Spencer smiled and ducked his head, leaning into Brendon to kiss him. They'd done this quite a bit since the first time, but still it made Brendon want to never stop. Spencer knew how to use his tongue like someone had taught him. Brendon suspected Jon with his cosmopolitan, university-like ways. He would have been jealous, except it was Jon, who was eventually going to come to his senses and marry Tom.

Brendon was willing to let Spencer distract them both from the conversation with kisses, but Spencer was too responsible for that, and he pulled away after a bit. He said, "I know you hate it, but I'm not sure that means you're bad at it."

"I'm not good. He still calls me 'master' when he's not paying attention. He still cringes at the slightest mistake. He still--"

"What did you tell me Mikey said about Pete?"

Brendon ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "I'm not as patient as Mikey or Bob. And you can't see anything of the person you knew in him. What if it's not there? Or what if it is and I'm doing everything wrong? What if--"

"Brendon," Spencer said softly. His tone was firm enough to get Brendon to stop.

"This is not just on you. Some of it is Ryan."

As quietly as he could, Brendon asked, "Are you sure there's anything of him left?"

"Positive," Spencer said sharply. "He-- When he was sick, at first? Those first few days? He didn't know any better and I could see it. He's just scared."

"But what makes you think he's going to stop being scared?"

Spencer shrugged. "It's hard to stay scared around you. Even when a person really should."

Brendon opened his mouth to argue, but that time Spencer really did use his powers of distraction by kissing. When Spencer pulled away next, it was with a reluctant, "I should get home."

Brendon made a face, but walked him out. When Spencer was gone from sight, Brendon quietly, very quietly, made his bed where he had put it for the previous few nights--directly beside Ryan's door. It felt stupid, and it was probably overstepping, but Brendon wasn't sure how else to get Ryan to believe him about the nightmares other than to just be there if needed. He missed his bed, but not as much as Spencer missed what he remembered of his friend. Brendon wanted to meet that Ryan, or at least the parts that were left of him. The rest of Ryan, the parts that had been changed and rebuilt, Brendon wanted to meet those parts as well.

*


Nearly a week after giving up his safety mechanisms, Ryan couldn't handle the broken bits of sleep he’d managed, and he fell into a completely unrestrained sleep of a solid eight hours. Semi-bouyed by having not dreamed at all, he allowed himself more of the same the next night.

He wasn't entirely sure if it was his own screaming or Brendon's steady knock and somewhat thready calls of, "Ryan, Ryan, wake up!" that actually woke him, but it didn't matter, because either way, Brendon was at his door, awake and trying to wake Ryan.

Ryan fell out of bed, managing to get his hands in front of him in time. He stood up quickly and threw the door open. He was back on his knees before he even realized it, unsure if he had woken Brendon. He should have kept the horse brush. Brendon would never have found out.

There was a moment when Ryan's thoughts were so loud he wasn't sure he would have heard an admonishment. But then the worst of the fear expended itself, things got quiet, a little too quiet. It was then that he realized his breathing wasn't the only breathing he could hear. If he was right, Brendon was on his level.

It surprised him so much he cringed in on himself. Brendon said, quietly, "I didn't mean to scare you."

Ryan was tired of trying to learn how to react to Brendon. He was tired in general, exhausted from keeping himself awake, from the broken sleep at the hands of forks and brushes before that, from years of never feeling safe enough to just close his eyes and let go. He could feel himself shaking, and he wasn't even sure what it was in reaction to, but he couldn't stop.

Brendon said, "Jesus," and the next thing Ryan knew, Brendon's arms were around him, warm and strong. Ryan waited, waited for them to tighten, to harm, but they just stayed where they were. After a bit, Ryan couldn't help but melt into them. His muscles didn't seem capable of anything else.

One of Brendon's hands was caressing gently against the back of Ryan's neck. He was saying, "I'm sorry, sorry," but Ryan couldn't imagine what he was apologizing for. Maybe it was coming. Ryan tried to prepare himself for what it could be, but it was hard to concentrate with Brendon so solid and warm against him.

Time felt fluid with Ryan's eyes more closed than open and his cheek against Brendon's shoulder, but at some point Brendon murmured, "Come on, let's--" and managed to pull Ryan to his feet. Ryan could barely even feel it. When Brendon shifted so that they could move, Ryan might have made a sound, because Brendon said, "I know, just a second."

Then he was in bed, and Brendon was still against him, surprisingly safe-feeling. There was something wrong about the whole situation, Ryan knew it, deep down. He tried to force his eyes open, to think about it and fix it. Not doing so was dangerous, and Ryan had survived too long to get tripped up by things like being tired, but the weariness had twisted into his bones, and it was all he could do to breathe.

Brendon said, "You're okay, Ryan. I promise. Right now, you're okay."

Ryan shouldn't believe Brendon, he knew, not for a moment. It was foolishness to even consider. But Brendon said, "Sleep, Ryan, just sleep," and Ryan pretended it was an order. It was too tempting to obey.

*


Brendon had not thought his actions through. This wasn't anything new--he was forever getting himself into situations without realizing how he had managed--but this was above and beyond his general penchant for trouble. Brendon very, very carefully extracted himself from Ryan, who was still sleeping soundly. He made his way to where he kept ink and paper and wrote a short note, letting Ryan know that he had gone out to the fields.

He skipped breakfast. He was too worked up to eat; he needed to expend some of his nervous energy on something productive. What he really needed was to talk to Spencer, but that would have to wait.

He couldn’t have said how long it was before he started feeling hungry beyond what he could just ignore, but he could see that Ryan was out in the fields as well. Brendon hadn't noticed him coming out, which told him exactly how distracted he'd been.

Brendon took a breath and made himself act like an adult, which meant going over to Ryan and asking, "I'm getting something to eat. Can I bring you anything?"

Ryan shook his head without looking up. Brendon knew he should probably talk with Ryan now, before things got out of hand, but he wasn't sure what to say. Instead he said, "I'll, ah, you should have water, out here. It's warm," and went inside the house.

He ended up bringing Ryan some bread, too, just in case. Ryan wasn't really known for taking food without having express permission and Brendon didn't want Ryan to pass out just because Brendon was the kind of man who slipped into someone else’s bed while they were half asleep.

After that, Brendon worked until he felt someone beside him. He looked over, expecting to find Ryan. He said, "Are you--" but it was Spencer.

Spencer said, "It's nearly dark, Bren."

Brendon looked at the sky, and sure enough, it was getting on toward dusk, well beyond the time that he normally put the animals up. "Oh." Then, "Ryan, I have to--"

"He was inside, making dinner." Spencer paused. "He seemed a little upset. Everything all right?"

Brendon clenched his fist around his oxen's reins for a moment, then shook his head. "Spence, I-- It was a bad plan, I didn't think it through at all."

Spencer took the reins and started toward the stables. Brendon followed. Spencer said, "Maybe if you told me what the plan was?"

Brendon winced. "He wasn't sleeping. And he had to sometime, he's human."

Spencer nodded. "The nightmares came?"

"I just wanted to wake him, that was all. But it scared him and he went down on his knees, and I didn't know what else to do so I did too."

"This story ends in hugging, doesn’t it?" Spencer didn't sound upset.

"It's worse than that. It-- I stayed with him, Spence. So that he wouldn't wake again."

Spencer kept walking. "You stayed-- Oh. In bed."

Brendon wrapped his arms around his chest. "In bed."

"Did he sleep?"

Brendon looked over at Spencer, but Spencer had reached the barn and was opening the doors to let the animals inside. "He was still sleeping when I woke."

"Okay," Spencer said. "Then maybe you need to explain to me what about the plan was bad."

Brendon stopped in his tracks. "I-- We're courting, yes?"

"Absolutely. That's very settled in my mind."

"Are you sharing a bed with another man?"

Spencer pushed Brendon toward one of the oxen and Brendon started seeing to their watering out of habit. Spencer said, "Hardly, but then, I don't have a friend who needs my help the way Ryan needed yours."

"Friends don't kneel to friends," Brendon said, feeling the ache of how hard he'd worked himself during the day, now that he had stopped.

"I'll grant, there are some complications to your relationship."

Brendon made a sound to express how he felt about that particular understatement. Spencer smiled and said, "I wouldn't want someone who could listen to him scream, turn over, and go back to sleep, Brendon."

Put that way, no, Brendon didn't imagine Spencer would. "I was hoping maybe you'd have a better plan."

"I've been working on this one that involves you trusting yourself, but I don't think you're quite ready."

Brendon made a face and went to go get the animals some fresh hay.

*


By the seventh time Brendon showed up at Ryan's door and crawled into his bed to keep Ryan safe all night, Ryan was almost used to it. The whole experience was oddly like when he'd first been learning submission, how acts that made him sick to his stomach became almost normative. Only, now it was an act that calmed him. Slavery sometimes made things backwards; that, Ryan was used to.

At first, among other things, Ryan had worried how Spencer might react to it, because Brendon was awful at keeping secrets, so far as Ryan could tell. Spencer, however, had never said anything, except for a quiet, "You look like you're sleeping."

By the second week, though, Brendon didn't look like he was sleeping, and Spencer was beginning to look concerned. The last thing Ryan wanted was to make Spencer upset, either because he and Brendon were fighting, or because Ryan was making Brendon sick. He gathered up his nerve and stole the horse brush for three days straight until Brendon caught him in the act of returning it one morning.

Brendon had clearly been lying in wait, or, well, sitting in wait, in the kitchen, which Ryan had to go past to get to the door nearest the stable. He was halfway past Brendon when he noticed him sitting there, and he froze. He didn't even have the nerve to get on his knees, to beg, because slaves who stole didn't get excuses or second chances.

Brendon said, "The first night, I was happy. I just figured maybe you felt safe here, maybe it was getting better. The second night, I was a little surprised by your rapid recovery, but pleased, because I want you to sleep. Then, last night, I woke up thirsty and as I was passing your room, I heard small sounds. I was about to knock when they just stopped.

"For a second, I let myself believe that you had probably just fallen back into quiet sleep, but something about it wouldn't sit right, so I figured if I just got up early, maybe I would be able to tell when you woke up, maybe something about your face first thing in the morning. It's when you're most expressive. I don't know if you just forget or-- I don't know. That was all I could think of to do."

Brendon didn’t sound mad, but Ryan watched him act as if things were fine with the farm all the time, when in truth, Ryan knew Brendon was worried about the swiftly approaching winter and whether they would make harvest or not. Then again, Brendon sounded pretty defeated, and that wasn't something Ryan had ever seen him hint at being able to fake. Ryan said, "I was returning the brush. I didn't steal it."

Brendon blinked. "I know that."

"Oh," Ryan said.

"Was it-- Did me sleeping with you scare you?"

It was Ryan's turn to blink, because of course not. It had done the exact opposite. "You weren't sleeping." If Ryan could have looked at himself in shock, he probably would have. Slaves did not tell their masters that their behaviors were upsetting or worrisome or anything else that wasn't perfect.

Brendon was the one to say, "Oh," this time. "Hm."

"Spencer was worried."

"Spencer," Brendon said softly, with maybe a hint of a question, but Ryan wasn't sure.

"I can use something else." Ryan held up the brush. He wasn't sure what else he would use, but he could think of something.

"No," Brendon shook his head. "No, you need to sleep."

Ryan wasn't sure what to say to that. He couldn't stop the nightmares himself. He'd tried more than once. Brendon continued, though, "When I'm there, it helps?"

Unsure, but unwilling to be dishonest for the moment, Ryan nodded. Brendon asked, "And you know I would never do anything to hurt Spencer?"

Ryan nodded at that, because whatever else, Brendon cared for Spencer the way Spencer deserved to be cared for, and that was something that eased Ryan's fears, even if it hurt something awful in places Ryan had forgotten existed inside of him.

Brendon said, "Then you'll know that if I move our beds side by side, it's nothing to do with-- With what you offered, that once."

Ryan would have laughed if it weren't so utterly humiliating. Instead he said, "I would know."

"Good," Brendon said. Then, "Ah, I'll probably need help with the beds."

*


Brendon had lost track of time in the simple day in and day out work of trying to keep the farm viable, making sure that Ryan was sleeping and eating and seemingly calm, and wooing Spencer. Admittedly, that last one consisted largely of kissing and talking and sometimes swimming in the nearby pond when nobody was looking. It wasn't really what one could call effort, but it was easy to lose track of things like hours.

As such, it was a surprise when Jon showed up, in between his summer session and the fall semester, which was when he generally came home to see his family and stir things up a bit. Brendon was helping Ryan put up the animals when he heard Jon call, "Urie, I know you're here. Don't make me come find you."

Brendon didn't. Rather, he made an undignified noise and ran outside to greet Jon. Greeting Jon always involved a lot of hugging and backslapping and profanity, and Brendon loved it. Jon had brought Tom, which meant everything was twice as raucous and Brendon almost forgot that he'd left Ryan in the barn, except for the way Brendon was never able to forget Ryan these days.

Brendon said, "Come. I want to introduce you to the man who's going to be the reason I don't starve to death and lose the farm this winter. Try a simple handshake, yeah?"

There was a split second before Jon replied, but Jon was a smart guy, so he looked Brendon in the eye and said, "'Course."

Tom nodded and followed the two of them into the stable, where Ryan was standing almost behind Clover, brushing compulsively at her mane.

Jon said, "Clover!" with more glee than could technically be called manly. Tom snickered at him, but Jon ignored it. He went over and cooed at Clover about how he missed her. She butted her nose against his chin and whinnied.

Ryan's eyes appeared just over the ridge of Clover's back. Clearly, Clover's trust was something to be taken into account. Brendon sent silent thanks that Jon was complete magic with almost all four-legged creatures.

Jon didn't look away from Clover as he said, "I'm Jon, and the loafer behind me is Tom. You're the man who's going to single-handedly keep Brendon out of the poorhouse?"

Brendon made a noise. He was helping to keep himself out of the poorhouse, thank you very much. Ryan was looking at him, managing to look both blank and frantic all at once. Brendon smiled at him. He said, "Jon, Tom, this is Ryan. Ryan Ross, Jon Walker and Thomas Conrad, my two good-for-nothing university-layabout friends. They're visiting."

Jon held out his hand. There was a moment where Brendon didn't think Ryan was going to take it, but he did, quickly and probably a lot less firmly thank Jon had been expecting. Jon, to his credit, looked Ryan in the eyes the entire time and said, "Nice to meet you. Any friend of Clover's."

"Cad," Brendon muttered.

Tom went to his tiptoes and looked at Ryan over Clover's back. Tom could have done so without the tiptoes, but Brendon had long since learned to stop asking about Tom's motivations. Tom said, "Hello."

Ryan nodded tightly, almost a bowing of his head but not quite. It was, Brendon noted, very close to progress. Brendon asked, "Dinner at Spencer's?"

Jon grinned. "Wouldn't you know? Our carriage has room for four."

*


Ryan didn't like new people, but Jon and Tom, as new people went, weren't all that terrible. Ryan had seen the second when they had realized exactly what he was, but other than a slight betrayal in their expressions, neither of them had treated him any differently than he supposed they would a free man.

Most of dinner was occupied by Jon telling tales out of school, literally, escapades that Ryan had never imagined possible. Brendon and Spencer laughed at everything, and after a while Ryan found himself ducking his head so that he could laugh as well. He thought they probably wouldn't call him on it, as everyone else was laughing, but the last time Ryan had laughed while in the presence of an owner he'd been soundly lashed.

At one point, Ryan looked up when he had schooled his face and found Brendon watching him. Brendon looked away as soon as Ryan brought his gaze up, but Ryan knew he'd been paying attention. He wasn't sure what Brendon had been thinking, but he must not have been mad, because as soon as Jon said something funny again, Brendon was laughing once more.

Ryan was starting to think he might be fairly safe in the company of Jon and Tom--so long as Brendon and Spencer were there, at least--when Jon brought out a "gift." Ryan could smell the absinthe before Jon even got back to the table. Spencer's parents, sisters and Ray had long gone to bed; it was only the four of them. Ryan could think of nowhere to go without being dismissed, and that was not going to happen.

Absinthe, in Ryan's experience, was dangerous for slaves. People lost themselves in absinthe. It was even worse than drink, and Ryan had been the favor at parties where drink was plentiful, had been used in ways that took him days, sometimes longer, to recover from. But absinthe brought visions and fears and all sorts of reactions that one couldn't predict, and a slave was only worth the money paid for him--if one had a lot of money, not even necessarily that much.

Brendon didn't have a lot of money, so that was good, it meant Ryan was worth more, but in the fog of absinthe, Ryan wasn't sure it would matter. One of Ryan's owners had developed a taste for absinthe. He was the one who had marked Ryan's face in a fit of artistic inspiration, taken Ryan to an inking master and ordered it done. It had taken hours, and Ryan knew he had whimpered. He would have outright begged were he not worried about the needle piercing his eye, or some other form of damage even more irreversible than what was being done. The needle had felt as though it were boring into bone over the thin skin of his cheeks, his forehead, nose, throat. He hadn't been able to look at himself for weeks. He could bear it now, but he didn't like it.

Another mistress had indulged in absinthe at a party and then put Ryan out in the freezing night to cool him down enough for use against her heated skin. He'd been out there for hours, naked, the air below freezing and the dew falling like shards of glass. Absinthe was simply not Ryan's friend, ever. And he didn't want to be scared of Brendon, at least not any more than he was deep in his mind, where masters were masters, no matter how nice, no matter how concerned. The months since Brendon had bought him had been almost like what he remembered freedom being, except for the part where he had no choice in where he stayed or what he did. But Ryan would take this for as long as it lasted. He just wanted it to last a bit longer.

Jon offered him a drink of the absinthe, and he wondered if that might make it better, if he were drunk, too. But he couldn't know what he would do, and he couldn't trust himself to lose control like that, not in a room of free men, so he declined with a sharp shake of his head.

Brendon asked, "You're sure?"

Ryan couldn't tell if it was an order or not, one disguised as a choice. He decided to take his chances--so far that had worked out for him with Brendon--and nod. "No thank you."

Brendon's smile got a little weird, but all he said was, "All right. Just ask if you change your mind."

They each had a drink and Ryan watched, waiting for the intoxication to hit, for them to all change. But no matter how long he waited, all that happened was that they got a little louder--Mr. Smith came out and hushed them at one point--laughed more when there was less to actually laugh at, and finally Tom fell asleep face-first on the table. Jon blinked at him in surprise, then laughed some more, but his laughter was slower than it had been, more tired.

Spencer said, "Maybe shoul' stay here," his speech a little slurred, like the others, but not indecipherable.

Brendon nodded solemnly at the invitation. Ryan wasn't certain whether he should point out the social complications of his acceptance. Jon said, "Tom's good here. Floor for me," and pretty much slid to it, falling asleep underneath the table.

Brendon and Spencer looked at him for long moments before Spencer said, "Guest room."

Brendon cocked his head. "Where'zit?"

Ryan bit back laughter at that, wholly certain it wasn't all right to laugh at your owner, and said, "I'll take you there."

"Oh," Brendon said, and allowed himself to be led. When Ryan got his shoes off and got him into bed, Brendon grabbed at Ryan's shirt and said, "Sleep now."

Ryan had been planning to take the floor at the end of the bed, but Brendon wasn't letting go, so the only thing for it was to climb into the bed, Brendon's body almost too warm, but familiar against his. Ryan fervently hoped they weren't discovered by anyone in the morning. He wasn't sure what Brendon would do if he was to accidentally come between Brendon and Spencer, but he had no desire to find out.

All the same, it had been a long day, and Ryan hadn't laughed that hard in a very long time. He tried to stay alert, but the comfort of the bed and Brendon won over his fear. Had he been awake, he would have marveled.

*


Brendon was embarrassed that it had taken him a few days to realize that Ryan was seriously upset about something, but in his defense, Ryan was hard to read, and it had taken Spencer nearly as long. (Also, Jon and Tom were both fairly useless on the farm, but they were two extra pairs of hands and they never hesitated to help Brendon out, which always made late summer the easiest part of Brendon's year. It was possible he got a little careless in his relative ease.)

When Brendon finally asked Spencer, "You happen to know what's going on with Ryan?" Spencer shook his head and said, "I was trying to think of a way to ask you without seeming like I was prying."

Brendon frowned. "You're allowed to pry."

Spencer smiled and said, "Oh."

Which was all well and good, but it still left Brendon with no clue as to what was going on with Ryan. Though the thought of just asking Ryan scared him for no reason that Brendon could rightly explain, he gathered his nerves together and asked, "Um. Have I done something?"

Ryan looked down at the ground and said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand the question." His shoulders were tight.

Brendon bit the inside of his lip, but made himself proceed. "To upset you."

Brendon thought Ryan might have stopped breathing. His "Of course not, Brendon," was short and entirely devoid of tone, except on the last word, which definitely sounded like an address of sorts.

Brendon watched Ryan for long moments and then said, "Ooookay. I mean, you're lying to me, obviously, but you know, that's your right." Then he made himself walk away.

It was the better part of two days before Ryan said so much as a word to him again, and when he did it was, "I don't have any rights."

Brendon felt like reminding Ryan that they'd been here before, but he stopped himself. Instead he just said, "Okay."

Ryan clearly didn't know what to do with that, and Brendon felt somewhat cruel for leaving Ryan to figure things out for himself after people had been telling him exactly what to do--ordering him--for so long, but Brendon wasn't sure what else to do. Spencer said that Ryan had been extremely smart when they were children, that he would always explore the places other kids weren't interested in and find out exciting things that nobody else knew. Brendon was hoping that was still in Ryan somewhere, that he would work his way out of his own mixed-up beliefs manage to find his own truths. Brendon thought, though, that if he just made new ones for Ryan, then he was no better than any of the other people who had put their mark on Ryan. Owning someone with kindness was only different by degrees than owning someone with cruelty, Brendon knew, but he had to count on those degrees mattering.

Ryan was silent for a long time at that, to the point where Brendon thought he simply wasn't going to respond, but he did. He said, "I don't know how to be your slave."

Brendon admitted, "I don't know how to be your master. Not anybody's, really, but sometimes I think even less yours."

Ryan closed his eyes. "Usually masters tell slaves what to do and they do it."

"Maybe that's the problem. Being the youngest, generally I was the one being told what to do."

Ryan opened his eyes again and tilted his head. "But-- But you know how."

"Sure. You know how to, too. Doesn't mean you'd do it to someone else."

"Maybe," Ryan said. "If I could."

Brendon just looked at him. Ryan blinked first. Brendon smiled a little, but it wasn't smug, just relieved. "Ryan. What's got you upset?"

Ryan wrapped his hands around his shoulders and shook his head. Brendon was about to let it go when Ryan blurted out, "Jon And-- And Tom."

"Jon and--," Brendon repeated slowly. “They haven’t tried anything—“

Ryan shook his head. “No. No, they’re, um. They’re nice.”

Brendon tried reading in between the lines of what that might mean. He really couldn’t believe that either Jon or Tom would even say anything offensive to Ryan, not unless it had been meant as a joke and taken the wrong way. But then, it had taken Brendon forever to understand where Ryan’s buttons might be, so perhaps there was something to that. Instead of pressing the issue, he said, “I don’t understand.”

“New people are,” Ryan bit his lip, clearly thinking about how to phrase whatever he needed to say. “Worse than new circumstances. They change things. I’m trying,” and with that he sounded frustrated, although mostly at himself, “I’m trying, but they came and I keep waiting for the rules to change.”

Brendon felt like he was still missing something, that there was something Ryan was holding back. For the moment, though, he decided to address what he was being told. "Ryan, that's the sort of thing that you should just say. None of us want to make you unco--scared. Jon and Tom, they don’t have any say in how things are here. Your choices, they’re more important, because you have to live here. They’ll leave in a bit and then it won’t matter if they’re happy here or not."

Ryan held out his hands in a helpless gesture and Brendon understood, to an extent, that the idea of asking others to change their behaviors was entirely beyond Ryan.

Brendon even knowing he had already asked, was concerned enough to ask again, "We haven't-- That is, none of us, have done anything, ah, untoward while they’ve been visiting, correct?"

Ryan shook his head. Brendon thought for a second and clarified, "Anything you haven't wanted us to do?" He wasn't sure he trusted Ryan's definition of "untoward."

"No," Ryan confirmed.

Brendon nodded. "And you know that, if one of my friends were to ask something of you that you didn’t want to do, you would not be obligated?”

"I don't--"

"I'm telling you. You don't have to. Ever."

Ryan's expression told Brendon he didn't believe, but Brendon had expected that. He was learning patience. Brendon told him, "I'm glad you said something. It-- I'm glad."

Ryan looked unsure of how to respond, so Brendon let him off the hook by yawning and asking, "Bed?"

Ryan seemed relieved at the prospect. Brendon wasn't sure whether to be offended or complimented. He compromised with completely exhausted.

*


Jon threw a party a few days before leaving to go abroad with his family for the holidays. It wasn't anything decadent, just some friends from around the area. Ryan was on the invitation when it arrived. He traced his fingers over the letters several times when Brendon wasn't looking. He hadn't seen his name written anywhere since before the prison.

Mikey, Bob and Pete showed up to the party, and as soon as Brendon made it clear that Ryan was free to roam, he followed Pete out to the back lawn, which Jon's family had done up quite nicely with candles and places to sit.

Pete sat next to him on a bench, not close enough that they were touching, but he did knock his feet from side to side so that they hit up against Ryan's. After a moment, Ryan smiled and dangled his feet as well. Pete asked, "Well?"

Ryan asked the first thing that came to his mind. "I'm not at this party as the entertainment?"

Pete laughed, a tight, tense little sound. "I'd like to see Jon suggest that to Bob. Or Spencer, for that matter."

"Just. It's a little odd." Then, "Isn't it?"

"At first," Pete acknowledged. "And you keep thinking it's got to stop, that they'll find the worst moment to tell you it was all a trick, that they'll take everything you've kept safe inside you and destroy it with their false kindnesses."

Ryan inched closer to Pete, surprised that he wanted to, but he did. Pete closed the gap and put an arm around Ryan, loose enough that if Ryan needed to get free, he could. Ryan asked, "It changes?"

"Look at me and tell me it isn't already changing."

Ryan didn't. Instead he said, "It terrifies me."

"It is terrifying." Pete dropped his head so that it rested on Ryan's shoulder. "But if we never trust anyone, never start to live, then aren't we making ourselves slaves?"

"We are slaves, Pete."

"So they say. The people who get rich off of other people's misery, commit cruelties you and I have never dreamed of. Why should we listen to them when people like Brendon and Bob and Mikey are saying differently? What makes their opinions any less valuable? For that matter, what makes ours?"

Ryan shook his head. "Valuable's beside the point. It's what's true."

Pete shrugged. "I suppose."

"You suppose," Ryan said flatly.

"It's just. . .what does it matter what's true, so long as you can exist outside of it?"

"We don't, Pete. We can't."

"Do you really believe that at this point? Really? You think if you asked Brendon for something that he wouldn't do his best to make sure you got it?"

"But I can't ask."

"You've been trained to think you can't. That's not the same thing."

"And you ask Bob and Mikey for so much?"

"One day, I admitted to Mikey that I missed writing, missed creating. The next thing I know, I've got quality paper and pens. I started seeming wistful for music, and Patrick somehow shows up on Bob's payroll as part of his household staff. Bob says he just wanted someone to play with him--he's a percussionist--but the timing is awfully suspicious, don't you think?"

Ryan couldn't deny that it was. But one owner, even two, did not a pattern make. Still, if Ryan was honest with himself, Brendon had been doing the same kind of thing. Brendon couldn't afford to hire musicians on Ryan's whims, but he had been careful to try and make sure the foods prepared by either of them were things they both wanted to eat, and he slept with Ryan every night, never complaining if Ryan woke him up. And there had been that one morning, when Brendon had said, "I'm sorry I've only field work for you. Spencer says you're more than smart enough to be at university."

Ryan sometimes thought that if Brendon could afford it, if the system were simpler, if there were any way to make it work, Brendon would set him free and find someone else to help him out with the farm. Ryan had tried to tell him that he didn't mind, that being outside and not having to worry about a whip or infinitely worse things was better than any spot at a university, but he never knew exactly how to say that to Brendon without sounding like he was telling Brendon what he wanted to hear. Instead he just tried his best to help Brendon out.

Ryan said, "Trust," like it was a curse.

"I know," Pete said sympathetically. "I know."

*


Brendon let Spencer into the house the morning of Ryan's birthday with a grin and a finger to his lips. Quietly he said, "He's still sleeping. I think I should let him."

Spencer didn't say anything in return, just kissed Brendon. Then he set to making breakfast. He had brought fresh apples that the two of them had sneaked away to pick from the tree in Dr. Way's backyard, and the berries that Pete had picked from the woods near Bob's property.

He worked quickly, whipping together crepes, which had been Ryan's very favorite dish of Ginger's when they were children. He baked the apples, but left the berries fresh. Ryan had always loved to go into those woods and eat berries until he wasn't hungry for dinner.

Ryan awoke a bit earlier than either of them had planned on, as Brendon was just getting back from the well with the flowers that he'd grabbed from the side of the house, where they grew wild. Ryan padded into the kitchen area, rubbing his eyes and already apologizing for his late waking.

Brendon didn't let the lack of perfection bother him, instead saying, "Happy birthday!" as loudly as he could and holding the flowers out in front of him.

Ryan blinked at the offering for a moment. Then, softly, he asked, "It's my birthday?"

Brendon wasn't entirely sure how to answer that, so he looked at Spencer, who said, "August 30th, Ry. Like before."

Ryan looked at the floor for a long time. Finally, he asked, "Am I twenty-five?"

Spencer nodded. "Yes, twenty-five. One year older than me."

"But you won't be twenty-four for another three days." Ryan smiled slightly, although whether at the memory or the thought of Spencer's birthday, Brendon couldn't tell.

Brendon said, "Spencer made crepes."

Ryan looked back at him. "We're already running late."

"Sure." Brendon shrugged. "It's your birthday."

Ryan's expression was wholly uncertain, so Brendon plunked the flowers he'd picked--the brightest ones, the ones he caught Ryan staring at sometimes--into a glass, set the water down on the table and herded Ryan gently into a chair. When he got to the stove, Spencer had already prepared a plate for him, so Brendon delivered it to Ryan.

Brendon and Spencer brought their plates to the table and ate breakfast with Ryan. After his last bite, Spencer said, "I-- Well, actually, we got you something."

Ryan seemed confused, so Brendon clarified, "A birthday present. It's not really much, not anywhere near what you should get, but we think you'll like it."

"You got me a present," Ryan said, and while it was said as a statement, there was more question to it than anything.

"For your birthday," Spencer reiterated quietly.

Brendon got up. "I'll go get it." He left them and made his way out to the stables, where he'd stashed the present for the morning, since Mike Walker had delivered it to him the night before.

He picked it up and brought it into the house, where it succeeded in squirming out of his arms and onto the floor to sniff at Ryan's bare feet. Ryan was watching the puppy with ill-concealed wonder. Brendon told him, "She was the runt of the litter. The Walkers breed them. Good hunting dogs."

The tiny beagle now had her nose in the back of Ryan's knee, and he was clearly doing his best to stay still, despite the fact that it had to tickle. He was good at ignoring the sensation. Brendon tried not to wonder how he'd learned the skill. Ryan was following her everywhere with his gaze. He said, "She's beautiful."

"She's yours," Spencer said.

"Mine," Ryan sounded disconcerted.

"Your puppy," Brendon said. "Like a friend. Not like--" He bit his tongue, literally.

Ryan, bizarrely, smiled slightly at him. Then he picked the puppy up, scratching at her tummy and making soft cooing noises. He said, "Birthday present," like it was in a different language.

Spencer, watching Ryan, said, "Happy birthday, Ryan."

Brendon said, "Many more."

*


Less than a week after Ryan's birthday, Brendon asked him, "Have you named her yet?"

Ryan looked across the fields, where the puppy was tracking the scent of what Ryan suspected was a bird, since she kept jumping upward. "She hasn't given me a name she'd like."

Ryan waited for Brendon to laugh, or explain that dogs weren't smart like that. Instead, Brendon said, "Oh."

Ryan told him, "I've tried a few, but she didn't seem interested." Ryan didn't want to think about some of the names owners had called him by. If she didn't answer the first time, he wasn't going to try again.

"What have you tried?" Brendon asked.

Ryan dug into the earth with his plow and considered lying, or even not answering. Brendon never got mad if Ryan didn't want to talk, which was novel. Occasionally, Ryan stayed silent just for the way Brendon allowed it. Then he said, "Diana, for the--"

"Hunting goddess." Brendon smiled. "Good thought."

"I think she thought it was too, ah, average."

"She is a very special puppy," Brendon said, and when Ryan sneaked a look, he seemed entirely solemn.

"I tried Aurora, like the star. Because she's always up with the sun. But she just sniffed."

"Hm, not promising," Brendon agreed.

"She's not being very forthcoming," Ryan said, trying out a word he'd learned from listening to a scribe once. His third owner had been a politician who hadn't done any of his own writing. Ryan had gotten a day and night in stocks and the word "precipitous" carved superficially across the torso in that house when he'd tried using it in a sentence--something about pretending to be free, or playing at having another station, but really, Ryan had just liked the word.

He waited without breathing to see if Brendon would say something cruel, but all Brendon said was, "You didn't talk much either when you first came."

Ryan didn't mean to, but the comment made him laugh. It wasn't a guffaw or anything, just a tiny huff of breath. Brendon grinned. Brendon grinned easily, but it turned the amusement in Ryan's chest into something even lighter, nicer. He wasn't sure why he cared about making Brendon happy--Brendon had Spencer and freedom, and plenty of things to be happy about. Still, Ryan couldn't deny that it felt good.

The strangest part was, he didn't think it had anything to do with self-preservation. Before, when it was clear that he had pleased his owners, he had always felt relieved, but this was nothing like that. This was something closer to pride, though Ryan shied away from that thought, aware of where it could lead a slave.

Maybe it was that pride, or the fact that Brendon hadn't gotten upset about Ryan's vocabulary choice, or just that Ryan had slept between Brendon and the puppy for a week now and was better rested than he could remember ever being. Whatever the case, Ryan somehow found himself saying, "My first owner, he named me Nothing."

Brendon hissed. Ryan jerked away from him instinctively, but when he caught a look at Brendon, his anger wasn't focused on Ryan. Emboldened by the thought of Brendon being angry for him, Ryan said, "I didn't answer the first time."

"Good," Brendon said, his voice strained. Ryan didn't have the heart to tell him that had been his first experience with the cat ‘o nine tails barbs. Something in his expression must have told at least part of the story, though, because Brendon said, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Ryan thought it was just sympathy, and that was more than enough; it made Ryan feel strangely safe. At least, he thought that was what the emotion was. It was hard to tell with something he hadn't felt in so long.

Then Brendon said, "I'm sorry I can't make it better."

Ryan resisted the urge to laugh again. It wasn't amusement this time as much as disbelief, or maybe incredulity. Ryan understood that he and Brendon thought in different ways, that Brendon didn't always see the small things the way Ryan saw them, and that he couldn't. But that statement was just stupid. Ryan didn't say that, either. There was testing out some fancy words and then there was insulting your owner and Ryan hadn't stayed alive as a slave this long for nothing. He did say, "You call me Ryan."

Brendon looked away and said, "That's your name." He sounded sadder about it than Ryan had the ability to be.

Ryan glanced out to see the puppy stomping down on some errant wheat stalks. He called, "Victoria?" because it was the only name of a queen that he could think of off the top of his head. It didn't matter; she didn't deign to respond anyway.

*


Somewhere around the time that the puppy accepted the name Madrigal, Ryan started to do things like start a conversation instead of waiting for one to be started. Of course, Madrigal's naming had taken over a month and Brendon had really begun to think that Ryan was just going to settle for whistling, when Ryan noticed that she responded to whistling--and Brendon singing in the fields, for that matter--by howling along.

At first it was just little things, like Ryan proposing an idea of what to make for dinner, or talking about something he'd read in the Farmer's Almanac. Brendon tried not to act as though it was a big thing, tried to respond the way he would in any normal conversation. It was easiest when Spencer was there, because Spencer could still find whatever rhythm he and Ryan had had as children, could slide them into it and things would flow from there.

Brendon tried to encourage the behavior in little ways. If Ryan made suggestions, Brendon tried to take them, assuming he could. If Ryan talked about books, Brendon tried to find time to read them so he could respond. And if Ryan asked for something--he almost never did, but on rare occasions, he managed--Brendon made sure it happened, even if it took a while, or some begging. Generally it didn't. Ryan, when he got the nerve to ask for anything, asked for small things.

Mostly, though, Brendon tried to give him the things he didn't ask for, maybe never would. When he went into town, he always tried to pick something up from the library, or fresh honeycomb, because Ryan thought it was pretty and had a (Ryan thought) secret sweet tooth. Brendon found things to make toys for Madrigal and if he caught Ryan listening when he sang, he'd make sure to sing that song again.

The best (worst) part was that Ryan never stopped seeming surprised when nothing awful happened at his ovations, or when Brendon did something pleasant for him. Brendon wanted to wake up one day and find Ryan taking everything for granted, and said as much to Spencer.

Spencer said, "I suppose."

Brendon frowned. "Wouldn't you like that?"

"Of course. But even when we were young, Ryan didn't take much for granted. He just sometimes acted like he did."

"But he probably would have learned to. Don't you think?"

Spencer tilted his head. "What, exactly, do you take for granted?"

Brendon took a second but then answered, "Well, I'm a free man. There's that."

"Really? Because ever since you bought him, you've seemed pretty grateful for that fact."

"I mean, of course, since I-- That's different."

Spencer rolled his eyes. "We can't all be grateful that we're breathing every minute of every day, Brendon. You're bordering on it, and it's what makes you so you."

"Which is my point," Brendon said triumphantly. "He should expect civility, if nothing else."

"Perhaps," Spencer said. Brendon couldn't see, Spencer was looking to the side, but he thought Spencer's eyes were probably a little sad. "But nobody takes for granted what they haven't known for most of their lives."

Brendon supposed that was true, but the injustice didn't burn in his stomach any less. Spencer pulled Brendon to him and engulfed him in a hug, rubbing at his back. He said, "Odd as this seems, it isn't personal."

"He plows my fields and eats at my table and sleeps beside me. It's a little personal."

"No, it's not. This is about everything that came before you. You have nothing to do with it, not at all."

"In the end, Spence, I still bought him. There's that."

"In the end, Bren, you don't seem him as your property. There's also that."

"The world does."

"The world made him who he is. The world can go fuck itself."

"He has to live in it. We all do."

"Sure. But we don't have to play by its rules. He's not, not anymore."

Brendon hadn't thought of it that way before. "I don't want to either."

"You never were."

*


Brendon had always offered to take Ryan into town with him whenever he went, right from the moment he bought Ryan, but it was just safer at the farm. Ryan had never been all that fond of being around crowds, but he'd gotten less and less so from the time that crowds had meant a cell filled beyond capacity at the prison, or a gathering where he was considered the entertainment.

Deep in the winter, though, when the fields were long dead and Ryan had read all the books Brendon owned or had borrowed at least twice, and had even trained Madrigal to roll over on command, when Brendon said, "Spencer and I are going into town, shopping. You want to come?"

Ryan couldn't overcome his need to go, even if only for a change of scenery. He loved the safety of Brendon's home, but the idea of being left there alone, with nothing to do but stare at the walls that had been his constant companion since the first of the snowfalls, it made him think of being locked in again, and that thought was enough to catch his breath in his throat.

It took them nearly an hour to get out of the house, because Brendon kept trying to put more layers on Ryan. Finally, in a fit of pique, Ryan muttered, "Two winters in a prison with no fires and one with a master who got off on warming me. I'll survive."

Brendon disappeared then, and Ryan felt a flash of fear like he hadn't in so long, so long he'd even stopped counting the days at this point. Brendon just reappeared a few moments later, though, with a hat for himself--one with flaps over both his ears and a brim that nearly covered his eyes--and said, "I hate being cold, is all," quiet and abashed. Ryan felt as though he'd kicked Madrigal.

They took Spencer's carriage into town and parked it at the only inn, stopping for a cup of warmed cider. Spencer had some business he needed to take care of at the bank, first thing, and Brendon needed to see if he could get them some affordable meat--they hadn't had any for weeks now--and possibly some affordable material to buffer the curtains in the house with. They were worn and letting in a considerable amount of cold. Brendon and Ryan were chopping and burning as much wood as they could manage, but the house was still uncomfortably chilled.

Brendon asked, "You want to go with Spencer or me?"

Ryan still wasn't terribly fond of making decisions when he didn't know the right answer, but he'd at least gotten that Brendon didn't get mad if Ryan told him what he wanted. In this case, the idea of seeing what was in the store was too much temptation, even if the other option was time alone with Spencer. Ryan was about to say so when Brendon added, "Or you can go somewhere on your own."

That idea scared Ryan to his core. Slaves were not safe unaccompanied by freemen. A slave on his own was subject to questioning about why he was where he was, how he'd gotten there, to the suspicion that he had run and the interrogation techniques "necessary" to find out the truth. Slaves weren't considered human, so damages were seen as property damages, and so long as they could be paid off, the "importance" of making sure a slave hadn't run off was considered more important than his wholeness. He didn't tell Brendon any of this. Instead he said, "I want to see the fabrics," and followed Brendon when he left the inn.

The store was marvelous. It wasn't, not really. Ryan could remember, just barely, before his father had died, how he had wanted to see truly marvelous things, places he'd read about in books and seen on maps and that his father, who had once been a sailor, had told him about. But right now, the various foods that the store stocked, and the candles, and the soaps with their scents of tea leaves and lavender and rose water, all of those things were infinitely better than far-away places, places he would never see and knew better than to wish for.

Ryan fingered a jar of apple butter--Brendon and he had managed to figure out how to stew tomatoes and preserve blueberries into jam, but apples were thing of the past, of the shortening days of fall and air as crisp as the inside of said apples. Brendon immediately swiped the jar and put it in the front, with his other necessities. Ryan said, "Brendon, we, ah, you--" but Brendon just glared at the reminder that he could only afford the items he absolutely needed. Ryan backed off, which made Brendon look guilty.

Ryan turned away from Brendon's guilt; there was no reason for it. Instead he looked at the remnants piles, looking for anything that would help with their curtain problem. Most of the pieces they could afford were far too light to help much, so Ryan dug deeper, careful to keep the piles of discarded materials neat, organized in a way that would make them easy to put back. He had very nearly given up when he found a fabric that was not particularly attractive--Ryan personally would have gone with the description "hideous"--but even just touching it with his hand, Ryan could feel the warmth that it would keep in, the cold it would bar out.

He pulled it from the pile, trying to determine whether there was enough for their needs. There wasn't as much as Ryan could have hoped for, but it would probably do. He was about to try and find Brendon when Brendon rounded a shelf of planting tools and said, "Oh, there you are."

"Sorry," Ryan said. "I was looking for curtains."

Brendon brightened. "You found someth--" His eyes focused on the material in Ryan's hands and he said, "Oh. Ah--"

"It's horrible, I know," Ryan told him.

"No, it's--"

Ryan felt something that might have been laughter bubbling inside of him. There was another feeling, too, one he refused to explore beyond the part that was gratitude to Brendon, for trying to find something good in the material, simply because Ryan had found it. Ryan explained, "It's the only one heavy enough."

"Oh," Brendon said. Then, "Oh," and he sounded a little disappointed, but he was also laughing. Ryan found himself smiling as well, because Brendon never let things get him down too much, and it made it hard for Ryan to be sad or afraid or anything other than safe. Sometimes he even thought he was happy. He couldn't quite remember what that was, and he wasn't sure it wouldn't have changed, but being around Brendon made things easier, better. Ryan knew that, and that was all he really needed to be sure of.

After a moment, Brendon said, "At least it, ah, has some...red. I like red."

It was a distinctly ugly shade of red, but Ryan couldn't stand to undermine Brendon's efforts. "Very, um. Christmasy."

Brendon was silent for a second, then he broke out into peals of laughter. "Very.

*


Spencer had invited them over to the Smiths’ for Christmas, and after consulting with Ryan--well, telling Ryan, "Mrs. Smith is clearly a much better cook than either of us," and having Ryan agree heartily--Brendon accepted. They donned their best clothing, and rode over. It was snowing heavily, and by the time they arrived they were both soaked through, even their cloaks not providing enough protection.

Ray was the one who opened the door. His mouth curled in amusement, but he ushered them in and had them sitting in front of the fire, their clothes removed and replaced within minutes. The dry articles didn't match but they were warm. Jacquelyn brought them mugs of tea while Spencer laughed at them, but softened his mirth with a kiss to Brendon's nose, and once, when only Ryan was around, on his mouth. They were courting properly, but it wouldn't do to be too forward in front of Spencer's parents.

When Brendon broke away, flushed, and looked to make sure they hadn't been caught, Ryan was staring quite intently at the fire, an odd, almost lost look on his face. Brendon wondered if maybe he should apologize. He wasn't sure what he'd done, but he didn't like seeing Ryan unhappy, not even in the tiniest of ways.

Just as he was about to try it, though, Crystal came in and pushed them to their feet and into the dining room, where the table had been set with the plates that were Ginger's pride and joy, family heirlooms passed down from her great-grandmother. Brendon said, "This is beautiful, Mrs. Smith."

Ryan opened his mouth to say something, maybe to agree, but she just kissed each of them on the cheek and said, "Sit, boys. Time to eat."

They said grace, watched Mr. Smith carve the ham, and took part in the conversation. Even Ryan piped up every once in a while, if quietly, and more to Brendon and Spencer than anyone else at the table. He did manage to request a second piece of pie, and Brendon couldn't help knocking his knee gently against Ryan's and grinning downwards. Ryan blushed, but he let his knee sway back, and Brendon found that pretty promising.

By the time dinner had been eaten and the plates cleaned and dried, the weather had only gotten worse, so the girls made a couple of makeshift pallets in the living room, near the fire, and Ryan and Brendon lay down, content to stay the night. Ryan worried that Madrigal would be upset when they didn’t return, but Brendon reassured him that they’d get back in time to feed her, and that was what most mattered.

When everything was dark, Brendon moved closer to Ryan, where they were touching, so that Ryan would know, despite the unusual surroundings, that he was safe.

He whispered, "Ryan?"

"Yes?"

"Merry Christmas."

There was no response, and for a while, Brendon thought that Ryan wasn't sure what to say, or didn't return the sentiment, but right when Brendon's eyes were drooping shut, Ryan said, "Thank you."

Brendon tried blinking away his sleepiness. "Um. You're welcome?"

Before Brendon could understand what had happened, Ryan's hand had found his, his fingers threading their way through Brendon's. Brendon squeezed a little, not too hard, just enough to let Ryan know that this was okay, that he liked it. Ryan's voice was even softer than his earlier whisper when he said, "I've never had a real Christmas."

"Never?" Brendon asked, confused. He knew for a fact Ryan hadn't always been a slave.

"Dad couldn't remember. And the Smiths wouldn't have thought-- Christmas was for families." Ryan's tone was wistful.

"I wish I'd known."

There was a long pause, but Ryan asked, "Why?"

"I would've made it special, somehow. Of course."

Ryan rolled in closer, and even in the dark, Brendon could sense the curve of his smile, hesitant and awkward, like always, but sincere. Ryan said, "Merry Christmas, Brendon."

There was a weight to the words that Brendon didn't understand, only that he'd said something Ryan thought was funny. Brendon was trying to think of a way to explain what he'd meant, but the wine and the food and the warmth of Spencer's house were too much, and he fell asleep to the sound of Ryan's even breaths.

*


Brendon's stocking had a promissory band in it. It was a beautiful pewter piece, clearly old and valuable. Brendon nearly dropped it when it landed in his hand, and Ryan found himself taking a step forward to catch it, but Brendon managed just in time. He stared and it, and stared some more, and he was still staring when Spencer said, "Brendon."

Brendon's gaze whipped to Spencer who said, "I was hoping you would agree to marry me. Please."

Ryan had never heard Spencer sound that nervous, not even when he was first trying to get Ryan to recognize him again. And despite what Ryan sensed would be the consequences of the two of them marrying, he wanted, so desperately, for Brendon to let Spencer have what he wanted, to just say yes, and make him smile.

Brendon said, "Oh. I mean. I mean yes. Yes."

Spencer blinked at him, as though that wasn't the answer he'd been expecting. Brendon whipped around to Mr. Smith. "Do I need your permission? I think-- I'm supposed to ask, right?"

Mr. Smith opened his mouth, but Brendon had already moved onto Mrs. Smith and was asking, "You don't think this is too soon? I mean, he must have good prospects, and I--"

Mrs. Smith was laughing, her fingers coming up to touch gently at Brendon's lips, startling him into silence. "Your prospects are quite good, Mr. Urie. And your land connected with ours, lest you forget."

"Oh," Brendon said, more solemnly than Ryan suspected was wholly necessary. "Yes, of course."

"The fact that our son has had his eye on you since your purchase of said land has nothing to do with our pleasure in his decision, though, nothing at all," Mr. Smith added.

Ryan swallowed a small sound of amusement. He knew it wasn't appropriate. In any case, Jacquelyn made one for him, just loud enough to be heard over Spencer's horrified, "Father!"

Ryan did have to look away at that, not wanting to be caught laughing at Spencer. Even if it was Spencer, laughing at free men in front of their family and intended was hardly a smart idea.

Brendon was saying, "Oh," again. He was fairly predictable when caught off guard.

Or, at least, Ryan had thought he was. But Ryan could hardly have predicted Brendon turning to him and asking, "How do you feel about it?"

Ryan's reactions were hard to sort out, words cramming into his head, overlapping too much to make any sense. Brendon wasn't supposed to ask that of anyone except perhaps family; certainly not a thing he'd bought at a discounted price and then had to repair.

Not trusting himself to say what he knew he was supposed to--what everyone in the room wanted to hear from him--Ryan reached out and gently slid the band around Brendon's thumb. It was too large for his other fingers. Later, they could find a chain, if he wanted to wear it around his neck. Ryan couldn't imagine anyone wanting something on their neck if it wasn't compulsory, but even the finest of collars he'd been given hadn't been beautiful and full of meaning the way the band was, so perhaps it made sense. It didn't exactly mean Brendon belonged to Spencer, not really.

Brendon caught Ryan's hand as he was pulling it away and looked at Ryan carefully. He seemed unsure of something, but Ryan didn't think Brendon could understand what he was really thinking, so it was probably just Brendon's tendency to worry about everyone else's happiness. That fact calmed Ryan somewhat. Surely it meant that even though Brendon wouldn't need help once he married into the Smith family, he would be careful about whom he sold Ryan to. Ryan held onto that belief, as it made it easier to smile at Brendon, to say, "Congratulations."

Somehow, Ryan found himself in Spencer's arms, Spencer whispering, "Thank you," and squeezing tight, only to let go and stand awkwardly in front of Brendon.

Crystal rolled her eyes. "Mother, tell them they should kiss."

Spencer's cheeks turned a color red that Ryan hadn't known could exist in nature. Jacquelyn took advantage of this to say, "Yes, please do, Mother."

Spencer muttered something about baby sisters and "just wait," but when his mother said, "Truly, it's traditional, I do believe," and Brendon swayed forward just a little, Spencer gave in and pressed his lips to Brendon's.

Something funny burned in Ryan's stomach and it was for that reason he made himself not look away. Whatever the feeling, he deserved it for begrudging Spencer this joy.

*


Jon's family had been traveling over the Christmas holiday, but they came back in time for Jon to spend a few days around New Years' loafing around with Brendon, Ryan, Spencer and Tom before heading back to university, with Tom in tow. On the second day, Spencer asked Brendon, "Is Ryan feeling okay?" which was how he started noticing that Ryan--who could make himself disappear even when only the two of them were in the room and all the lamps were lit--became even quieter and more invisible when Jon was around.

Even after their talk, Brendon still found it hard to believe that Jon had done something to hurt or scare Ryan--Jon could be a little boisterous, but more than once, Brendon had caught him making sure the feral cats on his parents' lands had water and something to eat. Not to mention all the times Jon had found one way or another to help Brendon out without stomping on his pride. Jon was generally not the kind of person who went around causing harm.

Still, Brendon asked Ryan, "Is there a reason-- I mean, that is, well. You seem a bit afraid of Jon."

Ryan said softly, "Jon's nice."

Brendon frowned. "That's not an answer."

Ryan stiffened then, and Brendon could have kicked himself. He'd spent months working to get Ryan to be honest simply because Ryan trusted him. He wasn't going to lose all of that to a moment of impatience. "Sorry."

Ryan tilted his head, like he did when he was unsure of how to understand Brendon. Brendon started over again. "Jon's been a good friend to me. But if he's done something to harm you--"

"No, he." Ryan shook his head. "No."

"Ryan," Brendon said softly. "Ryan, it is something."

Ryan crossed his arms over his chest, and Brendon nearly smiled, only because it had taken Ryan forever to feel comfortable enough to let Brendon know he wasn't comfortable by way of an action like that. He didn't smile, though. He wanted Ryan to talk, tell him what he was thinking, so he stood there, waiting. The door to the room was open. Brendon wouldn't have Ryan believing he didn't have the right to walk out. He would just prefer that Ryan talked with him instead.

Ryan took a step toward the door and then stopped. He said, softly, almost too soft for Brendon to hear, "Absinthe."

Brendon said, "Oh," but he wasn't quite sure what Ryan was telling him. "You never have any."

"No," Ryan said. "No, but people who drink it, they aren't themselves."

There had been a night, a few years back, when one of Jon's friends had come over and drunk with them. He'd turned violent and Spencer had made it clear to Jon that the friend was no longer welcome.

Brendon knew it wasn't uncommon that people had bad reactions. He hadn't thought about what might happen to a slave if an owner was having a bad reaction. He should have, Brendon knew, but even now he was getting used to thinking about how it must have felt for Ryan, never knowing safety. He said, "We won't do that anymore, then. I'll tell Jon."

"Brendon, it's not as if--"

"We won't do that anymore," Brendon said again. Ryan was going to learn to feel safe around Brendon and the people he trusted. Brendon wasn't always sure how he was going to manage that, but he knew that he could at least pay attention when Ryan told him these things. And if Jon had a problem with that, well, Brendon and he would discuss it. Brendon didn't think Jon would. So far as Brendon could tell, Jon was trying as hard as he could to get Ryan to like him.

Brendon thought Ryan would let the matter drop after that, but instead he said, with a forced formality that Brendon felt in his bones, "It makes no sense to trouble a friend over a slave you don't plan to own much longer, Master."

Brendon was still choking on the title when he managed to ask, "What?"

Ryan's head was bowed in perfect obeisance, like he'd been here a day, rather than the better part of seven months. "You bought me because you needed extra manpower. Now that you will be joining your lands and monies with the Smith family, you will have your needs met and can put any funds gained from my sale toward the harvest."

Brendon tried saying something, but he couldn't breathe. Then Ryan turned to leave with a bow and Brendon blurted out, "Did one of the horses kick you in the head?"

Ryan spun around and blinked at Brendon like he was the one with boiled potatoes for brains.

Brendon said--perhaps yelled, but he felt it was justified--"Nobody is selling anybody in this house. For-- I wouldn't sell my animals to some of the people who thought they were somehow fit to own you. You're not some piece of leather or wood or copper to be traded at will. You're-- You're my friend, and I'm sorry that clearly I'm such a bad one that you haven't even noticed, but you don't precisely make it easy."

The minute the words were out of his mouth, Brendon calmed down a bit and felt guilty. He knew that Ryan couldn't help his suspicions, the way he saw the world. Brendon just felt like he deserved a little trust, something for trying as hard as he could.

Ryan said, "You're not selling me." It wasn't a question. It was a statement of utter disbelief.

"Why would you even think that?" Brendon asked, despite Ryan having just explained it.

"I'm a slave, Ma-- Brendon. Brendon, I'm. That is what people do with slaves when they are no longer of use."

"Yes, well. People are evil." Brendon didn't actually believe that, but sometimes when Ryan was talking, he felt a little bit as though it were true.

"You're not," Ryan told him. It sounded about as sure as his earlier statement about not being sold, but Brendon didn't take offense. He thought if he were Ryan, he'd have a hard time with that idea, as well.

"Mostly not," Brendon said. "At least, I try not to be."

"You're not selling me," Ryan said again. Brendon let the words soak into the air.

*


Reassurance of his safety or no, Ryan should never have let his guard down. He had learned that in the prison, when he may not have been free, but he wasn't a thing yet. The fact that he let Brendon's kindness overcome well-honed survival instincts made him so mad at himself he could barely think straight. Of course, that could have been the blow to his head, as well.

Ryan made himself take a breath, then another, and try to remember what had happened. He could recall the five of them going into town. Spencer and Brendon had wanted to go, and Mikey and Bob had offered to take them. Bob often went into town for business. Mikey would accompany him because he handled Bob's books and liked to see his brother, who was nearby. Brendon and Spencer had asked if Ryan wanted to come along. Ryan, deciding that he felt safer with the four of them than alone at the house, had said yes.

After that, things got blurry. Ryan thought he'd been shopping for something--maybe something Brendon had asked him to get? Bob and Mikey had gone off to attend to business, or maybe to visit Dr. Way. And Brendon had...what had Brendon done? Where had he gone? Where was he now? Where was Ryan now, for that matter?

He'd been shopping. They didn't shop for luxuries, so it had to have been something they needed. Ryan gritted his teeth and tried to remember. It was dark where he was, dark and cold and the walls were close, too close, and if he didn't think about what he'd been shopping for, he was going to allow the terror to get to him.

Something they had needed, then. Not food, Ryan didn't think. Spencer had brought over a few of his mother's meals and Brendon had muttered about not being a charity case. Spencer had gotten mad, then, Ryan remembered, his stomach flipping like it had at Spencer's thunderous expression. They had made up, though, and Spencer had stayed for dinner, and there had been plenty of leftovers. Brendon had whispered, when Spencer had gone, how maybe they'd be all right through the winter after all. He'd looked ashamed and Ryan had found it in himself to touch his fingers to Brendon's shoulder. Brendon had smiled, real and delighted, and he'd sung that evening.

Not food, then, and not clothes. They had warm clothes, and blankets and plenty of things Ryan had gotten used to going without but loved having again. It was something little, Ryan was sure. Maybe it had been seeds. Planting time would come quickly. Brendon and he had been trying to learn from Ray over the past few weeks how best to use the land. They were considering letting some of it lie fallow, despite the loss of crop space. Had it been seeds?

Thinking about it was causing Ryan's head to pound even more. He was almost certain someone had hit him, had taken him.

Ryan tried to puzzle out what sort of seeds they had been and the pain caused bile to rise in his throat, burn its way up his esophagus. Ryan swallowed and breathed and acknowledged that concentrating on that problem wasn't going to help. He tried to let his mind wander gently, to surf until it found a song, a melody, something Brendon had taught him. As soon as he found one, he grasped onto it and coasted.

Soap. He had been buying soap. Brendon had been the one buying the seeds; they had split up. Spencer had gone to the apothecary to pick up something for Jacquelyn's cold. Ryan had told them it was okay, that he would be all right. Brendon had looked uncertain, but neither of them had been going far, and the town wasn't that large.

Ryan's arms were bent behind him, his hands tied roughly together, but he struggled, frantic, trying to feel for Brendon's ring. He knew it wouldn't be there, but he couldn't stop trying. The ropes were tearing at his wrists and his arms hurt from his motions, but he needed it to be there, needed it to show that he belonged to someone, that he couldn't just be taken.

Ryan knew long before he stopped struggling that it wasn't there. He just couldn't accept it. If he kept reaching for it, if he concentrated hard enough, it would come back, and Ryan would be safe.

He made himself stop when his efforts exacerbated the pain in his head enough to make him retch. He wanted to keep struggling, but he knew better. Slaves who hurt themselves ended up dead or worse. Keeping oneself as healthy as possible was the only way to survive. And for the first time, Ryan desperately wanted to.

He knew it was foolish, to believe that Brendon and Spencer would look for him, look for a slave in the clearance heap, but he did. He closed his eyes for a second and saw Brendon's anger at Ryan's assumption that he would be sold, saw Brendon shaking with it, and he made himself open his eyes again. He couldn't fall asleep. He needed to be awake when they came for him. He needed to be able to go with them when they came.

*


Spencer sidled up to Brendon while he was wistfully hanging around the choral sheet music. He'd long managed to pick out the seeds that were necessary and that he could afford. Spencer said, "Sorry that took me so long. Nate was there, and I stopped to chat."

Brendon shook his head. He'd been enjoying time to daydream about having his very own piano. He asked, "Where's Ryan?"

"I thought he went to get the soap."

"Sure, but that was when you left. It doesn't take that long. I figured he caught up with you on his way back."

Something fluttered uneasily in Brendon's stomach. It wasn't like Ryan to be out of his sight for long periods of time when they were in town. It wasn't that Brendon would have prohibited it, certainly, but they needed to talk it over, because it wasn't particularly safe, and they both knew it. Owners who were most concerned about having their property stolen would put soldered collars on them--or, in Ryan's case, bypass that altogether and go for something more permanent--but Brendon hadn't been able to claim Ryan in that way, not even to make him safe. He said, "Maybe he found something he wanted. We can go."

He was already on his way out the door, but Spencer wasn't complaining, just hastening to catch up. Brendon all but ran to the store that he'd last seen Ryan enter, and when he made it there, began looking into every corner that might contain Ryan, not even meaning to hide, just engrossed in something and unaware of the passage of time. He called Ryan's name, but Ryan wasn't answering. After a few moments, the proprietor of the store asked, "Is everything all right?"

"There was a boy--man," Brendon said. He tried to keep his voice calm. He didn't want people hunting Ryan. He wasn't a runaway. If he had left of his own volition, then that was his choice, but he wasn't a runaway. And Brendon was pretty sure he hadn't suddenly chosen to try things on his own. "He has brown hair and brown eyes and he was wearing--"

"The slave?" the man asked. "The one with the face?" He made gestures that clearly represented Ryan's tattoos.

Brendon hid his wince. "Yes."

"He left, oh, probably half an hour or more ago. Why? He on the run?"

"No," Brendon said, and then left the store without giving any more information. He could feel Spencer following and didn't look back to check that he was there. Instead he followed the path that Ryan most likely would have taken. He knew nothing about tracking. Halfway to the store, he stopped and ran his hands through his hair.

He turned to Spencer. "I don't think he ran."

Spencer shook his head, more a tight toss of his chin. "No, I don't think so."

"But if he was taken--" Brendon looked around the streets. There were people about, but it was cold, and most of them were scurrying around with their faces down. There weren't that many, either. It wasn't impossible to believe that someone could have caught Ryan at a quiet moment and found a way to threaten him, or otherwise get him to go against his will.

Spencer said, "We have to find Bob."

Brendon snapped his attention to Spencer. "Bob?"

"Just, he'll know--" Spencer made a frustrated noise. "We have to find him."

"They're probably at Dr. Way's by now."

Spencer started running. Brendon didn't hesitate to follow.

*


Ryan couldn't figure out a way to monitor the passage of time. He thought maybe it had gotten colder wherever he was, but he wasn't sure. That could have been his imagination. They'd left him his clothes, and Brendon had checked to make sure Ryan left the house dressed warmly. Even dressed appropriately, though, it was too cold outside to stay out for long. The wind didn't seem to be coming through whatever structure Ryan was in, but there definitely wasn't any warmth, either.

His throat hurt from the cold. The rest of his body was achy in a distant way that Ryan imagined was probably a bad sign, but it seemed pointless to worry about that. He was hungry. Considering that they'd eaten before leaving the house, it had to have been at least six hours now, probably closer to seven or eight. They'd been in town for probably an hour when Ryan had been taken, and the journey had been the better part of an hour, at least forty-five minutes, with all the snow and ice. So, four to six hours that he'd been missing. Brendon and Spencer would have noticed by now, probably considerably earlier.

Ryan thought he'd be all right. In the prison he'd gone days without food when someone bigger or who had been in there longer would steal it from him. And he'd had a mistress who liked her slaves "slight" as she put it, but Ryan was reasonably sure that was euphemistic for "emaciated." And it couldn't take Brendon and Spencer that long. He hadn't been gone that long, and he wasn't moving, so it stood to reason that he couldn't be that far.

Ryan bit his lip and tried not to move. The amount of thinking he was doing was still hurting his head, and he really, really wanted to sleep. But if Brendon and Spencer came and they couldn't wake him up, he'd be of no use to them. He was floating in and out, just trying to stay cognizant, when he heard the noises. It took him a second to identify them as laughter, but he knew immediately that it wasn't anyone he knew laughing.

Normally, this was the time when Ryan found a way to slip into his own head, get away from whatever was coming at him. That plan presented a number of problems, however. The first was, if he’d suffered a blow to the head, he wasn't sure blanking his mind out wouldn't be as dangerous as sleeping. He just didn't know these things, and he'd seen slaves who were hit in the head die after falling asleep. The second was that if Spencer and Brendon showed up, he would be in no state to recognize them, let alone help them get him out of here. The third was that he couldn't seem to remember how he used to do that, exactly. He remembered that it had been fairly easy, but the mechanics of it were eluding him.

Ryan took a short breath in--the cold was hurting his lungs now, too--and reminded himself that it was best he was aware, or at least as aware as he could be. Then the laughter came close, and so did the boots that belonged to the people laughing. Ryan tried to hunch in on himself, and not to think, "I haven't done anything," but his hands were still tied behind him and he knew the latter thought didn't matter, not really.

One of them picked him up by his hair. Ryan bit into his lip. He wasn't screaming for these people. The man holding him said, "Thought you could just run, huh? With a face like that?"

Ryan didn't respond. They had taken the ring. Either they just thought it was a bauble he had stolen--not likely, since it had all the legal markings necessary--or they were playing coy. The man laughed softly and asked, "Don't like to talk much, huh?"

Ryan closed his eyes, mostly so he wouldn't roll them. He wasn't sure how it had been so incredibly easy to forget that freemen often took slaves to be completely stupid. Then the man said, still speaking softly, "You know what this face means, doll?"

Ryan made himself not shudder at that last. Dehumanizing terms were no good in his experience. Sure enough, the man said, "Means I can play a little, get a little something out of this shit job before handing you over."

Damaged goods, Ryan thought. Brendon was the only owner he'd had since the tattoo who hadn't reminded him, repeatedly. It was ironic, a little bit, because he was pretty sure the ones before had bought him because of the thing, because it meant there wasn't much they couldn't do, because they liked that it might as well have said "whore" across his nose.

It was okay, though, this time. As long as they didn't move Ryan, as long as this guy was "getting something from his job," Brendon and Spencer could find him. Even if Brendon didn't want him after this, Brendon wouldn't resell him, because he didn't believe in that. Ryan would figure something out. Right now he just had to stay aware and do his best to help when they came--which they would. Ryan repeated it to himself, because even if he didn't quite know how to believe the words, they sounded really nice.

"Thing is," the guy said thoughtfully, looking at his partner-in-crime, "I don't enjoy fucking ice picks."

Partner-in-crime smiled and drew back a fist. "Yeah, we should warm him up."

*


Spencer all but broke Dr. Way's door getting in the house. He yelled, "Bob! Bob!"

Bob was there in a moment and after a second's glance was asking, "Where's--"

But Spencer was already talking. "Bob, the people who took Bert. You found them?"

Bob shook his head. "Yes, but there was no proof. All I could do was stop giving them business."

Brendon just barely remembered Bert. He'd been snatched before Brendon had bought his land, and by the time Brendon met him, he generally wasn't willing to talk to people he didn't know. From what Mikey said, he hadn't much been willing to talk to people he did know. Except Quinn. Quinn could always get Bert to come out and talk a bit, which was why, when Quinn had gone back to the city, Bob had sent Bert with him. That had been years ago, now.

Brendon didn't want to think about Bert's frantic eyes, the way even his skin could seem to jump at times when he was around people. Ryan had been relaxing, he'd been getting better.

Spencer said, "But you could find them? Maybe?"

Bob's eye color was a slightly grayer shade than Brendon was used to it being. Softly, Bob asked, "Mikey?"

Mikey nodded. "Gee and I'll be ready. Go find him."

Bob didn't even put on his coat. Brendon, closer to the door, was out before Bob, but then he waited for him, unsure of where they were going. Bob all but shoved them into his carriage, and said, "When we get there, you stay with me, unless I say."

"But--" Brendon began.

"I will kill you myself, Urie," Bob told him. Brendon kind of believed him, but if it came down to it, Brendon was willing to risk that, so long as they got Ryan back.

Brendon didn't mean to ask, but once the carriage was moving, he found himself turning to Spencer and asking, "Bert. Was he-- Was he like that before?"

Spencer's lips tightened into a white, harsh line. "Snatchers sell to people who can't afford anything from the House. Not even the marked down ones."

"Spencer--"

"It's only been a few hours. They had Bert longer."

"How much longer?"

"Stop it, Brendon."

"Spence--"

Spencer kissed Brendon, hard enough that Brendon tasted blood. Spencer said, "We'll get him back."

"Whole." Brendon tried his best not to make it a question.

"We make him whole."

"Spencer?"

"First we find him," Spencer said, fierce, louder than the sound of the wheels over ice and mud. "Then you'll understand."

Brendon wasn't sure, but Spencer was right about one thing. The only thing that mattered right now was finding Ryan, getting him back. After that, they could figure out whatever they needed to.

*


Ryan screamed when he felt like it. There was no reason not to. They hadn't ordered him otherwise--and they weren't his owners, they couldn't. And if he was screaming, well, the worst thing that could happen was that someone would hear him. He had nothing to lose. He wasn't being sold again. No matter what he had to do, he wasn't being sold again, especially not on the black market, where anyone could buy him, desperate bidders, people who couldn't own human flesh any other way.

The men right now, they weren't being careful with him, which told Ryan exactly what they perceived his market value to be. They were careful not to use his mouth, but Ryan knew that had nothing to do with sale-price. That had to do with the fact that, somewhere along the way, these men had learned that a mouth could be a weapon.

They stayed away from his mouth, but everything else was fair game. Ryan didn't think it had been that long since he'd last been punished, been used, but the pain was somehow worse, like he'd forgotten, and if ever there was a stupid thing to forget, pain was certainly high on the list. They were breaking things. Ryan couldn't tell what, exactly, but maybe his arm? It could be his shoulder, or maybe even his collarbone. He thought the pain would be distinct, but everything hurt, the pain whipping up his spine, worse than the humiliation or the violation.

And if maybe, in the back of his mind, there was a spot where the humiliation and the violation were worse than anything else, well, then Ryan was allowed to blame Brendon for that. Brendon and his stupid ways of making Ryan remember what being something more than a thing was like, Brendon and his stupid ideals. Ryan was going to hit Brendon when he saw him again. He was going to hit him and he wasn't even going to apologize, and then, if Brendon punished him, well, Ryan won anyway, because he would have made his point.

Ryan didn't think he was making much sense anymore, but if he stopped thinking he had to feel and he wasn't going to. That just wasn't going to happen. Ryan had his own weapons, even if he was the only one who ever knew they were at work.

They left him at some point. It took him a while to notice, which was odd, but the pain didn't just stop, so he had to think it through, had to come out of his head enough to recognize the difference.

He was bleeding. Probably not enough to do any real damage--they wanted him alive; enough to make him feel woozy, but that might have been because of the blow to his head. He had felt woozy before, hadn't he? He concentrated on breathing. It hurt, the in-out nature of it, which meant he needed to pay attention, make sure he didn't accidentally stop. Spencer and Brendon would be very disappointed if they found him but he had stopped breathing. The thought made Ryan laugh. He was sure it didn't quite make sense, but he couldn't untangle the parts that were funny from those that were important. Maybe none of it was important. The laughter hurt, catching on bruised ribs, choking against damaged vocal chords. Ryan let it die away.

He was tired. He remembered that Brendon and Spencer would be mad if he slept, but he couldn't remember why. And he wanted to test Brendon, right? So maybe he could just sleep for a little, and then if Brendon punished him--

Ryan couldn't remember what that would mean. That probably wasn't good. If Brendon punished him, it would mean Brendon was his master, but Ryan was glad that Brendon was his owner, wasn't he? If he had to have an owner, Brendon wasn't really like an owner; he was kind of like a friend--a friend with a house where Ryan stayed and fields that he helped turn. Spencer had been sort of the same when they were kids, what Ryan could recall of that time.

That was the other thing about Brendon. Brendon meant Spencer, and Spencer was a real friend. He didn't own Ryan and never had. Spencer was a whole different kind of thing, and Ryan liked that, even if he didn't really understand it. Ryan didn't understand a lot of the world, though. It seemed nonsensical so much of the time, like right now, when he belonged to someone, but someone else was allowed to hurt him anyway.

That didn't make any sense. He'd ask Spencer when he got here. Spencer was smarter about people than Ryan. Spencer had his family to explain things to him. He'd ask a question and Spencer wouldn't even frown at him, not like he was supposed to with slaves. He'd ask, and Spencer would just tell him, like Ryan was someone off the street, with every right to ask questions.

*


The building they drew up to wasn't what Brendon had expected of illegal slave-runners. If asked what he had expected, he wasn't sure he would know what to say, but it wasn't the clean, pleasant-looking tanner's shop where Bob stopped the carriage. Brendon almost asked Bob if he was sure, but then he stopped himself, because Bob was holding a gun in his right hand, and whatever else, Brendon didn't think Bob would take a gun into a shop being unsure. Brendon hadn't even known Bob owned a gun. He was a merchant.

A merchant, evidently, who knew what to do with a gun, because within seconds of entering the shop, he had it to a clerk's shoulder--the only person about--and was saying something about, "--won't kill you, at least not unless you bleed to death. But the arm'll be useless, that's for sure. Now. Where is he?"

"I don't-- I don't know--" The clerk was young and his eyes were huge, and Brendon thought he might pass out if Bob stared at him any harder.

Bob said, "Fine. Where's your boss?"

The clerk's eyes slid to a door in the back, behind the sales counter. Bob said, "Spencer, stay with him. If he tries to alert anybody, hit him with the heaviest thing you can find and call me. Brendon, you come with me."

Brendon wasn't terribly fond of the notion of leaving Spencer behind, but he was less fond of the idea of neither of them being there when they found Ryan, so he followed Bob into the back room. Bob didn't bother knocking, just turned the handle and walked right on in. There were two men there, and the first thing Brendon noticed was the blood. Sure, it was a tannery, but Brendon knew the smell of animals--his brother had taken him to the butcher, on occasion--and this wasn't it.

Bob leveled the gun and said, calmly, "I believe you have my friend's property."

Both men put up their hands. Brendon looked away from the where dark red stained in the grooves of their palms. Bob was keeping an eye on them, an eye and a gun. Neither of them were saying anything, though. Bob asked, softly, "Where is he?"

One of the men, the one who looked slightly older, said, "We don't know anything."

"Heard that before," Bob said, and now he was sounding bored, but in a dangerous way that Brendon could never have managed. If Brendon wasn’t completely terrified at the moment, he'd probably be jealous of how amazing Bob was.

The younger one coughed, and after a second, the older one's gaze flickered to him just slightly. He muttered something that Brendon couldn't hear. When the older one looked back, his eyes narrowed. He said, "What do you think's gonna happen if you use that gun?"

"I'll have the satisfaction of knowing you'll never tan a hide again?" Bob tilted his head. "Hm, or maybe just that you'll never have children. Have a preference?"

Brendon didn't think Bob was bluffing. Bob was not exactly a boisterous man, but Brendon had never seen him quite so still and focused. The younger one must have believed Bob’s threat, because he choked while swallowing and barely managed to get out a, "Basement. Door's in the floor, underneath the rug." He tossed his head in the proper direction.

"Brendon, I'm staying here. You go get Ryan."

Brendon didn't hesitate. It took him two tries to get the door open once he found it, and he nearly fell scrambling down the ladder, but he managed. He called, "Ryan?" because it was dark, and he didn't want to accidentally run into him.

There was a mumbled noise, which helped Brendon to interpret the other noises as breathing. The sounds were wetter and less rhythmic than they should have been, but enough for Brendon to track in the dark. He said, "Ryan. It's Brendon."

There were more noises at that, and Brendon was able to reach him. His eyes slowly adjusting to the dark, he could see the way Ryan was crumpled on the floor, smaller looking even than when Brendon had found him.

Brendon sank to his knees next to Ryan and said, "Ryan, can you stand?"

Ryan moved a bit, like he'd understood, which was when Brendon realized that his arms were locked behind his back, and, if Brendon was seeing correctly, one of them looked to be bent at an angle that couldn't be right. He wanted to get Ryan's hands free, but it seemed more important to simply get him out.

Brendon touched Ryan's forehead gently, swiping back some of the hair plastered there. Ryan blinked rapidly then, his breathing quickening. Brendon said, "Ryan, Ryan, it's me, it's Brendon."

Ryan said, "Brendon," slowly, like something miraculous, something he didn't understand.

Carefully, Brendon helped Ryan onto his knees, talking in the lowest, most soothing tone he could manage. Ryan was making soft, pained noises with every move and Brendon was just praying that he could actually get Ryan up the ladder. He had to hold Ryan on his feet when they finally managed to get him there. He was pretty sure he was going to fail in getting Ryan back into the store when Bob came and said, "Found a way to secure them. Sorry it took so long."

Between the two of them, they managed to get Ryan upstairs. He was unconscious by the end of it, and Bob gently gathered Ryan up to carry him out to the carriage. He stopped just long enough to look at the brothers. He said, "If I have to come out here ever again, I won't bother asking questions. I'll just shoot."

Brendon doubted Bob was going to let things go even that easily, from his tone of voice, but he didn't care. He knew that maybe he should, that slave-snatching didn't affect just him and Ryan, but all that mattered to him at the moment was getting Ryan back to Dr. Way, getting him to wake up. Everything else could go to hell.

*


"Ryan!"

Someone was yelling at him. That wasn't good. Yelling meant he'd either done something wrong and was going to be punished, or he hadn't done something wrong and was going to be punished. Either way, yelling was a bad sign. Ryan wondered if he could hide. Where was he? If he got caught, things would be worse, and he'd have to come out sometime, wouldn't he?

He tried opening his eyes to assess his situation. Everything was moving. Everything hurt. Maybe he'd already been punished?

"Ryan!" The voice was sharp. "Open your eyes right now, Ryan."

"Please, Ryan? Please." That was a different voice. It didn't seem upset, or well, no, it did seem upset, but not at him.

He managed to get his eyes open a crack. It wasn't too bright, wherever he was. That helped make it easier to try and focus. He'd nearly managed when one of the shapes near him started to make sense. "Bren--" he coughed on the word, and someone said, "Shh," as Brendon held the back of his neck, brought some water to his lips.

"We're almost there," the other voice told him. Spencer's voice. He'd been waiting for them.

Ryan said, "Waited."

There was a small noise, like the kind of sound Ryan held back when he was being whipped. Spencer said, "We came as quickly as we could, Ry. There was no call for you to go and get yourself taken like that."

"Spence--" Brendon started.

"Took--" Ryan tried to tell them, but his head really hurt, even worse than everything else, and everything else hurt quite a bit.

There were fingers on his face, but they weren't poking at the bruises, just soothing themselves over his skin. They were nice and cool. Brendon asked, "What'd they take, Ry?"

Oh, right. "Ring. Ring." Ryan felt a little frantic. That ring was the only thing that visually affirmed his place as Brendon's property. He was...nothing right now. A slave who hadn't been freed and didn't belong to anyone? Dangerous. Had he run away? No, no, right. The men, they'd taken his ring. Why was it so hard to focus?

"Oh. Ryan." Brendon sounded anguished.

"Yours," Ryan said. He was too tired to know exactly how he meant it. Maybe he was asking a question. He wasn't supposed to ask questions, was he? But he was Brendon's, Brendon had come and gotten him, so maybe he was just stating a fact. Or maybe--

"I-- In the ways that matter," Brendon said, soft and determined in a way that Ryan couldn't parse. There was a lot of silence then, murmurs that Ryan couldn't hear, couldn't interpret.

Spencer said, "We'll get you another marker, Ryan. Something better."

There was something that didn't make sense about that sentence, something really important, and Ryan needed to figure out what, only he was so tired, so completely exhausted. He felt his eyes slipping shut, and this time it was Brendon who shouted, "Ryan!"

Spencer, now the softer voice, said, "You have to stay awake, Ry. We're taking you to see Dr. Way."

Dr. Way had told Ryan to take care of himself. He was not going to be happy that Ryan had gotten himself caught. "Home?" he tried.

"Doctor first," Brendon said firmly. "You can go home as soon as he says."

Ryan wanted to argue, but he knew an order when he heard one. He said, "Some-thing-- Um. They can't take." He wasn't sure what he meant until someone's fingers ghosted over where the ring had been and one of them--Ryan couldn't really tell which one--said, "That's right. Something nobody can take."

*


Dr. Way scowled and cursed a little when they first lay Ryan down, but when Ryan started to apologize, he said, "No, that was, um, unprofessional," and, "Don't worry, you'll feel better in a bit." Then he got to work.

Brendon made himself sit in a corner and not move, despite his deep need every time Ryan so much as took a breath with a hitch in it. Ryan's arm and collarbone were both broken, and Dr. Way needed help holding Ryan in order to set them. Spencer did the actual holding, but Brendon tucked Ryan’s other hand in his own and kept up a low stream of reassurances. Ryan kept his eyes on Brendon, occasionally diverting them to Spencer, as if to make sure they were still both there.

Once Dr. Way was done setting the bones and splinting them, he had Spencer and Brendon help clean out the gashes running over Ryan's hip bones, his ass and thighs. He looked uncertain for a moment and then said, "Well, I don't suppose I'll get you to leave. Not without Bob hauling you out."

He had been concerned about giving Ryan much of anything for the pain with the bump on his head, and the way he didn’t seem quite cognizant. Spencer and Brendon took turns trying to help distract Ryan. Brandon wished he'd bought Ryan something special back in the town. Of course, he hadn't known Ryan was going to be taken and tortured--if he had, he'd never have let Ryan leave--but that didn't change the desire to have something for him now, something he could cling to, or at least look forward to. If he’d had time, he would have gone and gotten Madrigal, just so that she could lick Ryan’s face a little. That always made Ryan smile.

The idea made Brendon think, though, and he asked, "What's your favorite book?"

Ryan blinked at him, his expression muddled, and it would have been adorable if not for the way pain twisted his mouth, the lines on his forehead. "Book?"

"One you would read over and over again if you could."

It took Ryan a while, but Brendon could tell he was trying to think. Spencer and Dr. Way were cleaning a gash that all but revealed muscle on his outer thigh. Brendon was holding his hand, running his free hand through Ryan's hair. Ryan was cold and shaking, and Brendon wanted to light a fire for him--another one, since there was already one burning in the room--and wrap him in flannels and woven cottons. Instead, he waited.

Ryan said, "Count--" He cried out as Dr. Way went deep into the wound.

Brendon squeezed his hand, letting Ryan know he could squeeze back and Ryan did, his eyes wide and wet. Dr. Way was talking, saying, "Great, Ryan, you're doing so well," but Brendon doubted Ryan could understand.

When the worst was over, Spencer got some water and they tipped Ryan's head back, helping him swallow. There was still sewing up to be done.

Brendon had nearly forgotten what he'd been trying to do when Spencer said, "Count of Monte Cristo, Ryan? That the one?"

Ryan made a small noise that Brendon took as affirmative. Spencer generally knew these things. Brendon smiled. He'd read that one. "Guess that makes sense, huh?"

"Used to--" Ryan stopped to breathe, quicker than was probably healthy, but Dr. Way was sewing him up like a dress, so Brendon figured it was more than acceptable. Ryan tried again, "Dream. Used to--"

"Dream that you were the Count?" Brendon tried.

"Kid. Fantasy." Ryan's eyes weren't focusing anymore.

"You deserve them more than most," Brendon told him.

Dr. Way and Spencer set to working on another one of the gashes, this one over the crease between Ryan's ass and thigh, and already tightening at the edges, red and angry-looking. Ryan gasped, "Hurts."

It was the first time Brendon had ever heard him say a word in complaint. Dr. Way said, "I know. I'm sorry, Ryan. But it'll hurt worse if we don't clean these out."

"C'n I sleep?" Ryan's words were becoming less distinct.

"Not yet," Dr. Way told him. "That's an order, Ryan Ross."

Ryan looked at Brendon for confirmation. Brendon could feel his heart fracturing, but he said, "Listen to the doctor, Ry. He knows what he's talking about."

Ryan stayed awake.

*


They let Ryan sleep, but at first they would wake him up every few hours. It was always Brendon or Spencer doing the waking, Dr. Way checking to make sure that all was well. Then they would allow him to fall back into dreams that weren't comforting, but couldn't seem to get far enough to be nightmares.

At some point, he awoke on his own. Madrigal was sleeping next to him on the bed. It made him think he was home for a second, but he didn’t recognize the room, so he was pretty sure that wasn’t the case.

He blinked his eyes fully open, expecting to see Brendon or Spencer or maybe Dr. Way, but instead it was Pete. Pete looked pale and tired, but when he saw Ryan awake, he grinned with all his teeth, the kind of smile Ryan had never expected to see from Pete.

Pete said, "Hi, hey, okay, just wait. I have water."

Ryan hadn't noticed how completely desperate he was for just that, but when Pete held the cup to Ryan's lips, he had to admonish, "Slow. Slow, Ry, I won't take it away."

When Ryan had drunk his fill, he looked around the room, relaxing when he found Spencer and Brendon curled in a pile of blankets near the fire.

Pete said, "They wanted to be here when you woke, but they hadn't slept in over twenty-four hours. Gee was threatening them with laudanum."

Ryan watched them sleeping, making himself understand that they were there, and he was safe. "What's a G?"

Pete laughed. "Gee. Gerard. Mikey's brother?"

Ryan wondered if he had missed something.

Pete tried, "Dr. Way?"

"Oh."

"Yeah, he has a first name."

"Oh," Ryan said again.

Whether they had been making too much noise, or he just hadn't been sleeping deeply, Brendon stirred, and once he did, so did Spencer. Brendon rolled to where he could peer over the end of the bed, and seeing Ryan look back at him, he scurried up. "You're awake. You're awake."

Ryan tried not to yawn, but he couldn't help it. Brendon immediately looked repentant, and Spencer, who was now standing next to him, said, "You need more sleep? We should let you sleep."

"I just woke up," Ryan said, despite the fact that he was still tired.

Brendon nodded. "Dr. Way says you're going to be tired for a while. Also, he gave you something so it wouldn't hurt quite so bad."

"What kind of something?" Ryan asked. He was tired, but Brendon was right: he didn't hurt nearly as much as he probably should, considering that most of his lower body was bandaged and much of his upper body splinted.

"Just some laudanum," Spencer said. "Barely any. He's a doctor, Ryan."

Intellectually, Ryan understood. He just didn't like the idea of not being himself. He'd trusted himself to survive all these years, and when things interfered with that, it was dangerous. Then again, he'd never had three people standing around a bed who'd stayed awake hours and hours just to make sure he would awaken and be well. The thought made him panicky for a moment, like it was too large to integrate itself into existence as he knew it.

Then Spencer said, "Ryan?" and Ryan managed to take a breath.

Ryan said, "I-- May we go home? Please?" He waited for the fear to hit at the thought of having made a request. He was still waiting when Brendon said, "Not until Dr. Way says so."

Ryan nodded. Instead of fear, he was swamped with disappointment. It took him a minute to figure out what the reaction was--it had been a long time since he'd allowed himself that type of response. Spencer must have noticed something, because he laughed softly and reached out to squeeze at Ryan's blanket-covered foot. Ryan barely felt it, which told him again how much medicine the doctor had given him. He tried pushing his foot up into the touch, but it wasn't interested in listening to what he wanted.

Ryan started to struggle a little against the dulling of the medication, but Pete said, "Hey, hey," and settled his hands over Ryan's arm, the good one. Then he looked at Brendon and Spencer. "Maybe the two of you should stay closer."

Brendon looked unsure. "What if we roll onto him?"

There was something that Ryan couldn't identify in Pete's tone when he said, "You won't."

Brendon was still hesitant, but Spencer seemed to believe him--or just be more willing to be convinced--because he climbed carefully to lie on one side of Ryan, shifting Madrigal, who gave him a thoroughly disgusted look before falling back asleep. He was the warmest, safest thing Ryan could ever remember feeling, even through the haze of the opiates. That was all it took for Brendon to come along, sidling up to Ryan's other side, so, so very careful of his injuries. Brendon kissed his forehead, which Ryan thought should have been strange, or at least off-putting, but it made him think of the way Brendon would sometimes hold Spencer's hand in the fields, and mostly it felt right.

Pete said, "Sleep. I'll be here."

Ryan smiled at him, as real as he could manage. Pete smiled back.

*


Two days passed before Dr. Way would let Brendon take Ryan home. Brendon made Spencer go back home at one point, mostly to let his parents know that Brendon hadn't kidnapped and eloped with him. Spencer hadn't been happy, and really, neither had Brendon--Ryan hadn't seemed pleased, either--but it was the right thing to do. Spencer came back with food, lots and lots of food.

"Pie," Ryan said, upon waking and being offered some. Then, "Pie," with a smile like nothing Brendon had ever seen, especially not from Ryan. Spencer laughed.

Getting Ryan home was harrowing, and Ryan looked a wrung out mess by the time they arrived. Mikey and Dr. Way had gone ahead to get a fire going and make sure things were comfortable. Bob took them back by carriage, and he carried Ryan to the house, despite Ryan flushing and protesting that he could walk. Pete said, "Don't make Bob sad, Ryan Ross."

Ryan subsided, and once Bob got him into bed, and Spencer and Brendon had tucked him in to their heart's desire, Ryan fell back asleep. Madrigal sniffed around for long moments, seemingly making sure that everything was safe. Then she curled up at Ryan’s feet and took up the guard-post that she hadn’t much left since Pete had brought her to be with Ryan. Pete stood at the edge of his bed, looking ready to fall over himself. Bob, who had seated himself in the chair near Ryan's small wardrobe said, "C'mere, Pete."

Pete came as beckoned and sat down. It was oddly perfect, the way he fit into Bob. Bob pulled at him until he was resting against Bob's chest, the crown of his head against Bob's cheek. Bob ran his fingers through Pete's hair, murmuring, "Ryan's fine, Pete. He's fine."

Pete fell asleep nearly as quickly as Ryan had. Brendon blinked at the whole scene. Dr. Way came quietly into the room and fussed around Ryan a bit, but then he whispered, "I'm headed out. He should be fine, just follow my instructions and let him sleep as much as he needs."

Brendon nodded. "I will. Promise."

Dr. Way looked satisfied, but all he said was, "You had best," before taking his leave.

Mikey, in the meantime, had come up next to Bob, where he could rest his fingers against the back of Pete's neck. Bob looked over at Brendon and Spencer. Brendon was still watching Pete, but he thought Spencer was maybe paying attention.

Enough so that when Bob said, "Pete thinks it'll be okay," Spencer was the one to ask, "What gives him that idea?"

Bob looked at Mikey. Mikey shrugged. "Pete's not always the easiest person to follow."

Brendon ran a hand over his face and then fixed Mikey with a look. "You do it better than anyone else."

Mikey looked down at Bob and muttered, "Not anyone." Brendon just waited. After a moment, Mikey said, "He told me once that we were safe because we changed the rules."

"Changed the rules," Spencer said.

Softly, Bob said, "Ryan's always going to be a slave. Nobody can change that, not really. Not unless a whole bevy of legislation passes that transforms the whole world. So all he's got is the rules, and as his owner, Brendon draws those up."

Brendon made a face. He couldn't help it. "I want him to make the rules."

"That's asking for a lot, don't you think?" Bob asked, sounding neutral. Brendon knew better. Bob didn't say things just to hear himself talk.

"I make my own rules," Brendon pointed out.

Bob didn't say anything to that. Mikey didn't look away from Pete, but he asked, "So there's no give and take between you and Spence?"

Spencer flushed. Bob huffed a little bit. Brendon said, "That's different."

It was Spencer who asked, "Is it?"

Brendon looked at him. Spencer said, "I mean, we make the rules between us. We tell each other what works and what doesn't. It's our situation to control. If we can get him to negotiate in the same way--"

"He doesn't, though," Brendon pointed out.

"Well, not yet," Spencer said. "You're impatient."

Brendon sighed. He knew. He gestured at Ryan, curled up on himself beneath the blankets, his hands fisted in the sheets, bandages still swathing his wrists where the restraints had cut into them, his arm still splinted. "How can you not be?"

Spencer's expression softened when his gaze caught on Ryan. "He's always been worth waiting for."

It was a bit frustrating, the way Spencer could always find the one argument that Brendon had absolutely nothing to fight back with. He made a noise and said, "I guess there is that."

Nobody said anything for a moment. Then Bob said, "I'm thinking Pete was probably right about this."

Mikey smiled, a small flip of his lips. "Nobody would be more shocked than him."

*


Spencer was teaching Ryan to play chess when Ryan admitted, "I have dreams about Brendon teaching me to play piano."

Spencer considered the board. "Odd."

Ryan didn't really think it was all that strange. "Music is something we have in common."

Spencer laughed. "No, I meant, that's what I've been thinking of getting him as a wedding gift. A piano."

The thought made Ryan's heart ache, although he couldn't say why. Spencer made a move and Ryan looked at the board, long enough that the muscles in his injured arm started to tense up.

Spencer reached out and soothed a hand over his shoulder. "You can ask for help, you know? That's the point of me teaching you."

"It's less challenge for you."

"I play to be around you, Ryan, not to improve my tactical skills."

Ryan said, "Can we--" he moved lower onto the bed, doing his best not to jostle the board or his arm. Of course, doing so meant that he knocked one of the ribs that was just starting to heal and a number of the knitting gashes.

Spencer made a disapproving noise, taking the board off the bed and helping Ryan the rest of the way. He settled onto the bed, facing Ryan, when Ryan was finally comfortable. Ryan was fading in and out of sleep when Spencer said, "Brendon and I, we've been talking about how to replace your ring."

The place where the ring had been felt similar to the worst of the bruises: empty and painful all at once. Ryan said, "Nobody ever tries to cut the tattoos off. If he did his initials? Maybe on my chest?"

Spencer looked horrified at the idea. "We're not altering your body."

"I want it," Ryan said. "I want something they can't ever take."

Spencer shook his head, but Ryan continued, "When they did this, my face, they strapped me down so I couldn't move, not even an inch, and they blocked my eyes so that everything was dark and I couldn't see the needle coming at me. It was just pain, over and over and I couldn't even scream because I was terrified of what would happen if I opened my mouth. I'm not asking for that. I'm asking for initials on my chest. Not the same."

"If that's what you want, then you can talk to Pete about the man who does his ink. He comes and does it at the home, in privacy, and we can arrange for that, for you. But that's not our choice to make."

Ryan turned that over in his mind, the idea that he could mark himself as someone else's, and have that mark still somehow be his. It was an intense thought.

Spencer said, "Brendon's upset."

That made Ryan focus. Brendon mostly only got upset about things truly worth getting upset over, and Ryan had noticed that he hated it, and not for any of the reasons he was used to. Ryan was accustomed to the fact that it was a better plan to make sure masters were happy, because when they were, they were less violent, less prone to unexpected moves. With Brendon, he hated it because he missed Brendon's quick grins, his too-loud laughter, his music and the sheer feel of his happiness.

"About me losing the ring?" Ryan asked

"About them taking it, sure. Mostly, about the fact that we'll have rings and you won't."

"You're getting married." Ryan didn't generally feel the need to state the obvious, but right then, it seemed significant.

"Yes," a voice said from the doorway. "We are."

Ryan jerked in surprise and banged his arm against the surface of the bed, causing him to have to close his eyes and concentrate on breathing. When he opened them, Brendon was on the side that Spencer wasn't on, his eyes huge and concerned. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

Ryan waved the concern away. He wasn't ready to speak yet.

Brendon bent over and said, "My mother, she used to--" Brendon pressed a kiss lightly to the arm. Swathed in bandaging and a sling, Ryan didn't even feel it, but he saw it. Brendon looked up at him again and said, "Kiss it better. She used to kiss hurts better."

Ryan tried to understand, but, "What?"

Spencer sighed. "That's Brendon's very sophisticated way of trying to seduce you."

"I'm a pleasure slave," Ryan said. Evidently today was his day for stating the obvious.

Spencer snarled. Brendon took a slow breath and then let it out. "No," he said slowly, enunciating. "You're Ryan."

Ryan opened his mouth to explain that it wasn't that easy, the two weren't just separable, not after all these years, but Spencer beat him to it. He said, "Ryan, look at me."

Ryan looked. Spencer asked, "What do you see?"

It was a good question. Ryan saw Spencer, saw blue eyes and a soft face, and something that was somehow safety. But there were other things, things he wasn't used to noticing. There was genuine awe, and some determination, and attraction that wasn't the same as what Ryan was used to. Ryan wouldn’t have known how to use the attraction, had he been interested in manipulating Spencer. Spencer said, "Now look at Brendon."

It was different with Brendon. For one thing, Brendon was easier to read than Spencer, but also more overwhelming in a lot of ways. Ryan almost wished he could shrink back from the openness of Brendon's face, how much want and excitement and hope there was in it. Spencer was wrong. Brendon wasn't trying to seduce Ryan. Ryan wasn't sure what it was called when you just wanted someone to love you, but whatever that was, Brendon embodied it.

Ryan said, "Oh." And then, "I'm a pleasure--" But that wasn't exactly right. "I don't know how to do this."

"Good," Brendon said, that grin that Ryan enjoyed so much unfurling. "Neither do we."

*


When Ryan was capable of walking by himself, and generally starting to feel better, Brendon made himself say, "You can't laugh."

Ryan made an uncertain face at him. Brendon reconsidered. "Well, I guess you can, but it would make me feel really uncomfortable and hurt."

"Oh," Ryan said. "Um. Okay."

"So, Spencer and I are getting married."

Ryan laughed. Brendon said, "We had an agreement!"

Ryan had the grace to look slightly ashamed of himself, but he said, "Sorry. You were so serious. And well, of course you and Spencer are getting married."

"That is not the point," Brendon said. "I was getting to the point."

Ryan pressed his lips together for a second and then said, "By all means."

Brendon forced himself not to fidget. "It's just that, well. Once we're married, there will be the marriage night, and then Spencer, he'll want--"

"Oh," Ryan said again.

"Oh," Brendon echoed miserably.

"No," Ryan said softly. "No, I meant that's sort of...nice."

Brendon might have been looking at Ryan like he was insane, but he couldn't help it. "Ryan. Ryan, it is not 'nice.' Nice is for, um, for when your husband gets sick and you make him soup. That is nice. Not knowing what to do in bed? That's just pathetic."

Brendon wasn't used to Ryan arguing with him, so he was a little surprised when Ryan's expression became a bit set and he said, "I'd think it was nice."

"You're strange," Brendon explained. Then, feeling slightly bad about that, since it wasn't Ryan's fault that he was strange, he said, "Not a bad sort of strange."

Ryan laughed again, quietly. Brendon said, "Oh, fine, laugh," and then Ryan laughed louder, and Brendon liked it, loved it, maybe, couldn't help joining in.

Ryan said, "I can help. I mean, I don't want to-- It should be your wedding night, not before. Not with me."

Brendon felt the anger in his response before it hit his face, flashed in his eyes, but he was helpless to stop it. Ryan took a step back and Brendon said, "No, no. It was-- I wasn't mad at you."

Ryan's smile was small and ironic and different than what Brendon was used to when he said, "Never mattered to the others."

"I'm not the others."

"I know," Ryan said, sounding surprised. Brendon didn't blame him, he was kind of surprised Ryan knew.

Ryan said, "I know," again and then, "But you were mad."

"You made it sound like he deserves it more."

Ryan shrugged. "He's Spencer."

Brendon said, "Well, yes. But--"

"He's going to be your husband."

And that was true as well. "It's just a title. Like slave. Just a word."

Ryan paled and Brendon realized what he'd said. "I didn't mean-- I know that it wasn't. That it let people hurt you and use you and all kinds of things that they should have never been allowed. But here, between the three of us, they're just words. That was all I was trying to say."

Ryan nodded, just a tiny bit, and moved in toward Brendon, so that they were close, but not touching. He said, softly, "I can help you learn. But--"

Brendon put his hand over Ryan's mouth. "We'll renegotiate the terms of my wedding night later."

Ryan looked suspicious, but when Brendon took his hand away, he didn't argue.

*


Ryan had brought up the idea of tattoos--or even scarification or branding, he wasn't afraid of pain, not if there was a good reason for it--for his new mark, but Brendon wouldn't hear of it. Ryan tried every argument he could think of, including a few that made Brendon say, "You're making me a little sick," but nothing seemed to convince Brendon that absolutely permanent--or the closest thing to it--was best. Brendon just kept saying, "We'll figure out something that's a little less like marking livestock."

Out of frustration, Ryan had said, "Livestock is probably worth more at this point," mostly to prove a point. Brendon hadn't spoken to him for two days, until Spencer had intervened and Ryan had apologized.

Of course, Ryan had felt the need to mutter, after his apology, "I didn't mean you thought of me as livestock," at which point Spencer had lightly tapped him upside the back of the head in warning. Ryan had made himself not lean into the touch. He didn't think that had been what Spencer had been going for.

Ryan didn't leave the house while he remained unmarked. Sometimes, Brendon could get him to walk over to Spencer's at Brendon's side, but he couldn't even walk far enough away that Brendon wouldn't be able to reach him. The thought left him breathless from panic, and the one time it had happened, Brendon had held his hand the rest of the way and talked so consistently that by the time they reached Spencer's, Ryan had been a bit concerned that Brendon was going to pass out from lack of oxygen.

Spencer had made both of them eat soup and warm bread until Ryan felt sick. He tried out his pathetic eyes, the ones he hadn't used in so long he wasn't even sure he remembered how to make them, but he must have, because Spencer had said, "Maybe you should take a nap."

When Ryan had woken from that nap, Spencer had been sleeping beside him, and Brendon had been sitting in the corner with a book, watching them occasionally. Ryan hadn't even had to think to smile at Brendon, and Brendon's responding smile had traveled right through Ryan's body, stronger than a bolt of lightning. Ryan had thought, just for a second, "I want to kiss him," and the thought had surprised him enough that he'd shuddered.

Brendon had asked, "You okay?"

Ryan had held out his hand, unsure if he had the right, unable to speak, and Brendon had come to him. Brendon was always warm, and sometimes, back in the summer months when Brendon had learned how to keep Ryan safe with just his presence, it had almost been too much, but Ryan couldn't seem to mind.

Brendon settled against him, still careful of the places that hadn't wholly healed and said, "We don't have to go home until tomorrow, when it's light, not if you don't want." Madrigal had walked over with them—it was hard to get her to leave Ryan’s side these days—and was bedded down with Spencer’s dogs.

Ryan turned his face into Brendon's and caught his lips, and Ryan knew how to do this, was completely practiced and experienced, but the spread of warmth that came with Brendon's lips, the spark that breathed its way through his spine, none of that was anything Ryan could remember having to do with kissing.

Brendon murmured, "Ryan," and Ryan touched his tongue to Brendon's, just to see what his own name tasted like when it was being said like that, like something that needed to be held to tightly, never let go.

They didn't kiss for long. Ryan could feel Spencer at his back, and even though he was there, he was asleep, and Ryan felt slightly guilty. Brendon was Spencer’s, after all. Brendon just needed Ryan to help, so that he'd be his best for Spencer. Ryan knew he should probably tell Brendon that Spencer would like him most exactly as he was, but Ryan couldn't. He wanted this time with Brendon, even if it was all he got.

Of course, it was possible that Spencer and Brendon could have other interests in him, maybe. He wouldn't turn that down. It surprised him that he felt that way, but it seemed pointless to argue against his own desires when they might serve him well in any case.

Brendon fell asleep against him, but Ryan was up and awake, so he did his best to slip out from between the two of them and sneak out of the room. Once out, he found Ray in the main room, tending the fire and reading a newspaper. He looked up upon hearing Ryan enter.

Ryan said, "Sorry, I didn't mean--"

Ray asked, "How are you feeling?"

"Good as new," Ryan lied. It was better not to let other people know your weaknesses, not even other slaves--sometimes, especially not other slaves.

Ray just smiled slightly and said, "Good to hear. Have a seat?"

Ryan took the spot on the sofa Ray was offering--it seemed rude not to. He glanced at Ray's slave cuff, trying to seem like he wasn't. Ray just raised the newspaper. His arms were the size of Ryan's torso. Ryan bet people never tried to do things to Ray like they were forever trying with Ryan.

From behind the paper, Ray said, "Looks like the authorities from way off in the city sent some quality control merchants out and shut down that tannery over by the trading house."

Ryan took a breath in and coughed on it. Ray lowered the paper, but he didn't try to touch Ryan. Ryan said, "Oh?"

"Something about quotas and trade ethics. I'm not really much for merchantry. I like the fields."

Ryan knew it wasn't his place to ask, but he was feeling off-kilter enough to say, "Do you? Like them? I mean, or is it just--" He shook his head.

"I do," Ray said softly. "I didn't always. Before, when I was young, I liked music and books. But my parents died in factory accidents in the city, and I went to work in the factory, and factory kids, they, ah. They disappear all the time. I was no good as a slave, too used to being loved and too educated, even though we'd been poor, and I ended up on chain gangs, labor details, the worst of the worst, but then the Smiths found me, and-- The fields make me feel like I don't have to run. I'm already-- There's no reason to run."

Ryan nodded slowly. "It is nice, being outside."

"Ever taken your shoes off once the rows have been plowed?"

Ryan shook his head. Ray grinned. "And you should try finding the first ripe produce and eating it right there, under the sun."

Ryan blinked. "It isn't mine."

"Sure it is. You grew it, didn't you?"

"But Brendon--"

Ray snorted. "If I'm right, Brendon will watch you eat it and then pretend like he has something to do."

Ryan flushed. It wasn't that he was unused to talk of an obscene nature, far from it. He just wasn't used to those sorts of things being said in ways that weren't threatening or shaming, or not from another pleasure slave or a master.

Ray laughed, but it wasn't a cruel laugh. He said, "I think the fields aren't going to be the only place you find ways to feel free."

Ryan startled. "I don't want-- That never has--"

"You don't know what you're talking about," Ray told him, and somehow, despite the words, the message wasn't condescending. "I thought I knew what it meant, being owned by another, being part of a system. And then a woman no larger than one of my legs saved my life because she was in the same clearing I was and she saw a man there, rather than chattel. And when I learned to pay attention to the fact that things had changed, I noticed that not even grass smelled the same."

Ryan tilted his head. "I don't understand."

"I know," Ray said with sympathy. "I know. But I think you will."

*


Brendon didn't want Ryan to think about things too hard, so when all the preparations were made, he woke Ryan up early one morning and said, "Ryan, you have to go into town with me."

Ryan shut his eyes, reopened them, looked at Brendon and asked, "Did I do something--"

"No, no." Brendon felt sick. "No, of course not. But I figured out a way to mark you. A good way. And we have to go into town."

"Oh." Ryan bit at his lip. "And I have to--"

Brendon pressed his lips to Ryan's, sucking gently at the spot that Ryan had just abused. He pressed his forehead to Ryan's and said, "I won't let you out of my sight. Not for a second."

One of Ryan's hands found its way into Brendon's, and Brendon squeezed at the touch. Ryan squeezed back. "Okay. Just. I'd like a bath first."

Brendon asked, "Want me to help?" and pretended like he wasn't blushing straight down to his toes. He couldn't help that Ryan had soft skin in the places where it hadn't been broken, and that Brendon liked to touch, liked the sounds Ryan made when he was pleasantly surprised.

Ryan tilted his face just slightly downward so that he could look straight at Brendon. "I'd like that."

They helped each other to heat and pour the water, and Ryan undressed Brendon, slowly and with what Brendon knew was expertise, but it felt so very personal.

Ryan let Brendon undress him, and it wasn't nearly as smooth, but Ryan didn't seem to mind, arching in to the gentle brushes of Brendon's fingers as he stripped Ryan's shirt, then his pants.

When they were in the water, Ryan lathered the soap between his fingers, and used it to massage Brendon's skin. He talked as he did it, told Brendon the places that usually felt best, and the others that he'd just have to test out and see on Spencer.

Brendon tried to concentrate, but Ryan had the world's most perfect hands, and once they were working their hardest at making Brendon melt, well, Brendon was only a man, a very, very weak man, as it was turning out.

Then Ryan handed him the soap and said, "You could try. On me. If you wanted?"

Brendon wanted. When he got to the part where he had to figure out where Ryan's favorite spots were and discovered that Ryan didn't know, that only made him want it more.

They headed out from the house considerably later than Brendon had planned. Between the bath and persuading Madrigal to stay, it was getting on noon. The winter freeze hadn't thawed quite enough that the fields were viable for so much as clearing, though, so they had the day, just has they'd had the one before, and they'd have tomorrow, to do what they would.

Brendon put Ryan in front of him on Clover, and the two of them made their way into town and straight to Victoria's. Victoria was one of the very few upper-class merchants in town, selling mostly silver and gold, but she occasionally carried gems as well. Her husband--at least, everyone thought they were married, although it was possible the arrangement was a bit less traditional--Gabriel, was a smithy of the different metals she carried, and he could work with the jewels as well.

When they walked into the store, Ryan murmured, "Brendon--"

Brendon just rushed to Victoria and was caught up in a hug. Moments later, Gabriel came out of the back and said, "If it isn't Urie," and then Brendon was being lifted even higher off the ground.

Brendon turned to Ryan. "Ryan, this is Victoria and Gabriel. More friends of Mikey and Bob's."

"Hello," Ryan said evenly. The look on his face said to Brendon, "Who in this town isn't?

Brendon just smiled. He asked Victoria, "It's here?"

"And evidently perfect," Gabriel told him, eyes still lingering on Ryan. Ryan moved so that the counter of sale was more solidly between them, and Brendon growled.

Gabriel's gaze flickered to Brendon and he smirked, but he also went to the back. Victoria gave Ryan a gentle look and said, "Darling, I'd make him eat his own balls if he touched anyone other than me."

Ryan thought about that for a moment, then allowed himself a tiny smile, which Victoria returned.

Gabriel came back with a box, which he opened for Brendon. Inside was a chain, the links large enough to be sturdy, but thin enough to have the appearance of jewelry, rather than a binding tool. The clasps were engraved with the words "Urie" and "Smith" respectively, and there was an element that would allow the two to be fused together.

Ryan said, "Brendon," again, and it was more a breath of air than anything. Looking at the piece, he couldn’t even remember why he hadn’t wanted something around his neck. Oh, there was the faint sensory memory of choking, of metal that had caused burns and even gashes, but the chain wasn’t even related to those types of memories.

"Bob and Mikey's wedding gift," Brendon told him. "Extravagant, but Spencer and I were hard pressed to say no."

"I'll have to fuse it together once it's on you," Gabriel said. "I know what I'm doing and I'll be careful, but you'll feel the heat."

Ryan looked straight at him. "Please. Please, let's--"

Gabriel held up a hand. "All right. All right."

Brendon slipped his hand inside of Ryan's. "You can squeeze if you need to."

Ryan looked at him. Brendon smiled. "Not going anywhere."

*


Spencer reached his fingers out when he first saw Ryan with the chain, but he didn't touch. No, he waited for Ryan to step into his touch. Ryan did. Spencer's fingers were cool against his throat, the silver links that were warmed by the nearness of Ryan's pulse.

Spencer asked, "Is it okay?"

Ryan had spent nearly an hour looking at himself in the mirror that first day. He'd never worn something of such high quality, not even before his father's death. Certainly none of his past owners had seen fit to gift him with anything of its like, despite the fact that several of them could have afforded to. It was masculine without looking ridiculous on his frame, and delicate without seeming to suggest anything about him. Best of all, it was a solid marker, one that would be hard to remove, and hard to challenge. It was safety, and nobody could take it from him, not without considerable effort.

Ryan meant to say, "It's perfect," but he found himself touching his fingers to Spencer's lips, and then, somehow--and Ryan was entirely sure he hadn't done anything more than touch--Spencer's lips were against his, more confident than Brendon's, but also lighter, less urgent.

Ryan pulled away, eyes wide, his mouth forming the word, "Brendon," without managing to actually say it.

Spencer looked a little confused. "The two of you haven't talked about this?"

"What's...this?" He and Brendon hadn't talked about Ryan being shared, but if Brendon wanted to share him, that was Brendon's right. Not that Ryan minded with Spencer, but he wondered if Brendon would let him know who else was allowed.

"Oh. He didn't." Spencer sounded sad, which made Ryan's chest hurt.

"Tell me?" Ryan requested. He would have made it an order, only he was feeling quite bold at just asking to be told. He hoped Spencer would hear his need. There had been a time when Spencer could hear everything.

"Brendon and I, we thought--" Spencer ran a hand through his hair. "We should have talked to you first."

Ryan knew he should probably care, that maybe he would have, in another life. But what seemed important to him was that Spencer was talking to him, not just doing as he pleased. "Spence."

"I know that you and Brendon, well, you like each other. We just thought, with the wedding and all, if you didn't mind, it would be okay if I-- Because I-- I mean, you're Ryan. There's never been a time when I didn't want--"

Ryan cut Spencer off with another kiss, this one light, as much a question as his earlier, voiced one. Spencer didn't kiss back, but he didn't pull away, either. When Ryan stopped the kiss, his lips flush to Spencer's, Spencer said, "Ah, like that."

"Brendon said it was okay?" Ryan needed to hear that again, because this wasn't sharing. Sharing Ryan understood, but this was something else, something where Ryan got to say yes or no, and wanted, wanted so badly, to say yes.

"He said, well, he got all Brendon and said that as long as we didn't leave him--"

Ryan laughed. He hadn't even known he was going to until it was past his throat, coming up over his lips. "Brendon has odd ideas," he said. By which Ryan meant that sometimes, Brendon was a little dumb, but he knew better than to say that about a freeman, even if it was Brendon, and even if Spencer was the only one listening.

Spencer looked at Ryan and said, "You two are so very different in that respect."

Ryan supposed that was fairly valid. "Have you really, I mean, since we were--"

"Well, it was different then. I just thought you were everything."

"I used to think about you," Ryan admitted. "Before I stopped, um. There's, sometimes it's easier not to think of anything but nothing." He knew that probably didn't make sense, but he didn't know how to explain the blankness that had helped him survive some of his worst experiences. "Before that, though. I used to pretend I was at your home, and you had never let anyone take me. You had just explained that I was staying with you, now."

Spencer's expression was agonized. "Ryan, if I could have, if we could have--"

"I know. Spencer, I know. I've known for years. It was just a dream."

Spencer whispered, "You ended up here. With me. And him."

Ryan laughed. "I did."

"I want to kiss you again."

Ryan told him, "I thought about that, sometimes, too."

*


By the time spring poked its head around the corner--which was to say, the first thaw--both Brendon and Ryan were anxious to get back into the fields. Brendon couldn't ever remember being so ready, but then, he'd never had anyone to work them with him. Ryan's arm was still less-than-wholly healed, but he had some basic mobility, so the two of them went out in the late mornings, when the sun had made it high enough to actually be something of a help to them, and began the preparations for this year's crop.

It was still cold enough that staying out for long meant blue fingertips and red, chapped lips, and ears that hurt when they first walked inside. Brendon was happy as could be, and Ryan wasn't far off, if his quiet, off-center smiles were anything to go by. Spencer would come by in the evenings, laugh at the way they were bundled up in blankets, cuddled into each other. Then he would help them make a warm dinner and a fire and join them, telling them about his day, asking about theirs, bringing any news they might not have heard.

Brendon wasn't certain how he'd ever gotten up the nerve, but at some point he'd slipped a finger in the space between Ryan's neck and the chain, just hooked it right inside, and Ryan had stilled for a moment. Brendon had almost apologized, almost pulled his hand away, but then Ryan had settled closer to Brendon, releasing a breath, melting just slightly.

At some point, Ryan became bold enough to ask, "You, ah, you have something to get married in, yes?"

Brendon hadn't really thought about the question. His marriage day was special, but at the same time, this was Spencer. Brendon was convinced that Spencer would accidentally wear his sister's clothing if they weren't mostly dresses, and too small. "I have my breeches. The nice ones."

"The ones you wear every time we go into town," Ryan said. It wasn't a question, by the tone. It wasn't not a question, either.

Brendon laughed. "You disapprove."

Ryan paled at the words, and Brendon said, "No, I mean-- Tell me. Tell me what to do to make Spence happy. I want him to smile more than he's ever smiled."

"Sap," Ryan said.

"Mm," Brendon agreed. "You're the one who wants to dress me up like a doll."

"Not a doll," Ryan said. "A groom."
Brendon let him have his dignity. It seemed like a small thing. He said, "Okay, but nothing too extravagant. I want to be able to afford a groom's gift."

"We could wrap you in a bow," Ryan suggested graciously.

"Or we could--" Brendon stopped himself, horrified at what he'd been about to say.

"Not much of a gift." Ryan tilted his head. "He'll actually own me at that time. Property laws of equal sharing in marriage, and all that."

Brendon frowned. "Well, I'll be his husband. That's kind of like...he'll legally own me."

"Reciprocally," Ryan said.

Brendon couldn't help his smile. Ryan shook his head. "Hopeless. Besides, the bow would look better on you. You pull off red with more flare."

"Is that so?"

Ryan gestured at the slight curves of red drawn deep into his face and said, "Trust me on this."

"I think it's beautiful," Brendon said, then shut his eyes. He made himself open them, hearing the way Ryan's breathing was uneven. Ryan was standing where he had been, but his shoulders were up in the way they hadn't been since those first months.

Brendon said, "I know, I know they did it to you, and I should find it awful and horrible, and I hate that it wasn't your choice. If I could I'd find the people and I'd hold them down and I'd do it to them, only with bigger needles. But it's your face, the only face I've ever seen on you and I can't help that I--"

The last thought was swallowed up by Ryan's mouth, and for several moments it was nothing but their tongues, and their teeth, hands grabbing furiously at each other, much, much more intense and bruising than ever before.

When Ryan broke it off to breathe he said, "That's the first time-- When other people say it, they laugh, or they...there's a tone. I can't, I don't want to show you. But you said, you just said it."

Brendon tugged Ryan back toward Brendon's bedroom, where Ryan had done most of his "teaching." Brendon didn't want Ryan to have to feel like his own space was being invaded for anything that reminded him of other cages, other owners.

Brendon stripped Ryan's shirt off and pointed to a very light scar, one Ryan had finally admitted was from a mistress who'd been drunk and had accidentally dropped a glass near where he was kneeling, the shards hitting him. Brendon pressed his fingers to it and said, "I just see you."

Ryan's eyes were huge in his face. Brendon dipped his head to kiss at the scar on his bicep where a whipping had gotten out of hand. "Just you."

Ryan said, "But--"

Brendon slipped his hand inside the waist of Ryan's trousers to the spot where one of Ryan's earlier masters had carved his initials. "Only you. You, alive and here, with me. Me and Spence."

Ryan said, "You really, um, you really do look better in red."

Brendon laughed, threw back his head and let it fill his body. "Sure. But you look better in precious metals."

*


The day of Brendon and Spencer's wedding dawned with a grey sky and peals of thunder. Brendon said, "Oh, hey, I love rainstorms on days I don't have to work."

Ryan kissed him, meaning it to just be a confidence kiss, but Brendon held on and Ryan was loath to go anywhere. He made himself, though, because, "Spencer will be waiting."

"Oh!" Brendon said, then started running from one end of the house to the next with apparent purpose, but Ryan could tell that he was really just unsure of what to do with himself.

Ryan went to go catch him and made him sit down at the kitchen table. "Oatmeal?"

Brendon's eyes widened. "You want me to eat? I can't eat, Ryan. I'll throw up on Spencer's shoes. And you know how Spencer feels about his good shoes."

It was true, Spencer was very fond of his shoes, but Ryan was entirely sure that he was more fond of Brendon. Also, "You won't throw up. You want to marry Spencer."

"I know that! Of course I know that. But what if he decides he doesn't want to marry me? I meant, he's not really getting much out of this bargain--"

"Brendon." Ryan turned away so that he wouldn't be smiling directly at Brendon's concern.

"No, truly, his farm is much larger, and--"

"And he asked you to marry him. Not the other way around. You know why slaves are taught not to ask questions?"

"Ryan--" Brendon said softly, like an apology was in the offing, but Ryan cut him off.

"Because it means we have desires. Wants. And we're not meant to. We're to serve, nothing else. It ruins the illusion. Asking something of someone, it means a person wants that thing. And you yourself point out that Spencer had no good financial reason to ask, so he must want it very, very much."

Brendon settled at that, sat still for the first time since waking. Then he grinned, the kind of grin that made Ryan want to check the window and make sure the sun hadn't actually come out. "Right. Right. Spencer loves me."

"Oatmeal?" Ryan tried again.

Brendon gave a helpless shrug. Ryan turned to make some.

He sat and ate with Brendon, then helped Brendon get dressed in the suit Ryan had pieced together in town. Brendon had insisted that Ryan also have a new pair of pants and a shirt for the occasion, and Ryan had been hard pressed to turn him down. He loved the feel of new fabrics against his skin, the way clothing covered so much of him, kept him safe from the looks of others. He liked colors and the right to pick them, and what it said about him, even if only in his own mind, when he put them on.

They rode over to Spencer's house. Ryan looked up at the sky and hoped the rain could hold off until they arrived. There was a slight dusting of rain by the time they knocked at the Smiths’ door, but it could have been far worse.

Ray answered the door and Ryan almost did not recognize him. He had his hair pulled back and was in a starched shirt, a far cry from his normal field apparel. He ushered them in, into the back-yard, where the Smiths had set up a large awning.

Mikey and Bob and Pete were all there, all dressed in full-fledged suits, as though maybe they had come from the city. Ryan wanted to touch, but he knew better. Pete would probably let him later, at the lunch.

Dr. Way was there as well, looking a bit disheveled, but as though he had certainly tried to dress for the occasion.

Jon's father was the local justice of the peace, and would be performing the ceremony. Jon had a boutonniere in his lapel, and Tom was blushing every time he so much as glanced in Jon's direction. Ryan liked the flower; he thought it was a nice touch. Tom was surprising in little ways like that.

Spencer’s sisters were in matching dresses of pale blue, simple and pretty. They were carrying bouquets of white roses. Ryan could smell them, mixed in with the oncoming rain. He wanted nothing more than to just breathe, deep and slow. Only then Spencer came in, his suit fitted to him, finer than Brendon's, but simple all the same. It was a sharp grey, deeper than the sky of the day, but not harsh, not too dark. His eyes shone above it.

Brendon picked at his sleeves, and Ryan calmed him with a hand. He ushered Brendon to where Spencer was standing before Mr. Walker. Mr. and Mrs. Smith were right behind Spencer, and as soon as they arrived, everyone quieted. In the moments before, Ryan watched as Spencer touched a finger to Brendon's cravat--his one major concession to the fact that it was his wedding day. Spencer murmured, "Ryan?"

Brendon whispered back, "He liked it."

Spencer smiled. "Me too."

Brendon opened his mouth, but Mr. Walker called them to attention and spoke of why two people chose to join in marriage, what these promises meant. Ryan wasn't really listening. It was impossible to, when Brendon and Spencer were standing before him, taking each other in, waiting to kiss. He could practically feel the desire between them. He wanted them to fulfill it. He wanted to be between them. He wanted things that he didn't know how to think about.

The words that were being spoken came back into focus when Brendon said, "I do," almost singing it, and Ryan thought he wanted that, wanted to hear Brendon sing the words that made him happy, even the ones that made him sad. Spencer repeated the words and then Jacquelyn was giving them the rings, simple, traditional bands. Just the sight of Spencer sliding one onto Brendon's finger, slender and forever in motion, of Brendon returning the favor on Spencer's sturdy, still hands, made something in Ryan settle. The silver around his neck was warm against his skin, just heavy enough that he could always feel it. He preferred it that way, liked being able to wake up to the assurance that it was still there.

And then they were kissing--Ryan could only assume they'd been given permission—the tips of Brendon's ears turning red, and Spencer's hands, ringed finger and all, at his hips, holding Brendon right where he wanted him.

It went on a little long, Ryan knew, but he didn't mind. He didn't think anyone did. Well, except for Crystal, who said, "Spencer! I'm hungry!"

Brendon and Spencer were both laughing when they broke away from the kiss.

*


Brendon's lands and his house were really the only thing he had to bring to the marriage. It was a separate residence, which Spencer wanted. Realistically, Spencer most likely could have established himself, so it was a poor offering, but Spencer didn't seem to feel that way. When they had been eating and toasting and generally being hospitable for what felt like forever, Spencer leaned over and said, "Let's go home."

They made the rounds, Brendon hugging the Smiths each in turn, longer and more fiercely than he'd ever dared. When he went to collect Ryan, he found him with Pete. Ryan was tucked into Pete's side. Brendon smiled at Pete and asked, "Mind if I take Ryan? We're leaving."

Pete shoved at Ryan lightly. "Told you."

Ryan was looking at Brendon like he'd said something odd. Pete was looking at Ryan like he was brain-damaged.

Brendon asked, "Uh, what did you tell him, Pete?"

"That he was going home with you."

Brendon asked, "Where else would he be going?"

Pete shrugged. "Not really sure. He was trying to see if Bob and Mikey had an extra room, and if I might not mind having a guest, if that were the case." Pete stepped into Brendon's space, and while he wasn't bold about it, he stood his ground, his eyes dark and thoughtful. He said, "The first year, Mikey and Bob, I mean, sometimes even now, they have to be careful about what I'm thinking. Mikey says I don't think like a person. Bob got mad at him for saying it, but it's true, a little, and he didn't mean it cruelly."

Brendon took in the way Pete's chin was just a little higher than it needed to be, as if braced to take a blow, despite the fact that Brendon could see Bob not ten feet away, and more than willing to kill Brendon with his hands if he so much as touched Pete. He shook his head. "You think like a person--a person who's been taught too much fear."

"He's like that," Pete said softly. Even so, Brendon knew Ryan could hear. Ryan was looking away from them, but Brendon knew better. He had learned to read the few signs that Ryan gave off.

Brendon nodded. "I--" He squared his shoulders and held out his hand to Pete. "I'll keep him safe. And make him believe he is."

After a second, Pete reached out and shook on it. Then he said, "Ryan. Go home."

Ryan looked as though he was going to demur for a moment, but then he just followed Brendon. Spencer was already at the carriage. Ryan opened his mouth, but Brendon said, "Up," and helped him onto the box, between Spencer and himself.

It was a short, easy ride from there, Spencer talking about his father's suggestion for moving a few things into Brendon's house, and Brendon mostly just listening, fine with whatever Spencer wanted. There were few things in his house that Brendon was so emotionally attached to as to contemplate having trouble switching them out for something else.

When they reached Brendon's--their, Brendon thought quietly, smiling at the thought--home, they worked together to get the horse watered and put up, and make their way into the house.

Ryan said, "I'll, ah--" gesturing and moving toward his room.

Spencer caught him by the hand and said, "No, Ry. No, not unless it's what you really, absolutely want. Then I suppose it's your choice. But only then."

Ryan looked at Brendon, as if Brendon might say something different. Brendon kept his mouth shut, mostly so he wouldn't be tempted to order Ryan to stay, or beg, which Ryan very well might take the same way. When Ryan asked, "Brendon?" though, Brendon couldn't stop himself from saying, "We want you here. If you want, um, we want."

He flushed, feeling clumsy and childish, and not anything like he had hoped he would on his wedding night.

Ryan said softly, and with a hint of terror in his tone, "I want."

"Good," Spencer said, and dragged Ryan behind him, into Brendon's room. Brendon followed. He shut the door behind them, despite it just being the three of them. Somehow, it felt more private.

Brendon went to Spencer and, as Ryan had taught him, began by opening just one of Spencer's buttons. He followed the action with a kiss, intoxicated by the idea that he could put his mouth anywhere now, that it was all his for the taking. He backed off, though, and looked at Ryan. "Help?"

Ryan took a hesitant step in their direction, then came quickly, as though he might lose his nerve. The two of them shared the process of undressing Spencer, figuring him out with their fingers and lips and even teeth, in Brendon's case. He was curious, and Spencer didn't seem to mind.

When Spencer was fully naked, he looked at the two of them from slightly hazy-eyes and asked, "Who first?"

Brendon kissed Ryan gently and said, "I want to save you for last. Is that--"

Ryan kissed him back, and worked carefully, meticulously, to undo the cravat he had tied for Brendon that morning. Spencer made Ryan show him how it worked, for future reference. And even though Ryan had been helping Brendon to know, to understand what was coming, the curiosity of both of them at once--Spencer's fingers ghosting over, then playing with his nipples, Ryan sucking at the skin of his stomach, Spencer scraping gently over his inner thighs, Ryan tracing the lines of his shoulders with his tongue--Brendon could barely breathe for the pleasure of it.

He made himself, though, made himself say, "Ryan. Ryan's turn."

They took their time with Ryan. Spencer did his best to undress Ryan without actually touching him, making Ryan's breathing quicken and his expression become a little desperate, but Ryan didn't even arch into the touch. Once he was naked, though, the two of them set about a thorough exploration, taking special care with the places that were marked, burnt or scarred in some way. They worked on finding the spots that made Ryan whimper deep in his throat, and those that made him giggle, the ones that made him bite his lips, and those that he flinched away from. They repeatedly made sure the other recognized those last ones, knew where to stay away from.

Brendon was the one to ask, "What do you want?" He wasn't sure to whom the question was directed. He didn't much care who answered.

Ryan spoke, his voice hoarse. "Spence. Spence, he hasn't-- He hasn't done this. We-- I taught him a little, kissing and touching. Nothing more."

Spencer blinked at Brendon, who glared half-heartedly at Ryan. Spencer lay down next to Ryan and urged him to turn so they were facing each other. "I want--" Spencer flushed, then. "Do you-- Can I have him? This time?"

Ryan nodded, as though any other thought had never crossed his mind. Then Spencer asked, "Do you-- You can have me. Or his mouth." Spencer looked at Brendon, who nodded. Ryan had told him how to do it. He was pretty certain he could. He would try his best for Ryan.

Ryan looked unsure, overwhelmed by the choice. Brendon said, "Both. He can have both." He leaned over Ryan to kiss Spencer. "Watch, for a bit."

Spencer said, "Oh."

Brendon straddled Ryan and said, "I listened," before wrapping his hand tight around the base of Ryan's cock, loving the sound Ryan made at just that much contact. It was almost a growl, a demand. Then Brendon opened his mouth, leaned over Ryan and took him in slowly, deep as he could, breathing through his nose and making sure to suck, his teeth hidden away.

Ryan said, "Oh," not sounding at all like Ryan, and then, "Brendon," pleadingly, eagerly.

Spencer said, "Christ," more a gasp than a word. Brendon lost himself in the process of wringing sounds from Ryan, the newness of Ryan on his tongue, salty and warm and a little odd, but mostly perfect.

He was so far into the sense, the feel of things, that when there was a slight pressure against his hole it surprised him into mewling. Ryan sobbed at that, which was the most amazing thing Brendon thought he'd ever hear.

Spencer put a hand to Brendon's back and pushed in with his finger, wet and a bit cold, and Brendon wasn't sure how he felt about it, was even less sure at the second finger, which burned a bit.

Ryan pulled Brendon off his cock and up a little. He said, "Brendon, come here," and brought their lips together. Brendon wondered if he tasted like Ryan, if Ryan could tell.

Ryan said, "Relax. It's easier if you relax," and then went back to doing his best to relax Brendon. At some point, he moved out from underneath Brendon and slid a pillow beneath Brendon's hips. He took his lips to other parts of Brendon's body, whispering low and even as he did so. Spencer went for a third finger, and Brendon was honestly trying not to cry out when Spencer’s middle knuckle hit a spot and Brendon's vision went white straight through. "Oh."

Spencer laughed breathily, and Ryan just continued his ministrations, seemingly everywhere. When Spencer moved to enter Brendon, Ryan reached underneath and wrapped his fingers nice and firm around Brendon's cock.

Brendon was whimpering, he couldn't help it--Spencer didn't seem to quite fit. But then, between Ryan's hand and the lessening of the initial burn, Brendon could feel that spot again, and all he could think was, "More, more." He might have been saying it, but he wasn't quite sure. Ryan was still talking, saying things about beauty, and him and Spencer. Brendon didn't really understand, but he didn't want it to go away. He wrapped his hand around the one Ryan was using to jerk him, moaned Ryan's name, then Spencer's, and let himself become nothing but the beat of pleasure pain that seemed like a rhythm, like a song.

He couldn't tell, precisely, when it all became too much, and he was squeezing Ryan's hand, babbling at Spencer. Things became blurry, existing outside of time. Everything was pure pleasure until he surfaced again, Spencer still inside him, the rhythm gentler now, but less even, and he couldn't figure out where Ryan was until Spencer's breath hitched and he said, "Ryan," like it had three or four syllables. Spencer's whole body tightened then, and Brendon wondered if it felt the same for him. Next time, Brendon wanted to see, wanted to watch. But for now, he pulled away, out from underneath, so that he could see Ryan, watch as he discovered pleasure. For all his knowledge, Brendon had become aware quickly that Ryan wasn't very familiar with the good-feeling side of sex.

Brendon's suspicion was confirmed by the look of utter awe on Ryan's face as he entered Spencer, slow and careful, clearly unsure of himself. Spencer said, "You can-- I'm not-- Ryan."

Ryan didn't speed up, though, and Brendon couldn't tell if it was because he was worried, or because that speed was really, really working for him. Brendon said, "Spence, you should see him."

"Tell me," Spencer croaked.

"He's--" Brendon tried to think. He thought about high notes, and days when the sun was at the perfect warmth, and freshly-picked apples. In the end, he said, "He's like fire. In the middle of a cold winter." It was a stupid, overly romantic way to describe it, but there weren't any words for how Ryan looked right now, as if G-d Himself had come down and brought him a gift.

Ryan said, "I can't-- I've never-- You have to order me to hold it, if you--"

Brendon made himself get to his knees and kiss Ryan. He said, "He's yours. We're yours."

Ryan came hard enough that he crumpled over Spencer when he was done, and the two of them had to maneuver to get them all in the bed, under the covers. Ryan mumbled, "I'll clean--"

It was Spencer who kissed him this time, although Brendon stole a kiss off the curve of Ryan's neck. Spencer said, "I'll do it, in a moment."

Ryan yawned and said, "I don't have to stay," but it was half-hearted at best. Spencer just snuggled himself around Ryan.

Brendon said, "No, you really do," and for the first time, didn't care at all that he'd given an order.

*


Epilogue

Ryan heard the delivery carriage first. Of course, at that point he didn't realize it was a delivery carriage, just that Spencer and Brendon were further in-field than he was and there were people Ryan wasn't expecting coming up the lane. He gripped the hoe he'd been working into the ground a bit more tightly and made his way quickly to where he could see Spencer's hair peeking out from above the crops.

Spencer turned when he saw him. "Is it lun--" He caught Ryan with both hands. "Everything all right?"

"People," Ryan managed, his voice tight in his throat. He hadn't even realized how scared he'd been until Spencer was holding onto him, and then it was as if it was all allowed to stream out.

"Oh." Spencer didn't go anywhere, though; he just pulled Ryan in closer. He said, "I think it might be the piano. I forgot. I would have said something."

Ryan was focused on getting his heart to stop racing, but he caught enough of that to ask, "Piano?"

When he leaned back, Spencer was grinning. "Wedding present."

"Wasn't that the land?"

Spencer had gifted Brendon with an extra thirty acres of land that connected their estates upon their marriage. He made a face. "That was my family's gift to us. Come on."

He took hold of Ryan's hand tightly, tight enough to hurt, but Ryan was glad. He didn't want to have to worry that Spencer might let go. "Are we going to get Brendon?" Ryan asked.

"Not yet," Spencer said, as they made their way to the delivery carriage that had pulled up outside the house. "I'd prefer to make sure I'm right."

He called to a man knocking on the door, "Over here!"

"Oh!" The man turned, smiling. "Mr. Smith?"

"That's me," Spencer confirmed.

"You ordered a Bechstein? Walnut upright?"

Ryan didn't really know what any of that meant, but it sounded nice. One of his owners had had a piano, a giant black piece with gold lacquering. He'd owned slaves just for musical entertainment. He'd liked accompaniment at his parties. Ryan shook off the thought. This piano was for Brendon, who would love it and play it and barely even want anyone else to touch it. Secretly, though, Ryan thought maybe Brendon would teach him how to touch it correctly, how to make it play things that sounded good, and that Brendon could sing along to.

He tried not to act too interested--he didn't want the delivery men paying attention to him--but he wanted to see what this piano looked like. He was so engrossed in watching them take it out, that he didn't even notice Brendon coming upon them. He said, "You two, I can't work these fields--"

Ryan looked over and knew that Brendon had seen what was being unloaded, the dark walnut wood of the piece and its austere beauty, nothing like the one Ryan had seen before. This one was smaller, made to fit against a wall, but its carvings were clean and the wood was of the highest quality.

Brendon asked, "Um. I-- Spencer?"

Spencer didn't let go of Ryan, but he moved toward Brendon. "Do you like it?"

Brendon looked at Spencer as if concerned he'd hit his head. "Do I-- Are you-- What?"

"Wedding present," Ryan said softly, because knowing Spencer, he'd let this go on, and Ryan wanted to see Brendon when he understood it was his, for certain. That he was getting something he'd wanted since he'd had the nerve to move away from his home and everything he knew.

"Real-- Really?" Brendon's voice was high, like he was having a hard time forcing it past his throat.

Spencer grinned. "Really."

Brendon threw himself at Spencer, who, thankfully, still kept hold of Ryan, even as Brendon flaunted his love shamelessly. Ryan knew that was frowned upon in most circles, but the delivery men could just disapprove, because Ryan liked watching. He liked it almost as much as when Brendon turned his enthusiasm on Ryan. Ryan managed to say, "I didn't--"

"You would've," Brendon said dismissively. It was true, so Ryan didn't fight him getting his way.

When the delivery men were finished and Spencer had paid, they all three went inside, despite it being the middle of the day and there being plenty more work to be done. Brendon went out to the pump and washed his entire upper body vigorously before coming in and sitting down gingerly on the edge of the piano bench. He was bouncing as he sat and he turned to Ryan. "What should I play?"

Ryan blinked. He didn't know anything about music other than what Brendon had taught him. It hadn't been in his skill set.

Spencer said, "Play a love song, dummy."

"Romantic," Brendon said, with a laugh. But his fingers started moving and he opened his mouth, sang, and Ryan didn't care about anything but those sounds. Spencer was tapping out a beat against the wall, adding an underlying rhythm. Ryan closed his eyes, and even without seeing the two of them in front of him, knew where he was.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile