Wufei 177

I stayed close to Zechs the next day, trying to distract him and keep his spirits up. The other might not have seen it, but I could tell that Trowa's setback had really damped Zechs' spirits. It was his unending optimism and belief that was truly a help to the other slaves, but even Zechs couldn't keep his morale high in the face of such setbacks. So I took it upon myself to keep him busy and entertained, and not to give him a spare moment to worry that he might have failed us. It was a ridiculous notion anyway, but one I knew would prey on his mind for the next several days.

We bathed together that morning, among other things, and breakfasted with Master Vincent in the main dining hall. Trowa gave a commanding singing performance, significantly better than the one the night before, and showed a renewed confidence and strength that made the worry lines on Zechs' face fade ever so slightly.

After breakfast, Zechs and I went to retrieve his two newest slaves. Zechs had earlier arranged for them to be taken to the house instead of accompanying us on the trip, so we merely had to escort them from Vincent's harem to the limo that would deliver them to the house. Zechs had been certain to stock the house with fresh food in case of just such an occurrence, so the two would just have to occupy themselves until we returned.

I didn't expect much from the slaves, seeing as Vincent was willing to part with them so easily. So I wasn't terribly surprised when Vincent approached with the pair. One, a tall man with a willowy build and a good bit of grace, was far too old to be considered a strong Collar slave. His face still held an aristocratic beauty, the fair skin and high cheekbones revealing little of his age, but his shoulder-length hair, which still showed signs of being light blonde, was streaked with white, and I guess that he was in his mid to late forties.

The second slave was much younger, probably about the same age as the rest of us. He was fairly pretty, being small and slim with reddish hair and pretty green eyes, but he had a thin, white scar running from just blow his right eye nearly to his chin. A scar like that in such a prominent place would almost entirely eliminate his value, despite the fact that he was still rather pretty.

The two wore simple, white clothes as they approached us, and I could tell from the way the larger one herded and shepherded the younger that he had served more as a servant than a bed slave. The smaller one, on the other hand, kept his head down as he fidgeted with his hands, a sure sign that he had served as a low-level bed slave before, and was well aware of his scar.

Vincent motioned for the two to go and they both moved forward and knelt in front of Zechs, placing their heads on the ground. Zechs frowned for a moment and I wondered if he'd ever received slaves in such a formal manner before, but after only a moment he seemed to pick up on what was happening and asked the two to rise and approach.

The two came forward slowly; the younger one more hesitant, while the older one seemed more accepting of his fate. Perhaps this purchase had saved him from an almost certain death. Zechs, meanwhile, stepped forward to look them over, causing the younger one to flinch as Zechs tilted his chin to look at his scar. Zechs smiled at him, though, and it was the kind of smile that was so unthreatening and warm that it could make anyone relax and smile back, as the boy did. I couldn't blame him; I'd been on the receiving end of that smile a few times, and it was just as disarming as it was unexpected from so intimidating a figure. And, while Zechs didn't smile at the older slave as he did the younger, and I could tell by the way they looked at each other that they had come to some sort of silent agreement, and I saw the older slave relax as well.

"Not really the cream of the crop, I'll admit," Vincent said as he sauntered up, "but both perfectly serviceable. It's a shame about Waif. He was fairly pretty before his… accident."

"On the contrary," Zechs said, never taking his eyes off of the smaller boy. "I like a slave with… character. I'd never have managed to handle Shinigami if I didn't like more… interesting slaves."

"Ah… of course," Vincent hedged, uncertain whether to be insulted or not. Considering the insult he was giving Zechs by handing him castoff slaves, however, he decided against it. "The other slave, Demos, has served me faithfully for… well, for long enough, I suppose. I'm sure he will be of great use to you."

"Delightful," Zechs replied, laying a hand on Demos' shoulder. "Experienced slaves seem hard to come by in this competition. I was hoping I could find something other than youngsters. Not," he said, giving a playful wink to Waif, "that youth doesn't have its advantages, but I've found that prior experience can be a great benefit as well."

It was, of course, the kind of tactical maneuvering, so subtle and genuine, that Zechs had made a name for himself with. Vincent was backed into a corner now by his own movements. He couldn't very well get angry with Zechs for being pleased with the slaves, and yet it was obviously that not upsetting Master Zechs with this obvious disrespect made his blood boil. It was like a well-played game of chess, and like the sore loser he was, Vincent groused and stormed away.

But Zechs was too occupied to notice, because as much as his movements were political in nature, I could also tell that he was genuinely pleased with his new acquisitions. He was currently asking Waif about his age and previous employments.

"I'm only 18, sir, and I've been trained to do al sorts of house duties and chores as well as… as well as being a…"

"Companion?" Zechs asked gently, his eyes conveying that he understood what Waif had done. Waif nodded gratefully and blushed. I had to wonder how old he'd been when he'd been captured, for him to still be so timid about the subject of sex. Or perhaps Vincent was simply as unskilled of a trainer as he was a master.

"And you?" Zechs asked Demos.

"I am nearly 40 years of age, Master, as you can find in my records. I have served this household and two others and was occupied with cleaning the house, overseeing day-to-day operations, caring for and training slaves, and as a… companion, in my earlier years, Master."

"Excellent," Zechs said without a moment's hesitation. "I am in great need of someone to care for my house and help watch over my slaves. They have a terrible habit of overworking themselves when I'm not watching, and I don't need my slaves exhausted before Collar. As a trial run, I'm going to send you to my residence, placing Waif in your care. I want you to look after him and the house until I and the other slaves return. If you do a satisfactory job of caring for the boy, we will give you a trial period as my steward."

"Master," I prompted, "we'll be late if we don't hurry."

My eyes met with Demos' then, and a silent agreement passed between myself and the older man. I had no problems with him being placed in charge of the household, and to some extent even the other slaves. A good steward would help Zechs immensely, and I was far too busy with teaching and my own training to take on such a thorough and difficult job. However, Zechs had placed his trust in me, and I had no intention of giving it up. The care and well-being of the household could be placed in Demos' hands, but the care and well-being of the Master would still remain in mine. Demos cast his eyes down after a moment, and I knew he understood our arrangement.

"Ah. Well, then, I'm going to send you over there," Zechs said, directing Waif and Demos toward the awaiting plane. Zechs saw the two settled into their seats and the capable hands of his pilot, who would take them from the airport all the way to the house and see them settled in. From there, we quickly jumped into our own jet, for a quick flight to a local train station.

The island of Dr. Darus, as we had been informed in the invitation, could only be reached by train. It was puzzling how a train could reach an island, let alone be the only thing that could reach and island, and Zechs and I spent the first part of the trip debating whether an underground tunnel or a long, narrow bridge would reach the island. Quatre and Trowa, who seemed to be doing considerably better since this morning's talk, were playing chess, while Duo had managed to convince Heero to play poker. They seemed, amazingly enough, fairly evenly matched, considering Heero's stoic abilities and Duo's mastery of diversion.

The island of Dr. Darus, which I had never personally seen, was no so much an island as a fortress, it turned out. Hidden in a small inlet cove surrounded by high, sheer cliffs, the island had less than 200 feet of water surrounding it on any given side, and looked more than anything like a castle surrounded by a large moat. The only place that did open into the ocean was a small opening where the cliffs surrounding it stopped and the ocean water could flow in. The building itself looked ancient, made of large, gray stones that had a very gothic appeal. If an imitation, it was an exemplary replica of ancient European architecture. If an original, it was worth a fortune.

"Hey, Zechs? Is this dude a vampire? Because… you know… I totally like my blood. All of it. Is that cool?"

"Firstly, Duo, you have to use 'Master' now, remember? I don't want you to forget at this party and make me spank you again," Zechs said, referring to an earlier slip-up before Trowa's singing event, where Duo had accidentally called Zechs by his name. To punish him, Zechs had bared his bottom, turned him over his knee, and spanked him in front of all the other Master, which honestly didn't invoke that much interest, until Duo started moaning and squirming, obviously turned on. The "punishment" only ended when Duo begged for forgiveness, and was handed off to Heero to be relieved. It was actually something of a lucky occurrence, given that Zechs had been somewhat known for his prudishness. That act, combined with his treatment of Trowa, had managed to begin removing that label.

"I remember," Duo mumbled, blushing all the way to his braid.

"Secondly, I'm sure Master Darus is not a vampire. And, even if he is, I'm sure he's not going to eat you. He'd get a toothache anyway, with all the sugar you eat," Zechs said with a wink.

"It is impressive, though," Quatre put in, staring out the window at the intimidating castle. "I haven't seen anything like this since my vacation to Ireland with my family. Is that where we are?"

"I haven't the foggiest idea," Zechs admitted. "The invitation didn't include directions, simply a note that the train would be sent. And, with the speeds we were traveling it's impossible to tell exactly where we were going. So… it's possible, I suppose."

"Who'd wanna build a house that close to the ocean with no place to fish or swim or anything?" Duo wondered.

"Look at it logically, Duo," I put in. "This is probably one of the hardest places to get to in the world. The sheer cliffs coming off the island and the high waves around it make it impenetrable from the sea. The sheer cliffs surrounding and the sharp updrafts from the wind coming into the canyon make it impossible to get there from air or land. And the only entrance is over that small length of bridge, which I'm sure could fall away with a moment's notice. It's a fortress."

"You'd have to drop a bomb from a low-flying helicopter to make any kind of impact. The detonation of any high-level explosive should be able to decimate the castle, assuming the updrafts don't knock it into the ocean," Heero said neutrally, calmly staring out the window.

Everyone stared at him for several seconds, until he noticed.

"…What?"

"Ro-man," Duo said, slinging an arm over his shoulder, "Remind me never to make you really mad, okay?"

"Likewise," I put in as the two returned to their game. Behind me, Zechs chuckled. "This amuses you?"

"No, it's just…"

"Just?"

"It's just nice seeing the family getting along so well. We've all been so busy lately… I suppose I've missed this."

"Hm," I agreed, giving him a half smile as I resumed my seat beside him. He smiled back at me, taking my hand in his and kissing my knuckles. I let my eyes slip closed, leaning my weight against Zechs' shoulder. Times like these were so rare in life at Collar, and I'd be damned if I wasn't going to savor every moment.

A few minutes later, Zechs rose to go speak with the captain about the how much longer the trip would be. I decided to meditate for a few moments, only to be disturbed by an outburst from a rather distressed Trowa.

"Ack!" I heard, the then the sound of someone slamming their hands on the table. My eyes came open and I saw that every other person on the train was also staring at Trowa, who's uncharacteristic outburst had caused everyone to freeze. "I'm not playing this anymore! I know I'm not very good, but this is ridiculous! You beat me six times already, and it would probably be more than that if you hadn't been playing around the last three times. I saw at least twice where you had a check and just didn't call it. Probably more than that. I'm playing poker; apparently I'm no match for you at this game."

"I'm sorry. I just… I haven't gotten to play chess in a long time… I really should have been easier on you, I know you're just a beginner. I'm sorry," Quatre said, looking embarrassed and worried. It didn't seem like Trowa was actually angry, just frustrated, but Quatre's reaction reminded me that the two had only recently made amends, and their relationship was still a little off. Apparantly, it reminded Trowa as well, who instantly looked sheepish and contrite.

"No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped like that, I just don't like being easy prey. It's not your fault, and I'm glad you showed me how to play."

"But he'd much rather play strip poker with us!" Duo called with his usual enthusiasm. "Come on, Trow-babe, we promise not to grope after we get you out of those skivvies!"

Trowa rose with a somewhat predatory gleam to his eyes that told me poker, at least, was something he was familiar with. Quatre began putting the pieces of the chess board away with such a disappointed look in his eyes that I rose and sat across from him.

"I hope you don't think I'll be as easy to defeat as Trowa, but there should be time for one game before we reach the castle."

"More than that," Zechs said, returning from the front as Quatre gleefully began to set up pieces. "The captain says that a bad storm is coming through, and they can't dare the bridge for another hour or so, until the wind lets up."

"I suppose the bridge is as precarious as it seems then?" I asked Quatre made the first move.

"So it appears."

"I wonder… why all the extra security? Isn't this a bit… extreme?"

"He must have something to fear, I suppose. Perhaps he's hiding from enemies."

"Masters at Collar are too rich and too proud to hide from anyone. Perhaps he's hiding his secrets from the other competitors? They say Master Darus has perfected to many surgery and medical techniques that his slaves are almost superhuman. Perhaps he's simply hiding his techniques?"

"Maybe. Or maybe he's preparing for Collar to one day be discovered."

Quatre and I chuckled.

"What's so funny about that?" Zechs wondered, looking more surprised than I had expected. I'd honestly thought he was joking.

"Come on, Master," Quatre said, "You know how old money is. Even when I was back with my family, we were under strict discipline from my father, but we knew if something really big happened we'd be able to get out of it. That's just the way it works," he said, his voice taking on a sad tone at the end.

"Collar has been around for decades, even before the current Owner took over and made it what it is today. It will never totally go away. Even the slaves know this. The only freedom we can find is in a kind master or death," I said, perhaps more harshly that I wanted to, because Zechs began looking slightly ill. "It's not so bad, really."

"Not now that we have you," Quatre added, looking adoringly at Zechs.

"I suppose… I suppose I just never thought of you all as staying in this until death. Of not having anything else to look forward to," Zechs said, his tone resigned and decisive at the same time.

"There is nothing to look forward to, because we are content with what we have," I told him seriously. "We are happy here, and ask for nothing more than to remain here as long as possible."

At this, Zechs looked troubled, but I reached up and pulled him down into a kiss, which seemed to steady him.

"Don't worry so much," I chided. "We are happy. Nowhere else could we have found happiness like this. Our only wish is to remain together, and with you."

"I understand," Zechs said, but his smile was still too reserved for my taste. "Shouldn't you be paying attention to your game?"

"Ah, but a skilled chess master is never distracted from his goal, even by the most…"

"Checkmate."

"…surprising circumstances."

"Hehe."

"…Beginner's luck."

But we both knew it wasn't.

In the next hour, we played three games of chess, and Quatre beat me easily in all but one. And I've never been quite convinced that Quatre didn't let me win that game, because he was afraid of upsetting me. I have to admit, it was a bit… humbling. I had held top scores in chess since I began competing, and now a slave who had never even competed was showing me moves? My ego took a hit, if nothing else.

But the ego boost Quatre got was far more important than any embarrassment I was suffering. Quatre, who had always had such a hard time realizing his own worth, had finally found something that he excelled at naturally more than anyone else. And I felt obligated to take it one step further.

"You should take the chess tournament at Collar."

"W-what?" Quartre asked, confused and upset. "Wufei, I didn't mean… I don't want to take that away from you."

"It's not you taking it away from me. It's me giving it to you, because you are better than I am. With a few lessons, I won't be able to beat you, and neither will anyone else."

"Wufei," Master chimed in, "aren't you being a little petty? Quatre might have won a few games over you, but he's nowhere near ready for a competition, and there are only a few weeks before Collar."

"I'm not being petty. Quatre is ready to compete now. We can squeeze practice until the last two weeks before Collar, and he'll be ready."

"That's too much pressure."

"No!" Quatre put in excitedly. "Master, if Wufei thinks he can do this… I promise, I'll work really, really hard!"

"Quatre, love," Zechs consoled, "It's not about how hard you work. I just don't think you're going to be ready in time. Wufei is already a strong player…"

"Yes, I am, but no one is going to accredit that to you," I explained calmly. "The Owner is the one who has credit for training me in chess. Do you understand what this will do to your reputation if you manage to make an untrained slave into a winner in such a serious event as chess?"

"That's not the issue here. I can't risk losing this event on a gamble like this."

"There is no risk. Somehow, he's already better than the best."

"That's different than being under the pressure of the competition. I don't want Quatre getting overwhelmed with the stress of it."

"He's not going to get overwhelmed any more than he would in any of the other competitions. If you don't think he can withstand this, then he probably couldn't withstand any of those, either. I think you're underestimating him."

"I'm not underestimating him, but there's not sense in adding stress to him if I already have a good player."

"I told you, that won't get you any reputation. It's going to look like you're mooching off of the Owner's accomplishments. Quatre is a much better choice, because he'll show how skilled you are in training your own slaves."

"I don't want to risk the win by putting in someone with less experience."

"The win isn't the most important thing in this competition. You need a good reputation so you can trade tips with the other masters. What if you don't win this year? The other masters will destroy your chances for next year if you get anywhere near the top and you don't have a strong reputation. If they don't want your training secrets, they'll just eliminate you as competition. We might not win this year, and…"

"We will win this year!" Zechs snapped, banging his fist on the table hard enough to make the chess pieces fall over. I think it was the first time I'd ever seen him truly so frustrated that he was angry. The train fell silent as all eyes went to our master.

"Master?" Quatre put in hesitantly. "I… I can't read minds, so I can't guarantee that I'll win every time, but… but I can read people really well. I know how people are going to behave, so I know how to trap them."

"So that's how you do it, you little imp," I said, smiling as some of the tension left the air. "That would give you the advantage over any other competitor, as long you can control it."

"I can! I really can! I mean, I think I can."

"Zechs? If he learns to control his power, he'll easily be better than me in this competition."

"I don't know… There really isn't any reason too…" Zechs trailed, rubbing his eyes, a sure sign that we'd given him a headache. Still, when Quatre got that disappointed, heartbroken look on his face that rarely fails to get him what he wants, Zechs caved. "We'll… see. Train him until Collar… and we'll see," Zechs said, sounding reserved, but I winked at Quatre. It seemed we'd worn him down.

Still, I had to wonder why it had taken so much to get him to change his mind? Zechs wasn't usually so stubborn, but I supposed it could just be concern for Quatre that kept him so reserved about the idea. It wasn't such a great risk, after all, and the probability of us not being able to win Collar the first year was pretty high. After all, it had never been done before.

But… there was almost a fevered look in Zechs' eyes as he snapped, and something told me that he would do almost anything to ensure we won Collar.

But why?

Heero 178

Master's outburst surprised everyone, but I think it was Wufei who had the hardest time getting over it. Throughout the rest of the ride to the castle, I saw him casting surreptitious glances at Master, like he was trying to sneak a peak inside Master's brain. But then, Wufei always did expect more from others. I wasn't surprised that Master's obsession with winning Collar bothered him, simply that he needed to think that there was something deeper there. Master wouldn't be in Collar if he didn't want to win. All his strange behavior aside, he was still a master.

As the train pulled through the fortress-like walls of the compound, Trowa and I quickly put our shirts back on (glad enough that that's all Duo had managed to get off of us) and followed Master and the others into the courtyard.

We were met by one of Darus' slaves. He was tall, muscular, with shoulder length black hair and strong, defined facial features. He did not smile at us, and his eyes were hidden by large, black sunglasses, so it was impossible to decipher his reaction to our entrance.

"My master welcomes you," the boy said, his tone as serious without being unwelcoming or aggressive. "He bids you to make yourself at home in the apartments he has provided for you, and to pleasure him with your company at dinner in one hour. He also requests that you provide the entertainment for tonight's meal."

I made certain not to glance toward Master, although I was sure several of the others probably did. Master, in general, did not like displaying his slaves for others, but I doubted he would deny a request from a potential ally. Especially not one as renowned as Dr. Darus.

"Tell your Master that I am grateful for his hospitality, and I will see what I can manage for entertainment on such short notice," master replied, in the same neutral but serious tone. Most masters would have promised amazing entertainment for the night, so I was sure that Master's response would stand out. However, if the entertainment that he provided was skilled and impressive, it would seem that he was only being modest, and perhaps play in his favor. Hopefully, Duo would volunteer us for tonight's entertainment.

The slave then led us through the halls of the castle, failing to remove his sunglasses even in the dim light. The room he showed us to was a set of two bedrooms connected to a main sitting room, which housed a huge, roaring fireplace. The ceilings were high, with stone walls and a gloom brought on by the lack of many windows, but the fireplace cast a glow around the room that made it seem more homey, and the tapestries on the walls made them look less foreboding. However, I could tell that Duo, at least, was still unnerved by the room, and he slid up to touch shoulders with me for reassurance. I noticed Quatre moving closer to Trowa as well.

As soon as the other slave left the room, however, Duo perked up.

"So… who's fuckin' for dinner?"

"Duo!"

"What?"

"That's crude," Master scolded.

"But accurate," Duo teased with a grin, bouncing over to one of the plush leather couches in the room and unceremoniously flopping onto it. "When do you think the luggage will get here?"

"It'll be here before dinner, soon enough for you all to get dressed, I'm sure. Now… back to the previous subject… Are there any volunteers?"

"Oh! Ooh! So me! Me me me! I haven't gotten any in weeks! Please?" Duo pleaded.

Deny him one goddamn time and he acts like he'll die from lack of sex.

"Duo and I will perform at dinner, Master. We have the most experience together, and Duo is the most sought-after dancer, so we are the natural choice."

Not to mention that we'd been so busy lately that we hadn't had time to have much sex, and I was feeling a little hard-up anyway.

"It's settled then. You and Duo can practice your routine and relax before dinner. I think I'm going to take a nap for a bit. Anyone else?" Master asked, and then led the others into the main bedroom. I settled on the couch beside Duo. He sat up and grinned at me.

"Like we need any fucking practice."

It didn't seem like any time at all before dinner came and found us all dressed, lined up on either side of Master at the dinner table. It wasn't normal for slave to be fed with their masters, but it wasn't unheard of, and Master Darus' slave had warned us not to eat before attending when he dropped off the luggage.

We were at a square table, with Darus seated at the head, the customary place for the hosting master, while Zechs was seated across from Master Zephyr and his slave, Sparrow. Darus' slaves circled him on cushions on the floor, each eating their own meal. The one who had welcomed us was present, still wearing those dark sunglasses along with only gray shorts, which showed off his muscular physique. I could tell that he would be one of my competitors in only a few weeks. Beside him was a boy with ginger hair, wearing shorts of the same color and a pair of long, billowing sleeves that completely concealed his arms, all in the same color gray. There was a blonde boy with long pants on, and a final boy with long, brown hair and a frail appearance wearing a button-down shirt. Not a bad-looking group of slaves, if strangely attired.

Darus himself was dressed in a thick red robe and cotton clothing beneath it. You could tell his age from the wrinkles and short, silver hair, but his eyes were clear and sharp with intelligence, and his hands were steady enough to pour wine into champagne glasses without spilling a drop.

"It seems that you've managed to amass yourself quite an array of slaves in a short time here. If I may ask, what have you found helps most in training them?"

"The same thing most masters will tell you, I suspect," Master responded seamlessly. "A good balance of discipline and reward. But, what of your slaves? I hear you've managed feats in the physical events."

"Hm," Darus replied, smiling softly. "I supposed everyone has a small hobby that they excel at. Mine just happens to be improving the physical body."

"You know, there's a difference between being modest and smug," Master Zephyr responded. "Show them off already, we all know you're dying to."

Darus rolled his eyes. "You take all the fun out of these things, do you know that? I'm supposed to wait until conversation leads us to my newest project, or until my guest inquires. It's all supposed to happen naturally, thank you."

"Well, allow me to oblige, then," Master said, falling naturally into the flow of their banter. "Would you be so kind as to detail you latest project to me? I'm terribly interested to see what you've done."

"See?" Darus said to Zyphyr, "That's just the sort of opening I was looking for. And where is Lenz?" The slave with the sunglasses rose and moved to kneel by his master's side. "Now, this can be a bit startling if you are unprepared," Darus said, then removed Lenz's sunglasses.

Lenz's eyes glimmered like steel. Instead of having human eyes, there were two metallic balls with a small, black hole for an iris. The metallic eyes swiveled and glanced around the room like normal eyes, but the lack of life or emotion in them was eerie and unsettling, and I saw even Master twitch backwards.

"It is… somewhat startling. Is his vision impaired?" Master asked, curious now that his immediate reaction had been overcome.

"Not at all. Actually, his eyes are better equipped to handle close and long-range vision, although his vision is extremely poor at night. Although I've got schematics planned to work on that particular issue," he said, laying his hand affectionately across Lenz's cheek. Lenz smiled, and then replaced his glasses and took his seat.

"That is an amazing project," Master said, and Darus laughed.

"Oh no. Lenz has had those eyes for almost two years now. No, the project I'm speaking of is an upgrade I completed last week. It's an adaptation that allows him to see distances of up to two miles. Made him a crack-shot, hasn't done anything for his ego, though," Darus said, casting a glance at Lenz that was met with a smirk.

"Are these… adjustments allowed in the Collar competitions?" Master wondered.

"Of course, or I wouldn't be so sought after. As long as 80% of the competitor is flesh, it's still allowed."

"So… why haven't I seen more of these… additions in Collar?"

"No one else can afford them," Zephyr put in. "There's probably the amount of Collar's prize in Lenz's eyes alone."

"Oh, now, now." Darus said affectionately. "You can't measure a work of art in dollars and cents."

"You mean gold bars and diamonds," Zephyr said, but it was simply banter, there was no malice in it.

"So… if it's so expensive… why do it?" Master wondered.

"Oh, I was a leading surgeon for more years than I'd like to admit," Darus replied. "I've got plenty of money. In my old age, I've just been tinkering around with my craft."

"But…" Master began, but Darus interrupted him.

"Come now, I think we've had enough talk about me. Perhaps we're ready for the entertainment?"

I could tell that Master was fascinated, but he was far from ready to deny a request from our host, so put his questions aside.

And that was the cue for Duo and I to take center stage. I was surprised to feel a shiver go up my spine, and couldn't tell if it was from nervousness or from excitement. Or perhaps both.

Contrary to common belief, we did not just get on the table and start fucking. Considering the table wasn't all that big and the masters were still eating, that would have been both rude and awkward. Instead, Master Darus had been kind enough to lay a large pallet out for us just beyond the table, although Duo and I were by no means beyond using the floor.

Someone cued some soft, upbeat music as Duo and I rose. Duo was wearing a long, dark purple button-down top with only the first few buttons done, so that it swirled behind him like a cape, showing off his perfect abs and naval before dark leather pants hid everything but the outline of his lower body. I was wearing dark blue jeans that had been tastefully tattered until most of my legs were visible, and a white silk shirt that clung to my skin and outlined every indentation of my abdominal muscles.

In his customary style, Duo practically raced to the bed, doing a front flip and giving a loud, "Yeehaw!" as he flopped onto the mattress. But that was Duo, all energy and enthusiasm. It was part of what made him so unique, and part of what made him to popular. I smiled, knowing what a show-off Duo is at heart, and then followed slowly after him, giving the masters time to appreciate how my muscles moved as I walked. I could be just as much of a showman as Duo, I just had a different style.

It had always been that way. Duo and I were a lot alike, but in different ways. We were both very competitive, but where I would study and plan and prepare to reach my goal, Duo would just throw himself at the obstacle until it gave up. And we were both very fierce lovers, but where I liked to learn my lover like a puzzle, taking apart the likes and dislikes and putting things back together to create a great orgasm, Duo like to play his lover like a game, moving down the body until he had almost reached the goal, only to shoot back up and start all over again. It was all about understanding for me, and all about having fun for Duo.

Which is why, even though we'd talked about this scene, we hadn't planned it out like some performers do. It never worked out for Duo to preplan a scene, and the few times we'd tried it he'd deviated so far from the script that I'd had trouble following, so we'd decided not to do that anymore.

So, as Duo pulled me down to the mat and pinned me under him for a fierce kiss, I felt the eyes of the masters and the other slaves on me and worried for a minute that I would mess up. I felt lost without a plan, and even Duo's weight across my thighs could not keep the chill of terror from creeping up my spine.

But Duo is a natural showman. He could tell that I was getting nervous form the way my body tensed beneath him, and as he leaned down to theatrically lick my ear, he whispered, "The more fun you have, baby, the more fun they're gonna have. Just fuck me."

It wasn't much in the way of reassurance, but it was exactly what I needed. Duo grinned, and I smirked right back at him, flipping us over so that I was on top. Duo grinned like a maniac, then leaned up and bit my neck. It was something of a warning; Duo wasn't fond of being held down, and especially not in front of an audience. Without the background of trust we had, I never would have been able to do it. It was a subtle reminder that the mental wounds from Duo's treatment had been recently closed.

But the masters didn't see that. They saw Duo nip at my neck, then run his mouth from the base of my throat to my ear, and then suck at the lobe. I moaned, thrusting my hips at Duo's groin, and then helped maneuver the robe from his shoulders. Our lips met once he was free and he arched back, brushing his taut abs against my stomach. He reached up, still kissing me, and inched my shirt up my back until we finally broke the kiss for him to pull it off.

I heard something from behind us then, but ignored it as Duo sat up and I began to rain kisses down his abdomen. I placed all my attention into lavishing Duo with affection, so that even the tensing of Duo's abdomen did not prepare me to feel a timid touch to my shoulder.

I jumped and spun around, only to find Sparrow standing behind me, looking shy and a little sheepish. Lenz was behind him, waiting patiently, his posture more than his expression revealing neutrality. Obviously, the two had been sent to join Duo and myself, which was a surprise but not unheard of. Masters would often send a well behaved slave to couple with a popular slave as a reward, or for the enjoyment of seeing the two interact. It would be an insult to our host not to let the two perform with us.

But I looked to Master anyway, because although I had no issue with coupling with either of the two, Master had never allowed us to couple with any slave outside of our group, and just recently Trowa had and the results had been devastating. I couldn't risk betraying Master by being with another slave, even if it got me in trouble in other areas.

Master didn't look pleased by the situation, his mouth a solid line of anxiety, but he nodded his consent anyway, and I had no more time to worry about him because Duo and I needed to focus on the task at hand or the performance would quickly go flat.

Duo has always been far more adaptable than I am. It took him a split second between the time Master nodded his head and the time Duo had Sparrow pinned to the floor, both of them giggling and tussling like old friends. But, then again, Duo is a top through and through, and Sparrow was possibly even more of a bottom than Quatre.

I didn't have that luxury. I do well as a top, and I feel comfortable as a bottom. So I have to rely on my partner to tell me which one would be more appropriate. Unfortunately, Lenz's demeanor and expression gave me no clues, so the best I could do was hold out my hand and hope Lenz took the invitation.

Lenz spared no time in taking my hand and pulling me into a swift embrace. Our lips met, and his were firm but gentle against my own. He was unyielding, yet gentle in the way he kissed, his tongue darting out against my lips, determinedly seeking entry and pressing my lips apart. I opened my mouth for him and let my tongue dart out to meet his. I let him lean me backwards and settle me onto the mat, understanding that he wanted to top. It made me feel a bit better, to at least have that much figured out.

I ran my hands down Lenz shoulders. He was tense, more so than I had expected even with being asked to pair with an unknown slave. I took my hands back down his arms and across his chest. He leaned me back against the mattress, rubbing his groin against mine.

But something was off. It wasn't as though I expected to have a strong connection with a slave I had so recently met, but his movements with me seemed so… robotic. He gave no reaction at all when I ran my hands across his body, and even his grinding had no passion to it. Could it be that he really didn't want to have sex with me?

But that didn't make sense either. Even though his grinding was less than passionate, I could tell from the bulge beneath his shorts that he was aroused. So what was I doing to cause such a cold reaction from him? Was it simply his nature?

I wished that I could see his eyes again. Could mechanical eyes portray feeling? Something was off about our interaction. I didn't expect him to fall in love with me, but he was portraying such an apathy that I knew I would have to do something quickly or there would be no fire in our performance. It was hard enough for me to stir the same kinds of emotions Duo did, and that was without the added difficulty of having a blatantly disinterested partner. For fuck's sake, he wouldn't even look me in the eyes!

And that was it. Even as Lenz rubbed against me, even as I kissed him, he would not look at my face.

I reached up slowly, ever mindful that what I was about to do could turn out very badly. Lenz stilled as my hands rose, jerking his face back as far as he could without standing. Then he stilled, not wanting to actually run away, I think. My hands reached the edges of his glasses and I slowly pulled them away from his face.

He would not meet my stare for a moment, then boldly looked me in the eyes. His face portrayed anger, but I could tell it was hiding fear. Did he think he was a monster? But I knew all too well how ugly one can feel when hiding imperfections. I still tried to keep my back concealed when I could, and turned it away from others when I could not hide it. If anyone could understand that kind of fear, it was me.

And I knew, too, how little it meant to be told that you were beautiful. If you did not believe it, it would not matter.

But his eyes were beautiful. Shimmering glass covered them, making it look like he was just about to cry. The irises were silver, with different shades interlocked like puzzle pieces. The pupil focused just like a camera lens, much more quickly than a human eye, but it only served to make him look that much more nervous. That much more vulnerable.

There were tiny scars at the edge of his eyes, almost like crows feet but more pronounced and a pale white color. I leaned up and kissed the scars, and remembering the reaction this treatment had brought with my own scars I wasn't surprised to feel Lens jump as I kissed him. As I kissed the other side I could feel him tense above me, but this time with emotion. As I leaned back and met his eyes again, I could see the pain and relief warring inside him. He bit his lip, and his eyes seemed just a bit brighter.

And then he kissed me, this time with none of the control he had shown earlier. This wasn't a mechanical kiss; it was a kiss of pure emotion. His lips met mine desperately and it seemed like he was trying to pull the very soul out of my body through my lips. When we broke the kiss, he immediately began to dot kisses all the way down my body, pushing my shirt up when it got in his way and only stopping as he reached my pants.

-Edited for Content-

When a cheer came a moment later, I was so bewildered that I actually fell off of Lenz and onto the mattress beside him. It was only then that I remembered where I was and realized, mortifyingly, that I had just done all those wanton acts in front of a crowd. Lenz and I sported matching blushes, and we both hurried to replace our clothes. Lenz cast one last glance into my face before donning his glasses once again, giving me a look that was both grateful and happy as he went to rejoin his master.

As I took my seat once again beside Master I was happy to see that he looked proud of me, but upset to see that Lenz's master looked more concerned than pleased with him.

As Sparrow and Duo began to move, I could only settle at Master's feet and hope I hadn't gotten Lenz in trouble.

179 Zechs

Duo had a wonderful performance with Sparrow, with a sensual, almost dancing rhythm to it. But nothing could compare to the intensity Heero had shared with Lenz. To say that I was proud of him was an understatement. In only minutes, Heero had reached out to another slave, one that he barely knew, and helped him overcome something that was very near Heero's own experience. It was like seeing a child graduate to an adult. Heero had gone from needing help to giving it.

But, in some ways, it saddened me, because I suddenly realized that Heero no longer needed me. It wasn't my support that he had looked for when he had been surprised by the inclusion of the other two slaves, and very soon he would not be looking for my permission either. It made me think almost nostalgically at those first few months, when Heero had needed me for everything.

Dinner passed quickly after the performances, and there were no more surprises in the banter. Still, it seemed that there was something left unsaid by Darus, and I was not surprised when he asked me to join him in his study after dinner.

"And bring Angel," he said as I was leaving to freshen up in my room. "I would be quite pleased to get to know him more. He seems to be a… most perceptive young man."

I don't know why this place had me so off balance. Maybe it was the thought of being completely trapped inside this near-fortress. Maybe it was the upcoming prospect of Collar and the end of this mission. Or perhaps it was the fact that, out of all the masters that I had met so far in Collar, these two were the first that seemed almost normal.

And I had to wonder, were these two men better than the others?

Or was I becoming more like the thing I was here to destroy?

The thought shook me, and I tried not to contemplate it as I hurriedly washed up and then allowed on of Darus' slaves to lead Heero and me into a small library overlooking the sea. Outside, the waves crashed against the sides of the rocky cliffs, and it did nothing to calm the turmoil inside me.

"Would you like a drink, master?" Heero asked from behind me. "You seem… upset," he said as I turned to him.

"No, but thank you," I replied, giving him a wan smile. Heero bit his lip and hesitated before continuing.

"Is it something I did?" he asked.

"No, you were brilliant."

"But… you don't appear to be pleased."

"No, little love, it's not that. I'm very proud of you. You did a wonderful job," I told him, and even managed a small smile.

"So why the expression?" he continued, unwavering despite my efforts, and I had to sigh at his tenacity.

"I suppose it's simply that I've begun to like the two gentlemen we are visiting, but I am uncertain of their characters. After the debacle at Vincent's, I'm afraid to let my guard down again," I said, and hoped Heero would accept that. He was quite for several minutes, his face unreadable as he too stared out at the sea. Eventually, he turned to me.

"I don't think you have anything to fear from these two masters."

"Oh?" I replied, startled by his conviction. "Why do you say that?"

"You can almost always tell the character of a master from the state of their slaves. Bad masters will have scarred and broken slaves. Masters who focus only on the competitions will have nervous, viscous slaves. And masters who are only worried about their own pleasure have greedy, ill-behaved slaves. Master Darus and Master Zephyr's slaves are none of those things, and appear to be well-taken care of. Both of these men have honor. They will not betray you while you are a guest in their home."

"But once at Collar all bets are off, hm?"

"It is war, Master. You can't really blame them," Heero said, giving me a smirk.

"I suppose not," I said, and then gestured for him to come to me. He came immediately into my embrace, and I laid my cheek on the top of his head, breathing his soft scent. It seemed so long ago that he had been a timid, undernourished boy too jaded to even hope for salvation. The boy I had first met was so far from the strong, well-adjusted man in my arms. I wondered how long it would be before he realized that, and stopped looking to me for affection. It painfully obvious that he no longer needed me for anything other than emotional support, and soon he would not need that either.

Would I be able to let him go? Could I let him go? Everything I did was to give him and the others a chance at a normal life, but I had never stopped to consider what that life might be. Now, merely weeks away from Collar and the end of my mission, an honored guest of one of the men I was trying to destroy, and all I could think about was the fact that I might never see Heero or the others again. That everything I was doing was to give them the option to leave me.

What if they did it?

"M-Master?" Heero questioned softly, and it was only then that I realized I was holding him too tightly. I released him quickly with a muttered apology and went to stand by the window. Thankfully, Darus entered only a moment later, before Heero had decided to question me once again.

I knew I couldn't let myself think anymore about the outcome of my mission. I couldn't risk wavering in my dedication. And I was afraid, truly afraid, that I would.

"I am glad you could meet my, my friend. I hope you are not too tired, but I wanted to get to know you better in a more intimate setting," Darus said as he entered and shook my hand. He was followed closely by the slave with the mechanical eyes. "You already know my slave, Lenz, and I have become a great admirer of your slave, Angel."

Darus bowed to Heero, who simply gaped in astonishment as Darus finished the bow by taking and kissing the back of Heero's hand. "You have done me a great service," Darus said, speaking directly to Heero and looking him straight in the eyes. "If it were not for you, I would have let things continue as they were; never knowing something was wrong. The worst kind of cancer, in my professional opinion, is the one nobody knows about, that spreads and infects before it ever shows any signs. I want to thank you deeply for making me aware of this problem, and I promise that I will eradicate it."

Lenz was blushing deeply when his master backed up, and Heero was still gaping like a fish.

"Was all that really necessary?" Lenz huffed.

"Ah-ah, love," Darus scolded gently, turning to his slave and tapping him on the nose. "You and these," he said, gently removing Lenz's glasses, "are what caused all the trouble in the first place." Lenz looked at the floor as his glinting, silver eyes were revealed, but Darus forced him to meet his gaze. "I can't believe you would let yourself believe that I would ever be ashamed of something I helped create. I'm sure the others have let the idea take root in their minds as well, seeing as you always start the bad habits around here," Darus teased, then grew serious with his slave. "But I won't allow it to go on any longer." And then he snapped the sunglasses in half, letting the pieces drop to the floor.

The thump that the plastic made as it hit the floor seemed to remind Darus that Heero and I were standing there, and he turned back to us with an apologetic smile.

"I'm sorry, you must think me terribly rude…"

"And over-dramatic," Lenz added.

"…it's just that I rarely have guests other than Zephyr, and none ever make the kind of impression you have."

"I hope that's a good thing," I said, glad to finally have brought conversation back where I could understand it.

"Oh, absolutely. I had heard that you were good at taking in broken slaves and fixing them, but I hadn't expected you to be so good that one of your slaves would fix one of mine."

"I can assure you, the talent is all in these boys. Very little of it is my influence."

"I'm sure your little lover there would disagree with you," Darus said, winking at Heero. "It's one of the reasons I invited you here, actually. But come and have a drink with me and we will talk of this more," he said, and Lenz fetched both of us a drink of strong wine. I sipped at my glass as Darus continued. "You see, I invited you here because I think there might be something alike between you and I," he said, and I almost choked on my drink. Had he heard my earlier thoughts? "You see, I have been able to take many physically dysfunctional slaves and turn them into productive, able bodied individuals, but never mentally dysfunctional slaves. I was fascinated to see how you had managed so drastically change so many boys without any physical methods. I must say, I'm impressed."

"I have done very little, I assure you."

"Ah, now there is where I cannot believe you. Even my slaves, who have been with me for years, are not as confident or, I fear, as happy as yours. And your slaves have come from the worst situations Collar has to offer and have been with you less than a year, and yet they seem barely scarred at all. Even your Angel here was, if I remember correctly, a runner, yes? One step away from death when you found him, if I'm not mistaken. And yet he is now nearly a Collar champion, and only months after he came to you. And here I am, letting my boys form phobias in exchange for a quick thrill," he said, his voice distant. It was obvious from his eyes that he was thinking very hard about the situation at hand.

"I'm not sure I understand," I told him, bringing him back to the present.

"Hm? Oh, I meant about the glasses and whatnot. When I first started doing these procedures I would have the boys hide their mechanical parts with clothing or glasses, so that I could surprise my guests at the end of the night. As my popularity increased, it was rare to find someone who didn't know about me, so I let the boys start covering themselves all the time so at least I could surprise them with which boys had what parts replaced. I never, ever thought it would lead them to believe that I was disgusted by their parts," Darus said, tucking a piece of hair behind Lenz's ear. "But I suppose you never can tell what your slave will think."

"I meant to ask you earlier, but I can't help wondering why you would be doing these procedures. I mean… obviously your skills are in high demand. Why not…"

"Why not work for someone who can pay? No, it's alright," he said, seeing that I was about to apologize. "Come, sit, and we will discuss," he said and led me to a pair of plush chairs. The slaves seated themselves on the floor beside their masters. "It's an obvious question. The fact is, the slaves accept what I can and cannot do. They accept that the procedures will not be painless in the long run, and very rarely will I be able to create something that is similar to or as good as the original. Even Lenz, who has eyes that can see for miles, views the colors of the world in a gray, washed out state. People with money, they think that they can buy their way out of the pain and the struggle. Oh, and the risk. Did I mention the risk? The procedures that I perform are only completed on the most severe cases of injury and deformity that I find, and only in the complete secrecy of Collar, because of the high level of risk. The death rate for slaves that undergo my procedures is high; almost 85%. And of the 15% that survive, many are left in excruciating pain for weeks or even months. Lenz, for example," Darus said, taking hold of Lenz's face and looking deep into the metallic eyes, "went for six months without being able to close his eyes, because the electric current would shock his eyelids, which were not protected from contact like the rest of his body. He went twelve months having to physically adjust his retinas by means of a control knob that was located above his ears. You see, money makes people think they can avoid all of the hassle, but the truth is that even after perfecting my eyes for Lenz, I would probably have to start all over if I made a pair for another person."

"I see. So your procedures are for the thrill of discovery, and not for the money."

"In part. Another part is the idea of finally leaving a worthwhile stamp on the medical field. In these last few years, being free of civilized rules and regulations I have managed to make leaps and bounds in the medical field that have put me decades beyond my counterparts. But I have left a trail of bodies in my wake. Do you think that makes me a monster?" asked, his tone seeming more casual than his question deserved.

"It depends, I suppose, on whether your subjects were willing."

"It's nearly impossible to heal someone with no will to live. There wasn't any point in trying to save a slave that had no interest in being healed."

"And if there were a point? Would you have used them then?" I asked, unable to help myself, knowing that this was not the way a master should act but unable to deny the strange feeling that perhaps Darus was more than the other brutes I had met here.

"No," Darus said, his eyes twinkling as though we had shared some sort of secret. "I don't believe I would use an unwilling participant. Free will is what makes us human. It is something that can be broken or buried, but it is only something beautiful when it is willingly given."

"I understand," I told him, and felt for the first time since I had started this mission that perhaps I wasn't the last uncorrupted figure in the world. That there could be other good people in positions of power. That my crusade wouldn't eventually result in anarchy.

"You're a good man," Darus said after a brief silence. "I'm glad Zephyr convinced me to invite you. I think that once I was a good a man too. Now I'm not so certain. Age makes us look at things differently, makes us weak."

He sighed then, and reached down to put Lenz's hair. It seemed as though our conversation had worn him out, and for the first time his face actually held its years in plain view.

"I am an old man," he continue, his eyes far away and dreamy once again. "I lived for many years in a loveless marriage, fathered children who now have children and families of their own. I spent all my time worried about money and discovery, always working and thinking and running. Now I don't even know all my grandchildren's names. When I was first offered a Collar slave, I thought it was monstrous. And, for the most part, I was right. The ability to practice my skill without a thirty-volume set of rules was what drew me into this life. For a while, I merely fixed slaves and sent them on their way, a used car dealership for humans to put it simply. But then Lenz came along, with his acid-burned eyes, damaged beyond all repair. I knew it would take years to cure him, if I ever could. And that was when I got to see a side to this process that I had never seen before. I got to experience the day-to-day recovery of someone I had helped, got to be there for all the setbacks and triumphs. More than that, I got to feel the depth of the gratitude that came from helping them. Real, true gratitude, not the thanks you get after doing a billion dollar surgery for a multi-trillionaire. After that, I just couldn't let Lenz- or any of the others- leave me. They were too much a part of me. They were my family in a way my real family had never been. I was accepted and appreciated for me. And I was loved." He paused then, and looked deeply into my eyes. "Do you think that's why we all do it? To find love, even in the worst places? Are we really such weak creatures?"

"Yes," I answered without hesitation. "We are all weak. Love… makes us weak. Makes us forget everything else."

"Hm. I'm glad you understand. I just wanted you to know because… because one day all of our weaknesses will catch up with us. Each of us will have to atone for our sins. So I just want you to understand… an old man's weakness."

I was so startled by his insinuation that I let the conversation lapse for several minutes, trying to guess what and how much he knew. Eventually, he spoke again.

"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to burden you with my troubles. It's simply that I see a kindred spirit in you. I thought Zephyr and I were perhaps the only two who were not truly here fro the violence and the lechery," he told me softly, and I felt my heart relax a bit. "Perhaps you have your own story that brings you this far into the depths of hell. But I think one story is enough for tonight. If you'll excuse me, I'd like to retire for a while. If someone will let me actually sleep," he teased tousling his slave's hair. The age was gone from his face again, and back was the man who seemed no more than middle aged, all strength and humor. "Zephyr has asked that you bring your slaves back down to the hall later tonight. His favorite hobby is photography, and he would like to take some pictures for you. I will probably be… occupied… until breakfast."

And then he was gone, leading his slave out the door by the hand and talking in soft tones to the younger man, leaving only myself, my slave, and my suspicions behind.

180 Wufei

When Zechs returned from speaking with Darus, he was visibly distracted and upset. He immediately shut himself into the master bedroom. This was despite the fact that Heero reported that he and Master Darus had actually seemed to be hitting it off rather well. Still, something Darus had said had obviously upset Zechs enough to have him hiding in his room like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum.

He'd had a lot of those lately. It was painfully obvious that he was stressed, and I was the only other soul who had an inkling as to why.

Zechs and I hadn't spoken about his mission since I first discovered it, weeks ago. Neither, of course, had we spoken about my past decisions to throw the dance competition at Collar. There simply hadn't been a moment since then when something wasn't ready to or in the process of falling apart. We'd had some fun times, certainly, but even those were squeezed in between a thousand other things that were pack into the days. It was like the Collar competition was Armageddon. Like there would be no more time after that. Like it was the end.

And was it?

It was a thought that haunted me. Was that the reason for all Zechs hurries? Was that why he pushed us so hard? Because he wanted to be rid of us as soon as possible?

I'd like for that to sound noble and brave. I'd like for you to think that I was concerned about this so that I could keep the others safe. I'd like for you to think that I'm better than worrying only about myself.

But I'm not.

If we're going to be painfully honest, and it's pretty hard to lie when you're essentially talking to yourself, I have to admit to you that I was not so worried about Zechs wanting to be rid of us as soon as possible.

I was far more worried about him wanting to be rid of me as soon as possible.

I mean, at this point, why was he even keeping me around in the first place? Just because my heart got all twisted up when I was with him, it didn't mean he felt that same. And with all the other males around swooning over him all the time, what was the likelihood he'd be interested in me over them anyway? And why did I even need him anyway? He was attractive and kind, certainly, but I had met other kind and attractive people. A few anyway. And what was so special about him?

It wasn't like I was in love with him. A mild infatuation, perhaps. A combination of physical lust and attraction to the sense of safety he provided. That was all.

It wasn't like I'd die if something happened to him. It wasn't like I was feeling scorned by his lack of trust in me. It wasn't like I felt overlooked from all the attention he was giving his other slaves. And it certainly wasn't like I was jealous of the fact that they had all paired off while the object of my affection refused to seriously heed any of my advances.

It wasn't like that at all.

And so I found myself staring at the door to the master bedroom for several minutes, trying to decide if it would be more foolish to walk away or go in.

My hand found its way to the doorknob, and I found myself stepping over the threshold. Inside, the room was dim. There were only two large windows in the room, and the light pouring through them gave the room the gothic look of a cathedral. One of the windows was open, letting a cool sea breeze waft through the room.

Zechs was on the floor, sitting crosslegged beneath that window. He held a cigarette in one hand and a glass of brandy in the other. The smoke from the cigarette curled and wafted out the window, and Zechs took another puff before he even noticed me. When he did, he gestured for me to shut the door.

"I didn't know you smoked."

"I quit when I was nineteen. Now I only smoke when I'm… anxious."

Translation: I've actually been so stressed lately that I took up smoking again.

"You should try to find some other outlet for your nervousness. Perhaps meditation."

"I can't imagine I have the patience or resolve for meditation," he said, taking a long puff from the cigarette before tossing it out the window. "There, now I've quit. Happy?"

"Ecstatic."

"So what can I do for you?"

"I wanted to talk more about… Well, about the competition. About… about my dancing event."

"I suppose we never did resolve that, did we?" he said after a long pause. His voice was calmer than I had expected. "It must have fled my mind. I guess I just really wasn't worried about it. You will win for me, won't you? It hadn't dawned on me that you might throw the event once again when you could win so easily."

"You just assumed that I'd help you?" I wondered, a little stung. I wasn't some mindless slave, to do the master's bidding. Zechs sighed.

"Don't make it sound that way, Wufei. I didn't think you'd jump to my commands, if that's what you're implying. But you know how important this event is to me and the others, and you've all been practicing so hard. I didn't think you'd throw that away out of pride."

"Tell me why you need this win, and I'll guarantee it for you," I bargained.

"You know I can't do that."
"I'm not stupid, Zechs. The only reason people win Collar is to meet the master. And that's what you're after, isn't it? Whatever your plan is, it hinges on meeting the head of Collar? But you must be a fool to think you could actually get this far without him knowing about you. You don't know how closely this place is watched and monitored. Whatever you're doing, whoever you're working for, he already knows."

"Then why hasn't he stopped me?" Zechs snapped.

"Maybe he's toying with you. It wouldn't be unheard of, from him. But just tell me what's going on, and I can help."

"I can't risk giving you that information. It's too dangerous."

"And yet you trust me to win for you, but not to know the end result of my winning? Why should I trust you if you cannot trust me in return?" I snarled, angry myself now.

"Because I'm trying to protect you!"

"You'll get us all killed like this!"

"Why can't you have faith in me?"

"Because you won't trust me!"

"Damnit Wufei!" Zechs yelled, throwing his glass at the wall. The impact it made was like a gunshot in the small room. It hit the white wall paper and shattered, leaving a trail of brown liquid down to the floor. We were both silent after that, as though the sound had shocked us both.

"Just leave it be," Zechs whispered eventually, fisting his hands in his hair. "Can't you just leave it be? I'm trying to do what's right."

His voice was thick, like a man on the edge of collapse, and even though I was still angry at him, I couldn't help but be pulled to him. I went to my knees beside him, and he pulled me into his arms. He smelled faintly like booze and cigarette smoke, but it was only a hint, like he'd walked through a bar and never stopped. Underneath, I could smell the musky scent of his skin, and the scent of lavenders as I rested my head on his shoulder. He clung to me, like he really would fall off the edge if I weren't there.

How could I tell him he was doing the wrong thing? How could I tell him that all his efforts would be in vain, and he would eventually leave us all worse off than we had been before? How could I tell this man, who tried so hard and loved us so much, that he would eventually lose everything? And could I even help if I knew the truth? Was there anything we could do at all? Or was this fate?

I held him until he began to nod off in my arms, and then I helped him to bed. Curled up in his arms that night I could only wonder if this man would be my salvation or my downfall. No one told me redemption would hurt so much.

181 Trowa

The morning of our last day staying with Dr. Darus – and our last day of parties before the last-minute training for the Collar competitions would begin – found both Wufei and Master tired and distracted. There was something going on between them and all the slaves could sense it, most notably by the way neither of them could look the other squarely in the eye that morning. It wasn't something as simple as a fight, because Master and Wufei had been in plenty of fights. It was almost… Almost as if there was a secret between them that they refused to share with any of us, or each other. Both of them dutifully ignored that anything was wrong, which only served to make the rest of us more aware of it.
But Wufei and Master had always had something of a special relationship. At first, I had attributed it to the fact that Wufei was not actually Master's slave, and that put them on a more equal level, but as their relationship progressed it became clear to me that it was something deeper. The more stressed Master became, the more heavily he relied on Wufei to be beside him. And now, with the stresses running high because of Collar, it worried me that Master and Wufei were so out of sorts.
"Your face will freeze that way if you keep worrying so much," Quatre chided, reaching up to smooth the wrinkles from my brow. I let the frown fade and tried to smile for Quatre.
"I just wish I knew what was going on between them," I admitted, pulling him into my arms. From where I was by the fireplace I could watch them across the room at the breakfast table. Both of them were totally engrossed in their eating, never once looking up to meet each other's gazes despite the fact that they were right across from each other at the table. Master looked like he had a headache again, but I'd already put a dose of aspirin beside his breakfast plate. We all kept a careful eye on what medications Master was taking, and I was temped to offer him something stronger for his headache, but I knew Heero would scold me. Master couldn't afford to lose his wits around the other masters, especially not these ones.
"You're frowning again."
"I'm sorry. I worry."
"Well, stop it," Quatre teased. "Seriously, Trowa, don't worry so much. They're going to get over it. They're both just too stubborn to see that their going to get over it, or they'd have gotten over it already."
"How can you be so sure? You don't even know what it is?"
"It doesn't matter. If it was something unforgivable, they wouldn't be being this civil about it. So it's not something unforgivable, and therefore they are going to get over it once their manly prides decide they've had enough. Ergo, you should stop frowning."
"Alright, my love, you win," I said, giving him a genuine smile this time. But my worry did not abate even as I took him into my arms, nor as we eventually went to dress in black shorts for the photo shoot with Master Zephyr, nor even when we all descended to one of the large drawing rooms where the cameras were set up. Master and Wufei continued to ignore each other, and as much as Duo and Quatre infected each other with excitement about having their pictures taken, Heero seemed to share in my turmoil and kept casting worried glances toward Master and Wufei. He caught my eye once, and raised an eyebrow to ask if I knew what was going on, but I could only shake my head and shrug my shoulders.

When we met with master Zephyr, Quatre and Duo went immediately the stage and began posing on the pillows that were draped over the platform, both giggling wildly. Wufei, meanwhile, struck up a conversation with Master Zephyr's slave, Breeze, and was soon chatting over the sophisticated camera equipment. Heero and I, by mutual agreement, settled on either side of Zechs as he sat opposite of Zephyr at a small table at the side of the room. Breeze was a small slave, nearly the size of Quatre, with dark hair and pale skin. His master was tall, though still shorter than Zechs, with reddish brown hair and hazel eyes. Zephyr poured himself and Zechs each a glass of wine before casting an amused glance as Breeze and Wufei.

"I suppose you may have gathered already that it's really Breeze that has the talent for photography. It's attributed to me because I own him, but I probably couldn't even find the on button on those cameras of his."
"I had heard that your photography was sought-after, but I wasn't aware that your slave was the one to take the photos," Zechs replied, picking up the easy flow of conversation as he sipped his wine.
"Yes, Breeze originally picked it up as a hobby, but he's become astoundingly good at it. He was adamant that he be allowed to photograph your slaves. I simply couldn't refuse him."
"I'm glad. I'd be honored to have some photos of my slaves, especially from such a talented photographer."
Zephyr smiled, then called to Breeze.
"When will you start?" he asked his slave, who gave him a sheepish look in return.
"About five minutes ago, while you two were talking," he admitted, handing a computer screen about the size of a book to Zechs and bringing up several images of Quatre and Duo laughing and tumbling around the stage.
"They were just so natural, I couldn't help it," Breeze admitted, a blush stealing across his pale cheeks.
"No, it's fine," Zechs said, his eyes fixed on the images of Duo and Quatre, "They're stunning."
The images were life-like enough that I wouldn't have been surprised if they'd started moving. Each image showed Duo and Quatre filled with life and laughter. I could understand, then, why Breeze had requested such simple outfits for the picture, since the focus of the picture was the people, not the adornments. It was hard to take my eyes away from Quatre, and I glanced over to Heero and noticed that he had the same problem with Duo.
"How many more pictures will you take?" Zechs asked after skimming through about a dozen.
"Oh, he'll take hundreds," Zephyr answered for him. "And only be happy with a handful. But he'll give you a digital copy of all of them and print out a couple of the best for you."
Zechs nodded, looking pleased, and handed the computer back.
The next hour was a blur. Quatre and Duo took naturally to the camera, both being the more extroverted of the group. Breeze seemed to enjoy taking candid pictures of them together, and in different combinations with the rest of us.

Breeze seemed to find Heero and myself more interesting pieces, though, and the shots he took of us, together, individually, and with the others were more precise and exacting. As a dancer, I was not unfamiliar with the concept of using my body as a piece of art, but the positions and expressions Breeze asked me to hold were difficult primarily because I was required to hold them, where as dance was fluid movement. Heero had a particularly hard time with the pictures because he usually used his body as a means to an end, and so had no concept of what was required to make a position look graceful or fluid. Instead of being annoyed at this, however, I think Breeze took it as a challenge, and worked particularly long with Heero.

With Wufei, Breeze seemed to like portrait-style shots, although he took other styles when pairing Wufei with any of us. I had to wonder if Breeze could sense Wufei's inner turmoil, because several of the shots had Wufei looking wistfully out of the shot, his face holding just a hint of sadness. The images were almost achingly potent.
It was several hours before Breeze began to wind down, but in the last hour his shots and poses became more specific and demanding, and I could tell that he was trying to put the finishing touches into his collection. By this point, Zephyr and Master had both had several glasses of wine, and were speaking enthusiastically about their slaves.
"I just can't imagine how hard it would be to take on five. Seriously, you must have had ulcers!"
"Well, there were a couple of migraine-filled weeks when we first took in Shinigami, I will admit that much," Zechs laughed, casting an affectionate glance at Duo, who was currently posing for a picture by strangling Wufei with his braid and smiling for the camera. Breeze was not amused, but I noticed him save a copy of the shot anyway.
"He is a handful, isn't he?" Zephyr asked, the look on his face somewhere between surprise and horror.
"Sometimes it felt like I could use both hands and a rope and still not be able to get a hold of him. But it was worth it in the end. The rewards far outweigh the cost."
"They always do, don't they?" Zephyr said, looking toward Breeze, his eyes filling with pride. "But… still… it's hard for me to imagine how you could take five boys, and I've heard some of them were severely damaged, and turn them into such stable men, let alone a team worthy of Collar competitions."
"It… took a lot of work," Zechs said, but I could tell by his hesitation that this had suddenly struck him as odd as well. It wasn't the first time one of us had wondered about the miniscule chances of Zechs taking in five random slaves and having them turn into the perfect Collar team. But Zechs shrugged it off. "I've always been good at reading people for inner strength and character. I suppose this ability simply kicked in when I was picking them out."
"I'll have to let you pick out my next slaves for me then."
"Are you looking for more?" Zechs asked, and Zephyr looked pained for a moment.
"Not for… companions," he said, looking at Breeze, "but I do keep several slaves working for me. My accountant, actually, is one of my slaves." Zechs laughed, although it technically wasn't a joke. "But… how do you… I mean, Breeze still has nightmares, and he was hardly damaged when he came to me. How do you…"
"They all still have nightmares," Zechs interjected. "You can't even hope to erase what's happen. Trying to cover it up won't do anything but press it deeper. You just have to make them safe enough so that they can let go by themselves. For people who have been through as much pain as they have, they will always take happiness whenever they can grasp it. Sometime you just have to convince them that they can still feel happiness, that's all. But if you truly care and want to help, sometimes that's enough, you know?"
Zephyr looked as though he truly did understand, but Breeze called to us before he could respond.
"One last shot, if you'd like, Master Zechs. A family photo, if you will," Breeze said, and it caused Zechs to give the first genuine smile I'd seen all day.
It took several minutes for Breeze to arrange everyone how he wanted, although the photo mimicked how we'd been sitting all day. Zechs was on a chair in the center, with Heero and I kneeling on either side of him. Wufei sat at Zechs' feet, and Duo and Quatre lay on their stomachs in front of him, with their feet almost out of the frame. Everyone smiled, even though the picture caught Wufei looking like he wanted to roll his eyes at it all and Heero was looking directly at Duo. Duo was giving his wicked grin at the camera, like he'd just done something naughty, and Quatre had on an almost too-serene smile, as if to say he'd had no part of the mischief. I couldn't help a small smile of my own at the two. Master seemed to be taking it all in, smiling directly at the camera. It was almost like the idea of our group. Like everything was perfect.
When the camera snapped, the moment was over. We began to gather our things and disperse. Breeze promised to send Master a digital copy of the pictures before we left and to mail the printed copies later.
It was then that Zephyr approached us. It was apparent that in the half an hour that it had taken Breeze to set up the picture, Zephyr had finished off the bottle of wine. He was now visibly intoxicated, swaying on his feet, and he seemed upset.
"Zechs, before you go, I need to say something to you," Zephyr said, but stumbled as he approached. Breeze was instantly at his side, giving what little support he could with his small stature, and trying to pull Zephyr away.
"Master, I think you'd best go lie down," Breeze said, but Zephyr would not be budged, and fixed his stare on Zechs.
"Listen, please, I need you to listen!" Zephyr said, and Zechs was surprised enough only to nod. "Look… Look, I just wanted you to know that… that some of us aren't monsters. I know that's what it must seem like to you, but we don't want to be monsters. Darus and I… there are reasons we are here, reasons we can't leave here. Once you have a slave, and especially once you care for that slave, you can't ever get away from this place. I just want you to understand because I believe that you will be in a similar situation very soon and… and I want you to know, as a friend, that love is always the most important thing. Don't ever doubt it, and don't ever give up on it."
And then he turned and let Breeze pull him away, leaving Master looking worried and upset.
Even after Darus came to explain that his friend simply couldn't hold his liquor and to bid us farewell, Zechs still seemed uneasy, unable to write off Zephyr's words as simply drunken ramblings. I suppose it didn't help matters when Darus gifted Zechs with six slaves, to "see what you can do with them. They are all sound of body, and of no use to me. Good luck!" Darus said, and bid us farewell.
I could see the headache starting already as Master's stress levels rose. As we boarded the train and headed for home, I could hardly imagine what the coming week would bring.

And from there, it was time for Collar.

182 Duo

I like to fuck.

Most guys do, right?

I mean, it's generally accepted that most men like to have sex. And me? I like to have sex somewhat more than most guys. Well… good sex, anyway. The kind that really winds you up.

Heero?

Heero loves sex.

Like, Heero might actually pick sex over breathing if it came down to it. It'd be a really close call for him, anyway.

So, when we got back from the parties and Zechs informed us that we had one week before the Collar competition and that the new slaves would take over all our chores so that we could practice, Heero took to the practice like he does everything else.

With an insane, inhuman, monstrous amount of dedication and diligence.

Which is what, eventually, led to this conversation.

"No, Heero, I cannot fucking make my penis move on its own. Nor can I make it get long, shorter, dance, or read the alphabet! And if you can, then you're a complete freak. There, I said it."

"There's no need to get angry. I was merely saying that it would make the performance more interesting if you could."

"It would make the performance more interesting if I could pull a bicycle out of my ass, but that ain't happenin' either, buddy!"

"Do you need to take a break?"

"Gee, Heero, it's only been three hours. I think I can last at least another two days before needing to stop for rest or food."

"We could practice… Oh, you were being sarcastic."

And that was the point that I threw my hands up in the air, turned, and stormed out of the training room.

I had better win Collar this year, I thought to myself, or he's going to fucking kill me next year.

Really, I wasn't just being a bitch. With only days to go before Collar, Heero had thrown his obsess switch into overdrive and had been cracking the whip like I was a rented mule. I'd probably gotten more sex in the last two days than I had in the last six months. I was fucking wore out!

Although, to be fair, I wasn't the only one. I barely got to see Wufei, Quatre, or Trowa in the last two days, since they were also almost constantly working on their own skills and routines. And Wufei had been hidden in the library or the gym almost from the moment we got back. And Zechs… Well, I almost felt bad for Zechs, dealing with all the new slaves.

You see, when Zechs had taken on each of his first five slaves, he'd done it pretty much one at a time. So when one of us had a problem, he'd been able to personally address and monitor it. It was one of the things that made him such a great guy to be enslaved to, actually. He really cared, probably too much, about making his slaves better.

And now he had eight fucked up loonies to deal with.

So let me run down the list for you.

Demos, the sexy butler.

Waif, with the scar on his face

The twins, Romi and Loki, who acted like dolls.

Sith, who wanted to be favorite.

Rox, the silent thug.

Meri, who was used to being spoiled.

And Adio, who was sickly.

Sound like a good mix? Yeah, not so much. Between Sith, who was constantly trying to push the others (and us) out of the way for attention, and Meri who never wanted to do anything but chew bubblegum and watch television, Zechs was at the end of his rope.

But, at the same time, it brought out the best in Zechs. With all of his Collar slaves wrapped up in their events, Zechs threw himself into preparing his new slaves for his nearly month-long absence as the rest of us went to Collar. Wisely, Zechs had decided to leave all of the new slaves behind when we travelled to Collar. The idea of bringing any of these new, untried, and somewhat untrained was as ridiculous as… well… as taking me to Collar.

The first few nights, the new slaves slept in the living room, curled up on couches and a few curled up on the floors. Zechs didn't seem pleased that Demos, the eldest of the slaves, had to sleep on the floor while Meri, Romi, and Loki took the couches, but Meri whined enough that Zechs let it go. Adio, who had been diagnosed by Sally with chronic malnutrition and dehydration, was sleeping in the medical room with an IV of vitamins and fluid pumping into his arm.

Sith, twisting his long auburn hair around his finger and coyly batting his eyelashes, asked if he could share Master's bed, since he was awfully lonely. That was unlikely, considering he and Rox had formed a quick friendship, but Zechs rebuffed him firmly anyway.

"When I want you in my bed, I will call you there," he had said firmly, and then went upstairs to sleep with Wufei. I could hardly keep the smile off my face as Sith snarled and cursed as soon as Zechs was out of the room.

"What the fuck is your problem?" Sith snarled at me.

"Nothin'" I said, then peeled myself off the wall I'd been leaning against and sauntering upstairs. I had to be careful not to walk too fast and give Sith any thoughts of weakness.

"Why do you rile him like that?" Heero wondered as he joined me going up the stairs.

"Don't want him getting the idea that he's got the run of the place," I answered.

"Master wouldn't like it."

"Yeah, but he's kinda naive about this sort of thing, don't you think?" I asked as we entered the bedroom and started shucking clothes. Heero and I, along with Quatre and Trowa, had gone back to sleeping in our own rooms, mainly to keep from disturbing Master with our training schedules.

"He just wants us all to get along," Heero defended, climbing into bed. I climbed in beside him, pulling him into my arms.

"Sometimes, the only way to get along is to make sure everybody knows their places. I know guys like Sith. He'll slit your throat to get your dinner and not think twice about it. He'll never understand that Master isn't like that."

Heero was silent for a moment, before nodding against my chest.

"Sometimes I forget what it was like before Master. What it was like when everyone was like Sith."

It was my turn to sigh now, and to kiss his forehead.

"Sometimes I wish I could," I said, and he leaned up and kissed me.

"I'll make you forget," he promised, and kissed me deeper. I kissed him back, and this lasted for several minutes, but unfortunately we'd been fucking pretty much all day, and our libidos were done. We fell asleep snuggled against each other.

I'd like to detail all the progress Zechs made within a week with his new slaves, but for the most part we were kept separate from the others. With his original slaves so wrapped up in their Collar events, I know Zechs spent a lot of time working with his new slaves. Demos, for the most part, took actual care of the other slaves and shepherded them around, but I know Zechs spent extra time working with the twins, who lived in constant fear of being separated because their previous master had only separated them to punish one or the other. Otherwise, the pair would only follow instructions or sit quietly together. Zechs managed to entice them into playing games, but he struggled with their separation anxiety. Adio spent most of the week sleeping, and was shakey and pale any time he appeared at meals. Waif followed Demos around like a puppy, having bonded with the older slave before the others had arrived. The two of them managed to handle most of the chores around the house, along with trying to get the others to do the chores Zechs had set for them. Meri was the worst about dodging chores, and could almost always be found sucking on a piece of candy and watching television less than ten minutes after he'd been set to something. Unlike me, who had avoided chores out of deliberate disobedience, Meri was simply lazy, and would whine or make excuses the moment he was found out. If that didn't work, he'd offer to trade sexual favors to Rox to get him to do it. And Rox, who rarely said no to anyone, never said no to Meri.

But the real problem was Sith. Sith, with the slim form of a dancer and glossy black hair. His eyes were bright green on his narrow face and he was always smiling at Zechs. He reminded me of a snake, and he had his eye on Zechs.

It wasn't until two days before Collar that we found out just how far he would go.

Let me make this clear: Zechs did not have sex with his new slaves. He had his Collar slaves, which his new slaves considered his harem, and then the new slaves that Zechs treated like normal servants. This confused and frustrated the hell out of the new slaves, most of which had been used exclusively as sex slaves. Despite their near-constant efforts to seduce him – some of which were obvious and loud enough that the entire household knew what was happening – Zechs refused to use any of them for sex, even when Wufei and the rest of us were too busy for sex.

So, I guess, Sith got the idea in his head that the only way he could become Zechs' favorite was to become a Collar slave. And the only way to do that would be to replace one of the slaves already in the competition.

Ergo, Sith would need to eliminate one of the Collar slaves.

And Quatre had always seemed like our weak link.

At first, it was little things. A slippery floor next to the stairs when he was coming back from the shower. Trowa caught him that time, grabbing his wrist before he had fallen more than a step. Zechs had been very upset with Meri, who had been asked to clean the hallway earlier in the day.

Later, it seemed strange that Quatre would manage to get the hem of his shirt too close to the flame when he was cooking, especially when his shirt was not particularly loose and when he was so familiar with the gas stove that he had practiced on. But Quatre didn't panic and flail, even though Sith had supposedly panicked and ran away. Wufei had been coming down to the kitchen for a cup of tea, and managed to put Quatre out before the burn was bigger than a sunburn. Zechs was so upset, though, he refused to let Quatre train for the rest of the day, blaming the accident on fatigue.

There could have been more, it was impossible to tell. Considering there were only three days left until Collar, I don't know how Sith thought he was going to manage to get Quatre out of the running and get himself into the running and still manage not to embarrass Zechs. I mean, it wasn't ever like he was a trained Collar slave. And I don't think he knew just how dedicated Zechs was to winning this year, or I don't think he would have tried anything. If he weren't new to the household, or a total nutter, he probably would have realized that Zechs would at least be furious about Quatre being injured. He definitely wouldn't be in a mood to welcome a new slave into his bed. I suppose Sith was banking on Zechs being angry at Quatre for the injuries, and wanting to take another slave into the competition to punish or replace Quatre.

And when it hit two days before Collar and none of his plans had managed to take Quatre out of the running, I think he panicked. I don't know why he felt the need to be in this Collar match any more than I understood Zechs' need to win this year. Safe to say that Zechs obsession was nearly rampant, and it most likely helped to fuel Sith's fire.

To be fair, I don't think that Sith ever meant to kill Quatre. I don't think his obsession went that far. I think he was desperate, and I think he panicked, but I don't think that counts as an excuse.

During the last few days before Collar, when Quarter's "accidents" were at the worst, and we all had an understanding that one of us would be with Quatre at all times. I was in the kitchen making a lunch when Quatre found the note on the refrigerator.

"Duo, look, Wufei says the baby birds outside the library window have hatched. Can I go see them? Wufei says he'll be up there until noon."

"Yeah, just let me cook these hamburgers and I'll come up with you," I told him. Hamburgers were my specialty… and pretty much the only thing I could make that anyone would eat.

"Can't I go up now? Wufei said he'd be up there," he pleaded and I hesitated, but what harm could he get into going up a couple flights of stairs?

"Alright, but watch for wet floors," I called as he immediately darted toward the hallway. I could hear him bounding up all three flights of stairs to the third-floor. I heard Zechs call to him as he passed Zechs' second-story office, but I couldn't hear what Quatre answered. I smiled as I flipped the burgers, only one having burnt while I was distracted.

I wasn't until I heard the scream outside that I remembered Heero and Wufei had gone riding that morning and weren't due back until noon.

I raced out the front door and onto the lawn, and my heart jumped to my throat as I saw Quatre clinging to the gutter of the second story roof. Somehow he had managed to fall out the third story window. Luckily, the third story was smaller than the second, and there was a ledge under it that covered the rest of the second story. Unfortunately, it appeared that Quatre had rolled down the incline of the roof when he had fallen and ended up griping the gutter for dear life.

"Hold on Quatre!" I yelled, my heart pounding.

"Duo, I'm slipping!" he screamed back, and I could already see the gutter coming away from the building. I knew that I didn't have time to get to the third story and pull him back up, so I did the only thing I could think of and positioned myself underneath him in hopes of catching him as he fell.

But Quatre is not significantly smaller than me and was a good thirty-five feet up. That much weight falling from that height packs a lot of punch. So I was pretty much aware that, while my body would most likely cushion his fall enough for him to survive, the impact of his body on mine could very likely kill me. And somehow… I almost felt like I deserved it.

After all… I was supposed to be watching him, and if I couldn't even protect my own family… did I really deserve to live?

And then the gutter came free and Quatre was scrabbling to keep a hold, cutting his hands on the sharp metal, and eventually falling. I positioned myself as best I could and braced my legs to catch him, closing my eyes at the last possible second and bracing for impact.

But it never came. Instead, there was a grunt and a thud above me, and I looked up to find Zechs leaning out the office window and clutching Quatre around the middle. They hung like that for a minute, which Quatre's back braced against the wall of the house where it had hit when Zechs grabbed him, before Zechs began to pull Quatre inside.

By the time I managed to dash up the stairs, Zechs had managed to pull a bruised and shaken Quatre in through the window and was cradling him on the floor, trying to look Quatre's cut hands. The scream had attracted the other slaves and Trowa, who barreled past me to kneel beside Quatre.

"Quatre, what happened?" Zechs asked when he had examined Quatre's palms. Trowa moved to get medical supplies and began bandaging the cuts as I panted in the hallway.

"I was… I was looking at the birds and I… I fell… and…"

"That's bullshit and you know it!" I snarled, too livid and too angry with myself to hold my tongue. "That little shit Sith pushed you, and you're fucking lying to protect him? Fuck that shit! You could have died!"

"Duo! He couldn't have meant to…"

"Oh no, he just wanted to help you get a closer look, that's all. A closer look at the ground!"

"Duo, you can't just…"

"Quatre," Master interrupted, and his voice was too stern to be interrupted. "I want you to tell me right now, and don't you dare lie to me. Did Sith push you?"

"I… He… I don't think he meant for me to fall off of the first ledge…"

"So he did push you?" Zechs asked again, and this time Quatre could only lower his head and nod.

By this time we'd gathered a crowd, and I saw Sith come up behind it, his face white as a sheet. Zechs took one look at him and stood, handing Quatre to a livid-looking Trowa.

"Get your things," he said, his voice more tightly controlled than I'd ever heard it. "You're going back."

183 Zechs

I hadn't felt the bitter burn of anger like this in a long time. Angry at myself, angry at the idiot boy in the back seat. I took a turn too sharply, and I couldn't help the feeling of satisfaction when he was thrown against the side of the car. He glared at me; he'd given up pleading half an hour ago.

The nearest Collar pickup location was two hours from the house. I had been given firm instructions on bringing the slaves there if I grew bored with them, if I hurt one too badly to be useful, or if one of them died. I had been warned that turning a slave loose or losing a slave would result in my termination as a Master (and most likely my termination as a living person). So while it was tempting to just drop Sith off by the side of the road, I had little doubt that Collar would find out, and I would not endanger the rest of my slaves over this one.

I could still feel Quatre's arms in my grip, feel the tug as his body slammed against the side of the house. It had been nearly an hour now since I left, and my ears still rang from his scream. If I'd been anywhere else, if I'd been any slower, he'd have crashed to the earth beneath, and probably would have died.

It wasn't just that Sith had endangered Quatre's life. They'd all done that to each other to some extent while they were adjusting. It was that, with no warning or provocation, he'd gone out of his way to intentionally harm one of the other slaves. And he'd done it away from Collar, at my home, where they were supposed to be safe.

Where I could let my guard down, just for a little while, and be with them.

But the buzzing in my head told me that my guard was back up now, and it wasn't likely to go down again until after Collar. Even home wasn't safe anymore, and just hours away from heading into the biggest completion of their lives, my boys were wound up and confused, angry and scared.

Not to mention Quatre's hands. The cuts across his palm had been small, not even large enough for stitches, but would the pain distract him? They certainly wouldn't be healed by Collar. Had this boy just cost me the edge in these competitions?

Because the closer it came to the actual games, the more certain I was that we had to win this year. I had to meet with the Owner, and take down the Collar games, because I could not take another year of this. I would break, and the boys would suffer.

It was dusk outside, and the houses had given way to a thick forest the further we went. It wasn't an area I was familiar with, but I was good at following directions. I had been told that this location was more secluded than the others, that it was on a ranch instead of in the city. Eventually, I had found the private road and turned into a denser part of the forest for the last few miles to the ranch. In a way it felt almost comforting to drive through the thick forests at this time of night. The lights and sounds of the city would have aggravated me, but the imposing forest suited my mood.

Because I didn't really want to give up on Sith. There was promise there, behind those sharp eyes. The boy had wit and intelligence, and one could hardly blame him for lacking compassion after all he'd been through. His competitiveness was a problem, but mostly because the environment he'd been in had forced him to fight for his survival. It wasn't like a week with me would convince him that it was different now.

But, at the same time, I couldn't keep him. Taking him to Collar was out of the question, but so was leaving him at the house. After all, I really had no idea what Sith was capable of, or how deeply his psychosis ran. Keeping him locked up the whole time was an option, but I would have to let the other slaves feed him. I could trust Demos not to free him, but it was pretty likely that Sith could corrupt one of the others. If two of them overcame Demos and made a run for it, it would jeopardize the entire mission, not to mention all of my slaves. And I couldn't risk blowing my cover by asking for an agent to watch my slaves. I had done it when I initially got Heero, but I was too deep under cover now. There was too much of a chance that I was being watched, especially since I'd gained so much status as a master. If Collar itself wasn't watching me, there was a good chance other masters were, in an effort to knock me out of the competition.

I felt bad about taking Sith back, but I couldn't risk the safety of the rest of my slaves for him. And, hopefully, in a few short weeks I could offer a brighter future to him and all the rest of the boys trapped in this horrible situation.

"I just want you to know, I know who you work for. If you send me back, I'm gonna tell everyone."

Shit.

I slammed on the breaks and pulled over to the side of the road. I'd been so careful. How had he found out? Had Wufei said something? But Wufei was smarter than that, and I had made sure to keep all the files on my computer locked and encrypted. I'd even kept the door locked when he was in there. It seemed impossible that Sith had gotten in there and found anything incriminating without leaving any evidence. It seemed impossible.

And, I realized as I glanced in the rearview mirror and was met with a shocked pair of blue eyes, it was. The dawning horror on Sith's face let me know he had been bluffing.

And I'd just given myself away.

I couldn't take him back to the house now. He'd tell the others. There was no way I could contain all of them, not if they knew. Not well enough to be sure they wouldn't jeopardize the mission. Not well enough to ensure the safety of my boys.

And I couldn't send him away. There was no question that he'd tell the officials that I had a secret, out of spite if nothing else. And even if he wasn't believed, the attention it would bring to me was too much of a risk.

Can't keep him. Can't send him away.

My heart was pounding, and I could feel my pulse behind my eyes. I turned the car off and rubbed my temples. Trying to give myself time to think.

"You can't take me back now. I know," he said, and his voice was calm and sultry. "Let's go back to the house. I won't make any problems for you."

But I could hear the lie there. He knew he had me now. I couldn't take him back. He had power over me, and he wasn't afraid to use it. If I took him with me to Collar, he could embarrass me in front of the other masters. If I left him at him, he could bolt or corrupt the other slaves.

Can't go. Can't stay.

The car was suddenly too small, and I unbuckled my seatbelt and climbed out. The night air was cool and hit me like a blow, letting me clear my head. I took a few deep breaths and stared into the forest. I doubted anyone would be out at this time, especially on land that belonged to Collar, so I gave myself minute to calm down. I walked to the back of the van and leaned against the rear doors, but the pounding in my head just wouldn't subside.

There was a far off thought in my mind, but I couldn't bring myself to contemplate it.

I let myself slide to the ground as I heard Sith's door open. He hesitated a moment, then climbed out and quietly came to kneel beside me.

"I can be just as good for you as those other slaves," he whispered in my ear. "You'd be much happier with me, if you'd only give me a try."

I pulled him into my lap and he curled against me, but I was too sick to my stomach to feel anything for him. I placed my hand on his shoulder and found the heartbeat under my fingers. Slowly, I squeezed the pressure point. He struggled for a moment, surprised at the unprovoked attack, and then went limp against me.

The buzzing in my head faded as I stretched him out across my lap. Unconscious, he was far prettier than when I could see the manipulation in his eyes. His face was angular like Trowa's, although the cheekbones weren't set as high. His nose was small, like Wufei's, and his eyes were just a shade darker than Heero's. His hands were like Quatre's, and as I held him in my lap I couldn't bring myself to lace our fingers, because I was afraid I'd see too much of them in him.

Because, really, he wasn't so different. They'd all been scared by what they'd been through, been raised to look out for themselves no matter what the cost or who got hurt. How could I blame a person who'd been tortured for adapting to that abuse? How could I blame him for surviving? If anything, Sith was the victim here, not the villain. And as he lay silent and helpless in my arms, it became harder and harder to blame him for anything.

It tore at my heart to see him looking so innocent, and I felt a tear splash the back of my hand before I even realized I was crying. I cradled his limp body to me, hiding my face in his and smelling the same soup that all my boys used. I sobbed against his shoulder, unable to contain myself. The crickets were chirping in the background, and suddenly the sound was deafening, like an unholy audience watching my every move. But I wouldn't let them stop me.

Because I would do anything to protect my boys. Even if it damned me to hell, I would gladly trade my soul for theirs.

The crickets were deafening now, and the buzzing in my head had returned with it. I let out a primal howl of rage against the injustice of the universe, against the fickleness of fate, and against the unholy act I was about to commit against the boy in my arms.

Sith's neck snapped with an audible crack, and then everything was quiet.

184 Wufei

When Zechs returned home, I knew something was wrong immediately. Not because he came into the room without any pretense of being quiet, though he usually tries to sneak in when he thinks I'm sleeping. Not because he'd forgotten to take his shoes and his coat off downstairs and he'd tracked mud over the carpets. And not even because he refused to turn on the light after I was clearly awake.

I knew something was wrong because he went straight for the bottle of whiskey on the desk in the corner, and lit up a cigarette from the pack he had stashed in the bottom drawer.

"Zechs?" I asked hesitantly. I'd never seen him in a mood like this before, and I wasn't sure how to deal with it. "What's wrong?"

Zechs made a pained, abortive snort into his whisky glass, something that could have been considered a chuckle if it hadn't sounded so despondent.

"No, nothing's wrong. I'm sorry I woke you, I'll let you go back to sleep," he said, then snagged the whiskey bottle and headed for the door. I was out of the bed before I realized I was moving, and had his hand in mine before he'd managed to take two steps.

"Don't," I said. "You'll wake the others going back down the stairs." It was pure emotional blackmail, but I didn't want him facing this alone. Whatever it was, I wanted him to face it with me.

The seconds ticked by as we stood there, illuminated only by the moonlight coming in through the windows. It was a cool summer night, with the promise of fall still a few weeks off. And yet Zechs' hand was like ice in my grip, and I could see a shiver run up his spine even under his light blazer and full clothes, while I was dressed in nothing but sweatpants and could barely feel the cold. Eventually, Zechs sighed and I knew that I had won as he let the bottle slip from him fingers and drop to the floor with a dull thud. I released his hand and reached up to take his jacket, only to suddenly find myself enveloped by his desperate embrace.

I managed not to react, even though the sudden entrapment sent a spike of claustrophobia through me, and I spent several seconds limp in Zechs' vice-like grip. It was only when I felt the tremors running through his shoulders that I managed to put my arms around him, running my fingers through his hair with one hand and placing the other on the small of his back. It seemed to calm him a little, and his grip on my torso eased slightly.

"Zechs," I called as calmly as I could manage, because quite honestly he was scaring me. "Tell me what's wrong," I asked, but he only shook his head and would not even look at me.

Surely taking Sith back had not upset him this much? I knew how strongly Zechs cared about his slaves and how seriously he took his role as their guardian, even the slaves that had so recently come under his protection, but this was too much. Sith had damned himself by his own actions, and it was plain that Zechs could not keep a slave like that without endangering the lives of the others. Not everyone could be saved.

But I couldn't fathom what had brought about this reaction. Surely Zechs didn't feel that Sith's actions had been because Zechs had failed him? They'd hardly had more than a week together, and Zechs had been forced to spend much of that week helping us train for Collar and training the other new slaves for when we left. And I hadn't seen anything that would lead me to believe that Zechs had formed a special connection with Sith- actually, Zechs seemed to have a genuine dislike of the boy. So, while I understood Zechs being upset that he had been forced to send Sith back into the hands of the other masters, wasn't this amount of emotion… overdramatic?

But it felt real enough. The pain almost radiated from Zechs, sending aching coldness down to my bones. Whatever the reason, he was wretched, and I didn't know how to help.

"Please, Zechs, just tell me what's wrong!" I prompted, and his movements made me think that he might finally be ready to talk to me, but instead he took my lips in a frantic kiss. I was so surprised at first that I couldn't even kiss him back, and just let him plunder my mouth with his tongue. I finally regained my composure enough to meet his kiss, holding his face in my hands to steady us. It was a desperate kiss, more tongue and teeth than lips, and we were both panting by the time it was finished. His eyes finally met mine as we parted, but they were so filled with pain that they gave me no hint to what was causing his turmoil. He met my gaze for only a second, and then pulled back.

As he released me, I realized that his cigarette was still clutched in his fingers, bent from the force of his grip and spreading ashes all over the carpet. Zechs seemed to notice it for the first time, and quickly put it out on the antique mahogany wardrobe and chucked the stub into the wastebasket.

"I'm sorry, Wufei, I'm not myself right now," he said, his voice deep and troubled.

"I don't know how to help you if you don't tell me what's wrong," I told him, even though my anxiety was giving way to annoyance.

"I don't think anything can help me now," he said, more to himself than to me. With that comment, I felt my fear shift toward anger and felt the glare return to my face.

"Then run from it, you coward. Whatever's haunting you, I'm sure it will go away if we don't talk about it," I snarled. "Far be it for me to suggest you share your problems with a lowly slave!"

"I just want to forget!" he snapped, grabbing me by the shoulders so suddenly that I instinctively grabbed the front of his shirt to steady myself. "I don't want to see his eyes anymore! Damnit, Wufei, just help me forget!" he cried, shoving me toward the bed. I think he meant to push me away and then retreat, but I had the front of his shirt in an iron grip, and he was pulled to the bed with me as I fell. He landed with his knees splayed on either side of me, his face merely inches from my own. His eyes were haunted still, but either the whiskey or the kiss had brought some of the life back into them, and he looked at me like I was his last hope. "Just help me forget," he whispered, and this time he was pleading.

I know now that I probably should have denied him. That all I really did was to help him bury the emotional wounds, so that they could fester under cover. And I could blame it on the years of training to please my master, or I could blame it on the loyalty that I felt to the foundation of my new family. But the simple fact was that after seeing such pain his eyes, there wasn't anything I wouldn't do to ease his pain, if only for a moment.

If I had to do it all over again, I still don't know that I could deny him.

-Edited for Content-

"Thank you," he said quietly, and the sadness had been banished from his eyes, but now he just looked tired.

"You still haven't told me what's wrong," I prompted.

"Does there have to be anything more? I failed Sith, endangered you all. Isn't that bad enough?" he asked, but it was an evasion and I knew it.

"That's not what it is. Tell me," I prompted, but he would not budge, instead turning away from me and curling up on his own side of the bed.

"I'm tired," he said, but I couldn't let it go.

"Zechs," I prompted, laying my hand on his shoulder, but he sharply pulled away from me.

"Wufei, enough!" he barked, and it was the master's voice, the one he hardly ever used with me. It crystalized for me that whatever we had just shared, whatever I had given him by meeting him as a sexual equal, was now over. He was the master, and I was the slave.

It was the first time I truly wondered if Zechs was doing what was best for us.

185 Zechs

When we departed the train and boarded the satellite that hosted the Collar games, I'd like to tell you that my trigger finger was twitching and I was ready for action. In reality, however, my stress level was at an all-time high and, while I was happy that this would all soon be over, I was so sick to death of the lies and the abuse that permeated every facet of my new life that the only thing that kept me going was the idea that it might be over soon.

It didn't help that, on top of my guilt over Sith, I was still dealing with my mistreatment of Wufei. I had wanted to tell him what had happened, had ached to unburden myself to someone, but I had been terrified that he would reject me, had been unable to face his recriminations. So instead I had hidden and shut him out, and so I couldn't really blame him for his cold attitude toward me now, but it would have meant a lot to me to have his support. But it was my own fault he had withdrawn, and I prepared for the worst as we entered Collar.

So when a tall slave and two guards approached us as soon as we boarded the satellite, I didn't even flinch. I nodded as they bid me to follow, bringing Wufei in tow, and sending the others on to our rooms. If they had found me out or if they merely wanted to question me about the loss of my slave, I would bear them all equally. It seemed all I could do was try not to crack under the pressure.

I wasn't expecting to be led to a lush sitting room. Thick carpets adorned the floors, and expensive paintings lined the walls. Several couches were in the room, wooden with dark velvet fabrics, and a pair of wineglasses had been set out, resting next to a bottle of aged red wine. For a moment I thought we were alone as the doors closed behind us, before I noticed the figure sitting in a chair at the head of the room. The figure was tall and male, but the curtains hanging around the chair obscured any more of my view. Wufei peered around me at the figure, and seemed much more frightened than I could find the energy to be.

"Welcome, Zechs Marquis," the figure said, and Wufei started as though he'd been burned.

"Master!" Wufei exclaimed, a barely-hidden tremble in his voice.

"Don't worry, Wufei, I'm not here for you. Actually, you are dismissed, Dragon."

Wufei cast a worried glance from the shadowed figure to me and hesitated.

"Dragon, out!" the voice snapped, and I think Wufei was leaving before he even knew he was moving. Still, he cast one last worried glance to me at the doorway before slipping out and shutting the door behind him. I turned back to the shadowed figure, unimpressed by his hold over Wufei.

"So I am in the presence of the Owner, am I? Should I be impressed?"

The figure laughed and rose, staying just inside the shadow of the curtains. I wondered if they had been set out merely to conceal his face from me, and I tried to catalogue as much information as I could. The person was intimidatingly tall, I would give him that much. Taller even than me by a few inches, and I was far from short. He was dressed in a black suit, which looked expensive although I couldn't name the brand. The sleek fabric clung to his body, revealing a chiseled chest and sculpted biceps, both arousing and intimidating. This wasn't the kind of person who would shy from a fight, and I realized that I might have my hands full if he decided to try a physical attack. Something in his voice told me that he wouldn't need to resort to that kind of violence, though. Something strong and… familiar.

"Most people would be impressed by having their own, personal audience with me, but not you," he said, and I could hear the amusement in his voice. "Then again, it isn't the first time you've seen me in private. Nor the hundredth, I'd dare say."

"I don't follow you," I told him, feeling my first genuine twinge of fear. It almost made me miss the cloud of apathy I'd been shrouded in.

"Come now, Milliardo, you don't forget your lovers so easily now, do you?" the man wondered, and then stepped out of the shadow.

Looking back, I must seem painfully naive. Even with my rank and my double life, how I could have thought I would pull off a disguise around such powerful people, for so long, amazes even me. But when Treize stepped out of the darkness and revealed himself- taller, stronger, and older though he was- it was like a ghost and a nightmare all rolled into one. My stomach plummeted and I was nearly dizzy with fear and disappointment.

"But… you can't be…" I stuttered uselessly. Treize only laughed. I remembered, heart wrenchingly, of when I had loved that sound. Now, it sent chills to my bones.

"Why not? Because my bloodlines aren't as good and my heritage isn't as long as yours?" he asked, and I could hear the bitterness there that didn't quite show in his voice. It was always the same. "Come now, Milliardo, you can't say I ever lacked for ambition. And now? Now I have Kings, Queens, and Heads of State under my thumb, trembling at the thought that I'll reveal their dirty secrets to the masses. And, eventually, I will. But, come, sit with me. I've seen you for months now, but we've never really gotten to talk. To catch up."

He was by my side now, resting his hand on my arm, and I think that the solidness of his presence was all the kept me standing as my head spun.

"You… Jesus… you knew all along? About me. About… About why I'm here?"

The world tilted, and I found myself leaning against the wall for support.

"That you're a plant for Preventers? Of course," he said, stepping toward me. "Why do you think you got in? At first I was just going to have you shot, but when I saw who the plant was I approved you to become a member. I wanted to see how you'd fare. And I'm impressed."

"So… everything… all of it… was just a sham?"

I felt the heat rise to my face, and my stomach roiled.

"Not everything. You're interactions with the boys was true, as was you interactions with the other masters, although I did push a few of them into your path to see how you'd react. Everything else, though? Yes, I'm afraid everything else was monitored and controlled by me. You should be honored that I took such an interest in you."

"Honored?" I snarled, "Look at what you've done! Look at what you've become!"

But Treize just tsked, refusing to rise to my anger, and I felt it drain out of me.

"Collar was here before me, and it would be here without me. But if it's any consolation, I've used it for a greater purpose."

I snorted, and found my knees buckling beneath me. "What greater purpose could there possibly be in slavery?" I asked, still trying to hold the bile down. Treize knelt in front of me and took my hand in his own. The touch was so familiar that it sent chills down my spine.

"Listen, Milliardo, because I want you with me for this. I have a thousand, perhaps by this point a hundred thousand men here with no families, no ties, and no real reason to blame me for this situation. Most of them are immune to pain, and all of them are young, fit, beautiful, and begging to be given a higher purpose. The Collar competitions are part of that purpose, but it is not nearly enough. Do you see?"

"No, I don't see."

"It's going to be a revolution, Milliardo!" he said, and his voice was so honest and exuberant that it made me want to vomit. And then I realized what he meant.

"You're going to take out all the owners."

"I am. For the same reason that Preventers didn't take them out. If all of the leaders are killed, then countries will fall into chaos. The exact thing that they hoped to avoid by refusing to act against the organization as a whole is what I will now precipitate."

"But… the slaves are not warriors. They're… they're concubines!"

"They're young, and they're miserable. Besides, with advancements like Dr. Darus is making, it won't matter that they're untrained. And don't think his work is the only one I've been watching. I've got a genetic engineer and chemical scientist that have both shown leaps and bounds in their progress this year. That's why I think that it's about time to start culminating my little project, don't you?"

"But what would make the slaves follow you, if their lives are on the line?"

"Why, because I will rescue them, of course," Treize said, and it was with the same faked sincerity I had seen him use to convince troops and politicians alike. "I've already formed a crack tactical squad called White Fang that will target and eliminate the masters one by one. It's all very public, actually. You see, once my organization announces that they have been created by a generous humanitarian specifically to stop human trafficking and punish those that engage in it, we'll be public heroes. All we'll need to do if flash some photos of abused, crying teenagers and we'll be lauded no matter who we destroy in the mean time."

"The public won't let you shoot their leaders in the streets."

"No, not the first few, but then we won't have to, will we? The public will turn on them, and then once it becomes clear how rampant this perversion is, everyone with influence will be a target. It won't matter if they were actually involved in Collar or not, all the public will need is my word that they are. Soon, the public will have disposed of all their leaders, and with my troops of rehabilitated slaves I'll be able to come in and assume occupation of the area. After all, no one would suspect the hero, would they? Which brings me to you."

"If you kill me, Preventers will have reason and right to move against you," I said, but it rang hollow in my own ears. He'd never buy it.

"Preventers don't actually know who I am yet, correct? Or they would have moved against me already. And they won't move against any of the masters because they can't afford the chaos it would bring. And they won't move against this station because they don't have a definable target and they don't know who will get caught in the crossfire. Am I close here?"

He was eerily close, unfortunately.

"So what do you want?"

"Well, unfortunately, you've created a bit of a nuisance of yourself. You see, my plan depends on the slaves hating and being miserable with their masters. Two of the few notable exceptions, you meet only weeks ago. Those exceptions are well aware that their every action is monitored and controlled by me, and that any whim of mine could have them destroyed. More or less, their emotional connections to their slaves have forced them to work for me instead of against me, and they are pawns in my plans. You however, do not work within those bonds, and so the loyalty of your slaves to you is not a benefit to me. Furthermore, your harem consists of slaves that I was grooming for important roles in my upcoming war, including Quatre Winner, who has supposed to rise from the ashes and reclaim the Winner dynasty for my purposes, Trowa Barton, who was showing promise as an assassin, and Duo Maxwell, who was going to be a leader for my berserker squad. Heero Yuy, who I originally sent to you, was a failed experiment, and yet you managed to bring him to full potential. Remarkable! And, of course, you're probably well aware of my plans for Wufei given his military genius and his family position. And now, all the loyalty and commitment I would have gotten for rescuing them has gone to you, and all I'll get for killing you is five little hellions on my hands. You've ruined them for me," he accused, but his tone remained neutral and amused, because that's how Treize was. Unstoppable in his own certainty that he was unstoppable.

"I won't help you," I told him, feigning a certainty I didn't feel. Was there any way to protect my slaves now? Would helping Treize keep them safe, or put them in more danger? And could I compromise my own morals enough to participate in this sham? Because I didn't honestly believe that the world created by the man responsible for Collar would be any better than the world before. But could it be much worse?

"I don't need your help," Treize said, pushing me over and settling down beside me, our legs pressing together. I could still smell the same aftershave on him, and it reminded me of hot nights in the desert, with just a tent and the moon over our naked bodies. I pushed the thought out of my mind.

"Then what do you want?" I asked, my voice little more than a whisper as I pulled my knees to my chest.

"Oh Milliardo," he sighed, and gently brushed a piece of hair behind my ear. "I had hoped you wouldn't get so upset. Isn't it better that you know me, that you know you can trust my word?" he asked, and I let my eyes closed. Was it better to know that I had been so close to the heart of this all along? That perhaps, in some way, I was responsible for this matter? If we had stayed together, would I have been able to turn him from this path? Or would he have pulled me down with him, as I feared he was doing now?

I jerked away from him, jumping up as I felt the anger return to me. "Just tell me what you want!" I snapped, even as he followed me, getting to his feet and trailing me to the other side of the room. Instead of coming to me, though, he went to the wineglasses, easily opening the bottle and pouring two glasses. He handed one to me, which I took despite myself and savored the bitter liquid. I would have liked something stronger, but it at least helped settle my stomach. Treize sipped his own, a small smile on his face, before eventually setting it aside.

"Let me offer you a deal; a bet, since you know I'm a gambler," he said, and his voice was so friendly that you'd never know he was talking about life and death.

"What bet?" I asked warily, because I knew that Treize always stacked the odds in his favor.

"If your slaves win Collar, I will let you remain as you are," he promised, and as much as he had changed, I still knew that his word was his bond. "Your contacts with Preventers will be gradually severed as you tell them that you have made no progress identifying the Owner. You and your slaves will remain in peace here at Collar under the same restrictions as Darus and Zephyr."

"You mean… while you take over the world?"

"Think of it as creating world peace," he coaxed, placing a hand on my shoulder, his body only inches from mine. "And, yes, you would be removed from all my political dealings."

"You know I won't stand idly by while you murder civilians."

"You're not a stupid man, Milliardo. You can see that you're caught in quicksand. If you struggle against it, you'll die. I'm offering you a rope. Tell me, would you really sacrifice, not only your life, but the lives of your slaves to stop me? To stop me when, from what you've seen so far, I might be the least corrupt ruler these people could hope for anyway? Could you do that?"

"I…" I answered, but my throat was suddenly dry, and I could barely contemplate his offer. "What if I lose?"

"Ah, now there's the interesting part," he said, his hand moving to my face, lifting my chin to meet his eyes. "You're so beautiful. Even now," he said, his voice barely a whisper as he stared fervently at me. "I thought you'd have grown less beautiful over time, but you age like wine. You've filled out, matured, and even now I can feel myself longing for you," he told me, and as he approached he backed me up against the arm of the couch. I leaned back and he pressed himself over me, his body dominating mine, shaping my body against his like the two had never been apart. "Is it really so surprising what I want for my prize?" he asked, and I stumbled over the arm of the couch, falling onto the cushions. Treize was on top of me then, and I could feel the heat of his body through his clothes, pressing me down. I could feel my erection twitch, but I was afraid of what he was offering. Afraid… that I would want it. "I want you," he continued, his face only inches from my own, "to keep as my own. My trophy. My pet."

"But…"

"You and I will watch the conquest from a towered chamber far away from the battles and bloodshed, where your only job will be to serve and pleasure me."

But the battles and bloodshed would be waged by the slaves, and he had already laid out his plans for mine. It was like throwing ice water over me, and I struggled to get away from him.

"No! I won't let you hurt my slaves!" I yelled, and started to struggle, but he only pinned me harder.

"Shh," he soothed. "They were in my plans, yes, but I've got thousands like them. I could let you keep them. If you behave, I could let them stay with you. I know how lonely you get when I'm away. They could keep you company."

And this was how Treize gambled; where both options would benefit him. But what other choice did I have? If my slaves won, I would be a slave to his whims, and if they lost I would be a slave to his body. But I had no doubt that Treize would use any means to convince me, even forcing my surrender if I refused. It was only because he wanted some semblance of willingness that he gave me the options in the first place. But, win or lose, I was still under his control.

"I'll play," I agreed breathlessly, and the smile he gave me belonged more to a wolf than a man. He captured my lips to celebrate, and it was more than I could take. I let go to the sensations, giving myself over to him fully.

There was still so much power in Treize's body, the same strength I remembered from before, when we had been warriors together. I wondered self-consciously if I had retained the same strength as well, but I doubted it. Treize had always been stronger, and I had become lazy and weak with age. How else could he have overtaken me so easily?

-Edited for Content-

"I shall see you at the games, then?" he said, heading for the door. "And soon after that, we will be seeing much more of each other," he promised, and then closed the door behind him.

Alone, naked, and sore, I reached for a couch cushion and pulled it to my chest, bringing my knees up and hugging it.

I buried my face in the pillow and sobbed.

186 Wufei

I waited anxiously for two hours for Zechs to return. The other slaves were worried as well, but they didn't know what the Owner was capable of.

"You're gonna get in trouble if you go running around," Quatre warned, pulling me away from the door. "The last person you want to humiliate Master in front of is the Owner," he said, but I couldn't shake the cold feeling in my gut. As soon as he was distracted, I hurried out the door. I think Heero might have covered for me, being just as worried as I was, but I couldn't be sure.

It wasn't unheard of for a slave to walk alone at Collar, but it wasn't ordinary. I hurried down the halls, trying to look unremarkable as I rushed past slaves, masters, and guards. I had been given greater freedom as the Owner's slave and that persona must had held, because no one approached me as I hurried back to the meeting room where I had left Zechs, hoping to find him there and unharmed.

The last thing I expected was to find him naked and asleep, curled up in the corner of the sofa, clutching a pillow to his chest. There were tearstains on his cheeks and I could smell the lingering scent of sex on him, but otherwise he appeared unharmed. I knelt before him, watching his chest rise and fall. Relief flooded me that he was alive, even as I worried about what his relationship with the Owner might be. Because this certainly wasn't the Owner's usual was of dealing with unruly masters.

His eyes fluttered and he roused, uncurling and sitting up. He rubbed his face blearily, and for a moment he seemed more innocent than I had seen him before, and more vulnerable. His eyes met mine as he became aware of his surroundings, and he could meet my gaze for only a moment before shame and embarrassment made him turn away.

"Are you alright?" I asked softly, knowing firsthand what a damaging lover the Owner could be.

"I'm fine," he replied, his voice soft and subdued. He grabbed one of the throw pillows form the arm of the couch and crassly used it to clean the fluids from his body, uncaring that the stains would probably ruin it. He moved around me to stand, as I was still kneeling on the floor, and went to fetch his clothes from where they had been tossed haphazardly on the floor. I stayed where I was, trying to control my temper.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Zechs was strong and noble. The Owner was not supposed to be able to touch him, to influence him. The Owner was not supposed to be able to infect Zechs like he had infected everything else in my life. Like he had infected me.

"What happened?" I asked him, and my voice was quiet, but it rang throughout the room. Zechs paused in his dressing, but did not turn to me.

"Nothing happened," he said after a moment, and then continued to dress.

"Something happened," I snarled, "that much is obvious. I want to know what… and why."

"It's nothing for you to be concerned about," Zechs said, pulling his shirt over his head and trying too hard to keep his voice nonchalant, but I could tell his temper was rising as well. "Why can't you ever trust my judgment?"

"Because you do not trust me as well!" I snapped. "How do you expect me to trust you when you give me nothing but lies and deceit?"

"I have never done anything to harm you or the others! I have nothing but your wellbeing in mind!"

"I'm not a dog, damn you!" I said, rising to meet him face to face. "You don't get to make these decisions without me, without consulting me! You're no better than him!"

The slap was sharp and quick, and it hurt more than it actually damaged. Still, I found my fingers reaching up to my cheek to cup the stinging flesh. My eyes went to Zechs', and from the look on his face you would have thought that I'd slapped him. But the anger still burned through me, and I couldn't forgive him.

"Fine," I hissed, backing away from him. "Stay and spread your legs for him like a common whore! At least he never fucked me willingly!"

And then I ran, because the room was suffocating me.

And because I could no longer stand the sight of the man I loved but no longer trusted.

There weren't many places for me to go. It was dangerous for slaves to travel alone through Collar. We were property, meat, and anyone could, and often did, take liberties with us. I could not stand to return to Zechs' rooms and face the stares and inquiries of the other slaves, let alone Zechs when he returned. But Collar had been my home for many years, and as unsettled as I was, I found myself drawn to the familiarity of the rooms I had previously occupied.

The doors to the Owner's quarters still unlocked to my fingerprints. My things, a small cot and a mattress, a dresser with a change of clothes, and dulled sword, were still residing there. I didn't dare wonder if it was because the Owner assumed that Zechs would fail… or if he believed I would be returning anyway.

I took my sword, the first one I'd been given when the Owner had allowed me to train again, after he felt that I'd pleased him sexually enough and he looked for another way to make me entertaining. I let my hands find the grooves worn into the hilt. It was so familiar, that I found my feet heading for the sparing room before it even occurred to me to train.

The motions came to me without any effort or thought of my own. Movements turned into sets, sets turned into repetitions, and still the energy would not flow from me. I channeled what I could into my sword and battled as though I were fighting a demon, but just as in real life the demon lacked form and shape, and all my skill was wasted battling wind and shadows.

And then, as if my frustration had called it forward, the demon appeared.

"You're far too skilled now for solitary practice to satisfy you," he murmured, stalking into the training room like a big cat, his feet barely making a sound across the floor. I could feel his presence though, having had so much time to accustom myself to his ways. It was hard to fathom that we had been together for years, more years than I cared to count. And now I wondered if I would ever be free of him.

"Then, by all means, appease me," I mocked, falling into a fighting stance. The Owner merely grinned, showing too many of his teeth and looking more threatening than attractive, and picked up a practice sword.

"Your skills have improved, but your attitude is just as fiery as ever, dragon," he taunted, immediately picking up the attack. I fell back a step as his sword struck mine, and I could feel the force of the hit travel up my arm and to my shoulder. The brute strength of the Owner had always been one of his best assets, but it was certainly not the only reason for his skill.

I parried his attack, but he was quick and brought the sword back down before I had managed to fully recover, and I lost another step. I tried to advance, but he let loose a barrage of attacks that I simply couldn't meet for ferocity. Each strike was just as powerful as the next, each hitting with precision and force. As I struggled to hold my own against the stronger foe, I felt the strength drain from me. It was like fighting a lion. With the pure strength of an animal, the Owner wielded his sword like a natural part of his body. Like a lion with its claws.

I was quickly backed against a wall. I dodged to the side, but my heart wasn't in it. If Zechs couldn't beat him, what chance did I have?

The Owner's sword was suddenly at my throat, and I ceased my retreat to avoid running into it. His blade was dulled, but not so much that it couldn't cut me if I pressed it too hard. My sword was ripped from my hands and tossed to the floor, soon to be followed by the Owner's as he slammed me against the wall and claimed my mouth in a bruising kiss that made my stomach churn. As his hand descended and reached for my pants, I pulled away.

"I don't…" I whispered, swallowing hard as my mouth dried out. "I don't belong to you anymore. As per your agreement…"

The Owner merely threw his head back and laughed.

"I own everyone, Wufei," he said, grinning and unperturbed by my protests-Edited for Content-

"You can't do this," I denied, and just barely managed to keep the sound of pleading out of my voice.

"I can do anything, and anyone, I want," he corrected, and his inflection making it clear that we weren't just talking about me.

-Edited for Content-

He was so handsome, I realized as I stared up at him. Tears sprung to my eyes, but I held them back. Was that why Zechs had chosen him? His body was that of an Adonis, that much was undeniable. Fit and trim in all the right places, with a natural golden color, sleek auburn hair and dark, smoldering eyes that made even the most prized slaves pale in comparison. Only Zechs could stand beside him in matters of beauty, with his long blonde locks and bright, blue eyes. They complimented each other perfectly. Even I could see it.

Was that why?

Was that why…

Was that why Zechs had chosen him… over me?

I sobbed then, and the moment was lost. The Owner leaned down and kissed me, swallowing any more sounds I might have made.

-Edited for Content-

"Did you expect your lover to come for you?" he asked me softly, his face pressed close to my ear. My heart fluttered for a moment before I realized that it was already too late, and that even if he arrived there was no guarantee that he could do something. And, besides that, Zechs didn't even know where I was. It was my own foolishness that had gotten me into this, after all.

"It seemed more likely he would come for you!" I snarled back, feeling red hot anger rise in me at the mention of Zechs. The Owner merely chuckled, the movement sending vibrations through my body.

"Do you trust him?" he asked me, slowly and deliberately, as he sat back and began to pull out of me. "Do you love him?" he asked as he pushed back in.

"A slave has no need for those kinds of feelings," I returned, but I couldn't deny that I had them.

"You would do well not to trust him," the Owner advised. I held my tongue, though, knowing there was only so much disrespect the Owner would take before lashing out.

"No master is worthy of my trust," I told him, but I could feel my heart disagreeing even as I said it. My heart longed to trust Zechs, and I know the Owner could hear the lie in my voice even as he began fucking me in earnest.

"You seem very attached to him, and to his slaves. If I did not know better, I'd think you'd fallen for him," the Owner said, and his voice teased while I could hear the seriousness underneath.

"I would be a fool to have feelings for someone with so much power over me," I told him. It was an old argument, and one that had probably prompted the Owner to keep me as long as I had. He had often asked if I loved him, and my response was always that I would be a fool to love someone with so much power over me. That I could only ever love an equal, and anything else was a foolish illusion of love. Sometimes I think the Owner's jealousy and his inability to make me adore him were the only things that saved me from being broken and killed by him.

"Perhaps you are a fool then," he teased again, and once again there was a solemn undertone.

"Perhaps I am," I admitted softly, knowing that I should not have.

"Did you know he killed his slave?" he asked me, his voice thick and smooth as he leaned over me, and I could feel his jealousy as a palpable thing. "The little one, with the dark hair?"

It is testament to how much this shocked me that I started, almost cracking my head against the Owner's.

"No!" I denied desperately.

"You question my honesty?" the Owner asked dangerously, his grip tightening painfully. I had learned not to question his word, for he never lied. Deceived, maybe, but never outright lied.

"I… No," I said, retreating. "However, there were extenuating circumstances. The boy had attacked one of Master Zechs' collar slaves. Perhaps… Perhaps he attacked again, and Master Zechs was forced to subdue him," I blurted, desperate for an answer. For any answer.

"That slave didn't have a bruise on him," the Owner said, grinding his rigid hardness deeper inside me. "Except for the mark where your precious master broke his neck."

"He… that slave… he injured another slave…"

"Yes, one of Zechs' prized Collar slaves. Tell me, Wufei, why do you think he's so protective of his competing slaves?" he asked me. "Why do you think he's in such a rush to be a Collar champion?"

"I don't know," I admitted, and the Owner began thrusting again.

"I think he's working for someone," the Owner told me, and I froze, but he only laughed. "What? Certainly you didn't think I didn't know? I know everything that happens here," he boasted, but it wasn't far from the truth. "I think he's working for someone that wants to take Collar away from me," he said, giving me a savage thrust, as though he could punish me for Zechs' actions. "I think he needs to win Collar to gain information, which he will then send to whomever is paying him. And I think once he wins Collar, he'll abandon you. And you, and all your new little friends, will be up for grabs by any sick pervert who wants you."

"What do you want from me?" I asked helplessly.

"Lose," he said, and it was voiced with the kind of satisfaction that might come from someone who had already won. "Lose the Collar games for him, and I will purchase and protect each and every one of his slaves. They can be your companions, and I will promise you that they will live the lives of pleasure slaves, in luxury and ecstasy."

"I cannot betray him!" I shouted, the thought was so absurdly abhorrent to me.

"If you win for him, I will wait until he tires of you and the others, and then I will purchase them myself and you will watch as they are fucked to death."

And with his last threat echoing still in my ears, the Owner took his leave of me.

187 Heero

It was fairly obvious that something had happened to Zechs while he had been gone, but what had happened was a complete mystery to the four of us who had been left behind. Wufei had told us that Zechs had met with the Owner. Despite the secretiveness of the Owner, this did not immediately concern me, because he could have merely been discussing Wufei's transferal of ownership. Wufei, however, had been nearly panicked, and had seemed worried enough that I had distracted Quatre long enough for him to rush out after Master.

When Zechs returned without him, however, I began to regret my decision. At first, Zechs hadn't seemed worried about Wufei being gone. It had been obvious that Zechs had engaged in sex while out, but that hadn't put him in a better mood, and he stormed past the rest of us and headed directly to the shower, where he stayed for nearly an hour. I was waiting when he got out, and was surprised to see tell-tale bruises on his thighs, revealing that he had not been the dominant partner in the most recent coupling. That ruled out Wufei as his partner, and I wondered but did not ask about who his partner had been.

"Aspirin?" I asked as he dried off. He nodded gratefully and took the pills, giving me a quick kiss after he downed them.

"Will you wake me in an hour?" he asked, slipping naked into the bed. It wasn't unusual for master to take a nap when he had a migraine, and I nodded before flipping off the light. "Let me know if Wufei comes in."

I nodded again before padding out of the room and wondering where Wufei was, and why Zechs was so unconcerned about his absence.

But when Wufei did not return before I woke him, Master began to worry. We cautioned him not to report Wufei missing, because that would lead to a humiliating manhunt and could get Master in trouble. As the evening wore on, his worry became almost frantic, and we found him pacing by the door for nearly an hour before Wufei returned.

It was late in the evening when Wufei finally returned, and Master was already highly agitated. So when Wufei returned in disheveled clothes, with his hair a mess and his lips swollen and bruised, it was obvious that someone had fucked him. The dark bruise on the side of his face attested that it had not been willingly. His face was ashen, and he looked more tired than I had seen him before, with deep circles outlining his eyes.

"What the fuck happened?" Zechs snarled, halting in his pacing and coming to stand in front of Wufei. But where Master usually would have rushed up to his slave and begun assessing injuries, this time he kept his distance. Wufei gave him a smoldering glare and shut the door firmly behind him before replying.

"What do you care?" Wufei asked, and the malice dripping from his voice was more than I had heard from him, even when he had first come to us.

I was surprised to see Zechs fall back a step in the face of Wufei's anger, because usually our emotions had little effect in the face of his calm detachment. This time, though, it was easy to see that Wufei had upset him, and as much as I had expected Zechs to push the issue and asses Wufei's injuries, he turned instead and fled to the bedroom, slamming the door behind him.

It took a moment for the rest of us to accept that Zechs was not coming back out. Wufei stared at the closed door for several minutes before limping over to the couch, and it wasn't until he moved that the rest of us were released from our paralysis. Duo scooted over to give Wufei room to sit beside him, turning off his video game in favor of helping Wufei sit down. Trowa went quickly to the icebox and got a cold pack for Wufei's face, while Quatre bent and unlaced his shoes. It was a testament to how tired he was that he didn't even complain about our coddling or try to help Quatre with his shoes. He simply let Duo draw him over and laid his face against Duo's shoulder, wearily shutting his eyes.

"Are you injured?" I asked softly, brushing his hair away from his face as Trowa gently laid the icepack against his cheek. He shook his head, not even bothering to open his eyes.

"Who the hell got to you this bad?" Duo asked, holding the ice against Wufei's cheek, since Wufei had made no move to do so. Trowa knelt beside Quatre at Wufei's feet, and I perched on the arm of the couch.

"Owner," Wufei said softly after a long moment, and I was relieved at least that it had only been one man, and it was someone that Wufei knew. It wasn't unheard of for groups of guards to target lone slaves.

"You shouldn't have run off like that," Quatre told him, shooting me a dirty look. I guess I hadn't been as subtle as I thought.

"Don't lecture me," Wufei growled, but it lacked venom. He was too exhausted to get angry.

"Don't be cross. We were worried, Wufei," Quatre said, laying a hand on Wufei's knee. "We care about you."

And it seemed like more than Wufei could take, because his jaws clenched until the muscles stood out, and he closed his eyes once again. When he opened them, there were tears on his lashes, but a fresh determination had appeared.

"I won't let anything happen to any of you. I swear it."

And then he turned away, and would tell us nothing else.

Eventually, Duo managed to convince him to take a shower, and it was easy see how upset Wufei was that he didn't even complain when Duo followed him in and helped him wash. As the shower in the slave quarters turned on, I saw Master's door hesitantly open. While Trowa and Quatre were occupied, I padded over to the ajar door.

"Is Wufei alright?" Zechs asked as I approached, opening the door wider when he saw Wufei was nowhere around. Zechs looked just as upset as he had before Wufei came home, and I could see that his headache had returned.

"He's a little shaken, but he'll be alright. He's showering with Duo, if you want me to fetch him."

"No," Zechs said too quickly, "it's fine. I think… I think Wufei and I might need some time apart. I'm going to go to sleep. Please wake me tomorrow morning an hour before we need to leave."

And then he retreated again, pulling back into the secluded darkness of his room and pulling the door so that it was almost shut, even though he usually left it wide open.

I was conflicted, because part of me wanted to comfort Master, while another part was too concerned about Wufei to rest. So I returned to the livingroom and sent Quatre and Trowa to sleep with Zechs, and hopefully bring him a little comfort, while I went back to the bathroom to check on Duo and Wufei.

It seemed that the docility Wufei had showed going into the bath had not faded, and he was sitting naked on the toilet while Duo toweled his hair dry. His body was covered in small bruises, but none of them looked deep enough to affect his performance. Still, his change in attitude was unnerving.

"Here," Duo said and tossed me a hairbrush. "Can you get the knots for him while I put my braid back in?" he asked, and then settled in front of a mirror before I had time to answer. It made Wufei quirk his lips, and I was glad to see signs that the change wasn't permanent.

"I can do that," Wufei protested quietly as I stepped in front of him.

"I know," I said, then pressed his shoulder to turn him around and began brushing his hair anyway. With a sigh, Wufei leaned against the back of the toilet and let me work. It was as close as I could come to verbally admitting that I was worried about him, and I knew he would understand. I had become skilled at this from all the time I spent with Duo, and I could only hope it would relax Wufei like it did Duo. Whether from the relaxing sensation of me brushing his hair or simply from exhaustion, Wufei began to nod off to sleep. By the time Duo and I had finished, we had to practically lift Wufei and carry him into the bedroom.

There was no hesitation in bringing Wufei into our bed. With his fight with Master, I knew Wufei would not venture into Zechs room. And while it would be a bit tight putting all of us in the one bed, there was plenty of room if we slept close together. I helped Wufei in first, putting him in closest to the wall, then slid in the middle while Duo slid in at my back. Wufei was just barely awake now, and didn't protest as I pulled him into my arms, letting him lay his head on my shoulder.

"Thank you," he whispered, and I could tell he wanted to say more but didn't have the words.

"We're always here for you," I told him softly. Duo, who was pressed against my back, leaned over and gave Wufei's shoulder a squeeze.

"We'd do anything for you, buddy."

"I wish you would tell us what's going on," I asked after a moment, my curiosity getting the best of me. Wufei simply shook his head. "You can trust us. We'll help," I pressed, feeling helpless.

"No," Wufei said firmly, turning to lie on his back. "This burden is mine to bear alone."

I sighed in frustration, but decided not to press the issue.

"You and Zechs. You're so alike. You never trust the rest of us to help."

Wufei flinched at that, and I wondered about his reaction. Surely it wasn't that insulting?

"Perhaps we are both idiots trying to do what we think is best," he said softly. "Maybe we're doomed to repeat the same mistakes."

And with that he turned his back to me and went to sleep.

Duo and I shared a look, both of us feeling the foreboding that Wufe's words brought.

And then we laid down to sleep, knowing that the next day would be the start of the Collar games.

188 Heero

Despite several first places, the overall win came down to the dancing event. Part of it was that our team did not participate in several of the events and took a zero for the missed events, part of it was the way Collar was scored, and part of it was the fact that the events our team actually placed very low in several of the events.

Wufei, in particular, was having a bad week, most likely in part to his fight with Master. I could tell that whatever their issues were, they weighed heavily on Wufei's mind. And even though he and Master put on a good front during the week of Collar, we all knew that things were still not right between them. Wufei had excelled in his fencing match and his history debate, I think because those events allowed him to spend the pent-up aggression he had been harboring all week, but he had done abysmal in the poetry competition, probably because his mind had not been calm.

Master had chosen to keep Wufei in the chess competition, even though Wufei protested that Quatre would be a much better choice, and despite having won the chess tournament easily for the past several years, Wufei was taken out in his third match. It was difficult to tell if this was merely because his mind was not in the game or as an underhanded "fuck you" to Master. I think Master suspected both, but said nothing.

Still, the choice of Wufei was a blow to Quatre's confidence, and he was so nervous in his first event that he passed out while cooking on the gas range, spilling his flambé all over the floor and burning his left hand. The resulting breakdown took Trowa and Master all night to contain, with constant praise and reassurances, and cost Trowa the gun competition the next day, pulling in a seventh place and his worst time for disassembly and reassembly since he'd started practicing.

So in the end, by force or by fate, the win or lose came down to Wufei in the dance competition, the one competition in Collar that he had never won.

This did not improve things between Master and Wufei. Although they had returned to sleeping in the same bed, there was still a distance between them. They no longer debated or bickered, and Master no longer turned to Wufei for second opinions. Instead, more often than not, I found myself being Master's shadow, much to Duo's annoyance. Duo didn't take any infringement on our time together well, and even less so when it was by Master, but I placated him by telling him it would only be for a few more days. Still, as the final Collar competition neared, I had to wonder if that were true, or if this would be a permanent rift between Master and Wufei. I hoped not. As much as I was enjoying the added time with Master, I could see that the strain wore heavily on both of them. So when Master asked that I accompany him as he went to speak with Wufei just before the match, I was optimistic as I stood just inside the door to the private preparation room Wufei used and listened to their conversation. It did not begin as I had hoped.

"I know you threw the chess competition because you were angry I didn't give it to Quatre," Master said evenly, and I rolled my eyes. Even I knew that accusations would get you nowhere with Wufei. "However, I bear you no ill-will for the action. I understand that you are less than pleased with my behavior as of late."

Wufei laughed, in the tone that makes you think that you're simply too idiotic to talk to.

"Thank you for that rousing boast of confidence," he quipped, making a good front of nonchalance as he finished putting on his costume. He was in his customary block cloth pants, and had on a heavy, decorative coat with a high collar. It was a testament to how un-nonchalant he was, that he had done the last buttons on the collar wrong, and had not even noticed. "But, if you'll excuse me, I have a competition I need to attend to."

It was like this all the time now, and I had to withhold the urge to sigh at them. If not ignoring one another, they were snipping and accusing, dancing around whatever it was that the two of them were fighting about. It was taking a toll on all of us, but none more than the two of them. Zechs looked spent, like something had drained all the life out of him. There were dark shadows under his eyes, and he had lost weight during the week, barely bringing himself to pick at the food we forced on him. His hands shook when no one was looking, although he masked it well in the presence of other masters. He'd even gotten Duo to do his makeup, covering up the shadows under his eyes and adding some color to his cheeks. We all knew how dangerous it was for Master to look ill during the Collar competitions, and how much of a target we would all be if it looked like our master was losing control.

But he was. Whatever had happened between him and Wufei- whatever had caused this rift- was eating away at Master.

And Wufei was faring no better. The same deep shadows under his eyes match Master's, but where Master had gotten tired, Wufei had gotten angry. He'd thrown himself into training for his fighting competition, even after the competition had ended, and was rarely seen outside of meals. When he was forced to spend time with us, he was aloof, shutting himself down and refusing to interact with anyone. He'd even yelled at Quatre earlier when the boy had tried to get him to open up, and then was wracked with guilt when Quatre had started crying. Instead of apologizing, though, he'd fled, leaving a pissed-off Trowa to deal with the consequences. And that pretty much spoke of how it had been this past week; Wufei would snap and then run away, never letting any of us get close enough to help.

My musing was broken when Wufei tired of their staring match, attempting to shoulder past Zechs in an effort to leave the room, but Zechs grabbed his elbow and spun him around before he could make it past.

"Please," Zechs said, and there was a level of desperation in his voice that I did not understand, taking Wufei by the shoulders. "I need you to win this event for me. I know you can do it."

"Tell me why you need it so badly," Wufei growled, and it was once again one of those conversations about whatever was between them. The curiosity over what had happened was eating Duo and Quatre alive, but I just wanted them to get over the whole thing.

"Wufei… I can't…" Zechs stuttered, and he looked so tired again. I wished that Duo or Quatre had come. Quatre would be able to make sense of what they weren't saying, and Duo would simply demand to know what was going on. One of them would have at least been able to do more than stand in the corner, acting like it didn't hurt to see two men so in love hurting each other so badly. Watching them fight and struggle and grow apart… was killing me as well.

Because if Zechs and Wufei couldn't make it, with all their strength and passion, what chance did Duo and I have, with all my faults and his insecurities? What chance did any of us have.

"Tell me what happened to Sith," Wufei snarled, and Zechs fell back a step, his face going white. It was a turning point in the argument; that much I could tell. Something new that Zechs had not anticipated, and from the deepening frown on Wufei's face Zechs' reaction had said as much as Wufei needed to know.

His mouth forming into a hard line, Master turned and fled.

I sighed, wishing once again that there was someone here better equipped to deal with emotional problems. However, since I was the only one present, I bit the bullet and approached Wufei, who was tense and agitated.

"What do you want?" he growled as I approached him, even falling back a step as I neared and reached out to him. I did not react, however, and he relaxed when I began to unbutton his jacket. I saw him blush when he noticed how many of the buttons were mismatched.

"I can do that," he protested softly.

"Apparently not," I said, and it was meant to be teasing but he bristled.

"That bastard… Who does he think he is?" Wufei growled, but his eyes suddenly looked sad instead of angry, and I saw them drift longingly to the door Master had just exited through. It was simple enough to tell that Wufei was missing him desperately.

"Why don't you just make up with him?" I asked, beginning to put the buttons back in the proper holes.

"Because I'm not wrong here," he said, and his conviction burned through the longing I had just seen there, leaving not a trace in its wake.

"Whatever he's done, you know it's because he cares about you. Because he wants to protect you."

"I do not want to be protected! I can protect myself!" he snarled, and I raised my eyes to meet his. They were filled with fire and righteousness, and I knew I shouldn't even bother trying to dissuade him from this. Knew I shouldn't, but couldn't help but try.

"Maybe Zechs needs to try to protect you?" I offered, keeping my tone unaggressive so that this would not turn into a fight.

"He doesn't have that right. I am not his pet or his child. I never agreed to this!"

"I didn't know love came with a contract," I quipped before I could help myself. I must have been hanging around Duo too much, because my mouth was starting to work on its own. Wufei merely glared at me and I sighed as I quickly finished his buttons. "Whatever's going on between you two, you have to put it behind you. I don't know what could cause you two to grow apart like this, but I know that it cannot break you apart. You are both so strong, and so in love."

But I could tell that my words had not reached him. Instead, he looked at me and said, "Sometimes love is just not enough," before fleeing backstage.

I'd like to say that Wufei put his whole heart into his dance routine. I'd like to tell you that Master and I watched on the edge of our seats from his private box, surrounded by the other slaves. I'd even like to tell you that Wufei put his whole heart into the performance, and it simply wasn't enough.

But Wufei's heart was somewhere else entirely. His dance was almost flawless, from a technical standpoint. His movements were controlled and precise, never a second too late or early. But there was no passion in him, and it was like watching a machine move. His dance inspired nothing from the audience watching it, and in the last moments his ankle gave he took a massive fall… but I don't know if he would have won even before that.

Master was pale when the performance ended, his hands shaking as though he would faint again. I had hoped that, even though we had failed, Master would be relieved that the competition was over. Instead, he seemed terrified. He rose before the applause had even ended and motioned for the rest of us to stand as well.

"Heero, can you take everyone back to the room? I have something important I must attend to."

"Should one of us accompany you?" I asked. Wufei had just left the stage and would be a few more minutes changing, and it was odd for a master to walk Collar without a slave to attend him.

"No," Master said hastily, trying to usher myself and the others toward the door. However, when he opened it, we found the way blocked by a large and rather intimidating guard. His face was cold and expressionless, showing just a bit of disdain, and his jacket showed the insignia for the Owner's personal service.

"The Owner has requested the presence of Master Zechs immediately," the guard said.

"O-of course," Zechs said, and did not seem nearly as surprised as I had expected. It sent alarm bells blaring through my head. "Just let me return my slaves to their quarters."

The guard's glare darkened.

"The Owner will not be kept waiting," he growled, then took Zechs' arm in a rough hold, pulling him toward the door.

"What the fuck?" Duo snarled, his temper snapping at what he saw as an assault to one of his own. "Fuck off, asshole!" he yelled, and then threw his shoulder into the guard, knocking the larger man off balance. It only lasted for a moment, though, and when the larger man recovered he immediately retaliated, throwing a fist into Duo's chest that knocked the smaller boy across the room. Quatre screamed, and I saw a blur of movement as Trowa moved to intercept, catching Duo around the middle before the force of the shove knocked them both to the floor. Zechs yelled something indecipherable and attempted to push the guard off, but the guard delivered a rough backhand to Zechs' face that left a trail of blood running down Master's chin.

The background noise dimmed suddenly as I turned toward the guard holding Master's arm in a bruising grip. I assessed him immediately and found that, while somewhat trained, he was used to intimidating rather than fighting, so he was slow and his guard was down. It was a simple thing to slip in while he was distracted by Duo's loud cursing and deliver a punishing hit to his solar plexus, throwing him backwards and forcing him to release his grip on Master's arm. I followed his fall, pulling back to finish incapacitating him with a blow to the face.

"Heero, don't!" Zechs yelled, and it kept me from smashing my fist into the guard's chin, but only by a hair's breadth. Unfortunately, it also gave the guard time to recover, and he took advantage of my hesitation by bringing up one of his heavy boots to smash into the side of my face. I fell back, and the others surrounded me, helping me up and just as ready to rip the man limb from limb.

"Everybody stop!" Zechs shouted, causing all of us to still instantly. "Now I need you all to go back to the room and wait for me, is that clear?" He snarled at us, wiping the blood from his face with the back of his hand. "Don't make a riot out of it," he cautioned, and then turned and shoved the guard toward the door. "If it's so important that I see the Owner this fucking instant, quit picking on my slaves and let's go," he growled. The guard sneered, and I could see him contemplate coming after us again, but thought better of it and led Zechs away.

Leaving the four of us watching the empty doorway and wondering just what the hell had happened.

"Master?" Quatre whimpered, then made to go after him before Trowa intercepted, catching him around the waist and pulling him back.

"What the fuck just happened?" Duo growled, but he was panting and his eyes were dilated, so I could tell that he was just as frightened as the rest of us.

"Should we return to the room?" Trowa asked, still clutching Quatre to his chest.

"Fuck that!" Duo snarled. "We need to go after them and find out what the hell is going on!"

"We can't directly disobey Master and humiliate him in front of the Owner. It would be disastrous."

"Well we can't just sit on our hands and fucking wait! Who knows what that asshole is gonna do to him!"

"We need to know what the Owner is planning, and there's only one person who knows him well enough to tell us what's going on."

Duo nodded seriously, calming now that we had a plan.

"We need Wufei."

189 Zechs

Could it have ever ended any other way?

I wondered that to myself, following the brawny, ill-tempered guard down now-familiar halls to Treize's quarters. My heart was pounding and I knew I should be coming up with some sort of plan – any sort of plan – but my mind was simply blank.

Numb.

Because in the end, I had lost. The previous year had been a gamble, and I had thought I had held all the cards. But in the end, all the aces had been under the table, in Treize's hand. I should have known when he raised the ante that he was going to win, but I'd simply clung tighter to my hand.

I should have run from the proverbial table. Should have taken my boys and fled, hid somewhere that Treize would never find us. Should have thrown my cards in his face and run for the hills.

Should have.

Could have.

Didn't.

And now… Now he held all the cards. Now I was powerless. Property. Was this how my boys felt? Like every corner held another monster waiting to attack? Like it was the fifth circle of hell, and you were never getting out? It made me sick to my stomach, thinking that they had endured years of this.

Thinking that my failure had condemned them to a lifetime more.

And I couldn't even blame Wufei, really, even though the sting of his betrayal was sharp. He'd never agreed to be my pawn – a card in my hand, if you will. Out of all of them, he'd been the most fiercely devoted, and my most precious ally. It wasn't his fault that he'd been too smart, too intuitive, for me to handle. It wasn't his fault he'd seen just enough to mistrust me, but not enough to gain his trust back.

But if I'd had to do it again, I knew I wouldn't change that. Especially now that I had lost.

Because I held information that Treize desperately wanted. Information that I would not give up easily, but that Treize would eventually take from me by force. I had kept my recent knowledge of the Preventer's operation slim, but there were things you could not help but learn when working for an organization as powerful as I was. Treize had acted quickly, and there was no way for me to pass the information to my superiors that I had been compromised. It would take time, but eventually Treize would wear me down, and would pull the information he needed from me. And this information could potentially be used to take down my organization.

It was possible that I alone would be responsible for the end of the world as we knew it. I had not been able to stop him from rising to power, and I might very well give him the tactical advantage he needed to gain power over the rest of the known world. I would resist as long as I could… but Treize was very good at what he did. Eventually, I would not be able to deny him. But at least I had the knowledge that he would not be able to torment any information out of my slaves. Treize could tell instinctively when a person was lying, and contrarily could also know when they were telling the truth. Once my slaves had proven they held no information of value to him, he would leave them be for the most part. It was very likely that he would not even interrogate them for long, focusing most of his energies on me instead.

"Don't look at me that way," I heard Treize say softly as we entered the room, and I tore my eyes away from him and attempted to school my face into something a little less… horrified.

I found myself in a lavish bedroom, with a large four-post bed and dim lighting. It was opulent, as I had come to expect from Treize, and he was dressed in a formal military uniform. I wasn't sure if that was for my benefit, or it was simply something that he had been wearing previously and he had not taken the time to change. Trieze had a taste for the dramatic; it wouldn't be unheard of for him to dress up merely to see my reaction.

"His slaves gave me a bit of trouble," the guard complained, and I felt heat rise to my face, tempered by just a hint of pride. Of course they gave you trouble, you moronic ass. Push my boys around and see what happens.

"You mean my newest acquisitions?" Treize said, and I felt myself deflate. Of course. They weren't my slaves any longer.

"Yeah, they went back to their rooms to wait for further instructions."

"Good. There's no rush, but dispatch another guard to collect them in a few hours. I've set up a holding area for them until we transfer them to my permanent rooms planet-side. You are dismissed," Treize said, waiving the guard away. The guard, who I had still not heard called by name, gave me one last parting sneer before exiting the rooms.

And then I was alone with my former lover, who I was beginning to think of as the devil.

"What are you going to do with them?" I found myself asking when we were alone. "My… The slaves."

"Hm? Oh, nothing really. They'll be safe enough, although I doubt they'll be pleased by their confinement."

"Will you… Can I see them?" I asked, and tried to keep my voice neutral, but I knew Treize would not be fooled. He simply stared at me for a moment, before eventually approaching me.

"No, I don't think so. Not at first. I did promise to let you keep them, which I will, in some respects, but you are too close to them. I have little interest in sharing your affections, and they take up far too much of your interest. I will keep you apart from them, while you adapt to your new circumstances, and once I am pleased with your progress I will allow you to return to them."

A part of me knew that it was a ploy to gain my cooperation. Hell, he'd pretty much come out and said it. But a deeper part was devastated by the idea of going – how long? – without seeing my boys. And the thought of them in Treize's hands, surrounded by guards like the one that had come today, was even worse.

"You said you would keep them safe," I reminded, and it was only desperation that made me do that. I knew I was pushing my luck with him.

"My, you are high maintenance, aren't you?" he chuckled, reaching out to tuck my hair behind my ear. I let him, neither encouraging nor shying away from the causal touch. It wouldn't have really mattered, anyway. "Your precious slaves will be safe enough. I will not let anyone harm them unnecessarily, and I will provide adequate food and shelter, but it seems that your boys have become quit willful. I might need to instill some discipline in them before they can be trusted in your presence again."

So that was the game. He would keep them away from me, and punish them as he saw fit, and I was powerless to stop it.

"Please," I found myself begging him, moving close enough that I could feel the heat of his body, but I could not meet his eyes. "I just want them safe and happy."

He took my chin in his hand, tilting my face to meet his eyes.

"I know you do, and I will give you ways to do that. I know how loyal you can be, when you want to be. I will give you plenty of opportunities to protect them," he promised, and I couldn't bring myself to take any comfort in those words.

"And me?" I asked, giving in to the desire to know what was in store for me now that I knew my slaves would not be harmed, at least for now. "What are you going to do with me?"

Treize laughed and pulled me into his embrace.

"You act as if I'm going to eat you, little pet," he soothed, pushing my hair out of my face. "I have no interest in hurting you, nor do I want to harm your little concubines. What I want is for you to stop struggling against me and adjust to your new life here at my side. And to know that you have committed yourself to that, I need you to tell me who your Preventers contact is. I need you to feed them bad information for a little while, to throw them off my trail and to keep them from finding any more of my warehouses. In a few months, the technology for my army will be ready and I'll be able to eliminate them- but until them, I need you to buy me some time."

"Why?" I asked desperately, leaning my head against his shoulder, not daring to pull away as anger surged inside of me. "Why must you do this? Why must you make an entire world of this… this hell you've created here."

"Oh Milliardo," Treize sighed, pressing a kiss to my forehead. "You can be so naïve, can't you? Do you think any of this is new, love? Do you think anything that happens here doesn't happen everywhere else? You can be so blind sometimes, and it's only because I love your innocence that I don't get aggravated by your blindness," he said, then pulled back to look into my eyes. "But let me disillusion you just a bit- These men that are here? Almost all of them are old money, from families that have been rich and powerful almost as long as- well, almost as long as yours," he said, and there was a hint of disapproval. I knew that he still blamed our breakup on our uneven status, and even though that hadn't been the reason I had left him before, I didn't dare disillusion him. His obsession with power and status had grown so intense since I had left him that I feared a violent reaction if I told him he had simply scared me off. "These men have grown up being taught that they have the power to do whatever they want. They have known power all their lives- the power to get whatever they want. They rig elections, they plant evidence, they give the press stories, and they always, always get what they want without retribution. Even now, the only reason they are here is because each and every one of them is absolutely certain that they will never be brought to justice for what they're doing. I want to change that. I want to redistribute the power."

I startled myself by laughing.

"So this is- what? Socialism? You've done all this – killed all these people – in the name of equality?" I scorned, but I knew Treize could hear the trace of panic in my voice.

"Not socialism. Nothing so idealistic. No, what I want is monarchy in the purist form of the word. I want all the power. I will decide who is guilty an innocent. I will decide what is right and wrong. I will decide how to mold society. Everything will be done to my will," he said, and I was so horrified that I couldn't even come up with a reply, and for several minutes the only sound I could hear was the pounding of my own heart. "And you, darling, will be my crown jewel, kneeling before my throne as I rule over earth and space. You will be radiant and untouchable to everyone except me. And I will let you help me make this dream a reality. Help me take down Preventers, and I will keep you and your boys safe forever. They can live out their lives in the lap of luxury with you," he promised. But how could I trade the world for the lives of five boys?

I couldn't meet his eyes, and suddenly his grip on my arms tightened. I looked up to find him frowning. "Don't oppose me, Milliardo. I don't want to harm you, but I can be very… unpleasant if I am displeased."

"Treize…"

The slap came, sharp and unexpected, making me fall back a step. It turned my head and I held it there, letting the pain flow through me, getting it ready for what was to come.

"You know better than to call me that, now," he said gently. His voice was one of the ones that made you quieter when he spoke softly, because you knew better than not to listen. "Once, we could have been equals. But you were too good for me, and now we find our positions reversed. But I won't leave you," he promised, laying his hand over my bruised cheek and running his thumb across my lips. His other hand encircled my wrist and pulled me close again, until we were chest to chest. "I can keep you, protect you, love you. All you have to do is help me."

"I don't know anything," I protested, and suddenly his grip on my wrist became painful and I winced.

"Don't lie to me," he growled, and the threat of violence was there, but I had known that it was coming.

"I have nothing to tell you," I said, and it was closer to the truth, but Treize was not appeased.

"Why don't you ever take my side?" he asked, and I could almost see the old wounds opening. "Why must you always assume that you know better, that I am doing the wrong thing? Even now, when you haven't even the right to change your own clothes, still you struggle against me." Treize was in a temper now, and as passionate as his love could be, I knew his anger could be cruel. "Perhaps I was too kind to you," he said, staring into my eyes like he was trying to read the information there. "Perhaps I have promised too much, and exerted my power too little. I think it is time for a demonstration of just how unkind I can be."

His hands came up to my collar then and began undoing the buttons. I let him, knowing that resistance would only make things worse. It was hard, in a way, to stay still and let him do these things to me, knowing that he would hurt me. It would have been easier to fight him until there was no strength left in my body, and then fade into oblivion. But Treize was not honorable, and I knew that he would use other methods on me if I chose that route. Methods that could easily include tormenting my slaves, and I simply couldn't allow that.

The shirt came off and Treize folded it neatly, setting it aside. I had expected him to go for my pants next, but he didn't. Instead, he led me to the center of the room. The shackles came down from the ceiling, nearly hidden by the ornate ceiling. I held my hands up, and he snapped them neatly around my wrists. I gave an experimental pull, but I had little hope of freeing myself. Beneath the appearance of wood in the lavish room, the shackles would be anchored by the gundanium girders of the ship. Funny, how steel was so prevalent in the ship, and yet almost all the members of Collar preferred the fake look of old-fashioned wood.

"I don't like hurting you," Treize admitted. "I know that there will be a period of… adjustment, while you reconcile yourself to your new situation. However, I am hoping you will make it easier on yourself. Tonight, I will give you ten lashes, and I will not ask you anything else. Think about how lenient I am being tonight, because tomorrow I will not be as merciful."

The first strike came then, and I hissed with the sting of it. It would leave a welt, but there would be no permanent damage. Treize was using a riding crop, a slim black rod covered in leather. It was meant to hurt instead of harm, and Treize used it well, expertly placing strikes across my back that made me wince and pull in my restraints. But I knew Treize wasn't hitting me as hard as he could. I knew Treize could lay me open with the crop, knew he could rend flesh with the tool he if truly felt like it. This wasn't about harming me, or even making me feel pain, really. It was about showing me just how powerless I was.

I sagged when he finished. There was a light sheen of sweat on my skin, and it made me shiver in the cool room. Treize put the crop aside and stepped in front of me, the heat radiating from his body as he stepped in and kissed me. I allowed it, but didn't participate.

"Come now, don't be petulant," he told me, taking my face in his hands. This time I kissed him back, unwilling to anger him and face another lashing. "After all, I've let you make us late, playing with you."

"Late?" I wondered and he smiled, releasing me from my shackles and helping me lower my arms.

"I know you wanted to attend the celebration dinner for Collar. I suppose you had thought to attend as a master instead of a slave, but you will be attending."

190 Zechs

I found myself naked, seated on the floor at Treize's feet. Around me were four other naked slaves, all younger and smaller. I felt ridiculous, but the humiliation was probably part of Treize's agenda for the night. I curled my legs under me, trying to discreetly cover my groin with my hands. One of the nearby slaves smirked, another hid a giggle behind his hand. I suppose seeing a Master brought so low was a novelty to the other slaves, but even though I expected it I still felt myself blushing. Treize leaned over and placed a hand on my cheek, turning my face to give me a lingering kiss.

"You're doing well," he whispered to me, but I could take no pleasure in his praise. If anything, it just made me feel worse. "Would you like some wine?"

I would have liked to say no. Would have like, actually, to say no, spit in his face, push the table over, find my slaves, and fly home. But I had been too nervous to eat this morning and hadn't been offered anything since then. I could feel a migraine building behind my eyes, and I knew it would only get worse if I didn't get something in my stomach.

"Yes," I said softly.

"Yes what?" he asked, swirling his wine glass.

"Yes… master," I replied, blushing furiously. He smiled and tilted my head back, bringing the glass to my lips. I suppose it would have been too much to ask for him to let me feed myself, given the amount of humiliation he'd put me through so far. I took a few sips before he pulled the glass away.

"He seems to have adjusted quite naturally to life as a slave," said an amused female voice above me.

"More likely he's simply returned to life at my side, as he was always intended to," Treize responded, placing his hand on my shoulder and pulling me against his leg.

"Bring him up here," commented an older male voice, "I think we'd all like to see the rewards of your efforts these past months. Between the surveillance and the manipulation, not to mention the risks to our security, you've got a pretty hefty investment in this one, haven't you?"

"Well worth it," Treize mused, pulling my hand until I rose gracefully beside him, letting my arms fall away and baring my body to the view of the other masters. There were three besides Treize, a middle-aged woman with striking red hair, an older man with a rugged build and a short-trimmed beard, and a slim, younger man with glasses.

"Older," the woman commented blandly, but I could feel her eyes roving over me appraisingly. My knees ached from where I had been kneeling on the floor, and I had to agree that I might be too old for this.

"Are you calling me old?" Treize laughed. "He's still younger than I am."

"There's something to be said for age and experience," commented the large man. "They tend to lack a bit in flexibility, but they can be far more reliable and stable than a young slave. Besides, one only has to look at that flawless pedigree to know that he's well worth the investment."

Treize nodded and signaled for me to return to the floor. I knelt as gracefully as I could manage as my knees protested once again, but I must have succeeded because Treize smiled down at me.

"He'll be providing us with intel, correct?" came the younger man's voice, ghosting over the table, but it immediately turned Treize's attention. "On the activities of the Preventers to stop us?"

"Of course," Treize replied casually. "He'll be as invaluable to us as a spy as he would have been to them as an infiltrator. But he'll need an adjustment period."

"Adjustment period?" the other man said, and I could hear the cynicism in his voice. "Meaning you've yet to get anything out of him."

"If I wanted to ruin him as a slave to get the information out of him, I could simply beat it out of him. I'm sure you would be of assistance there. However, if I want continued information along with a loyal slave, I'm going to have to use more finesse. You're inability to see long-term is one of the reasons I was so hesitant to bring you in as an advisor," Treize said, and I knew him well enough to read the veiled hostility under the impatience in his voice. Treize didn't like this man, though whether it was simply a personal dislike or whether this man posed a threat to him as the leader was unknown to me.

The door opened then, and a dark-haired man entered, followed by six slaves. I recognized him as a fellow competitor in the Collar games, and I realized that he must have been the one that defeated me. It was with no small amount of bitterness that I watched him claim his prize, standing before the other masters.

"And finally, Saiya and his team of competitors," the bearded master introduced. Saiya, who's name amplified the hint of oriental heritage around his eyes and in his skin tone, bowed as his slaves knelt on either side of him. He glanced at the table, his eyes stopping on me. I cast my eyes to the ground, feeling the shame burn in me even as I knew it would be trying my luck to hold the gaze of a master other than Treize. And while I welcomed his wrath toward me, I knew eventually it would land on others that I held dear.

"Can I suppose this would have been my fate had the Dragon not fallen in his last competition?" Saiya wondered apprehensively. Above me, Treize chuckled.

"The events that led to this slave kneeling at my feet were set in motion long before you were selected to win the competition. If Dragon had succeeded in his event, the outcome would have eventually been the same. The competition itself is little more than a playground for us to entertain the masses with."

It shouldn't have stung to be reminded that the game had been fixed. Actually, on more than on occasion I had contemplated that very fact myself when planning for my mission. Had I been blind in thinking they would bring me into the fold, much as they were now doing for my rival? In retrospect, it seemed that way.

"Congratulations, Saiya," Treize began smoothly, and I cast a glance up to see him smiling charmingly. "You are the first master to be brought into this circle in the three years since Tanion joined us," Treize said, inclining his head toward the master with glasses. "And I'm sure you've heard of Rebbekka and Argo, who have been with me since I became the head of this organization ten years ago. In these past few years, I have taken what was originally a small prostitution ring and made it an interplanetary force that now has ties on each of the colonies. As the head of the mars development program, you are here to insure that our reach continues to expand as humanity continues to move away from earth and toward that stars."

"And him?" Saiya questioned, glancing at me and still obviously ill at ease. Around him, his slaves were tense, the two largest seeming ready to jump to their master's aid. Did Saiya suspect he was to join the same fate as me? "Why is he here?"

"The slave beside me has been acting as an agent for a rival organization. He has been delivering information to them since his arrival, and had plans to assassinate me and disband this organization."

It took a moment of Saiya staring at me, but eventually he threw his head back and laughed. His slaves relaxed, and Saiya took a seat across from Treize, still chuckling.

"And what do they call you, Owner? Now that I have joined your circle of trust?" Saiya asked.

"I am Treize," he replied, and there was a smile of satisfaction on his face as he reached down and patted my head. Obviously, Saiya's reaction had pleased him, if only because it showed how much faith the masters had in Treize's control. "And this slave, who you might remember as a rival of yours, is to be called Platinum. I hope you can forgive any rivalry that may have passed between you. As you can see, he is no longer in any position to be a nuisance to you."

"We had very little interaction as competing masters," Saiya admitted. "However, seeing him in this capacity is unexpected. I didn't think he'd be quite so… alluring as a slave. He didn't strike me as quality slave material."

Treize smiled fondly at me and pulled me into his lap, laying a hand on my neck and pulling my head back to bare my neck and chest to the other masters. I knew he was showing me off and I flexed my muscles to reveal chiseled abs and sculpted shoulders. I hadn't trained with Heero for nothing, and as humiliated as I might be, I didn't want to risk embarrassing Treize in front of his peers. I knew him well enough to know that the consequences for that would be dire.
"I assure you, Platinum has excellent breeding and an exquisite physique. With a firm hand to guide him, he can be an inventive and accommodating lover. Would you like a demonstration?"

Saiya nodded and Treize rose, pushing me off of his lap. I managed to catch myself, slipping to the floor gracefully, and managed not to reveal my annoyance on my face. Really. He could have asked me to move.

-Edited for Content-

"I have some business to attend to with Argo, so if the rest of you would like to retire to my chambers I have called for dinner and entertainment to be prepared."

Gratefully, I rose and followed Treize out of the room when he beckoned, happy simply to be leaving the memory of what I'd just done behind.

191 Zechs

I had expected Treize to take me to an office or perhaps another dining area. I had hopes, slim but present, of being allowed to wash Treize's come from my thighs and the taste of cum from my mouth before Treize and Argo conversed. And I had fanciful thoughts of being fed and allowed to sleep. Before, after, or during the meeting didn't really matter to me.

But when I was led instead to a plain white room that housed only two chairs, a metal surgical table, and a rolling cabinet present, I felt both my hopes and my stomach plummet. My first instinct was that Treize had reconsidered torturing me after all, but it wasn't his style to accept assistance when pulling information from a source. Treize much preferred to torment individually, applying a mix of pain and pleasure to wage a psychological battle that he was always, inevitably win.

So as Treize bade me to climb onto the table I realized that only option left was that Treize had decided to show Argo "favor" and let him have me. I closed my eyes and clenched my fists, positioning myself so that my ass was perched on the edge of the table, my legs bent and splayed, ready for whoever decided to fuck me first.

Treize chuckled.

"Not today, poppet," he said, and guided me further up onto the table, letting me lie flat and still as a corpse. My heart pounded as I contemplated what else Treize could be planning to do to me on a table like this, but I couldn't help but be relieved that at least it wasn't that.

Argo entered a moment later, grinning broadly as he spied me on the table with a wary look on my face.

"So he hasn't the foggiest idea what he's here for, eh?" Argo asked, taking the seat not already occupied by Treize. They were stools more than chairs, and well high enough for the two of them to look down on me as I lay on the table. Treize stroked the back of his hand down the side on my face, but I couldn't help the feeling that they were both looming over me.

"No, but he'll figure it out soon enough. Do you remember what we discussed?" Treize asked, and Argo leaned over me, tracing his fingers down my leg from the tip of my thigh to just above my knee.

"Along here?" he indicated and Treize nodded.

"Perhaps splayed a bit along the front and the back as well."

"Best have him on his side, then."

As my heart pounded, Treize pressed me to lay on my left side, exposing my right leg to whatever insanity Argo would perpetrate upon it. Did they mean to lame me? Treize enjoyed a partner that could challenge him, but he had Wufei to duel with and he had indicated that I was to be his trophy. Was this how he intended to ensure that I would not try to escape? Did he mean to make me completely physically reliant on him?

My stress level increased as I watched Argo don bright blue medical exam gloves from the rolling cabinet that he had pulled up beside him. Beside my head, Treize pushed a strand of hair out of my face, but I could not bring myself to look at him. My stomach was still rolling, and I could feel the remnants of what I had swallowed earlier settling like thick slime in the bottom. The salty tang of semen still hung in the back of my throat, and it burned ever so slightly when I breathed. The sweat from my earlier activities had dried on my skin, leaving me feeling dirty and worn. Treize's cum had dried between my thighs and still slicked my insides, only adding to the feeling of filthy that hovered over my body. Now with the added threat of becoming a cripple, it was all I could do not to give in to my misery completely. Instead, I lay there rigidly on the table and stewed in my anguish.

Until finally, Treize leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Relax, darling. I would not take the ability to walk from you."

My eyes darted to his and I could not help the relief that bloomed as I found his gaze to be honest and devoid of malevolence. Whatever he had planned for me, I would not come away from this hobbled. This thought kept me still as Argos wiped down the length of my thigh with alcohol and once again turned to the cabinet.

It was not comforting enough, however, to keep me from tensing and nearly leaping from the table when Argos pulled a small black instrument in the shape of a gun out of the cabinet. Treize laid a hand on my shoulder, although I couldn't tell whether it was to comfort or restrain me. It took me a moment more to realize there was a needle attached to the nose of the gun, and that Argos was attaching a black bottle of liquid to the other end. And when he laid the gun against the flesh of my hip, I bit my lip and closed my eyes.

The sting of it was quite unlike anything I had ever felt before. Like the sting of a hundred infinitesimal wasps, it was more the surprise of it than the actual pain that made me raise my head and open my eyes. When I did, it was to find a line of black ink trailing down my leg in a curling, undulating design.

I was being tattooed.

And I realized in a sickening, gut wrenching twist of logic, that this was far worse than being hobbled. I could hide being hobbled. I could pretend it was a sacrifice. I could be forgiven if I were hobbled, and if I ever returned to my old life, people would look upon me with compassion.

But a tattoo… A tattoo would forever mark me as Treize's. Every time I changed clothes. Every time I showered. Every time I felt the itch under my skin and felt the ink that would never really fade from there, I would know that I belonged to him. There would be no forgiveness of this mark.

I must have made a noise of distress, because Treize pressed my face back down to where it was laying on my arm. The stinging continued, trailing lazily down my leg. I felt lightheaded with panic, shudders running down my spine. Under the lights, I felt bare and raw, like there was nothing left of me. Treize took my hand and I allowed it, clenching my fingers around his because I needed the support, even if a bastard was giving it. Isolated from my boys, my only system of support, Treize had engineered situations that would make me come to him for comfort and protection. I knew this, but that didn't make his tactics any less effective. I burned with shame as Treize's hand ran through my hair, but I leaned into the touch none the less.

"Did you want to go with the design I sent you?" Argos asked, but I couldn't bring myself to look at my leg to see what he was doing.

"Yes. You might need to modify it a bit to his dimensions, but otherwise it was exactly what I had hoped for. I was pleased by how well you managed to grasp the concept from the images I sent you."

Argos hummed a response, but I could tell that he was concentrating on his work. I couldn't tell if I should feel relieved at that or not.

It seemed like a long time before Argos pulled the tattoo gun away from my flesh. Only the cessation of the buzzing of the gun roused me from my stupor as he pulled back and fiddled with his instrument. I glanced down at my side and found the black outline of a rose vine winding its way across my thigh. There were half a dozen tiny rosebuds that I could see, and I had a suspicion that there was one on my ass to match the one on my groin. As the vine looped its way down the side of my thigh I could see it spelling out the letters of Treize's name, although anyone who hadn't been looking for it would be hard pressed to see it amongst the leaves and thorns. But I knew Treize well enough to know that he would always put his name on something that he sought to keep.

"Is this the color you wanted the buds?" Argos asked, pulling out a shade of red that was almost burgundy. When Treize nodded, Argos quickly changed the ink and began filling in the buds. It was only then that I realized where I had seen those flowers before, that they had grown wild in the desert when Treize and I had been sent to try to find rebel soldiers during the war. Riding on horseback and sleeping in a tent, it had been one of the first missions Treize and I had been partnered for. To someone as young and naive as I was, it seemed like an adventure worthy of Arabian Nights. And Treize had been just as dashing, teaching me about the desert and keeping me out of harm's way. The roses had seemed absolutely enchanting, filling the grotto where we camped with their sweet perfume. They had been blooming the first time Treize and I made love, and in a tent and under the moonlight in the middle of a desert, I'd thought it was terribly romantic.

Now, seeing the image of all those thorns and choking vines etched into my thigh, I had to wonder if it symbolized Treize's love. Carefully wrapped in vines and thorns, he tried to hide the damage they could do by enticing me in with roses. And suddenly, I couldn't remember the roses to fondly either.

I was so lost in my thoughts that I was almost startled as the gun stopped again, indicating the Argos had finished filling the roses. I glanced down to find them almost glowing ruby red against my skin, and was it the black outline making it look that way? Or had I always been that pale? Still, I said nothing as Argos changed his ink once again.

"Are you sure you want to finish it today? There's always time later," he offered, but he was already setting up the green ink.

"No, I want it done now, while the message is fresh in his mind," Treize replied. I glanced up at him, but couldn't bring myself to meet his eyes. If I got angry at him, I wouldn't be able to accept his comfort. And I really needed the comfort right now.

Argos began to fill the green in the leaves and the vines, and there was a lot more of the foliage than there was of the flowers. I tried to pick out each of the little black thorns to keep my mind off the continued sting, but there were too many to count. It became too much effort to hold my head up and I let it drop back to my arm. My stomach roiled again and I must have squeezed Treize's hand, because he kissed my temple and whispered, "Not much longer now."

It wasn't much longer, but it felt like ages before the buzzing finally stopped and Argos put the gun aside. I sagged in relief, my leg burning from hip to knee. I barely had the time to appreciate the design, although had I been in a better mood I probably could have admitted that it was a fairly decent piece of art. At least I wouldn't walk around looking like I had graffiti painted on me.

Argos pulled out a container of clear, slightly bluish cream from the cabinet, gently spreading it onto my tender, abused flesh. I noticed that everywhere the new ink was settling in the skin had become inflamed. The gel took some of the sting out, but the flesh was still tender. Argos handed the container to Treize with instructions to apply it twice a day for the next two weeks.

They shook hands then and I knew we were finished. I sat up quickly and then regretted it as the world tilted and I found myself clinging to the table. I felt Treize's hands descend on my shoulders.

"Be careful with him for a bit," Argos advised while putting away his equipment. "His body's just taken a lot of trauma today. He might have a bit of shock. Best keep him quiet and let him sleep it off," Argos advised.

"Noted," Treize replied and helped me to shakily step down from the table and gain my balance. "And thank you again."

As I took the first steps to the door I managed to pull away from Treize's steadying hand and shakily walk on my own. After a few steps, my stomach settled and I was able walk at a steady pace without lurching too visibly. Treize walked at my side, his hand out to catch me if I stumbled, but otherwise allowing me to walk on my own.

By the time we returned to Treize's quarters, I felt like everything inside of me had been pulled out, leaving only a ragged, empty shell. I was cold all over and the skin down my leg burned despite the gel that he been applied to it. The shaking that had made its presence known as I had risen form the tattooing table had only intensified, and showed no signs of abating. There was a dry, aching pain just behind my eyes that I knew would last for several more hours even under the best of conditions, and might take up permanent residence given the current ones.

So I was, understandably, testy. And perhaps a bit foolish.

"I want to see my boys," I demanded as the door closed behind us Treize merely raised an eyebrow as he poured himself a glass of bourbon.

"You've been doing so well tonight," he sighed, swirling the liquid in his glass and leaning patiently against the wall. "Don't tell me your about to get stubborn now."

"I've done everything you asked of me. I've been humiliated and debased all night. You said if I was a good slave, you'd let me see them!"

"Oh, you've certainly acted the part of a good slave," he said, and I felt my hope deflate as Treize argued with me. Treize never agued if he was going to lose. "But I said that you need to be a good slave, not just act like one. And your tone now shows me that you've merely been behaving to get your reward, which certainly isn't proper slave behavior. When you've come to accept your life now and your lack of control, then I will reintroduce the other slaves to you."

"That could take weeks!" I protested, and felt conflicted by the fact that I both wanted to hold out as long as possible and wanted to see my slaves as soon as possible.

"That's entirely up to you," Treize replied nonchalantly, and I had hit my breaking point.

"If you won't bring them to me I'll go find them myself!" I threatened.

"Will you now?" Treize asked, and I sensed his mood change from tolerant to annoyed in an instant. I'd like to blame it on my exhaustion, that I didn't even see him move, but Treize has always been much faster than I am. His foot snaked out faster than I could even see and pulled me feet out from under me, dropping me hard onto my hip, but thankfully onto my left hip. His hand came around just as quickly and he grabbed me by the throat, cutting off my air.

"You do not tell me what you will do. I tell you what to do, and you obey," he told me, enunciating so slowly that by the time he finished and released my throat, I was seeing spots. I gasped and choked as he stormed into the other room. I was still panting when he returned from the other room and placed a large, steel cage on the floor behind me. I glanced at it miserably, and was unsurprised by his next words.

"Get in," he ordered, and I looked the thing over again before moving. It was the size of crate you might but a Rottweiler or a Doberman in, so far too small for me to fit comfortably inside. I glanced balefully at Treize, but seeing no mercy in his glare I decided that back into the thing was far preferable to spending the night on my hands and knees. I scooted myself backwards until my shoulders were pressed against the cold bars of the back of the cage, my neck bent to keep my head from hitting the top, and my knees pressing into my chest to fit my long legs into the short cage. Treize slammed the door shut, and I felt the vibration through the rest of the cage as he clicked the lock in place. It was a padlock with an actual key, not a simple sliding lock that I could open myself or a combination lock that I might guess the combination to. And the cage itself was made of welded steel. I would have been hard-pressed to bend the bars if I had leverage and strength, but from my position and in my weakened state it would be impossible to free myself. Realizing this, my hopes of having a decent rest dwindled to nothingness.

Treize, meanwhile, had spared me a few moments of attention as I acclimated to my new surroundings, and had the audacity to look disappointed in me. I gave him a stubborn glare and he sighed, then rose and headed for the bedroom that I could see through the open door. He paused in the doorway, looking back at me as he reached for the light switch.

"I had hoped that you would warm my bed tonight, but I can see that you are not yet worthy of that consideration. Perhaps a night of sleeping out here will show you how generous I have been."

Then darkness descended and he shut the door.

192

I dreamed of the desert.

The moon hung just outside the curtains of our canvas tent. The moonlight shimmered on Treize's naked skin, leaning over me as the wind brought the scent of desert roses wafting through the tent. My legs were splayed over his shoulders and he thrust rhythmically inside of me. I felt nothing, but that didn't seem to hinder Treize as he continued thrusting in perfect time inside of me. I sighed, wishing he'd just finish.

My head fell to the side, and the wind blew through the camp again, rustling the flap of tent beside me. Something was out there, in the desert. I raised my hand, ignoring Treize's incessant thrusting, and opened the flap.

Outside, there was evidence that a battle had raged, but now everything was quiet and still. My eyes shifted through the wreckage, the blood splattered sand and the smoldering bodies.

I found Quatre first, his tiny body twisted and trampled near the edge of the battle, his soft blonde hair now so caked with blood and sand that it was only by the color of his eyes that I could recognize him. And those pale blue eyes looked at me imploringly, but they were already clouded over with death.

My eyes searched the field again, this time finding Heero and Trowa, blades still clutched in their hands even though their throats had been cut and their bodies were certainly cold by now. The two had been back to back when they died, trying to hold off an enemy far stronger and more numerous than themselves. Now, in death, they leaned up against each other and seemed to scan the battlefield with dead eyes.

Duo was just beyond them, splayed on the top of a pile of bodies, his torso so covered with blood and gore that it was impossible to tell just how many wounds had been inflicted on him. His chest had been completely opened, evidence of a brutal and savage attack. And yet, Duo was still grinning, his lips pulled back from his teeth in an expression that could have just as easily been a snarl. His hair was coming loose from its customary braid and the strands wafted gently in the breeze.

My eyes resumed their search once again, and I shivered as the cold breeze bit into me. It was getting late, and still Treize showed no signs of ceasing his thrusts into my body. But it was fine, because the cold was stealing over me, and I could hardly feel it anymore. It was growing dark outside, and I glanced up to see that the moon was becoming red, casting a bloody glow over the carnage below. I glanced up at Treize to find that his features had become twisted and warped in the red light, and the man that had been making love to me was now replaced with the monster that was fucking me. But I couldn't really feel anything about that.

My eyes found the battleground again, and I could no longer see the individual corpses of my boys. Still, my eyes searched desperately, my mind unable to pinpoint what was so important out in the darkness.

And then I found Wufei. Face down on the edge closest to the camp, I could sense more than hear the pulse that still beat within the battered body. For the first time since I had awoke in this nightmare world, I felt something stir inside me. I tried to reach toward Wufei, but my body was too heavy and I could only move my hand the barest inch in his direction. He must have noticed, though, because he raised his head and looked at me with those dark, fiery eyes.

"Zechs," he called, reaching his hand out to me.

Above me, Treize roared, a monstrous sound that rattled the tent around us. I felt nothing still, and didn't even glance at him, so focused on moving my hand a few more inches toward Wufei.

"Zechs," he called again, and his voice was softer this time, and I could feel his heartbeat failing. He reached his hand toward me, moving just as slowly as I was. The space between us suddenly seemed much further than it had been, and I wanted to cry out with anguish, but I couldn't feel anything except the icy cold that was penetrating my body.

"Zechs," he called a third time, his hand falling to the sand as his strength failed him. "Wake up."

I came to with a gasp, and would have sat up straight, but the bars that were biting into my back didn't allow me to move more than an inch upwards before I hit the top of my tiny prison. I sat there for a moment, gasping for breath and trying to control the shaking running through my body. I was still naked, trapped in the miniature steel cage, and it was so cold.

"Zechs?" came a quiet voice from beside me, and I had a surreal moment of wondering whether I was awake or asleep when I saw Wufei kneeling beside me. I could only gape at him, until he slipped his hand through the bars and laid his cold palm against my forehead. "Son of a bitch!" Wufei snarled, moving his hand to the side of my face. "You're burning up!"

And then he was gone again, gracefully hoping up from the floor and padding across the floor. I wanted to call out to him, beg him to come back, but the rational part of my brain kicked in and reminded me that Treize was sleeping in the next room over and likely didn't know Wufei was here.

Wufei returned moments later and slipped his hands through the bars once again, this time placing three pills into my palm and handing me a paper cup of water. I quickly popped the pills and followed it with all the water in the cup. The cold liquid felt like a stab in the gut to my empty stomach, but I was distantly aware of just how bad of shape my body was in.

"That absolute bastard," he said. "I bet he didn't even feed you," he guessed, and my stomach chose that moment to rumble its assent.

"It's… I'm alright," I lied, still trying to settle my stomach around the water. It took me a moment to bring my attention back to Wufei, and I found him looking miserably at me.

"I…" he started, but without his anger at Treize to guide him, he seemed lost.

"It's okay," I tried to sooth, but he only looked more upset.

"I didn't know," he said finally, brokenly. "You have to believe me, I didn't know he'd do this to you!"

"I know," I told him calmly, leaning back against the cage again. It was just too much effort to sit up anymore. "I know he tricked you. He tricked me too."

"I'm so sorry," he said, and I noticed that he couldn't meet my eyes. "I should have trusted you."

"It wouldn't have mattered," I told him. I knew why he had doubted me, and I couldn't honestly blame him for choosing to protect the others instead of blindly trusting me. In light of my current health crisis, I couldn't find any anger or betrayal in me. I was just so happy to see him. After a moment, I managed to ask him, "How are the others?"

"They miss you," he said quickly, and I saw him draw his sleeve over his eyes, but I didn't comment on it. If I had the strength, I probably would have cried as well.

"Are they… Is he treating them well?"

"Yes," Wufei answered honestly, then hesitated a moment before slipping his hand between the bars and lacing our fingers. I took a shuddering breath and squeezed, just reveling in the feeling of his skin. "He's set us up in guest quarters. We are well fed, and otherwise left alone. Only…"

"Only what?"

"Duo… has not taken well to his forced confinement. He tried to come find you yesterday and got caught. Treize… Treize had him shackled in the bedroom."

I could only imagine that Duo, who had come so far with his fear of being restrained, had not taken that well. I felt a stab right through my chest, that he would have to go through that because I had failed him.

"Is he alright?"

"Yes, they gave him so drugs to calm him down and Heero managed to convince him to take them. Duo's been sleeping a lot since then, and Quatre's sitting with him now."

"I didn't think Heero would leave Duo's when he's so vulnerable," I commented, and there was a flash of guilt on Wufei's face. "I see. So where are Heero and Trowa?" I asked, feeling my stomach lurch sickeningly.

"They… We needed someone… Heero and Trowa distracted the guards, so I could come and check on you. Trowa offered to go alone, but Heero has grown very protective of him recently. Of all of us."

What little contents were in my stomach tried to come up, but I forced it down knowing the noise might wake Treize and reveal Wufei. I knew what kind of "distraction" it would take to make Treize's guards leave their post. The thought of Trowa and Heero letting those bastards touch them, use them, so that Wufei could come find me, was almost more than I could take.

"They volunteered," Wufei whispered softly, his thumb stroking the skin of my hand. "We're all so worried about you, that I didn't even have to ask them. I think they would have done it on their own if I hadn't offered to help. They miss you so much."

"Thank you," I said, and my eyes were getting heavy. I tried to adjust my position in the cage and rubbed my leg along the bar. I hissed as it aggravated the tattoo, and Wufei gasped as he noticed it for the first time in the dim light. He spent a moment just staring at it, tracing his fingers along the outline from the outside of the bars. But even his feather-light touch was agony for me, and I pulled my leg away.

"It's…sore," I told him, and he looked stricken again.

"I'm sorry," he whispered softly, staring down at his hands. "It's been a long time since I've seen a tattoo. They were popular in Collar when I first arrived, but there's no value in a slave with someone else's tattoo. I guess…" he said, and his fingers ghosted above my skin again. "I guess I'm lucky he was never sure he'd keep me after the novelty wore off."

I nodded, because I was too tired to find a reply. My eyes slipped shut.

"Zechs," Wufei called me, slipping his fingers through the bars and lacing them with mine again. "Please, you can't stay like this. I want to… I want to help. I need you to tell me your contact. Maybe they can send someone to get you out."

"It's okay," I told him, but my eyes slipped shut and I couldn't get them to open again. "Treize will keep his word. As long as I stay with him, I can still protect all of you."

"We want to protect you, damnit!" Wufei snarled, barely keeping his voice down, but even his anger was not enough to get my eyes open. "Zechs, please, you can't go on like this! We're trying to get you free. Please, I need your contact."

And because I was too tired to fight… I gave it to him.

When my eyes opened again, Wufei was gone, and there was a shrill ringing noise coming from the bedroom. I lolled my head to the side to look towards the bedroom, but the door was still shut. I let the darkness take me again.

I don't know how long I was out, but I awoke to my cage being rattled and Treize's feet beside me. He was dressed in casual clothes, slacks and a button-down top with the top few buttons left open. His feet were bare, and he knelt on his toes to open the cage for me. I stifled a groan as I tried to sit up; my entire body was sore, right down to my ankles, which had been tilted awkwardly all night as I tried to fit into the cramped space.

"Come on, my love. I've missed you all night, and now I'm hoping you'll behave well enough for us to have a pleasant breakfast. I forgot how trying you could be," he joked, and his mood seemed to have improved with sleep, because he smiled at me. "But I enjoy the challenge. Come out now, and perhaps I'll give you a rub-down after breakfast."

My head was aching and it felt like I hadn't gotten any sleep at all. Awkwardly, with my body protesting every move, I managed to scoot out of the cage and, using the structure for support, climb to my feet. A wave of dizziness hit me, and I used my hold on the cage to keep it from taking me down.

"You look terrible," he commented, and I heard genuine concern in his voice, but it didn't touch me. My head was spinning, and I clutched the iron bars of my cage and tried not to throw up. "Perhaps you'll remember this the next time you pick a fight with me."

I couldn't hold back the bark of laughter as I lost my battle with gravity and went to one knee. Looking him in the eyes for the first time since I'd climbed out of the cage, I said, "You're such a dick."

And then passed out.

I dreamed that I was back in the desert and that a scorpion kept stinging my arm. I know that I slept for a long time, and that I probably could have woken up well before I actually did. But I simply couldn't bring myself to face my broken body, my bleeding heart, or my pissed off owner. Eventually, though, I couldn't keep hiding.

When I surfaced, I felt better than I had expected. Much better, actually. I was warm, and I could feel the weight of a blanket over top of me. The stinging in my arm from the dream had not faded. I reached out to brush away the scorpion, but fingers intercepted mine. I raised my head from the warm body beneath me and found Treize smiling at me.

"That's the seventh time you've tried to pull your i.v. out. It was always difficult to get you to take your medicine, but I see you've only gotten worse," he joked, then kissed my forehead. I let my head fall back to his chest, trying to reconcile the Treize beneath me to the one who tattooed me and locked me in a cage all night.

"I didn't know that your condition was that bad," he admitted softly before I had even finished thinking. "I suppose I… expected too much of you. I wanted us to pick up where we left off. And I expected you to feel for me… what I feel for you. I didn't mean to push you so far, and I never thought you'd be so fragile."

I didn't respond, because I didn't know what to say. My head was swimming, but I couldn't feel any pain. Even my leg, where the tattoo was wrapped up in the blanket and should have been stinging like hell, was strangely silent.

"Did you give me something?" I asked, my voice raspy and my words slurred. Treize nodded.

"There are painkillers in your i.v. The doctor said you were suffering from dehydration and stress. He suggested anti-anxiety medication, but I'm not sure I'll give it to you. I don't really want your personality changing," he said, stroking a piece of hair away from my face, "but I don't think you can continue being as high-strung as you are."

I chuckled and buried my face in my arm. Of course I was high-strung. It didn't make me any less high-strung that Treize was now contemplating whether to get me addicted to mood-altering medication, while I had no idea of the possible side effects or consequences. My chuckle turned into something more, and Treize rubbed soothing circles in my back as I sobbed into my arm.

Then the drugs took me under again, and I let myself be drawn down into sleep.

When I woke next, I was alone and on my back on the couch. The heavy blanket was still over me. I stretched and realized that my i.v. had been removed. I rubbed my arm absently and stroked my fingers over the cotton pad that had been taped over the vein. I yawned, my head feeling a bit clearer, and sat up.

As if on cue, Treize came in trailed by a slave carrying a lidded tray. The slave set the tray on the table and uncovered it, revealing a simple soup and sandwich platter, then bowed to Treize and quickly left. My stomach rumbled loudly, and Treize smiled at me.

"I can tell you're famished, so I'll make this brief. I have some matters I need to attend to, so I'm going to leave you here. I'll be back in a few hours. Eat, watch some tv, don't do anything strenuous. I've sent for someone to keep you company, so that you don't overtax yourself. Do not," he said firmly, "make me regret giving you this much freedom."

He turned then and went to the door. The conversation was moving faster than my lethargic brain could keep up with, so I was nearly floored when Treize opened the door to reveal Quatre waiting demurely. He was fully dressed, surprisingly, in trousers and a soft blue shirt. My heart jumped to my throat then, because as excited as I was to see Quatre, nothing was ever that simple with Treize.

"Enter," Treize said, and it was not a suggestion. It was easy to tell that Quatre was intimidated by the way his eyes never left the floor, and I could feel my hackles raise at the way Treize was menacing over Quatre, but I knew I was at a disadvantage so I forced myself to calm down.

"Now," Treize said, taking Quatre's chin in his hand and forcing the smaller man to meet his eyes. "I'm going to leave him in your care, and I trust that you will show some… decorum in my absence. I know it's been some time since you've seen my slave, but I hope you can remember that he, and you, belong to me." His eyes went to me, then, and a chill went down my spine. "If you both behave while I'm gone, we'll get better acquainted when I return. If not, perhaps I'll get better acquainted with him alone," he threatened, and then glided out of the room.

I was practically snarling, just barely keeping from jumping up to chase after him, Quatre bound over to the couch beside me. And, despite the warning Treize had given us only moments before, I pulled him into my embrace.

It was everything that I had been aching for. Where Treize's embrace caged me and filled me with dread, Quatre's embrace made me feel free. It felt like I could finally breathe for the first time in months as I pressed my face against his hair and took in the his scent.

All too soon he was pulling back, petting me and shushing me as I practically hyperventilated against his shoulder.

"What's he been doing to you?" Quatre wondered, brushing my hair away from my face. "You look like hell!"

I laughed. "You've been hanging out with Duo too much," I said, and maybe it was the drugs still in my system that made it so funny.

"No, I'm just worried about you. We're all worried about you," he said gently, stroking my hair. It was so gentle that I felt my eyes start to slip closed, leaning against his shoulder as he petted me gently. After a bit, he said, "You should eat something," and it roused me enough to sit up.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to fall asleep on you," I told him, and stretched. It was then that I realized I was naked, covered only in the blanket I had awoken under.

"It's alright," he said, and served me half of the sandwich. I ate it mechanically, not even noticing what kind it was.

"Did Wufei get back alright last night? How's Duo doing?" I asked as I ate.

"Wufei didn't get caught, and the guards let Duo take a shower this morning. Treize said that he'd release him if I kept you company while he was gone."

I finished the first half of the sandwich, and he pressed the soup into my hands. The soup was chicken with vegetables and potatoes. I pushed the other half of the sandwich at Quatre.

"You should eat something too," I said, but he smiled and shook his head.

"Treize has actually been keeping us pretty well fed, and I've been so anxious lately that I've been cooking non-stop."

"I'm sure the others appreciate it."

"Mm. Trowa doesn't like me working so much, but eating keeps Duo occupied. And I find it soothing. But we can talk more about that later," he said, as I finished the soup and set the bowl aside. "You should sleep now," he told me, and there was no arguing with that tone. He pulled me down, and I curled up on his thigh and sleep took me under.

And for the first time since I had come into Treize's possession, there were no dreams.

193 Quatre

I couldn't let Master see how miserable we'd been without him. I could feel that he was hanging on the precipice of despair, and that one more blow could push him over the edge. So while he was awake, I had smiled and held him, determined to lift his spirits if only a bit. But as he slept, I felt the mask slip, and I was glad he was not awake to see how pained I was.

He was burnt out, burned through until nothing was left but ashes. His fighting spirit and his determination were gone. Zechs didn't care about himself, didn't care if Treize used him or abused him or left him to rot. As long as he was assured of our well-being, he would allow himself to be treated however badly Treize chose. Zechs was a man nearly broken, who felt that he had failed in his only purpose and lost everything of meaning in his life. I stroked his hair and tried to fan the flame of hope that had kindled when I entered, but it was smoldering under his own helplessness.

And yet, there was no real rescue plan. Without a leader, we had made no progress and had set only one goal- to free Zechs. Wufei had learned how to contact Zechs' agency the previous night, but I had been taken before I could find out if he had managed to contact them. Wufei was like a man possessed, his betrayal of Zechs resting heavily on his mind until he couldn't eat or sleep because of the guilt he felt. He had never confessed his sins to any of us, and I doubt the others even knew he had a hand in delivering Master to Treize. I had not asked him, knowing that anger would be pointless in helping us rescue Zechs. And I knew that nothing I could inflict on him would be worse than the misery he was putting himself through. And nothing I could say would alleviate it, either.

Heero was also in no state to lead us, with his hands full as Duo began to revert back to the near-animal he'd been when we found him. All that came from Duo when I was near was rage and panic, and I had taken to avoiding him because it made my heart pound to be around him. Trowa, meanwhile, had become a shadow once again, and I felt that he wanted to pull me under his cloak and hide me against the wall with him. But I could not live in the shadows, and I would not let him take me there. I wanted to step up and lead, but with everyone's emotions bombarding me, and with the fact that I had not taken my pills since we had been separated from Zechs, I could not find the resolve in me to take charge.

I tried not to think of Treize, and his half-veiled threats toward me. When he had met me in the hall and I had been told I would see Zechs, his aura had been terrifying. I had never seen anything like it, and I was too frightened to read him. Now, stroking Zechs' hair as he slept on my thigh, I wished I had. I glanced at the IV stand hung in the corner and the heavy afghan draped across Zechs' legs, and could not understand why a man who seemed like he had been through so much also appeared to be so well-cared for. Because it was apparent from the lines on his face and the weight that had disappeared from his frame that Zechs had been miserable since we'd been separated. But at the same time, a master would not nurse a slave that he cared nothing for. Treize had gone through a lot of trouble to gain Zechs, and then it appeared even more trouble to keep him healthy. So why would he go through all that trouble only to treat Zechs badly? It didn't make any sense.

It was too much for me to ponder at the moment, and I shifted to make myself more comfortable and found myself nodding off.

I was awoken by the sound of a door shutting and a deep throated chuckle. I gave a cold glare to Treize, but it was hard to look fierce in the face of someone who holds so much power over you. My hand went to Zechs' shoulder to rouse him, but Treize only smiled in a predatory way as he made his way over to the opposing couch.

"Don't bother trying to wake him," he said as he dropped to the cushions. "I had them put a light sedative in his soup, in case you were brave enough to try to escape. I see I needn't have worried," he said, and there was the lilt of an insult to it. I felt a stab of guilt as I realized that I was the one who had prompted Zechs to eat, but I knew it wasn't truly my fault. With the kind of power Treize held over Zechs, he could just as easily force my master to take the drugs. And it wasn't like Zechs could stop eating.

I glanced at Treize across the room, and was immediately bombarded by his emotions. I looked away, trying to block it out again, but the amount of rage that was coming from his overwhelmed my ability to shield myself. I knew I needed to put some distance between us. I rose slowly from the couch, trying not to draw his attention any more than I already had, and allowed Zechs' head to fall out of my lap. He hardly stirred, and I began to doubt the light description of the sedatives Treize slipped him.

I felt Treize calm as I separated from Zechs. It was only then that I could identify the emotion as jealousy.

"I'm surprised you didn't try to convince him to run away," Treize continued, and his voice was smooth, but his emotions told me that he was still trying to bait me. "With Dragon and Shinigami helping, I thought for sure that you would have tried to break for freedom."
"I am neither stupid nor suicidal," I responded crisply, Treize's anger seeping into me until it was difficult to tell his emotions from my own. I tried to rein in my temper, knowing that I was no match for the Owner of Collar.

"I was not sure about that, when I returned to find his head in your lap, but I suppose I can excuse it if he is only sleeping," Treize said, and his rage dulled into a seething jealousy, once again lending credit to my theory that he did, in fact, value Zechs deeply.

"I did not mean to disobey your rule, but he feels strongly for his slaves, and he has been worried. I meant only to reassure him," I tried to placate, but Treize's tension did not ease. If anything, his anger increased. Still, he remained poised. There was a mask in place, one that was old and thick and well worn. Nothing penetrated it except the emotions he chose to reveal. I wondered, watching the cold calculations in his eyes, what he would do if he found out that I could see right through that mask at a glance? I doubted he would be pleased.

"Isn't it strange how much affection he shows for slaves that he has known for less than a year? When he and I have known each other for far longer than that."

He was trying to provoke me, that much I knew. Whether he was lying to provoke me or simply telling me a truth that Zechs had withheld was less certain, but he didn't seem the type to lie. Still, I did not allow myself to rise to the bait, instead walking behind the couch and trying to put as much space as possible between us without seeming to run away. Treize's manner was too predatory, and I knew that if I ran he would instinctively take the advantage and chase me.

"Some masters form quick attachments. He sees us as treasured pets," I said, trying again to placate him, but again it had no effect.

"Does he now?" Treize responded silkily. "You'll have to excuse me, I'm not accustomed to people fucking their treasured pets," he scoffed. The vulgarity sounded forced and crude from him, but if he thought to surprise me with it then he was sadly mistaken. Being around Duo had been an education in language.

"He may have sex with us, but he has never fucked us," I replied, giving way to my own temper at last. It was the wrong thing to do, though, and Treize had me against the wall in a moment, arms splayed on either side of my head, threatening but not touching.

"Then perhaps I should show him what little whores are for," he snarled, and I gulped in a breath. I had to stay calm. Treize prided himself on his class, and if I lost control and resorted to animal instincts, then he would treat me as such. But if I could hold my composure, perhaps I could bring him back to reason.

"You said you would not touch me if we obeyed your rules," I protested, my voice coming out much more calmly than I felt. Treize smiled coldly, then.

"No," he corrected, backing away. "I said I would not touch you without him. So perhaps it is time to wake him up?"

-Edited for Content-

"Come," he beckoned me, and I knew that he would eventually have his way, even though I shook my head and dug my heels in. His eyes narrowed, and he beckoned again. "Come here, or you'll regret it," he promised, but nothing could make me budge. I was barely holding his emotions at bay with the space between us. Touching him would undo me. Zechs, still in Treize's lap, could sense my distress and its cause, and tried to intervene.

"Treize, please," Zechs begged, and Treize turned his attention away from me for a moment. "He really can't touch you. He's empathic. He'll be overwhelmed by your emotions. Aren't I enough for you?" Zechs tried, but Treize could see it for the ploy it was, and would not be swayed.

"So you can read my mind, little kitten?" he asked, smiling in a way that frightened me more than his frown, and I nodded hesitantly. Treize pushed Zechs off his lap, peering at me like an insect under a microscope.

"It's much stronger through touch. If I touch you, I'll know all your secrets," I lied, desperate to keep him away.

"Tch," he said, the smile disappearing. "Liar," and then he slapped me hard across the face.

"You bastard!" snarled Zechs and lunged at Treize, but he was still woozy from the sedatives and fell back easily when Treize pushed him.

"Don't!" I cried, getting between the two and trying to keep the fight from escalating. "I'm sorry! I meant that I'll know all your emotions, everything you feel. I can block you from a distance, but skin to skin contact is undeniable without my drugs."

"Really?" he said, cocking his head and I could tell that the idea intrigued him. "Then tell me all about myself."

He placed his hand on my cheek and I felt my vision blur. In the distance, I heard Zechs scream. If I had been able to, I would have screamed as well. It felt like my mind was shattering, with thin cracks running all along my psyche until it finally burst apart.

"You're mad!" I heard my voice say.

"Tell me what you feel, little rabbit," Treize said, his hand stroking down to find my pulse, and it was only then that I felt my heart pounding against my chest.

"You're obsessed," I gasped, and felt hot tears spill down my cheeks. "You're so obsessed with power that it's drowned out everything else!"

"Leave him be!" Zechs shouted, lunging to separate us, but Treize knocked him to couch and jerked me against him, twisting my arm behind my back and pinning it between our bodies, his other hand still holding my cheek.

"Move again and I'll break his arm," Treize promised, and I was terrified more by the lack of emotion I felt connected to that promise than I did about the threat to myself. Treize would feel nothing from snapping my arm and watching me suffer, but thankfully Zechs stayed frozen in his seat.

"Now, darling, chat with me," and I could feel his breath on my neck, "Tell me what you know."

"Please, let me go," I pleaded, trying in vain to pull my face away.

"In due time, but first I want to see your skill in action," he said, and his personality was so strong in my mind that I felt the words spilling out before I even thought of saying them.

"You're lust for power overwhelms almost everything else," I said, and felt the words slipping from my mouth in an unstoppable flow. "You've gone mad from hunger from it, and he," my eyes rolled, settling on Zechs, "represents everything you've lost in your struggle for power, every goal unreached, every failure experienced." My eyes rolled again, and I found myself staring over my shoulder at Treize's cold countenance. "You love him. You love him so deeply that you frightened him away. You frightened him away and then you became a monster. And you know that if he did not love you then he could never love now. You…"

I found myself hurled violently away. My legs crumpled beneath me, and my face connected with the floor. I head Zechs yell and knock over the end table. Treize's heavy footsteps sounded, and I saw him lift Zechs and put him back on the couch, easily dodging the sloppy punch Zechs threw at him. Then he turned to me, and I pressed my face back to the floor, hoping it would swallow me up, but I felt strong hands grab my arms and I was lifted. I was pinned against the wall, Treize's thighs pressed against mine, his chest only inches from my own as his hand snaked under my shirt and pressed against the skin of my ribcage. Rage and despair assailed me as Treize's emotions leapt back into my mind and I sobbed.

I had pushed too far. I had seen too much, threatened him, and he would retaliate. Nothing Zechs could say would keep him from me now. His fingers slipped down into the waist of my pants, his fingers splaying across my hips, and I sobbed.

"Tell me, poppet," he said in a terrifying whisper, "If I take you by force, will he ever forgive me?"

"No," I cried, "He'll hate you forever. Every time you touch him he'll hear me crying and be disgusted."

"And how will I react to that?" he pursued.

"You'll become enraged. You'll beat him until he loves you again. You'll break his spirit, damn you!" I hissed, knowing that Zechs was just beyond us.

"And how would I do that?" he asked, and his voice was so sinister that I felt like I was talking to a demon. My empathy fed me the answer, though, and it was no less terrifying.

"You'll kill one of us. Right in front of him. The failure would break him."

"Which one?" he asked, because already he knew who it would be. I could feel it too. His darkness would put out our brightest light, our strongest soul. It had started already, but he could be far crueler.

"No. Leave him alone. You leave Duo alone!"

"My, you are good," he said, and sounded unexpectedly pleased. "The Shinigami will meet his maker if you do not heed me. Do you want that?"

"No! Please, I'll do anything, just don't hurt him!"

"Anything?" he questioned, removing his hand from my skin to stroke my hair. I pulled in a sobbing breath as the connection of our skin was broken and I found myself alone in my mind.

"What would you have me do?" I begged him.

"Make him believe," he said, pulling me close. "Lie. Make him believe you want me. Make me believe he loves me."

194 Quatre

And then he kissed me, and this time when our skin touched I wasn't overwhelmed by rage and jealousy. I found the one true thread of love he still had for Zechs and I held fast, and suddenly I was flooded with lust and possessive fondness.

"Quatre!" Zechs shouted, enraged, but I knew nothing I could say would convince him. So instead I returned Treize's kiss, wrapping my arms around his neck.

The rage quieted as I submitted. Muted into something more akin to dominance than anger, it was easier to separate his emotions from my own as he deepened the kiss and slipped his tongue into my mouth.

"Quatre?" Zechs voice came again, this time softer and confused as I held fast to Treize, afraid to pull back and reignite the madness that had torn through me only minutes before.

"You're slave certainly knows how to behave around a true master," Treize commented, but it wasn't a barb this time. I let my mouth settle to his neck and began sucking the soft skin there, as Treize's hands began to skillfully undo the buttons of my shirt. "Such soft, pale skin and hair. He reminds me of you when you were younger. That's why I picked him," Treize said as he finished the buttons and I let the shirt fall from my shoulders. There was a piercing stab of nostalgia; something about my bare, narrow shoulders reminded Treize almost painfully of his first few days with Zechs. -Edited for Content-

Treize reached over the arm of the couch then and snagged his pants, pulling them into his lap and fishing the phone out of the pocket. It was black, palm-sized, with a high definition video screen that Treize didn't bother engaging when he made his call. Zechs was still looking at me, and I saw the light go out of his eyes as Treize ordered a guard to return and collect me. Treize hung up and leaned back, smiling at Zechs.

"I think we've had enough of your pets for a while," Treize said, and Zechs could only nod at him miserably.

Something snapped inside of me. A plan formed, and I didn't let myself think it through fully before I hurled myself at Treize.

"You bastard! You monster!" I cried. He laughed, dropping his phone onto his lap to catch my arms, which I flailed ineffectively at him. He laughed and threw me to the floor. When he rose to tower over me, I kicked at his feet, knocking the phone across the room and into my pile of clothing. I missed Treize entirely, but he still felt the need to place his foot on my abdomen and press down, effectively pinning me to the floor.

"What spirit! If you'd been this active while I was fucking you I wouldn't have had to finish with Zechs," he said cruelly, but I could only glare in response. There was a knock on the door then, and the same guard who had brought me entered. "Take him back to the others," Treize ordered, then removed his foot from my chest. I rolled quickly and scrambled to grab my clothes, casting one last look at Zechs pale face before bolting out the door.

I vowed then that it was the last time I would ever let that man make my master so miserable.

Because Treize had Zechs.

But I had his vidphone.

195 Heero

Quatre was out late, although it was difficult to tell how late it was in our small set of rooms with no clock. I was curled up around Duo, who had finally fallen asleep with his manacled hands clutched to his bare chest, his legs covered only in cloth shorts and tangled in the blankets. Trowa had maintained a vigil at the door since Quatre had been called away, and although Wufei had reassured Trowa that Treize would not hurt Quatre, I could tell that Trowa was very worried and Wufei was not very confident. I didn't like seeing Trowa brood there against the wall, staring at the door like it would never open. The stress was getting to all of us, and I pushed down the urge to snap at him.

"Can you come sit with him?" I asked, "I need to use the bathroom."

It was a lie, and he probably knew it, but came over and settled beside Duo anyway. He placed a hand on Duo's shoulder, and I managed to slip away with causing him to stir too much as Trowa slipped into my place. I liked to think that the touch soothed them both, but a part of me knew Trowa would only feel better when Quatre returned.

I stretched and headed toward the bathroom, more because I knew Trowa was watching than because I felt the need to. It was awkward to urinate with no door for privacy and with a pair of guards right around the corner, but we'd gotten used to it over the last couple days. Everyone except Duo, but he managed to use the bathroom and even take a shower as long as one of us blocked the doorway.

The guards weren't bad, all things considered. They didn't bully us, didn't use unnecessary force. Even when Duo was having a fit, they hadn't gone out of their way to hurt him or retaliate. There were four of them, in rotating shifts, and it seemed like they'd managed to get what Duo called a "cake job" babysitting the five of us. In general, the two on shift would play cards, watch tv, and eat whatever Quatre was cooking. It was probably part of the reason they didn't pick on us, didn't ask for sexual favors.

But they were willing to accept sexual favors freely offered. I thought back to the previous day. Those same guards had been more than happy to accept when Trowa and I had offered to suck them off as a cover for letting Wufei go check on Zechs, but they hadn't been cruel about it

"You gonna be okay?" Trowa asked quietly, remembering that there was only the sound of the running water to cover our voices, with no door blocking the bathroom and only a thin black curtain hiding us. Duo and Quatre were just a few feet away in the bedroom. I nodded and leaned my forehead against the wall of the shower, letting the hot water flow over me.

"Don't think about it," Trowa whispered behind me, stepping up to press himself against my back, covering my hands with his own and leaning his face against my neck as we both huddled under the spray. His skin felt so good against mine, that I turned my face and pressed my cheek to his, just to feel the skin against mine. And suddenly I had the overwhelming urge to have as much of his skin as possible touching mine.

"Fuck me," I asked breathlessly against his ear.

-Edited for Content-

Forty-five minutes later, we offered the second shift of guards a round, allowing Wufei to slip back in. That time I did throw up, quietly, when we finished, and Trowa stuck his finger down his own throat when I was done. We took another shower, brushing our teeth several times, before the five of us huddled over Duo's bed for debriefing. Wufei, looking pale and shaken, took his place by Duo's feet and Duo sat up as far as his chains would allow him to ask, "Is he okay?"

Wufei nearly jumped at the question, his hand going to rub at his eyes in distress, and I knew whatever came next would be a half-lie.

"He'll be alright until we get him free. I don't think Treize is trying to do any permanent damage, but I think Zechs is pushing his buttons."

"You should have sprung him tonight!" Duo hissed, and Quatre shushed him. Duo was too loud, and I could see him working himself into a frenzy from the way he held his manacled hands protectively in front of him. I nodded to Trowa and he passed me one of Duo's sedatives, which I shot into Dou's hip while he was busy getting worked up at Wufei.

"You son of a bitch, Heero!" he shouted, and this time no one tried to quiet him, because he cursed like this every time I had to put him under. "I won't forgive this, you bastard!" he yelled, but the drugs took him under anyway, and Trowa and I helped make him more comfortable as his eyes slipped closed.

"He doesn't mean it," Quatre said, his pale hand locking around my wrist. "I know he doesn't, he's just afraid and upset. I promise he doesn't mean it. Don't give up on him," he begged me. I nodded, but in my heart I felt like Duo was being pulled away from me, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

"Did you get what you went for?" I asked Wufei to change the subject.

"I did," he told me, and might have said more, but one of the guards took an interest in us then, and we had to scatter to our own beds. I took Quatre's place lying beside Duo, and Trowa and Quatre moved across the room to the other twin mattress. Wufei retreated to the kitchen for a long time, and I would have thought he was eating, but I hadn't heard the refrigerator or the cabinets open. The beds were too small for all of us, so Quatre and Trowa curled up on the other bed and Wufei usually slipped in with them if he didn't need to help me restrain Duo. When Wufei came back, though, he settled in the corner near the door, keeping a watchful eye on the guards, but mostly just staring at the four of us. Quatre asked him several times to come lay down, but he was ignored, and eventually we fell asleep. I don't know if Wufei slept at all.

But that was last night's drama, and tonight's missing Quatre was upsetting Trowa far more than giving blow jobs to the guards had upset me.

I washed my hands and returned to Duo's bed, then perched myself on the nightstand when Trowa made no move to get up. Duo was turned toward me, and I could see the purple strips beneath his eyes and the darker purple motley of bruises around his wrists where he'd fought his manacles earlier. It was hard to remember that it'd barely been three days since we'd been separated from our master, and time seemed to slow to a crawl in these rooms with nothing to do but worry.

Duo hadn't wanted to worry. Duo had wanted to fight as soon as he realized Zechs wasn't coming back immediately. With no forethought and no care for the consequences, he'd taken the first chance the guards' backs were turned and bolted back towards where we had last seen Zechs. I know he had some delusions of freeing Zechs and then returning, guns blazing, for the rest of us. I tried to remember that it was most likely a blind panic that pushed him to such rash actions, and I tried not to feel hurt about the fact that he had neither consulted nor utilized me in his rescue attempt. And when they dragged him back empty handed and left me to deal with the aftermath, I tried not to resent that either.

At least, though, they'd given us sedatives for him. Though, I think that had more to do with the first two hours that he spent screaming than an actual interest in his wellbeing.

Wufei entered from the kitchen then and settled, cross-legged on Trowa's bed. He was sipping a glass of water, and it looked like he wanted to say something reassuring but could not find the words.

I carded my hands through Duo's bangs and his eyes fluttered, lethargically glancing around the room before meeting mine, and then closing again. The drugs were leaving his system, and he pushed himself up on an elbow to turn and look at Trowa. Trowa stayed lying down as Duo whispered a question, probably about Quatre, then turned and nestled into Trowa's embrace. I sighed and leaned back against the wall, taking in the silence and trying to calm my anxious body and mind.

But the moment was broken when the front door of the apartment opened and Quatre stumbled in, falling to the floor and clutching his shirt to his bare chest, his legs twisted in his half-donned pants. Trowa was out of the bed and across the room before I'd even catalogued the bruise on Quatre's cheek or the haunted look in his eyes. The guards exchanged words, our guards only glancing with casual interest at Quatre as Trowa lifted him from the floor and brought him into the bedroom, pulling him to the corner near the bathroom for some semblance of privacy as he ran his hands over Quatre's form, looking for injuries. I heard the other guards leave as I approached Trowa slowly, knowing that Trowa was nearly out of his mind with worry but also seeing the way Quatre clutched his shirt to his chest desperately. Trowa was beyond words, his body naturally going silent when under stress, but his jerky, desperate movements were clear enough. Quatre clutched his arms to his body, gripping his shirt to his chest.

"Trowa," I called, catching Trowa's arm as I saw Quatre's distress rising. "Give him some room," I cautioned, pulling Trowa back. Quatre was gasping now, soft whispers of breath that were close to sobs. "Are you alright?"

"I…" Quatre tried, his fingers clutching his shirt again. His eyes went to Wufei, who approached slowly, his brow furrowing with the same confusion as the rest of us. "I have…"

"What is it?" Wufei asked, pausing to give Quatre space.

"I…" he faltered again, holding his shirt out to Wufei. "Please," he begged, but whether he was begging for Wufei to take the shirt or to understand still wasn't clear. Wufei reached out, though, and as his hands brushed the material a stray corner of plastic peaked out and suddenly his eyes brightened with understanding. His hands slipped into the folds of the fabric and quickly extracted the phone, then he hurried to one of the beds and smothered the object with a pillow to cover the noise it made as it shut off. Then he slipped it under the mattress at the back of one of the beds, although it was probably unnecessary considering the soldiers had yet to search our rooms even once.

"Thank you," Wufei said as he returned to us, "You did well, Quatre. I don't think I can tell you what this means," he said, his eyes slipping to the open doorway and the guards just beyond, "but be assured that your efforts will make a tremendous difference."

Quatre smiled, then, and a bit of the fear bled out of him. But it was short-lived, as Trowa approached once again, unable to keep his own concern at bay.

"I'm more worried about you," he admitted, stepping into Quatre's space once again, his fingers brushing the length of the bruising across Quatre's face. "Let me see what else that bastard did," Trowa demanded, and it was clear from his voice that he blamed himself for every mark on Quatre, for his inability to protect his lover. But it was equally clear from the way Quatre pulled away from Trowa's grasp that Quatre was as unable to deal with Trowa's guilt as he was his own mental anguish.

"I'm fine, really," Quatre protested, his voice growing more panicked as Trowa began to pull at his clothes.

"You're not fine!" Trowa growled, and there was a subdued desperation in his voice that was no less frightened than Quatre's. "You could be hurt!"

"I can handle myself!" Quatre snarled back, his voice rising to a pitch that I worried the guard would hear. I moved to intercede between to two, with Wufei right beside me, as Quatre continued to retreat and Trowa advanced.

"You need help," Trowa tried again, making an effort to calm his voice. "Let me help," he asked, but Quatre was too wired to let him close.

"I did fine on my own! Leave me alone!" Quatre cried, his breath now coming in hysterical sobs, and I blocked Trowa just as Wufei pulled Quatre to the side.

"Get out of my way, Heero," Trowa snarled, and I could tell that he was only seconds away from violence. Behind me, I heard Wufei trying to convince Quatre to let us check for damage, but Quatre was only getting more and more hysterical.

"Heero," Duo's voice came, the only calm sound in the room, and it quieted the rest of us. "Bring him here," he demanded, and the quiet tone left no room for argument. I turned away from Trowa, who seemed to settle as Duo took control, and led an unresisting Quatre across the room to Duo's bed.

"I'm fine," Quatre protested again, the desperation bleeding out of him as the room quieted.

"Of course you are," Duo assured as Quatre settled at the foot of the bed. "Heero, can you let me out?" he asked, and I hesitated for a moment before deciding it was safe. Duo wouldn't run while we needed him, lest of all while Quatre was in such a fragile state. We didn't actually have a key, but I handed Duo a piece of wire that I pulled from inside the mattress, and the cuffs were off a moment later. Unlike Trowa, Duo didn't reach for Quatre, instead choosing to rub his wrists and set the cuffs aside.

"He got your face pretty good, though, didn't he?" Duo said, reaching out slowly and touching Quatre's cheek. Quatre hissed, but allowed the touch.

"I'm… I'm alright," he said, but his voice was wobbly and tired this time.

"Obviously," Duo agreed. "You're tough as nails, Kitty. I didn't expect anything less."

"I…" Quatre trailed, and I could almost see Duo's approval breaking through Quatre's barriers, and suddenly Quatre collapsed onto Duo's knees, his shoulders shaking and his face buried in the sheets. Duo just shushed him and gathered him up, pulling him into the first embrace he'd allowed since he got back. His words were pouring out now, and Duo didn't try to quiet them.

"…I tried, I tried but he's insane! He's got Master Zechs and he's using us to manipulate him! He made me… made me…" and Quatre was crying too hard to continue now, but Duo just stroked his hair and soothed him.

"Shh, I know. I know, it's okay, I know."

"I should have done something, anything! He hurt my master and I just stood there!"

"You couldn't do anything. You have to believe me, you did the right thing."

"He's evil, Duo! He wants Zechs, and he'll kill all of us to get him. He… He said he'd hurt you!"

"I know, Kitty, I know. Why do you think I act like this? Paint a big target on my back and he'll leave you guys alone. I'm just sorry I couldn't protect you from this."

"No," Quatre said, shaking his head. "I'm glad it was me. I hate him now. I hate him and I'll do anything to see him dead."

"Good. You take that hatred and you feed it, and someday we'll spit on his grave, you and me," Duo promised, and there were tears on his face too, but it seemed cathartic for the both of them.

"I just feel so helpless," Quatre admitted, hiding his face in Duo's knees once again. This time, though, it was Wufei that moved in, laying a hand on Quatre's back and settling beside them.

"You did everything you could," Wufei said. "You did magnificent. Don't let him take that from you. I know… I know how powerless he can make you feel."

Quatre's head raised, and he shared a look of understanding with Wufei that I could not fathom, and then he left Duo's lap to pull Wufei into an embrace. With his face buried in Quatre's shoulder it was impossible to tell, but I believe Wufei wept as well.

Seeing Wufei and Quatre together drew Trowa out of his paralysis, and before I could stop him he was on his knees beside the bed. Quatre's head came up and Trowa moved to speak, but no words came out. He tried again, but his words failed him. Tears came to his eyes, and he couldn't look at Quatre's face. Eventually, staring at his hand like his world was crumbling around him, Trowa said, "I'm sorry. I failed you."

It was all the prompting Quatre needed to slide from the bed and wrap himself around Trowa, all the while giving denials and praise. Trowa's arms came around Quatre like iron bars and I doubted any force on earth could have separated them in that moment.

And that only left me, and I found myself joining Trowa on the floor. Quatre turned to me, and I could only say, "You're the strongest of us all," because I was took choked with emotion. Quatre took my hand, and I think he would have come to me but Trowa would not release him. And as Duo reached down and pulled me onto the bed, my arms coming around him in the same desperate hold that Trowa held Quatre, I knew how he felt.

"This isn't anyone's fault," Wufei commented quietly. His arms were wrapped around his middle, his eyes cold and lonesome, and I could tell he was missing Master fiercely. "No one's but that bastard Treize."

"We'll get him back," I promised, reaching out to lay a hand on Wufei's shoulder. "We'll get Zechs back, and we'll make that bastard pay."

Wufei nodded, but could find no words. Silence spread across the room, but it was soothing, letting us calm after our emotional breaks. I listened to Duo's heartbeat, my hand still on Wufei's shoulder and his hand settled over mine, taking comfort in my presence without seeking physical contact. It was obvious whose physical presence he was longing for.

Eventually, Quatre sniffled from the floor and it managed to catch Duo's attention. He pulled himself from my grasp and leaned over the edge of the bed to run his fingers through Quatre's hair.

"Can you let me take a look at you now?" he asked cautiously, aware and attuend to just how raw and exhausted Quatre was. "I know you're fine, but it would make me feel better if you'd let me check."

Eventually Quatre sighed and nodded, disentangling from Trowa and hauling himself onto the bed next to Duo. I pulled back and let Quatre settle next to Duo, leaning against Duo as he was too exhausted to hold himself up.

"Give us some space, guys," Duo asked, and Wufei, Trowa, and I rose and headed toward the door. But before we could leave, Duo called to us, and we paused and turned around. Quatre had returned to Duo's embrace, and with his face pressed against Duo's bare chest the bruising on his jaw stood out in stark relief. Duo's arms were wrapped protectively around Quatre, his cheek resting on the head of the nearly-sleeping blonde. But Duo's eyes were hard and serious, and he looked the part of the angel of death.

"Tonight. We end this tonight."

196 Duo

I'm not gonna tell you how shocked we were when, an hour after getting Quatre back, Wufei dropped the bomb on us. It was bad enough we'd just found out from Quatre that Zechs and Treize had been lovers (talk about bad taste in men!) But now Wufei proves that he's been holding out on us as well! I mean, Zechs? A spy? It was unreal.

"Che. I'm not surprised," I boasted, but I was just as shocked as the rest of them.

In the long run, it made sense. I mean, Zechs had always been descent, and what kind of descent human being would come into this hell of their own free will? Sure, there were some who had been coerced more than others by the power and influence that these people wielded, but even that was limited.

Still… What the fuck? Right?

I tried to have a quick sort through my emotions while the others were in varying stages of shock. There was a good bit of betrayal there, towards Zechs and a bit towards Wufei. I mean, Zechs treated us all with kidgloves, but Wufei? He should have known better. Should have told us, so we'd be ready.

And then there was uncertainty. Who did Zechs work for? What was their angle? It was hard to believe that the government, who had let this go unnoticed for years, might finally be taking the initiative to shut it down. A rival company, however, might put us in just as bad a situation as Collar had. Worse, even. I'd lived on the streets. I knew the kinds of bloodshed a power struggle could lead to. At least here, your only threat was from your own master. There were rules, of a sort. There were even steps put in place to keep the body count… limited. But under new management? It could be a slaughterhouse.

"This is a good thing," Wufei defended, seeing the rising shock and horror amongst Trowa, Heero, and Quatre. I think I was the only one leaning towards agreeing with him.

"At least this way, we've got a shot," I supported, crossing my arms and leaning back against the kitchen wall. I didn't have to worry about keeping my voice down this time, because the two guards were unconscious, tied up, and stuffed in the bathtub. I think Trowa and Heero, who the guards had dubbed as the easiest marks out of all of us, had taken special pleasure in getting close to them, and then smashing their heads against the walls. And considering the guard had just changed, we now had a four hour time window to get to Zechs before our escape was discovered.

"What do you mean?" Heero growled. I knew my lover hated surprises – hell, he'd probably pick out and wrap his own present than get something unexpected – but I didn't have time to coddle him. He was going to have to come around to the idea of having backup, and come around quick.

"Look, honestly? We have about a snowball's chance in hell of getting all of us out of here without help. Shinigami, remember? I've tried to escape more times than I can count, and I can only manage it maybe one out of ten times. And that's me, alone, and without the Owner's favorite pet along with us. Zechs is big, he's probably going to be drugged, and he's not used to sneaking around. Plus, he was a Master for the last year, meaning he's going to stick out like a sore thumb down in the bowels of this ship. And that's assuming I can find a craft that's leaving any time soon that has room enough for the six of us to hide on. So, yeah, our chances are pretty slim."

"So why would you let us go through with this?" Quatre squealed, his eyes wide and frightened at the implications of being caught after what we'd just done. For better or worse, we were committed to this now, and I forced myself to take a breath and calm down before continuing.

"Because a chance at freedom, however small it is, is still better than watching Zechs die. Because… Because even if..." and here I had to reach out and take hold of Heero's hand, because the thought was painful even to contemplate. "Even if we don't all make it out, at least we will have tried."

"We will all make it out," Wufei said, the steel of determination in his voice as he settled a hand on my shoulder. "I wouldn't have let us start this if I didn't think we had a chance. We can use the vidphone to contact Zechs' unit for help, then sneak him down to the docking bay to await rescue. It might be dangerous, but I know we can manage it."

"Will they come?" Trowa asked then, his voice deep and even, but I could tell by how closely he kept Quatre that he was scared. "How do we know that they will risk retrieving their operative once he's compromised?"

"If they took all the trouble of sending him in, they will be prepared to retrieve him," Wufei countered, and I could see that the thought had never even dawned on him, that the organization might sacrifice Zechs if it was easier for them.

"It doesn't matter," I found myself saying. "If they won't help us, then we'll do it ourselves, against all the odds. Fuck 'em! We've come through worse shit together, and we're not going to give up now!"

"We should probably contact them and see if they will help before you decide to do it on your own," Heero said, bringing me back down to reality. He was good at grounding me, my lover, and not for the first time I was glad to have his influence before I ran off to do something stupid.

"Sure," I teased, "if you want to do it the easy way."

So Wufei grabbed the vid from its hiding place and punched in the access code, and by this point in the night I don't think any of us were terribly surprised to see Sally's face pop up on the screen.

"Wufei?" she said, shocked and then suspicious. "How did you get this number," she asked, peering into the screen and trying to get a glimpse behind him. She looked haggard, with bags under her eyes. She was in her night clothes, and it looked like we had woke her from a pretty deep sleep. Time had little meaning in Collar, but I had to assume that it was somewhere near the asscrack of dawn where she was.

"Zechs gave it to me. Listen, this is important. Zechs has been captured by the Owner. Apparently they used to have a… relationship, and it has made Zechs valuable to him."

"Are we secure?" she asked, and I could tell she was taking a risk by talking to us.

"We have secured the perimeter, and this is the Owner's private line. It will not be tapped."

Her face was guarded now, her words measured. Something didn't ring true with it, but I couldn't figure out what.

"We are aware that Zechs has been… compromised. We are sending a team to retrieve the agent."

"But we don't know what state he is in. It could be too late by then."

"Wait…" she hesitated, confused now. "Why don't you know what state Zechs is in?"

"Our contact with him has been limited since he became the Owner's property."

"He separated you?" she asked, alarmed now.

"Of course. Why wouldn't he?"

"And Zechs allowed this?" she asked urgently, her face confused and troubled.

"What would Zechs be able to do to stop it?"

"I just…" she said, then hesitated again. "I thought…"

And then it clicked.

"You thought since Zechs and Treize used to be fuckbuddies, Zechs would be able to get away with whatever he wanted and keep us with him, right?"

Wufei rounded on me, shocked by my accusations and vulgarity both, but Sally's even stare told me I was right.

"It wasn't like that," she denied, but she couldn't deny the facts as they were.

"Look, lady, I don't give a shit what it was like," I hissed, pushing Wufei out of the way and taking the vidphone from him so that I could go nose-to-nose with our good friend Sally. "All I know is that you assholes knew all along who the Owner was and what Zechs meant to him. And instead of warning him about the situation, you threw him into it without a clue in hopes that the Owner would surface and snatch him up. You fucking used him as bait, and now he's being eaten alive!"

I was yelling then, and Wufei snatched the device out of my hands while Heero held me back and tried to calm me. But the blood was pounding in my ears, and all I could think was, "Those fucking bastards!"

By the time I had calmed, Wufei was ripping into Sally, just as furious over the betrayal as I was. But, finally, Sally broke through the outrage.

"Listen to me or Zechs will die!" she shouted, and it was enough to make Wufei hesitate and for me to come back to the conversation. "I need you all to get to Zechs, now! The rescue party is on its way, but they are honed in on the tracking devices that I implanted in you five!"

"Tracking devices don't work on Collar. Nothing does," Wufei protested.

There was a pregnant pause that made me think again that Sally was telling us far more than she was supposed. Then eventually she simply said, "These do."

"So why can't your team retrieve him and bring him to us?" Heero asked, always the one for the logical questions.

"Because he refused to get one. He thought it was too conspicuous, and I couldn't convince him otherwise." Here she looked pained, biting her lip as she contemplated her actions. I was pretty well in "fuck you" mode, though, and couldn't find it in me to be sympathetic for her. "I never thought it would be an issue, because I didn't think he'd be separated from you boys. But he needs you now!"

"We'll find him," I promised gravely, taking the vid from Wufei once again. "We'll find Zechs for you and we'll even let you get us out of here. But as soon as we're free of this place, I'm gonna do my damndest to make sure you and your cronies never get near him again."

And this time I really did pull back and let it fly, smashing the phone into a million pieces against the wall.

There was a shocked silence in the room, until Heero finally broke it by snorting.

"We could have used that," he chided. "Asked her more questions about who Zechs is working for and get a sense of what we're in for."

"What does it matter? It's not like we've got another choice," I defended. "Fuck it. Let's go get Zechs."

"Just like that?" Quatre wondered as I headed for the door. "Shouldn't we have a plan or something?"

"What for? We know where Zechs is, let's go get him."

"The plan," Heero interrupted, "is to dress Trowa and myself as guards and escort Quatre and Wufei to Treize's chambers. Duo will climb into the air vents and create a small, let me repeat small, diversion in the lower levels, and then climb up to join us in Treize's rooms. Chances are good that Treize will want to respond to the emergency in person, so Zechs will be alone and unguarded. We can sneak in and secure Zechs, then move him to the docking bays and wait for a retrieval."

"Or… yeah. We could do that."

Heero just smirked at me.

"Then I suppose the next logical step would be to get the guards out of their uniforms and make sure they'll fit well enough," Trowa put in, turning toward the door. Quatre followed closely behind, still off balance from his treatment at Treize's hands and the potential danger we all now faced. Heero kissed me and then followed, but I knew he could tell from my tension that I wasn't through yet. I called to Wufei before he could follow them, and as the other three disappeared around the corner in the bedroom my knuckles connected with Wufei's cheek.

Don't let it be said that Wufei is anybody's bitch. He came back up from the hit with eyes fierce and blazing, his own hands fisted and ready to strike back. But he also knows when to take his licks, and he stopped himself short of actually striking back.

"What was that for?" he snarled, but I wasn't about to rise to his anger and turn this into a fistfight. Instead, I sauntered forward until we were nose to nose.

"You should have told us," I accused quietly. "Zechs treats us all like kids, but you know better. You should have told us as soon as you found out, instead of waiting until it was almost too late."

"I…" he hesitated, then lowered his head. "I should have told you all when I first found out. I was hoping Zechs would see reason and give me more information. I didn't want to upset any of you or give you a reason to mistrust him. But these are all excuses, and my actions were inexcusable. I apologize," he said, and bowed to me. When he came back up, I slung an arm over the shoulder and kissed him on the forehead, both because I knew he'd hate it and because I didn't want this between us right now. Not when we were going into battle, and one of us might not make it back.

"It's cool," I found myself saying, pulling him with me as we went to meet up with Heero and the others. "Nobody's perfect, and family always forgives."

197 Zechs

"They're coming for you."

"Who?" I wondered, slowly turning to look at Treize across the room. I was still angry over the incident with Quatre, but there was something in his voice that made me look at him. That, and the fact that he had dosed me again with whatever drug had been in my iv, was making everything seem distant and unimportant.

"Don't play coy with me," he warned, but there was no edge to his voice. "I know your team is coming to get you. And, most likely, so are your boys."

He crossed the room then, in long, intimidating strides, until he knelt just in front of me.

"Will you be my downfall?" he wondered, stroking his knuckles across my cheek. "It's a risk having you here, but worth it in the long run, I think. There was no other way to find out how compromised my enterprise has been, than to play directly into their trap. And now I simply have to sit back and wait for the trap to close, and we'll see who is caught in the end," he said cryptically.

"I don't understand," I protested, his message baffling especially in my state of mind, but he just smiled and leaned in to kiss me.

"Of course you don't," he replied, and I could tell that he didn't believe me. There was a noise then, an urgent rapping at the door, and he separated from me.

"Enter," he called, and a guard stepped hastily inside, letting the door slide quickly closed behind him. "Let me guess," Treize continued, throwing me an amused and yet again baffling look as he said, "I suppose there's some kind of emergency. In the lower bays, I presume."

"There… Yes," the guard said, and finally someone looked at least as confused as I was. "Someone has set fire to your personal shuttle. It… It seems to be a personal attack on your character. Someone managed to write… to write 'fuckface rapist asshole' across your jet in flames."

"Ah," Treize said, but it was still with an amused undertone. "I don't suppose I should guess who could possibly be so brazen as to write that," he said, rolling his eyes toward me with that same amused smile. "I suppose I'll just go respond in person, then, shall I?" he said, placing his hands in his pockets and sauntering towards the door. "Don't try anything while I'm gone," he called as the door closed behind him.

Leaving only me and the equally baffled guard behind.

"You… don't know what all that was about, do you?" the guard asked me. He was dark haired and obviously young. I shook my head, uncertain if I was allowed to respond verbally. "I suppose I should… follow him, then."

And then it was just me.

But not for long.

Moments after the young guard had departed, two guards with hats pulled low over their faces marched Quatre and Wufei into the room. I blame the drugs for it taking me a moment longer to realize it was Heero and Trowa in the guard uniforms.

"What are you doing here?" I yelped, leaping unsteadily from my seat on the sofa to come to the four slaves, kneeling in front of Quatre. Dressed and in the presence of the other boys, he looked almost nothing like the scared teen that had run out of these rooms hours ago, but he came into my embrace just as quickly. "Where's Duo?" I asked, my arms still full of Quatre but my eyes scanning for the long-haired teen.

"He's creating an undoubtedly large and brazen distraction," Heero answered as I rose to my feet. I went to him, and then Trowa, needing to touch their skin and reassure myself that they alright, despite being right in front of me. "He should be joining us any time."

"And then what?" I wondered, and by now I was face-to-face with Wufei, so my question was posed to him. My arms came to his shoulders to lean on him for balance. Of its own accord, my hand went to his face, my thumb stroking his cheek. If only for a moment, I couldn't deny myself the small comfort.

"And then…" he hesitated, looking guiltily from me to the other boys and then back again. "Then we await rescue."

"Rescue?" I wondered, pulling away from him in surprise and nearly falling as the world shifted under me. "What rescue? You mean…" I was more livid than I had thought the drugs would allow, and had to take a deep breath to calm myself. "You told them?" I growled.

"Yes. They deserve to know. They…" But I cut him off before he could build himself into a righteous frenzy.

"They are in danger now," I growled. "He'll think they're agents! We need to get all of you back, now, and hide this! You don't know what kind of danger you're all in!"

"We're not children, damn you!" Wufei snarled. "They were willing to take that risk for you!"

"You don't know what you're talking about! He won't let this go!" I yelled, adrenaline surging in me as I tried to figure out how I could possibly cover this up, could put it back to the way it was, and keep them safe from Treize.

"Master, please," Quatre begged, and his hand on my arm made me stop. "We wanted to help with the rescue," Quatre he said, and it broke my heart to have to be the one to crush his hopes.

"Boys… There isn't going to be a rescue. There wasn't an escape plan, because no one thought I would be caught. I'm sorry."

But now it was their turn to look confused, casting questioning glances between each other.

"Zechs," came Wufei finally. "There is a rescue. We talked to Sally, and she said to find you because there is a team on the way."

"There's… But there can't be. They'll never be able to get into the satellite, it's a virtual fortress."

"So… she lied?"

"On the contrary," came a chilling voice from the door way, and all of us jumped. I stepped between Wufei and Treize, putting myself between him and my boys as he stepped into the room and closed the door. He'd been lying in wait, then, for my slaves. That was what all the half-covered implications had been; he thought I'd asked them to come to me.

"I have full confidence that an extraction team is on the way," he continued. "A second team that has been in my games for just as long, or perhaps even longer than you. They are your rescue party, and they aren't here to break into the satellite, but to break you out. And possibly take me with you."

"Another…" I was shocked, unable to even make the words for my questions. Another team? What did that mean? Why hadn't I been told? What were they for? Who were they? The questions rolled in my head but I could find no single thought to anchor them. The drugs in my system were warring with the stress I was under, and I found myself growing nauseous. When I managed to center myself, I was surprised to find that Treize had moved and was now peering at my face, his nose only inches from my own.

"I had thought…" his voice trailed, his eyes searching mine for sincerity. "I had thought you knew. But I suppose it was easier for them to leave you in the dark." His fingers trailed over my jaw and up my cheek. "It's better this way. I would hate to have all your hopes riding on this, only to have to crush them."

He backed away then, his eyes trailing over the four slaves behind me with an approving light.

"It was a good plan, boys," he told them. "Should I expect the Shinigami soon? I assume that he's finished with his demolition now that he's desecrated my shuttle."

"Duo won't be as easily caught," Heero warned, but Treize only smiled.

"Oh, I think he'll come right to me if I have the four of you here. He's probably already watching," Treize said, then glanced inexplicably towards the ceiling. "and if he doesn't want something to happen to one of his little friends," Treize said, then grabbed Quatre twisted his arm behind his back, "he'll make an appearance," Treize finished expectantly. When nothing happened, he twisted, causing Quatre to squeal. I was on my feet and ready to intercede when I heard the shuffling in the ceiling and an echoed, "Alright!" before Duo kicked out the cover to the air vent and dropped out of the ceiling. Covered in dust, with his hair freed from its usual braid and tangled in a mess behind him, Duo looked nearly savage as he glared at Treize with murder in his eyes. But Treize only smiled and shoved Quatre back toward Trowa.

"So this is the full five of them?" Treize said, surveying the group. "You would have made an excellent tactical squad. Too bad Zechs has managed to turn you from fighting dogs into house pets. But I suppose there are some benefits," he said as he approached Duo, twining his fingers through a strand of Duo's loose hair, "to having such talented, lovely young men warming my bed."

"I'm not warming anything for you," Duo snarled, but it still couldn't shake Treize's calm. Instead, he smiled savagely.

"We'll see," he replied, and I was alarmed that Treize seemed to be enjoying the challenge.

But then, thankfully, he backed away and turned to address the group.

"I'm not surprised you managed to get past my guards, as skilled as you are, but I want you to know that whatever clemency I extend to you now for your actions applies only to what has happened prior to when you arrived here."

"Clemency?" I wondered, and had to seat myself on the couch, because my head was spinning.

"Well, I'm not going to punish your slaves for their… willfulness before I've had time to train them." And his attention was back on Duo again. "And I will enjoy training them."

Duo bristled, but amazingly held enough common sense to hold his tongue.

"What are you saying?" Wufei cut in, who was just as on edge as Duo.

"I'm saying that I will give you on chance, here and now, to swear loyalty to me. If you do, I can promise that you will stay alive and stay together with Zechs. I will forgive any transgressions you have made today, and I will mold you all into exemplary soldiers and slaves for my use and my pleasure. If you refuse, I can guarantee that you will not leave this room alive, and your master will watch you die."

There was absolute silence in the room, and I had to put my head between my knees as another wave of nausea hit me.

"Yeah, fuck that shit," and that was Duo, obviously. "I didn't come all the way up here through your dirty air vents – and don't you have people to clean those? – just so I can give up and roll over for you, asshole."

"Duo," I warned, but it lacked conviction with my head between my knees.

"Fuck you too, Zechs, if you're just gonna let him walk all over you! We've come too far to let you give up now!"

"Is this some sort of stress reaction?" Treize wondered, and I wasn't too overwhelmed by dizziness to smile.

"No, this is pretty much how he is all the time," I replied, but Treize frowned. To him, the disrespect wasn't amusing and endearing. To someone who was used to total control, it was an outrage. "Treize," I called, trying to diffuse the arising situation, but Treize was already strolling toward my longhaired slave. Duo, though, wasn't one to be intimidated, and when Treize towered over him, Duo just threw his shoulders back and went nose to nose with the Owner.

"A slave under my care does not talk in such vulgar ways," Treize growled, but Duo just sneered.

"Good thing I'm not your fucking slave then, asshole."

198 Zechs

And I was on my feet as Treize reached for Duo, nearly falling again as Duo pulled back and landed a solid hit to Treize's jaw. Treize snarled, a trail of blood leaking down his chin, and I tried to get between them but I stumbled before I could get more than a step away from the couch, landing in a heap beside it. Quatre came to me, and I saw what Treize was about to do only a moment before he did. Unable to move, I shouted a warning to Duo and covered Quatre's eyes, but it was already too late. Treize had Duo by the wrist, and a fierce jerk in the wrong direction and the accompanying pops signaled that it had been broken in multiple places.

Duo screamed, then cursed a blue streak as Heero kicked Treize in the ribs, knocking him away from Duo and pulling his lover behind the couch for shielding. I tried to shove Quatre behind the couch but my coordination was still off. Luckily Trowa had the same idea and took Quatre from me, dragging him behind the couch with Duo. By the time he returned and helped me to my feet, Treize had also recovered.

"I see all your slaves are wayward as the Shinigami," Treize laughed, wiping the smear of blood from his face. "I will enjoy teaching all of them some manners," he said viciously, eyeing Heero and Duo. But it was Wufei who stepped forward and said enough.

"Do we really have to dance to this tune again?" Treize asked, his confident smirk unshaken in the face of Wufei's barely contained rage. "After all, we both know how this ends."

"It isn't the same," Wufei countered, his eyes flicking to me for just a moment before turning back to Treize. "I have something to fight for this time, and I won't let you take that from me."

"Don't act to noble, Wufei," Treize sneered. "Don't forget that you're the one who sold him out to me. You're the one who doubted, and they're all paying for it now."

I could tell from the stillness in Trowa that this should have shocked me, but I was barely keeping up with the conversation. My eyes were aching and I leaned my face against Trowa's chest, and I could feel him looking at me with worry even as I heard Duo in the background saying, "What the fuck, Wufei? You fucking sold us out?"

"I made an error in judgment," Wufei replied tersely. "That I now regret. Had I won Collar, this might have been avoided. Or things might have been worse. I made the decision I thought best at the time, and now we will deal with the consequences."

"Yeah, tell that to my broken fucking arm."

"Enough!" Treize snarled, and there was the sound of a blade being unsheathed. I looked back in time to see Treize tossing a blade to Wufei. "Sword fighting was your best skill, correct? Well, your strongest fighting skill," Treize teased, but Wufei was too angry to be embarrassed. Instead, he struck out, and as the swords clashed together I felt a drop of moisture on my sleeve, and looked down to see blood. My hand came to my face and I realized that my nose was bleeding. I brought my sleeve up to cover it, hoping that at least if I was too sick to help Wufei I wouldn't be a distraction to him.

Another clash of blades brought me back to the fight, and I could see that Wufei was holding his own valiantly, but that Treize was still a larger, stronger opponent. Wufei was quick, but Treize was experienced and he was giving no quarter.

"If I had known it would make you this fierce, it's have given you to another master long ago," Treize said, pinning Wufei against a wall, their swords crossed and scraping against each other. "I haven't seen this much fire in you since I first bested you."

"This time I'll burn you, you bastard!" Wufei screamed, throwing Treize off of him. Treize stumbled, but recovered gracefully and rushed Wufei again. I got lost in their movements, the swing and parry, the clang of the swords, and time began to slip by. By the time I realized that I was beginning to lose consciousness, Wufei and Treize were both covered in sweat, a small wound on Treize's thigh and several similar ones on Wufei's arms.

And I realized, with a start, that the blood from my nose didn't seem to be slowing, and it had soaked through my sleeve and was now dribbling down my arm. Even with all his attention on the fight, Trowa could not overlook the liquid dropping onto his chest, and he turned to me and cursed. Ripping a piece from his borrowed uniform, Trowa called for Heero, who carefully slipped around the fighting pair to come to me. Together they lowered me to the floor, allowing me to rest against the overturned couch, and Quatre slipped around from behind the couch to help hold me up.

"What the hell happened?" Heero asked, peering into my eyes. I tried to speak for a moment before I realized that he hadn't been asking me.

"I don't know," Trowa replied. "He seemed drugged when he came in, but he didn't actually hurt himself. I was watching to make sure he didn't. Maybe he's having a bad reaction?"

"Is he going to be okay?" Quatre asked, but Heero ignored him, because I think they both knew that something was very wrong with me.

"Wufei!" Heero shouted, "better move this along," he advised, and I knew that Wufei would simply nod even though I couldn't see the fight around Heero.

"What the hell is going on?" Duo shouted from the other side of the room.

"Zechs is… sick. We need to get him out of here as soon as possible."

"This is all your fault, asshole!" Duo shouted at Treize, unable to get in his face with his arm broken like it was. "Can't you even take care of one fucking slave? No wonder your whole enterprise is going under!"

There was a knocking at the door then, and a shout of, "Preventers!" Treize faltered for a moment, and I don't think he expected them to make it so far so soon. But then he smiled again, his confidence back, and he said, "It seems it is time to end this game."

And then he lunged at Wufei. His sword pointed at Wufei's chest, and Wufei wasn't quick enough to bring his sword up, and then it was too late because Treize's sword was only inches from Wufei's body and he couldn't block it then anyway. I pulled myself to my knees and screamed, but there was nothing I could do.

But in those last final moments before the blade would have pierced his heart, Wufei took a page out of Duo's book and dropped to the floor, sliding between Treize's legs, and leaving Treize's sword nothing to find but thin air. And from the floor between Treize's feet Wufei made his move, thrusting his blade straight up and through Treize's chest.

They hovered like that for a moment, with Wufei flat on his back and supporting most of Treize's weight on the end of his blade, with Treize impaled and gushing blood down Wufei's sword and arm, until finally Treize fell to the side, the blade coming out of his chest as Wufei refused to release his hold.

Duo whooped and I smiled, knowing that my boys were now safe. But that was all I could manage. And as the rescue team, whoever they were, broke down the door and came flooding in, I let myself fall to the floor.

"Zechs!" Wufei screamed, dashing to me. Another, strangely familiar voice yelled, "Commander!" and then there were two sets of arms rolling me over and sitting me up.

But the face I saw when my vision cleared made me cringe, and I shoved him away as harshly as possible. I caught his scent and heaved, my slaves gathering protectively around me as they sensed my turmoil. Had I been able, I would have jumped to my feet and run through the bastard who had seen me at my lowest, and had taken advantage of that. I could still taste him in my mouth, still feel the burn of humiliation, and that alone gave me the strength to maintain consciousness.

"You bastard!" I snarled as Saiya fell back, his dark eyes impassive. "Get away from me!"

"Who are you?" Wufei hissed, leveling his blood-covered blade at the intruder.

"Listen to me," Saiya said, and I stilled only because his hands were held harmlessly at his sides, and his slaves too were forming a protective ring behind him. "I know you don't remember me fondly, and I apologize for any harm I may have caused you," he said, then paused and cast an appealing glance at my slaves. "But I am the other agent preventers sent, and like it or not I am here to rescue you. I've already neutralized Argo, Rebbekka, and Tanion. Now that Treize is finished, we can evacuate you and your team. You have to believe me, I'm on your side."

"Prove it," I demanded, but I knew it was true even before he read me the secret code for infiltration missions. "You can't be an agent," I denied, but I knew already that it was true.

"When I saw you at Treize's side, I thought my cover had been blown," Saiya explained hurriedly, as though it was important that I know, now, his motives, "I thought that Treize had brought me there to let you expose me. When you didn't recognize me, I still couldn't be sure that Treize didn't suspect a link, so I… played my role. I'm sorry it had to happen to you, Commander," he apologized, and was it unfair of me to think he'd gone too far? To hope that this, perhaps, was outside of what my supervisors would allow?

But I was still reeling from the shock, and the next words left my mouth thoughtlessly, and opened doors that I really would have preferred left shut.

"Why would preventers send another team after me? Why send a decoy without telling me?"

And there was guilt in Saiya's eyes, just a glimmer, and that told me everything I needed to know.

"You weren't a decoy, then," I said steadily, trying to maintain my calm and accept the facts as they were. "I was."

"I'm sorry, Commander. The head of the mission knew who the Owner was, knew your relationship with him, and thought they could use you to lure him out."

"Bait, then. Even better."

"They felt that it was better if you weren't aware of the situation, in case he compromised you, sir," he said, and the tone was respectful enough but I could see the cogs turning in his head. I could see him trying to match up the slave that had sucked his cock like a whore and the commander who had been on battle fields and in surgery tents both. And I could see that he'd never be able to respect me as a commander again, no matter what he might say about motives and situations.

"You mean in case I fell back in love with my old partner and sold out Preventers, is that what you mean?" I snarled, and the words burned in my throat. Treize must have known how naive I was. If I had truly had any information for him, would I have been able to withhold it? The fact that I was doubting myself was reason enough to believe that the Preventers' had made the right choice, but the betrayal burned just the same.

"I do not know the reasons they had for sending into the mission half-informed, sir, but I was not notified of this development until after you had already been introduced at Collar," he said.

"Because they're absolute bastards," came a wheezy, wet voice from across the room. I turned to find that Treize had managed to prop himself up, despite the wound in his chest, and was listening avidly to our conversation. "I should have known it was you. It was too much of a coincidence that two of our most recent additions rose through the ranks the way you two did. Tell me, Zechs, after hearing all this, are you sure you're still working for the right side?" he asked, then began to cough up blood.

"We defeated you, didn't we?" Saiya sneered, but it only made Treize laugh.

"You think you've won, and maybe you have, but you'll never celebrate victory with him."

"Why not?" Wufei snarled, surprising everyone by jumping up to loom over Treize. "Why would you say that?" Wufei screamed, but Treize laughed until Wufei planted his foot on the wound on Treize's chest and pressed his weight down.

"Because…" Treize gasped, then choked on blood. "Because I've been dosing him with a chemical compound that breaks down his nervous system. If I can't have him, no one will!" he shouted, his body convulsing and blood spurting from his mouth as he choked on his last breath. His face turned toward me, and I could tell that he was dying.

"I'll see you on the other side, my love," he told me, and then the light faded from his eyes.

"I'll meet you in hell," I promised, and the light began to fade for me too.

199 Wufei

For a long time, we thought he would die.

In the ship, he went into convulsions. I held him while his body shook, while Heero and Trowa tried to restrain his flailing limbs, and while Quatre tried restrain a panicking Duo.

"He can't die!" Duo shouted, like denying it would somehow make it true. "He can't die! Not now! Not when we've finally won!"

"You're not helping!" I yelled back at him, flinching as Zechs' arm came free of Heero's grip and smashed me across the face. There was a tear on my lip from my fight with Treize and it easily came open again, the salty tang of blood flooding my mouth. But I ignored it, holding tighter to Zechs torso as Heero grasped the wayward limb.

"Fuck you, Wufei!" Duo snarled, and it didn't help much that I knew he was half delirious from the pain of his injuries. "He's going to die and you're not even doing anything about it!"

"He's not…" I started, but stopped myself. I wanted to assure him that Zechs would not die, that he would recover and everything would be fine. But my lips wouldn't form the words, because I didn't know if I believed it myself. And this time, the lie would simply be too painful. "We're doing everything we can," I said in a calmer tone, but it wasn't enough for Duo. Instead, he rounded on our self-proclaimed saviors.

"And you fucks! You rescued him, so fucking save him!" Duo yelled.

"There isn't anything we can do until we touch down on earth," their leader explained. "We don't know what he's been on, so there's nothing we can give him. We don't know how our drugs might interact with the one already in his system."

"So we just have to watch him die?"

"He's stabilized as much as possible for now," Saiya denied. "There's a medical team set to meet us as soon as we touch down. Now just calm down and try to let the pain meds kick in."

"Fuck you and your pain meds," Duo growled, but it lacked the venom it had only moments before, and I could tell that the pain from his arm was numbing as the drugs Saiya had administered kicked in. Quatre shushed him, leaning over to pull Duo into an embrace as he settled. The spasms in Zechs seemed to be abating as well, and while I wasn't sure if I could take that as a good sign, I allowed myself to relax my hold incrementally.

Silence fell then, over the five of us and Saiya and his six slaves, all of us scattered on the floor of an old transport ship. It was so basic that it didn't even have seats for more than the pilot and copilot, which Saiya and one of his slaves occupied. The rest of it was bare steel walls and riveted floors, meant only to transport cargo or, in some cases, human cattle. But it seemed sturdy enough, and it flew quickly and silently. In the front window, I could see other, military-looking ships passing by, headed presumably for the unprotected satellite. But we were headed away from the battle, and inside the ship it was practically still.

The only noise was Zechs' labored breathing, wet and wheezy from the blood running down his nasal passages. He'd gone pale, his skin nearly translucent and his hair looking waxen and white. His face was drawn and pained, his body rigid. He was fighting his last battle, valiantly, but unlike mine he fought his alone.

A tear slipped down my shoulder, but I wiped it away before the others could see. I wouldn't be able to stand it if they gave up hope. Because that was pretty much all that was left.

Had I made another wrong decision? Doubting myself now was pointless, but the thought kept creeping into my mind. Would it have been better to leave him with Treize? Certainly it would have been a nightmarish hell for us, but was it truly worse than a world without him? If he would sacrifice himself for us in that manner, what did it say that we had not done the same?

"It would have killed him anyway," came Quatre's voice from across the ship. I looked up to find him staring at me, and I realized with a start that he had been off his meds for several days now, and was strongly empathic.

"You don't know that," I denied, but it was Quatre who shook his head.

"He was failing even before Treize gave him this drug. Maybe he would have lived under that monster, but he would not have been the master we knew, and he would not have wanted to be alive."

"But he wouldn't be…" and then I stopped myself, because the word "dying" was too painful to even utter, and I almost sobbed at the thought of it. But Quatre could sense my distress and tried to comfort me.

"Be happy, Wufei. You've destroyed the monster that enslave us all."

"Yes, but did I sacrifice my prince to do it?"

"No," and this denial came from Heero, who had curled himself at Zechs' side now that the spasms had abated, and had laced his fingers with Zechs' unresponsive ones. "He will live. Your doubt and self-pity will not change that."

"I wasn't…" I started, then colored when I realized how self-serving I must have sounded. Of course I wouldn't leave Zechs with Treize. I knew from experience that it would be better to be dead than at the mercy of that bastard. "I'm sorry. I'm just… worried."

"We all are," Heero said, taking his other hand and lacing his fingers with mine, which instinctively tightened and clutched at his. "But you have to believe that he will be alright. That he'll pull through, for us."

Trowa, curled on the other side in a similar fashion, nodded his head sagely.

I allowed myself to relax for a moment, feeling a spark of hope, but it wasn't to be. In the next instant, Zechs couch and another spasm took him, and it was all I could do to hold on and ride it out with him. By the end he was gasping again, his heartbeat weak and unsteady.

"Bring him up here," Saiya called, and motioned for his slave to vacate the copilot seat. "There are oxygen masks built into the overhead in case of a hull breach. It might help him breathe more easily," Sayia offered, and then rose to help us, but Heero stood and blocked his way.

"We can handle it," Heero said, and I thought for a moment that Saiya might protest, but eventually he nodded and sat back down. Gently, almost reverently, Heero and Trowa lifted Zechs, one on either side, and carried him to the copilot's chair and strapped him in. Saiya pulled the oxygen mask out of the overhead, but I took it from him before he could place it on Zechs' face. With a quick breath to make sure it was working, I placed it over Zechs' face.

He hardly looked alive, then. Strapped into the chair so well that even a seizure wouldn't pull him free, it was hard to even see his chest moving as he breathed. And with his ashen skin and his face and chest covered in his own blood, the rest of him hardly looked living. Like a corpse we'd decided to dress up like a marionette, and I bent to kiss his cheek because I couldn't stand to look any longer.

"You should sit down," Saiya cautioned, motioning for me to return to the floor with the others. "We'll be landing soon and you might fall on him."

And the implication that I could hurt him again had me returning to the floor against my instincts. I still didn't trust Saiya, didn't like the way Zechs had reacted to him, didn't know if he was truly going to help us. Zechs had gone with him willingly, and so we wouldn't try to escape from him, but I didn't feel right about him. But perhaps it was simply that he had saved Zechs, where I had nearly killed him.

I settled beside Heero and Trowa, pulling my knees to my chest and trying to replace Zechs' warmth. Duo had passed out from the stress and the meds, and Quatre was nodding off above him. Even Saiya's team was succumbing to the quiet, and I saw the group of three across from me slowly slip into sleep. So it wasn't until Heero fell into my lap, unconscious, that I began to suspect something was amiss. My eyes went to Saiya to find that he had donned the second oxygen mask, fully alert and awake. It was only then that I realized he had lowered the oxygen content in the cabin. I had only a moment to feel a sharp stab of fear, and then I was succumbing to the darkness myself.

I awoke in a small white room, lying on a padded cot. I rose immediately, my eyes searching for the others and finding them lying on identical cots, three lined up against each wall and one empty. Nothing had changed since we'd fallen unconscious in the plane except that Duo's shirt had been removed and his arm had been set in a cast. Still, it set my teeth on edge, that these people had knocked us out and maneuvered us against our will.

And Zechs was conspicuously absent.

There was a chair at the front of the room, and seated in it was Sally, looking over a palm computer in her hands. There was nothing else in the room except for the imposing brown door and the stark, overhead lighting.

"Where's Zechs?" I said, and it reverberated in the nearly empty room. Sally's eyes snapped up to meet mine, but they were tired and strained.

"He's stable. We have him in an intensive care unit and he's in bad shape, but he's stabilized and is not in immediate danger."

"Your agent knocked us out," I accused, and she hesitated.

"Agent Sai felt that it would be better if you were not awake when we came to transport Zechs. He felt that you would be confused and agitated, and try to prevent us from taking Zechs for treatment. He made the right call, Wufei. Any longer, and we might not have been able to save him."

I wanted to deny that, but Heero was awake now, and had gone to Duo to rouse him.

"Duo was sedated more heavily than the rest of you so that we could mend his arm," Sally cautioned, "He might not wake yet, or he might be groggy."

"Tell 'er to fuck off."

"Or he might be his usual self," she commented quietly, but there was a flicker of a smile.

"'Ro? Was goin' on?"

"We're safe. Sally fixed your arm, that's why you feel weird."

"Where's Zechs?"

"He's safe," Heero said, perching himself on Duo's cot and helping the braided boy to sit up. "Sally was just telling us that he's in stable condition," Heero explained, and attention, including the attention of recently awakened Quatre and Trowa, turned back to Sally. She composed herself quickly and began to speak.

"So, let me go over some things before you begin to ask questions. Firstly, Zechs, myself, and Agent Sai are all members of a government organization that was sent to infiltrate and disband Collar. You are all officially free men."

And that notice should have held something for me, some joy or excitement. But with Zechs' state of health looming in my mind, there was nothing but a hollow resonance that I was, perhaps, alone in this now. Without our leader, would we all be separated?

"Your records will be returned, your families will be notified, and your identities will be verified in cases of faked deaths."

"What if we don't want our families notified?" Quatre blurted, covering his mouth when it was too late to take back. Sally contemplated him for a moment, and I could see that the question had taken her off guard. It was possible that the process of notifying kin had already begun.

"We… will have to discuss that at length. The organization was under the assumption that many of you were kidnapped, and your families would be happy to take you back."

"Your organization has been taking a lot of liberties with us lately," I chided. "Almost as many as Treize's did." And she flinched as if she'd been slapped, but then grew angry, flicking her computer onto the empty bed to her left.

"Look, Wufei, I know you're not happy about how this organization has been treating you, and I know some of that stems from the fact that we kept Zechs in the dark about the other team. But let me tell you something; he volunteered for this mission. We didn't force him to go into it, and we didn't agree to tell him everything before he went. He would have gladly died for you to be free, and he almost did. Now I have my own feelings of guilt about everything that Zechs was put through, and when he gets better I'll deal with him on my own. But I don't need you or anyone else giving attitude and making things worse. I've already got my hands full trying to figure out how to talk to over a thousand terrified slaves who think this is all some big mind fuck. Not to mention finding the ones who weren't on the satellite. So you want to blame me? Fine. But I'm doing my best, and I don't need your attitude."

That silenced me. Perhaps not the part about my attitude, but somehow her honest admission of guilt did more to silence my feelings of unease than anything else. The way Zechs had been treated was not behavior I expected from Sally, and her admittance that she regretted it helped to quell my fear that perhaps I did not know her well enough.

"Now," she continued, picking her computer back up. "I know this is a big change for everyone, and I know there will be issues," she said, and her eyes slipped to Quatre. "But we will do our best to respect your wishes. I've verified all of your ages and filed for new or replacement citizenship documentation. But the point is, you are all adults, capable of making your own decisions. Whatever path this organization tries to set you on, it's all your decision."

"All of us?" and this was Quatre again, looking shaken since his family had been mentioned.

"I know it's impossible to keep track of these things in your circumstances, but you have all lost a few years somewhere. Quatre, you're the youngest, but you'll turn 19 this year. So, yes, you're all adults, and no one can force you into anything."

"And the ones that are younger?" Trowa asked, his quiet voice piercing the room.

"We're… not entirely sure yet. Technically they should all be returned to their families, but we're not sure their families will be able to cope with the level of abuse they've suffered. Many of them are orphans or runaways, right on the cusp of adulthood anyway. We've been thinking of boarding the ones without homes or with the worst of abuse somewhere until they are stable."

"And us?" I questioned.

"You five are fairly well rehabilitated already because of Zechs. Until he awakens, or until you decide to leave, we were going to return you to his property and allow you to stay with the other slaves in his possession. Because none of you are in immediate danger, we did not want to move you until we've rescued the more critical cases."

"And what of Zechs?" I found myself asking, my mouth going dry. "When will he awaken? Will he awaken at all?"

There was silence in the room, and Sally contemplated the bed to her left sadly. I didn't know what could be so fascinating about the empty white sheets until she said, "This room was set up for the six of you. You five boys, and Zechs. It wasn't until he arrived here that I realized how cruel Treize had been to him."

She turned to me then, her eyes watery.

"I never thought Treize was that sort of person. Never thought he'd do those things to a person he loved. No one was prepared for just how horrible Collar was. We all thought… It doesn't matter. Let me tell you about Zechs. The drugs that he was on… It's… It's a nasty cocktail in Zechs' system. This kind of toxin attacks the central nervous system. It pools in the extremities and slowly progresses to the torso, causing paralysis in first the limbs and then organs. Treize was feeding him both the poison and the neutralizing agent, probably hoping to use him as a bargaining chip. When he was finally taken out, it looks from the report like he decided he'd rather Zechs die with him. Without access to the neutralizing agent, Zechs' systems began to shut down. We've halted the progression, so he's stabilized now, but there's no way to tell how bad the damage is until he wakes up. He might be completely fine. But you need to be prepared for the worst. He might never walk again."

There was silence, then, as we all absorbed the fact that Zechs might not walk away from this unscarred. He had always seemed so strong to us, almost superhuman in his ability to control and overcome obstacles. The thought of him never waking or never walking was almost impossible to contemplate.

"Do you have any questions?" Sally asked.

I could think of only one.

"Can we see him?

200 Zechs

The world I woke up to was not the least bit the same.

It took me a long time to come back, that much I knew. There was a time, while I hovered on the edge of… something, that I wasn't sure I would be able. But I could feel Wufei by my side, holding me tight, and I couldn't leave that behind. More than anything, I wanted to awaken and kiss those lips one last time.

And the others. Duo's laughter. Quatre's kindness. Heero's strength. Trowa's beauty. I missed them all, but nothing more than Wufei's passion.

I heard snippets, eventually. Fighting. Not physical fights, but lots of yelling. And cursing, in Duo's case. I would have smiled, had I any control of the muscles of my face.

"…you can't stay here."

"We're not leaving him, Sally."

"My supervisors will have my head if they find you all sleeping in his room."

"Just give us a couple days. Not to offend, but we don't trust your men to bring us back. And Zechs does better when we're here."

"Fine. Fine. Do whatever you want. Never stopped any of you before anyway. But you only have a week!"

Darkness. Hours. Days. A television played. Meals came and went. I had confidence that Sally would keep my boys fed, even if it was hospital food. Sometimes my eyes were open and I could get a glimmer of the room or a face. More often they were closed and refused to open. There was a pounding in my head that grew when I was more aware, and dulled when I slept. I came to understand that I was being drugged with pain medicine for my recovery, and that the reduction of said meds might have made me more lucid, but probably would have made the aching in my head intolerable.

There was another fight, but this time the boys were more upset. Their anger hummed through me like a vibration in the room, and my eyes were open enough for me to catch a glimpse of hulking forms in the doorway.

"…here for Master Quatre! We will be taking him home!"

"Quatre does not wish to speak with you. When he does, he will contact you. As we have said multiple times before."

"Yeah, fuck off!"

"Duo! Quiet!"

"I do not believe Master Quatre would refuse to speak with us! You are holding him against his will!"

I felt pressure on my hand, and it was only then that I realized someone was squeezing it very hard.

"I'm going to have to be brave, aren't I?" came Quatre's quiet voice from beside me. "I'm going to have to face them before they attack Wufei."

I wished that I could encourage him, to tell him that he was braver and stronger than he thought and he could definitely tell the men off, or at least to reassure him that Wufei could handle his own if they attacked him. But I was silent, continuing to lie still as a corpse as the pressure on my hand eased and Quatre rose.

"I will not be going anywhere with you."

And was that my Quatre, sounding so confident and decisive? The hulking forms fell back a step from his presence, and I heard Trowa and Heero move to flank him.

"But Master Quatre, the family has been so worried."

"The family sold me! Or didn't my sister tell you that?" Quatre yelled, and I heard the large man fall back another step. There was quiet again, and I worried for a moment that I had fallen unconscious again and was missing the argument. But then Quatre's voice returned, calm once again. "I won't go back to my family until I know that everyone there is loyal to me. This man rescued me from the hell I was sold into, but I won't be so lucky again. This has been my family for the last year, and I am closer to them than to any of my blood relatives."

"I… understand, Master Quatre. I can see that you are not abused and afraid, as we were led to believe. We will leave you in peace, with the open invitation to return once you feel secure. And we will look into these… issues you have brought to our attention, and they will be brought to justice. I know you have been told of your father's passing, but I want you to know that the lion's share of your father's estate has been held in trust for you. When you feel capable, I hope you will return to claim it. Until then, may Allah watch over your friend's recovery."

And then the hulking forms retreated, and I was left with a blurry view of the empty doorway and no real way to tell how Quatre was doing. I needn't have worried, though, because Trowa guided Quatre to sit down beside me, and the fingers he laced with mine were shaky, but his grasp was firm. And as the sounds began to fade, I heard Trowa lean in and ask, "Who's Allah?"

The next time I opened my eyes there was no sound. Only the vision, perfectly clear, of Trowa in a woman's arms. And I knew from her clothing and from the way Trowa held her that this was the sister from the circus that he had told me of. It was obvious that she was ecstatic to see him, and I could tell from Quatre's stance that he felt threatened by her. But there was nothing I could do to intervene, and as my sight faded I saw Trowa introduce his sister to his lover. And my last vision was of the sister pulling Quatre into a hug, and Quatre finally relaxing.

Doctor's and nurse's voices became a constant drone in the background. I remember hearing Sally say, "His neuro-pathways are trying to rewire themselves around the damage. That's why he's having trouble coming around, why he fades in and out." But as hard as I tried, I couldn't remember when she'd said it, or who she'd been talking to.

I could remember Wufei talking on a vid with someone in low, angry tones in Mandarin, but this memory as well was out of sync with the others. It ended with Wufei throwing something, though whether it was the vid or something else I couldn't tell.

When I woke, really woke, it was the dead of night. No one was around, and it was the first time I had awoken alone. I tried to sit up, but my torso wouldn't cooperate. I managed to turn my head, and found that Wufei alone was sleeping next to my bed in one of the steel chairs. His hair was in disarray, matted and with several strands escaping his usual ponytail. His head was pillowed on his arms, but he roused when my head moved. There were deep bruises under his eyes, testament to how little sleep he'd been getting.

"Zechs?" he asked, rubbing at his eyes. "Are you awake?"

"I think so," I said, my voice gravely with disuse and Wufei grabbed a glass of water and held it to my lips.

"Just a little," he cautioned, pulling it away after I'd had a sip. "Sally said you might have trouble swallowing at first."

"Did she say what else I might have trouble with?"

"She… I should probably let her explain."

"It's alright, I've heard bits and pieces," I told him, trying to raise my hand. It moved, hovering only inches above the bed, but none of the fingers would close. Experimentally, I wiggled my toes. The feet themselves seemed stiff, but all the toes moved without hesitation. "Neurological damage, then? I suppose we'll have to see how bad the damage is."

"You're not… I thought you'd be more upset. They said… you might not be able to be an agent anymore."

"I would be, but I've had… a week?"

"Two weeks."

"Two weeks, then, to think about it. And… after everything that's happened… I'm not sure I want to do this anymore."

"After the way they treated you," Wufei snarled, but there was no anger left in me, and I managed to make my hand move on top of his.

"I wish they had told me I was going to be bait. It would have made things easier, and I would have agreed all the same, but I can understand that they didn't want to take that risk. I volunteered to put my life on the line to rescue you boys, and that's exactly what I did. It was worth the price, but… I don't want do that any longer. I have something to live for now," I told him, and then smiled and patted the bed beside me.

"Don't let me hurt you," Wufei cautioned, and it spoke of how desperate he was for my touch, that he didn't protest crawling in beside me. "You're still recovering."

"Oh Wufei," I chided, stroking his hair as he slid in beside me. "I'll be recovering for a long time." And then I slipped him a quick kiss. "The rest of my life, if you'll be there with me."

"I thought…"

"What?" I wondered, sensing his unease.

"I betrayed you," he told me, and his voice was tight and pained. "I don't deserve your love. When I was tested, I failed you."

"Is that what you think? That just because you doubted me, I could never love you again? You rescued me when I was at my lowest, when I had failed all of you. How can I blame you for doubting me, when I was proved wrong so many times over? You expect me to censure you for doubting me, but I want you to. I have to trust you to tell me when I'm wrong, and in that I failed you as well."

"I had thought you would be angry, at least, for my part with Treize."

"We both made bad choices in a bad situation. Looking back on it, I came so close to losing all of you, I simply want to move on."

It was quiet then, as Wufei worked through his thoughts.

"We almost lost you," he said in a hushed whisper, holding me close. "On the plane, I truly didn't know if you'd live."

"I'm sorry I scared you," I apologized, not knowing what else to say. He gave a pained laugh, but it was enough to change his mood.

"Only you would apologize for dying."

"Perhaps. But talk to me about other things. It's been two weeks, are the others alright? I remember Trowa's sister and Quatre's men."

"Yes, families have been making contact now that our identities were released. I think Duo and Heero are the only two without living family. Even my old clan made contact."

"Do they… Did you tell them about your wife?"

"Oddly enough, they already knew. She let slip what she'd done to the wrong person, and it got back to one of the elders, who banished her. But I've decided not to return to my family. I'm afraid that, after all I've been through, I couldn't conform to their expectations any longer. Quatre has said that he will resume communication with his family when they've proven that they can be trusted, and Trowa's sister has already come to see him. After seeing how happy and well cared for he is, she agreed to leave him with us."

"And their plans? It's been two weeks, so I'm sure the Preventers have begun to talk to you about options."

"A bit, but nothing's been decided. If Quatre returns to his family, he'll have more money than he can manage, perhaps literally. Duo's had a million ideas already, and I think his most recent is professional football player. Heero wants to work on a computer science degree, and I've filed paperwork to begin working Trowa and Duo toward a high school diploma. Trowa hasn't said much about what he'll do after he graduates, but I know his sister offered him a position with the circus if nothing else." "And you? What are your plans."

"I suppose the immediate plan is to get Trowa and Duo up to a basic level of schooling. From there, I haven't really thought much further ahead. Not to be rude, but I didn't think we needed to worry about contributing. I thought you'd have enough money to keep us."

"I have enough money to keep you and at least three generations of your children without many problems, but I know you. You'll want something to do soon enough."

"I suppose, but I've been fighting for so long, the thought of relaxing and settling in to this peace is appealing. But I've also contemplated doing something with the other slaves. Many of them are like Trowa and Duo, adults who are suddenly alone in the world with no background and no education. Quatre has even mentioned using his father's company to help get them jobs."

"High aspirations, but take your time. I don't want to see either of you worked like slaves in service to this project," I teased, and he smiled.

"Is this what freedom feels like?" he asked me. "Like the whole world is laid out in front of you and you can do anything you want?"

"I don't think so. Freedom makes you feel like the whole world is laid out for you. Love makes you feel like you can do anything you want."

"Then I must have both."

"I know you have both."

"It won't always be this easy, will it? Talking about it is great, but I didn't expect it to be this frightening when the decisions need to be made. Trowa nearly had a panic attack when Quatre's family came, and then beat himself up about it when Quatre decided to stay."

"There will be… issues with adjusting to freedom. When you make choices, you have to live with the consequences. It can be more difficult than simply following the path laid out for you, but it's always worth it in the end."

"Speaking of issues, are you aware that Duo has managed to become a cocktease?"

"What?"

"Oh, apparently he's decided that he likes to flirt, but he's free now so no one can make him do anything. Which is all true, but he picks some poor, hapless victim, comes on like a harlot, and then as soon as the man is aroused, Duo leaves. It's gotten Heero into three fistfights already, when Duo's victims get violent. And he's like a two-year-old with the word 'no' anymore."

"We will… have to address this."

"Oh, I think it's been addressed. The last time Duo did it, Heero spanked him."

"Ha!

"Where are the others, by the way?"

"Hm? Oh, I sent them back to the house. After a week in this room, everyone needed a shower and some rest. They've been visiting you on rotating shifts, but when Sally said you might wake soon… well, I wanted to be here. They've also been trying to help the slaves at the house adjust."

"Preventers hasn't taken them anywhere yet?"

"No, slaves that aren't in immediate danger haven't been reassigned yet. Everyone's being dealt with on a worst cases first basis."

"I suppose we'll all just have to learn to live together for a while, then."

We lapsed into silence for several minutes and I wanted to ask about the other former-slaves and how they were reacting to freedom, but I was too tired. Still, I felt that I needed to address something with Wufei now, while it was fresh in my mind.

"Wufei? I need to ask you something. I know everything's moving fast and it's easy to get caught up, but I want you to know that you don't have to stay with me. I want you here, but only if you want to be here."

"Are you… Are you asking me to leave?" he asked, and the fear in his voice was the last thing I wanted to hear.

"No! No, I'm making a mess of this. I'm trying to tell you that I love you, and I want you by my side, but only if it's your choice."

He chuckled then, and settled down.

"The pain meds must be kicking back in, you're getting awfully romantic. If you need a poetic declaration of love, you'll have to wait until morning. But I love you, too. And it has always been my choice."

I smiled then, and kissed him gently. I was just starting to fade into sleep, the aches and pains in my body fading again, when Wufei raised his head again.

"Sally says you'll never walk again," he said worriedly, as though this was news to me. I chuckled this time, and kissed him again.
"Sally is a crackpot. We'll show her better."

THE END