AN: This one's connected to that "Lightning" piece. Purely hypothetical, nothing more.
Also, friendly reminder that all reviewers are allowed their own opinions. Some people don't like reading long chapters, and that's fine. To each their own. :)
He's had it again, that terrible dream where he sees himself as they do: enormous, all flashing fangs and terrifying eyes, his gravel voice beating them down as powerfully as paws could.
It's not the first time he's had the dream, and it won't be the last, not so long as he continues his work. But it's not really his work, it's Deacon's – or, that's what he tells himself.
Deacon knows he's had it as soon as he comes by, of course. He always knows; he's like a goddamned mind-reader. Sometimes he hates Deacon for that.
"Samuel," comes Deacon's too-warm voice, soft as daybreak so he does not disturb the kit sleeping only a few paces away. The kit twitches all the same, murmuring something in his sleep, but his eyes do not open, and that saves his life. Deacon never lets them see him, not before he is ready.
"What." Samuel's voice is flatter than he intends it to be, and he winces, as Deacon's eyes glint softly.
"Feeling a little under the weather again?" Deacon asks, his voice low and quiet – always with that damned concern – and Samuel clenches his teeth.
"No," he growls in a voice almost like the rough one he uses with them, the little kit he breaks down into dust so Deacon can build them back up, and immediately he regrets it, for Deacon does not like being talked to with that voice, reminded of what the kits endure under Samuel's paws.
But Deacon only gives his bewitching smile and sits down, inviting Samuel to join him with a flick of his jet tail. And Samuel obliges, as he always does. What Deacon wants, Deacon gets – that's how it's always been, how it always will be.
"You had the dream again, didn't you? Am I working you too hard? We can shuffle the kit off to someone else, you know that."
Samuel's dark ears are pinned against his striped head, and he refuses to look up at the fat, round moon as Deacon does. He hates the feeling of moonlight lying on his pelt, illuminating him in ways he does not deserve, not with what he does in the daylight.
"I know. But I'm fine. I can handle it."
"I don't doubt your abilities…I only know you do not want to."
"I hate it." Samuel can't help that the words come out as a hiss, snakes coiling over his tongue. He's almost surprised Deacon can't see them writhing there, as nothing escapes his yellow eyes – but then again, perhaps he can. "I hate it, the way they look at me. There's always that hope at first, and then comes the fear, the terror, the hatred…." And you swoop in like their guardian angel, and as their love for you grows, they hate me all the more for it.
"Are you sure you do not enjoy it, just a little?" Deacon's voice is still soft, thoughtful. "Cats completely at your mercy, clay in your paws to be molded, to do with as you please…that never excites you, never makes your pulse race with the possibilities laid out before you?"
Samuel shudders with disgust at the very thought. "Of course not."
Deacon smiles. "That is why I trust you, Samuel, more than anyone else. You do not take pleasure in the weakness of others, and that is how I know you will not go too far, will not push them until they break beyond repair, will not use your power for your own purposes. It is why I can rely on you above all others."
That's a comfort, Samuel thinks, almost rolling his eyes. I'm only as much of a monster as you need me to be.
"Are you sure we're even getting anywhere with them?" he asks. "They say Solitaire lost it last week. Crumbled under the pressure of what's-his-face bossing him around, finally snapped. Took out a whole patrol of his Master's cats before he just disappeared. Is that true?"
Deacon only shrugs. He is the one who keeps up with them after they leave Samuel's care – if it can be called that –, the one who continues to give them hope and push them forward. Samuel is not even supposed to seek out news of them, to learn the names their Masters choose for them, but he cannot help himself. They are all there in his mind, every kit he ever trained, and he wants names to go with the faces – at least for those who live long enough to receive them.
"Tell me," Samuel growls, the aggressive tone entering his voice again, and Deacon's yellow eyes flick to his face.
"You really are in poor spirits tonight, aren't you?" he observed. "Of course we are making progress. We learn so much every time, don't you see? There is so much to be gained from watching them play off of one another, seeing how random chance dictates which pairings stand together and which fall apart…oh, it's fascinating. I wish you could appreciate it. And there are so few failures, nowadays. We are getting better and better, Samuel. Very soon our work will be perfect, and you can finally rest, never have to do any of this ever again. Won't that be nice?"
Samuel's eyes darken with wistfulness. "Yes." 'Nice' is the understatement of the century.
"What about him?" Deacon asks, nodding towards the sleeping kit, who again twitches in his sleep. "How is he doing? Is he adapting well?"
Samuel shook his head. "No. He cries out for his mother all the time…keeps trying to hide, too, darting off when he thinks I'm not looking. I keep borrowing Thorn's kit to try and spar with him, but he runs from him, too. The only time he's not terrified is when he's eating, and of course I can't let him do that undisturbed."
"You'll get to him, in time," Deacon meows. "I have complete faith in you. He'll be making his first kill in a few moons."
Is that really something to be proud of? Samuel can't help but wonder, stealing another glance towards Deacon. For the umpteenth time, he wonders again why he is doing this, why he is helping this dark tom with his sinister, twisted plans. Deacon is always claiming they are doing better, that they are getting closer to the perfect servant, but Samuel sees no improvement. He hears about failures at least once a week, and even if most are only rumors, some of them weren't. Some of them were real, were servants who could not handle their station in life and fell apart, one way or another – sometimes spectacularly, as Solitaire allegedly had, sometimes silently, simply vanishing into thin air like a plume of smoke – and each sent a fresh stab of guilt running through him.
That was all he ever felt these days, that guilt pounding at the back of his skull, knocking in his ears with every beat of his heart. He's been doing this for too long, smashed too many kits to pieces, and some part of him knows it will never really end, that Deacon is too goddamn curious about how cats work, what makes them tick, what makes them snap, what happens when you take everything away from them and twist them into as many knots as they can handle, to ever stop. Plenty of their servants work just fine, but they are never perfect, never will be, and perfection in all things is what Deacon strives for.
A few times, he's imagined quitting. He's thought of yelling in Deacon's face, of telling him everything he was doing was wrong, evil, intolerable. He's considered lunging at him, of slashing that damned compassion right off of his face. He's mused about grabbing whatever kit he is training at the moment, stealing them away in the middle of the night and just never coming back. Let Deacon find another right-hand man; he has plenty of others to look to, after all.
But Samuel is his favorite, his very best, the one he would never let go for anything. And Samuel knows he could never leave anyway, could never snap at the hand that's fed him, for Deacon has him hooked as thoroughly as he does the other servants. Deacon taught him how to channel the power and strength built into his body, the way to push anger through his yellow eyes and how to conjure up a voice of gravel that would intimidate cats bigger than himself because of the threats that rumbled just under it. Deacon is the only reason he is alive, and isn't that worth a few mewling kits, here and there?
He knows Deacon is watching him think, can probably hear the gears turning in his mind, but the dark tom says nothing, only looking up at the moon. Finally, Samuel follows his gaze, staring up at the pale white orb.
"He'll be making his first kill in a few moons," he echoes, hating himself all the while. "I promise. I'll wake him up a bit earlier this morning, maybe take off one of his ears if he tries running. Have to break him of that habit before we can get anywhere."
Deacon nods, and rewards him with a smile like the sun coming out after a storm. "That should be helpful, yes. The next moon is one of the most important, don't forget. I'll come and check in with you again at the half-moon, just to make sure things are going well. If he hasn't turned the corner by then, we'll discard him and move on. There is a she-cat who lives in one of the northern alleys who's kitting soon, and I intend to get at least one of them from her, so we can replace him if necessary."
His ears flatten as he thinks of burying the little kit, of tucking him into the ground beside so many others – the kit probably has no idea just how many bodies he is walking over every day, how many kits proved unfit for Deacon's imaginings.
He'll never find out, Samuel promises himself, claws gripping the ground. He'll turn out fine. I'll push a bit harder, if I have to. I won't let him fail.
He thinks of the rumors again, and looks down at Deacon, the questions still buzzing in the back of his mind.
Deacon looks up as though he senses them, and smiles again. "You needn't worry about Solitaire. Those were only rumors, as usual. You know how cats love to gossip. Solitaire is just fine, I assure you – I spoke to him only a few nights ago. He and his Master had a rocky beginning, but they are working together perfectly now."
Samuel stared down at him, searching those yellow eyes for any sign of deceit, but of course there was none there. Deacon's face never betrayed anything he didn't want it to, never showed any of the secrets swirling in his soul of pitch or twisting in his blackened mind. He was the sun, warm and kindly and twinkling, and most cats in the city would never see anything else.
If they're getting along so perfectly, why can't we stop? Why can't they be the end of it? Why can't I finally rest?
"Good," is all he says, and Deacon finally rises to his paws, flicking his tail over Samuel's shoulder in farewell.
"I'll see you soon," he purrs, not even looking towards the sleeping kit. "Don't push yourself too hard, now. I don't want you burning out on me, old friend. You would be far too difficult to replace." He chuckles, like it's a joke, and Samuel follows suit.
"Be safe," he rumbles, rising to his paws to move back to his uncomfortable nest. "Tell them hello from me."
They both laugh again without humor, for the last cat any of the servants would ever want to hear from again is Samuel. He is the creature who dominates their nightmares, the dark-furred tiger who tears through their dreams and poisons them, who reminds them that there is something to fear in the dead of night, who makes Deacon's light burn all the brighter with his own terrible presence. He is what haunts them, so they will fight to make Deacon proud.
"Goodnight, Samuel," Deacon says, before he and his twinkling eyes disappear into the night. Samuel waits a moment longer, listening for his receding pawsteps, before he moves back into his nest. He curls up, pressing his nose against his tail, closes his eyes and readies himself to fall into his own nightmares again. It is a fitting punishment, he thinks to himself, for in the morning, he will create them.