(Author's note: This was written for the Fic I Didn't Write game on the LJ Puckurt community. It's not quite finished, but it's close, and I'll get it done in the next few days, so feel free to start reading now. Set in season 4, but AU because I didn't want to include Riley, so Finchel stands. Other AU elements throughout to fit with the Marketplace universe, but most of it is the same old Glee. Kurt/Puck, Rachel/Finn, mentions of Kurt/Blaine and Puck/Lauren. Warnings for Dom/sub, discipline and schmoopy Kurt/Puck romance. This story's soundtrack can be found at www. youtube playlist?list=PLc72s_nGT2yR34dp2akE9mMvsEq_pt46E Enjoy! -amy)

Carmen Thibodeau set her glasses down and rubbed the bridge of her nose with weary resignation. There was no way she was going to last through another six candidates before lunch. Half of the kids she'd seen this morning had zero sense of pitch, and it seemed the other half had no rhythm at all. They only had three slots to fill, and Carmen had a good sense of who those three might be, anyway. Only something really extraordinary would catch her attention at this point.

"Hello? My name is Kurt Hummel... I'm here to sing 'Music of the Night' from the seminal work The Phantom of the Opera, by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber."

She looked up to see a boy dressed in yet another Phantom costume, and sighed, not even bothering to hide her disdain.

"... Which I bet you hear a lot of... that song," he went on.

She allowed him a small smile. "That, 'The Impossible Dream' from La Mancha and 'Being Alive' from Company, yes."

Kurt nodded. "It's a safe and standard choice. Which is why I've decided to change things up a bit. Here, in the eleventh hour, I've decided to go in a different direction." His eyes gleamed as he took off his mask. "Something that's a little more out there, but much more me. "Not the Boy Next Door" from the Peter Allen bio-musical The Boy from Oz."

Coming home used to feel so good
I'm a stranger now in my neighborhood
I've seen the world at a faster pace
And I'm coming now from a different place
Though I may look the same way to you
Underneath there is somebody new

The decision was bold, but Carmen decided later it was the way he pulled a whole set of backup singers out of nowhere that led her to write the notes she did:

Kurt Hummel - singing adequate, performance showy but commendable. Dancing needs work. Not NYADA material, but recommend to Cassie.

She tapped the page with her pen, watching the confident expression on his face as he commanded the stage in his gold lamé pants. That's a potential Owner if I ever saw one. This may be the soft world, but I can still Spot a candidate.

Carmen felt pleased enough by his performance to tell Kurt, "Hugh Jackman would have been as impressed by what you did with that song as I was." She didn't bother to mention that Hugh lived out the majority of his time offstage as a slave, but if Kurt had any connections in the world of the Marketplace, he might already be aware of that fact. In any case, he clearly appreciated the compliment.

The remainder of the auditions were unmitigated disasters, especially that Rachel girl, but as soon as they were finally done, Carmen picked up her phone and dialed Cassie.

"Carmen, I have less than two minutes until my next class arrives. This better be good."

"I Spotted someone this morning."

"Hold on." She heard some muffled, barked instructions. "I thought you were hearing auditions for NYADA today."

"I don't take off one hat and put on a new one. I've always got my eyes open in the soft world. You'd be surprised how many potential slaves I find on the audition stage. But this one, he's a potential Owner."

"Have you seen my schedule for this fall? You want me to drop everything and convince this soft world kid that he should train in the Marketplace? And just who's going to train him? You really think he'd move to New York for - what?"

Carmen leaned forward on her arms and smiled. "Don't steal my thunder; you know I'm the convincing one. You're more the pain in the ass type."

"Don't make me get on an airplane and show you just how much of a pain in your ass I can be."

"I'll be back in New York in three days. In the meantime, though, you have to trust me that I know he's worth training, and that you're the best one to take him and show him what he needs to know." She nudged her coffee cup with one hand. "I can always send him to the Donnellys... Chicago is closer to Ohio, after all..."

"Bitch." Carmen could hear Cassie's bitter smile. "You know competition's the only way to get me to do anything."

"I know bribery won't work," Carmen agreed. "Mostly, though, I know your propensity for taking on slaves who excel in the arts. This kid's good. Not NYADA good, but the talent is there. I can guess what kind of pleasure slaves he would want to own."

"Hmm. I'll keep that in mind. Your two minutes are up. I'll have to think about it."

"I'll see how he responds to a little information. It's possible he might not even pass the first screening..." She paused and drank a sip of coffee.

"If you really thought that, you never would have wasted my time."

Carmen gazed at the silent phone, disconnecting the call. Cassie was right, of course, but instincts and potential only went so far. She needed to talk to this Kurt Hummel, and find out what lay beyond the oh-so-gay exterior.

Even though the Marketplace was barely on his radar by sophomore year, Kurt had Dave Karofsky to thank for introducing him to his dominant tendencies. With every threat, every sneer, every push against the lockers, Dave inspired Kurt's righteous anger, until it boiled forth - with completely unexpected results.

Dave's kiss, while not exactly pleasant, was the spark that lit a fire inside Kurt. He realized it was his words, the way he had treated Dave and stood up to him, that had led Dave to want him.

I can do that to boys, he'd thought, and the idea took his breath away. I can be in control, and they might actually like it. Might want it.

But the opportunity to actually do it didn't come until later, when he and Blaine were several months into their relationship, when they were beginning to go beyond kissing, groping and impatient groans.

"I want to tie you up," he'd said to Blaine, and Blaine had stammered out a red-faced denial of interest. Though his body had proved him a liar, Kurt didn't push him. He waited for Blaine to come to him and ask for it.

Kurt's first few attempts at shibari were disastrous, but after those ill-fated excuses for macrame, he got the hang of it. How to do it just tight enough, but not too tight. How to make the early knots loose enough that later tightening wouldn't be too uncomfortable. How to gauge when Blaine was close to coming, just by the way his skin looked under the pressure of the cables. His dad must have thought he was doing Boy Scouts or rigging sails or something, because he never asked about what all that rope was for.

Blaine, unfortunately, didn't respond as well as Kurt had hoped.

"You look so beautiful like that," Kurt told him one afternoon.

"I bet I look silly," Blaine complained from the confines of Kurt's precisely-constructed web. "Anyway, when do I get a turn to tie you up?"

Never, thought Kurt. But he was an equal-minded boyfriend, so the next time, he offered the rope to Blaine. Blaine took twenty minutes to decide if he wanted to tie Kurt's hands at his ankles or above his head, and by then, any semblance of mood was gone.

"Don't you think it's better to share the power in a relationship?" Blaine asked. Kurt had to admit he didn't.

After that, he and Blaine stuck to more vanilla exploits, but Kurt knew there was something keeping them apart, restricting their conversation and activities. It wasn't that he didn't like what they did. It was just that he knew Blaine didn't really want the things that lurked in the back of his mind, those things that made him go ohhhh, yes. It was... unsettling.

He told himself it was fine, that he didn't really need those things. That they were extra, additional, like bubbles in his soda. But by the end of junior year, it was becoming harder to deny that, without bubbles, what he was doing with Blaine felt a little flat.

It was just another afternoon at the Lima Bean, facing one another across the table, Kurt watching Blaine play with his straw, when Blaine took a quick breath, furrowed his brow and said, "I think - we should stop seeing each other."

Kurt blinked. "Uh." His brows went up. "Where did that come from?"

Blaine didn't look anxious. He put a hand out to rest lightly on top of Kurt's. "You and me, we want different things. It doesn't mean I don't respect you. It means - I want you to get what you want. And, Kurt..." He shrugged. "It's not what I want."

Kurt closed his eyes, feeling the truth of it. "You think you know what I want?"

He laughed. "You've been telling me for over a year. I think I have some ideas." His fingertips brushed against Kurt's knuckles. "And I just want you to know I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

"Really." Kurt bristled. "Blaine, you tell me how many boys there are within a hundred mile radius who want to do the things I want to do. Because I suspect the number is fewer than the number of people at this table drinking grande nonfat mochas."

"Doesn't mean you shouldn't want it." Blaine's smile was artificially cheery. "I don't want to stop being your friend, Kurt."

It was far easier than it should have been for the two of them to slip into just-friends mode, which said as much to Kurt as anything about the appropriateness of Blaine's choice to break up with him. Blaine put up a good front about being supportive of Kurt, but he wasn't going to push him to go outside his comfort zone. And Kurt was really not interested in finding out what exactly lay beyond his 100-mile radius of isolation. Searching on the Internet for information turned out to be more disturbing than fruitful, and after one or two attempts, he gave up.

But he couldn't deny it was lonely. It just got worse senior year, when Blaine became friends with Sam, and Tina and Mike were wrapped up in one another, and Mercedes had all but drifted away.

He found himself focusing all his attention on his studies, taking his classes more seriously, even if they were mostly as an excuse not to think too much about what he would do when school was over. When Rachel became obsessed with NYADA, it was easy to transfer his focus to that, especially after he didn't get the part he wanted in the school musical. It was so simple to pretend school and NYADA held all the answers he needed.

Until Rachel sat down with him while he was doing his math homework at the Hudmel kitchen table and said quietly, "I have a book you need to read."

"Rach, I'm really busy," he said absently, waving his hand. But she slid the book into his line of sight, and waited while he focused on the cover. The Marketplace. "What is this, some kind of treatise on capitalism?"

"It's a book about an organization. A secret society, kind of, one that exists parallel to our own." She looked like she might be trying to placate a scared child. Kurt wrinkled his nose at her. "There are people who - who own other people. The slaves, they sign a contract. They have no power after they sign their contract, but they give it up freely."

Kurt felt an irritating rush of desire, but he tamped it down with long practice and pushed the book out of his way. "I don't have time for stories, Rach."

"Not a story," she insisted. "It's real. The Marketplace exists, in all major cities. New York has a training house." Her eyes gleamed. "You could apply."

He shook his head quickly. "I don't know what kind of delusions you're under, but this kind of thing only exists in novels. Leave me to my calculus, please."

"Kurt..." Rachel gazed at him resolutely. "You can't deny it."

"Deny what , Rachel?" Kurt set his pencil down and glared back at her. "Yes, I've been single for far too long. Yes, maybe I miss some of the things I used to do with Blaine. What do you think I'm trying to deny?"

"That you're wanting something more." Rachel sighed. "Blaine talked to me, okay?"

Kurt actually wasn't surprised to hear this. Blaine had always had inappropriate boundaries when it came to sex. He wasn't going to hold back if he thought he could help Kurt. He put out one hand and touched the book. "Let me guess. He told you about the rope?"

Rachel's face went red, but she didn't back down. "New York is going to be the ideal place for you to find yourself, Kurt. I don't have any doubt about that. When we go to NYADA together, it's going to be perfect."

But Kurt didn't get into NYADA. Kurt watched Rachel open her acceptance letter with unexpected, abject despair. Not because he wanted so much to go to NYADA, but because he knew Rachel and Blaine were right. He was never going to find what he wanted in Ohio.

That night, he shut himself in his bedroom, ignoring the first couple tentative attempts from Finn to knock on his door. Eventually Rachel texted him. Talk to Finn, she said. He's freaking out and he can't talk to me about it.

I'm freaking out too, Kurt texted back.

Yeah, but you're not freaking out about the same things. He's convinced he'll always be a failure. You're convinced you'll always be alone. At least let him talk at you, okay? He just needs to know you're not going to abandon him for the big city when you leave.

Kurt almost asked, who says I'm leaving? But he decided it was pointless to follow that train of thought. He's my stepbrother, he said instead. Nobody's leaving anybody.

Not ten minutes later, Kurt received an email.

Date: 14 Apr 2012, 9:26 pm EST

To: kurt hummel at gmail dot com

From: thibodeauc at nyada dot edu

Subject: your audition


I'm writing because I'm assuming you've received your NYADA rejection letter by now. I'm sure it would not be any surprise to you to learn that the competition was fierce; we had only three spots to fill by the time I got to Lima, which didn't leave a lot of room for movement. You had a distinguished, if somewhat amateur audition, and I'm sure I could encourage you to reapply in the future.

But I'm not here to do that. This contact is about an entirely different application process, one that is much more selective and specific about the kind of people it admits. If you know anything about the Marketplace, you may already have heard something about Spotters and their role in the soft world. Suffice it to say you've been noticed, Kurt Hummel.

We leave it up to potential participants to self-select for involvement in Marketplace training. If you are not interested, I will bother you no further. If, on the other hand, you think you might be interested in learning more, I've appended my contact information. Don't hesitate to give me a call.

- Carmen Thibodeau, Interim Professor, NYADA

Kurt wondered if he'd been hit by a clever spammer. For a moment he considered deleting the email, and forgetting he'd ever heard of Carmen Thibodeau, because this felt so much like a consolation prize. He wasn't at all sure he could face her after having failed to get in, especially when he'd been so sure he'd nailed it.

And yet... The Marketplace. His fingers twitched. Then he opened up a browser window and performed a simple search.

What he found made him shiver, but he steeled his shoulders and kept reading.

The Marketplace is a secret society of both masters and slaves, dedicated to full immersion into a lifestyle of total power exchange, in which the slaves have no rights or power after they sign their "slave contract". The contracts are not legally binding, but the agreements have effective power in the context of the Marketplace because any slave, or owner, who violates the contract terms can be ostracized from the secret community of the marketplace—for those whose desires and orientations lead them to membership in that community, being prevented from participating is a very strong motivation to follow the terms of the contracts.

Kurt reached for his glass of water, bringing it to dry, trembling lips. The images behind his eyes were terrifying, and compelling, and far, far too erotic for his brain to deal with. Carmen Thibodeau had seen something in him - something that had made her want him for this secret society. Something that had given her the idea that he wanted - what?

To be a slave.

Kurt bit back a moan. How could he possibly want that? He'd spent his teenage life fighting bullies and tormentors who wanted to take control of him. There wasn't anything pleasant about the idea of giving up control.

And yet... Kurt tapped a few keys on his keyboard and sent a reply to Ms. Thibodeau's email.

Date: 14 Apr 2012, 9:49 pm EST

To: thibodeauc at nyada dot edu

From: kurt hummel at gmail dot com

Subject: Re: your audition

I regret to inform you that whatever you thought you Spotted in me must be a mistake. I will never be anyone's slave. Thank you for the opportunity to audition for NYADA; perhaps you'll see me again next year.

Kurt Hummel

Kurt spent the next fifteen minutes ignoring his arousal, which he was accustomed to doing, and reading the issue of Vogue that had come in the mail the day before. Finally he sighed, unlocked his door and went to find his stepbrother.

Finn was sitting on the couch in the family room staring at the television, a bowl of Cheetos in his lap. He looked up at Kurt in surprise.

"You're not a failure, Finn," Kurt said.

"I - okay." Finn cocked his head. "You aren't, either."

"I know." Kurt sat beside him on the couch. "I just hate that nobody seems to see me the way I see myself. I've spent my whole life inventing myself from scratch, creating the me I want to be, and... I wish I could be recognized for that. I was hoping to find it at NYADA, but..."

"So you'll try again next year."

Kurt nodded. "Maybe. You could, too."

Finn gave a small smile, shaking his head. "No. Acting school's not for me, and neither is New York, really. That's your dream, and Rachel's, not mine. I want you to have it, though. Because you're awesome, Kurt. Anybody who doesn't see that is just an idiot."

Kurt smiled back, feeling so grateful to have a brother like Finn. "I'd better tell Rachel we talked. She might drive over here and orchestrate an intervention if I don't."

He pulled out his phone and went to send Rachel a text when he saw that Carmen Thibodeau had responded to his email already. He almost threw it away without reading it, but he couldn't resist taking a peek.

You're misunderstanding me, she'd said. I didn't Spot a slave on that stage. I Spotted a master. I've been doing this a long time, and the signs are all there. You have all the makings of an Owner, Kurt. Let me meet with you and explain how it works. You can always say no.

Kurt sat there with his phone in his lap, staring at it, until Finn touched his hand and said nervously, "Uh, Kurt? What happened?"

He took a deep breath, let it out. "Somebody... saw me."

Puck found out about the Marketplace when he was twelve. There weren't a lot of restrictions in the Puckerman house, and nobody was policing what kind of books he read or which Internet sites he viewed.

For a while he thought it was an elaborate made-up world, and didn't give it much thought beyond wow, slaves and masters, that's kind of hot. But pretty much everything was hot to a twelve-year-old boy, and in his wide and varied selection of fantasies, being shackled to a wall and flogged played second or third fiddle to, say, getting a blowjob from a hot chick. Or a hot dude, sure; Puck wouldn't say no to sex just because of a little thing like gender.

But then he made the mistake of his life and attempted to knock over an ATM machine, and got sent to juvie. Where, among many unpleasant things, he discovered the Marketplace was real.

Coming back to Lima after that was like being shown the entire wide view of the universe, with a little tiny arrow pointing and a sign that reads You are here. Puck knew just how small his crummy little school in his crummy little town was, and he could barely stand it. On his first day back, he lost it in the office, ripping the clipboard out of that smarmy, supercilious parole officer's hands.

"You don't care about me!" he shouted at Mr. Schue. "Nobody cares about me." Nobody knows what I want. And I'm sure as hell not going to talk about it with anybody.

And then his Ma made the fatal error of shaving off his mohawk, and Puck experienced a week in the life of a loser at McKinley High. He definitely didn't like being thrown into dumpsters and catching slushies in the face. But getting rescued from that Port-A-John by Lauren Zizes was an epiphany for Puck. He found himself blinking up at her with something akin to worship.

"Come on," she said with resignation, and hauled him out of the oubliette and into the sunlight.

She put him in the back of her truck and drove him to her house. There, she cleaned him up efficiently, but with gentleness, and he just sat there on the floor of her shower, letting her strip off his disgusting clothes and hose him down.

"Why are you being so nice to me?" he asked warily.

She shook her head. "Jeez, Puckerman. Haven't you ever seen The Breakfast Club? Because you're letting me." She wrapped him in a towel and tucked it neatly around his waist. "And that tells me something about you."

He followed her guiding arm to her bed, sitting where she indicated. "What does it tell you?"

"That you want someone else to be in charge. That when you're feeling weak, you want someone telling you what to do." She shrugged. "You're not the only one. Do you know about the Marketplace?"

She showed him a well-thumbed copy of a book, flipping through to the chapter on Slaves and Owners. "Here. Read this while I throw your clothes in the wash. You smell like piss and ass, Puckerman."

He let himself be absorbed into the chapter, reading about the consensual role of slavery in the Marketplace:

To be thrilled at the touch of leather, aroused by the sound of harsh words, or satisfied by the security of rigid bondage is the mark of a lover. To be thrilled at the opportunity to provide useful service, aroused by a pleased nod, and satisfied by the proverbial job well done, is the mark of a slave. It may sound severe. Almost anti-erotic. Until you see two people, owner and owned, existing in a complementary relationship where each suits the other like balances on a delicate scale.

When Lauren came back with a cup of hot coffee and a pair of clean sweats, he was crying.

"Holy shit," he said hoarsely. "How did you know?"

"I saw you," she said, and put a hand on his head. "And you're mine, now."

It was a good year for Puck. He was a lot calmer with Lauren there beside him in Glee, and even his academics were easier when he knew after school he didn't have to pretend to be in control. But the summer before senior year, she came to him at his house and sat him down, holding his hand.

"I'm not going to do this Glee shit anymore," she said. "It's totally lame and I'm way too annoyed with everybody's drama."

He nodded, feeling uneasy. "You - what do you want to do?"

"I'm setting you free," she said. "You're still my anti-Prom King, baby. But you're way more into this than I am. You need somebody who loves the drama as much as you do. It's just pissing me off." She kissed his cheek. Then she left.

It was the last time he saw her before senior year began, and by then he'd put away his heart in a box or a cage or a goddamn titanium jar, whatever metaphor you wanted, fuckyouverymuch. Because Puck wasn't going to put himself in a situation to get left, not ever again. No matter who owned this slave, they weren't going to touch that part of him.

By the end of senior year, Puck knew college wasn't in the cards. If he managed to graduate at all, he was pretty clear he wasn't going to want more school. "Come with me to LA, man," he said to Finn, in a fit of wild hope.

By now, Finn understood enough about his best friend to know that pool cleaning business was just a code word for the Marketplace. "I'm not going to LA, Puck," he sighed. "No matter how hot the chicks are. I'm marrying Rachel."

"I can't go by myself," Puck protested, dropping his voice. "You're my best friend. If you're with me, the city won't seem so... scary."

"Scared?" Finn scoffed, poking his shoulder. "Since when are you scared of anything?"

He could feel himself descending into a sulk, but it was almost impossible to stop it once it started, without Lauren to keep him from it. "It's not the same. This... it's not the regular city." Finn could only get so much about the Marketplace without firsthand knowledge - and no matter how supportive a best friend he might be, he just wasn't interested in getting some.

Then Finn brightened. "Come with us to New York," he said. "You can, uh, clean pools there, too, right? Me, and Rachel, and Kurt, we're all going to be there. If we get into school."

It was a very real possibility in Puck's mind, for those two weeks between the day Finn made the suggestion and the day he received his rejection letter. He wasn't exactly sure how the Training Houses worked, but he was pretty sure he had just as much chance of being accepted at one of the two major ones in New York as he did in LA. And having Finn there in the city with him, even if Rachel had to be around too, would be beyond awesome.

Then Finn came to him and told him he didn't get into Pace. It was almost as devastating to Puck as it was to Finn. He went and acquired three six-packs of Pabst and a big fat blunt, but Finn wasn't leaving his house. "Kurt won't come out of his room," he said on the phone. "I've got to be there for him when he does, and I can't be drunk."

So Puck had to dispose of his half of the beer and the entire joint all by his lonesome, which led to a lot of swearing and crying and angsty guitar playing. He might have texted Lauren six or seven times, but she didn't have a lot of patience for his whining anymore.

I'm alone, he told her.

Tough shit, Puckerman, she said. Everybody's alone, when you come right down to it.

He took another toke and held it, trying to keep his hand steady enough to reply. Nobody understands me but you.

Jesus fucking christ. You need *me* to hook you up with a new girlfriend? I thought you had more balls than that.

I'm not looking for a girlfriend. He stared morosely at the television for five minutes before sending the text.

Okay, a boyfriend, then. Whatever.

No! He almost threw the phone across the room, but then he would really be alone. Fuck you. I can't get involved with anybody like that.

He couldn't articulate exactly what he did need, either. That had been Lauren's job, but she wasn't being very forthcoming. After five more minutes of silence, he sent a second reply: Fine. I'll deal with this on my own.

Just don't knock over any more ATMs, Suckerman. Better yet, stay home tonight, okay?

He had to grin. He knew she still cared, even if they weren't doing anything worth posting on Facebook. Don't think I could drive like this anyway, Zizes. I'll just go to bed.

But he didn't. He stayed up for three more hours, watching bad porn that didn't even touch his real desires. When that didn't quell the need inside him, he read the underground Marketplace message boards. They advertised openings in Training Houses, and private Owners looking for slaves, and slave auctions. With trepidation, Puck clicked on a link for one in New York, to be held the week after graduation.

I could still go, he told himself, like he was still having a conversation with Lauren. He imagined her reply: You'd get eaten alive in the big city. No matter how cool you think you are, Puckerman, you're still a small-town kid, just like the rest of us.

He sighed as he turned off his computer, and leaned back in his bed to jack off, finally, before attempting to sleep. It would be another long night.

Kurt spent an entire afternoon in the corner of the Lima Bean with Carmen Thibodeau, trying not to dissolve into a wide-eyed, spluttering mess. He'd known he was largely an innocent, that there were things he didn't know about the way the world worked. But this was a whole bunch of things he had considered, had even fantasized and dreamed about, but had never, ever expected to see in actual life. And, apparently, he'd been wrong about that, too. A lot of that. Slaves and masters. Training. Consensual relationships of owners and the owned.

"You're not kidding, are you?" he said at one point, reaching out to clutch her arm. "This is real?"

"Real as you or me," Carmen agreed, nodding. "It's my reality, anyway. This, the rest of the world - what we call the soft world - it's the part that seems like an illusion to me. I'm completely sure that the majority of the soft world would be as stumped by what we do in the Marketplace as I am by what they do."

Kurt considered all the questions he might want to ask, and chose one of the most crucial and least embarrassing. "You said this was a... selective process. Does that mean I need to worry about being - cut? Excluded? I mean, how does this work?"

She smiled. "It's not a club, if that's what you're asking. You need a placement in a training house somewhere in the world in order to draw out your natural leadership tendencies and refine your skills in handling slaves. But the only way you can be excluded is if you break the rules."

Kurt raised an eyebrow. "Which are?"

"Slaves have no rights, but there's a good deal of peer pressure among Owners to treat them well. If you're violent or cruel, you won't last long in the Marketplace - meaning your peer group will shun you. Social standing is everything among Owners." Carmen grimaced. "One of the reasons I stay on the fringe of the community. I don't have a lot of tolerance for the politics of small-minded dictocrats."

Kurt was silent for some time while he sipped his mocha. "And you think I should... what? Join a training house full of these small-minded dictocrats? You really think I should trade one appalling social prison for another?"

Carmen laughed. "Kurt... you're going to find that the world is full of social structures, and if you want to be successful, you have to play the game. I choose not to be successful. You... I suspect, with a little effort and refinement, you could be... formidable."

Kurt found himself blushing under her gaze, and her smile widened. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "It's just a little hard to believe."

"What, that you could become a political power in a secret society of slave owners?"

Kurt coughed. "Um... no? That anybody else thinks I could do that."

"That's my skill: seeing what's possible." She leaned forward on her forearms, looking him right in the eye. "What you do with that possibility is up to you. I can't make you into anything. But if you think you want this, I can give you the number of a woman who can."

He forced himself not to look away. "I'm... yes. I want this."

It was a significant admission, but he didn't realize how much it had affected him until several hours later, long after he'd bid farewell to Carmen and taken the dark purple business card, bearing nothing but a Manhattan phone number and the word Trainer.

Kurt lay in his bed, staring up at the ceiling in the dark, not only awake, but unaccountably jittery. He picked up his phone and sent a text to Rachel. She was likely asleep, knowing how early she usually went to bed. That book you showed me, he wrote. The Marketplace. I believe you. It's real.

Even though he knew she wouldn't be able to respond until the following morning, he felt better knowing he'd put the words out there into the world. He knew it was real, and he wanted it. And Carmen thought he could be - a political power. He felt a shiver. It was tempting.

But Kurt had gone all his life not getting what he wanted. To claim it now felt - not selfish, exactly. Irresponsible, maybe.

Erotic, definitely.

Kurt indulged in a few moments of fantasy, in which he pictured himself in control of a beautiful, sculpted man, bound, on his knees, gazing up at Kurt with adoration and love. It was a familiar image, and it never failed to get him off in bare minutes. Only, for the first time in his whole life, he actually believed it could happen. Might happen.

Would happen, he thought, with an equal mixture of terror and determination.

Puck knew Ms. Pillsbury had told him he'd graduated, but he waited until he actually had the diploma in his hand before he bought the train ticket to New York. It also took the last of his money; he had been slowly using it up, not really having much of an opportunity during the school year to make more after he'd stopped actually cleaning pools. But he got a little money from his Nana for graduating. He was pretty sure she'd disown him if he told her why he was going out to New York, so he just told her and the rest of his family he was sightseeing.

He took his guitar, and some clothes and his toothbrush and stuff, and Lauren's copy of The Marketplace, but he really didn't have much more to bring with him, not that mattered to him. Most of what mattered was inside, where nobody saw, and it wasn't likely to come out into a journal or a song or even in bed. He wasn't going to risk that much.

The train dropped him off in Penn Station, and then Puck took the downtown #2 to Brooklyn and walked the couple blocks to the address Lauren had given him. The brownstone was unassuming - classy enough, but he wasn't going to be intimidated by the urban façade. He just rang the bell and waited.

The girl who answered the door looked ordinary, too. She was dressed in an outfit that could have been a uniform or just a very simple suit. Either way, it had clearly cost more than his guitar. She cocked her head at him.

"May I help you?" she said doubtfully.

He fumbled in his pocket. "I, uh, have a letter. From my... from the person who used to own me. She talked to the owner, Mrs. Anderson?" He held out the letter, but at the girl's expression let it slip a little. "Uh... I'm here for the... the slave auction."

"Mrs. Anderson doesn't speak to anyone," she said. Now her tone was frosty.

"She's Lauren's great-aunt?" Puck watched the girl's eyes widen. "I guess she thought I could use a little help, because she told Lauren I could crash with the other slaves up on the third floor while I'm here."

"You haven't been trained." But she took the letter, and once she'd opened it and read the lines it contained, she looked at him with a little more compassion. "You look hungry. Why don't you come into the kitchen and I'll get you something to eat?"

"Thanks," he said gratefully. "Amtrak food sucks."

After feeding him and taking his boots to be cleaned, Gail hustled him upstairs to the public bathroom next to the slave quarters. "We're short one trainee right now," she said, showing him the bunk bed in the room across the hall. "You really don't realize how lucky you are to be allowed inside. The potential here for you to undo these slaves' training... but I suppose Mrs. Anderson's point is well taken, that you would benefit from talking to them before attempting to take part in an auction." She glared at him. "You have no idea what you're getting yourself into."

"No," he agreed. "I guess not. But I have to start somewhere. And, honestly, no matter what happens, even if this whole thing is a bust... I don't have anything to lose."

Gail sighed. "We've all been there."

Puck ran a finger along the wooden bedpost, over the rings and chains looped around the frame. "So... if I'm staying here, do I have to... follow any rules? How much freedom do I have? Can I, like, go out tonight? See the city? I've only been here once, and it was a lot more chaperoned."

She gave him a reluctant smile. "You're free to do whatever you like, until you sign a slave contract. But I suspect you're going to need a keeper, regardless. You can come out with me and Vicente to the club, if you don't mind hanging out with some boring locals. It'd prevent you from being picked up by some player, at least." She squinted at him. "Or - are you straight?"

"Whatever," he shrugged. "And sure, I'd love that. Thanks."

By the time Puck got himself cleaned up, the slaves-in-training coming off shift had arrived in the slave quarters. They were mostly disdainful of him ("Just a softworlder," murmured one of the girls, letting her eyes slide off him), but a couple of them wanted to hear his story and took him with them to dinner. Their own stories weren't so different - one from Austin, one from Jacksonville, both looking for something their cities couldn't offer, driven by their need to give up control completely.

"You're going to put yourself in the auction? Without a house?" The boy looked incredulous. "Nobody would buy an untrained slave, no matter how gorgeous you are."

"So I'll get trained, then," Puck said. The girl snorted.

"Just like that, huh? You think it's so easy to be placed?" She shook her head. "Don't count on it. You have a lot to learn."

The evening didn't get much better from there. Gail and the house chef, Vincente, took him to their favorite club. He got big x's marked on the backs of his hands with Sharpie, branding him under 21, and after that - for the first time in years, really - Puck found himself largely ignored. Everybody was trying their hardest to get noticed, with their makeup and clothes and moves. Nobody cared much about a boy in a tank top and faded jeans. He tried dancing, but it just felt hollow.

At one point, Gail checked in with him, touching his shoulder. "You don't look like you're having much fun. What, the big city's not what you expected?"

"It's kind of exactly what I expected," he said. "I'm just waiting to find my place."

The slave auction the next day was pretty much what Puck had expected, too. He felt like he'd been thrust into the pages of a racy BDSM novel. He could barely keep from staring as he was checked in, inspected, groomed and undressed. It would have been the most erotic thing he'd ever done, if he hadn't been so terrified.

"Where's your collar?" asked a handler. Puck blinked.

"Uh," he said.

"It doesn't matter. You'll get one from your owner, if you're contracted." He made a loop of rope around Puck's neck and clipped the lead to it, walking with him to a pedestal and leaving him there.

Unfortunately, neither Gail nor the slaves were kidding about Puck being overlooked. He tried his best to sit attentively, to make himself look good, but apparently nobody wanted an "unsponsored green hick."

"They didn't have to call me names," he muttered to Gail that evening, back at the Brooklyn brownstone. Gail cut him a slice of cream cake and placed the fork in his hand.

"Consider this is a long path. So, you're at the beginning. As long as nobody fills that bed upstairs, you're welcome to stay here, and try again in three months, at the next auction." She regarded him thoughtfully. "In the meantime, I bet I can do some things to help you. Let's start by shaving off that mohawk, okay?"

I find a couple of stars in the sky
The rest are all being outshined by the light of this town
So I look down at the ground and see the stars in the sidewalk
But all it does is get me down

'Cause it ain't pretty
The heart of this city
Where everyone's just trying to impress
And yeah I pity
The ones that just try to look pretty
In other words I pity myself

Oh from the valley I look to the mountain to find my only way out
Follow the light from the Belt of Orion

And on the corner's a man with his hand out
All I have to give him is my ever-changing smile
But in the back of my head I want to sit with him and talk with him
But that will keep me there for a while

He is a wanderer
Well so am I
I just have my place to stay
But it makes me wonder
How if everything went under
I would still be okay

Oh from the valley I look to the mountain to find my only way out
Follow the light from the Belt of Orion

I find a couple of stars in the sky
The rest are all being outshined

- The Belle Brigade, "Belt of Orion"

Kurt accepted Rachel's squeal and hug with tolerance, but really, he was glad to see her. "I can't believe you're here!"

He smiled. "No matter how cheerful you pretended to be on the phone, I knew you were miserable."

"NYADA is wonderful, and New York is wonderful, and... yeah," she agreed. "I'm miserable."

"Exactly." He took her arm. "It's ridiculous. Here you are, in New York. I'm here to remind you why you wanted this life to begin with."

He didn't tell Rachel about the other reason he was there until that evening, when they were sprawled on her mattress and had polished off a bottle and a half of viognier.

"A - trainer?" she said, her eyes enormous.

"A trainer of Owners," he clarified. "I can't tell you her name, but Carmen says she is highly regarded in the Marketplace. And I'm willing to believe I could learn something from her."

"Wow." She smiled, resting her head on her hands. "You're really doing this."

"I'm considering it. I'm willing to talk to her. I just know that things aren't always as easy as they appear. I mean, maybe she'll be as awful as your dance teacher is at NYADA. I might hate it."

"Yeah," Rachel agreed. "But maybe it'll still be what you need."