Chapter 37: Difficult

Hawk stopped Snake Eyes just before he was about to leave. His face was sympathetic, but his words were firm. "Snake Eyes, I want you to understand. Shana is not only my soldier, but she's my friend, too. I miss her. I miss her more than you know. But I have a responsibility to everyone under my command, like Cam, and if she can't find Shana in a reasonable amount of time, I'm not willing to sacrifice her health, both physical and mental, and her safety. I don't know what going back into sexual slavery is going to do to her, psychologically and emotionally; I don't think even she knows herself, but I'm expecting it to be bad. Whether she comes back with Shana or not, she'll be back in six months. Her plan is a long shot and I can't even begin to predict how this will go."

Snake Eyes understood, although he couldn't empathize. Shana was everything to him, and the last three weeks without her had been absolute torture. Hell, he'd come to realize, wasn't where you went after you died; for him, hell was life without Shana beside him.

He'd never realized until now how much he loved her, needed her, depended on her. All those times when Flint and Allie had needled Shana and him about when they were going to settle down, get married, and he and Shana had scoffed, laughed, agreed that there was plenty of time for that, there was no rush. And although they'd both known, intellectually, that each time they went out could be the last time, it had never hit him until now. Not even when one of their enemies had shot her in the head; he'd been out of it and it had never really hit him.

But seeing Shana taken from him in the Congo , with him absolutely helpless to do anything about it, had dealt a blow to his confidence and certainty. And as the days went by, one after the other, with no sight or sign of Shana, his anguish grew, his regret that he hadn't made the most out of every single minute he'd ever had with her, hadn't done more of the things that she wanted to do. He looked back at all the free evenings they'd spent on base because he was too insecure and self-conscious to go out, worried about what other people might think or say about his scarred face; about the times when she'd sacrificed some little pleasure she could have had in consideration of his feelings, his wants, his desires. Not going to a rock concert for one of her favorite bands because he wouldn't go with her; not going on a bar crawl with Courtney and Wayne because he wouldn't; a few months ago there had been a movie that they had both wanted to see when it came out, but he'd balked at going to the theater with her. She'd coaxed, cajoled, pleaded, begged him to come with her, but he'd stood firm; he didn't want to go to a public theater with that many people, so when Court and Allie and Alex and Liv had gotten tickets and were taking Wayne, Dash, Ettienne and Clayton, he'd refused and Shana had declared that if he wasn't going, she wouldn't either.

And he'd seen Courtney slipping into her quarters with the movie, on DVD, a couple of days ago and it had hit him with a pang; that movie she had wanted so desperately to see was now out, but because of his selfishness, she'd missed it and now might never have a chance to see it. She could be dying now, or dead; over the last few nights his dreams had all been of a vague, formless darkness, of a heavy lassitude that weighed down his limbs and kept him from moving, a feeling like he was wrapped in thick cotton wool. He'd talked to Doc soon after the dream in which he'd woken to find his wrists bleeding in the exact same place Shana's had been, and although Doc hadn't come straight out and said 'you're nuts', his suggestion that Snake Eyes talk to Psyche-Out was hint enough.

But he couldn't shake the conviction that his dreams were more than that, that somehow he was able to feel a little of what she was feeling, and while knowing what was happening to her hurt, it was also his indicator that she was still alive. And as much as he hated the dreams, curling up in her bed after one and crying in sadness and loneliness and need for her, he was grateful for the knowledge that she was indeed still alive.

He'd barely understood what Cam was offering to do, initially; when he finally understood he was floored. Cam's past should have made her the last one to want to go into that kind of situation—but she was the first to volunteer to participate—it had even been her plan.

So when she intercepted him just as he was about to leave the conference room with a quiet, "I have a couple of questions for you," he gave her a simple nod and allowed her to precede him through the door into the hallway.

Over the last week whenever someone had stopped him in the hallway or offered to walk with him for a short distance, they would immediately start to fill the awkward silence with some platitude about how she would be all right, they would find her, and while he understood that they meant it and were telling him that as much for their comfort as his own, he had come to despise the words and had started to avoid people because he didn't want to hear them. Cam, however, did no such thing; their entire trip back to Shana's quarters was accomplished in silence, and as they go there and he was about to vanish inside and close the door, she said quietly, "I have a personal question I'd like to ask, but feel free not to answer it if you don't want to."
He opened the door to Shana's quarters, hesitated, then swung it open wider and stepped inside. Cam followed him, taking a seat in the chair parked at the desk, still with the unfinished letter to Sean sitting atop it, the pen waiting in the exact same place.

"I need to know if Shana has any identifying marks on her by which I can identify her even if I can't see her face or her face is unrecognizable."

Snake Eyes stared at her, and she flinched but didn't back down. "We're soldiers and this is our best friend we're talking about. You know the reality as well as I do, I don't need to point this out to you." She took a deep breath. "In a slave market if a slave comes in with a very distinctive birthmark or tattoo, depending on the size they will either get rid of it by holding hot metal to the skin to literally brand it away or they will slide a knife under the skin and cut deeply enough to 'skin' that tattoo from the slave and remove it. But if the slave is an extraordinarily beautiful female, or for whatever reason fetches a very, very high price on the market, they will skip removal. That's why I want to, need to, know if Shana had a tattoo or any kind of very distinctive birthmark."

Snake Eyes thought for a minute, then went and sat down on Shana's bed, reaching for the bottom drawer of Shana's night table. Still silent, he passed the photo album he took from the drawer and handed it to Cam.

She opened it…and her mouth fell open. Shana. Pictures of Shana, in ways that Cam hadn't seen her before. Happy, laughing carefree, not a single trace of the stern drill sergeant façade she put on at Joe base. The setting was somewhere in the mountains somewhere; Cam saw what looked like a log cabin behind her, but in a modern, contemporary style. Shana stood in the doorway, laughing; Shana running barefoot through the meadow; Shana in a bikini stretched out asleep on a towel laid out in a wooden pier; Shana, standing in a white sweater and jeans in the middle of a snow covered meadow, snow falling thickly around her and her arms outstretched, laughing in the middle of the falling snow.

She turned the page, and saw pictures of Shana and Snake together. Some clearly taken at Joe base; lots of pictures of costume parties at clubs and locations that obviously allowed you to dress, Cam got the feeling it was probably at Halloween; a picture of Snake Eyes, shirtless, sprawled out on a couch at the cabin sound asleep. Little glimpses of the life he'd shared with her, a life he'd taken for granted until suddenly now it had ended, a life that he now realized had been tainted and limited by his own self-consciousness, one that he now regretted with every fiber of his being.

And then she turned the page and saw the photo he'd meant for her to see. A photo of two hips side by side, one Snake Eyes by the wisp of dark blond sandy hair at the left edge of the picture, the other Shana's by the deep auburn curls at the right edge of the picture. Two matching tattoos; Japanese Kanji characters surrounded by a Celtic knot, delicate strands interwoven between each other. "Yours is her name, and her tattoo is yours. You guys got matching tattoos on your hips?" a hint of exasperated humor in her voice at his nod. "Why haven't you gotten married yet?"

He shrugged, not having an answer for that. She saw the look in his eyes, softened. "I'm sorry. That wasn't a nice thing to say." He started to shake his head, to tell her it would be all right, but she stopped him by leaning forward to catch his attention. "I am going to make you a promise. It doesn't matter what Hawk said, that he'll bring me back in a month if I haven't found her yet. If she is still alive out there, if I don't find her this time I'll find some way to go out again. I won't stop looking for her until we know what happened to her, one way or another. I swear to you, Snake Eyes, I will find her." She closed the photo album. "Thank you for the picture. You'll know I have her when the transponder stops for two weeks, okay? Remember that. Hang onto that. I will do everything I can to protect her; she's not used to losing control like this, she's not used to pain, and I will try to take as much of that as I can so she won't have to until you guys find us. I swear it." She handed him the photo album and slipped quietly out of the room.

Allie crossed her arms and tapped her foot as Cam stepped into the workout room and closed the door, then locked it. "You said for us to meet you here in an hour. It's been a little more than that."

"It took me a little longer to get ready than I thought it would. It's been a long time." Cam's face was flushed as she put a duffel bag on the floor and unzipped it, then stood and in one smooth movement she skimmed off her fatigue pants and shrugged out of her fatigue top.

"No!" Allie yelped as Cam started to take off her underwear and bra. "Cam…"

"In order for us to pull this off you have to be used to what I look like. This is necessary." Duke and Allie watched silently as a now-naked Cam folded her fatigues and underclothing and set them in a neat pile to one side; then reached inside the duffel bag. "This is a collar. You need to know how to put this on."

Duke held up his hands. "Cam…no, I can't…"

Cam said tightly, "Duke. When you and Allie take me into the market, I'll have to be in this collar and on the end of this leash. When they decide to buy me you'll have to take this off so they can out theirs on. Put it on."

He took the collar from her, and she stood quietly, showing no sign of embarrassment at her nudity in front of them as she lifted her hair out of the way. "Pull the buckle tight behind it. The buckle has to be in back, with the D-ring in front for the leash to hook to. It should be tight enough that it won't slide around my neck, but not tight enough to constrict my breathing. Some Masters like the collar to be tighter—it keeps the slave's face flushed, but in this case if I need to move fast it can't constrict my breathing." She held up the leash. "Hook that to the d-ring on the collar."

Allie felt peculiar doing this; it seemed foreign, alien, and she felt dirty and uncomfortable. Cam didn't react, just waited until Allie was done, then took cuffs from out of the bag. "Ankle cuffs can be put on by the slave, but wrist cuffs are usually put on by the handler or owner or master. These were designed to hold the weight of a person, so they are very thick and wide and have heavy buckles. You'll have to make these tight because if the dealer asks for a demonstration they may be tested. I doubt it, but you never know, so the cuffs will have to be tight. If you look at the leather strips, you can see the place where my Uncle used to position the buckles. Just use them."

Duke's expression was getting darker and darker as he buckled the cuffs around her wrists, but he balked when Cam brought up the next item of equipment. "Cam, my God, no!"

Allie, too, sounded dismayed. "I do NOT want you walking through the streets of Amsterdam wearing that!"

Cam sighed. "This is not about what we want, it's about what we have to do to bring Shana back. You two have known Shana for longer than I have, why aren't you willing to do whatever it takes to bring her back? She was your friend longer than mine, but no one here, no one, is willing to do what it takes to get her back!" Her voice rose in anger, with an edge of hysteria. "You can't possibly think this is easy for me too. I nearly died doing this, I was ready to kill to get out of this life! But she is my friend and I owe her and I am willing to do everything that I can possibly do to help get her back and I don't understand why everyone here isn't willing to do the same!"

She threw down the item she'd been holding and stalked to the other side of the room, head bowed, and Allie and Duke watched her go, slightly stunned. She rarely ever lost her temper with anyone, and the fact that she had done so now meant she had to be under a lot of stress indeed.

Her scars stared back at them, a mute reminder of just what she had been through, of how much all of this knowledge had cost her. And Allie felt a niggling little feeling of guilt as she crossed the room and touched Cam's arm. "Cam. I'm sorry. I—we—know how much this cost you and we know how it hurts. And we're very, very fortunate to have you with us, to have you willing to use this hard-won knowledge to help us get Shana back. We just…we really didn't think it was going to be quite so hard. We can't even imagine some of the things you must have gone through, and a lot of what you've told us…I don't know how to act that way, Cam, neither Duke nor I do."

"I understand that I really do. But if we want to make this work, we have to." Cam scrubbed at her tear-damp eyes. "Come on."

She picked up that particular piece of equipment again, and Allie and Duke both swallowed down their revulsion enough to listen to what she was telling them. "When we get there the dealer is going to ask for a demonstration of my skills. Since you both said I'm not going to be demonstrating those on either of you—"

"Cam, please understand—I can't, the very thought of you forced to to—do that—to either one of us is repugnant."

Cam nodded. "So I'm going to be wearing this harness. It can either be used as an excuse for why I'm not available—Master Singletary wants me to be uncomfortable for the trip—or it'll prepare me for the possibility of the dealer wanting to try me out."

"He's going to…right in front of us?" Duke shook his head. "Cam—I can't."

"You can and you have to. You are Master Singletary's handlers, getting rid of another used-up slave. You don't care what I look like, you don't care what happens to me, I'm a paper plate that's been used and now just needs to be tossed out, a tissue taken from a box, used to blow your nose on, and thrown away. A thing, property, chattel. Damaged and useless and worthless chattel. Normally the handler uses themselves to demonstrate the slave's worth; in this case, you can say that after what Master Singletary did, scarring me and running me, neither of you find me attractive anymore and you're repulsed by me.

"At that point the dealer is probably going to demand that I demonstrate. So I'll have to perform for him—most likely let him have sex with me, or give him oral, and then he'll test my obedience. After which he'll give you whatever he thinks I'm worth, you'll go on your way, and I'll be taken to the slaves' area—and that's where I'll start looking for Shana. I'll keep my eyes and ears open and I'll find her."

"This whole thing sounds brutal and unbelievable. I can't believe stuff like this goes on today, it sounds like barbarians in the dark ages." Duke said angrily.

"In today's world where anyone can start with nothing and become a billionaire, where you can have anything you want if you only have enough money, the ultimate status symbol is having enough money that you can buy a person, have power of life and death over that person. And for women, who are particularly vulnerable, the power lies in having control over their bodies, to be able to force them to do something even if they don't want to. In the US here, taking advantage of a woman like that is taboo, a violation of her rights. So if you have enough money that you can buy that right from her, then owning a woman to whom you can do anything, at anytime, is the ultimate status symbol, the ultimate power trip. That's why they do this."

"I could never do that."

"And that's what separates you from them."