Word Count: 6087
Summary: Pain begot pain, misery sought to create more misery. This was the way of the world.
part 8 of This Small Dark Place at AO3
Many, many thanks to JJ1564, for your support and your help towards making this a better story. Any goofy mistakes found are all mine, because I just couldn't stop fiddling with the darn thing.
"You're old, and just barely passable. You've got...things, lines, around your eyes, and your mouth. Your lips are attractive, I'll give you that. Full lips are always attractive. Your skin though – ugh. Dry."
The man in the black thrall uniform shuddered delicately as he circled a kneeling Jensen. He stopped, and ran his thin fingers through Jen's hair, critically, appraising. "You have passable hair. Your physique is decent. Smooth, soft...you definitely need to be thinner, I think."
The instructor continued his inspection, pursing his lips and narrowing his eyes, his gaze like arrows. Finally, he snapped his fingers and Jensen leaped to his feet, hoping he hadn't looked like an arthritic hippo. His hands twitched as he automatically sought to cover his cock, but he managed to keep them down at his thighs. The instructor noted the slight movement, but only nodded, apparently in approval. Jensen let out a small breath of relief. He had no idea what the punishments were—at the moment, he had no idea what the rules were, so he kept form as he remembered it, and did his best to look attentive and engaged.
"As I've said, you're old, already at an age most bodythralls are retired. But Masters have their likes and dislikes and we have none. I myself was a bodythrall," the man said, and Jensen wasn't sure, but was that a tinge of pride in his words? Jensen managed to transmute a shudder into a blink.
"My services were so appreciated that Master—my original master—sold me to a school, and now, I train the finest thralls in all of Columbia," he stated as he threw his arms wide in a dramatic fashion, before dropping them and backtracking a bit on his boast. "At least on the East Shore. So. Your master is certainly kind, and extremely generous. As a result of your age, it seems we're both to be spared the humiliation of failure. I'm not to instruct you in the finer arts, just the basics." The instructor made a face. "It's almost a waste of my time," he muttered, before going on.
"Breath work, appearance, preparation work...all the things you should have learned out of toddler-hood." He leaned back and stared down his nose at Jensen's faint gasp.
"Oh, I know how you household thralls look down on us. Treat us like we're brainless because we haven't the same sort of schooling, nor wasted time running about the play-yards like savages, hated us because we don't get wrinkled and callused and burnt under the sun. While you house thralls, even hulking, filthy field thralls, have the temerity to imagine you're above us, don't forget—we're the ones they write books about, and songs, perform plays on the stage, and in cinema, all about us. So don't you dare look at me like that—don't you dare."
Jensen dropped his eyes against the instructor's steadily mounting rage. Most thralls thought ill of the bodythralls, but he never had. He knew, from what his mam told him, that out of them all, a body thrall's life was a punishment from the day they were born.
Jensen didn't look down on the instructor, he was afraid of him. Because pain begot pain, misery sought to create more misery, and Jensen was squarely in his sights. "Whatever you desire of me in the service of my master, Sir."
"Well, aren't you a polite one…." The instructor murmured, as he thumbed through a small, leather-bound journal. "Let's see what tasks Master Jared has set for us."
Jensen closed his eyes and hoped with every single atom of his being that Eir and Freyr were looking out for him.
"And you make the paste by adding a bit of goat's milk to it, like so."
Jensen sat, naked and ill at ease, on the edge of a stone bench, frowning down into a little pot balanced on his knees. He wiped away annoying beads of sweat collecting at his hairline—it was always just a touch too warm for him in the bath hall, and at the moment they were seated out of the way near the copper boilers. The headGirl of the baths sat with him, eager to show him what to do. Lifting a small jug of the goat's milk from a tray on the bench, she dribbled a bit into the pot.
"Beat it swiftly, Lucky." She preceded to demonstrate, whisking various powders Jensen had measured into the bowl under her direction together with the milk she'd added, briskly stirring until the mixture began to turn into a loose paste. After it set up, he'd be expected to slather it over his legs, his torso, and his privates—just one part of learning to prepare oneself for the master.
So far, he'd been plucked and tweezed and made to learn how to do it to himself. He'd had to sit in an uncomfortably warm room covered with oil, all to soften his skin and removed the "nasty, calloused, common bits" of his person. He'd had to make a notebook, just to keep track of all the prep work he had to do—to remember when, and how to do it. He could live his whole life without the enemas...they were stupid, and painful, and it wasn't like either one of them didn't know where shit came from. Jensen looked around, quick and furtive. He was beginning to feel like the instructor stalked the inside of his head as well as his body.
He'd been spared having his fingers dyed red—apparently a practice from over the seas that was catching fire in Columbia, and none of his body hair was being permanently removed—at this point. And as Jared had so kindly prevented it, his legs were not going to be undergoing some horrible, experimental procedure to—to—
"Jensen! Let the paste sit too long and it will burn you." The matron dropped a bowl of hot water and soft linens onto the end of the bench. "Be sure you wipe your skin with the oils after."
She set down a tall-necked, light green bottle full of oil and bits of herbs. Jen watched the hypnotic swirl of the herbs as they settled, and sighed—silently, in the safety of his head. Paste, then water, then oil, then brush milk all over, and then a bath and it was. All. So. Pointless.
"There you go. Smells nice, doesn't it?" headGirl derailed the downward spiral of his thoughts, leaving Jensen sort of faintly grateful to her. Sort of—he remembered all too well how thrilled the woman had been when Jensen was sent to her. Positively besides herself with glee.
She was—fine. She was okay. She was nothing like the evil-hearted old crone who'd ruled the baths when he first came as a child. She'd died a few years after he'd been bought, and Jensen could say he honesty never missed her and neither did anyone else. Whether she rested in peace or not, was no one's concern. He doubted she ever got a paper boat burned for her on All Soul's day.
The new headGirl of the baths was a...well, Jensen thought, busybody was a charitable term for the woman. She could be a heedless kind of cruel, while claiming everything she did or said was out of concern. Right.
As soon as she'd risen from stocking the bath to running it, she'd made it her mission to prettify Jensen, whether he was interested or not. Had told him quite a few times that he'd been wasted by not being trained; as if being consigned to a life like that was something to be desired. She'd been quietly disciplined more than once by Mistress for having a loose and thoughtless tongue, and Jensen was certain that she would most likely have been demoted or sold off if Mistress Patricia hadn't been so suddenly stolen from them.
"Such a pity we're not doing makeup, or any piercings." She huffed. "Well, at least we have a start. I'll see if I can get the young master's ear. Such a beautiful canvas shouldn't be wasted. I'm sure Master Gerolt would agree with me."
She smiled at Jensen as if she hadn't been mulling over how to get the master to mutilate him. Jensen stared at her, struck with how lizard-like she looked; there wasn't a jot of warmth in her reptilian eyes. He didn't bother to smile back, just concentrated on meticulously wiping the warm oil on his skin, making sure every bit the paste had touched was covered, peered around the bath hall as he did. He caught a few bath girls quickly looking away from him, and understood. His decline in position had been swift, and now he was an object of speculation—or had been until recently. Now he was on the lowest rung of the thrall ladder. The Masters might prize their bodythralls, and treat them like pets, but the Household saw bodythralls much, much differently.
The world of the bath hall was another matter altogether.
The bath hall had never been a place he was welcomed in. It wasn't a place he was particularly unwelcome in, either. The halls had little connection to the house, or to the kitchen, or the land. It was its own world, with its own rules and its own master—outside of the Estate's Master, of course. Any time he entered the hall, he only had the favor of the master to protect him from sharp tongues, snide asides, and rumor—the subtle sabotage that was a thrall's only weapon. He might have been a favorite of the house, but here in this world he'd only ever been an ordinary thrall.
"Oh goodness, let me do it. You're so slow." The headGirl took his arm, and began brushing milk over his still stinging skin. "You know, we could probably get rid of these spots, too. Oh, I know the instructor said the young master wants them not to be touched, but I wonder…."
Jensen retreated into his head and let the woman ramble on. Whatever she wanted, whatever he wanted, mattered not at all. The word rested on the masters. He remembered how horrible it had been, those first hours on the estate, how cold and indifferent the people who were now his major supports had seemed to him then. He remembered how frightened and alone he'd felt. He knew, too, how awful and lonely and desperate a bodythrall's life was. No wonder some of them clung so desperately to their masters—who else did they have to turn to?
Jen was enjoying a rare day off. The lessons he'd had the day before had been intense, and master Jared had ordered that Jensen not come back to his rooms—or to instructions—until he was satisfied that Jen had recovered. The weather was just beginning to turn, a little bit warmer, a little bit windier, and speaking of wind, a breeze grabbed the hem of his gray uniform jacket and whipped it around his legs. He struggled to hold the edges of the jacket in place, and whirled when he heard chuckling behind him, embarrassed to be caught out.
"Hoo, there, Lucky. What are you doing out on this fine afternoon?" Mark smiled, and in this light, it was clear to see the edge of sadness always lurking in the corners of his smile these days.
"Young Master gave me holidays—two of them."
Mark frowned. "Oh, did he now? And how are you, my little Lucky? Are your, ah, lessons going well?"
Knowing that Mark knew full well the nature of his lessons and the need for a holiday, Jensen felt his cheeks burning, making his embarrassment—and anger—worse; he was certain he'd flushed so red, he was visible to any airship flying overhead. "They are fine, my lessons are fine, husbandman's assistant."
"Ah. Fair enough. Sorry," Mark said, and his own cheeks flushed faintly pink. He bowed his head, then gave Jen a sly wink. "On to more pleasant things?" and smiled wider when Jensen smiled back.
"Come along, young Lucky, come along." He held out his arm, elbow crooked, and waited for Jensen to link arms with him, then led him down to the garage. "There's been a new addition, two, actually."
Jensen couldn't say that what sat in the garage was what he expected, but he was fascinated by what he found.
There, parked where Old Reliable used to sit, was a huge, multi-colored, glistening yacht of a car. It was black and red and purple—Padalecki colors—with bright chrome trim.
William was sitting near it on a rickety old thing that looked like it might have done duty as a milking stool once upon a time. His pipe was clenched in his teeth, though miracles of miracles, not in use. He seemed to be contemplating the car, glowing in the light that streamed from the overhead windows.
It was really quite dramatic, Jen thought, the way the light highlighted the sensuous curve of the car's deep purple fenders, struck little stars along the sweep of its chrome grill. The color and shape of the car looked so rich and smooth he itched to sweep his hands along its metal flanks. Mark echoed Jen's feeling. "Wow, that's quite a beauty he's got himself."
William nodded. "Yup. It's custom from the floor up, a made-to-order." he said. "'S'all the rage right now. Should make quite the picture, Hisself behind the wheel an' all. Kinda like a cow pat on a porcelain plate," he chortled.
"Now, now, Will,"Mark scolded him. "That's a mighty generous description of the old man."
Jen bit his lip to keep from laughing. He loved it whenever Will and Mark got together. They were entirely too entertaining. He watched them back and forth with each other, until Mark gestured for Jen to come over, and he trotted across the garage floor to where they stood.
"Eh, Lucky, forgot to introduce you to the newest member of the staff. This fellow here," Mark turned and banged on the bonnet, and a head popped up over the side.
"Hey, mind yourself!" The person glaring at Mark was a tall, blonde, attractive boy. Man, Jensen amended when he strode out from around the front of the car and held his hand out to Jensen. "Jake," he said. "Driver and nursemaid to this behemoth." He tossed a glance back towards the car; it was a look full of fondness.
"Yeah, like you're not already harboring unnatural feelings for that thing," Mark laughed.
Jake slapped a slightly grease-stained hand over his heart, and pretended to stagger in horror. "Gertrude, you ignore this man. He has no soul."
Shaking his head, Will laughed at their antics. "She's all yours, Jake. Carve out whatever space you need for 'er, and give us a list of tools and all. Don't give it directly to master, boy—you seek out me, or Landsman, or the masterHouseboy, Jim. Oh, and expect our Tech to come breathin' down your neck. He's going to be quite excited, that one."
Will grunted a bit as he heaved himself up from the milk stool—Jake was there to grab his elbow and help him stand. "Thanks for that. And son, the best advice I can give you is not to have anything to do with Master or his ilk outside of driving his car. It was a damn fine estate, but since the mistress passed, there's been a bad change. Hard life for a slave."
Jake just nodded. "I hear you, and I thank you for the information. I'll keep it in mind." Jake turned his attention then from Will to Jen. "You like what you see, young one?" he grinned, and Jensen nearly combusted before he realized Jake meant the car.
"Oh yes, it's very impressive. My former master Patrick had an electric sedan—though nothing as pretty as this—and it was a wonderfully smooth ride. We all quite liked it." He had a quick, pleasant flash of memory; himself as a tiny boy sitting in the rumble seat of Master Patrick's sedan, clutching a picnic basket and smiling with excitement as the road whizzed past them.
"Well, when it's allowed, we can go for rides in it, you and me and Mark. Maybe a roomgirl or two as well," he laughed, and Jen froze inside. He didn't think the idea of someone calling for the defenseless little roomgirls would ever not turn him to ice.
Mark came over to him and laid a warm hand on his shoulder. "He's not talking about the little ones like Trinny, he means the feisty, evil ones like Annie."
Mark's sly comment shook a laugh out of Jen and helped him thaw a bit.
As a toddler, Annie had been as sweet as Trinny, but she'd certainly grown into a sharp-tongued one, tough as rawhide and sharp as a blade. 'Cook loved her, Jim respected her, and even Master Gerolt seemed to take steps to avoid crossing paths with her.
She was the same age as Jensen, keeping her safe from most of Gerolt's comrades, though Jen had seen her in the kitchen late at night as well, whispered voices and muffled tears that he ignored for her sake. He glanced at Jake and thought, now how would he handle Annie—and would he even survive an attempt?
Mark chuckled. "I see those wheels turning, Lucky. Don't you dare go there. Poor Jake doesn't deserve to be served up on a platter like pig's meat."
"What?" Jensen giggled. "I'm not thinking a thing," he said. Mark grinned wide, the warmest smile Jen had seen on the man in some time. He wrapped his arm around Jen's thin shoulders, and squeezed.
"Ah, Lucky. You have no idea what a gem you are."
Time passed quickly; all too soon, Jensen was healed, and back to his lessons, back to his daily reminder that his life was not his own. This day, the instructor had breathing exercises on the schedule. Jensen hated breathing exercises so much. The hated exercises involved enduring steadily escalating pain, while keeping his breath even and steady. Learning not to give vent to pain. During those sessions, he hated Master Gerolt completely, so deeply, it was almost ecstasy.
Instructor was just finishing lacing a series of thin needles across Jen's shoulders; nothing he did left permanent marks as he'd been ordered by Jared not to. When he considered the lesson complete, he took pictures, and removed the needles, cleaned Jensen and then had Jensen clean the room. Earlier, his breathing exercises had involved keeping tubes of various sizes in his mouth and throat. Those lessons had frightened him very much. The panicky feeling of not being able to breathe had been difficult to overcome. Instructor had beat him for crying, for losing control and panicking.
"Tomorrow, you learn something new." Instructor laid out a series of belts and buckles on a table. "Master Gerolt is having a party at the end of the month and he wants you to serve. "
Jensen kept his head down, eyes on the floor. He didn't want to know what the tangle of straps and buckles were. He hoped they weren't some new restraint system. He hadn't taken well to any kind of restraints so far, much to Instructor's irritation. A tear squeezed out, rolling down his cheek to leave a round, damp spot on the floor.
Instructor sucked his teeth in annoyance.
"You are really a waste of time and money, Jensen. You cry in the restraints, you cry whether I use a flogger or a paddle, you cry under blindfolds—really Jensen. What are you good for except as a—a—water-feature? I should recommend Master install you in the garden. Oh, go on, boy—you're dismissed."
When they gathered in the kitchen for dinner, or while doing the few chores he was still allowed, Jensen had time to notice that Jake the driver and Mark seemed to gravitate towards each other. Mark worked most days from dawn to dusk with masterHusbandman, but managed to chip some time out of his daily work to spend with Jake; picking up the workings of the sedan, tinkering with things that were mysterious and unknown to Jensen. It was clear to Jen how much Mark enjoyed working with the cars. masterHusbandman was keen enough to notice as well, and eventually decided, along with Landsman and Wagonhandler that Mark's place was more properly with the estate's vehicles.
They approached Jim with the proposition that Mark once again shift his assignment, and after a bit of brow-beating and some loudly expressed opinion on William's part, Jim agreed—thus letting go of the final, infinitesimally small shred of hope he'd had that Mark would come back to where he belonged, in Jim's opinion. Jensen was there for their entire conversation/discussion, quietly sitting in the dark corner he'd sneaked into to do some of the monthly ordering for Jim. Jensen felt for him, he really did. Jim's disappointment was palpable, but in the end, there was only one choice. Good, old, crusty, grumpy Jim—he really was awfully indulgent when it came to his former assistant. The bottom line was he'd do nearly anything if it pleased Mark. Jensen shook his head. One would think Mark was the old man's son, the way he doted on him—in his own grumpy way.
It was only a few days later when Jim spoke with the master; barely a day after that, Mark was in his new assignment. Soon there were several more cars on the estate, a mix of electric and steam. Mark seemed particularly enamored of a big old steam van, a rust-blighted, second hand thing almost as ugly as Old Reliable. He shared with Jensen that he planned someday to transport horses in it. He'd begun looking into selling and buying horses—not the massive Percherons that pulled the thrall wagons, but lithe, fast horses meant to race. Master Jared had expressed some interest in the plan, and Mark would do what he could to foster that interest.
"It'll get the little master out to other estates, and—call on the Four—away from the old man," he'd confided to Jim, Jen and a few trusted thralls as they sat over coffee one evening in the kitchen.
"Smart, that," said the thrall who'd acted as nurse to the damaged little boy Jensen had helped take care of not long ago. "Do what you can to separate them, Mark. I'm worried, though...separating 'em might not to be enough anymore. The boy took readily enough to his sire's games."
Jensen felt a flare of anger—who did they think they were, to speak of the master like that?
Mark just smiled, patted Jen's knee under the table, and they went on to speak of something else.
Jensen began to be suspicious of Jake; he'd begun to wonder just what it was that Mark had seen in him that was positive. He'd catch Jake strolling in from the field thrall cottages, the section where mams and their toddlers lived. He'd see him playing with the toddlers, bringing them and their mams small gifts, just the kind of things thralls were so grateful to have—tea, sugar, cloth, fresh fruits.
Jensen began to worry that Jake was the same kind of man that Gerolt was. Jensen took to watching the way the man played with the toddlers, making up all sorts of clever games that earned the little ones prizes: cookies, little wrapped candies, second-hand little clockworks. Master, of course, was more than willing to indulge Jake in this, and insinuated himself into their games. He sat at the sidelines, watching them dash around an indoor makeshift track Jake was allowed to set up in the garage, occasionally the master gave out little prizes as well, sometimes demanding kisses and hugs in return. It made Jensen shudder, watching them, knowing there was no one, no way to keep it from happening.
As the weather brightened from early spring to mid-spring, Jake gathered the little ones around him to help with the cars, from the smallest tots just learning how to walk, to the ones in their last toddler years. They washed the trucks and cars, climbing in and out and in general, treating the estate vehicles like their own play-yard. They cleaned the cars, or ran the "obstacle" course Jake set up, climbing ropes. They got swimming lessons in an old tank Jake set up, their toddler dresses set aside, as they leaped screaming, naked as jaybirds, into the water, or played rabbit and fox in the bushes, the object of which was to silently and stealthily hide. The prize was given to the toddler who could hide the longest and be the quietest...those games Jake judged all alone.
Even the mothers helped when they were allowed free time. It was nice for all of them, toddlers and mothers included, to have a few minutes when the only thing that mattered was a bit of fun—and when Jake could manage, an extra meal.
It was a new thing for the whole estate, and most thought it was a good thing, this toddlers having a chance to be children for the short time that they were. Jensen was torn between his suspicions regarding Jake and his wish for the toddlers to have something good. As for the master, Gerolt never complained about the use of estate resources; he watched the toddlers avidly, hot eyes glittering above ruddy cheeks, exchanging small, oily smiles with Jake.
The days grew longer and warmer. Jake sometimes went off with one or two of the toddlers; he'd always come back alone, looking a little rumpled and red-faced. Jensen was beyond suspicions now, and began to hate Jake, hated when he heard his voice calling out for the little ones. It was only when Mark would appear, joining in the games with Jake, that Jensen's watchfulness would ease somewhat. As long as Mark was there, the toddlers were safe as possible.
It was coming up on the middle days of Freyr's month, and the estate was bustling. The preparations weren't as elaborate as the Yule season, or Thanksgiving, but the Padalecki estate had always celebrated and Master Gerolt continued the tradition. More than likely, Jensen thought, he just hadn't been aware of it and since no one canceled it, the observation of it played on unnoticed, like an iconoscope yapping into an empty room.
This particular Saturday morning was an official day of rest, made that much more special by Gerolt being out of the state for a week. There was a subtle air of celebration all around. Jensen took advantage of it by gently nudging Jared in the direction of excusing Jen from the endless instruction and preparation that his days had become. Jared had declared, as if the thought was strictly his own, that they were taking a day all to themselves.
Instructor would have been proud of the way Jen had subtly influenced his master—and then had him beat bloody at the posts. But Jensen was smart enough to slip under the man's notice, and clever enough to cloud Jared's mind, just a bit, just enough. After all, wasn't putting his master to ease part of his training?
Jen had begged a picnic basket out of 'Cook, who gave it over with a lot of grumbling and harrumphing and calling Jen back to her, in order to shove another treat for the master into the basket, or a treat she knew was one of Jen's favorites.
Huffing and puffing under the weight of the overloaded basket, he caught up with Jared in the field. Jared had outright laughed at the sight of Jensen staggering towards him, red-faced but grinning, and that was worth any amount of work. They'd headed out past the vegetable garden, which was leafing out, and would soon yield the first crop. Jensen inhaled deeply. It was glorious to smell the bright scent of vegetables, the sweet, heavy scent of flowers in bloom—it was a wonderful change from oil and rubber and leather. The hum of bees weaving in and out of the fruit trees' branches, some of which were just beginning to sway with the weight of new, green fruit. It was wonderfully reminiscent of long ago days when Mistress still lived, and Jared and Jensen only had to be Jared and Jensen.
They walked on, both of them laughing when Jared had to jump out of the way of a messenger on a green and white roperpede. As he zigged around the boys, he tossed a "So sorry" behind himself, and an "Official business!" before tearing around a corner.
"I wonder what that was all about?" Jared mused, watching the clouds of dust the roperpede left behind settle again.
"No idea, Master," Jensen murmured. He was careful to never call Jared by his name in public; instructor had let it be known that it was an important part of his training—probably the most important. Not even on a day like today, with few rules in play, could make him forget. "Seems like it's heading towards the house." He glanced over to Jared, caught the faint frown creasing his brow. "Do you want to go back, do you think staff might need you to receive the message…?"
Jared shook his head. "No, I can receive it in the evening just as well as now. If it's very important, Jim will send someone for me."
Jensen was secretly very pleased. If Jared was staying, that meant he was staying as well. He inhaled fresh air greedily, and smiled up into of the sun, eyes closed so that he could devote himself to enjoying its warmth, until Jared jabbed him in the ribs.
"C'mon then, Jen. Let's find a good spot to empty this thing. I'm hungry."
They ended up under a little grouping of trees behind the garage, not very far from the lot where the cars were washed. There were situated just so—there was sun, and also just enough shade to make it a pleasant spot, especially with a couple of blankets thrown down. The thick grass under the trees made it as comfortable as a bed.
Jared sat cross-legged in the middle of the blanket, watching Jake and Mark as they pulled a few cars into the lot. In the blink of an eye, the cars were swarming with toddlers.
Jared flipped a cube of cheese into the air, and caught it in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully as he watched the little ones split up into teams to play Jake's games. "Shouldn't they be in the kitchens, in the fields, or the stables?" he asked Jensen. "Why are they all clambering all over the cars?"
"Jake had permission from your father. The toddlers help out here, or play those...games, when they're not required in their regular duties. Master Gerolt enjoys their...playfulness. As does Jake," he muttered and watched the man grab up a pair of three year olds and dash around the yard with them. There were a few mothers watching from the sidelines, biting their lips and casting quick, nervous glances towards where Jared and Jensen sat.
After a few minutes, Jared asked in the flat, emotionless tone Jen had come to dread,"Does my father play with them?"
"Play with them, Master?" Jensen asked. He stalled a bit for time, knowing full well what Jared asked but wanting to avoid the conversation with all his might. "No, Master, he does not," Jensen was able to honestly answer. He knew that Master looked, but so far, had not touched—not even the trayboys, not since that one little damaged one had disappeared. Jensen wasn't a fool, he was well aware it was only a matter of time; still, he couldn't help but hope for the toddlers safety.
Jensen watched Mark lead the toddlers through an amusing exercise—they walked along a fence rail, struggling to keep their balance, and laughing nearly as loud as free children did. Mark's sly, slinky laugh wound in and out of the toddlers shouts of encouragement to each other, their disappointed yelps when one fell. Mark helped each one across, helped the ones who tumbled. He was endlessly patient, kind in his dry, sarcastic, way...why couldn't Mark see past the false smile that hid Jake's slimy soul? He was angry that Mark, clever as he was, couldn't see Jake for who—what—he was. It hurt to see Mark and that man laughing together, walking together—
Jensen gasped softly. Was he jealous of Mark and Jake's closeness?
He thought about it, turning over their relationship in his mind, and decided that no, while he felt close to Mark, and loved him, it was for his rough kindness and support; the love he felt was more that of a brother, not a lover.
"Good," Jared murmured, and Jensen jumped—startled by what seemed like Jared reading his mind, but of course, he was replying to what Jensen had said about his father. He just managed to stifle a nervous chuckle, covered it by leaning over the basket to offer Jared something cool to drink.
Jared walked through the kitchen doors with his purloined buttered roll, out to the place in the herb garden, a place he liked to spend time in because his father and his little band of hangers-on did not. Jensen, trailing the correct two feet behind him, saw that he wasn't eating the roll so much as tearing it into bits—a welcome feast for the birds. Jared seemed deep in thought, so Jensen did his best not to intrude on his masters thoughts, yet watch him closely to be instantly available for whatever he might need. In being trained to see Jared as someone to be catered to above all else, he'd almost lost sight of him as anything but a task; some days, he could barely remember being friends with the boy. Jared stopped and Jensen, having learned to be attuned to him, stopped within the prescribed distance.
"I'm attending a party tomorrow, that means you are as well. Go to that instructor; he'll help prepare you to be the way I want you." With that Jared made a hand-signal that meant stay this amount of time and walked away.
Jensen waited. Jared had signaled ten minutes, so Jensen stood in the center of the garden, still as a statue, and waited as thralls quickly walked around him. No one spoke to Jensen when he wore a short black jacket over his shirt. It was something that he was incredibly grateful for: that no one spoke to him when he was Jared's bodythrall, and that Jared was satisfied with the jacket as a sign of service. Jensen was well aware that most bodythralls wore collars. Some wore nothing at all, or only wore that hideous collection of straps and rings Instructor had him practicing with lately—a harness that was almost worse than nothing at all—
A sudden wave of nausea dropped Jensen to his knees, left him with his head swimming, his heart slamming in his chest like a rabbit's. Oh, no, Jared. Oh no.
Foolishly, it had never occurred to him that Jared would want that on Jensen outside of the bedroom. What a fool he was, what an idiot. No wonder Jared hadn't used his name, or met his eyes; no wonder he'd left him in the garden alone.
His breath shuddered in and out, in and out, but finally he stumbled to his feet when he heard footsteps on the gravel. It was Annie who'd stepped into the path, luckily for Jensen.
"Lucky, you need help?"
He shook his head, eyes on the stones, blinking frantically to keep tears in check.
"You going to be okay?" He nodded, and she stepped away from him. "Alright. See you at dinner."
She walked away without another word. Jensen understood her actions for what it was. She was giving him what dignity she could.