Slavery, 99

The Thing About Empowering People to Make Their Own Decisions Is That Their Decisions Won’t Always Be What You Want

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Greg didn’t smile as he cut Simon’s throat, and that made it scarier. Simon fell to the ground, blood spraying all over Daniel, and Greg moved with Roderick to Marcus and Hugh. “Stop!”

But they didn’t. Roderick stabbed Marcus in the heart, and then both of them fell on Hugh, stabbing him over and over and Daniel couldn’t, he just couldn’t stop them and there was so much blood and he couldn’t do anything and…

Daniel woke up with a whimper, sucking hard on his thumb. He could feel his heart racing, and all he could see was blood everywhere.

“Shh,” the Master said, stroking Daniel’s hair. “It’s all right, Daniel, you’re all right.”

“M…” Daniel took his thumb out of his mouth. “Master?”

“I’m here, Daniel.”

Daniel started crying even though it made him look stupid, sitting up and throwing his arms around the Master. “M-M-Master!” he sobbed, hiding his face in the Master’s shoulder. “I had, I had I had a bad dream! G-Greg and Rod-Roderick were there and they killed everyone! They killed Simon and Marcus and Hugh and you too, Master! And Darwin was there too and he tried to kill me, and I tried to run away but everyone just kept getting killed and it was, it was so scary and there was so much blood everywhere and you were all dead and…”

“Shh,” the Master said, patting Daniel’s back. “Hush, Daniel, calm down. It was only a dream. You’re safe, and nobody has died.”

“But, but what if they have?” Daniel cried, shaking his head. “What if Greg and Roderick and Darwin came back while I was sleeping and what if they killed everyone?” It seemed like something they would do. They were scary and mean.

“They didn’t. Look behind you, Hugh is right here and he’s perfectly fine.”

Daniel didn’t believe him, but he looked over his shoulder. Hugh was standing there, watching Daniel. “Hugh!”

Daniel leapt out of the Master’s lap, clambering over the table to hug Hugh tight, still crying. “I’m so happy you’re okay,” he said, still crying, but not as much now. “I was so afraid, I had such a bad dream, you died in it, I’m so glad you’re okay, I love you.”

“I know, Hugh said, holding Daniel. “It’s okay, Daniel. I’m okay, and so is everyone else. I love you too.”

Daniel nodded, and he let Hugh hold him until he felt better, which took a long time. Then he stepped back, wiping his eyes. He knew he didn’t have to be afraid of dreams, but it had been a really scary dream. “I’m sorry I didn’t come back to the room. I had to have a nap.” He hadn’t been that tired and he’d had a nap yesterday, but the Master had made him have another one anyway.

“It’s okay,” Hugh promised, taking a big, deep breath. “I knew you were here.”

Daniel nodded, looking up at Hugh. “Why are you here?” he asked. Hugh didn’t usually come and talk to the Master. “Are you looking for me? Are you mad at me?”

“No, I’m not mad at you. I came to talk to the Master,” Hugh said.

“Oh.” The Master was important and talked to lots of people, and Hugh was important because he was Daniel’s friend, so it made sense that they talked to each other. “What did you talk about?” The Master always said that Daniel’s curiosity was adorable and that he should always ask questions when he had them instead of holding them all in.

“Fascinating adult things,” said the Master, which was what he always said when he didn’t want to tell Daniel what he’d been doing. “You’d be very interested in them. Money and real estate.”

Daniel scowled, because he knew the Master was trying to convince him not to ask what those were about, but they also sounded so boring so he didn’t want to ask what they were about, and if he didn’t because he didn’t want to, then that was different. “Are you done talking about them now?” he asked, eyeing his blocks in the corner. He’d been building the biggest tower in the world before the Master had made him come have a nap. He could make it bigger before it fell down.

“Yes, we’ve concluded…”

“Don’t lie to him,” Hugh said, still holding Daniel. Daniel looked up at him, confused. The Master never lied.

“Hugh, I don’t think it’s helpful to…”

“I don’t think it’s helpful to lie to him. Daniel, I’m going to take your collar off.”

Daniel backed away from Hugh, tripping and falling onto the table. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “You can’t.” He needed his collar on to stay safe, so people would know he was the Master’s and not try to kidnap him.

“Daniel, I know you’re having fun,” Hugh said. He looked angry. He was mad at Daniel. That was why he wanted to take Daniel’s collar away, so Daniel would get kidnapped! “But this is important and I need to talk to the real you.”

“No,” Daniel said, crawling back. The Master would save him. “No!”

Hugh grabbed Daniel’s wrist and pulled him closer. “No!” Daniel shouted. He hit Hugh in the face. “No, I hate you! Don’t touch me, you’re so mean! You don’t even like me, you only like Gabe and Neville and you hate me so I hate you too, I hate you, Hugh, I hate you!”

He was pounding on Hugh’s shoulder, but Hugh still reached around and undid Daniel’s collar, taking it off. Daniel’s head started to hurt. “Give it back!” Daniel shouted, grabbing for it. “Hugh, give it back! I hate you, you’re so mean, why are you so mean? Give it back give it back give it back!”

“Daniel,” Hugh said, and Daniel didn’t even listen to him. The Master was saying something too, and Daniel didn’t listen to him either. He jumped on Hugh to get his collar back, toppling them both to the ground, and his head hurt so much as he tried to grab for his collar.

Everything went white, then black, and Daniel’s head felt like it was going to rip open, fuck.

And then it passed all at once, and Daniel was curled up on the floor, Hugh and Theodore crowding him. “A side effect of wearing the collar for a long period of time,” Theodore was saying.

“Then he shouldn’t have been,” Hugh said, hand on Daniel’s forehead. “How much worse would that have been if he’d kept it on for another day?”

The collar, Daniel thought. Oh, shit, the collar. He was supposed to take it off for a few hours after a week of wearing it, preferably sleeping without it on, or else the effect that protected his brain from de-aging would be broken and he’d mentally regress really quickly. How long had he had it on? He’d thought he was a little kid, shit.

He sat up, rubbing his head. “Daniel,” Hugh said.

“I’m fine,” Daniel muttered. He was so stupid. He should have taken the damn thing off when he’d been told to. How the fuck had he forgotten to do that? “I’m sorry.”

Had he forgotten? Or had he just liked the idea of not having to worry about anything more important than cookies?

“It’s okay, you weren’t yourself.”

“I was; I was just younger.” Daniel tried to smile. “I was a bit of a piece of shit when I was little.” Just like he was now, clearly. He’d been treating Hugh so badly.

Hugh nodded, holding Daniel’s collar in his hand. Daniel glanced at it, and Hugh moved it out of his line of sight, as if Daniel were some addict who’d lunge for it as soon as he saw it. As if Hugh could keep it from Daniel if Daniel really wanted it back. “You should come sit on the couch and have something to drink. Are you all the way back now?”

Daniel wasn’t sure. His thoughts were a bit foggy, a bit slow. “Yeah,” he said, holding Theodore’s hand as he sat down. “Thanks.” He took the cup of water Hugh offered him. He drank it, wincing when he noticed the blood in his mouth. He must have bitten his tongue. “You wanted to talk to me about something.”

“Yeah,” said Hugh, sitting beside him.

“Hugh, I don’t think Daniel is well enough to have such an important discussion at the moment. Perhaps this evening after he’s rested…” Theodore said, crossing his arms.

“I just woke up from a nap. A long one,” Daniel said, looking at Theodore. Theodore had been so affectionate with him this week. He’d taken better care of Daniel than he ever had. “I’m fine, what is it?” Whatever fog was still in his head wasn’t a big deal. It would clear.

Theodore started to speak again, but Hugh didn’t let him. “Daniel, I’m leaving. In a few days the Master is going to sell me to Cassius.”

He said it so casually. So calmly. Like he was talking about selling someone a fish or a painting. Not a person. Not himself. That was himself he was talking about. Daniel swallowed, knowing it was taking him too long to react. He was just sitting there, frozen, not saying anything. He wasn’t even making a face, was he? He was just…

Daniel snapped his head towards Theodore. “You can’t do that.” Theodore couldn’t do that, not to Hugh or to any of them.

“As a slaveowner, I’m entitled to sell my property as I see fit,” Theodore told Daniel. He was wearing the face he put on at meetings when he knew his suggestion had upset someone but he was going to do it anyway. Even to Daniel there was no sign that he was feeling anything under the mask. Most of Theodore’s faces weren’t that good, but Daniel couldn’t read this one.

“But that has to go through a market,” Daniel said, remembering that. “You can’t just sell him to someone. You told me that. You told me you weren’t going to…”

“As it happens, Daniel,” Theodore said calmly, sitting down in the chair opposite them. “I own a slave market. I’m selling Hugh to Cassius legally, through the market. It will take a few days for the documents to be approved.”

“But…” Daniel wished he had a knife.

“I asked him to,” Hugh said, getting Daniel’s attention back.

“What?” Hugh wouldn’t. Why would he…

But Daniel knew why, didn’t he? It was because Neville was there. It was because Hugh wanted to be with Neville more than he wanted to be with them. It was because Hugh cared more about Neville than he cared about them.

It was because he loved Neville more than he loved them.

He looked sad. “I’m the next one who’s going to get freed and I’m not ready for that. And I want to be with Neville,” he said, obviously not realizing Daniel had already figured that out.

Daniel pretended it didn’t sting anyway, made himself look at Hugh. “But you don’t have to be a slave to do that. You can just live with them, can’t you?” Hugh wasn’t thinking straight. His attraction to Neville had been distracting him for weeks now, and it was just getting worse. If he’d just think about this for a minute, he’d realize why he was wrong.

“I can, but…” Hugh shrugged. “I thought about just asking Theodore to free me. But this feels…safer. And Cassius agreed that if I ask him to, he’ll free me someday in the future. But with him I don’t have to wonder. I don’t need to worry about being too old or too boring. I can have a real life. Gabe might even move into the house with me, he said it sounds better than paying for an apartment on Iron Street.” He laughed a little as he said it. He sounded happy.

He meant it. He really thought he meant everything he was saying, didn’t he? He didn’t, though. Hugh wasn’t a stupid person. He was making a stupid decision, but he wasn’t stupid. He had to know that this was wrong.

Daniel had already fought so that Hugh and the others could ask to be freed when they wanted it. He’d fought so hard, but not for this. What even was the point of leaving slavery just to be someone else’s slave? And not just anyone, but an immortal dragon who might literally never let him go?

Suddenly Daniel didn’t regret what he’d said to Hugh before he’d lost his collar.

Daniel nodded, and he gave Hugh a hug. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” Daniel said, trying to stay calm. He had to be Hugh’s friend, even if Hugh didn’t want to be his. “There are other ways for you and Neville to be together.”

“This is what I want, though,” Hugh insisted.

“I will remind you, Daniel,” Theodore cut in, “that this is what you negotiated for not long ago. You insisted your friends would be happier if they were to choose the time of their own freedom.”

“But…” Daniel’s breath caught. Even if the things he’d said before hadn’t been true, about being safer and about Cassius letting him go, the things he hadn’t said had been true, hadn’t they?

That Hugh didn’t want to stay here. That he wanted to leave them all here so he could be with someone he’d just met a month ago.

Daniel wasn’t a little kid anymore. He couldn’t throw a temper tantrum again. So instead he kept hugging Hugh, so no one would see his eyes watering. “I’m happy for you,” he made himself say, holding him. “I’m going to miss you.”

“I’ll be living just down the road. You can come visit me.”

“I will,” Daniel promised. “You’ll come visit us too, right?”

“Yeah, definitely.”

Daniel lied every day of his life, and he knew a lie when he heard one. And why would he be surprised by that? Hugh wanted to be around the people he really cared about. Why would he waste his time coming back to see the stupid baby who’d made sure he had the freedom to do that? He didn’t have to pretend to like them anymore. Apparently that was what freedom meant to him.

But there was nothing Daniel could do about that. Hugh had made his decision.

And Daniel didn’t know how to convince him it was the wrong one.

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