Jae (jae_w) wrote in popoffacork,
Jae
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a cage went in search of a bird for dexwebster

Recipient: dexwebster
Writer: sinsense

Title: A cage went in search of a bird.
Pairings: Bob/Frank, background Gerard/Ray.
Summary: Frank has lived his life within the narrow confines of his master's house and his master's bed. He was happy enough with what he knew; when he is liberated, he finds both great promise and complete confusion. (Set in an alternate universe U.S.)
Word count: 28000
Notes:Written for dexwebster. Thank you to wearemany for betaing, to hetrez for a quick read-through and reassurance, and to proscription for helping to shape the plot (she could easily be credited as co-writer). Any remaining mistakes are entirely my own. "Knowledge is the surest basis of public happiness" is a quotation from George Washington. The title comes from the Zürau Aphorisms by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hoffman.


The transport screeches and whines when it pulls to a stop. The man driving the transport cranks down his window and flicks his hair out of his face. "Bryar?" he asks.

Bob nods.

"Robert Bryar," the man says, like Bob didn't just nod at him. Bob nods again, though, because his mother raised him right.

"That's me," he adds, when the man looks like he's going to ask again.

"Got a package for you," the man says, needlessly.

Today's the day that the liberated get in, and it's a government transport, isn't it? Bob woke up surly this morning, and this know-nothing isn't helping any. "Mm hm," Bob says, keeping his temper in check. "Figured as much."

"I'll bet you did," the man mutters. Before Bob can ask what he means by that, the man pushes himself up and walks back into the windowless body of the truck. After a moment, the back doors thunk open heavily. A slim boy stumbles out, nearly falling on his hands and knees. He catches himself, but only barely. The driver hops down after him, more nimbly. He's carrying a clipboard.

"This is him?" Bob says.

"Yup," the man says. "Sign here, will you?"

Bob sighs and looks the boy over. He looks young, and he's a far sight too skinny for farm work. He'll be next to useless.

Bob curses Gerard -- again -- for convincing him that it was a good idea to sign up to take one of these unwanted bastards. He signs the form grudgingly, and hands the clipboard back to the man. The man gives him a sunny fake smile and says, "Thanks for doing your part!" He swings himself back up into the transport. A thin dust rises off the cold ground in the wake of the transport when the man speeds off. The slave coughs. Bob sighs.

"Come in, then," he barks. The slave startles, but he follows Bob into the house willingly enough. "Put your things in the hall," Bob says, "and make shift."

Bob leaves the slave in the hallway and goes into the kitchen, where he's put their meal in the oven to warm. He pulls it out, cursing at the heat of the plates, and sets them on the table. The slave appears in the doorway, his hands no longer burdened by his Republic-issue bag, and then hesitates.

"Well?" Bob says. "Sit."

The slave sits.

"Eat," Bob says.

The slave picks up his fork and dips his fork into the food. He regards the food on the fork doubtfully, and then opens his mouth and puts some of the food in. Bob sighs and sets to his own food, looking down at his plate so he won't be tempted to snap any more than he already has.

When he looks back up, halfway through his green beans, the slave has cleaned exactly half of his plate -- to the point that there's a neat dividing line down the center of it -- and is sitting with his hands folded, staring at the remaining food. "What are you doing?" Bob asks. The slave yanks his eyes up to Bob's, flushes red, and looks back down at the plate.

"Would you like me to put it in the icebox?" the slave asks.

"What? No. Are you not hungry?" Bob asks.

The slave looks at him again, blushes, and looks back down. "I'm hungry," the slave says.

"Then eat the rest of it," Bob says, slowly.

"Will there--" the slave starts, and then seems to catch himself.

Bob says, "Will there what?"

"Will the meal be at this time every day?" the slave asks.

Bob puts his fork down. "Are you talking about supper? Supper comes at sundown, or thereabouts. Breakfast comes at dawn, and lunch comes whenever we come in from the fields. Same as any place," he says.

The slave blinks several times, and then finally picks up his fork and dips it into the other half of his food.

Bob picks his fork back up and ducks his head to his plate. Of course they sent him one that's funny in the head.

They eat the rest of the meal in silence. When Bob is finished, he looks up to find the slave finished with his food, too, so he gets up and clears the plates off of the table. The slave gets up and pushes his chair in, then tries to take the plates from Bob's hands. "What are you doing?" Bob asks.

"Taking the plates," the slave says.

"Don't," Bob says, and pulls back hard enough to dislodge the slave's hands. Bob takes the plates to the sink and rinses them, washes them thoroughly, and then sets them in the drying rack to dry. When he turns back around, the slave is in the same spot, staring at Bob like Bob kicked his puppy into the pond out back. "What?" Bob asks.

The slave opens his mouth, gestures meaninglessly, closes his mouth. He shrugs.

"Okay," Bob says. "Go get your bag."

"I'll be better!" the slave blurts. Bob blinks at him. They stand there, motionless, for the space of a breath.

"I can do better," the slave insists again. He almost sounds angry.

"You can do better at what?" Bob asks.

"Anything," the slave says.

"Mother of the liberation," Bob says. "They sent me a retard. Go get your bag so that you can put it in your room."

The slave sets his shoulders, but he doesn't say anything in response. He doesn't even open his mouth. He goes, instead, and gets the bag from the hallway. Bob leads him up to his room, opening the door. Bob had aired it out that morning, but it still smells a little like dust, even with fresh sheets on the bed. "It's a little musty," Bob says.

The slave stands in the doorway. He makes no move to enter, just looks up at Bob. "Where do I sleep?" he asks, hesitantly.

"On the bed?" Bob says. He's a little worried that the boy actually is a moron. He'll have to read the guidebook they sent out to volunteers, after all.

"That's my bed," the slave says. "There, that one?"

"Yes," Bob says.

"Oh," the slave says. "Oh."

"If you don't like it--" Bob starts, but he stops when the slave shakes his head.

"No, it's-- no, I like it," the slave insists. He takes a few steps into the room, hugging his bag to his chest. "It's nice, thank you. Thank you."

"Okay, then," Bob says slowly. "Right. I'll let you get settled in, the cows don't milk themselves."

"No, they don't," the slave agrees. He stares at Bob.

Bob thinks about hitting his head on the doorjamb. Instead he says, "Well-- what's your name?"

"Frank."

"Frank, I'll see you tonight, perhaps, before you turn in for the night."

"All right," Frank says. He watches Bob as Bob closes the door, his eyes wide and dark.

Bob walks down the stairs heavily, a frown creasing his forehead. They sent him an underfed too-young retard. Fucking great.

The night of the coup was loud.

Frank is used to noise. He has lived his whole life between the stable, the kitchen, and his master's bed, after all. The stable is full of horses and swearing, cursing hostlers, the kitchen alive with the clatter and smash of cookware, and his master's bed-- well. That isn't as loud as the stable, but it's got its own particular kind of cacophony. When the rebels first began to attack the palace, Frank grew used to the long wail of sirens, too, and to the shouts of fearful men.

The night of the coup, however, had been a different kind of noise. When they bombed his master's house, Frank had been hiding in the stables, frightened there by the sounds coming from the city over the walls of his master's house. He was not expecting the bombing. Frank could not have dreamed that the house he grew up in, the house his master had built, would fall to rebels. But it did; the house, and then its outbuildings, one at a time.

The stables were built to sustain the wear and tear of taming horses, and the bomb there must have been poorly placed. Frank was surrounded by frantic horses, by flames, by the wails of people dying. It was more noise than Frank's ears and head could take in. It seemed muted to him, the sounds of all those things falling to pieces; it sounded as though a thick pane of glass had descended between him and the world around him, shielding him from the worst of it.

Frank tried to save the horses. He is proud of himself for this; whatever he may be, he did not freeze or fly from danger, but tried to save the creatures around him. He wrested four of the horses free of their posts, and sent them running wild-eyed into the black night, away from the flames. The fifth he barely saved. The skin on his arm was blistering. When he finally fought her free, Frank flung himself on the mare's back and trusted her to get him away.

There were ten horses in his master's stable.

They found Frank two weeks after that night. Frank lived those two weeks in a forest that the horse had run to; he had slid off of her back there and sent her galloping on to find her own fate. It was confusing in the woods. Frank has never had a very good sense of direction -- his master used to tease Frank fondly about it -- and it was only worse when Frank was outside the house, out of the safe limits of its walls. Frank couldn't find anything that would serve as a guidepost. It was only trees and more trees, all of their trunks the same, all of their roots in the same knots. He couldn't find much to eat, either. He had never had to feed himself before. Frank was hungry when they found him. If he had not been hungry and lost, they probably would not have been able to catch him. Frank was getting weak, though, and he was dizzy, and he didn't know where he was.

A man scooped him up. Frank fought. His breath rasped in his chest.

"Slave," the man said to his companions. "Great People, he's a sex slave," he added, when he got a better look at the brands on Frank's neck. Frank tried to bite him, and the man reared away just in time. "No wonder you ran," the man said.

Frank wanted to burn the man alive, like his master’s horses had burned, just for the look of pity he had in his eyes. Frank had no fire, though, and no strength. The man bound his wrists and took him away from the forest, to a warehouse.

At the warehouse Frank was sorted and counted and liberated. He stood in long snaking lines of slaves, and talked in angry mutters while he waited for bored-looking officers of the Republic to stamp his papers. He learned that the Republic had as good as won, that the palace had been routed, that the king was in hiding, that the war was almost over. He learned that they would be taken to houses where they would be treated worse than field slaves, because they were charity cases in this new Republic. He sat in an uncomfortable wooden chair while a man in a strange uniform lectured all of them about what it meant to be free.

Then he was given a bag, and put on a transport. Then he came to a house in the middle of a field, to live with an angry, red-faced man, and to have his own bed.

Frank still has no idea where he is.


Bob doesn't want to talk with the slave -- with Frank, he reminds himself -- again, but before bed he forces himself to mount the stairs and knock lightly on Frank's door.

Frank opens it. Bob looks in. Frank's bag is sitting by the window, his thin army issue jacket folded neatly on top of it. The sheets are mussed, and there is a scuff mark on the wall, as though Frank has been jumping on the bed. Bob looks at Frank suspiciously. Frank gazes back at him, all innocence.

"Do you have things to sleep in?" Bob asks.

Frank bites his lip. He picks up his bag and opens it, peering into the mouth of the bag as though he doesn't know what's in it. He looks up from the bag after a moment and shakes his head.

"No pajamas," Bob says. "Just like the Republic, to give you everything but what you need to relax." Frank smiles, and even though he doesn't direct it at Bob -- he's dropped his eyes back down to his bag -- it makes Bob hope that perhaps the boy isn't a total idiot. "I think I have some that will fit you," Bob says, after a beat, and goes into his room to investigate.

The pajama pants he finds aren't quite Frank's size, but they'll do. When Bob comes back, Frank's already taken off the shirt he'd been wearing. His back is crossed with scars; when he turns, Bob sees that he has an ugly ink brand on his stomach, below his navel. Bob jerks his eyes up, away from the scarring, and holds out the pajamas. Frank takes them, puts them on the bed, and shoves down the pants he's wearing. Bob catches an eyeful before he can look away.

"Sweet mother of the Republic!" Bob says, and throws his hands over his eyes. He turns his back, for extra measure. He'd looked in the book earlier, the guidebook they'd given Bob when he'd signed up to take on a liberated slave, so he knew what the brand on Frank's neck means. It's one thing to know about bed slaves, though, and another to see one just drop his trousers, with no care in the world who sees him. "You're supposed to keep your pants on when you're around people," Bob says finally, trying not to sound like he's scolding.

"Oh. I've got pants on now," Frank says. Bob looks cautiously, then turns around when he sees that Frank's telling the truth. He tries to keep his eyes above the hollows of Frank's collar bones, anyway.

"Just-- don't go around taking your clothes off when you're outside, okay?" Bob says.

"Okay," Frank says, and shrugs. "We're inside now, though."

"I mean-- not when you're in front of people, and especially not outside," Bob clarifies.

"Oh," Frank says. "Okay."

"Okay," Bob repeats.

The pajamas are a couple of sizes too big, but they've got a drawstring, so they'll do. Frank looks happy enough with them, at least. "What'd they give you in the bag?" Bob asks, when Frank's gotten himself decent.

"Toothbrush, socks, underwear," Frank says. He digs through the bag a bit more and adds, "Another pair of the trousers, another shirt. A comb."

"Right," Bob says, and sighs. "Fucking-- I'm going to kill Gerard, I am. Look, we'll go into town tomorrow."

"All right," Frank says. He looks cautious.

"For clothes and things," Bob explains.

"I don't have any credits to spend," Frank says. He pronounces the word "credit" oddly, like his mouth isn't used to handling it.

"Didn't say you needed to," Bob snaps, "are you stupid?"

The boy's jaw sets into a mulish line, and his eyes darken. "No, I'm not stupid," he says.

"Well, good," Bob says. He rolls his eyes. "Get up at dawn, too. You're going to learn how to milk a cow."

"Milk a cow?" Frank parrots.

"You have a problem with being useful?" Bob asks.

The boy's hands ball into fists at his sides, but he doesn't say anything, just shakes his head. Not a retard, then, but a pushover. Just Bob's fucking luck. "Good night," Bob says.

"Good night," Frank replies. It sounds like a curse.

---

Bob has to shake Frank awake in the morning, and the boy is still sleepy-eyed and yawning after they've eaten breakfast. He's clearly not used to early mornings or work, just as Bob expected. He'll have to learn fast, on a small farm like Bob's. Bob was hoping for someone who could already pull their weight -- even in fall or winter, Bob can use the help -- but he'll train someone if he must.

Bob takes Frank outside after Frank's finished tying his boots up. They cross the grass to the barn, their footsteps making soft noises on the grass. It's early August yet, but the air is chilly this early in the morning. Bob opens the doors to the barn and leads Frank in. He drags the stool he keeps to the side over to Athena. He points. "Sit," he says. Frank sits, his back to Athena. "For the love of-- no, sit this way," Bob says, and pushes on Frank's shoulder until his cheek is resting against the cow's flank.

"Sorry," Frank says, soft but angry.

Bob ignores him. "Lean your head on her," Bob says, and goes to get the washcloth, bucket and water.

He crouches down, facing Frank, to wash Athena's udders, doing it quickly. "Always wash them off first," Bob says. "Don't want dirt in the milk."

"Right," Frank says. He's moved his head to watch Bob's hands; Bob himself is so used to the routine that he doesn't have to look, so he's left watching the top of Frank's head. When Frank picks his head back up again, their eyes meet. Bob nearly drops the washcloth, for no reason at all.

"Then you get the pail," Bob says, to cover his unexpected awkwardness. He gets up, puts the cleaning things away, and takes out the pail. He sets it down underneath Athena's udders, and pats her flank again. "Cheek against her," he reminds Frank. Frank presses his face against her

Athena's not a fussy girl, but Frank's a new hand at milking, so Bob's probably best off not being anywhere near her hooves. Bob gets up and moves so that he can squat down behind Frank. He ducks his head to make sure he's got a good sight line on Athena's udders, and nearly topples forward; he puts his hand out to steady himself, and ends up palming Frank's lower back. Frank flinches, and then goes still.

"You hurt?" Bob asks, automatically.

"No," Frank says.

"All right," Bob says slowly. He takes his hand off of Frank's back, and puts it on the ground instead. It means he'll have manure on his fingers, but he'd rather that than scare the boy. "Put your hand on her teat," Bob says.

Frank's touch is more tentative than Bob would have expected. When Bob first learned how to milk, he'd grabbed the teat and nearly gotten his father kicked in the eye. Frank doesn't do that. His fingertips just rest against the udder, barely brushing it. "Go on, hold it," Bob says, and Frank moves his fingers slightly, just enough to do as Bob tells him. Bob shifts closer, an inch away from the boy, and then hesitates. He says, "I'm going to show you how, all right?"

"All right," Frank says.

Bob can see Frank bracing himself. It can't be helped, though; Frank has to learn how to do some work, or Bob will kill him inside of a week. Bob rests his chest against Frank's side, reaches under Athena and puts his hand on Frank's to show him how to do it. Frank's hand twitches under his.

"Now," Bob says, and puts his chin on Frank's shoulder, resting his other hand on Frank's hip, "thumb and forefinger, and give her a good squeeze at the top. Then down, one finger at a time." He presses Frank's fingers as he says it, rolling Frank's hand under his in the familiar gesture. Milk squirts out in a steady stream, hitting the pail with a sharp sound. Frank inhales, sharply, and Bob huffs out a laugh. "Strange, isn't it?" he murmurs.

"Yeah," Frank says.

Bob shows Frank a few more times. Frank's hand slowly relaxes under his, until Frank seems to be getting the hang of it. Bob lets go, then, stands up and brushes at the knees of his pants. He feels cold, not pressed up against Frank. It's a foolish thought. Bob crosses his arms and moves to face him.

"You can do it with both hands," he tells Frank. "Goes faster that way."

"This doesn't hurt her?" Frank asks. He tilts his chin up to look at Bob.

Bob frowns. "Great Mother, no. Hurts her more to go without milking."

Frank moves his other hand and tentatively reaches underneath Athena. He pulls a little too hard the first time, and Athena shifts in place. Bob moves out of kicking range. "A little softer than that," Bob says. Frank's face creases in concentration.

He seems a fairly quick study, actually; after a few small mistakes, he seems to have it well in hand. Bob can only hope that he'll be able to get his feet under him with everything else, as well. "Give a shout if you need me," Bob says, and goes to milk the others.

Bob's farm is small, and he's only got five cows. Bob finishes the remaining four before Frank's done with Athena. He comes back after he empties the pails into the reservoir at the back of the barn. Frank looks up at him and blushes. "I'm not doing very well, am I?" he asks.

"You're doing just fine," Bob says. He laughs, shortly, and says, "I nearly got my father kicked in the head, when I learned."

"What'd you do?" Frank asks, eyes bright. His hands are still moving, if slowly, and milk is still hitting the side of the pail. Bob revises up his expectations up a notch.

"Grabbed the cow's udder like it would keep me from falling," Bob says. Frank giggles. Bob's startled into smiling by the stupid, high sound of it. "At any rate," Bob says. "You're doing better than I did."

"That's all I'll ever ask," Frank says seriously.

Bob laughs at that. Athena swings her head to the side at the sound, giving him a blank look. "You set your sights low," Bob says, "I like that in a man."

Bob shows Frank where to put the milk after he's done, and they wash their hands together before they head back to the house. "Normally I'd be going out to the crops now," Bob says. "Or tending to the chickens. But we've got to get you some better clothes." Frank's started shivering, and it isn't even proper winter yet. Bob shakes his head. "Do you need anything from the house?"

"You can go take care of the chickens," Frank says.

"I didn't ask you if I could do anything," Bob says sharply.

Frank winces.

"And quit that flinching." Frank mutters something, and Bob asks, "What was that?"

"Nothing."

"No it wasn't."

"Then quit your yelling," Frank says, loud enough for Bob to hear, and then goes pale. "Sorry," he says, "I'm sorry."

Bob huffs, "Don't apologize before I get a chance to be mad."

Frank is silent. Bob turns and walks towards his small truck. He can hear Frank following behind. Bob stops, and Frank stops behind him.

"I wasn't yelling," Bob tells Frank. "I was explaining."

"Okay," Frank says.

Bob wants to yell-- to explain that Frank doesn't have to agree, but he sighs instead. "I don't want to take care of the chickens," he says, practicing speaking patiently, "I want to buy you a coat so you'll stop shivering like an underfed dog."

Frank snorts, surprised-sounding, and Bob feels a strange sense of accomplishment. He leads Frank over to the truck and says, "You're coming with me to get clothes, so get in the damn vehicle."

"Yessir," Frank says. Bob rolls his eyes and hoists himself into the truck. Frank gets in, and looks around wide-eyed, like he's never seen the inside of a truck before. Bob sighs and starts the engine.

The ride into town is quiet. At some point, Frank begins to chafe his hands together in his lap. He keeps it up until Bob parks. "You okay?" Bob asks.

"Fine," Frank says. His eyes are darting around, though, taking in everything. Bob chalks it up to new town jitters. He lets himself out of the truck, goes around and opens Frank's door. Frank peers out, visibly takes a deep breath, and jumps out.

"What's wrong with you?" Bob asks. "You're acting skittish."

"Nothing!" Frank says. He's got that mulish look back on his face. "I'm fine, m--sir."

"Did you just call me master?" Bob asks.

"No," Frank says, but his eyes slide sideways.

Bob drops his head. He takes a very deep breath, like Gerard's always trying to get him to do. Then he opens the door to the truck and says, "Get back in the truck."

"Okay," Frank says. He climbs back up. Bob shuts the door and takes another deep breath. Frank obviously expects that Bob will do something ridiculous, like leave him there or drive him back home. Fucking stupid fucktoy of an aristocrat, Bob thinks, uncharitably. Then he opens the car door. Frank blinks at him.

"Step down," Bob says, "I'm letting you have a redo." That earns Bob an actual smile. Frank hops out, and Bob shuts the door. "So," Bob says. "I am your host, and I am asking you what your fucking problem is."

"I've never been in a town," Frank says, in a rush.

Bob blinks. He hadn't even thought of that. "Where did you get your clothes?"

"From my master," Frank says, with a shrug.

"And your food?"

"The kitchen."

"You didn't... didn't you go for walks or something?" Bob asks, mystified.

"Of course, I had to exercise," Frank says, rolling his eyes like Bob's the weird one. "I went for walks around the garden."

"Well," Bob says. "Well." He's at an actual loss for words. He looks down at his feet, then back up at Frank's face. "Welcome to town," he says.

"It's nice," Frank offers, looking around.

For the first time, Bob understands why Gerard has been so angry about slavery all this time. He wants to take Frank's hand; he wants to go find Frank's old master and rough him up. Bob can't really do either of those things, though. He sets off for the shop instead, and lets Frank tag close behind him.

"Bob!" Gerard says, when Bob walks in. Frank ducks behind Bob, and Bob has to repress a sigh.

"Gerard," he returns. "I have the guest you convinced me to take in."

"Oh!" Gerard claps his hands together and rushes out from behind the counter. "What's your name?" he asks, addressing somewhere near Bob's left armpit.

Bob looks over. Frank has poked his head out slightly. "Frank," Frank says.

"Frank! I'm Gerard. I'm Bob's friend," Gerard says earnestly. Frank nods. "But you aren't just here to meet me, are you?" Gerard asks him.

Frank glances over at Bob. Bob forces himself to keep quiet, even when Frank looks pleading. Finally Frank gives in and says, "Bob says I need clothes."

"Oh, thank the heroes of the Republic," Gerard says, "I was afraid you were going to say you needed a goat, because we are fresh out." He looks incredibly, incredibly happy when Frank laughs, and Bob -- as always -- feels his annoyance with Gerard fading. Bob really should holler at Gerard, at least this time. Gerard is the only reason Bob's got a wincing bed slave hiding behind him. As per usual, though, Bob can't quite yell at someone who is so much in earnest.

Frank's warming to Gerard, too, Bob can tell. He's almost got half his body out from behind Bob, and he's half-smiling.

"Go on, then," Bob says. Frank looks up questioningly, but Bob just shrugs. Gerard's beckoning Frank back behind the counter, and after a beat Frank goes. "A sturdy coat, three pair of trousers, five or six shirts, underwear, socks, a razor, and a pair of useful boots," Bob tells Gerard, who nods.

"And three things just for fun," Gerard says.

"Two."

"Three," Gerard insists.

"Fine," Bob says. Frank just looks stunned. "I'll see you in an hour," Bob tells Frank, and settles down in a chair to wait.

It's more like two hours, but Bob doesn't bother to complain. He's terrible at picking out clothing, and he knows he'd end up taking Frank's head off if he tried. This way, he gets to sit and relax while Gerard fusses, and gets all of the reward when Frank emerges from the back piled up with packages. Bob knows there's more than three things "for fun" on the stack, but that's what he expects from Gerard. Frank looks like someone just shoved an apple down his throat.

"It's on my bill?" Bob asks.

"Yeah," Gerard says. "Oh, and Frank is coming to get reading lessons from me three days from now. You'll drive him."

"Right," Bob says.

"Is that okay?" Frank asks.

Bob isn't going to bother answering, but Frank keeps staring at him. Finally Bob snaps, "Is what okay?"

"The reading," Frank murmurs, ducking his head. Gerard gives Bob a poisonous look and puts his hand on his hip, like Bob's the one who did something wrong.

"That's none of my concern," Bob says. "I'll drive you here, though."

Frank nods and presses his mouth against the stack of packages in his arms. Gerard is still glaring at Bob when they leave; Bob leans back into the shop to say, "Fuck off, you're the one who made me take him."

"I know," Gerard says. "He's cute, at least."

"I'm not going to ogle the liberated sex slave who's sleeping in my guest room," Bob says sharply.

"Didn't say you would," Gerard says, but he looks smug. "Be nice to him, Bob."

"I am," Bob says, and gestures rudely before he lets the door bang shut.

Frank's master likes to say, "I treat my slaves like family."

Here are some ways that Frank's master treats him like family:
  • He doesn't tell Frank that he's like family. He usually says it in Frank's hearing, to an acquaintance who has rebel sympathies.
  • He buys everyone presents for their birthdays, and holidays. He remembers that Frank gets sick often, and so Frank's presents are warm hats, and thick socks, and other things to keep Frank healthy. Sometimes he gives Frank gifts "just because," and he's always really happy when Frank likes them.
  • He doesn't beat Frank unless Frank really deserves it. In fact, Frank doesn't remember a time when his master beat a slave who didn't really do something.
  • Sometimes he's really sweet with Frank, gives him compliments or will spend a while just trying to make Frank feels good. One time he lay in bed next to Frank and just stroked Frank's back, gently, and talked to Frank about what was going on at work. Frank had been kind of bored and itchy, but it was sweet that master treated him like that.

Here are some ways that Frank's master doesn't treat him like family:
  • He gets mad when Frank tries to read. The last time he beat Frank, it's because he caught Frank trying to puzzle his way around a pamphlet that someone had dropped in the courtyard. He said it was because Frank took something that didn't belong to him, even though Frank told him he had found it in the dirt, that no one wanted it, that he was just interested in the pictures anyway.
  • He gets sad if Frank doesn't like something. If he's sad, he might sell Frank, so Frank always likes everything.
  • He fucks Frank on a regular basis. Frank hasn't had much experience with family, but he's pretty sure that's not something they do.

Frank isn't ungrateful. His master treats him -- treats all his slaves -- better than anyone other master Frank has met. If someone asked him, even, Frank would say that he loves his master. His master is good, he treats his slaves well. Frank fought with a new slave who tried to say different, knocked him down and taught him not to talk trash about their master. Frank will tell anyone that asks that he's happy how he is, and he is, that's the thing. He's pretty happy.

When Frank's master says Frank's like family, though, Frank gets the strangest urge to laugh.


Bob wakes Frank three days later, and after they go through their morning routine -- Frank milks one cow while Bob milks the other four, Frank collects eggs clumsily and gets pecked by the hens for his trouble, they have breakfast and Bob refuses to let Frank do anything useful in the kitchen -- Bob tells Frank to go get in the truck. Frank does. He's nervous, and he's hoping that this means that Bob remembers the reading lesson. Frank reminded Bob once, as subtly as he could, but it can't matter as much to Bob as it does to him.

But Bob drives into town again, and he parks near Gerard's store, and then he says, "I'll be doing errands for an hour, I'll be by to pick you up then."

When Frank goes into the store, Gerard says, "you came!" like he wasn't the one who told Frank when to show up. Gerard takes off his apron and gets out a book for Frank to look at.

Frank and Gerard work for an hour, Frank trying to memorize the shapes and sounds that Gerard shows him. Bob comes and picks Frank up when he said he would, and they go back to Bob's house. It feels strange and normal at the same time, like the first day of a new habit.

That night, in the middle of their after-dinner routine -- Bob is going through accounts and things, Frank is sitting very still and trying to think of something to do -- Bob says, "Do you want to practice your reading?"

They look at each other for a long beat. "If you want to--" Frank hazards. He knows he's said the wrong thing when Bob rolls his eyes. "If you're willing," Frank tries.

"I picked up a reader at the store," Bob says. He sounds angry, but if he's angry it's because of a present he bought for Frank. Bob is hard to follow, sometimes.

"I want to practice, yes," Frank says, and finally hits on the right thing to say; Bob almost smiles at him, and he goes and gets the reader. Bob reads out loud, slowly, while Frank follows along with his finger under the letters, trying to memorize them.

Frank isn't sure why reading is so important. He's never found much use for books or learning before. He'll figure it out as he goes, at any rate. There's no harm in a new skill.

---

After that night, they have a new routine. Once a week, Frank goes for his reading lessons with Gerard. Every night, after Bob is done with business, they practice reading.

After three weeks of this routine, Frank can recognize quite a few words that Bob reads aloud, even before Bob reads them. Frank keeps it to himself; Bob's doing him a favor, and probably doesn't want to be bothered with these things. Still, it makes Frank feel giddy to know that the place down the block has "music" in its sign, without anyone having to tell him so.

"The shop down the way sells music," he blurts, when he walks into the store. Gerard is helping a customer, a man in a stiff black uniform. They both look up, and Frank can feel his face flush. "Sorry," he says.

"That's my friend Frank," Gerard says, and the man smiles.

The man's a little funny-looking. He's got long, curly hair -- even longer than Gerard's, which still looks silly to Frank -- and his face is like an ogre's, kind of. His eyes are squinty, and his nose and lips are big. When he smiles, though, it's wide and goofy. His smile makes Frank want to make a good impression. He must be a good customer, rich, if Gerard is introducing Frank to him; Gerard might want to show off that he's doing something for charity, teaching Frank. Frank bows, touching his nose to his knees to show respect.

When he straightens up, the man doesn't look pleased.

Frank looks at Gerard, who looks stricken. "Frank is liberated," Gerard says, like he's explaining something. Frank feels his face flush. "Liberated," he's learned, is the nice way of saying "former slave." Frank has to resist the urge to clap his hand over his neck, when the man's eyes dart to it.

The man's lips thin, briefly, and then he smiles again, grimmer than before. He starts forward, and Frank jerks back before he thinks about it. "Sorry," Frank blurts, when the man looks pained.

"You have nothing to be sorry for," the man says. His voice makes him less threatening, like his smile did; it's high, a little nasally, not like the voice of a man in a uniform.

"Okay," Frank says. "Then I'm not sorry?" Gerard fails to stifle a snort. Frank makes a quick face at him.

"My name is Ray Toro," the man says. He extends his hand before he moves again, pointing it at Frank. Frank stares at it. "Put your palm on mine," he says, and then clasps Frank's hand carefully, squeezing it once. "That's how we greet each other in the Republic," he says seriously.

"Oh," Frank says. "Okay."

"Here, practice with me," Gerard says. Gerard always seems to know how to break the tension; he babbles about gestures of comradeship while Frank practices squeezing his hand, until Frank's pretty sure he can make it look natural. "Do it again with Ray," Gerard tells him. Frank turns and holds his hand out.

"Hello Mr. Toro," Frank says, and they squeeze hands.

"It's Lieutenant Toro," Gerard says, sounding like a bragging mother.

Frank resists the urge to bow again, but only barely. He's pretty sure that Gerard catches the jerk of his torso; Gerard looks pained, at least, so he must have seen something. Frank's reaction is understandable, though. A man in the army is important. Frank learned never to mouth off to the soldiers, to be obedient and quiet when they came to the house. Ray isn't just a soldier, either, he's an officer. If Frank's master had been here, Frank would have been soundly whipped for rising from his bow before the officer gave his assent.

But his master isn't here, and just now the officer told Frank to touch his hand. This new Republic makes no sense.

Frank doesn't know where to look. He drops Ray's hand and looks at Gerard instead. "Will we be able to have our lesson today?" he asks.

Gerard frowns. "Of course," he says.

"Shall I come back later, then?" Frank asks.

Gerard looks over at Ray, then back at Frank. "Why don't you sit down," he says, "and I'll go say goodbye to Ray outside."

"If that's all right," Frank says, and dares a glance over.

The lieutenant sighs audibly. He fidgets with the cuff of his jacket. "That's all right," he says, finally. "Gerard?"

"Yes," Gerard says, and moves out to join the lieutenant. "Could you watch the counter for me, Frank?" Gerard asks, and disappears out of the front door before Frank can give his assent. Frank hesitates, but Gerard asked him to do a duty for him, so he takes the seat behind the counter.

The two men have moved past the door window, out of sight, and so Frank focuses on the paper that sits on the other side of the counter. It has a design that's vaguely familiar. Frank touches the outer edge of the figure, gently, and then refolds his hands in his lap.

When Gerard comes back in, Frank rises off of the stool, glad to be free of the responsibility. "You saw Lieutenant Toro off, then?" he asks politely.

"His name is Ray," Gerard says seriously. "Frank, he's not a Royal guard, you don't need to treat him that way."

"What way?" Frank asks. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Gerard sighs. "Like you're scared of him."

"I'm not scared," Frank snaps. He stands up. "Don't say I'm scared."

"You're acting scared," Gerard says reasonably.

He hands Frank the sheaf of papers they've been working from, simple words in a story about a boy. Frank focuses on arranging them on the counter. He squares them with his fingertips, and then rests his palms on top of them. A child cheerfully plays with a ball on the top page. Underneath him it reads "The boy likes to play." Frank can read the whole sentence, by himself. "I'm not scared," he says, "I'm smart."

"You don't know Ray," Gerard says.

"I know what a guardsman's uniform means," Frank points out. When he looks up, he can't understand the expression Gerard has on his face. Frank looks away again.

"He's not a guardsman," Gerard says, "he's a Republican soldier. They're different, Frank." Frank doesn't respond. Gerard doesn't say anything for a long minute, either, and when he breaks the silence all that he says is, "Why don't we start our lesson?"

Frank is afraid that Gerard will be stiff or cold with him after that, but after a few stilted minutes he's normal, laughing and joking around. They get through the lesson Gerard had planned for that day -- Frank can read whole sentences, even out loud -- and then Gerard starts to have Frank trace out the letters he's learning to read. "Might as well get you started writing," he says, "if you're going to be such a quick study."

Frank works laboriously, his pencil squeaking against the paper. It's difficult work, rows of shapes that only barely make sense to him; he's good with his hands most of the time, so it's frustrating to have them disobey his instructions, turning out wobbly curves and crooked lines. He's starting to feel peevish when Gerard looks up and says, "Why don't you take a break and talk to me?"

Frank puts his pencil down happily. "I don't think I have the knack for this," he tells Gerard, but Gerard only shakes his head.

"I don't have a knack for most things, when I start," Gerard says amiably. He turns the page of the broadsheet he's reading, and adds, "I was terrible at reading, when I started. Not nearly so good as you. You should be a schoolteacher, you're learning so quick."

"All that's because of Bob practicing with me," Frank says, but he feels his face flush hot at the praise. "I couldn't be a schoolteacher, anyway, I wouldn't have the patience."

Gerard lowers his broadsheet, folding it carefully and smoothing it with his hands. He tucks his hair behind his ears. "Well," he says. "What do you want to be?"

Frank says, "I don't really know. I figure Bob will tell me what I'm useful for."

Gerard makes a face. "You can't just do what someone tells you to do, though. What do you want to do?"

"I don't know," Frank says, and shrugs. "I mean, I can't really do what I'm good at, what with the Republic taking power."

"Frank!" Gerard says, scandalized.

"What?" Frank asks. "I mean, I guess there's always prostitution, no matter who's in power, but--"

"Oh, you shouldn't even joke," Gerard interrupts. "You're good at more than just that."

"You don't know me very well. I'm pretty stupid, really. Sex is what I'm best at," Frank says.

Gerard flaps his hands at him. "You're just trying to shock me," he says.

Frank laughs. He isn't, but it's funny to let Gerard think so. "I don't know. I guess-- I like milking the cows."

"You could be a farmer, then," Gerard says. "Although farming is pretty boring."

"I guess," Frank says. He thinks about Athena's warm side, the way she sounds when she chews, how she doesn't ask Frank for anything but milking, and thinks that he wouldn't mind boring, so much. Better than being a shopkeeper, anyway, although he'd never say that to Gerard. Frank bends his head down to the slate in front of him, traces the outline of a capital A with his fingertip, and repeats, "I don't know." He's glad when Gerard finally lets it go.

Bob comes in right at the hour. Frank puts down his chalk and says, "Hello, Mr. Bryar."

"Hello," Bob says cautiously. Frank gets up and walks over, hand extended. Bob takes it absent-mindedly, squeezing Frank's hand once. His hand is warm and rough.

"I think we've met," Bob says. "My name is Bob, and I think your name must be Dumbass."

"But now we've really met," Frank says. "Can I call you Jerk?" Bob breaks into a grin, and nods. Frank laughs, delighted.

"Ray taught him how to greet a member of the Republic," Gerard says.

"Ah yes," Bob says, "the famous and valiant Lieutenant Toro, hero of the Republic." Bob will make fun of anyone, Frank thinks admiringly.

"Stop teasing," Gerard commands. "Come and look at Frank's letters. I've been teaching him to write the alphabet, now that he knows it."

Frank picks up his paper. Bob looks over Frank's shoulder. "Your Cs are ugly," he says, after a beat.

"Bob," Gerard says, warningly.

"They are," Frank agrees. He smiles up at Bob.

Bob smiles back at him, quick and private, and says, "Your Bs are top-notch, though. You'll be able to write my name just fine."

"That's all I need, right," Frank says, and is proud when Bob laughs. He talks to Bob like he's never talked to anyone, not even other slaves, and it makes Bob happy. It makes Frank feel almost as good as knowing how to read.

When they leave, Gerard stops Bob. "Do you mind if I tell Bob something private?" he asks Frank. Frank shrugs.

Gerard takes Bob's arm and talks to him quietly for a moment. Bob glances over at Frank, frowning, and then looks back at Gerard. Frank kicks lightly at the base of the wall, trying to figure out what he did wrong. He's decided that it was probably something to do with Lieutenant Toro when Bob finally breaks away from Gerard. Gerard's angry that Frank didn't like Lieutenant Toro, and so he's telling on Frank to Bob. Frank should have known.

All Bob says, though, is, "We've got some new reading material to work on tonight, if you want."

"Okay," Frank says cautiously. He looks at Gerard, but Gerard just waves goodbye and lets himself back into the store.

---

Bob puts a pamphlet on the table that night, after they've finished up the chores. It's the pamphlet Gerard had on the counter. The image on the front, the one Frank recognized, is an ink sketch of a man standing, his arms up and outstretched, his fingers spread wide. It says something on the front that Frank can't puzzle out. He spells it out slowly, "E-d-u-c-a-t-i-o-n."

"Education," Bob says.

Frank reads it again, fixing it in his mind. "And that means like schooling, like learning to read," he says. Bob nods.

"Knowledge," Bob reads, pointing to the block of text the ink-man is standing on, "is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness."

"Why does 'knowledge' have a k on it?" Frank asks.

Bob studies the pamphlet for a moment. "Can't say that I know why," he finally says.

"That's dumb."

"Mm-hm," Bob agrees.

"Okay, fine. So knowledge with a useless k. Knowledge is how smart you are, right?" Frank says.

Bob frowns. "I think it's more like what you know how to do," he says, "like you know how to milk a cow."

"So knowledge is like how much you know, maybe?" Frank asks.

"How much you know and understand, I think," Bob says. He's studying the pamphlet, his finger still paused under knowledge.

"Like understanding why you have to milk the cow?" Frank asks. It seems kind of stupid.

"Maybe--" Bob starts. "Maybe it's like, understanding what you're doing as a farmer, why you do what you do."

"Sounds boring," Frank says. "Okay, so knowledge is boredom--"

"Don't be fresh," Bob chides him, but he's smiling a little.

"Knowledge is milking a cow for a purpose that you get," Frank amends. "So, in every country -- wherever you point to -- knowing why the cows need milking is the-- the sur--"

"Surest basis," Bob says.

"Surest basis," Frank parrots. "What the fuck is that?"

"Well," Bob says. "When you're sure of something it's for certain. And a basis is like a stepping stool, right, something to stand on. So a surest basis must be something you stand on that won't dump you off."

"No matter where you are, knowing why you do the stuff you do is the something to stand on of public happiness," Frank says.

"You just sounded fucking retarded," Bob says.

"But I understood it," Frank says. "And that's the basis to public fucking happiness."

"That you did," Bob allows. "And I suppose that it is."

Frank likes it when important people come to visit his master. Those visitors usually bring their slaves with them, and it's like Frank has visitors, too, new people to talk to and gossip with. It's best, absolutely the best, when the visitor has a bed slave, too. Whether or not the house and field slaves are willing to admit it, they look down on the bed slaves. When Frank's sitting in the kitchens, talking to his friends while they peel the potatoes for dinner, they always look a little awkward when his master rings for him. Another bed slave, though, they understand that it's nothing to blush over. Frank really likes Jamia, too. She's his favorite of all the slaves he knows.

"Oh hell," Jamia says, when her bell rings in the kitchen. "I hope he just wants a blowjob, I'm not in the mood."

Frank laughs. The kitchen slaves all glance away, embarrassed, but Frank and Jamia just look at each other and giggle. She slaps her legs and gets to her feet. Frank looks around at the blushing kitchen slaves and says, "I bet it'll be my bell, in a second. I'll come with you."

Jamia's mouth twists up. "Yeah, why don't you?" she says. She takes his hand as they leave the kitchen. Her palm is warm and dry. Frank squeezes it tight. "Don't pay attention to them," she whispers to him.

"I don't," he whispers back. They giggle again.

That night, kneeling across from Jamia during dinner, Frank pulls little faces, when he knows their masters aren't looking. She doesn't laugh, but her eyes are dancing. It makes Frank feel light, happy. Jamia is a good woman, a good friend.

His master must notice Frank's affection at some point, though, because that night their masters have Frank and Jamia perform together. Jamia makes a face like ugh, and Frank can feel an answering expression on his own face. Not that he's complaining, really, but it seems as though whenever Frank makes a good friend, his master tells him to fuck them.

Frank says as much, afterward. Jamia's been sent back to the guest room, and Frank tagged along with her, leaving his master and Jamia's master to talk business. "I feel like every time I make a friend, my master wants me to put my dick in them," he says. It's not really true -- this has only happened two or three times before -- but he's feeling whiny.

Jamia quirks a smile at him. "Me too," she says. She dampens a towel in the wash basin and begins to wipe her legs, working up her body. They don't really have time for baths; it's going to be morning soon.

"I just--" Frank says. "It happened with a boy I was friends with in the stables," he admits. Jamia looks up sharply, and Frank shrugs. "He doesn't talk to me anymore," Frank says.

"He's a stable slave," Jamia says. She looks sad. "He couldn't understand."

"No," Frank says. He sits on Jamia's bed and kicks his feet, looking down at them. He needs to shave his toes and his legs soon, or his master will complain. "None of the regular slaves understand. I hate that. I hate them."

"Don't be mad at them," Jamia says.

"Why not?" Frank asks. "They're the ones who don't get it."

Jamia laughs. "Right," she says. She wipes between her legs, then drags the damp cloth over her belly, between her breasts, and around her neck. Frank beckons to her, and she hands him the cloth and turns her back. He scrubs her back quickly, dipping the cloth in the basin once to get it wet again. Jamia takes the cloth back when he's done and wipes under her arms, then offers Frank the towel.

"The other slaves aren't really the problem," Jamia says, while Frank is busy scrubbing his calves. Frank cranes his neck to look at her. She says, "I mean-- don't you wish you were something else, sometimes?"

"What else would I be?" Frank asks.

Jamia looks at him for a long moment. Her eyes are very dark. She shakes her head. "Nothing," she says, "never mind."

Frank goes back to rubbing the cloth over his thighs. "You got me sticky," he says, teasing. Jamia laughs.



[Part Two]
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