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When Hanna got back to the facility, Beck was washing dishes while Gwen and Niel sat at the dining table, sipping water from plastic cups. Niel seemed to be doing the talking; Gwen was listening with a blandly pleasant expression that didn't alter when she looked up and saw Hanna.

"Hi, Hanna," said Niel, and Beck turned around and smiled.

"Hey," said Hanna, sitting down at the table. "You get enough to eat, Gwen?"

"Yes, Ms. Steele," said Gwen.

"I had dinner with Jesse and his boyfriend," said Hanna, "and I've got the story on what actually happened yesterday. You want to hear?"

"At your leisure," said Gwen.

"I've got leisure," said Hanna. "I've also got your cleaning job confirmed to start day after tomorrow, so tomorrow we can do the shopping-and-lunch thing, if you'd like."

"That's fine," said Gwen.

Niel smiled at her. "Jumping right into the new life, huh?"

"I guess so," said Gwen. "There's no point in waiting, is there?"

"Not unless you feel the need to cry on Hanna's shoulder for a week solid after getting out," said Beck, sitting down, "like I did. Finish the rest of the dishes, Niel."

Niel got up obligingly as Beck added, "I was a wreck. You should have seen me. I slept under the bed instead of on it for about a month, because I couldn't deal with sleeping alone in a bed for the first time in twenty-five years."

Seeing Gwen's small but genuine-looking smile, Hanna shot Beck a grateful look as Gwen answered, in the same tone she'd used to say the same thing to Hanna that morning, "I'm ready to work."

"Good for you," said Beck. "But if you have a breakdown later, you know, that's okay too. Right, Hanna?"

"Of course," said Hanna. "You've just been through an incredibly traumatic event, and your life will never be the same. You've got every right to break down."

Gwen said nothing.

"So I'm sleeping here tonight," said Hanna, "and in the morning we can go out. Find you some clothes, and you can get the lay of the land. And after that, if it's okay with you, we can head back over to the Open Collar building. It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to get a full medical exam done. You might be malnourished, and a doctor could give you suggestions as far as diet and exercise. Do you-- are you hurt at all?"

"A few bruises," said Gwen. "A couple of cuts. Nothing much."

Hanna nodded. "It's just a suggestion."

"I guess that would be okay," said Gwen. "I've never monitored my own diet before."

"I figured," said Hanna. "I mean, you'd probably be okay-- you don't strike me as the type to gorge yourself on sweets or start chain-smoking and binge-drinking now that you can."

"Shush," said Beck. "I'm back to being sensible now."

Hanna smiled at him. "It's not like you're the only one I've known. It's normal."

"Nothing is normal," said Beck, "but everything's understandable, I guess. That's what you kept telling me, anyway. And now I'm healthy, so that's good. It looks like Gwen could stand to pack on a few pounds, though."

Gwen drew in on herself, just a little, defensively, and Hanna said, "Listen, Gwen, do you want to take a quick walk around outside, or are you ready to put on some pajamas and unwind for the night?"

"I don't have any pajamas," said Gwen.

"We've got them here. In the bedroom."

"Pajamas, then," said Gwen. "Thank you."

The pajamas in the tiny chest-of-drawers that separated the twin beds in room one were huge, flannel, big enough for Beck or Niel, but Hanna didn't think Gwen would mind. She turned her back while Gwen changed, and then changed, herself, not looking at Gwen, who lay down on the same bed she'd napped on earlier, on top of the blanket, propping herself up slightly with the thin pillow. The keys Hanna had procured for her, one to the facility and one to the bedroom, were still on the ribbon lanyard around her neck. She'd locked the door behind them, carefully, without any visible sign of either nervousness or satisfaction.

"Were Beck and Niel okay?" Hanna asked her as she lay down on the other bed and propped herself up on her elbow, facing Gwen.

"They were very friendly," said Gwen, and then, "Not too friendly. I mean, they were fine. Yes."

"Good," said Hanna. "Now-- do you want me to fill you in?"

Gwen nodded.

After Hanna had done so-- as methodically as possible-- Gwen lay still for a minute, and said, "Okay. That makes sense."

"Yeah," said Hanna. "I'm sorry Jesse didn't explain better."

"That's okay," said Gwen. "He was otherwise occupied. Will I see him again?"

"If you want to," said Hanna. "I'm sure he'd be happy to see you. You might like to meet his boyfriend, too-- Quen. They're nauseatingly cute together."

"Ah," said Gwen, almost as if this news had relaxed her somehow. "Okay. Do they live nearby?"

"Across town," said Hanna. "Buses are something you'll learn to negotiate, eventually. But, you know. No rush."

"It's strange to have no rush," said Gwen, looking at the hands she'd laced together across her stomach. "Getting sold, it's always like, okay, here are the new rules, here are the punishments for breaking them, go!"

Hanna smiled. "Yeah. No punishments here. Just trial and error."

"And the law," said Gwen. "I'll have to learn that. I never had to before. That's strange, too, isn't it?"

"Yeah," said Hanna, "but I don't think you'll have any trouble. People are nicer than you think they're going to be, too. In my experience."

"Here, you mean?"

"Here," Hanna agreed. "But there, sometimes, too. Getting sold to the slave breakers wasn't like what I thought it would be, for sure."

"I don't think anything ever is," said Gwen vaguely, looking up at the bare-plaster ceiling now. "I sort of-- gave up expecting, do you know what I mean? After my sixteenth birthday, I guess."

Gwen's first mistress had owned her a full year, and had never hit her, not even once, not even a slap. She'd been caressed, pampered, cuddled, indulged, and sold promptly, with a good-bye kiss, on her sixteenth birthday.

The second mistress had been less patient. Her punishments were swift, frequent, and far harsher than anything Gwen had ever endured before. Crying irritated her, so Gwen learned to faint instead.

"On purpose?"

"Well, I wasn't eating much, either," said Gwen. "It worked out okay for a while. I guess she figured it was pointless to hurt me while I was unconscious, and by the time I'd woken up she was usually pretty gentle. She got fed up eventually, though-- after about a year-- and sold me. She said taking me to the doctor would be too much trouble. She sold me to a man-- she said a man would be less likely to ask a bunch of awkward questions about why I was getting sold."

Hanna smiled. "I wonder if that's true."

"She was about him," said Gwen. "But I didn't faint with him, anyway. He wasn't that hard on me-- just standard stuff, you know, everything his wife wouldn't let him do. He liked to fuck me in the ass, and come on my face and leave it there overnight, and he made me lie on the floor and polish his boots with my tongue, stuff like that. Anyway, he was a friend of my-- of Lord Dunaev, and Lord Dunaev had fucked me, a few times before I got sold to him. He got me pretty cheaply-- I think there were some gambling debts I was being used to offset, or something. He-- when he first brought me home, he beat me-- kind of badly-- I mean, not down to the bone or anything, but I bled some-- and then he fucked me, and I just thought, well, okay. He wasn't too hard to figure out-- what he liked. He liked crying, but he liked when you sort of-- clung to him, when you were crying. I mean obviously you weren't supposed to grab at him, but if he reached for you, he loved it if you hung on to him, and acted like-- you know, like oh thank you thank you for forgiving me and touching me again, your touch gives me life, all that. It was pretty easy once you caught on, he was easy to read. And he sort of liked struggling, when he fucked you, except not real struggling because he wasn't in the best shape, but if you acted like you were struggling but he was just too strong for you-- he liked that. And whimpering, he liked that, when he fucked you. Not crying, just sort of-- quiet sobbing-- like--" She demonstrated, unexpectedly, with a series of soft, despairing-sounding cries, on a diminishing scale, ending with a long, low, broken moan.

Hanna shuddered. "And you did it-- to please him?"

"I did it to survive," said Gwen flatly. "If you didn't learn all that shit quick, you're damn lucky you're still alive now."

"I know I am."

There was a companionable pause as Gwen contemplated the ceiling and Hanna contemplated her profile.

"Can I ask you something kind of strange?" Hanna asked eventually.


"When you came onto Niel earlier," said Hanna, and even on the other bed, she could see Gwen stiffen. "It's really nothing to be embarrassed about-- a lot of people do it. I mean, Beck came onto me the same way, before he knew I used to be a slave. But you were so good at it. I've seen it a million times, but I almost thought you really meant it."

"What's the question?" Gwen asked.

"How do you do it?" Hanna asked. "I mean, I couldn't. I used to try, and it just-- they just thought I was being insolent. You know-- sarcastic. Making fun of them. I could never figure out how to make it-- realistic. Did you copy someone else, or-- can you-- I don't know-- imagine, that well? Pretend that you really do want him?"

"You really do," said Gwen.

"Really do what?"

"Want him," said Gwen. "Or-- not him, exactly. But if you're a slave, you always want something from your owner. Even if it's just-- mercy. Or your next meal. He has that in his power, so you look at it-- at what he has-- that you want. And talk to that. Show it how much you want it. And he thinks you're talking to him."

Hanna nodded slowly, and then said. "But what did Niel have that you wanted?"

Gwen didn't answer.

"I mean, how come you can do it with people who don't have any power over you?"

"Everyone has power over a slave," said Gwen. "And-- well. I don't have any status here-- I have no money, I have no proper clothing, I know no one. You tell me I have the protection of the law, but I only have your word for it. And I have you. Or so you tell me."

She sat up abruptly, crossed the meager space between the beds, and knelt beside Hanna's; looking up from under lowered eyelids at Hanna, she reached out her hand, but stopped just short of touching Hanna's fingers with hers, her breath quickening, her cheeks heating up just as they'd done earlier as she added softly, "I need you, Ms. Steele-- I need your help, your-- advocacy. Please--"

Hanna pulled her hand back, disturbed. Gwen left hers where it was, on the edge of the bed, but she smiled a little bitterly.

"I don't--" said Hanna, not sure why she was so flustered; she'd gotten that kind of thing from her clients before, but Gwen's deliberation, her odd little smile, were upsetting somehow. "I couldn't-- do that."

"You learn," said Gwen indifferently, getting up from her knees and going to lie back down on her bed. "Or you don't do very well." She shivered suddenly. "You get sold to the slave breakers..."

"You'd heard about them."

Gwen nodded, lacing her fingers together again, across where her belly would have been if she hadn't been stick-thin and swallowed up by pajamas, and looking down intently at them. "You know. You heard about them. As a slave. It was where you'd go if you didn't shape up."

"So you shaped up," said Hanna.

Gwen laughed shortly. "And wound up with the slave breakers anyway."

Hanna nodded. "Were you scared?"

"A little," said Gwen. "But I wasn't there because I was bad, and he didn't act angry, or-- what-- menacing? He didn't seem all that interested in breaking me."

"Oh, Larssen's completely harmless," said Hanna. "I bit him and threatened to kill his family every chance I got, and he still didn't do anything worse to me than tie me up so I couldn't do myself a serious injury."

"You did what?"

"Yeah, I was there because I was bad," said Hanna.

Hanna's owners hadn't been bad, really, not even the one who finally sold her to the slave breakers. It was Hanna.

"I just couldn't do it," said Hanna. "I couldn't handle it. Even when I was a kid, I was bad. Disobedient. I couldn't stand it that grown-ups got to punish me, just because they were bigger than me. Because they owned me. And then when I was a slave, and they were fucking me. I was just-- I couldn't. I couldn't do what you did. I tried, sometimes, but it just didn't work. Do you know what I mean? You don't know what I mean. You were-- handling it, weren't you?"

"Yeah," said Gwen. "I was handling it fine."

She was quiet for awhile, and then said, "Do you think he would have killed me? When he got out of jail? If he-- got me back?"

"I don't know," said Hanna. "You might have been able to handle that, too."

Gwen nodded.

"Maybe," she said. "I'm glad I didn't have to, though. I'm glad--"

She didn't finish, and Hanna didn't push it. Gwen closed her eyes, eventually. Hanna thought she'd fallen asleep, when she suddenly said, "Why don't you have a normal last name?"

"I didn't want my asshole father's name," said Hanna. "I picked 'Steele' because it sounded tough. You can change yours too, you know, now that you're here."

"What's the point?" Gwen asked.

"None, if you don't care."

"I don't," said Gwen, her eyes still closed. After a while, Hanna got up and switched off the light, and Gwen didn't react; maybe she was asleep, or maybe just thinking. Hanna lay back down, ran down a few to-do lists for tomorrow, decided to go to sleep, and didn't. She was watching Gwen across the room-- waiting, maybe, for the girl to start shivering again, sit up and cross the room and huddle trembling next to her, but Gwen didn't move, even though it seemed like hours in the dark before Hanna finally drifted off.


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May 2011

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