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[personal profile] maculategiraffe follow-up to another one of the drabbles.

(god, writing SB 'verse is such comfort food)

Ella was trying to listen to her new owner's voice on the telephone-- since she couldn't use her eyes any more, it was doubly important to use her ears-- but she was also trying not to panic, which was taking up a lot of her attention. It wasn't that she'd wanted to die, but she was twenty-four, nearing the end of her usefulness as a pleasure slave, so when a doctor she couldn't see had gently explained that her blindness was permanent and that her master had given the requisite order, she'd resigned herself. It wasn't exactly as though she was in any state to run away, even if she hadn't been handcuffed to the hospital bed. She'd heard hospital deaths were relatively painless, anyway-- a needle, and then sleep.

The last thing she'd expected was for a stranger's voice at her bedside to inform her, in a nervous-sounding tenor, that he'd just bought her. Death would have been, at least, an end to all uncertainty, and life didn't seem to offer anything but, at this point. She didn't know who this person was, or what he wanted her for, and she couldn't even see him, and now he owned her.

He'd been gentle enough so far-- after the cuff on her wrist was unlocked, he'd taken off her hospital gown, and she'd half expected him to fuck her and then call them back with the needle, but instead he'd helped her into a soft cotton tunic, and then pulled her up, steadying her on legs wasted from all this pointless bed rest. He'd slipped a slender but hard-muscled arm around her waist to guide her as she stumbled, helped her down what seemed like endless stairs, and then told her he needed to make a quick phone call.

"I was with Jak," he was saying. "But then Dr. Grieg came in and she said they'd gotten an order to put this girl down, so I just-- no, I mean, they were already putting together the injection by the time Dr. Grieg saw the orders, and I had my checkbook, so--"

So he was probably a young, feckless nobleman on an allowance, whose father would be less than enthusiastic about feeding and sheltering a blind, aging slave, and she'd probably get put down anyway in a minute. Why had this boy even bothered? She wasn't so pretty anymore that he would have gotten carried away just by her sightless eyes or her sagging breasts. And why would a doctor go around broadcasting the news that someone else's slave was about to be euthanized? Did hospitals make a practice of that, just in case some rich pervert wanted a cheap, half-dead hole to stick it in?

Moreover, what kind of name was "Bran" for a nobleman?

"Okay," her new master was saying. "We'll wait here. Yeah, we're in the lobby-- I got her discharged, she's fine except for the blindness. No, he's okay, I got Kate as proxy. She said she'd call right away if there was any change. But you might want to-- yeah, okay. I'll see you in a bit, then. Bye."

There was the quiet knuckling sound of a telephone re-shouldering its receiver, and an arm came around Ella's waist again, guiding her across an invisible floor until he turned her around and said, "You can sit."

She bent her knees, and a sofa or chair caught her backwards tilt, nestling her into soft cushions. She felt her owner sit down next to her and take her hand again, squeezing it gently.

"That was my boss," he said. "He's coming to pick us up."

Ella was keeping her face pointed at her lap-- the rules of protocol were probably the same whether you were blind or not, so she kept her eyes downcast even though she didn't have a gaze anymore. She didn't like the mention of a "boss" at all-- slave owners didn't usually have bosses, and if this man were a servant or an employee, he might not really be her master at all, which would explain why he'd said a moment ago that she should just call him "Bran." But what kind of slave owner sent employees to hospitals to buy crippled and useless slaves whose only alternative was death?

Ella wasn't liking any of the answers her mind was coming up with. She guessed that a blind slave might be useful in a certain kind of establishment-- no doubt some people would find blindness an amusing novelty, if the blind slave were young and beautiful, and if they didn't have to take the trouble to care for her around the clock. But Ella wasn't either young or particularly beautiful any more. Admittedly, she probably hadn't cost very much under the circumstances, and this Bran, or his employer, might be able to recoup expenses, but only if they rented her out the way crippled or otherwise marred slaves did sometimes get rented out-- for the kind of rough treatment you couldn't visit on more valuable chattel. The kind of treatment that crippled and marred you further, and, sooner or later, more or less painfully, killed you.

"It's okay," the tenor voice went on. "No one's going to hurt you, okay?"

"Yes, master," said Ella; she wasn't expecting truth out of him, but she was hoping his response would clarify whether he was actually her master or not.

"Please call me Bran," he said, his voice sounding profoundly uncomfortable. "I'm, um, I'm not used to being called 'master.'"

That sounded as if he were her master-- if he weren't, wouldn't he have just said so, rendering his comfort or discomfort with the term moot? And even if he were only her master's servant, he was obviously a free man, so addressing him by his first name would be just as disrespectful either way. But he'd directly ordered her to, so--

"Yes, Br-- Bran," she got out, her heart pounding.

"There you go," he said, more cheerfully, to her relief. "How are you feeling? Are you okay?"

"Yes-- Bran," she said dutifully.

"I'm so sorry about your eyes," he said, and a hand touched her face, gently, caressing; she held still. "But I'm glad you're alive. My boss-- our business-- well, have you ever heard of Jamesen and Larssen?"

Ella hesitated before she said carefully, "The slave breakers?"

"Well," said Bran. "People used to call them that. Did you know they sort of-- changed the focus of their business?"

Ella remembered vaguely hearing about a scandal to do with the slave breakers in the past year or so, but she didn't really know anything specific. "No, Bran."

"Well, it's a little bit complicated," said Bran. "He always says it better than I do. I'll let him explain when he gets here. But trust me, you'll be taken care of."

When she didn't answer, he went on, "I'm just glad we have contacts in the hospital. And that they still have those laws about someone having to stay and supervise slaves. I was sitting with someone else we just got-- he's still pretty bad off, but he's going to get better."

Unlike me. Ella bowed her head again. Her resignation to death had vanished; although, realistically, she didn't have much to look forward to, she didn't want to die just yet if there were any other options open.

"Lord Bokov said you were twenty-four," said Bran. "Is that right?"

So he knew how old she was, even if she could hope she looked younger. No point lying, anyway. "Yes, Bran."

"So am I," Bran said. "Almost twenty-five."

What was she supposed to say to that? She didn't know, so she didn't say anything.

"It's not old, you know," he said, and squeezed her hand again. "I used to think it was old. Twenty-four. Twenty-five. But it's young. We're young."

She still didn't answer. She wished she could see his face.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'll stop jabbering at you."

If there was an appropriate response when your owner apologized to you, Ella had never had occasion to find out, so she said nothing, and Bran fell silent, though he kept her hand in his, stroking it and squeezing it at intervals. Ella sat still, submitting to the touch, waiting for whatever was going to happen next.

"Are you tired?" Bran asked eventually. "You can put your head on my shoulder."

She obeyed, clumsily, bumping her cheek at first, and then settling down. He was warm, and she was tired; she might have slept, if she'd had less to worry about.

"Oh!" said Bran happily, startling her awake. "Hi! Ella, he's here, this is-- my boss. Mr. Larssen."

"Hi, Ella," said a pleasant baritone.

"Sir," Ella whispered, hanging her head low; whatever the business might be, her owner's boss was someone she definitely needed to show deference towards.

She gasped and flinched in surprise when a new hand touched her hair, then quickly stilled herself and submitted to the touch, cursing the stupid reflex. Being blind was going to take some getting used to.

"Don't--" said Bran's voice, and the hand left her head.

"Don't?" said Larssen, sounding curious.

"Don't touch her, please," said Bran, politely, but firmly. So he was her owner. "She's nervous."

"Understandably," said Larssen. "Sorry, I should have asked permission."

"Well," said Bran. "Yes."

There was a slight pause before Larssen asked, "How much did you pay?"

"Five hundred."

Ella bit back a whimper-- not that she should have expected anything else, but it was still horrible to hear it directly stated how worthless she'd become. At that price, they probably wouldn't even bother to charge for whatever they were going to do with her; they'd just pass her around as a novelty at some party and then choke her to death for the grand finale. She'd still have cost less than the food and wine.

"Where did you get that kind of money?" Larssen asked curiously.

Bran answered, "I wrote a check. I have-- I had-- enough. In my savings account." There was another pause, and he added, "I don't spend much, you know. And I did some great haggling-- you should have heard me, you'd be proud."

"Always," said Larssen, in a tone that made Ella, despite her fear, wonder if her original guess-- that her young purchaser was telephoning his father-- hadn't been correct. Especially when he added, "We'll reimburse you, kiddo."

"No," said Bran. "I didn't-- it wasn't a business decision. I mean, I didn't consult you. I did it on my own-- responsibility."

"You know I would have bought her if I'd been there," said Larssen, to Ella's slight relief; whatever they intended to do with her, at least they weren't going to fight over whether she'd been worth the money. "Come on, Bran. Five hundred? That had to have been your entire life's savings."

"So far," said Bran, sounding as if he were smiling.

As this sank in, Ella's hand tightened involuntarily on Bran's.

"Ella," said Bran softly, and she turned her face to his, widening her eyelids as if that would let her see him. "If I'd had more, I wouldn't have haggled so hard. But that was all I had. I'm sorry. I would have paid more. If I could."

After a moment, Larssen asked, "So, what, are you keeping her?"

"No," said Bran quickly, and Ella felt her heart sink. "I mean-- you know. I'll bring her to you. Like I'm a client. Except I don't have any money left. I mean, I have about enough left for... a cup of coffee." He paused for a moment. "Inexpensive coffee."

"In a paper cup," said Larssen.

"Right," said Bran. "With that white powdery stuff instead of cream."

"For you," said Larssen, "I think we can manage a discount to the usual fees. Ella?"

Ella swallowed. "Sir?"

"Your master would like me to help teach you some useful skills," he said, "that you can use to support yourself."

"I'd also like her to call me Bran," Bran put in.

"That's between the two of you," said Larssen. "Hush while I'm doing my spiel. Ella, we'll care for you for as long as necessary-- and it may take awhile, I've never done this with a blind person before-- but we don't think we'll be necessary to you forever. We're confident that eventually, given the right training and mindset, you'll be able to live on your own, as a free citizen. When that happens-- when we, and you, feel that you're ready-- your master will officially set you free, so that you can lead your own life."

"I told you he said it better than me," said Bran. "Ella? Does that sound okay?"

Ella pulled her hand out of his, then reached up, groping, at eye level, till she found his face. She'd never really touched anyone's face before, but she probed carefully with her fingers at his cheeks, his elastic skin, his serious mouth, his straight nose, and eyes that closed at her fingers' approach. He sat still, and didn't push her hand away. No one was saying anything.

"I can't tell if you're serious," she said finally. "I can't see."

"It's okay," said Bran, and she felt his mouth under her fingers stretch into a smile. "You will. You'll see."
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