For You I Suffer
When I awoke the next morning, it was to a distressingly familiar sight. I stared listlessly at the empty spot next to me, which still carried the indentation of my master's body. After a moment, I noticed that I was straining to see. My gaze swept passed the nearly extinguished fire, stopping as it reached the window. Only the barest hint of light brightened the pale sky, and I realized that the day was still in its infancy. I had not been awake at such an early hour since my duties in the field had been replaced by my duties in the bedchamber. Neither could I recall the baron having woken as early as this since I had been in his keeping, and my brow furrowed in confusion at his absence.
I heard the muffled sound of leather on carpet, and thought for a moment that Heero had merely gone to use the chamber pot located in the bathing room. It did not immediately occur to me to wonder why he would have put his boots on for such a menial errand, but the sight of the bed chamber door swinging open brought the discrepancy to the forefront of my thoughts. I sat up quickly, nervous fear rising in my throat as I tried to figure out who would be wandering around fully clothed in the baron's suite before even the proper breaking of dawn. My vulnerability was painfully evident, yet I braced myself to face the nebulous danger my still-tired brain was swiftly concocting.
I flopped down onto the bed flat on my back, sighing heavily at my own foolishness as the thick mattress bounced me a few times before letting me come to rest. I turned my head and gave my visitor a wan smile which was returned ten fold.
"Forgive me, did I startle you? In truth, I am surprised to see you awake, Duo," Quatre chirped as he approached the bed. "I see we have not completely rid you of your farmer's habits, eh?" He chuckled and perched on the opposite side of the bed. His weight distorted the impression left by my master, and it disappearance reminded me of its creator.
"Where is the baron, my lord," I asked my trainer. "Is he taking breakfast so early?" Quatre blinked at me, his eyes rounding in surprise before his expression darkened into a frown.
"You mean to say Heero did not tell you?" It was my turn to express confusion. Confronted with the evidence of my incomprehension, the blond clenched his jaw in a most atypical show of pique. "Bloody man, what is he thinking?" Clench teeth muffled the words, and I was convinced he had not meant me to hear though it was impossible that I would not. Allowing him the pretense, I did not respond, and after a moment his visage cleared, his features arranging themselves into their usual friendly aspect.
"The time has arrived for the baron to take his twice yearly tour of all of the farms directly responsible with providing the castle with its staples, as well as the major producers of trade crops. He feels that such personal demonstration of his gratitude will keep the farmers encouraged even during these difficult times. It is a wise play, one Heero's father's advisors urged, but which the old baron felt was unnecessary. Upon ascending to the high seat, Heero decided to enact many of the more populous policies his father eschewed."
The pride I would typically feel at yet another example of how excellent a ruler my master was was quickly swallowed by a rising tide of despair. It was only with effort that I schooled my tongue to speak, struggling past the ache in my chest to ask the question I dreaded to voice.
"H-how long will he be gone?"
"A week at least," Quatre replied heavily. "The farms are spaced well apart so that the land is not unduly taxed." The blond groaned as my face fell. "I am sorry, Duo. I thought he would have told you of his trip. The arrangements for it were made quite some time ago."
I knew it was the height of stupidity to feel hurt at this unmistakable proof of my master's complete lack of regard for me. Though I knew full well that I had no right to expect to be treated with any sort of consideration, I was utterly crushed by Heero's careless neglect.
I rejected Quatre's offer to return to sleep, the prospect of what dreams my beset mind might conjure being completely undesirable. As I had feared last night, my hair was a complete ruin and I begged to be allowed to have a proper bath and fix the mess as best I may. Quatre said he would ring for water and arrange for breakfast to be waiting once I was finished. I mumbled about a need to use the chamber pot and fled to the bath chamber, grateful that it had a door I could close. Once hidden behind the simply adorned barrier of wood, I gave into the hot rush of tears that was borne from the deep well of misery that threatened to devour me from the inside out.
The journey to Trowa's cottage later that morning was silent save for the steady clop of my boots against the hard packed road and the occasional comment from Quatre. Although I should have made some effort to respond, the internal battle raging between my heart and mind required the full of my attention.
Give up this hopeless quest, my logic berated.
You must remain true to your heart!, my sensibility beseeched.
I felt as though I were standing at the tip of some precipice, some dangerous tipping point where the smallest bit of kindness or just one more show of indifference could push me one way or the other. I could feel myself wavering, buffeted between my love for Heero and what little remained of my sense of pride. But my heart had suffered from one too many blows and the firm hold of my devotion for my master was slipping bit by bit.
Even so, my yearning for Heero still posed a formidable hurdle, and it yet kept me from giving in entirely to despair. If only I could hold on for a little longer, it urged, if only I could prove to him the violence of my affection for him, then surely my master's coldness toward me might thaw at long last.
As the gameskeeper's cottage came into view, I pondered how such a feat might be accomplished. I could not think of anything that would show Heero how much I loved him, that would demonstrate just how total was my devotion, that I had not already done. Had I not allowed him to rob me of everything that I had once held dear, to take my soul and my very sense of self to use for his own amusement? Had I not let myself be used to satisfy his every whim? Had I not done all I could to show him the lengths to which I would go just for even the smallest sign of his approval?
It was perhaps ironic that the very man who tempted me to abandon my fruitless desires was the one who would give me the answer I sought. A mournful bleat called Quatre's and my attention to the pasture beyond the cottage. Trowa was in the paddock at the edge of the field, his shirt removed as he wrapped strong arms around the neck of a struggling calf. My wayward gaze was drawn to the muscles that strained and bunched at his arms and chest as he wrestled the hapless creature to the ground. I watched him as Quatre moved to release me from my harness, my own experience with husbandry allowing me to guess as to what he was doing.
Trowa reached down with one hand and groped for something on the ground. But where I expected him to come up with a red hot poker, all I saw was a slim blade that glinted in the sun. As I wondered what it could possibly be for, his hand came down in a sharp motion. The calf cried out but a moment later was silent.
"I didn't realize it was the season for butchering," Quatre murmured, echoing my own thoughts. We approached the gamesman warily, but the expected, sharp coppery scent of blood never came. Trowa must have seen us, for he looked in our direction as we came to the fence of the paddock. He released his hold on the young bovine, and my trainer and I stared in amazement as it bounded to its feet and trotted away back to its mother's side. The expression on our faces must have revealed our shocked confusion for Trowa let out a quite chuck as he rose to his feet. Wiping his hands on the legs of his trousers, he came to meet us.
"Good morning," he offered, bowing slightly toward Quatre before greeting me with the slow sweep of his shuttered gaze. I struggled to stifle the shiver that rose in the heated, emerald wake, training my own gaze downward until I could gather my composure.
"Good day to you!" Quatre was all smiles even as his brow wrinkled in confusion. "What were you about with that calf? I thought perhaps you were preparing him for your evening meal, but I see that he remains quite hale." Trowa smiled at the rambling supposition.
"No indeed, my lord," he replied. "The newest members of gentry's livestock are in need of branding. I am very glad you have brought Duo to me today, for I could use his assistance."
Quatre, of course, agreed readily to the request. I glanced toward the now-recovered calf. Branding was what I had first assumed Trowa was up to, but the knife had confused me. Though I had only occasionally assisted friends with the annual task, all of my experience had involved the use of a hot iron. I looked down at the knife Trowa still held wondering at its purpose until my trainer recaptured my attention.
"Well then, I will let you return to your work." Quatre reached up and smoothed my hair with customary fondness. "I will return for you by early evening, pretty one. Do try to enjoy your day." That last was said in a somber tone to which I did not have the heart to respond. While I appreciated Quatre's acknowledgment of my distress, I cursed him for calling attention to it in front of the gameskeeper. I bowed my head, hoping that the gesture would suffice in lieu of a verbal response.
Trowa situated Quatre with a horse for his return trip to the castle. He mounted with a word of thanks and was gone with a wave. I tried to school my expression to stillness as Trowa returned to my side, but his searching gaze refused me even that small respite.
"Is something wrong?" he asked, the quiet caress of his tone causing me to flush anew. I shook my head and met his gaze steadily.
"Not at all, my lord. I was just wondering at your technique for branding the calves. I did not see you use a poker." Trowa stared at me for a long moment, but in the end decided to let me keep my secrets. The corner of his mouth quirked upward wryly as he turned away and walked toward the gate of the paddock.
"Come here and I will show you," he instructed. I joined him as he entered the paddock, mindful of where I stepped and glad that I still wore my boots as we approached the calf Trowa had just finished with. The beast was sweet-tempered and blessedly dim, for it seemed it had already forgotten what it had just suffered at the gamesman's hand. It stood calmly chewing its cud as Trowa moved around to its right hindquarter and placed a hand against its side. There was indeed a mark there just beyond the other man's fingers. I leaned closer to examine the blacked sigil, my curiosity increasing as I noted the distinct lack of the smell of burnt flesh.
"This mark," I said, drifting my fingers over the cow's hide. "It seems strange, somehow, as if it's too neat, too precise."
"It wasn't made the usual way," Trowa explained. "I use a sharp knife to etch the design into the hide and then rub a special powder into the cut to make the stain." He lifted his hand from the calf's side and showed me his still stained fingers. "It is much cleaner and less painful for the animal than a branding iron, but just as permanent."
He patted the young bull on the neck and led me back to where he had been when Quatre and I arrived. I saw a small, stoppered pot lying on the grass. Trowa picked it up and removed the cork before holding the pot beneath my nose. I smelled an interesting and not-unpleasant blend of lavender, camphor, and ash.
"What is it?"
"The dye I used to ink the brand. It contains camphor, which is an analgesic to ease the pain of the incision, and lavender to ward off infection. The dye, itself, is a mixture of brown ochre and soot. It heals very quickly and the color becomes embedded in the skin." I marveled at the ingeniousness of his method. I made a mental note to get the precise recipe to share with my friends back in Fashel. Watching the young animals struggle and listening to their cries of pain as they suffered under the traditional branding technique, not to mention the noxious odor of seared flesh, was something only the most sadistic individual looked forward to.
"You should take those off." I looked up at him, but before I could voice the obvious question, I discerned the direction of his gaze. My nipples stiffened at the boldness of his regard. Without speaking, I did as he bid, inhaling sharply as the sensitive nubs were flooded with the pain of the renewed rush of blood. He held out his hand and I placed them on his palm, blushing as he rubbed a thumb over them before dropping them into the pocket of his breeches.
I helped Trowa work his way through a large portion of the calves over the next few hours, holding them securely while he applied his knife with deft strokes. Although he was mercifully swift with the incisions, the beasts' struggles made me glad he had suggested I remove my nipple clamps. How he knew which animal belonged to which family was a mystery to me, but he went along confidently, marking each animal with their proper signature of ownership. Trowa kept the blade sharp as to minimize the pain of the procedure, and as I watched him pause yet again to whet the knife on a stone a thought began to grow like a nagging shadow in the back of my mind.
The notion grew in substance and form as the afternoon aged and the sun began its downward trek across the sky. After a while, Trowa called a halt for the day, not wanting to risk making any mistakes in the waning light. Thoughts of the beasts' marks of possession stayed with me as we exited the paddock and went to the well to wash away the dirt and dust of our work. Once we had finished, Trowa returned my clamps. The process of replacing them was made all the more intense when my nipples, not to mention my cock, swelled shamelessly as he watched. I tried to catch my breath, willing the throbbing, twin aches on my chest to quiet as we headed back to the stable.
I distracted myself by asking more about the staining powder, and Trowa responded to my questions by having me help him make a new batch. We worked together quietly as I carefully measured out the proper proportion of herbs while he mixed up the ochre and soot. And all the while, the idea continued to take shape until it was no longer a mere thought, but an urgent obsession. Even so, nearly an hour passed before I found the courage to speak what was in my mind.
"C-could you do that for me?" I stuttered. The gamesman glanced at me, and though he asked the question, I could see the knowingness in his gaze.
"Do what?" he queried softly, turning back to his work. I swallowed, taking a deep breath to support my wavering voice.
"Give me a brand," I murmured, unable to speak in a louder tone. The corner of his full lips pulled upward in a smirk. I felt a twinge of annoyance. What gave him the right to laugh at my request?
"Hmmm," he murmured thoughtfully, the sound full of mock speculation. "The baron will not be pleased if I ruin that perfect skin of yours without his permission."
"I will chance the consequences," I answered with a confidence I did not truly feel. How would my master react to my defacement? Well, it would soon be discovered, if only Trowa would grant my wish. I met the gamesman's gaze with the most forthrightness I could muster.
"So, will you do it?" He returned my regard for a long moment, unblinking, letting his eyes traverse up and down the full length of my body until my accursedly fair skin revealed my discomfiture.
"Alright," he granted at last. "What symbol would you have me give you?" I wondered at his purposeful obtuseness. I could tell by the look in his hooded emerald gaze that he already knew what my request would be.
By way of reply, I looked over into a corner of the stable where a tall staff rested against the wall. It was one of the staffs carried by my master's pages as he rode to the hunt. The long, wooden rod was painted black, and the top, made of solid gold, flared into an instantly recognizable design. The precious metal formed the letter "Y", the paired arms curving back upon themselves in delicate spirals. A ring of intricately vines encircled the letter like a wreath. Closer inspection would reveal that the vines, too, were made of gold, but of an even rarer type that carried hues beyond that of the mundane variety. Thus the leaves were colored green and a bronzed red that seemed so natural, the fingers ached to touch them to confirm that they were not, in fact, alive.
"You know the Baron's sigil." My reply held no hint of a question. Trowa's shuttered gaze followed my own until it rested upon the staff.
"Of course. But do you really think it will protect you?" His query was soft but pointed. I stared at him, trying to hide my surprise. How had he so quickly fathomed my intent? Protection? Yes, that is, indeed, exactly what I sought. Some magic ward that would serve as a reminder of my devotion, that would keep me focused on the man I truly loved. As my will weakened, I knew I required a shield to keep at bay both the unholy temptation the gamesman presented and my own dismay at my master's continued disregard. For with every moment I spent in Trowa's presence, I came that much closer to letting the howling, needy desires of my wayward flesh override the loyalties of my heart.
My tongue was unable to form any reply to the intuitive question. Trowa returned my helpless stare for a long moment, looking away only after my cheeks had begun to flame. He silently retrieved his knife and began to cleanse it in the fire burning in the hearth.
"Where do you want it?" he asked. The answer I intended changed to a gasp as his strong, long-fingered hand roughly cupped a cheek of my buttocks. "Here?" His mocking tone was a sharp as the blade he held over the flames. "After all, is this not what you wish to protect with your master's mark of ownership?" He was standing far too close, taunting me with his nearness. I looked away, unable to hold his gaze.
"No," I answered. "I-I would choose a less conspicuous place." Though I had considered precisely what he surmised, in the end the bravado I had exhibited when he asked whether the baron would be angry fled in the face of the likely answer. My courage flagged at the thought of Heero's reaction, and so I chose to leave my ass unmarred. I turned my back to him and lifted my hair away from my neck. "Here," I said, a finger of my free hand pointing at the revealed stretch of skin. I feared Trowa might ask me why I wished to hide the mark, for my hair would make a most effective blind. I could hardly say that it was something I wished only for myself rather than for the pleasure of whoever might look upon me.
But he remained silent as his firm hands pushed me forward until I stood next to a barrel of grain. As I sat upon it, I glanced at the knife, which glowed a dull red. I inhaled a ragged breath of relief when Trowa plunged the knife into a bucket of water before turning back to me. Although I knew that he did not brand in usual way, I was worried that his obvious pique would bring forth some cruelty on his part. I admonished myself for doubting him and bent my head forward, holding my hair securely to the side.
Even so, I was well aware of how sharp the blade was, and I forcibly swallowed down my trepidation as he knelt behind me. The blade was cool against my neck, and I trembled in obscene desire even as I recoiled from the coming pain. Trowa was a solid presence behind me, the warmth of his body matched only by the hot caress of his breath as he leaned close to his canvass. Closer than was necessary, it seemed to me, and for a moment, I feared he would rather assault me that keep his word. But in the next instant, I felt a delicious sting of pain, and not a little disappointment, as the sharpened metal cut into my pale flesh.
I could feel the emerging shape of the symbol as he carved it into my neck, the jagged edge of the vines and the artistic swirl of the first letter in my master's family name. The skin at my neck was much thinner than a cow's thick hide, and it was only Trowa's skill that kept the blade from cutting too deeply and into the vulnerable bone that lay beneath. I winced at the pain as my nerves protested the assault. I took a deep breath, trying desperately to find something else to focus on, but to little avail. Every stroke of the blade seemed to burn until I began to doubt everything the gamesman had shown me about his technique. Surely he had somehow exchanged the blade for the burning metal which was usually employed to this task. Tears stung my eyes, threatening to spill over as I struggled to hold still lest I cause myself dire injury.
Long minutes passed as Trowa worked, and soon all I could feel was the knife, every slice seeming to mock my immense foolishness. But after a while, the pain took on a different quality. A coppery scent filled the air around me, joining the raggedness of my breath as I felt a warm rivulet slip down my back, tracing down the knobs of my spine. Warmth blossomed at the sight of the wound, and it reached outward, spreading until my entire body trembled and sweat beaded every inch of my skin. It was as though my neck was not the only part of me that was being marked. It was as though the heart that pumped the blood welling from the cut was likewise being impressed, bringing me ever closer to the unquestioning commitment, to that state of pure belonging which I so desperately sought.
Trowa, having no wish to prolong my agony, did not linger over the incision. Though it felt to me that days had passed, the shifted position of the shadows marked barely an hour when Trowa finally leaned back. The smell of camphor and lavender wafted to my nose, and I first hissed in agony before sighing with relief as he gently worked the antiseptic dye into my skin. I felt somewhat dizzy, and was grateful when, after pressing his fingers gently against the wound, Trowa took hold of my shoulders. As a sagged against him, a glint caught my eye, drawing my attention toward the floor beside where I sat. I stared blankly at the knife, the sharp gleam of its tip dulled by my blood.
"This won't save you from me forever," he whispered. His voice rumbled in his chest where it was pressed against my back. Deep inside, I recognized the truth of his words. I closed my eyes as I prayed that my master's sigil would hold at bay the betrayal that seemed more inevitable with every passing day. Just then, I heard the lilt of Quatre's voice just outside the stable, and never was a more welcomed sound ever heard.