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no broken bones, no permanent damage

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“Is he ready?” are the first words he hears when he awakens. The taste of metal sits heavily on his tongue, too crisp and fresh to be blood. He licks his teeth and observes as the others in the room talk about him. He is being prepared, and he raises his arms, one after the other, when he is meant to.

The first thing said to him directly comes from Pierce, the man who is his commanding officer. Who owns him. Who is someone he remembers, but whose face doesn’t seem quite right. Age and gravity distorts the memory mapped in his mind. He adjusts, catalogs the information, has a strange sensation--déjà vu, some part of him dutifully supplies--waits to see if anyone will tell him its important.

Pierce says, “Good evening, soldier,” and stands just far enough away that there’s no need for a raised chin to hold eye contact. The smile is familiar--reassuring--an expression that begs to be mirrored, but there’s been no instruction that he’s being prepped for a mission that will require emulating non-combatants. “It's been a while. How are you feeling?”

His own feelings are irrelevant. He doesn’t answer.

“There are four men here today to see you perform.”

“Am I to fight?” he asks, and this time he remembers to speak English.

“Yes, but no broken bones, no permanent damage. You shouldn’t make it easy, but I don’t want you sending anyone to the hospital today.” Pierce steps away, gestures to another man and speaks to him in low tones, head turned just enough to obscure the shape of the words. When Pierce turns back, the smile is gone. “Impress me,” Pierce says, and every other man in the room stands a little taller.

He stands taller too: shoulders squared, chest out, feet skidding wider, hands curling to fists. They will want a struggle. They will want to win.

Something stirs in the dark places beneath his ribs. What does he want?

This will hurt, he knows, and assesses the extent even as they circle, blocking his exits and each of his attacks until they manage to work together and take him down. His head slams against the metal of the examination table and as a team they pin him there. He kicks and bites, bends a handful of fingers until a scream cuts the air, but there is no satisfying pop of broken bones. Instead there is a fist in his hair and a hard throb of pain at his kidneys and another scream--his, ripping out of him like a serrated blade as they lash his left arm down, extra straps looping over his shoulders to rob him of leverage. His eyes are wide, rolling, and it isn’t until they settle on Pierce again that his breath evens out.

“Knives out, I want those pants in ribbons,” Pierce says, seated now, one knee over the other. The passage of time makes little sense, but still he remembers things. He knows in his guts that it's been a long time since Pierce was the one with a blade in hand, edge scraping over skin, breath following warm. Pierce looks at him directly and something in him wants to be free, to crawl across the floor and bend low in front of him. “You like knives, I know. This won’t be the worst you’ve endured, or the most pleasant, but I have faith in you.”

It isn't until he hears the sound of a zipper peeling apart that he thrashes. His fingers dig furrows into the table with a harsh metal screech. One of the men flinches away and that terror tastes sweet for the brief moment before there’s the sound of a blade locking into place and a slice through canvas, so swift and sharp that he has no way of knowing if the tickle along the back of his leg is the brush of fabric or a rivulet of blood.

They treat him roughly and are encouraged to do so with absent, off-hand comments. He's given encouragement directly, simple statements that trigger chemicals in his blood. He feels flush and pleased when Pierce says he's doing so very well, the words sweet as syrup as he’s pried open and penetrated.

"That's it, soldier, you’re doing so well," Pierce says, voice even. Savage thrusts drive him against his bonds; the table remains steady. “Can you take another? I believe you can.” To someone not him, Pierce says, “I didn’t tell you to coddle him. Put your goddamn dick in his mouth.”

His gaze snaps to the man beside his head. The man risks a too-hesitant glance to the others before complying by unzipping and wedging his jaw wide. The table grates against his cheekbone. Hot flesh drives into his mouth and deep into his throat. He chokes.

“Good, good,” Pierce says, filling his chest with a more pleasant tightness. He allows his jaw to relax a fraction more and is rewarded. Breathing is difficult but sufficient air reaches his lungs.

The men exchange words, needing less direction of their own now. They call him names, jostle for position and joke about breeding and shitting blood and knocking his teeth out. None of this will happen, he knows, and he registers what’s required of him and prepares as they arrange him. Solid weight settles low on his back. “You won’t like this, I know,” says Pierce, “but you will take it, and you’ll make me proud.”

Abruptly, they withdraw. When they pry him open again everything is heat: the sizzle of pain, the press of warm flesh, the acid burn in his throat--

--the confusing flush that blooms when Pierce draws near and tells him, “You’re doing so very good, kiddo. You’re being so good.”

His vision swims. Good. This is good. He is good. There is a flicker deep in him that doesn’t belong to his programming. It smolders there, an ugly tangle of rage and revenge, so close that he can almost--

Pierce touches his face to wipe away leaking tears and the flicker is gone. Pierce’s palm is cool as it slides over his face, reassuring. Correct. The matte black blade of the tactical knife sweeps across his face like a razor. “Can you give me a little more?”

He nods.

The knife clatters to the table, hanging in his peripheral vision and Pierce bends low, mouth to his ear, words only for him. “When they’re done with you, I want you to finish this little lesson.”

He nods again and grits his teeth. The point of the demonstration is pain. And each of them must learn it.