“Did they hurt your mouth bad this time?” Thompson asked, as soon as the other guards had gone. He was just outside the door, opening it a bare crack and keeping his foot planted against it. Not quite ready yet, Darcage thought, but still, he asked without being prompted. He nodded his head, slowly and carefully, as if changing the tension in the straps of the ball gag was hurting his teeth.

His teeth did hurt, but not because he was being beaten in the face, the idea he had been planting in Thompson. It was just that the mouthpiece they gave him could not fully protect him from the Daybreak seizures that they were triggering as a sort of daily ritual. He was not being tortured for the three hours a day he was absent; all that happened, every day, was that they brought him into the padded room, put the mouthpiece and a padded helmet on him, strapped him carefully to the floor, and threatened to force him to repudiate Daybreak. Instantly the world would become dark and confusing; three hours later he would wake up still in the restraints.

But over time he had convinced Thompson that he was being punched in the face for hours. A smarter boy than Thompson might have wondered why his face was never bruised, or why they were injuring a man’s mouth if they wanted him to talk, but then a smarter boy than Thompson would never have opened the door or undone the gag in response to Darcage’s tears, sighs, and whimpers.

“Skootch on over here,” Thompson said, “and I’ll let you out of that gag so’s you can rest your mouth a little.”

Making sure it looked like he was aching all over, Darcage crab-scooted on his ass, pushing with hands that he pretended were tender, and pushed his face upward so that Thompson could undo the gag; as Thompson removed it, Darcage stretched and flexed his jaw. He really was tired and sore there; it didn’t take much acting.

“I’m just as glad to have somebody to talk to,” Thompson said, “but we got to keep it real quiet. You heard ’bout Norman the Spanker?”

Darcage slowly shook his head, though he had overheard, and waited to see if he could learn anything new.

Thompson’s whisper was furious and urgent. “That son of a bitch General Norman McIntyre, a.k.a. The Biggest Fuckin’ Fag in the Army, he got this bug up his ass ’cause he figured out some of us that’s on half-week duty, we been getting ourselves busted and stockaded just at the end of every shift, so’s we wouldn’t have to go home to our civilian jobs canning fish or digging potatoes and all that bullshit, instead we’d draw stockade time, and serve that here for a couple days, hell, it’s a bed and food and no work, just pushups and shit, and then come round to we got out of the stockade, it was time for us to do regular duty here again. If he’d just let us militia soldiers be regulars when we want to he wouldn’t have none of this trouble, but no, he made this big fuckin’ deal out of it and so now there ain’t no stockade no more. Stead of that it’s a caning, like a fuckin’ little kid, they just beat your ass with a stick and send you off to work, sore and all.”

Darcage raised an eyebrow; Thompson made a wincing half-smile. “Yeah, I got my ass caught in that,” he admitted. “Fuckin’ crazy fuckin’ General McIntyre. All them rules and all that bullshit and I can tell you it’s just a pain in the ass. Something weird about a gay guy like that, you know, I mean like, there’s not nothing wrong with it, I had some bosses and some friends in school, usually it ain’t nothing, but some of’em, like McIntyre you know, I think they just like to hurt people. Like tearing skin off my butt for havin’ a beer an hour before I was off duty. Like what they’re doing to you.”

“Makes sense to me,” Darcage murmured, slurring his speech. “I don’t think I can sleep, and it helps to have something to listen to. If you just need to vent, I can listen.”

“Thanks. I really shouldn’t be doing this, you know.”

“You have a kind heart. Don’t let it get you into trouble, but if you need to talk, I’m sure not going anywhere.”

“Guess you got that right, anyway.” Thompson began his litany of complaints slowly; today it was all reruns, but a lot of them. Darcage agreed sympathetically whenever it seemed reasonable, muttering and slurring to force Thompson to listen more and more closely. After a time he found the man’s rhythm and began to reinforce it, fighting down his mounting excitement; he hadn’t gotten this far with any guard before.

Thompson dropped the like-I-just-saids and the and-anothers and all the other acknowledgments of repetition. He began to repeat himself without knowing he was doing it, and the phrases became more and more alike, as Darcage reinforced them with his rhythmic, almost meaningless murmurs.

Ideally he’d have preferred to spend a week working on Thompson, but he didn’t know how soon they would realize what he was and rotate him away. Probably soon; Thompson was probably like this everywhere, with everyone, all the time, whenever he wasn’t actually being shouted at or beaten, and therefore he might be noticed and moved at any time.

Darcage pushed his luck and mumbled something about eye contact and a friendly face and just having a sense that they could have a real rapport, talk about the really important things, and Thompson did it: sat right down on the floor in the doorway, with the door partly open.

Fighting down the excitement he was afraid might leak into his voice, Darcage made more soothing and agreeing noises, and in less than an hour, Thompson was deeply asleep.

Darcage stood cautiously, trying not to clink. They had sewn the chains that joined behind his back to the seat of his pants, but with enough squirming, he pushed his pants down, slid the pant legs up the chain, and sat through so that he could join hands in front of himself. He had nothing to cut the chain, but standing on the pants and sawing back and forth, he quickly rid himself of the pants. He looked at the soles of his feet; after months of not walking much, he would definitely need Thompson’s shoes.

He kept muttering the rhythmic suggestions so that Thompson barely woke as the chain wrapped his throat. As he pinned Thompson to the floor, tightening the chain to prevent any noise, he looked into the dying man’s eyes and caught a miserable expression of betrayal. Darcage laughed so hard he began to fear he would make a noise, but he didn’t, not while Thompson died, not while claiming his shoes and soiled but workable pants, not even when he noticed that the strangulation had given the poor dumbshit an erection that wobbled around like a failing flagpole when he gave the corpse a final kick.