Note: For complete heading info, please refer to Chapter 01.
Peter wasn't sure what had caused it, but Neal had been on edge all week. It was like he had reverted back to those first few months when they'd all been testing the waters with how to handle everything. Back then, Neal had played the part of the model slave, with El being the perfect Mistress. Peter had been lost, trying to treat Neal as a houseguest and having it backfire on him.
In the end, they'd had what El dubbed a 'family meeting' and developed a list of house rules. It had taken some prodding, but Neal had contributed as well, letting them both know what situations left him feeling uneasy or unsure of himself. The best rule had been the one for Neal to let him and El know if there was something he wanted versus what he needed to stay healthy.
Neal had finally confessed to enjoying artwork. He had been trained as a high-end slave and part of his training had been in artistic endeavors as a 'wow' factor to add to his sale price. El had immediately taken Neal to a craft store and picked out some items to get him started. After that, Neal was rarely seen without his sketchbook and pencil in place.
The true changing point had been six months in while El and Neal were browsing items at a thrift store. Neal had met a lady named June who was handing over some of her late husband's clothes. It had been love at first sight as Neal had looked at the hand tailored clothes with the reverence he felt they deserved. June had ended up inviting El and Neal over for tea and the rest was history.
Outside of a strange man that went by the name of Mozzie, June was lonely in her house and had offered the use of a spare room as an art studio for Neal. In return, all she asked was that he be able to keep her company while he worked. Neal didn't need to ask, the look in his eye when they had viewed the room had been enough. The arrangement had worked out well in the end. Neal had something to do during the day while him and El were at work and June had someone to keep her company.
Neal's work had also flourished in the new space. He was doing paintings and even sculptures. June had been talking to him about finding gallery space that they would be able to display and even sell some of Neal's work. Everything was going so smoothly, that seeing Neal's current behavior was worrisome.
Peter had decided it was best to hold another family meeting and figure out what was going wrong. He knew it would take work to get to the bottom of Neal's issues, but they would figure it out and move on. When they were all seated in the living room, Peter started the conversation.
"How're things going with the gallery set up, Neal?" he asked casually.
"Good, Master," Neal said. "Mozzie has been great getting it all organized."
Mozzie was the only person that Neal would call by his preferred name. They'd tried to get Neal to drop the Master and Mistress titles, but so far he hadn't. El figured it was because Mozzie was a former slave himself and Neal felt a kinship with him through shared experiences.
"Let us know when he gets the date for the opening set. I want to make sure I'm scheduled off for the day, no matter what the bad guys are doing."
Neal just nodded. It was unlike him to be so quiet. Up until a week ago, the gallery had been all he could talk about.
"Have you been feeling okay?" El asked, cutting to the chase. She tugged on Neal's arm from the place on the floor he usually preferred until he was sitting stiffly on the couch between them. "You can tell us if anything is wrong, Sweetie. Someone didn't hurt you did they?"
Peter's heart clenched. As a slave, he knew that Neal wasn't legally allowed to fight against a free person. It's why he was leery of Neal being anywhere without him or El present. He'd come to trust Mozzie and June, but even they couldn't watch Neal all the time.
"No Mistress El," Neal said quickly.
Neal didn't speak for another few minutes, but Peter and El waited him out. They had learned over the course of the year that if they gave him time, he would usually speak his mind.
"When will you be selling me, Master?" Neal finally asked and Peter felt his mouth drop.
"Selling you?" Peter asked as he propelled himself from the couch to pace. "What made you think we're selling you?"
Peter winced when he noticed that Neal had slid back to floor in the wake of his pacing. He went back to the couch and sat on the floor beside Neal, pulling him close. El joined them and soon even Satchmo had his nose in Neal's lap.
"Neal, we don't plan to sell you," El said as she leaned her head on Neal's shoulder. "What made you think we would?"
"I overheard you talking in the bedroom," Neal admitted softly. "I was trying to sneak in one night after I thought you were asleep. But you were talking and I stayed at the doorway instead of leaving. I shouldn't have listened, Mistress."
"It's okay. We've told you that you're welcome in the bedroom whenever you want to be there."
"What did you hear us say?" Peter questioned. He knew for fact that they had never talked about selling Neal.
"You were talking about the year clause on my contract being up next week," Neal said. "Then you talked about scheduling a meeting at the processing facility. I went back to my room after that, Master. What I should have done in the first place."
Peter let Neal's self doubt about his place in their bedroom slide for a moment while he focused on the more pressing issue.
"It will be a year next week," he said and felt Neal stiffen in his arms. "But we're not planning to sell you. Just the opposite in fact."
Peter looked at El, wondering if he should continue. She just gave a light shrug and Peter figured it couldn't get any worse than Neal thinking they were going to sell him.
"The clause that El's parents had added to the contract prevented us from selling you unless we had you placed in a holding facility. But it also prevented us from freeing you for that same year."
Peter left the implication of his words hanging in the air. Back during the first week that Neal had been with them, he had researched the contract extensively. Ultimately, he had wanted to free Neal, but El's parents had been thorough. Now they had the chance and Peter figured that Neal would be excited. He was wrong.
Peter saw the moment that Neal worked it out and his face showed sheer panic instead of the hope of freedom that Peter had anticipated.
"You can't free me, Master," Neal said in a rush. "Mistress, please don't free me."
"But," Peter grasped for understanding, "the way you are with Mozzie, I thought you'd want to be free like him."
"Freedom works for Mozzie. He wasn't a good slave, but I am," he said with conviction.
"You are a good slave," El said. "But we think you'd make a good free person, too."
"I can't," Neal said, his body shaking. "You can't leave me like-" Neal cut himself off.
"Like what?" Peter questioned.
"You can't leave me like my parents did," Neal whispered. "If I'm your slave, you have to keep me."
Peter looked at El over Neal's head as the younger man buried his face in Peter's chest. They held each other's eyes and knew that they were in agreement.
"We'll keep you, Neal," El said softly. "As long as you want to be kept, we'll keep you."
Peter pressed a kiss to Neal's head. Only time would tell if Neal would ever want to be free.
"Damn it!" Adler shouted as he tossed a crystal paperweight across the room. It shattered into pieces, but didn't leave him feeling any better.
"Twenty-five million! The bastard made off with twenty-five million dollars. I want to know how and I want to know who he is. Everything. He tried to ruin me and I'll ruin him in ways he can't imagine."
"He said he was Sam Phelps," Kate spoke up tentatively. "He was with the group of investors you sent me to entertain two weeks ago, Master."
Adler focused on the young slave girl, trying to decide if she had provided this mysterious Sam any information that had allowed him to pull the con. He walked over to where she was kneeling on the floor and gripped her hair, pulling her head back to look up at him.
"You'll tell me every interaction you had and anything overheard about him. If not, I'll enjoy whipping your back until you're too scarred for any buyer to even consider."
He saw tears start to well up in her eyes and smiled. She would give him the start and then he would do everything to bring this Sam Phelps to the ground. He'd ruin anything that belonged to the man to get his revenge.
Before Kate started talking, Adler hit the buzzer for his assistant.
"Get me a boy for the penthouse tonight," he demanded. "Dark hair and blue eyes. And make sure he's in pristine condition because I want to ruin something."
He ended the conversation and turned back to Kate who was staring at him with terror in her eyes.