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Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at http://archiveofourown.org/works/253311.

Rating: Archive Warning: Category: Fandom: Relationship: Character: Explicit Rape/Non-Con, Underage M/M, Multi CW Network RPF, Dead and Breakfast RPF, Actor RPF Jensen Ackles/Jeffrey Dean Morgan Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jensen Ackles, Jeremy Sisto, Cate Blanchett, Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins, Christian Kane, Samantha Ferris, Javier Bardem, Mary-Louise Parker, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ever Carradine, Indira Varma, Zach Selwyn, Wendy Selwyn Part 1 of A Kept Boy What We Keep Published: 2008-07-10 Completed: 2011-09-22 Chapters: 88/88 Words: 200783

Series: Collections: Stats:

A Kept Boy
by poisontaster Summary

A Kept Boy is an RPS AU involving slavery, abuse (adult and child) in all forms (verbal, physical, mental), inequalities of power, and dark, adult concepts regarding same. At heart, it's a love story, but it goes through some bad, dark places to get there. Be warned, if any of these are not your cup of tea. This is in no way a true story.

Notes

A podfic version of this story, read by superstitiousme, can be found here, hosted with great generousness by jinjurly.

Chapter 1
Jensen wakes up to the sound of the shower running, a gravelly scrawl almost like rain. He always liked the rain. He doesn't have time to indulge in reminiscences and fantasies; if Jeff's in the shower, he's already overslept. He doesn't know what to make of Jeff. He's held mastery over Jensen's contract for more than two weeks now and the most strenuous thing Jensen's had to do is cut vegetables for a dinner that Jeff went on to cook. Jensen wears his collar, sleeps in his bed. When they have company, he's allowed to kneel, but not serve. Jeff has other servants for the housework and he prefers to serve his guests from his own hands, old-fashioned courtesy that Jensen's only heard of and never seen. Jensen has no purpose here. And he's seen before what happens to bond-slaves who outlive their purpose. Even with Jeff gone, the bed is seductively warm. Jensen's tired from hours spent next to Jeff, tense and waiting for Jeff to turn to him, touch him. Fuck him. But Jeff hasn't fucked him. Jensen doesn't know what to make of that either. He knows Jeff's not indifferent. He's seen Jeff look at him when he disrobes. He's felt the tension in the bed before Jeff finally surrenders into slackness and sleep. Jensen's nearly thirty and prettyhe knows how to tell when someone's interested in him. Jeff's interested. He's just notdoing anything about it. Jensen crawls out of the bed. It's hardly light out yet, cold blue-gray predawn creeping in from under the half-drawn blinds. Jensen doesn't need the light anyway. Two weeks is like a lifetime for Jensen to memorize the layout of the room and, unlike Master Crowe, Jeff kept his private chambers orderly and clean. The chill on the room, too, is hardly a consideration, for all he can feel his naked skin prickle up in goose bumps. Heat hits him in a cloud when he opens the bathroom door, the drifting steam fragrant. Jeff has some of the richest soaps and body oils Jensen's ever seen. He thinks Jeff's obvious and abundant wealth must have something to do with them, because they're made on the estate in a stinking little brick cottage on the mountain side. Jeff makes Jensen use them too, though it's not like Jensen was inclined to argue. He's always kept himself clean when his masters will let him and Jeff's sunken pool of a tub is a luxury Jensen would give a lot more than his ass to have regular access to. As his ears had informed him, Jeff is in the shower, greyhound-lean shape visible through the steam. Jensen opens the stall door, tugs the

soapy sponge from Jeff's unresisting fingers and steps inside, daring to sayin his mildest, blandest voice, "I wish you'd woken me." He doesn't wait for Jeff to give him permission, sudsing up the sponge and scrubbing it across Jeff's skin just hard enough to bring the blood to the surface but not so hard it would hurt. He'd been trained by Lord Cruise, who'd been something of a neat-freak as well as a complete sadist. His technique is impeccable. "You need your rest." Jeff has soap on his face and shampoo in his hair; he blinks at Jensen through suds dripping in his eyes. Even so, in them, Jensen sees the bald awareness of what condition he'd been in when Jeff had bought his contract. "I'm fine." The heat in Jensen's chest has nothing to do with the hot water coursing down his back but it's nothing he can show on his face. "Jensen." Jeff's fingers close over Jensen's wrist, halting his ministrations. Jensen's heart picks up speed, smooth as a sports car shifting gears. Jeff bullies Jensen backward a step, putting his back to the much cooler travertine but it's only for Jeff to angle his face in the spray, rinsing the soap from his hair and skin. A moment later, he pulls back and Jensen's left with crisscrossing currents of sickened relief and equally sick worry. Jeff scrapes away the excess water with one big hand and pushes his hair back before regarding Jensen again, red-eyed and serious. "Look. The law requires me to employ so many slaves for my economic bracket. Society requires me to have some pretty body slave to keep up appearances." Jensen wants to bristle at being dismissed as no more than that, but Jeff is his master and his pride has no place here. Jeff could call him a woman and his ass a cunt and Jensen could and would accept it. "But I don't need slaves to wash my ass or cook my food and I don't need slaves to get laid, okay? I'm not going to sell your contract. So if you could just" Jeff sighs. "Chill out, okay? Please." "Yes, sir." The words come automatically through the confusion of his mind and the tightness of his throat but when Jensen looks down, he sees Jeff is hard, flushed and pink through the fading scrim of bubbled soap. Jensen's fingers twitch in automatic response, too, but otherwise he doesn't move. He doesn't understand. Jensen's face must be less a blank than he wants it to be, because Jeff sighs heavily again and stabs a finger toward the bedroom. "Gomake the bed, or something, all right? And you can tell Sam that I'll take my breakfast in the sun room." Jeff's look is almost pleading and though he's not like any master Jensen's ever had, Jensen knows how to serve. "Yes, sir," he says again, dipping his head and groping for the shower door. "It's Jeff!" Jeff says as Jensen closes the stall behind himself. "Jeff," Jensen repeats obediently. He looks around and there are no towels other than the thick, fluffy ones Jeff uses himself. It kills Jensen's soul a little bit to use the same linen as his master, but Jeff's told Jensen to use them before and the alternative is a messy drip all the way to his

clothescompletely unacceptable. Jensen towels himself dry quickly, resolving to take the towel down to the laundry himself so it doesn't get mixed up. He wonders what Jeff's going to do about his hard-on. It wouldn't have taken Jensen long to take care of it for him; he's good at that. And whether Jeff has lovers or notthough Jensen hasn't seen him show any special favor to any of his guests so farit's got nothing at all to do with whether Jeff makes use of him. Jensen is trained. Well trained, dammit. And none of those hypothetical lovers are here. And Jensen is. Jensen takes a moment to realize he's listening at the closed bathroom door to try and hear whether Jeff's jerking himself off and catches himself in scandalized horror. He's going to ruin me, Jensen thinks, irritated, forcing himself away from the door. He's going to ruin me and then throw me away. He doesn't for one second believe Jeff's blithe promise about not selling his contract. I'll show him. I'll show him with his stupid, liberal guilt. He's not going to break me with these stupid games. I'm a good slave. I'm the perfect slave. I'll be the best fucking slave he's ever had. And when he sells me, he'll seeI won't feel a thing.

Chapter 2
Jeff hadn't even been in the market for a body slave. That was the damned thing. He supposes technically he was since he can't really be seen in public without one and after having assigned Mary-Louise to his factor's chair on the orbital stationto both their reliefbut the point was he wasn't looking for one then and he hadn't had any intention of picking up Jensen specifically. If you wanted to be technical about it, Jensen hadn't even been for sale, which led to Jeff guaranteeing a sum for his contract that was going to have Sisto riding his ass from now into the next fiscal quarter and beyond. Jeff tries not to think about it. Which is difficult when Zach and Kane kept gleefully texting him reminders, but Jeff's had years of practice filtering out their noise. He's having a lot less success filtering out Jensen himself. Jensen is. Jensen is Jensen is terrifying. Jeff's had any number of body slaves over the years, starting with the one his grandfathera Laborist man, all the wayhad purchased for him when Jeff was only ten, a vote of confidence in Morgan virility that Jeff didn't actually fulfill for another few years. But none of themnone of themhad been Jensen. Jeff feels like he should've known, just looking at Jensen. Though he'd obviously been mistreatedeyes too big in his starved face, cheekbones like as not to stab out through his skin and a number of bruises both unseemly and infuriatingJensen hadn't lost an inch of that steely pride that was driving Jeff so crazy. Jeff had never been that fond of Bill Cruduptheir grandfathers had been friends and fellow Laborists and their fathers had kept up the association for various reasonsbut his already shaky opinion had abruptly firmed up into a cold and steely dislike. Kane said Jeff had just bought Jensen's contract to show up Crudup. Jeff hadn't argued with him and it was certainly a much better explanation than Jeff's own romantical notions. But in the dark of night, with Jensen curled up next to him and neither one of them sleeping, Jeff knew his intentions hadn't been even that honorable. He'd bought Jensen because he hadn't been able to conceive of leaving Jensen there, starving and bruised or not. He'd bought Jensen because he was beautiful and because he wanted Jensen in this low-down and

he was beautiful and because he wanted Jensen in this low-down and visceral way that completely embarrassed him because he'd always wanted to believe he was better than that. Better than the men who took and used their slaves just because they could. Because the law gave them the right. "He's still walking straight, I notice." They both watched Jensen walk across the salon to get more tea through the pass-through. Kane stretched out his bad leg, rubbing fretfully at his mangled knee. "Maybe Mary-Louise was better'n I thought, 'cause I was sure you'd tear that boy up from pure desperation." Jeff winces. "Chris. Christ, man." "I could call you 'sir', if that makes it better." Kane grins at him lazily. Jeff thinks about Jensen's 'sir' and squirms a little in his seat, fingers curling around the chair's armrests. Kane laughs. "You're like a kid with a crush." "Didn't you come here to talk business?" Jeff doesn't give a good goddamn about the sharpness of his voice, annoyed with himself, with Kaneeven annoyed with Jensen, slinking across the room like a wet dream. "Just enjoying the view." "Well, don't." Kane's eyebrow lifts above the thick, black rim of his glasses at Jeff's tone, but for a change, he demonstrates some discretion and just reaches for the papers stashed willy-nilly in his attach case. When Jeff had picked up Kane's contracthe's another of what Jeff's father calls his 'strays'he had no idea that Chris would turn out to be so good at managing the business end of Jeff's personal affairs. Like Jensen, Chris had been a body slave and, like Jensen, he'd gotten too old for the ageobsessed hoi-polloi, no longer as 'pretty' as he'd once been. Julia and Jeff had always gotten along, though, so it wasn't nearly the same imbroglio to buy Kane's contract as it was Jensen's. Jeff hauls his attention back to find Jensen kneeling at his feet again, the new pitcher of iced tea held up for Jeff to take from him. Jensen must have been holding it for a little whilehis forearms were just starting to trembleand Jeff suspected if he had a ruler at hand, he would find Jensen was exactly the proscribed twenty-four inches away from him. Jensen's mouth looks kissable and Jeff says, "Jensen?" just to see those huge green-hazel eyes come up to his. "Sir?" Jensen asks and Kane snorts a little, trying to hide it behind rustling papers. Jeff shakes his head. "Nothing. Er." He takes the sweating pitcher from Jensen's handand then nearly drops it, his fingers sliding in the condensation beaded up on the glass sides. Jensen catches it deftly and without spilling a drop, returning it to Jeff's hands and holding it steady

until he's sure Jeff's got it. Jeff feels like he's fifteen all over again. "Thanks, Jensen." Jensen doesn't like to be thanked. He does his best to keep it off his face, but it still gets long and stiff, like an affronted cat. It's just instinct for Jeff to do it, though, and before Jensen he's never pissed anyone off. But he will confess to thanking Jensen just a little more often than normal. Just to see that look. Jensen doesn't disappoint him now, a brief, heated flash of his eyes before Jensen hides them behind freckled lidsfreckles on his eyelids, Sweet Jesus, Jeff's not made of stoneand sandy eyelashes. Nothing Jensen can do about his jaw, though, clenched up tight, and Jeff fights the urge to squirm in the chair again, already half-hard and surging toward embarrassingly hard. Kane is a stubborn horse's ass who needs to learn to mind his own business, but Jeff would pay for his contract twice over for the way Kane cuts in and says, "So what I've been looking at is these six new workgangs that are coming up in Vegas. They're all from the Purcell sell-off, which means they'll be educated and they'll already be mostly trained for the kind of work we'll need them to do. They're going cheap, we'll have to move fast"

Chapter 3
The shower didn't do anything to loosen the band of headache winched tight around Jeff's temples, so he downed three ibuprofen and a couple handfuls of water and decided to go straight to bed instead of reading over the last reports he'd been planning to get through tonight. The thick perfumes of beeswax, jasmine and gardenia hit him in the face the moment he opens the bathroom door; his eyes have to adjust from the electrical whiteness of the bathroom to the molten gold dimness of candlelight. He blinks flaming halos from his eyes for a moment before he makes out Jensen kneeling on the bed. Jensen's pale skin in washed in warm color by the candle's illumination, deepened by the oil. Jeff would compare Jensen to a statuesome masterly work of artexcept that statues never look so utterly touchable, something Jeff wants to put his hands all over and rub himself on like a giant cat marking scent. Marking possession. There's a faint hint of a smile on Jensen's lips when Jeff's gaze finally makes it up to his face; he knows he's had the desired effect. Of course he has. Jeff's not superhuman. Far from it. "I've prepared myself for youJeff." The pause is a masterpiece, obedience and defiance in one. Not the 'sir' Jeff's forbidden him to use but it might as well be. Jeff has to appreciate it even as cock fills and thickens in involuntary response. He thinks about what that might mean, 'prepared'. And then he tries very hard not to think about it. Jeff's tongue scrapes across the dry surface of his mouth a few times before he can find the voice to speak. "J-jensen? I thought we'd talked about this." "You said you didn't want me for sex." Jensen's expression is as bland as his voice, but Jeff hears Jensen's disapproval about it just fine. He's never had a body slave who's been so persistent about getting into Jeff's bed. He'd always thought most of them were just as glad to be spared his attentions. Certainly Mary-Louise was. "Sex isn't all I'm trained for. You have a headache. I thought you would maybe allow me to help." He gestures at a number of aromatic oil imps arrayed on the night stand. Jeff double-takes, not sure if he's disappointed or relieved. "How did you know I had a headache?" Jensen gestured. "You get a line between your eyebrows and you squint more." Before Jeff can admit to being impressed, Jensen continues, "You also need glasses and with as much paperwork as you read today, you were bound to have one." Jeff rubs the bridge of his nose sheepishly. "I don't need glasses."

Jensen dips his head in the exact same way he does when Jeff gives him an order he doesn't agree with. As you wish. "Will you let me try?" Jensen says, when the silence has made his point for him. "Try?" Jeff repeats blankly, caught up in the spill of candlelight across the naked acres of Jensen's skin again. "To help with your headache." "Oh." Jeff gestures at the bathroom behind him. "I took some painkillers and" "I'm very good," Jensen persists. "I was trained in Lord Cruise's household." Yeah, Jeff bets Jensen's very good. Jensen is terrifyingly proficient at whatever Jeff 'allows' him to do. And Tom Cruise is known for running an immaculate household, both literally and figuratively. Uncharitably, Jeff thinks that if that's where Jensen was brought up, it's no wonder he's such a tight-ass about protocol. The thought of those strong, graceful hands on his skin, massaging out that one huge knot between his shoulders, though, is tempting. It's more than tempting. It's been far too long a time since Jeff's had anyone's hands on his skin. Which is exactly why Jeff knows he shouldn't do it. But he does have a headache. And he just doesn't want to fight with Jensen about it anymore. Jensen's considerately put an absorbent pad down on the mattress. Jeff doesn't even know where it came from. He doesn't want to know. It's enough for him to just spread himself across itmercifully, face down and try to make his mind go blank. That gets exponentially more difficultnot thinking 'hard', Jeff, my man when Jensen lifts up to straddle Jeff's waist, the bottom curve of his ass brushing the upper curve of Jeff's. He's warm, the points of his knees resting comfortably against Jeff's ribs. It takes Jeff a little longer to realize that's Jensen's sac and the tip of his cock resting right there against the small of Jeff's back. Jeff breathes. Jeff closes his eyes. Jeff closes his eyes, breathes and absolutely, positively does not think about the six feet of pure sex kneeling above him, touching him, running strong hands and rigid fingers up the knotted line of his back. When Jensen reached Jeff's shoulders, his fingers hooked over the curve, thumbs and hand-heels pressing into sore and aching muscles, his fingertips digging hard into Jeff's pectorals and collarbones. Jeff let his completely embarrassing moan come out as a manlier grunt instead, his back arching involuntarily. Jensen hums, satisfied, to himself, doing something really amazing with

his thumbstips and knuckleson either side of Jeff's neck. Something that Jeff feels all the way down to his hips like a plucked guitar string. "Good?" Jensen asks, sounding a little out of breath as he knuckles his way from Jeff's nape all the way down his spine. "Or too hard?" "No." Jeff's voice is even fainter. His whole body is flooded with warmth and tingles with the relief-rush of released tension. "No, it'sgood." Jensen makes another pleased noise before attacking Jeff's shoulder blades and the pesky, always-tense spot in between them. Jeff is fully ready to turn over what's left of his pride, unable to stop or mask the dumb animal sounds working their way up his sternum and out his mouth, unable to stop the mindless, rhythmic push of his cock into the skin-like surface of the pad. For once he's not even having to lie to himself about not thinking of Jensen; he can't think about anything, both buoyed and drowned by the intense screaming of his muscles. Jeff is actually close to sobbing by the time Jensen cracks open one of the imps, a spicy cinnamon-like scent that competes powerfully but not inharmoniously with the flowery scents of the candles. The oil sinks in quickly, heating Jeff's skin even more, making his blood boil while at the same time turning him limp, lazy and soporific. Jensen is gentler on the second pass, though not exactly gentle. Jeff moans and groans and makes extravagant promises that he forgets the moment they leave his lips. Sweet Jesus, had he thought Jensen would be good at this? Jensen is a freaking genius at this. "You're very tense," Jensen says conversationally, when he finally leaves Jeff's back and kneels on the floor to knead Jeff's feet. Jeff knots his fingers on the headboard and blinks back the water in his eyes. "If you would let me, sJeff, I could do this for you every night. It would help. With the tension." Yeah, Jeff thinks, no. I don't think it's going to help the tension much at all, Jensen. But he only nods his head vaguely and hums, too far beyond that much speech. "I'm trained in chiropractics, acupressure and acupuncture as well, though I don't have my I don't have needles," Jensen corrects smoothly, with barely a pause. "But I'm good with just my hands. I don't need equipment." Something's off about Jensen's voice; Jeff hears it but he doesn't have the brain power to interpret it. Only that vaguely wrong note, like a skunk amid roses. He wants to follow it up, hungry for any insight into the weird, prickly Jensen, but with something like surprise, Jeff realizes he's drifted too far down, falling into sleep without anything to brake or halt his fall.

Chapter 4
Jensen felt a certain twinge of pride that Jeff slept soundly, even if the drone of his snore kept Jensen from doing the same. He's pleased, as well, that Jeff let him actually do something, something useful, something real. Not that Jensen doesn't put the same amount of attention into his postures and body attitudes, but he also suspects that he's the only one who notices or cares. Jensen supposes this explains why the House of Morgan isn't more prestigious in the Empire, if they're all like Jeff. Master Crudup might have disdained politics for the most part, but he knew how they worked. Jeff just doesn't seem to give a damn. He'd been in Escrow for over a week while the details of his contract had been hammered out and payment made. He'd been forbidden to do anything too strenuous and he'd slept a lot more than he'd meant to, but he'd also been given access to the Archives and had been able to researchand memorizethe genealogy of Jeff's family. It was difficult to figure out if a move into the Morgan household was a lateral move or a slight bump up or down; both Houses were relatively minor and of comparable standing, though had Jensen gathered that Jeff was starting to make some ripples with his business, separate from the monolithic Morgan Enterprises founded by his grandfather. It didn't really matter, he guessed at the time; he was getting too old for anything better. He should feel grateful that Jeff found him desirable enough to want to buy him at all. He should feel grateful anyone at all wanted to buy him. It was only his pride that made him care whether this was another bump down in stature and there was no place in his life for his damnable pride. So he'd stopped trying to figure out Morgan's relative position and just focused on figuring out as much as he could about Morgan. Not all body-slaves had 'net access, but enough of them did that it made keeping up the message board feasible; an electronic word of mouth, passing on information that was of no interest to anyone but other slaveswho was stingy with food or nasty in bed, who drank or drugged too much, who beat their slaves or their children or their spouses. It was a carefully protected secret, and why not? It was just as likely a slave who'd set up their master's networks and firewalls and encryption. Unless you knew where to look for it, in the vast webs of moving information, unless you knew how to get in It might as well not even exist. Interestingly enough, there was some data on the other MorgansJeff's parents and his grandfather, apparently Jeff had a brother, as wellbut nothing to speak of on Jeff himself other than a cryptic notation of: Ask Kane.

No help there. There was no one else for Jensen to ask, either; no legitimate way for him to make contact with anyone outside the Escrow House and the house itself manned only by the neutral Commerce slaves, who weren't like other slaves. There was nothing for Jensen to do but wait for his Closing. The outcome of each of Jensen's Closings had been different, but the opening steps were always the same. A visit from the barber first, who cut his hair, shaved his stubborn beardlike his age, another point not in his favor and thank God he wasn't much hairier than thatand waxed nearly everything else. Jensen hated the waxingand the red, blotchy spots it left on his pale, pale skin afterwardbut over the years, he'd learned to grit his teeth and endure it, just as he endured the itch of cut hair on his skin while the manicurist got him next. As much as Jensen hated the grooming, he loved the manicure and pedicure. He was capable of doing all his own grooming, of course. He'd had masters that required him to do all his own upkeep and Jensen had done it without complaint, but there was a pure and visceral pleasure to be had in someone else's hands touching his body. Different from sex; sex was a service and a duty, not something he was supposed to enjoy. But there was nothing for him to do during a mani-pedi but sit and let himself be touched and massaged and fussed over. It was always over way too soon, his skin soft and pliable from the paraffin. After that, a long scrub and soak. Some of his owners had hired make-up artists for his Closings, though not many. Usually, they liked to see what they were getting, without any fakement. Usually, as well, they sent either a costumer or some kind of message to give Jensen some idea of what he should wear that would be pleasing. The Closing was more than the seal of a bargain, it was the first chance a new owner had to lay hands on their merchandise, to claim itwith all attendant euphemisms. Jensen wasn't surprised that Jeffand at that point, Jensen was still thinking of him as Master Morganhadn't sent a make-up artist or costumer, but he didn't think it boded well for his chances in the Morgan household that Jeff hadn't sent any message of his expectations. Either his standards were so low he didn't care what Jensen wore or he was one of those masters who expected prescience from his slaves and would, undoubtedly, 'correct' harshly when the slave in question failed to properly read his mind. Of course, Jensen had never considered that there was a third option to all of this: that he would wait the entire evening, oiled, lubricated and openedand Jeff would never show up at all. Jensen fell asleep amid the frowst of dying candles and woke up in the morning being stared at by the man he'd later be introduced to as Chris Kane, who'd come to collect him and take him to his new home. Jensen should've known then, what it would be like. Lying next to Jeff now, it stings all over againa master who couldn't

even trouble himself to come to the Closing. Jensen had let himself hope differently, because of Jeff's obvious desire for him but Jensen had just as clearly been a fool to do so. Jensen reaches under the thin quilt and palms Jeff's cock. It had still been hard when Jeff had turned over in his sleep. It's soft now, though it stirs lightly at the touch of Jensen's fingers. Jeff rolls inward, toward Jensen, his exhaled snore turning into a mostly incoherent, whispered, "Jensen" It doesn't sound like an admonishment, but Jensen snatches his hand back anyway and scoots down on the mattress, turning his face out to the window and closing his eyes in feigned sleep. Jeff's arm falls over his waist, heavy and warm, drawing Jensen in. Jeff always does this for at least a few hours of the night though he'll turn away again sometime near dawn. It doesn't mean anything. Jensen's learned to snatch sleep where he can; no telling when an owner might wake him, want him. He pushes himself down into drowsiness, his body warmed quickly by the heat of Jeff spooned behind him. He hasn't thought of that enigmatic message on the bulletin board since leaving Escrow, too busy trying to figure out ways to please his strange new master, orient himself to his new home. Maybe it's time he try and find out what Kane has to tell him.

Chapter 5
Jensen tries to feel less like a sulky teenager and more like a grown man with a purpose but the truth is, he does feel sulky and irritable. Between the massage last night and Jeff permitting Jensen to shave him this morning, Jensen had really thought he was making progress with Jeff. Only to be banished outside like a naughty dog that's piddled on the papers. He knows Jeff didn't really mean it like that; Kane had shown up that morning with bad newsthe string of slaves Jeff had been trying to buy had been sold out from underneath him. Jeff is understandably in a bad mood and he didn't want Jensen around. That was his prerogative and Jensen had no reason to be upset. As well, it's Jeff's prerogative to say to Jensen, "Go outside. Get some sunlight. You're too pale," without Jensen taking offense. Jensen is pale. Master Crudup had liked him pale, just as Master Crudup had liked him thin whereas it felt like Jeff wouldn't be satisfied until Jensen was as rolypoly as a beach ball. He's gained close to ten pounds at Jeff's instigation and if Jeff wants him all sunburned and freckled then Jensen will get sunburned and freckled. No matter how stupid it made him look. Or how it damages his complexion. He has to admit that Jeff's gardens are really quite nice. Master Crudup hadn't really let Jensen out onto the grounds and so he really doesn't know how the two compare but it seems like Jeff's gardens are a lot like Jeff himself, calm and quiet and not overly manicured. There was even a kind of hedge maze-walled garden thing. A deep, coughing woof interrupts Jensen's train of thought. He doesn't like dogs. Hasn't since he was a childand with good reason. Master Cruise's dogs had been the terrors of the estate and the one run-in Jensen had with them had been enough. The scar was a small one and healed to be almost completely unnoticeable unless one was looking for it, but it was incentive enough for Master Cruise to sell his contract. Jensen hadn't been perfect anymore. There's nowhere for Jensen to hide and he wouldn't even know how to climb any of the trees around so he goes very still instead, hoping the dog will pass by, leaving him unmolested. "Oh. Hey." Jensen's completely fixated on trying to be invisible, his heart hammering behind his ribs like a fist. The sound of another person's voice makes him jump. Jensen trips over one of the river stone borders and falls ass first into a flowerbed.

"Oh, hey," the voice says again and then a huge black dog leaps on Jensen, knocking him back into the dirt. Jensen probably would've screamed if he'd had any breath in his lungs to do it with. Instead he just tried to curl up small and protect his face. He wonders who Jeff will sell him to if he's damaged. "Bee-Sue! Bee-Sue! Down, girl! Quit slobbering all over him!" Dimly, it trickles into Jensen that the dog isn't biting him, it's licking him, covering him in thick, stinking dog-spit. "Goddamn it, Bee-Sue, get off!" And the next thing Jensen knows, the guy because it's a man's voiceis hauling the dog off him. The dog is panting and whining and lets out another of the low-voiced woofs. Jensen scrabbles backwards in the dirt, pulling his knees up to his chest. "Hey, I'm so sorry about that. Are you okay?" Something bumps Jensen's knee inquiringly and he lifts his head out of his arms to look up into the open, smiling face of a guy around his own age. The guy's holding the dog back with one arm pretty effortlessly, despite the dog's dance and wriggle. He's holding the other hand out to Jensen in offer to help him up. "I'm fine." There's a fieldstone wall behind Jensen so he doesn't have anywhere to go, but he uses it to brace himself as he struggles up, unaided. "Thanks." "You're Jensen, right?" The guy doesn't look offended that Jensen snubbed his hand, he just straightens up. And up. Jensen nods numbly. The guy's grin widens dazzlingly. "Yeah, that explains it. She smells Jeff all over you. Don't you, silly baby?" The guy changes to a baby voice when he addresses the dog and Jensen struggles not to look as horrified as he feels. He's covered in dirt and dog-spit and he's at the mercy of an idiot. "He smells just like Jeff, don't he?" The guy shakes the dog's muzzle affectionately, ignoring all herher?really huge teeth, before he looks at Jensen again. "I'm Jared." Jensen looks at the hand Jared holds out to him, dirty and covered in more of the dog's drool. Jared follows Jensen's gaze and then has the grace to look embarrassed. Jared wipes his hand absently on his notreally-clean jeans, like that makes it any better. "I just" Jensen doesn't really know what he wants to say. It's hard to think of anything with the dog looking at him like he's a steak dinner. "Could youcould you move back a little bit?" "Oh, yeah, sure." Jared drags the dogBee-Sue?back easily, though her nails cut furrows in the grass. "She won't hurt you, though. She's nothing but a big ol' mushball. Aren't you honey?" The dog pants and grins and fixes Jensen with a look that he doesn't mistake for innocence. "I don't really like dogs," Jensen says. It comes out even prissier than in

his head and he feels like kind of an asshole. Jared makes wide eyes. "Really? Wow. I never met anybody who didn't like dogs before. I meannot at all? Not even a little?" "Not even a little." Jensen looks down at the wreck of his slacks. The pale khaki is streaked with dirt and there are very distinct paw prints on his thighs. He brushes at it ineffectually but desperately. What's Jeff going to say when Jensen comes back looking like he was rolling around in the mud? More importantly, what's Jeff going to do? Jensen's stomach shrivels up around the enormous chunk of coffee cake and eggs Jeff made him eat for breakfast. "Don't worry about that," Jared says, with the ease of someone who's never been beaten for dripping soup on his shirt front. "Just tell Jeff you met up with me and Bee-Sue here. He'll understand. You're all right, right? You didn't bump your head or anything?" Jared looks at Jensen worriedly and Bee-Sue finally settles on her haunches, looking smug at his debauchery. Fucking dog. "What kind of name is Bee-Sue, anyway?" Jensen looks around for something to wipe his filthy hands on, but there's nothing but his filthy self, the dog and Jared. Jared laughs. "Naw, it's not Bee-Sue, it's Bisou. It's like, French. It means kiss." "Bisou," Jensen repeats. "Oh." "Jeff says it's because she used to make this little kissy face all the time. Personally, I think it's because Jeff's a closet romantic and that's the kind of name he'd give a dog, but he's the boss, so we all pretend otherwise." Closet romantic. Those aren't the words that come springing to Jensen's mind when he thinks about Jeff, but he doesn't have the history to make that call. It just reminds him all over again to ask Kane more about Jeff. "Oh," Jensen says again, tongue-tied and awkward now that he doesn't seem in immanent danger of mauling. "C'mon." Jared tips his head in the opposite direction from which Jensen came. "We can put her back in the kennel and you can wash your hands and whatever in the pump before going up to the house. Not," he adds, "that I wouldn't love to see Jeff's face when he gets a load of you. Could probably drive his dick through a wall." It's not like that, Jensen wants to say, but he's better trained than to gossip about his betters, especially to strangers and field hands or whatever the hell it is that Jared does. "How did you know who I am?" Jensen asks instead, carefully positioning himself on the other side of Jared from Bisou and far enough out that he'll at least have a little warning if she springs for him again. Gotta protect the face. Jared snorts and then laughs outright. "You're kidding, right?" He looks sidelong at Jensen. "You know you're something of a nine day's wonder, right? First of all, everybody thought Jeff'd be moping over Mary-Louise a

hell of a lot longer, let alone buying up somebody only a couple weeks after she packed up. Second, given what you look like, you'd best believe everybody's talking about you. Hell, we're taking bets on how long it's gonna take Jeff to fall." "Fall?" Jensen repeats blankly. Jared gives Jensen a look. "You know. Fall for you? Fall in love." Now it's Jensen's turn to look puzzled. "That doesn't make any sense." Jared scoops up a fallen branch from the grass and releases Bisou to throw it overhand. Bisou must decide that she can catch Jensen any time, because she gives out an excited bark and goes bounding after the stick. "What do you mean? You're totally Jeff's type." "I belong to him," Jensen explains, as if to the very stupid. Which he's still not entirely convinced excludes Jared. "He can have me any time he wants." "Yeah, but he won't." Bisou brings the stick back and she and Jared engage in a short, growling tug-of-war before Jared convinces her to let it go long enough for him to throw it again. But why not? Jensen grinds his teeth. And why does everyone know that my master won't fuck me? What's wrong with me? "He's not impotent, is he?" Jensen asks, before he can put a leash on his wayward mouth. He thinks about the erections Jeff's sported around him. He knows Jeff can get hard, but maybe it's one of those things where he can't use it. "I mean, he doesn't seem to beincapable or anything" Jensen trails off from his own sense of horror as much as Jared laughing so hard he collapses to the lawn. Bisou comes back with the stick and dances impatiently for a few seconds in front of Jared before she gives up on him and trots over to Jensen instead. There's no way in hell Jensen's going to reach into her mouth to retrieve the stick, no matter how much she eyeballs him, but instead, she just lays it neatly in front of his feet and backs off a few inches, doing a weird hoppy prance with her front two legs. Jensen's whole soul cringes from picking up the slobbery stick, but Bisou barks authoritatively and he does, flinging it quickly as he can. It doesn't go far and Bisou makes a contemptuous woof before chasing after it again. "Oh, God, I've got to tell Sam you said that," Jared crows, slowly levering himself up and wiping his streaming eyes. "Ohand Kane! God, he'll die!" "Please don't," Jensen says hastily, even though it's showing his hand to do so. "Please. I don't I shouldn't have said anything. Oror suggested. It was out of place." Jared twists around to stare at him. "Jesus, you've got to lighten up,

Jensen. It's not that kind of serious." Jensen picks at his cuticles, even though he knows better and he's been told about it more than once. "I just didn't mean any disrespect. It was a stupid thing to say." Jared slowly climbs to his feet. Now that they're closer and both standing, Jensen can see that Jared's not quite the giant he took him for. There's less than a half foot of height between them. Jared combs his dirty fingers through his shaggy hairwhich frankly, needs a cut and a ton of product, if you ask Jensenand then tucks his hands in his pockets, looking uncomfortable and strangely young. Jensen further realizes that Jared's not as close in age as he thought, maybe as much as a whole decade younger. "I didn't mean to get your panties in a twist, Jensen, sorry. I won't say anything if it means that much to you." "Iyeah. It does." Jared shrugs. "Okay." Jensen lets out his breath like he's been holding it. Which he hasn't, but his chest hurts like it has. "Look, it's getting late. I should get back up to the house anyway. Jeff's probably got something for me to do." Jeff doesn't have any such thing, Jensen's sure, and by the look on his face when Jensen says it, he thinks Jared knows that too, but he's polite enough not to say so. "Yeah, sure. You all right getting back from here?" "Yeah, I'm fine." Jensen realizes Jared's looking at his hands, which are shaking. He wants to shove them behind his back like a kid, but instead, he tucks them in his pockets, trying to look casual about it. "Thanks." Jared cracks a smile. "For what? Letting Bisou jump on you and get you all dirty?" He waves his hand, go on with you. "Nah, forget about it. But you should come down sometime. I can show you all the animals, maybe we can hang out." "Yeah, okay." Jensen nods, intending to do nothing of the sort. He has duties. Or he will, he's sure. At some point. "Later." Jared waves and then whistles for the dog. Bisou comes running, still hanging grimly to her stick. A little unsteady on his feetwhich is totally just adrenalineJensen makes his way as fast as he dares back toward the house.

Chapter 6
Jeff hadn't told Jensen to be back at any particular time, so he isn't expecting to run into Jensen in the suite bathroom and he isn't expecting the state in which he finds Jensen. Even from the first time Jeff saw him, Jensen's alwaysself-contained. Fastidiously clean, impeccably groomed and the same sense of physical deliberation as a cat. That's Jensen in a nutshell. So seeing him mussed, dirty and half-naked, in the middle of shedding his clothes is a little bit of a shock. A pretty pleasant shock from where Jeff's cock sits, dirty traitor. Then he gets past the holy crap, wet dream come true and onto the fact that Jensenwho'd gone out as immaculately kept as everis as dirty and disheveled as if he's been mugged. "Jensen?" Stepping across the room isn't really a conscious decision, nor is putting his hands on Jensen's bare shoulders. A man's skin has no right to be this soft. "You okay?" Jeff knew it, but he's struck all over again by what a pretty blush Jensen has, dull red like sunburn that fades out his freckles. He's struck by it all over again, watching it spread out across every inch of Jensen's visible skin. "I'm undamaged," Jensen says swiftly, his face ducking down so Jeff can't see anything but the ruffled tangle of his short hair and the tips of his nose and chin. "I'm sorry. I should've been faster. I meant to be faster." "No, it's fine." I'm undamaged? Jeff thinks, thrown by the weird choice of words. Who says that? "You're welcome to use the bathroom whenever you want. I told you that. But are you sure you're okay? You're shaking." Jensen is, fine trembles that Jeff probably wouldn't have noticed if he didn't have his hands on Jensen. He really should take his hands off Jensen. Jensen shakes his head, a jerky, graceless gesture. "I'm just cold." That's just an out-and-out lie; the shower's been running this whole time and the bathroom is filled with heat and steam like a sauna. Jeff's starting to trickle sweat like a priest in a whorehouse. "Jensen." He shouldn't be touching Jensen, he knows that, but now that he's latched on, Jeff's having a hard time convincing himself to let go. "What happened? Did you fall or something?" "Yes." The relief in Jensen's tone is obvious. "I fell into one of the flowerbeds." That has more the ring of truth to it, but there's still something Jensen's not telling him. Jeff knows everyone on the estate; he wouldn't have it any other way, even if he could afford to have it differently...which he can't. He can't imagine anyone putting violent or unwanted hands on

Jensennot one of his friends, not a fellow slavebut he almost literally can't imagine what else Jensen would be too afraid to come clean about. It would help if he could see Jensen's face. Jeff hooks his forefinger under Jensen's chin and tugs up. There's actually a scrape across Jensen's cheek, angrily red though its tiny and barely enough to have broken the skin. If anything, it points up the ridiculous perfection of Jensen's face otherwise. Indulgently, Jeff runs his thumb just below it, his voice rasping and tangling in his throat as he says, "Not so undamaged." He doesn't mean anything by it except maybe to tease Jensen a bit. He certainly doesn't expect the way Jensen flinches or the sudden, sick terror he glimpses in the quick dart of Jensen's eyes before his eyelashes hide them up again. "I'm sorry," Jensen apologizes again, his body giving a weird jerk in Jeff's hands. Jeff lets him go, startled and Jensen falls to his knees with a thump that hurts Jeff's bones. "I didn't know the dog was there and I should've been more careful with your property, sir, I know that. I promise I'll be more careful in the future..." As first, Jeff can't make any sense of the babble of words coming out of Jensen's mouth, staring down at his bent head bemusedly. Then, when he understands the words, it takes him another minute to comprehend their meaning. "Jensen, get up." Now it's Jeff's turn to feel cold, despite the cloying heat of the room. The sick roiling of his belly makes his voice sharper than he means it to be. "Get up." Though he winces to do it, Jensen springs up with almost the same speed with which he fell down and Jeff could kick himself. He takes a step back and combs his fingers through his hair. "Okay. Okay, wait." Jeff sighs. "Can wecan we both just stop for a second?" "I await your instruction," Jensen says, looking down at his twisted together hands and Jeff doesn't know whether he wants to shake the life out of Jensen or justwrap him up and feed him Sam's apple-caramel tartlets and hot chocolate. Instead, Jeff reaches past Jensensteadfastly ignoring it when he flinches againand shuts off the shower. The silence that falls with the cessation of the water feels as heavy as the humidity and Jeff can hear the quiet but fast race of Jensen's breath. "Jensen." Obediently, Jensen meets Jeff's eyes and Jeff sees them muddy with the effort to be calm. There's nothing remotely sexy about any of this and Jeff stretches a little further to snag a robe from the rank of hooks on the shower's far side. Pressing it into Jensen's hands, Jeff says gently, "You're not in trouble.

I'm not going to hurt you for a scrape on the face, okay? I'm not going to hurt you at all." Jensen looks at the robe as though he doesn't know what Jeff wants him to do with it and then back at Jeff. The fear is still lurking, but otherwise there's nothing in his face. Nothing at all. "Put it on," Jeff urges, making a go on gesture with his hands. "But I'm dirty." Jensen's voice is as dully blank as his expression. "I don't care about that." It's an effort to keep his voice steady and calm, but it's not Jensen that he's mad at, it's everyone else. It's him, it's Crudup, it's this whole fucking system. "Justjust put it on, okay?" Jensen's mouth thins in such a typicalfor himexpression of wordless disapproval that Jeff has to fight the totally inappropriate impulse to laugh. He doesn't want to laugh, he really doesn't. It's hard to think of anything less funny than this entire clusterfuck of a situation. But his habit of laughing at the wrong moment is long-documented and the bane of his family. Jeff sighs again, but it feels less fraught than a moment before. "Come on." Jeff takes Jensen's hand without thinking about it, but Jensen's fingers close around Jeff's without hesitation. "I think we should have a talk." Though the impulse to have the talk in the privacy and safety of the bedroom is strong, Jeff takes Jensen down the hall to the breakfast room, a tiny room on the corner barely big enough for the table, chairs and small sideboard. Jeff doesn't know what it was supposed to be originally butwith its unrestricted views on two wallsit's one of his favorite rooms in the whole house, cozy and shabby and distant from all the rest of the bullshit surrounding being Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He calls down to the kitchen for Sam to send them up something; Jensen still needs a lot of fattening up before he hits even a healthy weight and Jeff feels in need of something himself at the moment. Jensen sits in the chair Jeff directed him to, looking both small and young in nothing more than the fluffy white robe. He also still looks uncomfortable and awkward at being asked to sit in chairs rather than allowed to kneel but Jeff will take 'uncomfortable' and 'awkward' over terrified any day. "Okay," Jeff sighs, settling into the chair opposite Jensen and drumming his fingers meditatively on the arms. "Now. Let's start from the beginning. What happened?" He holds up his hand at Jensen opens his mouth to speak. "Andlet's just take it as a given that you're very sorry and skip all the apologies, okay?" Jensen's head ducks but he nods. He's still shivering from time to time, but his voice is perfectly steadyalmost dryas he says, "I was in the garden. There was a dog. Bisou. Itshe I fell down and shegot on me and I couldn't get her off, at first. Not until Jared pulled her off of me. That must have been when I got scratched up. I wasnot very clear."

Jeff mutes his chuckle into a more noncommittal snort and leans back in the chair, feeling a little less sick than he had. "So Bisou jumped all over you, knocked you down and Jared got her off of you, is that the long and short of it?" "I'm sure it was my fault," Jensen says quickly, a spike of his anxiety bleeding through again. "And I'm just as sure that it wasn't." Jeff lets himself laugh a little, still a little light-headed and sick at how quick he'd been to assume someone had hurt Jensen. "She's a sweet dog, but Bisou's a whole lot of loving for anybody, let alone someone who's not used to her. Are you sure you're all right?" Jensen nods again, more vigorously. "I'm fine." Jeff doubts that Jensen would say anything else, even if he was bleeding from his eyeballs, but he doesn't know how to pursue it without getting into the sticky and uncomfortable arenas of forcing Jensen to tell him, by virtue of his ownership. That's not what he wants and he doesn't want to go down that road with Jensen, who isn't quite like any slave Jeff's ever owned. He's interrupted in that train of thought by Sam, who shows up with a tray of the promised foodthick sandwiches of the tri-tip left over from last night's dinner and rich, beefy vegetable soup and two of the tartlets he'd been thinking of before. "Only two?" Jeff asks, wounded. "One is more than you need," Sam replied sharply, setting one fist on her hip. "I don't want mine," Jensen says, convincing no one as he shoves the saucer toward Jeff's side of the table. Sam whirls on him. "Don't you dare! That tart's for you, Jensen and you'd better eat it, too. Mr. Pudge here has had more than his fair share." "Hey!" "I got the orders from your doctor on your last med check out." Sam raises her eyebrows at him. "I shouldn't even let you have that one." Jeff gathers his tartlet closer, hunching over it protectively. "Well, now it's too late. You can't have it back." Sam rolls her eyes. "I don't know why I bother." She looks at Jensen again, stabbing one finger in his direction. "Dont you let him eat all this food and ruin his supper. You don't wanna cross me, Jensen." Jensen shakes his head, not looking at her. Instead, he's adjusting his soup spoon to be perfectly parallel on his napkin. "No, ma'am." Jeff gets the impression Jensen doesn't entirely approve of Sammost likely because of the way she talks to himbut he also obeys her like she

was his own mother. Jeff reckons Jensen could use a little mothering and if he won't take it from Jeff, he could do a lot worse than having Sam on his side. Sam leaves and Jensen folds his hands in his lap, looking a question at Jeff. Jeff nods, his own sandwich already in hand. "Go on, eat." Then, remembering another incident, just after he'd brought Jensen home, "You don't have to eat all of it, if you're not that hungry. Just whatever you want, until you're full." Jensen looks at his food for a long time and then cuts his sandwich in half, with a quick glance at the end at Jeff for approval. It's hard for Jeff to remember sometimes that Jensen is just shy of thirty. Not just because of how he looksthough that doesn't helpbut his odd, nervous dependency makes Jeff think of him as much youngerwhich only makes Jeff feel like an even bigger lech for wanting him so bad. Not going there, Jeff reminds himself sternly, focusing on his own sandwich. So not going there. When Jeff has his libido under slightly better control, he clears his throat and says, "Look, Jensen, I don't know what just happened there in the bathroom, but I want you to know: you're safe here. I'm not going to sell your contract forfor getting scratched up by one of the dogs oror not finishing everything on your plate or if you happen to, God forbid, let out a fart or something" Jensen chokes a little on his spoonful of soup, eyebrows laddering up almost to his hairline, but he doesn't look up or stop his slow and deliberate consumption of the soup. "I'm not going to sell your contract at all. If you don't like it here, don't like being my body-slave" Jensen's head does jerk up then, spoon dropping from his fingers with a clatter. "Of course I like being your body-slave, sJeff. You've been very kind to me." Jeff drags a hand down his face. "No, see, that. That's the 'make Jeff happy' talk. But you don't have to do that here, with me. It's not like that. I'm not like that. I just I just want you to talk to me, Jensen. Just tell me what you really want." "I don't want to leave," Jensen says, sounding more heartfelt. Enough so that Jeff can almost take it at face value. Almost. "Okay." Jeff nods at him, smiling. "Okay. I want you to like it here. I want you to be happy, Jensen. Do you believe that?" Something flickers across Jensen's face, too fast for Jeff to even take a stab at interpreting it before Jensen's eyelashes flick down. "Of course I do, Jeff."

Jeff sighs. Only Jensen can make 'Jeff' sound quite so much like 'sir' and 'of course I do' sound so much like 'yeah, bullshit'. Time to change tacks. "So what did you think of my girl?" "Sir?" Jensen can't quite catch himself in time and his expression goes from inquiring to exasperated with himself. All things being equal, Jeff's inclined to be forgiving. "Bisou." Jeff gestures toward the garden with his spoon, a chunk of potato plopping back into the soup. "I mean, obviously she wasn't on her best behavior" "Jared said it was because I smell like you." Jeff considers. "Yeah, that makes sense. You sleep in my bed, we use the same shampoo and soap and stuff. We can get you your own things, if you want." It had been both satisfying and painful to clear all of Mary-Louise's things out of the bathroom. She'd left most of it behind, the same way she'd left him behindwithout a backward glancesaying it would be easier to travel without and buy new at the station. Jensen shakes his head and makes circles around his bowl with his spoon. "No. I like the ones you have. They make them here, don't they? On the estate?" It'd been stupid for him to fall in love with his body-slave in the first place, especially one who'd made it abundantly clear from the get-go that she wanted nothing to do with him. He can't let himself make that mistake again. "Yeah," Jeff answers slowly, surprised Jensen had noticed. "They do. Would you like to see the shop some time?"

Chapter 7
"Hey! Hey, Jensen!" A chorus of barking follows the sound of Jared's voice and Jensen's heart slams up into his throat, freezing him in his tracks. He'd gone in the other direction from the maze, hoping to avoid this very thing. Jeff wants him to take a walk every day, build up his strength. Jensen would just as soon work out in the quiet peacefulness of the gym, but Jeff seems to think the fresh air will do Jensen good. And now, here's Jared. There are two dogs with Jared today, tugging him along on their leashes. Jensen doesn't know the names of one breed from another, but neither of them are Bisou. Jensen stops and debates whether it's better to tuck his suddenly shaking hands into his pants pockets or to keep them free where he might be able to use them if/when one of the dogs lunge for him. He doesn't really have to make up his mind either way when Jared pulls up several feet short, wrapping the leashes around his palms to keep the dogs up close. "Don't like dogs, right?" Jared's smile is bright and open and he taps his temple wisely with one wrapped hand. "See? I remembered." "Yeah," Jensen says faintly. He clears his throat and says, louder, "Thanks." Looking around cautiously, he asks, "Where's Bisou?" "Oh, she's not as young as she used to be, you know? Took her and these bundles of joy right here," Jared wiggles the leashes, "for a good, long run this morning. But these guys have too much energy for their own good, dontcha? Dontcha?" Jared makes kissy faces at the dogs who pant and drool and try to climb his legs. "This is Harley," Jared shakes one leash, "and this is Sadie." He shakes the other. "These are my dogs." "Yours?' Jensen had assumed that Jared was another slave, like him, but slaves aren't allowed to own property. Not even little things. Like acupuncture needles. "Well." Jared looks embarrassed. "Not mine. All the animals are Jeff's, I guess, if you want to get technical about it. But I've been raising them since they were pups. They're like mine." Oh. More of Jeff's weird liberalism. Most of the houses Jensen's served in, Jared would get his back striped for trying to claim the master's property as his own. Not that Jensen would've ratted him out. "Come on." Jared jerks his head at Jensen, still smiling, carefree. "Come keep up company. I love these guys," Sadie barks and Jensen flinches, "but they're shitty conversationalists. C'mon." Jared starts walking again, like he has no doubt that Jensen will follow him. But Jensen guesses Jared's right about that, because that's exactly what he does. The dogs keep straining at the leashes to try and get

close to him but Jensen's been a body slave too long not to be able to judge the proper distance to keep between them. "I don't have anything to talk about," Jensen says, once he's measured and timed his pace against the dog's erratic and whining progress. Jared snorts. "Oh, bullshit. How do you like it here so far?" Jensen shrugs. "MJeff has been very kind to me." "Okay, wow. I know you're supposed to say that, and all, but seriously." "Seriously what?" Jared stops and gives Jensen a look. Then, fighting with the dogs, he says, "Look, they'll be a lot happierand calmerif you let them get a good sniff. Would that be okay? I promise I won't let them jump on you." Jensen's hands clench shut and then, painfully, open. "Sure." Jared grabs both dogs by the collar and lets first Harley and then Sadie sniff Jensen's legs all over. Harley seems especially interested in Jensen's groin, which makes Jared haul him back, grinning sheepishly. Sadie gives Jensen's fingers a warm, very wet lick. He's not sure if that's approval or whether she's testing his edibility. He has his suspicions. Jensen feels a little lightheaded with adrenaline when both dogs finally plop calmly at Jared's feet. "There, that wasn't so bad, right?" "Oh, it was a dream come true." Jensen sourly tugs the little bottle of antiseptic gel he'd brought as a precaution and squirts a dab into his palm, rubbing it briskly into his skin. He hates the gel's chemical smell but he hates the idea of walking around with germs on his hands even less. "Ha. I knew you couldn't be all suck egg. Come on." Jared clucks to the dogs and they take off again. Jensen trails out to Jared's side this time, still careful to maintain his distance though the dogs seem completely disinterested in him now. The range out in front of Jared, sniffing everything and each other, tugging at the leashes. The weather still holds nice, though there's a smudge of pollution over the city, but Jeff's estate is far enough out that the air seems clear, only the mountains and the soft roll of Jeff's land itself hemming in the unrestricted views. Sometimes all that open space made Jensen want to curl up into a little ball, wedge himself under some heavy piece of furniture so that he can't get sucked out into it. Today, though, it's just a nice panorama. He's only got so much terror to go around, after all, and the dogs are hogging up all of it today. "What does that mean, 'suck egg'?" Jared laughs. "You've kind of got a stick up your ass, you know?" Before Jensen could get offendedand he doesn't think he was, Jared says quickly, "It's cool, though, man. I guess if Jeff was keeping me like your

last master was keeping you, I'd be a bityou know." Now Jensen was offended, scalded affront heating him from within. "Just because Master Crudup had certain standards that Jeff doesn't share doesn't mean he was a bad master. Or that I was treated inappropriately." Jared raises his hands as best he can with Sadie and Harley jerking at the leashes wrapped around the palms. "Hey, I didn't mean to get you hair all up. Buthe was starving you, right?" Jensen feels a knot between his shoulders pinch tight. It doesnt surprise him that the other slaves have been talking about him behind his back. Even in better run households than this, gossip is rampant. It just doesn't make it any easier to hear that people are talking about you behind your back. Making judgments. Assuming things they don't know anything about. "Master Crudup was very disciplined," Jensen says stiffly, coming slowly to a halt. "He took care of me." Jeff gave him a watch to wear, so that Jensen would know how long to stay outside. It's not new, but it's expensive and heavy, clearly Jeff's own, a worn spot in the leather where the buckle had habitually rested. Jensen had to winch it two holes tighter than that, the difference in the width of their wrists. And even though Jensen knows the watch isn't his, the way the clothes on his back or even his own body aren't his, it's the first thing Jeff's given to him, the first real and tangible sign that Jeff gives a fuck about what Jensen does with himself and his time. Stubbornly, however, the face shows that he still has to remain outdoors for another hour for his constitutional. Jared realizes Jensen's stopped and halts as well, looking vaguely troubled. Sadie barks sharply, still tugging at the leash until Jared says, absently, "Sit," and both dogs drop to their haunches, glaring meaningfully at Jensen for putting a stop to their fun. For a moment, there's just the sound of the dogs panting and the birds and the even more distant roar of the ocean. Jensen realizes he's shaking again, his whole body, and he doesn't know why. "Look," Jared says, "I didn't mean to" Jensen shakes his head. His neck feels like a rigid column of steel, inflexible and unwilling to turn. "Nothing to apologize for." "No. Really. Sam's telling me all the time I run my mouth off without thinking about it and she's right, totally right. I didn't I just wanted to know if you liked it here. If it was better. I've been with Jeff and his family my whole life. I don't know what it's like, with anyone else." Jensen considers that, surprised. Jared can't be that much younger than him and by that point, Jensen had nine or ten different masters. He can't even imagine what it would feel like. No wonder Jared's so complacent,

so sloppy about what he says, how he talks. He probably believes that he's part of the family, that Jeffor his someday wife, or someday children, or his creditorscould never have him sold off. Jared probably believes that he's safe. "It's not better or worse," Jensen says, possibly more harshly than he means to. "It's just doing what you have to do. Being who you have to be." For a minute, Jared looks like he's going to say something else, push Jensen a little harder, but he must think better of it, scuffing his sneaker against the grass. There's another silence, no less awkward than the first. Finally: "Soyou just happened to be walking this way at the same time I was?" Despite the shaking and the sun beating down on his shoulders, Jensen feels cool. So cool, a tiny quiet place inside him that rings like a bell, untouchable. Jared scuffs harder, looking embarrassed. Harley huffs at the continued non-motion and flops down on the grass, rolling his belly up hopefully. Obligingly, Jared squats down and scratches the dog's chest and belly before he squints up and sidelong at Jensen. "Naw, not really. Jeff thought maybe you could use some company. Help you get settled in a little more." What would help me get 'settled in' is if my master would let me do the things I'm supposed to do! Jensen thinks viciously, but he doesn't let any of that show through to his face. He'd thought it might be something of the sort, but hearing confirmationthat this is what his master wants of himchanges the complexion of the situation. Jeff wants Jensen to get to know Jared for one reason or another. He looks at Jared again, more clinically. Even though he's young and ridiculously nave, Jared isn't a badly put together man. His face and body are strong, well-formed, skin tanned smooth by lots of time spent outdoors, rather than the orangey falseness of a tanning bed. With those molesespecially the one on his facehe'd never make it in Lord Cruise's household, but Jensen's not owned by Lord Cruise anymore and Jensen doesn't care who Jared is or what he looks like. Jensen's played this game before. Jeff wants him to intuit his wishes? Fine. Jensen will show Jeff just how very good he is.

Chapter 8
"Jensen, it's just dinner." Jeff carefully keeps his eyes above Jensen's collarbones, rather than the still-too-thin, but nonetheless mouthwatering expanse of naked Jensen below the self-designated safe zone. "And dinner with my friends at that. This is what I'm wearing." Jeff gestures at his jeans and tee shirt. Jensen stops scrubbing his hair dry and drops his towel down around his shoulders. As far as Jeff knows, Jensen doesn't wear any cosmetics, but, freshly showered, his freckles seem to stand out more vividly. Primly, he says, "My appearance is a tangible reflection of my master. Regardless of how my master chooses to present hirself, a well-dressed, well-groomed body-slave shows my master's success, respectability and care." Jensen drops his towel into the hamper and then walks to where his clothesfar nicer than Jeff'sare laid out on the bed. Jeff's eyes go briefly to Jensen's strong bowed legs, the tight round of his ass, before he jerks them up to the painting mounted over the bed's headboard. "That's quitepithy," Jeff says dryly, ignoring how easy it would be to push Jensen face down on the bed, ass high. Ignoring the knowledge that Jensen would let him do it. "You should write a book." He's already transferred all his pocket crap from his last pair of jeans to this one, but Jeff goes to the dresser anyway, poking restlessly at the collection of pocket change, receipts and random trash he picks up in his day to day a shell he found on the rocky spit of beach below the property, a dark stone imprinted with a fern pattern, a feather he was thinking about using as a brush. "If you want me to wear something else, I will." Jensen says it with the same bland placidity he comes out with gems like, "I'm lubricated, if you'd like to fuck me now." Jeff looks up, into the mirror, and sees Jensen gazing over his shoulder at Jeff's back. "No." Jeff scratches his beard. "Wear whatever you like, Jensen." Jensen looks back down at his spread out clothing, pinching the cotton shirt between his fingers. "I just want to do you proud." The plaintiveness of Jensen's voice hits Jeff hard, driving him across the room to put his hands on Jensen's shoulders. "Jensen, you do. God, my grandfather would probably wish you were the heir to the Morgan fortunes, if he'd ever met you, instead of a dilettante like me." "He stood a lot on protocol." Jensen shivers. Jeff can't decide if it's because Jensen's heard some of the stories about Franklin Morgan or because he's still naked in the cool room. "That's putting it pretty mildly," Jeff answers dryly. Twenty years of practice keep his voice evenly strung; Jeff's proud of himself.

Jensen makes a brief shimmy of his torso and suddenly he's a lot closer. It's reflex for Jeff to fold Jensen in against his body, sharing body warmth between them. That's all it is. Just reflex. Just like it's probably reflex that makes Jensen rest his forehead on Jeff's shoulder, the memory of past masters. "I only want to please you," Jensen says, low enough that Jeff could almost pretend not to have heard. With Jensen pressed against every inch of him, Jeff knows he's on the teetering edge of doing something he'll regret, the thickening of his cock as inevitable as it is undeniable. Sucking in a deep and hectic breath, Jeff pushes Jensen back from him again. "You're all kinds of pleasing, Jensen." Jeff can't keep the frank, desperate sincerity out of his voice if he'd wanted to, dizzy as if he took a hit off a gravity bong. "But we're going to be really late for dinner. You should get dressed." Jensen steps away from him immediately, without protest or any sense of hesitation, giving Jeff the room and space to breathe. Jeff palms his cock roughly, as if he can somehow press it into submission. "So, I hear you and Jared have been getting along," Jeff says, sounding more breathless than he means to. Jeff can almost hear Jensen's shrug. "Jared is good company, when I'm not needed at the house for other things." The answer's so bland as to be almost meaningless and Jeff can't tell whether he hears any actual affection in Jensen's tone or not. He doesn't want to spy on Jensen, doesn't want Jensen to feel as though he's being spied on, but Jeff has asked Jared how Jensen seems to be getting along and Jared's answers are a lot more enthusiastic. Jeff thinks Jared's got a bit of a crush, and who can blame him? Jeff ruthlessly grinds down any pang that thought gives him. Jared's a far better companion for Jensen than Jeff could ever be; a relationship without any of the ugly power dynamics caused by master versus slave. Jeff hears Jensen zip his slacks and turns around. Not that shirtless Jensen is a significant improvement for Jeff's desperately held Zen. "You can have friends, you know. Hell, you can even have lovers if you want them." What on earth? Jensen pauses, shirt held in his hands and regards Jeff over his shoulder. Jeff doesn't know how to read Jensen's face or his eyes, but he shivers reflexively anyway. Jensen looks back down, working the shirt restlessly between his fingers. His nails are better manicured that Jeff's, who bites them. "Is that what you want? For me to be Jared's friend?" Again, Jeff can't tell if he's imagining that Jensen puts a slight emphasis on 'friend' or whether it's really there. Jensen's really good at shit like that and Jeff never has more than half an idea what's going on in Jensen's mind. He opens his mouth to say, I want you to have friends, when they're interrupted by the squeaking scuffle of feet coming helterskelter down the hallway and the unmistakable giggles and half-

completed sentences that mean Zach and Jeremy are here. "where?" "I swear to God, this place is like Hill House, you could get lost in just one hallway" Jensen shrugs into his shirt faster as Jeff goes to open the hall door. Zach is riding Jeremy's shoulders and the two of them are already stoned off their gourds. Jeff kind of wishes he was. "Where is he?" Jeremy demands, straightening up and chucking Zach off his back. Zach squawks and goes down in a heap. "C'mon. After all the freaking fortune you spent on him, you know I need a first hand look." "You're an asshole, you know that?" Jeff doesn't budge from the doorway, though his tone is fond. "That's what you pay me for." Jeremy looks thoughtful for a minute. "Oh, wait, right. You don't." He cranes over Jeff's shoulder. "Come on. Where is he?" Jeremy grabs onto Jeff's tee, looking at him with deeply bloodshot eyes. "You can tell me. How pretty is he?" "Judge for yourself," Jensen says, a sudden presence of warmth behind Jeff's back. "How pretty am I?" Glancing backwards, Jeff sees Jensen looks completely groomed, shirt buttoned and tucked into his slacks. Jensen sounds much more confident than Jeff's used to hearing from him, almost flirtatious. For his part, Jeremy whistles, his eyes roaming Jensen in a way that makes Jeff want to growl and dangle Jeremy over the railing. Just a little bit. Not that he thinks for a second that Jeremy would lay a hand on JensenJeremy acts like an ass but he wouldn't really be one of Jeff's closest friends if he was one. Jeremy looks at Jeff. "Okay. I forgive you for spending a quarter of your budget on him." He loops an arm around Jeff's shoulder, tugging him out into the hallway and Jeff knows better than to protest that he's still barefoot. "Of course you know, you've totally fucked all our plans for the next fiscal quarter, right? Oh, Zach, you big baby, you're fine, get up." Jensen quietly fits himself into place on Jeff's other side, fingers slipping tentatively into Jeff's palm. Jeff spares a glance sideways to smile and squeezes.

Chapter 9
Jeff makes Jensen sit in a chair at the table with everyone else, rather than on his knees at Jeffs side. Point of fact, everyone sits at the table, even though Jensen knows that some of them, like Zach and Kane are Jeffs slaves. Others, like Master Sistowho insists on being called Jeremy and whom Zach keeps calling Mertonare not. There's no attempt at establishing precedence. Jensen is seated across from a gamine of a woman whom Jeff only casually introduces as "Kate". It takes Jensen nearly ten minutes to realize, horrified, it's Lady Cate Blanchett. She looks completely different from every other time he's seen her. Not that there's been many of those. There are no servers. Instead, everyone at the table passes the plates around like mah-jongg tiles, back and forth, without any real order and lots of really loudand profanesquabbling. In fact, Jeff has to ask three times for the lamb medallions to be passed, until Jensen gets up from his place and walks down the table to reclaim them from Zach, who is in the middle of telling Jeremy and a blonde woman named Ever (Jensen doesnt know whether shes a slave or not) a story that seems to involve a large number of strippers, an obscene amount of booze and, inexplicably, Mylar balloons. Jeff looks embarrassed when Jensen holds the heavy and elaborate ceramic platter for Jeff to tong the lamb onto his plate. You didnt have to do that. Jensen doesnt say anything. Hes found thats safer for both of them. Oh, come on, Jeff, Jeremy hoots from down the table, thumping his fork on the wood. I wish I had something that pretty serving me his meat. The table laughs and Jeff blushes as hotly as if he spent all day under the brutal Southern California sun. Its nothing to Jensen; hes heard much worse. Instead, he looks to Jeff to see if he should serve Jeremy as well. If anything, Jeff colors deeper and gives a curt and embarrassed shake of his head. Of course not. Jensen puts a clamp on his brief spurt of irritation and makes himself set the platter down both gracefully and quietly, rather than dumping it into Jeffs lap like hed half-like to. When they'd been alone in the bedroom, Jensen had thought, had felt Well. Jensen isn't quite sure what happened. Jeff had put his arms around him and Jensen had felt so sureand then Jeff had pushed him away. Again. Jensen stabs at his lamb with more

force than is required, a dull throb in his body both like and unlike the hunger he doesn't feel for the meal. Jensen was ten the first time he was called to serve in Lord Cruise's bed. Lord Cruise is nothing, if not scrupulous about the law; he'd held Jensen's contract for three years already at that point. But ten is old enough to bear or sire children, it's old enough to be bedded. In the two decades since then, Jensen cant remember if hes ever gone more than a handful of days without sex. Some kind of sex. Its not a question of desire. Jensen cant say if hes ever wanted to have sex. And its not that hes ever been given a choice. But its part of his role as a trained body slave, part of who and what he is and its absence aches in this bone deep way that Jensen cant define or describe, other than to feel it, his palm pressing hard into his gut. Are we too late for dinner? Jensen would have to be blind and stupid not to see the way Jeff brightens at the sound of Jared's voice. "Hey, no. You know Sam always makes too much. Glad you two could drag yourself away, man." Behind Jared is another guy that Jensen doesn't know, blond, skinny and sullen looking. He's got field hand written all over him, though Jensen reckons he's pretty enough to be a body slave. But no body slave would slouch so insolently or look so obviously bored by the whole proceeding. Jeff points down to where Jeremy and Jeff's other friend Brenta Fraser, but not part of the Fraser Conglomerateare sitting. "Chad, I think you can squeeze in down there on the corner and Wendy, if you'll smoosh over toward your husband, I think we can fit Jared in there." Jensen's surprised to hear that Wendywho runs one of Jeff's many companiesis Zach's wife. Slaves don't marry. Though he's seen more than a few clandestine commitment ceremonies, they're nothing recognized by law or master. For Jeff to acknowledge them publicly Well, it's not wrong, because Jeff is entitled to do what he likes, but it's weird and uncomfortable in the same way as sitting across from a Lady as if he has every right to be on a level with her. He's completely unsurprised that Jeff's hasty rearrangement of the seating plan puts Jared on Jensen's left, squashed too close by the lack of space. Jared grins at Jensen, jostling with gangling knees and elbows as he fits in. "Hey." "Hey." Jensen doesn't mean to smile at all, annoyed by the distraction when his attention should be on Jeff, but Jared's impossible to resist. "Man, I never thought we'd get away." Jared reaches over and past Jensen for the platter of lamb with no self-consciousness about his lack of table manners. Jensen's spine straightens and he flattens himself against the chair's high back. "One of the horses is foaling and it's her first and I thought she was never going to drop, swear to God, even with Chad whispering sweet nothings in her ear." Jared piles his plate high with meat and then chucks the platter on the table with little regard for the ceramic, which is worked finely enough that it had to have cost a

fortune. "Yo, Kane. Hand me whatever's in that bowl there, will you?" "It's a root vegetable medley, you Philistine." Kane picks up the bowl and hands it over gamely, though. "Looks like potatoes to me." "So. How are you finding it, Jensen?" Lady Blanchett's voice is low enough that, at first, Jensen doesn't realize she's talking to him. "Ma'am?" She smiles, folded up in her chair like an ill-mannered child. "I was asking how you were finding it. Here, with Jeff." Jensen can't help the sideways glance of his eyes, conscious of Jeff next to him, Jeff's eyes on him like a hand on his neck. "I'm grateful to Mto Jeff for taking me in, naturally," Jensen says, concentrating all his attention on cutting a medallion into precise sixths. "Mmm," Lady Blanchett murmurs around a mouthful of the focaccia breadstick in her fingers, "I just bet you are." "Cate." Jeff's voice is pitched low as well, but still loud enough to be heard over the blood rushing through Jensen's ears. "You know, I've only met Bill Crudup a couple times, but he leaves quite a memory," Lady Blanchett observes, fiddling the breadstick through the puddle of olive oil and herbs on her saucer. Jensen hasn't eaten any of the piece of lamb he cut up but he goes immediately to slicing a roasted carrot into neat, perfectly even slices. "It's got to beintense, going from such a disciplined household to Jeff's helter-skelter way of doing things." "Hey!" Jensen shrugs and summons a smile. It's a bit like applying eye liner; it takes steadiness and a willingness to commit. Jensen's good at that. "I'm very adaptable, ma'am." Lady Blanchett laughs, slapping her hand on the table. "Ha! Well said, Jensen." She grins at Jeff, shaking her head. "You really do know how to pick them, Jeff. God, and I thought Mary-Louise was the height of your masochism." "Jensen's nothing like Mary-Louise." The note in Jeff's voice kicks up the adrenaline in Jensen's veins. Like a blanket going over a bird cage, the rest of the room fades from his focus, only Jeffmasterand Lady Blanchettthreatfully real and in color. "No," Lady Blanchett agrees, "he's not. And thank God for that." Short nailsmanicured but without polishtap at the table. "But Jeffhe's not Kane either." "Yeah, well, who is?" Kane chimed, distracted from his other conversation by the sound of his name. "I'm one of a kind."

Lady Blanchett pats his hand. "Yes, Chris, you're a special little snowflake." That seems to put an end to it and Jensen cuts his eyes sideways at Jeff. Jeff's eyebrows are drawn down and he's scraping his thumbnail across the little soul patch of hair under his bottom lip, but he doesnt seem so much ruffled or angry as thoughtful. Jensen understands. He feels like he's got a lot to think about, too.

Chapter 10
"Have you ever done any travel?" Jeff asks as they undress for bed. His voice is raspy and uneven. Jensen's not sure if it's from the hours of talking and arguing with his friends or the truly impressive amount of pot and booze Jeff had ingested. Though they'd offered him both, Jeff had made it clear that Jensen didn't have to and so Jensen hadn't imbibed himself. Even so, he's got a pretty strong contact high. No ditch weed here, thank you. "Of course. Most of my previous masters traveled extensively and they took me with them as part of my functions." Too late, Jensen realizes how that could be taken. "Of course, I'm happy at whatever work you choose for me." Jensen watches Jeff unbuckle his belt, unzip his jeans and shove both jeans and boxers down his surprisingly skinny legs in one shove. Jeff's tee shirt is already in a limp puddle just inside the bedroom door. When Jeff goes to the bathroom to take his last piss for the night, Jensen will gather Jeff's clothes and toss them down the chute to the laundry. Master Crowe had liked his mess but Jeff didn't seem to mind Jensen picking up after him. Or maybe Jeff just hasn't noticed; it's hard to tell. "No, I meant have you ever done any collar travel?" Jeff asks, calling Jensen back to the matter at hand. Jeff scratches his belly where the band of the jeans has imprinted the skin. Collar travel. Jensen's fingers trace across the skin of his throat almost without conscious thought. He's not terribly fond of the idea of Jeff sending him away from him, even for a little while. At the same time, body slaves are only sent for such errands as can't be put into the hands of an Agent like Kane. It would be a greater measure of trust than anything Jeff's given him so far and perhaps a sign that he's not as illfavored as he feels. Master Crudup had liked to keep Jensen close to him, barely and only grudgingly taking him out for the public functions that required the attendance of a body slave. Not all of his masters had been that circumspect with Jensen's person, however. "For some of my other masters, yes." Jensen turns down the blankets on the bed so that Jeff can slip right in when he finishes his nightly rituals. The sheetsfull testament to Jeff's sensory hedonismare strangely enticing under Jensen's fingertips. He wonders if Jeff has thawed enough toward him that tonight God, he is high. But so is Jeff, and not so much of either (drunk or high) that Jeff's cock isn't riding more than half-mast as Jeff watches him. Jensen arches his back in a pleasing curve as he leans to plump the pillows and is rewarded by the rasping intake of Jeff's breath.

"Jensen" Jensen straightens quickly, hearing the start of some new protest about how Jensen doesn't have to serve him. "Did you want me to go somewhere?" Jensen asks, only a slight rise to his voice to show his haste to cut in over whatever Jeff was going to say. The look in Jeff's eyes is pure lust. Jensen recognizes and shivers, a little zing along his naked skin. Jeff likes to sleep in the cool and Jensen thinks he can feel each individual goose bump. He holds perfectly and modestly still, head averted, as Jeff stalks toward him. Finally! Other than maybe Master Crowe, Jeff has the roughest hands of any of Jensen's masters, strong and corded from the hours he spends painting, cooking, tinkering with his projects and stuff. They feel strangely heavy when they land on Jensen's shoulders, thumbs sweeping along his collarbones. Jensen's stomach and cock lurch, an uncertainty of whether to get hard or not. He doesn't know what Jeff wants; every master is different. Lord Cruise liked him soft; Lady Kidman wanted him to pretend. Master Crudup wasmercurial. Jeff's hands smooth down Jensen's arms until his fingers bracelet Jensen's wrists. Jensen knows the room is still cold, he can feel the chill on his back, but the space between them feels supercharged, almost molten. "Jesus Christ, Jensen," Jeff breathes, the consonants ugly in his wrecked voice. "How are you even real?" Finally! Jensen thinks again, letting his body sway forward a little without actually moving, until the yearning tip of Jeff's cock just brushes the hair of his navel. Jeff gaspsactually gaspsand then he lets go of Jensen's wrists to frame Jensen's face between his hands. Even expecting it, the crush of Jeff's mouth on his is startling. He knew Jeff wanted him but the hunger behind it, the yawing desperation, is strange, almost terrifying; a hole that could swallow him up entirely without struggle. Jensen doesn't mean to make a noise. He really doesn't mean to; he's better trained than that, dammit. But it somehow startles out of him anyway. Not a loud noise. Barely there. Just a little, breathy 'huh' sound. Jeff stops kissing him. Not quickly; it's more like Jeff knows it's the last time and he wants to get all out of it that he can. But there's definite recession, even as Jensen tries to lean into it, surrender more of his mouth, his body. Jeff's not having it; he plants his hands on Jensen's shoulders, encouraging him back, and their mouths part with a liquid smooch. Jeff's eyes flutter open and even with their faces this close, Jensen sees the faint color that heats Jeff's bearded cheeks. "I'm sorry." Jeff's voice breaks a little, still rumbly-deep. "I shouldn't've done that." He gives Jensen a little push and simultaneously takes a step back. The night cold of the room rushes back between them, shriveling Jensen's skin. "But" Jensen shakes his head, too thick-tongued and muddle-headed to

know what the right words are. "I'm yours. You can do what you want." Most of Jeff's smiles make him look younger, like an eager and overexcited kid. This one, though, makes him look his age and almost sad. "Just because I can doesn't mean I should, Jensen." "I don't understand." It's hard not to make the words loud, shrill. It's hard to say them in a slave's voice, modulated and unemotional. To remember that he feels nothing but what Jeff tells him to. Desperately, he boasts, "I'm good. I'm very good, sir. I know" Oh, God, he's going to get beaten for this, but he has to try, "I know you said you don't want me for that, but if you would just let me tryI could please you. I know I could." "Jensen." The sharpness of Jeff's voice drops Jensen automatically to his knees, head down and neck bared for whatever punishment Jeff is going to administer for speaking out of turn. Jeff sighs, long and shuddering. Softer, "Jensen, please get up." Confused, Jensen doesn't move. A louder sigh. "Jensen. For the love of God, get up from there." Jeff grabs Jensen's arm, hauling him up. Hastily, Jensen gets his feet under himself, so that Jeff doesn't have to bear his weight unassisted. "I'm not going to punish you, if that's what you thought. Sit down. On the bed." More to himself than Jensen, Jeff mutters darkly, "I'm too fucking high for this." Jensen seats himself on the bed's edge, still not entirely convinced. Okay, maybe punishment is out, but a lot of his masters' instructions tread pretty close to the same line. His contact high is just turning into a headache now, a dull, sickened throb in his temples to match the more nervous one in his stomach. Jeff knelt down in front of him. Automatically, Jensen spread his knees apart. Some expression crossed Jeff's face, but Jensen couldn't tell what it was as Jeff put his hands on Jensen's legs and pushed them together again, holding them in place. "The law says you're my property but that doesn't mean I have to treat you like property." Jeff's voice is quieter again, intimate, and Jensen fights the urge to squirm. "And I want you, but I'm not going to force myself on you just because you don't have a legal right to say no to me. Do you understand?" Jensen doesn't, not even a little bit, but he knows the answer Jeff wants needsto hear from him. "Yes." It feels oddly unfinished without the 'sir' attached to it, but he knows that Jeff doesn't want him to add that to it and so he bites his tongue down on it and tastes a little blood, coppery bright on his teeth. Jeff's thumbs trace arcs in the fine hair on Jensen's knees. Jensen doesn't think Jeff even knows he's doing it, all Jeff's attention on Jensen's face, his eyes. Jensen looks back, trying to make himself a mirror. "Good." Jeff huffs another sigh and smiles, one of the boyish ones. "That's real good."

Jensen's breath eases out of him at the words, slow warmth creeping up his prickled skin. Good. Jeff is clumsy climbing to his feet. One of his knees is scarred and Jensen knows it aches sometimes because on days that Jeff's been real busy, or the weather's shitty, Jeff will rub it fretfully. Jensen wants to help him it's his freaking jobbut he doesn't think Jeff will like that either and so he keeps his butt on the bed, hands plastered flat to his thighs, head bent. Jeff stands over him for a minute and Jensen thinks for a second he might change his mindthen Jeff mutters a curse under his breath and turns away to go to the bathroom. "Did you want me to go somewhere?" Jensen asks. It's hard to talk around the huge lump in his throat; he would've never dared this with Master Crudup, especially after displeasing him once and getting a reprieve. "Oh. Yeah." Jeff stops in the doorway between bedroom and bath, leaning against the jamb like it's the only thing holding him up. "Jared's got a line on this string of horses he thought would breed in well. I don't have the time to take him myself and I know jack-shit about horses anyway. I thought you might like to go in my place." Jensen's fingers curve slightly, just enough that the nails dig into the meat of his thighs. Of course. Jared. Still, though Jeff won't come out and say the words, it seems obvious what he wants from Jensen here. "I'd be happy to take Jared anywhere he needs to go."

Chapter 11
"What I want to know is: what the hell do you think you're doing?" Kane scoots down a little in his chair and puts his feet up on the empty chair opposite him, settling in. "What do you mean?" Jeff's thumb digs into the upper orbit of his eye as if the pressure can make his head stop aching. Late night and then early morning. Too many hours staring at tiny print, trying to make it all say what he wants by sheer force of will. He's always thought that he and Dom Purcell were on good terms; he doesn't understand why Purcell would pull out of the sale at the last second and, so far, Dom's not returning any of his calls. "What do I mean?" Kane manages to inject as much outrage into the question as if Jeff suggested he clean Jeff's shoes with his tongue. "I mean you want that boy. Want him as much as I" Kane scratches his head, playing the country-fed cousin to the hilt. "Well, hell. I don't even remember ever wanting anything as much as you want Jensen." "Take your shoes off the furniture before I tell Sam on you," Jeff answers tiredly. "And shut up about Jensen already, all right?" Kane's boots drop off the chair with unsurprising promptness. Sam rules the house with an iron fist in a velvet glove and they all toe that line, Jeff included. Too bad Kane's selective hearing doesn't take the second part as much to heart. "Look, man, all kidding aside You really think that pushing Jensen at Jared's the smart thing to do here?" "I'm not pushing anyone." Jeff scowls at the contract and pushes it away. There's no point anymore, he supposes, and the penalty Purcell paid on the default will go a long way in offsetting what Jeff spent on Jensen, but dammit. Clearly this is not his month for plans. "Wanting Jensen to have friends isn't pushing. Christ, don't you think Jensen should have friends?" "I don't know if that boy even wants friends." Kane flicks his pen over his fingertips meditatively. Jeff wasn't expecting that one, setting his laced coffee down to tilt his head at Kane. "How do you mean?" Kane shrugs. "I dunno. Justhe reminds me of a border collie, you know?" "Dog analogies now?" Jeff snorts and leans back in his own chair, crossing his legs. His back is stiff too, from sitting too long and he lets the lean turn into a stretch, punctuated by the muffled gunshot pops of his vertebrae. "Do tell." "You know. Border collie. Herd dog. Smart goddamn dogs, but you've got to work them or they get all neurotic and funny in the head."

"Jensen is not funny in the head. You saw what he was like when I got him from Crudup. What Crudup had done to him. Give him some time to find his feet, figure it all out." "Look, I know you're gunshy, after that whole thing with Mary-Louise" Jeff slams his fist down on the table. "This is not about fucking MaryLouise, okay? That's over! She's gone, I'm fine and we're both a damn sight happier. I wish everyone would stop making it out to be some epic tragedy." Jeff shoves out of his chair, wood squalling on wood. "I'm not sitting here pining over Mary-Louise. I almost wish I was. God, Chris, if anybody was going to understand, I would've thought it'd be you!" Behind the thick plastic of his glasses, Kane's eyelashes sweep down, hiding his eyes. Nothing can hide the muscle-clench tightness of his jaw, though, not even the longish tangle of his malt colored hair. Too, nothing hides the tautness of Kane's tone as he says, "It's not about that either, Jeff. You want to talk about overthat's over. Over and done and goddamn buried. You need to put it the fuck behind you, 'cause I sure have." "Bullshit. Bullshit." Kane looks up at him over the top rim of his classes, hands planted flat on the dark wood of the table. "You don't get to tell me what I feel. You want to beat yourself up about it, you go on, but I'm not gonna help you do it." Jeff's hands fisted up at his sides. He has no right to get mad at Kane, not about this, but it doesn't stop it from bubbling up from the unending wellsprings that are the real Morgan legacy. "You were twenty-five, man. When you gonna let it go?" Freezing cold zip-lines down his back, mixing with the heat of his rage. "Never." Jeff shakes his head. "Never. Because I was twenty-five and you were fifteen. Twenty-five's plenty old enough. Old enough to know better. Be better." "You're not that person." Kane says it so flatly, so confidently, and God, but Jeff wants to believe him. "Aren't I?" Jeff makes a garbled noise he thinks is supposed to be laughter, hands flapping out from his sides. "You don't even know the stuff I think about doing to Jensen. He lies in that bed next to me and I think about how easy it would be, to turn over and have himfuck him. Christ. I'm getting fucking carpal tunnel from jerking off thinking about him." Jeff sits down heavily on the edge of the couch, all his blood rushing south at just the thought of Jensen, who's entirely too willing to let Jeff be an asshole. It's a good thing he sent Jensen away. The best thing.

Jensen can unwind a little, away from Jeff's expectations and Jeff can unwind a little, away from Jensen. "Yeah, but if you were that same guy, you wouldn't be wearing out your wrist thinking about it, man. You'd be fucking him." Jeff cradles his aching head in his hands. He knows better than to try and get Kane to shut up when he's got the bit in his teeth. The drawl is something that Kane pours in and out of his voice like flavoring. Serious, it's almost entirely gone, making him sound both more and less like himself. "You gave me my choice of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And I'm still here, man. Because And fuck you, for making me get all sincere herebut I believe in you. I believe in all of this." He gestures at the papers spread out all over the table. "And you wouldn't be doing any of this if things hadn't gone down the way they did with us. So fine. It's a small fucking price to pay, Jeff. I pay it fucking gladly. You think you're the worst thing ever happened to me?" "Don't. Don't do that." "Don't flatter yourself," Kane replies flatly. "You need to get laid, son. Because you get fucking cranky when you're not getting your pipes cleaned." Jeff lifts his head up sharply before he catches Kane's expression, the roiling cloud of his anger spilling away like fog over the mountains in northern California. His laugh is weak, but it's real. Finally: "I just I want Jensen to feel part of things. Part of us, God help him." Kane smacks his mouth a few times, scratching his chin. "Well. Jared'll get nice and friendly with him, all right." They both snicker at about the same time and Jeff lets his breath out in a long sigh, collapsing backward on the couch. "Fuck." Reasonably, Kane answers, "That's all I'm saying."

Chapter 12
"This is the nicest hotel room I have ever been in," Jared says wonderingly, his voice echoing off the tile as he explores the bathroom. "Hey! Bubble bath! And a tub I could actually fit in! Sweet!" "Have you been in a lot of hotels?" Jensen shakes out his slacks before threading them through the hanger. Jared hasn't unpacked at all, his raggedy duffle bagcompletely embarrassingflung into the corner of the closet and then forgotten. On the other hand, given the way he dresses, Jensen gathers that Jared doesn't care a whole lot about how he looks at the best of times. Jensen wonders if that's what he's going to turn into, assuming Jeff bothers to keep him. He doesn't think about what will happen if Jeff decides to get rid of him, old and fading fast. Jared comes out of the bathroom, hands tucked into his pockets and his shoulders rounded. "No, not really," he admits. "Just times like this, when Jeff wants me to look at some animal or another he's thinking about buying. Kane never lets us stay anyplace as nice as this." It doesn't surprise Jensen that Kane is normally the one to take Jared on these excursions; Jeff's ulterior motives were clear from almost the start and Jensen thinks he should feel relieved to have guessed so rightly. He is learning Jeff, little by little. But it doesn't stop his hands from clenching tight on the hanger, hard enough that the delicate cedar cracks, startling him. "Of course, Kane usually only gets one bed for the both of us," Jared natters on, oblivious. Jensen hangs his pants on the rod, frowning. He's also not surprised to hear that Kane's never taken Jared to a hotel like this oneMotel 6 seems about Kane's speedbut the part about Jared and Kane sharing a bed does give him a little pause. Though you're living proof of how two men can sleep in the same bed and not have sex, aren't you, Jensen? At the same time, Jensen has to consider that maybe this is a thing, with Jeff. Straightening the seams on his slacks so they hang crisp and parallel, Jensen asks casually, "Soyou and Kane?" He turns, careful to keep it as slow and deliberate as the question, wanting to see Jared's face. A slow smile goes across Jared's face, both sheepish and knowing. It makes him look older. And a hell of a lot more attractive. Not that attractive makes any difference, really. "Well" Jared scratches his belly, making his already not-long-enough tee ride up and show the dark trail of hair from his navel. "Not in any kind of serious way, you know?" He makes a face. "I don't know if Kane's even capable of a serious thing." Another pause, more consideration. "Or if I am."

"Yeah, I get it," Jensen says tiredly, flopping down on the bed and rubbing his palms on his thighs. Jeff only allows Jensen to wear his bodyslave collar on 'official' occasions; the thick gold links feel both strange and familiar, lying over the points of his collar bones. The small padlock keeps rubbing the nape of his neck. He fights the impulse to fiddle with it. "Do you want to go down to the restaurant for dinner or do you want to get room service?" He looks Jared over, beat-to-hell jeans and frayed tee shirt that, in Jensen's opinion, should've been thrown out years ago. "Scratch thatdo you even have anything nice enough to wear to the restaurant?" Jared's wide-eyed and confused look is answer enough. "Room service it is." "I'll order!" Jared practically bolts to grab the menu off the table in the other room of the suite and then comes careening back to jump on the bed next to Jensen, who rolls defensively to the edge, flinching. "Dont be such a punk," Jared scolds, wrapping an arm around Jensens shoulder and dragging him close. Jensen flails briefly, but despite his struggles, Jared mashes Jensen against his side until Jensen gives up. Jensen tries glaring, but he knows from previous experience that Jared is completely impervious, no small feat. "What do you want?" Jensen sighs. Listening to Jared order, Jensens just as glad that he tapped Lou to get the room discounted even more than the rate he pulled off the computer. Jareds going to eat up their entire trip stipend by himself. Which isnt in the least true; Jeff had been leery, but hed finally deferred to Jensens insistence on making their travel plans with barely concealed relief. And for his part, Jensen had felt a deep and tangible sense of satisfaction at doing something he was both familiar with and good at. Jensen doesnt know who was doing Jeffs travel arrangements before, but the sum Jeff allocated for the trip is close to absurd. Jensens really looking forward to showing Jeff the surplus hes coming home with, even after the kickback for Lou. "So now what?" Jensen blinks. "Now what?" Jared tips his head back and stretches, a long, shuddering and catlike movement that pulls his shirt all the way up to his short ribs and his jeans down below the band of his boxers. The expanse of bared skin is ridged with slim muscle and as smoothly nut brown as Jared's face or arms, showing how often he must go around without a shirt. "We've got a while before the food's going to show up." It's amusing and exasperating to watch Jared's artless attempts at seduction. If this was a regular thing with Jared and Jeff, he'd think Jared would be better at this. "What did you have in mind?" Jensen asks sweetly, just because he doesn't really feel like playing along.

"I don't know," Jared confesses, sounding surprisingly sincere. "Tell me about one of your old masters. Have they all been like Bill Crudup? Which one was your favorite?" Jensen's frown deepens for a second before he thinks about the wrinkles already carving their way into his forehead. He his forefinger across them as though he can erase them that way. "I Uh. Why do you want to know?" Jared shrugs. "Because I've never lived with anyone but the Morgans. And you know, Jeff." Jared makes a smiling grimace, spreading his hands. "I meanhave you met anybody else like him?" "Yeah, no." Jensen hiccups a laugh. "Definitely not." "So that's what I'm saying!" Jared pops up on his elbows, feet wiggling. "And Jeff's great, don't get me wrong, but sometimes I wonder what it's like, other places, other people." "Don't." Jensen doesn't expect the thickening in his throat or the way his voice deepens, like the word is pushing itself past an obstruction. He looks across the room, away from Jared. "You don't know how good you've got it." "Hey." The mattress squeaks as Jared sits. The touch of his hand on Jensen's shoulder isn't a surprise, but it is unwelcome. Jensen doesn't shrug it away, though. "Yo, I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean to stir up anything. I know I've been lucky." Jensen shakes his head. "You didn't. And yeah, you are." Jared's hand wobbles uncertainly, like he can't decide whether to leave it there or take it away. "Yeah, okay. Sorry, Jen." He hates that Jared calls him 'Jen'. And he hates that Jared didn't unpack and probably isn't going to. And that Jared doesn't care how he looks or whether he's getting wrinkles or gray hairs or what will happen if Jeff gets tired of him and sells him in a back-alley quickie sale. Jared played the radio too loud all the way down and sang along. He spilled Pepsi in the foot well and then sopped it up with his own longsleeved shirt. He made Jensen stop and eat McDonalds. He manhandles Jensen like a rag doll and plays with dogs and wouldn't know how to act in civilized company if you put a leash and ball gag on him. Jared is completely exasperating. But. This is what Jeff wants. Jensen turns, reaching for Jared's hand, pressing it down and in, against his heart. "So do you want to have sex, or what?"

Chapter 13
They don't get to the sex right away. The food comes before Jared can do more than turn an interesting beet red and stammer, "I I didn't thinkwasn't sure Are you sure?" Jensen shouldn't be grateful for the authoritative knock on the suite door. He's not grateful. It's nothing to him if Jeff wants him to fuck Jared. But by the time he's let them wheel the laden cart in, figured the tip and signed off on the whole thing, the atmosphere's definitely cooled and Jared's more excited about his braised short ribs and garlic fries and shrimp cocktail and molten chocolate cake. "So, do you do this for Jeff often?" Jensen ignores the open space next to Jared on the couch for the armchair, setting his sandwich plate on the arm. Jared shrugs and licks barbeque sauce from his fingerscompletely ignoring what's smeared around his mouth. "Often enough," he says finally, still chewing. "I meanit's what Jeff's sending me to school for, more or less." Jensen's more playing with his food than eating it, but he stops twirling his steak fry between his fingers and looks across at Jared. "You're going to school?" Jared laughs. "You don't have to look so surprised about it. What do you think I do all day, play with the dogs?" Since that's more or less exactly what Jensen thinks, he decides that a shrug is the better part of valor. He shrugs. "Oh, God, you do." Jared laughs again, but it's not mean and he seems amused, not insulted. Which doesn't in the least stop Jensen from reviewing the fastest route to both the suite's exit and thelockable bedroom. Jared's taller and heavier than him and probably pound-forpound stronger than him, despite Jensen's best efforts to keep up his muscle tone. "I don't" The words stick in Jensen's throat, possibly caught on the very dry bite of French fry he just took. Stiffly, he just blurts it out. "I don't know what anyone does." "Oh." Jensen expects Jared to laugh at him, but Jared just looks embarrassed himself. "I didn't think of that. Okay, yeah. Jeff can be kind of lame like that, don't take it personal." Jared dunks his short rib in the cup of barbeque sauce he requested and proceeds to drip it on his wrist. And then he licks it back off. Jensen closes his eyes. "Jeff's putting me through veterinary school," Jared continued, indistinctly. "I'm on my last year, now." "Veterinary school?"

"Veterinary school?" Jared shrugs. "He asked me what I wanted to do. I like animals. I'm good with them." "He asked you what you wanted to do," Jensen repeats. It's not that he didn't understand what Jared just said; he's just not sure how to process it. Jared makes a duh, obvious face, lower lip pooching out and his eyes widening. "Well, yeah. Sure. He does that with everybody. I mean, once they've been around long enough to maybe get a feel for what they might want to do. Have you thought about it at all? What you might want to do?" Jensen's brows wrinkle before he hastily smoothes them out again. "I'm a body-slave." Jared throws the last bone onto his plate and belches loudly. He looks as satisfied as if he just got laid, sleepy-eyed and tousled. "Well, yeah. But Okay, say you weren't a body slave. What would you want to do?" "But I am a body-slave." "Yeah, but what if you weren't? What if you were free?" "I'm not free. I'm never going to be free. You're never going to be free. It's a stupid question." "You don't have to get mad about it." "I'm not mad!" Jensen's plate topples from the chair's arm. The impact is muffled by the carpet, but Jensen's sandwich and fries fall in a scatter. Jensen stares stupidly at the mess for a minute before going to his knees to clean it up. "Here, let me help." Jared jumps up from the couch, his reserves of energy seemingly boundless even after the long road trip. "I got it," Jensen says, more curtly than he means to, shouldering between Jared and his ruined dinner. Jared folds back onto the couch reluctantly, his hands practically twitching with the desire to pitch in. "I'm not going to finish all this," Jared offers finally. "You should have some of my dinner. There's plenty." "I'm not hungry," Jensen answers dully, raking food from the carpet back onto the plate. It's true; he's not hungry, his stomach sluggish and sour. "Jeff told me to make sure you get enough to eat." Jensen settles back on his heels, careful not to touch his dirty hands to his pants. "Oh, he did, did he? What else did he tell you?" Jared's eyes skate and he looks like he wishes he'd never brought the subject up. "Just to make sure you took care of yourself." Jared scratches at a developing hole in his jeans with a dirty nail.

Jensen's hands fist up, squishing avocado bits disgustingly between his fingers, and his breath hisses hard and hot through his clenched teeth. If Jeff thinks he's such a fuck-up as to need Jared to look after him, why send him on this trip at all? Why give him the momentary hope that Jeff is beginning to thaw toward him, rely on him, trust him? What hasn't he done? What the hell does Jeff want from him? "Jensen, he's just worried about you" "Yeah, I got that." Jensen gets up, plate in his hands, and ignores the slight ache that reminds him he's thirty and not a kid Jared's age. He drops it back on the tray in a satisfying but unaesthetic clang of crockery. "You're taking this all wrong, man." Jared gets up again, shoulders rounded and his hands crammed deep in his pockets in an obvious attempt to make himself look smaller. "Jeff Jeff cares about people. He's a good guy." Of course he is. Jensen bites back the sarcastic words, unsure and suspicious of what Jared will report back to Jeff. Instead he nods, wiping the goop from his hands with one of the rust colored cloth napkins. At least the oils in the avocado are good for his skin. "I'm going to shower." Jared nods, still standing awkward and rocking on his bare feet. The worst part of it is that Jensen can tell Jared believes it. As if no other master in the history of the world has ever said, Trust me. I won't hurt you. I'll never sell you. You belong to me. I love you. It leaves a bitter taste in Jensen's mouth and he doesn't want to disabuse Jared, exactlylife will do that, soon enoughbut he draws the line at Jared trying to draw him into the same stupid, credulous beliefs. Jensen scrubs himself hard in the near-scalding water, scraping off his bad mood as much as dead skin. The soap, the shampoo and conditioner, the lotion he smoothes into his skin afterward are all from Jeff's estate shop and they all smell like him, spicy and just starting to be familiar. Master. My master. "Love them, but don't trust them," Mimi had said to him, more than once, while he was training to replace her as Lord Cruise's body-slave. She'd been older than he was now and sad, seeing her time with Lord Cruise coming to an end, but she hadn't taken it out on him. Instead, she seemed to think of him almost as the child that had never come from her empty womb. "Never trust them, Jensen, because they all lie. Even when they think they're telling the truth." After his ablutions, Jensen examines himself in the mirror, brushing critically at the dark shadow of stubble already darkening up his jaw, tallying the deepening crows' feet around his eyes (need to use more sunblock and moisturizer), the couple gray hairs he briskly plucks out

from the rest, the filling out hollows of his cheeks. He's filled out all over, the ready availability of food all over Jeff's house and Jeff's insistence that Jensen partake in ittaking their toll on his previously skinny body. He's not fat, he thinks, turning sideways and running a hand down over the new rounding of his bellynot yetbut he'll have to monitor himself closely. Still, he has to admit he likes the new solidity of his body, the definition less razor sharp, his ribs protected by a thin layer of fat and muscle, the bones of his hips and shoulders not so knobby. He looks less like a collection of coat hangers and more like a man, he thinks. Even that thought, that small ember of satisfaction, makes him flush hot and cold, glancing around the bathroom in reflexive alarm. "You need to shave your eyebrows, bitch," he says quietly, smearing a hand across the mirror before he flicks the light switch grabs the tube he left next to the sink and heads back into the bedroom. The lights in the suite are off, both rooms, and by the parking lot lights because of course, Jared didn't pull the curtainsJensen sees the long hump of Jared's body under the blankets of the far bed. Jensen feels a little lightheaded as he goes to Jared's bed, putting the tube carefully on the nightstand before he crawls in. "HnnghJensen?" Jared turns over slowly, not reaching, and it's up to Jensen to press close to Jared's body and drag his mouth over Jared's in the hope of shutting him up. There's been more than enough talking today. To Jensen's everlasting gratitude, Jared's hands close over Jensen's shoulders and his mouth surges and opens up to Jensen's, warm and liquid and not nearly as unpracticed as Jensen feared. The kissing goes on for a long time. Long enough for Jensen to wonder if they're ever even going to get to the next part, long enough to worry whether the lube inside him is turning tacky and dry. Not that Jensen's in a hurry; a quick grope and the feel of Jared rutting against his thigh and stomach tells Jensen that Jared's proportional and it's been a while for Jensen. But he's tired and they have things to do tomorrow that can't get done until he makes the kid come tonight. "Hoo" Jared lets out a laughing breath and Jensen pulls away to reach for the tube of Wet he left on the nightstand. "You are really good at that." Jensen smiles. "I'm a body slave," he says modestly, handing Jared the tube. Jared takes it from him and promptly tosses it next to him on the pillow, reaching to tug Jensen close again. "Hey." His big hands ravel over

Jensen's skin, less sexual than as if he was trying to rub blood and warmth into him. "You don't have to be like that with me." "Be like what?" Jensen tips his head back helpfully as Jared kisses his way down the line of Jensen's throat. "You know. Just be yourself." Before Jensen can sputter out any response to that, Jared hooks a finger through Jensen's collar and tugs. "Why don't you take this off?" Jensen could, Jeff had given him the keyanother piece of laxness that would be appalling if Jeff didn't have the right to do whatever the hell he wanted. But the collarJeff's collaris all that keeps them from being branded runaways or claimed by someone else, the microchips in the links and lock telling anyone who's interested who they belong to and that they're on his business here. "I don't know where the key is," he mutters, not wanting to argue about it. "Could we just get to the fucking?" Jared laughs, deeper and quieter than usual. "And people always tell me I'm impatient," he teases, slithering a hand between them to take hold of Jensen's cock. Getting hard is generally less a case of thinking about anyone or anything in particular so much as it's a case of not thinking, a kind of white-noise concentration of jacking only into his body-what it feels, what's happening to itwithout letting his mind interfere. Jensen lets himself harden in Jared's stroking hand, breath hitching when the friction across the head is just right. Jared keeps kissing him through it, deep, soulful roamings that make Jensen's mouth feel mauled and tender. And between kisses, Jared's murmurs: "been wantin' to do this, feel you, touch you" He bites Jensen's neck just above the collar and then sucks hard. "wasn't sure if you'd let me. God, I wanna feel you come" "Shut up!" Jensen wriggles and pushes until he gets Jared on his back, grabbing for the Wet by memory. "Justshut up. Always talking" Jensen squirts the lube into his palm, cupping it only long enough to take the chill off before he slicks Jared's cock in a couple of brisk, angry strokes. "Can't think with you yattering at me" "Jensen" Jared's hands grip Jensen's hips as Jensen straddles him in preparation for impaling himself on Jared's very proportional dick. "Wait, Jensen" "Shut up!" It's a stretch and not at all easy for Jensen to slam his mouth down over Jared's and guide himself back and onto Jared but all those years of yoga and pilates have to be good for something and he does it. It hurts. Boy howdy, does it hurt, a deep and somehow startling ache that makes Jensen want to jerk away and call it all off, but he just keeps nudging down and back. He also bites Jared's bottom lip, something Jared doesn't seem to mind in the least, judging from the desperate clutch of his fingers on Jensen's haunches and the fog-horn profundo of

his moan. When Jared's all in, Jensen gives himself a moment to hold and adjust, thighs trembling and small, whimpering noises spilling from his lips whether he wants them to or not. "Jensen. Jensen, Jesus" Jared says weakly, sounding stunned. His thumbs trace arcs on the flat of Jensen's hips and the rest of his fingers opening and closing rhythmically on the meat of Jensen's ass. "Are you okay? Iwow" Still with the talking. Jensen rolls his eyes, grits his teeth and holds onto Jared's biceps like handle bars, riding him hard and fast, flexing in ways that make Jared lapsefinallyinto incoherent cries and mangled attempts at his name. Jared's young and Jensen's been a body-slave for the majority of his life it doesn't take long to make Jared come, big body almost bucking Jensen off, if not for the steady presence and pressure of his hands, holding Jensen onto him as he shuddered it out. As soon as Jensen thinks he can get away with it, he eases himself off Jared with one last choked off noise. He's going to be feeling Jared in him for a while. "Did you?" Jared touches Jensen and finds him soft. Jensen doesn't know if Jared's fucked out enough to tell that Jensen didn't come. He hopes not; Jared seems the type who would want to do something about it and Jensen just plain old doesn't have it in him. "I'm sorry, I should've" Jensen pats him on the shoulder. "Nah, I'm good. You want me to move to the other bed?" Jared drags Jensen down again, wrapping around him like a giant, overheated and sweating python. "Naw, I hate sleeping alone." "Okay." Two minutes later and Jared's snoring quietly, head tucked in the nape of Jensen's neck and his breath issuing warm down Jensen's spine. Jensen sighs and wriggles deeper into the mattress, looking for the place in his mind that will allow him to tune Jared out. At least it's done.

Chapter 14
Jensen wakes up to his cock in Jared's mouth. It's not startling, exactly. It's not even the first time he's ever been woken that way, but the sudden inrush of feeling, the heated draw of Jared's lips along the shaft and the hard, kissing suck on the head make Jensen's hands flap out blindly to tangle through the thick mop of Jared's hair. Jensen makes a thick, drugged noise vaguely like, "Heh!" and Jared looks up the length of Jensen's body, eyes crinkling in a smile. He pulls off wetly, one hand taking over the work of his mouth as he says, "Thought you'd like waking up to this rather than that." Jared nods toward the alarm clock on the nightstand briefly before swallowing Jensen down again. Jensen closes his eyes and lets his head fall back on the pillow, fingers flexing spasmodically in Jared's warm, tousled hair. It feels good, the squeezing pressure of Jared's drawn taut lips, the slick and flexible twist and swirl of tongue. Jared's good at it. But, more than that, Jensen can tell Jared truly enjoys it, choked, appreciative moans that buzz through Jensen's cock, the hard rolling push of his own hips into the sheets. Jensen likes sex as much as the next guy, he guesses, but he's never felt this same kind of enthusiasm for it. He wishes he did. It would've made a lot of things so much easier. It's always a little awkward, being on the receiving end. Jensen never knows quite what to do with his hands, how much to thrust, how much noise to make. If he knew it was what Jared wanted, Jensen could probably lie here still and silent as a corpse, except for the surging jut of his cockbut a guy like Jared What does a guy like Jared want? Jensen's spent so much time thinking about what Jeff is going to get out of this that he hasn't really thought about what Jared might like, how to please him. When he thinks about Jared, it's all easy-going and laughter, unplanned, unchoreographed. Jared's the kind of guy that would want his lover to get into it with him, make some noise, get a little messy. Jared would want to know that he's making Jensen feel good. Just then, Jared switches to tonguing the head of Jensen's cock, fingers taking up the stroke as his tongue tip spreads and arrows into Jensen's slit. It's easy for Jensen to let go of his hips and let them roll, let the startled but appreciative moan trip off his tongue. Jared hums back, teases with a gentle drag of his teeth across the swelling ridge. It should be easy to do this with Jared, Jensen thinks. But Jared is exactly like Jeff in this; in his openness, his lack of clear direction. Once, when Jensen has still been quite young, Lord Cruise had taken him into the big downstairs ballroom, blindfolded him and then spun him around until Jensen was reeling and lightheaded. "Now, find your way out," Lord Cruise had said and let him go.

Dizzy, blind, Jensen has no idea how long he bumbled around the ballroom, walking into the furniture, the pillars that had surrounded the perimeter of the huge octagonal space, gashing his feet on the little things Lord Cruise had left scattered on the floor. Long enough for him to give up, curling into a little alcove where he could touch the walls on either side and feel the third at his back. Long enough for hunger and thirst to sharpen his sense of disorientation. Long enough that he'd sobbed for Lord Cruise, please, please. And Lord Cruise had come, wrapping Jensen in both his arms and holding him against the warmth of his chest. "This is what it is to be a slave," Lord Cruise had said gently, tugging the blindfold from Jensen's eyes and peppering his face with soft kisses. "A slave stumbles around in a dark room with no idea of what dangers there are or what way to go. A slave needs his master to show him the light, to show him the way to go, without damaging himself or anything else." He'd carried Jensen out of the ballroom, crunching the broken glass and sharp bits of metal harmlessly beneath his shoes. He'd carried Jensen all the way to his own bathroom and picked the detritus from Jensen's bleeding soles with his own hands, bandaging them carefully and lovingly. He'd put Jensen in his own big bed, and ruffled Jensen's hair fondly. "And this is what a master does," Lord Cruise explained, curling up next to Jensen. "He takes care of his slaves. Do you understand, Jensen?" Jensen understood. "Am I boring you, here?" Jensen controls his little jump of shock, looking back down his body at Jared who, eyebrows arched in question, mouths and then licks Jensen's sac in a way that sends shudders of raw pleasure rippling through him. "N-no," Jensen breathes shakily. He reaches for the lube, still where they left it, and extends it to Jared. "Just thinking how much I'd like you to fuck me." The question in Jared's eyes turns to a frown. "You sure?" He reaches between Jensen's spread legs and touches him lightly, inquiringly. "You look a little sore." "A little," Jensen agrees, arching his body to its best advantage and dragging his heel up Jared's bare back. "Not enough to matter." Jared shifts up onto his knees, cock hanging low and heavy, flushed dark. It doesn't look any smaller than it felt last night, going in. Jared follows Jensen's gaze down to his cock and then back up, still troubled. His thumbs make circles on Jenen's thighs. "Jensen. I don't want to hurt you." Jensen curls up and slaps the tube against Jared's knuckles until Jared takes it. "You won't." Jensen wraps his fingers around Jared's cock, feeling the thin skin's heat and slide as he strokes. Jared's mouth softens, his eyes turn lazy and strangely smoky, fingers of his

unoccupied hand tightening on Jensen's thigh. "You telling me you didn't like it last night?" Jensen asks, keeping his voice as steady as the jacking pressure of his hand. "You don't want to feel me around you again, tight and hot?" Jared groans and practically crushes Jensen into the mattress, surging on top of him like a wave, knees pushing Jensen's legs wide. Jared almost misses Jensen's mouth on his first try, catching his lips in a wet, sidelong kiss. Then he slithers up a little more, sealing over Jensen's mouth with naked want, tongue plundering deep. Jared's kisses don't have the same cataclysmic neediness as the one from Jeff, but Jensen finds himself comparing them anyway, nearly the only time he's felt like he understands what either of them wants from him. With Jared, it's lust, pure and simple. With Jeff Jensen's still working on that part. He sneaks a glance at the alarm clock and then breaks his mouth from Jared's. "Jaredif we're going to do this, we need to get on with it, man." "Heh." Jared peeks at the clock too, through his bangs and grins sheepishly. "Got a little carried away." He looks down at Jensen, spread out underneath him, and skims both hands down the length of Jensen's torso, mapping every dip and contour of muscle with the ragged-ticklish edges of his thumb nails. "God, who wouldn't?" Jeff. Jensen's jaw and mouth tightens without his conscious volition but Jared's busy rimming Jensen's navel and doesn't notice. Jensen cups Jared's head and holds him there until the moment passes, tired of thinking about the whole thing. It does hurt when Jared opens him on his fingers, despite the generous application of lube. Jensen's had it worse, though, and he's able to fuck down on Jared's hand with not entirely unfeigned pleasure, enjoying the feeling of being filled and stretched by big, skillful fingers. "Christ," Jared whispers against Jensen's lips. Jensen opens his eyes and Jared's looking back at him, so close Jensen almost has to cross his eyes to see. Jared's eyes are wide, strung out. "I can feel my come still in you." Jensen shivers, hips jerking and stuttering on Jared's fingers. "Come on," he says, surprising himself with the gritty hoarseness of his voice. "Come on, fuck me now." Jared's breath rasps suddenly loud and he takes Jensen's mouth in another devouring kiss, but at the same time, he slips his hand between them to guide himself. It's both easier and more difficult taking Jared's cock a second time. Easier because he's been opened once, looser than he was yesterday; harder because he's a little swollen, a little sore.

"Slow," Jared breathesJensen's not sure if it's to him or whether Jared's reminding himself, "slow, slow, slow. Take it so slow." Each 'slow' is punctuated with a short, smooth roll of Jared's haunches, driving him deeper in. "Not. So slow," Jensen grits back, arching his back in an effort to work himself down, take more. Jared puffs laughter before the sound comes to fill it in, deep, rich. "It's okay? You're okay?" "I'm fine. Just. Just come on, already." Jensen tucks his hands under his knees, pulling them back, undulating his pelvis and spine to writhe up, into Jared's thrust. He's going to be walking like a goddamn Old West cowboy all day, but it's worth it to watch Jared's face go slack and peaceful, eyes fluttering nearly shut. Another glance at the clock and Jared's next thrust takes Jensen almost totally by surprise, scootching him up the mattress, dangerously close to the headboard. Jensen lets go of one of his legs to slap against the wood, bracing himself as Jared does it again, plunging deep, filling Jensen to the core. "So fucking hot." Jared dips, shoving his shoulders under Jensen's legs, taking the pressure off his hands. It lifts Jensen's groin higher, changes the angle and feel of Jared's cock in him. Jensen groans his approval, bracing the other hand against the headboard as well. "Burning me up." "You talk too much." Jensen closes his eyes and surrenders to the burn of his muscles and ass, letting it lick through him like actual flame, heating him through. Jared laughs, still flexing, working himself in and out with the steadiness of a metronome. "Can't help it," he says, the words jerky and breathless. "I'm a friendly guy." Jensen startles himself by laughing in return. "Thatoh. That you are." All at once, Jared speeds up, a strangled noise hissing through his teeth. "Jesus, Jensen. Feel like I go like this all day, just stay inside'a you." Jensen squints at the clock. "Well, if you don't get off in the next fifteen minutes, I'm shoving you off. We're going to be late." Jared's short laugh stutters into hitching moans, his fingers digging into the mattress on either side of Jensen as he speeds up even more, the choppy jerking pounds that tell Jensen he's close. "Want you to get off too, here, Jensen," he says after a moment. Jared shifts, steadying himself on one hand and both knees as he takes hold of Jensen's cock, jerking him hard and quick. Oh, Christ. It takes Jensen a bit, to unlock and relax enough that he can come. His release is sudden, shocking himlike it always doeswith the way it

seems to careen into him, steady pleasure blossoming out of nowhere into something almost too intense to handle. Fingers clenching hard on the headboard slat, Jensen doesn't bite back the sharp, jagged cry of his orgasm, knowing-guessing how much noise means to Jared. Jared wrings him through the first thick-heavy pulses and then plants his hand back on the mattress. He's not talking now, a line of concentration between his heavy eyebrows as Jared tries to find his own release, jolting Jensen and the bed hard enough that the top of the headboard taps Morse Code on the wall. Even glazed with orgasm, Jensen's still more than good enough to fuck back into Jared, milking him tautly on each buck. Jared's head dips on his neck like he's melting, moans scaling up. He comes like an earthquake, rattling Jensen, rattling the bed, cinched so tight into Jensen that Jensen can hardly breathe himself. And then he collapses, earthquake becoming avalanche. Hip flexors protesting, Jensen disentangles his legs and lets them fall, muscles tingly-throbby. Jared falls more solidly against him, making a soft noise that could either be protest or approval. Jensen looks at the clock one more time, counts to thirty and says, "Get off me." Jared whines, harsh breaths searing into Jensen's sweat slick shoulder. "I mean it. We've got stuff to do today and you stink. Go shower." "You shower first." Jared wriggles his hips, slipping his cock from Jensen's body. Jensen immediately tightens up and flexes his pelvic floor and ass, ignoring the discomfort in those abused muscles. He hasn't maintained his elasticity all this time by accident. "You are worthless," Jensen pronounces, shoving Jared off of him. Jared whines again, but he shifts sideways to collapse face down on the bed. "For the next five minute or soyeah." Jared is muffled by his unwillingness to lift his head from the mattress. "You wore me out, man." Jensen struggles upright, holding his abs firm, breathing out, controlled. "You'd better hope not. We've got a long day ahead of us. And we're going to be late," he reminds Jared pointedly, swinging his legs off the bed. Jared huffs and then rolls onto his back. "I know how we could save some time." Jensen swings his legs to the floor, arching his back, stretching out the kinks. "Yeah? What's that?" Jared surges up and plasters himself against Jensen's back. "We could shower together." Jensen rolls his eyes. "Genius."

Chapter 15
"Get up, you worthless slug." Jeff knows that voice, even muffled by the pillow over his head. "Ever?" He drags his head from under the pillow and squints at the shape in the doorway. "Ever? Holy shit." Jeff rolls over, pawing his way up through tangled sheets and covers to sit up, rubbing a hand down his sheetcreased face. "What're you doing here?" "Jesus Christ, Jeff, I told you I was coming." "You did?" "Jesus, you know I can't take my dad for more than a couple days before he starts driving me nuts. You're fucking lucky Sam was up to let me in, because if I was still standing out there on your doorstep, you'd be a sorry motherfucker." The heels on Ever's boots thunder like the voice of God across the wood of the floor and Jeff fights against the impulse to lie back down and cocoon himself in the blankets. Not that it would stop Ever. "I'm already sorry." "That you are," Ever pronounces, with way too much cheerfulness for whatever o'clock it is in the morning. She crawls onto the bed and into his lap, to hug him, clinching tight. "Hell-o, cousin." They are actually cousins, though there's not a drop of blood between them. Ever sat down and figured it out one day, seining through the morass of divorces, remarriages, and half and bastard children that makes up both their tangled family trees. It tickles Ever to no end and Jeff just nods along, only grateful she doesn't bring it up during sex. "You look like shit." Ever sits back on his thighs, peering way too close into his face. "What's wrong, the new boy-toy keeping you up late nights?" She twists around and starts lifting and shaking the blankets. To be fair, Jeff probably could hide a person in all of them, especially a person as thin as Jensen. "Where is he, anyway? I hardly got to see him at dinner and after all the shit Kane and Z have told me, you know I'm dying to get a good look. He's very pretty." Her grin is pure devilmeanness. "He's not here." Jeff tries and pretty much fails not to sound surly about it. He knows why he sent Jensen on this trip with Jared, but he's never liked sleeping alone and the bed feels enormous and empty with just him in it. "Sent him to Texas with Jared." "With Jared?" Ever sits back on her heels, head tilted a little to one side. "Oh, Jeff. It's like that?" "Oh, Christ, not you too, Ever. It's fine. Everything's fine." Jeff scrubs his face again, which for the second time fails to make him feel any more

face again, which for the second time fails to make him feel any more lucid. "I want coffee." "Well, now you're talking sense." Ever slithers off his lap like she's got no bones in her body and clunks her booted feet down on the floor. She bounces off the bed and is halfway to the door before Jeff manages to even scrape himself upright. Jeff doesn't bother to even get dressed past slinging on his robe and shoving his bare feet into a pair of ratty monster-foot slippers that were a gift from Jeremy six years ago. Jeff thinks they were a gag gift. It's hard to tell, with Jeremy. Sam, prescient goddess-angel that she is, already has the coffee brewed when Jeff stumbles and Ever clatters downstairs. Jeff prostrates himself at her feet in gratitude and she smacks him on the head with a wooden spoon, chasing them out of her kitchen after loading them up with coffee and fresh-baked biscuits drooling with butter and honey. "How's Martha?" Jeff bypasses the breakfast room for the big 'great room' where he does most of his work. "And where's Leah?" "Oh, you know Martha." Ever breaks off a morsel of biscuit and pops it into her mouth, eyes closes and thin, mobile lips turned up in pure, decadent pleasure. "Mmmm. She's still "shaming the family with her crazy indie music" in New York. Leah's upstairs, undoubtedly taking the whole bed apart and remaking it to her satisfaction, since not a single slave here can do it as well as she can." She straightens herself in imitation of LeahLeah's distaste for Jeff's housekeeping is almost legendarybut it really doesn't remind him of anyone half so much as Jensen. Who is in Texas. "How's Javier?" Jeff blinks. "You know, I haven't heard from him in a while." Jeff scratches his chin, dislodging some crumbs from his beard and finding an unexpected reservoir of dribbled honey, which he sucks thoughtfully from his thumb. "That never bodes well." "No." Jeff tries to think of the last time he heard from his half-brother. Spain, maybe? Before everything imploded with him and Mary-Louise? "No, it doesn't. I should look into that." He shakes himself out of musing and looks at Ever all over again as she licks butter and honey from her fingers. "So what are you doing here, anyway?" Ever rolls her eyes. "You really don't remember at all me telling you I was coming to stay until my performance on Saturday?" "Ohyeah, yeah, right" Jeff does vaguely remember something of the kind, but he's not sure if it's an actual memory or whether Ever can just convince him of pretty much anything, regardless of its basis in fact. "Performance?" Ever sighs deeply, clunking her feet up on one of the empty chairs. "You know, Jeff, for someone so smart, it amazes me how you can still manage to be so dumb. Yes. Performance. You know, the thing I do for a living?"

Jeff swats her feet out of the chair. "That's not what I meant. I meant 'what are you performing?' And where? I've been crazy-busy ever since Jensen got here. I haven't had the chance to do much with him." Ever's slight smile widened. "Yes, so Kane tells me." She leans forward, planting her elbows interestedly on the table. "So. Jensen. Tell me about Jensen." Jeff shrugs, unable to stop the flush that creeps up his neck and ears. Unlike Zach and Jeremy, who he can manage, Ever's always been a law unto herself. "Nothing to tell. Mary-Louise left" "And good riddance," Ever mutters, low enough that he can ignore her. "and I needed a new body-slave." Jeff shrugs. "I'm not quite ready to go to Cate's lengths for my principles." "Well, no. I mean, it looks good on paper, but politically, you'd be useless. No one would talk to you." Ever drums her fingers on the table for a moment before her eyes narrow and she fixes him with The Glare. "But that's not about Jensen. Tell me about Jensen, the pretty boy you stole from Bill Crudup." "I didn't steal him." Jeff dumps the crumbs from one saucer onto the other, stacking them. He doesn't know what Ever wants to know, doesn't know how to even start talking about Jensen. "Though it wouldn't've been a bad thing if I had. You should've seen the kind of condition Bill had him in, half-starved and all beat-up." Jeff's hands close up tight, the impulse to do violence thick and molten. "I wouldn't treat an animal like that, let alone another human being" Ever's hand covers his, her fingers cool. "No, you wouldn't. But that's what makes you one of the good guys, Jeff." Jeff rolls his eyes and huffs. "I'm no good guy." She pats his hand and settles back in her chair, grin skewing crooked. "You keep telling yourself that." He's not going to argue the point with her; Jeff knows better than anyone what squats in the dark and clotted corners of his heart and it's nothing he wants to share with even so close a friend as Ever. "I don't know what you want me to say, sweetheart. Jensen is" Beautiful. Infuriating. Unbelievably sexy. A slave. Jeff sighs. "Impenetrable." "That's an interesting word choice." Jeff shrugs. "But accurate. I don't know what Jensen's like. He's so fucking self-contained, I could store gold in him." "Ha. Sounds like Leah. How I ended up with such a close-buttoned tight " "Because you're luckier than you deserve," Leah interrupts. For all her severe tone and the mock sternness on her face, there's a heat in her

eyes that's reserved solely for Ever; a heat that Ever returns a hundredfold, looking back. Leah's been Ever's body-slave since they were both ten years old, Ever skillfullyand stubbornlyevading every attempt by her family to get her to take on someone newer, more fashionable, younger. Not that Ever and Leah, for that matterdon't have other lovers. But in some fundamental way, he can't imagine one without the other and he has no problem picturing the two of them as crotchety old women in Ever's narrow, turn-of-the-century house up in Frisco. Not that he'd ever dare call it Frisco to Ever's face. "Yes," Ever agrees promptly, stretching her arms out to make grabby hands at Leah. "Yes, I am." Leah sighs, but there's no bite to it as she crosses the room to settle primly on Ever's lap, like a cat deciding to perch. Ever's arms cross around Leah's belly. "Hello, Jeff." Leah's tone isn't any warmer than before, but she smiles and though she doesn't look at him the same as Ever, there's a definite fondness there. Or so Jeff likes to believe. "Leah." Jeff leans forward to capture her hand, brushing his lips across her knuckles. Leah's grin widens but she snatches her hand back and slaps his fingers. "How're you doing, sweetheart?" "Well, I was pretty good before I saw that travesty you call a guest room. Do your maids actually clean in there or is opening the door and just looking at the mess good enough for you?" "Jeff forgot we were coming," Ever confides, peeking at Jeff from behind Leah's back. "He did, did he?" Leah lifts a single eyebrow at him and Jeff scratches his beard. "Well. Maybe we'll just have to sleep in his bed tonight." She turns her head to look at Ever. "What d'you think?" Ever grins at Jeff. "I think that sounds like a great idea."

Chapter 16
A finger snakes down the back of Jensen's neck, right across the freeze brand on his nape, until the tip snags in his collar, momentarily pulling it tight. "Nice collar," a voice says conversationally. "If you were mine, I'd want to keep you all locked up too." Two instincts war against each otherthe impulse to bow his head, submit, versus the one to flinch away. This is not his master. Jensen allows himself to sidestep, bumping into Jared, shoulders crowding up around his ears as he turns around. "Hey." Jared jostles Jensen back, unaware. Jensen's attention isn't really on Jared. There's five of them, a closed circle and, along with the fumes of liquor, Jensen almost smells the danger of them. Not hurting anybody. Just a little fun. Jensen keeps his eyes down; the man who touched him is only a body in a suita cheap suit, at thattie undone and crammed into his jacket pocket, the throat unbuttoned to give thick, alcohol reddened jowls room to expand. "Even prettier from the front," a second voicethe guy's buddyopines. Buddy's hand crawls over Jensen's hip, down between his legs. Jensen's breath feels like a razor, tearing up his lungs. It's just hands. We're right in public. They just want to play a bit. Calm down. There's nowhere for him to go, trapped between the elevator bank and them and out of sight of the concierge's desk, the one place they might have hope of rescue. None of the other guests will intervene. Not for them. Not for slaves. "Hey," Jared says, harder and more forcefully. This time it is directed at the men around them and Jensen's stomach plunges into his feet. "What the hell, man?" He looms up against Jensen's back, and Jensen's stuck between them like a bone. "Jared, don't." Even as Jensen grits it out, one of the guys grabs him and pulls him sideways into a full body rut against his ass, a third thumbing his bottom lip. Don't bite. Don't bite. "Yeah, Jay-red Don't," another one of them mocks, shoving Jared into the wall. He's not heavier or taller than Jaredbut he doesn't have to be. "Get your goddamn hands off him." Jared doesn't exactly push the guy off of him, but at his size, he doesn't really have to. "Jared." Jensen rips himself away from the men, shoving Jared back

himself, putting himself between Jared and them. "Is there a problem here?" Lou's is like the voice of God, both steely and serene, cutting the scene to pieces. "You're damn right there's a problem" Jensen whips around, slapping his hand across Jared's loud, stupid mouth. "Shut up!" he hisses. "Shut the fuck up, right now or I will hit you myself!" "No, there's no problem." Lou is a slave but he's also the hotel manager and was once as free as the men in front of him; it still shows in the way he carries himself. Jensen's opinion of the group is confirmed in the way they turn sullen and yellow-dog at the appearance of Authority. "Just having a bit of fun." Jared makes an outraged noise from behind Jensen's hand, but he doesn't fight with Jensen to get loose. If anything, Lou's face just gets tighter, bronze skin pulling taut over stark bones. Lou straightens his jacket. "Are you gentlemen guests here?" More muttering, less distinct. "Well, gentlemen, I don't know how you do it at the Holiday Inn, but in this establishment, we have both rules and a bit of decorum about another man's slaves. They are not to be molested. Now. I think it's time you gentleman called a cab and returned to your own lodgings." Lou turns away from them without giving them a chance to reply, a dismissal as neat as it is cold. His voice thaws noticeably when he asks Jensen, "Are you all right?" "Yeah, I'm fine." Jensen feels fine; the scraped out hoarseness of his voice shocks him, as does the wooden heaviness of his body when he lets his hand fall away from Jared's mouth. God, he feels so heavy. "Here." Lou takes hold of Jensen's sleeve at the elbow and gestures. "There's an office right here, you can sit down." "No, I'm okay." Even though Lou grabbed him lightly enough not to freak him outand Jensen has no doubt that was deliberate, because Lou's one of the most deliberate people he's ever met, unless he's drinking Jensen tugs away anyway. "I just want to head on upstairs, get some sleep." "You sure?" Lou looks at him critically andembarrassinglyJensen feels himself reddening up under the scrutiny. "Look, thanks, Mr. Diamond-Phillips. Our masterJefMr. Morganhe'd be happy to show his appreciation to you, for chasing off those guys."

Lou's smile is tight as he glances briefly at Jared. "That's not necessary. Jensen's a friend." He straightens his jacket and tie crisply. "And even if he wasn't, that kind of behavior has no place here at the Adolphus. And you can call me Lou." "Heh. Yeah, all right. Thanks, Lou." Jared holds out his hand for Lou to shake. The elevator finally slides open, disgorging a glittery and giggling band of partiers and their body-slaves. Jensen and Jared step one way, Lou steps the other to get out of their way. Jensen's sense of heaviness deepens, as if his whole body has become more dense, solid. "Why don't you take this elevator?" Lou sticks his arm out to hold the doors. "You can go up alone; I'll watch your back." "Thanks." Jensen and Lou clasp wrists. In the elevator, Jensen lets himself slump against the back wall, eyes closed. "You all right?" "Didn't you hear me tell Lou I'm fine?" Jensen doesn't open his eyes. The air conditioning's too high; he's chilled right through. They're in the smaller of the two penthouses and Jensen's just that grateful that Jared doesn't say anything else for the rest of the elevator ride. As soon as they step out, though: "So...what, Jensen? Were you going to just let those guys put you on your knees right there?" "It wasn't going to go that far." Jensen rolls his eyes. "They were just messing around." "Just messing around? I'd hate to see what they're like when they're serious. You think Jeff would've been okay with that? Those guys manhandling you?" "Jeff isn't here." "Okay, but you don't have to put up with that." "No?" Jensen whips around. "And what did you want me to do instead? What were you going to do? Get into a fist fight with a bunch of free men? Even Jeff wouldn't be able to protect you from that, Jared." "I know it was stupid, okay? I just" "You just what? You're a slave, Jared. Same as me. If you don't give a shit about what they'd do to us, you could think for two seconds about what would happen to Jeff." "They didn't have a right to put their hands on you!" "You think that's the first time that's ever happened to me?" Jensen demands. "You think it's going to be the last?"

"I don't know!" Jared flings his hands wide. "Nothing like that ever happened before. I didn't know what to do. I just didn't want them touching you." Jensen grits his teeth and sighs. "Well, as touching as that is, if you ever pull anything like that again, I'll deck you myself." Jared smiles, though it's not his usual wattage. "Yeah, you said that already." He steps forward, putting his hands on Jensen's shoulders. "Jensen" Jared bends his head, mouth fumbling across Jensen's in soft, devouring heat. "I don't want" He pulls away without thinking about it, pushing Jared back hard enough that the edge of the mattress buckles Jared's knees and he sits down in a bounce. Then Jensen does think. He thinks about Jeff, what Jared's going to tell him, why Jeff sent them here together in the first place. Jensen's mouth feels dry and spitless but he goes to his knees, ripping with brutal efficiency at Jared's belt. "I can. Can suck you," he says in a rush, looking up at Jared though his eyelashes. "Would that be okay, instead?" He works his jaw, trying to loosen the clenched taut muscle, wring up some liquidity. "Wait. Jensen, no." Jared's fingers close over Jensen's wrists. He expects pain, but instead, Jared just tugs, urging Jensen up on the bed next to him. "Don't. You don't have to do that. I just thought it might make you feel Well. It was pretty stupid of me, huh?" Jensen looks at him, feeling like he's fair humming with tension. "I don't know what you mean." He thumbs the button on the bottom of his shirt. Jared grimaces. "I just thoughtif I made you feel good, maybe you'd feel better. But I was just trying to do the same thing to you as those guys. I fucked up, okay?" "If you want to have sex, we can do that." Jensen spreads his hands. "I can do whatever you want." "No. No, it's not about me." "Look, it's justwhen you report back to Jeff, I want it to be good. For you to tell him I was good. So justtell me what you want. I'll do it. It's fine. I don't care." Jared stares at him. "Is that what you think I'm gonna do? Go back and tell Jeff all about our sex life?" Jensen doesn't say anythingit's selfevident anywayand after a moment, Jared passes a hand across his mouth, smearing it out of shape. "Jesus," Jared breathes. "You do." He grabs both of Jensen's hands in his, hunching a little so they're eye to eye. "Jensen, I care. And you don't have to suck me or fuck me or anything else if you don't want to. We can just go to sleep. Hell, I can go sleep on the pull-out, if it's gonna make younot so" Jared trails off,

making indefinable shapes with his hands. "Freaked out." "I'm not freaked out, I'm fine." "Okay, fine, I'm freaked out. I don't know how you're not freaked out, but whatever." "Jared," Jensen starts and then stops, not sure how to continue. Jared, like all of Jeff's people, is so different from him. It's like they're speaking different languages. And what's the point, anyway? Jensen shakes his head. "Let's just go to sleep, okay? It's a long drive back tomorrow." "Yeah. Sure." Jared rubs his hands along his mile-long thighs, looking awkward and hunch shouldered. Then: "See. But here's the thing. I'm not actually tired any more." He digs his toes into the carpet. "I'm kind of wired, truthfully." Jensen is too, he realizes. A little shaky, a little light-headed but nowhere near sleepy. And the little bit of pleasure he felt at a job well done is long gone. They're just lucky that Lou was there and nothing had gotten worse. Those guys could've hurt Jaredand himpretty bad and if Jared had taken a swing at them like he'd wanted to, nobody would've done or said a thing. Jensen should've had better control over the situation than that. As he said to Jared, it isn't the first time; looking like he does, it sure won't be the last. "Fine. You wanna just go tonight? Pack up and hit the road? We can take turns sleeping in the car."

Chapter 17
Even though Jared does most of the driving on the daylong tripfueled by truly prodigious amounts of Coke and Gummi BearsJensen's still tired by the time he pulls the car into the garage. It's late and the house is dark, closed down for the night. There'd been no reason to call ahead so no one's expecting them and Jensen's just as glad. He'd just as soon not answer any questions Jeff might have about their trip until he's had some time to think about it. He doesn't want to tell Jeff anything about the men from the hotel lobby but he doesn't trust Jared not to mention it; if not deliberately, then inadvertently. Either way, it equals out to the same thingJensen's ass in a sling. "Heyyou wanna come sleep down by me?" Jared asks, scratching his hair and still looking half asleep. "Chad's there, but he doesn't care. Well, 'less he's got somebody with him, but then we can just go sleep down in one of the empty rooms." "No." Jensen pops the trunk and swings out Jared's duffle, chucking it at him. It takes more effort than he thinks it should and he hates Jared just a little for the way he catches it one armed and slings it up on his shoulder. "Thanks. I just want to sleep" He trails off before he can say in my own bed. It's not his own bed, it's Jeff's. He owns nothing, is nothing. "I just want to sleep." He puts his own suitcase down on the concrete and snaps up the handle. His thumbnail fiddles in a scratch on the handle's plastic, aware again of his body and strength in contrast to Jared's, aware that they're alone in the soundproof garage. He doesn't expect Jared to hurt him, exactly, but he's been surprised before. He'd been surprised in the lobby, which just goes to show how complacent he's become. "Yeah, okay." Jared sounds regretful but he doesn't sound angry about it and when he comes toward Jensen, it's just to enclose him in a onearmed hug. "'Night, Jen." "Yeah. 'Night." Jensen waits until Jared shuffles out of the garage before he goes through the inside door into the house. The kitchen seems strange and foreign when it's quiet this way, dark except for the hood light. For all it lays in the back of the house, the kitchen is really the hub of Jeff's home, always a bustle of activity with Sam at the helm. He can't imagine her sleeping, like a real human being. Jensen realizes he's delaying, running his fingers across cool granite countertops that will probably get his hands smacked when Sam comes in and sees the smudges. He wants to go up. Even so newly a part of Jeff's household, he feels a deep craving for Jeff's sinfully soft sheets, the smell of Jeff in them. He craves Jeff himselfMasterthe heat of Jeff next

to him, the rare hours in the middle of the night where Jeff will curl close, arm pinning Jensen in place. He's just afraid of Jeff's questions, Jeff's disappointment, as though Jeff will smell the other men on him. "Jensen?" Sam's voice, even hushed, makes Jensen jump like someone goosed his ass. "Is that you?" "Yeah." The word sticks in his throat, coming out garbled. Jensen coughs it out then tries again. "Yeah." Sam's fully dressed in jeans and a tee shirt that bares her strong arms, but her long hair is still damp from the shower. It makes her face and eyes look bigger. "Jesus, Jensen, you nearly scared the life out of me. What are you doing in here at this hour? What're you doing home at all? I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow." Jensen shrugs. "Came home early." Sam snorts, going to the freezer and taking out a bag of unground coffee beans. "Yeah, I can see that. Jared go on down already?" "Yeah." Sam measures out the beans into the grinder then glances at him sidelong. "Well. Never mind, then. You hungry?" Jensen shakes his head. "Just tired." He rolls his suitcase back and forth across the tile. "I didn't mean to wake you." Sam laughs, still audible over the mechanical whine as the grinder whirs to life. "You didn't wake me. I'm always up around this time. Have to get the baking done." Sam turns around and leans her hips against the counter. "You all right, Jensen?" There's no reason for his heart to slam against his ribs. No reason at all. "Sure." Jensen shrugs, loose-limbed and casual. "It's just a long drive." He tries to smile, fakes a chuckle. "Especially with nobody but Jared for company." Sam's smile widens as she chuffs. "Yeah, I bet. Jared's a sweet boy but he can't keep quiet to save his life." She turns back to the counter to pour the ground coffee from the grinder into a brown paper filter. Jensen takes this as a dismissal and hoists his suitcase. He's halfway out the doorway when Sam calls quietly, "Jensen." "Yeah?" "Ever and Leah are here and they've all been up all hours. You might want to sleep in your own room." "Yeah, okay. Thanks, Sam." Jensen does have his own room, a foreign and unwanted luxury that Jeff insisted on, even though Jensen's spent all his nights in Jeff's bed. It's a place to put his suitcase and store the clothes Jeff's given him, but it's

not his, any more than the clothes or suitcase are his. The thought of sleeping in yet another strange bed, alone, is unappealing. The only times he's ever slept alone was in Escrow or on nights that he's banished from his master's bed for one reason or anothersex with someone else, punishment. Even if Jeff doesn't actually give a shit about him, Jensen can rest, safe from all hands except the ones that own him. Jensen goes to his room anyway, to leave his suitcase and get out of the sleep and car-rumpled clothes he's traveled in, but it's just a side trip. Nakedexcept for the skin-warmed links of his collar still locked around his neckhe pads down the hallway to Jeff's room. It's strange how it happens. The walls are thick but not soundproof. Jensen hears the noises before he even opens the door. He just doesn't quite register them, selective deafness. So the first clue he has that anything's happening is the sight of bodies, backlit by the floor-to-ceiling windows on the opposite wall. He's seen Jeff naked before. Of course he has; neither one of them sleeps in any clothes and there've been endless bathroom run-ins, skinny dipping in the pool, the ocean. It's different seeing him like this, Ever's legs wrapped tight around his waist, the long, muscular flex of his back, his hips, broad shoulders. Leah is stretched out along the headboard, stroking Ever's face, caressing her lips, dipping in for Ever to suck the tips. And then there is sound; the low, lazy purr of Leah's voice asking, "You like that? You like how he feels inside you? Such a little cock slut. Is he big? Does it feel good?" and Ever's breathless "Yesohgod, yes" in reply. Jensen slams to his knees before he even has time to think about it, tearing his eyes from the tableau on the bed to focus on the narrow slats of hardwood under him. My master is entitled to have sex with whomever he wants. His favor does not belong to me, that I can expect it. He is not mine, I am his. Noise. Noise. The noise in Jensen's head is so loud that he can't hear anything else, unaware of anything outside them and the orderly, black-cut lines of the floor in his view and the heat in his chest like a house burning down, like everything burning down "Jensen!" Heavy hands grip his armsnot as hard or as punishing as he'd think they'd be, but still emphatic. Jensen bows his head deeper, giving the only thing he has to givehis submission. "I'm sorry." Jensen tries to curl over, prostrate himself on the floor, but Jeff's hands hold him steady. "I didn'tI only thought" He bites his tongue---literallystopping the awkward flow of words then tries again. "I await your instruction, sir." "Jesus, forget about thatare you okay?" Jeff cups a hand under Jensen's

chin and lifts his face until he can look Jensen in the eye. "I didn't even know you were there and then you were just hitting the floor. Seriously, are you all right? It sounded like it hurt." Jensen keeps his eyes fixed, but even so, he can't see any anger in Jeff's face, no impending punishment. Only a puzzled and half-frustrated concern. "I didnt mean to interrupt you." Jensen over-enunciates every word, clipping them off like stray beard hairsthe only way he can force them through the choking tightness of his chest and throat. His neck feels like it's on fire, charring down into his belly, melting him into a solid, immovable lump. "I'llI will go back to my room." He can smell Ever on Jeff, the wet, sweet-salt smell of pussy, the somehow thicker commingled scent of sex, all but covering up the familiar aroma of Jeff. Jensen's stomach clenches and gurgles and he swallows hard and rapidly, keeping it down. "Oh, Jensen, don't mind us." Ever kneels next to them, covered up in long robe of flowered silk and Leah stands behind her, one hand possessively on Ever's shoulder. "We were just keeping him warm for you." In his peripheral vision, he can't see her expression, but she leans forward and brushes her lips across his temple before getting up and making her departure, Leah on her heels. "I'm sorry," Jensen says again. Sam had tried to warn him and he'd just been too stupid to hear what she was telling him. Too focused on his own wants. He's nearly thirty; he should be past having wants. Jeff's grip on his arms has slacked. Jensen bows over, pressing his forehead to the wood. Jeff sighs and his fingers tug at Jensen's arms, urging him up. "Come on. Let's get a look at those knees. Are you sure you're okay?" "I" Jensen gets up awkwardly, the dull throb of his knees telling him he did hit the floor pretty hard. "I'm fine. Don't concern yourself with me. I can go get Mistress Ever, if you like." Getting out the words is like eating pieces of his own flesh, but Jensen chokes them out anyway. "You should not interrupt yourself for me." Jeff sits on the edge of the bed and sighs, scraping a hand through his hair. Unlike Ever and Leah, he took no time to cover himself, his erection wilted and soft between his legs. "Jensen." "Oror I can service you myself, if you prefer," Jensen adds, trying not to sound hopeful. He starts to go to his knees again, but Jeff catches him by his arms again, halting his downward motion. "Come here. Sit on the bed next to me." Jensen perches lightly, not bracing himself so much as ready for it if Jeff decides to hit him. "Okay." Jeff takes Jensen's hand. "Let's take it from the top. Are you

okay?" "I'm fine." Jeff doesn't look like he believes Jensen, sighing heavily again, but he drops it. "Did everything go okay with the trip? I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow." Jensen folds his hands between his knees. "The trip went well. The contract for the horses will be here Monday. If it meets your approval, the horses will be delivered by the end of the week." "Okay, but you could've called to tell me that, Jensen. You didnt have to rush home." "There was no point in staying." Jeff's fingers squeeze tight over Jensen's, but not as though he's trying to hurt him. "Are you sure you're okay?" "Do you want to inspect me?" Jeff's free hand smacks into his forehead. "No. No, I don't want to inspect you, Jesus. I'm justI'm just asking a question. I just thought Never mind." Jeff tweaks Jensen's fingers again. "Christ, what a night. What's say we just get some sleep, huh? I know I'm tired." Jensen darts a glance sideways. "Should I go?" "Do you want to go?" Jensen doesn't know how to answer the question; Jeff's voice and expression give him no clue as to what Jeff wants. He knows Jeff doesn't sleep well alone; that was the only way he convinced Jeff to let him sleep in the bed with him. Which, he guesses, is answer enough. "No. Not if you don't want me to." "Idon't want you to." "Will you shower?" Jensen could cut his tongue out of his mouth the moment the words trip off his tongue, but it's too late to take them back. He can't even manage a proper apology for them, staring at Jeff in horrified shock. But Jeff only looks down at himself and snorts. It sounds both amused and tired. "Yeah. I'll shower first. Lie down. I won't be long." Jensen lies down obediently, but once Jeff is gone, the smell of Ever and Leah in the sheets seems overwhelming, stifling. With one ear on the shower's run, Jensen tears off the sheets, the pillowcases, cramming them down the laundry chute and getting fresh ones from the linen closet. He changes the sheets in record time, picks up the comforter from the floor and spreads it over everything. Jensen crawls back in just as the shower shuts itself off.

He's asleep before Jeff's body even hits the bed.

Chapter 18
Jeff wakes up to Jensen curled small in the hollow of his body and doesn't want to move. A little of it is tirednessEver's had him burning the candle at both endsbut part of it is just the unwillingness to disturb Jensen, who sleeps so lightly at the best of times. He still doesn't know what happenedwhich Jeff guesses could be said about anything having to do with Jensen. Didn't mean to buy him. Didn't mean to let him sleep in the same bedexcept Jensen could hardly sleep anywhere else and Jeff had gotten tired of tripping over Jensen at the foot of his bed or sleeping on the floor outside his door. Didn't mean lots of things. Sleeping, Jensen looks even more absurdly young, long lashes fanning out almost straight and leaving faint shadows on freckled cheeks. He's snugged tight into the curve of Jeff's body and Jeff can feel him breathe, slow and steady, quietly radiating heat. Still too thin, Jeff thinks, watching the rise and fall of Jensen's ribs. What is not at all too thin is the lush curve of Jensen's ass, nestled right against Jeff's groinand Jeff really needs to get up before his train of thought goes any further. Jensen stirs when Jeff slides off the mattress, blinking at him with glazed, dazed eyes. Jeff knows better, but he can't stop himself from smoothing his palm across Jensen's cheek, marking the texture of the stubble darkening his jaw versus the softness of the skin underneath. Jared, Zach, Kanehell, even Sam. None of them have this gentleness to them, as if born to nothing rougher than lyingservingin someone's bed. It's not weakness; by no stretch of the imagination could Jeff call anyone as doggedly stubborn as Jensen weakbut it is softness. A softness that tempts him way too much. "Sleep." The word comes out rough, almost garbled, as Jeff's thumb follows the flat, high line of Jensen's cheek. "You had a long drive." "M'not tired," Jensen slurs, lying through his pretty white teeth. Befuddled, Jensen thrashes weakly with the sheetthe changed sheet for a moment, trying to untangle himself, before Jeff presses him back. "Jensen. It's okay. I want you to sleep. I'll come get you later." He doesn't know if Jensen really understands the wordshis eyes still don't register much in the way of comprehension, but he responds to the tone and to Jeff's hands holding him down, the heavy blinks of his eyes becoming longer and slower until they don't open again. Jeff stays like that until Jensen's breath thickens and the tension goes out of Jensen's whipcord body. It's an effort to keep his fingers still, not let them stray across soft, pale skin in caresses he has no right to take; harder to take his hands back when he can't deny any more that Jensen is actually asleep. Pink mouth, doeskin-pink nipples, both of them begging for his mouth. Jeff pulls the sheet and coverlet up over Jensen and goes to wax

one out in the shower. He's still a little weak-kneed with afterglow when he makes it down to the living room, finding Everthe reading glasses she's too vain to admit needing perched on her nosegoing through some documents. "I didn't know you could read," he teases, setting his breakfast plate and mug of coffee down on the table opposite her. "Ha ha." Ever swats his knee under the table before sweeping her glasses off, twirling them between her fingers. "Have you read this?" "I don't even know what 'this' is." "Jensen's provenance." She riffles through the pages, still absentmindedly swinging her glasses around as she does so. Jeff grabs the document from her, pulling it across the table. "Jesus, Ever, personal boundaries much?" "Oh, shit." Ever rolls her eyes, leaning back in her chair. "We don't have personal boundaries, Jeff." Contrary to the exasperated expression on her face, one of her feet strokes up his calf until she hits his knee, settling in the fork between his legs. "Seriously, though. Have you read that thing? It's like a Who's Who of rough trade in L.A." "How would you know?" Jeff asks, flipping idly through the pages himself. "Please. I hear things. And Cruiseeverybody knows he's batshit." "People say the same thing about us, you know." Jeff takes a deep and satisfying bite of his bagel, getting shmear in the bottom edge of his moustache. Thing's getting too long and he's tired of the constant work of trimming. Might be time to shave it all off again. Awful lot of gray in there anyway. "Not the same things." Ever helps herself to the other half of the bagel, getting almost as much cream cheese on her upper lip without benefit of a soup-catcher. Ever, however, can lick it away blithely. Which she does. "Okay, no, not the same things." "I'm just saying...no wonder Jensen's as fucked up as he is." Ever reaches across the table, snags the provenance and scoops it back onto her side of the table. "I mean...Kilmer? I went on a date with him once. Scary-intense. I can't imagine working for him." "Being his body-slave isn't exactly the same as 'working for him'," Jeff points out mildly. "And what do you mean 'no wonder he's as fucked up as he is'? Jensen's all right." Ever gives him a look, a fleck of cream cheese still in the dimple at the edge of her lips. "Sure, if by 'all right' you mean nervy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Jeff. Did you see his face?" He hadn't really seen Jensen's face; the first he'd even known Jensen was

there was when Jensen's knees thundered to the floor and by that time, Jensen already had his head down. Waiting for his punishment, Jeff thinks, the little knot in his stomach clenching tighter. "He just wasnt expecting it," Jeff prevaricates. "I...um. I haven't been with anybody else since he got here." "A-ha!" Ever shouts the word like she's just found the answer to a Millenium Puzzle in the schmear on her bagel, pointing at him with her forefinger. "A-ha, what?" "I knew you were falling for him!" "Ever." "Je-eff." She makes an exaggerated face at him. "I like Jensen," Jeff says slowly, trying to line his words up in some kind of rational order. Ever snorts at him. "Okay, I like Jensen a lot. But, Ever..." "Jeff. You climbed off of me to get to him because he was upset. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I can honestly say: that's never happened before!" "No, it's just... I mean, I'm sorry about that, darlin', I really am, but Jensen..." Jeff waves his hands vaguely. "You've got to understand, he's got this whole thing in his head about servicing me..." "And why not? From the looks of it, both of you need a good fuck." "No, no...you're not listening to me." Jeff drops the bagel rind onto his plate with a clink, no longer hungry. "It's not like you and Leah." "It could be," Ever points out quietly. "No." Jeff shakes his head. "I don't You and Leah are great, Ev, don't get me wrong. But when everything's said and done, she's still your slave. Doesn't that bother you?" "No." Jeff expects the answer, but he doesn't expect the lack of equivocation in Ever's tone, the absolute certainty. "No, I love Leah. And she loves me. And whether she's a slave or she's free, that's always going to be true." "You don't know that. You don't know that if she could make a different choice, she wouldn't." It's not the first time they've talked about this, not the first time he's felt this same sense of head knocking frustration at Ever's utter inflexibility. "Look at Mary-Louise" "Okay, Jeff, look." Ever's hand slaps flat on the table and she leans forward, eyes narrowed and her features looking even sharper than usual. "Mary-Louise was a cunt. You know I don't use that word and I know you loved her and all, but it's just true. She was a cunt." "You're not being fair. I dont think either of us is in a position to know

what it was like for Mary-Louise." Ever's mouth twists but she waves her hand in an erasing gesture. "Fine. I don't want to argue the point with you. But my point is that you can't judge Jensen by Mary-Louise. They're totally different people." "And Kane?" Other than Chris himself, Ever's the only other person who knows, the only one he ever confessed the whole horrible story. Ever sighs, scrubbing her fingers across her face. "You've got to forgive yourself for that someday, Jeff." He opens his mouth and she holds up a finger, stilling him. "I'm not telling you to forget. It's what made you who you are now and you should never fucking forget that. But you could stand to forgive yourself. Just a little." "I don't know how to do that." Jeff doesn't feel like he wants to cry but his throat aches in the same way, making the words rasp and catch. "I wouldn't even know where to start." "Maybe with admitting that wanting Jensen isn't the worst thing ever?" Jeff spreads his hands, a silent is that all? "You want me to say I want him? Fine. I want him. Everybody thinks this has got something to do with Mary-Louise. What happened with us. Andyou know, it should. It hasn't been that long. I should still be fucking pining over her. And I'm not. Because ever since I saw him, all I can think about is how much I want him." He slumps back in the chair. "That doesn't make it right. I want lots of things, every day." Jeff shakes his head. "Doesn't mean I get to have them. Or that I even have the right to have them." "And if Jensen chooses you?" Jeff tries to picture it, picture him and Jensen like Leah and Ever, the two of them with that same sense of certainty, serenity, unity... Jeff can't do it. Can't picture it. He doesn't know if he's ever felt that certain about anything. "He won't," Jeff answers, all the sureness he doesn't feel otherwise strengthening his voice. "Jensen's still getting used to things, finding his feet. All he's ever been is someone's bodyslave." "And you're going to fix that?" Ever asks, a weird coldness to her tone. "Sure. Why not?" Jeff pushes up out of the chair, gathering up his unfinished plate and now stone-cold coffee for transport back to the kitchen. "I may not be able to give him legal freedom. Yet. But I can do my damnedest to give him every bit of freedom a slave can have in this world. And that includes freedom from me."

Chapter 19
The bed is empty when Jeff comes in and the room is warm and sultry with escaped steam from the bathroom. Jeff should've known better than to think Jensen would actually give himself time to rest. "Jensen?" The mirrors are still fogged up too, so Jensen hasn't been gone long. Jeff thinks about chasing him down and instead goes to the mirror, making a clean stripe with one of the hand towels and scratching his beard thoughtfully. By the time Jensen appears in the bathroom doorway, Jeff is mid-hack, his fingers dusted with fine hairs. "I'm sorry I slept so long." Jensen has a gift of sounding soft and yet still making his voice carry, even with his head down. Jeff tries to picture Jensen a year from now, or two, joking and laughing and treating him with the same irreverence thatwell, everybody else does. "I'm thinking of shaving my beard off," Jeff says mildly in return, looking at Jensen through the medium of the mirror. "What do you think?" Jensen tilts his head. "Clean shaven is the style right now." He comes all the way into the bathroom, scratching absently at his forearm. "Would would you permit me to shave you?" "I" Jeff considers it, setting the small grooming scissors down on the sink and shaking the ache out of his fingers. "Sure," he says finallyand only a little doubtfullyturning around to face Jensen. "If you don't mind?" By the time Jeff had owned Kane for this long, Chris had threatened his life, thrown things at him and knocked out one of Jeff's teeth. He doesn't know why Jensen's quiet, stubborn calm is more terrifying. In any case, it's only a matter of minutes before Jensen has him ensconced in a chair dragged from the bedroom, towel wrapped around his throat and a face full of spicy smelling foam that Jensen whipped up from a little cake of soap. "Really, the bristles should be badger," Jensen says as he brushes the foam into Jeff's beard. He sounds apologetic. Jeff is a lot more conscious of Jensen's fingertips braced against his throat, holding him still. "But I didn't think I'd be using it on you." "Where did you get all this?" Jensen shrugs, putting the mug and brush on the countertop and opening the slim wooden case he brought with them. He pulls out a straight razor with a mottled wooden handle. "You gave me a stipend when I moved in to buy clothes and toiletries." Jensen pauses, turning the closed blade in his fingers. "You said I could get anything I needed." "No, of course you can," Jeff avers quickly and not just because Jensen's

got several inches of extremely sharp steel very close to his bared neck. "I'm just interested. I've never known anyone who uses a straight razor." "Oh." Jensen sounds relieved, flicking the blade open and stropping it carefully and lovingly on a leather strap. "It's what I was trained with. And I have a very tough beard. Disposable blades don't work very well." Jensen lets the strap fall and comes back to Jeff's side. Closer, the straight razor looks as huge as a sword. Jensen puts his free hand on Jeff's shoulder and squeezes. "I've been doing this a long time. I've never cut any of my masters. I won't cut you." "I'm not worried." Jensen nods and then tilts Jeff's head back, regarding Jeff's beard for a long, considering time before he sets the blade to flesh. Except for the crisp sound of the edge against hair, the first stroke doesn't feel like anything at all, smooth as Jensen promised. It's ten kinds of wrong, but something about thisthe gentle, radiant heat of Jensen standing so close to him, fingers pressed under his jaw, the silken glide of the razor across skin that's suddenly really sensitive, the literal and symbolic trust of baring his neck to someone who has every good reason to want him deadis going straight to his cock like the bent twist he is. It's torture not to squirm, pure torture. Jeff closes his eyes and concentrates on his breath, but he's never felt further away from Zen calm than he does now, intensely conscious of both his own body and Jensen's. Jensen's fingers shift, adjusting the tilt of Jeff's head. Jeff rolls with it, wondering if his neck's as flushed as it feels. "I I've been thinking." Jensen angles Jeff's face away from him so he can tease the razor under the shelf of Jeff's jaw. "Mm-hmm?" Jeff opens his eyes but does everything in his power to keep his throat from moving. "I I know you weren't planning on purchasing me from Master Crudup." Jensen rushes the words like he's just trying to get through them. Remarkably, his hands are still light and steady, scraping hair and lather from Jeff's cheeks with quiet ease. "That it was your conscience that made you do it, your kindness" Now Jeff does squirm, just a little. "Jensen, you don't have to" "I think you should sell me." Jeff jerks upright. The razor jogs a line across his cheek, one that doesn't even hurt, at first. "Oh, my God, sir!" Immediately, Jensen claps the hand towel he'd been using to wipe the razor against Jeff's cut with surprising pressure. "I'm so sorry! I wasn't expecting you to move like that" "Nono, it's fine, Jensen." Jeff slides his fingers under Jensen's, taking

the towel away from him. Damn, that smarts. The moment Jeff's got control of the towel, Jensen drops to his knees, head bowed, still babbling apologies and holding up the razor on his upraised palm. The thought that Jensen expects Jeff to hurt him with the razor, cut him in retaliation for an accidental wound that was all Jeff's fault in the first place makes him ill. "Jensen. Stop. It'smy fault. Come on, now. Get up." Jensen does so, slowly, reluctantly, shoulders rounded and hunched. He doesn't meet Jeff's eyes, twiddling the razor nervously. Jeff takes a moment to pull the towel away and look at it. More blood than he thought there'd be, and he can feel more trickling down his face already. He presses it back against his cheek again. One thing at a time. "Okay. Okay. Explain to me why you think I should sell you? Are you so unhappy here?" Jensen's knees jerk like he wants to kneel again. "No," he denies quickly. "No, of course not. Youand everyonehave been very kind to me. It's just" Jensen's mouth quirks, the first time Jeff's seen anything about him look awkward. "I've tried to serve you. As best I could, I've tried. I've done everything you've asked of mecalling you by your given name, not offering or trying to service you, servicing Jared, like you asked" "Wait. Like Ilike I what?" Jensen shakes his head. "I don't know how to please you, LorJeff. I clearly don't please you. And there's no reason you should suffer a subpar slave because I'm too stupid to understand your wants and wishes for me" "Wait. No." Jeff holds up his free hand. Besides the throb of his cut cheek, his head's starting to ache as he tries to wrap his mind around what Jensen's saying. "No, stop. Wait. Jensen, no." Jensen shuts his mouth so quickly, it makes a faint pop, still a little bentkneed, like standing upright is too much for him and gravity is dragging him down. "Is that what you really think, Jensen? That you don't please me? That that I'm mad at you, in some way?" Jensen shrugs. "I don't" A second shrug, fast on the heels of the first. "I don't know how I can. The things I try to do displease you. I have no aptitude for interpreting your wants, though you've been more than patient with me. You are, of course, right to sleep with whomever you choose, but there's no reason you should be stuck with a body-slave that you find sexually uninteresting I just cut you" "Okay. Okay, stop, Jensen, please." Jeff's mind is whirling too hard to come out with anything more intelligent. "Okay, here's what we're going to do. We're going to tape up my face and then we're going to sit down and have a talk. A real talk." Jensen cleans the razor on the tail of his shirt and nods.

servicing Jared, like you asked Of all the completely horrifying things that Jensen said, Jeff doesn't know why that one's stuck crossways in his brain, but he keeps imagining it Jensen on his knees for Jared, with Jaredwith a soundtrack of questions (Did I ask you to do that? When did I ask you to do that?) that he's afraid to find the answers to. "Look." Jeff's voice is only a little high-pitched, only a little unsteady, when he gets Jensen to sit on the bed's edge with him. "I. I'm sorry, JensenGod, so sorryif you ever thought that That I was angry with you or that I didn't want you or that you've displeased me. In any way. Okay? Because nothing could be further from the truth. I'm happy with you. I'm more than happy with you." He reaches for Jensen's hand and then catches himself mid-gesture. Jensen mirrors the gesture, extending his fingers in tacit consent but doesn't close the distance when Jeff falls short. "That being said" Jeff shakes his head and shrugs. "If you really want me to sell youif that will make you happythen I'll do it. I won't sell you back to Bill, I can't do thatbut we can find someone who'll be good to you, treat you decent" Jeff works his mouth around the words, like marbles tangling his tongue. "Someone who'll make you happy." Jensen doesn't say anything, his face half-averted. His expression doesn't change, smooth and serene as a wax reproduction. Even his hands are motionless, the one stretched flat to the coverlet and the other limp across his leg. There's nothing there for Jeff to read from, pick up on, work with. "I just I don't know what you want, Jensen." That startles Jensen into looking up at him. "I don't know what you want," Jensen counters. "I just wantto serve. Like any good slave. But you don't even want that. I don't know what you want. I don't understand. I want to understand, I've triedbut there's nothing that you need me for. Nothing I'm good at. I'm useless to you. I'm useless." It's probably the most Jensen's ever said and it's wrong. It's all so fucking wrong. Jeff rakes his hand through his hair. "Jesus, Jensen. Jesus. I know I haven't been around to give you the time that I wanted to, but I really had no idea you were feeling so lost. Why didn't you say anything?" Jensen just looks at him, a faint, puzzled line etching itself between the thicknesses of his eyebrows. "Why would I? You can do whatever you want with me." The way he says it, so completely matter-of-fact, without any emotional coloring at allJeff finally gets it. He finally understands. It's not just politeness, or a lack of trust. Jensen really, actually, truly believes what he's saying. Oh, Jesus.

Chapter 20
"Okay, no, fuck you, Cate, this is really not funny." Jeff leans his head against the doorjamb, hoping the coolness of the varnished wood will ease some of the overheating of his confused brain. "No...no, it's not," Cate agrees, still spluttering and gasping. "Oh, God. I wish I could have seen your face when he told you..." And she's off again, giggles scaling up into full-blown peals. Jeff switches the phone to his other hand, turns around and slides down the wall to the floor. "Cate... Please." "Okay, okay." Cate swallows her laughter, sounding choked and vague trills of it hiking her words up at the end. "I'm sorry. Sorry. I know this is serious." "I don't know what to do." It galls him to say the words, especially with the realization that much of what Cateand the othershave been trying to tell him is true but he can eat a little crow if it means helping Jensen. "I mean...he's really so much more fucked up than I thought he was." "The truth is, you've just been very lucky, Jeff. I've told you this." Cate has a way of making sympathy sound like nothing of the sort, a blunt matter-of-factness that he values...when it's not turned on him. "Well, I'll give you credit for some smarts, but mostly lucky. You can't rehabilitate everyone just by...being nice to them." "I know that! Of course I know that, why do you think I'm calling? I just. I didn't know how bad it was until he's standing there begging me to sell him." And telling me he fucked Jared on my orders, Jeff thinks, knocking the back of his head against the paneling. "I didn't know how bad it was," Jeff repeats, hating the gritty rawness of his voice as he does. "Where's Jensen now?" Reflexively, Jeff glances down the hallway. "I didn't know what to do with him. I told him to organize my mail and then I called you." Cate giggles delightedly again. "That'll keep him busy for the rest of the year. Oh, Jeff. Poor baby." "I didn't call for pity, Cate. I called for help. Can we make fun of me later?" "What, you mean I have to choose?" Before he can say anything else, though, her voice sobers a little. "Yeah, it's fine. Bring him out to the house tomorrow." "Thank you," Jeff breathes, feeling a little shaky with how much he means it. "Jeff" Cate's tone is unwilling. "I'm a therapist, not a miracle worker. I

don't have a magic wand to wave at him and make it all better. I'm just going to talk to him. That's alljust talk to him." "I know that." Jeff scratches at his beard. All that, and he still hasn't managed to get the damned thing shaved off. "I just. He said he felt useless, Cate. No He said he is useless." Jeff grinds the heel of his hand against his sore, grainy eyes until a wetness that's no relief at all is squeezed from them in pure defense. "I just." He keeps repeating himself, stupid with the horror of it, the responsibility. "I know what it's like out there, you know? As much as anyone in our position can. I'm notI'm not stupid. But when he said that to me, Cate" "Jeff" "No." He chops the word from his throat. "I know it's bad. I know it's horrible and inhumane and I know all that, okay? It's just, you're sitting there and you're talking to someone and they say something and even though you knewyou knewyou realize you didn't really know, you've never known and you're never going to knowand Jesus Christ, Cate, I don't get it. I just don't get it. How can someone do that to another human being? How can we?" Cate is silent a long moment, only the hiss of connection there to tell him that the call hasn't dropped. Then, slowly, she says, "All you can do is deal with the situation in front of you. I know it's hard, but you can't fix everything, luv." Jeff lets his breath and legs ease out, a concentrated effort rather than a smooth slide. "I just don't want to hurt him." A soft noise from the other end of the line, as if Cate starts to say something and changes her mind. "I know that," she says instead. "And you know I'll do everything I can to help you. Justbring him by tomorrow." "Okay. I will." Even after he hangs up, Jeff doesn't move from his sprawl on the floor, rubbing the heel of his hand against his aching forehead. Cate's right; Kane, Zacheven with Mary-Louise, he's been lucky. And it's past time he should've thought about what to do when his luck inevitably ran out. It had just always seemed like there were so many other things to do. And now here he is. And it can't be avoided any longer. Jeff sighs, scrubs a hand through his hair and pushes up from the ground, knees cracking. He should probably check in on Jensen, make sure he hasn't been tragically killed in an avalanche of paper. For the most part, Jeff uses his office Well. For the most part, Jeff doesn't use his office. Things that go in have a tendency not to make it out again, like a Jeff-sized roach trap. Which gives him some pangs of guilt at sending Jensen in there, but really, if anyone was going to make it out of there alive, Jeff would put money on it being Jensen.

His faith is borne out by the sight of actual hardwood when he opens the door and the fact that Jensen is sittingactually sittingat the desk. A desk which is also unfamiliarly visible. "Where did all the paper go?" Jeff turns around, startled out of whatever lame-ass thing he'd been about to say. He half-expects it to be lurking behind the doorhe's had dreams like thatbut the office remains stubbornly, persistently clean. Jensen points to the corner. "I have a shredder? Huh. Since when?" Jensen shrugs. He looks much better, firmly back in super-uptight librarian mode. "I don't know. I found it there. Still in the box." It's amazing how Jensen can pack that much disapproval in such a neutral voice. "Okay, butand don't get me wrong, I've wanted to shred everything in here more than once But. Don't I need all that stuff?" Jeff comes and perches on the desks edge, marveling at the sight of the floorhe has a rugand the fact that there's somewhere he can plant his hip on the desk without risking serious injury. Jensen's holding a PDA in one hand. With the other, he unplugs a USB cord from it before handing it to Jeff. "I have a PDA." "It was under some papers. Still in the box." "Huh." Jeff turns it around in his hand like he's inspecting it for flaws. "I don't even remember buying this." "I think Chris did," Jensen answers, tucking the USB cord neatly out of the way and then pulling the computer keyboard closer and starting to typemuch faster than Jeff's four fingered hunt-and peck. "His name was on the receipt, anyway." "Huh." "Anything that was too important to be shredded has been filed." Jensen stops typing long enough to pull out the bottom drawer. As far as Jeff can remember, he used to keep in there some of the more top shelf liquor that he didn't want Kane, Jeremy and Zach drinking upand possibly some very elderly weed. Now it's filled front to back with hanging files and manila folders. They're color coded and Jeff's a little afraid to ask where they came from. Or where his liquor went. "You really need another file cabinet. Anda lot of other stuff. I took the liberty of filling out a purchase order. It's on the PDA for you to approve or reject. I've also created a list of outstanding invitations for social functions that you need to accept or reject. Some of them are months old." Jensen looks at Jeff like every one of those unanswered invitations is a paper cut on his soul. And they probably are.

Jeff wipes his unaccountably damp palm on the thigh of his jeans. "Heh. I said I'd gotten a little behind." Jensen shakes his head, lips thinned. "Someone should have been taking care of this for you. If not Mary-Louise, then Kane. Depending on what else you need from me, I should have it all straightened out by tonight and then I can keep up with it better than this. I'm sorry it's so piecemeal. I wish I'd been able to start with this when I got here. I've been remiss." "Actually, I was thinking we could go out tonight." Jensen stops squinting at the screen long enough to look at Jeff, eyes wide. "Really?" He sounds so surprisedand tentatively pleasedthat Jeff's struck all over again with what a really shit job he's been doing with Jensen up to this point. "Yeah, really. Ever's got a gig tonight and I thought you and I could go." Jensen dips his head down. "I go wherever you take me." "Jensen." Jeff quashes the impulse to put his fingers under Jensen's chin and lift his head up. "Look at me, please." Jensen looks up and folds his hands in his lap, the promptness of it stabbing Jeff in the heart. He is very well trained, Crudup had said at the bargaining table. Worth every penny. "I owe you an apology." Jeff pushes the PDA off his leg and onto the desk, turning more toward Jensen. Jensen's eyes widen againGod, Jeff could drown in those eyesand Jeff holds up a hand to forestall him. "No, I mean it. I know that you probably think masters don't owe their slaves any apologies, but that's part of the problem. Legally, you're my slave, Jensen, but I really do my best to think of youand treat youas a person. Do you understand?" Jensen's face freezes for a moment before he lowers his eyes. "I'm trying to." Jeff sighs. "I know you are." He passes his hand across his face. "The point is, I should have given you a better idea of what to expect when you got here and I let myself get distracted by other things and then I just didn't. And that wasn't fair to you. And I'm sorry. "But here's what it is. I don't think slavery is right. I don't think it's fair, or humane or any number of other adjectives. And I'm not quite so brave that I'm ready to say 'fuck the system' and go to jail for refusing to own slaves, but I do try to give my slaves as much freedom and choice as I can." Jensen glances up at him. "Choice about what?" Jeff spreads his hands. "About themselves. About their lives and what they want to do with them. Aboutwho they wantor don't wantto

have sex with." "But you wanted me to have sex with Jared." "No." The word comes out faster and a little more emphatically than Jeff was aiming for and Jensen flinches a little. Calmer, Jeff says again, "No. I just I just wanted you to make friends, Jensen. To feel at home." "But you said" "I said it would be okay if you wanted to have sex with Jared. I didn't mean that you should justgo out and do it." "So, I messed up." The wall is too far away for Jeff to knock his head against it, but his head hurts enough that he might as well have. Still he keeps his voice gentle as he says, "No. You didn't mess up, Jensen. You just misunderstood me." "But it's my job to understand you. To know what you want." Jeff slides from the edge of the desk to kneel on the floor. Horror flits across Jensen's face for a split second, his foot pushing the chair back a little before Jeff locks his fingers around the arm rest support. "What I want, Jensen, is for you to be as happy and fulfilled as you can be." "I just want to serve," Jensen murmurs, sounding stifled and not meeting Jeff's eyes. Jensen's bare toes curl on the wood. Jeff just wants to press his lips there and taste the skin, compare it to the skin behind Jensen's ears, in the throat hollow where sweat and salt collect, in the arcs of muscle that lead to his groin. Jeff swallows and looks away. "I know you want that now. Andwe'll find things for you to do. Work for you to do." Jeff looks around the office. "What you did in here isnothing short of a miracle." It would only take a centimeter of movement for his thumb to brush Jensen's knee. In reassurance, of course, but Jeff holds himself still anyway. "But later you might want something else. And that's okay, too." Jensen shakes his head and turns a little more toward Jeff, who strives manfully not to notice the easy spread of Jensen's thighs and the trapped softness of his cock bulging against the leg of his jeans. "What else is there?"

Chapter 21
Jensen drives around to the back of the house and parks in the cul-desac in front of the garage just as Jeff told him to. It wasn't a long drive as far as L.A. distances go, but once he's outside the car, Jensen gives himself a moment to stand and stretch anyway, trying to settle the sour flutter of his stomach. He really wishes Jeff hadn't insisted he eat breakfast. The food sits badly, like a cannonball, right behind his navel. He supposes he's been expecting this. Ever more so as the pile of his mistakes has grown ever larger. He'd thought thatif there was punishment to be administered and Jeff didn't want to do it himself Kane would be the one. But Jensen's been around enough that he doesn't think it'll be any less punitive just because it's Lady Blanchett instead. Lord Cruise might have been a lot more creative in his corrections, but Lady Kidman had a torturer's knowledge of good oldfashioned pain. Jeff said that this isn't a punishment. He'd said that a few times, looking deeply and soulfully into Jensen's eyes each time to make sure he understood. "I just want her to talk to you," Jeff said, with his hands on Jensen's shoulders. "Okay? Just talk." They'd had such a good night last night. After Jeff had laughed at Jensen's clothing choicesand once they were actually at the concert, Jensen had to admit they were way too formalhe'd picked out different, more suitable ones, rumpling Jensen to his satisfaction. For his part, Jensen felt weirdly undressedtorn, ragged jeans and an old button down shirt of Jeff's that had been washed so much that it felt and fit like a second skin, the black of it turned dusty and oldbut they were clothes from Jeff's hand, Jeff's choice and that felt like something. Of course, it would've been the same if Jeff had asked him to go naked. Kane had come with them to the concertdrove, actually, while Jensen sat with Jeff in the backbut he'd left them almost as soon as they'd parked and Jeff had driven them home. So other than a couple hours they spent rubbing elbows with Ever and her friends backstage, it had just been Jeff all night. "Ever's fans are pretty cool," Jeff said, walking down the path to the amphitheater, "but they can get kind of crazy. And there's a lot of them. If it gets to be too much, you tell me and we can go." "All right," Jensen had answered, intending to do nothing of the sort. He could put up with anything Jeff could. As the crowds thickened, Jeff had wrapped his fingers around Jensen's wrist and, even now, standing in the sunshine on Lady Blanchett's rear driveway, Jensen can flex his wrist and feel Jeff's hand there, warm and strong, guiding Jensen with him through the throng. Really, Jeff had kept him close the whole night, a hand on his wrist or in the small of his back. During the concert itself, he'd put Jensen in front of him, fingers twisted through the belt loops of Jensen's jeans. Jensen

had no notion if the concert had been good or bad, couldn't even remember distinctly what Ever had sounded like, burningly conscious of Jeff swaying to the music behind him. Still hadn't fucked him, though. Jensen has to shake off the sense-memory of Jeff's body, scraping himself back to the here and now. Lady Blanchett will be expecting him and here he stands gawking in the driveway like he's been lobotomized. But putting aside the sourness of those minutes on his belly waiting (hoping) that Jeff would turn to him, the point is that Jensen wants to believe this isn't a punishment. He wants to believe that. But what kind of manwhat kind of ownersends his body-slave just to 'talk' to some woman? Either Jeff is lying about Jensen's so-called sexual freedom, or... Jensen doesn't know what the 'or' is. Jensen rings the doorbell. It buzzes shrilly in the echoing depths of the house and Jensen waits, posture straight and his hands folded neatly in front of him. "Jensen." Even after everything he's seen with Jeff, Jensen's still shocked when Lady Blanchett opens the door herself and leans against it, smiling crookedly as she regards him. "Somehow I knew you'd be punctual." She takes a step backward without looking, sweeping her arm wide. "Come on in. Would you like some tea?" "I." The simple offer makes Jensen tongue tied, though there's no reason that it should. Maybe it's the idea of Lady Blanchett serving him from her own hands, like a guest. Wondering why her body-slave isn't here to do it instead, Jensen steps through the doorway into the cooler dimness of the kitchen and shakes his head. "No. Thank you." He wonders if he should kneel. With anyone else, he probably would, but Jeff's friends have strange notions of propriety. She did answer the door herself. "Hmm." Lady Blanchett offers him another smile, equally crooked but subtly different from the first, as she closes the door behind him and then ambles to the refrigerator, extracting a bulbous spun glass pitcher of iced tea. "Well, if you change your mind, let me know." Jensen can smell the tea as she pours it, minty and sweet at the same timenot your garden variety Lipton. Lady Blanchett replaces the pitcher in the fridge and then leans against the door, arms and legs crossed, glass of tea in one hand. "So. What did Jeff tell you about why you're here?" Jensen shrugs, unsure what the right answer is here. "He said he wanted you to talk to me." Lady Blanchett stutters an uneven, humorless laugh, rolling her eyes. "God, I could kill him, the giant coward." She takes a fast, fortifying gulp of her tea then straightens from her lean. "All right, then. Let's set some ground rules.

"You will call me Cate. Lady Blanchett is my mother and I might have to put up with that sort of thing when I go out, but I'll be damned if I'm going to deal with it in my own home. Got me?" Clear, crisp and unequivocal. Jensen breathes deeply. "Yes." The corner of Lady BlanchettCate'smouth quirks up, amused. "Do you know what I do, Jensen?" "You're a psychologist," Jensen answers promptly. "You have a Doctorate and a Master of Arts from UC Berkeley. You did your undergraduate work at Loyola, in Chicago." "Why am I not surprised you know that?" Cate rolls the glass in her fingers, tapping her short, unpolished nails from the glass. "You've done your homework. All right. And what do you know about what I do? Have any of your masters been to a therapist?" Jensen's tongue tangles in his mouth again. Jeff had instructed him to come here and talk to Cate. At the same time, discretion is one of the most important virtues a slave can possess and though they're not his masters anymore and Jeff is, it's inappropriate to discuss their private matters. "That's not something any of them would have discussed with me." It's neither a lie nor the complete truthand he thinks Cate knows thatbut he hopes it's good enough. As for her other question What do therapists do? "You talk to people. Tell them how to think right, act right." For the first time, Cate looks disconcerted, the curve of her smile flattening a little into an uncertain line. "I wouldn't put it in quite those terms, no." She crooks her head toward the interior of the house. "Come on. Let's do this in my office." Jensen follows her, sweat prickling the line of his spine and wetting the lines of his palm. They're walking down a long sunlight mottled hallway when Jensen realizes that he's craning for sound. Cate's house is silent more silent than any house Jensen's ever been in, as if they're the only two people there. Cate's office is a big, sunny room cluttered with plants, books and small, arty knick-knacks. There's a desk in the back, near the windows and a collection of comfortable-looking couches and chairs in the forefront. "Sit wherever you like," Cate says absently, depositing her tea glass on the coffee table and then going to the desk. She doesn't sit, leaning over to mute the phone and lock down her computer. Jensen picks the armchair on the left, where he can see the door and his back is to the bookcases. The chair is as decadently soft as it looks and Jensen scoots forward to the edge, posture straight, hands resting lightly on the arms. Cate finishes up whatever she was doing at her desk and comes back to the grouping, curling up on the couch at the end closest to him. Without really thinking about it, Jensen leans forward to grab her tea glass and resettle it closer to her, flicking a coaster under it from the pile on the

table. "Thank you, Jensen." Despite the dryness of her tone, Cate's smile looks genuine. "You didn't have to do that." "Sorry." It's a new feeling, this strange shame for doing his job, an unsteady surface he doesn't know how to walk on. "No, it's nothing." Cate sighs and settles back against the couch's cushions, kilting up one knee to rest her arm on it. "To be honest, I've never had a slave as a patient, Jensen. Forobvious reasons. I'm not entirely certain how this all works. Or if it will work." She tilts her head to the side, considering him. "A large part of what I do is predicated on trust and I imagine trust isn't something you know much about." Jensen frowns. "A slave's life is predicated on trust." He wonders if this is a test of some kind. He wonders what's the penalty for a wrong answer. "A slave trusts his master to take care of himfeed him, clothe him, love him. A slave trusts his master to guide him, through all the things he's tooblind or stupid to see for himself, a big picture too complicated for the slave to understand. A slave lives on trust." "All that is very true." Cate nods in his direction. "But on the other hand, if I asked you to tell me about something Jeff has done to you that you didn't like?" "Jeff has been very kind to me." "Even so." Cate's smile is faintly smug. "I'm an owner. Everything about your training tells you to lie to me. To tell me the pretty, polite fictions that slave-owners like to hear." "I." He doesn't know how to contradict that. Not without calling her a liar, which is just as bad. He settles for, "I just want to serve. And Jeff has been very kind. Not everyone would want to take on a body-slave this old." Another sigh, fainter than the first. "Jensen, therapy is Therapy is about having a safe space. A space that's separate from the rest of your life where you can say and think whatever you want, without fear of judgment or reprisal. The problem is that I can say to you that what you tell me here is safe, is a secret between us that I won't reveal to anyone, including Jeffbut I don't know that you'll believe me." "Of course I'll believe you," Jensen says, clear and steady even through the faint dryness of his throat. "Hrmn. Yes. Of course you will." Cate wiggles deeper into the couch again, slinging one arm over the back and letting the other fall careless down the couch's arm. She shakes her head at him, smile crooking sideways. "All right. There's nothing to do but to try, yeah?" Jensen bows his head. "So this is how it works. A session normally lasts about forty minutes.

During that time, we can talk about anything you want. Or nothing at all. What you say here is just between us. It doesn't go back to Jeff, it doesn't go anywhere. You're safe here"

Chapter 22
"Hey, Jeff." Chad's grooming one of the horses out in front of the stable, his already light coloring washed paler by the sunlight. "Want me to saddle one up for you?" "Ha ha. You seen Jared?" Jeff tucks his fingers in his pockets and stays at a respectful distance from the horse. And its teeth. "Yeah, he's in the back with his new girl." Chad jerks his head at the shadowy interior of the stables. "You know what he's like when there are babies around." "Yeah, I know." Jeff scuffs a toe in the dust, hesitating long enough that Chad stops combing off what looks like all the horse's hair to look at him, brows arched. The impulse to sound Chad out about Jared dies quickly, though. It's a little too back-door soap-opera for Jeff's taste. He shakes his head. "Nothing." The stable isn't someplace Jeff spends a lot of time. He inherited the horses from his grandmother, purebreds and saddle horses alike. They'd been her lifeunsurprising when one considers Jeff's grandfatherand Jeff's sentimental enough that he's never been able to face getting rid of them, despite his uneasiness around them. Jared loves them, though, just as much as Grandmother Morgan ever did. There's only one stall door open. Jared's on his knees with his arm around the foal, letting it lip and suck at the bottle in his hand. The mare's on her feet in the back, but her head's down and even Jeff can tell she's lost weight. "How're they doing?" Jared's face lights up when he catches sight of Jeff, but that's no surprise. One of Jared's gifts is that he looks glad to see just about everyone no matter who they are. "Jeff, hey." He glances down at the foal and them back up at Jeff, his voice pitched soft. "Doing good. Real good. Cadie here's eating like there's no tomorrow and Big Momma's still not feeling a hundred percent, but she's getting there." His arm strokes across the foal's ribby side like Kane with a guitar. "Good." Jeff nods. He's had other things on his mind than the horses, but he's glad to know mother and foal will be okay. "That's great." "So what's up?" Jared tilts his head questioningly, in between glances to make sure the foal's still nursing. "It's about Jensen." The bottle starts to tip out of Jared's fingers and the foal whickers insistently. Jared pushes its head down and rights the bottle. "Why? Is something wrong?" "Yeah, sort of." Jeff leans his arms on the stall's edge. "You kinda know

"Yeah, sort of." Jeff leans his arms on the stall's edge. "You kinda know what it was like for Jensen before he got here, right?" Jared's eyebrows ladder up and he sits back on his heels, a noticeable cooling. "Look, I know you told me to give him his space and let him figure things out on his own, but he" "No, I know all that." Jeff shakes his head. There's no good way to say it but to say it. "I want you to stop sleeping with him, Jay." Jared tugs the bottle away from the foal and stands up, tucking his thumbs in his back pockets. "Is. Is this you talking as my master, or is this just Jeff, who wants Jensen for himself, talking?" There's a sour taste in Jeff's mouth. He fishes the container of teaflavored mints out of his back pocket and pops the lid, offering them first to Jared. "Neither. It's not like that." "Yeah, okay, it's not like that. Why? What happened? What did he say?" Jared waves off the mints and Jeff shakes one out into his palm for himself, taking way too long about it. "Jeff?" "Jensen" Jeff sighs, tossing the mint into his mouth. "Jensen slept with you because he thoughthe thought it was what I wanted." "He said that to you?" Jeff nods, embarrassment weighting his head until he's looking down at his boots, scuffing against the bottom slat of the stall. Jared forgets himself enough to straighten up out of his usual slouch. "Seriously?" "Yeah." "Jesus." Jared rakes a hand through his hair, falling back a step to lean against one of the supports. "I knew Jensen was kind of messed up, but" "Yeah." "But you told him you didn't" "Yeah." "Jeff. You know that I" "Yeah. I know." "Well, shit." Jared breathes out through his teeth, shoulders squaring. "So what are you going to do?" Jeff shrugs, scratching at the wood idly with his fingernail. "I don't know. I sent him out to see Cate today. Depending on how that works out I don't know. I know Dylan was trying to get some kind of network together, people willing to work with slaves. I can call him, see if he knows anyone in the area."

Jared nods. He's folded his arms up tight, hugging his own shoulders. Quieter, sounding as young as he really is, Jared says, "I didn't know, Jeff." "I know that, man." He does. Jared's as excitableand overly friendlyas his two mutts, but he'd cut his own heart out before he'd hurt Jensen or anyone else he considers a friend. "I just I wish he had said something" "Believe me, I've been wishing that same thing all morning." "Yeah, okay, but you didn't fuck him." Jared looks pained, though he takes the time to put a blanket over the foal and a quick scratch under its chin. He comes out of the stall and Jeff moves back awkwardly, not sure if Jared's in the mood for a clap on the shoulder. "Jared." Jeff scratches the back of his neck. "I hate to be the one to say it, but fucking you probably isn't the worst thing Jensen's ever had to do. I doubt it's going to scar him for life." Jared huffs a laugh. "You're right. 'Course you're right. Way to make it all about me." "That's not what I'm saying." "No, I know that." Jared shakes his head, pacing a short circuit restlessly. "It's justyou guys are always warning me about thinking too much with my dick. I thought he was okay with it. With me. I just wanted to be his friend." "Nobody said that's off the table yet. I don't think Jensen thinks anything of it, much less that he's holding a grudge because youwegot the signals wrong." The words come out sharper than he means them to and Jeff sighs, feeling every one of his forty-two years. "Just We're all going to have to be a lot more careful with Jensen. Notnot coddle him. Just. Be more careful." Jared toes the dirt. "Yeah. I got it. Fuck!" Jared swivels suddenly and drives the flat of his hand into the wood of the stall with a sound like thunder. Horses all up and down the line whinny and kick out in protest. "Sorry." Jared apologizes immediatelyas much to the horses as it is to Jeff. "Sorry, guys," he calls, definitely to the horses, that time. "I just. Fuck, man. Fuck." "Jay. Jared." Jeff's tone, calm and controlled, drags the younger man's eyes up to him, unwilling. "This is not your fault, okay? This is my fault for thinking that I knew what the hell I was doing. I did this. Don't kick yourself for my fuck-ups." Jared throws up his hands. "Yeah, okay, but" "No buts." Jeff says to hell with it and grabs onto Jared's wide shoulder, squeezing solidly. "My fuck-up. My fault. Jensen's still going to need you as his friend, man."

"God, how's he even going to look at me, after this?" Jared scrapes a hand through his hair. "I feel like such an asshole." Jeff smirks, though it feels fake as plastic on his face. "I have it on good authority that if there's any asshole here, it's me. So you can rest easy on that score. Jensen's just going to need time. And a lot of therapy. And a 'hands off' policy until Jensen gets the idea that he's allowed to say no." "Yeah. It freaks me out that he doesn't know that. It freaks me out that it could be me, if things were different." "But they're not different. I don't think we should get too hung up on hypotheticals, here." Jeff's pocket beeps urgently and unfamiliarly. He fumbles and comes up with the PDA that Jensen programmed for him. At the top is a calendar entry for "Lunch with Kane" with an attached agenda in a document. At the bottom is what looks to be a live feed from the estate cameras, showing Kane climbing out of his truck in the front driveway. "Wow, I didn't know you could do that." Jared cranes over Jeff's arm, shamelessly nosy. Jeff blinks at it for a couple seconds longer before he figures out the 'snooze' button. "Yeah, I didn't either. I guess I gotta go." He hesitates, though, putting his hand on Jared's shoulder again. "You gonna be all right?" Jared shrugs carelessly but Jeff can tell he doesn't mean it. Not totally. "Yeah, I'm cool. What the hell, right? I'll get over it." He reaches up and squeezes Jeff's forearm. "I just have to be his friend. I've got it easy, you know?" "Thanks." Jeff grins back sourly.

Chapter 23
"Tell me about your masters." Jensen pauses, though not long enoughhopefullyfor Cate to tell that he does so. Why do they always want to know about the other masters? They're never happy with the information. But they always ask. "What do you want to know?" She'd said that Jensen could talk about anything, but Jensen doesn't really know what that means. He'd tried making pleasing small talkthe weather, new trends in women's fashion, complimenting Cate or her dcorbut it only seemed to amuse her, and not in the right way. "You don't have to tell me anything personal, Jensen." She leans her forehead on the heel of her hand, regarding him. "Tell me who owned you and when." It occurs to Jensen that she can look this all up herself. His provenance is logged online with Commerce or she could ask Jeff for a copy. But it's not his place to second-guess her, no matter how nonsensical the request seems. "Lord Cruise was my first," Jensen admits, already flinching. They all want to know about Lord Cruise, the man behind the monolith. Jensen's never been able to talk about him in a way that feels right, though. People want the gossip, something juicy, tantalizing. They don't want to hear how much Lord Cruise loves and cares for his slaves. "Were you born in his household?" Jensen blinks at the unexpectedness of the question. "No. He bought me in open auction." "How old were you?" Jensen shrugs. "Seven. I was sold for debt." The words don't mean much to him, just a statement of fact. Illegal babyfarms aside, most of the work force is debtors like himself. Cate shifts her face on her hand more comfortably, flattening her cheek. Her eyes are interested, avid. Not in a greedy way, exactly. Justlike she's listening. Like she really wants to know what he has to say. It's weird. And disconcerting. "And do you remember your parents at all?" Huh. Jensen can't remember the last time he thought about his parents. Since he was a kid, certainly. Once they were gone, there never seemed to be a point. "My provenance says it was for medical debt. For my mo For my mother." He frowns a little at how easily the word 'mom' sprang to his lips, even though he's practically forgotten all about the people who gave birth to him. "I don't know what was wrong with her, though." "Mmm, but do you have any memories of your parents? A personal

recollection, not something that was told to you or that you read on paper." "I don't know," Jensen says slowly, trying to figure out what's behind the question. "I think about my work, mostly." "So you don't think about them?" "No. Not really." That doesn't sound definitive enough. He doesn't want her to think that he's recalcitrant. "No. I just want to serve. Notmoon about people who aren't even part of my life anymore." Jensen turns his hands up helplessly. Cate's lips purse slightly and her eyes flicker but Jensen doesn't know what that means or how to intuit if he answered rightly. "And what about Lord Cruise?" Jensen takes a deep breath, feeling the simultaneous glow and ache when he thinks about Lord Cruise. "Lord Cruise, he He trained me. Taught me" Loved me. "Everything that I am, I owe to him." "Did you have sex with him?" Oh. Here they go. Cate's one of those. "Yes, of course. I was his bodyslave." Even now, with all the years and masters between them, Jensen still feels a twinge of inappropriate pride about that. Not many are willing to take on a body-slave as young as he was then, either. It had been a big sign of Lord Cruise's favor and trust. "And how old were you?" Another small, calculating pause as Jensen tries to process the unexpected direction. He expected that Cate would ask him for prurient detailswhat Lord Cruise had done with him, his preferences, the various skills Jensen had perfected. "I was ten." "Ten." It's not a question. Jensen doesn't know what it is, the dull, neutrality of Cate's tone giving him nothing to work with. "I would've been happy to serve sooner," Jensen hastens to say. He knows how it sounds, that Lord Cruise took three years to touch him, claim him. "But Lord Cruise He's very particular about his household. He had to be sure I was ready for the demands of such a prestigious position." "I think I need some more tea," Cate says abruptly, lunging up from the couch and grabbing her glass before Jensen can do so. "It's not quite sweet enough. Jensen, are you sure you wouldn't like any?" Jensen stands up, as well, unaccustomed to sitting in the presence of his betters. Kneeling, sure, but not sitting. It's the second time she's offered tea. Jensen still doesn't have enough information to tell if it's a hint or a trap, but, given Jeff's friends, he gambles that it's a hint. "I can get the tea, if you let me." "Nonsense. I'm perfectly capable of getting it myself. Go on, sit. I'll be

right back." Reluctantlybut not letting it showJensen folds back down into the too-soft chair, folding his hands between his knees. In most households, Cate would have just rung for a servant to freshen her tea, or sent her body-slave to do it. But like the rest of Jeff's friends so far, Jensen guesses this isn't 'most households'. God help him, he's fallen in among hippies and abolitionists. It was probably inevitable. He's lived in California most of his life and Lord Cruise had expounded long and vehemently on how laxly slaves are treated out here, compared to the East Coast. For all his efforts to be the best slave he can, Jensen doesn't know if he'd want to be one of the sleek, shark-like slaves he's met in New York. "There." He rises again as Cate comes back into the room. She sets a glass down on the coffee table for himhe quietly whisks a coaster under itand then puts hers on the side table next to the couch before settling again, tucking her bare feet under her. "That's much better." She twines a lock of her hair around her forefinger idly. "Where were we?" "You'd asked me about sex with Lord Cruise," Jensen supplies, picking up his tea and taking a polite sip. It is very minty, but with a spicy-sweet undertone he can't quite identify. It's not sweetened at all, which he's grateful for. "So I did." Cate nods at him, mouth quirking up at the corners. "And what was that like for you?" Jensen turns the sweating glass in his fingers. "How do you mean?" Cate tugs the curl taut and then lets it go. "I meanwhat was it like, to be expected to perform, at such a young age?" Jensen still doesn't get what she's driving at, shaking his head, eyebrows wrinkling. "It was an honor. He was my master and he chose me to serve him. He could have picked anyone. Lord Cruise has never chosen another body-slave as young as me." The pride he hears in his voice makes him cringe, but he can't suppress it. "So you've kept track?" Jensen's gaze falls to the tea held between his hands, heart thumping. The glasses are old but very well cared for, without the nicks and scratches they'd get if they were put in a dishwasher. None of the glasses at Jeff's are nearly so nice. "Lord Cruise is a very important man," Jensen answers stiffly. "His body-slaves are a matter of public record." They are. It's not like he was snooping. "Yes, they are." There's warmth in Cate's tone as she says it, understanding, and Jensen blinks through the stifled heat in his eyes. Cate shifts on the couch, drawing one leg up and resting her arm across her knee. "Did you understand what was being required of you, to be a

body-slave?" "Of course." Jensen takes another sip of the tea and sets it back on the coaster, wiping the dampness from his palms on his thighs. "Lord Cruise saw to my instruction in every aspect. I was educated. I had tutors." Jensen finds a lot of people don't understand Lord Cruisewhich Lord Cruise had warned him about, when Jensen was still his. For the most part, he's resigned himself to it. He doesn't know why his chest feels so tight at Cate's questions. "I was his body-slave. It was important to be the best." "Important to whom?" "To me." Jensen considers the appropriateness of that answer. "To him. To both of us." He looks back up at Cate, fighting a frown. "Isn't that how it works?" "You tell me." "Lord Cruisehe took care of me. He bought me, took me in, taught me He didn't have to do any of that. He picked me. I was happy to do anything he wanted me to. I've been happy to serve all my masters." Jensen's fingernails dig into his thighs. "I. I don't know what you want me to say." Cate glances up at the clock mounted over the office door. "That's all right, we should probably wrap up anyway." Her gaze falls on him again, a clear and lucid blue the color ofbut much warmer thanglacial ice. "You did very well for a first session." Jensen ducks his head, a reflex. Still, it feels good. Familiar, suffusing slowly through him like liquor. "Thank you." Then, glancing up again, "First session?" Cate smiles. "Yeah, I was thinking maybe we could talk...oh, say once a week? Would that be all right with you?" Jensen has no idea what she had gleaned from that weird, limping conversation that was interesting enough that she'd want to do it again, but he's given up trying to understand their motivations any further than it takes to make them happy. He dips his head again. "If my duties with Jeff permit." "Oh, they will," Cate promises, sounding certain. She scoots forward on the couch, leaning to touch Jensen's hand. Her fingers are cool, bigger than he expected, rougher. "Jensen, I'd like your permission to talk to Jeff about you. Not specifics, nothing that you've said, but enough so that I can advise him about how to make things a little better between the two of you. Would that be all right?" "Uh...yeah. Sure." Then, gathering his wits, "Yes, of course." "No." Cate shakes her head. "Not 'of course', Jensen. It's your choice. It will always be your choice."

Jensen thinks about the concert again, about Jeff's hand shackling around his wrist and his collar around his neck, showing him owned claimed--for all the world to see. Everyone who had looked at him, seen him, had known. That he belonged to somebody. That he belonged to Jeff. Jeff wants to fuck him. Jensen knows it. And if Cate's willing to help Jensen talk Jeff into it... "I don't mind," he says again, stronger. "It's fine with me."

Chapter 24
"Oh, thank God." Jeff rushes Jensen as soon as he comes in through the garage door. It's hard for Jensen not to shrink back, but he holds his ground. Jeff holds out the PDA, which is chirping frenetically. "It won't stop. Make it stop." Jensen takes the device and glances at the screen, bemused. "It just wants to do its scheduled sync." He taps the command through and the beeping stops. Jensen looks at Jeff, who plants both his hands on Jensen's shoulders. "I could kiss you right now." The profound relief in Jeff's voice makes Jensen tip his head up slightly, half-expecting the promised kiss. But Jeff only swings Jensen around him, giving him a push. "Go upstairs, put on something warm. Bonfire tonight." Jensen remembers seeing the environmental permit in the piles of stuff for Jeff's office. That explains why the kitchen is empty and the house so quiet. Obedience drives him two steps toward the door before he remembers the PDA in his hand. Jensen turns and holds it out to Jeff. "Nuh-uh." Jeff steps back, arms in the hands-off position. "That thing is of the devil. You keep it." Jensen has no idea what he's going to do with Jeff's PDAespecially with as little as he has to do around herebut he tucks it in his pocket anyway. He can figure it out later. Maybe Jeff will sit down with him later, let Jensen show him how it works. "So...how did things go at Cate's?" Having been given his instruction, Jensen wasn't expecting Jeff to follow him. He immediately checks his step, slowing for Jeff to pull even with him. "I answered her questions. She wants me to come back. She didn't call?" Jeff scratches his nose, looking sheepish. "No, she did. I...uh. I just wanted to hear about it from you." Jensen casts his mind back over the visit, thinking about how to frame it all. "She asked me questions about my old masters." He debates the wisdom of reassuring Jeff that they didn't talk about him, that even if they had, Jensen wouldn't have revealed any confidences. Not that he has any confidences to reveal. "I don't know if my answers pleased her, I tried" "Jensen." Jeff stops short in the hallway, tugging at Jensen's sleeve to make him halt too. "I didn't mean You don't have to tell me the gory details. That's between you and Cate. I just meant" Jeff spreads his hands, rocking a little from side to side as his voice lightens, turning more jovial. "How did it go? Did you like it? Was it okay?"

"It was fine." Jensen tries not to let his doubt color his tone but he really has no idea of what Jeff's looking to hear. He went. Jeff apparently hadn't pimped him outnot that it would be wrongand no one had hurt him. Was that the same as 'like'? Hard to say. "She gave me tea," Jensen volunteers finally. "From her own hands. It was really good; I've never tasted one like it." Jeff looks at him and Jensen knows he's said the wrong thing, disappointed Jeff somehow. He can see it in Jeff's eyes. But the corner of Jeff's mouth pulls up in a crooked little smile and he only saysmore gently than Jensen expects, "That's good, Jensen. That's really good." Jensen averts his eyes to the floor, not sure how to take Jeff's reaction. Jeff sighs, almost soundless except for the deep stillness of the house, and then he takes Jensen's wrist, pulling on him again. "C'mon. Food's probably ready. Do? You do have something warm enough to wear, right?" Jeff sounds worried. "Yes. The stipend you gave me was really generous." Insane is more the word, but Jensen's not about to say that. More than half of it is still sitting in Jensen's household account, despite Jensen's efforts to refund it back to the House. At first, he thought maybe it was that Jeff was going to be just that hard on his clothesMaster Crowe had been like that, ripping things off Jensen whenever it suited him. Then Jensen had thought that Jeff's lifestyle would require him to have that kind of wardrobe and maintenance. But Jeff works from home more often than not and none of the places he's taken Jensen so far have required any particular luxury. So the money just sits there, like an unscratchable itch. Lately, Jensen's just decided that Jeff is kind of stupid about money. Especially after seeingamid Jeff's disordered papersjust how much Jeff paid for him. Jensen had barely been worth that much when he was new and virginal. Let alone at thirty and well-used. Out of some weird sense of modestywhich is just fucking absurd, as far as Jensen's concernedJeff insists on staying out in the hallway while Jensen changes. "Just wear something you won't mind getting dirty in," Jeff calls, making Jensen change direction to the hamper, to put on the jeans he wore to the concert. "So, Cate tells me I need to give you more to do," Jeff says while Jensen hikes on the jeans double-time. "I'm happy whatever you want me to do." Jensen shucks his button down over his head and reaches for a tee-shirt. He hadn't bought very many, not realizing how much tee-shirt and jeans were the uniform of the household. He might need to tap a little of that household money after all. No sense in making more work for the staff and he doesn't want to embarrass Jeff. "Yeah, wellCate's not happy. And she's right. There's no reason you can't have more responsibility. I just wanted to give you some adjustment time." Jeff pauses and Jensen can hear his boot heel scuffing against the

baseboard restlessly. "She also thinks you need to see her more than once a week." Jensen stops with his sweater halfway on, the heavy cotton twisted around his biceps. He knew he hadn't answered her questions correctly. Then, "I'll go as often as you think I should." Jensen pulls his sweater the rest of the way on and sits on the bed's edge to put on sweat socks and sneakers. "I'm dressed." "Yeah, I know that, Jensen. Justwhat do you think about that idea?" Jeff pivots around the doorjamb without lifting his shoulder from it, head tilted. "Was it so horrible that you'd never want to go back? Was it okay? I want to know what you think." Jensen finishes tying his shoes and then sits up straight, hands on his thighs. "I think I just want to make you happy," he says, willing Jeff to understand. "I think Lady BlanchettCatewas very kind to me, even though I couldn't give her the answers she wanted, just as you've been really kind and patient. I think I will do whatever you want, even if I don't understand the reasons why." His palms are sweating. He spreads his hands wider over his leg, not wanting to make so obvious a gesture as to wipe them on his thighs. "I don't know what else you want me to say." Jeff shakes his head and straightens up, shrugging his shoulders in a 'let's go'. "You don't have to say anything else, Jensen. C'mon. I'm hungry, how about you?" Surprisingly, Jensen is hungry. He ate breakfast with Jeff, as usual, but uncertain about what Cate was going to do with himhe'd skipped lunch. Self-consciously, Jensen rubs his stomach, wondering if he's just filled out or if he's starting to get a gut. He's been lax about exercising. He'll have to be more conscientious about it. "So I was thinking," Jeff says, as they head downstairs and out, "maybe we could try three times a week at first and see how it goes?" "Okay." Jensen was kind of hoping Jeff would take his arm againhe kind of holds it out, enough to be accessible, but not so much that it's presumptuousbut Jeff doesn't. "The drive wasn't too awful, was it?" "No, traffic was good." There are lights on the house and the deck, but after that, the garden quickly descends into darkness. Jensen thinks it's maybe the darkness that gives him the courage to ask, "Jeff?" "Yeah?" Away from the house, Jensen can see the vague glow of the bonfire even though the beach is well below the level of the grounds. Against it, Jeff's only a darker shadow, but it's enough to keep Jensen from barreling into him when Jeff draws up short. "Isis it Kane? Do you want me to be more like that?" Jensen can't really see himself acting toward Jeff the way Kane does, the casual disrespect,

the familiarity, but he's here to be whatever Jeff wants him to be. And if that's what Jeff wants... Jeff makes a choking noise that becomes coughing that becomes something almost like a laugh. Jeff hunches over, resting his hands on his knees. "Oh, God, Jensen, no." He straightens and his hands light on Jensen's shoulders, firm but not punishing as they knead Jensen like a cat. "I don't think I could take two of him. Believe me, one is more than enough." Jensen thinks maybe Jeff feels different in the near-absolute dark too, braver, because on of Jeff's hands slinks up to brush gentle across Jensen's face, his hair, in a caress that makes Jensen half-sway into him, longing and confused. Gruffly, Jeff murmurs, "No, Jensen. I don't want you to be anyone other than yourself."

Chapter 25
"Hey, Jensen. Got a minute?" Jared drops next to Jensen in the sand. It wakes Jensen out of a half-doze he hadn't even realized he'd fallen in, baked warm by the bonfire and pleasantly full of Sam's excellent cooking. Jensen blinks stupidly at Jared for a few seconds before he manages to dig himself in and sit up, with a murmured, "Sure." They're not alone by the fireside, but they might as well be. Jeff, Kane, Zach, Sam and some of the others are still loudly playing touch football a little further down the beach, raucous ghosts. Adrienne is curled up across the fire, asleep in a coat he last saw on Sandy, who is passing a joint and giggling quietly with Chad not far from Adrienne. "What's up?" he asks, still trying to bring his brain online. A moment later, he could kick himself. Jared probably wants sex. Of course he does. It's that time of night and already some of the house-slaves have gone back to the house or faded into the darkness. Jared's body language isn't particularly seductivehunch shouldered and head down, picking at the frays on the hem of his jeansbut with someone like Jensen, seduction's not expected or required. He's always a sure thing. On the other hand, Jeff said he doesn't have to fuck Jared. In fact, he seemed pretty distressed that Jensen had. And that makes Jensen's choices crystal clear. "I'm not going to fuck you." There's no point in pussy-footing around it and Jensen's had to put up will ill-will from other slaves before. No one likes the body-slaves. Not really. At least he and Jared won't have any reason to interact after this. That's a plus. Jared's eyes dart at Jensen, a fast, wet gleam through his messy bangs. "Yeah, I know." Jared tugs at a trailing tag of denim, ripping the jeans further. "Um. I mean, that's what I wanted to talk to you about." "You want to talk about not fucking me?" Jensen repeats. It amuses him for some reason. "No. I just. I wanted to tell you I'm sorry." "You're sorry?" Jensen doesn't mean to keep parroting Jared's words, but the apology is wholly unexpected. He doesn't even know what Jared's apologizing for. "The sex was fine, Jared. You don't have anything to be embarrassed about." "Okay, but that's not really true, is it?" Jared's jaw squares up tautly as he meet's Jensen's eyes. "Because you didn't want to be having sex with me in the first place." There's a grain of grit in the corner of Jensen's eye. He thumbs it out and flicks it away. Across the sand, Zach and Kane both tackle Jeff, dragging

him down like two wolves on a deer. He wonders if Jeff will accept a massage before bed. Then he wonders if he should worry about the fact that he's getting used to all this. Turning back to Jared, he asks, "What does it matter? Was the sex bad? Didn't you enjoy it?" "I" Jared drags his hair back from his forehead. "Yeah, of course I liked it, Jensen, that's not the point. The point is, I thought we were friends. If you didn't want to have sex, you should've told me. You should've said something." "Jared" Jensen's never had to explain himself to someone who wasn't an owner. It's a weird and itchy feeling and he's not sure why Jared seems so fucking upset over the whole thing. He falls back on the tried and true. "I don't know what you want me to say." "I just. I feel like a rapist, Jensen. I feelI feel like one of them, like one of those guys that raped you, just because they could, because you were there and so goddamn gorgeous" "I was never raped!" Despite the roaring heat of the fire slowly crisping his front, Jensen feels cold, pulling himself up even straighter. "Never! Every sexual act I've ever performed was at the behest of my master" "Wait." Jared holds up a hand, ducking his head again. "Wait. Please. Thisisn't how I wanted this to go. Can we start over?" "What for?" Jensen picks up a handful of sand and flings it aimlessly at the fire. "We had sex. It wasn't what either of us thought it was, but we did it and now it's over. I get that you feel bad about it. I don't get why, but I understand you do. So fine. You didn't rape me, but I accept your freaking apology. Okay? Now can we just drop it?" "Uh. Yeah." Jared flaps his hands helplessly, looking strangely small and really freaking young. "Yeah, if that's what you want." "That's what I want," Jensen confirms. "It's not a big deal." He thinks that Jared mutters something along the lines of, "It's a big deal to me," but he's not really sure because Jeff has begged out of the football game and is limping back toward the fire, favoring the same leg that has a thin surgical scar bisecting his knee. "Wuss!" Kane calls after Jeff and then turns around and tackles Zach. Jensen scrambles to his feet but, uncharacteristically, he hesitates a moment, standing over Jared. "Jared" He trails off a minute, not sure how to continue the thought. Then, in a rush, "Jared, you're an okay guy. It was nice with you. I got off. I don't really know what else you want from me, but you need to understand. I'm here because of Jeff. Everything I do, it's because of Jeff. He's my master. He's your master, too. Slaves don't have time to be friends." He doesn't look at Jared's face as he walks past, feet slipping in the sand as he goes to Jeff.

"Hey." Jeff looks tired and, for once, he doesn't resist or protest as Jensen eases under Jeff's arm to support him. "Hey." Jensen matches his pace to Jeff's, glad there's no big inequality in their heights. The informality feels strange on his tongue, but if Jeff's not going to sell him (yet), Jensen has to learn to adapt to what Jeff wants from him. As long as he doesn't forget that it's only thatadaptation. "Do you want to go back to the fire, or up to the house?" Jensen asks. "I was thinking Maybe a massage?" Jeff groans blissfully. "God, that sounds like heaven. Though truthfully, I don't know if I could even stay awake long enough to enjoy it. I'm bushed." House it is. "I don't mind." "I Yeah. Okay. Damn you and your magic hands anyway." Jeff says the words without heat, leaning comfortably against Jensen's side. At the foot of the stairs up to the garden, Jeff catches onto the railing and says casually, "So I saw you and Jared talking." Jensen sorts through his words like a hand of cards, deciding what will make the best play. He settles on a simple, "Yeah." Jeff, like most of the people around like, likes to talk. Give him room to talk and maybe Jensen can get a better idea of what he's looking to hear. "You guys all right?" There's a questioning note to Jeff's voice that goes past idle curiosity. It's not a surprise; Jensen's already tipped to the fact that Jeff seems to care a great deal that they all get along. "Yeah, we're fine." As the darkness enfolds them again, Jensen glances back at Jared. Chad has abandoned Sandy to settle on the log nearest Jared, who's still sitting slump-shouldered in the sand. Chad has one skinny arm around Jared's neck, their heads bent together. It's too far for Jensen to make out any more than that, but he doesn't need to. Jared has his friends. And Jensen has Jeff. Everything is as it should be.

Chapter 26
Bisou's got Jeff on the ground and is enthusiastically licking her wet, drooly love all over his face when Jared clears his throat somewhere above Jeff's head. "Hey, umJeff?" Jeff gives his baby a good scruff before pushing her back and sitting up. She prances around him until he picks up the dusty length of knotted rope and flings it across the grass. Bisou barks once and takes off after it like she's still a puppy. "Hey, Jared, yeah." Jared holds out a hand to him and Jeff takes it, pushing up at the same time Jared pulls, hauling him to his feet. "What's up?" Jared looks down at the ground, shuffle-rocking from foot to foot and jamming his hands down in his front pockets. "It's about Jensen." Bisou comes gamboling back with the rope in her mouth. Jeff leans down to take it from her and she dances back, grinning around the spit-slimed hemp. "He said you guys were all right," Jeff says cautiously, keeping his attention focused on the dog. He snags the trailing end of the rope and tugs. Bisou digs her paws in and tugs in the opposite direction, growling happily. "That not the case?" Jared's laugh sounds strangled. "I suppose that depends on your definition of all right." Jared kicks a stone and it flies off into the distance. Bisou promptly abandons the rope to go chasing after it. Jared turns back to Jeff, squaring his shoulders a little under his blue checked shirt. "I don't really want to talk about me and Jensen, it's not really about that. I just" Jared's face screws up a little bit as he struggles with his words. "I'm worried about him, you know? He's kind of screwed up." It's Jeff's turn to laugh. "Gee, Jared, you think?" Jared shakes his head. "No. I meanyes, I know that you know that. But I think it's a lot worse than we think it is." Bisou comes trotting triumphantly back. She doesn't have the stone Jared kicked; instead, she's sporting a branch big enough that it should rightly be called a sapling. When no one reaches for it, she sets it down equidistant between Jeff and Jared, panting coyly. Jeff ignores her. "What makes you say that?" Jared gets that pinch-faced look again and then he sighs, shoulders dropping. "When we were in Texas, there were these guys at the hotel. Theygrabbed Jensen, said things." Jeff can suddenly actually hear his pulse, rushing in his ear like wind over sand. "What do you mean 'grabbed Jensen'?" Bisou whines, pawing the turf. Jared gives him a look. It's a strangely old look and more cynical than he

usually thinks of, when it comes to Jared. "You know what I mean. It's not the point. The point is" "The point iswhy didn't you tell me about this before?" Jeff can't entirely keep the edge out of his voice or the anger out of his gesture as he snatched up Bisou's fetched stick and flings it out again. He doesn't know whether it's the fact that Jared hid this from him or the idea of random men pawing Jensen. "I don't know!" Jared scrapes through his hair. "JensenJensen was so freaked out about the whole thing and I was freaked out about it and I just I didn't want to make a big deal out of it. Jensen didn't want to make a big deal out of it and I didn't want to go running behind him telling tales like some big, dumb field-hand." Jeff sighs. Getting mad at Jared is a lot like kicking a dogsenseless, cruel and it just makes you feel like shit afterward. Besides, it's not really Jared he's mad at. Not really. "So what happened?" "The hotel manager, he stepped in, broke it up." Jared shifts on his feet again, hand curled around the back of his neck. "It wasn't" Jared breathes out. "It wasn't any big thing. Really. But Jensen" Jeff didn't notice that Bisou had come back until she nudges Jared's leg, whining a little. Jared squats down and throws an arm around her barreled body, scratching his nails through her ruff. It takes him a second to look up at Jeff again, who's fighting not to fidget. "I think Jensen would've gone with them. Ornot gone with them, maybe so much as I don't know he would've fought back. Just to keep the peace." "Christ," Jeff mutters, scrubbing across his face. "I think it's all the same thing to himwhat happened with those guys and whatwhat happened with him and me." Jared squints, blinking hard like the sunlight's too bright. "Do you know what I mean? Likelike that's all there is of him. What other people want him to do." Jeff wishes again that Cate had given him more to go on than a 'wait and see'. Not that he wants her to make any snap judgments about Jensen, before she can get a good feel for where his head's at. But Jensen is so far out of his league and Jeff suspects that every 'helpful' thing he's trying to do for Jensen is just digging them all in deeper. "I just Jensen may not think a whole lot of me, but whether he knows it or not, he's my friend." Jared looks up from his lengthy contemplation of Bisou's swiveling ears and any hint of oldness has gone out of his expression, leaving Jeff with the reminder of how absurdly young Jared really is. "I don't He should know he has the right to say no. Kane says you're sending him to see Cate?" "Yeah." Jeff doesn't know what else to say, his mouth bitter and gluey. "Is she Can she fix him?" It's just a variation on the same question Jeff asked Cate herself and Jeff gives Jared the same answer Cate gave him. "I don't know. We can try."

"I'm just some dumb kid, can't keep his dick in his pants," Jared spits out, sounding half like he's talking to himself. "But " "Jared." The last thing Jeff needs is Jared starting to go down that spiral. His voice comes out sharp, cutting and he hastens to soften it, watching Bisou yawn and shift on her feet anxiously. "That's not true. You know that's not true." "I'm dumb enough that I didn't see what was going on," Jared's eyes are angry, the hazel clashing with the green. "Dumb enough that I fucked him anyway, when everybody told me it was too soon." "Aw, hell, Jared, if you want to play the dumb game, I'm the dumb sonofabitch that let him dangle loose and think that fucking you was part of his job. I'm almost twice your age. If anyone should've known better, it's me." Jeff spreads his hands. "But either one of us standing here and playing the blame game isn't doing anybody any good." "I just want him to know we're the good guys, you know? That he's safe here." Jared looks down at Bisou again, scruffing under her chin and jowls. Jeff tilts his head, hearing a note in Jared's voice that wasn't there before. "That he's safe," Jeff asks slowly, "or that you are, Jaybird?" Jared huffs, mouth turning up in an unwilling smile. "You haven't called me that in years." "As I recall, you didn't like it so much as a prickly teenager." The grin broadens. "Yeah, I was kind of a jerk about it. Sorry about that." "You're not answering the question." Jared shrugs, encouraging Bisou down on her side so he can rub her tummy. "I just keep thinking," Jared says, voice low enough that Jeff steps closer to hear him. "Would that've been me, if my parents hadn't gone to you, if your granddad would've sold me off like he wanted to? Jensen I mean, okay, I'm not dumb. But I don't know anything other than this. And, even with all the other guys I know, it's like he's speaking some whole other language. "You and Kane, you guys taught me all the propaganda so I can give the right answers and stuff, but Jensen I think he really believes it. And that could've been me. If things had gone a little differently. If you hadn't stepped in." Jared glances up and his eyes are too bright to be explained by just the sunshine. "You saved my life. And I justI want someone to do that for Jensen. I want you to do that for him." "Me." It comes out more a flat statement than the question Jeff means it to be. Jared's lips quirk up. "Well, come on now. Which one of us is the master here, Jeff?"

Chapter 27
"So, I expect Jeff quizzed you about the session once you got home," Cate says, as Jensen seats himself in the same chair he occupied before. This time, he's smart enough to perch on the edge straight off. "What did you tell him?" Whatever the expression on his face, it makes Cate laugh and Jensen sits slightly frozen until she's done. "You don't have to look so surprised." She's wearing a fuzzy, v-necked sweater that's ridden up; she tugs it down absently and lets the shed lint trail off her fingertips to the floor. Jensen folds his hands together tightly. "I told Jeff I wasn't going to talk to him about you until I'd had the chance to chat with you some more and he's as nosy as a cat. I figured he'd try and do an end run around me." She tilts her head, curling her hair around her finger. "So what did you say?" Lord Cruise and Lady Kidman had done this at the end, as the end date for their marriage contract loomed and it became increasingly obvious that Lord Cruise was not going to re-sign. Nothing Jensen had said had been right, ping-ponged between the two of them, and just the memory is enough to make his stomach rumble sickly. Keeping his eyes on his folded hands, Jensen says, "I just told him the truth. That you asked me questions and I did my best to answer them. That I tried to please you and I didnt know if I had." "Hmm." Cate taps her cheek with a finger. "Well, let's knock that one out, straight off. There are no right or wrong answers here, Jensen. What I am looking for is information. Information about how you think, how you feel. And the reason that I want that information is to help you find a way to get along better with Jeff, find something that will leave you feeling less confused and him less at sea." Jensen hesitates over whether to correct her or not. He'll have to figure out what the boundaries are sooner or later. "I didn't say I was confused." "No," Cate agrees with a lazy grin, head propped on her hand. "I suppose you didn't." He can tell he's amusing her in some way. In the grand scheme of things, it's better than making her angry. It is a little worrisome, though, that his difficulties with Jeff are so transparent. He's going to have to figure out something about that. It shouldn't seem as though he's anything but a wholeheartedly content extension of Jeff's self. Especially if Jeff follows through on letting Jensen have more responsibility. "I'd be happy to take any instruction you have to offer on how to please Jeff better," Jensen offers finally. That, at least, is no less than the truth. "It pains me a lot to know that I'm not fulfilling my duties satisfactorily. I want to be better. And I'll do whatever it takes."

"Yes, I do believe you will," Cate muses, quiet enough that she could be talking to herself. "Why don't you tell me more about Lord Cruise. You said he was your first master?' "Yes." Jensen feels like that's a completely inadequate way to sum up all that Lord Cruise is and was, but she didn't ask him to elucidate and so he sticks to just a simple affirmative. "Would you say that he was a good master?" Jensen doesn't have to hesitate over that at all, the answer writ large through both training and sentiment. "Oh, yes. Absolutely." "What makes you say that? What do you think are the qualities that made him a good master?" "I." Jensen stutters to a halt, his momentary confidence gushing away. To cover it, he takes a sip of tea. It's different this time, a white tea with a faint pear taste to it. He can answer this. He knows the answers. "Lord Cruisehe taught me. Taught me my place, taught me to be a good slave obedient, biddable, one who strives for excellence. He demanded my best, always." Jensen turns the glass around in his hand, the condensation gathered in the bevels making his hand wet. "And I always gave him my best. I try to give all my masters my best," Jensen hastens to explain. "It's just he was the first. He made me who I am." "You said that last time," Cate observes, shifting her weight and retangling her legs in a new configuration. "It's true." Jensen sets the glass back on the coaster and blots his damp palms on his hips, where it'll be less noticeable, before curling his fingers back around the chair's arms. "He could've sent me to a training school, instead of training me himself, but he didn't. He hired all my tutors, oversaw every part of my education personally. He worked so hard to make me the best, to make me perfect." "And what does that mean to you, 'perfect'?" Jensen has to admire the way Cate lulled him into a false sense of security with her first few questions, getting his words flowing before she bogs him down in impossibilities. Perfect isperfect. No one's ever asked him to define it before, only shown him how far he has to go to achieve it. Perfect has always just beenunderstood. "I should know my master," Jensen says slowly, feeling the words out. The back of his thighs are starting to ache a little from sitting on the chair's edge, but he doesn't fidget, opening himself up to the ache and letting it sharpen his concentration. "I should knowhis likes, his dislikes. What makes him happy. I should know what he wants and make it happen, without having to be asked. I should be available to him at all times, in all ways. I should be an example, both to other slaves and to the world. I should strive to be pleasing in appearance, word and deed. I should love him, but remain unpossessive in my love, because though I am his, he's not mine. I should"

Cate holds up a hand and immediately Jensen quiets. "I think I get the idea, Jensen, thank you." She blows her breath out, eyes widening. "That's a pretty tall order to fulfill. I'm impressed. I had no idea that being a body-slave involved so much." Jensen looks back down at his hands. "You're joking with me." "No." Cate's voice is quiet but unequivocal, tugging his gaze back up to her face. "I'm not." "I apologize." Jensen dips his head on his neck. "I should not have presumed." "It's fine," Cate reassures him. "Nothing worth apologizing about. I haven't had a body-slave in almost twenty years and when I did, they were always adult. I know so little about how you're trained, what's required." She pushes up a little and tucks her feet under her, leaning against the couch's arm. "Were you told right away that you were chosen to be a body-slave?" Jensen nods. He still remembers that first hostel, even down to the musty, pissy smells that permeated the stained walls. It wasn't Escrow not thenbut one of the general holding pens. The ones they put you in when no one wants you, when there's no sale in the works. He remembers Lord Cruise kneeling down to talk to him and seeing the hypnotic blue of his eyes for the first time. "That was why he bought me." "Did you know what it meant? Then? At the time?" "No. He just told me" In truth, Jensen remembers very little of what Lord Cruise said to him. The man had a way of looking at you that made you feel more than a little high, wiping your mind clean of anything but him. "He told me I was pretty and he asked me if I wanted to come home with him." Jensen knows now what an honor it is, that Lord Cruise had chosen him from all the others there. But at the timealready aware that he couldn't go back to his homeJensen probably would've gone home with anyone who offered him a way out of the hostel and been grateful for it. He had been grateful for it. "And what did you think?" "I didn't like the hostel. I wanted to leave." Jensen catches himself shifting in the chair and makes himself still again. "I think" His thumb traces an idle arc on the inside of the chair's arm. Cate tilts her head. "What?" "I think I loved him then. Already. Lord Cruise" "He does have a remarkable presence." Cate smiles, almost as if against her will. "Even for those of us notunder his guardianship."

"I wasn't his ward, I was his slave. It doesn't bother me to hear it. It's what I am. I'm not ashamed." Cate's mouth tucks. "No, you're right. You haven't done anything to be ashamed of. I'm sorry for being such a squeamish Reformer." There's no sting to the words or to the smile she gives him. It strikes Jensen then how much Jeff and his friends smileall the time, meaninglessly and without thought of advantage. He smiles back at her, trying out how it feels. Not that he's never smiled before. But all his smiles are purposeful, pointed. Not guilelessly grinning for the sake of it. "So," Cate says, shaking her hair back. "We've talked about Lord Cruise, I know about Bill Crudup and, of course, there's Jeff. All men. Have you ever had a female owner?" Jensen controls the spasm of his palms, the slight hitch of his breath. "There was Lady Kidman, of course," he answers, his voice measured and calm. "And Lady Cox, later. Before she married Master Arquette." "Really? Why don't we talk about that?"

Chapter 28
"Sleep with him." Jeff almost drops his wine glass. "What?" Cate sits back in her chair and turns slightly sideways, slinging one arm negligently across the back and propping her forehead on her fist. "You wanted my professional opinion. This is it. Sleep with him. Make love to him. Whatever." "Cate. That's not funny." Jeff sets his glass down, pushes his plate away, the pleasant dinner turning sour in his belly. "Do I sound like I'm laughing?" She has her therapist's face on, bland and remote with eyes like lasers. When Jeff's especially pissed at her, he calls it her Muppet face. But only in his head. "I can't do that." The denial is automatic, despite the fact that it doesn't feel like he's thought about a whole lot else since Jensen entered his orbit. For one pornographic second, Jeff swears he can feel his hands dragging down Jensen's body to lodge and hold in the hollows of his hips, where the skin would be smooth and soft and molten hot. "Jeff..." Cate sighs, rolling her head across her hand. "Honestly, I'm not entirely sanguine about making that kind of recommendation on such a short relationship. But you've been bugging me for days now about some kind of diagnosis. This is it. Jensen's entire self-worth is tied up in being a good slave to his master and part of that is servicing him. You." She flicks a hand in his direction. It's true that he's been champing at the bit for this sit-down, desperate for some guidance about what to do for Jensen, how to help him. This justisn't the advice he was expecting. "Sexually servicing me," Jeff reminds her darkly. "You want me to help him get better by making him do the exact same behaviors that made him like this in the first place?" "Jeff." Cate straightens in the chair and covers his hand with hers, mobile with all the restlessness she doesn't show in her face. "Look, I know how it sounds. But you can't just take someone as...damaged as Jensen and say, 'haha you're free now, have fun'." She waves her fingers in sarcastic jazz hands. "First of all, he's not free and he's smart enough to see the lie in what you're telling him." Jeff scratches the back of his neck, glad that Jensen's not here to hear this conversation. "No, I can't manumit him, but I can give him as much freedom as possible until the law changes. I cannot treat him like chattel. I'm trying, Cate. You know..." "Yes. I know." Cate spreads her hands placatingly. "And you know I support you on that. You don't have to tell me that the law is wrong. But

that's not the point. The point is, do you think you're the first person to tell Jensen, 'I won't sell you' or 'I won't hurt you'?" She shrugs and raises her eyebrows, eyeballing him doubtfully. "And it's all been bullshit. They did hurt him. They did sell him. And Jensen's not going to trust you on your say-so just because you think he should be able to see how you're different from every other master he's had." "But I'm not like those guys!" "No," Cate agrees. "You're not." She settles back again, linking her fingers at the knuckles and flexing them contemplatively. "And yet You're still a master, Jeff, an owner." Jeff opens his mouth and she gestures her knotted hands to stop him. "I'm not passing judgment. I may have dispensed with household staff, but I'm still an owner, too. I don't have a moral high ground here. But my point is that you still have the power to hurt him, whether you would or not. And Jensen knows it. Jensen is painfully aware of that, pun intended. Just because we all think you're wonderful, darling, doesn't mean that's apparently obvious to him." Her smile takes any possible sarcasm from the statement. "And so I should fuck him to fix him? Cate." "Okay, stop. Stop right there." She holds up her hand again, averting her face and closing her eyes to show exactly how much she's not listening to him. When he falls silent, she fixes him again with those razor-blue eyes. "Jensen can't be fixed, Jeff. He's not aa thing that you can transplant into a different setting and make it go with your decidedly bohemian decor. He's a person. A deeply damaged person who needs his master's approval and care to maintain his integrity." "I care!" Jeff jerks back in his chair, stung. "God, I care enough not to rape him just because he's the hottest piece of ass I've seen in decades. Doesn't that count for anything?" "Not to Jensen," Cate replies, with her same, infuriating aplomb. "For Jensen to be secure, for him to be happy, for him to feel safeor safeer, at any ratehe needs to believe that he's pleasing you...and part of that a big partis sexual. You not taking him...Jensen only interprets that as he's unpleasing to you in some way. Not good enough. His value is tied up in being wanted, desiredfucked." "Okay, but he's only like that because they made him like thatthat fucking pedophile Cruise and the others. He wouldn't be like that if it wasn't for them." "One, you don't know that for certain. None of us does. Two, even if that is true, even if that is why Jeff, it doesn't matter. Jensen is wired this way. And he's a bloody goddamn person. Which means he can't just be unwired. You canwe canonly deal with him as he is. "Now, you can spend your time whinging and wringing your hands about the whole thing or you can get off your arse and take responsibility for your slave. Take responsibility for the damage that's been done to that boy by giving him what he needs. Because it's not about you, Jeff. It's about Jensen. This is what he needs from you. And if you can't give it to

him, if you won't, then you owe it to him to find someone else who will." "Cate" He doesn't want to think about the way his stomach clenches up at the thought of selling Jensen to someone else, so he glosses past it, still hung up in the argument. "No, listen to me, Jeff. You asked me to consult with him. I did. And what I am telling you, in my professional expertise, is that if you don't give Jensen some unequivocal evidence that you give a damn and some direction, he is going to keep assuming that he needs to work harder to intuit your wishes better. Which leads to things like sleeping with Jared because it's 'what you want'. God, Jeff, you didn't even go to his Closing." Jeff's face heats up. "Ihad things to do. And I thought" "You thought he'd be just as glad to be spared your attentions," Cate finishes dryly. "Yeah, Jeff, got it. AndI'm not criticizing. Exactly. But you have to look at it from his point of view. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Jensen has absolutely no sense of self-identity outside his function as a slave. He doesn't need you to be his friend, Jeff, as much as you'd prefer that to be the case. He needs you to be his master. He needs a master." Jeff hides his face in his hands though he can feel his blush burning its way down his neck like a short fuse. "I get it, Cate, okay? Iget it. I fucked up. I fucked up royally. Fine. I just Fucking him?" Jeff's voice comes out a little squeaky on the last word and he takes a deep swallow of his wine, clearing his throat. "That's what every single one of them's done to him. I don't And you want me to feed into that? God, Cate, I wanted your help to make him well." "And I can do that," Cate answers, the steel in her tone flexible and sharp as an epee. "But it's not something that can be done overnight. It's going to take months, or years. If it ever happens. And it won't be like you want, Jeff. Jensen's never going to be Kane. And in the meantime, he needs to know that you give a damn. He needs to know that he'sgood enough to be fucked, God help him." Jeff is quiet, his teeth thoughtfully raking through the bit of beard just under his lip. Finally, in a voice whose quietness shocks even him, he says, "I don't want to be that guy." "Tough." Cate's voice gives him no quarter and neither does her expression. "Because 'that guy' is exactly who Jensen needs you to be." She leans forward in the chair and takes his hand again, sandwiching it between both her own. "Jeff, when you don't give him any instruction or guidance, he doesn't know what to do in all that space. It frightens him. He doesn't feel grateful, he feels useless. No one wants to feel useless, but for himfor a slaveuseless might as well be a death sentence. The only freedom he sees in that is the freedom to fuck up and end up sold again...or worse." Jeff doesn't want to think about worse. There are laws that are supposed to protect the treatment of slaves, but any law is only as good as its enforcement and what slave is going to come forward to blow this

whistle on his or her master? When judgment against the complainant means being sent back to that same master who now has an axe to grind? Even what Crudup had done to Jensenstarving him to fit some twisted aesthetic, beating himisn't even the worst thing Jeff's ever heard of. Possibly, it isn't the worst that's even ever been done to Jensen. Certainly he seemed shocked when Jeff had referred to Crudup as 'an abusive asshole'. "Master Crudup was always very generous to me," Jensen had said, eyelashes lowered to hide what went on in his eyes. Jensen is very good at that. "Are you hearing me, Jeff?" "Yeah," he says slowly, unwillingly. "I hear you." "You know, being told to make love to a beautiful young man that you already care a great deal for is hardly a death sentence, Jeff. Don't look so morose." Jeff made a face but he couldn't help the small chuckle. "I'm really fucked up, aren't I?" Cate laughs. He loves her laugh, full-throated and not at all girlish. "Yeah, but Jensen is too, so it's a good match."

Chapter 29
"You get used to them staring after a while." Jensen glances around the crowded dining room again, briefly, not directly meeting any of the eyes around the room watching them. Rationally, Jensen knows that all the quiet conversations going on in the room are not about themtwo slaves having dinner together, unsupervisedbut the skin on the back of his neck seems to feel differently, tight and stippled with goose bumps. "If you say so," Jensen answers, cutting another paper thin slice from his steak. He would've rather had something less heavy, but Kane had ordered for both of them like this was a date. We're not doing anything wrong, Jensen reminds himself, fighting the urge to look around again. For all they know, we're negotiating business for our masters. It's the awareness that they're not on any business of Jeff's that makes him so prickly. They're on no business but their own, though Jensen expects that Jeff knows about their outing while he's off having his own dinner with Cate. He wonders if they're talking about him. It feels presumptuous to think that, to think he's interesting or important enough to be a topic of conversation among his betters. On the other hand, Jeff's been almost visibly chafing to hear what Cate has to say about him and Cate has been enjoying deflecting him way too much. Jensen's just grateful that, after that first inquiry, Jeff's left him out of it. He does wish he had some way of hearing what Cate says, though. "We could've just eaten at the house," Jensen observes, calculating calories in his head. He really should've overruled Chris and ordered the fish. "Sam was making pie." Jensen's lived in homes with wonderful, enormously talented chefs and bakers, ones that would be world-famous if they were free. Not a single one of them would've sullied their hands with anything so common as a pie. Jensen's had any number of tortes, tarts, ganaches, brulees and pastries and has come to the conclusion that all those other bakers don't know what they're missing. He doesn't even mind the extra exercise to work it off, afterward. "I told her to put some aside for me," Kane answers throuh a mouthful of meat. He swallows and then smirks crookedly. "Guess you're just shit out of luck, though, huh?" Jensen sets his silverware down on either side of his plate, exactly parallel. Of all the slaves, Kane is probably Jeff's closest confidante and

the greatest threat to Jensen's position, simply by virtue of the trust Jeff places in Kane's words. Antagonizing him is the height of stupidity but Jensen can't help the observation, "You don't like me very much." Kane stops with another mouthful of bloody steak halfway to his lips. "Aw, you're all right." He shrugs, putting the laden fork down. "Just...took too much of that brainwashing to heart. Gives me the heebies." It's not the first time Jensen's heart the sentiment. Given the crowd Jeff runs with, he's amazed it's taken this long for someone to say the words to him. "I'm thirty years old, alive, with all my parts and the body-slave of some of the most powerful people in the Empire." Jensen doesn't infuse the words with any of the dancing heat of his ire, keeping them only flat and factual. "I think I do all right." "Whoa, there, little dog." Kane looks more amused by Jensen's outburst than anything. "No need to go yapping. We're on the same side, here." "Nobody's on my side." The statement comes out balder than Jensen means it to, a naked and ugly edge to his tone. He amends, "I don't have a side." Kane's smirk goes full-fledged, turning into a close-lipped smile. "We all have sides." "Why did you bring me here?" "What, you don't like it?" Kane looks around wide-eyed like he's shocked or insulted that Jensen might find fault. "It's my favorite restaurant." "I thought you looked more like the IHOP type." "Well, I definitely don't have your refined taste." Kane dips his head in mocking acknowledgement. "But I still like the taste of a good steak." He picks up his fork and bites off the tidbit of meat with surprising daintiness. "Didn't get too many of these before Jeff took me in." And suddenly, the opening that Jensen's been waiting for all this time. "How long has that been?" Jensen asks casually, looking down and stabbing at the broccolini he doesn't really want. He doesn't really expect Kane to answerespecially after their last few exchanges, but Kane just looks thoughtful for a moment before he allows, "Coming on fifteen years now. Huh." Kane takes a huge swallow of his winewhich is not that great, but still deserves betterbefore he grumbles, "Shit, I'm getting old." Kane's only a few years older than Jensen but Jensen knows what Kane means. They are old for slaves, body-slaves in particular. "It's a long time," Jensen says. He abandons his uneaten broccolini and and takes a small sip of the wine, rolling it across his tongue as he tries to unravel how best to find out what he wants to know. It would help if he knew what he wanted to know, other than the

obvious: How do I make Jeff want me? "Is that normal?" Jensen asks instead. "It seems like everyone but me has known Jeff forever. I didn't expect that." "Yeah, Jeff never gets rid of anybody. Even the people he probably should." "Like me." "I was thinking more about Mary-Louise, actually, but yeah. Could be you, too." "Because I'm brainwashed." The words are bitter on Jensen's tongue, but he knows how to say all manner of things that taste bad in his mouth. Kane tugs at the cuff of his sleeve and then sits back in his chair, regarding Jensen flatly from behind his glasses. "Because you're a distraction." Jensen drops his gaze to the table, pinching the wineglass stem between his fingers. "I don't want to be. If he would just..." "Just what?" Kane's eyebrows arch over the bar of his glasses. "Fuck you? Preaching to the choir here, son. But I don't know if anything's going to break through that block of his to let him touch you." For a moment, Kane looks and sounds as frustrated as Jensen feels. "I told him he should sell me." Kane hehs like Jensen's actually surprised him. "Did you, now? How did that go over?" Jensen shrugs. "Like you'd think. He says he doesn't want to sell me." "He won't, you know. That's not just owner bullshit. As long as I've been with him, he'snever sold a slave that didn't want to be sold." Kane lifts his fingers from the chair's arms and lets them fall again. "Do you want to be sold?" "I don't know how to answer that." "Sure you do." Kane gestures to the waiter who nods in understanding without a word being exchanged. Guess he was telling the truth about it being his favorite restaurant. "Do. You. Want. To. Be. Sold?" "You just said that Jeff won't sell me." "Unless you want to be sold," Kane corrects and then shrugs. "You say the word and I'll talk to Jeff about it." "Why would you do that?" A thought occurs to Jensen. "You were his body-slave before...do you want him? Still?" Even saying the words, Jensen has a hard time believing its true. Kane is possessive of Jeff, but it's more in the wolf-pack sort of way than the jealous ugliness Jensen would expect if Kane was still in love with Jeff. The body language, the way they talk to each other...it's all wrong.

Jensen's borne out in the way Kane chokes his way into a chuckle, sweeping his glasses off to pinch the bridge of his nose. "That was out of line," Jensen says dully. The waiter comes to the table with a small snifter of brandy for Kane and starts clearing the table. Jensen folds his hands in his lap. "I shouldn't have said that." He waits until the waitercollared but still a strangermoves away from the table before he lowers his voice to add, "It's just that on the backstairs...there's no information about Jeff. Just to ask you." Jensen doesn't expect the heaviness of Kane's sigh. "Shoulda talked about this a while ago," he says, swirling the brandy around. Jensen thinks it's just a copying gesture, because Kane's swishing it way too fast and too hard and not looking at the brandy's lights at all. It was Master Huttonthen Lordwho'd taught Jensen about the finer points of alcohol consumption...not that Master Hutton had cared much what he drank by the end. "With the way Jeff's burning up for you, I just didn't think you'd be around long enough for it to matter." Kane's gaze pins Jensen, the wolf behind his aw, shucks demeanor. "Thought he'd either fuck you and send you to one of the other houses or just send you on, period, eaten up with his goddamn guilt." "Is that what happened with Mary-Louise?" "Ha. No. No, Mary-Louise got everything she wanted out of Jeff, and then some. You..." Kane cants his head. "I still can't figure out what the hell you want, headcase." Jensen digs his thumbnail into the pinky finger of the opposite hand. "I just want to be good at my job." Kane doesn't say anything for a long moment, just staring Jensen down. Finally, he takes an impatient mouthful of the brandy, mouth twisting. "Me and Jeff, we've got a history. Hell, it's the reason he bought me in the first place, when he found out that Lady Roberts had me. He'd been looking for me for four years." "I don't understand." "Quit yapping at me and I'll tell you the fucking story." Jensen can't tell if Kane's angry with him or just in general but either way, he shuts up. "You've had some real pieces of work as your owners...any of them ever share you around?" "Yeah." That had been Lord Tarantino, making up what he lacked in good looks and good taste with his extravagance and wild parties. Jensen had been glad when Tarantino had traded him for two slave girls, Rose and Uma, and he skips over the memories in his mind as much as possible. Kane makes a there you go gesture with his hands.

"Jeff loaned you out?" Jensen has a hard time reconciling that with the same man who lets his body-slave cut him with a razor without reprisal. "Nah." Kane shakes his head. "Lordwell, then LordZane was my owner. It was his party. Jeff was just a guest." Kane sighs again, skimming his hair back from his face. "I dunno, man. They doped me up, tied me down... I was the party favor. You know how it goes." Yeah. Jensen does know. Kane rolls his eyes and shoulders. "I don't know," he says again. "It was this big pivotal moment for Jeff. Fucked up his whole understanding. Like I said, he spent the next four years looking for me. Spent a fortune. Only slave he's spent more on would be you." Kane's smile is thin-lipped and ironic. "And that's why. Why he won't fuck me." "It's a reason. Once Jeff started beating himself up he couldn't stop. Honestly dont know if he'll ever stop. But yeah. He won't fuck you. He doesn't trust himself with you." "I'm not made out of glass." Jensen knows that Jeff's an eccentric guy, but what Kane's telling him...it's just crazy. "I'm not... I can take it." "Not a question of taking it. Not with Jeff." The ball of Kane's thumb idly caresses the bell of the snifter. "Then what is a question of?" Kane looks thoughtful, smoothing the earpiece of his glasses across his lips. "Dunno, really. I don't pretend to get all of Jeff's freaky moral stances. Half the reason I think he wants slavery abolished is so that he doesn't have to worry about the burdens of owning people. On the other hand, if that's what it took to light a fire under his ass, I'm not gonna get too bent out of shape about some fuckery that was going to happen anyway, whether it'd been Jeff or someone else." Kane's voice is smooth, so smootha slave's voicebut the pinch of his crow's feet show Kane's not as unconcerned as he sounds. Jensen intimately understands that too. "He bought my contract, took me in and gave me as much freedom as a man like me can have in this world. He'd do the same for you, if you'd let him." "I don't want to pretend I'm free." Jensen flexes his shoulders subtly, feeling the collar shift across his clavicles. "I wouldn't know how to be free. I'd be shitty at it. I'm a damn good slave." "That you are," Kane agrees, colorlessly enough that Jensen doesn't know if Kane's insulting him or not. It doesn't really matter. "The question still stands, though...do you want to be sold?" Jensen considers the question. Other than Master Kilmerwho'd had pretensions to being called 'Lord', but never quite made itJensen's never been sold in less than a year, and with Kilmer, it was still something of a standing record that Jensen had lasted as long as he

had. Slaves who are traded too often get a certain reputation. Jensen can hear it now: "Paid far too much for him and then found out he wasn't worth it, after all, like a feagued up pony. A rumor like that might cause Jeff a little embarrassment, but for Jensen it held much more dire consequences. Jensen reckons he's still too valuable to end up in one of the slave killer jobs but there's still a more torturous jobs between bodyslave and toxic-waste or medical test subject. Jeff probably wouldn't sell Jensen into one of those jobs; he'd try to find Jensen a nice, suitably liberal owner. But after that? Then what? Most of Jeff's coterie of slaves, the ones he regards as his friends, are all Jensen's age or older. And Kane says Jeff wants him. He doesn't dare think of Jeff's estate as home yet, or safety but maybe he can think of it as...breathing room. Yes. Breathing room. Until he can figure out how to get Jeff to fuck him, need him, love him. As a slave. "No." Jensen shakes his head. "I don't want to be sold. I want to stay." "All right." Kane smirks again, but it's marginally warmer than previous. "Then you're stuck with us. And I guess we're stuck with you."

Chapter 30
Jensen is only about halfway through the slice of peach cobbler that Sam saved for himunsolicited: ha, take that, Kanewhen he hears Jeff's car come up the drive. Though his instinct is to leap up and go to the garage to open Jeff's door for him, Jeff's been clear about not wanting Jensen to trail after his every move. Sofoot jitteringhe forces himself to eat two more precise bites of pie before he lets himself get up from the table and go into the kitchen, plate in hand. Jeff is just coming in as Jensen does, allowing Jensen to make it look accidental, artless. Oops, what are you doing home? "Hey." Jeff smiles at him, but it's absent-minded and mostly turned inward. Jensen bites down on the sir that rises to his mouth, setting the saucer of half-eaten pie down on the counter. "Hi." He fidgets with the fork for a moment, then offers, "May I make you a drink?" "Nah." Jeff shakes his head. "I think a drink would just put me on my ass and I was hoping we could have a talk." He looks down at the counter, at Jensen's hands framing the saucer. "Is that Sam's pie?" His voice lilts hopefully. "She said she didn't save you any, but I saw her hide a piece in the crisper drawer." Jensen is pretty proud of how level his voice remains, despite the way his stomach clenches and his chest gets hot at Jeff's words. "If you're not going to eat it, I'll just finish yours. No point in good pie going to waste." Jeff looks hopefully at Jensen, who pushes his plate across the granite. Jeff's faint smile brightens, deepening his dimples and he pulls one of the stools out from under the breakfast bar to straddle it. "You sure?" "No, I was done. I was going to make some tea," Jensen lies. "Do you want some? Or coffee?" "Tea would be great." Jeff forks up a mouthful of pie, closing his eyes and moaning orgasmically around it. "God, Sam makes a great fuckin' pie." She really does. Peaches still sweet on his tongue, Jensen fills the round, brass kettle and sets it on the burner. The cabinet to the right of the stove hood is filled with dozens of boxes and bags of tea, loose and bagged. Jensen loves the smell of it, inhaling deeply and filling his lungs with the combined perfume of herbs and fruits. "You said you wanted to talk?" Jensen asks, hands shaking a little as he decides on an African red tea flavored with apricot. "What kind of tea do you want?" "Surprise me." Jeff has a bad habit of talking with his mouth full, but Jensen's getting better at deciphering his meaning.

The rooibos should be a good choice for Jeff too; its sweetness will compliment the pie without throwing off the flavor and the lack of caffeine means that Jeff will be able to sleep, when their talk is over. He gets down two mugsmismatched, like the majority of Jeff's dishesand drops the bags into them before turning back to face Jeff, damp palms smoothing down his thighs. Jeff waves Jensen over, mouth still full of pie and crumbs at the corners of his lips. "Water'll take a while. Come on. Sit down." Jensen tugs out another stool and settles carefully on the padded leather, resting his hands deliberately on his thighs. "So." Jeff licks some peach filling off the tines of the fork. "Cate wants me to have sex with you." Finally! Jensen's breath sighs out of him and he starts to sag a little before catching himself. For obvious reasons, he hadn't been sure Cate would follow through with her promises to help him or that her idea of help would be anything like his own. Jensen gets to his feet and starts to unbutton his shirt with one hand and his pants with the other. It's almost comical how fast Jeff's eyes go wide, one hand flinging out. "Wait! No, I didn't" He covers his face. "I didn't mean right now." Jensen doesn't blush easily, but he feels one heat his face now at his own blind stupidity. He'd been so eager for Jeff to take him, but of course Jeff wouldn't do it here, in the kitchen. Such a whore. Such a pretty little whore. You were made for this, weren't you, Jensen? "No, of course not." Jensen's throat feels both hot and tight, words choking up from inside. "I'm sorry. It was foolish of me to think otherwise." Jeff lifts his face from his hand and reaches for Jensen, framing Jensen's face between his hands. "Jensen" Jeff's voice deepens, sounding raw. "I want you, all right? I need you to stop thinking that any of this is because I don't want you, because I do." Jensen can barely hear Jeff over the rushing in his ears as Jeff's thumbs sweep his cheekbones, hot and cold stinging his skin in shivery cascades. He knew Jeff wanted him, but to hear it, to have Jeff say it and touch him Jeff drags in a thickened breath and Jensen sways in his grip as though all the air's been sucked out of him. "I can't" Jeff shakes his head. "I don't Is that what you even want?" "Yes." There's no doubt in Jensen as he says itnot in his voice, not in any molecule of his body, yearning toward those hands on his face and the body they're attached to.

"Jensen" Jeff says again, sounding less raw this time but more confused. He pushes Jensen back, pushes him onto the stool again. "Okay. Okay. Let me tell you what I want." Jeff reseats himself on his own stool, rubbing his palms along his thighs. "I want" Jeff sighs. "Cate thinks we should have sex. That that's what you want" I do. It's out of the question for Jensen to interrupt, as much as he wants to. Not that he thinks Jeff would mind. It's hard, and Jensen still feels like he's feeling his way across that ballroom floor, but he's not dumb. He does understand that Jeff is differentmore permissivethan his other masters. It just doesn't mean he can afford to get into bad habits. Jeff might not want to sell himMaster Hutton hadn't wanted to, or Master Crowe, stripped of honorifics and slaves alikebut that doesn't mean Jensen won't find his pert ass parked back in Escrow, regardless. I want it, pleaselet me show you "but I don't know if I can do that. I don't know" Jeff's hands lift briefly, helplessly, then flop back down. "I want a lover, not a slave, not someone who doesn't or won't or can't tell me no. I want someone who says yes because it's what they want and not because it's their job. Do you understand?" "I. Yes? Sort of?" Jensen scratches at his trousers, not wanting to meet Jeff's eyes. This had started out so well. And nowwhat? It seems like they're right back where they started. "But" Jensen's mouth snaps shut as he realizes he's about to argue with Jeff. "Never mind." "No." Jeff leans forward to brush his fingertips over Jensen's wrist, beading Jensen's skin in goose flesh. "That's another thing we need to talk about. I will do my best to be the master you need. But there are certain things I need from you, so that I can help give you what you need. A big part of that is honesty." Jeff hooks his fingers together between his knees. "I don't expect you to tell me everything, okay? I know" Jeff shakes his head enigmatically. "Nobody tells everything. But when you don't understand something I've said, if I'm confusing you, if you think I'm wrong about somethingI need you to let me know. When and if we have sex" Jensen's head jerks up, that strange hopefulness surging up in his chest again. "I need you toto be with me, to tell me what's going on with you, how you feel, if I hurt you, what you like. I need to know where you are in that gorgeous head of yours. Because I don't trust myself with you. To be good to you." You don't have to be good to me. Jensen bites back the words, using the moment to refasten his pants instead. Head down, he says instead, "I just don't understand why I can't want something that's also my job. I don't understand why it's wrong." Jeff makes a garbled noise. "It's not wrong, Jensen." He slides from the stool again and puts his hands on Jensen's shoulders, strong fingers

kneading slightly. "But you were taught that your body isn't your own, that it's okay for someone else to use it when and how they like. If I sleep with Ever" Jensen doesn't mean to, but at the reminder, he stiffens. Just a little, but not so little that Jeff can miss it when they're so close. God, they're so close Jeff makes the same inarticulate noise and slides a thumb under Jensen's jaw urging his face up so they're eye to eye. Jeff looks tired, the lines around his eyes dug deep and his beard stippling his cheeks and chin in salt and pepper. Jensen remembers Jeff kissing him, what Jeff's mouth felt like against his own, how dizzy he'd felt. Jeff wants me. "If I sleep with Ever," Jeff says again, more gently, "I know it's because she wants to, because she enjoys it, because she's choosing me. If I sleep with you You would give your body to me because I paid for it. Because I hold your contract." It's true. Of course, it's true. But Jensen hates the way that Jeff makes it seem like that's all it is, like it's so fucking meaningless. "I'm a good slave," Jensen says, carefully erasing any of his irritation from his tone, keeping his eyes soft, liquid. "I would be proud to serve you, in your bed or out of it. But I can't ask you to do something you don't want. That that's not good service." "And God forbid you don't give good service," Jeff says, a smile curling his lips and warming his words. Jeff shakes his head. "Jesus Christ, Jensen. I don't know what to do with you." "Whatever you want." Jeff's grin crimps on the side, turning it crooked. "Yeah. I get that." Jeff's thumb creeps up to brush the bare skin above Jensen's shirt collar, making Jensen shiver and heat sear through his skin. "Do youuh. Do you masturbate?" The quiet intimacy of Jeff's breaks a little and his eyes squinch tight at the question. "No!" Jensen can't help the way his eyes widen or the sharpness of his voice. The horror is visceral, his palms stinging at the very suggestion. "No, I never have." Jensen struggles to modulate his voice back to normal, fix his face. "I would neverpresume." Jensen struggles with his words, feeling like it's not enough. "It would be wrong," he adds. "Christ," Jeff says again, rust gritting through his voice. "I must have been a real shit in a former life." He shakes his head, curling one hand around the back of Jensen's neck and giving a gentle tug. "All right, Jensen, let's try something new. Turn the water off. Come upstairs with me. Let's go to bed."

Chapter 31
"Taketake your clothes off. Lie on the bed." Jeff's tongue is sticking to the roof of his mouth and he thinks this might be one of the dumbest ideas he's ever had. He can hear the Devil's Chorus of Kane, Zach and Jeremy laughing and catcalling at him now. It makes his stomach feel both hollow and hot when he watches the readiness with which Jensen obeys him, stripping out of his shirt and slacks with an unthinking casualnessbordering on eagernessthat brings home everything Cate was trying to tell him so fucking keenly it cuts. There's an armchair near the window. When Mary-Louise was here, Jeff would wake up most mornings and find her in it, staring out at the grounds. Before Mary-Louise, it had been his, where he spent way too many late nights drowsing over books or papers. After tonight, Jeff doesn't know if he's ever going to be able to think of it as anything but Jensen's chair. Jeff pulls the chair closer to the foot of the bed with sweaty hands, adjusting and readjusting it until he hears the coverlet and mattress whisper under Jensen's weight. He realizes his mistake when he turns around and sees Jensen spread naked across the duvet. He likes the lights to be very warm-hued. Where it touches Jensen's stubbornly pale, freckled skin, it washes him in gold, gilds the sharp spikes of his hair and eyelashes. It's not that Jeff's never noticed that Jensen's body is waxed clean, but there's a difference between trying to ignore Jensen's naked body in the bed or bathroom and having it out on display for his view and approval. "Do you know how beautiful you are?" Jeff doesn't mean to say the words but they come tumbling out of him anyway, thick and raw at the same time. "I mean, hell, Jensen. Man could be happy just looking at you." Jensen's eyes flick up, huge and so ridiculously young. "Is that what you want?" Jeff would be hard-pressed to explain exactly what Jensen does with his body, but suddenly he's no longer lying so much as posing, legs spread just wide enough to draw attention to his cock, flushed and halfhard. "Just to look at me?" "I. No, not exactly." Be his master, Cate had said. Give him guidance. Direction. Jeff plants his ass in the chair before the temptation to touch Jensen gets to be too much. "Movemove to the center of the bed more." Jensen shifts without argument, angling for a better view from the chair. Jeff's throat is so dry it aches. "That's good, Jensen. Great." Jeff had thought about this all the way home. Not this this, but the logistics of accommodating Jensen's fucked-up psyche without turning himself into the monster he worries he is. It'd seemed so much simpler in

the car. "Now touch yourself." "Sir?" Sir. Jesus. "Youryour cock, Jensen," Jeff says. It comes out faintly and he wishes he'd thought to make tea after all, because he doesn't know how he's going to get through this without something to drink. Though scotch might do him one better. "I want you to touch your cock, stroke it." Jensen's eyebrows furrow down slightly, but he immediately works his cock, a brisk and businesslike rub designed to bring him to hardness more than give him any pleasure. Jeff pinches the bridge of his nose, addressing a prayer to whatever cruel bastard gods decided this would be funny. "No, Jensen, wait." Jeff sighs and lets his hand fall. "You've really never masturbated? Ever?" Jensen shakes his head. "No." "Not even for one of your masters?" Jeff's voice gets a little squeaky with incredulity. He takes a deep breath and settles back deeper into the chair. Jensen's eyes darken and he wets his lips briefly with his tongue. "I. No. None of them ever wanted that of me." Jensen's mouth crooks briefly as he catches his bottom lip in his teeth before offering, "I'm sorry." No, of course they didn't. Why spend time watching a slave pleasure himself when his job is to pleasure you. The thin, brittle heat Jeff feels every time they talk about one of Jensen's previous masters washes through him like a sickness and Jeff waves his hand. "No, don't be sorry, Jensen, it's okay. It's fine. It's just It's not a race." Jeff is not a stupid guy. He's not. Not a stupid guy. So how is it that dealing with Jensen has a way of reducing him to drooling idiocy? "Okay. Here's what I want you to do. Get comfortable. Don't worry about posing for me or looking good. Justfind where you're comfortable and relaxed. Believe me, I'm going to enjoy this no matter what, all right?" "All right," Jensen agrees, eyelids and lashes sweeping down. "And Jensen?" "Yes?" "You're doing great, okay? We just have to get used to each other. That's all." Jensen's breath huffs out softly, but when he resettles on the duvet, he does look looser-limbed, more relaxed.

"Great." Jeff's voice rasps over the one word and he has to clear his throat, fingers working the skin-smoothed leather under his arms. He imagines it's not nearly as soft or resilient as Jensen's skin. "Now close your eyes. I don't want you to look at me. Just listen to the sound of my voice." Jensen lets his head fall back onto the pillow and shuts his eyes, an abandoned pose that sears all the way down into Jeff's cock like there's lava in his veins instead of blood. Jeff's still fully clothedexcept for his bare feetand his cock aches dully, trapped under taut denim. When he shifts in the chair, the creak of the leather seems deafening. "All right. Now, let'slet's not focus on just your dick for a minute. What do you think about, when you make yourself hard?" "I don't think about anything." Jensen looks almost like he's sleeping but his voice is perfectly clear. "I just think about getting hard." Again, Jensen's eyebrows flex a little, a pin-thin line appearing between them and he adds, "I think I know what you mean, though." Jensen's short, manicured fingernails scratch up the thick muscle of his thighs, leaving faint and quickly fading pink furrows. Jeff wishes he could watch all of Jensen at once; the flushed points of Jensen's nipples, the heavy and lengthening weight of his cockand doesn't Jeff's whole mouth water to wrap his lips around it, taste the milky bead of wetness dewing the slit? As Jensen traces the lines of his muscles, a gloss of sweat breaks out across his skin, turning the gold wash of the light into an almost-glow. Jensen's lips part as his breath rushes slightly faster, the tender-looking skin of his eyelids flinching. "That" Jeff swallows, grinding his ass deeper in the chair against the temptation of going to the bed, flipping Jensen onto his belly and rimming him until Jensen's incoherent and limp. "That's great, Jensen. That'sGod, that's beautiful. You're beautiful." Jensen's head jerks on the pillow like he wants to turn his face away and only catches himself at the last moment. Jensen looks at himself as a tool, Jeff. Something to be used. To be useful. So do it kindly, do it mindfully, but make use of him. "Now wrap your fingers around your dick and stroke nice and slow. Take your time. I want you to make it feel good." Jeff is going to hell. He is so going to hell. Even so, he thinks it might be worth it, to watch Jensen jerk himself off and hear the quiet, gasping moans he makes as he does it. "You can make noise if you want to." Jeff quietly slips the button on his jeans and eases down the zipper. Not because he's going to do anything, mind, but if he doesn't get some breathing room, he's going to be permanently deformed. "I like hearing you. Like watching you. Fuckin' gorgeous."

Jensen makes a thick, stifled noise in his throat, hips bucking up into his own slow-moving hand. There's not much more pre-come than that fat little droplet that Jeff wants to lick away, but Jensen's cock surges full and dark against wellkept fingers. Even Jensen's fingers are freckled. "How does it feel?" Jeff shifts his hand from the chair's arm to his thigh, rubbing restlessly back and forth, needing both the sensation and the distraction. "G-good." Jensen's face turns toward the sound of Jeff's voice but his eyes don't open, breath catching over the one word. "I like I don't Are you going to fuck me?" I want to. Sweet Jesus and the whole choir of angels, I want to. "Not yet." A trickle of sweat tickles down behind Jeff's ear. "I just want to see you, first. I want to know what makes you feel good. Show me what makes you feel good." Jensen makes another strangled noise, writhing against the blanket. "I don't I never" "Talk to me, Jensen." Jeff's toes curl into the pile of the carpet, hips lifting from the chair in faint echo of Jensen's flexing hips. There's wetness pooled in Jensen's navel, too, like a jewel. Jeff's mouth burns for the salt taste of it, imagines the furl of skin against the tip of his tongue, rough and smooth at the same time. "What do you like? Jensen's hand is moving faster over his shaft, rougher. "I like being fucked," Jensen admits, gasping. "I wish I thinkI think about you," he says in a rush, as though he's afraid of being punished for the words. "M-master. Fucking me." Dull red creeps up underneath the gold Jensen is close and Jensen is blushing and Jeff doesn't think he's ever seen anything hotter. "I like being fucked," Jensen repeats in a whisper, as if he's talking to himself. The words stretch out into a spiraling moan and Jensen arches up, grinding his head in the pillow. Through a mouth dry as the desert, Jeff says, "You can come if you want to, Jensen. You don't You can come if you want to." Jensen groans and shakes his head. "Can't." Jensen's tongue wets his upper lip before he bites into the bottom one. "I I'm a good slave, trained. I can't. Not unless." Jensen's thumb slips across his slit and he dissolves into gasps again, shuddering. "Please, sirJeff. Jeff." Brain-numbed by the living pornography in front of him, it takes Jeff several seconds to understand what Jensen means, what he needs. He's heard of owners who train their slaves to only respond to their masters' touch, but he'd always dismissed it as bullshit since he'd never come across a slaveor met anyone who'd come across a slaveso trained. So going to hell, Jeff thinks, pushing himself stiffly out of the chair. He's surprised at how much he aches, thighs shaky from holding himself so rigidly. It's only a few steps to the bed, though, seating himself carefully

if not quite virtuouslynext to Jensen's shoulder. Jensen moans and squirms closer, turning his face into Jeff's thigh. Jensen's hair is so short, but Jeff does his best to thread his fingers through the soaked strands anyway, feeling the rising heat of Jensen's body, the heavy, curving delicacy of his skull. The desiretemptationto slip his fingers down and touch that smooth, fever-hot skin is dizzying, overwhelming. Jeff keeps his fingers where they are. "It's all right, sweetheart," Jeff murmurs, smoothing his thumb across the prickle-soft down above Jensen's ear. "You can come. Come on, now." Jensen half-rolls into Jeff, squishing his face in the non-space between Jeff's thigh and the pillow, throwing one arm over Jeff's leg. Jeff feels Jensen's breath panting, hot and damp, through his jeans as Jensen ruts himself toward orgasm. Jeff closes his eyes, letting himself only focus on the slow stroke of his thumb across the sin-soft skin behind Jensen's ear. "Yeah, that's good. Like that. Come on." Jensen grunts, arm tightening around Jeff's thigh as he first stiffens and then shudders, choking it out against Jeff's leg. Jeff lets his hand slink lower, stroking Jensen's neck, his broad shoulders, the hot, sweaty hollow between Jensen's shoulder blades. "My boy." It shouldn't feel like this, Jeff thinks, a sharp ache in his chest as he soothes Jensen through it and down. It shouldn't be like this. As if she were there, a demon on his shoulder, Jeff hears Cate's voice: But this is how it is. Jeff opens his eyes and looks down at Jensen, at his own arm curled protectively around Jensen's head and shoulders. He wants to be detached, to make it mean nothinga duty, a jobbut instead there's just this searing tangle that he doesn't know how to cut away from. It does mean something. Jensen means something. And he deserves a lot better than Jeff. Deserves a lot better than any of this. But this is what Jensen wants. And what Jensen wants, Jeff wants to give it to him. "That's my boy." Jeff strums down Jensen's vertebraeso much less knobby than they were, and as spattered with freckles as the rest of him. "That's my good boy."

Chapter 32
"Stay here." Jeff's hand presses briefly against Jensen's shoulder before he untangles Jensen's arm from his leg and gets up. Jensen stays where he was put, eyes closed and still breathing hard. He must be a lot more pent up than he thought; he can't remember the last time he came that hard, body still zinging with aftershocks and tiredness swamping him in thick, irresistible waves that make him not want to move. Still a thin niggle of anxiety threads through his lassitude, analyzing and reanalyzing everything that happened. It felt good to have a master's arms around him againwhile Jeff is fully aware and consciousand Jeff's deep, growling voice is made for instruction commandseducing you into doing what he wants before it even occurs to you to resist. Not that Jensen wants to resist. But he doesn't know if it was any good. He wonders if Jeff is in the bathroom, jerking off. That's my boy. That's my good boy. "Here. Come on, let's get you cleaned up." Jensen doesn't realize he's dozing until Jeff touches his shoulder again, Jeff's fingers warm against skin that's cooled dramatically in the meantime. His lower back aches and the handful of come in his palm and on his cockmustn't get it on the spreadis half-dried, sticky and unpleasant. He rolls the upper half of his body when Jeff pushes, though, opening his eyes and blinking slowly in the warm brightness of the room. "Hey, did I wake you?" Jeff's hand smoothes across Jensen's cheek and temple, on into his hair. It's instinct to turn his face into the touch, new shudders of sensation rippling through his slack body. "Don't go to sleep just yet. Gotta get you cleaned up, under the covers." Jeff's gaze drifts down Jensen's body. "Why are you still holding your" All of a sudden, Jeff chuckles, rich, deep cascades of sound that thrum along Jensen's nerves. He sounds so happy, so pleasedso pleased with Jensenthat Jensen wants to stretch and bask in the sound like a cat in sunlight. "I think you glued yourself to your dick, there, boy." Heat flushes through Jensen and he can't tell if it's embarrassment or want. "I didn't want to get the duvet dirty." Jeff laughs again, louder and booming, settling on the bed's edge next to Jensen. There's a faintly steaming washcloth in Jeff's hand, a fat droplet of water bulging at the corner. Jensen starts to struggle up, but Jeff pushes him back down, saying firmly, "Let me." Jensen's chest hitches with sudden taut warmth, but he lies still and looks up at the ceiling while Jeff clean him with careful, clever fingers

that wield the washcloth both briskly and gently. "JensenGod. Do you have any idea how gorgeous you are?" The quiet rumble of Jeff's voice jerks Jensen's eyes down from the exposed ceiling beams to Jeff's face. Jeff looks tired, but his expression is soft, mouth and smile lines in curves of satiation. It's not possible for Jensen to be much more limp, but if he could, he would, flooded by the fizzy rush of relief. It takes him a couple seconds to realize Jeff asked him a question. "Body slaves are supposed to be aesthetically pleasing." "You don't, do you?" Jeff's smile widens and crooks and he stops washing Jensen long enough to stroke one finger along the sweep of Jensen's collar bone. "You have no idea how gorgeous you are." "I know I'm good looking." Jensen knows he sounds stifled. The words stick on his tongue like they've developed burrs. Slaves are not to put themselves forward. Slaves aren't prideful. And yet, it's the fundamental truth of his position. Nobody wants an ugly body-slave. On the other hand, no one wants to be reminded of how good-looking their body slave is, except in the most reflective of ways. Jensen's masters have been known to compliment him on the tightness of his body, his eagerness for sex, his performance, his competence but none of them have ever made a production of how beautifulhandsomehe is. And to be fair, Jensen's masters have all been good-looking in their own rightand Jeff is no exception to that, even if he avoids the cosmetic and surgical youthfulness of most of the hoi-polloi. Jensen is not ashamed of his master and he can only hope that he doesn't shame Jeff, even at his age. "You don't." Jeff thumbs across Jensen's cheekbone, skin damp. "If you really knew how you look, you wouldn't use something as pale as 'goodlooking'." Jeff tilts his head in the opposite direction, his gaze considering as much as admiring. "I'd want to paint you, except there's no way in hell I'm good enough to get it right." His finger moves lightly, almost like brushstrokes, down the slightly curving slope of Jensen's nose, tracing the bow of his mouth. Jensen's mouth opens on reflex, tongue lapping up for the barest taste of salt-and-skin, before Jeff pulls his hand away, eyes dark and hungry. Jensen abandons himself to it when Jeff leans down and crushes his mouth against Jensen's, Jeff's hand creeping around to Jensen's nape to both cradle and lift his head. The darkness behind Jeff's kisses still takes Jensen by surprise, even as it sucks him in. He wants to throw himself into this space inside Jeff, to either fill it or be scattered to atoms forever. Please, Jensen thinks. Please. "You're like a drug," Jeff whispers, when he finally pulls back, grinding his forehead against Jensen's and his eyes closed. "God help us both."

"Jeff?" Jeff shakes his head. "It's nothing. It doesn't matter. I just You're pleasing, Jensen. You're very, very pleasing. And I'm afraid you're too much of a good thing." He sighs and draws away, swiping Jensen a couple more times with the now cool washcloth. Jensen winces when Jeff drops the wet cloth on the night stand, thinking of the varnish. Jeff's mouth crooks again. "All right, clean freak. I'll take it back into the bathroom." "I can do that" Jensen starts to sit up again, only to have Jeff push him down again. "No. I want you to get under the covers. I gotta take a piss anyway. Be right back." It's not eavesdropping. It's not eavesdropping when Jeff leaves the door open for Jensen to hear the wet plop of the washcloth hitting the sink and then the loud, almost musical fall of Jeff's pee hitting the porcelain. Jensen folds the blankets back and then slithers under the sheet on his side of the bed, almost on the mattress's edge. He's tired now, sleep pressing on his eyelids and weighting his body whether he wants it to or not, but soon enough he hears the faint scuff of Jeff's bare feet across first tile, then wood, and then carpet as he comes back to the bedtoo quickly to have gotten himself off. Jensen wonders what it means. Jeff turns out the lights and then groans deeply and appreciatively as he slips under the blankets and stretches out, the squeaks of the mattress familiar now. Jensen closes his eyes. He doesn't expect it when Jeff reaches for him, curling an arm around his waist, tugging him back into the heat of Jeff's body. It only takes him a second to react bodily, though, scooting across the sheet to curl in the lee of his master's body, Jeff's cockstill more than half-hardsnugged against his ass, Jeff's arm weighting him down. "This okay?" Jeff asks. Jensen doesn't know if he means are you comfortable or do you mind, but either way, the answer's the same, so he guesses it doesn't matter. "Yeah. Fine." It feels weird. Like giving permission. Whichhe guesses is what Jeff wants. Jeff growls, sounding oddly like a pleased cat. "That's my good boy." His lips brush Jensen's shoulder and his fingers stroke across Jensen's belly in gentle, soothing repetition. "Next time, don't worry about the duvet so much. I like watching you come." Another blushing surge of heat warms through Jensen's flesh, entangled with Jeff's. Yes, sir. "Okay."

Jeff hums and nuzzles into the back of Jensen's neck, body already getting heavy with sleep. With his eyes already closed, it doesn't take long for Jensen to follow him down. It doesn't feel as though it's been any time at all before a soundthe doorbell, echoed and amplified by the house's high ceilingsbooms its way into Jensen's sleep, making him jerk from confused dreams of Jeff and LordMasterHutton both trying to snuggle with him on a couch and fighting over it while he tried to protest he could find a way to make room for them both. Jeff is still solidly asleep, his arm like a band around Jensen's waist and his breath whispering heatedly across Jensen's nape. Jensen cranes his head up without moving his body and wonders if he imagined the ring of the doorbell. It's probably his imagination, but the second ring sounds more pointed and this time, Jeff twitches and mumbles, "Whuzzat?" against Jensen's skin. "It's the doorbell," Jensen whispers back. He tries to turn more, but Jeff's arm is still tight around him, leaving no leeway to move. Trying to blink back the drowsiness that even now is tugging at his eyelids, he says, "Someone's at the door." "What fucking time is it?" Jeff groans and stretches shudderingly all along Jensen's back before releasing Jensen and turning over to squint at the clock. Jensen slithers over too. The red numbers read 3:47. Huh. He's been asleep longer than he thought. The doorbell tolls a third time and Jeff swears. Jensen just feels cold, the last lingering body-glow dissolving into thickening anxiety. They wouldn't come in the middle of the nightWould they? "I'll get it," Jensen says belatedly. He scrubs his eyes in a vain attempt to clear the cobwebs from his mind. That little tease of sleep was worse than no sleep at all. "No, m'up now." Jeff sounds pretty pissed about that fact. "Might as well go see what's so important as to wake up the whole goddamned house." Jeff swings his legs out of the bed and scratches the back of his neck bemusedly. Jeff's tired enough that he doesn't object when Jensen gets up and gets his robe for him, other than to say, "You don't have to come with me." But it's not an order for Jensen to stay and so Jensen chooses to ignore it, throwing on his shirt and pants with all the swiftness of twenty-three years of service and then following Jeff down the hallway. The hall lights are motion sensitive, waking as sluggishly as their master as Jeff stalks down the hall, Jensen walking quiet in his wake. Jensen can hear Sam's voice echoing up through the house, cursing a blue streak far worseand louderthan Jeff's and threatening the life of whoever's at the door.

He's at the part where the outer wall ends, opening out into the foyer and Jeff is on the second stair downwhen Sam swings the door wide. Her bodyin a strangely slinky red silk robeblocks the way, though and Jensen can't see who's standing on the step. "Sam, who the fuck is it? And do they know what time it is?" Jeff's stopped where he is and Jensen halts just next to him, hands knotting around the banister until his knuckles ache dryly. "Sorry, Jeff," a woman's voicenot Sam'sdrawls lazily as Sam steps aside stiffly, irritation radiating from every inch of her body. Jensen sees there's only a single person on the stoop, the woman of the voice, roundly swelling. "You want to come in from the station, you have to go when you've got a window. It's not like I've got a key." The woman comes forward so that Jensen can see her face. She's skinnier than her belly would lead him to believe, a sharply amused face under piles of dark brown hair. Jensen's seen her pictures. It's MaryLouise. And she's pregnant. Jensen looks swiftly to Jeff, still standing stock still a couple steps below him. Jeff's body is stiff too but for different reasons. Jeff is shocked. Mary-Louise doesn't spare a look for Sam, sailing on past her, eyes never leaving Jeff. The chill in Jensen's bones changes and deepens; he wants to press closer behind Jeff or kneelsomething to assert that he's here now. He doesn't move. Mary-Louise stops at the foot of the stairs, grinning sidelong up at Jeff as she palms her belly, running one thin hand along the swell. "Don't worry, Jeff," she says, tilting her head. "It's not yours."

Chapter 33
"Do you want to tell me what I'm doing here?" Jeff asks, amused. "Well, Jeff, considering I just instructed you to start a sexual relationship with your current body slave and your old body slave--whom you once were in love with--just showed up pregnant with someone else's child, blah, blah, blah I thought maybe you could use a talk." Cate cuts a wedge of brie from the round, chunks of sun-dried tomato falling from the pale cheese as she spreads it across the wheat cracker. "Alternatively, I thought maybe you could stand to get out of the house and away from everybody." Jeff nods. "Can't deny that part." Cate's set them up on the big stone patio on the north face of the house. It's a beautiful day, cloudless and not incredibly smoggy. A light but steady breeze makes the panels of the sun umbrella flap and whisper in counterpoint to their conversation. "So," Cate says through a mouthful of cracker and cheese. "How is it going?" "Are you asking as my therapist or as my friend?" Jeff picks up a cut piece of summer sausage, turning it around in his fingers contemplatively before popping it into his mouth. "Either. Both. Which one would you like it to be?" Cate's eyes are nearly colorless in the strong light, but nothing can disguise their amused sparkle. Jeff sighs. "I don't know. I'm...coping. You know?" Cate leans forward and puts her fingers over his. Unfortunately, she's got brie on her fingertips, smearing it over his skin. "I do know. I guess that's why I wanted to give you some breathing room. Has Mary-Louise said anything else?" "You mean has she told me who's the father of her baby?" Jeff's smile feels taut as he takes hold of his iced tea glass, clinking the cubes around. "No. Kane wants me to force her to have a paternity test done." "To see if it's yours?" Cate notices the cheese on her fingertips and jerks her hand back, wiping it away with one of the crimson cloth napkins. "Do you think that's a real possibility?" Jeff shrugs, teeth worrying at the corner of his mouth as he counts and recounts dates in his head the best he can. "I don't know. I... I think the chances are slim, but they're not zero and that's what counts to Kane." "I didn't know things had gone that far between the two of you." Cate sounds a little taken aback and Jeff's actually grateful for it, because it means she's not giving him therapist face.

"It was just the one time." Jeff shoots back a hefty sip of the tea, halfwishing it was something stronger. But only half, because he thinks it would be all too easy to crawl into a bottle right now and that's not what anyone needs. "It was..." He tries to find the words to describe it--not the sex so much as the desperation of his want and Mary-Louise's consummate skill in manipulating that want. Not that he blames her. Mary-Louise is as much a product of her environment as Jensen. The fault is definitely his for not seeing that until it was too late. "I don't know. It was what it was. I was stupid and she wanted out." Cate taps her lips as though she wants to say something, but when she finally speaks, Jeff gets the impression that they're not her first thoughts: "And how is Jensen adjusting to Mary-Louise's return?" "Isn't that a question for Jensen's therapy sessions?" Jeff teases. He fishes through the giant bowl of fruit and tears a bunch of jade-colored grapes from the main bunch. Flicking the grapes from the stem onto his plate, he shrugs. "Honestly, I don't know. If I had any idea how Jensen thinks, I'd have never sent him to you in the first place. I think..." "You think?" Cate prompts a moment later, fishing a grape off his plate. "There's been a resurgence of Super Jensen. Ruler straight observance of the distance between us. More "Master" slips and less Jeff. I think he feels threatened. Which..." Jeff throws up his hands. "I don't know. I've got him working on getting Mary-Louise an apartment somewhere off the estate, get her set up. I don't think it's a great idea for her to stay at the house, regardless." "Why do you say that?" Cate filches another grape. "You know, there's a whole bunch of grapes right here," Jeff says, gesturing at the fruit bowl. "Mmm, yes. But these are already peeled off the stem." Cate grins unrepentantly. "Much less work." She points the stolen grape at him. "You're not answering the question." "I didn't think I had to. She and Kane loathe each other. She and Sam loathe each other. Adrienne refuses to clean her room and Sandy won't do her laundry. Mary-Louise didn't make any friends her first time around, for sure." Jeff considers. "And I just... I really don't want Jensen going back to acting like a feral and skittish cat every time I say boo to him." Just thinking of Jensen's face when he said he was going to Cate's alone is enough to fill Jeff with as much guilt as if he'd kicked a puppy. "Hmmm." Jeff rolls his eyes. "Don't 'hmmm' me, Cate. If you have something to say, spit it out." Cate rolls her shoulder as lazily and luxuriously as a cat, shifting around in her chair to tuck her feet up on the overstuffed cushion. "I just find it interesting that you talk about how much everyone else dislikes MaryLouise and you don't mention your own feelings at all."

"I don't dislike Mary-Louise," Jeff protests. "I didn't say that you did." Cate offers him significant eyebrow. "I just said you didn't talk about your own feelings for her. Good or bad." Jeff shrugs. "Mary-Louise... It's just inconvenient. She was really enjoying living on the station and I think she liked rubbing elbows with people more important than me." "Okay, but that's Mary-Louise's feelings. We're still not talking about you." "Are you asking me if I'm in love with her?" Jeff cuts his eyes again and sighs, settling back in the chair and folding his hands over his stomach. "I don't know why people can't seem to get it through their head that I'm over Mary-Louise." "Jeff, I didn't ask you if you were still in love with her. I asked you how you're feeling. You're the one that brought up love. And that raises the question: are you in love with her?" Jeff pinches the bridge of his nose between his fingers. "No. No, I'm not. Sometimes I think I should be, especially after After everything. But II just want her gone." Cate doesn't say anything, wrapping her arms around her knees and apparently waiting for him to talk. Jeff spreads his hands. "What? I'm a shit, I know it." "I didn't say that." "You didn't have to." Jeff sighs and leans over the chair's back, raking his hands through his hair. "If I was really in love with Mary-Louise, it wouldn't have been this easy to get over her, would it?" "You tell me." "Cate." She lifts her hands. "Okay, fine, sorry. We can talk about something else, if you want. Mary-Louise aside, how are things with Jensen?" "You mean 'did I have sex with him'?" Jeff grimaces, reaching for the brie and crackers himself. Cate gestures in his direction, her smile ironic. "Well, as long as you know what I mean." "Iwe. We did something. I don't know if I'm ready to call it sex." Jeff smears the brie over a sesame cracker hard enough that the cracker breaks in half. "Dammit." "And how are you doing with that?" Cate fishes through the fruit and comes up with a strawberry.

"Well, it's like you saidbeing told to have sex with a beautiful young man isn't the worst thing in the world." Jeff smiles ruefully, turning half the broken cracker in his fingers. "Jensen God. Did you know that Cruiseor whoevertrained him, so that he can't come without his master touching him?" Cate's eyebrows arch up. "I thought that was just a made-up thing." "Yeah, well, apparently not." Jeff pops the cracker and brie into his mouth, crunching noisily. "I justwhat the hell do I do with that, you know? How the hell am I supposed to help Jensen find his independence when he can't even come on his own?" Cate discards the strawberry hull and licks the juice off her fingers before answering. "I told you this wasn't going to be fast or easy." "No, I know that." Jeff wipes his fingers and sits back again, sighing. "I just didn't realize it means hard and excruciating. With a big heaping spoonful of temptation." "So you are tempted?" Jeff makes wide eyes. "Was that not abundantly obvious? Of course I'm tempted. Jensen Jesus, Jensen." Jeff shakes his head. "It's like he stepped out of some dark, wet dream." He looks down at his hands. "Some dream I had no business having in the first place." "Jeff" "No." Jeff's voice hardens and he struggles to modulate it back. "No, you know me, Cate but you don't really know me. You don't know all the stuff that goes on in my head, talented as you are. And Jensenhe calls too hard to that other part of me." "Okay, but your solution is to just repress that part of yourself?" Cate tongues her teeth, probably in quest of strawberry pips. "You know that never works in the long-term." "Better that than the alternative." "Okay, but JeffThere are other ways. I'm not saying that you have to pin your desires on Jensen. I'm saying that I don't think it's healthy for you to just bottle those desires up." Jeff twists his mouth. "I'll take it under advisement." Cate shakes her head at him. "I just can't believe, in this day and age, we need to have a conversation about whether it's abnormal for you to be a little dominant in bed." "Haven't we talked about my sex life enough?" Jeff begs. "I brought cheesecake." Cate perks. "Sam's cheesecake? Really?" Jeff holds up the paper bag. "Triple fudge sour-cream."

Cate kneels up in the chair to snatch the bag from Jeff's hand. He lets it go promptly to avoid losing any skin. "I am amazed she trusted you to actually deliver it." Cate extracts the Tupperware from the bag, looking like the cat who just got the cream. "There were certain threats made against my life if I didn't deliver, it's true. Sam will be calling later to confirm that I didn't indeed abscond with the cheesecake." Cate laughs, twirling her fork in hand. "You're a model of probity." "Well, I did think about making a break for it, but we all know Sam would track me down." Jeff inhales longingly as Cate pries the lid off, the rich, chocolaty smell of the cheesecake rising like perfume. "And her revenges are something terrible." "I do hear she's got a mean hand with a wooden spoon." "Worse. She makes cookies and then won't let me have any." "Monstrous." "I know, right?" Jeff sighs. Cate offers him the laden fork. "Never let it be said I don't know how to share." Jeff takes the fork from her and bites the mouthful of cheesecake off delicately, letting it melt slowly on his tongue, eyes closed. "God, you look like you just came," Cate teases as he hands the fork back to her. "I did." He rolls the taste over on his tongue, chasing the last bits of sweetness with the tip before he says, "I'm thinking about telling Jensen about The Trust." Cate's eyes widen and her eyebrows shoot up. "Really?" "You think it's a bad idea?" "No, actually, I don't. I think it could be really good for Jensen, both as a form of reassurance and as something for him to get invested in. I told you beforeJensen needs work. He needs to feel useful. And I think it would really mean something to him to see that you trust him." "Can I trust him?" Ninety-nine percent of the time and even on their short acquaintance, Jeff would say yes, absolutely unquestioningly. But The Trust is different. It's too big and too importantand too dangerous for Jeff to trust his own judgment. "I think you can," Cate says after a moment's consideration. Jeff knows Cate well enough to know the pause is because the therapist thinks about her words and not from any doubt on her part. If Cate has reservations, she'll come out and tell him. "Discretion is very much a part

of his training, even after he's passed from service." "Heh." Jeff smiles in remembrance. "Yeah. He won't even say a bad word about Cruise and everyone knows he's crazy as a loon." "Jeff" Cate stabs the fork at her cheesecake before looking up at him seriously. "Jensen's relationship with his masters iscomplicated. Don't underestimate it. We look at Cruise and we see an insane, abusive pedophile. Jensen Jensen loved him. A part of him still does." Jeff's breath sighs out, his tiredness starting to crash in on him again, despite the sugar rush of the bite of cheesecake. "I know. I don't understand it, though." "I don't really expect you to. I mean, I only understand it academically. It's not" Cate gestures. "God willing, it's not something we'll ever have to understand. But Jensenhe grew up in Cruise's household. Tom was everything to himfather and lover, protector and punisher. Those are really powerful bonds. Don't disrespect them. Don't make Jensen feel less than for having those feelings." Jeff nods. "I'm trying." Cate's fingers cover his again. This time they're smudged with chocolate. "I know you are. You're doing great, darling, really. Jensen's lucky to have you." Jeff shakes his head. "No. I'm the lucky one."

Chapter 34
"Hey, Jensen. How's it going?" Jensen shakes himself and looks up from the computer. He'd been so absorbed, he hadn't even heard Jeff come in. Not good. "Fine. I was just compiling a list of apartments for Mary-Louise." "I thought you did that already." "Another list," Jensen clarifies and shrugs. "She didn't like any of the ones I selected before." Though Jensen was careful to keep his tone neutral and non-judgmental, Jeff's mouth tightens up, anyway. He doesn't comment, though. "Well, take a break, okay? I'd like to talk to you for a minute." "Of course." Jensen gets up from the chair promptly, crossing the room to Jeff who doesn't look like he wants to go anywhere, head down and hands tucked in his pockets. Jensen debates whether to kneel. He should, he wants to, but Jeff won't like it. Jensen remains standing, but at a respectful distance. "I have some books I'd like you to read," Jeff says. "There's no hurry. Take your time. I mean, they're probably not 'fun' reading, but there's not going to be a test or anything. But I think they might help you understand where I'm coming from." He produces a list from his back pocket. "They're all in the library. Sam can help you, if you can't find them." "I'm sure I can manage," Jensen says, biting off the sir as he unfolds the list. There's half a dozen titles with titles like Institutionalized Inhumanity: Bureaucratic Facilitation of Slavery in the Early Modern Period and To Know One's Place: The Effect of Societal Expectations on the Slave Psychological Profile and Performance/Anxiety: Body-slaves and Other Forms of Institutionalized Sexual Sadism. God, people actually write about this shit? And it's legal? "I also..." Jeff hesitates, before putting his hand on Jensen's shoulder. Jensen looks up from the list and into Jeff's eyes. The seriousness he sees there surprises him and he straightens up, shoulders squaring almost unconsciously. "What I'm about to tell you is really important, Jensen. It's probably the most important thing I'm ever going to tell you. If..." Jeff licks his mouth and Jensen is further shocked by Jeff's nervousness. "If anyone found out about thisand I mean anyoneit would be disastrous. I'd go to prison or be enslaved myself. Even my familyor moneywouldn't be able to save me." Jensen takes a breath. This is serious. "I. Of course I wouldn't tell anyone. I'd never..." "I know." Jeff smiles weakly and pats Jensen's shoulder. "I know. I just

want you to understand how absolutely important this is. I'm trusting you not to betray me. I'm trusting you, period. I know I'm not the master you'd want for yourself..." Jensen makes a deprecating noise in his throat, casting his gaze down. "No, it's true. I know it. I'm...lazy and too casual, and at heart, I know I'm a coward. That's fine. I'm not worried about that. About myself. But this is bigger than me." Jensen nods. "Yes. Of course." Jeff scrapes a hand through his hair. "Okay." The breath he lets out is shaky, betraying how really nervous he is. Jensen bites down on his growing swell of pride, trying to keep focused. "Okay. Let's sit down. Christ, I need a drink. I haven't been this nervous since Grandpa got me my first body-slave." "I can get you a drink. Should I make you something?" Jensen steps away from Jeff, toward the door, but Jeff grabs his wrist, holds him in place. "No. I probably won't say no to a big, fat joint later, but I just" Jeff shrugs. "I want to talk this out with you." There is a naked sincerity to his voice that Jensen doesn't know how to respond to, but that flushes his body through with heat and a gentle, electric zing. "I know I've been doing a shit job of letting you know where you stand and I'm working on it. I'm working onbeing better." Jeff's grin is shy, embarrassed and sidelong. Jensen shakes his head. "You don't I don't" "I do," Jeff insists. His hand comes up and his thumb brushes across Jensen's cheek, but a second later, Jeff snatches his hand away like the touch of Jensen's skin burns. "I wantmaybe you don't need this, but I'd like to give it to you anyway. I think. I think it might help. C'mon." Jeff's fingers bracelet Jensen's wrist again; he gives a tug before twining their hands together. Jeff's been doing this latelyholding handssince Jensen started therapy, since Jeff's been trying, but Jensen doesn't really think Jeff knows he's doing it. Obviously, Jensen likes it; the feeling that Jeff wants him close, being close as Jeff leads him upstairs. He wonders if 'better' means Jeff is finally going to have sex with him. It didn't sound like it, from what Jeff said, but Jensen knows he frequently doesn't understand what Jeff's trying to say. It'd just sounded more important than that. "I would've told you about this eventually anyway," Jeff says, as he closes the bedroom door behind them. He takes the additional precaution of turning the old-fashioned slip-lock over, too. "If you'd decided to stay. If." Jeff shakes his head, not finishing his second if. "Mary-Louise doesn't know about this. I don't want you to mention this to her." "You don't trust her?" Jensen is totally losing all sense of discretion.

Clearly. But Jeff's words surprise him. He knows Mary-Louise isn't wellliked by the other slaves, but Jeff always seemed so much more sympathetic toward her. "It's not that I don't trust her" Jeff stops and combs through his already mussed hair again, the expression of sheepishness on his face both deepening and hardening. "Okay, fine. I don't trust Mary-Louise. Not with this. Butthat's not her fault. She's what the system made her." What the system made her, as far as Jensen's been able to tell, is a defiant, disrespectful, slinking opportunist but she's hardly alone in that and it's not Jensen's place to contradict Jeff. Besides, he likes the idea that Jeff trusts him with something that he couldn't with Mary-Louise. "But you trust me?" As pleasing as it is, he doesn't know why Jeff should. He's so new and he's failed so spectacularly over and over again to make Jeff happy. He doesn't know what he's done to earn Jeff's trust, as grateful as he is to have it. "I do." Jeff's thumb strokes contemplatively across his bottom lip before he smiles again. "You think I'm an idiot, don't you?" "No." It's what Jensen would've said anyway, but it helps that it's the truth. He thinks Jeff is confused and confusing and a lackadaisical master, but none of that equals stupidity. Jeff's lips purse up, though he doesn't lose his smile. "Well, I don't know if anyone else here would agree with you on thatincluding mebut I appreciate the vote of confidence." Jeff pushes aside a big Impressionist paintingthe picture is on some kind of rails, so it just slides sideways to reveal an old-fashioned wall safe with a very newfangled locking system. "So. I suppose it's no secret at this point that I'm not exactly sympathetic to the slave trade, that Morgans' Laborist interests aside." Since he's not sure if Jeff is actually looking for an answer, Jensen hums vague agreement and looks away as Jeff opens the safe. He wants to kneel again, badly enough it feels like an itch. Just standing here, waiting for Jeff, feels both disrespectful and awkward and he doesn't know what to do with his hands. Tucking them in his pockets is out of the question but otherwise, they're just lying there, at his sides. Sighing, Jensen aligns his feet a little straighter and lengthens his spine, bringing his body back into alignment, a single line extending through his body and out through the crown of his head. Automatically, his breath changes, deep calm sweeps in through his nose and out through his mouth, heating his core. "I know it's hard for you to feel secure here," Jeff says, turning away from the safe with a sheaf of papers. "I knowthere's always the threat of losing favor, getting sold. Or, even if you do well, getting seized for your master's debt and sold again. I'm not going to pretend I know what that's like, but I know that it's real."

There's a decorative table right there; Jeff sits down in one of the chairs. Jensen knows he shouldn't, but the desire to kneel has become a need now. He sinks to his knees in front of Jeff, the familiar pose a relief that floods his entire body with both warmth and the relaxation that's been eluding him. Jeff's sun-lines pinch a little, but he doesn't reprimand Jensen or tell him to get up. "I've told you that I won't sell you," Jeff continues, hitching first one thigh and then the other to get comfortable, "but it's more than that. The truth is that I can't sell you." "I don't understand." Jeff hands him the sheaf of papers. "I'm sure you've figured out by now that I'm an abolitionist. We don't generally say the word, for obvious reasons, but that's what I am. If I could, I would abolish slavery right now. It should have never been resurrected in the first place and I'm not proud of my family's part in that. I'd change it if I could. "But the truth is that a huge part of our economyand rippling outward, the world economyis now pinned to slave labor. And the government is never going to abolish slavery as long as the economy is dependent on it. So what Iand a lot of other people, don't get me wrong; I couldn't do all this by myselfhave been doing is working on getting a manumission clause added to the Articles." "Manumission?" Jensen prides himself on having a pretty decent vocabulary, but he's not familiar with that one. Jeff's eyes are lit up. It's the most excited Jensen's seen him about anything, except possibly his old and decaying Guitar Hero game played on the big plasma TV in the den. "Freedom, Jensen. A way for masters to free slaves as a reward for good service ormore importantlya way for slaves to buy their own freedom." "But there's no ma-manumission now," Jensen says hesitantly, stumbling over the new word. He pitches it somewhere between a statement and a question. "No. There isn't." "So what does this have to do with me? Or selling me? Or not selling me?" "What I've donewhat we've doneis that we've established a kind of trust." Jeff points at the papers, drawing Jensen's attention to them again. On top is a copy of Jensen's contract. "I sell my slaves to the Trust, which is basically a kind oflending company. The Trust then rents them back to me for a fee. The money that the trust slave makes for his or her labor goes back into the Trust, which then purchases other slaves." Jensen pages through the documents. Attached to his contract is some kind of rider or addendum, showing that his contract has been passed to Jeff's trust, with a schedule of fees for his services. He's amused that

there's even a cost item for sexual usage, though it's not more explicitly spelled out than just that: 'sexual usage'. Huh. Who knew fucking was worth that much? "The money to keep the Trust going comes from all your laborSam, Kane, Zach As long as I'm not the holder of your contract, I cannot sell you; the Trust isn't considered part of my assets. So even if my fortunes fail, youand the othersare safe. And the Trust is prohibited by its terms to sell you as long as there's money to keep it going. Andthere's lots of money. It's what I do. It's what we all do. All the satellite companies and the work I do that's separate from my family's interests, everythingit's all for the Trust. And when we finally get this manumission clause through, you and Kane and Zach and everybody else will have the option to buy yourselves free." Jensen tries to wrap his mind around thatnot so much the idea of freedom as the idea of buying his own freedombut it's too big, too much for him to grasp, entirely. He hands the pages back to Jeff, the surge-wave of his unnamed but rising emotion making the gesture jerkier and rougher than he intends. "What if I don't want to be free?" The way Jeff goggles at him might be funny, under other circumstances. "Whywhy would you not want to be free?" Now Jeff's the one stammering. Jensen gestures at himself, prickling heat pushing at his eyes, tightening his chest. "Look at me, sir. I'mI'm a body-slave. That's all I know how to be. It's all I'm good for. I knowI know how to please my master and that's it. All freedom is, is the opportunity to become a slave all over again. It's what I'm good at. It's all I'm good at. I don't know how to be free." "You can learn," Jeff says softly, reaching forward to brush his thumb across Jensen's jaw. "That's what I'm trying to do, Jensen. That's what all of this has been about. Sending you to Cate, the books, figuring out what you like, what you might want to do" "I'm a body-slave," Jensen repeats, trying not to shake. He's afraid to move too much, afraid Jeff will stop touching him if he notices he's doing it. "Okay, but that's not all you have to be. Even body-slaves don't stay bodyslaves forever." "Some do." "Okay, some," Jeff concedes, "but you could be so much more than that. You're smart, Jensen. You could do anything you wanted. If you were free, you could do whatever you wanted, you wouldn't have to worry about being sold, you could choose who you have sex with" "So if I was free, you would have sex with me, then?" Amazingly, Jeff's face blushes and his gaze drops down, eyelids sweeping to hide his eyes. "You don't want to have sex with me."

"I do. I want that. I don't know" Jensen takes a breath. "I don't understand why you won't believe me." "Ibelieve you think you want it," Jeff says, sounding strangled, after a long and awkward pause and mentally, Jensen throws up his hands. "You'll need a body-slave no matter what," Jensen points out, leaning forward just a little on his knees. "Even if you get this manumission thing through, you'll still need a body-slave. I can do that. I can be that." Jeff laughsthough it sounds just as chokedleaning back in the chair and half-covering his face with his hand. "God, I'm supposed to be convincing you, Jensen." "It's a good plan," Jensen concedes. "For other people. Guys like Kane. People who shouldn't be slaves." Jeff's hand drops and he regards Jensen tiredly. Something about the angle, or his expression shows Jensen what Jeff's going to look like when he's old. "And you should be?" "I'm a body-slave," Jensen says, with more serenity than he's been able to musteror feelin a long time. "I'm good at it." A part of him is worriedof course he is; what Jeff's talking about is illegal and dangerous. It was no exaggeration to say that Jeff could end up on the auction block himself, if his Trustor his plans for itare discovered. But Jeff needs him. For the first time, Jensen can see it, like the clear eye of a big, messy storm. Kane and Zach, and even guys like Jared, they're awful slaves, slaves that would've been disciplined or even culled by a master less lenient, less liberal (in all senses of that word) than Jeff. They would be betterhappieras free men. Jensen's smart enough to see that. But when Jeff is done with all his grand plans and all his slaves are free and gonewho's going to take care of him, then? Everything about the household makes so much more sense now; everyone working together because, at the moment, Jeff's interests are their interests. But who's really looking out for Jeff? What happens when those interests diverge? Jeff's so busy trying to take care of all of themhe needs someone like Jensen, someone who will give that care back, who will watch over him, protect him. Someone who will love him. Jeff needs me, Jensen thinks again, a hum in his bones like the aftermath of orgasm as he turns it around in his mind. Jeff needsme.

Chapter 35
"So. Why don't you tell me how things are going?" "Fine." Then, feeling like that's not enough, Jensen corrects, "Good." Cate's smile is brilliant and even though she's not his mistress, her approval warms him. "That's wonderful, Jensen. Why don't we talk about that, then. Tell me what's good." "Jeff, he"Jensen breaks off, not sure how to talk about the changes between him and Jeff in a way that's going to make any sense at all, especially to someone who's not, and never has been, a slave. "We. And he said." He sounds like a stammering idiot. Jensen forcibly stops himself from talking, shaking his head. "It's better." "Okay." Cate laughs, her grin crooking without losing any of its wattage. "Why don't we take this backwards a little bit. What's happened since the last time we saw each other?" "Jeff told you." Jensen knows this because Jeff told him, said that Cate knew about the Trust and Jensen should feel free to talk to her about that or anything else. Jensen's eyebrows furrow and he takes a sip of the tea that Cate gave him, unasked. It's chamomile but with a bite of something else, something fruity. "Jeff said he told youtalked to you" "Jeff and I did have a conversation," Cate agrees. "But I'm not asking about what Jeff said. I was asking what's happened with you." Properly rebukedthough the distinction is a silly one, in his opinion Jensen nods, looking down at his tea. He casts his memory backward not that it's difficult. The last few days feel seared on the surface of his mind. "Jeff was gone when I got home, but Kane was waiting for me. He took me out to dinner. His favorite restauraunt." "Did he, now?" Cate's eyebrows lift and she shifts to sit cross-legged in the middle of the couch. She's wearing loose linen palazzo pants and camp shirt over a tank top and her slaves need to be disciplined if that's the best ironing job they can do. "Boy's night out?" Jensen snorts. "No. He was just being a good Agent." "I don't know what that means." Again Jensen reaches an impasse of words. No masterbefore now, obviouslywould bother to ask the question, uninterested in the inner workings of a slave's duties except where it directly impacts them. No slave would have to ask the question, unless they were new. "Kanehe's Jeff's Agent, his second. He watches all the things that Jeff can't or shouldn't have to. He makes sure it all runs smooth." "Shouldn't that be your job? You are Jeff's body-slave." Jensen shakes his head. "I'm too new. And Jeff" He tries to figure out

how to say, Jeff didn't give me that power without it sounding critical. "Maybe someday," Jensen says instead, lamely. "When everyone trusts me more." Jensen doesn't like the way that sounds, as though he's feeling sorry for himself, just when everything is starting to be good. He doesn't want Cate to think thatdefinitely doesn't want Jeff to think that. "But really, it's not like that," he adds. "I look after Jeff. Kaneand Zach, and I guess Mary-Louiseare supposed to look after the other stuff. The big picture." "Hmm," Cate muses. "Mary-Louise. That must have been kind of a shock, her showing up as she did." Jensen shrugs. "She couldn't have the baby on the orbital station. It might have died. She probably shouldn't have stayed as long as she did." He wonders now if that was Mary-Louise's hope: that the low-gravity environment would kill her child before she had to bring it into the world, solving the problem of what to do about it. He has a hard time imagining any slave choosing to bring a child into the world, knowing what will happen to it. Jensen realizes he's been quiet for several moments and that Cate is looking at him. Not in a mean way, but kindness is almost worse. He knows what to expect from people who don't give a damn about him. He sighs and settles back more in the chair, trying to make it look artless. "Besides, where else would she go? Jeff is her master." "Does that bother you?" "What, that Jeff is her master? Jeff has lots of slaves." Jensen shrugs. "Well, she was his most recent body-slave, before you," Cate points out as though Jensen isn't fully aware of that fact. "I just wondered if that might be uncomfortable for you." "It's not that uncommon," Jensen counters, though his voice remains meek. "Kane was Jeff's body-slave, Zach That's just how it is. Jeff isn't" Jensen twists his shoulders in something that's not quite a shrug. "Jeff isn't mine, I'm his. That's just how it is." "Hmm," Cate says again, making it sound noncommittal and like agreement at the same time. "So let's talk about that night, then. I interrupted you; you said that you and Kane went out to dinner?" "He was just checking up on me. Making sure I'm fitting in. I want to fit in," Jensen assures Cate, setting his tea back on its coaster. Some condensation falls from the glass to the table in transit and he smudges it away with his finger. It leaves a slight streak that he resolves to get later, when Cate's not looking. "After dinner, we went back and I waited up for Jeff. He said you'd told him to have sex with me." It's not exactly a question, but Jensen puts that lilt in at the end and in his expression. To his surprise, Cate's expression turns rueful and sheepish, her nose scrunching and her smile slipping further off-center. "I did debate the

wisdom of that," she admits. "It just seemed so important to you" "No." The slip from the chair to his knees is reflexive and comfortable and Jensen bends his forehead to the floor as best he can in the cramped space between the chair and the coffee table. "I'm grateful to you for speaking on my behalf, lady, so very grateful." "Oh, oh, Jensen, get up." Cate leans over, sounding flustered, and taps his shoulder awkwardly. "Please get up." "I'm sorry," Jensen apologizes, straightening to an upright kneel. "I didn't mean to displease you; I just wanted to show you my appreciation. You had no reason to intervene on my behalf; I'm a slave, no one, and your favor won't be forgotten." "Oh, God." Cate covers her face for a moment. Then she straightens her shoulders and, when she lets her hands drop, her face is composed, though there's a blush lingering in her cheeks. "Should I take it mean that you and Jeff made love, then?" Only Lady Kidman has ever used the words 'make love' to for sex with him and it was usually a commandMake love to me, Jensen. Jensen's tutors at Lord Cruise's had actively discouraged him from using those words. "We didn't have penetrative intercourse, no," Jensen says, without a noticeable pause. "Jeff asked me to masturbate for him, instead." Jensen considers. "I don't think I'm very good at it, but Jeff seemed pleased." Even though he didn't come, Jensen thinks, still worrying over that detail. But that seems too intimate to tell Cate, something not his own to reveal. Cate's blush seems even pinker, but her voice is perfectly conversational when she tilts her head to the side and asks, "Jensen, how is it that asking you about a dinner you had seems like the most excruciating thing for you to talk about but you can reel off what sex acts you've performed like you're ordering from a menu?" "Sex is my purpose," Jensen answers, a little puzzled and wondering if this is a trick question of some kind. "Not my only one, sure, but, still. One of my primary functions. I have to be knowledgeable and comfortable with my sexual functioning, if I'm going to please my master. My body has no secrets." He eyeballs the tea again, but he doesn't want to seem too restive. A good slave can hold still for hours at a time. "Is it? I can use less clinical language," he offers finally. "If. I just thought " Cate waves her hand. "No. The language is fine. Use whatever language you like, whatever's comfortable. It's just an interesting contrast, don't you think? Sex is one of the most intimate acts that can be performed between two people, where, on the other hand, even strangers might share a meal together." "It is interesting," Jensen agrees dutifully, without any idea of what she's talking about.

He thinks Cate might know he's bull-shitting by the way her breath huffs in a short chuckle, but she only says, "So you masturbated for Jeff. What was that like?" I wish I thinkI think about you. M-master. Fucking me. Despite what he just said to Cate about being comfortable, it had been hard to say those words to Jeff, his need pulsing so close to the surface and yet unable to spill over until that searing touch of benediction on his head and the murmured, It's all right, sweetheart. You can come. Come on now. And then, even better, That's my boy. That's my good boy. "I wish I was better at it," Jensen says finally, flushing himself with remembered heat. Jeff could be such a good master, if he would just Jensen abandons that train of thought guiltily, thinkingremembering instead about the strength and warmth of Jeff wrapped around him, big hands touching him, petting him down into sleep. "I wish" Jensen trails off, teeth nibbling at the inside of his mouth. "You wish?" Hearing the word parroted back, Jensen flinches, though he doesn't think that's Cate's intention. But slaves aren't supposed to wish for things. Slaves are supposed to be grateful for what they have. Jensen is grateful for what he has. "He held me afterward," Jensen says, hoping a change of subject will satisfy Cate's endless curiosity. "I liked that. He said I was good and that he liked watching me come. That was nice." At least until Mary-Louise roused the whole house. "But you still wish that Jeff had had sexpenetrative sexwith you?" Cate's tone is an inverse of Jensen's earlier; a question that sounds like a statement. Jensen sighs quietly, caught. "I just don't understand why he won't. Is it?" Jensen looks up, a thought occurring to him. "Is it because I'm male? I know he likeshas sex with women" With Ever., "that he had sex with Mary-Louise, even though she's a slave too. And everyone says He says that I arouse him, that he wants me. But it's not enough." Jensen's gaze drops back to his hands. "I don't know how to be enough." "Have you talked to Jeff about it?" Jensen shakes his head and then shrugs. "Sort of. We talked yesterday." "And what did Jeff say?" "He said that he believes that I think I want to have sex with him." Jensen reaches for the tea and misses, jostling the glass so that tea splashes on the table. Without thinking, he sets his sleeve down in the spill, wiping it up with the cuff. He gets the fingerprint smudge too, while he's at it. Cate opens her mouth and draws in a breath as though she's going to say something, then exhales, leaving it unsaid. A moment later, sounding

slightly stifled, she says, "Thank you, Jensen. Would you like to use the rest room, so the stain doesn't set?" "Thank you." Jensen bows his head. Cate's bathroom is as beautifully appointed as the rest of the house. Jensen studies the original watercolor hung over the commode while he washes out his shirt's sleeve and realizes that the jaunty, red-painted Jeff could very well be the same as his Jeff. "Jensen?" Cate taps on the door. "I've got a tee-shirt here you could wear, if you like. We can throw your shirt in the dryer while we finish talking and the tee's Jeff's so you wouldn't even have to worry about returning it." Jensen meets his own gaze in the mirror, wondering if Cate has one of Jeff's shirts because she, too, is having sex with Jeff. His eyes don't do anything so melodramatic as flash, but it feels like they should, a shot of pure, sickness racking him from head to toe like a shivering fever. Of course Jeff is sleeping with her. Of course he is. Jensen was stupid not to see it before now. "I spilled some marinara all over my favorite Kay Unger blouse," Cate says, smiling ruefully as Jensen opens the door. "And this is what Jeff gave me to wear home." The shirt in her hand is old and was probably once black, but is now a sad, streaked gray. Flakes of white shows where there was once lettering of some kind. "Kay Unger," Cate says again, agonized. "It was never the same after that. There's still astain." She sighs and fiddles her hair back behind one ear before holding the shirt out to him. "Anyway, it's been laundered since then, so you don't have to worry about my cooties or anything and it's probably the best chance I have to get the damn thing back to Jeff, since I never remember to bring it with me when I go visiting or to give it to him when he comes here." Her expression becomes concerned when she looks up and catches sight of his face. "Jensen? Are you all right?" Marinara sauce. Oh. "Im fine." Jensen makes his voice as light as he can as he takes the shirt from her fingers. The cotton is limp and kitten-soft with age and even though Cate was the last to wear it and it doubtlessly smells of her detergent and her house, Jensen feels a little buzzed at the idea of wearing Jeff's clothes again, the solid line of his collar more visible above the crew-neck of the shirt than it is in a button down. Cate doesn't ask him if he's sure, just accepts his wet-sleeved shirt from him, her expression thoughtful. She also doesn't seem to even glance at his naked torso or arms, even though Jensen's been careful to keep himself trim and limber despite all the food Sam keeps foisting off on him. Jensen feels vaguely insulted. "I'll go put this in the dryer," she says, pointing roughly toward the kitchen, "and then I'll be right back in and we can finish our session. Won't be a minute." "Okay." Jensen shrugs into the tee-shirt. He and Jeff are close to the same breadth through the shoulders and the shirt fits like it belongs to

him. Which it doesn't. But it's comfortable in a way few of his clothes are allowed to get. Jensen closes his eyes and smoothes his hand down the shirt's front, skin shivering at the caress relayed through stressed cotton. Then he goes back out into Cate's office.

Chapter 36
"So." Cate comes back in and re-seats herself on the couch. "Where did we leave off?" Cate strikes Jensen as one of those people who means that question literally. "You asked me if I'd had a conversation with Jeff about sex. I mentioned the conversation we had yesterday where Jeff said that he believed that I think I want to have sex with him." Cate's eyebrows quirk upward. "That's a very thorough recitation; I can see why you're so highly valued." Jensen rolls the hem of Jeff's tee-shirt between his fingers, looking down. Not that highly-valued. "Thank you." "Let me ask you a question. Do you think that Jeff wants to have sex with you?" Jensen takes a moment to think about the question, to try and think about it coolly and rationally through all the anxious white noise in his head. "I don't know," he says finally, looking up to meet Cate's gaze. "I think Sometimes I think he does. I." Jensen gestures vaguely at his face. "He. Sometimes he kisses me and I feel like Sometimes I feel" Jensen shakes his head, dull heat in his belly at the memory of those kisses, the dark pools of Jeff's desire behind them. "I don't know." I don't know if I just want it so bad that I'm seeing things that aren't there. "I don't know," Jensen says again, afraid to voice that thought, uncomfortable with the idea that he's foisting his desires onto his master. Cate taps her bottom lips with her fingers. "You know, I think what I don't understandand what I'm hoping you can explain to me, Jensen, is that If I were a slave, I think I'd be just as happy to not have to have sex with my master." She shifts again on the couch, swinging her legs up and tucking them mostly under her. The dark, bloody red nail polish on her toes is a different color than that the glittering pearl on her fingers. "Why is it so important to you that Jeff have a sexuala penetratively sexualrelationship with you?" Jensen doesn't even know what to say to that, an answer so obvious he's never had to try and articulate it in words, even mentally, for himself. He can feel the shock on his face like a mask covering the skin and hastily, he schools it to a more suitable demeanor. "He's my master," Jensen says finally. His voice shakes a little by the end and he presses the thumb nail of his right hand hard into the tip of his middle finger on the left under the guise of clasping his hands together. The bite of the nail's sharp edge clears his head a little, makes the panicky edge recede. "But as you pointed out, Jeff has lots of slaves. He doesn't have sex with all of them." "No, of course not." Barely, Jensen keeps the edge of impatience from his voice. He's not stupid or a child. "But they're not body-slaves. That's

what a body-slavewhat I'm for." "And yet it's not all you're for." "It's a primary function." Jensen can't keep all the heat from his voice that time, and he digs his nail in deeper, teeth gritting. "It's an important function. Sex is a necessary biological imperative. Sex can relieve stress, boost immunity, improves cardiovascular health, reduces the prospect of prostate cancer in men" "I know the health benefits of sex, Jensen," Cate interrupts, sounding more amused than irritated. Her smile flirts at the corners of her mouth, as well. "And I dont disagree that there are benefits to having healthy, loving sexual relationships. What I am asking is why it is important to you, personally, that Jeff have sex with you." "It's not," Jensen says automatically. He feels so hot and his lips are dry. "M- Jeff is free to do whatever he likes. I am happy to serve, however he wants me to. I just want to be pleasing in as many ways as I can." Jensen considers. "As he'll let me." No, still wrong. "As I am permitted." Cate regards Jensen for a long moment, her expression unreadable. Stillness spreads through Jensen like ink in water, thick ice that covers his vibrating center. Then Cate shifts again on the couch and the momentwhatever it waspasses. "I want to come back to this later," Cate says slowly, "but we shouldn't get too far off track. Finish telling me about the night Mary-Louise arrived." Jensen represses a shrug. "I masturbated for Jeff and then we went to bed. To sleep," he corrects, so there's no misunderstanding. "The doorbell woke us up and it was Mary-Louise." Jensen doesn't have a photographic memory, but his recall of that moment is etched so vividly in his mind, he might as well; Jeff's shock at seeing Mary-Louise is pregnant, the smirking amusement on Mary-Louise's thin, sharpfeatured face, pleased by Jeff's discomfort, pleased at getting to tell Jeff the baby wasn't his. He remembers the moment he realized what that meant. Jensen's hand had curled tight around the rococo curve of the railing, sick chills chasing each other up his spine and just as glad no one's attention was on him, unsteady on his feet. And then Mary-Louise's eyes had slid past Jeff to him and her smile had gotten wider yet. "She wasshe's pregnant." Jensen's sure Cate knows all this already, but she said she wanted to hear his version of events. He just wishes he could've heard what Jeff already told her. "And she told Jeff it wasn't his. Jeff asked Sam if any of the extra staff rooms were made up. Sam said that if they weren't, Mary-Louise could damn well make it up herself" Jensen breaks off, embarrassed all over again with the lack of discipline in Jeff's house and angry-embarrassed with himself for getting so engrossed in his retelling as to reveal it to someone outside of the household.

Cate flicks a knowing smile, cheek propped on her hand. "I have met Sam," she reminds him gently. "And Mary-Louise, for that matter." The corner of her mouth flexes, as much a grimace as a grin. Jensen nods. "Mary-Louise didn't want help. She said she'd get herself settled. Jeff said they'd talk in the morning." Jensen doesn't think he likes Mary-Louise any better than the rest of Jeff's slaves, but he skips past her mocking, 'As you wish, Master', in response to Jeff's statement. "We went back to bed, but I couldn't sleep." "Why couldn't you sleep?" Jensen's hand lifts from his lap and then drops again, helplessly. "Too much energy. Too much" Another non-specific gesture, this time swirling around his head. "I don't know. Everyone made it sound like Mary-Louise was gone for good. And Jeff" And I know that Jeff loved her. He hadn't really been startled that Jeff had taken his hand to lead him back to the bedroom; that was probably as much for Mary-Louise's benefit as Jensen's, tension vibrating through the cool but sweaty grip of Jeff's hand. But he had been surprised whenafter Jensen curled up in his habitual spot on the far edge of the bedJeff had growled in displeasure and tugged him back to the center, curling around Jensen with one arm thrown over his waist. I'll sort this out, Jeff had saidmurmuredright against Jensen's ear and if Jensen doesn't tell Cate that, it's as much because he doesn't understand why Jeff said it as much as the weirdness of Jeff's voice as he said it makes it seem too intimate a detail to reveal. Jeff said he could tell Cate anything and everything, but he didn't say that Jensen had to. "We didn't sleep," Jensen says finally. "Neither one of us." His throat feels dry all over again, recalling the hours of lying still in Jeff's arms, aware that neither one of them was sleeping, wanting to offer Jeff his bodyas a soporific, as relief, as an outlet for his anger, if it would help, if it was what Jeff wanted. With another master, a different master, Jensen would've tried. He doesn't know whether he should feel proud or ashamed of that. He remembers before, thinking that Jeff would ruin him and promising himself it wouldn't happen. But he's gone through all Jeff's papers about the Trust in secret, after Jeff had shown him to him the first time. He doesn't understand all the legalese, but he's run enough of some of his other master's affairs to understand most of it. The Trust is real. Jeff can't sell him and, as long as there's the money to run it, neither can the Trust. So he doesn't know what it means anymore if he's ruined. Jensen's not sure if he knows what any of it means anymore. "Jeff got up around dawn and wanted to go for a run. He asked me if I wanted to come." "Had he ever asked you to go with him before?"

"No." Jensen shook his head, feeling again the little fillip of satisfaction about it. Jeff doesn't exercise that often, but when he has, it was always with Kane or by himself. Of course, Jensen hadn't realized that running with Jeff meant that he was going to go down to the kennel first, to get Bisou, but he's not kidding himself. He knows he would've gone no matter what. "You don't like dogs much," Cate observes when he mentions Bisou. "Have any of your masters ever kept pets?" "Lord Cruise had dogs," Jensen says remotely, proud of the way he makes it sound dull as ash instead of a memory that still has the power to make him nauseous. "But they weren't really pets. Lord Crowewhen he was still Lord Crowedid, as well. But he loved his dogs. Like Jeff does." Jensen would think that so many mornings of finding Fiona and Sterling draped across his legs or tangled between him and Lord Crowe would've stopped his quaking yellow fear of dogs but he thinks they really only made it worse, growling at him any time he tried to move or shift, making him afraid to leave the very thin protection of the blankets until Lord Crowe would laugh at himand the dogsand drag them away. "Master Hutton was fond of cats," Jensen says with a sudden stab of nostalgia. He'd almost forgotten Hutton's brace of elderly catsone-eyed Sock, the cat without fear, crotchety Argylewho had the worst breath Jensen had ever encountered and an unfortunate penchant for grooming hairand slow, and lazy, sweet-tempered Rochelle, who would lay bellyup across your knees for hours, bonelessly content. Laterjust before the endthere'd been Nymph, relentlessly curious and far too intelligent for her own good. Jensen wonders what happened to Master Hutton's cats. He hates to think of them turned out in the street; they were all pampered housecats even Nymph, mighty huntress of dust balls and moths though she'd been. They never would've survived on the street. "What are you thinking?" Cate tucks both hands under her chin as though she's cold, even though the room isn't chilly. Jensen shakes his head. "It's stupid. I was just realizing that I never stopped to think what happened to Master Hutton's cats when his estate was seized. He adored those cats, and I never thought." Cate blinks, her expression momentarily nonplussed. "Weren't you also seized with the rest of Hutton's assets?" "Of course." Jensen clasps his hands together again, lets his nail bite into the meat of his finger. It's difficult to sound disinterested, even now. It was the first time he could remember being seized for asset liquidation and he'd had no idea of what would become of him, or LordMaster Hutton. "Have you considered that perhaps you didn't think about the cats

because you were concerned about what was going to happen to you?" "I'm a body-slave. I was going to go back to Commerce to be resold," Jensen points out, though, at the time, he hadn't been sure of that at all, any more than he'd been sure that the fondling and teasing in the seizure van wasn't going to go any further than it had. "They were just cats that no one cared about, except for me and Master Hutton. They weren't young or cuteNymph had broken her hipand they'd always been someone's cat. They couldn't survive on their own." "Are we talking about the cats, Jensen," Cate says slowly, "or are we talking about you?" Jensen's eyebrows and forehead wrinkle in. "I'm talking about the cats. They needed someone to take care of them andand Master Hutton wasn't always in any fit condition to do it. He wasn't well." Though Jensen had said the words hundreds, if not thousands of times, while in Hutton's service, there's still an ache to them. Master Hutton had never been violent with him, not once in the time they'd been together. But that didn't mean that living with Hutton had been easy. "All right," Cate says readily, "then let's use that as a metaphor. Do you sometimes feel like you need someone to take care of you?" "Mymy master takes care of me," Jensen stammers, trying to divineas usualwhat Cate is angling for. Cate nods as though Jensen's given her the right answer and Jensen lets himself breathe out a little in relief, covering it with a sip of his dwindling tea. He's glad she gives it to him, allows him to drink it through their session; Jensen doesn't think he's ever had to talk so much in his life. "How are things with you and Jared?" Cate asks, in one of her lightning fast changes of topics that always leaves Jensen scrambling behind her. "Fine." Jensen shrugs. The truth is that he doesn't know how to characterize his relationship with Jared. He's kind of surprised there's still a relationship there to characterize, butthough Jared doesn't press the issue, or JensenJared acts as though there's nothing wrong between them, as though they're still as friendly as ever. It's weird and slightly uncomfortable and the fact that Jeff gets along so well with Jared does nothing to help Jensen figure out how to fix it. "He came running with usat Jeff's request, of course." Jared had brought Sadie and Harley and the three of them had pretty much run circles around Jeff, Jensen and Bisou. Jeff had said, You don't have to hang back with us old fogies, but Jensen was more than content to match his pace to Jeff's, the two of them moving in rhythm. "And how was that?" Jensen doesn't know how to answer that, either, though it seems like it should be simple. Better than being ignored, not as good as sex? "I'm I like that there's space for me, next to him. I wantI want that. I want to

be a good slave, a good companion. Jeff He talks to me, now. About things going on. Things he wants me to know, things he wants me to do. Mary-Louise" Jensen tries to say, everyone in the house hates her without stating it so baldly. "He wants a place for her to be comfortable, somewhere near her doctor and the hospital and her classes and thingshe's letting me do that. He trusts me to do that." After the run, instead of going back to the house, Jeff had gone to the slave dormitory where Chad, Jared and some of the other slaves lived, dialing up to the house for Sam to bring clean clothes. He remembers the look on Sam's face when she came down herself, rather than send Sandy or Adrienne. He remembers her saying to Jeff: You can't avoid this forever, Jeff and Jeff's weary, No, but I can avoid it for today. "And how is that going?" Cate's lifted her tea glass, but doesn't take a sip, looking at him over the rim. "How are you and Mary-Louise getting along." Jensen shrugs. "We've hardly spoken." That first day, Jeff had fled to his officeJensen hadn't even been sure Jeff had an official 'office', most of his work conducted from homeand then to a series of meetings in restaurants. Jensen doesn't think Jeff enjoyed it muchat least the part in the officebut he did. It's the most 'official' day they've had together, Jensen kneeling quietly, working on finding a suitable apartment for Mary-Louise in between tending Jeff. "She's hardly spoken to anybody," Jensen adds. "She mostly stays in her rooms. I think she's tired a lot." Jensen's experience with children is largely limited to when Lord Cruise adopted Connor and Isabella. He doesn't really know anything about pregnancy, though he's been quietly reading up on the subject. "And I don't think she wants to be there much, either." Not that Jensen feels like he has a good idea of what Mary-Louise wants. She's summarily rejected every apartment he's come up with, hardly even looking at the lists or charts that go with his choices. But she doesn't seem happy at the house, either, arguing with Sam, arguing with Kane, taking all her meals in her room. Adrienne out-and-out refuses to clean up after her and the one time Sandy went in to collect laundry, she came out stone-faced and lock-jawed. "Honestly," Jensen says, "I don't know why she's here." "Hmm." Cate rolls her tea glass against her cheek. "That makes two of us, darling."

Chapter 37
Jeff is in the great room watching football with Kane, Zach, Zach's 'wife' Wendy, Jeremy and Sam, when Jensen returns home. He smiles at Jensen like he's actually glad to see him and gestures Jensen to sit next to him on the couch. The roombig as it isis a fug of beer and popcorn and the green smell of pot. The other couch has been denuded of its cushions and the sprays of popcorn on the carpet would seem to indicate that Jensen has missed a war. His fingers twitch to clean it up, but he doubts they'll appreciate the interruption and he's tired. He's always tired after therapy, though he hasn't been able to figure out why. All he does is sit and talk. Jeff's couch is incredibly comfortable, though. Especially when tired. Jeff slings his arm around Jensen's neck and pulls him down against his side. Jensen thinks he's possibly been thinking about Lord Hutton so much lately because they used to do this too. Jensen really hopes that's where the comparisons stop. Jeff's team must do something good because the whole room roars Jeremy in disappointment, because he always bets against Jeffand Jeff's arm tightens, pulling them more snugly together. When the moment's passed, though, and the players are milling around for the next play, Jeff looks at Jensen, eyes dancing. "How was therapy?" Jeff asks, pitching his voice low enough to exclude the otherswho aren't paying a bit of attention to them anyway. Jensen lifts one shoulder. "Fine." He hasn't figured out what answer to give Jeffnot only because he's not sure what Jeff's looking for but also because Jensen has no idea how to gauge if a session has been a success or not. On the days Jensen feels like he's disappointed Cate the most with one wrong answer after another are generally the days she gives him a hug and tells him it was great and he did an excellent job and she'll see him in a few days. Jeff's eyes crinkle, as though he doesn't quite believe Jensen, but he only says, "Good," and kisses Jensen on the temple before turning his attention back to the game. He lets Jensen go, too, shifting his arm to the back of the couch, but Jensen stays pressed to Jeff's side, pulling his legs up to take the strain off his back. Jeff doesn't object and Jensen breathes shallowly, hoping Jeff will forget he's there. Everything Jensen knows about football, he's picked up by osmosis, having never sat down to watch a game himself. Some of his masters have been fans, but Jensen was usually too busy tending to have paid much attention. Jensen knows how to fake it, though. "You hungry?" Jeff's arm is still across the couch's back, but his fingers curl around the point of Jensen's shoulder and scratch in idle affection. "Sam set out a whole buffet of stuff on the console." Jeff jerks his chin in that direction and Jensen cranes up a little to see the truly obscene

amount of picked over food on the sideboard, including what looks like a whole carved turkey. "There's plenty." Plenty is kind of an understatement. Jensen does feel a little hungry, but it's only a little and not worth giving up his spot. "I'm okay." "You're still too thin," Jeff says mildly, squeezing Jensen's shoulder. "Turn sideways and you're gone." This is when Jensen knows least how to read Jeff. Master Crudup had tempted him with food, but he hadn't really wanted Jensen to take it, wanting Jensen to show his strength and discipline in holding out as long as possible. With Master Crowe, it would've meant he wanted Jensen to eat anyway, even when Jensen wasn't hungry, not even a little bit. With Jeffit doesn't seem to mean anything at all. So much of what Jeff says seems to not mean anything at all, thoughts just thrown out at random for Jensen to act on or not. "I'm okay here," Jensen says slowly, putting it out like a man testing his way across ice. "Isis that okay?" Jeff gives him a lazy, hazy-eyed grin and another squeeze. "Yeah. It's fine, Jensenoh, come on, asshole, he threw the ball right to you! What do we have to do, staple it to your hands?" Jeff's attention slips away from him like water through his fingertips and Jensen wonders if he's dreaming. It feels like he must be, tucked so casually in the curve of Jeff's body, with no one's attention on him. Even if they don't like him, he's accepted as part of the group now, as Jeff's. Zach is lying on the floor, on the stolen cushions from the other couch. Wendy is curled up in a pose a lot like Jensen's, her head pillowed on her arms, which are, in turn, pillowed on Zach's belly. In between bouncing around in front of the TV, Jeremy will flop down with his head on Zach's thigh. Jensen is interested to note that Zach combs his fingers through Wendy and Jeremy's hair in the exact same way, with the exact same degree of affection. It seems meaningful, though Jensen can't parse exactly what's meaningful about it. Kanewho is usually a lounger extraordinaireis actually sitting in one of the straight chairs from the dinette, silently finger picking on his old, dented up six-string and muttering to himself while he watches the screen. Sam has claimed the recliner for herself, wrapped to the chin in the wine-colored chenille throw that usually resides on the back of one of the couches. It's only after Jensen's tallied up everyone in the room that he realizes there's an extra, a tired looking man sitting in the far corner by the windows, reading. Unlike anyone else in the roomincluding Jensen he's wearing suit pants, waistcoat and tie, the platinum of his collar wintry even against the crisp cream of his shirt. It's a new suit, and expensiveSirianoand a part of Jensen lusts for those clean lines. Though his jeans are Jeff's choice, Jensen feels grubby in contrast; he's conscious of how far he's fallen. "That's Misha." Jeff scrubs Jensen's arm lightly and Jensen realizes he's craned forward to get a better look. "He's Jeremy's new body-slave."

Jensen isn't surprisedno, scratch that. Jensen is surprised. He's very surprised. And then he's angry with himself for being surprised. Just because Jeremy seemed to love Marisadid Jensenwas Jensen stupid enough tobelieve that mattered? "Just until Marisa's better," Jeff continues, dropping his voice. "She" Jeff sighs, breath puffing warmly across Jensen's skin. "I guess she and Jer have been having a hard time." The last time Jensen saw Marisa, he thought she was having entirely too much of a good time, but he understands why Jeff wouldn't say so. "He reminds me of you," Jeff says, his tone fluttering with suppressed laughter. "So very proper. I don't think he approves of us at all." The warm snake of pride Jensen felt at finally being included in Jeff's group slither-twists around to eat its own tail, bittersweet. "Though who can blame him?" Jeff squeezes Jensen's bicep. "We are a bunch of degenerates, right?" "Right," Jensen says faintly. "He's only ever had the one owner." Jeff's voice turns more serious, contemplative. "Lord Pricedid you know him?" Jensen shakes his head. "Only by reputation." "He wasa great man. A great man." Jeff's eyes get distant, shadowed. "He I was sorry to hear he'd died. I didn't know Jeremy would do this, though." His mouth flexes thoughtfully. "Is it bad?" Jensen glances at Misha again. The other slave seems entirely oblivious of them all, though Jensen suspects he's not as absorbed as he seems. Not if he's a body-slave and half worth his salt. "Should we worry?" Jeff jerks a little, then glances at him. "No. No," he repeats. "It's just unexpected. Not bad." Jeff makes a short chuckle. "It might even turn out to be a very good thing. Maybe. I don't know. But nothing to worry about." Jensen nods. He doesn't disbelieve Jeff, but he makes a mental note to himself to check out Lord Price and Misha himself. There's another roar from the group and Jeff curses, head swinging back to the TV. "What'd I miss?" "Oh, dude, it was classic!" Jeremy crows. Looking at him now, Jensen can more clearly spot the circles under his eyes, the way the skin's drawn more taut. His antics have a forced quality to them. "Look, here's the replay. Quit playing footsie with Jensen and pay attention this time." Jeff falls back into the game and Jensen resettles, his back wedged between the couch and Jeff's chest, Jeff's arm slung loosely around his

neck. It's a bad angle for him to see the TV, but Jensen's not interested in the game anyway and Jeff only requires Jensen to nod and look interested while he recounts the best moments. Jensen closes his eyes to better focus on the idle strum of Jeff's fingers across his pectoral. He wishes he was naked, but the cotton of Jeff's shirt is thin enough that Jensen can almost pretend, goose bumps studding his skin and low heat pooling in his belly. When Jensen opens his eyes again, it's because of the silence. The flux and shift of Jeff's friends voices and the television have a kind of tidal roar to them. When it's gone, it seems to somehow echo loud and Jensen lurches in place, lifting his lids to quiet, darkness. The TV is still on, but the sound's been turned down to a whisper. Jensen's slid down on the couch in his sleep, his head pillowed on Jeff's thigh and the throw last seen on Sam thrown over him. "It's okay," Jeff says quietly, coaxing Jensen back down with the hand still on his chest. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sleep." Jeff's fingers slip through Jensen's hair. It feels good and Jensen stretches his legs out, toes curling. "It's fine. You were tired." The back of Jeff's fingers stroke down Jensen's cheek, trace across Jensen's throat. Jensen tips his head back, eyes closing again. "Besides, I like watching you sleep." The low-pooling heat in Jensen's belly flares hotter, surging through his lazy limbs and clearing the last sleep-fog from his brain. In his twisted around jeans, Jensen's cock stirs against taut-drawn denim. "I could do something else you like to watch me do," Jensen says slowly, craning his head back for a glimpse of Jeff's face. "If you want?" Jeff looks at him strangely, complicated by the colored flicker of television glow. "Do you want to?" More blood shoots into Jensen's dick, making his hips flex. This, he thinks. This is how it works. "Please?" It's a scrunch for Jeff to bend and jag their mouths together but Jensen doesn't mind the jostling or the awkward angle, his feet pushing for purchase on the cushions, trying to bring them together more satisfactorily. Jeff ends up on his back and Jensen eels around on top of him, relishing the bite of Jeff's fingers on his biceps. He keeps making shameful, needy noises into Jeff's mouth, but since it only makes Jeff rock into him harder, he guesses Jeff doesn't mind. More wriggle-wrestling and then Jensen's underneath, Jeff's weight pressing him down, his wrists pinned and the thin skin of his throat between Jeff's teeth. Jensen moans quietly, writhing up, letting every inch of his body beg for it.

Jeff doesn't seem to want more than this, rutting, kissing and necking on the couch like free teenagers saving it up for their body-slaves back home. Though Jensen aches for itdull throb in his cock, the deeper pulse of his assit's enough to have Jeff's hands and mouth on him, to have Jeff hold him down and kiss him with that deep, darkness-edged hunger. He's been owned by women, fucked by women, but he's always liked better the solidity of a man's weight on top of him, pressing him down. It always reminds him of those first years with Lord Cruise, feeling safe, protected, and unaware that he wouldor even couldbe passed off like an unfashionable scarf. He thought he'd be Lord Cruise's forever. It seems amazing to Jensen now that he could've ever been that young or that nave. Mimi had tried to tell him, in so many different ways and he'd been unable to envision the world she tried to show him. He doesn't believe in Jeff. Not in that same way. Even with the promise of the Trust between them, Jensen doesn't know how much he believes in Jeff at all. But he wants him. He likes the way Jeff's hands skim up under the hem of his shirt to thumb and then tweak his nipples, the scratch of Jeff's nails across his side. He likes the hard press of cockJeff's cock riding against his, the harshness of Jeff's kisses, all of it so much better than the tentative stroking of his own hand. "You gonna come for me?" Jeff pants against Jensen's ear. He reaches between them and grinds the heel of his hand across Jensen's straining cock, racking Jensen with shudders all the way to his feet and making his breath hitch unevenly. "Yes." Jensen doesn't mean to whisper the word but he can't make his breath come out any louder. "Unbutton your jeans." Jeff nips Jensen's earlobe, curls his tongue into the hollow. "Take your cock out. Let me see you." Jeff shifts his weight back onto his knees, pressing himself up on his arms far enough that they can both look down the length of Jensen's spread body as Jensen tears at the button, drags down the zip. Jensen closes his eyes as Jeff bites his jaw, wicked nip of teeth that turns into hard, sucking pressurebut he doesn't need his eyes to find his cock, free it from the thin restraint of his boxers. Even wishing it was Jeff's hand instead of his own, the first drag of skin to naked skin is heaven. Jensen moans and Jeff echoes it, his thighs jolting against the back of Jensen's as he thrusts. "Touch yourself," Jeff says, his voice thickening, roughening as he lips along Jensen's jaw line toward his chin. "Wrap your fingers around that pretty cock and make it feel good." "Gnngh." The noise Jensen makes isn't quite a grunt and isn't quite words and fluid blurts against his dragging fingers. "That's it." Jeff laps Jensen's cheek, shocking warm wetness that makes Jensen turn his head, mouth already open and tongue already seeking. Jeff's knees push under Jensen, lifting his hips. Jensen arches his back

and groans into the kiss, stripping his cock with slow, tight pumps. "I love watching you." The naked sincerity of Jeff's voice makes Jensen shiver. "So fuckin' beautiful and you don't even know it." "Master," Jensen whispers, pushing his hips up, offering himself. "Please, master" Jeff buries his face in Jensen's neck and shivers, body jolting into Jensen's hard. "Jeff?" At first, the sound of Mary-Louise calling Jeff's name is only meaningless noise, identifiable only as female. Jeff deciphers it first, because he stiffens and mutters, "Un-fucking-believable," against Jensen's skin. "Jeff." Mary-Louise calls again, urgently. Jeff sits up on his knees, sighing heavily. "What, Mary-Louise?" For a moment, Jensen has an agony of indecision about whether Jeff wants him to lie as he is, available, or to decently cover himself. Jeff seems to have a pretty strong sense of modesty, though, so he drags his shorts up over his erection and scoots up as well. Mary-Louise is wearing a long, ruffled nightgown, the thickness of her hair down around her shoulders. It's hard to tell in the flash of the television, but Jensen thinks she looks pale. She has one hand on her back and the other tucked between her legs, knees bent like she's trying to hold something in. A moment later, the TV glares bright enough and white enough that he can see the rose-petal smudging around her hand and he realizes she maybe is. "I don't know," Mary-Louise says, the suave, confident tone usually in her voice entirely absent. She sounds both more shrill and scared. "Something's wrong. Jeffhelp. Please help."

Chapter 38
Jensen hates hospitals. Nothing good has ever happened to him in a hospital including, arguably, his birth. The best thing he can say about this trip is at least it's not for him. Jared drops him off at the entrance. Jensen would've just driven in alone, but the parking lot is situated inconveniently far from the hospital's front door and the thought of leaving Mary-Louise parked on the hospital's portico while he runs back for the car offends his sensibilities. Jensen goes in through the slave's entrance. He knows the scanners on either side of the door are passive, that any vibration he feels in his collar is purely his imagination, but he always feels it anywaya slight buzz that makes his breath and heart quicken in nervous reflex. Mary-Louise is on the third floor in a room with a view. Jeff carries the Commerce-sold insurance on his slaves, but that doesn't cover extravagances like a window. That's all Jeff. True, it's only a view of the Imaging building's graveled rooftop and air handlers and the back of the 'regular' hospital, but it's still a window and natural light. Not that Jensen cares. It's Jeff's money to spend as he likes. But it is an extravagance. Jensen checks in at the nurse's station. "Has Master Morgan's slave been issued discharge yet?" The nurses aren't Commerce slaves, exactly, but Commerce does hold their contractsand their loyaltyand Jensen never forgets that. She's not Mary-Louise to them. Just an owned body, same as him. He doesn't expect the friendliness of the younger looking nursea blonde with a vague resemblance to Everas she smiles widely. "Not yet. Doctor Gupta was waiting for her escort before he discharged her. I'll let him know you're here, if you'd like to wait in her room." "Thank you." Jensen smiles in return, careful to make it friendly, but not overly friendly. Nothing in him or about him to say, my master is an abolitionist and plotting against the government. His masters have had many secrets; this is just one more. Mary-Louise is on her feet and looking out her very expensive window when Jensen taps on the door and pushes it open. Her hand is curved around her belly, but with the change in air pressure, she lets both hands fall and looks over her shoulder at him. Her smile is gentle, almost friendly but Jensen doesn't mistake that as indicative of anything. "Of course he sent you," she says, sounding fond. "I'm his body-slave. Who else would he send?" Jensen looks around. Mary-Louise came with nothing but her bloodied nightgown. She's wearing the clothes he brought for her later. Other than the small kit of toiletries zipped and waiting on the bed, there's nothing else for her to bring. Jensen looks back at Mary-Louise, who's moved to the comfortless armchair. "You shouldn't be on your feet," he says disapprovingly, even

though he knows she'll probably mock him for it. "Unless you want to lose the baby." "I'm sitting down now." Mary-Louise spreads her hands. Though the surface of her tone is still light, breezy, Jensen hears a brittle anger underneath. Or is that only what he expects to hear, what he wants to hear? Jensen's not sure why he'd want that. Why he'd care. "The doctor should be here shortly." He decides to bypass it altogether. It's nothing to him if Mary-Louise finishes losing her baby, except maybe more of Jeff's money wasted. "I can't wait." Sarcasm drips from the false-brightness of Mary-Louise's voice and Jensen goes to the window himself, out of things to say to her. The view's not really improved for better proximity. Concrete jungle and the gray-blue haze of mountains in the distance. "My back hurts." Jensen turns around and takes a sideways step toward the bed, reaching. "Do you want a pillow?" He doesn't know how to talk to MaryLouise. She's smartat least as smart as Jensen and possibly smarter and she hides her thoughts and feelings better than anyone Jensen's ever run up against, layering sarcasm and insincerity over everything she doesn't hide outright until no one can tell what's true. And other than the fact that she doesn't seem to like anyone at Jeff's very much including Jeff, her masterhe doesn't know anything about her at all. Mary-Louise shakes her head, though for once, she doesn't look at him like he's mentally deficient. "No. I meanwhen I sit too much. My back hurts." She grimaces and shakes her head again, cascading whispers of hair from the pins that struggle to keep it upswept. "Never mind. It doesn't matter." "The doctor said you need bed rest, though, right?" Mary-Louise's placental abruptionwhile scary at the time and potentially dangerous to both mom and babyshould theoretically heal itself, as long as MaryLouise takes it easy and doesn't exert herself too much. Mary-Louise shrugs. "Does it really matter?" She says things like that. Acts as though it doesn't matter to her if her baby lives or dies. Kane, Zach and Sam are convinced that Mary-Louise doesn't give a damn, grumbling about the money Jeff's spending on her careboth prenatal and this week-long sojourn in the hospital. Her eyes and lips twist mockingly again as she turns her head to regard him. "Do you care, Jensen? Do you really give a shit about me and my sad, sad pain?" Jensen remembers how she was, though; in the great room, bleeding and trying to hold her baby inside, in the car, clinging fiercely to Jeff's

hand and crying while Jensen raced them to the hospital. More than that, he's seen how often her hands sneak to her belly orgravitate, really, as if the child inside is a hidden sun. "No." Jensen straightens his feet, his back, bringing himself back into alignment. He doesn't want to get into the habits of bad posture. "I don't care. But Jeff does, and I'm a good slave." Mary-Louise strokes her fingers vertically across her stomach. He doesn't think she's even aware she's doing it. "Yes," she agrees. "I heard that about you." Her eyes flicker as she looks the length of him. "At least you're honest." "Does that matter to you?" She tilts her head thoughtfully. "Surprisingly, it does." She sits up straightor as straight as she canclapping her hands down on her knees. "So. What's the plan?" Jensen clasps his hands in front of him, old habit. He sees Mary-Louise track the gesture and her lips quirk but he refuses to let her amusement bother him simply because he is well-trained. "Jeff's rented an apartment for you. It's one of the ones that was on the list; it's close to the hospital and to your obstetrics site. He is working on buying a couple of house slaves to look after you and do the cooking, cleaning, etcetera. You should have them by tomorrow." He doesn't say that Jeff has to acquire the slaves because none of Jeff's current staff wants to deal with MaryLouise. "Because no one at Jeff's was willing to look after me." Mary-Louise tilts her head back against the chair's rest and gives a little half-laugh, sounding genuinely amused. "How old are you, Jensen?" "Me? I'm thirty." The question is unexpected enough to startle him into answeringthough he has no good reason to withhold the information, either. His age is a matter of public record. "Hmm." She looks down the length of her nose at him. "Older than I thought; you dont look it. God, you make me tired." She sighs and closes her eyes, turning her face back toward the window. Jensen, unmoving, wonders if she's going to sleep when she says, "I bet you could stand there for hours, couldn't you, Jensen? Like the good little slave you are." "If you're trying to insult me, you'll have to find something else to pick on. I don't feel ashamed of being good at my job. It doesn't embarrass me to be a slave." "I don't know if I'm trying to insult you." Mary-Louise opens her eyelids a slit, the color of her irises hidden by sparse, tawny lashes. "You interest me. You're not like Jeff's other slaves." She reaches for the plastic cup of water on the nearby table, sipping loudly through the straw before she asks, "Have you gotten him to fuck you yet?" "Why are we talking about this?"

"I said." Mary-Louise's tone is mild and she taps the drinking end of her straw against the corner of her mouth. "I'm interested. Things looked pretty hot and heavy when I interrupted." And Jeff hasn't touched me since. Jensen doesn't say the words, doesn't even let them rise to his face to be read by Mary-Louise's avid gaze. "I was surprised," she continues, after a short pause to study Jensen's face. "And impressed. It took me nearly two years to get him to fuck me. What's your secret?" Jensen smiles blandly and meaninglessly. "Being a good slave." "Ha!" She grins at him in a peculiar kind of triumph before shaking her head. "God, you're not like I thought you'd be." "What did you think I'd be like?" Her lips purse thoughtfully. "I don't know." The quality of her gaze changes, sort of softening and sort of becoming more intense at the same time. "You're always walking around like you're expecting someone to beat you if you breathe wrong." Jensen just lifts his eyebrows. He's a slave. Of course he walks around expecting to be beaten. Mary-Louise tips her head in his direction and shrugs her shoulders in acknowledgement. "Anyway. You can just call Jeff and tell him that I'm not moving into any apartment. I want to go home." It surprises Jensen that she'd call any place home, let alone Jeff's estate where it's never seemed like she's wanted to bebut his startlement costs him the chance to speak as the door opens and the doctor comes in. "Looks like you're going to be leaving us today, hmm?" If Gupta doesn't use Mary-Louise's name, at least he doesn't use her ident number, either. It's kindness of a sort, the kind that they're used to. "How are you feeling?" It rankles Jensen to do itand it bugs him more that Mary-Louise knows he's going to do itbut she hasn't left him a lot of options. Jensen moves a couple feet from her and Guptathough not so far he can't overhear her discharge instructionsand fishes out his cell phone, tapping open his headset. "Jensen?" Jeff picks up on the first ring, sounding worried. "Everything okay?" "It's fine, sir." Jeff sighs at the sir but Jensen figures he's better safe than sorry with an audience. "Mary-Louise wants to come home." "Home?" Jensen can almost see Jeff's forehead wrinkle. "Waityou mean here home? Likethe estate? Whyou told her about the apartment, right?" Another sigh, deeper than the first. "Of course you did," Jeff says before Jensen can answer. "That was a stupid question. I just don't I

thought the apartment would make her happy." Jeff sounds almost plaintive as he says it. "God knows she seems to hate being here. I don't get it." "Maybe she just wants to be close to you." "Heh." The noise Jeff makes can't properly be called a laugh. "More like she wants to watch me squirm." He sighs a third time and Kane makes some comment in the background that Jensen can't hear. "Fine. Whatever. If she wants to be here, she can be here. I'll get those other slaves anyway and they can wait on her since no one else wants to. Maybe she'll get along better with people she doesn't know." Jeff pauses and Jensen doesn't know what to say, so the silence stretches on for a few moments before Jeff says, "Don't tell her I said that. I'm just She caught me off-guard." Jensen makes a noncommittal noise. "No, I know you wouldn't," Jeff says, as though he heard Jensen's mental denial. "Justdon't tell her. I'm in a bad fucking mood and it's not her fault. It's not her fault that I don't know what to do for her." "I'll take care of cancelling the lease," Jensen says. "And I can take care of her. You know. Until you find someone." With most of his masters, he wouldn't sound this fuddled. He'd know what they want, what they require. What they allow, the invisible yet inelastic bounds of his meager authority. With Jeff he's always fumbling across that ballroom floor. He wonders if it'll always be like this or whether some day he'll reach equilibrium through sheer evolution. "Are you sure?" The relief in Jeff's voice is unmistakablebut so is the uncertainty. "I mean, I know you volunteered to pick her up from the hospital and all" So you wouldn't, Jensen thinks, instead of preparing for your meeting tomorrow. "but that doesn't mean that she's your responsibility or anything. I don't want to" "Sir?" Jensen cuts in. He's a little amazed at himself, but he's starting to recognize the ways of doing business with Jeff. "It's not a problem. I don't mind. I will handle this for you." "Oh, God, Jensen I could kiss you." "He will, too," Kane breaks in, voice looming louder as he apparently leans in closer to the phone. There's a slight scuffle and his voice gets distant again. "Okay, look," Jeff says, "I'm kind of swamped right now, so why don't you bring Mary-Louise home and then we can figure out things from there?" "Yes, sir. I will do that, thank you." "Jensen."

"Yes?" "Thank you. You" Jeff pauses as though he wants to say something else but he only concludes with, "Thanks. I'll see you at home." "Yes, sir," Jensen says again, feeling a little light-headed giddy all the same. The thing is, Jensen muses as he taps off the headset, he doesn't really mind. He doesn't like Mary-Louise and he's under no illusions that she likes him, butother than the fact that she is massively overindulged for a slave and has a chronic inability to do as she's toldhe can deal with her. He'd never say it, but in some ways, he thinks it's almost easier to deal with her. Mary-Louise is spoiled, prickly and defiantand she could be any one of a hundred other slaves he's had to deal with in his time of service. "Look at you," she says, laughing, once Gupta's left them alone again with a handful of papers and instructions. "Flushed and happy like you've been freshly fucked. Oh, my, Jensen; is it like that?" Jensen just looks at her. "I'll look and see if I can find a wheelchair so we can leave." "I assume Jeff has no problems with me coming home?" On the surface, Mary-Louise still sounds teasing, sly, but underneathand possibly imaginedJensen thinks he hears something else. "Does it really matter? You'll be bedridden either way." Jensen crosses to the door. "Jensen." He turns back to look at her, one hand on the door. When she's not smiling, he can see how tired she looks, dark circles under her eyes and cheeks too sharp where they should be plump. Jensen sighs. "It's Jeff," he says roughly. "When doesn't he do whatever the hell you want?" Mary-Louise cocks her head to the side, eyes narrowing a little. "He would for you, too, if you would ask for it, instead of waiting for him to give it to you. I'm not that special." "He loved you." Jensen doesn't mean for the words to come out so hotly; he hadn't meant to let her get under his skin this way. "And yet I'm so quickly replaced." She flicks a hand at him. "In every way. You said it yourself. He loved me." Her mouth crooks sideways, voice quieting as she says, "And not even all that much. Like everything else with us, it was mostly an illusion. If you want Jeffjust take him. He already wants you a hell of a lot more than he ever wanted me." It's the longest speech she's ever made to him, and the most passionate. And nothing in it is something he can or would talk about with her. "I'll get the wheelchair."

Chapter 39
"Hey, Jensen." Jared sounds surprisedas well he might bebut he pauses his video game and puts the controller down on the floor, giving Jensen his full attention. "You get Mary-Louise squared away?" "Yeah." He still feels stung and scoured but Mary-Louise is settled. For the moment. Jensen rubs his palms on his back pockets before tucking his fingers into the denim. "I." He doesn't know what brought him here, feeling weird, conspicuous and bordering on stupid. He nods toward the TV. "Are you busy?" "Nah." Jared shakes his head, leaning back more comfortably on the couch. "What's up?" Jensen shrugs. He's never been in the slave's dormitory before. It's nicer than he would have thought, the television rivaling Jeff's for size. The furniture's obviously less expensive, but still nice and comfortable. Jensen settles lightly on the opposite end of the couch, scratching the band of his watch with his thumbnail. "Youknew Mary-Louise before, right?" "Oh." Jared nods wisely. "You want to know about Mary-Louise." Jensen shrugs again, looking at Jared's paused game, a foggy forest where two guys were frozen mid-shot. "I don't know. I just don't understand." Jared laughs. "Get in the back of a long, long line, man." "No. But I mean" Jensen's hands flap up and then down. "Jeff loved her, right?" Jared makes a face. "Dude, I don't know. I mean, if you want the real low down, you should probably ask Kane or Sam or somebody. I'm not up at the house all that much and Mary-Louise didn't come down here, if you know what I mean." "Yeah." It was just as stupid for Jensen to come down here as he thought it was. Of course Jared can't give him any information; he's just a field hand. Jensen doesn't know what was going through his mind. He puts his hands on his knees and starts to push to his feet. "Hey." Jared brushes Jensen's wrist lightly. "Hang out for a minute. Let me get you a soda or something; I'll tell you what I know." Jensen had every intention of leaving, but he sinks back down onto the couch. Because he wants to hear what Jared has to say and not because the thought of the walk back up to the house is more than he wants to contemplate right now. Jared's smile is wide and easy and he jumps up from the couch. The kitchen is only a galley style one right off the living room; if Jensen turned around, he could watch Jared over the breakfast bar. He doesn't

turned around, he could watch Jared over the breakfast bar. He doesn't turn around, nudging Jared's controller with his foot and wondering vaguely, incuriouslyabout the two men trapped in time on the screen. "Here." Jared taps the back of Jensen's hand with a cool and already sweating can. Jensen takes it from him. It's one of Mountain Dew's variants, which he hates, but he cracks it open and takes a polite, preliminary sip anyway. "Thanks." "No problem." Jared crashes back down on the couch like an avalanche and pops his own soda, taking a long, loud suck at the can. "Why did Jeff even buy her?" Jensen turns the can in his hands, looking at the pink liquid sloshing at the can's lip. He traces a pattern in the condensation with his thumb. Jared shrugs. "She was old Lord Sheen's body-slave, working as his Agent. Kane and Jeff were working with her on a dealI don't know what for, I don't really know anything about Jeff's businesses" "Cargo space, probably," Jensen answers quietly. Jensen's dealt with the Sheens before, though his interactions were with Charles, not Lord Martin Sheen. Magnates is the right word for them, a shipping empire that extends well beyond the USNA in a time when so few businesses do. "Yeah, I don't know." Jared makes a kind of arm-shrug, coming dangerously close to pouring soda all over the carpet. Inwardly, Jensen flinches, but otherwise doesn't move. "Anyway, I guess Sheen told Jeff at the Closing that he was thinking about getting rid of Mary Louise. Jeff made him an offer right there." It sounds like Jeff, with his bleeding heart and soppy politics. Jensen hides his snort in candy-flavored soda, letting it coil down his throat and into his uneasy stomach. He shouldn't be here. He should be up at the house. Jeff might need him and so will Mary-Louise, her sooner, rather than later. He still doesn't really know what he's doing here, what he's looking for. This is so outside of anything he's ever done before, the edges of it huge, fuzzy and incomprehensible. This isn't something Jeff's asked him to do. It's something he's doing on his own. If pushed, he could say it's in Jeff's best interests, that he needs to understand what Mary-Louise's effect on the house will be, to be able to serve Jeff to his fullest capabilityand some part of that is true. Maybe it's even mostly true. But not completely. "SoJeff was attracted to her from the start." Jared snorts and then chokes on his soda. "No, Jeff just thought she was a damn good negotiator. Which she is, I guess." Jared shrugs. "Even Kane says so, when he can get a word out about Mary-Louise that isn't a cuss."

"And, of course, Kane is the final word around here." Jensen gets the words out pretty blandly, but he can feel the hot, squirming knot of them in his chest. Jared raises his eyebrows. "Don't take it like that. Jeff and Kane have been together a long time." "Don't I know it." "Jen" Jensen shakes his head. "No. Let's not get off topic. I've just It's been a long day." Jared looks at him doubtfully for a second, but ends in a shrug. "Yeah, okay. Sure." He's quiet for a few moments, fingers tapping rhythmless percussion against the can before he bursts out, "It just seems like you're worried about Mary-Louise and you're worried about Kane and you dont have to be. Jeff likes you. Jeff likes you for you." And some day, he'll replace me, just like them. "Yeah," Jensen answers quietly, dropping his gaze to the lip of his can again. "I know that." He pauses, debating whether he wants toor shouldsay anything else. Everyone here talks so much. And Jensen knows that's part of what's expected of him; to fit in, he's going to have to talk more. Make conversation. The problem with it is that the more he opens his mouth and lets words spill out, the more likely it is that he'll say something inadvisable, something stupid, something dangerous. "He loved her," Jensen says again, finally, slowly. "Everyone says that. He says that." Jensen thinks about Jeff's face, his eyes, when he talks about MaryLouise. Jeff wears so much of himself out in the open; it's not hard to see the truth of Jeff's love, even now. "I just want to understand it. The why. Andand the how." "What, how Jeff could love someone like Mary-Louise?" Jared laughs and then shrugs his shoulders. "Thatthat's just Jeff, man. He justoh." Jared's eyes narrow and his grin widens. "What?" Jared shakes his head. "No, I just get it now." "Get what?" Another irritating waggle of Jared's heador maybe the same one, extended. "You love him." Jensen snorts, finally setting the can of pink, over-caffeinated sugar on the table. There aren't any coastersand the table bears witness to the fact that no one uses thembut he sets his can on top of a torn and well doodled scrap of paper that proclaims: CHAD IS THE KING OF THE UNIVERSE ALL DOUCHES. "Of course I do. He's my master. We're supposed to love him." "Sure, in Commerce's wet dream." At the look Jensen shoots him, Jared

holds up his hands. "Hey, don't get me wrong. Jeff's my family. I love him. But not so much that I give a good goddamn about who he's fucking." "Did you?" Jensen asks. "You and he?" "Nah." Jared doesn't seem to be offended by the question. "Jeff still thinks of me as a kid." Jared's face screws up thoughtfully, like he's thinking about itabout Jeffbefore he adds, "And I'm still a slave." "He fucked Mary-Louise." Jensen can't even begin to hide the bitterness in his tone, much as he'd like to. The vaguely daydreaming expression falls from Jared's face and leaves behind a hardness Jensen wouldn't have expected from genial, easygoing Jared. "I'd say it's more like Mary-Louise fucked him." "See? That's what I'm talking about. Everyone goes around talking about it, but not talking about it. I don't get it. I don't know what she did that's so terrible. I meanshe's disobedient and impertinent and needs a good beating or three, but I don't see how that makes her that different from everybody else here!" "That would be funny if I didn't think you totally meant it." Jared rubs his jaw thoughtfully with his knuckles. "Look, I get that you think that we're a bunch of bad, lazy slackers who don't know how to act in good company, but we're a family. We all look out for each other. We protect each other. And Mary-Louiseshe doesn't look out for anybody but herself. Maybe she's got reasons to be the way she is, I don't know, but making Jeff fall for her, seducing him, fucking with his headnaw. That's not okay. You're always worried about loyalty, I think you'd get that." And yeah; Jensen gets that. "You see how he is with you. She didn't have to fuck around with Jeff. He'd have given her everything she wanted anyway. 'Cause that's how Jeff is. She fucked with him because she thought it was funny. She fucks with everybody, just for her own amusement. And Jeff" Jared sighs. "I know that Jeff's the master here, okay? I get that. And I'm not" Another sigh, deeper than the first, before Jared leans forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. "Jeff is lonely. He's lonely and he's fucked up and he tries, okay? He tries really hard, harder than most people in his position. And he's lonely." "You said that already," Jensen points out. "Yeah, on purpose. Jeff is one of the loneliest goddamn people I know. Andit's like picking on the little kid, you know? The one who can't fight back. Just because you can." It's hard for Jensen to picture Jeff as lonely. There are always so many people around him, always so many things going on. More than that, it's hard for Jensen to picture any master being lonely. Isn't that what slaves like Jensen are for? "I don't want him to be lonely," Jensen says slowly. "I want He has me.

He shouldn't have to be lonely if he has me." Jared shrugs. Jensen thinks about that as he walks back up to the house. Jared's right that Jensen doesn't understand how Jeff's house fits together. Every other house he's ever served in has been so entirely different from this one. On the other hand, Jensen's not stupid; he understands that, illogical and undisciplined or not, they do fit together. And if he can't figure out how to fit with them, he's going to end up being the next Mary-Louise, a them instead of an us. Jeff is alone in the great room, nursing a beerand a headache, judging from the light level and the TV's volume level. He smiles and pushes up a little on the couch, when Jensen comes to kneel at his feet. "Hey." Jeff's voice is scratchy and tired, but warm, nonetheless. Jensen curls his fingers over the points of his knees, scrubbing his damp palms against the denim. "Sam said that dinner would be ready in half an hour," Jensen says, his voice cracking slightly over the words and betraying his nervousness. "Areare you busy?" Jeff sits up more, leaning his elbows on his knees. "No, what's up?" "I. If you're not busy, if you have time, and, and, if you'd like" Jensen swallows and takes a deep breath. "May I masturbate for you?" Jeff's elbows slip off his knees and he almost falls off the couch. Jensen reaches for him, elbow and wrist, and their faces are very close together, so close that Jensen can smell the sweetness of Jeff's beer. "I. Did you want to?" Heat blooms through Jensen's skin, sharp and even sweeter than the beer. "Yes. I would really like that." Just the thought tugs at Jensen's cock, already filling against the confinement of his jeans. "Please? May I?" Jeff swallows, a faint click on the end of it that even Jensen can hear. "If you want." Jensen fumbles the button of his jeans, drags down the zipper without looking away from Jeff's face. "Will you kiss me? Please?" "Jensen" Jensen lifts up on his knees, shoves his jeans down his hips, his shorts. "I like it. I likeI like how you kiss me." Jeff's eyes keep going from Jensen's face to his groin, restless, feverish, devouring. At Jensen's words, though, his gaze comes to rest on Jensen's. "How do I kiss you?" "Like you're hungry. Like you want itlike you want meas much as I want you." "Jensen. Jesus."

"Kiss me," Jensen invites, stroking himself slow and hard, good, rough friction. "Please, Jeff. Please kiss me." His voice wavers, as unsteady and grainy as Jeff's, deepening as he rubs over the head of his cock. "Please. Please kiss me." "Jensen," Jeff says, somewhere between want and warning. But his hand comes up, curling around the back of Jensen's neck and he tugs Jensen incloser, closer, closeruntil their mouths gasp and jag together and Jensen can finally close his eyes.

Chapter 40
"I don't know what I'm doing." Jeff lets his head loll back on the couch. "Okay, yeah, but how's that different from every other day?" Kane tugs the rubber band from his hair and shakes it out across his shoulders. "Wait. What are we talking about?" "Jensen." Jeff sighs and rolls his neck to look at Kane. "Aw, Christ, Jeff." Kane shakes his head and rolls his eyes. "What're you doing?" "That's what I'm saying. I don't freaking know." "No. I mean what the hell are you doing to yourself, man? Kid's got you tying yourself up in knots." "He's only four years younger than you," Jeff points out, taking a long swallow of his beer. "And you're dodging the point." Kane aims a finger at Jeff, the other four wrapped snug around his own bottle. Kane's eyes are narrow, bordering on angry. "How long you gonna wind yourself up in circles like this?" "First knots and then circles." Jeff chuckles shortly before setting his beer down on the table and grabbing the bag of weed and the rolling papers. "Sounds about right. But with Mary-Louise back under this roof, you can't tell me you don't remember how this all turns out." "As I recollect, you're the one who's always pointing out that Jensen isn't Mary-Louise." Jeff rolls a bud between his fingers, inhaling the sweet, green scent. No. Jensen isn't Mary-Louise. But that isn't necessarily a good thing. Say what they would about Mary-Louise, Jeff knows he can always count on her to look out for her own best interests. Jensen, on the other hand Tell me. Tell me what you want. Please. I want to please you. Let me please you? Even hours later, Jeff's hands itch with the desire to touch Jensen, to have wrapped his fingers around Jensen's cock and wrung that orgasm out of him himself instead of sitting on the sidelines watching Jensen do it to himself. At the same time, his awareness of the control he has over Jensen, the control that Jensen so readily hands over to him, is heady, better than the weed he's crumbling into a rolling paper. Slow. Go slow, sweetheart. Make it last. I love watching you. So goddamned beautiful. Jeff worries that there's nothing that Jensen won't let him do. And he worries more about how much he wants to push Jensen on that, delve into how far Jensen will let him go. "No," Jeff says slowly. "He's totally not

Mary-Louise." He glances over his shoulder at Kane. "That's not always a good thing." Kane opens up his mouth like he's going to say something then closes it again, sweeping off his glasses and jamming the ball of his thumb into the orbit of his eye. "I thought things were going better with you two?" Jeff is careful not to let his sigh blow the pot out of the paper. "They are. I guess. I don't know." "Well, as long as you've got it all cleared up." The paper rips and Jeff curses under his breath. "No, it's just" Kane puts his glasses back on and elbows Jeff over. "Come on. Let me. You're just gonna keep fucking it up." Jeff wants to argue the point but he wants to smoke more and he knows Kane's right. He's too jacked up. Sighing more deeply than ever, Jeff hands it all over. "I just" Jeff starts and then stops, trying to figure out the rest of that sentence, untangle it from gut emotion. "I know that this is what Jensen wants," Jeff says slowly. "I know that JensenI know that Jensen has been trained to need this," Jeff corrects, scooting back on the couch. "But." "But?" Kane's already got it rolled, tongue flicking across the gum. "It feels too much like I'm getting what I want." Jeff kind of hates the way his voice quiets and warps, gritting from him like he's already got a throatful of smoke. "I want Jensen, Chris. IGod, I want him." Jeff inhales deeply, like Jensen is something he can breathe insomething he's already breathed in, making his chest tight and his heart do double-time, making his head and his thinking stoned. "And I don't trust myself to do the right thing for him when I'm this emotionally involved. I'm a selfish bastard. You know that, Chris. You know that." Kane rolls the joint between his fingers, only half to smooth out the slight unevenness. "Look, man, you're coming at me seriously, so I'm going to be serious with you." He plucks a lighter from the front pocket of his shirt and hands it and the joint to Jeff to spark. "I want you to think about Jensen when you first saw him, at Crudup's. Hell, think about him when he first got here." It's probably not all that flattering that Jeff's first impression of Jensen is that of a feral cat, starving and wild-eyed. Jeff snorts to himself and tucks the j between his lips, flicking the wheel on the lighter to coax out a flame. Thick, piney smoke blooms from the joint and Jeff gives himself a second to stop thinking and instead enjoy the green hit. He hands the joint off without looking, holding the smoke in as Kane lifts j from his fingers. It's a move they've rehearsed a lot over the years, easy and comfortable and Jeff wishes for just a moment that it could be like that with Jensensomething he didn't have to think or worry about so much.

The couch squeaks as Kane leans closer. "Okay," he says, exhaling his own lungful of smoke all over Jeff, "now I want you to open your eyes and look at Jensen." Jeff thinks it's really sad and pathetic that he knows where Jensen is in the room even before he opens his eyes. Still, he's got to give Kane credit for picking his moment. Jensen is standing in front of the patio-side windows with Jared, vivid against the dark backdrop of night. The lamp light tips Jensen's hair with a patina of gold, brightens his eyes. His body has filled out, though he still looks small in comparison to Jared, especially in Jeff's tee-shirt (which Jeff insisted he put on after they'd gotten come all over Jensen's shirt). Jeff. Jeff. Please. I need Yeah. Yeah, come, sweetheart. You can come. The tee-shirt also does nothing to hide or disguise the truly horrifying collection of hickeys Jeff left on his neck, like a horny teenager. Jensen's got his fingers tangled in the shirt neck, knuckles rubbing across the bruises and he's laughing at something Jared's saying. Actually full-out laughing. "Now it could just be me," Kane murmurs, tugging Jeff's attention away from Jensen againand nudging him to hand the joint back, "but I don't think I've ever seen anyone look so goddamn smug and he wasn't even getting the rose stemmed, know what I mean?" "Jesus, Chris." Jeff finally retrieves his gaze from Jensen to roll his eyes. He works his tongue against fierce cotton-mouth. "He looks happy, man," Kane says flatly, the same no-nonsense voice he gets when they talk about money. "You did that. You did. Jensen was a sad-sack, sorry-ass son of a bitch when he got here and look at him." "It wasn't me," Jeff protests, though he feels pleasured heat slide through his skin anyway, eyes straying back to Jensen. "It was just here. Us. All of us." He shrugs and takes a drag, feeling his anxiety shift sideways a little bit. Not gonenot nearly gonebut lighten up to a point where he can start to think through it again. "And even if it was mewhich I'm not saying it was" He passes off the joint, holding up one finger illustratively. "Did I do it for the right reasons?" "Do you fucking want Jensen to be happy?" "Well, yeah" "Then you're doing it for the right goddamn reasons. How many times do we gotta go around on this?" Kane snatches the joint from Jeff's fingers moodily, mouth twisted against the tarred end. "You got all of us, Jeff. None of us want to see you mess up that kid any worse, either. You really think we're going to let you go stepping across that line? You think we're just going to sit quiet while you turn into some asshole?" "I. Well."

Kane shakes his head, turning his eyes up toward Heaven like he's praying. "Jeff, you have to do something about this. I get that you have issuesdeep, deep issuesbut you're not helping yourself or anybody elseyou're not helping Jensenby beating on yourself all the time. I don't think there's a person in this room that doesn't know we live in a fucked up world and we're all fucked up because of it, okay? We get that. But at a certain point, you need to justaccept that you're fucked up and then figure out how to live with that. 'Cause there just isn't shit else to do." "Yeah" Jeff says weakly, too unsure of his ground to come up with anything smarter. "Jensen is fucked up. No question. And I get why that wigs you out, man, I do." Jeff makes himself meet Kane's eyes, seeing in them that same ghost, that same knowledge, that welds them together. "But did you ever think about the idea that maybe the two of you could build something off that? 'Cause Jensen's right; I'm a shitty slave. I wasn't ever any good at it, except just enough to keep myself from becoming a horse or some lab's monkey. But that kid" Kane looks over at Jensen and shakes his head again, expression hidden by the spreading and unruly mane of his hair. "That kid's the real deal. And I don't have to like it or like him to realize that the two of you kind of match up on levels of fuckery." "Gee, thanks." Kane leans back, smirking. "Hey, you're the one that wanted to get all serious." Jeff picks at one of his bracelets, a woven thing that Ever brought back from Cancun. "You really don't like him?" "Aw, shit." Kane sighs, bumps Jeff in the knee to pass the joint. "You want me to go over there with a note'do you like me, check yes or no'?" Kane wipes his tarred thumb on his jeans and then grabs his beer again, draining the rest of the bottle. "Jensen's all right. Better than MaryLouise, any rate." Kane shrugs. "Yeah." Jeff sighs. Joint's burned down to a stub. He hits it hard, that last, harsh bit stinging his lungs, before mashing it out in the stone ash tray on the table. They're silent for a few minutes, then Kane heaves himself up. "I'm gonna get another beer. You wanna?" "No, I'm good." As easy as it would be to get stoned and blotto and not think about any of this anymore, Jeff feels like he's got a lot more thinking to do. It takes him a moment to realize that, despite his words, Kane hasn't moved off. Jeff looks up at him.

"Long as we're on the subject" Kane looks sort of embarrassed, which is a new and uncomfortable look for him. Kane's not a big believer in shame. "I've been talking to Cate." "Whatabout me?" Kane shrugs. "And the kid. Cate thinks some therapy for you couldn't hurt anything, but I was thinking you might get more mileage out of this." He reaches in his back pocket and pulls out a black rectangle. The card, surprisingly, is made of plastic or something, lacquered shiny on the front with a photograph of a soft, almost blown, purple rose. In gold cursive, it says simply, Mistress Indira Varma, professional dominatrix. Jeff's eyebrows make a run for his hairline. "Are you serious?" If possible, Kane looks even more uncomfortable, shifting on his booted feet. "I'm not saying go out and buy a gimp suit and a cat'o'nine. I just Make an appointment. Talk to her." Jeff says nothing for a moment, teasing the card's edge with his fingertip. Then, stiffer than he means to, "Is that what you think about me?" "Don't make it dirty." Kane's voice is low, stripped of any good-ol-boy twang or seeming. They don't talk like this often, but this is why. Because Kaneno, Chrisusing that voice always stops Jeff cold. "Just don't. Especially when you don't know shit about it." Jeff looks down at the card without actually seeing it and nods. "Believe it or not, I'm trying to be a friend to you, here, Jeff." That jerks Jeff's head back up, forces him to meet Kane's gaze. "No, I know that." He shrugs. "You're right, I don't know anything about it, other than the kind of shit you see on TV. I just" Jeff shrugs again, his shoulders tight despite the fading mellow of his high. "I feel like I don't really know who I am anymore." Kane's smirk comes back and he leans down to thunk both hands on Jeff's shoulders. "You're the same aimless fuckhead you were when I met you, Jeff. Still working on that whole 'thinking things through'. S'all right. We don't hold it against you. Much." Jeff snorts and leans back again, out of Kane's hands. "Yeah, well I appreciate that." Kane straightens up and calls over his shoulder. "Yo. Jensen! I think your master here needs a back-rub! You busy?" "You are such an asshole," Jeff mutters as Jensen's head swivels toward them and he breaks off his conversation with Jared to wander toward them. "Yeah." Kane buffs his nails against his shirt pridefully. "But unlike you, I

"Yeah." Kane buffs his nails against his shirt pridefully. "But unlike you, I don't feel at all bad about it."

Chapter 41
"C'mere." Jensen tries not to let his surprise show, but he knows he's not entirely successful as he crawls onto Jeff's side of the bed to straddle Jeff's lap, bracing himself on those almost disproportionately broad shoulders. He knows Jeff has trouble with his knees, so he tries to keep as much of his weight on his own legsand kneesas he can. Though that's easier than trying to discipline his cock from stirring, as the position snugs their bare groins together. He wonders if that's Jeff's intention, a test. He doesn't quite dare to hope that this is a prelude to sexthough, of course, he does hope that. He just doesn't believe it. Still, it feels like almost enough, between Jeff letting Jensen masturbate for him earlier and sitting now in his master's lap with Jeff's hands cradling his hips. "I want to play a game." Jeff's mouth smiles, crooked and warm, but it doesn't quite go all the way to his eyes. "Okay." Jensen waits for further instruction, content to sit like this for as long as Jeff wants to spin it out. Jeff's thumbs press into Jensen's hips for a moment and Jensen again has to concentrate on his wayward cock, on keeping his hips still, on being pretty and pliant for Jeff's hands. "The game is called 'I Want'," Jeff continues, sounding grittier than before. "I'm going to tell you something that I want, and then I'd like you to tell me something that you want." "How do you mean?" Jeff smoothes his palms and thumbs across Jensen's flanks, less sensual than like a man tapping his fingers in thought. It still makes Jensen's skin shiver and rise in goose bumps, hardening his nipples to nubs. "I mean like this: I wantto know more about you. What do you want?" Ah. Not a sex game, then. Jeff being Jeff, it's a fairly safe bet that the right answer is not I want your cock in my ass. Jensen controls his disappointment a lot better than his dick, fortunately, schooling his face to thoughtfulness. Jeff lets go of Jensen's hips to cup his face instead, thumbs outlining Jensen's cheekbones. "Doesn't have to be the answer to the universe, Jensen, just tell me something you want." "I want to be a good slave to you," Jensen says, heartfelt. He'd like to curl into Jeff's chest, feel Jeff's arms go around him, but he holds himself where Jeff put him, balanced on Jeff's thighs. "At your side, in your bed I want to be the best slave." He doesn't really expect that this answer will please Jeff either, but it's the first thing to come to mind, the thing that's always on his mind and

closest to his heart. "You're already better than I deserve, Jen. I'm a little scared to think of how you could be better." Jensen blinks. "Is this part of the game, too?" Jeff's smile turns rueful. "No. It's not part of the game. All right. I want you to tell me something you like. Notnot anything that has to do with me or any of your other masters. Something that you like for you." Jensen shakes his head. "I don't know." "There's got to be something." Jeff lets his hands fall to Jensen's thighs, the light touch on waxed skin sending new thrills up Jensen's spine. Jensen knows it's cool in the room, but he feels warm, overheated, as if he and Jeff exist in some cocoon outside of time or element. "I always served my masters to the best of my ability." Jensen looks down at the intersection of their bodies. He's always taken such pride in that; he doesn't know why he should feel ashamed of it now. "It didn't leave time forhobbies." Jeff tips Jensen's chin up with his thumb. "So you gonna tell me that, in all the years you've been a slave, you never did anything that wasn't expressly ordered by one of your masters?" "I" Jensen shrugs one shoulder. "When I was littleyoungerI liked to sing." It's been years since he's thought of it; he doesn't know why it occurs to him now, except that Jeff's asking and he doesn't have a better answer. Then, because he doesn't want to be misleading, "But I wasn't very good at it." Jensen starts to fidget and then catches himself. "There was no point in continuing with it, if I couldn't be good." "That was when you were with Lord Cruise?" Jensen nods. "So was that your decision to quit or his?" Jensen shrugs, his previous heat unraveling to leave sourness in his belly and cold. "I wasn't going to be any good at it. Not good enough." He shakes his head. "What's the point, if I can't be really good? If I can't be the best?" Jeff shifts under him and Jensen shifts with him, doing his best to ignore the slow slide of their cocks together. Jeff is hard and Jensen's more than halfway himself, but he doesn't think he's supposed to notice, so he doesn't. "And this?" Jeff asks. "Is this what you're the best at?" "I used to be." Jeff makes a quiet noise in his throat and his fingers clasp the back of Jensen's neck, warm and solid. "You're killing me," Jeff rasps, sounding strangled, before he tugs Jensen down for their mouths to meet.

Despite Jeff's words, the kiss is slow, languid, his tongue bitter with herb and booze as he licks Jensen's lips open. And Jensen lets him, unable to quiet the hungry noise that comes from his own throat. Jensen didn't think he'd caught a contact high from being with them downstairs, but he can feel it now, sensation flooding through him in minute detail, from the soft dryness of Jeff's mouth moving over his to the slow glide of Jeff's callused hands over his shoulders and down his goose-pimpled back. "I want," Jensen whispers, when Jeff breaks the kiss long enough for them to breathe. "I want. I want you. I want you so much. Jeff. Jeff." "Jensen" Jeff's thumbs frame Jensen's cheeks and Jensen rubs into it like a cat, eyes closed to make him brave. He so badly needs his courage. "I know you don't That you won't," Jensen amends. "But you asked me what I want. I want you. If notif not that, then come on me. I wantI want so bad to make you come. To be good." "Jensen" There's warning in Jeff's voice again, but he contradicts it with a second kiss, surging into Jensen's mouth with the starving desperation that always goes straight to Jensen's belly, his groin. Jensen lets go of his light grip on Jeff's shoulders to slide his arms around Jeff's neck, rocking forward and sealing himself to Jeff's skin as tightly as he can manage, moaning into the kiss. Jeff groans back, like an echo, as he mauls his fingers through Jensen's hair, fumbles along the side of his face, before curving his fingers around Jensen's neck in what could be a choking move. Instead, though, Jeff just lets his thumb ride against Jensen's leaping pulse, all the pressureand that not muchagainst Jensen's nape, holding him for Jeff to take Jensen's mouth as he wishes. Yes, Jensen thinks. Yes, please, yes It's a better drug than all the weed he's ever seen Jeff smoke, better than the snowfalls of coke some of his other masters had indulged in. Jeff's other hand is spread across the small of Jensen's back; with each clash of their lips, Jeff's fingertips flex against Jensen's skin, driving Jensen's hips, Jensen's cock against his in rough (good) friction only barely eased by the thin lubrication of pre-come. Jeff's lips moves to Jensen's jaw and then his already bruised throat, biting new marks over the old. Jensen's mouth opens as he lets his head fall back, the pain putting an edge on the pleasure. He thinks about how they'll look tomorrow: huge, dark blotches that say owned, that say Jeff's. Jeff's boy. Just the thought of it makes Jensen grind and roll against Jeff's body, moaning quietly. "Jensen," Jeff mutters into the hollow of Jensen's throat. He sounds less certain than before, shakier, even as the hand on Jensen's back gathers him closer. "Fuck, Jensen." Jensen, of course, considers how easy it would be to lift up on his knees, let Jeff slip through his legs and further backbut he's not prepared and he's both terrified and damn sure that whatever spell Jeff's under won't

last through the interruption of finding and applying lube. A bit of anger and a bigger dose of shame slices through Jensen, the awareness of how lazy he's gotten, how complacent, taking his master for granted and thinking he knows Jeff, to predict his behavior. Jeff's teeth scrape across Jensen's chin before darting up to capture Jensen's bottom lip and nip, startling sensation that almost jolts Jensen out of the practiced roll of his hips. Almost. Jensen wants Jeff's cock thick, engorged, solid against his belly. He wants to wrap his fingers around it, his mouth, to tongue the soft slit and the ridge and then see how far he can take Jeff before his throat starts to close. He wants to taste Jeff, coaxing bitter seed from him lick by lick until Jeff yanks on Jensen's hair and floods Jensen's mouth with it, Jensen struggling to drink every drop. "Please." Jensen wraps his arms tighter around Jeff, sweat making their skin alternately slide and catch like their whole bodies are kissing. "Please, let me make you come? II" His tongue tangles, never terribly skilled at words to begin with and even less so with Jeff's body rutting against his. "I want you on my skin," he offers finally, the admission searing through him. He hides his face against Jeff's shoulder, embarrassed by the need to convince his master to do this and even more so by his needto have this happen, for Jeff to touch him, mark him, make Jensen his. Other than maybe the long wait for Lord Cruise, Jensen can't ever remember wanting any of his masters so badly, so much that it aches all the way to his bones. "Jensen." Jeff's arms go around Jensen, crushing the two of them together. It's not sexual, but it makes Jensen moan like it is, pressed against Jeff so tight it feels like they'll never be pried apart. "Are you Is this what you want? Really? Really?" Jensen's breath hitches and he drags his lips messily across Jeff's shoulders. "Please," he says again, voice cracking adolescently over the word. "I want you." It feels like there should be more, like he should be able to say more about feeling like he's going to come out of his skin, but instead he can only repeat, "I want you." Jeff squeezes Jensen hard again and then his hands feather through Jensen's hair, slipping down to frame Jensen's neck between them. Jensen lifts his head to meet Jeff's eyes, reading both the lust and worry that clouds the green-hazel. "I'll be good," Jensen whispers, feeling like something is called for, and Jeff shudders and closes his eyes. His fingers don't come anywhere near choking off Jensen's breath, but they do tighten and Jensen involuntarily tips his head back, half-inviting it, while his pulse races even faster. He's not afraid that Jeff would hurt himnot really, not anymorebut the possibility is always there, implicit in the heavy weight of Jeff's hands, and Jensen can't help but respond to it. "What do you want, Jensen?" The tone of the question is different than before, almost teasing. The look in Jeff's eyes is different, too, though the uncertaintythe warinessis still there. It's uncomfortable, knowing that his master is afraid of him in some way that Jensen still doesn't

that his master is afraid of him in some way that Jensen still doesn't understand, though he suspects that someone like Mary-Louise enjoys that fact immensely. But Jensen is not Mary-Louise and he's more than ready to spend the rest of his life proving that to Jeff, if that's what it takes. "May I May I touch you?" Jensen's tongue wets his sore bottom lip, lingering where it's swollen and bruised. He's not used to this, this chase and evasion; he'd think that it would make his desire seep away like rainwater, but instead, he's so hot he feels liquid, melting. If he could, he would pour himself across Jeff and soak in through Jeff's skin. Jensen lets his teeth tease the inside of his lip. "I want to touch you," he corrects himself, struggling not to sound as nervous as he feels. "You give me so muchI want to give back. I want to make you feel good." "I" Jeff blows his breath out. "Yeah, Jensen. You can touch me." Jeff's back is against the headboard, there's really nowhere for him to go, but he settles back infinitesimally, clearly leaving the reins in Jensen's hands. There've been a few times that Jensen's been called on to act as the aggressor. Not often, admittedly, and not with men, usually, but that's just body parts. He can do this. He can totally do this. His palms are hot and itchy with the need to put them all over Jeff's skin. "H-how?" "Just your hands," Jeff says, sounding calmer. His eyes are half-lidded and he looks at Jensen through his lashes but even that partial glance smolders. "Only use your hands." "Yes," Jensen agrees, only barely shaving off the 'Master' at the last moment. He kneads Jeff's shoulders, regretful that he won't get to taste Jeff's nipples, stiff-peaked and tender looking, even more regretful he won't get to wrap his lips around Jeff's cock. He hasn't felt this unsure of his own skills in years but Jensen doesn't dare waste any time dithering, afraid that Jeff will change his mind. The skim of his fingers down Jeff's chest is cursory but Jeff's chest hitches under his fingertips anyway and he clutches tight at Jensen's hips, dragging force and biting nails. It's even better when Jensen finally gets to close his hand around the solid length of Jeff, heat and resilience and the sharp hissing exhale of Jeff's breath, the involuntary jerk of Jeff's hips, pushing him more firmly into Jensen's fingers. Jensen's been waiting so long for this; for a moment, all he can do is clasp Jeff, soft, silky skin over such resilient hardness, heavy and full, blood-tinged and silken wetness creaming the tip. Jensen's thumb brushes the nerves under the head and Jeff's cock pulses and darkens in response, even as Jeff's breath stutter-steps. Jensen has to remind himself again that it's not for his mouth. Hands only. He glances up through his eyelashes and Jeff's watching him, intent and open-mouthed, pupils like saucers rimmed in green. Jensen doesn't know what Jeff likes, hasn't even been able to observe Jeff jerking off for an idea of how this should go, so he starts off fairly loose, watching Jeff's face and the beat of his pulse in his throat, the twitches and shivers of his skin. He knows he's got it right when Jeff's eyes slip

shut and his head tips back, groan shuddering out of him. Jeff's hips flex to the rhythm of Jensen's hand on his cock, their breath pants out of them to the same beat. "Jensen" The sound of his name this time is a triumph, a benediction of his master's want and desire. The pleasure of it, of being able to do this, is nearly as good as a hand on his own dick. Nearly. "Jeff. Would you?" Jeff's eyes slit open again. "What do you need, sweetheart?" Jensen doesn't know how to ask for it. Instead, he tangles his free hand with Jeff's, lifting Jeff's fingers to his neck and trying not to lose the rhythm of his other, stroking hand. Gratifyingly, Jeff's fingers tighten, flexing into the skin. "You like that?" Jeff growls, testing his grip. Jensen presses forward, feeling Jeff immovable against his pulse. "Yes." His knees are starting to ache, his thighs, blending into the deepening throb of his whole body. "Put your hand around both of us." Jeff's thumb caresses Jensen's carotid. "You're going to come too. Do it." A whine nudges from Jensen's throat as he obeys, sliding their dicks together, wrapping his fingers around them both. Jeff grunts like he's been punched, arching into Jensen. "That's good." Jeff strokes the length of Jensen's throat. "Oh, Jensen, that'sfuck!good." It is good. Jensen curls into Jeff's shoulder again, feeling Jeff's arm go around him, cradling him close. "Thank you," Jensen whispers, nearly soundlessly. "Thank you, Master, thank you." "Fuck. Jensen. Jensen. Fuck." Jeff's teeth scrape across Jensen's shoulder bone and then savagely bite down at the same time his come spills hotly across Jensen's fingers and cock. Jensen cries out sharply, mingled pleasure and pain and so close, so unbelievably close. "Come on," Jeff murmurs, the salt-rasp of his voice honeyed by satiation. "You, too, Jen. You can come, sweetheart. It's all right. You can come." Freed, Jensen makes another choked, desperate noise, clenching and clustering tight before he pours out, shaking. Jeff's hand moves from Jensen's throat to his hair, gripping the short strands just enough to pull his head back and plaster their mouths together. Jeff eats Jensen's moans from him until Jensen is limp and spent. "That's my boy. My beautiful, good boy." Jeff's hold on Jensen's hair softens, fingers carding through gently. Each touch makes Jensen shudder deliciously, helplessly, in aftershock. His other arm remains

around Jensen's waist, holding him secure. "You all right?" Jensen nods, eyes closed and his face pressed into the damp heat of Jeff's neck. He's better than all right. He's good.

Chapter 42
Cate smiles at him as she opens the door. "You look so happy, Jensen! Come in. Tell me what's happened." Jensen ducks his head as he steps over the threshold, unsure if looking happy is a good thing. He follows Cate down the hallway to her office and settles in his usual chair. It's become nearly a ritual, he realizes as he arranges his posture, repetitious and soothing in its repetitiveness. Lord Cruise had always placed a great deal of value on the power of ritual and repetition; discipline for as busy a mind as Jensen's. Cate's office is always so quiet, gently perfumed by subtle incense and the cut flowers on her desk and the leafy plants that cluster on all the windowsills. Though Jensen's never seen a slave here, he can tell that someone has been taking care of the office in the lack of dusteven in the usually-forgotten places like the ceiling molding, the plants' leaves the loving, polished gloss on all the wood that warms the room. "What are you thinking?" Cate asks, as she settles in her accustomed perch on the couch. She has hot tea today, delicate porcelain strangely dwarfed by her hands. Jensen shakes his head. "I was just" He takes a breath, then plunges ahead, "I was just thinking how much I like your office." Her smile widens and brightens. "Why, thank you, Jensen. Does it remind you of some place in particular, or?" She lets the question trail off into a sip of tea, eyebrows arching over the gilt rim. "No." Jensen shakes his head again. "I justit's quiet here. Peaceful." Cate laughs. "Yes, well, I suppose there's not much of either at Jeff's, is there? Speaking of, how are the two of you getting along?" Jensen smiles, a small zing of pleasure zipping through him at the memory of last night, Jeff's hands on his body. "Fine." "That grin looks like a lot more than 'fine'." Cate observes, tucking her hair behind one ear. "Tell me about it. What's going on?" Jensen folds his hands together, rubbing the knuckle of his thumb with his other thumb. "Jeff" Jensen fumbles for what he wants to say, how it felt to have Jeff spurt hot and sticky over his fingers, to watch Jeff come and know that Jeff let Jensen do that for him. At the same time, it seems like such a small, petty thing for him to be so pleased aboutand certainly nothing worth gloating over, even if such a thing was appropriate. Which it's not. But it's too late for Jensen to not say anything at all. "It's different now," he says slowly, the words clumsy and needing to be coaxed off his tongue. "Hehe lets me do more. He." Jensen's thumb circles the wrinkled skin of his knuckle, pushing it over the bone.

These are things that he's thought, but never saidnot to another slave and definitely never to an owner, things he's supposed to know and notice but not mention. What owner would want to know the nattering of a slave's mind anyway? What owner outside of Jeff and his friends, Jensen amends, realizing again how little of his previous experience has prepared him to understand the wants and whims of his master's crazy, abolitionist friends. "What, Jensen?" He can't read anything other than curiosity and concern in Cate's pale eyes. Not that curiosity or concern are helpful to Jensen in intuiting the right thing to say, but he is less afraid of physical retaliation than he used to be. "Jeff" Jensen sighs inaudibly and then just comes out with it. "He touches me more, talks to me more. Hehe sees me more." It sounds as inane as Jensen was afraid it would and he has to control the impulse to squirm in his seat, torn between embarrassment and the pleasure that it's true. "He marked me." Jensen rolls down the collar of his turtleneck, unable to stop the little stab of pride as he displays his hickeys. Cate blinks, eyebrows flexing. "I So, does this mean you and Jeff are having intercourse?" "No." Jensen shakes his head quickly, then amends, "It's not that I don't want to" Cate nods. "Of course." She traces the rim of her teacup with a fingertip, considering him as she thinks. "So why don't we talk about what you are doing, then? Tell me about the love bites. What does it mean to you, that Jeff marked you?" Love bites. Jensen's never heard anyone call them that before and something about the phrasing (love bites) catches at him, makes him want to run it over his tongue like a candy. He tightens his fingers around each other to keep them from straying up, from pressing into the bruises and wakening the dull, languorous ache of them. "It It means everyone can see. And everyone knows." "What does everyone know?" "That my master did this to me. That I'm his." "And that's important to you?" Cate could ask the question many different ways but it's unsurprising anymore that she chooses the blandest, giving Jensen no emotional earmark to grab onto. It shouldn't be, but it is still surprising the way her expressive face can become a mask, too. "Of course it is." Jensen looks down at his tucked-together hands, halfconvinced Cate is playing a game with him. "Why?" Jensen tilts his head, sure there has to be more to the question. Then,

when nothing else is forthcoming: "Why what?" "Why is it important to you?" "I don't understand what you want to know." He can't touch the bruises without being obvious but if he flexes his neck, he can still feel them, echo of Jeff's hand curving around the skin. Or maybe it's better to call it a ghost, haunting Jensen. He'd fondled the hickeys all the way here. "Why is it important for other people to know or to see?" Cate asks, parroting his words back at him, though without any undercurrent of mockery or malice. Jensen blinks. "I'm a body-slave." It's the obvious answer. Practically selfevidentexcept that Cate doesn't seem to think so, her expression of patient expectancy unbudged. "I I'm for his pleasure. To make use of. To fuck," Jensen says, as clearly and lucidly as it's possible to get. "If I have" He hesitates over the words tasting their sweetness, "love bitesthen my owner is making use of me. I'm fulfilling my function." "But those bruises could have come from anyone." Jensen doesn't even know how to respond to the implication that he might betray his master by letting someone elsesomeone unauthorized touch him, but he feels a kind of scalded shame anyway. "I would never do that," he says stiffly. "No, I never meant to suggest that you would." Cate's lips press together in an expression that Jensen can't quite interpret. "ThoughI suppose that more or less answers the question, doesn't it? We assume that any marks on you must come from your owner because to think otherwise is to suggest that the system doesn't work, that a slave might have other desires, other wants, other lovers than the ones we assign to you. Right? They are marks of ownership because 'who else but your owner would put them there?'" It doesn't seem to be a question that requires an answer, so Jensen says nothing. "So," Cate says thoughtfully, stroking her bottom lip. "How does it make you feel? That Jeff's making use of you? That he's marked you?" Jensen usually doesn't understand what Cate think he could have to say that's so interesting, to keep him coming back, but now, more than that, he feels a little frustrated. The answers to all her questions today seem obvious; he's not sure why she needs him to repeat things she already knows the answer to. At the same time, he knows his is not to question Cate's motives. "It feels good." He looks down again, wishing for the hundredth time that he understood what Jeff wants from this, what Cate wants. "I like it. I It hurts and I feel it. I feel like he's here with me." Jensen finally lets his fingers steal up, pressing the tips, pressing his knuckles into the skin. The pain is sharp, sudden, biting in and then spreading through his body like blood. Jensen lets his lids slip halfway down, half-ashamed of

the heat that suffuses him, the shiver-pinch of pleasure in his cock. "Do you like to be hurt, Jensen?" Though Cate asks the question gently enough, Jensen can't help a reflexive flinch under his skin. He doesn't think Cate would hurt him, but he can't discount the possibility. The possibility is always there. Still, an answer is required. "Sometimes." Jensen expects that Cate will ask for details, but instead, she says, "Is it fair to assume that some of your masters liked to hurt you?" Jensen shrugs. "Does it bother you that I ask that?" "No." Jensen shakes his head quickly. "My masters I was theirs, to do with as they wanted." His thumb strokes repetitively across his skin. "I know that I should feel ashamed of that, that you and Jeff want me to be ashamed of it" "No," Cate protests, though she sounds less than a hundred percent vehement about it. "but I don't understand why I'm supposed to be ashamed. I'm trying to understand, to be whowhatJeff wants, but They were my masters. I did what they told me. And they did what they wanted. That. That's just how it was." "Jensen." Cate's voice is quelling, but conversely, it makes Jensen feel calmer, steadier. "You don't need to feel ashamed of anything that you've done or that's happened to you. That's not what I want and it's not what Jeff wants. All right?" She leans forward and touches the arm of the chair, close enough that he knows she would've touched him if she wasn't so carefully scrupulous about such things. "You don't" Cate sighs, shakes her head. "You shouldn't ever feel ashamed. You're remarkable, Jensen. Justremarkable." Jensen turns his face away, unable to argue the point with her and not sure what to say if he isn't allowed to refute the words. "I just want to be good," Jensen says finally. "I want Jeff I don't want to be like MaryLouise." "Hmmm." Cate shifts on the couch, propping her elbow on its arm and her cheek on her palm. "That's an interesting correlation. How do you not want to be like Mary-Louise?" Jensen's teeth scrape the inside of his lip, biting at the tag of skin he always chews on. This is why he shouldn't be allowed to talk at all. "I don't know. I just I want to be a good body-slave. It's what I know how to do. It's" He spreads his hands. "It's who I am. I don't know anything else." "Do you want to?" Jensen pauses, mentally and physically, considering the question and

what lies behind itnot that he really understands either. "I don't," he begins uncertainly and breaks off. "I don't know what that means." "Well, you brought up Mary-Louise." The fingers cupping Cate's cheek spread in a kind of shrug. "She wanted to be Jeff's Agent far more than she wanted to be his body-slave. And she pursued that goalpretty relentlessly, as it happened. So now you're Jeff's body-slave. And no, you haven't had the chance to be anything elsebut if you want itif you want something elsethis is your chance to have it." Cate's pinky taps at the corner of her mouth. "It's your chance to learnif that's what you want." The weight of Cate's gaze on him feels too heavy; not quite expectant, but weighted with questions he doesn't know how to answer, even if he'd ever considered them. "I don't know," he says again, finally, expecting it to be as poor an answer to her as it sounds. His shoulders feel tight and he flexes them back a little, trying to ease the pull, even as his fingers lock back together. As usual, he feels there should be more meat to his answer, but he can't scrape up anything. Though he's always known that his time as a body-slave is limited by his age and attractiveness, the quest for perfection has limited his ability (or willingness) to think much further than the here-and-now. More than that, the thought of being shunted from his master's side, his master's bed, even for a trusted position like Agent, let alone something like Mary-Louise's job, exiled from the house entirely Jensen's hands feel cold but sweaty and his stomach hurts dully. He's just getting to know Jeff properly. Jeff's just starting to trust him, rely on him. "Iwould do whatever Jeff wants me to," Jensen says, his voice sounding strange and pinched even to him. Cate makes a noise that sounds somewhere between hmm and a sigh and she sits up, her eyes flicking past him to the clock that sits on her bookshelves. Jensen's mouth tastes metallic with failure as she says, "Well. I think that's given us something to think about for next time." "I'm sorry," Jensen says inadequately, restraining himself from going to his knees. It such an instinct to do so, but Cate doesn't like it any more than Jeff does. "Jensen." She leans forward on the couch and this time she does touch his wrist, lightly but warmly. "I'll tell you again; there are no right or wrong answers. I only want you to tell me what you think, as honestly as you can, and I promise you that I will never be angry or displeased with you, no matter what the answer. You will not be punished for what you say here." Jensen nods, his gaze darting from her face to his hands in an agony of indecision. "What I would like is for you to think about what you want. Not what you think I want or Jeff wants, but what kind of life Jensen wants, if he could

have any life he wanted." She taps his wrist bone. "Even if what he wants is to be the best body-slave he can." Jensen opens his mouth and Cate holds up her hand. "I don't want the answer now. I just want you to think about it. Take as long as you want to think about it. And when you're ready, then we can talk about it. Okay?" Jensen nods again, obedient even when he doesn't entirely understand. "Okay."

Chapter 43
"Are you going to sit out here brooding all day?" Sam hitches her hip onto the stone balustrade, her hands falling loose onto her thighs. "I'm not brooding." It comes out sounding more petulant than Jeff means it to, but it's too late for him to take it back. It's not bright enough for him to really need sunglasses, but they give everything a sooty cast that suits his mood. "The hell you're not," Sam answers, though without any particular heat. She hoists herself the rest of the way onto the railing, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. "Any time you come out and sit in this chair we all know you've got a burr up your butt about something. It's your brooding chair." "First of all, I don't have a brooding chair. Secondly, I'm not in the mood for witty banter today, so if that's why you came out here, I'd appreciate it if you'd turn right back around, okay?" Jeff recognizes he's being both childish and selfish, but the thought of putting on an act to seem any better or different seems like too much of an effort to make. He's a lazy, stoner prick in a bad mood; no good pretending otherwise. Sam is silent for long enough that Jeff hopes that will be the end of it and she'll leave him to hisfine, whateverbrooding. But she doesn't move and when she finally does speak, her voice is quiet, serious. "You want to talk about it?" Jeff sighs. "Not really." He'd like to leave it there, but his rotten perversity makes him add, "Every time I try to talk about it, someone tells me I'm just being an asshole." Sam clicks her tongue. "Well, there's a joke in there, but since I don't think you're in the mood, I'm not going to make it." "Look, I'm not saying I can't be an asshole. We both know I can. I'm just I don't want to hear it today, all right?" "Is this about Jensen?" Jeff sighs again. "What have I thought about lately that wasn't about Jensen?" "So what's the problem? Seems to me Jensen's fitting in okay around here. You thinking differently?" "No, it's not that." Jeff finally surrenders and pushes his sunglasses up into his hair, pushing his heels in to sit up straighter in the lounger which is not, and has never been, a brooding chair. He's been trying hard all morning not to think about Jensen, while simultaneously being able to think about very little else. The feel of Jensen's fingers wrapping around him. The nudge of Jensen's cock against his, hot and engorged. The quiet, desperate noises Jensen

cock against his, hot and engorged. The quiet, desperate noises Jensen makes, especially when Jeff sucks the blood to the surface of his skin. But for as good as it felt and as much as Jeff wanted itand for as obvious it was that Jensen wanted it (thank you, Master, thank you)Jeff still can't feel good abouteverything else. About the fact that Jensen is still, first and foremost, his slave. And about the fact that he is way too attached to Jensen to trust his own judgment or to even think he has anything resembling judgment, when it comes to Jensen. But he doesn't know exactly how to say that to Sam. Or even if he should. "I bought Jensen," Jeff says slowly, feeling his way like he's edging out over a ledge on a mountain. "I'm responsible for himfor his happiness, for his well-being." He tugs at the cluster of bracelets on his wrist, scratching idly at the skin underneath. "And I don't I don't know." He shrugs his shoulders helplessly. "Well, don't stop there," Sam says, with just the right amount of vitriol to kick him in the ass. At the same time, he doesn't have any better idea of what to say than when he started. "Jensen" Jeff trails off, sighs, a dull ache in his chest and his shoulders as sore as if someone's been beating him. "Jensen wants a sexual relationship. No. If I listen to what Cate's telling me, it's what Jensen needs. And if that's what he needs I want to be able to do that for him. I want to give Jensen whatever it is that he needs." He twirls the two chunky silver bracelets around, feeling the links bite at his skin. "But?" Jeff spreads his hands, tipping up one shoulder. "I don't know. It's fucking stupid. Only I could be such a moron to angst about 'having' to make love with someone as beautiful as Jensen, right?" The smile he offers up feels bitter and wry as lemon peel, but Jeff does his best. "Jeff" Sam sighs and then hops down from the balustrade. She comes to the lounger and shoves his leg. Jeff shuffles over and she puts her hand on his knee, her eyes both serious and very sad. "You know you're in love with him, right?" Her gaze searches his, looking for God only know what. "You do know that, don't you?" Jeff is forty-two goddamn years old and, even so, Sam's question makes him blush like a ten-year old schoolgirl and duck his face away. He doesn't know, really, what he feels for Jensen though it doesn't surprise him to hear it called love. It's not anything like what he felt for MaryLouise. "That doesn't make it okay," he says finally, studying the scuffed toes of his boots. "No, it doesn't," Sam agrees. "And" She tilts her head, lips pursing a little. "I'm glad you're not more okay about having sex with Jensen. Know what I mean? I don't think that's a bad thing. I" Sam's face creases, struggling for her words as much as Jeff was. Through his surprise (and

pride) at rendering Sam speechlessno small featit occurs to Jeff that it's been a long time since he and Sam have sat down and had a conversation this serious. "Things could've gone really different, if you hadn't bought me," Sam says slowly, testingly. "Sam" It's an unspoken rule between them that they don't talk about it, they never talk about it, and Jeff's been just as happy to abide by that law as Sam. She shakes her head. "No, shut up, now and listen. I couldn't have done the stuff that Jensen's had to do to survive. I couldn't have done it. And Jensenhe's a survivor. He did what he had to do. But that boy was fucked up by too many people who thought it was easy to fuck him." Jeff nods, fingers clasped tightly together. There's nothing he can say to that; it's nothing but the truth. "I'm not saying don't have sex with him. I don'tthat's between you and him. I'm just saying It shouldn't be easy. It shouldn't" Sam's breath huffs, impatient. "It's not like when you fuck Ever or Katie or Matthew or any of your other friends. Hell, it's not even like it was with Mary-Louise, because that cat's got claws." Sam's laugh is short, barking. "It just. I don't think it should ever be easy. Not if you love him." She pats his knee. "You keep sitting there with your uncomfortableness. It's good for you." Jeff nods again, recognizing the truth of what she's saying for the second time. The pat turns into a slap and then she uses his leg as a push-off to get to her feet. Jeff grabs her fingers quickly as she turns to go, squeezing his appreciation. He's slightly amused at how much he feels better for Sam telling him it's okay to feel shitty. More than that, though, he realizes how much he's missed the relationship he and Sam used to have, the ability to talk to each otherjust talk, like the friends they used to be. He knows he doesn't have the right to ask for that relationship back, but it doesn't mean he doesn't miss it. Maybe Sam feels a little of the same thing, because, when he lets her fingers loose, she ruffles his hair. "Jeff?" He tips his head back. Her head is backlit by the sun and Jeff's hands itch a little bit for a stick of charcoal, or maybe just pure globs of paint, daubed on with his fingers. "Yeah?" "Being mindful doesn't mean you can't be happy, too." The corner of her mouth ticks up in a half-smile. Jeff returns the smile, weakly but genuinely. He only means to sit a while longer. Mostly to prove to Samand whoever elsethat he's not brooding, but he starts mentally sketching out the composition of the portrait of Samand the next thing he knows, the sun's moved a long way from where it started and Jensen is kneeling next to him on the stone.

"Hey," Jeff says, warmth flushing through him. He slumped back down in his sleep; Jeff digs his heels in and struggles upright, feeling slow and pleasantly befuddled. "Hey." Jensen's voice is a little fuzzy, as if he hasn't used it in a while. Jeff's arm swings sideways, fingers snagging on Jensen's sleeve lightly. "C'mere." Jensen ducks his head and climbs up on the lounger, only a little stiffness betraying how long he was kneeling there. Jeff wants to touch him all over, to drape Jensen across him like a throw and maul him. He settles for hooking his forefinger through a loop on Jensen's carpenter pants and giving a little tug. Jeff just means it as an affectionate gesture; he doesn't expect Jensen to tip sideways into him, pliant as clay. Still, the meeting of their mouths feels natural (if unintentional); the deepening of the kiss feels similarly inevitable, slow and liquid and heating Jeff through more than several hours in the California sunshine has. When the kiss endslingeringlyit's hard for Jeff to not pull Jensen down again. He fumbles around for something not-stupid to say. "How was therapy?" Some of the warmth and pleasure in Jensen's eyes dims. "It was fine. Good," he amends quickly, "good." "Jensen?" Jensen settles back a little, gaze falling as he shakes his head. "Lady BlanchettCateis always very patient with me." "Jensen, you know that's not what I'm asking." Jensen's mouth and flaw flex, a mix of stubborn and uncertainty. "I just I don't understand why." "Why what?" "Am I okay?" Jensen asks suddenly. "Is there something I can dototo please you more or to be better?" Jeff blinks. "Why would you even ask that?" Another twitch of Jensen's full mouth, so much better suited for kissing than unhappiness. "I just. I thought that I was going to Cate to help me fit in better and, and I thought. I just thought things were better. With me. With us. And if they're not, if there's something else I should or could be doingI want to do that. I want to doeverything. And I want you to be happy with me." Though he knows how Jensen means it, the vague echo back to Sam's words pings Jeff like a struck chord, reawakening the impulse to drag Jensen onto him again. "I am happy with you, Jensen. I can't imagine not being happy with you." Jeff indulges himself as far as reaching out to cup Jensen's face. At contact, Jensen tilts his cheek into the touch, eyes closing briefly.

When they open again, Jeff is struck all over again by Jensen's eyes, huge and bright and dark. He feels high if he looks into them too long. "What do you want?" Jensen asks, his voice a tangle of emotions Jeff can't even begin to unpick. "From me? What I'll do anything. Anything you want. Just tell me." "I just want us to work out," Jeff says, with a stunning and typical lack of forethought. "I want us to figure out how to make this work, how to make both of us happy." His thumb brushes across the freckled curve of Jensen's cheekbone. "I want you to be happy here, Jensen." "I'm happy," Jensen says, eyebrows tugging in. "Are you?" Jeff doesn't believe it, not for one second, not when he knows how much he's already screwed up. It's nice to hear, though. "I don't know about that." Jensen moves his head so that Jeff's hand slides down to his neck. Muscle memory and the way Jensen's eyes darken make Jeff's fingers curl in and tighten. "I'm happy," Jensen says again, sounding surer of himself. "You're beautiful," Jeff whispers, his voice gritting from his throat like sand. "But I don't know what you want." Jensen's puzzled frown deepens slightly, even as his chin tilts up, pressing his neck firmer against Jeff's hand. It's instinct for Jeff to want to pull away, for fear of hurting Jensen; it's something else that keeps his hand exactly where it is. "I want to be yours," Jensen says, eyes fluttering shut again and a slight tremor in his voice. "I just want to be yours."

Chapter 44
It's a hospital. Jensen would know it even with his eyes closed; the open echo of the hallways and rooms, the chirping breath of machinery, and, of course, the smellantiseptic over sickness. With his eyes open, there's no mistaking the bland painted walls or the uneven shuffle of white coated doctors, nurses in kaleidoscope scrubs and the sick. There's something he has to do. There's a voice on the intercom, muffled as those voices always are, indistinct. It's saying a name, he thinks; one that sounds a little like Tim or maybe a little like Jeff. Either way, Jensen knowsit's his master's name. Master, he thinks, a dull panic starting in his chest, aching in the muscle, the bone. Something he has to do or say He can't remember which, only that it's important. Really important. I need to find him, Jensen thinks. He turns to orient himself and suddenly Lord Cruise is there, taking his arm, leading him away. No, Jensen thinks. Wait, no, I have to "It's important to get it right." Lord Cruise smiles and strokes Jensen's cheek with his free hand. His touch is light, but promises darker things. Jensen's stomach turns sour even as his blood and heart quicken. "Yes, of course." Jensen frowns, not understanding. It hurts to be this close to Lord Cruise but he can't dwell on it, still worried about Jeff. Jeff. Yes. Jeff. He has to find Jeff. He's never told Lord Cruise no, never defied him in any way. He's not sure he even knows how tobut Jeff is waiting somewhere here. Jeff needs him. "I have to find my master," he says dully, terrified and sickened. "And so you have," Lord Cruise answers, a suave, amused tone to his voice. It sends a chill down Jensen's back from recognition, in anticipation. He turns Jensen around and there's the saltire cross and the rack of whips and floggers. No, Jensen thinks. "No," he says, without conviction or strength as Cruise urges him to step to the cross with a firm hand in the small of his back. "I have toI need to" "I know what you need." Lord Cruise turns Jensen's face, caresses his cheek again before lifting his right hand to the cuff and buckling him in. "You know this is for your own good, don't you, Jensen?" "Yes, of course, Lord." The words come easily, automatically, slickly glib over his dry lips. "But"

It's not no, but it's close enough that Jensen's feels lightheaded, even beyond the rush of being bound to the cross. His heart slams against his ribs and he's starting to shake, cold all the way to his bones. Jeff. Jeff wants him to come. Jeff is waiting for him. He'll be disappointed if Jensen lets himself get distracted. And though Jeff's disappointment is not as frightening as Lord Cruise's, Jensen's found there are motivations other than fear. "Shhh." Lord Cruise's finger covers Jensen's lips, dragging over the skin, down into the cleft of his chin. "You were always a good boy, Jensen. The best. Don't disappoint me now." The pleasure of hearing those words, and from Lord Cruise, is blunted by the awareness that he's failing his other master, his now-master, Jeff, who's been kinder than Jensen has any right to expect. "Please don't." The words pinch thin in his throat and come out only a soundless whisper. "Please." The voice overhead drones on, monotonous, without any of the urgency that licks at Jensen's nerves as Lord Cruise finishes binding Jensen to the cross, as he cuts the shirt from Jensen's back. The blade's tip scratches a stinging line up the center of Jensen's spine. Lord Cruise is meticulous; if it hurts, this is something Lord Cruise wants him to feel. Jensen's fingers spasm and he tugs at the cuffs, almost reflexively, trying to pull free. Lord Cruise whips the blade around, presses it into Jensen's perineum, the tip nudging Jensen's sac through his pants. Lord Cruise leans in close, his breath like a heated cloud against Jensen's ear. "If I cut this off, if I gelded youwould you still love me then, Jensen?" Jensen is still, his breath barely whispering from his lips. "Barely a man anywaywould you miss your cock?" Lord Cruise taps the knife between Jensen's legs, as if for emphasis. "Or would you even care? How much do you love me, Jensen? Do you love me enough?" Jensen doesn't know how to answer the question. Just having Cruise this close to him again is excruciating, down to the subtle spice of his cologne. But Cruise sold him. Sold him to Kilmer, with his greedy, devouring eyes and lingering hands. He doesn't belong to Cruise anymore. "My master's waiting for me," Jensen whispers, closing his eyes. It's hopeless, he knows it's hopeless, but it's his duty to try. "You'll always belong to me, Jensen." Despite the tone of Lord Cruise's voice, the bite of the knife is a surprise. It cuts into his shoulder and then slips underneath, shearing under the skin. This is new; Cruise never did anything to Jensen that could leave a scar, make him less than perfect. "I could peel you into pieces and you're still going to love me. And do you know why?"

With a wet, fleshy plop, a strip of Jensen's skin splats on the tile. Jensen pants through his mouth, whimpering quietly on each exhale. "Because that's what I taught you to do." "Jensen!" A gasp and a lurch and then there's darkness and arms instead of restraints. The heat of a body instead of the chill of the cross. The pain of his shoulder is gone, though there's a ghost-ache deep in the bone. "Jensen?" The concern in Jeff's voice is confusing, different from the contempt he expects. Why does he expect contempt? Only belatedly does it occur to him that there was a question implied. "Yes?" he says slowly, trying to make sense of the fragmented pieces. His face is turned into the pillow and he can smell the sharp, stale rankness of his own fear-sweat on the linen. Jeff's arm is curved over him, solid muscle, solid bone, holding him tight into the curve of Jeff's body. "Y'all right?" Jeff's voice is thick and syrupy with sleep as he noses at the back of Jensen's neck. "Fine." Jensen's not fine, he's pretty far from fine, but there's no possibility of another answer. Just the fact that he's apparently woken Jeff is unforgivable. Jeff snorts, a blurt of shocking heat against Jensen's nape. "Bullshit." He scratches Jensen's belly with absent fondness. "Bad dream?" "I" Again, Jensen feels the phantom ache of the skin being peeled from his shoulders. "I don't remember." "Hmm. Yeah." Doubt thickens Jeff's voice even further but he drops a soft kiss on Jensen's shoulder. "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to." "It was nothing," Jensen denies. "I never said it wasn't." "I just I'm sorry I woke you up. It's nothing. You should sleep." "Jensen" Jeff sighs. "Herec'mon. Turn over." Jensen rolls over and Jeff puts out his arm for Jensen to rest his head on Jeff's shoulder, tucking Jensen in against his body. Jeff smells like sleep and sweat and maleness. He smells like Jeff and Jensen wants to bury his face in Jeff's skin and inhale that familiar scent, let it drive away the ghosts of blood and pain. "I know it was just a dream," Jeff murmurs, "but seriously. Are you okay?" No, Jensen thinks. Hes shivering, teeth starting to chatter, even through the collected heat under the blankets and Jeffs body against his. Im not okay.

The thought hurts, nearly as deeply as the bite of the dream knife into his skin. Its not Jensen has spent his whole life being okay. Under any and all circumstances. Even the private admission that hes not, that he might not be, hurts, piercing deep inside him and freezing his lungs. At the same time, the weight of whatever that pins his chest grows like a sponge, making him feel stretched taut to breaking. Jensen squeezes his eyes shut so tightly they hurt, sealing his mouth tight against the choked noises trying to force their way up from that kinked knot in his sternum. "Jensen" Jeff breathes out Jensen's name quietly, gently, fingers slipping across Jensen's hair, his scalp. Then: "What do you need, sweetheart?" Jensen opens his mouth, but no words come out. He's so cold. But he doesn't know how to say that to Jeff. He doesn't know how to say that to anyone. And yet he recognizes this is as close as Jeff comes to a command. "Master Hutton used to have bad dreams." Jensen wets his bottom lip, angling his face deeper into Jeff's shoulder. "Hmm?" Jeff's fingers stroke up Jensen's back. It's nice and Jensen can tell Jeff's not really thinking about it, idle comfort. It gives him the nerve to go on. "When it happened, when he had nightmares When they were really bad, he liked for me to hold him." It's true, but Jensen still feels strange and panicky saying it, though he's not even sure what he's afraid of. There are so many things to be afraid of. "Did he?" Jeff's hand on Jensen's back firms, urging him closer, even though there's barely a breath between them already. "C'mere." Jeff shifts onto his side, gathering Jensen in with both arms. His stubble rasps over Jensen's temple before he turns his face to brush the same patch of skin with his lips. "I got you, sweetheart. You're all right. You're all right." Jensen presses his face into Jeff's collarbone and shivers like he's sobbing his heart out.

Chapter 45
Jensen is shaving when Jeff finally drags himself out of bed. Jeff leans against the jamb and lets his eyes stroke down Jensens naked body, equal parts appreciation and worry. Jensen has filled out smoothly, ribs and hips sheathed in solid flesh, solid muscle. Hes still pale, but its a more natural colorright up to the point where it meets the exhausted mauve under his eyes. Jensen sets the razor down on the sinks edge with a soft click and turns to face Jeff, hands at his sides. Waiting. Jeff breathes out and crosses the tile between them to cup Jensens cheek. Jeff hates and loves the way Jensens eyes flutter shut and he tilts his face into the touch. Jeff hasnt done anything to deserve that kind of trust. And yet Jensen gives it to him so easily. "Are you all right?" Jensen gets still and his eyelids crack open, eyes half-lidded for several beats before they unmast all the way to meet Jeffs gaze. "Yeah, Im fine." He sounds so matter of fact about it. Though Jeff guesses thats part of the skill set, telling your master whatever lie will be most pleasing while sounding absolutely sincere about it. Jeff doesnt know how to penetrate it. He doesnt even know if he should. And he hates not knowingnever knowingif Jensen's words and reactions are a lie. So instead, he closes his eyes and kisses Jensen, feeling Jensen inhale and then his lips open so pliantly under Jeffs. Kissing Jensen is like the first green hit, sweet and intoxicating. Jensen makes a soft noise, edging closer, melting into Jeffs body. Its different than last night; less brittle, less scared. Jeffs impulse to protect Jensen, to be a wall surrounding him, is the same, though, huge and terrifying. Jensens eyes crinkle when Jeff pulls away and he reaches up to daub transferred shaving cream from Jeffs cheek, his upper lip. "Sorry." "Sorry I mauled you for kisses when you were busy shaving?" Jensen's lips turn up even more at the corners. "No, I'm not sorry for that." "You look tired," Jeff observes, running the backs of his knuckles across Jensen's cheek and collecting more foam, even as he wills his cock down. "We don't have to go to this appointment today. We can reschedule." Jensen's expression is somewhere between affronted and horrified at the suggestion. "No, of course not. I'm fine." "I know you're fine," Jeff allows. "I just thought We both know you didn't sleep well last night." Jensen shakes his head. "So I'm a little tired. It's not a fatal condition. I've been tired before, I'll be tired again. Pleasedon't cancel your

appointment for me." His eyes plead with Jeff, huge and almost luminous in the fluorescent light. "I'm fine, I swear." Jeff shrugs, flushing hot, feeling sheepish. "I'm making too big a deal out of this, aren't I?" Jensen shrugs too, but his gaze falls, hidden behind speckled, fragilelooking eyelids and absurdly long lashes. Jeff sighs. "Yeah, I totally am. All right, fine. Finish up what you were doing. I'm gonna take a shower." "I could come with you," Jensen says with predictable promptness, glancing up at Jeff through his lashes. Jensen's arm moves like he's going to grasp Jeff, still stubbornly mostly-erect, but he stops short of actually making contact. "Then we'd definitely never make the appointment." Jeff leans in toward Jensen, lowering his voice, "And my body-slave, Jensen? He's kind of a taskmaster." Jensen draws back a little and studies Jeff's face, long enough that Jeff starts to regret saying anything at all. Then, just before Jeff's guilt eats him alive enough to apologize, Jensen gives Jeff a thin, nervous smile. It's progress, Jeff tells himself, though his heart aches at the puzzlement underlying Jensen's expression. Jeff hates everyone of the stupid assholes that had owned Jensen and never taught him what teasing was. "Go on," Jeff says, and pushes Jensen gently away from him by the face. Jensen's grin widens as he turns back to the mirror. Jensen seems completely back to himself by the time breakfast is over, giving Jeff whole new opportunities to berate himself for overreacting. It's not like he's never had nightmares; he doesn't know why the idea of Jensen having bad dreams should turn him into such an overprotective hen. Except maybe the knowledge that Jensen has a lot more fodder for nightmares than most. You know you're in love with him, right? You do know that, don't you? On the other hand, brooding about Jensen and his nightmares keeps him from having to think too hard about their plans for the day. "I'll get the car?" Jensen looks at Jeff uncertainly and Jeff nods, draining the last of his coffee into his sour stomach. * "Welcome to our House." The slave prostrating himself at Jeff's feet is so well trained that Jeff can hear the capital H he places on the word house. "How may we serve you?" Jeff opens his mouth to speak, but Jensen cuts in over him, "This is Master Jeffrey Morgan. We have an appointment with Mistress Varma for eleven o'clock."

Jeff turns to look at Jensen, surprised. It's his own fault that there hasn't been much occasion for Jensen to act fully as his body-slave; more often than not, he works from home and the errands that he's sent Jensen on, Jensen's mostly gone alone. Jeff's never seen this Jensen, all traces of uncertainty or hesitancy wiped out, even the timbre of his voice changed, strengthened. It's really hot and Jeff's hard pressed to keep his mind on business as Varma's slave straightens from the floor into a kneel. "Of course. You are expected." The slave is beautifully androgynous, slim-bodied and lightmuscled in snug leather pants and vest and the light huskiness of his (her?) voice giving Jeff no clue as to gender. "Mistress Varma is conducting a demonstration on the art of flogging. She asked that I escort you to her, upon your arrival." The slave wriggles to her (his?) feet and gestures down the hall with a liquid grace that would make Jeff's mouth water if he wasn't standing less than a foot from Jensen, who apparently firmly occupies all of Jeff's libido circuits. Though he has no doubt Jensen will follow himand at the proscribed distance, probably perfect to the millimeterJeff's reach back for Jensen isn't wholly conscious or based in worry for Jensen so much as it's his own damp-palmed nervousness. The prompt slip of Jensen's fingers into his is both a relief and pleasure as they follow the androgyne down the hallway. The soundproofing on the house is excellent; Jeff doesn't hear anything until the slave opens the door. The sound of leather hitting flesh isn't totally unexpectedand isn't anywhere near as sharp as Jeff was thinkingbut he flinches anyway, mouth going dry. He's not sure what the hot, fluttery feeling in his stomach is but he's even less sure he wants to find out. Jensen looks at him as Jeff hesitates on the threshold, fingers still twined through Jeff's. Jensen only looks curious, as calm as Jeff's ever seen him, and Jeff has to feel the irony that he's the freaked out one, for a change. "You're beautiful, you know that?" Jeff smudges the thumb of his free hand across Jensen's cheek, his chin, only barely glancing against Jensen's plush bottom lip. The green of Jensen's eyes darken and the tips of his ears get pink, corners of his lips flexing like he can't make up his mind whether to smile or not. There's another slap of leather on skin and Jeff's eyes skate past Jensen to the room beyond. The first thing he seesor really, the first thing his gaze grabs ontois the rack. (is it a rack? Is rack the right word?) It's hard to tell from here, but the contraption looks like solid metal, painted black; a giant X that crudely mimics the outspread shape of the woman strapped to it, without any of her lush, round curves. The flogger slaps against her buttocks and Jeff jumps with her. "She's good," Jensen comments in a low voice, leaning in toward Jeff and gesturing subtly toward the slave performing the flogging. "The control." He sounds admiring.

"Mr. Morgan, it's a pleasure to finally meet you." A warm but crisply accented voice jerks Jeff's attention away from the scene to the small group gathered in chairs near the door. Indira Varma is nothing like Jeff expected. Well, he'd sort of expected she would be beautifuland she is, clear honey skin and a mass of night-black curls that puts her slave's to shame but he hadn't really expected her to look quite sonormal. She is wearing black, at least. Jeff's expectations also extended that far. But the open-throated silk blouse and tailored slacks are a long way from the leather and PVC he imagined. He doesn't know if he's relieved or disappointed. Her handshake reminds him of Ever, though, and that puts him a little more at ease. "It's nice to meet you tooMiss..?" "Please, just call me Indira." She smiles. "That could change, if we make things more formal, but from our phone conversation, I don't think that's quite what you're looking for." Jeff laughs, only slightly hysterical. "I don't think I'm a hundred percent sure what I'm looking for." Her smile puckers without losing its warmth. "You're hardly the first to tell me that, Mr. Morgan" "Please call me Jeff." Indira nods. "Jeff." She gestures at the chairs. "Will you sit? The demo will be over soon." Jeff's sense of surreality only deepens as he takes a seat and Jensen folds to a kneel next to him. It's against custom, but Jeff keeps hold of Jensen's hand, curling it over his thigh and curving his own on top of it. He feels old and strangely prudish being here, this modern, airy house where everyone knowsand acceptswhat's happening, an equally airy and modern sexuality. The solidity of Jensen's hand on his leg helps him focus, keeps his mind from skittering away in freaked out nervousness. Jeff's never thought of himself as particularly vanilla or uptight before, but he feels the constraints of what he's allowed himself to know, think and be now, in a way he hasn't before and it sits poorly, chafing. "So. Why don't I tell you a bit about me, first?" When Indira settles in her chair, a slave settles to either side of her, male and female, an ostentation that suits her. "I'm not sure what you know and what you don't, so I'm going to give you the spiel that assumes you dont know anything, either about me or about what I do." Indira's eyebrows arch a little in silent inquiry and Jeff nods, both to show he's paying attention and to signal his agreement. Indira's lips flex briefly and Jeff feels her charisma in the way her approval sparks warm in his chest. "I've been a professional dominatrix for nine years and I've owned and worked from this house for six of those years. It is a private, privately owned business and I do not advertise. My clientele comes strictly by recommendation and by word-of-mouth. And I am well worth braving the Canyon's traffic."

Jeff glances around the room with a greater sense of appreciation. With that accent, Varma's not American and, though that doesn't preclude her coming from a wealthy family, if she's as British as she sounds, she wouldn't have access to her family funds. Which makes her an entirely self-made woman and a damn wealthy one, judging from her Horseshoe Canyon address and the size of the house. "The business is dedicated to instruction as much as practice and we follow guidelines to keep our practice of BDSM safe, sane and consensual." Her eyes search Jeff's for comprehension. "It's not prostitution; there's no nudity, no sexual contact." She tilts her head, looking from Jeff to Jensen. "And we're not here to help you punish your slaves." "What?" His fingers tighten reflexively over Jensen's and, after the cold lightning strike of startlement fades, a hot ember of anger starts to waken. "That isn't" Indira holds up a hand. "It wasn't a personal judgment, Mr. Morgan Jeff. It's a precautionary statement that I give to all my clients. I don't want any misunderstandings between us about what Ior my employees are willing or capable of providing. BDSM, the infliction of painit's not a punitive measure." The sound of the flogger again snapping sharply against skin punctuates her comment and Jeff inhales sharply, feeling scalded to his bones. "No, of course not," he murmurs, his lips thick. "Let's talk about you, now." Indira leans back in the chair, resting her arm across the back of the chair next to her. "Do you have any experience whatsoever with BDSM? Visited with another domme? Gone to a party or a club?" Put like that, it seems even stupider that Jeff doesn't know more than he does. He is seriously losing his bad boy cred. "No. Nothing like that." "Hmmm." Indira bites her bottom lip and considers them again, fingers combing idly through the hair of her female slave. She nods at Jensen. "But your boy. He's trained?" The way she says it, it's more a statement with the barest edge of a question. Her face turns slightly toward Jensen but her gaze remains with Jeff, eyebrows arched, that question repeated and magnified by her eyes. "Jensen?" Jeff blinks, startled. Indira's female slave lifts her head from Indira's knee, looking up at her mistress expectantly. As Indira bends her head for the slave to whisper, Jeff turns his head to look at Jensen. Jeff doesn't know what he expects when he glances at Jensen. Really, he doesnt expect anything; that's the whole point, the purposed and purposeful blank of a body-slave. Jensen's broken-open expression, the wet, searing heat of his eyes makes Jeff double-take, hunger clutching his belly like a fist.

Jensen's posture is straight, head up, shoulders back, but there's no mistaking the look on Jensen's faceor the solid erection tenting his slacks. "Jensen?" When Jensen becomes aware of Jeff's scrutiny, he flinches and his head snaps down penitently. "I'm sorry," Jensen murmurs, low as the wind through leaves, barely heard. The distress, however, comes through loud and clear. Jensen shakes his head, seeming more for himself than Jeff. "I'm sorry." "Jensen." Jeff lets go of Jensen's hand to curl his fingers around the nape of Jensen's neck, feeling the stressed-iron tension of the tendons. It's reflex to dig his fingertips in ad massage, Jensen's head dipping further under the pressure. "It's okay." Jensen shakes his head again. "No, I" Jeff scruffs him, gently, soft skin and silky-short hair. "Jen. It's okay, sweetheart." Truthfully, the sight of Jensen so strung out just from watching someone else get flogged is kind of unhinging Jeff's higher brain function. There's a worm of guilt that goes along with it, but Jeff can't get over or past how gorgeous Jensen is when aroused. "Did" Jeff starts, then breaks off. Did someone do that to you? seems like the wrong question, insensitive and intrusive. Too much potential to dirty things up and drag out painful ghosts that neither of them want to deal with just now, here. "What do you want?" Jeff asks instead, thumbing across the sharp-drawn line of Jensen's jaw. "What do you need?" The gaze that Jensen lifts to Jeff's face is red-rimmed and glazed, only the sear of heat brightening the irises showing Jensen's not crying. "I don't I don't" Jensen shakes his head, looking down again. It's shocking when Indira leans forward to touch Jeff's wrist; shocking that he'd gotten so enclosed in Jensen that he'd almost forgotten she's there. "Would you like to let him have a go?" she asks. When Jeff looks at her, she tilts her head toward the cross. The woman is being unbuckled, sobbing in something other than pain and the slave who flogged her is whispering in her ear while her hands pet tenderly over reddened skin. "I think" She straightens and signals to yet another slave, waiting with towels and bottles of water. "I think we could make an exception." Her eyes meet Jeff's, questioning, challenging, bordering on a tease. "If you like." Her gaze shifts to Jensen, seeing him, acknowledging him in a way Jeff doesn't really expect. "If you both like."

Chapter 46
"You don't have to do this." Jensen's fingers fumble contemplatively with the last button on his shirt before he slips it through the eye. He nods. "I know." He does know; Jensen believes that Jeff won't force him to do this, that Jeff would let him walk out of here and go home and without any repercussion. Any obvious repercussion, anyway. He can't gauge doesn't know how to gaugehow much Jeff wants this, how much it will please him, to watch Jensen be flogged. He doesn't know how disappointed Jeff will be, if Jensen doesn't go through with it. But it's okay; Jensen wants to go through with it, anyway. He wants Jeff to see that he can take it, that he wants it. He wants Jeff to see what he is. What he can be, if Jeff will allow it. He still feels scalded through with shame for his complete lack of control, but it's hard to focus on it through the humming undercurrent of anticipation as he strips out of his shirt. Without it, the room is just this side of cool, though that's not the only thing that stipples his skin in goosebumps. "Jensen." In Jensen's current state, the authoritativeness of Jeff's voice makes him shiver, nipples puckering to points. It's even more intense when Jeff's hand falls on his shoulder, warm and heavy, squeezing lightly against the bone. "I mean it." "I know you do." Jensen nods again, looking at his hands as he folds his shirt neatly. He can't get the seams to line up, his fingers clumsy. He wonders if the same woman as before will administer the flogging; he hopes so. "Jensen." "I want to," Jensen says abruptly, the words crowding together and tumbling over each other as he tried to force them off his unwilling tongue. Jeff looks startled, whether it's because of the scattershot burst of words or the sentiment behind them and Jensen takes a deep breath. "I want to," he says again, spacing the words out. "I" Jensen looks past Jeff at the cross, seeing it and not. Seeing all the others like it. Jeff wants so many new and different things from him. It's hard to figure out, hard to articulate all this stuff he doesn't entirely understand. This is simple. The cross and the whip, pain that becomes such lovely, sharpedged exquisiteness. This is something he can give Jeff, show Jeff, be for Jeff. Jensen wets his lips and looks into his master's eyes, seeing the darkness and the hunger and the way it wars with tempering kindness. "Please?" he says finally.

"Jensen." Jeff sighs his name this time, following it with a brief caress of his knuckles across Jensen's cheek. It feels good, but distracting; Jensen shivers again. "You know I'd give you anything." Jensen looks down, aware and afraid of the sincerity he hears in Jeff's voice. Sincerity isn't the truth, he already knows that. "Thank you." Jeff laughs but it sounds jagged and edged. "God, don't thank me. Don't" Jeff's knuckles tighten, roughening the caress slightly before he lets his hand fall. "Justdon't." "Okay." "Mr. Morgan, Jensenare you ready?" Mistress Varma gestures to one of her body-slaves to take the shirt from Jensen's hands. After a moment's thought, Jensen quickly shucks his pants, too, not wanting to have the twill blunt the force of any of the blows. He debates over his underwear as well, but he doesn't think his nudityin front of all these peoplewill please Jeff. The slave takes Jensen's pants as well, an expression on her face that Jensen doesn't understand, can't read. It's not attraction, he doesn't think. "Yeah" Jeff answers for them, sounding not-entirely-certain about it. "This is Violet." Mistress Varma gestures to the slave on her left, the woman from before, with her sweet, round face and her fingers callused from the whip, the cane, the flogger. "She is the best my house has to offer." Violet dips her head demurely. "Only if we discount you, mistress." Mistress Varma says something in response, but her voice fades to the background of Jensen's consciousness as Violet steps forward and places her hands on Jensen's shoulders, examining the skin of his back, testing it. "You've been hurt before?" Violet says, not really a question, in a voice pitched for his ears alone. Her fingertip traces a whip-thin scar just beside his shoulder blade. It's barely visible to the naked eye, but she follows its line unerringly. "Somebody string you up, make you scream?" Another shiver, more violent. "Yes." Jensen has to grit the word from between his teeth so it doesn't tremble. He was fourteen the first time someoneKilmerput him on a cross. He's not that nave and nervous kid anymore; he's a slave grown. Violet's soft, mellow voice lowers even further. "Did you like it?" Her finger skims back up sensitive, shuddering flesh. "Y-yes," Jensen says again, unable to control it this time. Violet urges him up against the cross, a smile in her tone as she says, "I'd say 'I'll be gentle', but I don't think that's what either of us wants, hey?" She guides Jensen's arms up to the restraints, buckles him in. His breath starts to come faster, shallower, dull heat creeping into his

throat, his chest, light and dizzy. It always takes him like this, but it feels sharper, more dangerous, with the specter of his dream hanging over him. "Don't worry." Violet runs a competent, proprietary hand down Jensen's back again, ending it with a sharp smack to his ass. "I'll take care of you. Make you cry real good, give your pretty master a show, fire him up." She slaps the other cheek. Her hand is like a wooden paddle, hard enough to rock Jensen, pour blood into his cock like a volcano's fire. "And I won't even leave a mark. Well." She spanks him a third time, dead center this time. "Nothing permanent, anyway." The promise in her voice makes Jensen's toes curl in his socks and all the moisture dry from his lips, his mouth. "You with me, boy? Tell Momma you understand." "Yes, Momma," Jensen answers obediently, a hiss of sound like a rattler in the desert. He can't see her smile, but it warms her voice. "I knew you'd be a good boy. Now. What's your word?" Already halfway to floating, Jensen falters. He's familiar with safe words. With as much time as Kilmer had spent in and out of the L.A. clubs, he couldn't be unfamiliar. He's just never been permitted one of his own. He'd never needed one either, as all his pain had come at his master's hand or his master's request, administered for his master's maximum pleasure, but the request is another reminder that this is not quite that. "Kilmer," he says briefly, swallowing the twinge of guilt that follows it. "Ah." Violet's tone is filled with more than the polite receptiveness he'd expect, as though she understands something about him, guesses or knows the reasons behind his answer. She doesn't say anything else, though, and a moment later, the heat of her leaves his back. For a while, Jensen just hangs like that, in space. He's hot and cold, tight coiled and his cock iron hard between his legs. He wonders where Jeff is, but the thought wicks away quickly, fragmenting like all the rest of his thoughts, bright, shiny shards he can't hold onto. The first soft caress of the flogger's tailacross his shoulders, down his backisnot unexpected, but still startling; Jensen jerks against the cross, sucking in a barbed breath. The smell of the leather is strong, raw, filling his senses as Violet drags the flogger up the backs of his thighs, around the curves of his ass. His shoulders barely have time to shiver from the light contact before the tails are flicked away, leaving him yearning. In the absence of other sensation, Jensen cranes after sound; if he could swivel his ears like a cat, he would. Violet is good, though. The snap of the tails comes to him at the same time as impact, needle-sharp sting that bites and then blooms. Jensen can't help the choked noise that startles out of him.

Another soft, trickle of leather, soothing over stung flesh. Two whips, Jensen guesses, a second ahead of the slice of the secondflogger or cat, he can't tell. He can't tell and he doesn't really care, as Violet pinks him again. Jensen's eyes squinch tighter and his mouth falls open, panting through it. Violet toys with him for a whileJensen quickly loses track of how long refusing to pick up a rhythm, alternating the point of contact so Jensen jerks like a fish on a line, unable to submerge himself, unable to find the current underneath the pain. And then she stops. Jensen's back, his thighs, his assthey're all burning, stung and sensitized. His eyes are burning too, hot wetness gemming and gluing his lashes together. Even so, it's a lot like when Jeff asks him to masturbate; he aches all the way to his bones, a dull throb of unfulfilled want and the need for something, something more, to get him where he needs to go. The next stripe of Violet's lash takes Jensen completely by surprise. Jensen yelps, completely embarrassingly, slamming hard into the cross, newborn fire licking so intensely through his skin Jensen literally can't think. Violet finds a rhythm now, a brutal one-two that sweeps Jensen effortlessly up in the riptide drowning him in fire and darkness, shattering him with pain. It hurts. It hurts and he wants it to stop, he wants it to stop, except he's not that weak. He can take it. He's not a scared kid anymore. He knows how this goes. He's done this and he can take it. He canhe can surf the pain, he can get through it. For Jeff. He can show Jeff. For Jeffhe can do this for Jeff. For Master. The word trembles on the edge of Jensen's lips as Violet lashes his thighs, the crease and meat of his ass, without mercy. Master. Please, Master. Master, I love you. Master. As if Jensen's yearning thoughts summoned him, Jeff is suddenly there, in front of Jensen. He smells the thick, creamy spice of Jeff's soap and cologne mix a moment before big hands reach through the cross's crux to cup Jensen's face. Violet snaps the tails broad-scatter across both his shoulders and Jensen sobs, eyes cracking open. "Jensen." Jeff's voice cracks a little over Jensen's name; his voice sounds rusty and dry, contrasting against the moist shine of his eyes. "God, babyyou're I don't even know." "Tell him." Indira's voice is like the crash of Violet's cat, sharp, neat and commanding. "Hold him here, guide him through it. Let him know you're here. Talk to your boy." Jeff smudges the wetness from under Jensen's eyes with his thumbs, strokes down the sides of his face as Violet strikes him again. "Is that what you are?" Jeff asks, faint, wry smile crooking his lips as he gazes at

Jensen. "Are you my boy?" "Yes," Jensen says, aloud and inwardly, barely able to get out even that one word. Always. "Yeah," Jeff agrees, his voice warming even more. "Yeah, you are. My strong, pretty boylook at you. You don't even know. Drives me crazy. You drive me crazy. I wanna. All the things I wanna do with you. To you." His eyes search Jensen's face, the hazel dark and deep. "I want you, Jensen. Want you so much." His hands tighten on Jensen's face and he kisses Jensen exactly in the way that Jensen loves, that Jensen can't get enough of, like he's going to steal everything inside of Jensen and take it for his own. Jensen cries out the agony of his striped skin into the kiss, letting his master eat it from him, letting Jeff steal it from him with wet smooches of his lips and tongue while Violet stripes his back. Jensen needs this. He needs this so much.

Chapter 47
"Should I stop it?" Jeff turns his head to glance over his shoulder at Indira uncertainly, though he never loses track of Jensen in front of him, or the slave Violet behind Jensen. Though he knows it's Violet wielding the flogger, the cut of the tails through the air, against Jensen's back seems an animal all it's own, distracting, savage. "I I don't Should I?" "I don't know," Indira answers archly, her breath a warm ghost past Jeff's ear. "Should you? Part of being a good master is knowing how much pain to applyand when to stop applying it." Even as she says it, Indira signals to Violet, who lets her many-lashed whip whirl into a coil like a restive cat's tail. Immediately, Jensen sags in the restraints, sobbing. "Go to him," Indira says, pressing her hand into the hollow between Jeff's shoulder blades, urging him forward. "Show your boy that you love him, that he pleased you." Jeff hardly needs the encouragement; he reaches for the buckles of the shackle nearest him, ripping the strap from the prongs. On Jensen's other side, Violet moves to do the same. Despite her greater familiarity, Jeff gets Jensen's wrist loose first. Jensen sags sideways into him; when Violet finally gets him free, Jensen falls into Jeff, hot and boneless. "Shh. Shh. Baby. Sweetheart." Jeff tries to close his arms around Jensen, but Jensen keeps sliding down eellike, slipping to his knees. Jeff's confused enough, overwrought enough that he thinks it must be accidentaluntil Jensen leans in to nuzzle Jeff's cock, hands groping frantically up Jeff's thighs, mouthing him through his pants. Oh. "Jensen." Jeff thumbs over Jensen's cheek, caresses through the soft feathers of his hair. Jensen doesn't feel small or fragile in the least, but Jeff is swamped through with that same huge, helpless desire to protect Jensen, take him in, keep him safe. "Jensen, baby, no" "Please." Jensen tilts his face up without taking his mouth from Jeff's groin, the word buzzing into Jeff's sac, into his blood. Jensen's eyes are even brighter with tears, almost blindingly vivid, blazing into Jeff like a beacon. "Please, Master, let me" Jensen's breath catches and he laps Jeff through his slacks, wet, searing warmth that makes Jeff shudder and bite back a whine. "Let me, please, please." Jeff can't drag his eyes away from Jensen, but he can't entirely lose the awareness of the other people in the room or Indira behind him like a dark, whispering angel. He locks his fingers in the hair at the nape of Jensen's neck, unsure if he means to push Jensen away or drag him close. Indira saves him the indecision, flattening her hand against his

shoulder. "It's all right," she murmurs. She signals to her people again and they start to clear the room, quiet, orderly, mercifully swift. "Take care of your boy." "I don't" Jeff breaks off, his brief and sketchy rapport not extending to being able to admit he doesn't fuck Jensen. He doesn't even know if his resolution extends that far, Jensen's mouth as talented as the rest of him, even through the barrier of Jeff's thin slacks. "Oh. Oh, God, Jensen" Jensen's hands are tearing at the button and placket of Jeff's pants, thick, greedy noises coming from his throat. Indira pats him twice on the shoulder and then she leaves too. Jeff has the bare presence of mind to be vaguely grateful and then she flakes away from his mind, leaving only him and Jensen. There's not enough time. Not enough time for Jeff to think about this, to consider the ramifications. Not enough time to seize back his equilibrium, his sanity. There's only all these months of want crushing his higher intellect and begging him as much as Jensen to give in. None of that, however, is an excuse for the way he stands pat, letting Jensen tug him free. Just the touch of Jensen's warm, slightly sweaty fingers around his girth brings Jeff perilously to the point of orgasm and he locks his fingers on Jensen's shoulder, struggling to stay upright. The touch of Jensen's mouth almost unhinges his sanity as much as his knees, liquid, silken, searing as the gates of Hell. "Jensen." Jensen moans desperately at the sound of his name, shuddering, rippling pleasure that pours into Jeff. Jensen's fingers slide up to frame Jeff's bare hips and then slip inward to caress his sac, press knowingly and skillfully into his taint. "Jensen" It seems like he should be able to think of other words, that there should be other things in the world than the man kneeling at his feet, but he can't think of what they are or what they should be. "Jensen, Christ." Jensen's eyes flutter open, need warring with satisfaction as he takes Jeff deeper, suckles harder, tongue rubbing hard against the nerves. He tilts his head back against Jeff's hand, too, fitting his nape deeper into Jeff's palm. It's too deliberate a gesture to be accidental, but it still takes Jeff a minute to understand what Jensen wants, what he's looking for. When he does Jensen whines, pleading, his eyes meeting Jeff's. Take care of your boy. Jeff's conscience is screaming, but not louder than his nerves, muddled by everything he's done today, everything he's seen. His fingers tighten

around the warm eggshell curve of Jensen's head. The first piston of his hips is hard, making Jensen gag. Jeff's resolve starts to melt like the cotton candy it's made of, but Jensen's eyes lock onto his again, glazed and feverish, the same plea in them as before. Jeff gropes for his control but he thrusts again, more shallowly this time, groaning deep as Jensen takes him, smooth and wet. His third buck is somewhere between the two, ragged as his voice, before he finds a rough and needy rhythm. Jensen makes absolutely no attempt to control or resist the sheathing of Jeff's cock, hands pressed flat to his thighs, head tilted back in complete surrender. The moans that spill choked from his lips are complete and utter sin and Jeff is inflamed between the desire to cause more and to dam Jensen's mouth entirely. "Oh, God, Jensen, yeah" Jeff flirts his other hand across Jensen's hollowed cheek, the frighteningly perfect arch of his eyebrow, the downy softness of his hair. Jeff can't catch his breath. "mine. You're so mine. II, oh, God, fuck, Jensen" Jeff's orgasm sweeps up like one wave curling up behind another, catching him up and swamping him with too much input to handle, cresting intensity that borders on pain and equally intense, blooming pleasure, curling him over Jensen's body and weakening his legs until the only thing holding him up is Jensen, solid and steady. My boy. My boy. Mine. Jensen. You know you love him, don't you? I do. I do. He does. He really does, the thought of Jensen with anyone else filling Jeff with sick terror and a savage possessiveness that scares him nearly as much. Jeff slips from Jensen's lips and sinks to his knees, curling his arms around Jensen's wide shoulders. Jensen falls into Jeff, bowing his forehead onto Jeff's shoulder as he gulps raggedly for air. "My boy, such a good boy, so good, so good, sweetheart, make me so happy" The words come tripping off Jeff's tongue like water, like honey, sweeter for every gasping shudder that racks through Jensen's body. It's even better when he tips Jensen's head back to take his mouth, a long slow plunge into madness. Jensen opens like a flower, hungry, yearning, his arms creeping around Jeff's neck to cling, vine-like. Jeff's hand, fumbling across Jensen's skin, his body, finds the hard, unsatisfied length of Jensen's cock, the cotton covering it wet, slick. When Jeff's fingers glance across him, Jensen moans breathlessly into the kiss, arching wantonly, naked need. Jeff feels clumsy and uncoordinated as he scratches as Jensen's

waistband, bulling his fingers underneath the elastic to warm, smooth skin, resilient rigidity that makes his mouth water and his cock twitch, even spent. Jensen gasps again, mouth tearing away from Jeff's as Jeff tightens his grip around Jensenshoulders and cockand starts to stroke him. Jeff wants to be gentle, but he can't, dragged too far past that point, but Jensen seems fine with that agenda, stifled, pleasured whines shivering through him with each dragging pump of Jeff's fingers. "You're gonna come for me," Jeff promises, giddy on orgasm, on the feel of Jensen so completely pliant in his arms. "Gonna feel you, thick as cream, all over my fingers, sweet, sweet boy, make you feel so good does it feel good, Jensen, my Jensen?" "Yes!" Jensen hisses the word, turning his face into Jeff's shoulder as if embarrassed, following it with another open-mouthed moan and the shuddering flex of his hips, writhing into Jeff's hand. "Yes, please" Jensen's temple is sweaty against Jeff's lips, the skin thin, hot and delicate as paper. The smell of JensenJeff's smell, Jeff's soaps and shampoos, and under it, mingled with it, the sweetness of Jensen himself is thick, heady as vapors and Jeff breathes him in and pours it back out in inadequate, stumbling words: "I will, promise, baby, I promise, I'll get you there" Jeff's eyes blur, prickling and wet, even as he jerks Jensen faster, harder. "Love you so much, Jen, love you and I want you to come for me. Come on, sweetheart, know you want to, so goddamn closedo it. Come for me. Come because you need it, because I said so. Want you to come, Jensen. Come." Jensen's cry is sharp, loud, sounding wrung out of him. His hips jerk and then his cock, come spilling thickly over his shaft, onto Jeff's fingers. "So good." Jeff brushes his mouth across Jensen's forehead, nuzzles the damp, spiky hair. "So incredible. Can't believe how lucky I am. Goddamn." Jensen's head tilts back, seeking, and the meeting of their lips feels almost accidental and, simultaneously, like something meant to happen from the very beginning. Jeff thinks he could easily spend the rest of his life kissing Jensen. For the first time, that doesn't seem as unmanageable or as frightening a thought, though Jeff thinks that might just be the post-orgasm endorphins talking. "You gonna stay with me?" Jeff asks gently. His hand is filthy with Jensen's come but he caresses Jensen's face as best he can with the clean part. "As long as you want me," Jensen replies, sounding entirely too put together for someone who just came as hard as he just did. It takes him longer to open his eyes, though, glittering with satiation and hazy with contentment. To Jeff's eye, it's the most relaxed Jensen's ever looked and he wears it well. Jeff selfishly wants to see that expression on Jensen's face a lot. All the time.

And him the one who puts it there. "Oh, I want you," Jeff breathes, before he bends to Jensen's mouth again. "I want you."

Chapter 48
"You're him, aren't you?" Focused on the soft run of Jeff and Indira's voices from behind the closed doormore for the sound of Jeff's voice than to try and overhear the wordsthe sound of another voice so close to him jerks Jensen out of himself and into the real world again. The twitch under his skin jars his back and Jensen slides between the sharp spike of unexpected pain and the lazy aftermath of pleasure. "What?" He recognizes the woman in front of him as one of Indira's body-slaves. She's in different clothes nowa lavender angora sweater and dark designer jeansand the product has been washed from her hair, leaving it softer, less sculpted. "You're him, aren't you?" she insists again. "J." She has a book open in her hands, extended; after a moment, Jensen recognizes the images on the page, cold slicing through his warm afterglow like the bite of Violet's lash. "It took me a minute to recognize you, but when your master called you by name, when he called you Jensen, it clicked. That you're J. Kilmer's muse." Even knowing what she's going to say, Jensen flinches, though he's careful to keep it small, under the surface of his skin. It's always painful to think of old mastersold failuresand the greedy yet hopeful, bordering on awe in the woman's eyes jabs into his memories of Kilmer. It stirs up things he hasn't thought about in yearshasn't tried to think aboutas much it had to be put up on the rack again, to feel the bite of a flogger against his skin. Jensen had wanted ithad asked for itand Jeff had given him everything. Such incredible generous pleasure. But as the endorphins fade and his blood cools, Jensen feels muddy and raw, as uncertain as he always does with Jeff. He feels too raw to fend off thiswhatever this is. He remembers the time depicted in the picture she holds out to him, the sear of the needles going through the skin of his back. The corners of his mouth hadn't entirely healed for more than a week and he'd had periodic weakness in his arms for a couple months afterward. Then-Lord Kilmer had said Jensen had never looked more beautiful. She's still looking at him and Jensen doesn't know what to say. It's not his place to talk about his former masters, especially not with a stranger. He shakes his head slightly, as if he can ward the whole issue off. "I don'tI'm not" She reaches out and tilts his face up, into the light. Jensen's too slow on the uptake and too startled by the unwelcome intimacy to pull away and so that's how Jeff finds him, when the door opens and his master appears in the gap.

Jensen twists his face out of the woman's grip but, of course, it's too late; Jeff's already seen. "Jensen?" Jeff's voice is calm, quiet, but Jensen doesn't assume that means anything. Shamed heat flutters across Jensen's skin like sunburn. He doesn't get a chance to reply, though, as the woman jumps to her feet. "Will you hear offers for this slave?" For the first time, Jensen clocks her lack of collar. He's been at Jeff's too long; he should have spotted it right away but he's gotten used to the sight of uncollared slaves. He's gotten lazy. Jeff looks as startled as Jensen feels; his hand falls onto Jensen's shoulder, fingers straying across Jensen's nape. "No," Jeff says flatly a moment later, a burr of anger roughening his tone. "He's not for sale." The womannot a body-slave after allstraightens. Seeing her now, Jensen would never mistake her for a slave. "I can promise the offer would be generous." "Not generous enough." Jeff disregards her, taps Jensen's nape. "Come on, Jensen; let's go." Jensen uncurls and gets to his feet. It sandwiches Jensen between her and Jeff, neither one of them backing down. "Is there a problem?" If Jeff's voice was icy, Indira's is positively arctic. The woman, the not-slave's sangfroid dissolves and her gaze falls, even though she still doesn't budge from blocking Jensen's way. "I don't know. Is there?" For all Jeff's reluctance to act like an owner, he sounds every inch one now, arrogance and privilege dripping from his tone. "I didn't expect to be accosted for my slaves at an establishment that purports to be the best." "Carrie-Anne." "Do you know who he is?" The womanCarrie-Annedemands. "I mean" She laughs, short and unhumorous. "Jesus Christ, do either of you have any idea who he is?" "I don't give a bloody damn who he is," Indira replies crisply. "This kind of behavior is completely unacceptable and not to be tolerated." Carrie-Anne's jaw, already sharp, juts out further, but she looks down, mulish. "Yes, mistress." "Jensen, let's go," Jeff says again, stepping to the side. Jensen moves with him and Jeff's hand moves to the small of Jensen's back, guiding him. His fingers presses against Jensen's throbbing skin, but the touch and the pain ground Jensen, comforting. Jeff's hand remains where it is all the way back to the car and until he ushers Jensen into the passenger's seat. When Jeff climbs in on the driver's side, he doesn't start the car right away, letting his head fall back on the rest and sighing heavily. Jensen belts himself in and then

sits quietly, hands on his thighs. He doesn't expect it when Jeff reaches for him, slipping his hand behind Jensen's neck and tugging him into a kiss. This kiss is gentler than the others, softer. Jeff explores Jensen's lips, his mouth, his tongue, with a slow thoroughness that leaves Jensen shaking all over again, his chest thick and heavy-feeling. When he pulls away, Jeff's gaze searches Jensen's face. "You know that I won't sell you, right? That I can't." His thumb brushes across Jensen's bottom lip. "You know that you're as safe as I can make you, yeah?" Jensen nods. Jeff sucks in a sharp and ragged breath that Jensen would think would lead to more, but instead, Jeff just nods and turns the key over in the ignition. The satellite radio starts up, more of the rock music that Jeff loves so much, but Jeff just stabs it silent. Another tense, brooding second where Jensen thinks Jeff is going to speak and then Jeff jerks the car out into traffic. As always, traffic in Laurel Canyon is rottenly slow, the car eking forward at glacial speed. Jeff taps the wheel moodily but he doesn't even engage in the usual muttering and cursing at his fellow Angelinos driving skills. Finally, they nudge their way onto the 101 and Jensen can't take it anymore. "Did? I'm. I'm sorry that I displeased you," Jensen says, feeling lightheaded as he says the words. "What?" Jeff glances sideways and the faint-cut lines on his forehead bunch and the unkink with the surprised flex of his eyebrows. "No," he says, doubtful. Then, more authoritatively, "Jensen, no. You. God, Jensen, you were" Jeff shakes his head. "You were amazing. You were perfect." He reaches sideways without looking and caresses across the curve of Jensen's skull. It feels really good and Jensen closes his eyes, leaning his head into it. "Did you enjoy it?" Though his fingers maintain a steady stroke across Jensen's hair, the note of Jeff's voice changes, pinching strangely. "Yes. Very much," Jensen answers, heartfelt. "Is" Jeff's voice sticks even more, flexing unsteadily over the word. "Is that what you want from me? Want me toto hurt you?" "I" Jensen doesn't know how to answer the question. "I don't know. If. If that's what you want." "No." Jeff shakes his head. "What do you want, Jensen?" Jensen hunches his shoulders and pushes his back deeper into the seat's back, making the already throbbing flesh sting and pulse. "You. You and CateLady Blanchettkeep asking me that, what do I want, and." He looks down at his hands, steeling himself up to it. "You don't

like the answer I give you. But it's the only answer I have." Jeff takes his hand back to put both of them on the wheel and dodge a red Mustang convertible zipping through the lanes of traffic with little regard for anyone's safety, including her own. Jensen threads his fingers through the door's armrest and gropes for a nonexistent brake pedal. Once the Mustang is past, Jeff reaches for Jensen again, this time taking his hand. "Okay, so I'm listening," Jeff says. "I'm really listening. You tell me what you want." "I want to be yours," Jensen says, head ducked. "I want to belong to you, I want to be your slave. It'sit's what I know. It's what I'm good at. I want" Jensen's breath hitches and he struggles to bring it back under control. "I can keep your secrets. I can help you. If. If you want oror need to hurt someone, I can do that. I can be that. I want to be that. I want to beeverything. Anything. Anything you want. Just. I just want to be yours." Jeff looks like he's swallowed something sour or like he's in pain, but his voice sounds almost anguished when he says, "But why do you want to be mine?" Jensen blinks. But Jeff seems to like Jensen to reiterate obvious truths, so he does. "You're my master." "Is that all?" Isn't that enough? For Jensen, it always has been, but now that Jeff's asked the question, he knows that it's not the only reason, even if it's the biggest. He squirms a little, trying to take all the things inside him and neaten them into words. "I. I've had a lot of masters. And. And I tried. I tried to be the best I could for them. I tried so hard." Jensen wants to pull his hand away from Jeff's, the point of connection to each other too warm, tooopen-ended for him to want to confess these never-spoken things. He leaves his fingers where they are, though, eyeballing their entwined hands uneasily, like foreign territory. "And I wasn't good enough." "Jensen" Jeff shakes his head and his fingers twitch against Jensen's palm. Jensen pauses a beat to see if Jeff is going to say anything else. When he doesn't, Jensen gropes for what he wants to say again, his train of thought slightly derailed. "You, you've been good to me," Jensen says slowly. "Better than I deserve." "That's not true," Jeff protests. "It is true," Jensen insists, a little amazed at his nerve. "And." He breathes. "You're a good man. A good owner. And you need somebody." Jeff laughs. "If you listen to Kane, I've got way too many somebodies." "But you're still lonely."

Jeff makes another sound, but it isn't really a chuckle and the sun-lines around his eyes crinkle tight. "Yeah," he says quietly. "I'm still lonely." "But you don't have to be." Jensen tightens his fingers around Jeff's. He wishes he could see Jeff's eyes in more than just profile. Jeff sighs, nearly soundless, but he doesn't say anything or pull his hand away. "You don't trust me. You think that I'm a liar because slaves lie. You think that I can't want the things that I tell you I want or, or that I'm brainwashed or stupid to want them." He tugs Jeff's wrist lightly, getting Jeff's eyes to dart sideways and look at him. "You think I'm going to change my mind." Jeff's nod is almost imperceptible; Jensen's not even sure Jeff knows he's making it. "What if I don't?" "You can't guarantee that." "I don't What guarantees are there? People get tired of their spouses and divorce them. They get tired of their slaves and sell them." "Jensen, I told you" Jensen shakes his head. "I don't mean that. I just" Jensen can't find the words to frame what he wants to say, doesn't know how to say it without counter-accusing Jeff of being as fickle as he thinks Jensen. Without sounding spiteful and jealous about living with or in close proximity to all Jeff's cast-offs. "I don't know how to be anyone else. I'm a good slave. I could be a great slave." Jensen wonders if he sounds boastful, arrogant. "You ask me what I want and. And I'll tryI am trying to want what you want me to, to want what I should. But you said you wanted me to. To tell you things. To be honest." Jeff squeezes Jensen's hand again, though the traffic's too tangled for him to take his eyes off it. "I do want you to be honest." "Then that's what I want. I want to be yours. I want to belong to you. I want to be what you need." "I I don't know how that would work," Jeff says slowly. "Does that mean you don't want that?" It's a near thing that keeps Jensen from saying "want me" instead, but he bites it back. Jeff is silent so long, Jensen starts to feel afraid of the answer. But Jeff only sighs. "No. That's not what it means." He cuts across the lanes of traffic for the exit ramp. "It just" Another sigh, no louder than the first. "I meant what I said. At Indira's. About. About how I feel. I meant it." His fingers stroke the skin on the inside of Jensen's wrist, fingernail scratching lightly over the vein. "And I don't know what that means. For us. It's hard for me to know what the right thing is. To be objective."

Why do you have to be objective? Jensen wonders, but it doesn't seem like an appropriate question for this moment, especially while trying to convince Jeff that he can be the best body-slave Jeff's ever had. Whatever he was going to figure out to say, though, is forestalled by the appearance of Jared at the driveway gateposts, waving his arms to flag down Jeff's car. "Oh, this can't be good," Jeff mutters, not really to Jensen, as he slows and pulls up next to Jared. He toggles the window down and plants his elbow on the sill. Jensen fights not to lean toward the open window. "What's up, dude?" "Where the hell have you been?" Jared demands. "Kane's been ringing your cell for hours, man! You and Jensen." Belatedly, Jensen fumbles for his phone, cursing himself that he could've forgotten. He'd been so rattled after the flogging, he'd forgotten to turn the ringer back on, forgotten to remind Jeff to do the same. It's not like him. And, like missing the lack of collar on Indira's girl Carrie-Annee, it's an indication of all the ways his attention, his focus is slipping. And he doesn't know how to reconcile itbeing perfect versus being Jeff's. "Ah, hell." Jeff puts the car in park and tugs out his phone, too. "We had to turn them off forfor our appointment." Jensen wonders if Jared notices the faint blush in Jeff's cheeks or if he knows the reasons for it. The house is so close-knit, it'd never occurred to him that everyone hadn't known they were visiting Mistress Varma. Mentally, Jensen reclassifies the information. "C'mon, get in. You can fill me in up to the house." "Okay, but you're not going to like it." Jared swings into the back seat, sounding resigned. "Kane thinks it's bad enough to send you and wait at the gates like a kid pissing himself to tattle," Jeff says, sounding halfway between amusement and apprehension. "I already don't like it. Just spill." Jared sighs. "Well. Don't kill the messenger, but Javier's here." Jeff stomps on the brake hard enough that Jensen's a little surprised the airbags don't inflate. His hands slap the dashboard and the seatbelt chokes tight. Slapping back against the seat in recoil digs into all his bruises, deafening him momentarily as Jeff curses. "It gets worse." Jeff groans. "Jesus, Jared. I'm not sure I even want to know what's worse." "Well, when she heard he was heredon't ask me howyour mom decided she was going to fly down and see you both. Kane's off at the airport now, picking her up. They'll be here in an hour, hour and a half." Jeff moans and sinks down in the driver's seat. "Just kill me. Kill me now."

Chapter 49
Jensen had been permitted to wash up at Indira's, but he's grateful for the opportunity to really shower before Jeff's mom arrives. Not that he's getting much showering done. "I'm sorry," Jeff says again, punctuating it with another soft, sloppy kiss. "I'm sorry. I thought I'd have at least a few more months to work you up to this." "I don't understand." Jeff's thumbs, silken with foamy soap, mark out the curves of Jensen's cheekbones, the skin underneath. "You know that slave I keep telling you that I don't want you to be? The kneeling, bowing, scraping, excruciatingly proper slave?" "Yes?" Jensen answers hesitantly. "While my mother is here, you have my full permission to be that slave." Jeff pauses, his eyes searching Jensen's face intently, though Jensen isn't sure what for. "I need you to be that slave," Jeff amends. "Just for a little while," he adds quickly, as though Jensen's going to protest. "Justuntil she and Javier are gone. Okay?" "I Yes. Of course." Jensen doesn't understandnot entirelybut for a change, he has a good idea of what Jeff wants and needs from him and that's an improvement on the usual state of affairs in the Morgan household. "I won't embarrass you." Jeff's fingers tighten across Jensen's skin. Jensen closes his eyes as Jeff leans in to kiss him, making the actual contact of their lips almost a surprise. Jeff's mouth coaxes Jensen's open lightly but with the sharp edge of hunger that slices deep into Jensen's gut. A soft noise escapes Jensen at the slow slide of his master's tongue and Jeff shivers and groans in response, pushing Jensen back into the travertine. The shock of the stone's cold and the pressure against his throbbing back makes Jensen arch, makes him gasp, and Jeff starts to pull away again, but Jensen wraps his arms around Jeff's neck and doesn't let him retreat, hopinggamblingthat Jeff will melt into him again. For once, Jeff lets himself be malleable and, as he plunders Jensen's mouth again, Jensen's heart rate picks up in the vague and possibly vain hope that this is the sign of something new with them, something that can be built on. Jensen's tiredhe's exhaustedand he's not nearly as young as he used to be, but the hot blood plunging into this belly still makes his cock stir and try to rise, as hopeful as Jensen. Jensen wonders what it would've been like to be Jeff's slave when he was younger, smaller, capable of being more solidly enclosed by Jeff's broad shoulders and arms still thick and heavy with muscle. Their bodies are equivalent now, especially since Jensen's filled out in weight, but he imagines Jeff pinning him downwith his hands, with the weight of his

bodyand what it would feel like, to not be able to move while Jeff did whatever he wanted, taking Jensen in whatever way pleased him. Just the thought scalds Jensen hotter than the spray from the shower head, making him squirm against Jeff like an unbroken slave that's never had a man inside him. Jensen's blood is molten with how much he'd like Jeff to be inside him. But Jensen's insistence only buys him a few moments' reprieve; all too soon, Jeff is tugging more firmly away, even as his hips grind a different wish against Jensen's thigh. "I never worry about you embarrassing me," Jeff says with gentle but unequivocal forcefulness. "But my family" An emotional shadow crosses Jeff's face, creates a preoccupied line between the bars of his eyebrows. "They're not like me. Andand they don't know me." His thumb traces that familiar arc across Jensen's face, but it's absent, Jeff's mind is absent for a long moment before he refocuses on Jensen, seeing him and not seeming entirely pleased by the vision. "And it's better for all of us if we keep it like that. Do you understand?" Jensen remembers Lord Cruise, on the rare occasions that his father would visit ormore likelyhe was summoned to meet with old Lord Mapother. He remembers how then-Lord Hutton would argue with his mother and how often those arguments presaged one of Hutton's big binging benders. How many times had Jensen acted as the go-between for Lord Affleck and his father or between Lady Cox-Arquette and nearly every member of her huge family? He knows from his own history how much children are the properties of their parents and it's no less true for the very rich than for the poor. And all of that before you add in Jeff's abolitionist sentiments. "I understand," Jensen answers, putting all the calm, cool competence he can into the words and struggling not to betray how much his pulse is racing to be granted this opportunitythe chance to make Jeff proud. "I'll beI'll be perfect." Jeff laughs, a low and comfortable rumble; a laugh like he gives to Kane, to his friends. "When are you going to figure it out, Jensen? You're already perfect." Later, Jensen will wish that the shower had lasted much longer, the last time he'll see this naked pleasure on Jeff's face and the last time he'll hear that happy, pleasured laugh all night. Jeff is different almost as soon as they leave the stall, quieter, pulling back in his skin. For once, Jensen feels confident that it's not because of him, nothing he's done. Of course, that doesn't mean it can't spill over onto him; Lord Cruise had been much the same before his familial visits, a silence and aloof distance that stretched and stretched until it erupted in violence or sex, or violence and sex, and no telling which one. But as he told Jeff in the car, if that's what Jeff needs, then that's what he wants to be. Someone to hit. Someone to fuck. Whatever. An old memory surfaces; the sudden jab of woodtable, desk, he doesn't recallin his gut and a fist twisting in his hair, arching him tautly, jerking him back into the body behind him. He recolors the memory with

Jeff behind him, in him, but it's a hard illusion to maintain, hard to imagine Jeff surrendering his maddening, infinite and stubborn control that much. Still, between that and Jeff's permission to choose his master's clothes as well as his own, Jensen is pretty buoyant, even tired as he is. It's tempting to dress Jeff in one of the suits that so seldom see the light of day, but he figures Jeff needs to look remotely plausible in whatever Jensen picks and no one who knows Jeff is going to believe he wore a suit to dinner at home. Jeff's pathetically obvious look of relief when Jensen skips past them is another indicator that Jensen's made the right choice. "That sweater's too small," Jeff protests, though, when Jensen surfaces with black slacks and the sweater in questionrich, cream colored silk cashmere. "No," Jensen contradicts mildly, "you wear clothes that are too big for you. The sweater is actually the right size." Jeff eyes Jensen even more doubtfully than the sweater. "I have pretty long arms." Jensen rolls his shoulders in and bows his head. "I'll defer to whatever you think is most suitable for your mother, of course." Jeff's chuckle this time is dry and tight. "Did Kane teach you that one?" Jensen is startled into a glance through his eyelashes and Jeff tilts his head, watching Jensen narrowly, with his whole attention. "No," Jeff says, sounding more decisive. "Kane didn't need to, did he?" He jerks the sweater out of Jensen's slack hands. The sweater, of course, fits perfectly, even with Jeff pulling and tugging at the biceps, the shoulders, the belly. "It clings," he says peevishly, as Jensen patiently straightens the seams over Jeff's shoulders, untwists the sleeves around Jeff's arms. "It fits," Jensen says again, coaxing Jeff's hands from pulling the sweater out of shape by the simple expedient of twining his fingers through his master's. "You look" He fumbles for the words his master will most want to hear, the words Jeff will best be receptive to, and eventually stops back at the naked truth. "You look good." Hot. "Handsome." One side of Jeff's mouth quirks up. "I'd settle for respectable, but handsome's good too. You think Mother will approve?" "I think your mother will fucking cream herself," Kane's voice interrupts, slipping through the door of Jeff's suite in the best tradition of movie spies everywhere. "I, on the other hand, if I don't kill her first, am going to laugh my ass off." Jeff lets go of Jensen's hand to shove Kane. "Your ass is going to stay where it is and it, like the rest of you, is going to be on your best fucking behavior."

"Yes, my master," Kane answers in mocking tones, sweeping into a decentif sloppygenuflection. Jensen disentangles his other hand from Jeff's and goes to finish his own toilet, tiredness crashing down on his shoulders all over again like a physical weight. Looking at himself in the unflattering fluorescents of the bathroom, Jensen examines his face critically and wonders if he should use some concealer, touch up the circles under his eyes, tone down the freckles. Without really listening, he can still overhear Jeff and Kane, the cadence of their banter. He can hear how subtly off it all is, the steely underlying thread of tension that colors both men's voices. Jeff lives off his family's holdings less than any well-born master Jensen's ever hadexcluding the self-made men like Kilmerbut he's not disconnected, not wholly independent. No one is. Not when family is sometimes the only thing that separates men like Jeff from a fate like Jensen's. The concealer is cold as Jensen dots it on; he worries that he looks too feverish, too obviously wanton, his mouth swollen with abuse. The clothes will help with that, of course, much more straitlaced than Jeff's, though he worries that the pants are a touch too tight. He doesn't come out again until Kane is gone, dispersed on errands unknown. Jeff's sitting on the edge of the bed, heels hooked on the bed rails and his hands clasped between his knees. "Hey," Jeff says mildly, his smile wan and crooked as he lifts his head. "Hey." Jensen goes to the nightstand on Jeff's side of the bed, takes out the round agate ashtray, the stoppered jar of weed and the little glass pipe. He goes to his knees and holds them out to Jeff. "Jensen" Jeff sighs his name. Jensen bows his head. "Tonight is important," he says, all the same, keeping his voice modulated, a good slave's voice. "Your mother is important, her being here. And you're likely to be better with her easierif you're calmer than you are now." Jeff makes a heh noise and takes the things from Jensen. "I am that fucking transparent, huh?" Jensen shakes his head and looks through his lashes. "It's my job toto know you, to watch you, figure out what you need." Jeff doesn't say anything, lips pursed up and his jaw mulish as he puts the paraphernalia to the side on the coverlet. "I'm your slave," Jensen insists softly, willing Jeff to hear him, to understand. Jeff makes the sound again, mouth quirking, and he reaches out to caress the side of Jensen's face, the curve of his head. "My perfect slave," Jeff agrees, an emotion in his voice that Jensen can't quite read. He pats the comforter. "C'mon. Plenty of time for you to kneel soon enough."

Jensen settles next to Jeff on the bed, takes the jar and the pipe from Jeff's hands. "Let me." Jeff raises his eyebrows but he lets Jensen tug them away. Jensen already knew it from the look and smell, but the feel of Jeff's weed between his fingertips only confirms the quality of Jeff's supplier, spongy, seedless and fragrant. It's been a while since Jensen's handled weed himself; Master Crudup disdained drugs and Master Crowe preferred legal intoxicants over everything else; DiCaprio had been too paranoid to let Jensen touch his drugs. Lord Kilmer had been fond of this trick, as had Lord Affleck. It feels strange to turn it around, use it the other way. Jensen tamps the pot down enough to bruise it before picking up the cheap plastic lighter from the ashtray and flicking the wheel. "Jensen" Jensen has an uneasy relationship with drugs. The quality of Jeff's weed and the fact that he knows it's unlacedas well as the soft weight of Jeff's eyes on himgives Jensen the requisite courage to wrap his lips around the cool, bulbous stem and inhale, finger clamping the carb shut for several smoldering moments before he opens it and lets the drifting, piny smoke fill his lungs and mouth. Jeff comes easy when Jensen reaches for him, though that same line is furrowed between his eyebrows. Easier still is the way Jeff's mouth opens for him, accepting the rush of smoke from Jensen and then sharing it back, slow and sticky, lazy as an afternoon in the California sun. The kiss lasts a lot longer than the mouthful of pot smoke. Jensen can't make himself break it, even with the awareness that they're running out of plausible time before Jeff needs to make his entrance, deal with his guests. He can't tell if Jeff's even thinking about the time at all, eyes closed, fingers threaded through the knot of Jensen's tie. Jeff's eyes are hazy when he finally lets Jensen go, pushes back; much hazier than one transmitted lungful of smoke can account for. It's a look both familiar and unfamiliar and Jensen clamps down on his involuntary shiver. "We should go." The words come out a little ungracious, but Jensen doesn't think that's the reason that the faintly burgeoning smile on Jeff's face snuffs out of existence. "Yeah." Jeff's voice is deeper than it was before, gravel at the bottom and sweet honey on top, that same steel cord holding it together. "Yeah, they'll be waiting." He lets Jensen tug his sweater straight again, brush at the few flecks of dust or lint on his pants. "Jensen." "Yes?" Jeff lifts Jensen's chin with one finger. "I did mean what I said earlier," Jeff says, swiping his thumb across Jensen's bottom lip. "I want Do you

think we could talk later? About what happened today?" Jensen blinks. "Yes. Of course." Jeff huffs and rolls his eyes. "Assuming I live through tonight."

Chapter 50
Jeff holds Jensens hand as they trail down the stairs. Its not a faux pas, not really, and Jensens noticed that it seems to soothe Jeff, that extra bit of human contact so he shortens Jeffs lead to a half-step, keeping his palm pressed firmly to the warmth of his masters. "My God, I thought you were never coming down!" The voice of the man at the bottom of the stairs is slightly deeper than Jeff's and accented Jensen thinks it's Latinatebut despite that, the physical resemblance between him and Jeff is striking. "I'm starving to death and your hellcat cook refuses to feed me until everyone comes down for dinner." "Mother hasn't come down?" The other manMaster Bardemgives Jeff a look. "Have you ever known Mother to make an appearance before her full audience is available to appreciate her entrance?" Master Bardem clucks his tongue and then tips his head back to drain the last of whatever he's drinking from the rock glass in his hand. Jensen doesn't know him well enough to be sure, but he guesses it's not Master Bardem's first. Jeff sighs. "No, of course not." Jensen had researched Jeff's family in Escrow; he fumbles for the information now. There hadn't been much about Master Bardem, if he remembers correctly; only a half-brother and through Jeff's mother, he's cut out of the Morgan's money and, consequently, not considered of much importanceat least as a player in the family's politics. Minority player or not, he's still an owner and, at Jensen's level, that makes him very important indeed. "It's good to see you, brother." As they step level with him, Master Bardem comes forward, arms extended for a hug. "Hmm. You too." The hesitation in Jeff's voice is brief enough that Jensen doesn't think Master Bardem heard it. Jensen slips his fingers from Jeff's, giving them room as they clasp tight. "How are things at Morgan International?" "Ha. You know I didn't come here to talk business." Master Bardem holds Jeff at arm's length, his expression jovial though Jensen feels as though there's a fragment of something less happy in Master Bardem's voice. He doesn't know Jeff's brother well enough to trust his instincts, though. Not yet, not without more time, more information. Now that he's a little less focused on Jeff, however, Jensen notices the empty space at Master Bardem's side. He slips to his knees and folds in half, touching his forehead to the instep of Jeff's shoe. "J-jensen?" Jeff stutters slightly over his name, jerking slightly at the touch.

Jensen straightens his back, though he keeps his eyes downcast. "May I be permitted to serve Master Bardem as well, during the dinner?" There's a short pause and Jensen fights against the impulse to lift his head, read their expressions. "Lose something, did you?" Master Bardem's suit whispers across his shoulders as he shrugs. "You know how it is, brother. They get old, they get possessive, they think the least scrap of affection means you're in love with them" "Jensen." Jeff's voice snaps flat with anger, though Jensen doesn't feel it's exactly directed at him. "Go get Joe. He can serve Javier at dinner." Jensen suspects Mary-Louise will be less than pleased at being deprived of her personal servant, but he's not about to say so to Jeff, even without the presence of his brother and mother in the house. "Yes, Master." "Ah, the dulcet tones of politeness." The voice of Jeff's motherit can't be anyone elseis both dry and rich, much like the wines her son is gaining a reputation for. "How strangely out of place they sound in this house." "Aw, Christ, way to be melodramatic, Mom," Jeff sighs. "Mind your tongue, Jeffrey." Training and time means that Jensen can only glance at Jeff's mother from the corner of his eye as he goes to fetch Joe. He gets an impression of red hair and changeable green silk before the angle of the staircase keeps him from seeing anything else. "I'm still your mother." "Yes, Mom, of course. I'm sorry." Joe is just coming out of Mary-Louise's room as Jensen approaches. "She's asleep," Joe says, shutting the door behind him. Jensen shakes his head. "No, I wanted you." Jensen and Kane had picked out Joe together. Jeff likes to do a lot of due diligence on the slaves he acquired, more than any owner Jensen has ever had. He understands why now, of course; their household is at risk, they have to be very careful about who they bring into it, even without knowledge of The Trust. Joe is only a few years younger than Jensen, but he still has the reedy build and youthful face of a teenager. Jensen envies him for it, a little bit, but not for the crosshatch of scars on both Joe's shoulders, the ones that make him near-useless as a body-slave for anyone but a truly twisted owner. Especially in Los Angeles, where beauty rules all. The scars had been a 'gift' from Joe's last master, the reclusiveand insaneMickey Rourke. But, for all that caring for Mary-Louise is a cushier job than Joe had any right to expect in his condition, Joe doesn't trust them, a dull wariness in all his dealings with Jensen, or Kane or Sam. Jensen doesn't expect Joe's trust, he understands why Joe doesn'tbut, at the same time, it prickles

Jensenjust a bitthat Joe is so suspicious of his master when Jeff's been nothing but kind. On the other hand, his training is impeccable. "Master Bardem has no body slave. Jeff wants you to serve him through dinner. Just through dinner," he clarifies, aware of his own mistakes when he first came into Jeff's possession. "You don't need to service him." Joe nods and plucks at the front of his short-sleeved bowling shirt. "I should change." Jensen agrees, though he feels vindicated that Joe mentioned it first. "Make it fast." Joe offers a tight smile before turning and jogging off, further down the hallway. Ordinarily, Joe would probably be put up in the dormitory with Jared, Chad, Sandy and Adrienne, but between Mary-Louise's temperament and condition, they all felt it was smarter to give him a room in the house. Jensen trusts that Joe will be quick as promised, so he goes back to Jeff. They've moved from the foot of the stairs to the formal lounge, a room Jensen's never actually seen Jeff use before. Partly because it's just a small nook off the dining room and partly because they've never had company sufficiently lofty for Jeff to think it was necessary. Jeremy, Brent, Everall Jeff's friends go straight to the party room, with its giant TV and comfy couches. Though, Master Bardem seems to have made himself very comfortable in one of the armchairs, slouched low and sprawled out like a giant, resting cat. Jeff's mother, on the other hand, stands artfully straight, one hand resting lightly on the head of her body-slave, a thin, fussy man in one of the most beautifully cut suits Jensen's ever seen. Jeff is at the bar, fixing drinks, the sleeves of his sweater pushed up to show the wiry strength of his wrists and forearms, the barest hint of the tattoo near his elbow. Warmth floods Jensen at the sight of him, like a sip of the scotch Jeff pours for his mother, that sweet feeling of my master filling up the cold, dark spaces inside him. You're high, Jensen thinks wryly, but it's more sweet than sour, buoyant rather than terrifying. "So this is the new one?" Like Jeff, there's a scratchiness threaded through his mother's voice, roughening her tone interestingly. Jensen feels her eyes, her attention, touch him, less sexual than he's used to, but no less intense. He stops where he is, uncomfortable in the center of the room. Jensen keeps his eyes properly downcast, but with his face in profile to her, he dares a short glance through his eyelashes at Jeff. The hesitation in Jeff's voice is obvious this time, a stricken pause, as he

looks quickly at Jensen. "Yes," Jeff says finally, sounding stifled. "Jensen." "Come here, boy." She's Jeff's mother; he wouldn't disobey her even without the casual, unquestioned authority with which she says the words. As it is, he's on his knees in front of her before he even has a moment to think about what he's doing. "Graceful," she comments, to Jeff and Master Bardem, or possibly to no one as she puts her fingers under his chin and tilts his face up. She hasn't given him permission, so Jensen keeps his eyes downward as she angles his face this way and then that. "And well-mannered." Her tone warms, slim approval. "Pretty, too. Is he well-trained?" "Better trained than I am," Jeff says, coming closer. "I imagine he could give Crispin here a run for his money." "Hmm." Her thumb smudges across his cheek, odd echo of all the times that Jeff's given him that same caress, but without Jeff's tenderness. It feels more like she's testing the resiliency of his skin. "Shame about the freckles, though." "Mother, I like Jensen's freckles." Madame Morgan sighs, a nearly soundless noise that nonetheless manages to convey immense weariness. "Of course you do, darling. But I'd keep him out of the sun if you don't want him spotted like a leopard. People will talk." Heat spills through Jensen's skin like a tea-flower opening, tendrils of shame as much for the blemishes on his face as his negligence in not putting on sufficient concealer to hide them more adequately. She lets go of Jensen's chin all at once to take the glass from Jeff's hand; Jensen catches himself and bends back into proper posture, head down and his heart fluttering humming-bird quick in his chest, as though he's run a long way. "Still." Madame Morgan's stylishly shod toe taps against the carpet thoughtfully. "He's got a better look to him than that sour-faced slut before him. Or that mongrel that you insist on keeping around." "Mother" Jeff's voice hovers somewhere between angry and exasperated and Jensen wishes Jeff was closer so he could lean his weight against his master's leg, ground some of that building tension like a lightning rod. As it is, no more than a foot separates them and Jensen is helpless to offer any sort of comfort or aid to his master. "Oh, don't be tedious, darling. Your sense of loyalty is commendable" "Noble, even," Master Bardem interjects helpfully, sparkling malice in his tone. The sigh of Madame Morgan's voice is quiet, probably only audible to Jensen and the kneeling Crispin. "The point is, Jeff, my love, that while I

deeply adore your unwavering loyalty and your compulsive need to champion the underdog, I do often wish you'd expend your energy on better, more important things than your slaves." "I run four companies, Mother, not including Morgan International." Jeff's voice is whipcord taut and Jensen wishes he'd made Jeff smoke more before they'd come down. Or gotten some Xanax from somewhere. Kane probably has a stash, he seems like That Guy. "So I'm not sure what it is that you think I'm doing with my energy or what's wrong with it." "Master?" The soft fall of Joe's voice nonetheless hits the charged pause after Jeff's words with the precision of a bullet. If Jensen were given to demonstrations of affection, he could kiss Joe. "You sent for me." "Yes." Jeff's voice is still rough. "My brother, here, needs someone to wipe his chin during dinner. You'll attend him through the meal." Jeff takes a breath, loud enough that Jensen can hear it, and it's as though with that breathsome of the air in the room clears. "Jensen, come here." It's a relief to return to Jeff's side, feel Jeff's fingers fall across his nape, warm and strong. "You always have the prettiest boys, Jeff," Master Bardem comments, his voice slick as the product in his hair as he gets up from the armchair. "But not so much with the women. Why is that?" "Javier," Madame Morgan's voice shoots out like a snake striking and Jeff's fingers pinch Jensen's nape reflexively. Jensen glances at Jeff's mother through his eyelashes. The red of her hair is obviously a dye-job, but it's an impeccable one, slightly silvered and variegated enough to pass for natural if not for her age. Her hairdresser, however talented, has nothing on her plastic surgeon, though, if Jensen is any judge. It's the sharpness of her anger that betrays her, he thinks, tugging at her already tightened flesh. Though she's fighting to seem calm, the lines of her jaw and mouth show the illusion. "What?" Master Bardem spreads his hands, trying and failing to look innocent. "He can criticize my table manners and lack of the wealth that he demonstrates so amply," he waves vaguely at Jensen, "but I'm not allowed" "While you are under your brother's roof, you should show him better respect than that," Madame Morgan says stiffly, handing off her rock glass to her slave, Crispin, without looking. "I raised you better than this." "Ah." Master Bardem's head jerks back slightly, like he's going to laugh. "But truth, mi madre, you hardly raised me at all." "I am still your mother." "So you are." Master Bardem bows, still mocking.

"Gentlemen, Madame," Sam's drier voice interrupts again, her timing as patand as practicedas Joe's. "Dinner is prepared, if you are ready." Sam looks as subtly different as Jeff or Jensen; her hair is pulled back in a smooth knot and she's replaced her normal jeans and tee-shirt with ubiquitously appropriate black slacks and a white tuxedo shirt. "Mother?" Madame Morgan sighs. "Yes. Why not?" The dining room has been reconfigured too; all the leaves pulled out of the table and serving kneelers placed next to the chairs for him, Joe and Crispin. The smell of the food makes Jensen light-headed, his stomach turning liquid with hunger. Jeff squeezes Jensen's fingers gently. Jeff seats his mother and Joe seats Master Bardem while Crispin settles on his kneeler. Crispin is possibly the oldest body-slave Jensen's ever seen, but he moves with the elastic grace of someone much younger, each movement deliberate and airy. He's beautiful and Jensen wonders if he could ever be that good, even if Jeff keeps him for that long. He understands better now why Jeff chose him to serve tonight; compared to Crispin, Kane or Zach or even Mary-Louise would be completely unsuitable for any kind of positive impression on Madame Morgan. Once everyone else is seated, Jensen holds the chair out for Jeff then takes his place on his own kneeler. "I suppose you're wondering why I decided to grace you with my presence." Madame Morgan lets Crispin spread her napkin across her lap. "The thought did cross my mind." There is wine already on the table, uncorked and breathing. Jeff follows the same, old-fashioned courtesy he always does and pours for them all. "I figured you couldn't pass up the chance to see your favorite son." He's joking, but the joke falls strangely flat as Jeff plants his rump back in the chair. His left hand splays between Jensen's scapulae wakening Jensen's bruises to throbbing as Jensen's blood leaps to answer that grounding touch, a sense of heat and keen awareness exactly in the shape of his master's fingers. "Darling, you know I don't have favorites," Madame Morgan says, reaching across the table to pat both Jeff and Master Bardem's hands. "It was a joke," Jeff answers, more quietly than before. He leans back in his chair, drawing his fingers out from under his mother's to take up his wine glass. Jared and Chad have apparently been pressed into service as servitors, both of them looking neater and more serious than Jensen's ever seen as they come out with the serving trays. "Of course it was. The point is, Jeffrey, that your brother isn't wholly wrong. You're entitled to choose your slaves as you like, of course, but not at the expense of your other obligations." "Other obligations?" Jeff removes his hand from Jensen's back as Jensen rises to the points of his knees to serve. "I'm kind of lost here, Mom, what are you saying?"

"And everyone thinks he is the smarter brother," Master Bardem snorts, setting down his empty goblet noisily before he slaps the table. "Sex, gilipollas! Babies!" "Javier. Language." Jensen can see where Jeff gets the expressiveness of his voice, even though Madame Morgan uses hers entirely differently than her son. Jensen still has to admire the way it varies from whiplash cold to warmth as she shifts her gaze from Javier to Jeff. It distracts him from the ice-line tracing its way down his bruised back. "The thing is, darling, your brother is againhowever crudely putnot wholly wrong. I've beenso proud of what you've put together. And I've tried to give you time, because it takes time, to build an empire. But darling. You're forty-two." Jensen cuts his eyes at Jared, who's closest to him. Jared gives a slow blink to signal his understanding and fades back to tap Chad on the shoulder. They both leave their trays on the sideboard and vacate. Very calm and measured, Jeff asks, "What are you trying to say, Mother?" Madame Morgan sighs. "It's not like you to be this dense, Jeffrey. But if you want to play this game, fine. It's time, Jeffrey. You're the last of the Morgans and it's time that you get serious about getting married and having children."

Chapter 51
"I told you I'm not much like them." Actually, at a base level, Jensen can see how much Jeff is like his family; the desire to intervene, to nudge their loved ones toward what's better for them. It's mainly in the details that they differ, but from Lord Cruise, Jensen knows how crucial those details are. He also knows that's not what Jeff wants to hear from him. He spits toothpaste into the sink and rinses his mouth, considering what's best to say. In the end, though, he doesn't have to say much of anything. Jeff is stretched out in the bed, glass pipe clasped loosely in his fingers but unlit. When Jensen appears in the doorway between bathroom and bedroom, a slow smile wakens on his tired face. "C'mere." Jeff scoots over on the mattress and Jensen settles on the bed's edge gingerly, his stomach trembly with butterflies. Jeff discards the pipe carelessly on the nightstand and reaches for him, cupping Jensen's face in both hands and drawing him in for the kiss. Jeff had stuck to ice water through dinner; his lips are still cool, making the heat from his tongue and further in all the more startling. Jensen sighs out, a shaky, yearning noise and Jeff's thumbs tighten behind Jensen's ears, his own quiet groan filling up the spaces between their mouths. "I could do that all day," Jeff drawls slowly, pulling back with his eyes still mostly-closed. "You could," Jensen agrees. Jeff tips his head back against the headboard and laughs, exhausted but rich. "God. What a fucking day." All at once, his head snaps up again and he gazes at Jensen, a look that goes into Jensen like rainwater in dry soil. "Does your back hurt?" "Yes," Jensen answers promptly. Then, when Jeff's expression flickers uncertainly, "But it feels good. It. It's a good hurt." Jeff's mouth quirks, an unhappy looking line, and Jensen feels the flutter in his belly get stronger. "I can't help what I am," Jensen whispers, the pain of just saying the words piercing. "No." Jeff shakes his head, craning up to run his fingers down Jensen's arm from shoulder to wrist, where he clasps the bone. "Jensen, it's not you." He tugs and Jensen eases down, half-falling into Jeff's arms. Quiet falls for a few moments while they shift and jostle, looking for comfort as they tangle together. Jeff ends up with one arm bunched up, curled half around Jensen's head and the other thrown over Jensen's waist, fingertips strumming lightly across his stomach, catching in Jensen's

navel. Softlyso softly that Jensen's not sure if he's meant to hear the words Jeff says, "I don't know what to think about today." "Which part?" Jensen asks finally, when the silence seems to acquire weight. Jeff's huff heats the nape of Jensen's neck. "Any part. All of it." His arm shifts, to allow his fingers to stroke the length of Jensen's back instead, a tracery of ice and fire. Jensen closes his eyes and abandons himself to the touch, a contented, humming sound working its way up from his chest. "You really do like this, don't you?" Jeff sounds wondering, amazed, as though Jensen is something remarkable. A new heat brushes through Jensen: anger at Kane, at Sam, Mary-Louiseeven Jared. They're all supposed to care for each other so much and nobody. Nobody's been giving a damn about Jeffwhat he wants, what he needs. Jeff has been starving to death in front of them and nobody's done a damn thing about it. Nobody's even noticed. "Yes," Jensen answers thickly, his breath catching as one of Jeff's fingers jabs accidentally into one of his bruises. His hips push down into the mattress, cock skimming across the sheet. "Jensen" Jensen rolls back far enough to look over his shoulder. It's dim, so he can't see Jeff's eyes as well as he'd like, but he's also spent years interpreting faces in darkness or near-darkness and Jeff's expression is so naked, no interpretation required. "W-will you touch me?" Jensen asks, fumbling over the words in his haste to get them out. He gestures vaguely at the hardness of his cock without actually touching himself. "Would you? Like you did today." Jeff grunts and the lines around his eyes tighten, as if he's in pain. "Jesus. Jensen." "You told me to ask." Jensen's heart is going about a million beats per second and his skin feels too tight, tingly, like he's bracing for the lash. "If I wantedyou said I should ask for it." Please, Jensen thinks, unsure if he's praying to Jeff or something someonebigger. Please. Let this work. "I did." Jeff sounds uncertain, but not doubtful, leaving off his exploration of Jensen's bruises to let his hand fall across Jensen's thighs. Just that feather-light, tentative touch makes Jensen shudder, shoulders and ass pushing back into the solidity of Jeff behind him. "I did say that. God. Jensen" Bitter panic starts to seep into Jensen's mouth, metal on his tongue. "If you're too tired, or, or you don't want to"

"Jensen." As ever, Jeff has a way of saying Jensen's name that's like ringing a bell, everything in Jensen going still around it. And then, when Jeff cups and curls around Jensen's cock, the feeling splits, half of Jensen feeling like he couldn't move or think if both their lives depended on it and the other half feeling like he's shaking so hard he'll bring all of Los Angeles down around them. "I want to, okay?" Jeff's voice is quieter, but it's also deepened, scraping Jensen's nerves raw, turning him to honeycomb sweet liquid everywhere except in Jeff's hand. Jeff huffs and Jensen chokes back a moan. "How do you not get that I always want to?" "II don't know." The words trail off, gasping, as Jeff draws his fingers slow and tight along Jensen's shaft, his thumb brushing hard against the head. "Jensen." Again that quietly quelling voice, sugared with just a thread of amusement. "Hush, sweetheart. You don't have to try and talk." Jensen's breath rushes out of him in sighed relief, only to catch again as Jeff makes the same tight-good stroke, Jensen swelling even harder in Jeff's grip. "I don't deserve you," Jeff says, his tone a little unsteady over the words. "Goddammit, Jensen." The arm curled under Jensen's head moves, rolling Jensen back into Jeff, giving Jeff the space to pull Jensen tight against him, that arm snaking over Jensen's shoulder, around his chest, hauling him up, back. Jensen's feet slide on the sheet, trying to move however Jeff wants him, trying to keep Jeff's fingers around his dick. He ends up cradled between Jeff's legs, head lolling back against Jeff's collar bone as his master strokes him hard and fast, taking him from hard to desperately hard in what feels like no time at all. "When you're ready," Jeff says, sounding almost as out of breath as Jensen, "when you think you can, when you want to, I want you to come. All right?" Jensen nods, barely able to control his body enough to do that. It's not that no one's ever touched him before; he doesn't know why he feels so out of control this time around, why it's so hard for him to think at all. He can't even dig too deep into his worry, the ends of it slipping slickly from his grasp every time he tries to reach for them. So he stops trying. "Jjeff? Jeff?" "I already saidit's okay, Jensen." "Iah. I liked when Violetwhen she hurt me." "I know." Jeff's fingers tighten over Jensen's pectoral, possibly the only thing that holds Jensen's heart in his body. His other hand jerks Jensen with as much skill as any body-slave. "I know you did." "Nuh. No." Jensen shakes his head. "I justgnngh oh oh fuck!" Jensen's back arches hard as Jeff's palm twists around his cock-tip, exquisite

friction. "It's you," he gasps out, wrapping his fingers around Jeff's wrist, clinging hard. "I liked it better when it was you. IuhI just want you. Just you." Jeff's lips grind against Jensen's temple, his beard and mustache burning the thin skin. Jensen's neck doesn't want to move, but he wrenches his head sideways anyway, craning after Jeff's mouth with his own. The resultant kiss is awkward, bordering on painful, but the nip of Jeff's teeth against his lower lip is just the accelerant Jensen needs to hurtle those last millimeters of sensation, pulsing out wetly over his master's fingers and his own belly and thighs. Jeff suckles the choked, desperate cries from Jensen's mouth, tugging him through the orgasm until Jensen is limp and stunned, spread across his master like a second skin. "That was" Jeff squeezes Jensen tight and lets out a shuddery laugh. "Wow, Jensen. Wow." Jensen tries to make himself think again but gathering the scattered pieces of his brain seems nearly as impossible as stuffing the orgasm back into his body again. He tries to lift up, to roll over. "Can I Do you want me to?" Jeff's arm seems to gain in weight, holding Jensen where he is. "Nah. That was perfect just like it was." He traces down Jensen's chest, cutting tracks through sweat and semen and Jensen can't help the small, helpless noise that comes from his throat. Jeff chuckles again, sounding as sated as if he'd come himself. "You are" Jeff sighs, sounding pleased. "Incredible." Jensen smiles, as pleased by the compliment as by the fact that he doesn't need to get up just this second. "Jensen?" Jensen struggles to raise his eyelids, realizing tardily that he's drowsing. On top of Jeff. "M'sorry," he mumbles, his tongue as uncooperative as the rest of him. "I c'n move" "No." Jeff's hands soothe Jensen down again gently but firmly. "You're fine. I was just thinking." "Hmm?" "Thisthis thing with my mom." Jensen opens his eyes, drowsiness cutting away as if sliced from him by a razor. Overhead, the fan turns lazily, a contrast to the rapid skitter of Jensen's heart. "You." He flexes his mouth, trying to make it work. "You don't have to" He doesn't even know how to finish that sentence. "You don't have to." "I know I don't." Jeff shifts a little bit, his fingers flexing over Jensen's skin as if he's afraid Jensen's going to leap up and run away. "AndI know that I'm just the shithead that bought you. The latest shithead in a

long line of them." Jensen's abs tuck to propel him upright, mouth opening in protest. Jeff's handfaintly tacky, smelling of Jensen as much as Jeffbrushes across his lips, silencing him. "No, wait," Jeff says. "Just hear me out. You have no reason to believe in me. I know this. I know that I'm going to spend the rest of myourlife trying toto be the guy that I tell you I am. And. I don't know what's going to happen. My momshe can be pretty damn persuasive." The noise Jeff makes is probably technically a laugh, but there's not much humor in it. "But I want" Jeff sighs. "It would be nice if you couldcould believe me when I say that this is all I want. This. Right here. With you." "I believe you." Jeff hehs, sounding more like a laugh this time as he threads his fingers through Jensen's. "I think I'm going to leave that one alone," Jeff says finally. "I like my illusions. But." His knuckles squeeze in against Jensen's. "I will do everything in my power to take care of you, Jensen. Everything. And I'll do everything I can to keep you with me, as long as that's what you want." "I'm just your slave," Jensen says. He licks his lips, tastes the faint tang of blood. "You don't have to explain yourself to me." "Jensenyou're not 'just' a slave. Not to me," Jeff answers promptly. "And I want to tell youexplain to you. That was the deal we made, right? I tell you what you need to know." "I don't need to know this." Jeff wraps both arms around Jensen. He feels solid. So solid. "You do. I need you to know this. I need you with me." Jeff shifts and Jensen feels Jeff's mouth brush hotly against his crown. "I just need you, okay?" "Okay," Jensen agrees, willing to agree to damn near anything if it means Jeff will keep holding him the way he is.

Chapter 52
"Jeffrey, I'd like you to meet Anne. Lady Anne Hathaway." Jeff is entirely too tired to deal with this shit today. Nonetheless, he drags up the warmest smile he can. "Of course I know Lady Anne," he says, extending his hand to her. "By reputation, at least. It's a pleasure to meet you." There's color in Anne's cheeks that can't be entirely accounted for by her artful make-up, but her handshake is firm, unlike so many of her peers'. "Pleasure to meet you, too." "Anne and I were just about to go to lunch, darling." Jeff's mom fiddles with her earring as though she didn't spend all morning putting herself together impeccably. "I was hoping you could join us. I checked your schedule already; it says you're free." In the middle of assembling some excuse, Jeff's head jerks and he looks sharply at Jensen, who looks as shell-shocked as Jeff probably does. "Oh, don't look so betrayed, dear. Your calendars are public documents at MI, you know." She finishes fussing with her jewelry and comes forward to brush at some nonexistent lint on his shirt. Jeff knows it's nonexistent because Jensen's already spent a good fifteen minutes going over him, picking off every dog hair and speck of dust. It's not the point, though, and Jeff knows better than to think anything he says will ever get his mother to drop the habit of grooming him like a monkey. "Now, come on. I had Crispin make a reservation for us at that new restaurant in The Flat." She tilts her head, considering him critically. "I suppose there's nothing to be done about your outfit now, but I'm sure we can make do." She looks past him to Jensen. "You, boy. Go upstairs and get a tie and jacket. Make it quick, Crispin's bringing the car around." Jensen's been pretty quiet all morning, making Jeff worry about what's going on in that beautiful but stubborn head of his. Still, Jensen glances at Jeff to confirm before letting go of his hand and jogging from the room. "Where's Javier?" Jeff asks, tucking both hands in his pockets and fighting with the impulse to hunch his shoulders. He feels the absence of Jensen next to him and it's such a juvenile, high-school emotion that he wants to roll his eyes at himself. "I'd think he'd be leaping at the chance to go out to lunch. Or that you'd jump at the chance to have both your sons out with you." "Oh, there'll be plenty of time to catch up with Javier later." His mother flaps one hand at him, her voice too airy to be genuine. "I'm sure he's exhausted from the trip, anyway." "Actually, Mother, I am feeling quite well." Javier's arm drops onto Jeff's shoulder, tugging him into his brother's side. "Invigorated, even! And how could I possibly say no to the pleasure of the lovely Lady Anne's

company?" As fast as he'd put his arm around Jeff, Javier pushes away, sweeping into an extravagant bow over Anne's hand. "Hello, Javier." Anne smiles, but it's close-lipped. "It has been too long," Javier answers, straightening up. He's laying his accent on thicker than usualwhich he usually does around the ladies, but beneath the rolling r's and exoticized vowels, he sounds a bit manic, too. "Sincewhat? Cannes?" "Yes." Anne looks thoughtful. "That sounds about right." She turns to Jeff and explains, "Your brother and I were at the festival at the same time and attended some of the same parties." "With very different crowds, I'm sure!" Jeff's mother laughs, the fake tinkling giggle, like brittle glass chimes. Jeff hates that fucking laugh; it makes him want to do stupid shit, juvenile acts of rebellionget drunk, get high, go back to bed and have incredible, acrobatic sex with Jensen, the way he's been wanting to since he laid eyes on the kid. Hell, maybe just throw Jensen on the back of his bike and run the fuck away, go to Vancouver, Hong Kong, Ireland. Anywhere. Anywhere not here. His mom puts a hand on his wrist, as if she somehow senses his desire to fleeand maybe she does, Jeff wouldn't put it past herand says confidingly, "Anne, here, has recently been put in charge of the Hathaways' production company here in Los Angeles." She raises her eyebrows at Jeff significantly. "Oh." Anne closes her eyes, smiles and waves one hand, embarrassed. "But this is wonderful!" Javier encloses Anne in a bear hug before kissing her lightly on either cheeks. "You'll do great things, I know it." A touch on Jeff's instep draws his attention down; Jensen is back, kneeling at Jeff's feet with one of Jeff's jackets and a tie like a ribbon on top of it, a much more lurid purple than Jeff feels entirely comfortable wearing. Where the hell had he even gotten a tie that color? It looked more like Jeremy's speed than his. Jeff brushes his fingers across Jensen's shoulder, across the sharp bones of his cheek and Jensen's face lifts to his, a question in his wide, beautiful eyes. "Get up," Jeff murmurs, a strange spot of heat in his chest like sunlight through a magnifying glass. He threads the tie through his fingers. It is Jeremy's, he thinks, discards of a particularly lazy, drunken night a few years ago. It reminds him he hasn't checked in on Jeremy or his new body-slave in a while. "Help me with this?" Jensen pops to his feet with a promptness that makes Jeff's knees ache, fingers warm and ticklishly light against Jeff's skin as he pops Jeff's collar to thread the tie around. Resting his hand on Jensen's waist isn't something Jeff thinks about, a steadying reflex, but, all the same, he finds himself aware of Jensen with a clarity that's almost too intense; cloth over skin, bone and muscle, gently radiating heat and a scent

that's so much like Jeff's own and subtly different at the same time. "You're staring," Jensen murmurs under his breath, too low for anyone but Jeff to hear. "Oh, now that's much better," Jeff's mom says at the same moment, nudging Jensen out of the way to straighten the tie's knot herself and turn Jeff's collar back down. "It's so nice to see you wearing something with a bit of color, darling. You usually look sofunereal. You're not an undertaker, after all." She takes the blazer from Jensen and offers it out for Jeff to shrug into, embarrassed. There's no one quite like his mother for stripping him of at least thirty of his forty-some years. "Crispin should have brought the car around by now." His mother adjusts the sport coat as well, tugging at the lapels hard enough that Jeff has to bend his knees to stick his ground. "We should go." Jeff's mother takes shotgun, with Crispin behind the wheel. From that vantage, she directs Jensen, a hastily drafted Joe, Javier and Anne's body-slave into the rearmost seats, leaving Anne and Jeff himself together in the middle before Jeff can think of a way to decline gracefully or engineer otherwise. "This is awkward," Anne says quietly, looking down at her hands folded neatly in her lap. "I'm sorry. I had no idea that" Jeff waves a hand. "Believe me, I know what my mother is like. You have nothing to apologize for. I'm sorry that you somehow got yourself mixed up with my family. You can't possibly have known how crazy we are." Anne laughs, tilting her head back to do it. "Your mother's been very nice to me." "My mother has been sucking up to you," Jeff corrects. He glances up front at his mom who is undoubtedly watching them in the rearview. "Look, I don't know what my mother told you" Anne's hand darts out to cover his, squeezing with surprising strength. "She invited me to lunch with you. And Javier, of course." Her glance over the seat back at Javier is pro forma, a politeness Jeff recognizes even as he recognizes that Anne is better at it than he is, infusing it with a warmth and naturalness that he's never been able to manage. "That's all." God, she's a fetus and she's still better at this polite fencing than he is. Which is not saying much, because Jeff's put in long years and hard practice to be horrible at it, but it still stings his ego a little bit, to be hand-patted by a fetus. It's like being sirred. "How old are you?" he asks, leaning his cheek on his hand. "I'm twenty-five," she admits, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. God, she really is a fetus.

His mother hasn't played out her full hand, and they're met at the restaurant by another of her 'friends', a Madame Kristen Kreuk, who can't be any olderor biggerthan Anne. "I meanwho am I, Tom Cruise?" Jeff asks. He's hiding in the bathroom with Jensenanother throwback to childhood, a sense of ugly dj vu somewhat spoiled by the fat cat executive loudly fucking his slave's mouth in the next stall. Jensen's flinch might be unnoticeable if Jeff didn't have both hands wrapped around Jensen's jaw, the nape of his neck, if he didn't have their foreheads pressed together. It passes fast enough that Jeff could ignore it, if he wanted. "Sorry. I'm sorry," he apologizes, rubbing his thumbs along Jensen's neck. "I didn't mean it like that. I just meant You know." "I'm sure your mother just wants women who are still young enough to give you children," Jensen says, looking down the length of his nose so that his eyes are hidden by fragile-looking freckled lids and sandy recurve lashes. "That's because they are still children." "They're both only five years younger than me," Jensen points out, though he sounds stilted. "The difference between twenty-five and thirty is" Jeff tries and fails to come up with a suitable analogy. "It's a big difference. And you're no average thirty year old." Jeff brushes his lips across Jensen's. He means for it to be a light kiss, quasi-meaningless, an indulgence for having to sit through this travesty of a lunch, but, as always, he underestimates his hunger for Jensen, for his soft, soft mouth. Jensen sighs into Jeff's mouth, a quiet, satisfied little noise that goes straight to Jeff's scrote. He digs his fingers deeper into the sparse spikes of Jensen's hair, that same heated tightness in his chest as Jensen nudges closer, melting into him. Regretfully, Jeff makes himself back off. "Sorry." Jensen nods, still looking down. "We should get back," he says. "We should," Jeff agrees, without moving. He knows it's intensely childish, but the thought of going back to that table fills him with a sick, cold terror. He knows more about this season's fashions and Hollywood gossip than he's ever wanted to know. Kristen, apparently, is a very upand-coming clothing designer and if there are two things Jeff's mother dearly loves, it's clothes and gossip. "I could" Jensen reaches between them, skimming the heel of his palm over Jeff's cock and he looks up, meeting Jeff's gaze. "It could help, maybe. If you were more relaxed." Jeff covers Jensen's hand with his own, not sure if he wants to push in or peel Jensen away. "Probably not a good idea."

"My mouth?" Jensen suggests, starting to sink slowly to his knees. "I could be fast." "Hey. Jensen, no." Jeff catches him by either arm, tugging Jensen back upright. "I know" He pauses, conscious of their public arena, even with the moans and curses from the next stall drowning both their voices. "I told you what it has to be like while my mom's here, but I don't" He flounders with what to say that won't come out like a command. "I don't want us to be different. I feel like things are really good with us right now and I don't want that to get fucked up just because of my family." "I just want to help," Jensen says, almost too soft to hear over the executive, who sounds like he's seconds away from either orgasm or a coronary. "I know that. I do. I appreciate it." More mental flailing about what to say, what to do, how to make any of this the least bit better for either of them. But, Jeff's whole life, he's only ever known one way to do that. He grabs Jensen's hand, twining their fingers together. "C'mon. Let's get out of here." Jensen doesn't realize the extent of Jeff's invitation until Jeff guides them toward the restaurant's entrance, rather than the route back to the table. Jensen pulls back slightly. Not enough to offer real resistance, but enough to make Jeff pause. "Your mother will be upset," Jensen says, in the same milk-bland voice he's been using all day. "Yeah, but she won't be surprised," Jeff says, already feeling lighter just at the prospect of escape. "She might not approve of me, but she does know me. Come on." Jeff tugs at Jensen's fingers and Jensen follows behind him, Jeff's disapproving shadow.

Chapter 53
Walking in Los Angeles is for tourists. On the other hand, Jeff doesn't have a whole lot of choicewhich was probably his mother's evil plan the whole time. Of course, she vastly underestimates Jeff's desperation to get the hell out of there. "I just don't know how to deal with her when she's like this." Jeff scrapes a hand through his hair, roughly enough that it tugs hard at the root. "I just She gets her mind on something and then God help anything that stands in her way. Including her children." "Jeff Where are we going?" Though he's keeping pace with Jeff, Jensen's expression still holds the same uncertainty as before. Jeff's fear-brain overdrive cuts out long enough for guilt to kick him square in the ass. He stumbles to a stop and steers Jensen over to the nearest storefront, keeping his back to the direction from which they came. "I don't know," he admits. "I justI had to get out of there." "I know that." Jensen nods, scuffing his feet and still looking down. "I don'tI'm not I was just asking what your plan is." "It's cute that you think I have a plan." The guilt deepens, sours the sweetness of being this close to Jensen, of wanting to kiss him, feel that pliant mouth open under his. Jensen's gaze comes up. Jeff can see the flinch in the hyper-clearness of Jensen's eyes, the way Jensen's steeling himself. "It's more than just your mother," Jensen points out, his voice soft, hesitant. "Lady Hathaway, Madame Kreukit's an insult. They don't deserve that." Jeff reaches for Jensen's face and he sees the shiver that runs through Jensen's freckled skin. "Hey," Jeff says, gentling his voice over the plunging sickness in his stomach that Jensen coulddoesthink that Jeff would be violent with him. "I'm not going to hurt you. I wouldn't" he sighs, defeated, and lets his hand fall. "I'm not going to hurt you," he repeats, tryingand failingnot to feel hurt. Jensen blushes, dark heat like sunburn that washes out his freckles. "I. I know that," he says, lids and lashes sweeping down again. "I just. Old habits." "Yeah." Jeff tucks his hands in his pockets, the only solution he can think of to touching Jensen. "Yeah," he says again, more heartfelt, looking away from Jensen and squinting into the too-bright sun. It's one of those rare days when the sky looks so clear and sharp, it could cut you. "I get that. This is my old habit." "What is?" The corner of Jeff's mouth hooks down when he tries to smile. "Running away." Strong whiff of shame coming up from beneath the guilt in sneak

away." Strong whiff of shame coming up from beneath the guilt in sneak attack, tightening his throat familiarly. "It's not just my mom. Hell, I left home at seventeen to get away from the two of them, keep them from turning me into a soulless zombie. So. I know you're right. I know the mature, responsible thing for me to do would be to go back in there and face the music. But I can't do that. I just I can't." Jeff pauses, some halfmade and mostly identifiable thought playing at the edge of his mind. It vanishes before he can tease it out and he shakes his head. "I'm not going to." Jeff's mouth is bitter, like he's been smoking all day, when he hasn't smoked a cigarette in a good ten years. "Okay." Whatever Jeff expected, it isn't this easy acquiescence. He lets himself look at Jensen, sees nothing looking back at him but that same waiting patience. "Okay? Justokay?" Jensen's eyebrows twitch, tug in. "Do you want me to argue with you?" He bobs a little in place and it takes Jeff a moment to realize that Jensen is fighting against going to his knees. "I don't You. I think Kane would probably be better at that than I am." Jensen sounds like it bugs him to admit that Kane's better than him at anything, which makes Jeff laugh. Just laughing feels like taking a deep breath he sorely needed. "Yeah, Kane's definitely better at arguing with me, but I suspect this time, he'll be on my side. He knows my mom, too." Jeff sighs and stretches, feeling the tightness in his back, his shoulders. "No, I don't want you to argue with me. I heard what you said and I know that you're right, but I'm not going to do it anyway. On the other hand, talking to Kane isn't a bad idea." His phone is a new thing with way too much gadgetry for him, but he has figured out how to, at least, make calls. "I know your momma isn't letting you make calls from the table," Kane says, without preamble, as he picks up the line. "So. Does this mean you're hiding out in the bathroom, like the giant chicken you are?" "Oh, I'm a much bigger chicken than that," Jeff says, trying to cover the sting of that truth with flippancy. "WeIbailed." "Christ." Jeff doesn't know how to interpret Kane's tone of voice. He has a sneaking suspicion that's the point. That, or his mom's making him paranoid, even odds. "Soyou're where? You need me to come get you?" "No We're right by Sunset; I can catch a cab. I need you to call my mom and make up some reason that I was called away. Something good." "Yeah, all right." Kane's chewing gum and he cracks it, loudly, in Jeff's ear. "You coming back to home base?" Jeff eyeballs Jensen, who seems to be watching their back-trail. That weird sunlight spot lights up his chest again he rubs the back of his fingers against where he feels it, like that's going to do any good. "Any reason that I need to be home right this second?" he asks Kane and

Jensen's gaze darts at him. Jeff takes a moment to marvel at how good Jensen is at hiding just about any emotion except surprise. Surprise will out him, every time and, even half-stupid withwith whatever it is that he feels for Jensen, he can appreciate what a rare quality that is, especially for someone who's been through as much as Jensen has. "Nothing's on fire." "Then no." He jams his free hand deeper in his pocket, pushing down the desire to touch Jensen, run the tips of his fingers over the silk and stubble of Jensen's cheek, twine those big, clever fingers with his own. "I think me and Jensen are going to spend some time on the town." Again he gets that startled flash of Jensen's eyes and a weird giddiness cuts through the looming storm cloud of worry. "Jeff," Kane says, and the uncharacteristic seriousness of his voice drags Jeff's attention back like a wandering dog on a leash. "Be careful, man. You can't keep playing games with your mom like this. Not right now. Not anymore." Jeff sighs and jams the ball of his thumb into the space where his nose and eye meet, pressing against the headache he feels coming on. "I know." Another sigh and he feels his shoulders get so tight they ache. "I know. I'm not going to fuck this all up for us. I just need this afternoon. I need some fucking space to breathe." "Jeff" Kane says Jeff's name and it's not impatient or angrywhich is what Jeff expectsbut he doesn't know what emotion is behind it and Kane cuts himself off before it gets any further than that one, brief syllable. The speaker rasps as Kane lets his breath out. Then: "Look, go on your date. Have fun. Just We need to figure out what to do about this, quick, fast and in a hurry. Because we both know your mom's not going to stop until she gets what she wants." "Yeah," Jeff says, talking through the renewed tightness of his throat. Instinctively, he reaches for Jensen and catches himself before the gesture gets more than half way. He lets his arm swing back down to his side, but Jensen grabs him, instead, curling his fingers through Jeff's. "Yeah, I know. We. We're going to need a war council, talk this out." "I'll put it together." "All right, thanks." Jeff's starting to feel too nervy standing out here on the street, just a half-block away from the restaurant. He gives Jensen a tug and they start walking for the nearest hotel marquee. Somebody will be able to get them a cab from there. "We're not going home?" Jensen asks carefully, as if he's still afraid that Jeff will turn on him, hurt him. "I wasn't going to." Jeff doesn't know what to do with the linkage of his and Jensen's hand. On the one hand, Jensen made the move, closed the gap. On the other hand, Jeff suspects he only did it because it's what Jeff wants. But pulling away from Jensen may be interpreted as another rejection. "I was thinking" Jeff does a quick glance-around, making sure

they're not going to be overheard. "I was thinking maybe we could hang out a while. Just me and you." The glow Jensen's face picks up is like a stray beam of sunlight all its own and Jeff feels blinded by it at the same time guilt jabs him like a broken beer bottle. No one should look at him like that; he hasn't done nearly enough to deserve it. Especially Jensen, who deserves a lot more and a lot better than Jeff can give him. "I'm happy to" Jensen starts off, the rote words infused with that same eagerness. Then Jensen cuts himself off and looks down, his face coloring pink and red again. "I'd like that," Jensen amends, stifled. They luck out on a cab; someone's climbing out at the same time they want in and the twenty Jeff waves at him soothes any protests. Jeff leans back against the tired seat back and closes his eyes, physically dizzy with relief as the cab nudges grudgingly away from the curb and into the clotted artery of traffic. "Are you okay?" The cab is a minivan, big enough that Jensen can kneel on the floor like a good and obedient body-slave. He touches Jeff's knee, though; a light, proper touch that nonetheless sears Jeff's skin through the thin cloth. "I'm fine." Eyes still closed, he reaches for Jensen, fingers finding the slippery warmth of Jensen's hair, the solid eggshell curve of his skull. Jensen turns his face into the touch, his cheek rubbing across the heel of Jeff's palm like a big cat. "Justglad to be out of there." He opens his eyes again only to find Jensen's closed his, his expression so unambiguously content that Jeff feels like a voyeur, a pervert peeking in on something he has no right to. At the same time, he feels the tigerstretch of darker possessiveness, the ugly voice that whispers, Mine, and hungers. So much hunger. Jeff clears his throat. "So. I was thinking" Jensen's eyes open slowly, dazzled and dazzling, so much so that Jeff almost loses his train of thought. "I thought maybethe museum?" Jensen shakes his headnot in denial so much as dismissal. "Anywhere. Anywhere is good." It's Jeff's turn to shake his head, the corners of his mouth turning up despite every inclination to do otherwise. "You sure? We can do anything. Anything you want." Heat flickers through Jensen's eyes, unmistakable, darkening his irises to something closer to emerald, but before Jeff can do more than register itand shiver a little in reactionJensen blinks and smiles. "Anything is good. I just want to be with you." "You're going to get us both in trouble," Jeff teases, tapping Jensen's cheek. "Kidding," he amends quickly, when Jensen's smile falters and the uncertainty comes back to his face. "I was just kidding."

The cab drops them off in front of the massive striped faade of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the sun beating down from straight overhead onto the tops of their heads and shoulders like a giant's hand. "This is the problem with L.A.," Jeff says, shading his eyes and squinting up at the building like he's never seen it before. "Don't get me wrong, I love it. It's as insane as I am. But getting anywhere without a car is a royal pain in the ass. And even with a car, it's a royal pain in the ass." Jensen snorts and smiles and, for a brief, shining moment, it's almost like this is a date, after all. "You ever been here before?" Jeff asks as they stroll under the overhang into the stuffy shade. "Yes." Jensen says it in what Jeff's come to think of as his slave voice, flat, neutral and divorced from emotion. "Jensen?" Jeff doesn't know how to ask the question he wants to ask, so he just puts what he can into Jensen's name. Jensen shakes his head. "Nothing. Aa few of my masters liked to come here, that's all." "Kilmer?" Jensen nods. "He wasn't the only one, though." "We don't have to go inside. We can do anything else. I just" ...like coming here. The words wilt bitterly on Jeff's tongue, bothered more than is probably reasonable by the idea that he has anything in common with any of Jensen's former masters. Lamely, he shrugs. "It was just an idea." "Ino. I like the art," Jensen says, looking down and that hectic blush flirting with his freckles again. "I like the museum. It's just" "Memories." Jensen nods. "Memories."

Chapter 54
"I. I might be in here." Jeff's eyebrows kind of stutter, up and then down, confusion deepening the lines around his eyes. "I. What?" It's all happening too fast. With his other masters, Jensen could bury this panicky, fluttery feeling in the solidity of routine, but so far as he's been able to tell, Jeff avoids routine like the plague and so Jensen is like a flag in a windstorm and not sure what to do about it. Too many things are happening, all at once. They scrape to a stop and Jensen tries to disentangle this one thing from all the others. He gestures with his free hand, both thankful and strangely anxious about Jeff tethering his other arm. "There. In the gallery." Jensen's never spent a lot of time dwelling on or trying to untangle his past. He's always been too busy. But now, with Jeff, he feels like he understands what a blessing that busyness had been, a gift that kept him from sinking into this marshy uncertainty. He'd known what he was, what his purpose was. And he'd been proud of it, proud of being the best, proud of his long history of dedicated service. And nowhe doesn't know. He knowshe thinksthat Jeff's a good man, but ownership sits on his shoulders as badly as his blazer and he has a way of making Jensen question everything he knows as true. He has a way of making Jensen feel ashamed. "Lord Kilmer," Jensen elucidates, uneven hotness blushing up through his pale skin. He's not even sure why. "He would use me. In his pictures, his paintings." Jensen feels so stupidly tongue-tied, unable to communicate even the simplest concepts. He shakes himself, mentally and physically, trying to put his words together in some kind of sense. Softer, calmer, he says, "You don't like hearing about my other masters. I thought I thought maybe you might want to go around." He doesn't really know what he expects Jeff's reaction to be. He expects violence less and less, but he doesn't ever dismiss it as a possibility. It makes him feel stranger that what he does expect is for Jeff to kiss him; it seems like arrogance to expect affection (and to maybe look forward to it) but the fact still remains that Jeff's concluded a lot of their conversations in just that way. What he does not expect is for Jeff to wrinkle his eyebrows again and then guide him over to one of the marble benches. "Okay, I want very much to get this right," Jeff says, putting his hand over Jensen's and tangling their fingers together, "and I'm not sure what you're trying to say to me, here. Do you" Jeff stops, sighs. "Okay, so

first of allyou can talk about youryour other masters, Jensen. I don'twhen I get upset, I'm not upset with you." Jensen looks down, mentally rolling his eyes. He knows Jeff's ire isn't at him, specifically. It doesn't absolve Jensen of the duty to not upset Jeff by talking about things he knows will only piss Jeff off. "Jensen" Jeff breaks off into a shaky laugh that sounds only a couple seconds from hysteria and he lets Jensen's hand go to scrape his fingers through his hair again. "Look, every part of my day that doesn't revolve around you has sucked pretty hard today. And it's just barely lunchtime. Soif you could just Help me out a little here? Do you want me to see these pictures of you? Or do you not want me to see you that way?" Jensen blinks. It hadn't occurred to him to feel any way in particular about Jeff seeing him in Kilmer's art, other than in terms of Jeff's discomfort, Jeff's anger, on a day thatas Jeff pointed outsucked for him beyond the telling of it. "I just didn't know if it would bother you," Jensen explains. He and Jeff talk more than they ever have and yet it still feels like trying to push every word through a brick wall. He knows Jeff's not stupid but he also doesn't seem to understand much about the things that all Jensen's previous masters took entirely for granted. Having to explain everything, all the time, in all this excruciating detailit's exhausting, even without all the external drama. "I don't know." Lady BlanchettCatehas asked him about Kilmer, but even so, he hasn't really had to think about this part of it: the endless reels of film, the snow flurry throb of flashbulbs, the long, long hours of being posed and manipulated. "I was scared a lot," Jensen admits, miserable at betraying his former master's confidence in this way, his throat aching all the way into his chest and making his voice wobbly. "Beforebefore I understood." Jensen shakes his head. "He was in a lot of pain," Jensen admits, miserable at betraying his former master's confidence in this way, his throat aching all the way into his chest and making his voice wobbly. "He was in so much pain. And II helped him with that." It feels boastful to say it, even though Kilmer had said those words to him. More than once. Again, Jensen doesn't know what to expect from Jeff. They're so far from the fragile soap-bubble patterns they've built up; Jensen can't make any predictions. The smile that dawns across Jeff's face, slow and sun-bright, is surprising even so. More than that, the naked way that Jeff looks at him makes Jensen's body tighten and prickle with gooseflesh, makes him wish that he could go to his knees for Jeff right here, suck him harder and better than that slave from the restaurant. "You don't need me to tell you that you're good at your job, Jensen," Jeff says, sounding as fond as if Jensen's been his for years instead of short months. Jensen is enough his own man to feel slightly ashamed at how much he craves after the approval he hears in Jeff's tone, but it doesn't

stop him from feeling it, that shameless want, that desperate flush of pleased pride. Jeff wraps his fingers around Jensen's wrist again, his thumb stroking the delta of veins. "I didn't know he used you in his art." The way Jeff says it, admiring, wondering It's different from the way Kilmer talked about it, different from the people who'd fawned around him. It's different than what it feels like to remember. Jensen shrugs. "Do you want to go see?" Jeff bumps Jensen with his shoulder, lightly, like a man would do with his pal. He does want Jeff to see. He wants Jeff to see this part of him, to know about this part of his life. He wants Jeff to see what his masters have made of him. Maybe Jeff reads all that from Jensen's expression, because he leans his shoulder against Jensen's again and says, "C'mon." Jensen doesn't know for sure that there even are any of Kilmer's works on display, let alone any of the ones with him in them; He knows Kilmer donated a number of his works, because he loves the museum, but for all Jensen knows, they could be crated up somewhere in a dehumidified room, gaining dust and value. But of course, the pictures are there: the big portrait that Kilmer used to call King Kilmer and His Fool, even though the actual title is something else, a couple of smaller, mixed-media works where Jensen is, mercifully, mostly unrecognizable though he still remembers the staging for all of them in complete and graphic detail. For the most part, people come to galleries to eyeball the art or, occasionally, their friends and companions. There's not a lot of eyecontact between strangers. Jensen is, nonetheless, glad that Jeff keeps them well back from Kilmer's pieces. The bracelet of his fingers around Jensen's wrist feels hot, the only thing grounding Jensen, keeping him from floating up and out and away on a flood-tide of memory. "What are you thinking?" Jeff murmurs, making Jensen jerk. Though Jensen is intensely aware of Jeff's hand on him, he'd somehow almost forgotten there's a person attached to it. Jensen shrugs. "Justremembering." "Good or bad?" Another shrug. "I don't know." Jeff squeezes Jensen's wrist. "Tell me about him." "What do you want to know?" "I don't know." Jeff's thumb does the same absent-minded flex against the inside of Jensen's wrist. "Anything you want. Tell me anything. You were how old when he bought you?" "Fourteen," Jensen answer promptly. "I was fourteen. But he didn't really

buy me. Lord Cruise gave me to him." Jensen touches the faint scar on his chin, mostly invisible but devastating, all the same. "I was Lord Cruise wanted to sell me and he knew He knew Kilmer wanted me." Restlessness fills Jensen, an itchy and anxious desire to move, to get out of here, back into the sunshine and heavy air. At the same time, he can't drag his eyes away from the pictures, even to look at Jeff. That was the first time Kilmer had put him in a sling. Such a long time to tease him open and then the ohmygodstop over-full feeling of a handa fistinside him and then the brain-bending intensity of release, when Kilmer had finally let him come. That was when Kilmer had been experimenting with sensory deprivation; the blindfold and soft wax pushed into his ears. And that "Hey." Jeff nuzzles behind Jensen's ear. "Where'd you go?" "Nowhere." Smiling is such second nature; it requires no effort on Jensen's part to manufacture one. "I'm right here." Jeff's smile is still on his face, too, but it's crooked, uncertain, and there's a darkness that goes far back in his otherwise light eyes. It's not like when Violet flogged him, that eminently pleasurable darkness; this is that other kind, the kind that kept Jeff from touching him, kept Jeff from loving him. "Did you like the things he did to you?" Jeff nods at the pictures. "Did you?" Jeff's face screws up and he seems to be searching for the right words for whatever he means to say. Then he gives a little shrug. "Did you like those things?" "Sometimes." It's such a simple and inadequate word to explain something so complicated but it's also the best word he has. Jensen shivers, though he'd be hard pressed to explain why. Jeff wraps his arm around Jensen's shoulders and pulls him in close, turning his head to brush his mouth across Jensen's cheek. It feels good and Jensen closes his eyes, leaning into Jeff, enclosed. "I tell you all the time how beautiful you are," Jeff murmurs, his voice rumbling into Jensen's bones, "but I don't always know if you know how much I mean by that." Jeff huffs suddenly, the heat of his laugh searing Jensen's skin. "But I don't have the faintest idea how to talk to you." "I would tell you anything you want to know." "No, I know you would" It's the wrong thing to say, because Jeff pulls back, shaking his head. "I just I wish I knew how to have a conversation with you. Something that didn't lead to bad memories or me sticking my foot in my mouth, saying something I shouldn't." "But you can say whatever you want to. You're my master. There's nothing you can say to me that would be wrong. I don't understand why you worry so much aboutabout me. I'm" Jensen manages to break off before he says, I'm nothing because he knows it's one of those things Jeff hates to hear from him but he doesn't know what to substitute for it. "I don't know why you worry so much."

"Because I'm an owner. Because the law gives me this power and I should not abuse it. I should not abuse you. Because I have a responsibilityI'd think you would totally understand that, Jensen. Ifif your job is to take care of me, then it's as much my job to watch over youto watch over everyone under my care." Jeff seizes Jensen's chin between his fingers, not painful, but firm. "Because if I have to own other human beings, then I should give a damn about what that means and howhow to be right about it. Or as right as anything can be in this fucked up system." "You're raising your voice," Jensen murmurs, not sure where to put his eyes, not sure what to do with his body. He holds himself still because it's the only solution he's ever come up with for that feeling, ineffectual an answer as it is. "I" For a moment, it seems like Jeff's going to go on, maybe even ramp up a few notchesand then he visibly reins himself back, forces his shoulders down from up around his ears. Jeff stands there a few moments, glaring over Jensen's shoulder. Then: "Okay, I'm starving. What's say we get out of here?" "Yes," Jensen says. Not because he cares one way or the other so much as he feels Jeff's desire to get out of there. Jeff's hands come up to Jensen's face and nownowJensen gets the kiss he's been waiting all this time for.

Chapter 55
"Jeff?" Jeff has taken advantage of the close confines of the cab to have Jensen on the seat with him, slung halfway across his lap in a position Jensen insists is comfortable, even with his feet crammed awkwardly in the foot well. Still, Jeff feels calmer and better with Jensen lying on him, so he's not inclined to argue. The sound of Jensen's voice, though, seems to come from a long way away, more than can be explained by quietness or hesitance. Jeff comes up, like surfacing from dark waters, and realized dully that he'd dropped into a shallow doze without realizing it, sated from lunch and exhausted from everything else. His "yeah?" in response comes out gruff but, surprisingly, not all that sleepy. "I" Jensen shifts a little on Jeff's lapuncomfortably, Jeff thinks, a little uncomfortable himself as six feet of Jensen resettles. Jensen's hair rustles and tickles against Jeff's belly as he turns his head and Jeff lifts his head from its rest in the back window, opening his eyes. Jensen is looking back at him, eyes and eyebrows crinkled with the struggle to come up with the words for whatever it is he wants to ask. "What is it?" Jeff tries to make the words gentle. Not that he had any intentions to make them anything but, but he tries to make them even more careful than he would otherwise, glad Jensen's unbent enough to ask him anything. "Your mom," Jensen begins and then cuts himself off in the same floundering uncertainty. Jeff hates how even that much is enough to make his whole body tense up again, dull, red, throbbing pain wakening in his shoulders and temples like he's been beaten. "What about her?" It doesn't come out nearly as mildly as Jeff's first words and Jeff tightens his arm around Jensen's waist in an attempt at reassurance. "Is that what all parents are like?" It's not the follow up Jeff was expecting and he finds himself gaping blankly at Jensen for several moments, the discarded wreckage of all the things he'd half-thought up to say about his mother choking in his throat, on the tip of his tongue. "Iwhat?" A moment after that, his hindbrain kicks in and advances the thought that, for all intents and purposes, Jensen's been an orphan for the last twenty-three years of his life. An 'orphan' whose parents sold him, no less. "What are you thinking, sweetheart?" Jeff lays the words out like breadcrumbs for pigeons, hoping Jensen's hungry enough to follow them in.

Jensen shrugs, too careless about it for it to be genuine. "My other masters It seems like most of themthose that had family" Again, Jensen breaks off, face screwing up with the visible struggle for the right words to say. "It seems like it's difficult," Jensen says finally, a hero's feat of diplomacy. Jeff hehs. "Difficult is one word for it, sure," Jeff agrees cautiously, not sure where Jensen is headed with this. Dark things are moving behind Jensen's eyes, things that could be shadows or sharks and no way to tell until that first bumping bite. "Why do they do it? Why do they, why" Jensen gestures helplessly, too big to draw up into fetal position on the cab's seat and just as clearly wanting to. "Why?" he asks again, finally, his eyes too bright and his voice turning raw and uneven over the word. He's looking at Jeff like Jeff knows, like Jeff has got the freaking answer, when Jeff so clearlyso very clearlydoesn't. "Jensen, I" Jeff shakes his head. "I don't Don't you think this is the kind of thing you should talk to Cate about? She's the professional" Coward, Jeff's abused and atrophied conscience jeers. Coward, coward, coward. "I don't know, should I?" There's no sarcasm in Jensen's voice, no contempt in his big, steady eyes. He's just, as always, awaiting instruction. "Do you want me to ask her instead?" Jeff sighs. "No." Then, "I mean, you don't have to ask Cate. I just" He runs through the pantheon of parents that he knowshis mom and dad, Ever's fractious relationship with her parents, Jeremy's asshole dad and ghost-mother, how Brent hasn't seen his mom in almost twenty years, how Sam will only talk about her mom when she's drunkand only a crying drunk at that A thought occurs to him, then. "And no. Not all parents are like mine. Jared's mom, Deirdre, she" Jeff makes that same breathy laugh again, humor for something that isn't really funny. "She would've done anything for Jared, to make sure he was safe, taken care of." "But she still gave him away." Jensen's expression is unreadable, though the haunted darkness of his eyes hasn't altered. Jeff smoothes his finger over the flattened arch of Jensen's eyebrow, wanting to ease away that emotion as easily as he can smooth the lines from Jensen's forehead by simple touch. "She gave him away to save him from something worse. She asked me to take him because she knew I'd take care of him, that I'd never touch him." "Never?" Jensen sounds startled, head rearing back a little bit. Jeff smiles ruefully. Jensen's not the first to think that Jeff fished in that pond. Especially when Jared was younger, slenderer, more fragile looking. It doesn't bother him as much as it used to. "I think it would be a little like sleeping with my own brother. Or maybe a nephew. Don't get me wrong; I can appreciate what a good looking man he's grown up to

be, but I promised his mom. I promised I'd watch over him." "A promise to a slave." "A promise to a friend," Jeff corrects. "What happened to her? Jared's mom?" Jeff shrugs. "I don't know. My grandfather sold her. Waited until I was out of town, the fucker. By the time I got backit was too late. He'd sealed the sale and I couldn't find her. I would've I wanted to buy her, too, way back, when I cozened the old man into selling me Jared, but he my grandfatherhe was so angry. I'm amazed he let Jared go." "A baby's not worth very much," Jensen says, matter-of-factly, so matterof-factly that Jeff feels the same volcanic spurt of frustrated rage as when his grandfatheror father, for that matterspat out a similar sentiment. "He was worth something to Deed. He was worth everything." Jensen doesn't flinch, exactly, and he doesn't really move, still draped across Jeff's lap, but there's suddenly an obvious distance between them that didn't exist before, the pupils of Jensen's eyes ratcheting a little wider. Jeff's anger wilts as quickly as it surged and he melts back against the cab's vinyl seat. "Sorry," he says awkwardly, pitching his voice below the level the cabbie should be able to hear him. "I'm sorry, I just Deirdre was a good mother. She lovedlovesJared like nobody's business." The memory of Deirdre on her knees, begging him to buy Jarednot even born yetbegging him to keep her son from becomingwell, from becoming Jensen, aches, in the same old way as his fucked up knee. A Lord's bed-toy, Deirdre had said, her face old ahead of its time and frightened. She hadn't meant him, specifically, but he'd never been able to put those wordsor that lookcompletely out of his mind. "What about Mary-Louise? What kind of mother do you think she'll be?" Another bump sideways into waters Jeff wasn't anticipating. "MaryLouise?" Jeff blinks, eyebrows tweaking down. It's not that he'd forgotten about her, exactly, but she'd been uncharacteristically quiet, all the day to day going through Jensen and Joe, allowing Jeff to not think about her too much. The reminderand the awareness of how easy it's been to forget about hersting. He rubs the side of his nose, embarrassed. "I don't think I've ever known Mary-Louise well enough to judge what kind of mother she's going to be." Jeff sighs and lets his head fall back again. "Hell, I don't feel like I know if she even really wants the kid, you know?" "I think maybe that's on purpose," Jensen says slowly, something else flickering through his eyes, more calculating than painful. "Hmmm. What makes you say that?"

Calculation turns to discomfort and Jensen twitches, like he wants to sit up, but he settles again almost immediately. "I don't know. It's justa feeling. A guess." Jeff considers that, hearing something in Jensen's tone that doesn't sound like the unvarnished truth. On the other hand, compelling Jensen to tell him the truth instead of letting Jensen tell him in his own time and at his own desire goes against everything he's trying to do with Jensen. If Jensen is his friendhis loverand not his slave in anything other than the legal sense of the word, then he has no choice but to let Jensen lie to him. There's not a damn thing Jeff can do about the doubtfulness in his voice, though, when he says, "Okay." Jensen tilts his head, then winces as it stretches his already taut neck. "I don't know how to tell you what I mean. It's justthings I saw, things she didn't say, not anything she said or did, or" Jensen shrugs. "I don't know. I really don't." "Okay," Jeff repeats, sounding surer about it this time. He sculpts his thumb across Jensen's cheekbone and buries the little flame of disquiet at the way Jensen subtly angles his face into the touch. "Okay. I believe you. So tell me what you think." "I just think she's scared." "Scared?" Jeff tries to fit that emotion to the Mary-Louise he carries in his head and fails. "Scared of what?" Jensen just looks at him. "She's a slave and she's about to have a baby who's also going to be a slave." Jensen's eyes shift, though he doesn't lose eye contact. "Did Kane get that genetic report he wanted?" Jeff wonders what's behind the question. "No. Mary-Louise didn't want it and I wasn't going to force her. She said it's not mine and I believe her why, do you think she's lying?" Jeff doesn't even know how to categorize the sensation-feeling that goes through him at the thought, too many emotions packaged into a spiky, tangled ball and enough to make him momentarily breathless. "No," Jensen says slowly and in that same, not-quite-forthright tone. "I don't think she's lying." "But you think something." "I just wonder who the father is." Jeff still doesn't know where Jensen's going with all this and he's coming to the unwelcome conclusion that he's not going to know. At least not right now. It's a weird feeling, that Jensen's holding back on him. It hurts more than his pride wants to admit it does. "I wonder if that's got something to do with why she's so scared," Jensen continues, unaware. "Maybe we should ask her," Jeff says lightly, mostly to see what Jensen's

reaction will be. The look Jensen gives him has only a hint of are you stupid in it, combined with something else that Jeff finds he very much wants to call fondness. "You really think she'd tell us the truth?" No, Jeff thinks, but what he says is, "You never can tell, with MaryLouise," which is really the more honest answer. Then, "I thought you said her fear was because she's bringing her child into the world to be a slave." Jensen's mouth crooks. It's probably not his intention, but it just makes Jeff want to kiss him. "I think any slave has more than one thing they're afraid of." "What are you afraid of?" Jensen's smile, faint as it is, fades. "What aren't I afraid of?" There are lots of things Jeff couldand wants tosay to that, but the one that crowds to the front and forces its way out of his mouth is, "I wish you weren't afraid of me." "I'm" Jensen bites back his first words, the automatic words, slave words. Slower, more hesitantly and scrutinizing Jeff's face as he says it, Jensen amends, "I'm trying." Smiling is the last thing Jeff's mouth wants to do, but he stretches his lips around one anyway. "I know you are. C'mere." It's a bad and awkward angle to try and kiss Jensen but it doesn't stop either of them from making the attempt. Jensen's mouth is hot, so hot, and it opens up to Jeff so smooth and easy, with a moan. Jeff own groan joins it, merges with it, twines around it in the same way their tongues tangle, clutching hunger rising to blot all other considerations from his mind. And the thing is, Jeff's forty-two years old. This is not his first time around the block, not the first time he's been in love. He's cynical and jaded enough to mistrust the soaring little voice that tells him that all those other times have never been like this, that no one has ever fit so perfectly in his arms, into his life, into him but goddamn if it doesn't feel like that, feel like he might die or kill someone if he has to stop kissing Jensen, if he can't have Jensen, just like this, with him, forever. And it's the best thing that's ever happened to him, pouring into cold, dark, empty places like pure spring sunshine. And it's the most terrifying thing he's ever felt, feeling how much Jensen's crept into him, how much this starving, raging hunger is eating him alive with want and need. And while Jeff's learned over time to deal with his wants, forty-plus years hasn't given him any better idea how to handle need. The cab, which had ceased to exist for the period of time of their kiss, crashes back into Jeff's reality as it lurches to a sudden halt. Jensen

squawks, a strangely hilarious, startled sound, as he starts to slide off the seat. Jeff grabs Jensen with both hands, mashing them back together, clenching him tight as the cabbie declares, "We're here." Irked, Jeff ignores the cabbie to glance out the window at the house's faade. It looks the same as it always has, but all the same, it suddenly doesn't feel much like home. "Jeff?" He's still hanging on to Jensen; too tight, Jensen sounds strangled. Jeff lets him go and Jensen draws back to his side of the seat. Jeff shakes his head. "Nothing. I just" He looks down at his hands and wipes them the length of his thighs. "I'm not ready to go in," he admits lamely. Jensen grins. It's a little shy and a lot brilliant as he puts one hand over Jeff's fingers and uses the other to open the cab's door. "So we won't go inside."

Chapter 56
Mary-Louise's room is more a suite, than a single room; Jensen finds her asleep in one of the loungers in the tiny living room, curled around the waxing moon of her belly. She's too old for this, Jensen thinks dispassionately, looking down at her. For all the ripeness of her pregnant stomach, the rest of her still looks too thin, almost spindly, an exoskeleton for the child she carries. He only gets to stand there a moment before her eyes slit, even though he'd bet she was solidly asleep the moment before. It's sensible; Jensen knows how sensitive he is, to the presence of someone standing over himwhy wouldn't it be the same for Mary-Louise, also a body-slave? "You keep taking my slave," she drawls, sleep making her voice thick and lazy. She lifts her arms and extends her legs to stretch and then winces, when her belly doesn't move exactly with her. "Joe isn't yours." Jensen isn't at his best; he knows that and it's probably a stupid time to try and have this talk with Mary-Louise, but Jeff is busy with Kane, leaving Jensen free to have this talk without him. Jensen doesn't know when he'll have this opportunity again, especially with Madame Morgan in residence. He needs to forge through, even through the dull, tired ache of his head and body. This isn't like anything he's done for his other masters; Jensen's not sure that he's even going about this in the right way and the fear of wrongness makes his stomach sour and tight, makes his headache pulse heavier through his temples, his eyes. Worse, he's not sure that MaryLouise won't just rat him out to Jeff, either for fun or for favor. He doesn't think she will, thinks her own self-interest will keep her mouth shut, but he doesn't trust it. Doesn't trust her. "We need to talk." Mary-Louise's lips curve in her same ironic, smirking smile, but her eyes get darker, colder, more watchful. "You've got Jeff," she says, sounding more awake, more aware. She pushes herself up on the lounger carefully, big enough to be ungainly. "Just like I said you would, while Im sidelined with The Incredible Expanding Stomach. What else is there to talk about?" Even as she says it, mocking, Mary-Louise curves one arm around her belly, unconscious reassurance: Mama didnt mean it. Jensens stomach churns hard around whatevers left of his lunch. "Javier." Jensen stumbles slightly over the name, stranger on his tongue compared to Master Bardem. But the stumble is more mental than actual and he gets the desired effect when Mary-Louise's gaze flickers and sweeps aside. Jensen still doesn't know what Mary-Louise was doing on the second floor. Only that, when Madame Morgan had sent him upstairs to get a tie

and jacket for Jeff, she'd been there, with Master Bardem, too close for casual. Master Bardem's fingers had dug into Mary-Louise's spindle-thin arms and she'd been lifted up, onto her tiptoes. At six-feet, there weren't that many people who could do that to Jensen anymore, but he remembered what it felt like, to be small, teetering up as high as you could to try and ease the vise-like bite of those fingers and, at the same time, craning your head and neck back to try and put some distance between the two of you. Any other time, Jensen would have been angry with himself for tripping on the stairs, but the momentary struggle to keep from falling on his face dragged his eyes away from the clinched couple and the sound alerted them to his presence, meaning that, when Jensen could look up, there was space between them again. Mary-Louise couldn't hide the shocky whiteness of her skin or the shine across her eyes, but she was struggling mightily to look disinterested, in control. In contrast, Master Bardem was as blank as Mary-Louise would've liked to have been. It's not that Jensen's never seen that lookor really, lack of lookon an owner's face before, but it wasn't one any of them generally bother to waste on a slave. Masters don't have to hide their emotions from slaves, so when they do, whatever they're covering, it's usually bad. Bad enough that Jensen felt the skin and short hairs rise up in prickling creep. Jensen hadn't known what to do. Mary-Louise wasn't Master Bardem's, to use or abuse, she's Jeff's. At the same time, Master Bardem is Jeff's brother and an owner, beyond Jensen's reproach. Into Jensen's agonized hesitation, Master Bardem said quietly, "Your master is downstairs, Mary-Louise. You should seek him there." The words themselves were completely innocuous and Jensen couldn't tell if it was tone, perception or just Master Bardem's accent that seemed to put an edge on them. Mary-Louise moved stiffly, even rounded and bowed out by her belly, walking a thin and invisible line exactly between Jensen and Master Bardem, as if she didn't want either of them near her, touching her. Her hair cascaded down over her face, keeping Jensen from seeing any expression on her face at all, but he thought she would've run, if her body would have allowed it. Master Bardem was watching her go and, after a second's longer hesitation, Jensen started up the last few stairs again. It felt like a mistake; the movement brought Master Bardem's gaze to him like a spotlight, burning and heavy. Jensen had held his breath, something he hadn't done since he was a little kid hiding from the bogeyman, but Master Bardem hadn't said or done anything. A moment later, Jensen had had the knob of Jeff's door solid and grounding under his fingertips and the sound of Master Bardem trotting down the stairs like a second pulse beating in his ears. "Why would we need to talk about Master Bardem?" Mary-Louise's tone is sweet and guileless and so is her expression, but her eyes don't match up.

Jensen tries and discards a half-dozen half formed responses before he simply blurts, "Is he the father of your baby?" "Is that any of your business?" Mary-Louise counters. "It's Jeff's." "And you're not him." Jensen's out of his depth and he knows it. It might've been different if Mary-Louise were a more obedient slave, or even if Jensen was acting at Jeff's behest. Or if hed ever bothered involving himself in the politics and schemes of his fellow slaves before. A lot of ways it might have been different, but as it is, Jensen has nothing. Nothing but suspicion and anxiety and an inability to speak Mary-Louises language. "Jeff could protect you, if you would trust him." Mary-Louise's mouth tightens, the linesaround her eyes, her mouth that are normally too fine to be seen drawing taut and cruel as she looks away. Dully, she says, "You don't know what you're talking about." "Look at Jared," Jensen insists, wondering why he's even bothering, why he gives a crap. He should just tell Jeff his suspicions and let his master handle it, handle Mary-Louise. He's never kept a slave's secrets from his master, never. Though that isn't quite true, he thinks a moment later. Mimi. He'd kept Mimi's secrets. And look where it had gotten him. On the other hand, he's conscious of a desire to draw a ghostly line from Mimi to MaryLouisewho have nothing in common other than mutually brunette hair if only to explain to himself what he's doing here, sticking his neck out, snooping in things that are clearly none of his business. "Jared's no kin to him at all; how do you think he'd take care of his nephew? He could find a way for your baby to be free. You know he'd do it." "Just when I think theres something actually in there, that you might have a thought in that exquisitely pretty head of yours, you prove youre too stupid to live, Jensen. Did I give you the mistaken impression that your opinion of me matters? Jensens spent the majority of his life being spit on and looked down on by other slaves; comparatively, this is rank amateurism. "Like you said, I've already got Jeff. On the other hand, you're alienating one of the few people who might actually be willing to help you. Stunning use of your intellect, that." If anything, Mary-Louise's eyes get colder, wilder. "You have no reason to help me." "No," Jensen agrees, shoving his hands in his pockets. "I don't." He doesn't intend to give her any more than that and the tactic works when she swings her feet to the floor, cradling her belly in her arm like a

baby already born. "Why would you help me?" "I don't know." Jensen would like to have a pretty lie, an illusion as carefully constructed as his beauty, but he hasn't hide time for that and, at the end of the day, he's not that good of a liar. Not good enough to fool Mary-Louise. Mary-Louise snorts and then lets out a sharp, barking giggle, pressing the heel of her hand to her forehead. "Jesus," she laughs. "Jesus, how did I get myself into this?" "You fucked your master's brother." Jensen doesn't really understand what he's doing here or why, but his feelings about that are rock-solid and unequivocal, etched in blood. Faithless. Faithless whore. "Does he know?" "There's nothing to know." Mary-Louise shakes her hair back, eyes glittering. It's the kind of move that makes owners and auctioneers think feisty, or fiery, or, if Mary-Louise were fifteen years younger, maybe even spunky, none of which are words they ever use for men. Men are obedient. Well-trained. "And I don't need your help." Jensen is obedient and well-trained. He's never been in a fight, never been violent with anyone. He's never wanted to wring anyone's neck quite as much as he wants to wring Mary-Louise. "You want your child to be born a slave?" Mary-Louise rocks forward like she wants to jump up, maybe lunge, but she can't overcome the inertia of her ungainly body and she plops down hard again, leaning back on her hands like it was her intention all the time and glaring up at him. "You don't know anything about me, you sanctimonious love-sick asshole. You think you know me? You think you know me? You don't fucking know me, okay? You don't know a goddamn thing about me. Or my baby." All at once, she winces, doubling over her stomach. Jensen has no experience with pregnant women; adrenaline spits through his system, rapid-fire, like buckshot, but Mary-Louise straightens up a moment later. "Little fucker," she mutters, even as she rubs circles into her stomach, rocking a little in place. "Kicks like a horse." Jeff will be looking for him soon and Jensen doubts he's going to get any further with Mary-Louise, not that he's sure why he bothered trying in the first place. He cant quite make himself walk away, though, even knowing he should, knowing hes made an idiot of himself for no good reason. Go away, Jensen, she says tiredly, finally, when the silence has stretched out like sticky taffy. Still curled over her baby, she looks up at him from under her lashes and the trailing fall of her hair. At this angle,

her expression is almost impossible to interpret. Dont This is not the right thing for you to start sticking your neck out, okay? What are you going to do? Jensen doesnt want to ask the question and he probably shouldnt know the answerbut it slips out of him anyway. Mary-Louise tangles her fingers in the hair above her ear, raking it all around to her opposite shoulder and clutching it in a tight fist. Same thing I always do. Take care of myself. "How?" Her smile comes out again, knife-sharp and curling. "That's for me to worry about, isn't it?" She nods toward the door again. "You should go, Jensen. People might start to think you actually like me." "I don't think anyone who's met you could make that kind of mistake." Jensen answers calmly, but it's the last push he needs to turn and leave. Jeff is probably already looking for him. But it isn't Jeff who finds him first. The hallway is gloomy and he slams into Master Bardem before he even realizes another person is there. The impact rocks Jensen back a step and a half; shock and embarrassed contrition sends him to his knees. "Sir, I'm sorry!" "Stand up, Jensen." Master Bardem sounds amused and his fingers scratch at Jensen's shoulder lightly. "No harm done." "I'm sorry," Jensen says again, getting slowly to his feet. Now that the first jolt is past, his wariness returns and Master Bardem is way too close to him. "It's no excuse, but I didn't see you." "I am quiet on my feet when I want to be, no?" "Yes, you are," Jensen agrees, sidling a little sideways. "But, if you'll excuse me" Master Bardem's hand shoots out and he grips Jensen's chin between his fingers, angling Jensen's face to what light there is. Stillness spreads through Jensen like a chill. "I don't really like boys," Master Bardem comments conversationally. "Not like Jeff." Master Bardem's thumb sweeps across Jensen's bottom lip. His fingers are smoother, softer, better cared for than Jeff's but they're no less strong, the same sense of power barely leashed. With Jeff, it feels comforting. With Master Bardem, it reminds him more of Lord Cruisestrength that could so easily turn to wrath. "For a boy as pretty as you, I would think of making an exception, hmm?" Cold slithers down Jensen's spine, thick and slow as sap. He doesn't know what to say, though, and so he remains silent, waiting. Whatever Master Bardem sees on Jensen's face, it makes him laugh and he releases Jensen, stepping back. "It's a compliment, Jensen. Nothing more." He slaps Jensen once, lightly, on the ass. "Go find your master,

precioso. I'm sure he needs his chin or his ass wiped by now."

Chapter 57
"This is dangerous you know." Jeff hooks his arm over the back of his chair and leans back, the smile pushing at his lips rueful and not really amused. "Well. It's probably inadvisable, but I think dangerous is a bit of an exaggeration." If anything, Kane's gaze gets darker, thumbs pulling out of his pockets so he can cross his arms. "If anyone finds out, it'll cause questions we don't want asked," he says, in the calm, stretched voice that means he's gone through pissed and out the other end. Jeff rubs the bridge of his nose. There's an old break there from his basketball days and it aches when he's tired, reminding him he's not what he used to be, all the way down to his bones. Most days, he counts that a blessing. "So we'll have to make sure no one finds out." "Jeff" "No." He doesn't slam his hand down on the table, but it's a close thing. "It's important, Chris. What if" Jeff hesitates, not sure which ground they're standing on, master and slave or otherwise. Not sure he has the right to cross this threshold, whatever their relationship's become in the last fifteen years. "What if it was you?" Jeff continues, quieter. "Wouldn't you want the chance?" Jeff's watching Kane's face closely enough that he sees the faint flicker in the otherwise hard blue of Kane's eyes. "It's dangerous," Kane repeats, but its quieter and the steels gone out of his voice and Jeff knows he's more or less won. "I think its important," Jeff says, quiet himself. He's finding it hard to meet Kane's eyes over the slow simmer of anger-and-something-else bubbling around in his belly, but he makes himself do it anyway. Because he owes Kane at least that much, at minimum. "No, I get that, man. Just" Kane sighs, jangling his bracelet with the agitated flick of his wrist. "We have to be careful. You have to be careful. And Jensen" Another sigh, this one deeper than the first. "Look, I'm coming around on the kid, all right? Jensen's okay. One of us, all that good shit. I'm willing to admit that maybe I was a little wrong about him. But you. But when it comes to him, you're not as careful as maybe you need to be. And that's a problem." It's a bitter pill to swallow and Jeff doesn't much like swallowing it, but this is what Kane does, what Jeff's asked him to do. I am not that asshole, Jeff thinks, barely audible over the grinding of his jaw. And if I'm not going to be that asshole, then I am going to sit here and take this. Because this feeling right here? This is fucking childish, man. All this anger, it's just a child upset for not getting his way. I am not a child. I need to act like it.

"It is a problem," Jeff says slowly, as if by repetition he can get a better handle on what he wants and means to say. "And this is why I'm counting on you to help pull me up short when I'm too close to things. But." Jeff taps the pad of his finger against the table. "I want to do this for Jensen. I want to give him this, if I can. And I'm asking you to help me." Kane's face scrunches in disgust. "There's no call to get all girly about it, man, damn." Jeff rolls his eyes but his response is held off by the simultaneous buzz of his and Kane's phones, rattling across the tabletop. Text message; Kane actually knows what he's doing with his phone, so he gets to the message first: "It's Joe. Says they're about five minutes out." Kane lifts his head and shakes his hair back to eyeball Jeff. "Probably long enough for you to make it out the back if you leg it." It's a test and Jeff knows it and resents it, but he also can't blame Kane for questioning him, all things being equal. So he just shakes his head. "Nah. I told you, I just needed the afternoon. I'll man up, face the music." Kane looks at Jeff over the rims of his glasses. "With or without the help of modern chemistry?" Jeff sighs pitifully. "Yeah, like I could convince you to tell me where you've hidden the drugs." Kane shakes his head and clicks his tongue in mock regret, giving Jeff soulful blue eyes. "It's not that I don't sympathize, seriously. But you know and I know that she'll smell it on you, even if she doesn't, you know, literally smell it on you. Can't take the risk." "You afraid of my mom?" Kane doesn't blink. "Aren't you?" "Sure, but I lived with her." Kane shivers and then claps a hand on Jeff's shoulder, squeezing. "And believe me, you have my deepest respect for that. It may be the only thing I respect you for." Kane smiles, pleased with himself and then glances around. "So what do you think? Mess up the place, look deep in deep, important thoughts?" Jeff shakes his head. "Nah. I should go out and meet the car, get it over with. Besides, you lied for me, you've suffered enough." Moving with a graceful liquidity that Jeff usually forgets he has, Kane slips to his knees and prostrates himself on the carpet. "O, thank you, my Lord and Master, your munimunfic Goddamn it, I can never remember that word." Kane sits back on his heels with a frown. "It's munificience, jerkwad. If you're going to kiss my ass, at least do it right."

"I thought that was why we bought Jensen?" Jeff swats Kane lightly on the back of the head, scooting hastily out of the way of the return swipe and his smile lasts all the way outside until he sees Crispin wheeling the van with his usual pinpoint accuracy around the roundabout. At the sight of him, his mother's lips tighten into a flat, grimbut perfectly rougedline. Only Botox keeps her from making a similarly disapproving expression with her eyes. The rear of the car is empty of everyone other than Joe and Javier and Jeff breathes a small sigh of relief that Lady Hathaway and Madame Kreuk won't be making another appearance over dinner. His dressing down will be, at least, family only. Small mercies. Crispin nudges the van right up to Jeff so that it's only an easy movement of his arm and a step aside to open the door for his mother. She refuses to wear a seatbeltwrinkles her clothesand so there's nothing to hold her back as she turns to face him, knees and ankles kilted tightly together, hands pressed palm down to her thighs. "Jeffrey." Her tone is like samurai steel; hammered, folded, forged and re-forged to be refined, flexible and sharp enough to slice through bone in a whisper. The look in her eyesso like his ownisn't any better, a practiced mlange of maternal angst, sad, resigned fondness and, like a dollop of Tabasco to make it piquant, red, simmering anger. "I'm sorry, Mom. It was important." "So I heard." Another verbal cut, no less razor-keen than the first. His mother's always been a 'to the pain' duelist. "And from the cowboy, no less." "Isn't that why we have slaves in the first place?" Even as the words slime their way off his tongue, Jeff cringes at how easily they come to him, how easy it is to slip into this persona that probably isn't nearly as fictional as he'd like. "Hmm. In theory." She considers him a moment, head canted to the side and her dyed hair a match for the fading glories of the sun. Then, fast enough that he can't flee it, she licks her thumb and applies it to scrub at a real or imagined smudge on his cheek. "Aw, Christ, Mom!" Jeff throws up his arm and flinches backtoo late. "Language, Jeffrey." His mother slips down from the high seatonly literally and in no way metaphoricallyand puts her arm possessively and pointedly through his. "We Must Talk," she says, urging him toward the house with the pressure of her arm like the lead in a dance. The capitals in her words are bitten off and precise. "I'm sure your brother can amuse himself for dinner, can't you, darling?" "Of course, Mother," Javier replies with such oily obsequiousness that Jeff cranes over his shoulder to look at him, eyebrows quirked. Javier

rolls his eyes and makes an expressiveyet still mockingface back at him. He and Javier didn't have a childhood together. Hell, Jeff didn't know there was a Javier until he was in his mid-twenties. Things being like they are with them, Jeff doesn't really miss itmost of the timebut every now and again, he gets a weird, aching question in his mind about what it would have been like if they had been kids together. If he hadn't grown up so much by himself. They'd had slaves, of course, scads of them; Jeff had been surrounded by them from his earliest memories, but he sometimes wonders what it would've been like if there'd been another kid like him, another set of shoulders to bear up under the family's expectations. And he wonders if they would have turned out to be allies, or whether they were always destined to be at odds, the opposite spectrums of Margaret Morgan's mothering skills. Sam doesn't bat an eye at the news that Jeff and his mom will be taking dinner by themselves and that Javier will need a plate prepared for him at some point. The fact that Sam had eaten a few dinnersboth in the family home and herewith his mother isn't something anyone ever mentions and Jeff has to fight his same sense of shame and amazement at how thoroughly his mother can erase Sam from any category other than 'slave'. As usual, the experience is leaving him with very little appetite to speak of, even though whatever it is that Sam sets in front of them smells delicious. Also, as usual, despite her stated urgency in needing to talk with him right now, his mother refuses to settle down into any meaningful conversation, chatting instead about redecorating the house (a semiannual event), about what her roses are doing this year (his mother has six gardeners and never gets closer to her flowers than what's required to take credit for them), and the gossipy end of goings-on at Morgan International (not that his mother would ever stoop to calling it gossip). The plus side of this is that Jeff only has to look attentive, nod and agree at the right places and laugh at her dry, barbed humor. The waiting though, the horizon-wide thundercloud of what's to come and the itching irritation of knowing how much she enjoys this slow cat-and-mouse. He reaches for Jensen a couple dozen times, gesture become reflex, and comes up empty every time because Jensen isn't there. Which, to be fair, can only be to Jensen's benefit. But it doesn't mean it isn't unpleasant and unsettling, like a newly removed tooth. It's the last scrapes of a truly delicious key lime pie of china and alternating sips of wicked-dark, sin-sweet coffee before his mother gives him a sharp look over the gilt rim of her cup as though she's only just noticed he's there. "Jeffrey," she sighs, when she's done with her sip, setting cup to saucer without a clink and reaching across the table to cover his hand with her own.

"Mother," he counters steadily, leaning back in his chair with an ease he doesn't at all feel. It's bothersome to him that he's not old enough to keep her from pushing his buttons with the ease of Jeremy totting up the year's tax returns and it bugs him more that he can't stop this hotstomached, anxious feeling, like he's still four years old and getting called on the carpet for spilling grape juice on the upholstery. She sighs again, differently, and something about her body language slips and softens, leaving behind Well, it's not a different woman entirely, but she is a version of his mother he doesn't see very often, one that he sometimes chalks up to a wistful illusion of his little boy heart. "Look, darling," she says, squeezing his fingers warmly under hers. "I know I sprung this on you, all right? But I meant what I saidyou're forty-two, dear. You're not a young man and I'm not a young woman and neither one of us has time for the months of wrangling it would've taken if I came at this slowly. I don't have time to fight with you." Jeff's initial spurt of mulishness washes up sharply on the rock of a different thought altogether and he looks at his mother more sharply. "Youyou're not sick or anything, right, Mom? I meanis everything okay?" Her laugh reassures him more than anything she could have actually said and her eyes shine a bit brighter when she says, "Well, it's nice to know my son still gives a damn about his old lady now and again, but yes, Jeff, I'm fine. Healthy as a horse. Justan old horse." "You're not old," Jeff scoffs, a reflex like sprinkling salt over his shoulder. She leans across the table more to cup his cheek. "I'm old enough," she says finally. "Old enough to worry." She shakes her head. "You know I love your brother, but even if he was a Morgan, you know why I couldn't possible leave M.I. to him" "Javier's worked really hard," Jeff says, but it's faint, half-hearted, because he knows Javier as wellif not betterthan she does. His mother gives him a look that's the closest she can come to actually raising her eyebrows and Jeff waves the air in front of him like he can erase the words. "Yeah, I know." "He doesn't know how to hold onto things. Not like he should, not like a Morgan. He, sometimes I think" His mother bites her lip delicately, a hint of uncertainty that's as uncharacteristic as it is unnerving. Then she shakes her head, casting it off. "Well. It's not important. The important thing is that you, my dear, are the last of the Morgans. And you have no children." "I know, Mom," Jeff says, his voice coming out a lot weaker and more punk than he's comfortable hearing. "I know. I just You can't walk in here and present me with a couple ofof co-eds barely out of diapers and expect me to play along. You can't put me to some girl like a horse at stud. It's demeaning to them. It's demeaning to me." "And what am I supposed to do?" His mother straightens her back, her shoulders, mouth tightening up again. "Just wait and hope and pray?

You know better than that, Jeffrey. I am not the sit-around type. And for all your financial successes, my dear, I am very much afraid that you are." "Christ, it's not like I've been sitting around playing video games and smoking weed all this time, Mother. I have businesses to run. I have things to do. I have responsibilities." I have Jensen, he thinks, but that's not reason enough, never reason enough, for his mother. "You have a responsibility to everything that your family has sweat and bled for all these years! And if you think those responsibilities stop at the board room, you are sadly mistaken. I will not leave your father's company to strangers and vultures because you are too goddamned squeamish about doing your duty!" Jeff's seen her angeras wrathful and catastrophic as any tantrum of his grandfather's, for all she's only a Morgan by marriagebut he doesn't know if he's ever seen her so passionately angry about a subject before, her voice shaking over the words. "I don't care if you fuck boys, Jeffrey. Have every pretty slave-boy in the state of Californiahell, in the whole countryfor all I care. But you will do this. You will give me a grandchild to take over when you and I are gone. Because there's never as much time as you think." "Jawohl, mein Fuhrer." The sarcasm, the flippancy, the mocking and traced salute of his fingers, are as much a reflex of the years as the rest of it. Jeff doesn't have to fight hard for the words and, although he'll undoubtedly pay for them later, it has the desired effect of pissing her off enough that she throws up her hands and leaves. When she's gone, and long enough after that he doesn't feel like it's punking outJeff lets his held breath out and grips either edge of the table, panting like he's just run a race. "Jeff?" Anyone else, it would feel like an intrusion. But Jensen Jeff reaches out, blindly, and Jensen is there, kneeling at Jeff's feet, crowding into the space between Jeff's legs, letting Jeff manhandle and drag him close until it's just the two of them, Jeff's forehead tilted in against the solid bone of Jensen's and Jeff is holding on, just holding on, tight as anything.

Chapter 58
In all the time that Jensen's been Jeff's slave, he's never felt anything but on the outside of things, a stranger and an intruder into close-knit circles it seems like he's got as much chance of breaking into as he has of breaking into the impregnable vaults of Commerce. It would seem, however, that there are levels to 'outside' and, if Jensen isn't trusted enough to be part of Jeff's inner circle, he's still counted as 'one of us' against the intrusion of Madame Morgan and Master Bardem. He's enough part of the household to sense the complete change of tenor caused by having those two in residence. Some of those changes are obviousKane's gone home, rather than lingering over a beer or joint, Sam's pretty much kept herself in the kitchen and she's only said maybe fifty words since La Morgan showed herself. Some of it is ephemeral, things Jensen wouldn't want to vocalize or admit to anyone, like how the house feels darker, the soft lighting that Jeff prefers not stretching as far, huddled in on itself, how quiet it seems, even the tread of Jensen's feet across carpet and tile unusually loud. And now this. Jeff is Jensen's master; Jensen shares his bed, wants to share his life. He's seen Jeff's different faces, his moods, learning them, cataloguing thembut nothing like this. Never anything like this. Jensen gropes for something to relate it back to, some memory of his former masters, but the closest he can come is Lord Hutton, when he was deepest in his cups and maudlin. But even that isn't the same; Jeff's spent so much time fighting against Jensenagainst wanting him, against taking him, against even allowing himself to need Jensen in the least, little way. And now it feels like all that carefully built and stubbornly held resistance has crumbled, overwhelmed from the outside by forces greater than anything Jensen could ever muster. And Jensen is grateful. It blisters him with shame to admit that, especially when Jeff is shaking, and his breath races across Jensen's lips like he just ran a marathon, but even filled to the skin with the overspill of Jeff's aches and pains, he's aware of that furtive traitor worm of warm gratitude, pathetically happy for this, even down to the vise-like bite of Jeff's fingers into his arms. Please, Jensen thinks, invitation and plea both, everything inside him yearning toward Jeff even as he holds himself still, malleable. Please. I'm here. I'm right here. At the same time, Jensen feels all over again his complete inadequacy at giving Jeff anything he wants, his fundamental inability to even know or understand what it is that his master wants or needs. All he can offer is his presence, his body, and his complete willingness to be whatever it is that Jeff desires. But is that enough? Can it be anywhere near enough?

Slowly, Jeff's breath eases, his hand slipping from Jensen's face to press against the metronome of Jensen's heart, as if syncing himself against that steady beat. The thumb of his other hand strokes across Jensen's cheek and sideburn, almost musical across bristly hair and counterpoint to the blood rushing through Jensen's ears. Before too long, Jensen stops trying to analyze it all and just falls into it, repetitive motion, repetitive sound lulling his eyes closed, matching his breath against his master's. All the secondary, tactile information comes to the forefront, filling the space where his vision wasthe skin-heated smoothness of Jeff's slacks and the gradually easing tension of the body underneath, the knob of his forehead against Jensen's and the clutch of his hands holding Jensen close: Stay here. Stay with me. Jeff won't let him say the words, but Jensen thinks them anyway: Always. Always. "Fuck." Jeff only whispers the word, but it's still as shocking as a shout after the long silence. "I hate she can do this to me. Fuck, fuck, fuck!" He sighs and pushes Jensen back. Jensen doesn't want to go, but he rocks obediently back on his heels, dreading what comes next, the inevitable pull-back, distance between them like a moat. But Jeff keeps his hands on Jensen's sleeves, tugs them gently. "Come on. Let's get out of here. I need some air." Jeff takes Jensen's hand and leads him outside, into the darkness. Jensen feels stretched taut, his awareness heightened, sharp-edged, hyperconscious of the warmth of Jeff's palm and fingers against his and the contrasting silken coolness of the air moving over his exposed skin. When he realizes they're heading toward the kennels, Jensen's feet stutter in the grass, same as his heart stutters in his chest. He forces himself to keep moving, though, struggling not to clutch at Jeff's hand like a scared kid when they get close enough for the dogs to start caroling their approach. Most of the dogs are socializedJared says 'friendly', Jensen thinks that's the delusional bullshit of a wannabe vet who loves dogsfriendly enough to wander loose in the big, fenced-in yard. Friendly enough to come galloping up to the fence, bouncing and whining for Jeff's attention. Jeff lets go of Jensen's hand to dispense chin and ear scratches. Jensen wraps his fingers around the wear-smoothed wood instead, fighting for possession of his legs, control of his stomach, his pulse, his hammering heart. Jeff likes dogs, Jensen thinks, trying to push the words above the roar in his ears. Jeff opens the yard gate and wades into the shifting tide of animals. Some of them mill out around him, sniffing curiously at Jensen's pant legs while Jensen pretends not to exist. Jeff likes dogs. "Hey, girl." Jeff's voice gains life, warming like Mexican hot chocolate. Even in the midst of his fear, Jensen can't help but feel the soothe of it, reassurance and love and pleasure all nakedly and openly given. It's stupid to be jealous of a dog. I am not jealous of a dog. Irritation cuts

through fear and Jensen forces his eyes open, makes himself loosen his death-grip on the wooden rails. Even racked by dumb, inappropriate bitterness, though, Jensen would have to be blind not to see the tight crow's feet around Jeff's eyes ease as he squats to receive Bisou's licks and squirmy tail-waggles of adoration. Another thing he can't do for Jeff. There's a whine and something scratches at his leg. Jensen looks down into a small, brown, furry face, the eyes obscured by curling, overhanging eyebrows. Do dogs have eyebrows? Jensen wonders, as the dog reaches up with one paw to scratch Jensen's leg again, less menacing than inquiring, a furry Are you okay? Or maybe it just wants to know how tender my meat is, Jensen thinks, wondering if he's delirious with fear as he cautiously extends his hand to the dog the way he did with Sadie and Harley. "That's Socks," Jeff says, herding dogs back into the play yard while Bisou looks smugly superior at his heels. The so-called Socks snuffles wetly at Jensen's hand and then licksgetting a taste to see if it likes him, Jensen suspects darkly. "I" Jeff's voice breaks a little and Jensen glances up from Socks to see a vaguely sad expression cross Jeff's face. "I got him for Sam, afterwell, after." Jeff shakes his head. "But she." Another shake. "She didn't want him, I guess. He does all right, though, don't you boy?" Socks abandons Jensenmuch to Jensen's reliefwhen Jeff whistles, though he gives Jensen a glance over his shoulder as he trots away. I'll get you later, Jensen interprets, and shivers. Bisou, not wanting to be left out, pads over to him and sniffs interestedly at Jensen's shoes and pant legs. Jensen holds very still, breathes very shallowly, and after a few moments, she gets bored and lopes back to Jeff's side. Unfortunately, Jeff's brief good mood seems to have fled with the discussion of Socks. After locking the rest of the dogs up, Jeff walks off, into the darkness, leaving Jensen and Bisou to trail uncertainly after him. Jeff leads them down to the beach. There's still a ghost haze of sunlight fading into the horizon line, blood orange and the faintest tracery of gold. It's light enough to see by as Jeff digs a stick from the rocky sand and pitches it for Bisou to chase. Which she does, of course, with a sharp, joyous bark that turns Jensen's blood to bathwater. Jensen doesn't know what to do with himself, doesn't even know if there's a place for him here, but he has no instructions to go, either. He watches Jeff and Bisou's back and forth for a few moments but completely aside from the way his spine twitches every time Bisou's teeth lock joyfully and crushingly around the branchit feels lazy and indulgent to stand around so uselessly while his master works himself into a sweat. Cleaning the firepit gives him something to do with his hands, a way to occupy his mind, raking out the clinkers, rearranging the bigger pieces

that still have some wood to burn. He lays new wood over the old, logs from the woodpile eked out with smaller chips and sticks of driftwood. Because Jeff smokes, Jensen's started carrying a lighter; it's not ideal, plastic Bic fighting against the growing roar of wind but he manages. His whole life is about managing. In any case, the slow brightening of the flame through the skeletal frame of branches, the thin, snaking hints of heat are welcome, helping soothe some of his anxiousness. Of course, then there's nothing left for him to do, really, but kneel and wait for Jeff to want him or to want him gone. Kneeling is its own meditation, another way to choke back the fear, the worry, the juggling pieces he doesn't know what to do with. Master Bardem. Mary-Louise. Madame Morgan. Even Lady Hathaway. Kneeling, it's easier for him to think about nothing, to simply sit in a state of readiness, attuned awareness. It's easier to be calm. Jeff throws the stick for a while before he gets tired or the lure of the fire becomes too much; he throws himself down next to Jensen, putting his back to one of the logs they use just for that purpose. Too hard; Jeff winces as he hits the sand and Jensen's hands twitch on his thighs in useless desire. Bisou returns from the latest throw, slobber-slimy branch clenched triumphantly in her jaws. She trots over to Jeff and waggles the stick coyly, invitation for Jeff to try and snatch it from heran act of bravery Jensen never fails to marvel at, no matter who's performing itbut this time Jeff doesn't reach for her or the stick, apparently bored with the game. Bisou huffs and makes a prancing cha-cha step forward and then back, but it's no more successful than her first gambit. Bisou glances at Jensen, firelight gleaming liquidly in her eyes and Jensen shivers again. Finally, she sets the branch carefully on the sand and backs up a couple steps, hindquarters balanced like a ballista to spring forward again. She barks twice, authoritatively, and Jensen flinches despite himself. Jeff waves a lazy hand at the dog. "Not now, girl." Bisou visibly deflates, and her face scrunches up like she's thinking about it. She plops her butt in the sand and glances from Jeff to Jensen, whining. Jensen doesn't think he likes her any more than he did before look at those jawsbut he thinks he knows how she feels. Faithful dog and faithful slave and both just about as confused and helpless. The silence stretches. After a few moments of careful thought, Bisou slinks closer to Jeff, resting her head on his thigh just above his knee and looking worriedly up at him. Jensen feels stupid all over again for envying her, but he wishes he could do the same, especially when Jeff puts one hand on her head, scratching idly. "I'm sorry to drag the two of you out here like this," Jeff says an unknown

time later, voice barely loud enough to be heard over the hiss of the wind and the crackle of the fire. "I'm shitty company right now, I'm" Jeff's shoulders flex, helpless, frustrated. He turns his head to look at Jensen. "You can go back up to the house if you want. You don't You're not my prisoner, Jensen." No, I'm your slave, Jensen thinks, but he thinks the distinction is utterly lost on Jeff. Or even the awareness that there is a distinction. "May I stay?" Jensen asks instead, struggling with the unwieldy tightness of his throat, part daring, part irritation. "Please? I'd like to stay." Jeff regards him through narrowed eyes. "You want to watch me being a pouty little brat?" I don't want you to be alone, Jensen thinks, but he suspects that will be a most unwelcome sentiment. "I don't want to go back up to the house without you." Jeff's mouth opens as though he's going to say something and then, slowly, closes up again. The sharpness on his face softens and something brittle in Jensen melts with it. Jeff reaches for him, coming just short of contact as he jerks his head. "C'mere." Jensen tips sideways onto his hip, a controlled fall into Jeff's offered side. Jeff grunts, but the arm he throws around Jensen's shoulder keeps Jensen from pushing more upright. "I'm sorry," Jeff apologizes. "You probably don't want to be up there any more than I do. I wasn't thinking." Jeff sighs and scooches down a little more in the sand, Jensen shifting with him until they end up with Jensen draped half across Jeff's side. Jensen's not complaining. "You okay?" Jeff's voice is softer, more intimate, and Jensen shivers with something that's neither cold or fear. "Yeah." Jensen nods. "I left home when I was seventeen." The admission seems to come from nowhere and Jensen goes still, not wanting to derail it in the least little way. "Not just to get away from my mom." Jeff's shoulders flex. "It was everything. I feel like I would've chewed an arm off to get away. I mean, you've seen her. And then add my dad and grandfather on top of it Gah." He looks at Jensen again. "She didn't say anything to you, did she? Ornothing worse than while I was around, right?" Jensen shakes his head. "No. I've only been around her when you were there." Jeff eases back a little, the dull hammer of his heart quieting under Jensen's cheek. "Good." His fingers stroke up Jensen's back, absent but with promise. "Good." Jeff's fingers scratch across Jensen's belt, then retreat a little bit to slip across the waistband of his pants. Warmer than the uneven heat of the fire can account for, Jensen's breath comes more shallowly, hopefulness tingling all the way to his extremities. "Jensen" Jeff cuts himself off and when he speaks again, his voice

sounds different, as if the words are different from the ones he first meant to say, "If you don't want to go up to the house, you could spend the night in the dorms. It's a damn sight warmer up there than it is down here." Jeff doesn't want him to go; Jensen knows that as surely as he's always known that Jeff wants him. This is just more of Jeff's weird form of chivalry, denying himself what he really wants. And, as always, it's up to Jensen to talk him out of it. "I'm fine." "Jensen" Jeff's voice sharpens, even as his hand presses against the small of Jensen's back, conflicting signals of go away, stay here. "You don'tyou shouldn't be down here with me when I'm like this. I'mI don't know how to be a good person right now." I don't want you to be a good person right now! Jensen's fingers tighten in the weave of Jeff's shirt before he forces them to relax. "I'll go if you want me to," Jensen says slowly, feeling it out. "But I don't want to go." Then, gathering up his fragile courage in his hands, and keenly aware of Bisou eyeballing him from inches away, "Don't make me go." Jeff grunts like Jensen kicked him, followed by a muttered, "Jesus Christ, Jensen" Jensen's braced for violence, for retaliation, but not the kind he gets when Jeff grabs either side of his face and drags him up, pulling him into a lip-mashing, teeth-clacking, open, wet kiss that drops the ground out from beneath Jensen faster than any of their kisses before. Jensen's so used to fighting with Jeff, with having to struggle for even this. At first he doesn't even know what to do with this easy surrender, all of the wanting hunger Jeff usually tries so hard to hold back and hide crashing into Jensenlike Jeff's mouthwith barely restrained violence. Then his brain and his training reassert themselves and he kisses Jeff back, with every bit of skill he has and all his own longing, molding his body to his master's, letting his cock surge into hardness, rutting desperately against Jeff's thigh. Jeff groans, a sound that shudders Jensen's bones, and then he rolls into Jensen, rolls over Jensen, putting Jensen on his back in the sand. Jeff's weight on him is heavy, insistent. Jensen feels like he might faint, he's breathing so fast and shallow, legs spreading, fingers clinging, the ache of want so sharp it burns and stabs, close to pain and all the better for it. Jeff drags at Jensen's shirt, shoving it up his ribs to reach bare skin. Callused fingertips scrawl up Jensen's sides, mapping, searching, greedy. Jensen's breath hitches, back arching, wishing he could find a way to slot their bodies even tighter together, have more of Jeff against him, on top of him. He feels crushed and mauled and it's wonderful, it's so good, the weight of a man and sucking on the tongue in his mouth

and the thick, clever hands all over him. Those hands fumble at Jensen's waist, defeated by the snugness of his belt, and Jensen rips his mouth away from Jeff's long enough to stammer, "Let me, let me, I can" Jeff's head rears back, his hands digging into Jensen's shoulders. Finally, the hesitation Jensen knew had to come, even with Jeff's steel-hard cock pressed tight to Jensen's own. "Jensen" He sounds wrecked, like after a night of partying, hoarse and riven-through. "Please." Jensen's pride doesn't extend to begging; he'll plead for his master's cock if that's what it takes, if that's what Jeff needs. "Please, Master, let me. Just let me." Even as he says the words, he reaches between them, ripping the belt's leather from the tongue, jerking frantically at the zip. He shoves it allbelt and pants and shortsdown his thighs, the cold and grit of the sand against his ass shocking but inconsequential. "Please Jeff. Please." For several moments, there's no sound but the rasping race of Jeff's breath, louder than wind and fire both. Jeff is backlit against the flames, a black cutout only edged in color; Jensen can't read his expression, his eyes. There's only this quivering tension between them, and that could go either way. So he doesn't really expect it when Jeff dips to his mouth again, a softer kiss than before but no less hungry. Jeff's lips feel cold, just from the time they've been apart from Jensen's. "Open my pants," Jeff says, in that same rusted-out rumble. His fingers shift on Jensen's shoulders, holding him down rather than holding him back, and his hips push into Jensen's, the drag of stressed cloth across naked, sensitized skin. "Take my dick out." Jensen wants to have more finesse, better show off his skills, but eagerness and the slow-rising bloom of joy are making his fingers shake, clumsy as he fights with Jeff's belt, Jeff's pants. He scratches his fingers down Jeff's fuzzed belly to dip under the waistband of his briefs to curl around the thick heat of Jeff's cock. Stroking Jeff is pure reflex, pure pleasuremaybe for Jeff too, given the noise that slips from his lips, the way his body rolls against Jensen's. The roll becomes a thrust, Jeff's weight settling against him again, cocks pressed together between their bellies. Jeff holds Jensen's face between both his hands, cupping Jensen's head like it's something precious, something he's afraid to break, while he does his best to suck Jensen's soul out through his mouth, deep masterful kisses that make Jensen whine and moan, squirming up into every push of Jeff's body against his. He's so caught up in itthe rub and the weight and the pressure, Jeff's mouth and Jeff's cockthat the hitch of Jeff's breath and rhythm, the sudden spurt of heat that blooms against Jensen's belly is a shock. "Oh, fuck, oh, fuck," Jeff grits, orgasm-weak. Jensen opens his eyes to the sky and tries to breathe. It's dark enough he can see the stars peeping through palely. He wants to wipe his fingers through the mess on his stomach and roll it around, lick it from

the tips. His cock throbs like it's been squeezed, but he doesn't have the concentration to will it down yet. Jeff eases off of him and Jensen's abs tighten up in preparation to sit up when Jeff's hand wraps around Jensen's still-hard cock. Surprise makes him twitch. "Is this all right?" Jeff's voice doesn't crack, exactly, but the flaw is there, audible even through the sing of Jensen's nerves as Jeff strokes him. Jensen's toes curl and the animal noise that jerks out of him is the closest he can come to an affirmative. Jeff's laugh spills over him like sparks from the crackling wood, warming skin left cold by the absence of Jeff on top of him. Jeff's lips press their heat into Jensen's ribs and then the flat part of Jensen's hip. "Guess I'll take that as a yes." Oh. Oh. Jensen's been sucked before. Training with other slaves, exhibitions for his masters' pleasurewith Lord Tarantino, it had literally been an art formbut he's never had a single one of his owners suck him. Jensen doesn't know why that should be different, but it is, wet, searing heat that's got him crying out and coming almost before Jeff's lips get halfway down. Jensen digs his fingers into the sand, grit squeaking beneath his fingernails because he's afraid to do anything else with his hands as Jeff milks him out, quick, flicking tongue and flexing throat. When Jensen is limp and whimpering, Jeff slides back up his body to kiss him again, sharing Jensen's taste back to him. Jensen doesn't mind. Jensen doesn't mind at all. "Thank you," Jeff whispers, only barely louder than wind-roar. "I love you, Jensen."

Chapter 59
"Okay, so I'm here," Cate says, plopping down breathlessly in the seat opposite Jeff's and slinging her purse in one of the chairs between them. "What's the emergency?" It's just the two of them at the table, an outdoor one on the restaurant's private back patio where no one will be embarrassed or troubled by their lack of slaves. By necessity, it's one of Cate's favorite hang-outs. Cate looks pointedly at the other two empty seats and the empty space next to Jeff and asks, "And should I be reading anything into the lack of Jensen?" Jeff shrugs. "He's having a 'day of beauty' over at the spa." Jeff rolls his eyes and screws up his lips ruefully. "As though he needs to be any more beautiful. He'll be over when he's done." "Hmmm. Well, I'm glad this preemptory summons was truly dire, then." The acid in Cate's tone is diminished by the warmth of her smile as she snags her menu from the table's middle and opens it up. "Do I have time to fortify myself with something to drink?" Jeff laughs and flicks a hand negligently. "Yeah, I think I can hold my water at least that long." The moment's humor sours quickly, thought, when Cate goes back to perusing the menu and Jeff's got nothing else to think about but the ghost of Jensen's voice that's been rattling around his head all morning: Hurt me. Jeff shakes his head, as though that's going to have any effect. "So." Cate shuts the menu with a brisk snap and leans back in her chair, fingernails tapping on the arms. "What's the story?" "Jensen's having nightmares." Spit out so baldly, it sounds completely inane. It's a relief when Cate puts on her therapist face, rather than her Jeff, you idiot, face. "Really?" Cate cocks her head, expression thoughtful. "What kind of nightmares?" "I don't know." Jeff traces one finger around the rim of his water glass to keep from having to meet Cate's gaze while Jensen's voice loops again through his mind. "Nightmares. Whimpering in your sleep, cold sweat, bad dreams." He shrugs. "What other kinds are there?" "I meant, genius, that I would like to know what Jensen is having nightmares about." "Hi. I'm Melody. May I get you something to drink?" There's no slave collar around Melody's neck, another reason that they like the place so much. Jeff sits back in his chair and calls up his smile and easy charm, as though there's nothing else on his mind but their drink and lunch order. "You do that very well," Cate observes, once Melody's off to fill their

"You do that very well," Cate observes, once Melody's off to fill their orders. "Do what?" "Pretend." Jeff shrugs, not sure if the words are a compliment or a trap. Knowing Cate, maybe both. "You've met my mother." "Hmm. Yes, I have." Cate's eyes turn distant for a moment before she blinks and looks at him again. "Okay, so. Jensen's having nightmares. What kind" She waves her hand in an erasing gesture. "Let's not go down that road again. All right. So, what is it about Jensen having nightmares?" Jeff blinks at her. There were a lot of things he'd expected Cate to ask about. Why he was concerned about Jensen's nightmares isn't one of them, obvious as the nose on his face. "Um. Because he's having them almost every night? Bad enough to wake both of us up? Because he wakes up scared as if someone just tried to kill him in his sleep? Because" because it's been going on since I told him I loved him? Jeff bites back those words, because there's only so much of his neuroses he's willing to show, even to as good a friend as Cate. "Because I don't know how to help him," Jeff says, more quietly, going back to tracing the sweating rim of his glass. "And I'm hoping you do." He looks up at Cate from under his lashes without seeming to. "Has Jensen talked to you about them at all?" Cate purses her lips, feathering a hand through her hair. "I think the more important question is whether Jensen's spoken to you about his nightmares." "Aw, come on, Cate. I didn't call you for you to play shrink with me." "Heh. Now you sound like Jeremy." "Hey." Melody comes back with their drinksmimosa for Cate and iced tea for Jeff, who's been sticking to an uncharacteristic straight and narrow lately. "That reminds me, you heard from Jer lately?" Cate's eyebrows knit slightly and a shadow darkens her eyes. "So it's not just me he's avoiding?" "Do you think he's gone off his meds?" Jeff fights the urge to whisper the words in some bizarre superstitious caution. "He's" Jeff sighs. "He took Marissa's OD really hard." "He certainly did." Cate gives a sigh of her own before her shoulders tilt helplessly. "I don't know. I don't want to believeJeremy hates the drugs, but he knows how important they are. But if anything was going to put him over the edgeshort of losing youI think Marisa would be it." "Yeah." Jeff bolts the rest of his water and crunches the ice cubes, wishing it was somethinganythingstronger. "Yeah, I've got to get a

hold of that kid. This has gone on long enough." "He did get that new slave," Cate points out. "And right away. What was his name?" "Misha." Jeff's impression of Jeremy's new body slave is indistinct, except for a pair of incredible, watchful blue eyes; certainly there's not enough memory for him to judge whether Misha's strong enough or good enough to keep Jeremy on track when all Jeremy wants to do is go off the rails. Jeremy can bewillful. To say the least. "I just think it shows Jeremy is, on some level, thinking, even if his heart's blown out. I think maybe he just needs some time." Cate hesitates a moment, a palpable and uncharacteristic pause that makes Jeff look up at her, curious. "I think, too Your opinion means a great deal to him, Jeff." Jeff frowns. "Wellyeah. His opinion means a lot to me, too. We've been friends for God, forever." "Yes. I justI think sometimes you don't understand quite how much your goodwill means to Jeremy. I suspect that, as much as he's grieving, Jeremy is embarrassed." "Embarrassed? What the hell does he have to be embarrassed about?" Jeff unknits his frown to smile at Melody as she comes to refill their water glasses. "Your lunch will be out in a moment," Melody reassures them with a smile. "Thanks." Cate's smile remains firmly and brightly in place until Melody has disappeared inside again, then it fades slowly, like an unfixed photograph exposed to light. "You're worried about him," Jeff says softly. Cate's lips curve upward again, but with more wryness than humor. "Worrying is what I do, darling. Jeremy is" She sighs. "Jeremy is more fragile than he allows himself to seem." "You think I don't know that?" "I think that you know what Jeremy allows you to know, same as with any of us." Cate shakes her head. "But I think we should finish talking about Jensen. I expect he's going to meet you here?" Jeff nods, hating a little the way just the mention of Jensen sends certain signals southward. Which only brings him back around to last night's nightmare, Jensen's request for Jeff to hurt him, to choke him, while Jensen rutted them both to completion, intended comfort turning into sex a lot hotter than Jeff was remotely comfortable with. "So. Has Jensen talked to you about his nightmares?" "No." There's a slight ache in the back of Jeff's throat, a tightness that

makes it a little harder to talk, makes him focus on the words more. "No, he doesn't want to talk about it and I don't want to push. So mostly he feels guilty for waking me up and I feel guilty" Jeff's teeth score the inside of his mouth. "I feel guilty." "Why do you feel guilty?" "Oh, Cate," he groans. "Jesus." "No." She holds up a hand. "Humor me, will you? This is what you call me for. Why do you feel guilty that Jensen's having nightmares?" "I don't know. It just seems like he's come such a long way. Andnow this." "A long way?" "You know." Melody comes out with their lunches, but Jeff doesn't want to get distracted again. "It just seemed like he's happier now. We've got him on the right path and, and I'm trying to give him everything you say he wants and I just" Jeff shrugs. "I thought he was happier than this. Except he's not, I don't see how he can be, if he's still having nightmares like this. I meanyou should see him, Cate." "Wait." Cate leans forward, head down but tilted as if listening. She plants her hands on the pebbled glass of the table. "Wait." She finally looks up at him, something flickering in her pale eyes. "Jeff. You You do understand that ninety percent of Jensen's behavior right now is based on what he thinks you want to see from him, rather than any actual, radical change in Jensen himself? Right? You do get that, don't you?" "I. What do you mean?" Cate's tone of voice was mildeven kindbut Jeff still feels like she jabbed him in the gut. "I mean" Cate sighs, leaning back in the chair and flinging her arms extravagantly out. "I mean Jensen isn't significantly different than the slave you first brought to see me. He's just been given a different template of behavior to work from by his masterby you. And he's doing his best to please that master by mimicking the behaviors you find pleasing." "So, basically, he's faking it." Cate spreads her hands. "Basically. That's an oversimplification, but sure, let's work with that." "How is that an oversimplification? I come to you because I'm worried that I'm undoing all the good things you've done with him and you're telling me that he's still just as screwed up as before, that all this change I've been seeing in himit's all an act. Right? Isn't that what you said?" "Look. Jeff. I know I've been baby-stepping you through this whole process, but I need you to do some actual thinking now, yeah? Jensen is not going to spontaneously convert to our 'normal'," Cate makes sarcastic quotes with her fingers, "thinking. You just can't do that with a

human being. The absolute best thing we can expect from Jensen right now is mimicry." "And how's that?" "Because whether it's mimicry or not, it sets Jensen a pattern of behavior to emulate that youwewant from him. Independent thought. Autonomy. The consideration and actualization of himself, his pleasures, his wants. The articulation of those desires" "Yeah, but if he's just faking it all" Cate holds up both hands, an emphatic halt gesture. "Look at it this way for a moment, will you? Jensen tries out a new behavior. He receives positive reinforcement from his stated authority figures" "Us," Jeff interjects dully, pushing his plate away from him. Cate rolls her eyes. "Us," she agrees, impatience starting to sharpen her tone. "That positive feedback leads him to believe that this is good, sanctioned, appropriate behavior. So he repeats it. And gets more positive feedback. Repetition becomes habit. And hopefully, after enough repetition, habit" "becomes belief," Jeff finishes. "Yeah. Okay, I get it. I don't like it, but I get it." Cate purses up her lips. "I told you this wouldn't be easy. You'rewe're asking Jensen to change habits of behavior that have been formed over his lifetime. And frankly, the only carrot we have to offer him for this change is the approval of his master. Don't get mad at me and don't get mad at Jensen for working within the parameters of what we've been given." "No, I'm not," Jeff says, pushing a hand tiredly through his hair. "OrI'm trying not to. It's just." He looks at Cate, flinching and steeling himself simultaneously. "I love him. I'm in love with him. And you know what that's like." He moves his hand in a vague spreading gesture. "I want him to be fixed. I want him to be happy." "But with Jensen, those are not congruent terms, luv." Cate's lips purse up again, more rueful than mad, as she takes his hand across the table. "Jensen is happy. Jensen is happy being your slave, being used, being useful, being cherished as good. Jensen is happy in your love." Her fingers squeeze his, strong and always surprising in their strength. "A damn sight happier than you seem to be, in loving him." Jeff looks away, shaking his head. "Jeff." Cate's gentle voice drags him back like a lead on a horse. "It's okay that you're uneasy. Being someone's master, it's a serious responsibility. I'm glad you take it so seriously. You've come a long way from the reckless young man I first met." Jeff flicks a smile. "Like you're so old."

She waves a hand at him. "You know what I mean. The point is that I needand Jensen needsyou to stop thinking about this in terms of fixed or not-fixed. Jensen is not broken. Quit treating him like he's broken." Her eyebrows arch pointedly with the sharpening of her gaze. "And quit treating yourself like you are." "Me?" Startlement jags an uneven laugh out of Jeff. "Me, I'm fine. I don't " "Jeff. Don't bullshit a bullshitter, okay? And don't treat me like I don't know you, like I haven't known you all this time. I know you've made mistakes. Horrible, heinous mistakes. And I know that you'll never entirely put them behind you. And that's okay. But stop flagellating yourself with them. And stop punishing Jensen for them." "Howhow am I punishing Jensen?" Outrage makes Jeff's tone squeaky and he struggles to pull it back into a manly range. "Jensen wants to be owned. He wants to be owned by you. You want Jensen." "I know that," Jeff snarls. Cate spreads her hands. "Then what's so wrong with letting yourself have him?" Jeff laughs, a jagged sound that's got nothing funny in it. "I don't even know what that means, have him. But you don't know You don't know what it's like, Cate. When it's just the two of us in that bed together, you don't know what it's like." "Then tell me what it's like." "I He wakes up from those nightmares and it's" Jeff's hands move, trying to describe something that has no shape, doesn't even really have a descriptionnone that he's ever learned, anyway. "He's all fucked up, so fucked up he can't even hide it from me, even though I can tell he wants to. And I. I can't do anything for him. And then sometimes, sometimes, he'll want me to do things to him" Jeff wipes his mouth with his finger and thumb, even though it feels dry as paper already, like it's something he can scrape off himself. "What kind of things?" Cate asks, relentless when she's got the scent of blood. "Well, last night, he wanted me to choke him," Jeff says, keeping his voice even and light, almost conversational. A part of him wants to shock her, hurt her with it as much as it hurts him to say it. Of course, Cate's too good at blank-face to let him know if he's struck home, her only expression change a pin-scratch line etching itself between her eyebrows. After a moment, she says, "Did you know Lady Arquette used to choke Jensen when she had sex with him?" Another laugh, as humorless as the first. "Is that supposed to make me

feel better? No, I didn't know that." Cate shakes her head. "No, you" She waves her hand again before fixing Jeff like a bug on the needle of her gaze. "Jensen's never been in a position toto feel anything about what's been done to him." "I know that." "Right, but Jensen still has feelings, Jeff. Just because he wasn't allowed them doesn't mean they didn't exist. He had to do something with them. And mostly, what Jensen did with those feelings was repress them. Drive them down deep, where he could at least pretend they weren't there." Jeff spreads his hands. "And?" Cate rolls her eyes and huffs another sigh, more theatrical this time, which tells him that she's at least partially teasing. "Jeff, dear-heart, I love you, but sometimes you're dumb as a bag of hammers. And so now those feelings are starting to surface again. Except Jensen's still not ready to deal with them on any conscious level. And so they come up through dreams." Oh, Jeff thinks, feeling nearly as stupid as Cate's accused him of. "But why now? Why" He flops his hands, unsure where to take that second why. "Why now?" Cate's mouth crooks, amused at his expense and fond at the same time. "Because he's someplace where he feels safe enough to do so, dummy." "Oh." Jeff says it out loud this time, reaching forward and threshing his straw in his iced tea for something to do with his hands and to escape the sharp bore of Cate's gaze. "Sothis is a good thing, then?" Cate nods slowly, consideringly. "Yeah. From a therapeutic standpoint, this is a very good thing. It's still a long way from where you want him to be, though, Jeff. His behaviordon't let yourself think that just because he acts differently for you than he did for Bill Crudup that he's become a different person. Jensen is always going to be Jensen. And his greatest gift, the thing that's allowed him to be such an incredible survivor is his adaptability. That's all it is, right now. Adaptation." "He's not the only one who's having to adapt, here. I I don't know who I'm turning into, here. This. This is stuff I swore I'd never do, Cate. And that scares me. And it scares me more that I'm starting tono, not starting to. It scares me that I do enjoy it. When Jensen asked me to choke him, when he asks me" Jeff shakes his head, unwilling to air all the gory details, not wanting to give them the power of being said aloud. "I like it. I tell myself it's for him, because it's what he wants, but I don't know. I don't know." "Without having talked to Jensen about it, I can't I don't know what he's thinking. I'm not a psychic pipeline into Jensen's mind. But if you ask me my professional opinion, I think that Jensen's asking you do to do these things to himwith himexactly because he feels safe with you. Because he knows you'll hurt him enough for what he needsand no more than

that." Jeff shakes his head. "He can't know that. He can't know that because I don't know that." "Oh, Jeff. Honey. Do you think I'd let you do all this, do you think I'd give you permission for all this, if I thought you're the monster you think you are? "Jensen didn't have a choice when his masters did what they did to him. But if you've given Jensen anything, you've given him a choice. The fact that he can ask you to give him what he needs, that he doesyes, it's to please you, but it's also" Cate spreads her hands and shrugs a little. "Jensen is reenacting situations in which he had no control with you, someone who gives him control. It's a means of taking back his agency, of asserting control over the situation exactly as he couldn't when it happened in the first place." She grabs his hand again, shaking it, a little like Bisou with one of her many, dismembered squeeze toys. "It's a measure of trust." She laughs, her happy, joyous laugh that never fails to make Jeff smile and laugh in return. "It's a measure of love." "He loved Tom Cruise, too," Jeff says sourly, because he can't let Cate's comment stand pat. But he'd be lying if he didn't feel some little pilot light kindle, spreading warmth and dizziness like the finest liquor he's ever had.

Chapter 60
"Don't tell him I called. Don't tell him I'm coming. Do what you can to keep him there." "What's wrong with Jeremy?" Jeff glances sideways at Jensen like he forgot Jensen's there. Maybe he did; Jeff's been moody and preoccupiedeven more moody and preoccupiedsince talking with Cate on Wednesday and, in between dodging his mother and attending to the day to day business of business, he's been putting out quiet but urgent feelers to find Jeremy, who seems to have been avoiding nearly everyone in their social circle for weeks now. It's 'nearly' everyone because where Jeremy's apparently been is hiding out at Wendy and Zach's house, which is exactly where they're going now. At many miles above the speed limit. Jeff's first glance is angry, searing, but it softens almost immediately and Jeff blows out his breath. "Do you know what Bipolar Disorder means?" Jensen sorts through his memories, trying to figure out the right answer to that. Or, even better, an answer that he can tell Jeff. "Nonot really," he says finally, hearing the hesitation in his own voice. "Not in any clinical sense." Jeff smiles crookedly. "I don't either, really. Just the stuff Cate's told me." Jeff falls silent, teeth chewing at his bottom lip and the little patch of hair beneath it. "Jeremy's fine, though," Jeff says, his voice a little too cheerful. Then he makes a concessionary nod of his head. "Well. He's fine as long as he stays on his medication. Which is at least part of the problem, because Marisa is the one who usually made sure Jeremy took his meds." "Wouldn't Misha make sure that Jeremy took his medication, too?" Jeff shrugs. "I don't know. I don't know if Marisa was in any condition to keep Jeremy on his meds before she dive-bombed and I don't know if Jeremy's been in any condition to tell Misha he's on medication, let along enlist him to keep it on it. And I don't know if Misha's the kind of person who could keep Jeremy on his meds if Jer's fallen into a depression." Jeff bangs the heel of his hand against the steering wheel with sudden, shocking violence. Jensen flinches beneath his skin at the same time a scalded burn starts up, making his skin pleasantly tight. "Kane warned me about this," Jeff mutters viciously. "He damn well warned me." "About Jeremy?" Too late, Jensen considers whether he should've stayed silent.

silent. Jeff's gaze jags sideways. "No. Not Just about getting so wrapped up inin other things that I start missing stuff." "Oh." He wonders if Kane meant this whole business with Jeff's mom or something else. It's not directly related, but it reminds Jensen that he still doesn't know what to do about Mary-Louise and Master Bardem. He's loathe to bring it up to Jeff; he feels like Jeff has enough on his plate right now and if he's managed to forget about Mary-Louise and the problems she presents, then Jensen's in no hurry to bring her back to his attention. On the other hand, if Jensen's suspicions are right, Mary-Louise's baby is Jeff's niece or nephew. Or half-niece/nephew. And for all Jeff and Master Bardem'sissues, Jensen can't imagine Jeffslave-saving, abolitionist Jeffletting his own flesh and blood end up in slavery if there's anything he can do about it. After thinking about it for a moment, Jensen pulls out his cell phone and texts a quick message to Jared. He's just shoved the phone back in his pocket when Jeff reaches over and covers Jensen's hand with his. "I'm sorry to drag you out like this." Jensen shakes his head. "I'm glad to go anywhere with you." Jeff gets that funny smile that means he's both pleased and sad and squeezes Jensen's fingers briefly before putting his hand back on the wheel and cutting briskly through three lanes of traffic for their exit. Jensen looks at the skyline rather than watch Jeff's driving. Wendy's house is a small, ordinary looking California bungalow, dully poky when compared to Jeff's house, but well-maintained and not cheap. Zach is seated in a rocking chair on the porch, identifiable mostly only by the pouf of his hair in the dark. He raises and waves one hand in greeting as the two of them alight from the car. Closer to, Jensen can see the weird thickness of his body is because, draped across his chest, asleep and drooling, is a sturdy, half-naked toddler with long enough hair that Jensen can't immediately tell gender. There's a hint of Zach's unruly hair in the curling ends and the soft mouth. Jensen doesn't know why it never occurred to him that Zach and Wendy might have a childor childrentogether, but the reality of the kid is startling, as is the soft smile on Jeff's face as they come up the short flight of stairs. "Looking good there, Zachariah." Jeff leans a shoulder against the brick support, now seemingly in no hurry. "Remind me again why you and Wendy have to live way the fu heck out here?" Zach's smile is slow and mellow, only a gleam in the dark. "Furthest I could get away from you, a'course. Master." "Damn good place to hide out, I guess." Jeff tucks his hands in his

pockets and hunches his shoulders before he nods at the house, a little too fast and a little to sharp to be as easy as he's trying to seem. "Who'd look for somebody in Pasadena?" Jeff ducks his head, asks, "How's it going?" "Oh, you know." Zach shrugs. "We laughed, we cried, we sang a few rounds of Copperhead Roadit's been a barrel of monkeys." "He still here?" Jeff's head turns back toward the house and the restlessness tumbles back into Jeff's voice, sharp and eager. "Yeah," Zach agrees slowly. "He's inside." "He's sleeping," Wendy says, appearing in the doorway, behind the screen. Her voice is conversational but there's an edge to it. She's backlit, the light from the house beyond making a halo from her hair and a shadow of her face, but Jensen can still make out how taut her face looks. Her arms are crossed under her breasts, shoulders squared. Instead of bristling, the way Jensen half-expects, Jeff seems to hunch down smaller. "You gonna let me in, Wen?" Apparently Wendy didn't expect Jeff to back down so easy, either, because she shifts on her feet, arms falling to her sides. "I don't know." She puts one hand flat against the screen, cocking her head at them. "What are you going to do, Jeff?" Jeff shrugs his shoulders. "I honestly don't know." The last word jags into an almost-laugh and Jensen comes up another step, wanting to be closer to Jeff, wanting to be there, at his back. If there are sides in thisand apparently there areJensen knows whose side he stands on. "Is he okay?" "No, he's not okay!" Wendy's fingers scratch down the metal and the sharpness of her voice makes the kid stir and murmur on Zach's chest. Zach covers the kid's back with one palm, humming soothingly under his breath. Wendy looks aside, voice dropping again as she says, "He's fucked up. He's really fucked up." Her head comes up again and Jensen feels her gaze flick past Jeff to him, like the lick of the Santa Anas. "Where were you?" "Jeremy didn't want to see me, Wen," Jeff rumbles back, keeping his voice low even as his tone tightens, burrs with anger. "I wasn't the one avoiding his calls and I'm not the one hiding out in Pasadena like it's Witness Protection." Jeff steps closer to the screen door and puts his hand on it, slight echo of Wendy's pose a moment before. "C'mon, Wendy. Let me in. Please." "Wendy." The note in Zach's voice isn't a commandwhether as a slave or just as a husband, Jensen has doubts that Zach could seriously command Wendy to do anythingbut at the sound of her name, Wendy's shoulders bow down and she visibly takes a deep breath. Further back in the house, a second shape appears behind hernot Jeremy, but Misha, Jeremy's new slave; Jensen recognizes the bristle of

his hair, different than Jeremy's soft, messy curls, and the sharper angles of his shoulders. Misha puts his hand on Wendy's shoulder and her breath hitches, but she steps to the side. Jensen thinks he's probably the only one who hears Jeff's sigh. Because Jeremy hasn't been around much, because Jeff hasn't said much about him, Jensen never gave any weight to his relationship with Jeff. No more than any other of Jeff's relationships, anyway. But this entire interlude would seem to make a lie of that assumption and Jensen doesn't know what to reconstruct in its place. "Don't fuck this up," Wendy saysor so Jensen thinks, half the sounds obscured by the rasp of the screen opening. Jensen's phone vibrates in his pocket. "Is he How's he been?" Jeff steps up into the house proper, Jensen on his heels. "Why don't you ask him?" "I would if he ever answered his phone." Jensen eases his phone out far enough to thumb up the message. It's from Jared: Ask Sam. It's the answer to one of his questions, at least, or the start of one. Jensen erases it and tucks his phone away again. "You know, I've been in the same place, Wen. If Jeremy wanted to find me, wanted to talk to me, wantedanything, I've been around. Why are you so pissed at me?" Wendy sighs and drags her fingers through her hair. "I'mnot," she admits finally. "I'm not pissed, I'm I'm worried." The pocket-sized living room is off to the left; Wendy seats her hip on the couch's arm, cupping her elbows in her palms. "And I can't be mad at Jeremy right now, so" She shrugs. "You're it." Jeff dips a little ironic bow in Wendy's direction. "So glad to be the object of your misplaced anger, Wen." Wendy hiccups a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. Jeff takes a step forward, and Wendy comes up off the couch and they meet somewhere in the middle in a hard, awkward hug. Misha is standing next to him. Did you know Jeremy is bipolar? It's been a really long time since Jensen's had any reason to use sign language and he's never known the sign for bipolar, if there is one. He spells it out, watching Misha's face to see if he's making any sense. Misha's glances at Jeff and Wendy before he digs in his pocket and shows an orange pill bottle to Jensen. Interestingly, Jensen sees Cate's name as the prescribing doctor.

How is Jeremy? Misha shrugs, tucking the bottle away again. Sad, he signs in return. He traces a jagged line in the air with his hand, presumably matching the highs and lows of Jeremy's moods. Manic. "Jensen?" Wendy touches Jensen's shoulder lightly and he realizes Jeff is gone, presumably disappeared to wherever Jeremy is, leaving the three of them alone in the front of the house. "Can I get you something to drink, or eat?" "No, thank you." Jensen's starting to get used to the insistence on treating him like an honored guest but it still gives him a spike of irritation now and again. He wonders how Misha's been adjusting to it. "Misha?" The other slave shakes his head, bringing his hands together and genuflecting slightly. Wendy's lips quirk upward slightly, not quite a smile. "Well, I need some tea before I bite someone else's head off." She goes to the door and peeks out. "Babe, I'm going to make some tea, you want some?" "Yeah," comes the reply. "I'm going to bring Ryzie in now." "Okay." She turns around, looks at Jensen and Misha with a kind of stricken helplessness and mutters, "Okay," again to herself before heading off into the kitchen. They seem tense. Now that they're mostly-alone, Jensen guesses he doesn't have to keep signing, but it's good practice and makes it less likely they'll be overheard. They're worried about my master. Misha pauses, lips twisting thoughtfully. I don't know how to help him. My master. He's not like Misha starts to make a sign that Jensen doesn't recognize and falters. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess it's a personalized sign for Lord Price. It's very confusing. Jensen laughs.

Chapter 61
Jeff long ago came to terms with the fact that Jeremy has sex with Zach and Wendy on a semi-regular basis. Any remaining twinges he feels about it he buries beneath the images of his own pantheon of partners or, when that isn't working, the image of Jeremy in the hospital. That one always cools his jets. This time around, it only stings for a second to find Jeremy profoundly asleep and just as profoundly naked in Zach and Wendy's bed, the shutup little room stinking of sex. Mostly, he's just glad to see Jeremy, solid and real, despite the dark circles under his eyes and the knobble of his ribs showing where he's lost weight he didn't have to lose. Mostly, Jeff wants to tangle his fingers in the uncut mess of Jeremy's hair and soothe the graven lines from around Jeremy's eyes, his frowning mouth. (another part of him wants to drag his finger down the length of Jeremy's back, find out if Jeremy's open, if he's slick) but Jeff ignores it, same as he always does. Mostly. Jeff doesn't know how long he's sitting on the edge of the bed, watching Jeremy sleep and breathe before Jeremy's lashes flinch and his eyelids slit open. Recognition drifts slow and sleepy across Jeremy's half-slack face and then he groans and sweeps the pillow up to cover his head. From underneath, muffled, "You know, it's much harder to avoid you if you're going to show up wherever I am." "That is my diabolical plan," Jeff answers mildly, trying not to betray the giddy-slash-sickening relief that Jeremy's at least himself enough to crack jokes. He traces a fingernail alongside Jeremy's spine, where he knows Jeremy's ticklish. "Hey, quit it! Quit it!" True to form, Jeremy twitches and wriggles and fights to pull away until his head comes out from under pillow, doubly rumpled and blinking in owlish grumpiness. "Dirty pool, old man." "None dirtier." Jeff leers at him. Jeremy rolls his eyes. "And lame jokes. How did I get to be so lucky?" He rolls onto his back and digs his heels in to push upright, dragging the comforter with one hand to keep his legs and groin covered in strange, almost painful, modesty. With his other hand, he pokes through the assortment of nightstand flotsam until he finds a crumple-edged hardpack of Camels and a vivid blue Bic. Jeremy picks one cigarette out and offers it first to Jeffwho shakes his headthen tucks it in his mouth. "I don't care how depressed you are, I know Wendy's not letting you smoke in the house." Jeremy scoffs. "I'm not afraid of Wendy," he says, but he doesn't light the cigarette, twirling the Bic between his fingers like an Old West gunslinger. Jeff watches him, as afraid to break the bubble as Jeremy.

There was a time when their relationship had been smooth, easy, effortless as breathingbut that time had ended years ago. What they'd patched up in the meantime is a good substitute, but it has razor edges they both have to negotiate around, fumblers in the dark. "Besides. I'm not depressed, I'm sad." Jeremy finally tugs the cigarette from between his lips, tucking it back with the others despite the spitdampness of the filter. Anger starts to deepen and hollow out his voice, making it ring. "Jesus Christ, aren't I allowed to fucking feel sad? Can't I have one normal, human emotion without everybody thinking I'm losing my marbles?" "Yeah, you can get sad, Jer. But you can't just disappear." He grabs Jeremy's bicep, fingers digging in before he catches himself and makes himself stop. "Don't just fucking disappear." "Because you care so much?" Jeremy's voice is scornful, bitter and caustic, and Jeff can't tell if he's just imagining that it's more vitriolic than Jeremy's usual acid sarcasm. But even as he wonders, it takes no deception or effort for him to say, dull and honest, "Yeah. I do." Jeremy's lips pout up, as though he's dissatisfied with that answer and he turns his head, pretending that he can see anything through the bedroom window with the glass glazed by light and their reflections. Silence fills up the space and Jeff searches for somethingsome words to replace it with. Something that isn't: I'm glad you're not crazy or I miss fucking you, sometimes, or, even simpler, I miss you. "Hey," Jeremy says, the animation of his voice lightening. "You'll never guess who I saw the other day. Robin." Jeff blinks, trying to place the name. When he does, he blinks again, harder, a little too stunned for any other reaction. "Robin?" He blows out a whistle and runs his fingers through his hair in not-quite-middle-aged self-consciousness. "My ex, Robin?" "Yep. That's the one." Robin had been Jeff's one, big, failed attempt at monogamy. Not because Jeff couldn't keep his cock in his pantshe couldbut because, even so, it had felt like wearing a suit that was too tight in the neck and too short in the pants. Add to that Robin's insecurity about the difference in their social status and her doubt that Jeff was even capable of stopping his man-whoring ways and you'd brewed up a pretty hefty head of resentment on Jeff's part and a relationship that wasn't going anywhere good. "I thought she left L.A.," Jeff says slowly, as if each one of those memories has to be sucked up from La Brea's tar pits. "In fact, I know she did, because I was going to offer her Wendy's job, before there was a Wendy and she'd justvacated. Her roommate had a few choice words to say about me, too." Jeff scratches the back of his neck. "What's she doing

back?" "Am I her social secretary? I don't know. But she wants to get a hold of you, apparently. She gave me her number" Jeremy swings out of the bed, the sheet skimming from his body as he starts scrounging on the floor for his discarded clothes. Jeff wrestles with the dilemma of where to put his eyes. They haven't had sex in years, but even so, they've never been shy with each other. He's no stranger to Jeremy's naked body. Still, it feels more intimate here, shut up in Zach and Wendy's bedroom; it feels like something he should look away from. On the other hand, didn't this whole problem arise because he looked away from Jeremy? Jeremy fishes a bent-edged business card from the crumpled puddle of his pants and hands it to Jeff. The card is a little yellow and softcornered, as if it's been tumbling around in the bottom of Robin's purse for a long time without protection. Jeff doesn't recognize the name of the company on the front but the address is in Phoenix. The number written on the back, in Robin's precise handwriting, is local 310 area code. "What does she want?" Jeff stops staring at the card like the answers are going to print themselves out, to find that Jeremy has pulled on a pair of sag-assed striped boxers. "Why didn't she just call me directly, if she wants to get a hold of me that bad?" "What do I look like, a psychic?" Jeremy shrugs, avoiding Jeff's gaze as he returns to the nightstand and takes up the cigarettes again. "I'm just a messenger boy." He shoves up the bedroom window and the screen, perching one narrow hip on the sill. "Call her if you want answers." The slight bite that Jeremy puts on the word her reminds Jeff that they're not here to talk about Robin and that they're dancing the dance they always do, two-stepping around this minefield of things they don't want to talk about. Jeff tucks the card in the back of his pants. "Jeremy." The expression Jeremy gives him is bitterly tired, showing him what Jeremy will look like when he's old. Jeremy's also the first to break the deadlock, though, looking aside as he lights the cigarette and blows a line of smoke out the open window. "I'm not dead and I'm not bonkers." Jeremy plants his foot against the sill and thumbs the cigarette's filter thoughtfully, still looking outside and his voice as dull as his expression. "Isn't that good enough?" "No." Jeff knots his fingers together between his spread knees, a dull ache starting in his throat. "No, Jer, that's It's not okay." "What" "Don't disappear. You can't disappear, okay?" "I'm taking my goddamned meds" "This isn't about the meds, man! This is about you and me." Jeremy opens his mouth and Jeff cuts him off, sure and brutal, "And don't give

me some emo bullshit crap about how there is no you and me, okay? Justspare me. Because you know goddamn well" Jeff breaks off, somewhere between uncertainty and embarrassment. He points at Jeremy instead. "You know, man. You know." Jeremy scoffs a little and rolls his eyes, but it's more like Jeremy, as he crushes out his cigarette on the sill. Most folks, they'd probably toss the butt out into the grass, but Jeremy tucks it back in the pack, a little too much his father's child to ever be so careless, for as sloppy as he can be about so many other things. "Where's Jensen?" It's another feint, a distraction. "Talking with Misha." "Misha doesn't talk, Jeff." "Jensen apparently knows sign." "Of course he does." Jeremy laughs. "Christ, of course he does." Jeremy shakes his head and sighs, putting both feet on the floor again. "Soare we okay?" Jeff pushes to his feet and offers Jeremy his hand. There's a hesitation and a momentary look in Jeremy's eyesbut he takes Jeff's fingers and let's Jeff pull him up. Jeff tugs him a half-step more into a one-armed hug. Jeremy's all elbows at first, before he softens enough to give a brief squeeze-and-pat in return. Jeff's not one to give up that easy, though. When Jeremy shifts his shoulders back, Jeff wraps both arms around him, keeping Jeremy from pulling away. Jeremy makes an impatient noise and tries to elbow away again, but Jeff doesn't let him, squeezing tighter, turning his mouth against the soft, hot skin next to Jeremy's ear. "Don't." Jeremy shudders once, hard, and then, grudgingly, he brings up his arms to hug Jeff back. "You're such an ginormous asshole," he mumbles into Jeff's shoulder, clinching tighter, fitting himself against Jeff like they haven't done in years. "Yeah," Jeff agrees, without heat. "I am. Takes one to know one." He doesn't really want to let go, but he finally pushes Jeremy back, gives them both some needed breathing room. "C'mon. Let's get out of here. Put some damned clothes on." "So what's going on with your mother?" Jeremy asks as he legs into his pants. "Z said something about a meeting?" Jeff sighs. "Yeah. Yeah, she wants me to get married, spawn some sprogs." "I don't know which part of that is more frightening." Jeremy picks up a shirt from the floor and shrugs into it, one that Jeff knows he's seen on Zach before.

"Tell me about it." Jeff scratches his cheek, the weight of all the stuff waiting for him outside this room coming to rest squarely in the knot between his shoulder blades. "She's got someone in mind, I'm guessing?" "Oh, she has several candidates in mind to receive the sacred Morgan seed, none of whom are old enough to be out after curfew." "Charming. Still, as I recall, you kind of like young meat." Despite how drawn his face still looks, Jeremy's grin is wicked. Jeff knows Jeremy's kidding, but it hits too close to where he's already raw and bleeding. Jeremy's smile dims and his eyes narrow. "Jensen?" "Eh." Jeff shrugs. "I don't know. It's more me than anything." "It's not me, it's you?" Jeremy snorts. "This sounds like the start of a bad break-up. Didn't we already have one of those?" Jeff blinks, distracted from his original train of thought. "We never broke up. We weren'twe were never" Jeremy raises his eyebrows and Jeff rethinks whatever it was he was groping toward. "We just went our separate ways, that's all." Jeremy's eyes widen and he gives a little a-ha nod. "Wow. Way to employ some revisionist history there, bro." "Jeremy" Jeremy spreads his hands. "No. It'sit's all ancient history, right?" He rakes both hands through his hair like he's shaking out dandruffor maybe just Jeff. It stings. More than Jeff would have even guessed. "It's all just" A shake of his head and a shrug. "It doesn't matter any more. You and I don't matter anymore. Not like that." "Jer" Jeff tries again. "No." Jeremy tucks his hands into his pockets and hunches his shoulders in his normal, lazy slouch. His mouth is tight, but there's a smile on it and Jeff wants to believe it's real. "It's cool, Jeff. It is what it is and we are what we are." Jeremy sighs, scuffs the floorboards with his bare toe. "I clearly need some kind of clean slate anyway." "What about Marisa? She's okay, right? I hadn't heard?" Jeremy's mouth quirks, struggling to keep the smile. "Marisa's fine. Or. She'll be fine. Be even better when she gets a little further away from me. She's going to be my Agent. I'm keeping Misha." "Jer." Jeff reaches for him, only to have Jeremy shoulder him off and move a couple steps away, hands held up in warding. "Don't, okay?" Jeremy's voice deepens, splinters a little. "I don't want

your pity. I can't Don't give me pity." "It's not pity" Jeff protests, but Jeremy's not listening, wrenching open the bedroom door hard enough that the knob rattles a protest. Jeff follows him to the kitchen, not sure if he's fixed things or made them worse than they were before. "So you sold me out, huh?" Jeremy demands, though there's more teasing in his tone than not. "Zach just put Ryzer down," Wendy says tiredly, obscured by Jeremy's back. "Indoor voices, please. And we didn't 'sell you out'. We're worried about you. You want some tea?" Jeremy shrugs and moves further into the kitchen. "Yeah, sure, why not?" "Jeff?" Wendy leans out from behind Jeremy to look at him. Her expression is bland and Jeff can't tell if he's imagining the question in her eyes or not. He leans against the doorjamb and gives a shrug of his own. "Nah. It's late and I should probably get back to stately Wayne Manor." "Yeah, stay gone too long and your mom might call the cops." Jeremy glances over his shoulder at Jeff, eyeballs him up and down. "You know, that might be funny if it wasn't scarily possible," Jeff answers and Jeremy cracks a grin. It gives Jeff a flicker of hope that he and Jeremy really are okay and he hates to spoil it. "Where's Jensen?" "Last I checked, still talking with Misha." Wendy stands up, smoothing down one leg of her jeans like it's a skirt. "Well on their way to being BFF. If that's okay with you?" The spiteful, teasing quirk of Wendy's mouth takes the bite out of the words. "Sure." Jeff fumbles, at a loss for a witty comeback. "Why wouldn't it be okay with me?" "Oh, come on." Jeremy slinks up and wraps his arm around Jeff's neck, dragging his head close so Jeremy can run his tongue along the rim of Jeff's ear, something that never fails to get him hot. "You've always been kind of toppy, Jeff." "Hmm. I would've said possessive," Wendy opines, stroking her chin wisely with her eyes narrowed in thought, "but toppy will do." Jeff laughs, despite the sliver of unease he feels underneath it. "Both of you can go straight to hell." "You know, I hate to be the bearer ofwell, weird tidings, all things considered," Zach interrupts, his voice pitched strangely low, "considering I'm only a lowly slave and all" Jeff chokes, Wendy snorts and they all turn around to look at him. There's an expression of glee in Zach's pale eyes, the way he looks when he's got some humdinger of a song or prank rattling around his head.

"but I thought the two of you might want to know that your body-slaves are making out. In myexcuse me, hon, ourliving room. As I speak." Then, not getting the reaction he wantsor, any reaction, really, the three of them struck as dumb as MishaZach makes a vague salaam with his arms. "That means now, for those of you who don't speak English."

Chapter 62
"No, not like that," Jensen says. He sits back on the couch and wipes the wetness from his mouth with the back of his hand. Misha opens his very blue eyes and sits back, too, looking at Jensen expectantly. "You have to read the kiss," Jensen explains. "When someone kisses you You can tell somethingsomething about what they want, or what they needfrom how they kiss you." Misha tilts his head consideringly and traces a question mark with his forefinger. Then he jerks his chin toward the back of the house, spelling out, Jeff? The memory of Jeff's kisses, how Jeff kisses him, that desperate, delicious hunger that colors every one of them, is never far from Jensen's mind. Just thinking about it now, the sense-memory crashing back into him makes Jensen shudder lightly, cold, sweet tingles. Misha is watching Jensen's face with such narrow intensity; even that much feels like voyeurism, not that Jensen's unfamiliar with putting on a show. With Jeff it feels different though, more private. Jensen wonders if this is a mistake, trying to help Misha, instruct him. At the same time, he remembers those first few weeks of incomprehension, not understanding what he'd been sold into, and Jeff's chagrin that Jensen was so slow to catch on. It seems like something Jeff would approve of, helping out. Especially if it will help Jeremy. "Jeff," Jensen sighs, trying to figure out what, exactly, to say. What that won't betray secrets that Jensen isn't sure Misha is privy to, or things that Misha has no business knowing about Jeff or him and Jeff. "They're all very lonely," he says finally, a generalization that Jensen thinks he can salve his conscience with. "Theythey want so much, but they don't won'tlet themselves have it. And they're all really stubborn about it. So. I don't know what your previous owners" Owner, Misha corrects, making the sign for master and then holding up a single finger. Jensen nods. "Okay, I don't know what he was like, but with Jeremy you're going to need a lot of initiative. Jeremy's probably not going to make the first move." Misha's eyebrows arch and he traces another question in the air. Jensen shrugs. "He probably won't have sex with you at all." It occurs to him tardily that maybe that's what Misha, like Kane, or Mary-Louise, wants. It's still a weird concept, reeking of bad slave, but Jensen can't deny that it does happen. "I mean, if that's what you want, then no big deal"

Misha spreads his hands helplessly and then gestures at himself, frustration in his expression. "Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I was assuming because you asked. I guess you should figure it out?" Jensen says doubtfully. Misha's lips purse up a little in thought. They look dry and they felt slightly chapped and Jensen wonders if it's in the bounds of politeness to recommend a lip balm, because, really, it's a body-slave's obligation to look his best and no suit in the world, no matter how finely cut, is going to hide chapped lips. This is all so new to him, trying to pass on advice, to instruct as he was instructed. So much of what he does has become wordless, instinctive, and he's never had the proximity or closeness with other body-slaves to need to share this way. It feels awkward, because of its foreignness, but Jensen actually kind of likes it, being able to help. Maybe keep Misha from being as confused as he was. What does Jeremy need? Jensen blinks and considers the question. He doesn't know Jeremy that well. Clearly doesn't know him as well as he ought, considering how wound-up Jeff is about this whole thing. But all Jensen's attention has been taken up by Jeff, trying to unravel that mystery; it's hard for him to really put his finger on the pulse of anyone else around them. "I think" Jensen breaks off, thinks some more and then starts again. "I think Jeremy's looking for something. He and Jeffthere was something there. Something that's not totally over, I think and Jeff Jeff's a top who's afraid of being a top." Misha's eyebrows wrinkle again in confusion and Jensen shakes himself, reminding himself who he's talking to. "A top, he It's like a really good master," Jensen explains. "He owns you, he takes care of you, he gives you what you need and you give him what he needs, which is to own you." Though Jensen hasn't really used sign at all in years, and though he doesn't have to sign, because Misha hears perfectly well, he finds his hands making the crook-fingered control sign. "All Jeff's friendsand his slaveshe needs them and they help him and they all work together and hang out together and he'd be totally lost without thembut they need him, too. Jeff is the center." Jensen feels a little thrill of pride that it's so, that Jeff is his master. "And Jeremyhe used to take care of Marisa, too. He loves her and he needs her, but she wasn't strong enough for him. Jeremy. I think he needs someone stronger." Jensen thinks about the last concrete memory he has of Jeremy, lying on the floor with Wendy and Zach and being petted. "Jeremy takes care of people and he needs someone he doesn't have to take care of. You know? Someone" Jensen sighs, convinced he's not explaining this right at all. "Jeff. Sometimes I think he needs someone to hurt. Someone who likes it, who won't befucked up by the fact that Jeff needs that. And he needs someone to justlove him. And I can do that. And I think maybe Jeremy needs the same thing."

Misha looks doubtful and flattens his hand to his chest. Me? Jensen shrugs. "I don't know. Not if you don't learn how to be a better kisser." Misha snorts a quiet laugh, lips turning up in a shy grin as he nods. Then he makes a bring it on gesture with both hands. "Okay. Don't try to control the kiss this time. Don't put yourself forward so much. Just I'm going to kiss you and then I want you to tell me what you felt from it. That's all you're supposed to do. Just feel. Okay?" Misha looks doubtful, but he nods slowly. Jensen curls the fingers of one hand around the nape of Misha's neck and, with the other, angles Misha's face. Misha closes his eyes. "No," Jensen corrects. "Don't close your eyes until just before your lips meet. You want to keep looking at them right until the last moment. Like you can't take your eyes off of them." Misha makes a short nod, constrained by Jensen's hands prisoning his face. Jensen leans in again. It feels weird to try and replicate Jeff's kisses from the other side, to try and mimic all those tightly controlled emotions that back it. Still, he feels some measure of success in the way Misha gradually relaxes into the kiss, tension leaching out of his jaw, down his shoulders, until he's slowly melting into Jensen. There's still a little too much lip and tongue action, but it's the best one yet. "Yeah, I'm sorry, am I supposed to be mad?" Jeremy's resonant voice makes both Jensen and Misha jerk and the awareness that they suddenly have an audience pulls them apart. There's no particular anger in Jeremy's voice, but Jensen's heart picks up speed nonetheless. "Because that's just" "Hot." Jeff finishes the sentence, the raw hoarseness of his tone making Jensen flush, warm and dizzying. He twists around on the couch to look and sees nothing in Jeff's face but the same blatant want that colors his voice. Jensen wants to stretch and preen under that regard, cat in heat, as a deeper, slower burn rolling through him. "Yeah," Jeremy agrees, looking at them with the same hot brightness as Jeff. "I was just" Jensen's tongue stumbles over the words, clumsy and thick. It's not the first time he's been ogled by one of his master's friends or even many of his master's friendsbut he's never been able to get over his blushing reaction to it, or act more poised. Lord Crowe had told him that was part of his appeal. "Sucking face?" Zach offers brightly. That stings through the pleasure. "Pointers." Jensen untwists himself and gets up from the couch, Misha a beat behind him. "I was giving him pointers."

"I'm getting a pointer right now," Jeremy mutters. "Oh, I knew it was something stupid." Wendy rolls her eyes and whaps Zach hard on the shoulder before she heads back toward the kitchen. Misha brushes awkwardly past Jensen to kneel at Jeremy's feet. It's my fault, he signs, answering the question of whether Jeremy knows sign language. Misha's damaged leg makes his posture just slightly off-kilter, but he knelt gracefully enough. Jensen wonders how much it inhibits his range of motion and whether it would be a problem during sex. Typically, Jeremy just looks embarrassed, catching Misha's wrist and trying to lift him back to his feet. "Hey, look, no" "Jensen," Jeff calls, snapping Jensen's attention back. "We should go." "I'm sorry," Jensen says quietly, going to Jeff's side. "I wanted to be helpful." Jeff reaches to brush his thumb across Jensen's lower lip, eyes darkening when Jensen instinctively closes his mouth around the tip. "It's fine," Jeff says, without lifting his gaze from Jensen's lips. "I'm not mad." Jeff brushes his knuckles along Jensen's cheek. "I'm not mad," he says again, quietly. There's nothing in Jeff's body language to contradict Jeff's words, but Jeff's definitely feeling something as they make their goodbyes, his hand cemented to the small of Jensen's back, their hips nudging together because Jeff won't allow more than a couple inches space between them. Jensen can think of a million and one reasons why going to his knees for Jeff right here would be a bad idea, but he's got high hopes for once they get out to the car. Jeff seems determined to thwart them all, though, seeming preoccupied all over again as they pull out from the curb and thread through the side streets back to the freeway. Jeff does cover Jensen's hand with his own, though, thumb stroking Jensen's wrist with absentminded fondness. Jensen doesn't know if he's supposed to leave Jeff to his thoughts or distract him from them, still twitchy with guilt about the interlude with Misha. "Did you know Misha's a virgin?" Jensen asks, still more than a little amazed by that particular revelation. "He's older than I am." Though Jensen doesn't expect Jeff does know, he would've never predicted the violence of Jeff's reaction as the car jerks sideways into the next lane of traffic, to a chorus of angry horns. "Fu-uck," Jeff mutters, hastily righting the car, in between glances at Jensen. "How do you know that? He Did Misha tell you that? Does Jeremy know that?" Jensen shrugs. "I don't know, Misha didn't say. I don't think he knows." Jeff lets out a high, almost nervous giggle that makes Jensen smile, in response, even though he's not sure what's funny about it. That giggle is followed swiftly by another and then another, scaling up into Jeff's

strangely atonal laugh. Jeff's laughing jag lasts a long time and Jensen's glad he could do at least that much. "Thank you again for coming out with me," Jeff says, when he finally stops chuckling. He threads his fingers through Jensen's again. "I know " he says, when Jensen opens his mouth to protest, "you're glad to go wherever I do. I just meant I'm glad you came with me." With anyone else, Jensen would say something like, I'm happy to serve your pleasure, Master, but those aren't the kinds of words Jeff wants him to say. Problem is, Jensen still doesn't know what to put in their place. "You have therapy tomorrow, right?" Jeff asks, sparing Jensen from having to come up with any response. "Yes." Jensen doesn't know if he's looking forward to therapy, exactly, but a part of him is looking forward to seeing Cate and to sitting in her peaceful little kingdom for a while. He's missed a couple visits already, thanks to Madame Morgan, but Jeff thinks it's safe enough for Jensen to go this week. "Am I a good body-slave?" Jensen asks, the question erupting up before he can reconsider it. Jeff looks startled, eyeing Jensen sidelong. "Jensenyouyou're amazing. Why would you even ask that?" Jensen shakes his head. "I don't know. I just Are you happy with me?" Jeff's frown deepens and Jensen regrets he ever brought the subject up. "Of course I am. I'm very happy. Where is this coming from?" Jensen shakes his head again, shrugging. "Nowhere. It's nothing," he avers, unsure how to articulate what he means or if it's even smart to do so. "It's nothing." Jeff looks doubtful but he doesn't press the point, for which Jensen is grateful. Jensen twists his hand around in Jeff's so they're palm to palm and brings Jeff's fingers up to his mouth, a soft, wet kiss. Jeff smiles and Jensen does, too.

Chapter 63
"So. What have you been thinking about this week, Jensen?" Cate finishes silencing her office phone and then takes her usual perch on the couch, given Jensen time to think about his answer. "I've been thinking about Jeremy, actually." "Jeff's Jeremy?" Cate asks, eyes widening in mild surprise. She scratches behind her ear, idly before knocking her knuckles lightly against her lips. "What about him?" Jeff's Jeremy, Jensen thinks, filing the words for later consideration. "He's your patient, isn't he?" Jensen glances up through his eyelashes, going for disingenuous, an expression that generally works well on his pretty face. He's either out of practice or Cate's wise to him, though, given the way her mouth curves sideways in a smile. "If he was, I couldn't discuss it with you." "Because of confidentiality." "Yes." Cate nods. "But you know Jeremy." "Of course I do. You've seen us at Jeff's together." "Will you tell me about him?" Cate shakes her head. "I can't do that." "Because he's your patient?" "Because I don't gossip about my friends or my patients," Cate answers, but, despite the rebuke, she doesn't sound angry, only amused, smile widening. She considers him for a moment, head tilted. "What's brought on this sudden interest in Jeremy?" "He's important to Jeff." "And what does that mean?" Jensen shrugs. "It means he's important to Jeff. It means he's important." He spreads his hands, unable to explain any better than that, an answer so obvious as to be unexplainable. "He's important to you?" Jensen hesitates, mulling the question. "I don't know," he answers finally. "I don't know what Jeremy means." Cate nods slowly, her gaze fixed sideways with thought. "What do you

think Jeremy means?" "I didn't think Jeremy meant anything," Jensen says, unable to entirely keep the taint of bitterness out of his voice. He blinks up at Cate. "No more than any of Jeff's other friends, anyway." "And now?" Jensen turns his glass around in his hands. The tea today is claret red, fruity and tart. Jensen takes a sip, rolling it around on his tongue. "I don't know," he says finally, when the last traces of the tea have slid from his tongue. "I thought" The inside of his throat feels stiff and thick, as if he's coming down with something. He hopes that's not true; there couldn't be a worse time for him to not be well. "You thought?" Cate prompts. Jensen doesn't know how to follow that train of thought to its end, so he tries another tack. "Jeff is my master. I'm supposed toto know things. To understand. How can I do my job?" Jensen's mouth is dry. He drinks more of the tea, sweet fruit cutting through bitterness. "I know that Jeff hada whole life before he bought me," Jensen says slowly, controlling his voice with a steel hand. "I don't expect him to tell me all his privy secrets or to spill his life open for a slave to pick through. I just I want to understand." "I think that's what we all want, Jensen." Jensen nods, the gesture jerky despite his best intentions. "Jeff" No; wrong way again, not leading to what he really wants to say. Jensen sets his glass down on the coaster and wipes his palms along his trousers, breathing in slow, regular breaths. "I should have known," Jensen says, in the light, tuneless voice he uses when he needs some distance from his emotions. "I knewsawthat he held Jeremy away from him, that there was a distance there. And" He spreads his hands. "I drew the wrong conclusions. I failed to understand my master. Again." "So you're angry with yourself?" "Yes!" Jensen says immediately. Then, "No. Anger is I'm not angry, I just. I should be better. I need to be better." Cate shakes her head. "Better than what, Jensen? Better than who?" "Better than this." Jensen waves a hand at himself. "I'm not stupid, I know I'm not stupid, I don't understand why I can't manage to be a better slave to him. I don't He deserves better than what I give him. He deserves the best." Cate twines a strand of her hair around her fingers. "Because he's your master?" Jensen shakes his head. "No, just. Because he needs someone. Jeffhe gives so much and he tries so hard and they don't see him."

"What don't they see?" Though the question is quietly asked, it draws Jensen up short anyway, suddenly anxious that he's overstepping his bounds. Cate is extremely easy to talk to and the months of chattering onward for her pleasure are clearly taking their toll. And yet. And yet "Jensen?" "Jeff needs somebody," Jensen repeats, feeling it out like a groping foot across thin and cracking ice. "He needs somebody for him." Jensen wrings his hands together, needing the solidity of bone on bone, the grounding of his flesh, his only constant. "You asked me" Breathe. Breathe. "A while ago, you asked me to think aboutabout what I wanted. And I've been thinking about it; ever since then, I've been thinking. "I'm a body-slave. Andit's what I am. It's what I know, what It's part of me. And Jeffhe's always going to need some body-slave, so I was thinking" Despite his self-admonition, Jensen's lungs feel tight, stressed, locked-up. "I was thinking that I'd like for it to be me." "But you're already his body-slave," Cate objects. "Yes, butwhat if I could stay his body-slave. For good?" Jensen scoots to the edge of the chair, apprehension at his own daring and a razorflicker of excitement going neck and neck. "Jeff wants people to do stuff they're good at, stuff they like doing. And he's always having to get new body-slaves because no one wants to do it. They all want to do something else. They're all glad he lets them go. But I I like it, and I like being Jeff's slave and I don't have anything else I want to do. And hehe needs somebody. And I could be that somebody, I think, maybe. If you help me. "Will you do that?" He doesn't kneelalthough he wants tobut Jensen does let himself go so far as to catch Cate's wrist in his fingers, the closest he can decently come to supplication. "I want Can you show me what I have to do, what I need to be, for Jeff to keep me? Because because that's what I really want. And I thinkI think it could be good. I think I could be good, I mean. For him. Will you help me?" "Jensen. Jensen, I" Jensen can't tell if the expression on Cate's face is because she's taken aback or because he's finally gone too far and stepped over even her liberal lines. Cate puts her free hand over his, takes and lets out a deep breath and shakes her head slightly, like she's rattling something loose. "If that's what you want, Jensen, then, of course I'll help youthough I'm not sure what magic powers you think I have in that direction. I'm not your fairy godmother, to wave my wand and give you your dream." "No, but you know Jeff. You understand him."

Cate's lips pull askew in familiar wryness. "Well. I don't know that anyone understands Jeff." Her fingers tighten over him. "I think your insights into Jeff are as good as any I'd come up with on my own. You observe him very closely and in far moreahem" Faint pink colors Cate's cheeks, her mouth pinching up more in rueful amusement, "intimate circumstances than I do. Or have." Jensen shakes his head. "You understand the parts I don't. I wouldn't I wouldn't even have this much, if you hadn't helped me." "Jensen, I haven't done anything. Everything you have right now, you got on your own. Through your own effort, your own ingenuity, your own appeal." "But is it enough?" Feeling a little embarrassed by his own earnestness, Jensen releases Cate's hand and settles his weight back in the chair. Cate draws back as well, tucking her feet up on the couch. "Is this about Jeremy?" Cate asks, eyes narrowed a little as she looks at him. "Are you wconcerned that Jeff cares moreor will care more about Jeremy than he does you?" "Jeremy's a free man," Jensen answers slowly, not sure where this nonsequitur is coming from or what Cate is heading toward with it. "And yet, when you saw Jeff having sex with Ever" Oh. That. Embarrassment flicks him like a whip and not nearly as enjoyable. "I behaved poorly," Jensen admits. "I was inappropriately emotional." He chews his lip thoughtfully. "Inappropriately possessive. Jeff was a lot kinder to me than I deserved." He looks up at Cate again, meeting her clear gaze. "Which only proves my pointJeff should have a slave who understands what a gift his kindness is. Who doesn't take it for granted." "And you think Jeff's other slaves do take it for granted?" Jensen shrugs. "I think it's easy to take kindness from others and not think about what it costs the giver. And I think thatsurrounded by enough kindness, I think it's easy to forget how easy it is to not be kind, or to not be kind in return." "Hmm." Cate's knuckles strokes across her lip again, a general indication that Jensen's said something that she finds particularly interesting. "That's aninteresting observation. What do you think it costs Jeff to be kind?" "Jeff, he" Jensen breaks off, his feelings and thoughts scattered piecemeal around him, things he's known at an instinctive level and hasn't tried to articulate before now. They seem obvious, but if they were all that obvious, then surely someone would've put themselves in Jeff's path before now. "He wants Jeremy. I thinkI think he loves him. But hethere's that distance there. And. And, with me. It's a little bit the same thing. I meanit's not, of course, because I'm a slave, but"

Cate waves her hand. "Yes, Jensen, I get it. Do go on." Jensen has to remind himself to breathe again. "Jeff wants toto fuck me, to make me his. But he thinks it's bad, that it makes him bad, to even want it. He wants to be kind, but he's afraid he won't be, if he gets what he wants. So he won't take me and he holds Jeremy away from him. But he needs that. Lord Cruise said to metaught methat we need love. And masters especially, which is why they have body-slaves. To love them." For once, Cate's face doesn't assume the stiff, blank expression she gets when he talks about Lord Cruise; she only looks interested. Jensen takes that as a good sign and plunges on. "Nobody loves Jeff. Or. They love him, but it's far away. They're far away. And they all want something. The slaves, at least. They want to be free, they want to be free of Jeff, ofof their own slaveness." Jensen shakes his head. "I know that's not a word, but Everyone wants something from him. He needs someone who just wants him." "And you do?" "He's my master. He's a good master and a good man. Who wouldn't want that? What slave wouldn't want that?" "But does Jensen want that?" "I don't understand the question." "You said, 'What slave wouldn't want that?' But did you say it because that's what a slave should want or did you say it because that's what you want?" Jensen opens his mouth and Cate holds up a stilling finger. "Remember, my original question was for you to think about what you want. And while you are a slave, you're still Jensen, too. So while what Jensen wants is also, by definition, the want of a slave, it's possible for 'a slave' to want something that Jensen the slave would not want. You follow?" Jensen thinks that one through and nods slowly. "People mistake kindness for weakness. I took Jeff's kindness for weakness. I think I'm a good slave, I try hard to be a great slave, butI'm not always." It hurts to admit that, a sharp, needling pain in his chest, even as he has to acknowledge the truth of it. "I want I want to be that person for Jeff. I want to be his person. I would feel goodproudif I could do that, be that. If he would let me be his body-slave forever." Cate blinks and sits back slightly. She opens her mouth, but no words come out. She clears her throat. "Okay," she says, only a slight croak to her voice, quickly evening out. "So now we have a goal that you want to work toward. Let's talk about how you might go about accomplishing your goal."

Chapter 64
"Jeffrey, a moment." Jeffrey, now. Jeff bites back whatever smartass remark was bubbling up to his lips and stops in the doorway of his office, which his mother has taken over as her command center. Or spider's lair, depending on which metaphor you want to go with. "Sure, Mom, what's up?" His mother grimaces slightly, but doesn't follow it up with a rebuke, waving him into the room. "Come in, please. And shut the door?" Ah. All the fun of a trip to the principal's office combined with my mom's saw-blade personality. Perfect. Christ, what did I do now? Jeff plops down in one of the armchairs on the wrong side of the desk, slouching and sprawling like he never left those teenage years behind. "That sounds ominous. Are you trying to scare me?" His mother frowns. "Do you have to be so frivolous? I'm far too old for these kinds of games, even if you insist on them. I'd like it if we could have one serious conversation." Jeff digs in his heels and pushes himself more upright. "Fine." He doesn't mean to sound short but he can tell that she takes it that way by the way her whole face stiffens, prevented from a deeper frown by her beauty regime. "Fine," she answers curtly. "This won't take long. I want you to buy your brother a new body-slave." "Javier?" Expecting another tirade about his single state, the unsatisfactory means by which he lives his life or nearly anything else, the change of tack to Javier is disorienting. "You have another brother I don't know of?" His mother raises an eyebrow, her jokes clearly exempted from the serious conversation rule. "Yes, Javier." Despite his resolution to stay even-tempered through this, irritation licks through Jeff, hot and prickly. "Javier has his own job and income. Let him buy his own body-slaves." His mother scoffs and rolls her eyes. "You know as well as I do that Javier's salary is insufficient to purchase his own slaves. Don't be obtuse." "I'm not being obtuse. What I am is tired of spending family resources to keep Javier in slaves, only for him to sell them off whenever he needs pocket money. Or to pay off his gambling debts." "Darling." And now I'm back to being Darling. "That's what family does," Jeff's mother explains, as if to a slow child.

"They provide for each other. Javier's appearance in the world is a reflection on us, as a family. And he can hardly keep going around with that boy trailing along behind him like a Dickens' waif." Jeff pinches the bridge of his nose. "First of all, Joe isn't a child, he's twenty-seven and" Jeff sighs. "Never mind. What's wrong with Joe, exactly? Not that I'd for a second consider letting Javier keep him." His mother sighs, puttering fussily with the things on his desk, straightening them at precise anglesor really, re-straightening them, because Jensen keeps the room ridiculously tidy already. "You know what I mean. It's not appropriate, a boy." Jeff does know and his head breaks land speed records for acquiring a headache, his teeth clenching tight behind his lips. It's an old argument, and at least some small part of the reason why he fled the familial manse at the ripe old age of seventeen, suffocating beneath the weight of an endless parade of body-slaves all picked out by his grandfather without consultation. It wasn't the fault of any of the girls purchased for himand they'd all been girls: young and tiny, raised like little hothouse flowersit was what they represented, the message encoded in each of their soft bodies. And the damnable thing is, Jeff knows it's hopeless. The Morgans' heteronormativity is as hard-encoded as a genetic trait and nothing he says is going to change his motheror anyone else'mind. Wisdom and experience can't stop him from pointing out: "You know, Mother, I've had any number of male body-slaves and Western society still seems to be intact." The moue of distaste that puckers his mother's lips is familiar as the argument itself; not a distaste that she's willing to at all express verbally, mind, but that comes through loud and clear, nonetheless. "Be that as it may," she says stiffly, "Javier is not a Morgan. He doesn't have your strength. He cannot get away with the same peccadilloes as a true son and he cannot be seen aseccentric in any way." Eccentric. Jeff runs his tongue across the edge of his teeth, fighting down the urge to laugh. "The point is, it reflects badly on all of us to have your brother running around unattended. And, as you've already said you're not willing to part with your boy, Joe, I don't see any problem with acquiring a newmore appropriatebody-slave for him." His mother spreads her hands reasonably. "Mother" The shrilling of his phone startles him, making him jump slightly. He fishes the cell out of his pocket and squints at the display. It's Cate. His pulse jumps in reflexive worry and he's on his feet before he's really aware of moving. "I have to take this," he apologizes, scooting out the door before his mother can make any protest. "You have no idea how much I love you right now," Jeff says, after cutting

through the great room and out onto the verandah. "What's up? Is Jensen okay?" "Jensen's fine," Cate answers. "I, on the other hand, have what may be the worst headache of my young life." "You're not that young," Jeff teases. "Bastard. You should be kissing my arse, not maligning my age. I swear, Jensen's going to be the death of me." "That good, hmm?" Jeff turns around and sees Crispin watching him from behind the glass patio doors. Jeff turns his back on the slave and walks down the verandah steps, hunkering down on the last one. "Is this something I need to worry about or is everything really okay?" "No," Cate says, though she sounds a little doubtful. "No, everything today was" She takes a breath, voice steadying. "It was brilliant, actually. A real breakthrough. Jensen, he" Cate laughs, a brief, delighted sound that eases a tightness in Jeff's chest that Jeff wasn't entirely aware of until it twangs loose. "I wish you could've seen him, Jeff. It was amazing. He was self-aware, actualized, hehe articulated his own wants, his own desires" Cate laughs again, even headier than before. "It was amazing." "And yet you still plead a headache." "Oh, well. Let's not kid ourselves. Jensen still has some of the most appalling, appallingly dogged logic I've yet encountered. But that doesn't make it any less of a breakthrough." "So what does this mean?" "To be honest, I'm not entirely sure yet. I don't This isn't therapy the Psychiatric Association would approve of." She sighs, less buoyant than previous. "Jensen issomething else." "That he is," Jeff agrees, wholeheartedly. "Jeff" Cate hesitates. "Where are you and Jensen?" "Isn't that something you should be asking him?" "I'm asking you. I'm asking about you. What kind of future are you envisioning for the two of you?" Jeff's mouth jags a little in surprise. "I, uh. I don't know. I hadn't really thought that far ahead. Why? Did Jensen say something to you? What does he want? Does he want to be passed on, as my body-slave?" The tightness comes back to Jeff's chest with a vengeance, along with rumbling queasiness, so fast Jeff doesn't know what to do with it. "I'm not asking about Jensen. Forget about Jensen what Jensen wants for a moment. What do you want?" Jeff sighs. "Have I mentioned how much I really hate it when you play

Cryptic Shrink with me?" "Yes, and clearly, I don't give a damn. Answer the question." "Look, I know the way this goes." Jeff leans back, planting the elbow of the hand not holding the phone on the stairs behind him. "At some point, Jensen is going to realize that there are more opportunities available to him than waiting on some middle-aged man. And I" Jeff clears his throat roughly. "I will be supportive and happy for him, whatever it is." "That's very noble of you, darling." "Well, thank you," Jeff says sourly, hearing the not-very-well buried sarcasm in Cate's tone. "Still doesn't answer the question, though." "Funny, I thought it did." "I didn't ask you what you'll do, Jeff. I asked you what you want." Jeff sighs, tilting his neck back to relieve the knot sitting right at the base. "Is this a test? Some kind of verbal Rorschach? I don't know what I want. I never know what I want. I try not to think too much about it, because what's the point anyway, you know? I know Jensen's going to break my heart some day, all right? I know he's going to go on to bigger and greater things andand that's great. I'll be happy for him. But don't ask me to dwell on the fucking fact. All right? Just Let me have my happy denial for a while, okay?" Jeff's elbow grits across the concrete and he realizes he's halfway to shouting at Cate. "I need my fucking denial," Jeff says, softer, putting a stranglehold on whatever it is clanging around in his chest and doing his best to club it into submission. "All right?" "Yeah, Jeff. All right," Cate agrees, sounding subdued. "Butand I'm saying this as your friend, and not Cate-the-shrinkyou could stand to take a page from Jensen's book and allow yourself to consider a future where you're happy, too." Jeff makes a noise in his throat, unable to entirely tell if he's being skeptical or not. Sure tastes bitter, either way, like metal in his throat. "It's not outside the realm of possibility, you know." Jeff sighs. "Cate, I have a long and storied history of impossible relationships. I can't seem to stop it from happening, but give me a little credit for knowing that much about myself." "Jeff" Cate's sigh sounds a lot more strangled than Jeff's. "Have you ever considered that not all of your relationships are as impossible as you like to believe they are? That the only thing that makes them impossible is your insistence that they are?" "So it's all in my head?" Another volcanic spurt of irritation. "It's my imagination that Jensen's a slave, then, or that Mary-Louise hates my

guts or that Jer" Jeff breaks off, breathing harder than he has any right to. "Jeremy?" Cate fills in, with typical prescience. "I thought we were talking about Jensen," Jeff growls. He pushes himself off the step, too churned up to sit still. A glance back at the house shows him Crispin still standing sentry just inside the doors, doubtless dispatched to transmit more of his mother's words of wisdom. Rolling his eyes, Jeff ambles vaguely in the direction of the kennels. Bisou will be glad to see him, at least; the least tangled of all Jeff's relationships. "Actually, we're talking about you, dearest." "Well, can we stop?" "Yeah, Jeff. We can stop." "You want to come to dinner?" he offers, wanting to show no hard feelings. "Dinner with your mother?" Cate's voice wavers with suppressed laughter. "Tempting as that sounds, I think I'll have to pass. Maybe I'll let you take me out later this week, instead. You can tell her you're interviewing me for my wife potential." "Fuck you very much," Jeff replies without heat. "All right, yeah. I'll probably need to get out of here for a while to keep from killing her anyway. I'll ask Jensen to look at my schedule when he gets home." "You'll ask Jensen?" Cate teases. "Too important to keep your own schedule anymore, big man?" Jeff laughs. "I tried, but once Jensen organized everything Let's just say he prefers to keep the schedule himself." "Uh-oh. Someone got in trouble" "He password protected the calendar!" Jeff says, outraged all over again. "I tried to schedule one meeting" Cate's laughing too hard to manage a reply. Jeff sighs. "Goodbye, Cate. I hope you choke." She manages to choke out a, "Love you too," before the line clicks closed. Jeff's about to tuck the phone back in his pants when it shrills again. He's more-than-half expecting it to be his mother, but he doesn't recognize the number. "Hello?" "Jeff?" The voice on the other line is female, light and friendly. "Jeff Morgan?" "This is he." The way she says his name makes Jeff think he should recognize her voice, but he has a much harder distinguishing one voice

from another over cell phones than he does in person and so there's nothing but a blank. "Oh. Hi! This is Anne Hathaway. How are you?" Jeff stumbles over his own feet in the grass and lets out a startled yelp, nearly losing the phone before he recovers. "Jeff? Are you okay?" "What? Oh. Yeah, I'm fine. Sorry about that. Tripped over my own feet." "Well, it's nice to know I haven't lost my indefinable allure," Anne says, the smile evident in her tone. "And over the phone, no less." "I'm happy to give you the creditor the blameif it means I don't have to face up to my own clumsiness," Jeff answers, grinning himself. "What can I do for you, Lady Hathaway?" "Anne, please. Unless you want me to start 'sirring' you." "Anne it is." She laughs. Like Cate's laugh, it's a genuinely happy sound, unmoderated for anyone else's hearing. "You're easy." "Oh, honey, you have no id" Jeff manages to cut himself off before he gets any further than that, but it's already too late, from the way Anne crows in his ear. "Heh. Sorry. Reflexive response." "No, it's fine," she assures him. "This way, I'm not the only one embarrassed when I ask you out." "Well, you know, I've got several more years of embarrassing myself under my belt" Jeff's ears take their time in catching up to his mouth. "Wait.what?" "Oh, God." Anne's voice gets muffled, as if she's covering her face. It's not hard for him to picture that. "I knew this would be awkward." "No," Jeff says faintly. "It's notawkward." Smooth, Morgan. "Just unexpected. After that travesty of lunch" "Ah, now that was awkward," Anne agrees. "Yeah, this offer definitely does not include your mother, no offense." "None taken." After running away from his own mother, Jeff can hardly argue the point. "I. I guess I'll have Jensen take a look at my schedule and see what we can come up with. You know, if you're sure." "Look, I know lunch was awful. I had no idea your mother was just going tothrust us together like that. I was completely mortified. I'm not That's not how I like to handle myself." Anne clears her throat slightly. "Which is why I thought maybe we could start over. See if we even like each other before we start planning our impending nuptials, you know? Oh. And let's not invite Javier, either." Anne's voice turns wry.

"Uhyeah. Sure." Jeff gets to the dog pen. Bisou is already doing her best imitation of an eel, trying to press her face through the wooden slats. He reaches over the gate to unhook the latch, the weight of the dogs falling against it like an avalanche. Too late, he realizes he can't handle it one handed. "Uh, Anne, sorry to do this, but I've got to let you go!" "Okay, well, just have Jensen set something up with Chris, okay? Talk to you soon!" "Yeah, later," Jeff says, managing to hit the END button before he goes down in a flood of dogs.

Chapter 65
Jeff sighs and sets aside the sheaf of papersreports, memos and other informational flotsam that he hasn't been able to get to while playing good host for his mother and brother. Immediately, Jensen stops puttering around the roomnaked, mind, which hasn't done much for Jeff's concentrationand comes to bed. "Everything okay?" Jensen asks quietly. Jeff doesn't think about it, holding out his arm for Jensen, and Jensen doesn't seem to think anything of it either, slotting into place next to Jeff like that's where he's meant to be. Jeff nips that thought off right in the bud and says, "Yeah, fine. Just glad today is over." Jensen hums thoughtfully. Then, softer still, "How long will Madame Morgan be staying, do you think?" Jeff sighs again, flexing his tight shoulders against the pillows wadded behind them. "Your guess is as good as mine," he admits. "For all I know, she'll be here until I give her the heir she wants." The thought makes him shudder and Jensen spreads his hand across Jeff's pec like he's going to hold Jeff together by that alone. Jensen's face is tilted toward him and Jeff sinks into indulgence, allowing himself to kiss that warm, welcoming mouth. There is such an absolute surrender to Jensen's kisses. Jeff's never felt or tasted anything like it, a drug-like headiness in knowing that he owns this mouthless in the financial sense than the feeling that there is nothing that Jensen would deny him, nothing Jensen would hold back, if Jeff wants it from him. It makes him think of Indira Varma's house, crosscurrents of wanting to push Jensen, see how far that pliant willingness goes, and the converse to protect Jensen, to curl around him and save him from anyone who doesn't appreciate, who would abuse, such amazing, giving surrender. "Can we?" Jensen's voice is rough and breathless at the same time, fingers straying down to touch Jeff's thigh, heel pressing into the muscle. For someone who says the most appallingly matter-of-fact things about sex as part of casual conversation, Jensen seems oddly tongue-tied now, wetting his lips and looking the question into Jeff's eyes instead of articulating. "Please?" Jeff lets his palm flirt along Jensen's body, hard bone, smooth, well-kept skin and the solid core of muscle underneath it, a metaphor in flesh. Flesh that Jeff very much wants to touch. Touch, bite, mark Maybe just rut himself against Jensen until they're both sated and glued together another thought Jeff doesn't want to examine too closely other than the jolt it sends to his dick. "Yeah," Jeff agrees, his voice as jagged as Jensen's. "Yeah, sweetheart,

we can." He rolls Jensen under him, dragging his teeth along Jensen's throat, nipping at his jaw when Jensen tips his head back obligingly, the bristle of Jensen's beard burning his lips. "You drive me so crazy," he murmurs, somewhere between itchy and aching. "Christ, Jensen" "I was thinking." Jensen glances up and sideways, flinging out his arm and reaching for the nightstand drawer. Not the one on Jeff's side, with the lube and condoms; Jensen's nails scrabble on the wood of his table for a moment, before he hooks the drawer open. Bemused, Jeff eases back on his hip and the mattress, giving Jensen the space to stretch. "Should I be worried? What were you thinking?" Jeff doesn't know what he's expecting. With Jensen, he's finding it's a lot better not to expect things. Even so, the dildo is a surprise. As dildos go, it's nothing fancyand really, it doesn't have to bebut seeing it in Jensen's hand short-circuits every little bit of higher brain function Jeff possesses. He doesn't know what Jensen was thinkingand he doesn't really care, crushing the two of them together. Jensen's mouth, already half-open, sighs into Jeff's and he melts, soft everywhere except the insistent line of his cock pushing against Jeff's belly. "Sowhat were you thinking?" Jeff asks again, when he finally drags himself back from Jensen's mouth. Can't stop his hands from straying, though, roaming like he's trying to leave fingerprints on every part of Jensen's body. "Who's the dildo for?" "I. Uh. Me." Jensen's eyelashes flutter when he's nervous, the stopmotion flashes of his eyes in between making them seem all the brighter. "I thought I know you don't want towith me," Jensen amends his words quickly, a slight quaver to his voice that Jeff can't tell whether it's fear or arousal. "So I thought maybelike this?" Jensen hips lift, the tip of his cock skimming unevenly across Jeff's skin. The absurdity of all this, of Jensenof his slavebegging to be fucked, with a hunk of plastic, if nothing else, because his master is so reluctant to do so. More than that, Jeff glimpses dimly what Catewhat everyone has been telling him all this time, the wrong he's been doing to Jensen in insisting he wants partnership, only to deny Jensen the opportunity to ask for or receive what Jensen needs from him. The suddenness of the realization hurts, burning, cramping pain in his gut that's almost as bad as the time his appendix blew up on him. "Wewe don't have to," Jensen backpedals, that really, desperately young uncertainty returning to his expression. Jeff covers Jensen's mouth with his fingers, too busy trying to maintain his own equilibrium to figure out the right words with which to soothe Jensen. Jensen silences immediately, eyes flickering back and forth as he searches Jeff's face anxiously.

"We dont" Jeff clears his throat when his voice breaks. "We don't need a dildo, Jensen. Not if" He clears his throat again, for more ephemeral reasons, and settles back more on his side of the mattress. "What do you want, Jensen?" The narrow, suspicious look that crosses Jensen's face like summer lightningthere and then gonestings, too, but Jeff can't say he hasn't earned it. It's replaced by a careful blankness, betrayed only by the dark wariness in Jensen's eyes, too big to hide his feelings well. "I don't understand." It would probably help if Jeff could stop touching Jensen, but there are only so many superhuman feats he's capable of in one day. He cradles Jensen's face between his hands but can't stop his thumbs from stroking the line of those sharp-cut, flat cheekbones. "It's not a trick question," Jeff says gently. "I'mI'm asking you honestly. What do you want? What do you need? From me? From us?" "I want you," Jensen says, sounding simultaneously like it's the most obvious answer in the world and as if he can't believe the answer's that simple, that Jeff's not laying a trap for him. "I want to be yours." Why? Why on earth would you want that? Jeff wants to talk about it more, to argue about it; he wants it to all be easier or harder or maybe just clearer, so he could stop feeling like such a horny, perverted schmuck all the time; he wishes he were dumber, so he could say I didn't know, or smarter, so he could figure out a way to make this all work, make it different than it is, so he could be sure he's not fucking up Jensen worse than he is already and most of allmost of fucking allJeff wishes he could stop being so goddamn scared all the time. But none of that's happening and it doesn't solve anything now. Nothing can solve this. And Jeff is really, really tired of saying no. "Come here," Jeff says. "Put the dildo away. We don't need that." The speed with which Jensen drops the dildo, clattering, to the floor and scoots closer makes Jeff laugh, a moment of lightness he pretty desperately needs as he skims his hand down Jensen's arm before coming to rest on the sharp-boned curve of Jensen's hip, thumb brushing arcs across tender, hairless skin. "Where?" They haven't done anything and Jensen already sounds breathless. "How do you want me?" Jeff wonders briefly if that's how it was with Jensen's other masters; carefully orchestrated acts, planned and scheduled well in advance of the actual moment and carried out in regimented sequence. Jeff's imagination is fairly chockablock with porn, all starring Jensen, but sex with Jensen should be more spontaneousmore realthan using him as

a living Real Doll. "No," Jeff says. "Not like that." A thought occurs to him. "Are you? Did you already prepare yourself?" Jensen's face is always expressive, but the prospect of makingof sex has opened him up even more, an almost glow that dims a little at Jeff's question. "I. No. Should I have? I didn't I wasn't" "Jensen. It's all right." Jeff squeezes Jensen's hip, lets himself steal another slow, liquid kiss. "It's good. That's exactly the answer I wanted. Roll over." Jensen makes a soft, throaty noise, hip flexing against Jeff's thumb before he does as Jeff asked, turning on his belly and spreading his legs for Jeff to kneel between them. "I'm sorry," Jeff murmurs, stretching out to press the words and his lips to Jensen's nape. "I'm sorry it took so long. I'm sorry I was so scared. I'll try to be better." Jensen turns his head. "I don'twhat?" Jeff scratches his nails down Jensen's sides just to make him shudder and smiles. "It's okay. Don't worry about it." He mouths his way across Jensen's broad shoulders. "You know how long I've been wanting to do this to you?" "You can" Jensen swallows, hard enough that Jeff feels it. "You can do whatever you want to me." Jeff doesn't know if it sounds different because he so badly wants it to, but he imagines Jensen's words sound less like the rote recitation of a body slave and more like an invitation; the invitation of a submissive to the man he wants to be his master. The thought of it sends a ripple down Jeff's own spine, part the fear he can't get away from, part of it a hungry anticipation that scares him nearly as much. He doesn't understand enough about thissubmissives and masters, pain for pleasure and pleasure for pain. He has friends who are much more effeminate than Jensen, but it doesn't make them submissive and it definitely doesn't make them submissive like Jensen. Jeff doesn't know if there are any other submissives like Jensen. Still, Jeff lets richness pour into his voice and drown all the doubtfulness when he says, "Oh, I plan to, sweetheart." A shiver cascades down Jensen's bones, tectonic, and he turns his face back into the pillow, still shaking a little when the main tremor has passed; a shaking that only gets worse as Jeff kisses, nips and scrawls his way down Jensen's back, taking his time and trying to find and map every caramel-drop freckle along the way. When he's far enough down to frame the sweet, ripe curve of Jensen's ass between his hands, Jensen's hips flex again, slow but desperate,

driving his dick against theJeff knows from experienceunsatisfying give of the mattress. When Jeff gives up sucking on the knob of Jensen's tailbone to make his mark, blood dark, on one of those cheeks, Jensen moans something into the pillow, garbled enough that it takes Jeff's mind a while to unravel it as, "Master." The air-cooled gentleness of Jensen's skin gives way to shocking heat as Jeff spreads Jensen's thighs a little further, thumbs pushing against the elastic muscle and tendon to make a place wide enough for his face, to lick slow and sloppy at Jensen's sac, the tight bridged stretch of skin between them and Jensen's holeso sensitive to even the lightest nips of the teeth. Jensen is just showered, as thorough in this as with everything he does, and the taste of soap and clean skin gives way grudgingly to the less defined and more secret scents of a body in want. Jeff wants to lick every part of Jensen until Jensen smells of nothing but this helpless, shuddering desireand Jeff. When he looks up the length of Jensen's body, washed so beautifully gold by the lamplight, Jensen's shoulders are hunched, his hands fisted in the pillow wadded up around his head. Jeff scratches a nail lightly down Jensen's back. "Hey." The look Jensen gives him is wet-eyed and bitten-lipped, but it's not a painful look. Quite the contrary, the shocky, high look in Jensen's eyes shooting straight into Jeff's cock, making him feel heavier, taut. Jensen's hair isn't long enough to push back from his face, but Jeff rifles his fingers through it anyway. "Hasn't anyone ever done this for you?" he asks. Jensen shakes his head. Jeff tilts his head, possibility pooling liquidly in his belly. "No one? Not even another slave? A tutor?" "No." Even that one word sounds like it takes effort for Jensen to produce, his throat working. The idea that he might be the first to do anything to someone as experienced as Jensen isit's ridiculously hot, an incendiary bomb straight to his libido. He smoothes Jensen down with one hand, the other wrapped choking-stroking tight around his own cock. "Lie down, sweetheart. Let me make you feel good." Jensen resettles with the same easy obedience as before butquietly, as if he's afraid to be heardhe says, "I don't want to come before Before." Jeff inhales, light-headed, thinking of and discarding a dozen answers before he garbles out, "Do. Do you need my help, Jen?" He strokes lightly down Jensen's cleft, lingering on the softness of Jensen's balls. Jensen turns his face away, muffled again. "Please?" Jeff kiss-nuzzles the place where Jensen's thigh plumps into his ass. "Yeah. Lift up a little."

Jensen hikes his hips, creating a space for Jeff to reach under him and wrap his hand around Jensen's cock. Tentatively at first; then, when Jensen cries out and his muscles clench up in effort, Jeff tightens his grip, holding Jensen steady. Performing as Jensen's living cock ring and spreading Jensen open for his mouth takes more physical coordination than Jeff's had to exert in a while, but it's worth it for the desperate wavering moans that come from Jensen's throat at the first lavish of Jeff's tongue across close-grained, tight-puckered skin, the way Jensen's whole body is vibrating, as if unsure whether to flinch away or shove closer. Jeff's never been a huge fan of rimming, but the urge to taste Jensen all over and the power of making him come apart this way is too delicious. Before too long, Jensen's making a continuous, breathy moan, rocking on his knees to each flick and tease of Jeff's tongue. Jeff is tempted to make Jensen come just like this, Jeff's tongue and Jeff's fingers around his cock, but it's not what either of them wants. Jensen's waited long enough for Jeff to catch a clue. "Hand me the lube, sweetheart." Jensen's breath catches on a sound a little like a sob when Jeff leaves off licking for the slow circle of his finger around Jensen's pinked, sensitive rim, but he reaches gamely for the slick, even if his toss back to Jeff lacks the coordination and grace of his usual movements. Softer, whimpering moans give way to full-throated desperation when Jeff slides one finger in, Jensen's hips canting up higher, thighs spreading in wanton invitation. "Please," Jensen breathes, head resting on his bent forearm. "I can take more. Please. Oh, fuck. Please." The air feels thicker, breathing something Jeff has to concentrate on as he slicks and slips a second finger in, flexible, clinging heat, already taut and receptive. Jensen fucks back on Jeff's hand, the sine wave of his flexing spine lustrous with sweat. "Your cock," Jensen says, his voice bass-deep and trembling unsteadily on the vowels, the words themselves choppy. "Please. Master. J-jeff. Jeff. Please fuck me. I'll be your good boy, please." Jeff shivers, not unpleasantly, from heels to crown, his own patience and control slipping oilily through his fingers. Still, he doesn't want to lose sight of Jensen in all this. "Turn over." Jensen on his back is even lovelier than Jensen on his belly, the spread of his thighs, the rising surge of his cock, the heave of his ribs rising so gracefully into a throat Jeff wants to set his teeth into, feel Jensen's pulse rabbit against his lips. Instead, Jeff presses his mouth against the hot inside of Jensen's thigh, feeling the tendons flex and shiver. "You're already my good boy," Jeff rumbles, voice rising like an earthquake from someplace deep in his sternum. "So beautiful." Jensen moans and arches just at the fit of Jeff's hips between his legs, as

if his entire skin is as sensitive as the soft flesh of his cock. Jeff feels a lot like that himself, superheated and drawn taut, conscious of every place that he and Jensen touch, even more conscious of all the places they don't. The low, dirty rub of his cockhead, seeking the place it most wants to be, takes too long, his fingers slickly fumbling, clumsy, his mind just as animal-dumb now that they're so close. The tight push in blots all thought, a Zen moment of perfection that goes on forever and ends too soon, Jensen squirming under him, muttering breathless, "Fuck. Fuck" "'m I hurting you?" Slow pushslowbut he doesn't want to stop, enclosed, welcomed. "Yes." Hissed out before it transmutes into Jensen's amazing sunrise smile, Jensen's hands reaching for Jeff, hanging on. "Feels good. Wantah S'good. Feels good." Jeff sheathes himself deep. He loves this feeling, new tightness, the flutter of go or stay?, the oneness of entanglement. Jensen's fingers tighten as Jeff pulls free, choked bird noises and the clench of muscle begging don't go. "Shh." Jeff soothes, with mouth and hands, before pressing in again, hotter, sweeter than before, a place made just for him. Urgency is a slow burn, not as strong as the feeling he could do this forever, leisurely in and out, watching Jensen lose it, all that tight-laced body-slave control. "Christ, how you feel" Sudden fierceness from Jensen, gripping thighs and hands that drag Jeff down to soft, moaning lips and liquid tongue, never mind the filth of Jeff's mouth, where he's been. Jensen takes and Jeff lets him, wanting the kiss just as much, just plain wanting, bone-deep ache sweetening into the huge bloom of pleasure, filling up a world that's made of just them. Rutting, then; the always joyful-but-futile effort to make one person of two, strokes shortening, sharp and desperate for deeper closeness, for the completeness and nirvana of orgasm. Jensen's knuckles press into Jeff's belly, points of sensation intimate and somehow dirty, fisting himself to Jeff's muttered yeah, yeah, yeahs. "Can you come while being fucked?" The effort to string together that many words is monumentalbut worth it for the way the deeply-furrowed, blown-pupil look on Jensen's face transforms into breathtaking head-thrown, sealed-lid, open-mouthed blissfulness, transcending the heated pearl-stripe of come and clench of Jensen's body around him. In you. I'm in you, Jeff thinks, driving hard. Inside you. Always inside you. The orgasm, when it comes, is like sliding on ice off a cliff's edge; an almost peaceful equilibrium point of utter, perfect stillness followed by the drowning, crashing crush, consciousness compacted into the liquid spill of his body into Jensen's.

Mundane humanity returns too much later, Jeff's back twinging as he goes from locked-rigid to noodle-limp, exhaustion licking him with black, greedy tongues. His kneesespecially the damaged oneadd their voices a moment later as Jeff flounders on the sheets, easing out, a spiteful chorus of: You're too old to fuck like you're still twenty. Still, it's worth itand a hundred more aches and painsto have Jensen slung out underneath him, loose-limbed and sated and so much more than Jeff remotely deserves. Jeff collapses sideways with a deeplysatisfied groan, keeping one arm and one leg thrown over Jensen. "You okay, sweetheart?" he asks, scratching lightly through the wetness striping Jensen's belly. "Yes, I'm fine." Jensen sounds way too together for someone who just came as hard as Jeff thought he had. Jensen opens his eyes and turns his head to look at Jeff, that worried V back in place between his eyebrows. "I'm sorry I wasn't better." Jeff blinks, wondering if it's possible to get brain damage from really good sex. "What?" "I allowed myself to lose control," Jensen says decisively. "I was Grabby." Jensen's gaze flicks slightly sideways of Jeff's, as if he can't bear to look Jeff in the face. "And too selfishly focused on my own pleasure, not enough on yours." "Oh, God." Jeff rolls onto his back and rakes a hand through his hair. "Jensen. I am too blissfully post-coital to get in a debate about this. You were perfect, okay? I mean, not to break my arm patting myself on the back, but I thought that was pretty fucking fantastic sex. Are you telling me it wasn't fantastic sex?" "No!" Now Jensen sounds and looks horrified, pushing himself up on an elbow. "I just You've given me so much. I wanted to be better for you. I wanted to be perfect. And then you When you" Jensen waves vaguely at his lower body, which could mean anything, and blushes deeply, which is ridiculously hot. "I lost focus," Jensen says again, sounding stifled. "Jensen, do you remember when we talked about what I want from my sexual partners?" "Of course I do." "Okay, so then let me break it down for you like thisdid you have a good time?" "Yes, of course" Jeff puts up a hand. "Okay, and I had a good time. Just Jeff and Jensen, having a good time. That's what we call a win, in my book." Jensen's lips purse up slightly, somewhere between irritation and thought. "Soit was really okay? I I was okay?"

Jeff tugs Jensen down, unbalancing him so Jensen is sprawling across him. "Are you fishing for compliments?" "No." Jensen shakes his head, a tickling prickle of down-soft hair across Jeff's chest. "No. Just" He lifts his head again and tilts his head back to look Jeff in the eye, all seriousness. "Thank you. I know you don't think so, but you're a good master. You make me proud to be yours." "I" Jeff doesn't know how to respond to that one. Certainly not with anything approaching the grace with which Jensen said it. Jensen doesn't seem to expect a response, though, settling his head back on Jeff's collarbone, so that the feather-light drone of his breath whisks across Jeff's throat. It's oddly soothing and, as his lids get heavy, Jeff lets himself go with the flow.

Chapter 66
Jensen wakes up to Jeff's hand smoothing across the one shoulder that's come free of the blankets. It's not intrusive; if anything, it's the opposite, soothing and steady and not what woke him. Strangely, nothing woke him, other than his body's subliminal signal to his brain that it's time. He has the cloudy impression that Jeff's been petting him for a long time, felt even through the heavy veils of sleep. Jensen turns his head to the other side, smooth sheet rasping against his cheek stubble. Jeff is uncovered to the waist and the circles under his eyes and the broody-intense look on his face suggests that he hasn't slept at all. Guilt niggles through Jensen, that he slept while his master didn'tor couldn'tbut before he can organize that guilt into a coherent query, Jeff rasps quietly, "How is this going to work, Jensen?" Intelligently, Jensen blinks and manages a noise somewhere between hmm? and huh? The drag of Jeff's skin over his becomes more purposeful. Not sexual, precisely, so much as more aware, as if Jeff is more aware that this is his hand moving across Jensen's body. Even so, Jensen thinks he'd be content to lie here for hours more and let Jeff touch him however he wanted, even if it was nothing more than this gentle, repetitive stroking. "I mean" Jeff starts and then stops, reconsidering. "I mean," he says again, quieter, "do I just reach out and take you, whenever I want, no questions asked?" Though Jeff looks troubled, Jensen can't help the slow, shifting roll of his hips at the prospect, soft sheets slipping frictionally across his morning hard-on. The corner of Jeff's mouth curls tiredly into a lopsided grin. "I take it you approve of that option?" "Yes," Jensen agrees. His voice emerges as a whisper, even though he doesn't mean it to. He writhes against the sheets again, slow and unhurried. Jeff nods, expression slipping into thoughtfulness as he regards Jensen. His fingers stray lower, abstracted. "Do you understand why that's hard for me?" Jensen gives a nod in return, shifting enough to tuck his left hand under his cheek and give his head a little height. "I think so," he says slowly, feeling it out. "You're" Training tells him not to say scared, not to imply his master is anything but in control of himself and his emotions. Jensen's seen his masters afraid, of course, but that was usually about money or rivalry or family. He's never had the oddness of feeling his master is somehow afraid of him. "You think I won't say no to you, if I

don't want it." "Yahtzee," Jeff breathes, the relief in his voice communicating his meaning even if Jensen doesn't get the reference. "But" Jensen gives up stillness and struggles up onto his elbow, even though it means Jeff's hand falls away. "I always want it," he explains, anxious that Jeff understands, for Jeff to believe him. "I Sex with you, being here, being that for youit's good. It's what I wantto be yours." Jeff is looking at him and Jensen can't read his expression at all. Not his usual pained resignationwhich is goodbut not anything like the pleasure Jensen hopes he'd feel, either. "To be available," Jensen tries again, "to be takenor not taken," he adds hastily, seeing Jeff's eyebrows shift fractionally. "Not knowing when you'll want me, or how, andand thinking about it, waiting" Jensen's getting hard just thinking about it. Jeff's not-expression is slightly skeptical. "So if I were to put you on your belly right now" Jensen spreads his legs. It's not a conscious move, really, simple as breathing as his back arches to push his ass higher. "Jesus." Jeff sounds amazed, wondering. "Just like that, huh?" "If you want," Jensen agrees. Jeff's thumb and forefinger scrub down either side of his mouth, almost nervous, locked again between wanting and being afraid of having. Personally, Jensen still doesn't get why it has to be so complicated, but more and more he understands that for Jeff, it just is. And maybe it always will be. "I would enjoy having sex with you," Jensen offers, shimmying more of the blanket aside to expose more of himself. "I do, I mean. Isn't that what you said? If we both want itenjoy itit's a win." "You are demonically good at using my words against me, aren't you?" Jeff says, but he laughs as he says it, pushing the spread even further out of the way and scrawling his fingers across Jensen's naked skin. "Even Cate's not this good." Jensen smiles, arching like a cat as Jeff strokes his skin, definitely sexual this time. "Jensen." Jeff tucks his fingers under Jensen's jawline, lifting his face up a bit, just enough for their eyes to meet and lock. The pin-scratch of worry is between Jeff's eyebrows again. "Just I know that you mean this. Now. I believe that you mean this and this is what you want, okay? But. I need I need you to promise me; if you change your mindabout this, about usif you ever change your mind, promise me you'll tell me." Jeff's fingers tighten a little. "And that you'll tell me before you hate me." I'll never hate you, Jensen thinks, but what what he says is, "I promise,"

quietly heartfelt. He turns his face to kiss the tips of Jeff's fingers, drawing them into his mouth to suckle. "Will you fuck me?" he asks, when Jeff's eyes have turned bronzy and hot and he's thrusting his spit-damp fingers in and out of Jensen's mouth. The worry line has smoothed out and Jensen feels a jam-thick sense of sweet satisfaction at having done that much, just with his mouth. "Please?" "Jensen?" "Huh?" Jensen surfaces from the really vivid reverie of sex with Jeff this morning, his face heating up to boiling point at the realization of how lost he'd gotten in the daydream. Cate tilts her head at him, eyeing him curiously. "I asked if you were okayyou had a weird expression on your face, I wasn't sure" The wind flaps the edging of the umbrella overhead, striping her alternately in bright and shadow as she throws up one hand to shield her eyes. "Are you sure it's all right that I switched venue on us?" she asks, a slight frown tugging at her lips. "It's such a beautiful day; I thought we'd both enjoy it out here, but if you'd rather go back into the office?" Jensen shakes his head. "No." He'd been surprised that Cate wanted to have their session outside on her semi-circular patio, but it hadn't bothered him. It is a beautiful day, evenor maybe especiallyfor Los Angeles, the sky an arching, endless blue that mostly only happens in movies and the thin scrim of clouds like silken underthings worn only for show. The erratic breeze keeps the air lively, moving, without stealing its heat. "I like it out here," Jensen adds, aware that he's on the verge of drifting again. He feels lazy and sated and comfortable, replete from sex with his master and full of the delicious lunch Cate provided with the outdoor session. As he watches, she smudges her finger through a drizzle of the curried sauce that dressed the chicken salad. "It's just that you've seemed kind of preoccupied," Cate observes after smooching the sauce from her fingertip. She regards him through her thin eyelashes. "We've got that meeting tonight about Jeff and his marriage prospectsare you worried about it?" Jensen blinks, retrieved from pornographic reverie by the question. He hasn't mentioned sex with Jeff, even though he feels filled to bursting with it, though it's been on the tip of his tongue this whole time. He's not sure why, other than there hasn't seemed to be an appropriate moment to announce, "Jeff fucked me!" as much as he'd kind of like to. "The meeting? Why would I be worried about that?" Cate shrugs. "I'd think it would be normal for a slave to be concerned about how the household dynamics will change if their owner marries. Especially after having been through that kind of upheaval before. Are you saying you're not worried about Jeff potentially getting married?"

"Why would I be?" Cate had plied him with chocolate covered strawberries on top of everything else. Jensen turns the last one between his fingers, sweet temptation. "Jeff Jeff isn't mine. Not like I'm his. There was always the possibilitythe likelihoodthat Jeff would get married at some point." He pushes the strawberry across the plate. "It's important." "Important to whom?" "To the family." Jensen soothes himself with a sip of the tea Cate provided with the meal, earthy, with a vanilla back taste. It's not as sweet as the strawberry would've been, but it's got a lot less calories. "Jeff has to think about the family's future." "And thenwhat about you?" "What about me?" The back on Cate's patio chairs recline too far back for Jensen's comfort. He shifts forward to the seat's edge. "If Jeff gets married, what do you think is going to happen to you?" "I don't know." He thinks about this morning again, the way Jeff had held him, moved inside him. The sex had taken a really long time, slow and gentle, like neither one of them wanted it to stop or end. Jeff hadn't even talked a lot, outside of Jensen's name, murmured and moaned between kisses and though Jensen had kept his head together better than the night before, he hadn't been able to hold on for very long once Jeff wrapped his hand around Jensen's dick. Now that he and Jeff are here, on the verge of making everything about their unconventional relationship work, Jensen doesn't want to give it up. When Lord Affleck had sold him to Lord Damon, it was for Madam Garner's pleasure, because Lord Affleck wanted to please his bride-tobe. CouldwouldJeff do that to him? The Trust prevents Jeff from selling him. He won't be sold. But that doesn't mean Jeff will keep Jensen at his side, either. "I know he's not mine," Jensen says slowly. "It doesn't I just want to be his. I know he'll havehaslovers. I know he'll get married. It's okay. It doesn't bother me. I justI just want to be next to him." "Even if one of those lovers is Jeremy?" Jensen stutters. Not where anyonewhere Catewould see it, but he feels a little trip-hop in his chest. "I thought they weren't lovers?" "It doesn't mean they won't ever be," Cate observes. "Why are you asking me about this?" Jensen isn't sure Cate can even hear his voice over the wind, it comes out so weakly. "I just remember howdifficult it was for you, to see Jeff with Ever" "I said that I was sorry about that," Jensen whispers.

Cate waves her hand briefly. "Jensen, I'm not angry with you. No one is angry with you, all right? I just I'm sorry. Maybe I'm going about this the wrong way." She pulls her legs up to sit cross-legged in the chair, leaning her elbows on her knees and lacing her fingers together. "Look, your relationship with Jeff is very important to youwhich is fine. But you've previously shown a lot of anxiety about Jeff having a sexual relationship with you and you've shown a lot of anxiety about Jeff having sexual relationships with people who are not you. And now Jeff may be getting married. Sometime very soon, if his mother has his way. I'm concerned about how you're going to deal with that. How you're going to deal with it when Jeff has a sexual and emotional relationship with someone who's not you." "Jeff and I had sex." It comes out like the mumble of a sullen child, even though Jensen feels more like shouting it from the rooftopsif that wasn't a grossly unseemly thing to do. "Youyou did what?" "Jeff and I had sex. We had sex yesterday." And today, he adds exultantly to himself, but he thinks that part might just be overkill. Cate's nonplussed expression splits into a radiant smile. "Really? Oh, Jensen. Oh. Oh." Jensen hides his smile in another sip of tea, uneasy with his own smugness, even more uneasy to let Cate see it. "And?" Cate tweaks a grape from the bunch in the center of the table, turning the jade colored globe in her fingers as if she's examining it for flaws before she pops it in her mouth. "How do you feel? I can't believe you waited until we're nearly done to tell me this! Jensen." Jensen chafes the back of his neck with one hand, embarrassed. "It was good. I feel good. It just felt like bragging." "What, you don't think you're entitled to a little bragging?" Cate tears a segment of grapes from the larger bunch and sits back, eyes bright as she regards him. Jensen shrugs, knotting his fingers between his spread knees. "And so Has it changed things? Do you feel different about you and Jeff now?" "It's different," Jensen allows. "Hewhen he touches me, it's different. It'she let's himself have me, now." "And you?" This time, Jensen can't control his smile, hard as he tries, his lips fighting into a curve however much he tries to flatten it down. "I have a place now. I don't know if it's going to change or what'll happen, but it won't be because of me. Because I didn't try. I'm really his now, all the way, for as long as he lets me."

"You look happy," Cate observes, rolling a grape across her bottom lip. "I am happy," Jensen agrees, though it sends an icicle shard through his bones to say it, out loud and brazen. He says it again, tasting the words like Cate tasting her grape. "I'm happy."

Chapter 67
Cate corners him as he's coming back from the bathroom. "Okay, Jensen's so high that his feet are barely touching the ground and you, on the other hand, look like someone beat your dog. What is it, Jeff?" Jeff sags back against the wall and scrapes a hand through his hair. "Jesus, Cate, do we really need to go through this now?" Cate leans against the opposite wall and hugs her shoulder, regarding him way too shrewdly. "No," she says. "We don't have to go through this now. I just know you. How you bottle things up." The corner of her lips tucks and she picks at the elbow of her shirt absently. "I just thought you might want to unbottle, before things get serious out there." Jeff shrugs, tucking his hands in his pockets and scuffing his boots against the carpet. "I slept with him. Everyone's happy. Don't know what else there is to say about it." "This is happy?" Cate scoffs. The thick sludge in Jeff's chest stirs, a winter bear. "What do you want me to say?" he asks, barely biting it back as a growl. "What do you want, Cate? I had sex with him. And it was wonderful. It wasJesus." Jeff hunches his shoulders. "I loved making love to him. Exceptyou can't really call it making love, can you? Because he's a slave. And I'm an owner. And I feel like a guy who's proved nothing about myself except that I'm willing to compromise my morality when it becomes inconvenient." "Jeff" Cate chews her lower lip, plucking at the ribbed edging of her elbow-length sleeve again. "You and I You know I don't believe in the same kind ofof absolute morality that you do. Everything is situational. You can't People just aren't black and white that way." She spreads her hands. "That being said You don't have to do this, Jeff. If loving Jensen isn't enough, if you're going to just flagellate yourself about it, then maybe you have to consider something else." "What else?" Jeff scrapes his scalp again, hangnail snagging on hairs he probably can't afford to lose. "What else? I can't" The words choke up in his throat, the slow jalapeno burn of anger and a colder, darker bleakness he doesn't want to put a name to. He tries to sigh it out, long and drawn out, but it barely budges. Calmly, gritting out each word through it, he says, "I don't want to lose him, Cate. II can't do that. I'm not that good a man." He takes a breath, swallowing that bitter truth. "But forgive me for having a hard time realizing I'm not the person I tried so goddamned hard to be." He feels shredded even having said that much and he rips his gaze away from hers, focusing on the carpet between her feet. "Justback off me, huh? Can you do that? I'll figure it out. Just give me some space to do it in." "Yeah, Jeff. Of course." Cate puts her hand on his shoulder briefly and drags it down his arm, fingers tangling briefly together at the end. "I'm

not trying to push you in to anything." She ducks her head and twists to look him in the eye. "You know that, yeah?" Jeff nods but before he can say anything, Jeremy pokes his head into the hallway. "If you guys are done making out, can we get down to the serious business of getting Jeff-boy here hitched?" "Oh, fuck off, Merton!" The words come automatically and easily and Jeremy rewards them with his big squint-nosed grin before he vanishes back into the dining room. "It's good that he's smiling," Cate observes, caressing her jawline lightly with her knuckles. "It is." Jeff nods. "I think Misha's good for him." "And how's that working out for you?" "Cate." She raises her hands. "Sorry. Sorry. Reflex. Clearly, I have not had nearly enough of that lovely honey wine. Allow me to rectify that situation right now." She brushes past him. Jeff grabs the back of his neck and cracks it back, stretches his shoulders. Jensen is happy, he reminds himself. Jensen's been more than happy; he's been absolutely radiant, making it extremely difficult to even let him out of the bed that morning, let alone keep from pinning him against every wall or bending him over every table they'd come across. Jeff can't even lie to himself and say it's not a consolation. That he's not happy seeing Jensen happy, that he doesn't feel a deep and proprietary pride in having put that glow on Jensen's face. Jensen's happy, Jeff thinks again. He rolls his shoulders one more time and heads back. Ethiopian was Jensen's idea, a way to keep slaves and owners on a level without drawing attention and given the impossibility of having this little confab at home. Jensen smiles at him when Jeff reappears in the doorway of the rented room and Jeff can't help but grin back, helpless, enchanted. "Hey," he says inanely as he settles next to Jensen on the cushions grouped around the low table. "Hi," Jensen murmurs back, relenting from his regulation-straight kneel to press his shoulder against Jeff's. Jeff breathes out and wraps one arm around Jensen's chest, tugging him sideways, closer, pressing his face to the feathery tickle of Jensen's short-cropped hair and feeling Jensen's heart beat under his palm. It feels so new-shiny, even though Jeff knows he has to have felt this before, though it had to have felt like this every time It feels like the first time.

"How're you doing?" Jeff murmurs into Jensen's ear before lipping across the soft ridge. "Fine." Jensen glances up at him, eyes crinkling with his smile. "I'm good." When Jeff sits back, his gaze snags on Jeremy, seated on the other side of the table from them. Jeremy's watching them and he's got the funny, crooked smile on that could mean anything, from 'aw, they're cute' to contemplating stabbing Jeff in the face with a forkif there'd been any utensils on the table. With Jeremy, things can always go either way. Before either of them can make anything of it, though, Ever taps on her glass with her nails, bell-like sound disrupting conversations all along the table. "So, not that this wasn't a great meal, because it was, it was a truly great meal. But we flew in for this and I'm tired. We all know the score, right? Thanks to Jeff's mom, we're now on a clock: if Jeff's going to get married, it needs to be someone we know, someone we trust." "Someone who won't fuck things up," Jeremy adds. Jeff is a little surprised that Jeremy brought Misha with him. Though he's definitely made a rebound since Jeff saw him lastand, his words to Cate aside, Jeff isn't sure how much of that is attributable to Misha as much as Jeremy needs someonebut the fact is still that he hasn't had Misha for very long. "Since Jeff's doing a good enough job of that on his own, you mean?" Kane had skipped the tej for beer, pint glass raised halfway to his mouth as he drawls the words out. "Chris," Sam says quellingly. She looks annoyed. Jeff can't blame her. He feels pretty annoyed himself, the disaster of his love-life not much fun to discuss at the best of times, let alone opening it up to committee. Still, and as Sam pointedly reminded him beforehand, this is what he signed up for, when he involved all of them in The Trust. If they hang, they'll all hang together and, right now, with things as they stand, Jeff is the weakest link. "Okay, here's the thing I don't understand," Jared says, looking only slightly nervous at his inclusion. Though he's known about The Trust his whole life, it's his first time being included in the decision-making aspect. "Why get married at all? Okay, yeah, it'll piss your mom off something fierce, and I'd be lying if I said your mom doesn't scare me, but You've got your own place, your own money. Does it really make that big a difference in the scheme of things if she's pissed at you?" "It makes a difference because I can't have heror anyone elseasking questions about why I don't want to get married," Jeff explains, conscious again of Jensen in his arms, warm and solid. "We can't afford to have anyone asking questions at all." "Jeff's right." Cate contemplates the piece of injera between her fingers, the doughy bread soaked through with sauce like blood. She's been

picking at the the platter closest to her, the edges of the injera underneath scalloped like a doily. "A lot of our protection comes from looking normal enough, harmless enough, that no one wants or needs to look any closer. And if people start to talk Even the rumor that Jeff is too attached to his slaves, too emotional" She shakes her head. "It wouldn't be good for any of us." From the corner of his eye, Jeff sees Misha tap Jeremy's knee and sign some inquiry at him. Jeremy shakes his head and Jeff resolves to ask Jensen about it later. If Misha's sticking around, he's really going to have to consider picking up ASL. "And it's been way too long since you've been seen socially with anyone, Jeff," Zach points out. "I go out," Jeff protests. "You guys make it sound like I'm a hermit." "You go out with us." Zach shakes his head. "You skulk around with Cate, but that's not where anyone can see you. You have meetings with Wendy, but that's business. But dating? Actually having a night on the town? You haven't really done that in" "Since Robin." Kane volunteers, looking across the table at Jeff with a look he can't read. Jeff hasn't really thought about it and it startles him to think that it's been that long. To be fair, he's been pretty damn busy getting both The Trust and his overarching businesses onto solid ground, but it's a shocker, nonetheless. Robin was almost four years ago. "Okay, I got it," Jeff says slowly. "Even if I don't get married, I clearly need to have a better social life. Duly noted." He thinks about mentioning his tentative coffee date with Anne Hathaway, but there's only so much sharing he's up to for today. "Jeff" Sam begins, and then cuts off as the two servers come in to clear the demolished platters of food and another comes in with a copper pan of roasting coffee beans, scorched richness that fills up the space like cleansing incense. This isn't their first time around this particular block; they break apart into conversational groups. Misha climbs awkwardly into Jeremy's lap, to Jeff's surpriseand Jeremy's, by the look on his face before Misha's head blocks Jeff's view. Jeff looks aside. "You okay?" Jeff murmurs in Jensen's ear. "Sure." Jensen nods and turns his head, craning to see Jeff's face. "Why wouldn't I be?" The question sounds sincere, faintly confused, making Jeff smile despite himself. "No reason." The hostess with the coffee pan circles around to them, extending the beans for them to see them roasting, inhale the bitterly aromatic smoke.

"Okay," Sam says briskly, once the coffee, chai and other forms of liquid refreshment have been dispensed. "Let's cut to brass tacks, here. Are we talking about actually getting you married, or just finding someone to play girlfriend long enough to get your mom off your back?" Jeff blinks. "Ihadn't really thought that far." Sam rolls her eyes. "Of course you hadn't." "That's what he has us for," Ever says cheerfully, looping her arms around her neck and half strangling him. "The thing is," Jeff says hesitantly, untangling Ever's arms, "my mom's not totally wrong. Much as it pains me to admit it. I'm not getting any younger andand it's just me. I meanthere's Javier, of course" There's a kind of collective snort all along the table. "Look, you know what I mean," Jeff says. A part of him wants to defend Javieror maybe just be able to defend Javierbut there's nothing he can really say. They know his family as wellor maybe betterthan he does. "Bottom line is that we can'tI can'tleave everything my family's worked for in Javier's hands. And there's two things we, as a collective, would want from Morgan International: money, and Laborist cred." Jeff lifts the hand he's got spread across Jensen's chest helplessly. "And that's something we can really fucking use." "So, we're talking wife, then?" Sam questions, eyebrows raised. "Yeah. Sure." Jeff shrugs uncomfortably and Jensen leans back into him a little harder, offering simple, wordless comfort with his usual scary prescience. "So the way I see it, we've got two choices: you marry within the existing group, or we find someone from the outside we think we can trust and bring them in." "The more people we bring into this, the more dangerous it gets for everyone," Zach points out unnecessarily, unusually quiet. Of course, Jeff guesses there's not much usual for any of them tonight, based on how this is all going. "I I got a kid. We signed up for this, me and Wendy. Ryzer didn't." "That mean you're volunteering, Wendy?" "No," Jeff says at the same moment Wendy does. Their eyes meet across the table; Jeff's the first to look away. "Too low class," Wendy offers, dully honest. "And I've got a kid out of wedlock." Jeff grimaces, pained. The rigmarole that Wendyand Zachhave had to go through to protect Ryzerincluding declaring to the world that she doesn't know who Ryzer's father isis horrific enough without salt being poured on the wound on his behalf.

Jensen cuddles back against Jeff subtly, doubtless feeling how Jeff tensed up. Jeff pats him in equally quiet reassurance. He glances across at Wendy again; her lips flick in a not-quite smile, her hand covering Zach's on her knee. "You would think that'd be a point in her favor," Brent says, looping an arm around either of his kilted up knees. "Proven fertility. The point is to get whoever this is knocked up, right, spread the mighty Morgan seed?" He'd come without Nina, nearly as big a surprise as Jeremy showing up with Misha. "Can we avoid any and all mentions of my seed, thank you?" Jeff says, and Ever giggles. "And, no. Sorry Wendy. It wouldn't fly with my mom." "No offense, Jeffand for as happy as it would make my mombut I'm not sorry for not having to marry you. I got a man. I don't need another one." Jeremy hehs sharply under his breath, too low for most of the others at the table to catch but Jeff hears it, the quiet sound shearing through his heart in different directions. He doesn't look at Jeremy though, not wanting to draw attention to it or Jeremy. "What about you, Ev?" "It's not a bad idea," Ever muses, turning her head to eye him thoughtfully. "Wouldn't work." Jeff shakes his head. "Yeah, we're only cousins by marriage, but, to her, it counts. We're too close. She'll never go for it." "Hmmm, true. Too bad, though." Ever bites her lip, tugging at a strand of her hair. "It could've been kind of ideal. And it would get my dad off my back. He's becoming a real pill. 'Now, you're not getting any younger, Ever' Bleh." She makes a face. "I have to say, I'm a little bothered by the idea of pairing one of us off with Jeff like breeding stock just to satisfy your mother," Cate says. "I understand the necessity, I understand the need to have someone we trust or that we'll be able to trustI'm just not sure that this is the way to go about it. And, before anyone asks, no. I love you madly, darling, but I'm don't want to be married to anyone, right now. Not even for a good cause." Jeff shrugs. "I'm not thrilled by this myself," he admits, stiff heat still radiating through his chest. "I started this, I got all of you involved in it and" His jaw works, chewing over a mass of words he can't articulate. "It's your lives if we get caught. But thisit's my life no matter what." "We started this," Jeremy corrects, emphatic, but without the anger Jeff would expect. He doesn't see it, either, when he glances across at Jeremy, which eases a knot inside that Jeff didn't know was there until it slacked. "We started this," Jeremy repeats, quieter. "And none of this affects only you."

"Fine, then," Jeff says, sounding hoarser than he means to and entirely too conscious of how still Jensen's holding himself. "Who do you want me to marry, Jer?" Abruptly, Jeremy grins at him. "You could always marry me. I'm young enough. Rich, devilishly attractive" The table laughs, Jeff right along with them, before he says, "Conception might be a problem." "We don't have to tell your mother that." "So, I think the upshot of all this is that we're still not any closer to solving the problem, yeah?" Sam looks around the table. Cate waves her fingers briefly in the intention to speak. "I think that Jeff makes a good point, though. Yes, this concerns all of us, but it's his life. Whoever it is, he's the one that has to marry her, he's the one who'll have to live with her. So, I think we all need to be involved, but ultimatelyit needs to be his choice." "And to hell with the rest of us?" Kane asks roughly. "Are you dumb?" Jensen asks, speaking up for the first time, leaning out of Jeff's loose embrace. "Or just that big an asshole?" "Jensen," Jeff says quietly. "No." Jensen shakes his head, craning to look at Jeff, frustration stamping his face. "You fight so hard for them, toto be kind, to make all of this work." Jensen turns back to Kane. "If you don't trust him, if you don't think Jeff's going to drive himself six kinds of crazy trying to find somebody that's going to make everyone else happy" "Jensen, it's okay," Jeff says again, tugging Jensen back against him. What Jeff can see of Jensen's face says plainly that it's not okay, but he clamps his mouth shut with visible effort, settling back stiffly. "Look, I didn't mean it like that," Kane says. "Marry whoever the fuck you want. I just want to make sure we're being careful. That we're all being careful." He looks pointedly at Jeffor maybe Jensenand then over at Jeremy and Misha. So Jeff's not the only one that's bothered by Misha's quick inclusion in their ranks. "O-kay." Ever slaps her hand down on the table, making Jeff jump slightly. "Andon that note, I think we're leaving." Jeff sighs. Meeting adjourned.

Chapter 68
Sam isn't up yet when Jensen pads down the stairs to the kitchen in predawn darkness, so he decides to sit on the back step, away from the closeness of the house. The freedom to do this, to go outside whenever he wants and breathe is such an incredible luxury, one rarely given to him. The promised peace looks unlikely, however, as, coming out the back door, he half-trips over Jared and almost takes a header down the shallow steps. Jensen squawks, flailing frantically for the railing, Jared yelps...and then meeps? "What are you doing out here?" Jensen hisses in a sharp undervoice, still stretched like a rainbow over Jared's hunched shoulders. He pushes himself off the railing and pinwheels for a second before he finds the balance to straighten up. "I could ask you the same thing!" Jared grumbles back, only unkinking slightly from his bent posture and with another sharp little mew. "I'm waiting for Sam." "Me too. Are you hurt?" After a moment's consideration, Jensen drops next to Jared on the stairs, even though there's not much room for the both of them. Still, he and Jared have bumped a lot more than shoulders; Jensen guesses it's okay. "No, I'm not hurt." Jared sounds confused. His hands are fumbling in his lap and Jensen considers the possibility he might have interrupted Jared inexplicably masturbating on the back steps for the thirty seconds it takes for a big-eyed, furry face to peep over Jared's forearm and squeak authoritatively and demandingly. "Hey, come back here!" Not listening in the least, the kitten claws its way up to balance precariously on Jared's forearm for a couple seconds before it takes a flying leap toward Jensen. Its small legs are too short to propel it far enough, and it lands halfway on his thigh, tiny needle claws digging through Jensen's yoga pants frantically for purchase as it slides. It's instinct for Jensen to scoop it up, bring the kitten's wee, ribby body in close protectively. "I think he likes you," Jared says, amusement warming his tone, as the kitten meeps again and curls up in the hollow of Jensen's palm. The crazy part is, it's not much bigger than Jensen's hand, as fragile feeling as something made of glass, but warm and softly furry. After a moment, Jensen realizes the uneven rasping noise it's making is its purr. It sounds a lot more unpolished than the adult cats he's used to, but he guesses that's the point. It's a kitten. It doesn't have the moves down yet. "Hmm," Jensen says, unsure what the appropriate response is for commenting on a cat's likes or dislikes. He makes to hand it back to Jared.

"Nah, hang onto him for a second." Jared stretches and groans, back popping audibly as he arches. Jensen can see how tired Jared seems, making him look older, more adult. "I could use a rest." "Is he for Sam?" Jensen looks back down at the fluffball curled so smugly in his fingers, cupping his free hand around the first, though the kitten hardly seems to need it. He thinks it might be sleeping. Jared shrugs, tucking his hands into the pocket of his hoodie. "I don't know. I'm hoping. His mom didn't want to nurse him, so me and Chad have been trading off feeding the little guy every couple hours until we could get him weanedwhich is not fun, let me tell you; I stink of kitten formula" Jensen tries to picture Chad with a baby bottle and kitten in hand and just can't do it. "...so he keeps getting picked on and me and Chad, we just don't have the time to keep up with him like he needs and...hey!" Jensen really doesn't like the way Jared's looking at him. "You should totally take him, man! Yeah!" "Oh. Oh, no, I couldn't..." "No, but it would be perfect, really, because he already likes youand believe me, this cat doesn't like anybody..." "...I mean, I have work..." "Jeff totally wouldn't mind..." "And I'm not good with animals..." "That's crazy! The dogs love you and look, Pickles does too." Pickles? Jensen thinks, but he doesn't get a chance to say anymore about it before the back door sweeps open and Sam growls, "It is too early for you boys to be this loud on my back steps. Go beg for scraps elsewhere, you mangy dogs." "Actually," Jensen says, scrambling to his feet, "I wanted to talk to you." He glances back at Jared, weighing the cost-benefit ratio of having the other slave present. The reason he got up this early, slipping from his very warm bed with Jeff, is because it's almost impossible to catch Sam alone. On the other hand, Jared is the one who suggested talking to Sam if he needed advice about Jeff. And Jared's known Jeff his whole life, loyal as a dog himself. "I need your advice." He jams his hands self-consciously in the front of his sweatshirt and finds that, at some point, he either shoved the kitten in there or it crawled right on in, because it's curled up against his belly. "About Mary-Louise." The kitten licks one of Jensen's fingers with its raspy tongue and then butts its head against his knuckles.

Sam's lips screw up with displeasure and she sighs, but she doesn't sound mad at Jensen when she says, "Aw, hell. All right. Are you any good at kneading bread?" Jensen's never been privileged to watch Sam's morning rituals, usually either still in bed, waiting for his late-sleeping master to wake up, or taking advantage of those extra hours to do his yoga and Pilates, the effort of keeping himself trim and limber a never-ending one, especially in a house like this one, with such rich food so readily rampant. Just how rich it is becomes really quickly apparent, watching Sam lay out bricks of butter like she's planning to build a wall and sugar and flour enough to mortar that wall, along with a whole host of other things Jensen doesn't know much about. Lord Hutton had been the only one of Jensen's masters too poor to employ a cook and, quite often, he hadn't been able to stomach more than broth and toast. For all Jensen's many talents, his ability to cook is entirely plebian. Mercifully, she puts him to work chopping fruits and vegetablesthough meeting her exacting standards for even that is no small challenge. But the exacting, repetitive work has the effect of making Jensen calm and focuswhich is probably what Sam intended. "All right," she says, furiously beating some kind of batter in a stoneware bowl into submission. "Let's hear it." Jensen takes a deep calming breath, keeping his eyes on the steady slice of the knife in his fingers. "I think Master Bardem had or is having sex with Mary-Louise," Jensen says, letting it roll coolly off his tongue. Sam misses a beat with her spoon, almost losing it in the process and Jared drops the double handful of eggs he's transferring from the fridge. "You're cleaning that up," Sam says, without looking over her shoulder at Jared. "Yeah, okay," he agrees, "butholy shit, Sam!" "Hush." "I think he's the father of her child, too," Jensen adds, setting the knife aside to dig his nails into an orange rind, with a puff of citrusy perfume. He doesn't trust his fingers with sharps right at this moment. "Holy shit!" Jared says again from the vicinity of the floor where he's mopping up egg and shell with a dishrag. "Jesus fucking Christ." Sam tilts her face back at the heavens before going back to beating her batter, possibly with even more viciousness than before. "Okay. And you've told Jeff this?" "No." Jensen shakes his head, focused entirely on his hands as he fumbles with the sticky-sweet orange. Shame curls darkly through his sternum, hot and cold and prickly. He should go to Jeff with this. His duty is clear and Jensen was raised and trained to do his duty. So why is

he in the kitchen, avoiding Jeff and spilling family secrets to his fellow slaves like a backstairs gossip? "He's Everything's so tense right now. I didn't know if I'd be making things worse." "Yeah, but it's not you doing anything." Jared straightens up from his crouch, hands full of broken shell and stained dishrag, his fingers stained with yolk. Inside Jensen's sweatshirt, the kitten stirs and stretches luxuriously, dart-tip claws cutting through the material to prick Jensen's stomach. He scritches the kitten's head quickly and guiltily through the shirt, hoping to make him settle. "Jeff has enough on his plate. I was afraid" He falters, unsure how to articulate what he was afraid of, how to pick it from the tangle of all his other fears. "I don't know what to do," he says finally, an admission even harder to say than admitting fear. "I don't know what's the right thing." "First mistake is thinking there is a right thing," Sam says, setting the bowl on the counter with a thump and wiping her forehead with the back of her wrist. For all her caution, she leaves a streak of flour across her skin and on her hips when she plants her hands on them. "MaryLouise has been a mess since the very beginning and Jeff and his familywell. You're smart enough; you see what it's like." Sam glances at each doorway quickly, before going on. "It doesn't surprise me at all that one mess found the other to make a bigger mess." She picks up the bowl again and starts pouring the batter into waiting pans that Jared's already greased. "They were about to sell her as a horse, did you know that?" Jensen's knife slips and he only barely avoids slicing the tip off his finger. "I didn't know that," Jared says, sounding as shaken as Jensen. "I didn't What did she do?" Sam slants Jared an impatient look. "She didn't have to do anything, Jaybird, you know that." She shakes her head, opening the oven door and slinging in the pans of batter angrily, as if they've somehow offended her. Not that Jensen blames her; the bogeyman specter of being sold as a horseno value, lowest of the lowhaunts most slaves and Sam seems like Kane in that sense, apt to bury her fear in anger. "I don't know all of Mary-Louise's story; Kane and Jeff don't talk about it and Mary-Louise sure isn't going to. Truth be told, many's the time I've wanted to wring her neck myself, though I don't think anyone deserves that." Sam sets her timer and then grabs another bowl. "You have those eggs separated?" she asks Jared sharply. "Uh." Jared looks at the sudsy rag in his hands. "Not yet." Sam sighs. "Forget it, I'll do it myself. The point is, Mary-Louise could've been more grateful. Jeff saved her from that." "That doesn't sound very like her," Jensen says doubtfully.

"Of course not, gratitude is a human emotion." Jared goes back to scrubbing egg off the floor. "But what should I do?" Talking trash about Mary-Louise's many failings is an all day job and Jensen doesn't have nearly that long before he'll be expected to wait on Jeff through breakfast with his mother. "Do I tell Jeff? If that's Javier's baby, then it's family. Jeff would want to know that, wouldn't he?" "And what's Javier's endgame in all of this?" Jared asks, sitting back on his heels. "He showed up right after she did, more or less, and not to ask Jeff for money, or he would've done it by now. What?" Jensen shakes his head. "Nothing." "Yeah, 'nothing'. You think I'm just the guy that walks the dogs," Jared huffs, but his tone and faint smile say he's teasing. "I can put two and two together." "I don't think you're dumb," Jensen avers. "Innocent," Sam interrupts. "He thinks you're too innocent to get Javier's scheming." "Seriously?" Jared raises his eyebrows and looks at Jensen, who actually feels his face get hot as he fastidiously picks white rind from plump, juicy fruit. "Wow. Wow. I think I'm hurt." "I think you'll live," Sam says dryly. "What were you saying?" "Nothing. Just that Javierhe's ambitious. I meanhe's really ambitious. And Jeff's mom has been bugging Jeff about having a baby and now we're saying that Mary-Louise is having Javier's baby." Jared shrugs. "Seems like a hell of a coincidence, is all." "But Mary-Louise is a slave," Jensen says inanely, tongue tangling over the words. "Her baby will be a slave, too." It's Jared's turn to look at Jensen as if he's very stupid. Jensen can't bring himself to explain how disturbing (wrong) he finds the idea of passing a slave's child off as free, even though he knows it's done. He suspects Jared would find that even dumber. Especially since Jensen had advocated that exact thing to Mary-Louise herself. "Okay, I know," he says irritably instead, prompting another stretch and an equally irritated meep from the kitten in his shirt. "But even if that is Javier's intentionso what? He's not a Morgan. Would him having a kid before Jeff make that big a difference?" "Not to Madam Morgan," Sam answers, no doubt coloring her tone as she sprinkles flour across the dark countertops. "If it is his baby, I'd be damn surprised if she didn't already know about it. And if it his baby and she doesn't know about it, she will soon. Blood means everything to her. Everything. She won't be happy about Javier 'soiling' his with a slave." "What about the Board, at Morgan International?" The kitten is doing

something in his shirt. Possibly fighting the shirt itself by the feel. Jensen gets up carefully, with the intention of washing the orange juice off his hands before he tries to handle the furry little thing. He only makes it halfway to the sink, though, before a mussed and fuzzy head pokes out the side of the pouch, followed by one sharp-tipped claw, which flails around a bit before latching on. The kitten starts to pull himself out of the pocket, meowing at full volume. "Dammit, Jared, what have I told you about bringing animals in my kitchen?" Sam slams her bread dough on the counter and leans on it, other hand on her hip as she glares. "Me?" Jared squeaks. Jensen catches the kitten in his sticky hands just before it falls out of his sweatshirt and brains itself on the hard tile floor. "Jensen's the one holding him." "And I'm expected to believe Jensen just spontaneously shat a cat out of his belly all on his own?" Sam shakes her hair back and doubles the concentration of her glare. "Don't play me for a fool, boy; I'm twice your age and three times as mean. I know where that kitten came from." She looks at Jensen, not quite as forcefully, but definitely enough that he starts backing for the door. "That cat is hungry. And I'm not feeding him. Get the bottomless pit here to find you something. Away from my kitchen, please. You two have done enough damage." "Sure thing," Jared says, cheerfully, grabbing Jensen by the elbow while Jensen juggles the kitten, who seems to think this is all great fun and keeps trying to climb Jensen's chest. "What about Jeff?" Jensen asks, looking over his shoulder as Jared propels him out the door. "What should I tell him?" "Tell him the truth," Sam says, after another quick check of the doorways. "Even if it's nothing, he'll want to know. And with Javier, it's never nothing." Jensen nods, finally maneuvering the kitten so that it's tucked in the curve of his elbow, attempting to nurse from his pinkie. Or maybe just gnaw it off, with its soft milk teeth. "Okay, thanks." "I told you Pickles likes you," Jared says as he frog-marches Jensen across the grass. "You guys were made for each other." "Jared," Jensen begins and then stops. He sighs. "I am not calling this cat Pickles." Jared looks confused. "Why not? It's his name. I don't make fun of you for Jensen, do I?" "Yeah, but Jensen isn't my name." Jared stops them both in his tracks and goggles at Jensen. "Seriously?" "No. Not seriously," Jensen says, and laughs. "Not seriously at all." The look on Jared's face is so worth it.

Chapter 69
"I would likea conversation, brother. If you have time." Jeff's been expecting this since Javier showed up, though he could wish and usually doesthat Javier's timing was better. "Sure," he agrees, gathering all his papers and tapping them together in a stack before he turns them facedown and plants his elbows on them. He wonders how much this is going to cost him this time. "What do you need?" "Mother tells me that she's asked you to acquire a new body-slave for me," Javier says, tugging out one of the chairs across from Jeff and collapsing gracefully into it. It's an uncharacteristic cut to the point. As well, Javier doesn't seem nearly as peacock-flamboyant as normal. Though Jeff's pretty immune to Javier's charm at this point, it's never stopped his brother from trying. "Yeah," Jeff admits slowly, unsure what game this is or what Javier is angling for. He wonders if this is progress or just another form of songand-dance. "That's true." Javier nods, the answer he expected. "I havea counteroffer, of a kind." "Oh?" Jeff raises his eyebrows and leans back, fingers stroking across the smoothed wood rounds of the chair's arms. Idly, he wishes Jensen were there and wonders again what Jensen's up to. Sam hadn't been very forthcoming when Jeff wandered down in search. "What's that?" "I don't want a new body-slave. I" Like a game of opposites, Javier leans forward, planting his forearm on the table and his head dips. "This is hard for me, you know?" Javier chuckles a little, softly, ruefully. "You wouldn't think so, all the times I have come to you, cap in hand, a beggar." Jeff shifts in the chair. "Javier" "No." Javier shakes his head. "You're the older brother, the Morganyou don't know what it is to have to beg for scraps, hanging at the family's coattails" "Because I left," Jeff answers tautly. "Because I refused to play that reindeer game." "Easy to do when your abuela leaves you a house and money." Javier raises his eyebrows. "Not all of us were so lucky." "Look, do you really want to rehash old family history?" Jeff demands. "Neither one of us asked to be who we are but we're stuck with it. I can't change it and neither can you." Javier smiles and shakes a finger at him. "Always the big brother. Alwaysso mature." He settles back again, crossing his legs. "But you're right. I didn't come to chew over old bones with you. It was unwise of me to put your hackles up before I even ask my favor, no? And now it is too

to put your hackles up before I even ask my favor, no? And now it is too late." It was too late for us a long time ago, Jeff thinks, with the same pinch-stab of nostalgia as always. Ornot really nostalgia, since what he longed for what a history that they'd never had. "What do you want, Javier?" "I want Mary-Louise." "II'm sorry, you want what?" Jeff blinks, quite sure that his hearing must have fritzed out. "You want" God, he can't even say itcan't think itwith a straight face. "You want Mary-Louise?" "I thinktemperament asideshe has done an admirable job as your Agent, verdad?" Jeff flicks his fingers in acknowledgment. "True." Javier spreads his hands. There you go. "I think I'm going to need a little more than that," Jeff says cautiously, brain wheels spinning furiously but without traction. "Mary-Louise" Jeff hasn't the faintest idea how to conclude that sentence. "MaryLouise?" he asks again. Javier has the nerve to look affronted. "Why is this so surprising?" "I I don't even know how to answer that question," Jeff says, absurd, helpless giggles starting to bubble up in his throat. Say what you would about Javier, he never fails to surprise. "Let's start with why you think I would sell you one of my slaves?" "I could make some charming song and dance about how I am your brother," Javier says, "but we both know that cuts no water with either of us. Right? So. I'll give you the truth: you will sell Mary-Louise to me because it's what she wants. And," Javier holds up a finger illustratively, "you're the type of man who cares about such things." Jeff couldn't control the desperate slam of his heart against his ribs, but he did his damnedest to keep it off his face, groping for a safety line of sanity in what's become a whiteout of surreality. "There's a big difference between wanting my slaves to be content in their work versus trading Mary-Louise to a man who'll sell her for pocket change the first chance he gets." "You wound me," Javier says, covering his heart with one well-kept hand. "I come to you honestly and sincerely, with respect. And, in return, you mock me and impugn my honor." "You have to admit...I have good reason," Jeff says, scratching the back of his neck. "But you want to have a serious discussion about this? Fine. Let's have a serious discussion. I don't trust you, brother. I don't trust you with my money, I don't trust you with my slaves and if it were up to me, I would've cut you off from the family tit a long time ago. I sure as hell don't take your word for it when you tell me that Mary-LouiseMaryLouise, for Chrissakeswants to be sold to you. I justthat doesn't even

make sense to me. Why would she want such a thing? Why would you? "I know what kind of slaves you like, Javier. You like them young, pliant and with big titsand Mary-Louise is none of those. She's also eight months pregnant, so unless you're a lot kinkier than I think you are, I'm at a complete loss as to why you'd want to take her on, let alone the expense of her child. And until this all makes sense to me, I'm not doing a goddamn thing." "The child Mary-Louise is carryingit's my child," Javier says, with that same sense of gravity. "My son." "You're not serious." "I am very serious." Javier leans his elbow on the arm of his chair and props his chin on his hand. "Or were you hoping the child was yours?" "No." Jeff pushes away from the table and gets up, walking to the limit of the room and fighting with the urge to beat Javier's face to hamburger. The brain wheels are smoking now, screech of imaginary metal clouding his ears, stabbing deep into his brain. How did this happen? When did this happen? Did he? The surface bubble of Jeff's calm dissolves and he charges across the room to wrap both fists in Javier's shirt and drag him out of the chair. "Did you rape her, Javier? Did you fucking rape her?" "No," Mary-Louise chimes in, sounding out of breath. Jeff glances sideways and sees her leaning in the open doorway, one arm wrapped awkwardly around her belly to support its ungainly weight. "Javier didn't rape me. Jesus, Jeff, way to be melodramatic about this." Javier tugs away, smoothing at his rumpled shirt with wounded dignity and a you see? lift to his eyebrows. Mary-Louise moves slowly across to them, straight-backed but ginger, as if