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Orlando straightened his master's bow tie while Johnny ran a brush over the back of his jacket, apparently determined to get every molecule of dust or lint off of it before they sent Master Liam off to his wedding.

After another minute or so of fussing, adjusting his carnation and the crease in his trousers, and the Master finally detached himself from his fussing slaves. He gave both of them a big grin and a jaunty wave, then turned and headed out, leaving Orlando and Johnny alone in the bedroom to clean up.

The room was silent for a few seconds, and the two of them just stared at each other.

"What do you think?" Orlando asked. "I mean, is it going to be weird?"

Johnny shrugged. "I don't know. I've never had an owner get married on me."

Orlando sank onto the bed with his elbows on his knees and looked down at the carpet. "Will it be different? I mean, you've had married owners before, right?"

"Yep, twice. It can be different, but it depends on the people. If they disagree on how you should behave, or on who gets to do what with you, then you're pretty much screwed and not in a good way. I've known a couple of slaves in that position and their lives were even suckier than normal. Mine weren't too bad, though. Lord Ford was sort of, like, whatever, so whenever the mistress wanted something I had to jump. Or whatever. But they didn't argue about it. Mistress Catherine was kind of possessive and didn't want anyone else messing with me, which was fine, and her husband was cool with it too and just stuck to his own boy. He was nice enough looking in his day -- I saw some pics of him when he was younger and he was pretty hot -- but that was, like, a long time ago. I was just as happy not to have to paste on a smile for that, if you know what I mean."

Orlando actually didn't know what he meant, or rather, he could guess but he'd never experienced it and was pretty sure he didn't want to. "I've never been with a woman, though. I don't think I'd know what to do. Do you think she'll be angry? I mean, if she wants me and if the Master is okay with it and I can't... whatever it is you do with a woman to make her happy?"

Johnny frowned and considered. "I don't know. I mean, usually they'd expect any body-slave to've been fully trained for both men and women, but you're home-grown and you got only what training the Master wanted you to have, so it's up to him to let her know what's reasonable to expect."

He crossed the room and sat down next to Orlando, slinging an arm around his hunched shoulders. "I wouldn't sweat that, seriously. If you're determined to worry then worry about 'sweet Chaddie.'"

"Chad? Why?"

"You've got to learn to pay attention, kid. Pretty face, hot bod, ego enough for six guys. Mistress Natasha spoils him rotten and then some. He's got that Wounded Angel look he uses to wrap her around his finger, and he has her ready to swear that not a single nasty thought has ever tarnished his perfect golden head."

Orlando frowned and said, "I know she indulges him a lot, but Master Liam kind of indulges me and that's not a bad thing. Is it? I mean--"

Johnny hooted with laughter and tickled Orlando into squealing incoherency. A minute later, when he had him pinned to the mattress and gasping for breath, he said, "There's no 'kind of' about it, monkey. You've got to be the single most indulged slave I've ever met or heard tell of. But you're indulged, not spoiled -- there's a difference."

He rolled off after a last poke in Orlando's belly, then started picking up discarded towels. "Master Liam never let you get away with any shit, except for the shit he specifically decided was okay for you to get away with while he was right there keeping an eye on you. You're sickeningly sweet-natured, despite the Master treating you like a favorite puppy instead of a slave boy all your life. Darling Chaddie, on the other hand, gets away with all kinds of shit because he has his mistress convinced he'd never ever do any such thing, and anyone who says otherwise is a nasty, jealous liar. You should talk to some of her other slaves some time."

Johnny ducked into the dressing room with the soiled towels and raised his voice so Orlando could hear him in the bedroom. "You watch out for that one. I've seen him eyeing you when no one else was looking. He wants to be top dog in the kennel and I'll bet you a batch of your mom's cookies that he'll play as nasty as he has to to get it."

Orlando stripped the bed while thinking about that. He'd never really warmed to Chad in all the months their owners had been spending time together. He and Chad had played together a few times, with the Master and Mistress watching, and he'd never been completely comfortable with it, or been able to really settle down and have fun. Orlando'd just assumed it was him, that there was some gap in his training that left him off-balance with the perfectly trained Chad. Mr. Travers had been a great teacher, and Johnny too, but having to play with Chad with their owners looking on, he'd gotten the feeling a few times that his skills weren't quite up there, that his timing was off or his instinct for what to do next wasn't right, and he'd felt sort of ashamed for not having a regular Commerce-training education.

Maybe it wasn't him, though. Maybe it'd been Chad already, trying to make Orlando look awkward, trying to make him feel awkward. It'd never occurred to him that the problem might be with Chad, much less that he might be doing it deliberately.

He passed Johnny, coming back with a caddy of cleaning supplies while Orlando headed for the dressing room with the bundle of used bedding. "Thanks," he said, leaning over to bump Johnny's shoulder. "I'll watch out for him."

 

That night, full of wedding food and cake and a single glass of champagne, Orlando bedded down up the hall from the master suite, in one of the guest rooms, which was going to be his from then on. He hadn't had his own room in five years, not since he'd become Master Liam's body-slave officially, but the new mistress moving in had meant some changes.

He was lonely, and still kind of nervous from his earlier talk with Johnny, and was thinking about going to find Johnny and seeing whether he'd mind cuddling for the night. Not that he'd do anything without permission -- Johnny was free to mess around with whoever he wanted, so long as it didn't interfere with his duties, but Orlando played with others only on the Master's order, or at the very least with his permission. Cuddling was all right, though; Master Liam knew neither he nor Johnny would try to sneak anything without asking.

He'd bent over the side of the bed and was feeling around on the floor for his slippers when his door opened and someone stepped inside. "Johnny?" He reached up and fumbled the lamp on and saw it wasn't Johnny.

Chad was standing there at the foot of the bed, a rueful smile on his face, wearing a pair of silk boxers and nothing else. "I was hoping you were still awake," he said. "I thought you might be feeling as weird as I am. I'm not used to being apart from the Mistress much. Sometimes, yeah, but this could be, like, pretty permanent and it feels sort of lonely. You know?"

Orlando nodded, and relaxed enough to sit back against the headboard and tuck the covers around his waist. "I was just thinking that, sort of. I've been with Master Liam all my life, and I've slept with him almost every night for the last five years or so."

"Right, I'd heard about that." Chad sat on the end of Orlando's bed, then leaned over to lie on his side across the foot of the mattress, with his head propped in one hand. "You were really born here?"

"Yeah, I was. Mama was pregnant with me when the Master got her from Commerce, plus she had my sister already."

"That's Samantha, right? She's pretty cute." Chad grinned up at Orlando, who grinned back and shrugged.

"I guess. I mean, she's my big sister, so when I picture her I think 'bossy' not 'cute.'"

Chad laughed. "Yeah, well, take my word for it, she's pretty cute. Not as cute as you, though. You definitely got more than your fair share of the looks in the family."

Orlando felt himself blushing and he looked down at his hands, still clutching the sheet and blanket. "I guess. I mean, just as well; Samantha never wanted to be a body-slave or anything. She likes cooking, like Mama, and she's really good at it, so it's a good thing no one ever decided she had to do something else."

"'Something else.' That's one way to describe it." Chad gave him a sly smile. "There was never any doubt what I was for, from the time my parents sold me rather than lose their house. Good thing I like fucking, huh?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"How about you? Do you like fucking? Or is it just something you do when you're ordered to?" Chad cocked his head and grinned up at Orlando, one hand rubbing up and down Orlando's leg through the covers.

Orlando pulled his leg away and curled up at the head of the bed, as far away from Chad as he could get. He was feeling uncomfortable again and wasn't sure why. "Yeah, I do, I guess. I mean, I love it when the Master fucks me, and I like playing with Johnny, and some of the other boys when we're travelling, or when people visit."

"How about me? We've 'played' together. Did you like that?" Chad crawled farther up the bed until he was hovering over Orlando, smiling down at him. It was a hot, sexy smile, and Chad was a gorgeous guy, but Orlando just wanted to run out of the room and hide.

"I, umm, I don't really know you all that well," he said, then he immediately thought, Stupid! Why didn't you just lie and say it was fine? If he gets offended he could get mean about it....

Chad didn't look offended, though. Instead, he cupped Orlando's cheek with one hand and said, "Hey, that's easy to fix," and leaned down to kiss him.

Orlando ducked away and scooted over to the other side of the bed. "I can't!" he yelped, then he blushed for overreacting. It was only a kiss, after all. "I mean, I'm not allowed. I can't play with anyone else unless the Master says it's all right."

"Aww, come on, they'll never know," Chad coaxed. "Your master and my mistress are down the hall fucking each other's brains out. Everyone else is asleep, and most of 'em are drunk on top of it. We could have a three-ring circus in here and no one would ever know."

"No. I'd never disobey him like that."

"But he trusts you, come on!"

"That's why he trusts me! Duh!"

"Are you really such a daddy's boy? Or are you just making shit excuses? What, you think you're too good to fuck with me? Daddy's little prince, king of the castle and afraid of someone else moving in on you?" Chad yanked Orlando's arm over and tried to pin him down while grabbing his ass hard.

"Quit it! Get out of here!" Orlando tried to pull away but Chad had too good a hold on him. Orlando was naked under the covers and he felt Chad's ungentle hand grabbing for his ass, probing with a finger. "No!" He twisted his whole body to get his hips out of reach, then swung a fist at Chad's face. It connected with his eye and Chad jerked back, swearing.

"You little shit! That's gonna bruise!"

"You deserved it, asshole! I'm not disobeying my master just because you don't know what 'no' means. Get out of here or I'll tell Master Liam you tried to force it!"

"You wouldn't dare," Chad sneered. "You're just a slave, and you can't rape a slave."

"You're crazy! Get out of here!" Orlando shoved hard and Chad fell off the bed with a thud, onto the hardwood floor.

A pained curse followed the thud, and Chad scrambled to his feet, hunched over his stomach, and headed for the door. "Stuck up little shit," he muttered. But he left, and that was all Orlando cared about.

 

The next afternoon, one of the house slaves came dashing into the kitchen where Orlando was sitting, chatting with his mother and Gloria. "Orlando! The Master wants you in his room!"

Already? It wasn't time to change for dinner, and Orlando had already tidied up and made the bed before lunch. He hadn't expected to be called to his master's room for the more usual reason so soon. Master Liam and the new mistress weren't going on an actual honeymoon -- they both had business to take care of and were planning a trip in the fall -- but Orlando had figured his master would be paying close attention to Mistress Natasha for at least a week or two.

Not that he was going to complain. "Thanks, Amy," he said, giving the girl a grin. He gave his mother a quick kiss on the cheek, waved to Gloria, and jogged for the stairs.

When he opened the door and entered Master Liam's bedroom, though, he lost his smile as soon as he saw that the new mistress was there too, along with Chad, who was kneeling beside her with his hands behind his back and his head bowed toward the floor.

Well, he looked like someone had told him a few things. Maybe he'd complained that Orlando hadn't been willing to fuck him, and had had the rules pounded into his head?

He closed the door behind him, walked a few paces into the room and bowed, first to the Master and then to the Mistress.

"Kneel!" Mistress Natasha snapped.

Orlando was startled enough to stare for a moment, then he sank to his knees and pressed his forehead to the floor, confused and wondering what was going on. Then he remembered his conversation with Johnny the previous day and a cold dread shot up his spine.

"He is way too full of himself," the Mistress said. "You've let him get away with anything and everything and this is the result."

Master Liam just made a "Huh" noise, then asked, "Orlando, did you see Chad last night?"

"Yes, Master," Orlando answered immediately. "He came to my room, and--"

"And he's a liar, too." The Mistress cut him off, her voice angry. He heard four quick steps and then something sort of solid but luckily padded smacked across the back of his head. "He thinks he can put this all on my Chaddie."

"Tasha, please," the Master said. "Go on, Orlando. What happened?"

Orlando wished he could look up, could look at his master and see how angry he was, could look at the Mistress and Chad and try to figure out what Chad had said. He hadn't been given permission, though, and with his owner -- owners -- already angry with him he was afraid to look up without it. "Umm, Chad came into my room. He said he was feeling kind of lonely, and I said I was too. We talked for a little while. Then he wanted to play. I told him I couldn't without permission but he, umm, tried to insist. He wouldn't let go so I hit him and pushed him off the bed. And he left. And that's all."

"Are you going to let him crouch there and accuse my boy of, of what? Rape?!"

The mistress was still standing right in front of him. He heard her shift her weight and braced for a blow or a kick, but there was a light slapping sound, like someone grabbing someone else, skin on skin, and Master Liam said, "If he needs to be punished, then I'll do it."

"How dare you?! In front of the slaves?" Mistress Natasha sounded furious, and Orlando stifled a groan. No matter how this turned out, he couldn't imagine life would be anything like good in the long run. The idea of spending the rest of his life dodging the Mistress and trying not to ever be alone with her -- which would be impossible, he knew, if she was angry enough to decide she hated him -- was enough to make him want to curl up somewhere and hide.

"Orlando, look up." The master still sounded angry, and Orlando snapped up into a perfect kneeling present, his eyes huge and frightened. Master Liam took something from the Mistress and held it out. "What is this?"

Orlando swallowed hard. "It's my slipper, Master. It was missing this morning when I got up."

"Chad says you're the one who came to his room. He said you told him that you were the top slave around here and that he'd better remember it if he wanted to get along. He said that you attacked him, and the two of you struggled, and you punched him in the face. He has a black eye and bruised cheek. You lost your slipper in the struggle, before he was able to fight back and throw you out. He said you told him you'd make sure he was punished."

All Orlando could do was open and close his mouth a few times. He probably looked like a gasping fish, but he couldn't think what to say. It was a lie, his master had to know it was all a lie, but he'd already said what'd really happened and repeating himself would just make it look like... like what? He knew what the Mistress thought, and couldn't think of anything he could possibly say that'd change her mind.

The Master hadn't asked him a question anyway, so he fell back on formality and stayed silent.

"So?" The Mistress again. She sounded mad and impatient both. "You said you'd punish him. If he has nothing to say for himself then it's time."

"I said I'd punish him if he needed it."

"He beat my poor Chaddie! He has a black eye! What more do you want? Chaddie can't defend himself, he has no friends here! Orlando is your pampered darling, everyone knows it. And your cook is his mother -- the rest of the staff will follow her lead! Chaddie's all alone, everyone will turn against him if you don't support him now!"

Master Liam sighed. "Orlando has never lied to me, not ever."

"Not that you've ever known--!" the Mistress started, but the Master held up a hand and she fell silent again, just glaring between him and Orlando.

"I don't know Chad, and you don't know Orlando. I trust my boy implicitly, and you trust yours. We're not going to solve this."

"So, what, you're going to do nothing?"

"Tasha, look, Chad's used to having you all to himself, and being the focus of attention in your household. Orlando's used to the same thing with me. I think, at worst, we have a couple of insecure boys who had a brangle. If we make it very clear that this sort of thing will never be tolerated again--" he paused to give Orlando and then Chad a hard look, "--I think it'll work itself out, if we give it some time."

The Mistress glared at Orlando, then at Master Liam, then back at Orlando again. She spun on one heel and smacked one hand down on her thigh before stalking toward the door. Chad stood up at the signal and hurried after her. He gave Orlando a frightened look as he passed. He did have a heck of a shiner, and Orlando wasn't a bit sorry about that.

Well, maybe a little bit, since it'd caused so much trouble.

When the door closed behind them, Master Liam sighed and crossed his arms, staring down at Orlando.

"Try to keep out of Chad's way. Moving in like this is hard for him and it'll take him some time to get used to it."

"Yes, Master." Orlando bit his lip and looked up at Master Liam through his eyelashes. His master's face was a blank and Orlando had no idea what he was thinking. The Master gestured for him to go, but Orlando stayed kneeling and said, "Master? May I please beg a favor?"

Master Liam just stared down at him, then said, "Ask."

"May I, on nights when you don't call me to sleep with you, may I sleep with Johnny? Just sleep? I...." He trailed off for a moment, unsure. What he'd been about to say was that he wanted a witness, but that could sound defensive, or even belligerent. Instead he whispered, "I don't want to be alone."

His master sighed, then nodded. "You may. And when Johnny's away, you may sleep in your mother's room."

"Thank you, Master." Orlando pressed his forehead to the floor once more, then stood up and left in silence.

 

"Scheming little shit didn't waste any time." Johnny looked like he'd bitten into something foul and was about to spit it out. They were huddled together in the office before dinner that evening, and Orlando'd told him what'd happened.

"I'll bet he planned it all from the start," Johnny went on. "With that 'You wouldn't dare' bit, he wanted you to go rat on him and try to get him in trouble so he could show his black eye and cry on his mistress's knee and point a trembling finger at you. You didn't cooperate, but he managed it anyway."

"But the Master believed him!" Orlando was still shocked about that. "Or at least didn't believe me. What am I supposed to do if he does it again?"

Johnny squeezed his shoulder and said, "I'll bet he did believe you but he couldn't say so. Hell, he just married her, right? He's not going to start a major fight over their slaves before they've even been married twenty-four hours, especially when it's just a he-said-he-said kind of thing. He can't take your side without offending the new bride, so he went for neutral. I'm kinda surprised he didn't flog you just to make her happy."

Orlando groaned and buried his face in the crook of Johnny's neck.

"Hey, come on, none of that. It's not that bad, not even close." Johnny tipped Orlando's face up and kissed his forehead. "Just stick with me, or with someone whenever you're not with the Master. Sleep with me like you asked -- that was a great idea, by the way, although you'll owe me big-time when this mess is over. Hang out at the stable or in the kitchen, help Samantha with the parsley or whatever, make sure you're never alone. He'll pull his shit on the other slaves soon enough, just like he did back home. At his old home. The Mistress's other place, whatever. But a few more complaints and hassles, all of them involving him, and the Master'll lay down the law."

"I hope so," Orlando murmured. "Should we warn everyone about him?"

Johnny frowned, then shook his head. "No, don't mention this to anyone. It'll make people angry, and if they start hassling him or snubbing him when he hasn't done anything to them and the Master and Mistress -- or at least the Mistress -- don't believe he did anything to you either, it'll just give him more ammunition. He'll go crying to her again about how big, mean Orlando set everyone else against poor little Chaddie."

Orlando rolled his eyes and said, "Poor little Chaddie has two inches and at least thirty pounds on me."

"I'm sure you're a hulking brute of a bully in Mistress Natasha's eyes," Johnny whispered. "So let's just keep this a secret for now and see what happens."

 

Six days later, Samantha came slamming into the kitchen just after lunch with a bundle of herbs for dinner that night and smacked them down on the counter.

"Samantha! Careful, you'll bruise everything!" Margaret hurried over and picked the bundle apart to inspect the plants.

"It doesn't matter!" snapped Samantha. "That asshole Chad, the Mistress's body-slave? He went stomping through the herb patch! Just for fun! I saw him! He was doing it when I went out there and he just smirked at me and wandered off, trailing broken stems off his shoes. I had to pull up over a dozen plants because the stems were crushed or broken, and most of the others are at least damaged! I'm sure if he'd had a saw he'd have taken down the rosemary bush too! What the hell is his problem?!"

"Chad? That's the blond boy, isn't it? He did this?" Margaret fished through sprigs of basil, then examined the marjoram and thyme. By the time she'd gone through the whole bundle, she was scowling too. "I don't know, but if this is what he does for fun, it's going to stop immediately."

"Can you get along without me in here for the rest of the day?" asked Samantha. "I'll clean up the rest of the mess outside. We have some more basil in the greenhouse I can plant out, and I'll start some more seeds."

"Go ahead and spend the day on the herbs," Margaret agreed. "I'm going to speak with the Mistress."

 

Less than an hour later, Master Liam came striding into the office, where Johnny and Orlando were working together.

"Johnny, out."

"Yes, Master!" Johnny sprang up out of his chair, bowed quickly and hurried out the door. The Master closed it behind him and stared hard down at Orlando, who'd left his own chair and knelt on the floor with his forehead pressed to the carpet as soon as he heard the angry tone in his master's voice. What now?

"Look at me."

Orlando knelt up and looked at the Master's face. He was definitely angry.

"What did you tell your mother about the incident with Chad? Or your sister?"

"Nothing, Master."

"Nothing at all? Why?"

Orlando swallowed and said, "I talked to Johnny about it, and he said we shouldn't tell anyone else. That our people might get mad at Chad and snub him, and that'd just make things worse. So I didn't tell anyone. I haven't even told Mama yet about sleeping with her when Johnny's gone."

The Master sighed and pushed a hand through his hair. He looked frustrated as well as upset. "Are you sure no one could have overheard you and Johnny talking?"

"Yes, Master, I'm sure. We were in here, by the computer, and the door was closed. We were speaking softly. No one could've heard anything."

Master Liam was silent for a few seconds, then went over to the leather couch under the window, sat down and patted his thigh. Orlando crawled over and curled up next to him on the floor, with his arms crossed on his master's lap. The Master ruffled his hair, then sat back and looked down at him. His hand kept petting him as though he just hadn't told it to stop.

"Maggie went to the Mistress a little while ago with a story about Chad. Apparently Samantha told her that he went to the herb garden and stamped all over it, ruining a lot of the plants. For no particular reason, just to do damage. She told Maggie and Maggie complained to the Mistress. Which would have been the right thing to do, if it made any sense."

"The Mistress didn't believe her," Orlando whispered.

"No. She's sure that either Samantha made it up, to get Chad in trouble, or Samantha and Maggie cooked it up between them, to get Chad in trouble. To support you, because your first scheme didn't work."

"Master--!"

"Hush, I know." Master Liam pressed down a little harder on Orlando's head for a moment. "This isn't the first complaint about him, either, although it's the first one that went to the Mistress. Raul and Jerry both complained to me about him picking lemons and throwing them at the horses. Johnny said Marcy caught him wrecking a supply closet, and that two other slaves complained to Johnny of him pushing them for sex.

"The sex I can imagine, since Tasha has been with me every night and I don't think she's been with him other times, although I still want to thrash him for it. But the destructive incidents -- they're just ridiculous. They do sound like someone making things up."

The Master sounded more like himself than he had for a few days, and Orlando dared to murmur, "That's why."

"What? What's why, monkey?"

Orlando thought for a moment, trying to figure out how much to say and how to phrase it. "I've heard that he's bullied the Mistress's other slaves before, getting them in trouble because she won't believe anything is ever his fault. I think he's the one who wants to be top slave and he's trying to make you and the Mistress hate me, and make it look like the others are misbehaving to support me. He's doing stupid things no one would ever do, because no one would ever do them. If we complain then we're lying to get him in trouble, and if we don't then he's wrecking things and hurting people and getting away with it. He's the only one who comes out looking good, and he gets what he wants either way."

Master Liam made a "Huh" sound and was silent for a few moments. He finally said, "Well, Jerry Irons isn't just another jealous slave. His word definitely trumps Chad's; that's what got me wondering."

"Master?"

"Don't whine, monkey. None of us has ever been in this situation before, and I couldn't be sure you weren't just insecure and jealous and got into a fight with Chad. I never believed it was all your fault, though; that boy's too slick to be completely innocent."

 

"He didn't tell me what he's going to do, though," Orlando said, after relating the latest to Johnny.

"He probably doesn't know what he's going to do," Johnny said. "Don't look so shocked -- this isn't just a dispute between slaves. He can't thrash everyone, or even thrash whoever he thinks is making trouble. It's more complicated and I'm glad I'm not the one who has to figure it out."

"What's to figure out? Chad's a scheming prick. Why can't they just thrash him and make him quit?"

Johnny lowered his voice and said, "Because the problem's not really Chad -- it's the Mistress."

Orlando looked around for listeners out of reflex, then stared back at Johnny.

Johnny nodded and whispered, "Right. Chad's like he is because she lets him. She's the one who has to be fixed, and the Master can't just thrash her. It's like a business partnership -- you have to negotiate and come to an agreement. Getting her to agree that the problem is sweet Chaddie is going to be tough."

"So what'll he do?"

"Damn if I know." Johnny just shrugged. "I'm glad I don't have to solve it. And sometimes, like now, I'm glad slaves can't get married."

 

That weekend, the Master and Mistress had a barbecue and invited everyone they knew within three counties, or so it seemed looking out at the hordes of people and body-slaves cluttering up the back lawn and the deck. It was the first time they'd entertained since the wedding, and one week seemed to've been long enough not to look too strange, for a couple who hadn't had a honeymoon.

Orlando was taking children on horsie rides around the arena on Bramble, the pony Master Liam had gotten for him and Samantha when they were small. Some of the adults were getting ready to go for a ride as well, and the mounted group headed out of the stable yard toward the lake edge, where there was a pretty trail circling the water through the wooded hills.

The Master and Mistress were with the group, and everyone was talking and laughing. Mistress Natasha wasn't much of a rider -- she could stay on fine if the horse was walking, or maybe for a short canter, but Strawberry was just following the Master on Palisade and Orlando doubted the Mistress could guide a horse home by herself, unless she got off and led it.

She was trying, though. She knew the Master loved horses and was trying hard to get better and seemed to have a good time just being with him.

Orlando'd been keeping an eye on her for the last week, mostly so he could stay out of her way. She and the Master talked and smiled at one another and fooled around and got that sappy look people in love got when they looked at each other, and Orlando really wished he could just like her and be happy for Master Liam. She seemed like a really nice person, so long as she wasn't sticking up for Chad or glaring at Orlando.

He'd be willing to bet that getting rid of Chad would make her a nice person all the time, once she got over losing him. It'd be tough, but someone else would be better for her in the long run -- a slave who was nice too, and didn't think he had to stomp on everyone else to get ahead. Then they could all settle back down and everything would be like it was, or as close as it could be with a mistress around, and probably kids soon.

Orlando'd never had all that much to do with kids, having been the youngest on the estate for a while, but he'd probably have to get used to kids before too long. That could be fun -- he remembered some of the things he'd done when he was little, by himself or with the Master or playing with whoever had time for him. Having a kid to play with and teach stuff would give him something else to do whenever the Master and Mistress were alone together.

Just then he had a line-up of kids from around three to ten waiting for their turn on the pony. He finished a round and led Bramble back to the gate, then lifted a little boy off and handed him over to his nurse. She was a slave too, and Orlando wondered whether they'd get a new slave to be nurse when the Mistress started having kids? Probably. She and the Master were both pretty busy, and there wasn't anyone around the estate who had time to look after little kids all day.

A girl around eight or so mounted on her own and had a good seat. Orlando gave her a smile and nod and handed her the reins. He retreated to the middle of the arena to watch, close enough to run up if she had a problem, but far enough away that she could have the fun of riding on her own. It was hard to tell sometimes just how much help a kid needed, or whether what they wanted was actually what they needed. Orlando'd been at it all morning, though, and was starting to get a feel for it.

 

Late Monday morning, Orlando was in the Master's dressing room, collecting clothes to take to the cleaner's, when he heard footsteps and a slammed door.

"--believe you chastised my Chaddie without saying a word to me!"

"He's been making trouble, Tasha. I know you don't want to hear it, but he's causing chaos and resentment among the staff and I can't tolerate that."

"Then why don't you pull your people in line? Chaddie's all alone, what could he possibly do against your horde? They've closed ranks against him and they're determined to set you against him too. You never said a word against him until we moved in."

"Tasha... I'm sorry, love, but I've gotten eight other complaints about him, and not from Orlando or Maggie or Samantha."

"Slaves get jealous and hateful, you know that! They'll all support your Orlando even if they pretend it's about something else."

"Two of the slaves making complaints hardly know Orlando -- they're new and have had little or nothing to do with him. And Jerry Irons isn't a slave. He's a free employee, my stable manager; he's got nothing to be jealous of when it comes to Chad and no reason to get involved in slave brangles."

"And so you're convinced Chaddie has turned into this evil creature just in the last ten days, then?"

"What I think is that he's capable of behaving perfectly, and does so whenever you or I or another free person -- or at least people he's aware are free -- are around. With the other slaves, though, it's something else entirely. He's an accomplished liar and an expert manipulator."

"Well, of course he is! All slaves are!" There was a silent pause, and then she said, "What, did you think I was stupid? Slaves have no power so they lie and manipulate to get what they want -- they're all like that. Chaddie gives me perfect service, and despite what you think of him, my household ran perfectly with him in it. The house was clean, my wardrobe was taken care of, good meals were served on time and my guests never had any complaints -- including you if you'll recall. So long as it doesn't get out of hand and they keep it out of sight and hearing, I've never had a reason to interfere in the slaves' bickering.

"Your Orlando is the one who's out of hand. Chaddie has never injured anyone! I'd be more than willing to let them settle their little status disputes between them if it were just arguments and insults, but I don't want to have to lose Chaddie to a hospital for who knows how long next time your brat decides to put him in his place."

There was another short silence, then a quiet, "Orlando's not like that."

The Mistress made a frustrated sound, like half a laugh and half a groan. "They're all like that! If you don't think so, then your boy's just very good at hiding it."

"I know I can't convince you, you'll just have to get to know him. The fact remains, though, that I can't allow Chad to disrupt this household. He might well have kept a working equilibrium among your staff by bullying everyone into deferring to him, but that's not going to work here, and I can't let him wreak havok while he figures that out."

"Fine! Whatever!" Orlando heard quick, angry sounding footsteps retreating toward the door. "You just keep your half of the problem away from him!"

Orlando stood frozen, hoping as hard as he could that his master wouldn't come into the dressing room. There was silence from the other room for nearly a minute, then a long sigh and slow steps leaving the bedroom.

 

Whatever the Master had said to Chad, it lasted for almost three weeks. The household was quiet, everyone going about their business, with a sense of heads kept down and ears pricked for signs of trouble.

Johnny was in Turkey, laying groundwork for a series of meetings Master Liam and Orlando would be flying out for soon. Research Orlando had done had shown that it was one of the easier countries for slave Agents to work in; that part of the world had had a long history of slaves with authority to do business for their masters in an earlier era, and they'd had no problem readjusting to the new era of modern slavery. Orlando'd never been farther east than Germany and was looking forward to going, especially since he'd felt twitchy for the last few days, not having Johnny around.

His mama hadn't reacted well when he'd explained exactly why he needed to sleep on a cot in her room, either. He'd insisted she promise to keep the secret before telling her, though, even from Samantha, and she'd agreed with a minimum of fuss. A minimum before she heard what the situation was, at least; she'd been furious when she heard what Chad had tried to pull the night of the wedding. But Orlando had reinforced the promise she'd made and insisted that telling anyone or treating Chad any different would only cause problems.

And actually, since the incident with the herb garden she'd been cold to Chad anyway, so nothing really changed.

Orlando was in the office talking to Mr. Vincent's Paul on videoconference. I'd been a while since they'd last had a chance to chat, so when they finished their business they stayed online for a few more minutes.

"--still think you're gonna get me up on a horse?" Paul teased.

"Damn right!" Orlando insisted with a grin. "Hey, I tried that disgusting tongue stuff last time I was at your place, so you have to try riding when you're here."

"Hey, tongue is excellent stuff! It makes the best sandwiches!"

Orlando gave an elaborate shudder and made a face for the webcam. "If I'm gonna have something else's tongue in my mouth, it better be attached to my master!"

Paul snickered and said, "How about my tongue? You don't like that anymore?"

"Oh, that'll do in a pinch, I guess," Orlando said with an exaggerated shrug.

"Wow, thanks! Maybe I'll ask Master if we can just go home before you get back. Why bother waiting around to get together if I'll just 'do in a pinch?'"

"Well, fine, maybe more than a pinch." Orlando fluttered his eyelashes in a flirt so over-the-top it needed a parachute.

"How about a hug?"

"Okay, a hug works -- you're good at those."

"Fine, I guess we'll stay after all."

"Yay!" Orlando grinned and waved. "It'll be great to see you, seriously. We'll be in the air for like twenty hours that day, coming home from Turkey, so you can give me a nice back rub or something and then fuck me unconscious."

"We live to serve," Paul said with a jaunty salute. "Hey, it's almost time for dinner here so I have to go. See ya, babe!"

"Later!"

Some e-mail binged in just as Paul vanished, so Orlando went right to that window. It was an update packet from Johnny; Orlando downloaded it to Master Liam's "Attention" folder on the hard drive and flagged it for the Turkey trip.

"Busy little bee, huh?"

Orlando startled up away from the keyboard and swivelled around in the chair to see Chad leaning in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest and a sneering expression on his face. Orlando felt a jolt of panic -- there was no one there, no one to witness if Chad decided he'd been good long enough.

"What do you want, Chad? I have work to do." Orlando swivelled back to face the computer and remembered that he hadn't shut down the webcam. He left it on and set it to record video, then minimized all the folders and turned back to stare at Chad.

"I thought you were supposed to at least try to be nice to me. You're not even going to pretend?"

"We're supposed to get along and not cause any trouble. I'm not required to like you and I doubt you really expect me to."

"I'll bet if your master ordered you to like me, you would. Or at least you'd try as hard as you could. Wouldn't you, Orlando? Perfect Orlando, always obeys to the least detail," Chad snarked.

"Of course I'd try my best. Master Liam would never order that, though. And he's not just 'my' master -- California is a community property state, so they own both of us together."

"Not for much longer if he thinks he can tell my mistress how to treat her slaves. She didn't like that at all."

"What, you think she'd sell you?" That didn't make sense with what he'd said, though. But.... Orlando stared at Chad as though he'd grown a second head. "You think they'd actually get divorced over you? Over us? Even I'm not that delusional!"

Chad gave a casual shrug and strolled over toward Orlando. "Maybe not. But Mistress Natasha was never all that happy about moving here and being a stranger in someone else's house, with someone else's slaves and everyone used to their own way of doing stuff and her the outsider. Everyone else stayed home, and sure, the idea is that we'll be there part of the time where it'll be the other way around, but this place is bigger and nicer so how often are we going to be there?"

"So... what?" Orlando still couldn't figure out what he was getting at.

"So it's pretty clear that the whole staff is with you, and with him, and against me and her. No one likes me, or even respects me. They don't respect her, either. You think she'll stand for that for very long?"

"That's not true! No one's been disrespectful to the new mistress!"

"Snubbing me is disrespecting her."

"Maybe if you weren't such a fuckwad," Orlando said, his voice getting louder and more angry, "maybe if you made some kind of effort to be a worthy representative of your mistress, the staff would warm up to you. No one minds her -- she's a perfectly nice lady when she's not trying to defend you for some shit you've pulled. Getting rid of you would solve all our problems."

"So would getting rid of everyone else," Chad taunted. "Or most of them, at least. You, the spoiled little prince, your mother, who's been stirring everyone up against me--"

"She has not!"

"Oh, you're so full of it! It's obvious she doesn't like me and they all follow her lead. Just because she never told them to, doesn't mean she's not one of the ringleaders."

"If you hadn't stomped up the herb garden she'd have liked you just fine!"

Chad grinned. "Maybe I just felt like playing in the mud that day."

Orlando felt like snarling. "You are such a bastard! Why? What can you possibly gain by all this shit that you couldn't have just by being nice?"

"See, that's your problem. You've actually bought into all this good-little-slave crap. You think all you have to do is be 'nice' and your owners will be nice back and everything will be fine forever. It doesn't work that way."

"It doesn't work for assholes like you, maybe, but if you act decent and don't cause trouble it works just fine."

"You're like a teddy bear, you know? Pull your string and you say the same five or six things over and over. Except the teddy bear's smarter 'cause it knows it's gonna be thrown away some day. And maybe sooner than you think."

"What?" Orlando snapped. "Make sense or get out."

"While you and your master and that snot Johnny are all gone, 'our' mistress is going to be in charge, all by herself. You think everyone around here can behave for her for two whole weeks?" Chad asked with a teasing grin. "You think no one'll show what they really think of me, and of her, for all that time? I don't. I think maybe there'll be some staff changes by the time you all get back."

"And maybe you're going to help it along some? You fucker!" Orlando's fists clenched and he tried to get up. He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but he knew he wanted to punch the shit out of Chad and he had a couple of seconds to relish the idea before maybe thinking better of it.

He didn't have the chance, though, because as soon as he shifted his weight, Chad grabbed his shoulder and yanked back hard, sending the chair crashing to the floor with Orlando in it. The fall knocked the wind out of him and smacked the back of his skull into the hardwood floor, but he rolled out of the chair and onto his knees where he could watch Chad, then scrambled to his feet.

"What, are you gonna do something? Starting a fight? Perfect Orlando's going to disobey his master?!" Chad mimed round-eyed shock.

"You already started it, you prick." Orlando swung a punch to re-blacken Chad's eye, but Chad ducked.

"Hint!" Chad taunted. "Next time you want to hit someone, don't leave evidence." He faked a swing at Orlando's mouth, then delivered a hard punch to the stomach.

Orlando collapsed to his knees, then snarled and tackled Chad around the thighs and they both went down in a thrashing heap.

All Orlando was aware of for the next minute or so was panting, grunting, swearing, and pain, either in his knuckles from where he hit Chad, or in his body from where Chad hit him. He was in a rage and wasn't thinking of anything but beating the crap out of this asshole who'd come and ruined everything.

Suddenly a woman's voice was screaming, "Liam! Dammit, come do something!"

Orlando was suddenly aware of the rest of the world, and his master's name distracted him long enough for Chad -- who'd apparently discarded his own advice -- to get in one last punch in the jaw. Then a pair of huge, hard hands had him by the arms and tossed him into a corner where he went thudding to the floor one more time, then another thump came from the opposite corner where Chad hit. Orlando's head spun, and the room was suddenly full of the smell of horses and sweat, and the overwhelming presence of his master.

"Just what the hell are the two of you doing!"

Master Liam hadn't sounded that angry since Orlando'd taken Palisade out bareback. He scrambled to his knees and across the floor to crouch down kneeling with his forehead on his master's boot. His master stepped back, rejecting the gesture, and Orlando wanted to cry.

"I expect orders to be obeyed," the Master said, his voice hard and cold. "And for that matter, I expect orders about not fighting to be completely unnecessary."

"Chad, what happened?" the mistress snapped. Orlando had never heard her sound that angry when addressing her body-slave.

Chad, who was crouching at his mistresses feet in the same position as Orlando, said, "Mistress, I came in to ask Orlando to show me how the e-mail works here. I was trying to learn how to be useful to the new household, as you commanded. He accused me of trying to take over his territory and shoved me. I fell down and, and I got mad and, and then we were fighting. I'm sorry, Mistress!"

"Orlando?" Master Liam still sounded coldly furious, and Orlando had to sniffle back tears and swallow several times before he could respond.

"Master...." But what could he say? Chad was lying but there wasn't... no, wait, there was. "Master, I was talking to Paul about Mr. Vincent's visit next week, and then Chad came in. There was no one here with us, so I started it recording. The webcam is still on."

Orlando saw out of the corner of his eye that Chad's shoulders hunched, then smoothed back to perfect, contrite-slave form. Master Liam didn't say a word, but went over to the computer. Orlando heard the mouse click a few times, then he heard Chad's voice say, "I thought you were supposed to at least try to be nice to me."

They all listened silently as the two slaves snarked back and forth at each other, then argued, then fought.

Orlando didn't dare look up to watch, and didn't think there was much to see anyway; Chad would have been out of the camera's tiny range for most of the argument, and both of them for the fight. But the audio was understandable, and Orlando was pretty sure Chad yanking his chair back would be on the video.

He heard his master's fuzzy voice demand to know what they were doing, then another mouse click and the room was silent.

"I think it's clear who started this," Master Liam said. "Aside from the blatant lie he told you about what happened, he obviously came in here looking to pick a fight. It was pure manipulation from beginning to end."

Orlando huffed out a quiet sigh and was relieved enough to tilt his head just a tiny bit so he could barely see his owners.

"Oh," said the Mistress, "and that wasn't?" She stabbed a finger at the computer. "Your perfect Orlando knew exactly what he was doing when he started the recording. He knew they'd be overheard and Chad didn't. Of course he came off looking better."

"Come on, Tasha, it's not the same thing at all."

Mistress Natasha made an angry little noise, then insisted, "It's the exact same thing! You keep insisting that Orlando is pure as the falling snow and completely the victim here, and that Chad is the only one being sneaky or manipulative. I keep telling you, they're all like that and your blindness and blatant favoritism doesn't change anything. The problem isn't the boys, it's your twisted attitude about your slave!"

"Whatever my 'attitude' is toward my slave, it's obvious to me that he's not the one causing trouble here," the Master said with an impatient wave of one hand.

"And it's obvious to me that it's both of them!" she snapped. Then she waved that away and said, "Fine, I'll agree that you were right before -- we have two boys who are insecure and jealous, and trying to blend Chad into 'Orlando's' household isn't working. So fine. I've had Chad for almost four years now and I've been thinking of looking around for someone new. So we can compromise -- I'll sell Chad and get a new body-slave. You sell Orlando and do the same. You've had him for a completely ridiculous amount of time anyway and a change will do you good, to say nothing of stopping all the gossip about you. We'll bring two new boys into the household at the same time, they'll both be strangers and equals and will have nothing significant to fight about. There, problem solved." She made the last statement a challenge, and stood there glaring at the Master with her arms folded across her chest.

Orlando could hardly breathe. She made it sound so reasonable, like the perfect solution, the perfect compromise, but the very thought made him want to vomit.

"There's no need for that," Master Liam said. "If you've been thinking of selling Chad anyway, then fine. If you get someone new and unspoiled, that'll solve the problem right there. Orlando still pleases me very much and I don't see any reason to get rid of him as well."

Mistress Natasha made a short, angry little noise. "You're missing the whole point!"

The Master started to say something, but the Mistress cut him off. "Oh, don't even bother! I don't want to hear it, it's the same every time." She strode right up in front of him and glared up at him, hands fisted on her hips. "We talked about this, and you promised me it wasn't an unhealthy attachment! You swore to me, and were even angry when I suggested it. And yet here we are.

"You've had that boy for twenty-two years! Do you have any idea how ludicrous that is?"

"He was born here, Tasha. He's only been a body-slave for five years, which is hardly unusual." The Master sounded like he was trying to balance conciliation with impatience. The Mistress didn't seem to be too pleased with the result.

"Don't try to hide behind technicalities. I can listen to gossip too -- the two of you have been inseparable ever since he was old enough to toddle after you, and you encouraged every bit of it."

"For God's sake, he was an adorable little boy!" the Master snapped back. "What exactly are you accusing me of?"

"Oh, come off it! You're being ridiculous now and trying to change the subject." The Mistress threw up her hands and stalked across the room, then turned to glare back at the Master again. "The subject is your unhealthy, undignified attachment to a slave. He's only a slave, Liam, and there are a million others out there exactly like him. He's nothing special, none of them are. He's prettier than most, I'll grant you, but if you'd open your eyes and look around, you could find another one just as pretty and doubtless more skilled and experienced."

"Or I could end up with someone who doesn't suit me at all. There's no reason to sell a slave who pleases me perfectly well."

"If you buy a slave that doesn't suit you, then you sell it and buy another one. You're allowed to go through as many as you want until you find one you'll enjoy for a while. They're just slaves and there aren't any upper quotas or limits."

"I'm not selling Orlando until I'm tired of him."

Orlando recognized that immovable tone in his master's voice. Apparently the Mistress did too.

"So, what? You absolutely refuse to compromise?" she asked, her voice frozen into a perfectly neutral tone. "Are you willing to break our marriage over a slave? You heard your boy on the recording -- even he doesn't expect you to do that."

Master Liam scowled at the floor and pushed a hand through his hair. "Come on, Tasha, there's no reason for it to go that far, or even close to that far. If you've been meaning to sell Chad anyway then why is Orlando even an issue?"

The Mistress made another angry little noise. "Orlando is not the issue. You are the issue! You are the one with a problem and I'm worried about you! I love you and I don't want to see you do this to yourself! You're obsessed with a slave and it's not healthy, not for you and not for him!"

'Tasha...." He trailed off, then shook his head. "No, all right? Just no." And he left the room.

The Mistress buried her face in her hands for a few moments, then muttered something foul and walked out.

Orlando waited a dozen tense heartbeats, but no one came back to give them orders so he finally knelt up and looked around. Chad was already sitting on the floor, looking like someone had whacked him on the back of the head with a board. Orlando murmured, "I'm sorry," then stood up and walked away.

 

The Master and Mistress's shouted argument had been heard by everyone on the first floor, and by a couple of house slaves who'd been up at the top of the stairs when it'd begun. Angry yelling among the owners was always enough to have slaves scurrying and ducking. Angry yelling about selling slaves was enough to inspire any slave nearby to invisibility, and the huge house felt weirdly empty for the next few days as all the slaves stayed out of sight as much as they could while doing their work as perfectly as they could manage.

Orlando was miserable. His master hadn't looked directly at him since the fight and he was sure he was going to be sold. He knew his master didn't want to sell him; he'd always known that. It'd been the rock of security on which his life, as happy as anyone's, had been built. Even when he'd been younger and getting into scrapes, with the occasional terrified flash of, "Oh my god, he's going to sell me!" running through his mind, he'd never really believed it, any more than a free boy would believe his father was actually going to "kill" him.

So he snuck around like everyone else, doing his work and otherwise ducking away from his master. He watched for when the Master and Mistress were gone before slipping in to clean up the bedroom and change the bed and take care of his master's clothes. Chad should've been sharing the clean-up chores, since the mistress was sharing the room, but he'd stuck to her dressing room, taking care of her wardrobe and nothing else, and Orlando didn't mind.

The last thing he wanted to do was actually share chores with Chad two or three times a day.

The only good thing to come out of the whole mess was that Chad was playing invisible just like everyone else. He didn't seem to care anymore. Orlando didn't know where he went or what he did when he wasn't working, but he never saw him around except for staff meals, and didn't hear anyone complaining about him.

His mama tried to talk to him, and made completely worthless promises about how the Master would never, ever sell him. Orlando knew better, so he just nodded and escaped as soon as he could.

 

Four days later, Orlando got another shock.

"--I can manage for myself for the flight over, and Johnny can look after me while we're there," his master said, not looking directly at him while tapping away at the computer. "The Turks aren't as fussy about having an obvious body-slave with one all the time, so you don't need to come with me. Just pack for me, and you can have a vacation while I'm gone."

Orlando barely managed to stammer out a, "Yes, Master," and bow before Master Liam waved him out of the office. And then the next day Javier drove him to the airport and Orlando was really alone.

 

Mr. Irons routed him out of the kitchen the next day and ordered him down to the stable. "You can make yourself useful," he said in his low, rough voice. "Slaves who just slouch around the place with nothing to do get into trouble." He put Orlando to work with the two stable slaves, Polly and Jack, grooming and exercising and mucking out.

The three of them knew one another and got along perfectly well. The other two were happy to have full-time help, even if only temporarily, and Orlando was happy to have work to do to keep his mind off of the approaching end of his life and everything he knew.

 

Another distraction arrived six days later, when Mr. Vincent and Paul drove up to the house. Orlando had been expecting them, and he dashed up from the stable, racing their car to the head of the drive. He went to his knees just as the car doors opened, smiling for the first time in over a week.

"Hey, kid!" Mr. Vincent called. He reached down and yanked Orlando to his feet, gave him a rough hug, then pushed him at Paul, who gave him a hug and a kiss. "What're you doing here? Where's your master? Did Turkey fall through?"

Orlando hugged Paul back, then turned and bowed to Mr. Vincent, trying to keep his expression neutral. "No, sir. My master didn't need me for this trip."

"The fuck?" Mr. Vincent stared at Orlando like he'd just grown a third arm. "What, you got a pod in your basement or something? What happened?"

"I couldn't say, sir. I'm sorry."

"Orlando, introduce our guest." The Mistress came down the front steps, cool and pleasant as she looked over her houseguest. Mr. Vincent had been in Miami on business for the wedding and hadn't met her yet.

"Yes, Mistress. This is Mr. Mark Vincent. Mr. Vincent, my mistress, Ms. Natasha Richardson."

"How do you do, Mr. Vincent?" The Mistress held out a hand and Mr. Vincent took it in a careful squeeze.

"Just fine, ma'am. Thanks for letting us stay while the old man's gone."

Mistress Natasha grinned up at him. "The 'old man' assured me you won't make off with the silver nor molest any of the mares, and that this makes you a favored guest."

Mr. Vincent gave a loud bark of laughter, then said, "Damn! I guess that means we gotta behave. Fine, I'll try to pretend to be civilized, for a few days anyway."

"Good enough," said the Mistress, still smiling. "I'll let Liam pay for any damages and take it up with you himself when he gets back."

He went inside with the Mistress, still chatting. Orlando went around to the trunk and helped Paul with their suitcases.

"So what the fuck?" Paul murmured. "Why are you here when your master's on the other side of the world?"

"I couldn't say," Orlando whispered, turning away while wrestling with the bigger suitcase.

"Don't gimme that shit, it's just us," Paul whispered back. Then in a normal voice he said, "So where're we going? Same as last time?"

Orlando nodded. "Right across from my room."

Paul frowned, then thought about it and shrugged. "Okay, so your master got married and the bed could get crowded with the four of you. She's got a body-slave too, right?"

Orlando nodded again.

They hauled the bags upstairs to the room that'd been prepped for Mr. Vincent, but when Orlando went to open one of the suitcases and start unpacking, Paul grabbed him around the waist from behind and hauled him onto the bed. He wrestled Orlando down, wrapped his arms and legs around him and forcibly cuddled him, ignoring his squirming and protests.

"There. Now, what the fuck's up? And don't give me that 'I couldn't say' shit. You and your master've been joined at the hip for as long as I've known you. He gets this ridiculously soppy expression on his face when he looks at you--"

"He does not!"

"Does too. It's subtle and he tries to hide it, but if you're looking it's obvious. He's not all lovey-gooey or anything, but for the Great Stone Face, just a quirk or a twitch is as good as a drunken serenade from someone like Master Mark.

"So what happened?"

Orlando burrowed his face into the crook of Paul's neck and gave a tiny headshake. "I can't. Really, I can't. It's private and I can't talk about it and I can't do anything, it's just... it just is."

Paul huffed in frustration, but let off his nagging. He just held Orlando and rocked back and forth with him, rubbing his back slowly.

Orlando completely lost track of time, so when the door opened and a heavy tread entered the bedroom, he tried to scramble up off the bed but Paul hung on and wouldn't let him move an inch.

The door closed again and Mr. Vincent said, "So, what'd he tell you?"

"Not a thing, Master. I was about to try spanking it out of him, but he'd probably like it."

Mr. Vincent snorted agreement, then came over and sat on the side of the bed. "He's a good boy. You should take notes."

Paul made a rude noise. Orlando heard a smack, then Paul yelped.

"Hey, kid?" Orlando felt Mr. Vincent's hand rubbing his hip and he turned over to look at him.

"Yes, sir?" He bowed his head, the closest he could get to a real bow while tangled up in Paul.

"I called your boss and asked him what the fuck, 'cause this is seriously weird and he should've let me know there was something going on instead of letting me walk in blind and maybe put my foot in my mouth or something. So we had a talk and he said you were free to play with us, both of us, while we're here."

Mr. Vincent was watching Orlando while he spoke, taking in every reaction. Orlando froze and did his best not to move a single cell in his body that wasn't absolutely necessary to saying, "Yes, sir," and nodding again.

It wasn't as though he could say anything else. He'd been put at Mr. Vincent's service and he'd do whatever was wanted. And it wasn't like he'd never played with them before, except before his master had been playing too, or at least watching, and he'd never ever played with anyone without his master at least watching except for Johnny, and of course Mr. Travers but he didn't count because that was just lessons, and his master had always wanted him within eyeshot and preferably within arm's reach whenever he was playing with someone else and if he was willing to just say, "Sure, whatever" to someone else when he wasn't even in the country then did that mean he didn't care anymore, that he really was getting ready to sell him--?

"Hey, Orlando!" Mr. Vincent tapped him on the forehead and brought him back to the there-and-then. "Come on, I can hear your brain buzzing all the way out here. Quit it -- you'll burn something out." He grinned and stood up and stretched.

"Paul and I've been travelling since way too early this morning. We're gonna get a shower. You start unpacking and when we're fit to be touched you can help us both relax."

And of course, "Yes, sir," was the only possible response to that.

 

Mistress Natasha seemed to like Mr. Vincent, but she had her own business to tend to and was away from home for at least a few hours most days, and she (and Chad) were gone the entire following weekend. Orlando spent most of his time with Mr. Vincent and Paul, entertaining, serving, and playing tour guide around both the estate and the larger Bay Area, whenever their business left them free.

Even when it didn't, Mr. Vincent usually dragged Orlando along. He took Master Liam's permission to "play" with Orlando whenever he liked as leave to essentially confiscate him for the duration of their visit. The Mistress certainly didn't mind, and Orlando thought she was probably just as happy to get rid of him whenever he was out with the guests.

On Saturday night, Orlando found himself in his leather pants and eye liner, with glitter in his hair and his collar locked around his throat, at a club in downtown San Jose called Chains. Mr. Vincent, with Paul and Orlando, was shown immediately to the owner's table, in a niche to one side which had a view of the bar and dance floor.

"Mark, hey!" The owner, a man just a little older than Orlando, gripped Mr. Vincent's shoulder and gestured him into a seat in the recessed booth. He looked over Paul and then Orlando. "You got two now? Flashy! Nice contrast -- I'll bet they're hot together."

Mr. Vincent grinned. "Definitely. But the dark one's not mine -- I'm watching him for a friend who's travelling."

"Lucky you!"

"Lucky me," Mr. Vincent agreed. "You boys settle down there with Tony's kid, let everyone see you and envy us." He gave them both a grin, then slid into the booth while Paul and Orlando knelt down in front of the table, facing out toward the dance floor -- the owner's body-slave, a pretty Hispanic teenager, then Paul, then Orlando, all in a row.

The two men chatted business for a while, the club owner explaining the changes he'd made and pointing out the surging crowd. It wasn't something Orlando knew much about, nor needed to know, so he tuned them out and just watched the dancing, drinking, flirting and groping going on all around the room.

The main feature seemed to be twenty or so slaves, naked or mostly so except for collars, manacles, and a lot of polished chains. Some slid through the crowd serving drinks, some danced on platforms around the periphery, and some danced down at floor-level. The dancers were all chained to a wall, a pole or a ring in the floor, in addition to the metal they were wearing. All the dancers within reach of the customers were being groped, rubbed on, and otherwise used by the patrons. No one was actually fucking anyone yet, but Orlando had a feeling it was just a matter of time and alcohol flow.

It was tacky and blatant and completely tasteless -- Orlando could imagine Master Liam's lip curling if he saw the place -- but it was obviously popular. He didn't recognize any of the patrons, nor did anyone there except the owner and Mr. Vincent have slaves of their own along.

That was probably the attraction; people who couldn't afford their own body-slaves could come and feel up the goods and maybe pretend for an evening that it was theirs.

Despite the out-of-the-way alcove, the slaves kneeling in front of the table eventually attracted attention. Club-goers came by, laughing and staring and touching all three of them; Orlando felt hands in his hair, fingers across his lips, thighs pressing his chest.

He glanced over his shoulder at Mr. Vincent; Master Liam would never have allowed strangers to touch him like that, but Orlando couldn't think how to mention that without being presumptuous.

Mr. Vincent frowned at a young woman, no more than twenty, who knelt down in front of Paul and kissed him. Her hands slid under his sheer silk shirt, rubbing and pinching. Orlando didn't know whether to lean away from her or to lean closer to Paul in support.

A moment later he heard Mr. Vincent clear his throat. He glared over Orlando's hair at the girl and said, "Sorry. Mine. Scoot." When she'd pouted and flounced off, he said, "Hey, Tony, let's get the boys out of reach. The grabbing's uncool, especially with the loaner kid. His Lordship's not big on sharing unless it's with a close friend, you know?"

"Hey, no prob!" Mr. Tony put up his hands in immediate agreement and looked around. "How about we put your two up on a platform? The customers can look but not touch, and those two are definitely worth looking at."

"Sure, that'd be fine." Mr. Vincent nodded agreement, and Mr. Tony signalled one of the free staff people, a burly man in a leather jacket. "Hey, John, take these two to the center platform. Move Brian down next to the bar."

"Sure, thing. C'mon, guys." The staffer gestured to Paul and Orlando to follow.

Orlando looked up at him, then at Mr. Vincent.

"It's all right, just dance with Paul." Mr. Vincent gave him a grin and shooed him off.

Orlando said, "Yes, sir," and stood. He grabbed Paul's hand and they followed the staff guy through the shifting crowd. He led them up a narrow staircase behind one of the tall platforms and had them stand to one side while he unlocked the manacles the slave already up there had been wearing around his wrists. He pulled Paul over first, locked the steel onto him, then pulled a second set of chains out of a corner and locked them onto Orlando.

"There. You two stay close, now -- don't fall off or you'll end up dangling there and looking like idiots. Give it a good show." He gave them a grin and ruffled Orlando's hair, then led the other slave back down the stairs.

Orlando looked down at the cuffs and chains weighing down his wrists, then across at Paul. "Umm...?"

Paul shrugged. "It's a club thing. They all have a gimmick. Come on, dance with me!" He slid his clinking arms around Orlando's waist and pulled him close, grinding their hips together while ducking down for a long kiss.

By the time they came up for air, the crowd below them was hooting and cheering and Paul gave him a grin and a wink. He moved his hands to Orlando's shoulders and started swaying to the music. "Come on, forget them and have fun!"

Orlando grinned back and danced. It was weird, but there weren't any strangers within reach now and he liked dancing with Paul. He also liked flirting with Paul, and the crowd liked to watch him do it. The cheers and applause egged him on, now that he felt safe up above them, and he sank into the beat of the music and the feeling of power he got from being able to play the club-goers like a piano, getting hoots and moans and whistles, whatever he wanted.

A while later, one of the server slaves brought them bottles of water and they took a break. Paul gulped down half his water and poured the rest over his sweaty head and chest. That looked like a good idea, so Orlando did the same.

It was almost midnight and the place was getting louder and more raucus. Orlando was happier than ever to be safe up on their perch. A few times he'd noticed one of the patrons start up the stairs toward them, but one of the staffers, either the guy who'd brought them up or someone else like him, always intercepted them and escorted them down. Or yanked, or carried, depending on how determined and/or drunk the patron was.

The slaves down on the floor weren't quite so lucky, though. Being within reach seemed to mean being available. The slaves chained around the dance floor had been kissed and groped and rubbed on all night. It'd stepped up a notch in the last hour or so, though, and right then, one of the girls chained to a pole had been pushed onto her knees and a patron was rubbing himself off on her, with his cock between her naked breasts. He shot all over her face, then zipped up and danced away.

"Well, I guess technically he didn't fuck her," Paul drawled.

"That's... I mean, they allow that?"

"Sure. That's obviously what the place is for. Not quite a whorehouse but close. Don't ask if it's legal, though; I'd bet none of the slaves here are actually body-slaves except you, me and Mr. Barone's boy."

"Really? How can you tell?"

Paul laughed and pulled Orlando close. They started dancing again, but at least it was a slow dance and they could talk and keep resting for a while. "Look around -- really look at them, and be critical," Paul said. "You're too used to looking at only yourself in the mirror."

Orlando made a face and smacked Paul's ass. Paul retaliated with a tickle, then pinned Orlando's wrists behind him and kept rubbing up against him, vaguely in time to the music.

"Seriously," he went on, "they're not good looking enough. Commerce doesn't train ordinary looking people to be body-slaves. Mr. Barone's just starting up -- that's why we're here, he wants Master Mark to invest in the idea, open another Chains in New York, spread it around the country. But right now there's no way he can afford body-slaves, so he probably took his start-up cash and bought the best looking regular work slaves he could afford. Likely told Commerce he was looking for dancers.

"I just wonder what he's offered them, or promised them, or threatened them with, to keep someone from complaining, 'cause you'd think that out of twenty-some, at least one would object enough to try sneaking a phone call."

"Huh." Orlando looked up at Paul, away from what was going on below them.

"Hey, don't sweat it. Nothing you can do anyway, right?" Paul let go Orlando's wrists and cupped his ass. "Just dance with me."

Paul was right, so Orlando kept his eyes on his partner and danced.

 

On the way home, much later that night, Paul asked, "What did you think, Master? Are you going to invest?"

Mr. Vincent shook his head. "Nah, I don't think so. It's a good idea, obviously popular and all, but the numbers don't work. Going on the way he is, he's gonna get raided one of these days -- either one of his slaves'll hit their limit or one of the patrons'll drop a dime on 'im."

"Doesn't he want to get body-slaves eventually?"

"Sure, but they're expensive. He knows that, but he hasn't really worked it out. He thinks all he needs is a big investor and everything'll be fine and dandy. You still have to make your investment back, though, and then make your profit on top of that. With twenty body-slaves in the place, or even just eight or ten, if there were some way to separate 'em out and make sure the customers knew which ones were okay to mess with and you had a way to enforce it without harshing the atmosphere whenever someone grabbed the wrong kinda slave -- even if you could make all that work, you'd need to raise the price on pretty much everything to make back the cost of all those body-slaves. The whole point is that his audience is folks who can't afford body-slaves, so he'd be pricing himself out of his target market."

"Bigger place, maybe?" Paul suggested. "Make it work on volume?"

Mr. Vincent shrugged. "Maybe. A bigger place has a different atmosphere, though. And you couldn't fill up the extra space with more body-slaves without blowing your budget again, so you'd have that many more patrons fighting for a grab at your too-small pool of available bodies. You're just asking for fights there."

"Sign-ups?" asked Paul. "Or just an extra charge for groping privs?"

"Again, different atmosphere. He's going for a more freeform sort of feel to it, and too much organization'd turn it into something else -- a whorehouse with a bigger dance floor."

"I guess." Paul leaned back in the front passenger seat and Orlando could almost hear him thinking about it, trying to work out the details so everything fit properly.

Alone in the back seat while the other two talked business, he felt separate and cold. The car was cold, especially after the sweaty heat of the club, but he was used to being able to participate in business discussions, when input from a slave was appropriate, and this was a business he didn't know anything about. And he wasn't sure he wanted to, either.

If the slaves at the club weren't body-slaves then they weren't supposed to have to put up with sexual contact, especially not from strangers. Everyone knew owners fucked their regular slaves sometimes and it was just something you dealt with. If it got really bad then the slave could flip a coin and take the chance of filing a complaint with Commerce, which might help or might make things worse, depending.

But the club slaves' whole reason for being there was to be grabbed, rubbed, kissed, jerked off on -- everything but actually getting fucked and Orlando wasn't willing to bet that didn't happen too sometimes. And the dancers were all chained in place and couldn't even try to slip away from the worst of the customers like the servers could. It was horrible, and the fact that neither Mr. Vincent nor Paul -- Paul! -- thought anything of it made Orlando feel really insecure with them for the first time ever.

"Hey, Orlando! You asleep back there?"

Mr. Vincent's raised voice brought Orlando back up with a start. "No, sir. Umm, I'm sorry, maybe a little."

"It's all right, it's been a long day. You're not used to partying till dawn like me and Paul are." Mr. Vincent grinned at him in the rear-view mirror, then said, "So, what do you think of this Chad guy?"

Orlando blinked at the quick change of subject. "Umm, sir?"

"Tasha said she's looking to trade him in and was wondering if I might be interested in swapping for Paul." Mr. Vincent winked at him, but kept a close eye on him at the same time, glancing back and forth between the nearly-empty road outside and Orlando's face in the mirror.

Paul said, "Master!"

Mr. Vincent snickered and poked Paul in the arm. "Nah, I told her I'm not ready to kick you to the curb yet, but she said her Chad would be on the market soon." He looked back into the mirror and added, "She said Orlando might be on the market too, wanted to know whether I'd be interested in a deal on the both of you."

Orlando sat frozen. He honestly had no idea what to say, what to do, what to think. Had Master Liam decided to take the Mistress's compromise and sell both their body-slaves? Or was she just assuming he would? If so, was she right?

"What, she thinks she's going to sell Orlando out from under Lord Neeson? She's crazy!" Paul exclaimed.

Mr. Vincent glared at Paul and smacked a yelp out of him with the back of one hand. "She's a free woman and a lady and you'll be civil or I'll beat your ass when we get back and I promise you won't enjoy it."

"Yes, Master. I apologize, Master." Paul hung his head and went silent.

Mr. Vincent looked up at Orlando in the mirror again and said, "And no, she's a nice lady and wouldn't try to pull one over on Liam like that. She was just asking. And I'm just asking -- what'd you think about that?"

"Umm?" Orlando swallowed and tried to think what to say. "I, umm, I mean, it's not my place to think anything -- to have an opinion about it, sir. If... if I do get, I mean, if you ever own me, I'll... I would do my best to please you." Orlando stammered to a stop and wished one of the windows were open. He'd never been car-sick in his life but he felt like he might right then.

"I know you're not--" Mr. Vincent began, but Orlando cut him off.

"I'm sorry, sir, but could you pull over? Please? Fast! Please!" Orlando scrambled to roll down the window, but the rental car was a two-door and the back windows were small and didn't open. Mr. Vincent yanked the wheel and swerved the car off onto the shoulder of the road, which was luckily pretty dead at nearly dawn.

He barked, "Out!" to Paul, who scrambled out of the way and yanked the seat up. Orlando dove out, fell to his knees in the long grass on the shoulder and threw up.

When he was down to dry heaving a minute later, he heard someone rattling around in the car and muttering about damn rentals. Paul crouched down nearby and tore up handfuls of grass for him.

"Here," he said gently. "Wipe your mouth."

It was awkward but better than nothing. Orlando tried not to think of birds and dogs and bugs and whatever all else and got his face as clean as he could manage.

When he was finished, they helped him stand up and bundled him into the front seat between them, then just sat there at the side of the road for a while, Paul cuddling Orlando and Mr. Vincent's arms around both of them. And when Orlando cried into the crook of Paul's neck, he told himself it was just the pain of the acid that was still burning his throat and mouth.

 

A couple of nights later, the three of them somehow all ended up in Orlando's bed. It was just as big as the one in Mr. Vincent's room, so there was no reason why they shouldn't have slept there, except that the next morning, quite a few hours after sunrise, the door opened and a tired, frazzled-looking Master Liam was standing there staring down at the pile of bodies tangled in the sheets.

Orlando blinked up at him, trying to focus through the sleep-grit in his eyes, trying to remember what day it was, and trying to figure out whether or not he was dreaming.

He decided he wasn't when Mr. Vincent rolled over, hauling Orlando with him, then peered up at the doorway and said, "Yo, Liam! You're a day early, cool!"

"Yes, we caught an early flight." Orlando's master looked away and said, "Excuse me, I need a shower. I'll see you later," and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

"Heh. He looks like shit." Mr. Vincent gave Orlando a big, grinning kiss, then poked Paul awake. "C'mon, sunshine, time to get up. Our host is home."

Orlando whispered, "Master!" and scrambled out of bed. He was about to bolt for his master's room when Mr. Vincent's hand closed around his wrist.

"Easy, kid. Let him get his shower. You need one too. You smell like you've been worked over by two horny guys for most of the night, and while that's pretty hot, you might want to clean up since none of that scent is Liam's."

"Umm...." Orlando looked back and forth between Mr. Vincent and the closed door, torn between wanting to go see his master right now and knowing that Mr. Vincent was right and he'd be better off at least washing first.

Mr. Vincent hauled them all out of bed and into the shower together, where, amazingly, they just washed, rinsed and got out.

Damp but dressed, they went down to the dining room where there was a buffet breakfast laid out, and Master Liam was sitting at the table by himself.

Mr. Vincent said, "Paul, get me a plate. Orlando, follow." He sat to the left of Master Liam's place at the head of the table, then pointed to the floor between them, looked at Orlando and said, "Kneel."

Orlando hesitated for just a moment, looking between Mr. Vincent, whom he'd been obeying for the last week, and his own master, who was ignoring him. Since his master didn't countermand, he said, "Yes, sir," and knelt between the two men. (Area rug over hardwood, high quality but not thick, no pad.)

Paul came over with a plate for Mr. Vincent, then knelt to his left. Mr. Vincent said, "So, how was Turkey?" and took a bite of scrambled eggs.

There was a slight pause which Orlando, who was looking down at his knees, interpreted as his master swallowing, then, "Fine. It went well. Johnny did a good job laying foundations."

"He wasn't hungry?" asked Mr. Vincent.

"He was more tired," Master Liam said. "He doesn't sleep well on planes. He probably grabbed a roll or something and then fell into bed."

"Makes sense. Nice of you to let him."

Orlando felt a knuckle brush his cheek and looked up. One of Mr. Vincent's hands was right there; he pressed a grape between Orlando's lips. It was a red grape, firm and sweet.

"He earned it." The Master's voice sounded just a bit tighter than before, but when Orlando dared to look up, his master's attention was on his breakfast and he appeared perfectly relaxed.

"I'm sure he did. That's another sharp guy you've got there." Mr. Vincent nodded, then broke a chunk of buttered toast in half and fed one piece to Paul, then the other to Orlando. "I met the new missus too -- nice lady, good choice. Congratulations and all that."

"Thank you."

Orlando wasn't imagining the dry sarcasm that time; Mr. Vincent laughed and said, "Hey, you don't need my approval or anything, but I do approve. Smart woman, on the ball. She was busy and I didn't want to take up too much of her time, but she was good company when she was around, and when she wasn't I had Orlando. The three of us had a great time."

He speared a sausage on his fork and held it down for Paul, who bit off one end. It came down to Orlando next and he got the other end, then Mr. Vincent ate the middle chunk.

It was nothing unusual except that it wasn't his own master feeding him. Orlando was feeling more and more uncomfortable -- off balance, confused, depressed. His master had been gone for two weeks without him, and since he'd come back he hadn't said a word to Orlando, nor even touched him. He couldn't think of the last time he'd been kneeling within reach of his master for this long without getting at least a pet on the cheek or a brush of his master's fingers through his hair.

It'd been one thing to be Mr. Vincent's "loaner boy" while his master was away, but now that he was back, nothing had changed. A stranger watching them would still assume that both slaves belonged to Mr. Vincent.

Was that it, then? Had his master decided to sell him to Mr. Vincent? Maybe being gone for two weeks had shown him that he didn't need Orlando, didn't want him anymore. It'd certainly make the Mistress happy; they could start fresh with two new body-slaves like she wanted, and the household would be peaceful and happy again.

Another chunk of buttered toast appeared in front of his lips and he took it automatically.

The two men chatted on and off while eating, with Mr. Vincent doing most of the talking, and feeding both slaves off his heaped plate. Finally, when they were nearly done, Mr. Vincent said, "Thanks again for letting me have Orlando. He's a great boy -- he and Paul got along real well over the long term. That doesn't always happen, even if the slaves are happy enough to play together for a few hours at a time."

Master Liam said, "I'm glad he pleased you. I expected nothing less."

"No, 'course not," Mr. Vincent agreed easily. "He's a first class kid." He put his silverware down on his plate and held his empty hands out to either side. It was obvious what was wanted and Orlando sucked on his fingers one at a time, cleaning off the grease. He saw Paul out of the corner of his eye doing the same to the other hand, across Mr. Vincent's lap.

"It was kind of unusual, though," Mr. Vincent went on. "Like I said when I called, I was thinking about checking the basement and attic for pods or something, 'cause I'd never have guessed you'd go travelling without Orlando."

Orlando could feel his master tense up, like waves of defensive stiffness coming through the air and brushing his skin. "And as I said before, it was convenient to leave him."

"Right, right. But you know, I was talking with Natasha a couple days later and she said you might be thinking about selling Orlando, so of course I've been wondering whether maybe that's what this's all been about -- giving me a test drive to see if I wanted to make a purchase." He pulled his hands back into his lap and wiped them briefly on his napkin, then settled back into his chair and gave Master Liam a direct look.

Orlando's master sat up straight and glared right back. "She didn't make any offers...?"

"No, of course not! Why does everyone think that?" Mr. Vincent waved away the idea with one hand. "She just mentioned that you've talked about selling both your boys, your Orlando and her Chad, and starting fresh -- new marriage, new household, new body-slaves. She just saw that I like Orlando, he's pleasing and serves me well, no complaints at all, and wondered whether I'd like to have him, if you do decide to sell him. Have him go to someone he knows and likes, rather than to a stranger. Nothing wrong with that, right? Pretty thoughtful of her, actually."

Master Liam grunted and poked at the scraps of his breakfast.

"So, you gonna sell? 'Cause if you are, I'm definitely interested."

Orlando was shrinking into himself, wishing he could just vanish and hide somewhere. If this was going to happen, he didn't want to be around for it. Not at all, but especially not like this, with his master just... suddenly deciding he didn't want him anymore, that he wasn't worth a last fuck even, or a hug or a pet or even a last look.

"We've discussed it," Master Liam said through stiff lips.

Mr. Vincent scowled, then said, "Paul, beat it."

Paul said, "Yes, Master!" and jumped up, then strode out of the room as fast as he could without actually running. Orlando wanted to follow him, but when he shifted his weight to stand, Mr. Vincent put a big hand on his shoulder and held him in place.

Once the three of them were alone, he leaned over Orlando, toward the Master, and said, "Look, I don't know what's going on with you, but you need to wrap it up one way or the other."

"I beg your pardon?"

Orlando shrank down even farther; he'd have ducked down with his forehead against the carpet if Mr. Vincent's hand didn't have such a solid grip on him. His master's voice was pure icy offense, and anyone with a brain would know to back off. Apparently Mr. Vincent had left his brain back in the bedroom that morning.

"Come off it, Liam. You've been 'discussing' it long enough. Have you actually taken a look at Orlando recently? You've been futzing around and the stress of not knowing is killing him. I asked him on Saturday whether he'd mind if I owned him -- me, someone he likes -- and I had to pull the car over 'cause he was vomiting into the weeds ten seconds later, just at the idea."

Shame flooded through Orlando at his master hearing about that. He jerked away from Mr. Vincent's grasp and huddled down in a ball with his face on the carpet. Did Mr. Vincent really think he was helping? He was just getting the Master angry, and showing him how lost and pathetic Orlando'd been lately. He'd meant to be absolutely good once his master came home, to show him that he already had the perfect slave and didn't need anyone else, so that if there was any chance at all of the Mistress giving in, then there'd be a chance for Orlando to stay there with Master Liam. But Mr. Vincent was ruining everything. He was pushing and the Master hated to be pushed. He'd walk away from the whole thing rather than let anyone nag him into doing something.

"You're over the line, Mark."

"Bullshit. You're not yourself and I wouldn't be a friend if I didn't call you on it. Don't just look at Orlando -- look at yourself some time. You look like shit and it's not just travel fatigue. This is stressing you out too, so why aren't you fixing it?"

Orlando heard his master get up and stride across the room and then back, his steps quick. He felt angry and Orlando got even more tense. Mr. Vincent's hand rubbed slowly up and down his back but it didn't help.

"It's complicated," his master said. "It's just... there's no simple answer." He sounded tense and frustrated and Orlando could picture him rubbing his eyes with one hand.

"Right, I get that it's something big and nasty. But it's your job to fix it anyway -- that's why you're the master. You're a hard man but you're not cruel, and this is cruel to Orlando. Deal with it, right now. If you're going to sell him then sell him to me and I'll take him with me when I leave. If you're not, then decide that and tell him so. But don't leave him hanging."

There was a pause, then, "You'd sell Paul?"

"Fuck no! Who said anything about selling Paul?"

"You'd keep them both?"

"You're damn right I would. Since when have I ever given a flying fuck what people thought of me? Yeah I'd keep 'em both, and anyone who doesn't like it can bite me.

"And I'll tell you something else -- if you send me home without him and I hear you've sold him later to some stranger, or sold him to Commerce so any asshole with a platinum card could buy him, then Lord or no, I'll fly back here and punch your lights out, and that's a promise."

Mr. Vincent gave the nape of Orlando's neck a quick squeeze, then stood up and stalked out.

The dining room was silent for a long, agonizing minute. Then Master Liam said, "Orlando?"

Orlando stayed in his kneeling crouch, but looked up. His master was staring out the window with his back to the room. "Master?"

"Do you want to go with him?"

The world tilted and Orlando's throat closed. He said, "If--" but it came out an ugly croak. He swallowed hard, then tried again. "Only if it please you, Master."

His master turned and looked at him, then walked over and sat back down in his chair. He ran his hand through Orlando's hair, then grabbed on hard. The stinging pain made Orlando gasp, but the mere fact of his master touching him after so long brought a tiny jolt of euphoria that overrode the discomfort.

"No," Master Liam said softly. "I find it doesn't please me at all."

A tug on his hair drew Orlando up onto his knees and pulled him closer. He met his master's still-frowning gaze with a shy, hopeful smile. Master Liam leaned down and looked deep into Orlando's eyes, then growled, "Mine," and kissed him hard.

 

Epilogue

A month later, Mistress Natasha (and Chad) had moved out, back to her own house in San Francisco. There'd been more harsh discussions, and another yelling fight, which Orlando had heard all the way in his bedroom, even with the door closed. He heard his master say -- well, shout -- that if she planned to live the rest of her life according to what other people thought and what "better society" expected of her, she could do it without him, that he was going to live up to his own expectations of himself, just like he always had, and anyone who didn't like it could bite him.

Orlando'd had to bury his head under a pillow at that. He wondered whether he could get away with telling Paul about that one, next time he saw him, and how bad a spanking he'd get if Paul told Mr. Vincent and Mr. Vincent teased his master.

He got the opportunity the next day, when Master Liam phoned Mr. Vincent and let Orlando talk to Paul, but decided to keep the humor to himself. He did overhear his master tell Mr. Vincent that he didn't want someone who spoiled her slaves as badly as Mistress Natasha had spoiled Chad to be raising his children, though. Orlando thought that was a good reason to break up with a woman, and was kind of happy it hadn't all been about him, even if it'd all sort of stirred up around him.

Less than a week later, though, his master got an e-mail from the Mistress (with proceedings already in motion to make her the ex-Mistress) saying that she was pregnant, and the doctor said it was twins. Since a major reason for their getting married rather than just being lovers had been to have children, since they'd both wanted someone to carry on their name and continue when they were gone, he could have one and she'd take the other, so far as legal custody went.

Orlando thought that sounded pretty damn cold, but then they were both coldly civil to one another. It was over a year before they loosened up and agreed, with some degree of friendliness, that it'd been a bad idea from the start and they'd been better off finding out at once, rather than having it drag on for years and then disrupting the children when they were old enough to be upset by it. It sounded to Orlando like they were both telling each other the stories they needed to get through the divorce and out the other end still speaking for the sake of the babies, Jamie and Paula, but what did he know?

He had his master back, and his place in his master's bed, and that was all he really cared about.