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Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend
Nor services to do till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu.
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save where you are how happy you make those.
So true a fool is love that in your will,
Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 57.

O/s Missive 105 Amendment 6.01

Distribution: universal


Following the upgrade in the Collar Monitoring System (CMS), please note the current significance of base colors and stripes. If any owner feels a sub is wearing a collar that fails to reflect their preferences, they are urged to bring their sub to the O/s testing facility for a reappraisal.

Successful monitoring of a sub’s well-being is our priority and should be yours. Remember: a flashing collar is a warning sign. When you see it, stop all activities immediately. Failure to do so will result in the dispatch of a med-unit, mandatory reassessment for the sub, and a fine levied on the owner.

Base collar:
Bronze: single
Silver: in a relationship
Gold: bonded/committed

Stripes:
Single white stripe: sub wishes to serve without a sexual aspect to the relationship.
Triple white stripe: novice level, has been put through basic testing, and must wear this collar for a minimum of one complete solar cycle before applying for a new collar.

Service/Discipline stripes:
The sub’s emotional focus is on serving their owner and on being disciplined; minimal focus on pain or humiliation.
Green: primary focus on sexual submission, secondary focus on acts of service, and mild-to-moderate discipline.
Blue: equal focus on sex, acts of service, and moderate discipline.
Purple: lesser focus on sexual submission and acts of service, primary focus on moderate-to-severe discipline.

Pain/Humiliation stripes:
The sub’s emotional focus is on being subjected to pain and humiliation.
Yellow: primary focus on sexual submission, secondary focus on mild-to-moderate levels of pain and humiliation.
Orange: equal focus on sex, moderate levels of pain and humiliation.
Red: pain/humiliation tolerance high, sexual submission based on owner’s needs.
Black: pain/humiliation tolerance unlimited.

Addendum: base color can be changed by entering the relevant code into the collar’s input pad, followed by the sub’s ID. This status change should be taken seriously, and the O/s department reserves the right to investigate multiple changes and apply a mandatory fee to cover processing costs.

Chapter One

Jax was running late, thanks to a long line at the bakery. He should have skipped buying Tarl’s favorite treat of a lemon meringue cookie, meltingly soft in the middle, with crispy edges, but the thought of the disappointment in those soft dark eyes when he arrived empty-handed was reason enough to wait patiently for his turn to be served. Small bag tucked safely in the carisak containing his supplies for the day, he took the express walkway to Zone Three, gritting his teeth against the subsonic whine of the machinery. No one else traveling seemed to mind, and when he’d reported it to the transit authorities, he’d been told he was imagining it, but the ache in his sinuses felt real.

The final part of his journey took him through parkland, a dreamy wash of green lapping at the glittering buildings of the city. He breathed in the spicy scent of fellan blossom trees, the extravagant, fragile flowers clustered on the gray branches losing their petals at the slightest breeze, new ones forming again and again during the brief period of spring growth. The palest purple, they carpeted the path, exuding a stronger perfume when his boots crushed them.

Wasn’t that always the way?

His schedule was full today, nothing but hustling from one client to another. Being busy was good; it paid the bills, and he was proud of the way his reputation had gotten him those bookings, but he was worried he’d taken on too many sitter jobs. Hard to turn someone down who needed him, though, someone concerned their absence would leave a loved one lonely or in need of a helping hand.

He didn’t refresh his memory with a glance at his wrist unit to see what was required for Tarl. This was a regular visit, one made necessary because Mirna Choi, Tarl’s owner, spent two days at a spa once a lunar, restoring her physical and emotional status to the perfection she required in all elements of her life.

And Tarl was her most precious possession. Trusting Jax with him was a huge compliment and an equally large responsibility. If he screwed up in his care of Tarl, she had the power to ruin him with a few well-chosen words murmured into a friend’s ear, spreading like fog, dimming the bright sunlight of his current success.

At Mirna’s apartment, he keyed in the temporary code that gave him access, already smiling in anticipation of Tarl’s exuberant greeting. Mirna indulged Tarl a little too much in Jax’s opinion, but the devotion she got back was genuine and deep. Since for these two days Jax stood in Mirna’s place, he got to experience that adoration too, if in a less intense form.

An hour here and the same tomorrow, with a check on the apartment’s monitoring system a few hours before Mirna’s return in case Tar had made a mess, were all that was required. A pleasant, easy start to the day. When the door slid open, he walked into the cool, airy lobby, walls painted a glowing bronze, floor tiled in a complex mosaic of black and jade green. Not his style at all, but it worked here.

“Jax!” Tarl skidded around the corner, narrowly avoiding a planter containing spike orchids, a hundred credits a plant, their straw-thin stalks supporting velvet-soft petals. “You came! You’re here! What did you bring me? Do I smell cookies?”

“You might,” Jax said. Even with the bag tucked away out of sight, the smell of lemon and sugar was a giveaway. Of course, the fact he’d brought Tarl a treat on nine of his last ten visits was more of a clue. It was difficult to deny Tarl when the young man was so appreciative, and increasingly easy to understand why Mirna spoiled him. “Have you been good?”

“Of course!” Much of Tarl’s conversation in this mood was accompanied by audible exclamation points. “I miss Mirna, though.”

“She’s only been gone a few hours.” Jax hung his bag on a hook and slipped out of his outer garment, handing it to Tarl. The jacket looked scruffy in these opulent surroundings, the material clean but faded. Time to shop, he supposed. Dress like the success he was. Maybe Ellis would point him at a designer. His friend took delight in replenishing his wardrobe whenever the styles altered, which they did often.

Tarl took the tan jacket and bounded to the control panel on the wall, pushing the button so the closet door slid open with a gentle hush. The garment safely stored, he came back and stood near Jax expectantly. “I know she deserves her time away—she’s so good to me!—but I still miss her. I’m lucky she works from home and doesn’t have to go to an office in another part of the city. That would be worse.”

“You’re lucky in your owner. Have you kept the apartment clean?”

“Yes! I put away all the things from lunch, and I made the beds. I emptied the auto-vac after it ran, and I sent Mirna’s laundry off to the ’mat.” Tarl glowed with pride, his dark eyes seeking Jax’s approval.

“Well, let’s see, shall we?”

Everything was in order, and he bestowed a friendly smack on Tarl’s bare behind, noting the fading flush of Mirna’s farewell spanking. No need to top that up yet, though he’d see to it the color was refreshed before he left. Leave a sub like Tarl too long without a tingle in his ass, and feelings of insecurity set in. “Good work. Mirna will be pleased with my report.”

Tarl wriggled with pleasure. He was adorable. Not to Jax’s personal taste, but since Nikhil left—no, he wouldn’t think about that. Too recent a wound to prod and poke at.

Jax ran a finger over Tarl’s collar, the only item he wore. Mirna was a traditionalist when it came to her subs, ever conscious of her standing as a descendant of a First Settler family. Jax’s maternal grandparents were Sixth Wave, arriving on Lanteal once the water cities were well established and choosing the sedate Ellandria as their home. Jax visited them and his parents from time to time but had never regretted moving to the island of Marraka in the southern hemisphere. The weather was perfect, the ocean warm, and there was a relaxed, sensual atmosphere that appealed to the hedonist in him.

Tarl’s collar was gold, indicating he was committed to Mirna, and striped with blue, announcing his low tolerance for pain and high commitment to service. Threaten him with a punishment rod, and he’d curl up and whimper. Jax doubted he’d ever felt more than a hand or silk-wrapped paddle on his pert tush.

Definitely not his type of sub, but perfect for Mirna. Jax smiled at Tarl. He might be heartbroken, but he still took pleasure in the happiness of another. If all went well, he’d permit Tarl a climax after the spanking. Tarl was forbidden to touch himself, but Jax was allowed to use his hands and voice to bring Tarl off.

“How about we take a walk in the park? Then you’ll have an appetite for your cookie.”

“Half now?” Tarl slid to his knees, the move performed with trained elegance, unlike his boisterous greeting. Jax checked the med-slot light on Tarl’s collar as a matter of routine. Green. Fully loaded. Mirna would’ve made sure of that, but it was best to verify. Tarl’s chronic nerve condition meant he needed a twice-daily dose to keep him free from tremors. Jax had never had to swap in a new med-chip, but he knew where they were stored.

Jax tucked Tarl’s long dark hair behind one perfect ear. “You’re terribly spoiled, and I know you expect me to say yes. But no. Go put some clothes on; we’re going to the park.”

To his credit, Tarl didn’t display the faintest hint of disappointment—if, indeed, he felt any. “Yes, Jax,” he said obediently and went to do as he’d been told.

It was a beautiful day, and the park was crowded with others who were taking advantage of the sunshine. The man-made lake’s clean white sand and crystal clear water reflected the light so brilliantly it would have been blinding if the city hadn’t maintained a visor shield to protect everyone’s eyes and skin from the harshness of the UV rays emitted by Scorpii and 342 Tau, the system’s dual stars.

They kicked off the soft shoes they were wearing and dug their toes into the hot sand. Tarl sighed. “This is so nice.”

It was. And he was getting paid to do it. Wasn’t that the ideal job? Something a person loved doing that soothed a need? Jax had always known he wanted to work with subs, either training them or matching them with the perfect owner. Once he was of age, he’d taken care of subs informally now and then, something the authorities turned a blind eye to for the most part between close friends or family members. Realizing he’d found his vocation, he’d applied for his licence as soon as possible, undergoing the rigorous testing to prove he was responsible enough to be trusted with the care of a sub. Some owners left their subs alone without worrying, trusting to ingrained habits of good behavior or the threat of punishment on their return if the monitoring system revealed disobedience. Others felt more secure knowing a subsitter was checking a sub was eating correctly, exercising, and receiving whatever discipline their owner felt was beneficial.

He relished the challenges of his job as much as the sessions like these, with no more than a gentle hand required to steer a sub along the path his or her owner had chosen. Every sub was different. He could go from Tarl to another blue-stripe-collared sub and find himself dealing with sulks and pouting, a surly defiance intended to make an owner feel guilty about leaving.

Jax would never dispense harsher discipline than an owner, but his natural tendency to dominate surfaced faced with disrespect. He’d reduced more than one sub to repentant sobs with little more than a look, a brief lecture, and the flat of his hand applied with brisk efficiency. He could deliver a spanking that left a sub smiling, cock hard, and skin flushed with arousal—or administer one hard enough to leave no doubt of who was in charge.

Tarl had more than earned the former with his hard work and friendly attitude. Jax swept up a handful of sand while Tarl continued to chatter, and watched it trickle through his fingers, body humming with expectation.

Mindful of the time, Jax cut Tarl off with a gesture. “We should go.”

Tarl rose without hesitation, falling into what was clearly a pose rather than a natural stance—head down, hands behind him, crossed at the wrist, waiting for Jax to stand and give him the signal to walk. He was well trained, a credit to his owner.

They returned to the apartment, Jax making Tarl jog the short distance, encouraging him with a pat on the ass when the sub slowed, panting. Jax kept in shape and wasn’t breaking a sweat.

“Please let me walk the rest of the way.” Tarl twisted his head to gaze appealingly at Jax, his pace barely qualifying as a jog now. “This is too hard.”

Mirna hadn’t left specific instructions about exercise, unlike most owners, but Jax doubted she’d approve of Tarl’s trim body turning flabby or his attempt to alter an order.

“You’re almost there. Match my stride.”

Instead, Tarl came to a halt beside a bench, blinking away tears. From the exertion, annoyance, or the knowledge he’d failed? Subs were complex at times, a puzzle Jax enjoyed solving. “Your legs are longer! It’s not fair.”

Tarl didn’t stamp his foot, but he might as well have done. Grinning would have been inappropriate, but amusement tempered Jax’s response. “Yes, they are, but not by much and I’m jogging slowly. You can do this, Tarl.”

“I can’t.” Tarl’s lovely arched eyebrows were drawn down, and the expression he wore could accurately have been described as a pout.

Jax had no intention of arguing with him. That was one thing he knew Mirna wouldn’t tolerate. “You will. Now.” He didn’t add that otherwise Tarl would be sure to regret it; the implication was clear in the air between them.

Tarl swallowed heavily and nodded, and they jogged the rest of the way until they reached the front door of the building. Tarl followed him quietly along the hall to the apartment door, remaining silent while Jax used his access code and let them in. When the door had closed behind them, though, Tarl went to his knees again, head bowed.

“I’m sorry, Jax. I shouldn’t have been rude.”

“You shouldn’t have been,” Jax agreed instead of verbally accepting Tarl’s apology. That forgiveness wouldn’t come until Tarl’s face was streaked with tears, his ass burning red and hot with the imprint of Jax’s hand. He hung his jacket on the hook by his carisak, depriving Tarl of the opportunity to store it, a subtle rebuke. “Take your clothes off here, and go to the bedroom. No, like that. On your knees.”

Obeying, Tarl shed his clothes—folding them neatly and leaving them beside the wall—and crawled to the bedroom. Mirna had covered the floor with thick, plush carpet, another example of how she spoiled Tarl. Probably didn’t want him scraping his delicate knees.

Jax had no problem with Tarl’s knees and palms being protected, but he wouldn’t treat his ass with the same care. Taking the cookie out of its bag, he followed Tarl into the main bedroom. The chair Mirna used to deal out spankings was in the corner, and she’d left it set to Jax’s preferences. One of the benefits of being with a regular client. Jax disliked fiddling around with a chair’s or bench’s settings while a sub waited. It ruined the mood.

He sat in the chair, noting the upgrade since his last visit. A U-shaped padded bar was fixed to the back of the chair, extending out on either side of the seat, giving Tarl something to grip with his hands and a resting place for his feet. There were anchor places for cuffs, though Jax doubted they’d been used. For the mild paddling Mirna preferred, they wouldn’t be necessary.

Tarl, his breathing choppy, chest heaving, knelt in front of him, hands locked behind his head, knees spread wide.

Jax took a bite of the cookie, the burst of tangy lemon making his mouth water, the delicate crunch of the meringue pieces a pleasing contrast to the soft dough. Tarl whimpered sadly, and Jax smiled.

“Starting to see the consequences of misbehaving?”

“Yes, Jax.”

The pleading in Tarl’s eyes would’ve brought Mirna to indulgent coos, but Jax was unmoved. He took another bite, swallowed, then held out the remaining piece. “Open up. You’re to hold it in your mouth while I spank you. No chewing, no swallowing.”

Another whimper, but behind the misery was an edge of excitement. Jax was familiar with Tarl’s profile, and though harsh humiliation was a turn-off, a mild form of it worked for the sub. It was a question of balance.

Tarl draped himself across Jax’s lap, holding on to the support bar, the perfect distance away for his reach. Jax stopped him from resting his feet on the back portion of the support. He didn’t have a preference between leaving a sub’s legs free and restraining them, but if Tarl’s kicking and squirming became troublesome, he had ways of dealing with it.

He flexed his hand. It was good for the muscles and tendons to be stretched out before he began. If he strained a muscle, his next few days wouldn’t be enjoyable. He knew at least one sitter who’d seriously injured herself during a spanking and had to take a solar cycle off work to heal after surgery.

“You were disobedient,” Jax said and began with a slap to the rounded curve of Tarl’s ass that wasn’t remotely forceful. It wasn’t his plan for Tarl to fail to hold the cookie in the first minute of his spanking. That would mean tomorrow’s session beginning with additional punishment.

Tarl made a soft noise of assent, garbled around his mouthful of pastry.

“Mirna would be disappointed if she heard how you behaved.” Jax struck Tarl again, in the same spot, harder but careful to distribute the blow so it sounded worse than it felt. This time Tarl whimpered; Jax knew it was more because of how much he hated the thought of disappointing his owner than because of any physical discomfort. Jax paused before the next slap and removed the cookie portion. Soggy, but whole. “Something to say to me?”

“I didn’t mean to be bad!”

“Didn’t you?”

A choked sob. “Noooo.”

“Try again.” He had a hand free, and he used it, walloping that deliciously taut butt harder than Tarl was probably used to, judging by the yelp.

“I don’t like running. I sweat, and my hair looks awful, and I smell nasty, and I look silly; everyone says so.”

Jax understood how a pretty sub like Tarl would hate looking less than his best, but vanity was no excuse for disobedience. The last bit interested him, though. With a steady beat of his hand on warm flesh to keep Tarl focused, he asked, “Everyone being?”

It took the space of three spanks for Tarl to answer.

“My brother’s friends. Ooh, that hurts!”

“When you were younger?” Jax guessed.

Tarl nodded, falling silent.

“It doesn’t matter.” Jax hid his flash of sympathy. “You’re trained to move with grace now, and you looked fine to me. They were teasing you with no thought of how their words would hurt and linger. Forget them. And so we’re clear, if I’d told you to hop along the sidewalk quacking like an Altarian duck, you’d have looked plenty silly, but I’d still have expected you to obey me. Now eat your cookie. I’ll spank you until every crumb’s gone, so it’s your choice; keep the taste longer and your butt pays the price, or swallow fast and suffer less.”

It didn’t surprise him Tarl chose to eat the cookie slowly, licking every morsel from Jax’s damp palm while he delivered a steady series of what were comparatively gentle blows to an increasingly red ass.

“There. You’re done.” Jax gave Tarl one final, light slap, and a reluctant Tarl eased off Jax’s thighs and down onto the floor, where he knelt with head bowed.

Tarl nodded. “Thank you, Jax. I am sorry. I hope my discipline has restored balance.”

“I know you are, and yes, it has.”

“I’ll run.” Tarl nodded again, as if underlining his words. “Ten—no, fifteen minutes on the exerciser.”

Barely a warm-up, but Jax smiled his approval, rewarded by a dazzling smile in return.

He hung on to the memory of that smile during the rest of his day, dealing with a sub who wept inconsolably for her owner, gone for a quarter lunar to attend the funeral of his former spouse, and a pair of twins who met every order with a sneer or a conversation between themselves conducted in whispers and giggles. He’d been told physical punishment was their owner’s right, not his, but he took grim satisfaction in locking out every treat in the food dispenser and removing their access to the entertainment unit. After he’d supervised an exhaustive exercise session followed by showers he set to icy, they were more subdued but far from friendly.

“Well, you won’t be coming back when we tell Carlo how you treated us,” one said, spite sparkling in his eyes, tinted a deep violet.

Jax shrugged, genuinely indifferent to the threat and disgusted by their attitude. “I won’t be back because my client list is too long as it is and I’m turning away as many clients as I accept. You two don’t need me. I’m a subsitter, and you’re not subs. I’ll contact Carlo and tell him to make other arrangements for your care.”

He did background checks on all his clients, and Carlo was well thought of and had answered Jax’s questions frankly, but his description of the twins was pure fiction. Devoted, sweet-natured, and warmly loving?

If he’d been allowed to spank them, he’d have worn gloves to avoid frostbite.

The express walkway was crowded during the ride to his apartment in Zone Seven. Jax stood near the railing and keyed up the dissolution-of-contract request form accessible on the subsitters’ base and sent it off to Carlo. He’d learned it was best to deal with situations as quickly as possible; better for Carlo to have enough notice to set up a replacement sitter, or—less likely—to beg him to reconsider. Which Jax had no intention of doing, but better to handle any arguments sooner rather than later.

He’d arrived at his apartment when his wrist unit alerted him of a message. He hit Accept and listened to the bland computer voice request a return screen call to a potential new client, Layne Hamiel.

The name struck a chord, but he wasn’t sure why. Curious, and with a potential opening in his schedule if he wouldn’t be sitting for Carlo any longer, Jax sat at the main screen and returned the call.

Hmm, yes, hello.” On-screen, Layne Hamiel looked familiar, but Jax had trouble placing him. Layne jumped right into an explanation. “We’ve met before, at Peitre’s sun celebration two solar cycles ago. I’m a friend of Miles Oskrah’s.

“Of course.” Jax studied the other man’s dark hair and classic features. Older than him by a few solars, a hint of coldness detracting from his good looks. No cuff on his wrist, so he wasn’t committed to a sub. Not unusual. That was a step few owners took. Jax had been willing once, but never again. “I knew I’d heard your name.”

I haven’t a lot of time, so I’ll make this brief. I’ve run into a bit of a problem with my sub, and you come highly recommended, but if he’s more than you can handle, say so, and I’ll find someone else.

The man was already rubbing Jax the wrong way, but it was rarely a good idea to refuse someone without more detail. “Why don’t you tell me more, and I can decide?”

Layne nodded. “I have to go away for a conference, and in good conscience I can’t leave my sub alone. He’s a red-striper who needs strict training, and I’m concerned my absence will result in him losing ground if I don’t find someone to keep an eye on him.

“That’s not an uncommon fear, and I can certainly ensure any regimen you’ve set up is continued when you’re away.”

You’re a level ten, correct?

Jax rolled his shoulders instinctively, as if his back still throbbed from the ordeal of acquiring that level. He’d been taught how to use a multitude of tools and techniques, working his way up from a simulacrum whose artificial flesh reacted as a real sub’s would to an actual sub, but before he’d been cleared for use on each implement, he’d endured the required three strokes from them. They were ceremonial taps at less reputable academies, but his trainer and academy had been adamant the strokes were delivered at full strength.

Out of all his training, the slick, cold glide of a sound had been the procedure that broke him, but he’d seen subs beg for the insertion of the narrow rods and knew a sounding brought mind-blowing pleasure if done correctly.

He knew, but he’d fight six strong men before he’d let a sound near his cock again.

“Yes.”

And you have no issues with dispensing the harshest discipline when needed?

Jax frowned, the question raising warning flags. A black-striper craved extreme pain, and Jax enjoyed sharing the raw intensity of a session with one from time to time, though he’d never collared one, but he doubted that was what Layne meant. If his sub wore a red stripe, there were tighter limits to consider. “If warranted and agreed to by the sub, of course not.”

The monitoring system in a sub’s collar reduced the risk of lasting injury to virtually nil. The collar flashed a warning when a sub’s vital signs reached dangerous levels of stress, and the central monitoring system would dispatch a medic automatically to ensure the sub’s well-being if the warning went disregarded. Some owners bragged about pushing limits and kept score of collar flashes. Others saw them as failures.

Oh, well, subs…” Layne smiled at him as if they shared a private joke. “They soon learn what to agree to if they’re properly schooled and motivated to please.

It wasn’t a wording Jax was particularly comfortable with, but it was difficult to get a feel for a new client and his sub until he’d met them in person, and that hadn’t prevented the fiasco of Carlo and his twins. “We’ll have to meet, and I can’t make any promises until we’ve gone over the contract and what you expect.”

Layne nodded. “Good. I leave on day fourteen, so sooner would be better than later. If things don’t work out with you, I’ll have to pursue a different sitter, and I don’t want to scramble to find one at the last minute. Are you available tomorrow? I can adjust my schedule to accommodate yours.

Jax consulted his wrist unit. “I’m busy during the day, but I’m free in the early evening. Say, hour seventeen?”

I can do that. I’ll message you the details.

“Fine. See you then.”

And with that the screen went blank, leaving Jax wondering what he’d agreed to. Before doubt set in, an alert sounded, and the screen lit again.

Carlo, distraught and babbling questions.

With a sigh, Jax explained why Carlo would need to find another sitter. If the day had begun brightly, it had dimmed considerably since then.

He pinned his hopes on a better tomorrow.

Chapter Two

Brysen sat in the breakfast nook, nursing a cup of setsean tea, the steam curling up fragrant and floral. He knew he should finish his tea, work out, take a shower, but some mornings it felt as if he was living through a haze of exhaustion he couldn’t shake. Earlier, the thought had crossed his mind there might be something wrong with his med-chip; Layne had explained his blood work showed he was lacking in some vitamins and minerals, but as time had gone on, he didn’t seem to feel any better. Still, he’d dismissed the idea of asking Layne to double-check the chip in his collar. Subs didn’t question their owners, especially when those owners were experienced doctors who knew what they were doing. He’d made the mistake of asking about his meds before and been thoroughly punished, and while he wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t stupid either.

He learned his lessons.

Layne was at work—the man worked long hours; no one could doubt his dedication to his job—but that didn’t mean Brysen was allowed to do whatever he liked, and now he needed to get moving. The temptation to sit here on this comfortably padded chair, sunlight streaming in through the huge plate-glass window, was strong but must be resisted.

The remnants of his breakfast went into the recycling unit. He had little to no appetite, but he’d choked down a few bites of toast spread with honey. Layne had ordered him to walk for forty minutes in the fitness room each morning, and the machine recorded his sessions, so skipping it wasn’t an option. He hoped it wouldn’t be one of the days when ten minutes in he longed to lie on the floor and close his eyes.

Layne would be home earlier than usual tonight because they were meeting with someone to look after Brysen when Layne went to his conference. Brysen couldn’t remember if Layne had said the subsitter was a man or a woman. Not that it mattered. Layne had been clear he expected Brysen to cooperate fully and to do his best to resolve the issues he’d been having with sleeping and eating by the time Layne came home. Brysen wasn’t sure the sitter could help with that. No amount of determination on his part seemed to be the solution, and Layne’s punishments had increased in severity with no appreciable success.

Brysen knew he wasn’t waking from nightmares on purpose, and his lack of appetite certainly wasn’t deliberate. He didn’t know why things were getting worse instead of better.

The only certainty was the need to please Layne. It defined his life, shaped every waking moment—and that was the problem. He needed to please Layne while he slept too, not disturb his owner’s sleep with uncontrolled outbursts. He never remembered screaming, but when he woke from confusing, terrifying nightmares, his throat ached from them, tears wet on his face. Upset, he usually reached for Layne, seeking comfort.

The first time, he’d gotten a brief hug and a sleepy, muttered reassurance. Layne hadn’t disciplined him for it in the morning, an unheard-of leniency.

Everyone has bad dreams from time to time,” Layne had told him. “There’s nothing on your mind, I take it? You’re happy?

Brysen had gone to his knees, pressing a fervent kiss to Layne’s feet. When he thought how empty his life was before meeting Layne, he always shivered. “Happier than I’ve ever been.

Good.” Layne had gripped his hair, the delicious burn triggering a flood of arousal. “Show me how grateful you are for that happiness.

Delighted to be given the opportunity, he’d kissed his way up Layne’s muscular legs, reaching the sweet swell of his balls with a moan of pleasure at the musky scent he couldn’t get enough of. Later, his mouth well used, his cock rigid, slicked wet at the crown, he’d begged for release and been told it would please Layne to see him suffer, but of course if he wanted to come…

There had been only one choice to make, and he’d been rewarded with a rare kiss, Layne’s hand wrapped around his cock, working it harder still until Layne had chuckled and walked away, leaving Brysen moving with care until his erection subsided.

To wake Layne again the following night was disgraceful, and he knew it. Knew he didn’t deserve kindness after his selfishness. He’d begged for enforced chastity and a whipping, and Layne had agreed to both, locking the wickedly spiked cage around Brysen’s cock, then bending him over the punishment bench for so long a session with the serrated-edge flogger that Brysen couldn’t speak afterward, sobs choking him for a good ten minutes.

He’d never been able to endure intense punishment before, but Layne loved inflicting it, and Brysen had been happy to have his limits extended in such a good cause. Dimly, in the depth of his agony, he’d wondered why his collar hadn’t flashed, but Layne explained later he was stronger now, strong enough to accept almost everything Layne wished him to take.

Almost.

Today’s session in the fitness room went smoothly enough. It was still a relief to step into a hot shower and rinse away any trace of sweat; Layne preferred him freshly washed. Brysen scrubbed his skin scarlet. He felt a certain amount of anxiety over meeting Layne’s basic expectations since he was falling short in others. He was determined to improve while Layne was gone so his owner would return from his conference and be delighted with him.

The day dragged because Brysen spent hours brooding over what a disappointment he was. What would happen if he couldn’t behave? The terror of Layne abandoning him dominated his thoughts, impossible to shake.

When Layne came home, five minutes later than he’d said he would be and only ten minutes before the subsitter was scheduled to arrive, Brysen’s anxiety had reached a new high. He was waiting on his knees, head bowed, wrists crossed behind his back, when Layne opened the door.

“You’re pale.” The door slid closed behind Layne. “Have you been using the bronzing unit as I told you to?”

“Yes, Layne.” Brysen didn’t lift his head. It was important to be respectful and answer every question, even when it was easy for Layne to verify his obedience, but he worried a hint of frustration had crept into his voice.

Clearly it had, because Layne’s response was a casual cuff to the side of his head that made his ears ring. It wasn’t hard enough to damage; Layne never used his bare hands for that. “You must need an extra dose of your supplements,” he said and keyed it into his wrist unit.

Brysen felt the effects instantly, the skin on his neck prickling with heat as the meds were dispensed.

“I had a terrible day,” Layne announced, which was his way of ordering Brysen to make it better.

Ignoring the wave of dizziness from the dose, Brysen crawled forward on his bare knees and nuzzled the front of Layne’s thin linen trousers. He felt Layne’s cock, already hard on the other side of the soft fabric, and as always the familiarity of the act to come brought a sense of calm and a strong urge to obey. Using his teeth and lips, he freed Layne’s cock and took it into his mouth, letting its thickness push deep.

Deep enough to choke him, but the surge of panic ebbed when Layne withdrew. “Careful,” Layne murmured. “So eager, but you need to breathe, hmm?”

The evidence of how much Layne cared for him brought tears to Brysen’s eyes. Or maybe that was the next thrust when Layne took over, hips jerking in a rough, impatient series of jabs lacking rhythm. It was difficult to respond with any degree of skill, using his tongue to flicker and stroke the way he’d been taught, but he tried.

It was going well until he grazed the side of Layne’s cock with his teeth, drawing an immediate response from his infuriated owner.

“Careless, stupid—” Layne pulled free, examining the reddened scrape with incredulity. “Is this your way of helping me relax?”

Mute with shock and misery, Brysen shook his head.

“Lie down. Spread your legs.”

The passageway was floored in an expensive metallic tile, icy against his bare back, but he supressed a shiver when he obeyed. Layne stared down at him, expressionless, his handsome face lacking any of the warmth it’d shown when he first met Brysen.

“Sometimes I wonder if you’ll ever be the sub I want you to be. If you’ll ever be good enough.”

He sobbed at that, a wild, anguished sorrow clawing at his gut. Layne was perfect, and he deserved the perfect sub, yes, but Brysen loved him so much it was unendurable to think he wasn’t that sub. “Please! So sorry. Please, Layne.”

Layne crouched over him, knees pinning his shoulders to the floor. He slapped Brysen’s face, lightly, but leaving a sting. “Open your mouth.”

Helpless, straining to anticipate Layne’s desires, Brysen obeyed. Layne rubbed his cock over Brysen’s cheeks, marking him with saliva and precum, the wetness mingling with Brysen’s tears. Without warning, he plunged deeply, forcing his cock into Brysen’s throat, gripping his hair to tilt his head to the ideal angle to take the full length of rigid flesh.

Helping him. As spark-lit darkness filled his eyes and fire burned his empty lungs, Brysen clung to that thought.

He was barely aware of the rest of it, dimly conscious when Layne came in his throat. He gagged and gasped for air after Layne withdrew. The bitter taste of Layne’s release lingered on his tongue and in his sinuses as he desperately fought to get his breath back. He was still lying on the floor when the door chimed, and Layne, impatient, dragged him half-upright.

“Get into the bathroom and clean yourself up. Don’t come out until I call for you.”

Happy to obey, in a daze of love and gratitude, Brysen stumbled to the bathroom. The automated door slid shut behind him.

“Thank you for coming,” he heard Layne say when he let the subsitter into the apartment.

“Thank you for the opportunity. I hope this will be a mutually beneficial relationship.” The subsitter’s voice was deep, and something about it went straight to the pit of Brysen’s stomach.

Remembering he was supposed to be freshening up, Brysen splashed his face with water, then rinsed his mouth. He lifted his gaze and looked at his reflection in the mirrored wall.

Layne was right—he was pale despite his sessions in the bronzing unit. He’d have to request permission for some extra sessions to see if it helped. He wanted to look as attractive as possible for his owner, who was so good to him and deserved the best sub in the system.

“He has some health issues,” he overheard Layne saying. That was all right; listening in hadn’t been forbidden. And he wanted to know about his failings to help him improve and be worthy of Layne’s care and attention. “I’ve been treating him for mineral deficiencies, but his metabolism’s rather tricky and I’m still trying to perfect the dosages.”

The subsitter murmured a question.

“Nightmares, lack of appetite, that sort of thing. Nothing serious. But this medical conference is important—I’m one of the main presenters—and I need to focus on it properly, which means I can’t have my sleep interrupted by an uncooperative sub waking me up screaming in the middle of the night. If he were better behaved, I’d take him with me, but it isn’t practical.”

Which meant Layne would be deprived of Brysen’s services. Guilt and distress bit at him, tiny savage bites, nibbling away at the happiness of serving Layne a few minutes earlier until there was nothing left but the misery of failure.

No. He took a deep breath and pushed aside his selfishness. It was better Layne went alone. He’d get a good night’s sleep and enjoy the conference without the distraction of worrying over his troublesome sub. And Layne was worried, Brysen knew it, or he wouldn’t have engaged a sitter. Sitters were expensive—the good ones, anyway—and Layne never settled for anything but the best.

That was why he’d wanted Brysen. The reminder soothed him. Layne had seen him in the juice bar and known Brysen was his. Layne had said so often. And if at first he’d seemed too old, and maybe not as fun-loving as the men Brysen had dated, that had soon changed. Layne had shown him another world, another Brysen, and he’d fallen headlong in love, accepting his first silver collar eagerly.

“I want him well disciplined. You’ll have full control there.” Layne’s voice thickened, stirring an uneasy response in Brysen, half arousal, half fear. He’d been spanked before Layne, of course, but Layne was the only one who’d ever punished him. What would a whipping be like when it came from a stranger? Could he accept it gracefully, gratefully? “He responds well to pain and humiliation. It encourages him to try harder. Leniency he mistakes for weakness, and I simply won’t have him spoiled and indulged. It’s shameful the way some owners fawn over their subs. It’s no kindness to them. They need to be thoroughly mastered if they’re to find true contentment.”

“That’s a point of view, certainly.” The sitter didn’t sound convinced. Brysen’s eyes widened in shock. How would Layne react to what he’d view as insolence from Brysen?

To his surprise, Layne chuckled. “Don’t worry; I know you have to deal with all sorts on your job and stay tactful, but trust me, this is a sub you can deal with as they were meant to be treated. No need to pretend with me. A level ten isn’t squeamish, and I vetted you. Impressive credentials.”

“Thank you.”

Again that dry tone, but Layne seemed deaf to it. “I suppose you’ll want to see him?”

“Yes, but before I do, I was curious about something. He’s applied for stripe changes to his collar twice since meeting you. That’s unusual. Unprecedented, even.”

Brysen fingered his collar. He hadn’t been puzzled when Layne suggested he be retested the first time—he’d been anxious to get rid of the white stripes that announced him as a new sub—but the second time had come as a surprise. Then Layne had explained that unless he tested successfully as a more advanced color, they risked his collar flashing too often, interrupting their precious time together. Like everything Layne said, it made sense.

Layne sighed. “You know, I think many subs walk around with stripes reflecting their limits and desires as they once were, but which are now hopelessly out-of-date. I’ve encouraged Brysen to explore his boundaries, and he’s been an apt pupil. I expect he’ll apply to be tested again soon, this time for a black-stripe collar.”

Pride warming him at the praise, Brysen stepped out to meet the sitter when Layne called for him.

“As you can see, he’s underweight,” Layne told the subsitter. Being criticized made Brysen flush, the brief pleasure of being praised gone, but he was careful to keep his eyes on the floor when he knelt to be inspected. “You’ll have to be strict about enforcing my orders while I’m gone. If he loses any more, he’ll be thoroughly unacceptable.”

“I’m sure that’s something we can work on. Brysen, is it? I’m Jax.”

Brysen was surprised to be addressed and glanced up, curiosity stirring. Jax was tall. Taller and more solidly built than Layne. Good. Maybe while Layne was gone, Jax would be able to whip him hard enough—Brysen halted that train of thought in horror, beyond upset for thinking Jax was capable of teaching him anything Layne couldn’t. If Layne could read minds… Brysen swallowed heavily.

His guilt-tinged reverie was interrupted by a sharp, well-deserved slap. “See?” Layne said. “Any indulgence and he loses focus. Brysen, Jax asked you a question.”

Had he? Brysen hadn’t heard it at all, having been too lost in thought. “I’m sorry, Sir.”

“It can be difficult for some subs to balance their attention,” Jax said, as if accepting Brysen’s apology. “I asked how you feel about Layne going away.”

“Sad because I’ll miss him,” Brysen said quickly. Several other responses crossed his mind, but he worried they might be taken in a way he didn’t intend, so he kept them to himself.

“Do you have any questions for me?” Now he was being spoken to directly, Brysen looked at Jax without fear of being reprimanded for staring. Jax was handsome, with dark skin and kind brown eyes, nothing like Brysen had expected.

“Will…will you be strict with me? Please. I want to be punished so when Layne comes home, I’m better. For him.”

“Finally, some sign of a proper attitude and a desire to improve. If only I believed those words would be backed up by actions.” Layne tousled Brysen’s hair when he said it, though, the caress erasing Brysen’s misery.

“We’ll work hard on making you happy,” Jax said.

He was talking to Layne, obviously, but his gaze was on Brysen when he said it.

Brysen stayed still under Layne’s hand, longing to press into it and be touched again but knowing Layne would see that as forward behavior, pushy and entitled. He needed to learn to be grateful for what he got, secure in the knowledge Layne knew what was best for him.

Trust. That was what it came down to.

Maybe Jax knew a way to erase the doubts he sometimes felt, and the nightmares would stop.

He let the conversation wash over him, lost in yearning for the time he’d be capable of pleasing Layne, be a flawless sub.

And tried not to mind when Layne left the next morning without saying he’d miss Brysen, without even using him, because the dreams had been terrible and Layne had been forced to gag him and place him in the cage inside the soundproofed discipline room to get a few hours’ sleep.

Chapter Three

Jax pushed his way through the crowd of people waiting for a table and scanned the room for Ellis’s familiar face. Ellis, who’d obviously been keeping an eye out for him, raised a hand to get his attention.

“There he is,” Jax told the hostess. “Thank you.”

Ellis had secured a table in a prime location, as he often did at Zanzibar since he was a regular at the restaurant. “You’re late.”

“And if I were early, you’d be complaining too.” Jax pulled out a chair and sat. “Zone Six was a nightmare. One of the express walkways was out of service, and you’d think people had forgotten how to use their legs.”

“It’s frightful how lazy we’ve become as a society,” Ellis agreed. He’d changed his eye color since the last time Jax saw him to a green that literally glowed. “Hmm, hang on, I have to take this.” He shifted his attention to his wrist unit, and Jax, happy enough to order a drink while he waited, keyed up the menu in the center of the table and requested a Portal with a fraughan infusion.

The tables around theirs were occupied, and servers scurried back and forth delivering people’s orders. Jax wasn’t sure if Ellis was intending to eat dinner here or if he had plans later in the evening; with Ellis, it could go either way.

“I know, Judi, but I’m busy that night. Maybe eighth day. Set it up for me, and order flowers to be delivered to Thysse with the usual note. He’ll understand, I’m sure.” Though Ellis had his wrist unit’s comm set to display the other side of the conversation as text because of the noise levels, he was clearly talking to his personal assistant, a middle-aged woman with a distinct tendency toward submissive behavior, though she’d never had a proper owner or been collared. He met Jax’s gaze and rolled his eyes. “I know you liked him, but you weren’t the one being bored rigid. No, I’m not annoyed with you. How could I be? You’re indispensable.”

“Don’t tell me you’re starting another round of dating.” Jax tried to sound impatient but only ended up sounding amused when Ellis ended his call. “What was wrong with him?”

“Thysse?” Ellis shrugged. “He was a little too into humiliation for my taste. You know they say settling for an imperfect match is one of the worst things you can do.”

That cut too close to be comfortable, and he let his emotions show with a wince before he shielded them and smoothed out his face. “True.”

Ellis’s eyes might have been lurid in color, but the expression in them was pure sympathy. “Sorry. My words weren’t aimed at you and Nikhil.”

“But they apply.” Time to get over his hurt feelings and move on. Of course, he’d reached that conclusion in countless inner conversations and not succeeded in putting the plan into effect. “He chose to walk away and showed his wisdom doing it. I’m the fool for not seeing how far we’d strayed from the path.”

“He wasn’t unhappy with you.” Ellis tapped the table in emphasis, his fingernails studded with sparkling rainbow chips catching the light distractingly. “But not as happy as you were. And leaving took courage when he knew what it’d do to you. I’ve never seen a sub so devoted.”

Jax had seen one today who left Nikhil in the dust, but he was still processing his reaction to his new clients. Confidentiality prevented him from discussing them with Ellis, which was a shame. Ellis knew everyone and had probably bumped into Layne at a party. He went to a lot of those, moving at higher levels in society than Jax. “Devotion based on love is one thing, but when it’s attached to nothing more than friendship, it’s a burden.”

“Very philosophical.” Ellis grinned. “Except neither of us is the poetic type.”

“Poetry and philosophy are two entirely different fields.”

“And if I were a farmer, not an up-and-coming lawyer, I’d know that.” Ellis hailed the arrival of their drinks with evident relief. “We’ll have these, then see if anyone interesting walks in with… Hmm, knowing you, their collar stripe won’t matter. You’re flexible. Goes with your line of work, I suppose.”

Jax didn’t consider himself particularly flexible, but there were times to argue and times to let things go. Especially Nikhil. He shifted his chair so he had a clearer view of the entrance. “What do you think of her?”

The woman in question wore a bronze collar, and her delicate build made Jax suspect she was Ellis’s type. Ellis tended to go for subs who were physically much smaller than he, as if the dynamic were that simple, a pure matter of size.

Jax, who had cared for subs twice his size, knew it was a great deal more complicated.

“Hmm. She’s all right, I suppose, but I can’t say I’m a fan of this current trend. I don’t love the hair.”

With her hair braided in long jet-black ropes and her dark glasses, the sub was a dead ringer for Mae Mahl, the rising pop star everyone was raving over. It was impossible to watch a news report without seeing her image or hearing about her exploits. The thought made Jax glance at the screen over the bar, which contradicted him by showing the weather.

“Now him… He’s a breath of fresh air.” Ellis nudged Jax’s calf to get his attention and nodded toward the other side of the room, where a sub knelt beside his owner’s table.

The sub was bald, his scalp painted in intricate swirls of black and gold. They’d fade in time, but now they were fresh, giving the illusion he wore a close-fitting cap. His skin was light brown, his collar stripes impossible to read at this distance. Jax squinted. Maybe blue? Too limited in range for him.

He had to agree the sub was charming, though, with intriguingly angular features and a slender body draped in a twisted length of black material. Cinnar silk by the way it gleamed wetly.

“You’d be bored with a blue-striper in a day or two.”

“Blue?” Ellis frowned. “Really? In this light it looks purple.”

“You wish.”

A flash from the screen drew Jax’s attention away from the sub. Three more flashes came, warning viewers of potentially disturbing content. Which meant within seconds the restaurant had fallen quiet, with everyone but the subs forbidden to raise their eyes staring at the closest screen to their table.

Bad news was rare and unwelcome, of course, but it was human nature to feel a thrill of curiosity, Jax supposed.

This is a breaking story, so we don’t have much yet, but word has come in that there’s been an accident on the Zone Two solar tramline, resulting in a death.” The woman reporting the news was standing with a crowd behind her on a platform Jax didn’t recognize; he didn’t spend much time in Zone Two. “The man who died has not yet been identified. A bystander described the person’s behavior as ‘erratic’ immediately before he stepped off the platform into the path of the tramcar. At this time we aren’t certain whether the man was ill, but it seems likely considering his actions. More as the story unfolds.

There was a moment’s silence before people began talking in shocked tones. Jax could have counted on one hand the number of tram accidents in the past decade, and he was sure none of them had ended in death; the trams were too carefully designed, the platforms set up to prevent incidents like this.

“I wonder what happened.” Ellis’s voice was quiet out of respect for the dead.

“Medical malpractice, if he was ill and he wasn’t being cared for properly. He should have been in a facility if he was in danger.” Jax knew it wouldn’t interest Ellis for long—medical law wasn’t his specialty. “Maybe it was a genuine accident.”

“I’m sure we’ll hear all about it. Probably for days.” Ellis finished his drink and gestured at Jax’s half-empty glass. “Another?”

“Sure, but make it lo-alc.” Jax limited his alcoholic intake to two drinks in an evening unless he wasn’t working the next day, and tomorrow’s schedule was packed. He noted many people around them were ordering refills of their drinks.

The news blighted the evening. Jax tried not to dwell on the agony the man had experienced in the few seconds before death took him and the disturbed state he must have been in beforehand, but it was difficult to push the tragedy aside.

Life was precious, to be valued. His job involved ensuring subs were happy when their owners—their protectors—were away. Had the victim been a sub? Or an owner distraught over the loss of a sub? Self-terminations were available to all adults, painless, dignified exits from the world. To choose such a messy, violent method made no sense to Jax, but the victim must have seen it differently.

On the way home, walking the well-lit streets emptying out now that most of the stores were closed, he ran through his schedule. The only appointment interesting him was with Brysen. Jax had known many subs who craved utter subjugation or intense pain. He’d met their needs to the best of his ability but known he’d fallen short of what their owners provided in most cases; without an emotional connection, it wasn’t the same. Would that be the case with Brysen?

The idea troubled him. Brysen was gorgeous, uncannily similar to Nikhil in looks—regular features, flawless body, his thick hair a rich blond, his eyes tinted aqua. Layne’s choice, most definitely. Plenty of subs were allowed to choose their hair and eye shade, but Layne wouldn’t permit that from what Jax had seen of him. It wasn’t unusual for an owner to regulate body weight or be concerned about poor diet, but there’d been something off about Layne’s exasperation over Brysen’s weight loss.

“And let’s not forget how inconsiderate he was waking you with his bad dreams,” Jax muttered, getting a startled look from the couple strolling beside him. He shook his head in baffled disgust. How self-centered was Layne to view Brysen’s fear as an annoyance to him?

And Brysen shared that point of view. Wanted punishment, not soothing.

He chided himself, silently this time. Learning not to judge was a basic childhood lesson, reinforced during his sitter training. When he stepped into an owner’s shoes, he became them as far as possible. If Layne and Brysen’s dynamic was as it appeared, Jax had no choice but to be equally stern and merciless in disciplining every transgression, no matter how small. It would do Brysen no favors to hold back. Maybe in the time he had with the sub, he could work on lessening the frequency of the slips, though. Yes. That goal was one he could embrace. Improve Brysen, bring him up to Layne’s standards so their lives ran smoothly without them constantly stumbling over failures.

If Layne enjoyed inflicting pain, and Brysen receiving it, as his stripes indicated, the experience shouldn’t be tainted by anger or disappointment.

Jax didn’t often run into difficulty handling the emotional aspects of his job. He existed on the fine line between being too involved to function and too detached to enjoy taking the place of the subs’ owners, and for the most part he balanced on that line. The only thing he should be worrying about now was whether Brysen’s resemblance to Nikhil would affect his ability to deal fairly with the sub. Would he be too gentle out of a misplaced memory of affection, or too harsh because of his lingering anger and frustration over the way Nikhil had left on the eve of their commitment ceremony?

In bed with nothing but a light sheet over him—he kept the ambient temperature of the apartment so comfortable he didn’t require more—Jax allowed his thoughts to dwell on Nikhil. It was an indulgence, a dangerous one, but this once couldn’t hurt.

The good times: the way Nikhil’s pupils widened with the application of precisely the right amount of pain. They’d been so beautifully matched in that way. Jax loved to take a sub to the point where fine drops of blood welled up, enough to smear across the skin. He’d pause and wait for the sub to beg for more. And Nikhil had loved to be taken there, loved to be…

But no. If Jax was being completely honest—something he’d avoided for a long time—he’d always wanted to take it further than Nikhil had desired, though Nikhil had loved him and wanted to be his perfect sub. In the end, Nikhil had been strong enough to walk away, and it had been the right choice.

Jax should have been the one with the strength to recognize they weren’t a match. He should have been the one to draw that line in the sand.

Brysen wasn’t Nikhil. And Brysen wasn’t his to cherish and protect and bring to screaming ecstasy. Holding on to those facts, Jax fell into a sleep haunted by dreams of Nikhil walking away. He woke gritty-eyed and grimly determined to do right by Layne and Brysen.

He’d screwed up his personal life. His professional one couldn’t go the same way.

Chapter Four

He was late. Dodging people, heart racing, Brysen sprinted along the sidewalk, knowing it was already beyond his power to be waiting naked and kneeling for Jax at the start of the fifteenth hour. Events at work had conspired against him in a way he would’ve considered funny a solar ago. Layne had taught him the error of his ways there.

Keeping me waiting for twenty-five minutes shows you value my time as worthless. I disagree. Since nothing, nothing, should be more important than obeying my order to be here, waiting, when I get home, I’ll make it easy for you to focus solely on me.

And he had. For half a lunar, every privilege was removed from Brysen’s life. Work, friends, fresh air on his face, the pleasant distraction of music, books, games, or screen… He’d washed in cold water, eaten plain food chosen to nourish without taste, and cried himself to sleep in his cage, whipped ass plugged, a zap patch wrapped around his cock, set to max, pulsing viciously every hour, shocking him awake.

And now he’d proved Layne was right to call him a failure, lazy, disorganized, and thoughtless. After all those efforts spent teaching him to be on time, he was late, late, late.

Jax was waiting inside the apartment, the door left cracked open, a wordless reprimand as Brysen slipped inside and went immediately to his knees.

“I’m so sorry.” He tried to slow his breathing.

“Are you all right?” Jax asked. The question was such a surprise Brysen glanced up from Jax’s feet to his face—only for an instant, but it was another failure to add to the list.

“I’m fine. And very, very sorry.”

“So you say.” Jax’s voice was even, and Brysen didn’t know him at all, couldn’t begin to guess what that meant or didn’t mean. “Take off your clothes, come back here, and explain yourself.”

He didn’t sound angry. Maybe he was the kind of man who didn’t get angry at all, or the kind whose anger wouldn’t come out until he had his sub restrained and ready to accept punishment. Brysen shivered as he did as he’d been told, stripping out of his clothes in the closet assigned to his use, hanging them hastily where they belonged, and returning to kneel in the same spot.

Explain. Did Jax want details? Layne wouldn’t want them. It wouldn’t matter to Layne if Brysen’s excuse was he’d fallen and scraped his knee or there’d been a citywide emergency of fires and explosions. There was no excuse good enough for failure. Brysen decided to go with the short version. “Something happened at work that prevented me leaving on time,” he said. “I know it doesn’t matter there was a reason, and I welcome whatever punishment you choose to give me. Sir.”

“What happened?” The curiosity seemed genuine, the question asked casually. “And look at me, please, unless that violates a standing order.”

“Yes, Sir.” Raising his gaze, anxiously scanning Jax’s handsome face for a clue to his mood, Brysen said, “I work at the holistic juice bar on the west side of the zone. We mix a drink to each client’s needs and mood, but that takes time.”

“A man could dehydrate waiting,” Jax agreed with the suspicion of a smile in his voice. “That’s why I tend to avoid them. Go on.”

“I was at the end of my shift when a woman came in and said her spiritual guide had led her to my station and no one else would do. I tried to tell her I was off duty, but she burst into tears. My boss came over and told me to help her. So I did. It took forever. I’d ask her if her energy levels were lower than usual or the same, and she’d tell me we all draw energy from the ocean and what I needed to consult was a tide table. I would’ve been on time even so, but she took one sip of her drink and threw up. Everywhere. I knew the dried algae dust was a mistake, but she insisted on a triple dose.”

He paused, conscious of how long he’d spent talking. Layne would’ve cut him off, chiding him for babbling.

“Not making me reconsider my decision to avoid juice bars,” Jax said.

Brysen couldn’t help it. He giggled. In the worst trouble he’d been in for ages, and he giggled. Horrified, he slapped his hand over his mouth, then ducked his head in an abject apology.

“Glad someone appreciates my sense of humor. Eyes on me again; that’s it. Okay, listen to me, Brysen. I am going to punish you, but not for being late. That was one of those things. Not your fault. I’m punishing you for not having the common sense to call me and let me know what was happening. I was worried.”

Worried? Brysen hadn’t considered that possibility. “I’m so sorry, Sir. I’m not making excuses, but I don’t have your comm code.”

“You don’t?” Jax frowned, then shook his head. “I’ll give it to you before I go, but it changes nothing. You could’ve called here and left me a message.”

Oh. Yes, he could’ve done that, but he’d panicked. Desolate at his double failure, he blinked back tears. Layne hated it when he cried for no reason.

“Next time—and I hope there won’t be a next time, but if there is—I expect you to call. This time, that’s why you’re being punished. Do you understand?”

When Layne asked that question, it was with the implication Brysen was probably too stupid to understand. Jax sounded as if he was double-checking. “Yes, Sir. I understand.”

“Good.” Jax gave him a searching look, and Brysen refused to cringe at the inspection no matter how much he wanted to. He was too thin and too pale. He knew that; Layne told him every day. “Get yourself a glass of water. Drink it. Meet me in the discipline room.” Without waiting to see if Brysen obeyed, he walked off down the hallway.

Layne would have hit him before telling him what to do, probably. Not that Brysen blamed Layne! He needed to learn, and being struck helped cement the lessons.

Realizing he was still kneeling, Brysen rose, quickly got some water, gulped it down, wiped his mouth, and went to the discipline room, rushing through the actions, his panic easing, but not his apprehension. He knelt in the doorway, then crawled into the center of the room.

“On the bench,” Jax said, and Brysen hastened to obey.

The punishment bench had a waist bar to bend over and parallel padded cushions for a sub’s knees and forearms. It gave the owner the ability to spank or fuck a sub, or both, in comfort. Sometimes an owner might cuff or strap a sub to the bench, and other times might leave the sub to balance precariously with orders not to move.

Jax seemed to prefer the former since he strapped Brysen into place. “Tell me if this is too tight.”

“It’s only too tight if you tell me it is, Sir.”

“It’s too tight if it cuts off circulation and you begin to lose feeling in your hands or feet,” Jax corrected him sternly, and Brysen murmured agreement. He had to remember Jax might have different preferences from Layne, and not to assume they were identical. Surely Layne had given Jax care instructions, but that didn’t mean everything would be the same.

“I would have put you over the bench today anyway,” Jax told him. “I need to see for myself how you react to my hand or a paddle.”

Hand? Paddle? Unseen, Brysen widened his eyes. For a minor infraction, yes, but what he’d done was huge. Of course, that was Jax’s original intention. It didn’t apply now. Would he be whipped? Caned? Did Jax have a bagful of tools to use on him?

He trembled, uncertainty proving to be every bit as cruel as Layne insisted it was. With Layne he knew discipline would be harsh, merited, and impossible to avoid. With Jax, he was lost in confusion.

“Easy.” Jax ran his hand down Brysen’s back, his touch light, meant to be reassuring, Brysen assumed. He tried to find comfort in it, but how could he? He’d been so poorly behaved. He didn’t deserve coddling. “I’m guessing your collar doesn’t flash often.”

The idea of it was shocking. Indignant, Brysen shook his head. “If it did, Layne would stop, of course, but it hasn’t since I was reevaluated as a red stripe.”

“You’ve accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time.” More caresses, though there was a clinical element to them, as if Jax was testing his skin’s resilience, examining the marks left by his last whipping with a fingertip drawn over each fading line. Brysen healed fast, but he was rarely without bruises or welts. Layne preferred him that way. “You understand I’m Layne’s surrogate? That what you get from me can be seen as coming from your owner?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Jax cupped Brysen’s ass, kneading it gently, then parting his cheeks to expose his hole. It was tender and puffy from the prolonged fucking Layne had given him the night before, intended to wear him out enough to sleep, though it hadn’t worked. When Layne’s cock had flagged, he’d made Brysen ride a dildo anchored to the wall at the precise height needed to keep him on his toes. Even with slick dripping off it, the huge shaft had rubbed him raw. He’d clung to Layne’s shoulders and worked his hips at a frantic pace, the sharp slaps raining down on his cock spurring him on. “Is that how you address your owner?”

Stop talking and hurt me! Brysen swallowed the thought before it escaped his lips. “No, Sir. He prefers me to use his name.”

“Then use mine.”

“Yes, Jax.”

“You’re sore.” A fingertip brushed over his hole. “I’d planned to plug you during your paddling, but that can wait until you’ve healed. When did you last apply some soother? I can take care of it before we start if you need it.”

“I don’t!” It was an automatic protest that would have made Layne smile, but Brysen understood as soon as he’d spoken Jax wouldn’t approve the same way Layne did. “I mean, I’m fine, Sir—Jax. I don’t need anything but whatever punishment you choose to deliver.”

He was fucking this up repeatedly while trying so hard to do it right. Tears prickled at the corners of his eyes, and he blinked them away.

“I’m sorry, Jax. I want to behave in a way that pleases you, but I don’t know how to.”

As he was thinking it might be easier to be willfully disobedient until Jax grew angry and punished him because of that, Brysen felt the faint but familiar warmth as the second of his twice-daily doses of mineral supplement was administered. That was what he needed. His supplement always made him feel better once the dizziness faded: less anxious, more peacefully eager to please.

“You relaxed. Why?” Jax rested his hand on Brysen’s lower back, its presence welcome. Brysen was happy to wait however long it took for it to strike him.

“The supplement Layne programmed my collar to deliver. Twice a day. It makes me feel better.” He wasn’t worrying how much information to give now. Whether he didn’t give enough or gave too much, Jax would punish him, and everything would be okay.

“I’m going to apply some soother,” Jax announced.

Brysen was perfectly happy for him to do so. He was perfectly happy in general. Jax was nice. Jax was going to take care of him while Layne was gone, and help him become a better sub, one worthy of Layne, and when Layne came home, everything would be wonderful. Layne would be so, so pleased with him.

The soother was cool when Jax sprayed it on, but it was easy not to flinch away. Something about his supplement let Brysen accept whatever it was that happened; Layne said that was how they knew it was working. Once Layne had perfected the dosage, it would work all the time, and Brysen would float through life in the dreamy haze of pleasure and cooperation he’d always imagined. Layne would love him forever.

“You ought to do this yourself, you know.” Sometimes when Jax said things, it was as if he were thinking out loud instead of talking. Brysen didn’t know what that meant. “I don’t know why you haven’t been. When you’re sore, apply it twice a day.”

“Yes, Jax. Thank you.” It didn’t matter if Brysen thought he needed it or not; Jax told him to, so he would. Later, Layne might order otherwise, and that would be okay too.

“There are different kinds of pain.” Jax patted Brysen’s thigh. “Some you can use to gain pleasure; others get in the way. A sore hole from being well used is a good reminder of a shared experience, but torn skin and bleeding interfere with future sharing, the way it has today.”

It hadn’t occurred to him to see prolonging his suffering as another form of selfishness. Probably because Layne wouldn’t have let the state of Brysen’s hole interfere with his plans. “I’ll heal fast, I promise. By tomorrow, you can use any size dildo on me. Almost any. Layne has one modeled on his fist, but I can’t—but I will! Soon!”

Layne’s flesh-and-blood fist he could take, with Layne expert at guiding his hand deep, relaxing and flexing in a way that had Brysen keening brokenly, imploring for more, but the dildo was hard, unyielding, giving him no chance to adjust to its size. Every time Layne used it, Brysen disappointed him.

“Tomorrow? I doubt it. Your owner’s a doctor, and I know he’d worry about the risk of infection. The next day, maybe, something small. This soother is med-grade. You’re looking better already.”

That didn’t surprise him. A med-grade soother did more than mask the pain. They were relatively new and expensive, but so effective at encouraging skin to repair and heal that mass production and a lowering of the price were high priority. It was kind of Jax to waste some of his supply on Brysen.

Another slap landed on his thigh, this time stinging. “So let’s see if I can impress on you the virtues of consideration and forward thinking.”

“Yes, Jax. Please discipline me.” Brysen closed his eyes to concentrate properly on his punishment. It wouldn’t do to let his mind wander or to focus on anything but the lesson he was being taught.

Jax began the spanking with his hand. That was easy; Brysen was used to having his ass hit, and with things much harder than a hand. But this was the warm-up, he reminded himself as Jax found a rhythm. Not even a sitter who spent all his work hours spanking wayward subs would have a strong enough palm and fingers to tolerate an hour or more of striking flesh.

Brysen gasped with the next slap, not because it hurt—though it did—but because of the unacceptable thought crossing his mind. Jax not strong? If he’d said that out loud, he’d have deserved the worst punishment imaginable.

“I know you can take a great deal more than some spanking,” Jax said and hit him again.

Brysen squeezed his eyes shut and willed only good thoughts about Jax to make up for the bad one he’d had. Jax was strong. Layne wouldn’t have hired Jax—who was one of the most expensive subsitters in the city and had come so highly recommended—if Jax wasn’t capable of teaching Brysen the lessons he needed to learn.

He was still bruised from the night before, and Jax’s spanking rewoke the older pain. Unlike Layne, who chose a spot and focused on it, Jax would hit first the curve of one cheek, then the other. Then two slaps on Brysen’s upper thigh where the skin was thinner. He was grateful Jax had strapped him to the bench, making it easier to concentrate on the spanking instead of balancing on the padded rests.

The next blow was from a paddle, and one Brysen wasn’t familiar with, covered with abrade-paper or a rough cloth, the surface harsh against his skin. Jax must have brought it with him. It struck hard enough it drove the air from his lungs.

“Remember this when you’re not sure what to do.” Jax used the paddle again, a firm, no-nonsense smack. “Remember how easy it would have been to call me.”

“I’ll remember; I will.” Could Jax hear the sincerity in his voice?

“Good.” The paddling didn’t end there, of course, but the conversation did. Jax laid down smack after smack until Brysen’s ass throbbed, the skin stretched taut, burning, aching. He lost all reservations about Jax’s strength. There was no respite, no slackening of the frequency of the blows. Measured, rapid, the weighted slaps were an assault on his senses, the pain pushing his concerns away, all the guilt, the self-doubt, the pang of missing his owner, filling him to the brim.

He gloried in his release from worry, wishing he could spend hours like this, with everything simple, no chance of him spoiling the moment.

“Last one.” It was a warning, and Brysen took it as such, knowing it would be delivered full force. He braced for it, sucking in air, then cried out with surprise when Jax did no more than rub the rough paddle against scorched skin, igniting a new flame.

He arched up, craving more of that teasing scratch, his cock heavy with arousal, body loose and warm.

“Disobedient boy,” Jax said, but his voice was warm, and the words were followed by a soft caress.

“Please,” Brysen whispered. He knew Jax would hear him, and he should stay silent. But they already knew he’d broken the rules before he’d spoken by using his body to ask for what he wanted. A good sub would have stayed still and silent, and he hadn’t managed either. He cringed, anticipating the punishment to follow, but Jax caressed his bare, burning ass again.

“Please, what?”

Brysen flushed with embarrassment, but he wanted it so much he couldn’t keep from asking. “Please touch me, Sir. I need to come.”

With no way of seeing Jax’s face, he had to listen intently. “That sounds like a reward to me. Do you think you deserve a reward?”

“No.” Brysen swallowed, tasting rejection, bitter, familiar. He shouldn’t have been disappointed, but he was.

“Does Layne reward you for bad behavior?”

Brysen shook his head, then answered because he knew a head shake wouldn’t count as a real response. “Never.”

“What would Layne do if you asked him to let you come after you were late?”

It would have been wrong to answer anything but honestly. “He wouldn’t have let me ask anything after I came home late. I’d probably have been locked up overnight with a gag after a whipping.”

There was a long pause before Jax spoke again. “After he’d asked you why you were late.”

“No. He wouldn’t have asked. There are no excuses for bad behavior.”

“I agree.” Jax pinched Brysen’s ass, raising his arousal a notch. “Which is why you wouldn’t have talked your way out of that paddling you got. But let’s be clear on what you did wrong. It wasn’t being late. That’s sometimes unavoidable, though if you learn to be more organized, you can reduce the times it happens. It was not letting me know. A communication failure. In my experience, most issues between owner and sub come down to that, and it goes both ways.”

“I don’t understand.” He was allowed to say that, if he didn’t bleat it after every order like a foolish child. “Layne’s orders are always clear. It’s my fault if I don’t follow them correctly, never his.”

“Why don’t we have this conversation in a different place since your punishment’s over?” Jax released Brysen from the bench and helped him to stand. “You can get us drinks since you’re the expert, and we can go out on the balcony. The view’s incredible. I envy you the sunsets and sunrises you must see.”

Over? That was it? Brysen hurried to get Jax refreshments, ignoring the twinges from his ass, searching for the twist, the trick. He poured Jax a glass of the mixed citrus juice Layne always had him serve guests and placed it on a tray with a bowl of salted nuts dusted with Layne’s favorite spice blend.

Moving as quickly as possible without risking spills, he joined Jax on the wide balcony that wrapped around two sides of the apartment building. It was shielded from insects, not that many would venture this high, the faint shimmer of the repulsion field doing nothing to obscure the view over the glittering city and the turquoise gleam of the ocean beyond. He sank to his knees beside the striped lounger Jax was using, offering the tray with his gaze lowered.

“One glass? Where’s yours?”

“I didn’t realize…” He faltered, replaying Jax’s words. Oh. Yes. He’d been meant to drink too.

Jax took the tray from him and set it on the float table to his right. “Scoot, Brysen. And yes, you earned another reminder, this time in listening carefully, but I’ll give it to you when I leave.”

Face burning with shame, Brysen returned to the kitchen, hands shaking as he poured a glass of vitajuice. He loathed the bitter taste of the pulpy liquid, but Layne said it was good for him.

“Can you sit comfortably? My guess would be no,” Jax said when he rejoined him on the balcony.

“I can do whatever you want me to.” Brysen didn’t kneel or sit because he wasn’t sure which Jax preferred.

“That’s true, and in this case I want you to answer my question, not talk around it.”

He never got anything right. “I can sit.”

“Then sit here.” Jax shifted on the lounger to make room for Brysen, and Brysen didn’t hesitate before obeying. “Do you have any questions for me?”

Jax had asked him that before, maybe the night they’d met. He couldn’t remember if he’d had any questions at the time. “Anything?”

Jax smiled and drank some of his juice. “Nothing too personal, if you don’t mind, but yes.”

“Why can’t you see the sunsets and sunrises where you live?”

“Because my balcony faces that direction.” Jax gestured to illustrate his point. “Don’t get me wrong, there are pleasant enough sights, but nothing like this. You’re fortunate.”

“But—” Brysen tried to think how to put it politely. “You have a good job. Couldn’t you move to a different apartment if you wanted to?” He drank half his glass of juice in several quick gulps to get it over with.

“Moving is too much effort. And I do like where I live. I’m probably not home enough for the view to be important.” Jax sighed and looked out over the city as if he were caught between enjoying the twin suns setting—which to be fair made the sky a rich pinkish orange, well worth enjoying—and thinking of something that didn’t make him happy.

That wasn’t right, Brysen thought. “Are you sad?”

“Do I look it?”

Brysen was used to studying Layne, reading his mood easily from the tightening of his lips or the rapid beat of his fingers against his thigh, knowing he was in deep trouble when Layne smiled a certain way. It was odd to look at another man so closely, but Jax had given him implicit permission to stare, and Brysen took full advantage, though after a moment or two, he was admiring, not assessing.

Jax’s dark skin was smooth across his cheeks and wide nose, but there were fine lines on his forehead and at the corners of his eyes. They would have given away his age—nearing thirty-five solar cycles, Brysen guessed—even if his strength and self-confidence didn’t. His eyes were the color of rich soil, and his eyebrows had a point at the top of their arch. His facial hair had been allowed to grow but was kept close-cropped and neat. Or maybe it didn’t dare to defy Jax by growing longer than he permitted. The thought amused Brysen, and he met Jax’s steady, patient gaze.

“No,” he admitted. “You don’t look sad.”

“Good.” Jax drank some more of his juice. “Because I’m not. And you shouldn’t be either. Do you enjoy your job?”

That question was easy to answer. “Yes! Maybe not always, on days like today, but mostly. I love helping people. Layne says it’s not a real job—and I guess he’s not wrong because the machines do most of the real work—but I get paid, so to me it counts.”

“How long have you been working there?”

Brysen suspected Jax already knew. Layne would have given him access to any information he might need during his absence. “Three solars. It’s only part-time. It used to be full-time, but Layne likes me to be at home in case he can get away early.”

“It’s good to spend time together.” Jax’s gaze slid to the side for a second before returning to Brysen’s face, the flash of sorrow in his eyes gone before Brysen could be certain he’d seen it. “Let’s see what we can do to fill your time before Layne returns. He’s concerned about your health and how it’s affecting you both, and I can understand why. Poor sleep leaves you tired, obviously, and a tired sub makes mistakes. But I’m sure once you’re sleeping better, those mistakes will become rare.”

“That’s not enough. I want to be perfect.” He heard his words ring out, overly loud and forceful, and cringed. “I’m sorry for my tone, but it’s so important to me to give Layne everything he wants, and I fail him every day. He has to discipline me all the time, and that means losing my service if I’m locked in my cage for hours. It’s awful for him.”

Jax cleared his throat. “You seem a good sub to me. A little easily distracted and inattentive, perhaps, but that’s caused by fatigue, I’m sure. Layne’s tasked me with improving you, and you’re obviously committed to that goal, so we’re off to a fine start.”

“I’ll accept any discipline willingly.”

“Trust me, if you need it, you’ll get it.”

He was missing something, he knew it, but he nodded uncertainly.

“We’ll hit the problem two ways.” Jax pursed his lips. “Cure the bad dreams and teach you some coping mechanisms for dealing with unexpected changes to your routine. Take today. How could you have handled events differently so you weren’t late?”

Brysen tried to think. “Um. I could have told my boss I was forbidden to stay late. But I don’t know how he would have reacted. He’s nice, and I’ve been there a long time—longer than anyone else—but he’s pretty focused on making the customers happy. And I would have felt bad because the woman was so upset and she thought I was the one who was supposed to help her.”

“You must spend a lot of time worrying about other people’s happiness.”

“I’m a sub,” Brysen pointed out. “It’s my job. My other job. My real job.”

“It could be argued your real job is to let your owner fret over your happiness.” Jax raised an eyebrow to emphasize his words, and Brysen knew they were important and he was supposed to focus on them.

“But he… Isn’t my happiness supposed to come from his happiness?”

“On some level. That doesn’t mean your happiness isn’t important. How would you feel if Layne asked you to quit your job entirely?”

“I always do what he tells me to,” Brysen said quickly.

“Not what I asked. Would you be angry with him? Argue? Threaten to leave him?”

He couldn’t breathe. His throat closed around a jagged ball of panic. “No! Never. I would never—” He flailed at the air as if that would drive the dreadful suggestions away, dizzy with horror.

“Hey! Easy. Easy, Brysen.” Jax drew him into a hug, enveloping him in strong arms, Jax’s broad chest providing a place to hide from picturing Layne’s reaction to a rebellion of that magnitude. “Let it go. It’s not important. Layne cares too much for you to deprive you of a job you enjoy, I’m sure.”

“He does. I’m his ideal sub,” Brysen choked out, pulling free of the hug. “Or I will be when he’s finished training me. When I can take the discipline I deserve and my pain levels don’t interfere with his pleasure. Because that’s not fair on him, and I know it.”

Jax hissed out a breath. “Yeah, it’s frustrating when levels don’t match, but it’s not always possible to increase them, or there’d be more black stripes out there. Your limits are physical, but they’re mental too. If intense pain and humiliation don’t work for you, all the training in the world won’t alter that.”

“Then how did I change my stripes?” Brysen was genuinely curious how Jax would react to a solid fact contradicting his ridiculous theory. And it was silly. Layne said the only thing holding Brysen back from a black stripe was his laziness and lack of interest in pleasing Layne, failings a stricter regime would soon cure.

There was a long silence; then Jax said, “To be honest? I’m not sure I want to know.”

Brysen wasn’t certain how to respond to that.

“Come on; I’m hungry. Let’s go have some dinner.” Jax stood and went back inside, and Brysen, no matter how unsure he was, knew one thing: his duty was to follow.

Chapter Five

“I’d tell you to sit, but that would cruel,” Jax said, entering the kitchen with Brysen on his heels. “The chairs in here aren’t as soft as the lounger.”

“You’re allowed to be cruel.” Brysen said it so calmly it made Jax, already on edge, want to grit his teeth. It was true, but that wasn’t the point. “Anyway, wouldn’t you like me to cook?”

“Do you enjoy cooking?”

Brysen shrugged. “Layne does most of it. He says it’s a skill some people can’t learn, and he thinks I might be one of them.”

“Again, not what I asked.” Jax suspected any preferences of Brysen had been subsumed by Layne’s, and he found it increasingly frustrating that Brysen had learned to anticipate the information Layne wanted and provided it, instead of answering Jax’s questions honestly.

Jax wasn’t Layne.

Brysen wasn’t Nikhil.

“I enjoy cooking,” Brysen said carefully. He studied Jax as if he expected anger and was trying to defuse it.

He was smarter than Jax had previously thought.

“Then cook something for me. I don’t care what it is.” Jax sat on a stool tucked under the countertop. “Surprise me.”

Brysen looked at him, frowning as if the order puzzled him, then turned to do as he’d been told without further argument.

Arguing was a skill Brysen hadn’t sharpened in a while, by the sound of it. Normally, Jax would approve. A sub who constantly questioned their owner, nagging, bargaining for a reduction in a penalty or for a treat, was annoying. Communication was required to reach a clear understanding of what worked for owner and sub, but once reached, the sub needed to trust their owner.

Brysen trusted Layne to the point where Jax suspected if Layne ordered his sub to walk off the edge of the building, Brysen would be lying dead on the sidewalk a few seconds later. He shook off the morbid thought. Maybe Brysen was simply invested in serving Layne, gaining his contentment by prioritizing Layne’s wishes over his.

Jax couldn’t shake his suspicion there was something darker lurking under Brysen’s surface adoration. Happy subs didn’t wake screaming, and responsible owners didn’t punish them for it. Had Brysen pushed himself too far in his desire to please? Those stripe changes… Not unheard of, but rare enough to trigger more warning bells.

In a relatively short time, using the top-of-the-line appliances with surprising confidence, Brysen brought him a plate with food arranged artistically. Spears of steamed asparagus lay side by side with a generous helping of smoked yellowfish shredded and mixed with tiny pieces of peppers and mushrooms. Balancing the meal was a pile of small potato fritters, crisp and golden.

“Is it…is it acceptable?” Brysen sank to his knees, visibly agitated, as if dreading Jax’s reaction, his breath quickening. “Please tell me if I’ve failed to meet your standards.”

“I won’t know until I taste it, but it looks and smells wonderful. Get your plate and eat with me at the table.”

Brysen swallowed. It seemed such an effort Jax wasn’t sure he’d eat, but he nodded and brought his plate to the dining table. He didn’t pick up his fork until Jax had already taken a bite. “Is it okay?”

“It’s great. Did you ever think about becoming a chef?” The vegetables were cooked perfectly, and the seasoning enhanced the dish. Jax hoped Brysen had served everything he’d made onto their two plates, because if there was more, he was sure he’d keep eating long past the point where he should stop.

“Never.” Brysen was watching him uncertainly, as if he thought Jax was exaggerating. “I’ve been to some of the best restaurants in the city. Expensive ones. Their food is a million times better than this.”

“Those chefs have had training,” Jax pointed out. “It isn’t fair to compare your skills to theirs.”

“Maybe. But I’d be too old to start learning now even if I wanted to.” Brysen hadn’t eaten a bite of his food yet; he was pushing it around on his plate as if it were garbage scraped from the gutter.

“Would you? If things were different. If you weren’t here with Layne.”

Brysen bit his lip. “Why wouldn’t I be here with Layne?”

“Because we’re using our imaginations. It isn’t real, and it won’t be. Imagine you were, I don’t know, living in an apartment with a friend, and someone offered to pay for you to get a chef’s certificate.” Jax sighed when Brysen continued to look worried. “This isn’t a test, Brysen. I don’t work like that. We’re having a conversation, and anything you say is only words. I won’t make you regret speaking them.”

“Layne and I don’t talk this way.” Brysen’s voice was soft, but Jax sensed the strength behind it.

“Well, you and I do.” Jax took another bite of food and chewed it, savoring the taste, and waited, giving Brysen a minute to absorb what was happening.

“Okay.” Brysen pushed a spear of asparagus across the other spears. “Um. Sure. I guess, if I had some rich benefactor who wanted to pay for it. It’s not always about the certification either. I mean, I wouldn’t have to have some important job. It might be nice to cook. Learning for the sake of learning.” He glanced up at Jax. “Does that sound stupid?”

“Not at all.” In fact, Jax was surprised Brysen felt that way. “You’re meant to be eating your dinner, you know. Not rearranging it on the plate.”

Brysen inhaled, the soft sound clearly audible. Layne’s apartment was quiet, an expensive, dead hush, no sound entering from the city below or the neighboring apartments.

No sound able to escape either. If Brysen tore his throat with screams, Layne would be the only listener.

“I wasn’t being disobedient. I was listening—”

“No.” Sympathy aside, Jax wasn’t letting any sub under his care get away with an evasion that blatant. “You were avoiding eating. And that’s two strokes added to the paddling you’ll get before I leave, one for disobeying, one for not admitting it. You’re up to three. Try to keep it in single digits.” He reached over and picked up a piece of asparagus from Brysen’s plate. “Come kneel beside me. If you won’t eat, I’ll feed you.”

Brysen closed his eyes for a moment, anguish twisting his face when he went to his knees. “This is awful. Layne’s going to be so angry with me.”

He was employed by the owner, but he had a responsibility to the sub too. “Layne gave you into my care while he’s away. I’ll report any major issues to him, of course, but he’s a busy man and I won’t trouble him with tiny infractions I’ve dealt with myself.”

While feeding Brysen his dinner bit by bit took some time and effort, it was simple enough. Jax had to wonder if Layne had ever tried it. He had no intention of asking since he suspected Layne wouldn’t approve. Not because there was anything wrong with it—in fact, there were owners who preferred to hand-feed their subs—but because Layne was clearly the type who expected his subs to take care of themselves.

“Do you know if Layne had any subs before you?” Chances were good the answer was yes, as most owners didn’t silver-collar the first sub they became involved with, but it was a delicate question if the current sub had sensitive feelings about his owner’s previous relationships.

Brysen finished chewing and swallowing a bite of yellowfish before replying, putting good manners above a swift response. “Yes. Two. No, three.”

“Has he mentioned them much?” It seemed safe to assume Brysen wouldn’t have asked questions, so he’d only know whatever Layne had felt inclined to share.

Brysen accepted the next bite, this one potato and mushroom, and shook his head as he chewed. When he was able, he added, “Sometimes, in the ways they didn’t live up to his expectations. None of them achieved the pain levels I have. They failed to please him.”

Not the same as not being a good match, not at all. The more Jax learned about Layne, the less he liked him. “I’m sorry. I should be asking him these questions, not you. That was thoughtless of me.”

“I don’t mind.” In fact, Brysen sounded proud of succeeding where others had failed. “I don’t know much. He didn’t share the details, and I don’t blame him. Lots of people prefer to forget their exes.”

Hard to argue, given his experience with Nikhil. “Does that hold for you?”

“No.” Brysen anticipated the next bite, leaning in and opening his mouth, as if his appetite had been awakened.

When Brysen didn’t elaborate, Jax prodded him with a gentle question. “So who was your owner before Layne?”

He had vague ideas about contacting them, but Brysen shook his head. “Boyfriends, yes, but none of them were serious. Layne’s my first owner.” He smiled, pride showing again. “He likes that. Knowing no one taught me bad habits I’d have to unlearn.” Biting his lip, he added ruefully, “Though it means I have a lot of catching up to do.”

“A successful O/s relationship isn’t a race to a finish line. You and Layne will always have times when you’re not in sync, or you’re unhappy with each other. It’s normal to—”

“Unhappy with Layne?” Brysen swallowed hard, though his mouth was empty, raising his hand to his collar as if for reassurance. “How could I ever be unhappy with him? He’s my owner! I belong to him. That’s my place in the world, and I’m so lucky he chose me. I worry he’ll lose patience with my failings, but if he did, I wouldn’t blame him. I’m so stupid, so weak. I need to try harder. But he’s willing to discipline me the way not many owners could, and that will help me learn faster. Once I’ve learned enough, if I can, we’ll commit to each other.”

Every time he caught a glimpse of what he thought of as the real Brysen, this robotic version popped up, droning out the servile phrases Jax hated from his subs. He wanted obedience and willing submission, and he enjoyed inflicting erotic pain, but the way Layne had cowed Brysen sickened him.

Don’t judge, he reminded himself. Their dynamic, their choice. Because I value intelligence and spirit in a sub doesn’t mean Layne does.

When the meal was over and Brysen had scurried around returning the kitchen to its original pristine state, Jax led him to the bathroom. It was large and luxurious, a symphony of green and silver, as if an ocean wave had broken over the room. One wall was mirror-surfaced, but Jax noted the control panel beside it and guessed it could be set to show any number of views. The plunge was deep and large enough for four. It was kept full, fresh water flowing into it from a wide spout, leaving through a series of overflow pools decorated with scented flowers springing from crystals tinted to match the room. Expensive to set up, well beyond Jax’s budget, but cheap to operate since it was a closed system for the most part, the water sterilized and heated by everlife cells.

The shower room was larger than Jax’s kitchen and bath combined, but it was the anchor points on the wall that caught his eye. A whipping on wet skin hurt, but he was sure Layne knew that.

He chided himself again. Why did he dislike the man when he barely knew him? It wasn’t as if he hadn’t brought subs to tears in the past, or didn’t appreciate the setup in the shower and wish he had room for something similar in his.

But in his mind, he saw Brysen hanging against those iridescent tiles, blood trickling down his back in trails the pounding water thinned to nothing, and wanted to scrub the image away.

“When you normally have a soak, what heat setting do you use?”

“Seventy-three,” Brysen said promptly.

“Set it to ninety-four and get in,” Jax told him. The systems were designed so one hundred was the maximum setting safe for human skin. He was asking Brysen to use hotter water than the sub preferred, but there was no danger of a scald.

Brysen touched the panel to activate the everlife cells and turned to retrieve a towel from a shelf. Jax appreciated the forethought. There was a drying tube, but no matter how well designed the room, it was impossible to get from bath to tube without dripping on the floor. “Will you be joining me?”

Jax hadn’t quite made up his mind, but since it sounded as if Brysen was hopeful of company, he decided he might as well. “Yes.”

Handing him the towel, Brysen took out a second one, laid it within reach on a heatpad, then got into the tub. It took him as long as it took Jax to strip to lower his body fully into the steaming water. Jax wouldn’t have been surprised to hear gasps or whimpers—ninety-four was an intense heat, something he knew from personal experience because it was his preferred setting—but Brysen managed it without a sound, though it was a slow process.

“How is it?” Jax asked as he got in.

“Hot.” Brysen was breathless, appealingly so.

“It’s good to have a long, hot soak before bed. It’s relaxing, it relieves soreness in your muscles, and it will help you sleep.” Jax sighed with pleasure and eased onto the bench next to Brysen. “Have you tried a hot bath before bed?”

“No. Layne prefers we shower together.”

And favored cold baths as punishment; that much information, at least, had been provided to Jax on the list of suggested familiar disciplines when Layne had filled out the contract. “Well, let’s try this and see if it helps.”

“I want it to, but if it does, it’s a pity Layne won’t benefit from it.” Brysen’s skin was pinking up, beads of sweat dotting his forehead. Jax wanted to touch that heated skin, feel it against his lips, but it seemed too intimate an action. “I’ve woken him so often recently. I hate disturbing him.”

“It’s a problem worrying over won’t help. Your mind chews at worries when you sleep, and sometimes it gives you indigestion.”

To his surprise, Brysen laughed, amusement wiping away the tension around his eyes and mouth. “I’m sorry, Jax, but that’s such a strange way to put it.” He leaned forward, shoulders rounded, eyes anxious again. It took so little to make him laugh and so little to make him fearful. Jax had seen subs like that before, nervy, quick to startle. They required careful handling before reaching the inner calm of true submission. “But I shouldn’t have laughed. I’m sorry.”

“Shameful behavior.” Jax made it clear by his tone and his overly serious expression he was joking. He flicked water at Brysen, catching him on his chest. “Do it again, and I’ll fall into the misguided belief I’m funny.”

“You are,” Brysen said. “Funny. It’s nice you have a sense of humor. One of the girls who works with me is the same way. She doesn’t tell jokes, but she’ll wait for a customer to leave, then say something sarcastic under her breath, and I have to open my eyes wide to keep from giving her away.”

“Your boss wouldn’t like it,” Jax guessed.

“Laughing at the customers? No way. It wouldn’t technically be laughing at them—I’d be laughing at her—and it’s not that I don’t take my job seriously. Some of the customers are great. People I could be friends with if… But anyway, I think all jobs are like that, if you work with the public. There are always a few customers who rub you the wrong way, or have a couple of screws loose, you know. Being able to laugh is better than getting angry.” Brysen ran a wet hand over his hair, smoothing a few errant strands back away from his face.

“Laughter is healthy. You and Layne must laugh over a lot of things.” Jax knew he was pushing, trying to find confirmation Brysen and Layne’s relationship wasn’t as unhealthy as it appeared on the surface.

Brysen’s open expression darkened, and he looked down at the surface of the water, swirling it with his fingertips. “Layne doesn’t… I mean, he’s a solemn person. He has an important job, and it’s stressful. Some nights he comes home and he needs, well, me.”

Jax guessed what that meant. “I’m sure being a doctor is a lot of work,” he said, trying to sound diplomatic. “Tell me some of your favorite things. If you were obedient and your owner wanted to reward you, what would he give you?”

“He already changed my collar to silver. When my evaluation came back orange.” Again, Brysen brushed it with his fingers. “But of course, it’d be what every sub wants. For his owner to wear a commitment cuff. Layne wouldn’t. Not when I’m so far from perfect. But if he did, I’d feel so…safe. I’d know I was his forever. Until death.”

Jax’s throat constricted as he remembered the commitment cuff he’d bought for Nikhil to fasten around his wrist at their ceremony. It had been the finest he could afford, a narrow gold band signifying Nikhil’s ownership of his heart.

And when Nikhil had sent a message on the day of the ceremony, telling Jax it was over between them, he’d sat holding the cuff, destined never to be worn, before tossing it in the trash. Desolation had turned the bright summer days that followed to uniform gray, but he’d never been angry with Nikhil. The fault lay with him, and he’d accepted that.

“Something less, uh, special. An everyday treat,” he managed to say, proud he sounded normal.

“When we first met, Layne took me out on his waveskimmer. It sleeps six, but it was the two of us for the day and the night.” Brysen’s eyes sparkled with the memory. “We went out to this tiny island his family owns over by the Sirin cliffs and anchored in the bay. I’ve never been on one so fast. We flew over the waves, and dellin fish leaped through the spray we made, like silver arrows.” He scooped up water and let it spill through his fingers. “It was the happiest day of my life, because I didn’t do anything wrong. Not once.”

“Do you go out on the skimmer often? It sounds exhilarating.”

“Layne goes with some friends of his, and I think they take their subs, or some of them do, but my behavior isn’t good enough to earn that privilege.”

And they were back to the rote answers.

Jax refrained from asking the most obvious question, which was: Not once? You’ve never once earned the privilege of doing something you love? It wasn’t fair to make the sort of judgments he was making based on so little information, most of it from one side of the equation. “Well, tomorrow, make a list of some things you’d consider everyday rewards. Small things you can work toward. I’ll honor Layne’s wishes, of course, but he’s given me freedom to make some decisions, do things my own way, and that’s one of the things I like to do.” He didn’t generally find it necessary to deal with subs in such an elementary way, but he wanted to spend a bit of time earning Brysen’s trust, and that required starting at the beginning.

“I can do that.” Brysen seemed to be relaxing, at least. He slid down so the surface of the water was under his chin. “Will you make a list for me?”

“What list would that be?”

“Things you want me to do when you’re not here. Layne leaves one most days. He sends it to my wrist unit, and it tells me what to do.”

Jax made a noncommittal sound. “What do you do on the days when he doesn’t tell you what to do?”

Brysen shrugged, making ripples on the water. “Other things. The same things I do when he does tell me; then whatever I can think of. I always work out for at least an hour, and I make sure everything is neat and tidy in case he comes home midday. I try to keep up-to-date on the news because sometimes people at work want to discuss it, and I hate not having any clue what’s going on.”

“What did you think about that awful tram accident?” Jax shuddered, still unable to dispel the images his mind conjured. More details had been released, but the motivation of the victim was unclear. “Poor man. What drove him to take his life that way?”

“Don’t!” Brysen covered his face with his hands. “I’m trying to block it.”

The grief in his voice seemed excessive even for such a tragedy, and a horrible suspicion had Jax touching Brysen’s shoulder. “Did you know him?”

Without removing his hands, Brysen nodded, but a moment later, he let his hands sink back into the water, meeting Jax’s concerned gaze, eyes empty of emotion as if a switch had been thrown, turning off his sorrow. “Sylvan belonged to Layne’s friend Miles. I liked him. He was sweet and working toward a black stripe the same as me. Miles decided Sylvan would never measure up to his standards and relinquished his ownership. Layne told me what happened in hopes that knowing the consequences of being inadequate would make me try harder. Made me watch all the news feeds, even the ones showing the body.”

Incredulous, Jax asked, “Told you about the death of a sub you knew and made you look at his mangled corpse as a motivational tool?” He found it hard to believe even Layne was that callous. “And he wonders why you have nightmares?”

“They started well before Sylvan’s death,” Brysen said matter-of-factly.

That wasn’t the point, but Jax was aware he was skirting dangerous territory by letting his distaste for Layne’s methods show. “Do you remember what happens in your dreams?”

Brysen was silent, staring at the surface of the water.

“I expect an answer when I ask you a question.”

Brysen tilted his head to meet Jax’s gaze, and there was no hesitation or doubt visible on his face. “I don’t want to. Please?”

Nine out of ten possible responses were to refuse, but Jax, confident he was making the correct decision, nodded. “All right. For now. But at some point—”

“I’ll tell you,” Brysen promised. “I will.”

The quiet was interrupted by the gentle chime of the panel on the wall, the three soft tones warning that they’d been soaking in the hot tub long enough. Three minutes until the time when the everlife cells would automatically cool the temperature of the water. Unless the system was given override orders, of course. Layne could do that—he’d have the code—and he’d given a temporary one to Jax as well, not that Jax was likely to use it. He felt there were other, better ways to create obedience in this particular sub, and he intended to experiment with some of them.

“Turn around. Present yourself for those three strokes you earned.”

It was a credit to Layne’s training that Brysen obeyed without hesitation or question, but Jax wondered what it’d taken to bring Brysen to that point.

Leaning against the side of the soaker tub, ass up, kneeling on a wide ledge, Brysen was an erotic dream, his ass bruised from his paddling, his submission a beautiful offering.

“I plan to leave you sleeping, so you get them now. If you earn any between this and the end of my visit, you’ll get them tomorrow, tripled. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Jax. I’m sorry I earned these three. I won’t add to them, I promise.”

Jax stroked one water-reddened cheek, admiring the mottled pattern of blue and purple. “Your skin shows every mark.”

“Layne says—”

Irritated, knowing he was being unreasonable, Jax slipped his palm over Brysen’s mouth. “No more talking now, unless I ask you a direct question. Maybe silence will help you focus on pleasing me.”

A stifled moan, barely audible, Brysen’s breath tickling his palm; then Jax sensed Brysen slip deeper into submission.

He knelt behind Brysen and brought his hand down three times, hard enough to count, but far from full strength. The smack of flesh against flesh echoed around the room, bringing Jax’s cock up to a waiting, quivering rigidity. So easy to part Brysen’s cheeks and plunge into him, or tell him to turn and open his mouth, but Jax resisted the temptation. His body responded to Brysen in every way, but his mind was less eager. Brysen stirred him with his resemblance to Nikhil, but the sub’s utter, unquestioning devotion to his owner left Jax unwilling to trespass.

And a part of him, primal, atavistic, had no wish to share a sub with Layne.

Brysen shivered. Jax expected him to speak—to say thank you—but he minded and stayed silent.

“Good. Now get out, dry yourself off, and go to bed. I’ll be right behind you.”

Eyes downward, exuding compliance, Brysen got out of the tub and began scrubbing his skin dry, quick and efficient. Jax waited until he’d left the room before he got out and reached for a towel. Sometimes a sub needed a few moments alone, time to reflect and prepare, and it was a kindness to give it to him.

When Jax went to the bedroom, Brysen had pulled back the covers and was lying flat on his stomach, reddened ass on display. Jax hadn’t requested a particular position, so he had to assume this was the one Layne preferred.

“Is this how you usually sleep?” he asked.

“No, Jax.” Brysen’s face was in the pillow, so the answer was muffled.

“Tell me how you do.”

Brysen shifted slightly, lifting his head so he’d be easier to hear. “Layne likes to fuck me, then fall asleep, um, like that.”

Jax wasn’t a fan of shy, prim language, and he wouldn’t have guessed Brysen would be. “Use words, not euphemisms. I’d like a description.”

“Um.” Brysen hesitated little enough before going on. Jax decided it wouldn’t merit punishment. “He prefers to fall asleep with his cock inside me.”

“Is that what he does?” Jax went over and sat on the edge of the mattress, rested the flat of his hand on one of Brysen’s curved, hot ass cheeks. “In this position?”

“No. This way.” Brysen turned so he was facing away from Jax, presenting his ass.

“That must leave you sore.”

Brysen didn’t reply. Oh. Not a question, and he was forbidden to talk. His comment wasn’t meant to trick Brysen into a minor disobedience, but Jax doubted Brysen saw it that way. More of a trap evaded.

“I want to massage you to sleep. Where do you keep the oils or lotions?”

The pause that followed seemed to hold surprise, as if Brysen hadn’t expected to be the recipient of any caring touch. “There’s a compartment over the bed with the supplies Layne prefers.”

“Good. Lie on your stomach, and get comfortable.”

The compartment was built into the headboard, a massive metal structure, all clean lines and swooping curves, with adjustable gel padding for head and back support. Jax expected the anchor points but noted the cuffs dangling from them with a resigned twist of his lips. Clearly it wasn’t worth putting them away between uses.

What he found inside the roomy compartment reinforced his opinion of Layne as a sadist, pure and simple. Tubes of slick, yes, but many of them were intended to be spread on skin and left to burn, causing intense pain until the counteragent was applied. Used carefully, they were arousing to a sub who thrived on edge play. Jax had once used a paintbrush, the tip whisper-thin, and painted streaks along Nikhil’s shaft, letting a single drop fall onto the slit in the crown, then slackening Nikhil’s bonds and watching him writhe in delicious agony until granting him release.

Used sparingly. Did Layne?

Clamps, vicious ones, small ones for nipples and balls or the tender flesh of the inner thigh, larger ones for a cock, rings, spiked on the inside, dildos in sizes from large to eye-watering, in cold metal or synthflesh. One was new on the market, capable of being soaked in any liquid, like a sponge. When dry, it became rigid again, but once inserted, it softened, releasing the liquid. It was a lubricant, but Jax’s gaze went back to the tube of slick and lingered. Had Layne used a dildo soaked in that on Brysen, watched him squirm, listened to his anguished sobs? The thought appealed to him, waking dark yearnings. Too long since he’d used a sub who could take that level of pain. Maybe he needed to look for one soon.

But for now, he had Brysen to see to.

There was a large tube of massage oil scented with sleep-inducing aromatics. Perfect.

Five minutes in, straddling Brysen’s thighs and focusing his massage on lower and mid back, Jax realized what was meant to be a relaxing session for Brysen had turned into sweet torture for him. The soft sounds Brysen made to express his pleasure and the way his body, warm and pliable with the application of the massage oil, shifted beneath Jax’s were a recipe for an arousal Jax hadn’t often experienced while subsitting.

“Oh,” Brysen murmured again. It wasn’t technically speech, so there was no need for Jax to reprimand or punish him for breaking the rules. “Mmm.”

Jax’s cock was hard, but his position allowed him to hide that fact from Brysen. All he had to do was make sure he didn’t let his full weight rest on Brysen’s thighs, and it would be his little secret. He didn’t know what Brysen would do if he knew his sitter was aroused, but he suspected it might be to squirm around—fuck—and offer release, to wrap his pink lips around Jax’s hardened flesh and—

No.

Lifting his weight onto his knees, Jax leaned forward and dug his thumbs into the firm muscles of Brysen’s shoulders. “Mmm,” Brysen hummed again. The next sound that escaped him, when Jax focused on the tendons between neck and shoulders, was a squeal. It was the kind of squeal he might have made when his owner did other more erotic things—a squeal that went straight to Jax’s erection and made it beg for attention.

No. Jax could control a dozen subs or more in a lunar. He was able to control his desires, and if that meant taking his aching cock in hand the moment he’d shut the front door to his apartment, that was what he’d do.

He slowly, deliberately eased up, focused on the pressure being less intense. His hope was that he’d coax Brysen into a deep, restful sleep that wouldn’t include a single nightmare.

And if he was lucky, his dreams wouldn’t feature Brysen or Nikhil. He had to let one of them go, and the other wasn’t his and never could be.

Chapter Six

Leaving work to find Jax waiting for him had Brysen’s good mood evaporating in moments. He’d slept reasonably well, lulled into slumber by that incredible massage delivered by the man currently smiling at him. Later, though, the dreams had come, and his only comfort was that Layne hadn’t been there during the periods when he’d tossed about restlessly, seeking a refuge that remained elusive.

Jax looked stunning, his muscular physique highlighted by the simple gray-and-red stretch suit he wore. He was smiling, yes, but for him to be waiting here, not at the apartment, meant Brysen had done something wrong. Would Jax punish him publicly? It was frowned on but not unheard of. He’d told Layne he hated the idea, and Layne had promised any discipline would always take place when they were alone or in front of a small group of friends at most.

Searching frantically for his error, barely conscious of the familiar sensation as his collar dispensed his supplements, he went to Jax and sank to his knees. Dizziness swept through him, but he ignored it. It usually happened after he’d been dosed, and it would fade quickly. He wore the microshorts that were on trend now, and the sidewalk was hard against his skin, a tiny pebble digging into his flesh. Kneeling for long would be painful, but he’d stay like this for hours if ordered, of course. Moving to avoid the pebble classed as fidgeting, and that always brought Layne’s cold annoyance and a swift punishment.

Jax would see it the same way, Brysen knew.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly, hoping that would be enough to forestall punishment until they returned home. “Whatever I did, tell me. I promise I won’t let it happen again.” He glanced up at Jax’s face and saw only confusion, no irritation or anger.

“To my knowledge, you haven’t done anything wrong,” Jax said. “Stand before you take the skin off your knees.”

All Brysen had heard was the order to rise, so he did. His hands shook with the force of his dismay, and he clasped them together tightly behind his back. “I’m sorry.”

Jax reached out, cupping Brysen’s face for a moment, a caress, not a slap. After being trained not to flinch from a blow, the gentle touch left Brysen rocked off balance, skin tingling where it’d come into contact with Jax’s palm. “Listen to me carefully. I came to meet you because it’s such a nice day I thought I’d enjoy the walk, not because I’m angry and couldn’t put off punishing you until you came home. Though by my calculations”—he checked his wrist unit—“you would have been on time.”

Brysen nodded. “I left the second my shift ended.” He didn’t add that he had planned to jog the whole way home to be on the safe side.

“Good.” Jax’s approval dispelled the last of Brysen’s anxiety. “I thought you’d be pleased to see me, not worried.”

“I’m both.” People walked around them on the sidewalk, and Brysen was aware their conversation could be overheard easily. He wanted to ask if it was okay to make a request, okay to say the thought of being punished in public made him break out in a cold sweat, but this wasn’t the place to do it, and anyway, Jax had said he hadn’t done anything wrong. “Would, um, you like to see where I work?”

Jax seemed to consider the idea but shook his head. “Another time. And I’ll make arrangements with you in advance so you aren’t thrown off by my sudden appearance.” He smiled encouragingly, and Brysen returned it.

“That’s considerate. Thank you.”

“Let’s take the solar tram to the beach. Walk along the sand and get our feet wet, treat ourselves to frozen crunch ’n cream or fried potatoes and shrimp.” Jax waved his hand. “Whatever takes our fancy.”

That would punch giant holes in his schedule, meaning he’d need to stay up late to fit in the exercise and tanning Layne had ordered him to do without fail. Despite his efforts to hide his concern, enough must have shown on his face to alert Jax.

“Is that not to your liking? I’m open to your thoughts on how to spend our time together—within reason, that is. A trip off-planet isn’t going to happen.”

“It sounds wonderful, but I’m supposed to work out, and I’m so pale Layne’s instructed me to tan…” He faltered, hating the idea of throwing Jax’s kindness back in his face.

If anything, Jax’s smile grew wider. “Then my plan is perfect. Running on sand is more effort than on a smooth surface, and the sun will take care of your tanning at the same time. You can strip down and use a screener spray to make sure you don’t burn; then I’ll jog with you. When we get hot, the ocean’s right there to cool us off.”

Was it that easy to obey and enjoy himself at the same time? But arguing would be wrong. Arguing with his owner was always wrong. He should agree at once, and yes, his head nodded, and he shaped grateful, excited words with his lips, an odd detachment rising within him like ice water.

The solar trams were fast, so fast Brysen was still caught up in his head when they stepped off the car and walked to the beach, but there were enough people enjoying themselves that he found their mood contagious and his spirits lifting. By the time they reached the sand, the smile he’d pasted on was feeling a little more genuine.

There were screener stations on the beach, where people with extremely fair skin coated themselves with spray to avoid getting burned. The city’s visor shield didn’t extend this far, though there was talk of pouring funds into a new facility capable of shielding the whole island. It didn’t take long for Brysen to put the nearest station to use, though it had been a while since he’d been in one. Layne would have laughed if he asked, preferring he burn bright pink. Once he’d burned so badly he’d run a high fever. He remembered lying on the bed, miserably ill and probably on the verge of hallucinating as Layne had fucked him, muttering compliments about how hot he was and how he’d never been more beautiful. Brysen still shivered with delight when he thought of it, caught up in the memory of how easy it had been for Layne to love him.

“How fast a runner are you?” Jax asked when Brysen stepped out, wiping the faint bitterness of the screener from his lips.

“Not fast.” He’d been capable of outrunning most people a few solars ago, glorying in his ability to cover the ground in long, easy strides, but these days his speed and stamina weren’t the same. “But I’ll try to keep up. I’ll do my best.”

To his surprise, Jax didn’t challenge him as much as he would have thought. The man was tall and muscular—surely he could run much faster than Brysen—but Brysen didn’t find it too difficult to match his pace. Even so, when they’d run the full length of the beach, turned, and run all the way back again, Brysen was winded. Running on sand was much more physically demanding than on an exercise machine and required a lot more attention to one’s surroundings.

“How was that?” Jax came to a halt near where Brysen had left his clothes. He was barely winded, Brysen noted darkly.

“Okay.” He was panting, slick with sweat, and couldn’t help a longing glance toward the water. The waves looked cool and inviting.

“Go on if you want to,” Jax told him.

Trying to banish the worry a near stranger had read him so easily, Brysen turned and sprinted for the water with Jax hot on his heels.

He ran until the water surged strongly enough against his thighs, then fell forward. This far south, the water was high in salt content, buoying him, refreshing without chilling. He ducked under, opening his eyes to take a look at the sandy ocean bed, a scatter of sparkleshells gleaming in the sunlight piercing the water. He scooped up one and stood, turning to find Jax closer than he’d expected, close enough to touch. Startled, he stumbled, the shell falling from his hand, the splash it made lost in the thunder of blood in his ears.

Jax steadied him, his grip firm but not tight around Brysen’s arm. “Mind your footing. Some of the shells are sharp.”

“I didn’t mean to be clumsy! I’m sorry!”

Jax sighed, running his hand over his dark hair. “Brysen, I’m the last man on the planet to approve of owners who allow their subs freedom one minute, then clamp down on them the next, but we’re out for the afternoon to enjoy ourselves.”

“And my failings are spoiling it for you?”

“No, but your apologies are.”

Horrified, Brysen opened his mouth to blurt out another one but caught himself in time.

“I’m not expecting perfect grace and elegance when we’re in the ocean, and I won’t punish you for mistakes so minor they wouldn’t register with most owners. Layne’s strict, and you seem to enjoy that, but your stress levels are through the roof, and in my opinion it’s because you’re trying so hard to please that your failure is inevitable.” He cupped Brysen’s face again, using both hands, palms warm, so that it was impossible for Brysen to look away. “Relax. Concentrate on your owner, yes, follow their rules, absolutely, but you’ll please Layne more if your submission is natural, coming from a contented place. Right now, you’re wound tight and making mistakes I’m sure you never used to. Do you see what I mean?”

It was a lot to take in, a flow of words soothingly stated, with Jax’s dark eyes alight with conviction.

“I…I think so.” Brysen took a moment to breathe and deliberately relax. There was a difference between apologizing and explaining. “You startled me. I didn’t realize you were so close.”

“You don’t enjoy being startled.” Jax was still steadying him. “And that’s the second time today I startled you.”

“Not on purpose.” With effort, Brysen remained calm. “You aren’t doing anything wrong.”

“No, and neither are you. That’s the point I’m trying to make. If we find a way to help you be less tense all the time, you wouldn’t overreact. You’d be happier, and I think Layne would be pleased with you.”

“It sounds great. Because—I don’t want to admit it, but things aren’t working the way they are now.” It was a horrible betrayal of Layne to acknowledge he was unhappy, struggling, so he couldn’t say either of those things. “I can learn; I know I can. I can do better. If you helped me, I’d be grateful.” He wasn’t sure how far he should take the offer. “I’d…submit to anything. Anything you wanted.”

Jax looked at him, then sighed, letting his hands fall away. Brysen missed the security of being held. “I hope Layne realizes how lucky he is.”

“Lucky?” That startled him as much as finding Jax close by. “He chose me, and he never makes mistakes, so I must have shown potential, but I’m a disappointment to him every day.”

“You feel that way, but he doesn’t; I’m sure of it.”

“He tells me I am.” Brysen hated admitting that too, though there was no judgment or scorn in Jax’s expression. “So I know it’s true. But if he doesn’t give up on me—and I hope he never does, because without him in my life I’d have nothing, be no one—I’ll try my hardest to be what he wants.”

“I think you’ve said that or a variant to me more times than I’ve seen you smile.” Jax scratched at the side of his neck, studying Brysen thoughtfully. “Less talk, more action. Walk along the beach with me, and tell me how you think you fail, and we’ll see if I can offer solutions. I’m trained to mediate between sub and owner if needed.”

It was difficult to list his shortcomings, but with the wet sand glistening white in the sun, surrounded by people enjoying the day and ignoring him, Brysen was able to talk. It helped that Jax walked beside him, not insisting Brysen turn to address him directly.

“Enough,” Jax said after Brysen shared what angered Layne the most. “They’re small issues, Brysen, trivial habits I doubt any owner could train out of you without bringing you to the point where you can’t function without second-guessing every word and action. The only exception is your limits on pain and humiliation. That’s worrying me.”

“I can take more every punishment,” Brysen assured him. “If you could—if I asked you to test me—Layne says I need regular harsh discipline, or I’ll regress.”

Jax didn’t look at him as they approached a crunch ’n cream cart, where he ordered for both of them after asking Brysen to choose a flavor. The dazzling display of options was of no interest to him. He’d had a favorite flavor since childhood—mint with raspberry swirl—and always chose it. Jax picked a half scoop of butterscotch and another of ginger, a combination Brysen eyed doubtfully. After paying, Jax handed Brysen his frozen treat still without comment. He waited until they’d walked some distance from the cart before saying, “I’m not angry with you. I thought you’d be more comfortable not talking where someone could overhear us.”

It was true, and Brysen hadn’t realized he’d grown tense while waiting for the anticipated criticism. “That’s what you mean,” he said with wonder. “I’m sorry it’s taking so long for it to sink in.”

“No one learns something new on the first try,” Jax reassured him. “And I don’t want you to worry Layne will find my methods insufficient; I have a contract with him, and I have every intention of following his rules. I might not do everything the way he would, but he’ll be satisfied with the progress we’ve made when he comes home.”

Brysen didn’t completely believe that, but he hoped it was true. “I don’t want to regress. I want Layne to come home to the sub he deserves. I want to take everything he desires and more.” He didn’t have to like it all. He didn’t need to like any of it, as long as it made Layne happy. If Layne loved him and wanted to keep him, that was all that mattered.

“Eat that before it goes soft,” Jax said, interrupting his thoughts. “We’re close to the clothes storage, so we’ll dress and go home.”

The frozen sweet cream in his crunch bowl wouldn’t melt—there was some ingredient to prevent that, maybe made from seaweed—but it would go soft and squishy, and at some point the crunch of the bowl would turn soggy. Layne considered a crunch ’n cream a special treat, one Brysen rarely earned. Having one now ought to be appreciated, not ignored.

He’d eaten the whole thing by the time they got back to the tram station, his lips sticky and cool, his stomach uneasy. It was worth it.

When they reached Layne’s apartment, Jax made him strip immediately, and they showered together, rinsing away the residue of salt and sand. There had been showers at the beach, but food wasn’t allowed in there, and Brysen hadn’t wanted to throw away what was left of his treat. Jax had indulged him, though it meant both of them had pulled on clothing over damp, gritty skin. That was kind, but part of Brysen knew no good came from spoiling a sub. Accepting Jax was in charge and that it wasn’t his place to question Jax’s actions helped erase some of his guilt over so many happy hours with no discipline or correction, but not all.

While he altered the drying chamber’s setting to Jax’s preference for hot and strong blasts of air, he ventured a question. “May I ask if you’ve sent Layne a report?”

“You may, and yes, I spoke to him last night and told him you were making progress. He didn’t tell you?”

“I’m not permitted to bother him when he’s away.” Brysen sighed, calling up an image of Layne smiling approvingly at him, the way he had when Brysen had agreed to be evaluated for new collar stripes. “I miss him. You might see him as strict, but he gives me so much attention. I like that. And he wants me to improve. I need his help. Alone, I slack off.”

Jax stepped into the chamber, water beading his body in patterns that fascinated Brysen. It would be fun to follow a line of water with his tongue. Desire rose within him. His sensuality levels were high, his sex drive matching them, and Layne saw to it he came fairly often, claiming it made periods of denial more of a punishment. With Layne not there and Jax withholding the necessary permission, Brysen was increasingly desperate for release.

“That’s common,” Jax called over the rush of air, turning slowly to direct the air jets. Brysen eyed him with appreciation. Jax’s cock was lax now, but Brysen had felt it nudge him during the massage and knew, erect, it was capable of stretching his mouth and ass in good ways. “You’ll concentrate better when you’re rested. I checked your sleep pattern and saw disturbed periods when I assume you were having bad dreams, but overall, you did better.”

Brysen didn’t want to share his nightmares. “I’m trying. Layne gave me a sleep medication one night, but I didn’t respond to it the way he wanted.”

Instead of sleeping peacefully, he’d had worse nightmares than before, and sunrise had found him confused and shaking with terror. Layne had fucked him anyway, hard and from behind, then pulled out as soon as he’d come, saying with disgust, “I should have known you wouldn’t make an effort to please me. I don’t know why I expected it.

“I forgot you’d be able to check my sleep patterns,” Brysen said now.

“Layne must do it as well. Maybe he thinks you’d rather not talk about it.”

There was a chime from the front door, then an announcement. “Request for entry by Constable Anna Hiljin.

Jax looked at Brysen, who was aware his face showed his sharp concern. Layne, hurt, dead? What else would a constable be at their door for? “It’s fine. If something was wrong, we would’ve heard before this. Go let her in, and I’ll be there in a minute.”

With his heart pounding fast, Brysen went quickly to the door and opened it, bracing himself for bad news. There was no chance the woman on the other side of the door wasn’t who she said she was; the computer would have scanned her identity. The door slid aside to reveal a blonde woman of average build, wearing a constable’s uniform. She looked unconcerned, and the tight band around Brysen’s chest eased. If Layne was hurt, or worse, she wouldn’t look so bored.

Brysen couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a constable in everyday life. The city’s central monitoring system kept track of anyone who broke the law, and assigned fines or denied them access to public areas and services. Most crimes that made it to the courts were financial misdemeanors complex enough to require skilled investigators.

The constables dealt with everything that fell between the cracks. Scavengers for scandal, according to some, taking a career with no future for reasons Brysen had never understood. Murders, abuse, violence were rare. Collared subs were protected by what was locked around their necks, and the right of the state to administer truth drugs and monitor habitual offenders dissuaded most from planning, let alone implementing, a crime.

Their world was safe. The constables were an anachronism, their powers limited. They wore the blue tunic and pants of their office and carried stun-sticks and restraints on their wide black belts, but Brysen doubted the woman in front of him had ever used hers.

Still, she was technically an authority figure, and Layne insisted he show appropriate respect to those, so Brysen went to his knees. “My owner, Layne Hamiel, is absent, but my subsitter, Jax, is on the premises, and he will be with you shortly. May I serve you refreshments?”

“No, thanks. And you can get up. I’m not an owner, and I don’t need evidence of your submission. You’re naked and collared; I get the message.”

The lack of civility bothered Brysen, but he rose as ordered.

“It would be my honor to get you something,” he said. “A glass of water? Will you sit?”

“No. I’ll wait here.” She glanced down at her wrist unit and tapped it. “What did you say his name is?”

Brysen wasn’t sure which man she meant, but had to assume it was Jax, because if she’d come to the apartment, she must know it was owned by Layne. “Jax. Um, he’s my subsitter. I…don’t know his last name.” That made him sound so stupid, like an ignorant child.

“Idrindi,” Jax said, coming to join them, dressed and dry. “Jax. And you are?”

“Constable Anna Hiljin. I’m here to question Layne Hamiel’s sub.” She was making no apparent effort to hide her distaste at the situation. It made Brysen feel ashamed for her bad manners. He wished Layne were there to do what he couldn’t and point out her incivility was unacceptable.

Jax frowned, stepping closer to Brysen. “On what matter? Legally, you aren’t allowed to question Brysen without his owner present.”

“He isn’t under suspicion or in trouble,” the constable said. “I was hoping to get a little bit of information about someone he knows. Knew.”

“Sylvan,” Brysen whispered. He’d been trying so hard to forget Sylvan’s death, to pretend he’d never seen the images or heard the details.

“That’s correct.”

“I don’t know why he died or anything about his state of mind. Only what I saw on the news feeds.”

“But you were his friend.”

Brysen nodded. “I don’t know why he’d do what he did.”

“He wasn’t unhappy? Didn’t speak of being depressed?”

“His owner abandoned him,” Brysen said sharply. “Of course he was unhappy and depressed.”

“He talked to you about the breakup?” She was so unemotional, as if she didn’t care a person was dead.

“No, but it’s safe to assume Sylvan was depressed after Miles broke up with him. Wouldn’t you be?” Brysen heard the anger in his voice and hoped Jax wouldn’t take issue with it. Hiding his emotions was impossible.

She snorted. “If I ever lock a collar around my neck and lick an owner’s feet, you can guarantee I’ve lost my mind, and you have my permission to terminate me to put me out of my misery.”

Jax stepped forward, not blocking Brysen’s view of the woman but angling his body so she wasn’t all Brysen saw. Not that much was visible through his tears. Angry tears, because he’d shed the ones for Sylvan in private, making sure his eyes showed no trace of his grief when Layne saw him next.

Layne liked Brysen perfect at all times, hair and eyes the shade Layne had chosen, neither of which would’ve been Brysen’s preference, body trim and taut, clean inside and out. Brysen had learned to keep his breath fresh and his nails trimmed smooth. Willingly given his hole the daily intensive cleansing Layne considered necessary after discovering the penalty for being a filthy little shit-slut who’d soiled his owner’s cock.

But Layne wasn’t here to chastise him for the rebellious tears reddening his eyes or to protect him from this woman’s disdain. Loss ripped through him, replacing his anger. Layne wasn’t here, and if he felt this empty with Jax as proof of Layne’s love and Layne’s absence a matter of days, how desolate and bereft must Sylvan have been?

“Your attitude is unacceptable, and I intend to report this conversation to your commander.” Jax’s voice was harsh but controlled. “If you have a problem with our lifestyle, though I can’t imagine why, be professional enough to set it aside during your investigation, or you won’t get far.”

She curled her lip. “I have a problem with a healthy young man self-terminating. Don’t you?”

“Of course I do.” Jax slipped his arm around Brysen, who leaned into that strength with a sense of relief. “It’s been a while since I crossed paths with Sylvan’s owner, so I never met Sylvan. Miles was with another sub then. I don’t recall her name.”

“Cari Delaine. I’ve spoken to her. She broke off the relationship because her owner was pushing her limits and she realized they weren’t suited. From what she says, they parted amicably.”

“Why wouldn’t they have? These things happen.” Jax sighed and jerked his head toward the sitting area. “If you have more questions, can we talk in there? I want to get Brysen a drink. He’s been in the sun, and he’s dehydrated.”

Anna—maybe thinking of her by her first name would make her seem more human—nodded. “Of course. I don’t mean to take up too much of your time, but I do want to get to the bottom of this.”

“He was nice,” Brysen offered as Jax ushered him over to a chair and pushed him down into it. “Sylvan. I liked him. I didn’t know him well—we didn’t have many opportunities to talk when Miles and Layne weren’t around.” He flushed, remembering a time when their respective owners, more than a bit drunk on strong liquor, had ordered Sylvan to suck Brysen’s cock. He wouldn’t have minded, except Layne had alternated between telling him how hot they looked together, how Sylvan’s face would look painted with Brysen’s come, and insisting Brysen wasn’t allowed to climax without permission. Miles had countered that by urging Sylvan to redouble his efforts, promising him a whipping if Brysen didn’t climax soon. There’d been a bet made on which sub would win the battle. In the end Brysen had bitten his tongue to stave off release, blood filling his mouth, but Layne had ended up angry with him anyway. He’d choked on the blood, some of it dribbling out of his mouth to stain a valuable rug.

He forgot what his punishment had been that night. It didn’t matter. He’d earned it.

“Here, drink this.” Jax pressed a glass of cold water into his hand, and Brysen blinked up at him gratefully.

“What did you know about his relationship with his owner?” Anna asked.

Forcing calm into his voice wasn’t easy, but he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of a shaky, hesitant reply. “Not much. I thought it was good. I know Sylvan loved him.” Miles had seemed gentle on the surface, but beneath that Brysen suspected he’d been hard and impatient. Most of Layne’s friends were the same, always wanting more from their subs, never satisfied with what they’d achieved. “I guess they weren’t a good match.”

“Had you ever heard Sylvan mention ending his life?”

Brysen shook his head. “He would have done anything for Miles. Anything.”

“How is Miles taking it?” Jax asked abruptly.

Anna raised one shoulder, the gesture eloquent. “Superficially horrified but quick to stress Sylvan wasn’t his responsibility once they’d broken up and to distance himself from the event. I’d guess he was worried about finding a replacement if it wasn’t for the cute little thing on the end of his leash, staring up at its owner with adoring eyes.”

“And we’re done here.” Jax stood, leaving Brysen no option but to follow him. Subs didn’t have to kneel all the time, but they weren’t allowed to remain lolling around while their owners were on their feet either. “Your attitude is appalling, your lack of empathy disturbing. I’ve always refused to join in when people laughed at constables or declared them leeches, taking a salary for doing nothing, but you make me wonder why I bothered.”

Anna flushed but got to her feet readily enough. “Oh, I’m not typical. One of the few who doesn’t buy into the O/s system being safe for all and beneficial to everyone involved, but go ahead and judge my ability to investigate this case based on my beliefs.”

“You’re not giving me any choice.” Jax spread his hands. “You don’t understand what drives us or what rules we follow. To you, Sylvan’s act was evidence of his instability, an instability you think drove him to take an owner in the first place.”

“Pretty much.”

“You’re wrong.” Brysen spoke with the respect her uniform demanded, directing none of it at her. “We’re not unstable. We know what we want, and our owners give it to us. Sylvan should have waited. Given himself time to heal. It’s sad—no, it’s a tragedy—but what is there to investigate?”

“You think he self-terminated?” Anna pursed her lips, painted a discreet rose that clashed with her blush. “I don’t. Initially, sure, but not now. I’ve watched the vidfeed frame by frame, in real time and sped up. He didn’t throw himself under the tramcar, and he wasn’t pushed.”

“It was an accident, then.” The impatience in Jax’s voice had Brysen cringing, conditioned into expecting a blow since he was usually the cause of Layne’s irritation. “Or are you searching for an invisible assailant?”

“No. I’m wondering why he grabbed his collar, stiffened as if he’d been shocked, then toppled in the path of the tram.”

Brysen sank to his knees. It wasn’t a conscious decision, more as if the strength had gone out of him and the easiest thing was to do something familiar and let the floor support him. “Why…why would he do that?” It wasn’t the question he meant to ask; they were the words that came first to his lips.

“That’s what I want to know,” Anna said. “What do you think?”

“Sylvan must have been heartbroken.” Brysen barely knew what he was saying anymore, but he felt a need to say something. “I mean, I didn’t know him that well, but he was sweet, and I know he loved Miles. Could something have happened? Medically?”

“Maybe.” Anna sounded as if she was trying not to say what she was thinking, which made Brysen wonder why she’d said anything at all. He felt confused and distant from the conversation. Was this shock?

“Can we continue this another time? Brysen’s had enough.” Jax was patient but firm, and Anna seemed to accept his authority in the situation. It made Brysen feel safe, made him want to curl in close to Jax and be held and protected.

“Let me take your comm code, and I’ll contact you to set something up.”

“Stay here,” Jax told Brysen and went off with Anna to the front door, while Brysen crawled onto a chair and tried to forget the sight of Sylvan’s body half-covered by some random bystander’s jacket, his legs thinner than Brysen had remembered them being. He heard Jax and Anna talking and knew paying attention to what they were saying would have been a good distraction from the thoughts racing through his head, but the thoughts were too powerful.

Sylvan had decided that dying was better than living without his owner, and Layne had made it clear if Brysen didn’t learn to behave as expected, being similarly discarded was a distinct possibility. He couldn’t fail. A life without Layne was no life at all.

I survived without him before. There are other owners out there. Kinder ones who can still give me the discipline and pain I need. Ones like—

Aghast, trembling so violently his teeth clashed, trapping his tongue, Brysen fought to silence the voice in his head. No. No. Layne was the only owner for him. The only one capable of training him, improving him. Disloyalty to his owner even in thought was a terrible crime. He deserved the most severe punishment in the world for that.

Jax came back into the room, his expression grim. “She’s gone, and I’m so sorry you had to go through that. She was unbelievably insensitive. Hey, you’re shaking!” He crouched beside Brysen, smelling like Layne after the shower, as commanding as Layne, but not giving Brysen what he needed. He didn’t want concern and gentle hands. Not after what he’d done. “Are you cold? Let me get you a blanket.”

“I don’t want a blanket.” He formed the words with difficulty, lips numb. “Whip me. Make me bleed. Fuck me with the biggest dildo Layne owns, and let me scream my throat raw.”

Surprise widened Jax’s eyes. He rocked back on his heels, then steadied himself. “Brysen—”

“It’s what I want!” Tears trickled down his face, but he ignored them. They didn’t match his mood. He wasn’t sad; he was desperate for expiation. “What I deserve.”

He saw the denial in Jax’s eyes, and something inside him snapped. He’d heard subs talk in giggles and whispers about how they had the ultimate control over their owners and wondered why they’d want that and who they were fooling. Now he knew they were right. Layne could deny him orgasms day after day, slash his skin, make him burn with desire and agony until they became one and the same, but Brysen could always say no—not that he ever would—and that made him the owner of the pain.

And now he could make Jax say yes. He raised his hand and struck Jax across the face, remembering how it stung to be slapped, how the print of Layne’s hand lingered in memory long after the flush had faded. “Punish me.” He made it an order. “You’re supposed to be taking care of me the way Layne would. Punish me.”

Grim, jaw clenched, Jax took Brysen’s wrists in one hand and squeezed them so hard Brysen felt the bones grind. Good. That was what he wanted. He wanted Jax to be angry with him. “Stop this.”

“No!” Brysen struggled to his feet—because he’d been sitting and Jax had been crouching, he was able to do that much, kicking the chair back into the table—and squirmed to free himself from Jax’s grip. Jax stood easily, restrained him without obvious effort. Not giving up, Brysen kicked him in the shins.

Jax twisted his wrist until exquisite pain shot up Brysen’s arm and brought fresh tears to his eyes. “Stop.”

“You have to punish me.” His elbow would pop out of its socket, he knew it.

“Take a deep breath,” Jax ordered, and Brysen obeyed automatically. “Better. Now tell me: what have you done wrong that you think you need to be punished for?”

If he struggled, he’d get injured, and that wasn’t the same as having his owner hurt him. It didn’t count. “Layne would punish me.”

“I’m sure he’d be happy to discipline you whether you deserved it or not,” Jax agreed. “But that wasn’t my question. What do you think you did?”

Brysen didn’t want to remember, let alone describe it aloud. Jax should punish him; then he wouldn’t have to think. He’d find oblivion in the pain, and when it was over, he wouldn’t feel guilty. He shook his head, lowered his eyes.

Jax twisted his wrist another millimeter, bringing an anguished whimper from Brysen. “Tell me.” Pain radiated through his body as if all of it were being wrenched.

“Disloyal,” Brysen whispered. “I had…bad thoughts.” And hated himself for it. “About Layne. I wish— I’m sorry. Please punish me. Please.”

“For your thoughts? No. For hitting me? I’m tempted, but I don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior, and that’s what it would be.” Jax slackened his grip as if underscoring his words. No pain. No relief. Brysen wanted to howl his despair. “But you’re right. I’m here to take care of you, and I’ve failed if you’re this worked up, so I’ll deal with you as you deserve.”

“Please.” He barely heard the word, but he felt it to his core. Begging came easily, bringing with it the safety of knowing his owner would only grant his plea if it was the correct course of action. He could ask for anything, secure in that trust.

“I’m staying here. All night. You don’t move out of my reach without permission, and unless it’s to piss or shit, you won’t get it.” Jax nodded, though Brysen hadn’t questioned him. “Yeah. No more hiding from me. I’m going to be here when you sleep and when you wake. And if you dream, better look for me there too.”

He reached down and caressed Brysen’s cock, rousing it to full hardness without difficulty. Layne had taught him to get hard and hold it for as long as required. “I’ve got full body rights. I wasn’t going to use them, but I will tonight. I plan to wear you out, Brysen. I won’t be gentle. You don’t deserve that, and you won’t get it. I’ll put you in tight bondage. Use you until I’m spent and you’re begging to come.”

“Thank you.” He relaxed, mind hazy with arousal, floating on anticipation.

Jax chuckled, no amusement lightening the soft sound. “You won’t be grateful when I’m done with you.” He ran his finger through the wetness on Brysen’s face. “Hope there’s more where these came from. I love seeing a sub cry and knowing I’m the cause.”

He wouldn’t be the cause, Brysen reminded himself. Layne owned him, and everything he had, everything that was given or taken away was because of Layne. He was going to be perfect and accept every bit of pain Jax dealt him until Layne was happy. All that mattered was Layne wanting to keep him forever. He’d do anything to have that.

Anything.

Chapter Seven

Jax had worked with difficult subs before. He’d been hired to sit a few who were still new to being owned to the point where what he did with them was more early training than anything else. He knew how to coax a sense of calm from a hesitant sub and how to curb the bad behavior of a sub whose needs ran deeper than his owner was prepared to deal with.

But he’d never come across a sub like Brysen before, and he’d have been lying if he said he knew precisely how to handle him.

Now, as he finished cuffing Brysen to the large bed he’d stripped the covers from, he glanced up at Brysen’s face to find he was being watched.

“How would Layne punish you?” he asked, more to disrupt the silence than because he wanted to hear the answer. “For having done this?”

Brysen swallowed. “Whip me. He has—” There was a hesitation, as if he wasn’t sure he was supposed to admit to something, so when he continued, Jax found it reassuring. It meant Brysen knew the information would be drawn out of him one way or another. “A friend of his modified one of his E-stim whips.”

Jax tried to keep his voice even. “Sorted out some way to override the safety feature?”

“Yes. I don’t know how high it goes now.” There was a hint of fear in his voice, but Jax refused to let that affect him or his actions.

“That’s illegal. The safety feature’s there for a reason.” And a sub who was capable of reacting to protect himself would refuse to consent to being whipped with a tool that had been modified, but Jax was becoming more and more convinced that there was a reason Brysen didn’t respond normally.

“For ordinary people, that’s true, but Layne’s a doctor. He knows those whips aren’t lethal, and he’s sure I can take more than the set limit.”

Arrogant asshole. “He’s a researcher, not a medico. How much does he—” Jax broke off. Criticizing Brysen’s owner wouldn’t foster trust between them. “Any tool an owner uses can be lethal if it’s misused. An E-stim whip is severe on its lowest setting.”

“Have you whipped a sub with one?”

Lust—pure, hot, intense—pierced Jax. He hardened with a shudder, remembering, and saw Brysen’s eyes widen, the swift lick he gave his lips. Intrigued and scared. The combination did nothing to quench the heat rising in him. Brysen was so fucking receptive, so desperate to be owned and hurt. Layne’s methods didn’t suit Jax, but part of him wanted to take advantage of the sub Layne had created. Use Brysen harshly, showing no mercy, push his limits until they cracked, and see what lay beyond.

“Yes. In my training and afterward. And I’ve experienced it too.” Seeing Brysen’s confusion, he raised his eyebrows. “You didn’t know? All sitters have to take what they give out. I’ve sometimes thought it’d be a good idea to make that mandatory for owners too, but there’d be riots if they tried.”

“You could use it on me. Maybe once you see what it’s like, you’ll understand. You’ll know why Layne wanted it adjusted. I want you to see how much I can take.”

“That’s what I intend to do.” Jax slid open the drawer under the bed, where he assumed Layne kept the usual supplies, and took out a positioning wedge. “Lift up.” He slapped the side of Brysen’s ass in illustration, and Brysen obeyed as best he could while restrained, letting Jax slide the wedge underneath his pelvis. He saw the strain in Brysen’s thigh muscles from the changed position and moved to adjust the length of the straps attached to his ankle cuffs. A bit of discomfort was one thing; damage to muscles and tendons was another.

He stepped back from the bed to view Brysen with some detachment. The sub was on his back with his pelvis tilted, wrists and ankles cuffed, cock hard. Hmm, lubricant. Jax intended this to go on for some time, and he wanted Brysen’s hole sore from overuse, not sheer friction.

“You’re allowed to make noise,” he told Brysen, kneeling on the bed between spread thighs. “But I don’t want to hear any words.” Without warning, he slid two slick fingers into Brysen’s ass.

Brysen closed his eyes, the tiny movement sensual, and made a beautiful sound that went right to Jax’s erection, arching his body the small amount the restraints permitted.

Jax added two more fingers, stretching Brysen’s hole wide, watching it tighten hungrily, then yield. The sub had surely taken more, much more, in the past; this wasn’t necessary preparation. He was doing it for his pleasure, so he could watch Brysen’s reaction and feel the hot clench of his body. Brysen’s cock was rigid, dark with blood already. It would’ve been a while since he’d gotten to come, several days at least. For a pain slut like him—and Brysen qualified for that label—that would be torment and delight mixed together.

Jax slicked Brysen’s hole, then withdrew his fingers, wiping them clean on Brysen’s stomach. Brysen moaned as if the trivial humiliation was a caress, the ready acceptance making Jax’s head swim with possibilities. He rummaged in the storage space over the bed this time and took out a box of zap patches that could be preprogrammed to administer a charge in any number of ways. It didn’t surprise him they were the maximum strength allowed. Subtlety wasn’t Layne’s strong point by the look of it. He dropped the box on the bed in Brysen’s line of vision and made his choice between the many dildos, going for a thick one, smooth until a button on the flared base was pressed, at which point tiny soft spikes popped out, adding extra sensation. He checked the spikes in case Layne had decided to alter the dildo’s specs as well before retracting them and working the dildo inside Brysen.

Brysen took it easily, cooperating fully to get it seated. Jax fucked him with it for a few minutes, idly ramming it home or giving him only the rounded head to grip. Leaving it as deep as it would go, he tilted the zap patches out of the box and onto the bed.

“Now these are fun. I like setting them to different times so a sub never knows when they’re going to go off. Plenty here to play with.”

He picked out two small round patches, peeled off the backing on each, and tapped in a setting of every thirty seconds. They were destined for Brysen’s nipples, already taut. Another two went on the sensitive hollows at Brysen’s hips, set to random, and the biggest one, a narrow rectangle, he wrapped around Brysen’s shaft. That one he set for a steady pulse, unrelenting, but the lowest setting the patch allowed. He finished with two more small ones for Brysen’s balls, depilated to silky smoothness, though a cloud of hair remained around the base of his cock. Jax noted with some amusement that Brysen’s balls were drawn up tight, making it easy to attach the patches. They could be set to random too, he decided.

Holding Brysen’s gaze, he tapped each patch firmly, activating them, then sat back, hand on the base of the dildo, to watch Brysen suffer.

And suffer he did, beautifully and with no attempts to hold in his desperation. His skin glowed with perspiration as he shifted his body incrementally, the best he could do with the restraints as tight as Jax had left them. Each time the nipple patches went off, he gasped, and the gentle pulsing of the patch around his shaft had him leaking a steady amount of precum within a minute or two. He moaned on a semiregular basis. His hole flexed and fluttered around the dildo with enough strength Jax ached to force his cock into it.

Soon.

The sounds Brysen was making were delicious. They would have made Jax hard on their own, but the eager shifting of his hips was more enticing. The breathless gasps told him Brysen wanted badly to beg, but the sub was managing to heed the silence rule.

“You can’t wait for me to fuck you,” Jax said.

Brysen’s eyes, which had been closed, opened wide and sought out Jax’s, suspicious, as if this might be a trick. The patches on his nipples zapped him again, and his body tightened in response; the base of the dildo twitched in Jax’s grasp.

“This is good, but it’s not enough.” Jax kept his voice casual. Still, he could see the effect it was having on Brysen to be spoken to this way. “Let’s play some more with those limits of yours.”

Without warning Brysen, he ripped off the patch over a nipple and replaced it with his mouth, biting hard as soon as his lips touched flesh, sucking at the tender morsel with the avidity of a thirsty man given a pouch of water. Even the lightest touch was agony after a zap, and Brysen had taken ten or twelve. Jax hadn’t bothered keeping a careful count.

Brysen cried out, but it was all sound, no coherence. Catching the nipple between his teeth, Jax reared back, stretching the skin to the point where Brysen had no choice but to rise off the bed as much as his restraints allowed. It wasn’t much relief. Tied down as he was, with little leverage, he could assuage the agony by only the smallest of margins.

He screamed instead, vocalizing his pain, twisting his hips as new bursts of sensation fought for his attention. Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes, running back to dampen his hair.

Jax parted his teeth and pushed Brysen flat on the bed. “You moved. You tried to lessen what you were being given.”

Brysen shook his head, not in denial, Jax suspected, but a weary acceptance of another failure. He’d expect punishment, harsh words.

“You know what that tells me?” Jax bent his head and kissed the swollen, scarlet nipple, wet with his saliva, hot against his lips. “That you reached a limit. That I needed to stop. You stayed quiet as I’d ordered, and you communicated with me another way. Well done.”

Brysen’s eyes searched his doubtfully through tears. He’d become so convinced he was a disappointment even faint praise must sound like a lie.

“I expect you to believe me when I tell you things.” Jax ripped the patch from Brysen’s shaft and closed his hand around it instead, feeling the weight and warmth. “You can trust me. Whatever I tell you, it’s the truth, and it will hurt my feelings if you don’t take it at face value.” He stroked Brysen’s cock from base to tip, wondering if positive reinforcement might cement the lesson more effectively. “You don’t want to hurt my feelings, do you?”

Brysen shook his head, frantic. He arched his body toward Jax’s hand.

“I’m going to make you come.” That was an easy enough truth, one that could be proved with little effort. “But not until I’m inside you. If you come before then, I’ll have to stop. You don’t want me to stop.”

Again Brysen shook his head, this time while biting his lip.

The dildo slid out of Brysen’s body easily, leaving his hole relaxed, waiting to be filled again. Jax peeled away the last of the patches and settled between Brysen’s widespread legs. “You don’t get to hold me, though. Not after hitting me. That can be what wipes out those blows.” He didn’t try to offer forgiveness and expiation without a penalty. It wouldn’t satisfy Brysen, and it went against every instinct of his.

Fucking a bound, immobile Brysen was like riding a wave twisting under him, powerful, wild, but his for the taming. He left Brysen’s lips unkissed, his cock untouched. He was showing Brysen who was in control and doing it without the savage cruelty Layne would have used but with little kindness for all that.

He and Layne shared more than Jax cared to admit now he knew more of the man. And appreciation of the sub taking every thrust with a helpless moan, skin scalded with arousal, luminous with sweat, was one of those commonalities.

For all the use Brysen’s hole got, he was still tight, encasing Jax’s cock with the perfect amount of pressure, the smooth, warm channel welcoming. Brysen could take a fist, but could he take Jax’s? His hands were larger than Layne’s. Not tonight.

Echoing his decision, though, he addressed Brysen, murmuring, “Not until I say.” He thrust again, viciously harder, not holding back. The force of the fucking had to be putting uncomfortable pressure on Brysen’s cuffed ankles, but the cuffs were lined and wouldn’t do more than superficial damage. “Don’t come. Until I say.” He was changing the rules in the middle of the game, which, as the one in charge, was his prerogative. The owner—no, in this case the owner’s stand-in—made the rules, and the sub’s will bent to accommodate them.

When Jax pushed into him again, Brysen whimpered. His cock was hard against his belly, flushed a dark red, but so far he’d managed to hold back.

Jax considered praising him, but he had a theory and wanted to test it. Shifting his weight back onto his knees, he got his hands under the base of Brysen’s spine and lifted him—not far, the restraints made sure of that—to change the angle of his thrusts. Like this, his cock rubbed Brysen’s prostate with every stroke. Brysen froze, muscles taut with strain, but he hadn’t come, not yet.

“Good,” Jax said. “You’re so good, so disciplined. Come.” He’d barely finished speaking the word when Brysen did, shooting up across his belly and chest with a wail, hands curling into fists as if he wanted something to hold on to.

The climax had to cost Brysen with his cock sensitized until the lightest touch brought a shudder, but Jax didn’t give that much thought. He’d told Brysen to come, and that had left the sub no choice at all. Some subs were naive enough to think a climax was always a reward. Jax knew they were wrong. Sometimes it was pure torture, and Jax was sadist enough to enjoy exploring those moments. Making a sub climax over and over was a punishment he’d inflicted more than once, reveling in the desperation of a helplessly aroused sub, straining to obey yet dreading the discomfort of a dry orgasm or Jax’s rough touch on their raw cock or swollen clit.

Jax pulled out, indifferent to Brysen’s whimper of loss. He would come inside Brysen at some point, but not yet. He pushed the dildo back in and saw Brysen close his eyes, accepting the thick, solid shape without protest. Then Jax worked his aching erection until he shot, aiming for Brysen’s cock, still hard, and using his free hand to press the button on the dildo, increasing its width, the emergence of the soft protrusions delivering tiny blows against the tender, well-fucked flesh.

Brysen screamed at the rain of spunk on his cock, writhing wildly within his narrow limits of movement, pushed too far. The scream ripped through Jax, prolonging his climax to the point where he forgot to breathe, every muscle locked, his head thrown back, face contorted until it hurt.

In that moment he was owned as much as Brysen, slave to the ecstasy.

When the last jolt had rippled through him, Jax dropped his hand onto Brysen’s thigh and let it rest there. Brysen’s skin was hot and slick with sweat. “You can talk now,” he said, in part because he was curious if Brysen would beg for more or if what they’d done was enough for now.

Brysen swallowed—it looked painful; his mouth and throat must have been terribly dry—and rasped out, “Thank you.”

Weary as he was and as much as he would have liked to lie down and close his eyes for a few minutes, Jax knew it was his job to take care of his sub. “Stay here.” He carefully worked the dildo free from Brysen’s hole and dropped it into the automated cleaning unit outside the bathroom door, then got a glass of water from the dispenser, setting the temperature to cool, not chilled, and brought it back to the bedside table. “Let me get these.”

His hands trembled slightly as he unstrapped Brysen’s restraints, rubbing his sub’s wrists and ankles briefly to get the circulation going.

“Drink this.” He eased Brysen upright and sat, allowing Brysen to lean against him to drink.

Brysen gulped thirstily. “Where did you think I’d go?”

“What?”

“You said ‘stay here.’ I was strapped to the bed. Where could I have gone?” Brysen was hesitant again, as if doubting his decision to ask the question, but Jax loved that he was indulging his sense of humor even in such a small way.

“There’s a legend owners don’t share of a sub with mystical powers who can teleport out of his cuffs.” Jax shivered dramatically. “How do I know you’re not him?”

Brysen giggled. Unmistakable. It was weak, and he was clearly punchy from the stacked emotions of the constable’s visit, his reaction, and the fuck, but he giggled. “I promise I’m not.”

“Which is what the Mystical Sub would say.”

“If he could do that, why would he want to?” Brysen turned his head and pressed a kiss against Jax’s chest. “What sub doesn’t love being held safely?”

“One with a cruel owner who mistreated him?”

“That would be awful.” From his matter-of-fact reply, Brysen didn’t seem to think it applied to him. “But he could always wait for the cuffs to come off, then leave. Tell his owner the relationship was over.”

“You can leave if you want.” Jax heard Brysen suck in a shocked breath.

“I couldn’t—not ever.” Brysen touched his collar. “Layne is my owner. I’m his. If he hurts me, if he’s cruel, I deserve it.”

“You say that as if you’ve been trained to believe it, not as if it’s what you naturally feel.”

“But that’s how the whole system is set up.” Brysen shifted back a little bit, more as if he wanted to see Jax’s face than to put distance between them. “Right? That’s why there are…rules and laws and everything. To protect people. We’re supposed to believe it because it’s true.”

Jax sighed. “That is why the system is set up, but it’s made of the same people it’s designed to protect, and that means sometimes things go wrong. Some people enter into situations without full knowledge of what they’re getting themselves in for. Sometimes people change.”

Brysen was watching him carefully. “Did that happen to you?”

“We’re not talking about me.” It came out harsher than Jax had meant it to, and he reached for Brysen’s hand before it was drawn away. “Yes. But it’s a long story, and I’m not in the mood to tell it. Not tonight. Trust me when I say contracts can be dissolved if one or both parties are unhappy. No sub is ever trapped by his collar.”

“I don’t feel trapped.” Brysen frowned, his bewilderment plain. “I love being with Layne. All I want is to be better for him, to make him happy. If he decided he wasn’t happy with me…” His voice wobbled.

“If he wasn’t happy with you, he wouldn’t have bothered hiring me.” Jax hoped he sounded convincing. “He wanted you to be well cared for in his absence.”

“Yes, of course, he—”

Jax’s wrist unit chimed, causing Brysen to break off and shift position, kneeling upright, head bowed, hands clasped behind him. Present in case his owner needed him, but giving the illusion of being a statue, incapable of sight or hearing.

Again, Jax felt a stir of admiration for Layne’s training. It troubled him. He disliked what he’d seen of Layne’s methods, but approved of some of the results.

Getting off the bed to stretch his legs, he tapped the unit. Layne’s face filled the small screen.

Greetings.” Layne sounded jovial. Not drunk, but not entirely sober. “I trust I’m not interrupting your night?

“Any owner-client is free to call me night or day. It’s part of the service for me to be available if you have concerns or instructions.”

It’s late, so I assume you’ve left my sub by now. Did you—

Interrupting clients wasn’t polite, but Jax didn’t want Brysen to overhear something to leave him disillusioned. “I’m still with him. I plan to spend the night to monitor his sleep in person. He’s had an upsetting day, and I’m worried it will undo the small progress we made last night.”

How thoughtful. How thorough.” Layne eyed Jax without speaking for a moment. “You’ve fucked him, I take it?

Seeing no reason to deny it, Jax nodded. “It seemed a good way to calm him.”

I find an hour or two in his cage, sucking on a cock gag, works equally well, but he’s a tempting little slut, so I don’t blame you for finding a reason to use him. Not that you needed one. I gave you full body rights.

“Yes, and I appreciate that trust. It makes my job easier.”

Well, that’s certainly one of my greatest concerns.” Layne was so fucking arrogant. “Link me into the house system so I can speak with him.

“Of course.” Layne didn’t need his permission and could have keyed in a code to link to the monitoring system easily enough; he was demonstrating who had the upper hand, making sure Jax didn’t forget who was in charge. Owners who felt the need to rub in their dominance were the worst, but Jax did as he’d been told because this wasn’t the time to argue.

Jax says you’re upset,” Layne said from the small screen on the wall by the bed. “What is it now? More nightmares? Or did he do the unthinkable and ask you to eat a meal?

Brysen didn’t move, didn’t lift his head to see Layne’s impatient expression. He’d have to be an idiot not to hear the frustration in Layne’s voice. “No, Layne. A constable came and asked some questions about Sylvan, and I…was upset. But I’m fine now. Jax disciplined me, and I’m better.”

That’s for Jax to judge, not you.” Layne sounded disgusted. It was no wonder Brysen’s self-esteem was shattered if this was the only interaction he had most days. “Tell me how you were punished.

“Zap patches,” Brysen reported promptly. “Seven of them. And the thick silver dildo. I wasn’t allowed to speak. He made me scream.”

And he’ll have to punish you for that as well, I suppose.” Bored, Layne waved a hand. “I don’t have time for your bad behavior. Jax?

“Yes?”

I’m going to set something up for tomorrow afternoon, if you don’t mind participating in a demonstration. There are some businessmen here who want to observe a sub of Brysen’s caliber being whipped, and as I’m not there to do it myself, I thought I’d have you stand in for me. If it isn’t too much to ask.”

Caliber? I thought he was a disaster and a disappointment. Jax thought it. Didn’t say it. Tomorrow Brysen was his only scheduled appointment, and he’d planned a day of chores and relaxing before seeing Brysen in the late afternoon, but he changed his mind. He’d stay close to Brysen every moment of the day.

“I can certainly do that if Brysen’s agreeable.”

Excuse me?” Layne’s tone would have sliced rock into dust. “Why are his feelings on the matter of any concern? This is my wish, my command. If you can’t deliver a simple whipping to please an owner, what good are you?

“Please.” Brysen whispered it, but Layne heard, judging by his smirk. “I want to do it, Jax. For Layne. Let me have this chance to show him how good I can be, how obedient.”

At four,” Layne snapped. “In the discipline room. I’ll expect you to prove you’re a level ten, Jax, and as for you, Brysen, if you don’t want to go the same way as Sylvan, I suggest you take what you’re given without whining and mewling for mercy. You can’t imagine how tiresome I find that.

Brysen bowed forward, head touching the bed, arms folded behind him.

Then it’s settled.” Layne pulled a sub who hadn’t been visible on-screen toward him, his hand tight in the man’s long dark hair. One side of the sub’s face was scarlet from repeated slaps, his eyes glassy with pain. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to demonstrate a procedure for my friends. It’s not particularly pleasant for the recipient, but I’m sure being fucked by five of us afterward will make up for that. Assuming he’s still conscious. Brysen passed out after three minutes, as I recall. I’m betting this sub makes it to six.

The screen went dark. Battling a desire to throw up, Jax snapped, “Brysen, stay here.”

He strode swiftly from the room, focused on his breathing. There was nothing he could do here to express his anger. At home, he had an exercise bag made of a material specially designed to absorb blows without causing damage to one’s palms or fists, but as far as he knew, Layne didn’t own one even if he should have. Jax refused to risk his hands or any of Layne’s possessions because he couldn’t contain his temper. Refused. It didn’t matter how personally frustrating he found the man; this was Layne’s home. Layne’s sub, collared and willing.

That was key. If this was what Brysen genuinely wanted—and Jax had no proof it wasn’t—there was nothing to be done but follow Layne’s rules and seriously reconsider if he wanted to accept any future assignments with this client.

Which would mean he’d never see Brysen again. Odd how disturbing he found that. Their time together had been too short to allow for true intimacy, but even so, he was drawn to the sub with the sad eyes as much as irritated by Brysen’s blind devotion.

Four deep breaths. In, hold, out. In, hold, out. It was simple, and more importantly, it worked. His calm returned, and when it had, he walked back to where Brysen was waiting.

“Sit and finish your water,” he said, trying not to sound as weary as he felt.

Brysen moved from his position slowly. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No. Not at all. Everything’s fine.”

“You don’t like an audience when you’re with a sub? Most of the people at the conference are Layne’s friends; I’ve met them. They’re good owners, he says. They know how subs should be treated.”

“It’s not that.” Jax had rarely felt so conflicted. Talking to Brysen about Layne was like capturing air in his fist. There was nothing to grab at, and no end result. He got rote words, prattled and meaningless, but nothing that resonated as truth. He’d had glimpses of what he was sure was the real Brysen—sweet, sensual, with flashes of wit Jax found delightful—but overlaying that picture were Layne’s heavy brushstrokes, slathering dark shadows over the brightness.

Pain, even humiliation, could be given to a sub with respect and love behind every blow, every word, a shared joy found in the creation of a perfect moment of shattering bliss. Layne wasn’t interested in that. He relished hurting Brysen without caring if it was what Brysen wanted. Why didn’t Brysen see it and walk away? He could do so much better.

“Brysen, you know it’s your right to refuse to obey an order that frightens you? That any good owner wouldn’t get angry?”

“Of course.” Brysen smiled, blindingly beautiful. “But that’s when subs have owners they don’t trust. I’m lucky to have Layne. He knows my limits better than I do. He’d never order me to cross a limit, so if I’m scared, it’s my fault for not trusting him, and I try harder. Refusing wouldn’t help me to grow. And it would hurt his feelings.”

Jax hated being in this position. He knew this “demonstration” Layne had requested was going to end badly, and he knew if he refused to honor the request, something worse was likely to happen, whether that was Layne getting one of his local friends to step in for Jax or putting off the demonstration until Layne returned from his conference.

And Brysen would be the one in danger if things took a bad turn. Jax was all for hurting a sub if it was what the sub wanted, or if all the sub wanted was to please his owner and the pain was a mild inconvenience willingly accepted. But the picture he was getting from Layne—hurting a sub to the point of unconsciousness, then fucking his limp body—was disturbing. Not technically illegal, depending on where the sub’s collar stripes drew the lines, but not to Jax’s taste, certainly.

“What if Layne wanted you to grow past the point that was good for you?” he tried.

Brysen frowned, puzzled. “But why would he want that? He knows what’s best for me. He wants me to learn as much as I can. And I want to. I want to be the best sub he knows. I want him to show me off to all his friends and impress them with how far he’s taken me.”

Okay. It was obvious all he was going to get out of Brysen at this point was more of this convincing rhetoric. “Why don’t you go rinse yourself off in the shower, then come to bed? I want to see what your nightmares are like for myself, if you’re going to have one, so we’d better make it an early night.”

“Come with me?” Brysen got up and looked at him hopefully.

He’d intended to use Brysen again, maybe put the sub over his knee for a light spanking to add more color to his paddled ass without adding to his bruises, but in the light of what was to come tomorrow, he altered his plans. Let Brysen find comfort in submission, but without pain for once.

“I will. You can serve me in the shower. Wash me, dry me by hand, then suck me on your knees.” His stomach rumbled, and he patted it. “Maybe we’ll eat first.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Oh, now, that wouldn’t do. Jax raised his eyebrows. “You’ll eat with me, Brysen. I might not agree with Layne on some aspects of your training, but I’m with him on the need for good nutrition.”

“I’m supposed to have a nutrishake, but they taste so awful…” Brysen swallowed. “I’m complaining. I’m sorry.”

“They don’t have to. I mix one my friend Ellis swears doesn’t taste in the slightest bit healthy. I think he means it as a compliment. And with it, hmm, something light from the Zoop Soup eatery. They deliver. Summer pea and lemon-spice soup with noodles. Sound good?”

Brysen had been frowning, but the worry lines on his face softened dramatically, his tone changing in a way Jax was beginning to find familiar. “Of course. I’ll do whatever you say, Jax. I’m always happy to do whatever you say.”

“I thought you only got two doses of that vitamin supplement a day.” Jax was sure he’d seen the collar’s tiny med-light blink to indicate it was working when he’d met Brysen outside the juice bar, though if it had done so again now, he’d missed it. “Doesn’t it follow a schedule?”

“I thought so, but sometimes Layne changes it. He’s still trying to find the right dose. Maybe he wanted to see if a smaller dose more frequently would work better with my metabolism.” Brysen’s anxiety seemed to have faded away, which only served to increase Jax’s growing suspicion about whether the medication being dispensed by Brysen’s med-chip was the supplement Layne claimed. It was hard to believe a simple dietary supplement could be so effective.

“I’ll have to ask him.”

“You should. It’s wonderful.” Brysen smiled at Jax, his pupils dark. “Should I order soup? I’ll make the smoothie too, if you tell me the recipe. If you write it down, I’ll make it for you anytime you want.”

“I’m happy to show you how to make it. There’s no need for you to keep drinking the shakes if you hate them. I’m sure I can convince Layne mine are superior nutritionally; then you won’t need to have the others anymore.”

Brysen shook his head. “Layne says there are benefits to learning to do things you hate, even drinking a shake. I don’t mind. I want to learn.” He sounded blissfully happy about the idea.

Jax frowned, that hint of doubt creeping back in. “Well, find some fresh fruit and nut butter while I order the soup, and I’ll show you how to make the shake even if you don’t want to drink it yourself.”

“I will. I’ll do anything to please you.”

For the first time in his life, hearing that assurance from a sub brought no satisfaction.

Chapter Eight

Brysen hung from his wrist restraints, glad his feet were flat on the floor. Layne usually whipped him hoisted so high he had to stand on tiptoe, but Jax had said that risked muscle damage and he wasn’t doing it.

It bothered him how at odds Jax and Layne were when he was supposed to see them as one and the same. Jax was Layne’s substitute, his face and voice when Layne was away, and yet all he seemed to do was change established routines and criticize. Brysen should hate him for that, but though it was disloyal to Layne, he couldn’t go there. Jax was too kind to him. He’d made a sweet and tangy smoothie without a hint of aftertaste to it that’d settled comfortably with the delicious soup. And he’d praised Brysen’s performance in the bathroom, saying he’d never been washed with such care and attention. Using his mouth to bring Jax pleasure had left Brysen sighing with delight, nuzzling into Jax’s muscular thigh as his hair was stroked, Jax’s approval all the reward he’d looked for.

He’d slid into bed beside Jax, cock rigid, and gasped when Jax had spooned him, reaching around to caress Brysen’s erection.

No need to ask if you enjoyed sucking me.

Honesty tasted sweet. “I loved it. I can wake you that way if you’d like.

What a thoughtful sub you are.” The soft growl against his neck, the steady pressure of Jax’s fingers… He’d squirmed, whimpered, and gotten a pinch to his nipple that steadied him. “Greedy. You came once, and that’s all you’re getting, but I enjoy playing with you, so you’ll have to suffer.

It had been wonderful, torturous, and he’d ridden the high of succeeding in holding back his climax and basked in the skillful manipulation of his cock and balls. He’d slid into sleep and woken from horrible dreams to find strong arms around him, a comforting voice murmuring in his ear, ordering him back to sleep.

It’d been easy to obey, though he knew what waited for him in his dreams was still there.

The dreams—nightmares—held tangles of dark vines, trapping him in place, choking him. They’d wrap around his wrists and ankles so he couldn’t move. Sometimes he could move, but though he knew his body was running away from something terrifying, his mind, his self, was left behind. Couldn’t scream, couldn’t breathe. He’d wake with his muscles aching and a throbbing tension behind his eyes, throat as sore as if he’d been screaming whether he had been or not.

Last night he’d jolted awake a second time, hands clutching at the warm body next to him, afraid and confused and desperate. “Layne,” he’d gasped, then remembered he wasn’t allowed to wake his owner and gave a whimper he couldn’t contain.

No,” Jax had said, voice deep, calm. “Shh. You’re all right.” He’d gathered Brysen close against his chest, refusing to allow a retreat.

The relief that flooded through him when he realized it was Jax and not Layne, and that he wouldn’t be pushed away with an impatient sigh, had been shameful, but he couldn’t contain that either. He’d pressed his face to Jax’s skin and breathed in his scent, reassuring, though it wasn’t quite familiar. “Sorry.

Don’t be. It’s fine.” Jax had settled his hand at the base of Brysen’s skull, cradling it, owning him. “It was only a dream.

Brysen had choked back laughter and shaken his head. “Only?

No, I suppose there’s no only about it. But it was a dream. Not real.

It feels real when it’s happening.” Deeply real, into his bones. He’d have to figure out a way to ask Layne for more help. The supplements were good, but not enough. He needed more.

And now he was due to be whipped with Layne and his friends at the conference watching, men with warm smiles that drew attention away from their cold eyes. He didn’t like the ones he recognized much. He rarely got the chance to speak to their subs, but the few snatched conversations with Miles’s sub had shown him he wasn’t the only one with a strict owner.

Somehow, though, hearing what Sylvan endured sounded awful. Not much different from Brysen’s training, but with Sylvan’s halting, shamed description of a punishment that left him damaged enough to require medical treatment, Brysen couldn’t see a loving owner behind it, disappointed but doing what was needed to improve his sub.

He saw a monster.

Well, he doesn’t look as if you’ve been maintaining my routine.” Layne sounded petulant. “His skin’s barely marked. Have you even paddled him?

Brysen had nowhere to hide. The cameras were positioned to pick up every angle, with the distant audience able to choose a viewpoint and zoom in on every bead of sweat or blood. The whipping frame was sturdy, bolted to the floor, capable of taking the most frenzied struggles without moving. He fought to keep his expression neutral.

“There are ways to discipline that leave no marks. And I left him alone last night so there’d be nothing to interfere with this demonstration.” Jax’s voice was cool, harsh, making him a stranger to Brysen. Where was the man who’d comforted him in the darkness or laughed with him at the beach?

Mmph.” Layne was unconvinced but probably didn’t want to come right out and say so in front of his friends. Brysen wondered if he regretted hiring Jax. “Well, don’t keep us waiting.

Brysen knew it was the modified E-stim whip in Jax’s hand because they’d already had a conversation about it. Jax had asked him twice if he was sure he consented to being whipped with a tool altered to override its safety features, and Brysen had assured him he did. If Layne wanted it, so did he. He was determined to get through this without doing anything to displease Layne. Layne’s friends would be impressed and maybe jealous their subs couldn’t withstand the same level of discipline as Brysen.

He’d forgotten how badly the modified whip hurt, even at the barely-rule-abiding setting Jax had told him they’d be starting with. The first stroke was such a shock he gave a startled shout when the line of fire-hot pain laid itself across his lower back, his body jerking away from the whip instinctively. Jax didn’t give him time to fear the next stroke; it came before the burn of the first had completely faded, and now Brysen was ready for it, was able to stifle his cry and focus on letting gravity keep him in contact with the floor instead of moving.

You can see how strong the E-stim whip is at its original ten.” It was Layne’s clinical researcher voice, detached, remote. He would have sounded the same if he had been the one wielding the whip.

Jax struck him three more times in quick succession. It was better that way—easier to get lost in continual pain than to have pauses—but the electrical shocks were so strong on the last one Brysen shrieked, convinced his skin was on fire. But no, it couldn’t be. That was what the safety levels were for. Even modified, that held true. Didn’t it?

I am fond of a dramatic sub,” Layne said. “But wait until you see the results when the whip’s used past the usual maximum level.

It would be amusing if he were gagged.” Miles. That unctuous voice was unmistakable, smoothly certain the world existed to please him. Sometimes Layne’s friends scared Brysen, though he was always careful not to show it. “Screaming is a release, and why should they have one? But balance that against those delightful noises and, hmm…

He’s my sub.” Annoyance sharpened Layne’s voice. “I’ll decide if he screams or not, and if I decide it isn’t permitted, he won’t need a gag.

Prove it.” Higher-pitched, a lilting accent. That was Sell. He always had two subs, twins if he could get them. At a party he’d made his current pair kneel and slap each other’s faces when he clapped, laughing as they tried to keep up with the rapid beat of his palms, his smile disappearing when he decided they weren’t using enough force. He’d bent them over a railing separating the sitting area from the kitchen, tied them in place, and declared them available for anyone to use. Most of the owners and a few of the subs, under orders, had taken full advantage of the opportunity.

Layne hadn’t. By the time it was his turn, both subs had passed out, holes bleeding, bodies limp. No fun to fuck. When they’d gone home, Layne, aroused, frustrated, made Brysen pay for that missed opportunity, leaving him in much the same state as Adam and Allen.

Easily.” Layne raised his voice. “Three strokes. Make them hard ones. Not a sound from you, Brysen, or you’ll feel the whip on your cock next.

No. Not there. Layne had done that once, and the memory had the power to twist his stomach, sweat slick on his back as his skin crawled. “Yes, Layne! I’ll be quiet.”

This would be difficult. The screams took some of the pain with them, eased the constriction in his chest. Once, he’d loved being whipped, the hot flicker of leather against his skin a joy, but it was a long time since he’d found freedom in bondage, ecstasy in agony. Layne had closed that door.

Why didn’t he mind that more?

And you, Jax, count them out.” Layne chuckled and added, “Slowly.

It was what Brysen suspected Jax had been trying to spare him—the pauses in between strokes that gave a sub time to anticipate how much the next one would hurt.

“One,” Jax said.

Brysen heard the faint whistle of the whip before it struck, and he managed to keep quiet when the pain blossomed on the solid curve of his ass, then flickered and spread throughout his nerve endings. It was what E-stim whips were designed to do, and though Jax had placed the blow carefully on a spot that was slightly less sensitive, it hurt enough that Brysen’s knees buckled. Only for a second, and he locked them again before his weight tugged at the wrist restraints. He was shaking, and he was grateful he wasn’t gagged because he suspected he might vomit before this was over, and there wasn’t much worse or more dangerous than throwing up while gagged. It had happened once before, and he’d regained consciousness with Layne hitting him between the shoulder blades and cursing at him to breathe.

Wait,” Layne cautioned. Brysen trembled. “Jax, dial up the whip.

“It’s at the maximum setting.” Jax’s voice was mild, factual.

I assure you that’s not the case. Take it to, hmm, twelve, I think.

“Is that wise?”

I’m not paying you to question me.” How Layne managed to sound amused and annoyed at the same time was a mystery, but Brysen was more focused on the next stroke and how much it would hurt at a twelve. “Do it. And aim lower this time.

Brysen imagined he heard the whip’s setting being adjusted. It had to be his imagination; it would have been a silent action.

“Two.” Jax hit him again.

Brysen screamed. He didn’t mean to, didn’t want to, but he had no control over his body. His legs went out from under him, and he hung from his wrists, nerves lit up. “No. No more, please.” He begged before he remembered making a sound had bought him the last stroke on his cock, but as soon as he realized his error, he broke. Tears ran unchecked down his face. “Please, no. I can’t.”

“You don’t have to.” There was nothing mild about Jax now. Low, fierce, certain, his words dug into Brysen, anchoring him when the panic and fear threatened to send him spinning into hysteria.

Knew he couldn’t!” Sell crowed. “So much for your assurances he’s improved.

Wait,” Layne all but spit it out. “You’ve shamed me, Brysen. Disappointed me. Failed me.

“He’s reached his limit, that’s all.” Jax set the whip down where Brysen could see it, turned off, harmless. A sleeping snake with a venomous bite. “Recognizing the time it happens is a sign of strength in sub and owner.”

So what will you do to him now?” A new voice Brysen didn’t recognize, curious, stirred with a sick excitement. Brysen didn’t try to attach it to a face. He didn’t care. He wanted to be released, then curl up in a small, dark space and cry out his sorrow.

Not because he’d let Layne down, but because Jax had made him see Layne differently. Each stroke had stripped away a layer of illusion, and he wanted to leave and never see Layne again. He’d wanted it for a while now, but—

The flood of warmth at his throat as his medication was delivered was an irritant, the dizziness going on for far longer than usual. Brysen swallowed hard, concentrating on his breathing. Jax would untie his ankles first, then his hands. Would hold him close. Any moment now; yes, he was bending down, mouth shaping words Brysen couldn’t hear through the buzz in his ears but knew were reassurances, not rebukes.

Brysen.” Layne’s voice, dark with anger, and running through it a tang of amusement that made no sense to anyone who didn’t know how much Layne enjoyed being angry. “Tell Jax to stop that. Tell him what you want him to do. What will please me and make up for your dreadful behavior.

“I don’t know.” It wasn’t defiance, not quite. More an attempt to give him time to think—but inside his mind, the certainties of the past few minutes were rearranging into old truths, trained habits. It was impossible to grasp those rebellious, wicked thoughts and hold them securely. Mercifully, they were fading, mist in the sun. He could pretend he’d never seen Layne and his friends as monsters now, never thought of leaving. He was safe from disloyalty now his head was empty, but he needed Layne’s guidance.

Yes, you do. Tell him to turn the whip high, as high as it goes, and whip your cock with it. One stroke will do.

“Yes, because he won’t survive to feel the second!” Jax retorted, but Brysen wasn’t paying him any attention. Layne’s wishes were all that mattered.

Joy rose within him and intense gratitude. He’d been bad, so wicked, but Layne had offered him a chance at redemption.

That was worth dying for.

Voice breaking with love for his owner, Brysen said what Layne wanted to hear. “Turn it up. All the way. Whip my cock as many times as you want to. Please. I need to be punished.”

He heard murmurs of admiration. That was good. Layne’s friends were impressed; they’d be more impressed with what would come next, with his complete and utter submission, his acceptance of everything Layne ordered. Floating, Brysen waited for pain to blot out the world.

It didn’t come. Instead there were sharp, angry voices—he was grateful he was detached from them, unable to feel concern about what they might mean—followed by his release from the restraints. Layne’s voice cut off in midshout, and everything was spinning.

“Layne.” Brysen didn’t know what he was asking for, but he knew Layne would give it to him. Layne would come home and punish him. He’d always belong to Layne, forever, until the last breath left him, whenever that was.

“Not Layne. Me. Jax.”

“You have to put me back.” That was reasonable, and Jax would understand and do it quickly before Layne suffered more shame. “You can’t whip me like this.”

“Not true, but irrelevant.” Jax patted Brysen’s cheek. “Open your eyes. Yeah, that’s it. Focus on me. I’m who you need to obey when Layne’s not here, remember, and he’s not here now. I cut the feed. Who does Layne want you to obey?”

He answered automatically, studying Jax’s worried face and wondering why Jax was upset. Probably because Jax felt he’d failed Layne too. Yes, that made sense. Poor Jax. “You. You’re his substitute. I’m to obey every order and improve while he’s away.”

“That’s right. And I’d order you to rest and recover, but we don’t have time. Layne’s probably going to lock this place down and call the constables to have me removed.”

“He is? Why would he do that?” So good to lie on this softness, his body edging away from the pain with every breath. But he couldn’t rest for long. He needed to take the whip again and be a source of pride to his owner. He struggled up with Jax’s help. “I don’t understand.”

“That makes two of us, but we need to leave before he snaps out of his tantrum and starts the lockdown. I’ll carry you if you can’t walk, but we need to leave now.”

“Where are we going?” Brysen let Jax lift his legs and slide pants and sandals onto him, then pull him to a sitting position.

“I don’t know.” Jax sounded determined as he put a shirt over Brysen’s head and snaked his arms through. Brysen wasn’t much help. His body wasn’t his to command. “Away from here. Never mind, come on.”

Brysen was hoisted to his feet, one arm around Jax’s neck. Jax was taller than he was. Wait, where were they going? He asked the question aloud. “Where are we going?”

“You asked that already. Listen to me: if anyone asks you, Layne told me to take you out for some fresh air. We’re going for a walk.”

“A walk,” Brysen repeated. He was a good sub and did as he was told. His legs didn’t work, but he could always crawl.

Jax grabbed his carisak and flung it over his shoulder, the sway of his body transmitted to Brysen. Like a dance, but dancing was fun and this hurt. His clothing rubbed his overstimulated skin like abrade-paper, making him long for a shower.

The door closed behind them, and he blinked at the brightness in the hallway. A nearby couple were laughing together as they shared a drink with two straws poking out of it and fumbled to key in their door code. The couple gave Brysen a puzzled look, and he tried to smile. He knew them by sight, but not name. Layne didn’t encourage him to socialize.

“Keep walking,” Jax told him.

“We’re going for a walk.”

He said it to the couple, but it was Jax who replied. “That’s right. To clear someone’s head after too much wine.”

The man grinned and nudged his partner, a sweet-faced blonde who’d come to Brysen’s station at the juice bar once and tipped him generously. “We know all about that, don’t we, honey?”

She giggled. “Why don’t we go inside and refresh my memory?”

Jax drew him past before he heard the answer.

Outside, he was bombarded by noise to the point where he released Jax to cover his ears and squinch his eyes closed.

“Hang in there.” Jax sounded tense. “We’ll go back to my place. You can recover there. We’ll take an express car.”

“No!” He shouldn’t argue, but he couldn’t face the swiftly moving car flying along the track. Normally he didn’t mind it, but not today. “Please, Jax, can’t we go back? Layne will understand if you explain you’re sorry.”

“I’m not sorry for anything but missing what was under my nose for so long.” Jax swiped his hands over his face. “I don’t know what to do. Where to take you that’s safe while I work out what’s happening. Maybe not my place. He knows where it is.”

“He always knows where I am,” Brysen said. “He can call me anytime he wants and ask.”

“Yes, but you don’t have to answer.”

That didn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t he answer if Layne called? Layne owned him. “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know!” Jax’s voice was sharp, and Brysen blinked at him, not upset, but puzzled. “Let me think. No, come on. We can’t stand here; we’re in the way. Would you rather go to my apartment? Or to a hotel for the night?”

“It isn’t dinnertime.” Brysen remembered Layne had given Jax temporary ownership of him and smiled encouragingly. “You decide. I’ll go wherever you say.”

“Good. Listen. Are you listening?”

He nodded, focusing.

“We’re having a change of scenery for tonight. It’s nothing to worry about, and you can talk to Layne in the morning and tell him what you’ve learned. Right?”

Finally, something comprehensible. This would make him a better sub for Layne, a new and different disciplinary training. All he had to do was obey Jax, concentrate on doing as he was told, and accept his punishments if he failed. “Yes, Jax.”

“Let’s go to my apartment for now. I need a little time to think, and I’m sure Layne has more important things to do than worry over us. He’s busy at his conference.”

All true, though a voice at the back of Brysen’s head suggested Jax was being dishonest. He shouldn’t think that, though. He was supposed to trust Jax the way he trusted Layne. “Do we have to take the express car?”

“Yes,” Jax said firmly. “But it will be fine. Focus on my voice, and stay calm.”

When it was an order from an owner delivered in an uncompromising tone, Brysen found new strength rising to enable him to obey. He drifted off at times, guided by Jax’s arm around him, retreating inside his mind to a place where the outside world didn’t seem able to reach.

“We’re here.”

Rousing, Brysen stared at a door, plain gray driftwood, small pieces fitted together and laminated to make them a strong whole. He followed the grain of a piece of wood, lost in the intricate path it wove.

“Through the door, Brysen. You can rest when you’re inside, I promise. Rest and heal.”

Heal? Oh. The whipping. Yes, that had hurt, but he couldn’t feel its effects now. The whip itself was a light one, leaving few visible marks. It was the power running through it that made it formidable. His back and ass weren’t throbbing at all or tingling as if a million hot needles were embedded in his skin. No, they were numb, and that was so much nicer.

It seemed important Jax knew that. Once they were inside, away from the noise, the lights mercifully dim so the only impression he got was of a cluttered, lived-in space smelling of lemon and ginger from an everburn candle in a wall recess, he said, “I can’t feel my body.” He tried to smile, but his face was numb too. “Is it still there? Could you check?”

Jax liked it when he made jokes, but that must’ve been an awful one because Jax didn’t smile back.

“You’re in shock, and I don’t know what those fucking drugs are doing to you. I think…” Jax led him toward a bedroom. “I think we should take off your collar.”

No. No!

He screamed it, hands flying up to grab the familiar circle and hold it in place. Layne had told him once if he tried to remove his collar, he would die. That Layne’s retribution for such a heinous sin would be terrible, and no mercy would be shown him.

You’ll die wearing it. You’ll die mine. Tell me that’s sunk into the shallow puddle you call a brain.

And it had. Layne rarely made threats he didn’t follow through with, but that wasn’t a threat. It was a fact, stated with cool, bored assurance.

“Brysen. Brysen! Calm down. Listen to me. Shh. It’s okay.” Jax’s voice was soothing in a way nothing else was, and Brysen responded to it, the frantic thudding of his heart slowing.

He sat on the edge of a bed, half-curled into Jax’s lap. Jax was holding him. “No,” he whispered. “Don’t take it off.”

“We have to. Something’s wrong. It’s only for tonight. Nothing bad will happen, I promise.”

“I’ll die.”

Jax hesitated. “No. You won’t. You must know that isn’t true.”

Brysen shook his head slightly and pushed upright, away from Jax. “Layne said I would. If I ever tried to take it off, I’d die. He wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”

“I don’t think that’s what he meant.” Jax took his face in strong hands and waited until their eyes met; it was an order Brysen understood without the words. “The collar is malfunctioning. I’m not sure how—maybe it’s giving you too much of that supplement, or maybe— I don’t know. But I know something’s not right with it, and I don’t think you’re safe as long as you’re wearing it. We’ll take it off until we can figure out what’s wrong with it. You know Layne hired me to look after you. He’d want me to do whatever it takes to protect you, even removing your collar if something was wrong with it.”

Wrong, wrong—why did Jax keep saying that? It was his collar. It kept him safe, told the world he was owned and cared for. “Then what did he mean?” It was strange how he could get angry with Jax without fear crushing him at his temerity. “Are you saying he lied to me? My owner lied?”

Jax began to say something, then sighed and rolled his eyes, visibly changing his mind. “I’m saying this is an unusual circumstance. The emotional cost of removal is high, but there’s no physical one. Brysen, you know this.”

Brysen shook his head. It ached, stabbing pains at his temples and behind his eyes, every movement followed by a wince. He needed to sleep and wake to find this was one of his horrible dreams, no more than that. “I don’t want to take it off. As long as I’m wearing it, it means I belong to Layne. Without it…”

“Sweet.” The sarcasm bit like a clamp. “It takes more than a collar to make a sub and owner a partnership.”

“You’re jealous! You don’t have anyone of your own, just other people’s borrowed subs.” Sudden sobs choked him, his nose running, forcing him to sniff hard. He was adrift, the future a frightening void. Layne would never forgive him. Ever.

“I had someone.” Jax’s face hardened, as if he was trying to build a shell between his emotions and Brysen’s gaze. “You resemble him, but Nikhil would’ve had the sense to run for the door if I’d abused him or threatened to kill him for leaving—which is what Layne meant, since you’re having trouble working that out. You didn’t run, and I’m wondering if it’s because you’re stupid or you didn’t have a choice.”

“Layne loves me.” Brysen tried to push Jax away from him, but Jax was too strong. “He does! You don’t know!”

“If he did, he wouldn’t push you past your perfectly reasonable limits, or treat you like you’re undeserving because you have nightmares.” Jax touched his hand. How could he be so gentle and so strong at the same time? “If he loves you, he’ll be grateful we took off your malfunctioning collar to keep you safe. Trust me.”

Brysen shivered. He’d been afraid before, but never this afraid. “I don’t want to die,” he gasped, and Jax, hearing what he hadn’t said, reached into his carisak and brought out one of the small tools used to unlock a collar.

“Easy. It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.” Jax fiddled with the collar—Brysen couldn’t see what he was doing anyway, so he squeezed his eyes shut tightly, wishing this wasn’t happening—and a moment later there was a click and a snap.

Brysen’s neck was bare for the first time since he’d originally put a collar around it, and he couldn’t breathe. “No. No, no… I can’t.”

“You can. You’re fine. This is temporary, until we can figure out what went wrong.” Jax slipped Brysen’s collar into his carisak.

“This is wrong. I can’t—” Helpless, Brysen reached for Jax’s hands and brought them to his throat, pressing them where the collar was supposed to be. Feeling them took his anxiety down a notch, though his heart was still hammering. “I’m scared.”

“I know. But I’m right here, and I’ll stay with you. We’ll do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”

There was something important Brysen was forgetting, but it was hard to think. He crawled into Jax’s lap again and wrapped his arms around him, anger lost in the need for comfort.

“You’re a mess,” Jax whispered, hugging him close. “I’m sorry. Sorry an owner did this to you, spoiled what you gave him. He doesn’t deserve you or any sub, and if he’s done what I think he has, I’ll see him stripped bare of everything.”

Too confusing. Too much to process. Brysen clung to his survival as a miracle and wished his head didn’t ache and the numbness wasn’t wearing off. He rubbed his burning forehead against Jax’s thigh, seeking coolness and finding warmth. He whimpered, then pressed his lips together. Complaining wasn’t allowed. This had been done to him by Layne, and he should accept it gratefully.

Jax stroked his hair. “You must be in a world of pain, but I daren’t give you anything for it. Not until I find out what’s in the supplement.”

“I never take suppressors.”

“Another of Layne’s rules? Never mind. Can you sleep? That will help.”

Brysen was eased off Jax’s lap and undressed. It was a relief to be naked, but his neck felt bare in a different way. He missed the weight of his collar with a raw craving he couldn’t express to Jax. Not when Jax was the one who’d stolen the collar. Maybe he could sneak it out of the carisak later?

Jax turned back the soft gelsheet and gestured to him to get under it.

Exhausted though he was, he dreaded what waited for him once he fell asleep. “I’ll dream.”

“Yeah, you probably will.” Sadness and regret poured off Jax like rain from a slanted roof. “But once that poison’s out of you, I think the dreams might stop.”

“Stay with me.” Brysen groped for Jax’s hand, his eyelids heavy.

“I promise.”

The reassurance followed him down into the darkness. His dreams were horrible, worse than ever, and he couldn’t wake from them no matter how badly he wanted to. He was running from something that would hurt him when it caught him. The ground was uneven, and he kept tripping and falling to his knees. The bad thing was gaining on him. He tried to run faster, but his lungs were burning. Everything was burning and hot and red, and he was sweaty, but his teeth were chattering.

“Shh, it’s okay. I’ve turned up the thermostat.” Jax settled a warm blanket over him and lay down next to him, hugging him close.

“Cold,” Brysen managed. So cold.

“I think it’s a withdrawal symptom. I’ve got someone coming over to pick up your collar and see if he can figure out what’s going on with it. Maybe your supplement was misprogrammed.”

Everything ached, down into his bones. This was what Layne meant when he said he’d die if he took off his collar. The collar protected him, and now Jax had taken it away. Brysen whimpered. “Give it back,” he begged.

“I can’t, honey.” The endearment jarred on him. Was that what Jax had called Nick? No, Nikhil, that was it. “If I do and it delivers another dose, you’re back where you started.”

He struggled to sit, then gave up, collapsing against pillows with Jax’s scent rising from them, faint but unmistakable. “But that’s where I want to be. With Layne, when we first met and he was sure I’d be perfect. And this time I wouldn’t make so many stupid mistakes and fail him. Then he wouldn’t need to give me punishments every day, and we could enjoy being together.”

“He enjoyed punishing you every day, or he wouldn’t have done it. He set you up to fail and got a thrill out of disciplining you when you were ashamed and worried.”

“That’s not the way it was.”

Jax draped a damp cloth over Brysen’s forehead, the shock of the cool fabric another ordeal until it became refreshing. “You’re feverish. I think he gave you an overdose to get you to beg for the whipping, and on top of what was already in your system, it triggered a bad reaction. And now you’re suffering withdrawal symptoms, which isn’t good, but until we find out what the drug was…”

“Then take me to a med-center.” He didn’t beg. He demanded. Resentment flooded him. This was all Jax’s fault. “I’m dying, and I don’t want it to be in your bed. I’m leaving.”

He got halfway off the bed before Jax grabbed him and pushed him flat. “Okay, we’re done talking until my friend arrives, and you’re going nowhere.”

He lashed out weakly, struggling to rise when Jax walked away. He’d gotten his feet on the floor when Jax came back holding a set of snap-shackles.

“I didn’t want to do this, but you need to stay put.”

Brysen fought him, even though it got hazy after a while, bit him, but Jax absorbed every flailing blow without retaliating. When Brysen gave up, collapsing back onto the bed, too weak to continue, Jax patted his face. “Good boy. You can tell yourself you tried and blame this on me.”

“I do,” he found strength to mutter.

Jax smiled wryly and attached the chain to a hook on the wall over the bed with a coded lock and snapped the cuffs around Brysen’s wrists. “Room to move, but not to run. The release is a four-digit code, so don’t bother trying.”

He brought a watery juice for Brysen to sip through a straw, the chemical tang telling him it was laced with nutritabs. Too thirsty to care, he sucked the drink down in greedy gulps.

“Now rest.”

Brysen did close his eyes and try to think, but his brain was in such a fog he couldn’t focus properly. He wasn’t sure he slept; he was faintly aware of a door chime and Jax leaving the room, talking to someone in hushed tones, but maybe that was a dream. If it was, he’d gladly take it over the other sort.

The bed shifted as Jax sat beside him, blotting his brow with the cool cloth again. “What can I get for you? Something to eat?” Jax asked.

“I couldn’t.” His stomach was pretty unhappy with him. “Talk to me.”

“What about?”

“Who was at the door? Was it your friend?” Brysen was sure he remembered a friend.

“Yes. It’s not important. Need to piss?”

“No. Tell me about your sub. Nikhil.”

“You don’t want to hear about that,” Jax said. He meant I don’t want to tell you.

“Yes, I do. Please?” He was taking advantage of Jax’s sympathy, but he wanted something to distract him from how awful he felt. He didn’t have to fake his next shiver.

Jax got comfortable. “All right. What do you want to know?”

“Why aren’t you still together?”

“Lots of reasons. It’s complicated.” Jax sighed and set the cloth aside, then ran his fingers through Brysen’s hair. The soft tugs felt nice. “In the end, for the same reason most relationships don’t last, I suppose; we weren’t compatible.”

“He wanted you to punish him too much? Not enough?” Brysen guessed.

“Those would be simple reasons.”

Jax was right. He could do better. “Did he like being punished for things he didn’t do? I knew a sub once, and he’d make up stuff he’d have to be disciplined for. He said once he’d been caught trying to take something from a shop, instead of paying for it. But of course the security monitoring system didn’t show anything because it never happened. When his owner found out the truth, he got punished again for lying.” Brysen remembered the look on the sub’s face when he’d told him the story, happy and relaxed and smiling.

“No. If Nikhil wanted a spanking or a paddling, and I missed the signs, he’d go to his knees, take my hand, turn it, and kiss the palm.” Jax held out his hand, then curled his fingers as if trying to capture something fragile.

Brysen pictured it and wasn’t sure if he was touched or shocked. “And you’d give it to him? Let him control you? You were his owner! Discipline comes when you decide.”

“It wasn’t like that. He was asking. A sub can always ask. Or beg. And sometimes I’d make him wait, do something else to take the edge off, or let him simmer, but mostly I’d pull him up over my knees, peel down his shorts if he was wearing any, and turn his ass the prettiest pink you ever saw.” Jax shook his head. “You don’t have a clue how a balanced, happy O/s relationship looks, do you?”

Stung, he retorted, “If it was that happy, he’d still be with you.”

“For a sub who likes being a rug to be stepped on, you’ve got a mouth on you, but you’re not wrong.” Jax eyed him curiously, then, to Brysen’s surprise, kissed him lightly on the forehead. “Better, but still hot. That’s how my mother used to check my temperature when I was little.”

“Did she—” He broke off when a man walked in, holding his collar. His collar. He lurched forward, reaching out for it, forgetting his cuffs and the chain tethering him to the bed.

“Stop,” Jax said. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

“It’s mine. Mine.” Brysen made desperate grasping motions with his hands like a baby might, not caring how it made him look. “Give it to me.”

Jax shook his head but was more focused on the man. “Anything?”

“There are two different compounds being dispensed, and neither of them is a vitamin or mineral supplement.”

“I wish I found that more surprising,” Jax said grimly. “Oh, I’m sorry. This is Brysen. Obviously. Brysen, this is my friend Yusef. He’s a chemist.”

“I used to be a chemist,” Yusef corrected him. “And my analyzer, which has been tucked away in the back of my cupboard, is no longer considered top-of-the-line, so what it can tell us is rather limited. One of the compounds is some form of hydrobromide.”

“And for those of us who have never been chemists, that means…?” Jax was impatient but trying to hide it, Brysen could tell.

“Well, some hydrobromides are used to treat depression, anxiety. They aren’t particularly fast-acting, though, so I think what we’re looking at is more along the lines of hyoscine hydrobromide.” Yusef seemed hesitant. “I could be wrong, and it’s something else entirely.”

“What is that?” Brysen worried about asking the question, but he was struggling to understand. His collar’s med-chip had been dosing him with two different medications, and neither of them was his supplement? How was that possible? Could Layne have made that serious a mistake? “Hyoscine whatever?”

Yusef looked at Jax. “Maybe we should discuss this in the other room.”

“No.” Brysen bit his lip. “I’m sorry. Please, no. Tell us.”

“Whatever it is has been modified, because hyoscine hydrobromide hasn’t been in use for two decades. When it was… It had a reputation. Originally it was meant to be used as a preanesthetic sedative, for motion sickness. But it had an unexpected side effect that made it attractive as a street drug—it made people compliant. So compliant they became easy victims of crime. And the victims often wouldn’t remember any details about the people who’d taken advantage of them.”

The realization of what Layne had done—dosed him to make him agreeable, to make him want to submit—hit his stomach, bypassing his brain, so he felt his guts churn and didn’t know why. Then everything meshed, and there was no escape from his emotions.

He threw up on the bed, the floor, and Jax, his body rejecting everything as if that could rid him of the drug. But it was in his blood, not his belly. He needed to open a vein, let the tainted blood flow from him. A few hours ago, he’d thought dying to please Layne was worth it. Now he thought dying to get every trace of the man from his body was equally desirable. He clawed, then bit at his wrists, the cuffs denying him access to the vulnerable skin, ignoring the two men attempting to pull the splattered sheet away from him and clean him up.

“Brysen, stop that. Now.”

When an owner used a certain tone, most subs came to heel. Brysen had been one of them before he met Layne, his instinct to obey. Maybe that had made him an easy target, but it was part of him, and he couldn’t change it. He quieted down, shaking violently, mouth rank with the taste of vomit, cringing from the stink and mess he’d made.

“Wait here while I walk Yusef out. I’ll be back in two minutes.”

Alone, Brysen made no effort to hold himself together. He curled up as far away from the soiled sheet as possible while restrained and cried, tears lukewarm as they traced their way down his hot cheeks. Everything he’d ever believed about his life with Layne was a lie. Layne hadn’t been taking care of him, giving him supplements so he’d feel better. Layne had been drugging him so he’d go along with harsh, sadistic fantasies. What horrible things had been done to him that he couldn’t remember?

He tried, fingers trembling, to undo the cuffs from his wrists. There was no point, no way he’d get free, but he needed something to focus his attention on or he’d go crazy. Or start throwing up again. Or worse.

Jax came back and paused in the doorway when he saw what Brysen was doing. “Really?”

“Would you please undo these? Please.” Brysen tugged at the cuffs. “I need to rinse out my mouth.”

“Promise me you won’t hurt yourself or run off.”

Brysen sighed. “I’m in shock; I haven’t changed my whole personality.” To be fair, it had been so long since he’d asked for something with any hope of getting it that it felt like he’d changed his personality, but he needed to freshen up or he’d scream.

If he screamed, he didn’t think he’d stop.

“Okay. The bathroom’s right through there.” Jax undid his restraints and followed him into the bathroom. “Use anything you need.”

Brysen took his clothes with him, shoving them into the small disposal unit because he refused to wear them again. He swigged some mouthwash and gargled with it, then spit into the sink and shivered. “May I take a shower?”

“Of course.”

He turned the water on as hot as it went and got in, gasping at the scalding temperature. “Jax?”

“Yes?”

“Would you come in with me? Please?”

Jax didn’t answer, but through the shimmering blue of the glass surround, Brysen saw him undressing. A few moments later, Jax joined him under the spray. The shower and the apartment were a step or two up from the basic level Brysen had grown up with, but a world away from the luxury he’d experienced with Layne. He didn’t care. A trickle of cold water from a pipe would be preferable to wallowing in Layne’s bath.

He turned his face up to the cascading water, eyes open, stinging with more tears—useless, pointless tears. Another shivering fit was approaching, his head pounding with tension, but the cleansing, scalding water helped, and when Jax drew him close, rocking him like a child, murmuring comforting words into his ear, that helped too.

Chapter Nine

When Brysen was curled up on a padded chair with a blanket and a cup of hot tea, shivering less but blank-eyed, Jax went into the kitchen to make a call.

Constable Anna Hiljin.

“Yes, Constable Hiljin. This is Jax Idrindi—we met at Layne Hamiel’s apart—”

I know who you are,” she interrupted him. “What can I do for you?

“It’s…complicated.” Jax hadn’t put much thought into how he was going to explain any of this, unfortunately. “I’ve had to remove Brysen’s collar.”

And why would you do that, and why should I care?

Keeping his temper was imperative but a struggle. Strictly speaking, she was correct, and he should have gone first to the O/s department, but part of him wanted any investigation to be done by someone outside the system. Layne was wealthy and powerful. That counted for something with some people. He doubted Anna was one of them. Plus, he felt her investigation into Sylvan’s death and his concerns overlapped.

“It’s been dispensing medication his owner claimed was a mineral supplement, but I began to suspect it was something else. That the collar was malfunctioning, providing too strong a dose. I had to take it off to confirm my suspicions.” Jax grimaced with disgust at Layne’s actions. “Which it did. I had a friend verify the drug being dispensed wasn’t what Layne said it was.”/

And what was it?” A spark of interest showed in her face.

“Basically a cocktail making sure Brysen lost the ability to refuse Layne anything, no matter how physically or emotional dangerous Layne’s demands were. It’s why Brysen applied to have his collar stripes changed twice, why he put up with abuse any sane sub would have rejected out of hand.”

She sucked in air through her teeth, the resulting sound grating. “Quite an accusation.

“One I can back up with facts. I had the med-patch analyzed, and if you go to the apartment and seize the supplies Layne must have, you can see for yourself what he’s done.”

Anna raised her hand, silencing him. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You’re telling me Hamiel was violating the spirit of his sub’s stripes, getting around the safety system with a drug that prevented the collar from flashing when it should have. You realize I can’t take your word for that? You’ll have to turn the collar over to me so I can have our analyzation department verify your claim.

Jax glanced back into the living area; Brysen hadn’t moved from his miserable huddle on the chair. “I suspected as much. But I have to warn you, I’ve cut off contact with Mr. Hamiel, and I doubt he’s pleased with me right now. He may decide to head home from his work conference early and try to reclaim his property.”

He’s within his rights. You’re a subsitter, not an owner. And it’s for Brysen to take action.

“Under normal circumstances, yes, but he’s not in a good place to make difficult decisions. He’s been subject to systematic, deliberate abuse, and he’s gone from adoring his owner to the point of being willing to die for him to being—”

Die for him? That’s an exaggeration, yes?

“That’s the literal truth. Layne set up a whipping session he and his friends watched remotely from the conference, then asked me to do something potentially lethal with an illegally modified whip. After getting a giant dose of the drug, Brysen went from begging me not to hurt him, scared out of his wits, to pleading for me to do it, stars in his eyes at how pleased Layne would be with him. Which was when I got us both out of there.”

Her silence held so much skepticism Jax wanted to groan and bang his head against the wall. She didn’t believe him, and he had firsthand evidence of her scorn for subs. She probably thought he’d fallen in love with Brysen and stolen him, reenacting the plot of a syrupy romance movie, blind to the legal implications.

He hadn’t. Who was Brysen? He didn’t know. He’d seen flashes of a man he liked, but the real Brysen’s personality had been blurred and smudged by the drug and abuse. Would he like him when Brysen was himself again? He thought so, but that wasn’t why he’d rescued him.

I’m going to need to take the collar into evidence and confirm—in person—that it wasn’t removed from Brysen against his will. Can you meet me in an hour?

Jax would have agreed to anything if it meant the constable was willing to accept his version of the facts. “Yes. Where?”

When she’d told him, he ended the call and went back to the living room. Brysen glanced up from his huddle under the blanket. “What? You look as if you have to tell me something horrible.”

“It’s not that bad. We have to go meet Constable Hiljin. She needs your collar for her investigation, and she wants to make sure you’re on board with moving forward. She needs to hear it from you.”

“Okay. Yeah. I mean, you’re right, I don’t like it, but I understand why.” Brysen’s hands were still wrapped around the mug of tea Jax had brought him, though he hadn’t taken a single sip. “I don’t have any clothes.”

“I’ll find you something.”

Jax was glad to have a few minutes alone while he went through his closet, trying to find things that would fit Brysen, who was a head shorter and worryingly thin. He’d have to do whatever was necessary to tempt the sub to eat, whether it was offering him sweets or making lists of his favorite foods.

Though he shouldn’t forget this was temporary. Brysen didn’t belong to him. He’d take good care of him over the next few days, but it wouldn’t benefit either of them to pretend this was the beginning of something. Sighing, Jax found a pair of linen slacks with a drawstring waist and a shirt too tight across his chest and took them back to the living room.

“What do you think of these?” he asked, holding them up.

“I don’t care. Do we have to go now?” Brysen shrugged the blanket off his shoulders as if it were painful and held his hands out for the clothes.

“Not immediately, but soon. How are you feeling?”

“Like I’m sick. This is withdrawal, right? It happened once before. When my collar malfunctioned for real. Layne replaced the med-chip within twelve hours, as soon as we figured out what was going on. I should have suspected something then.” Brysen sounded disappointed with his lack of insight. “I thought I had Modaviall flu.”

“It might last a few days,” Jax warned him. “Until the drugs are out of your system and you get used to functioning without them. Yusef thinks you’ll have mood swings and your appetite and libido will be all over the place while you adjust.”

“Was that why I didn’t want to eat? Because of the drugs?” Jax nodded, watching Brysen stiffen, rigid as metal. “He punished me for being too thin. He had to know why I was never hungry, and he punished me for it when it was his fault.”

“He’s hurt you without your permission from the moment he loaded your collar with that poison, but yeah, that’s not sitting well with me either. It’s one thing for a sub to ask for a paddling like your friend, or for an owner to push a sub into a position where failure is inevitable as part of a discipline session, but what he did was cruel. Cruel, abusive, sick, and he’ll pay for it. I swear to you, he’ll pay.”

“I’ll handle it myself,” Brysen snapped. “I’m not weak or stupid. I was drugged.”

But how long were you with him, falling in love, submitting eagerly, before he drugged you? Something about him attracted you, and when you’re with him, will that surface and the anger fade?

Jax had seen more unlikely acts of forgiveness.

Dressed now—he’d managed most of it without getting off the chair—Brysen picked up his tea again. “What time are we supposed to meet her?”

“Forty-five minutes from now, but it’ll only take ten to get over to the Plaza.” The constable had suggested meeting there as a halfway point between Jax’s apartment and her office, and Jax, not keen on having her in his home, had agreed. “I’d go on my own, but she insisted she speak to you in person. She wants to be sure I’m not influencing you.”

“That you didn’t kidnap me and take my collar by force.” Brysen’s gaze was focused on a spot on the floor. “Can we go now? I think if I keep sitting here, I won’t be able to get up when the time comes.” He offered Jax a smile. “Plus I might need to stop to throw up again on the way.”

“We’ll take our time,” Jax promised. It was hard not to be impressed by Brysen’s ability to find his sense of humor under these circumstances.

It was a good thing they had left early, he thought later, sitting at the restaurant hub at the Plaza. He’d angled his chair so he had a clear view of the bathroom, into which a pale Brysen had disappeared a few minutes before with the assurance he’d be all right. Jax wasn’t so sure, but he didn’t blame Brysen for not wanting an audience if he was going to be sick again.

“I thought I was clear you were meant to bring your little sub friend with you,” the constable said, looming over him.

“He’s in the bathroom,” Jax told her, weary of her attitude. “Look, I haven’t done anything wrong, so I’d appreciate it if you stopped treating me as if I had.”

She looked surprised, then sighed, waving her hand in what he guessed was her way of apologizing rather than dismissing his words, before taking a seat. “You’re right. It’s one of the disadvantages to the job, I suppose. Most of the people I deal with have done something wrong.”

“And you don’t like or respect subs or their owners at the best of times.”

Anna tucked back a lock of hair too short to stay in place behind her ear for long, the gesture automatic to Jax’s eyes. “Is that what you think?”

“Based on a few minutes of your company, it comes across as clearly as if you have it written on your forehead. If that’s not the impression you want to give, I’d suggest choosing your words with more care.”

She shrugged. “I’m entitled to my opinion. And before you ask, there’s no tragic incident in my past involving a sub. I’m a judgmental woman who hates seeing someone give up control. Cases like this, assuming what you say is true, prove I’m right.”

“Admitting a flaw in a way that makes it obvious you’re proud of it doesn’t stop it being a flaw,” Jax told her. “In my job I see a huge range of O/s relationships, and some of them aren’t to my personal taste, but I don’t judge. I follow the owner’s instructions and become them for the time they’re away. Layne, though, he’s different. What he did was illegal, morally corrupt, and abusive. He’s rich, but he’s not above the law.”

“You got that right. Still your word against his.”

“No.” Brysen appeared at her side, face pale, damp from a recent wash. “It’s our word against his. I’m remembering stuff now. What he did to me, what he made me do. It’s probably why I keep throwing up.”

“There are things you can take for that,” Jax said, pity rising. “Sit. I got you some juice—galangal and kefir—but don’t feel you have to drink it.”

Brysen sank into a chair as if grateful to get off his feet. “Thank you. Constable Hiljin, what is it you need to know?”

“Whatever you can tell me.”

“I can tell you he was drugging me and lying to me. He told me I had a mineral deficiency and the stuff in the collar would fix it. Turns out he was giving me something that would make it easier to…” He swallowed heavily and glanced at the juice as if considering it. “Hurt me. Rape me.” Lowering his voice, he added, “He wouldn’t let me say no.”

“I thought that was the point.” The constable’s word choice was poor, but she sounded sympathetic. “Of the owner/sub dynamic.”

“The point is consent,” Jax said firmly. “Brysen was denied that.”

“You were under the influence of drugs he was giving you under false pretenses.” Hiljin produced a scribe-pad from an inner pocket of her uniform and took notes, the tiny stylus moving rapidly across the screen. “You consented to the removal of your collar?”

Brysen waited until she looked up at him to nod. “Yes. Jax convinced me something was wrong with it. We agreed removal would be temporary until we figured out what was happening.” He reached out a hand and slid his juice closer, then sipped from the straw tentatively.

“And you’ve contacted his owner?” This question was directed at Jax.

“No. Once we learned the drug wasn’t what Layne claimed it to be, I thought it made more sense to seek your advice.” Beside him, Brysen had gone tense, obviously worried about the constable’s response.

She noticed too. “Relax; I won’t call him until I’ve had your collar analyzed. Speaking of which…”

“I have it here.” Jax slipped the collar from his carisak and handed it over.

Anna pulled a scan unit out of a pouch at her belt and held it to the ID chip in the collar. “Have to confirm it’s yours and book it into the evidence chain.” She examined the scan unit’s readout and must have been satisfied with what she saw. “There are a number of stripe changes registered to the collar’s history. You mentioned that in the call. Isn’t that unusual?”

“Yes,” Jax said. “It’s—”

Anna arched her eyebrows. “I’m talking to Brysen now.”

Brysen darted an uncertain look at Jax as if worried he might be held responsible for Anna’s insolence. “It is unusual. And it was against my wishes. I’d tell Layne something was outside my limits, and he’d assure me I’d be able to take more if I tried, if I wanted to please him. Then I guess he upped the dosage, because he’d ask again a few days later, and it didn’t seem so bad. But my collar would flash, so he told me I’d have to apply to be tested for new stripes.”

Anna tapped the recorder at her shoulder. “For the record, are you saying your current stripes exceed what you believe are your actual limits?”

Brysen frowned. “I’m not sure. How can I be? I was new to most of what Layne did, and before he drugged me, I found I wanted more pain than when I met him, but as much as he forced on me? No.”

“If they don’t, that makes this more complicated. I have no idea what the results are going to come back showing, and if you’re wrong about the drug, or there’s too little of it left to test, and you’re telling me the stripes on your collar are an accurate representation of your limits… It could be difficult.”

“I understand what you’re saying.” Brysen’s hand was clenched tight on the edge of the table. He was holding together by sheer force of will from what Jax saw. “But I don’t see how I can do anything but tell you the truth.”

“No, of course not.” Anna tapped the stylus against the pad. “I’m not suggesting otherwise.”

“Do you…do you think the tests won’t show what the drugs were?” Pressing his fingertips to his lips, Brysen grimaced. “I’m sorry. Please excuse me.” He stood quickly and retreated to the bathroom again. Jax shifted Brysen’s chair, pushed askew in his haste to leave and blocking the space the servers needed to use.

The constable put her pad and the collar away. “I’m sorry for upsetting him. He’s been through enough if what you say is true.”

“More than,” Jax agreed. The bathroom door, at the end of a long hallway, had swung shut, taking Brysen out of view. He didn’t like that.

“All right. I’m sure I’ll have more questions when the results of the tests come back. Until then, if you want to buy yourselves a little time, it might not be a terrible idea if you stayed with a friend tonight.”

Jax nodded. “I’d been thinking that myself. Brysen’s wrist unit was left behind at Layne’s apartment, but you have my comm code if you need to talk to us.” Well, he’d been thinking of a hotel room since he didn’t want to involve any of his friends in this complicated situation when he didn’t know how things would play out.

“I’ll contact you as soon as I have anything to report.” She rose and looked toward the bathroom, hesitating. “Tell him I said good-bye.”

“I will.”

“And both of you be careful.”

“You think Layne could come after us with something other than a lawyer? Try to prevent us from speaking up?” The idea was disturbing. Physical violence wasn’t unheard of, of course, but it was rare these days.

Anna snorted. “You’re forgetting how we met?”

“I… Sylvan’s death? You think it’s connected?” He’d wondered, but now he was sure, pieces clicking into place with no gaps showing.

“Don’t know. Can’t say. But two subs acting weirder than usual, one drugged, and their owners are tight? Doesn’t take much to see a connection, even if you’re not a trained investigator like me.” She twisted her mouth in a mocking smile, though Jax sensed the person she mocked was herself. “Layne’s a research doctor, more than capable of mixing a drug for him and his friends that wouldn’t show as suspicious unless someone went digging, and why would anyone do that when there’s an obvious reason for a sub to self-terminate? Could be you solved my case for me. Remind me to send you flowers.”

Ignoring her sarcasm, Jax said quickly, “There could be more than Brysen affected, then. I don’t know who Layne’s close to, but there was a group of them invited to watch Brysen’s whipping, and Layne seemed perfectly comfortable ordering me to do something that might have killed Brysen while they watched.”

“Names?”

He told her what he knew of the men. Anna sighed, closed her eyes for a moment, then rolled her shoulders like an ancient warrior preparing for battle. “I know their names. They’re none of them poor and powerless. This turns out the way you say it did, a shitstorm’s coming, and we’re all left stinking and wet. It’ll get ugly.”

Brysen came toward them, unsteady, dogged, his hair the only brightness about him. Everything else had been diminished by Layne’s brutality. Would he ever trust another owner or take joy in pain or bondage? Anger and pity warred in Jax. He wanted Layne at his mercy. Five minutes would do.

“It’s already ugly.”

“I’m going now, but I’ll be in touch later,” she said, more to Brysen than to Jax. “Thanks for your help with this.”

“No, thank you. I appreciate it.” Brysen’s eyes were red-rimmed, but he summoned the energy to smile at her and inject his words with warmth. He sank onto his chair again as she turned and left, then looked at Jax with a puzzled expression. “Wait, why was she thanking us?”

“She was thanking you,” Jax pointed out. “For being willing to meet with her, I suppose.” He didn’t want to go into the details of Layne’s likely involvement with Sylvan’s death here in public. He was unsure how Brysen would react, but he doubted it would be quietly and without drama. “Should we sit here for a little while so you can drink that? Or bring it with us?”

“I’ll drink it if you want me to.” Brysen said the words automatically, then faltered. “Um…”

“I want you to do whatever’s best,” Jax assured him. “Think it over for a few minutes if you need to.”

Brysen rubbed a hand over his face. “It’s a little confusing to have to make decisions.”

“Of course it is. Anyone would be overwhelmed under the circumstances.”

“Let’s get out of here. There are too many people, and I keep thinking everyone’s looking at me.”

Jax had ignored the fact they were surrounded by people on all sides until that moment; his focus had been on Brysen, and he couldn’t have cared less about the elderly couple drinking coffee or the small child whining for more sweets. No one seemed to be paying them any attention, though Anna’s uniform had gotten some curious glances. He decided it was best not to argue with Brysen over whether anyone was looking at him. “Okay. Anna thought we should stay somewhere we can’t be found. A hotel, maybe.”

Shoulders slumped, Brysen shook his head. “Layne can find me anywhere, even without my wrist unit to track. He’ll pay someone to call every hotel in the city if he has to.”

Yeah, he probably would. “Then we’ll check in under different names. No. I’ll check in solo, and you can come up to the room a few minutes later. If we pick somewhere busy near the spaceport, no one will notice you.”

“How can you check in without providing ID?”

Pleased to hear a note of interest in Brysen’s voice, Jax grinned. “I ran with a bad crowd when I was a kid.”

Eyes wide, Brysen asked, “Criminals? You knew actual lawbreakers?”

Jax laughed outright, his spirits lifting. Maybe the worst was over now. Once the analysis was complete, it would be Layne on the run, except someone that arrogant wouldn’t see himself as subject to the consequences of his actions. He’d be easy to arrest because he’d assume it would never happen, not to him. “Sure did. Except at our education center they were called gifted students. Yusef you met, but Colin you never will. If that’s the name he uses now. He’s paranoid, suspicious, and secretive, and that’s on a good day, but he trusts Yusef and me on the worst days.”

“You’re friends.”

“To the death. And Colin can book us a room between one sip of coffee and the next.”

“My friends aren’t speaking to me much these days. Layne… They didn’t like him. And he said they were a bad influence on me.”

“They’ll understand when you explain.”

Brysen turned his head away, not meeting Jax’s gaze. “If I tell them, they’ll never look at me the same way again. They’ll think I was stupid, or ask questions I don’t want to answer, or pity me, or— No.” He inhaled, shaking visibly. “I’ve lost them already. It doesn’t matter. I’ll make new friends.”

“And lie to them instead?” He regretted it as he said it, but that didn’t make the words or the guilt vanish when Brysen’s head dipped to hide his stricken expression. “I’m sorry. That was a low blow. I know you’re not that sort of person; you proved it ten minutes ago when you insisted on telling the constable the truth.”

Brysen remained unmoving for a few seconds, then nodded. “Could you call him? Your friend. Because I need sleep, and I don’t know if I’ll get that at your place.”

Jax kept the call brief; Colin understood there were times when going into detail was unwise, and would be happy to wait for an explanation. Besides, he owed Jax a favor. “All set,” Colin said. “Ask for Mayael at the front desk of the Hytower, and let me know if there’s anything else you need. The room’s on my executive account, so order anything from room service.”

“Thanks, Col. I owe you.”

Colin snorted. “Not even close, but I appreciate the sentiment.”

It took twenty minutes to get over near the spaceport where the Hytower was located. Brysen kept his hand curled into Jax’s the whole way.

Regretfully, Jax eased his hand free. “Give me five; then come up the side elevator. Room 1203. If anyone asks, you’re visiting a friend. Insist hotel staff walk you to the room, and play along with whatever I come up with when you arrive.”

Brysen grabbed Jax’s hand again, his grip painful. “I don’t want to be alone.”

“I know. But it’s five minutes. You can do it.” It wasn’t easy to leave Brysen there, but Jax did it without looking back and went to the front desk to check in. As he’d promised, he was in the room with Brysen pushing the door chime within five minutes.

He opened the door, and Brysen threw himself into his arms, shaking. “Shh. You’re all right.” Jax shoved at the door pedal with his foot and it slid closed. “Hey.”

“Would you do me a favor?” Brysen muttered the words against his throat. “Please, Jax? Would you take me to bed and fuck me?”