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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?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

It had cost him so much to ask, breaking through his training, pushing aside his physical woes and emotional turmoil, that a refusal would’ve brought him to his knees. He didn’t get that, but Jax didn’t sweep him off to the huge bed either.

“I’m honored,” Jax told him. “When you’re fully recovered, I’ll—”

“Now. Not later. Now.”

Too late he remembered that for all his kindness, Jax wasn’t a man to take orders from a sub. The arms around him slackened, and Jax put his hands on Brysen’s shoulders and pushed down without force, his meaning clear.

You don’t demand. You beg on your knees.

Yes. Comforted by the familiarity of the floor beneath his knees and shins, he rephrased his request.

“Please, Jax. Allow me to serve you.”

The lightest caress he’d ever received brushed the top of his head. “Tell me why you need fucking.”

“I want to know how it feels when I’m not under a compulsion. I don’t know if I can get hard or come, but not knowing is worse than finding out I’m broken.”

“If you can’t find pleasure in it, that wouldn’t mean anything. Give yourself time.”

“I’d prefer to give myself to you.”

What he’d said was true. He had to experience sex when he wasn’t drugged to the point of mindless obedience. He would accept everything he’d thought his future held had been a lie, find a way to get his feet beneath him and move forward, but only if he knew that the foundation had been the truth. Somehow, Jax understood that better than he did; ordering him to his knees was proof of that.

“You’ve been through too much,” Jax said.

Brysen lifted his gaze and met Jax’s dark eyes. “Please. I’ll beg however much you want me to. All night, if that’s what you need. Please tell me what to do.”

Jax sighed and nodded. “On one condition.”

“Anything.” It was easy to agree to something as yet unspoken when he was desperate, and this was a new desperation, an organic one that was about him and only him.

“No, you have to hear it first before you say yes.” Jax smiled faintly. “It’s unusual these days, I know, but I want you to choose a safeword and swear to me you’ll use it if needed. Without a collar to flash your limits, I have to be sure I can trust you to communicate them yourself.”

A safeword? Weird, but something popped into his head that would work. “Guava.” When Jax looked surprised at his quick response, Brysen shrugged. “My boss went through a phase where we offered a shot of fresh guava juice at the shop. I hate how guava smells, and having to cut them up was vile. It made me sick.” He shivered in demonstration. “So yeah. Guava.”

“Guava it is.” Jax tapped Brysen’s chest. “If I think you’re distressed, it ends, and I expect your immediate compliance. Begging won’t be appreciated then.”

Too used to Layne’s complete control to mind the conditions attached, Brysen murmured his agreement.

“Go into the bathroom; do whatever you need to. Then come out naked.”

The simple instructions steadied him and made him acutely aware of the sour taste in his mouth and the stink of his sweat. He hurried through his cleanup, avoiding his reflection as much as possible. It wasn’t him. Layne had shaped him, chosen the color of his eyes and hair, reduced his weight with that fucking drug of his to the point where he was gaunt. The first opportunity he got, he was returning his appearance to the way it’d been before he met Layne.

His anger fueled him, and he had an inexhaustible supply, but it drained him too, darkening his thoughts. He wanted to step away from everything, and sex had always provided him with a refuge. He was good at it, he enjoyed it, and if he discovered Layne had robbed him of that too, he wouldn’t wait for Layne to find him. No. He’d hunt Layne down and confront him.

Bravado only went so far. He pictured smashing his fist into Layne’s sneering mouth and leaving it bloody, and gasped. He staggered, knees weak, overwhelmed by a wave of panic and fear. Hit his owner? What was he thinking?

“Easy.” Jax appeared in the open doorway—Brysen had never been allowed to close a door and deny Layne instant access to his body, and he’d automatically left it ajar. “Still feeling rough, huh?”

“I want to hurt him.” He kept hold of the edge of the sink; it was reassuring to have something solid in his grip. “I’ve never wanted to hurt anyone. What did he do to me?”

“We’ll find out,” Jax promised. “As much as you want to know.”

Brysen laughed. It sounded a little hysterical. “Want to know? I don’t want to know any of it. But need… That’s something different. Your friend said that drug might have made me forget stuff. What if I’ve forgotten something terrible?”

Jax came into the room and put his big, warm hands on Brysen’s shoulders. They were way more reassuring than holding on to the sink. “Don’t think about that now.”

“I don’t know how to stop.”

“I do. And you heard what I told you; if you’ve finished in here, you should be naked and kneeling out there.” Jax gestured at the doorway and raised an eyebrow. The knot of misery in Brysen’s chest loosened enough to let him nod and obey.

Jax came out and stood in front of him. “I’m going to ask you some questions now. I expect honest answers.”

“Yes, Jax.”

“Do you enjoy sucking cock?”

His first instinct was to say yes, he loved it, but he paused and thought back to a time when the decision had been his to make, when his mind wasn’t clouded. The answer didn’t change. “Yes.”

“Why?”

“I…I’m serving. Giving pleasure to my owner. I can tell if I’m doing it right from the sounds he makes, the way his cock gets harder, the taste in my mouth getting stronger.”

“Good. More, please.” Jax shrugged out of his clothes, his cock thickening when he ran his hand over it. Brysen stared at it, waiting hungrily for an order to lick or suck as he replied.

“I love feeling taken, used, having my face fucked hard. I gag if a cock goes too deep, but I’m working on that.”

Jax stepped close, rubbing the musky head of his cock against Brysen’s cheek, close to the corner of his mouth. If he turned the smallest amount, he’d capture a taste, but much though he craved it, his instincts and training made unmoving obedience his only option.

“Do you like being fucked?”

“Oh yes.” The fervency of his response drew a chuckle from Jax. From the corner of his eye he saw a bead of clear fluid well up from the slit in Jax’s cock and held back a whimper of need.

“What about doing the fucking?”

“I never have.” Had never wanted to. The idea scared him. Maybe if his owner talked him through it or gave him explicit instructions on how best to satisfy them…

“Never fingered your partner while you sucked them? Never rimmed them and pushed your tongue in their hole?” There was no judgment or surprise behind the questions.

His heart rate sped up, arousal spiking as he anticipated performing those actions on Jax. “If I’d been ordered to, I would have been happy to obey, but no. I wasn’t allowed to touch Layne there. I didn’t have— Before Layne, there weren’t many—” He swallowed and made the effort to speak clearly without stuttering. “Sex before him was with partners, not owners. I enjoyed it but knew there was something missing. I wanted to submit, be owned. Needed the pain.”

“We both need that.” Jax lifted his foot and pressed the ball of it against the root of Brysen’s cock, grinding it against the sensitive skin. “You’re hard. That’s encouraging.”

It was. It was a relief to know Layne’s drugs hadn’t broken that part of him, at least. “Yes, Jax.”

“Want to suck me now?”

“Yes. Please.” He tried not to sound too desperate and didn’t move from the careful position in which he was kneeling. Drug or no, he wanted to please Jax, and Jax hadn’t told him to move, not yet.

“Go ahead.”

Given permission, Brysen leaned in and took Jax into his mouth. He had no idea if Jax liked to be teased at the tip or licked with a wide, flat tongue, but he had to act on what Jax did say, and that had been to suck. He could do that. He let Jax’s heavy shaft stretch his lips and go deep, not quite bumping the back of his throat; he’d never met an owner who appreciated being thrown up on in the middle of a blowjob, and his gag reflex was sensitive today.

It felt so good to do something familiar he loved. He listened to Jax’s breathing and glanced up at his face, needing confirmation he was getting this right, and receiving it in the quick inhalation as he sucked harder. He wanted to lift a hand and steady the base of Jax’s shaft, but he hadn’t been told to.

“We’re only going to do this for a minute or two,” Jax told him. “Then I’m going to fuck you.”

That didn’t seem to require a response, so Brysen continued to show Jax what a good, obedient sub he was, how well he sucked cock. He would have been happy to do it for fifteen or twenty minutes at least, backing off when Jax neared orgasm, then resuming, but he’d do whatever Jax wanted.

“Enough.” Jax stopped him with a word and a gentle caress of his head. “Get on the bed. Hands and knees, near the edge. I want to fuck you standing up.”

Trembling with anticipation, Brysen crawled up onto the bed. The fabric of the bedcovers was shiny and slippery beneath him as he spread his knees wide; he flinched when Jax traced a line down his spine to his hole, then let his head drop down, compliant. Jax could do whatever he chose, and Brysen would accept it because it was who he was.

It was still who he was, even with all that had happened.

“Dry fucks aren’t one of the ways I like to give pain.” The cool wetness of the slick was an interesting sensation combined with the warmth of the fingers slipping inside him. Two at once, crowding his hole, stretching him quickly. He exhaled, adjusting to the penetration without difficulty, tentatively seeking the delight he’d once felt at being joined with a partner so intimately.

“Clench around my fingers.”

The next thrust wouldn’t hurt, but he’d feel it more intensely with his muscles resisting. A giddy glee filled him as he obeyed. He didn’t want Layne’s petty, destructive cruelty, but he didn’t want a sweet, tender fuck from Jax either.

Without warning, Jax snatched his fingers back and replaced them with his cock, driving home with a relentless shove, shocking a cry from Brysen, exultant, wild. “Yes! Oh, please, Jax, please.”

He tingled all over, skin hot, breath choppy, riding each stabbing thrust, alert to Jax’s cues. Jax didn’t talk much, and when he did, it was to murmur approval without getting effusive. Jax guided the fuck in every way, slapping Brysen’s flank when he bucked his hips too fast, a mild chastisement Brysen welcomed. He wanted to burn from the heat of Jax’s palm, scream out his submission.

Hands slipping on the luxurious cover, he stared down the length of his body to his cock, so hard it barely moved as Jax’s strong, purposeful strokes jarred him. Untouched, rigid, it felt part of him and yet distant. If Jax didn’t let him come, Brysen wouldn’t care too much. This was enough.

Jax put both hands on Brysen’s hips, then slid them forward and lower, finding a space for them in the crease between groin and thigh. It gave him good leverage, and he used it to tug Brysen toward him with each thrust.

“You can come like this.” It was a question and not one at the same time.

“Sometimes.” Brysen had to keep his jaw set tight as he answered, had to focus on finding his voice.

“Do it.” Jax drove into him again, pulling him back with enough force he gasped.

He whimpered. He wanted to obey for more than one reason, and the way Jax was using him for pleasure pushed him closer to the edge. He was nothing but a living sex doll, designed to be fucked and filled with his owner’s cum. Jax was going to spill inside him, cock jerking and twitching, impatient and eager, and this would be over.

He might never have an owner again.

Who would want him? He’d removed his collar without permission. The circumstances, the drugs, the technicality of Jax giving the order from a position of responsibility over him, Layne’s potentially lethal order wouldn’t matter to some owners. He couldn’t be trusted.

“Stop thinking.” Jax moved his hands up to circle Brysen’s neck, fingers spread, collaring him with flesh, warm, alive. “Feel me in you. Owning your ass. Owning you.”

He wished it was true, and with that thought he came in a soaking rush over the expensive cover. Jax released his grip around Brysen’s throat and grabbed his hips again.

“My turn.”

If he’d expected Jax to climax quickly, he was proved wrong. Ignoring how tight Brysen had become after coming, how ready to collapse onto the bed, Jax continued his deep strokes, reawakening Brysen’s desire, if not his exhausted cock.

It was perfect. Behind him, Jax stiffened, thigh muscles unyielding as rock, a guttural growl reaching Brysen through a deafening fog of weariness as Jax pumped into him once, twice, then shuddered through a climax that seemed to go on forever.

A kiss against his shoulder blade roused him from his euphoric drifting. “Brace yourself. I’m pulling out. Don’t spill a drop. You’re in no state for a spanking, but that doesn’t mean you can get away with stuff.”

Obeying, Brysen went to his stomach, relishing the smolder in his ass when he clenched tight, his hole hot but not raw. Cum smeared his stomach, but moving out of the wet patch was too much effort without an explicit command to spur him on. “You can spank me. Paddle me. Whip me. You can do anything to me.”

There was a deep silence, followed by a sigh. “You’re not mine to discipline, Brysen. You belong to yourself. Lie here, and I’ll run you a bath. We’ll eat, then sleep. Tomorrow we’ll decide what to do, but for now you need to rest.”

The evening was a haze of exhaustion. He ate, but only because Jax put the food in front of him and told him to, and he slept fitfully and opened his eyes the next morning to find sunlight streaming in through the glass doors to the balcony. They’d forgotten to close the blinds. Dust motes floated in the sunbeam. The hotel sheets weren’t as nice as the ones at home—no, not home, not anymore—and he realized with a start he was alone in the bed.

He sat up, heart beating frantically. The door to the room opened, and Jax came in. Brysen saw there was a breakfast tray on the small table.

“I thought you’d still be asleep,” Jax said. “I had a call from the constable, so I stepped out into the hallway.”

Feeling vulnerable, Brysen pulled the bedcovers higher. “What did she say?”

“Oh, she had plenty to say, believe me.” Jax stayed where he was; Brysen wondered what his expression looked like if Jax didn’t want to come closer and sit on the bed, though he appreciated being given a bit of space. “Want some breakfast?”

“No, I want to know what she said.” Brysen’s stomach was twisted into a knot. “Please. I’ll eat something after, I promise.”

“Nothing that would surprise you. There’s no evidence your collar was malfunctioning; it was behaving as it was programmed to, the med-chip dispensing two different drugs. And it had been altered so it dispensed them in response to a wrist unit.”

He was being careful not to mention Layne’s name, Brysen noted. “I knew that last part already. Except not that it was so he could dose me if I wasn’t acting the way he wanted me to.”

“It wasn’t about you,” Jax said, as if that would be some comfort. “It was about him and his need to control. And probably his fear he wouldn’t be able to control you without chemical assistance.”

“I don’t care what it was about, only that I was the one he did it to.” Brysen had to fight not to wrap his arms around himself. “Two drugs. What were they?”

It didn’t make him feel any better that Jax kept looking impressed by him. “The one Yusef thought, to make you more compliant to suggestions; the memory problems were a side effect, not deliberate.”

“I’m sure he was devastated.” He heard the bitterness in his voice.

“I’m sure. The other was a diluted form of an aphrodisiac.”

“He didn’t need that.” Indignation banished some of his jitters. “I was willing to serve him any way he wanted. Always eager for him to use me. Why wasn’t that enough?”

“For any normal owner, it would’ve been. More than enough.” Jax smiled, a trace of wistfulness showing in his eyes. “For them you’d have been a delight, a sub to treasure and cherish. But he wanted to hurt you, Brysen, to the point where you wouldn’t have been begging for anything but an end to the pain.”

“He’d have liked that.” Brysen shivered, and now he did hug himself. “He loved me begging for mercy.”

Jax hunched a shoulder. “It can be arousing, but not when the sub’s genuinely terrified and in agony. And your collar would’ve flashed and interrupted his sick games. He needed you happy, eager. He needed to fool your collar.”

“And me. He fooled me. From the start, he saw me as nobody and nothing. I wasn’t special; I was expendable. Someone to experiment on. He didn’t care if I ended up dying.”

Mortification had him burying his head, rubbing his forehead against his knees, and blocking out the room. He’d trusted Layne, been flattered such an important man saw potential in him. He’d been awed by Layne’s lifestyle and connections, ready to believe he belonged in that world.

“I’m so fucking stupid. I deserved what he did—”

“No!” Jax sat beside him, rocking the bed when he took hold of Brysen. “What you deserved was an owner who protected you, valued you. This is on him, all of it.” Jax swallowed heavily. “All of it,” he repeated.

“What aren’t you telling me?” That stood out clearly; some story remained untold. If Jax didn’t want to tell him, it meant it was bad, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“You won’t like it.”

“Yeah, I know.” Brysen didn’t try to hide his frustration. It felt good to express it, a tiny spark of reassurance the world hadn’t ended. Yet. “Tell me anyway.”

Jax was quiet, one hand rubbing the back of Brysen’s neck. “Are you sure?”

“Whatever it is. Yes.” A voice in his head was shrieking no, but he ignored it. “Yes.”

“Anna got a warrant to seize Layne’s digital files and the rest of the meds. Did you know he was recording most of your sessions?”

Brysen hadn’t known, but it didn’t come as much of a surprise. “A couple of times he told me he was going to, to show some of his friends how far I’d come. I was proud of it. I would have said yes if he’d asked.” Layne hadn’t asked, of course.

“Recently?”

“You already know the answers to these questions,” Brysen snapped. “Weren’t all the files date-stamped? Putting it off won’t make it any easier to hear when you get around to telling me, so tell me.”

Jax sighed and tucked his chin over Brysen’s shoulder. “There’s digital vid of some sessions from some lunar cycles ago. From before your most recent stripe change. When his records indicate your doses of the drugs were higher. In one of the sessions… It was graphic. You were begging to be used. To be fucked by a whole crowd of Layne’s friends. Most of them were happy to oblige.” His voice was gentle but detached, and Brysen’s head was spinning too much to try to guess what that might mean.

“No.” Which was a useless response. “I mean, I don’t remember that. Any of it.”

Jax stroked his back. “It must be the side effects. Or it was so awful your mind is trying to protect you from it.”

“I did get used by his friends sometimes. Or they watched while their subs performed, and Layne told me it would be rude of me not to join in. That was at the start. Later he didn’t give me a choice, only an order.” He searched his memories, scrabbling at snatches of images. “I watched Sell’s two subs get fucked by everyone at a party, but that wasn’t me. They were bleeding. They were—” He faltered. “He did that to me?”

“Maybe that gave him the idea or the other way around. You were damaged. Torn. You don’t remember a time when you needed medical treatment?”

“I remember lots of times. Which one?” Sarcasm didn’t help. He moderated his tone. “Sorry. Uh, maybe? It blurs. If my hole was bleeding, he’d stuff it with a nu-skin suppository and not fuck me for a few days. One time he gave me systemic pain suppressors; that was unusual. I wasn’t allowed them. They knocked me out for hours. I missed work, but he said it didn’t matter.” He groaned, exasperated. “What else have I lost?”

Jax pulled away, meeting his gaze. “Seems to me it’s a mercy.”

“No.” Brysen sucked in a deep breath. “I want to know. If I don’t know what he did, how can I be sure he pays for it? He took plenty without taking chunks of my life as well.”

“I’ve met people who’d qualify as brave before, but you’re something else entirely.” Jax cupped his face, thumb brushing Brysen’s lips. “He’ll pay. I swear. I don’t care how much pull he has, he won’t escape. And if his friends are using the drugs on their subs, they’ll pay with him.”

“They might not know. He might not be telling them the truth, just handing out med-chips and claiming they’ll dispense vitamins.” As he said it, Brysen was sure it wasn’t true. “So what now?”

“Anna put out a warrant for his arrest, and they know which conference he’s been at. They’ll pick him up; then they’ll question him. You as well, the same ones you’ve already answered and more. Anna said we should stay hidden until we hear from her that they’ve got him in custody.”

“Stay hidden,” Brysen repeated.

Jax eased them back into a more comfortable position on the pillows and adjusted the bedcovers. “Take a few minutes to close your eyes and relax; then tell me what you’d like for breakfast.”

Ugh, food. “Nothing. Ever again.”

“That’s the withdrawal talking.” Jax stroked Brysen’s hair, using his fingertips to smooth the strands into place. “You’re still feverish.”

“Am I?” Brysen knew he was supposed to care, but it was hard to. Easy to close his eyes, though, and let Jax’s chest be his pillow. “I don’t think I could sleep anymore either.”

“No one said you had to. Rest. You’ve had a hard couple of days; you’re entitled to ten minutes of peace.”

When Brysen opened his eyes again, the position of the sun told him it was later in the day. “What time is it?”

“Nearly three.”

“You let me sleep on you all day?” Brysen pushed up to a sitting position, more than a little horrified. “Aren’t you hungry?”

Jax looked at him, amused. “I got up twice, and you barely stirred.”

“Weren’t you bored?”

“No. I have a wireless earpiece, so I listened to some programs, and I may have napped a bit myself.”

“This is like being on vacation without the fun. Everything upside down, no routine.” Brysen yawned widely, covering his mouth to spare Jax his breath.

He thought the physical symptoms of withdrawal were ebbing away. Accustomed to monitoring his body, usually in some stage of recovery from Layne’s harsh discipline, he could tell he wasn’t in bad shape at all. Jax had gone easy on him in the days before the final whipping, which had helped. Emotionally, though, he was a mess. For over a solar cycle, he’d been walking around in a drug-induced state, eagerly accepting everything done to him and begging for more, an adoring, mindless fuckslut. Minus adoring; that was what Layne had called him once or twice, and he’d agreed.

Jax tapped Brysen’s hand. “You zoned out on me.”

“Huh? Oh, I’m sorry!”

“Doesn’t matter. The way you were grinding your teeth might lead to a lecture from your dentist, though.”

“I was wondering where I went when I wasn’t there.”

“Now it’s my turn to say huh. You need coffee.” Jax moved off the bed, tall, strong, a compelling man Brysen would have been attracted to even before discovering his kindness. “I’ll get you some. The room dispenser brew isn’t bad.”

Brysen didn’t argue, and he accepted the mug and a raspberry-lemon muffin left over from Jax’s last meal without mentioning his lack of appetite. Something told him Jax would insist on him eating despite that.

“What you said makes sense now I think about it.” Jax sat cross-legged on the bed, sipping from his mug. “When I was with you, it felt as if I was dealing with two subs, not one. I’d get flashes of the real you; then the drug took over, and there was this robot sub in your place.”

Brysen choked on a mouthful of muffin—too dry and the berries were reconstituted. “Excuse me? Robot sub?”

“Not literally, but you’re too bright to pretend you don’t know what I mean.” Jax gave him a look he couldn’t completely translate. “I’d rather order you something you’d like better, if you’ll tell me what that might be.”

He knew he had to eat something whether he wanted to or not. “Um. I can’t think of anything. Is there a menu?”

Jax nodded and leaned over, reaching for the drawer in the table beside the bed. The movement made his shirt ruck up, revealing bare skin Brysen longed to touch. “Here.”

The small screen pad had a limited number of applications, but one of them was the room-service menu. A quick look didn’t awaken Brysen’s appetite. He keyed in an order for a protein-heavy meal; his body probably needed it, and if he could only stomach a few bites, they’d be preferable to nothing at all. “It says ten minutes.” He sipped his coffee. “This is okay.”

“The muffins were fine earlier. I should have known letting them sit around wasn’t the best idea.”

Brysen shrugged. “It’s fine. I know I need to eat. I hope when the rest of the drugs leave my system, my appetite goes back to normal.” His clothes still fit because they were all loose, made for comfort, but they wouldn’t have for much longer.

And they were all at Layne’s house.

“Do any of my things belong to me anymore?” he asked. “How would I get them back if they do?”

“We’ll ask Anna; she’ll help sort it out.”

“I hate this.” For some reason, Brysen was able to stay detached from the emotion, but he wasn’t any less aware of how hard it was. “The not-knowing part.”

“Would talking to someone help? Friends? Family?”

The thought of explaining the situation, reassuring people, and sharing the details of his time with Layne daunted him. He’d enthused over his owner, praising Layne in the face of every doubtful look or hesitant query about his well-being. When the questions had become strident, he’d gotten angry and refused their calls. He had a lot of apologizing to do.

“Not until we know more.” That made a plausible excuse for his cowardice. “Though work— I’ve missed my shift! I need to contact them.”

“Took care of it along with reassigning my current clients.” Jax sounded matter-of-fact, not irritatingly soothing. “There’s an outbreak of Tsulian virus in Zone Three, and I said you had it.”

“I wish it was that simple.” Conscious of his churlishness, he added a belated thank-you, darting a gaze at Jax from under his eyelashes. “You’re doing a lot for me, and it’s not your job. This could get you into trouble. I’m sorry.”

“Looking after you was my job. Still is until the contract ends or Layne officially breaks it, which interestingly he hasn’t yet, or I’d have been notified.” Jax grimaced, the gesture doing nothing to spoil his good looks. “And if it wasn’t, I’d still want to see him crash and burn. My life’s centered on protecting subs, and he’s the kind of owner who shouldn’t be allowed near one. He shouldn’t be allowed near anyone. And he’s a doctor. They take oaths to help people, and he broke them.”

Familiar with Layne’s views on that subject, Brysen shrugged. “He’d say research and advances come at a price.”

“One he was willing to pay in person?” Jax demanded. “I don’t think so.”

“One he was willing to let me pay for him.” Now he was being honest, Brysen had to admit Layne had liked it that way. Some of it had been in the name of research, but some of it was an excuse to be as sadistic as possible.

“Well, that’s over now.” Jax sounded firm, and if Brysen wasn’t entirely convinced, he appreciated the attempt at reassurance. “Any moment Anna’s going to let us know he’s in custody, and you can start thinking what you want to do with the rest of your life.”

It was a bleak thought. Despite what had happened, Brysen believed he was a sub who needed an owner. But how would he ever trust anyone again? How could he trust himself to make a good decision when it came time to accept a collar?

“For now I’m happy to focus on getting through the next twenty-four hours. What about you? You said you’d canceled your shifts?”

“Not canceled, found someone to cover for me. It’s not unusual. Sitters get sick or injured sometimes, and there’s a system so no subs are neglected when their owners are unavailable. I’ve done it dozens of times for other sitters; this is payback.”

It was hard not to feel guilty, but Brysen tried because he knew little of this was his fault. “If there’s anything I can do to make this up to you, once everything’s over…”

Jax shook his head. “Why don’t you go wash up before your food gets here? Then we can watch a film.”

“I’m not sure what else there is to do, if we’re safer staying here.” Brysen finished his coffee in a few large gulps and took the empty cup back over to the tray. “Should I put this in the hallway?”

“No, they’ll take it when they come with the new one.”

Over the sound of running water as he splashed his face, Brysen heard the muted chime of the hotel door. He was impressed by the quick delivery of their food, without any desire to eat it. Poking his stomach, he ordered it to behave before rolling his eyes. At least no one was watching. Closing the door had taken an effort of will, but he’d done it. He didn’t have to follow Layne’s standing orders now or ever again.

Even if he missed the shape and structure they gave his life.

Jax said something Brysen didn’t catch. Wondering if it was directed at him, he opened the door. “Did you—”

Shock silenced him. Two burly men had hold of Jax’s arms while he struggled to break free. From the ease with which they’d subdued Jax, they were enforcers, trained fighters. They were dangerous and a threat, but it was the man controlling them who dried the spit in Brysen’s mouth, leaving him shaking, close to pissing himself with fear.

Layne. Holding a hypodermic injector and stepping forward to dose Jax with whatever drug was in it. Layne, who shouldn’t have found them, shouldn’t be walking free.

His owner. His betrayer.

With a wail of despair Brysen ran forward, hurling himself at the smiling figure with no thought of escape. There was none. He saw that now. But he’d die before he let Layne take Jax, and maybe that was one way to avoid Layne’s vicious retribution. Attacking his owner with two enforcers ready to go to any lengths to protect their employer would surely result in his death.

If it gave Jax the opportunity to run, he’d die with that debt paid, at least.

Layne gripped Brysen’s throat and squeezed tightly. His other hand held the injector, and there wasn’t the faintest hint of concern on his face. Why would there be? He was in total control of the situation. “If you know what’s good for you, and you don’t want a reputation for being a useless sub no one will want to direct a second look at, you’ll get over there against the wall and kneel,” Layne told him.

With Layne’s grip on his throat, unable to breathe, Brysen couldn’t respond. He couldn’t move. He didn’t know what to do; he was frozen. Layne eased up enough to allow him to speak, and he rasped, “How did you find me?”

Layne sneered. “You’ve had a locator chip implanted under the skin above your deltoid for the best part of a solar cycle. Don’t tell me you forgot. We had a conversation about it.”

He didn’t remember, not that it came as a surprise. “You drugged me.”

“It isn’t as if you left me much choice. You were no good to me otherwise.” Layne gestured at one of the enforcers, and he came over and restrained Brysen, hands brutally tight. He struggled briefly, but it was pointless. “You’re no good to me now.”

“Then why did you come for me?” Brysen asked, snarling the question, old habits of respect and deference lost in anger and fear.

“I didn’t. I came for him.” Layne looked at Jax, who stood still, but not through choice. The enforcer holding Jax had to outweigh him by a hundred pounds, and Jax wasn’t a small man. “Not that I expect you to come quietly, which is why I brought a bit of chemical assistance.”

“You’re ill.” It was the first thing Jax had said since Brysen came into the room. “Mentally ill. Psychotic. There’s a warrant out for your arrest, and once they catch you, you’re going to be in custody for the rest of your life.”

Layne laughed, stepped closer, and injected Jax with the contents of the hypo. “Tell me something interesting, not wishful thinking.”

“I hate you,” Brysen said. “I’m going to take you apart with my bare hands.”

“Now that I didn’t know.” Layne reached out and caressed Brysen’s cock. To his horror it responded, rising as it’d been conditioned to do. “See? You’re confused. I shouldn’t have left you with this man. It was a mistake; I admit it. But the beauty of mistakes is that they can be rectified by someone with balls.” His hand drifted lower, grabbed, and squeezed. “I would have taken these off you in time. Your focus should be on pleasing me, not your own satisfaction, and castrated it would have been so much easier. And you needed all the help you could get.”

Jax broke free at that. Slumped, dazed as he was, he tore free of the enforcer and lunged at Layne, hands outstretched. Layne jerked back, fending him off, but whatever he’d dosed Jax with took hold. Helpless, terrified, Brysen watched Jax sink to his knees, then collapse on his face, a felled tree, uprooted, brought low.

Layne smoothed his hair, his composure showing signs of cracks. He snapped his fingers. “Strong. But only human. Take him away now he’s out.”

“No! Me. Take me. Do anything you want, but he’s— You can’t hurt him.” Why was he begging? When did Layne ever listen?

“Is that what you want?” Layne cocked his head to the side as if considering Brysen’s words. “To be with me?”

“Yes.” The lie choked him, but he went to his knees, bowing forward to kiss Layne’s boot, the leather cool and smooth against his lips. “Please, Layne. You’re…you’re my owner. I belong with you. To you.”

“You’re a sub,” Layne said dismissively. “Getting you to crawl and squirm and wiggle your ass, begging to be fucked and whipped, didn’t test my drug at all. I see that now. I needed to use it on someone like me. An owner. What effect would it have? I’m dying to find out.”

Brysen jerked upright, gazing at Layne, heart hammering wildly. Layne smiled down at him, the charm Brysen remembered from their first meeting worn away to nothing. It had been a thin veneer, after all. “What? No! Layne, you can’t—”

Layne lost his smirk. “You dare tell me what to do? You dare? Let me teach you one last lesson.” He stepped back and lashed out with his foot. The tip of his boot met Brysen’s jaw with a crack he felt before he heard it, and darkness chased the pain away.

Chapter Eleven

Swimming back to consciousness was unpleasant. Jax’s shoulders ached. He couldn’t sort out why at first, but when he tried to shift to a more comfortable position, he discovered his wrists were cuffed behind his back and he was naked. That realization brought him to full awareness in the space of a few heartbeats—a shorter time than it might have otherwise been because his heart rate shot up immediately—and to an awkward attempt to sit.

It turned out that was a mistake; his stomach churned with nausea, and he had to swallow the saliva flooding his mouth to control it.

“Don’t bother struggling,” a man said. “Unless you want to do it for my amusement.”

Jax lifted his head and focused.

Layne, sitting at a table with a glass of liquor beside his hand. “Let me know if you’re going to vomit. It’s a typical side effect, and I’m sure the rough sea isn’t helping.”

That explained the rocking and rolling of the floor beneath Jax. It was a relief to know it was because they were on a boat and not because the drug Layne had given him was disturbing his internal equilibrium. “Where’s Brysen?”

“I should have known I was making a terrible decision hiring you. You’ve become emotionally attached to him.” Layne sipped from his glass. “He’s not here. As far as I know, he’s still back at the Hytower, though to be honest I haven’t checked. He’s no longer my focus.”

“I got that from the way you were willing to kill him for a moment’s thrill for you and your friends.”

“Ah.” Layne pursed his lips and nodded. “I thought you’d misunderstand that.”

“Happy not to disappoint you.” Sarcasm wasn’t the wisest way to go, but Layne brought out a loathing Jax had never felt for another person.

“As one owner to another—one sadist to another—let me explain.” Layne rose, walking over to Jax without getting too close. “I’m genuinely interested in your thoughts on my current hobby.”

“What makes you think I’ll share them?”

Layne tapped his wrist unit, and a warm prickling sensation spread up Jax’s arm, the two events obviously connected. “That gave you a dose of my drug through your right cuff. Painless, but you should feel the effects fairly soon. Where was I? Oh yes. What do you do when you have a theory?” He arched his eyebrows, then, when Jax remained stubbornly silent, said, “You test it, of course. You see, like many owners, I’m continually frustrated by the monitoring system of a collar. Even when I’ve had the opportunity to play with black-stripers, their collars flash at the worst possible times and spoil the moment.”

To get a black-striper’s collar to flash was impossible without crossing the line from intense play to torture. Jax shuddered at what the subs must have endured at Layne’s hands.

“So I decided to develop a drug that would make a sub so compliant, so eager to please, there was nothing I couldn’t do to them. The collar won’t flash if the sub’s enjoying what’s being done. That’s built into the system. Can’t have limits to pleasure, no matter how far some want to go. Personal choice wins out over regulation, and who’d have it any other way?”

“They only enjoyed it because of the drug!”

Layne twisted his face into a thoughtful grimace. “And that made the enjoyment less real? I don’t see why. I did them a favor. How many of us die happy?”

“You’ve killed before?” Why was he horrified?

“Not deliberately, though I don’t suppose you believe me. But it’s a thrill like no other.” Layne’s eyes glazed over as he relived a memory Jax never wanted to share. “To hurt a sub and see the damage, and hear them beg for more and know you have it in you to give… It’s addictive. But I’m capable of controlling myself. I didn’t require death from a sub, not always.”

“Merciful of you.”

“Isn’t it? And because there are far too few black stripes out there to enjoy, and most of them taken, I set myself another challenge.”

Horror filled him until he was sure it showed in his eyes, like dirty water in a clear glass. “You wanted to see if you could create more. From subs similar to Brysen, nowhere near craving intense pain or humiliation. You made him increase his level against all his instincts.”

Why couldn’t he move? He pictured leaping up and tackling Layne, but his muscles refused to respond.

Layne wagged his finger. “Not entirely. He was hiding behind a yellow stripe. Lying to every owner out there. He’s naturally a red, in my judgment, so he can soak up plenty of punishment. But drugged, he would’ve taken that final step to a black stripe, I’m sure of it. So sure, it wasn’t necessary to do it. In a way, it’s a more stringent test to fool a red-striped collar.”

“I don’t get it. Death would always trigger a collar flash, and that final stroke would’ve killed Brysen.”

“Maybe. Possibly.” Layne shrugged. “But I knew you’d refuse to use it on his cock. I was hoping you’d at least use the whip at full strength on him somewhere, but you disappointed me.”

Jax had to know more. If he escaped, unlikely though that was, any scrap of knowledge he had could be useful to bring Layne down. “And what if he had died? You had to know the authorities would have come after you and not me. There would have been plenty of evidence to support that I was only acting on your orders.” Jax’s mouth felt heavy, and his words were slurring a bit, which was strange, as the rest of him felt strong even if he wasn’t able to make the decision to stand.

Layne seemed unconcerned. “I would have figured something out.”

“You’re so…” Jax had a dozen insults on his tongue, but none would form. “What about now?”

“Do you think the constables will come and rescue you, take me into custody, and all your problems will be solved? The big bad owner will get the punishment he deserves?” Layne was clearly amused by this concept.

Jax felt like he was caught in cement as he watched Layne get up and go to the open doorway of the room they were in.

“We’re ready for him,” Layne called.

One of the enforcers came in, dragging a naked sub by his upper arm as if he weighed no more than a rag doll. “Where do you want him?”

Layne pointed. “On the bench. I’m going to have a bit of fun with him myself before I turn him over to Jax.”

Jax dreaded the sound of that, which was probably the point. He wasn’t turned in the right direction to see where the sub was deposited, and he couldn’t move his head to look. Whatever the drug Layne had given him was, it paralyzed him, a thought accompanied by a flash of fear until he concentrated and realized he could breathe. For a moment, he’d convinced himself he couldn’t.

“Turn around, Jax,” Layne said. “I wouldn’t want you to miss the show.”

Unable to move before, Jax turned immediately in response to Layne’s order. The fear he felt was deeper and more terrifying than imagining his suffocation. He’d do anything Layne told him to.

What horrible things would Layne suggest?

After the enforcer left the room, Layne shifted the limp but obviously conscious sub into position, then shed his own pants. Bare from the waist down, he stroked his erect prick with fondness, as if it were a pet, not part of him. “I want you to watch,” he told Jax. “No looking away, no closing your eyes. I want you hard and picturing yourself in my place since it will be you soon enough. I hate to deny myself any pleasure, you see, and I’m planning to get as much from you as from whoever this is.” He shoved two fingers, dry, into the sub’s exposed hole, and the sub whimpered a protest. “That’s right; it’ll only get worse from here.”

To be involved in this was a nightmare. Jax fought to look away and, when he failed, to close his eyes, but blinking was all he could manage and that was an effort. Had Brysen felt this helpless? Or had he been lulled into obedience by instinct and training, the drug reinforcing his submissive qualities? Jax lacked any inclination for submission, and given what he knew of Layne, the man was the last person on the planet he’d choose to obey, but the drug overrode his wishes.

If he lived through this, he’d make it his mission in life to destroy every drop of the drug and the means of making it. Layne would never produce more, because killing him was also on the to-do list.

The pitiful sounds the sub made as he was violated with an obscenely large dildo sank into Jax’s mind, staining it bloody. If he’d heard the broken cries and hoarse moans out of context, they would’ve stirred him, gotten him hard. He loved forcing a sub to vocalize his suffering without words, interpreting each sobbed-out breath with a dark delight heating his blood.

But they’d been sounds made by a willing participant, safeguarded by the collar and Jax’s skill at inflicting pain, enjoying every second. A partner, not a victim.

“No more! Please, it hurts.”

“But your collar thinks you’re fine,” Layne all but purred, giving Jax a triumphant glance. “So we’ll keep on going. From what I can see, that sluttish hole of yours can take more. My cock and the dildo, maybe.”

The sub screamed, high and long, a shrill, desperate sound leaving Jax wincing, straining to move to help him.

“Be quiet,” Layne said, slapping the sub’s ass. The incongruity of the light smack compared to the agony Layne had inflicted with the dildo was marked. “You’re being inconsiderate. Apologize, please.”

“I’m sorry. Please, I’m sorry.”

How old was the sub? Jax estimated him to be barely legal, skin tanned, dark hair messy, tall and skinny. A tattoo of a dragon wound around his upper arm, vivid in gold and purple and green, wings spread wide, talons tipped with tiny scarlet gems.

Hoping to buy time, he wet his lips and shaped words. “Where did you find him? What’s his name?”

“He’s nobody and nothing. Street trash. Not worthy of this.” Layne flicked the sub’s collar contemptuously. “I needed some disposable test subjects, so I took him a few weeks ago and kept him in a cage on board.”

“Is he even a sub?” It was difficult to speak, but not impossible.

“He is now.” Layne yanked out the dildo, blood smearing its length, and studied it, smiling. “Slut, what are you?”

Voice faint, ragged, the sub said, “Yours! I’m yours. Please—”

“Please what? Please do as I wish with you?”

“Yes!” The word seemed ripped from him against his will, but he said it.

“See?” Layne asked Jax. “Everything we do to him is welcome. He’ll thank us for every stroke of the cane, every object we stuff inside him. Crawl and sob and beg for more. The perfect obedient sub. One softhearted owners like you can only dream of controlling.”

Disgust at the perversion of the O/s bond lent Jax the strength to spit at Layne. “You’re—” His determination was no match for the drug.

“I am superior, and we both know it. You’re fooling no one. And you, sub, you have a name. If you’ve forgotten it, I’ll give you one. Dragon. Your name is Dragon.”

“Dragon,” the sub repeated between sobs.

“You’re—” Jax tried again, and again the drug in his system prevented him from saying anything against Layne. Evil was the primary word he was thinking. Not that it mattered; Layne wouldn’t have believed it.

“Come here and fuck him,” Layne said, and now it was Jax’s turn not to believe what he was hearing.

“I’m cuffed.”

Layne rolled his eyes. “I’m sure you don’t need your hands to fuck someone.” He paused and seemed to reconsider. “No, I’ll enjoy it more if you can hurt him.”

The cuffs were designed so they could be separated but remain on a sub’s wrists. Jax wasn’t grateful for the release of the tension in his shoulders when the restraint was freed, because he knew what was going to come next would be bad. That didn’t stop him from experimenting with hitting Layne as soon as he could bring his arm up.

It didn’t happen. Any thought of defying Layne was frozen immediately.

“Rough him up a little,” Layne suggested. “Get yourself in the mood.”

As if he were watching a movie rather than performing the act, Jax moved closer to the sub—Dragon—and hit him, one quick slap across the face.

“Oh, come on. You can do better than that; I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Harder. Leave some bruises I can admire tomorrow.”

It was difficult to think even when he wasn’t considering all the ways he could hurt Layne, but that caught Jax’s attention. Layne would be the one enjoying them tomorrow. Did that mean he intended to kill Jax? Nothing would come as a surprise anymore. He was already watching his hand striking Dragon’s cheek hard enough that the sub’s head jerked to the side. Two more slaps, the second one splitting the corner of Dragon’s lip where it had broken open before, then scabbed over.

“Better. Now twist his cock. I want to hear him scream some more, and I can tell you do.” Layne was studying him intently. “I can see how much you enjoy this.”

Naked as he was, that didn’t take much working out. His cock, like the rest of his body, had turned traitor, the sight, sound, and smell of a naked, suffering sub arousing him despite his revulsion. Because he’d been here so many times before, breathing in the scent of sweat, pungent with apprehension, and the bitter musk of desire, tracking a tear sliding down a flushed cheek, coaxing out a broken, plaintive exhalation that didn’t count as a word but still spoke to him.

If he closed his eyes, this could be so many subs he’d struck, punished, fucked to limpness. Could be Nikhil, laughing up at him from tight bondage and swearing he’d do anything, anything at all if Jax would scratch away an itch on his ribs, could be Tarl, pouting and pretty, so anxious to please.

Could be Brysen, eyes glazed, the true beauty of his submission lost under the heavy coating of the drugs, but he’d been too caught up in the resemblance to Nikhil to see something was wrong.

He’d failed Nikhil, and he’d failed Brysen. This sub, a stranger, as doomed as Jax most likely, was equally past saving, but he was damned if he’d help Layne hurt him.

“You need more? Already?” Layne clicked his tongue with annoyance. “You are bigger than the subs, I suppose. Yes, body mass must be a factor.”

Warmth. And Jax slipped away, lost to reason, losing the fight with the invisible enemy invading his blood, capturing his mind as well as his body. Like falling asleep, he couldn’t pinpoint the moment of his final defeat.

Layne’s voice reached him through the fog. “Jax? Are you ready to hurt him now?”

So easy to reply. Blissfully easy. “Yes, Layne. Of course. I’m sorry I kept you waiting.”

“I forgive you this once. I know you won’t disappoint me again. Now his cock. Show me how strong you are.”

Jax reached for Dragon’s cock, squeezing, twisting the rigid flesh, then crushing his balls in a merciless grip and smiling at the screams.

They were echoed in his head, but drowning them out was Layne’s voice, thick with excitement and satisfaction, murmuring suggestions, instructions Jax followed with the perfect obedience his owner deserved.

He was so lucky to belong to Layne. He set another razor clamp into Dragon’s flesh, wiping away a trickle of blood to find the perfect spot, and smiled at the sub fondly. They were both lucky.

The next hour or more passed in a haze of the drug. Jax’s head spun as he followed orders that on two more occasions had to be accompanied by a rush of warmth from the wrist cuff. It wasn’t much consolation that Layne needed to keep dosing him, wasn’t the same as him making a conscious decision to rebel.

After a while, Layne clicked his tongue in disappointment. “That’s all we’re going to get out of him today, I’m afraid. Or probably ever. I doubt he’ll recover enough to be of any use after this.”

Jax, who’d come a third time, sat back on his heels and looked down at Dragon. The sub’s eyes were closed, face slack and painted with Jax’s own bloody fingerprints. He couldn’t remember the last time Dragon had been responsive in word or action.

He’d been fucking a limp body.

Turning away, Jax vomited onto the floor. There wasn’t enough in his stomach to make a real mess, but Layne sighed in disgust and turned his head to call out through the open doorway. “Get that girl in here to clean this up.” Then, to Jax, he asked, “Was that necessary?”

“Apparently.” It was barely more than a croak.

Another collared sub, this one a woman with a collection of purple and turning-to-green bruises on her arms, scurried in. She kept her eyes downcast as if she didn’t want to acknowledge any of them, but Jax noted the moment she saw Dragon’s unmoving body on the floor and hesitated. She made herself continue, and knelt to clean Jax’s mess with the cloths and cleaning spray she’d brought with her. The spray smelled of lime, and when it combined with the smell of blood, Jax’s stomach gave another unhappy twist.

“Don’t do it again,” Layne warned him. Jax noted he didn’t accompany the order with a dose of the drug. Maybe he was bored.

Or maybe too much of the drug would kill him. Jax turned that thought over in a mind so drenched in the drug every idea dissolved before it solidified. Difficult to decide. Or it could stop working? Couldn’t wet water, and that was what his brain was now, sludgy, filthy, blood-streaked water.

The drug was in his system, but throwing up had cleared his head a little. He focused on expanding that small area of coherence, drawing on the training he’d received.

Observe,” his favorite teacher was fond of saying. “Your sub is speaking to you even bound and gagged. Remember everything from a pressure point to a preferred endearment or insult. Respond to them as they respond to you.

And she’d taught him esoteric methods of meditating, insisting over his skepticism that it would improve his connection to his subs. He’d found a certain peace in those hours spent eyes closed, every breath slow and measured, the bare earth beneath his naked body warm and alive. It’d been a long time since he’d used a meditation room, but he hadn’t forgotten the phrase he’d used to sink deep into quietness.

He repeated it now, silently, anchoring each word so the drug couldn’t wash it away, building a solid platform for his sense of self to stand on.

And when Layne cupped his face, smiled, and said, “Now it’s your turn to please me,” he knew what to do.

Chapter Twelve

By the time Brysen sat up, dazed, Layne and his enforcers were gone and had taken Jax with them. He lurched to his feet and out into the hallway, but it was empty.

One hand cradling his bruised jaw, Brysen went back into the room, closed the door, and locked it. He sat on the edge of the bed and gave way to sheer panic.

Layne would kill Jax. No, first he’d torture him, probably with more drugs and other things Brysen couldn’t bear to think about. Then he’d kill him. After that Layne would come back and find Brysen, which apparently would be easier than he’d ever have imagined since there was a tracker in his arm, and do the same to him.

Okay. Panic over. Time to act.

He used the room’s screen pad to call the nearest constable’s office—he was sure Jax had said Anna’s was in Zone Four, though for the life of him he couldn’t remember her full name—and launched into an explanation as soon as someone answered. “Hi. I’m looking for a constable whose first name is Anna, but I don’t know her last name. She has blonde hair. Can you help me figure out how to get in touch with her?”

The woman on the other screen had long hair pulled back for professionalism into a sleek bun high on her head and a calm manner. Though this wasn’t the emergency number, she probably had a lot of experience talking to people who were freaking out more than Brysen was. Outwardly, at least. “Constable Hiljin? She’s not in the office, but I can put you through to her.

“That would be great, thank you.” Within a short time, Anna’s face appeared on his screen. Brysen hadn’t thought he liked her much, but it was a relief to see her. He didn’t waste time greeting her as good manners required, but fired words at her rapidly. “Layne took Jax. He came here to the hotel with some enforcers and gave him some drug—it wasn’t the same one he was giving me, I don’t think, because he went out right away—and knocked me unconscious, I don’t know for how long, and took Jax.”

Sit,” Anna said. “Breathe.

“I am sitting. And I’m breathing. Jax is gone.”

I heard what you said, but I don’t see how it’s possible. We’ve been monitoring security cameras all over the city, and there hasn’t been a single sighting of him. There’s no way he showed up at your hotel without us knowing.

“Well, I guess he’s a wizard, because he did.” Brysen flapped his hand impatiently. “The men he was with were huge. If he walked between them, head down, the cameras wouldn’t pick him up. Or maybe he jammed the feed. Criminals do that all the time in vidshows.”

And we keep improving our tech to make sure that stays fiction, but right now let’s focus on why he took Jax. Do you know?

Brysen shut his eyes and remembered to breathe. “He’s going to kill him.”

Did he say that?” Anna seemed to have moved on from denying Layne had been there. “He said he was going to kill him?

“Yes! No. I don’t know; it’s all a blur.”

Then get it in focus, and fast.” Anna shook her head. “Never mind. I’m coming to you. Where are you anyway?

He gave her the name of the hotel and his room number, then added, “And I need to go to a med-clinic.”

You’re hurt?

“No. Well, my jaw feels as if it’s broken from connecting with Layne’s boot, but I’m talking so I guess it’s only bruised. Anyway, that doesn’t matter. I found out there’s a tracker in my arm, and I want it out.”

Anna gazed at him fixedly. “A tracker.

“Yes!”

In your arm.

“Don’t make me repeat everything because you’re scared to move against Layne,” Brysen snapped. His jaw had swollen, and his teeth ached on one side. Fear for Jax didn’t stop him from wishing he had a freeze pack and some painkillers. “Yes, in my arm. It’s how he found us.”

And when it’s out, it’s evidence, so I’ll remove it myself.” Anna smirked. “Don’t get too turned on when I cut you.” She ended the call without saying good-bye.

“I hate you,” Brysen said to the blank screen. “I wish you’d come into my juice bar, because the drink I’d make you would be vomit green and puke yellow, and it’d still be nicer than you.”

It wouldn’t take long for her to arrive, so he should get ready. He double-checked the lock on the door and went to the window controls, turning the panes opaque, then to the bathroom to finger-comb his still-damp hair. His skin had dried, but he spent more time than he should have poking at his arm, trying to feel the tracker or find a hint of a scar to indicate its location. He couldn’t find anything, but he didn’t doubt Layne’s words. He wanted the tracker gone. It was Layne’s, and it was inside him. He’d claw it out if needed.

He examined his sore jaw; it was red and swollen, but any bruising would come later. Whatever; it wasn’t important.

He pulled on the pants Jax had loaned him and draped the shirt at the end of the bed where he could grab it quickly and straightened the bedcovers. He picked up the screen pad again and sat, vibrating with nerves and worry. Inaction was torture, but there was nothing he could do. Taking refuge in the banal, he messaged three of the friends he’d been closest to in his pre-Layne days, a short: Hi. If you don’t hate me, I’d love to get back in touch. Things are a little crazy, so I might not get back to you right away, but let me know. — Brysen.

It helped steady him to picture this over, and him talking about it with them, Jax at his side, whole, healthy, safe.

The chime of the door made his heart race again, demonstrating how fleeting his victory had been. It seemed hours since he’d talked to Anna, but had she had time to get here? He checked before opening the door, relief flooding him when he saw her face.

“Don’t pretend you aren’t glad to see me.” Anna pushed past him into the room, scanning it quickly with a wary expression before focusing on Brysen. “Wow, he did get you.” She reached out and took his chin in her hand, tilting his head to examine his jaw. “You don’t think it’s broken?”

“I don’t think I’d be able to talk if it were.” Brysen pulled away from her. “I wasn’t sure if you were serious about taking out my tracker yourself.”

“Oh, I was serious. If Layne is keeping an eye on where you are, we’re better off getting it out sooner than later. Don’t worry; I’ve done this a few times.”

Brysen didn’t want to ask for details. “If it’s evidence, doesn’t it mean we can’t smash it?”

Anna seemed surprised he’d thought that far ahead. “Yes, but we don’t need to smash it. We’ll leave it here, and he’ll think you’re where he left you. Eventually he might get suspicious, but we’ll have him in custody long before then. Hmm, can you sit there on that chair? I think it’ll be easier than on the bed.” She took some items out of her carisak.

“Uh…”

“That’s an order.” She raised her eyebrows. “Does that help?”

Annoyance overrode his worry for Jax. “No! It doesn’t work that way. I’m a submissive, but I don’t take orders from anyone but my owner or partner. Why don’t you learn more about us before you judge?”

Cocking her head, she observed, “You’re different. Not so starry-eyed and boring.”

“That’s because I’m not drugged half out of my mind or throwing up constantly.”

“Fair enough. Sit, let me get the tracker out, and we can search for Layne’s newest victim. I’ve got a colleague setting up ID recog search patterns for Jax, starting with the monitors near here. We might have missed Layne entering, but we could catch him leaving and get an idea of where he’s headed. Now, sit.”

Brysen sat. What followed wasn’t particularly painful. After wrapping a wide translucent strip around his arm—first choosing the arm the tracker wasn’t in, which made her curse inventively—Anna located the tracker.

“There.” She tapped the red dot shining on the band. “Got it. Hold still while I numb you.”

At least she hadn’t assumed he’d enjoy it the way she had during the comm call. Or maybe she was squeamish about cutting into him when he could feel the blade.

The tiny sterile blade nicked his skin, blood welling up. The tracker wasn’t in deep, a black bead no bigger than a grain of rice. Anna dropped it into an open evidence baggie, sealed it, then held her wrist unit close after tapping in a code. The bag glowed green, her ID and the time and date appearing in the sensitized field designed for notes.

Sealing Brysen’s arm took longer, but she was deft and relatively gentle with him. When she’d finished, his arm throbbed around the incision, the numbing cream already wearing off, but he’d had worse. So much worse.

Anna checked in with her department, not bothering to lower her voice. Brysen knew it was no news and, therefore, bad news as soon as she did.

“Nothing.” She ended the call, face screwed up in disgust. “Is he invisible? Where is he?” She jabbed her finger at Brysen. “You know him. Where would he go? His lab? A friend’s place? He’s not at his apartment; I’ve got officers stationed inside.”

“I don’t know. Um, let me think.” Brysen tried to figure out where Layne would go if he felt threatened, but that didn’t work because he wasn’t convinced Layne did feel threatened. “Oh! Maybe his waveskimmer?”

“He has a boat?” Anna frowned. “Now, why didn’t that show up in his file?”

“Didn’t it?” He’d had it for far longer than Brysen had known him, and there’d never been any reason to doubt he owned it. “Was he renting it?”

“Maybe. Or he registered it in a friend’s name.” She typed on her screen pad. “I’ve got a list of names. People he works with and has been known to associate with, that sort of thing. Here, look at it for me, and let me know if any of them stand out as someone he’s particularly close with. Or if there’s anyone he’s friends with who’s missing.”

Brysen focused on the screen. It was good to have something to concentrate on that wasn’t the throbbing of his arm, though that was comforting in a way because it meant Layne couldn’t find him anymore. “I think this is everyone. He’s pretty close to Miles and Peitre. Those are the two I’d expect might go out of their way for him.”

“Miles is already in custody,” Anna said, dismissing him as a possibility. “We’re questioning him concerning the death of his sub again now we have more evidence of what Layne was up to.”

“He took me out on the skimmer to an island his family owns. We anchored in the bay. It’s a tiny place, but private.” Brysen swallowed. He’d screamed for Layne that day, tied naked to the mast, Layne using a flogger on him without any hint of the cruelty of which he was capable. Brysen had blinked away tears from eyes dazzled by sunlight, body loose and warm, cock achingly hard, reveling in every smack of leather against his back, ass, and thighs. When the flogging was over, Layne had cupped Brysen’s cock, long fingers closing around needy flesh, and smiled when Brysen shot before the words of permission were out of Layne’s mouth.

He’d licked Layne’s hand clean, then gone to his knees as soon as he’d been released and lapped up every drop on the polished deck, rewarded by Layne’s approving chuckle.

Had that Layne been as much a fiction as Brysen when he was drugged? A tiny part of him missed the owner Layne could have been; strict, yes, but inspired at times, his harsh discipline exhilarating, arousing.

But it had been a facade. Layne must have hated holding back until Brysen was deep enough into his drugged state to be docile and amenable to excesses he couldn’t remember clearly and didn’t want to.

“Do you know where it is? The island?” Anna tapped away at her screen.

“Not exactly.” Brysen closed his eyes in an attempt to remember that day, but he’d been paying attention to Layne, not his surroundings of waves and distant shores. “I’m sorry. I wish I did.”

She shook her head. “It’s fine. We’ll figure it out. Put your shirt on; we’re going.”

Too used to taking orders to hesitate, Brysen pulled on the shirt, wincing at the stab of pain from the incision. “Where are we going?”

“Swing by the station and drop off this tracker. I originally thought I’d leave it here so Layne wouldn’t have any idea you’d left the hotel, but I don’t want to risk him coming back and realizing what’s happened. Better he thinks you’re at the constable’s station, whether because you’re in protective custody or because we suspect you of participating in some way.”

“Suspect me of… You didn’t, did you?” Brysen followed her into the hallway.

“Only briefly. But it wasn’t something we could dismiss as a possibility until we’d done a bit of investigating. You’re his sub—were his sub—and there was every chance you were helping him break the law whether you wanted to or not.”

This wasn’t an unfair assessment. “I might have,” he admitted quietly as they waited for the elevator. “If he’d told me to. Even if I knew it was illegal.”

“Once you were drugged, you mean?”

He sighed. “Yes. But maybe otherwise too.”

She fell silent after that, leading him where she’d left her podcar, a small vehicle capable of seating four in a pinch. Individual means of transport were rare, and Brysen got in gingerly, unsure of how fast she’d drive on the narrow tracks allotted to official vehicles. She turned out to be a careful driver, programming in a speed five klicks below the maximum and setting auto-control immediately. She was too law-abiding for his taste; Jax was in danger, and the minutes since his capture were adding up.

Why couldn’t he remember more about that long-ago trip on the waveskimmer? He closed his eyes and concentrated. His memory was unreliable, but hadn’t he discussed it with Jax?

Leaping flashes, water spraying… “Dellin fish!”

“Excuse me?”

“We saw dellin fish, and we went— Ugh, I mentioned it to Jax only a few days back! Why can’t I remember?” He slapped the side of his head as if that would jar the memory loose.

“Dellin fish spawn in the Callis Bay area.” Anna punched keys on the dashscreen and called up a virtumap. “Search around there, and see if anything clicks.”

It took seconds to zoom in on the bay; then a name caught his eye. “The Sirin cliffs! The island is near them. Layne told me at sunrise the crystal in the rocks glows red.”

“See?” She patted his leg. “It’s coming back to you. And if his family owns an island, it’ll be in the records. I should have thought of that.” A flush rose in her cheeks. “I’m not— I’m trained for this, but we don’t get to put our training into practice much. I used to think that was a shame, but now I’m not so sure. Kidnapping and brainwashing and suicides that might be murder… I’m out of my depth.”

Astonished by the admission of vulnerability from someone so abrasive and outwardly self-confident, Brysen cleared his throat and offered a hesitant, “You’re doing well.”

“That’s what you think? Me, I think I’m missing the obvious and insulting the victim on top of it.”

He shook his head. “Don’t. Not because I’m grateful you’re trying, but because we don’t have time to waste beating ourselves up.” Wow, his word choice could have been better, but fortunately if Anna noticed, she decided to let it lie.

“Right. So let’s concentrate on finding Jax and worry about the rest of it later.”

Twenty minutes later, shifting his weight from foot to foot in agitation as they waited at the end of the pier for the constable’s skimmer to pick them up, he felt considerably less generous. “Where are they?”

Anna checked her wrist unit. “Two minutes out. Which is one minute fewer than the last time you asked.”

It was gentle as far as rebukes went, and not unfair, but Brysen still glared at her. “Do you have any idea what Layne could be doing to him right now?”

“Of course I do. I saw the digital vids.”

That rocked Brysen back on his heels both figuratively and literally. He had to swallow hard around the sudden lump in his throat as he imagined Anna watching sessions he barely remembered.

“I’m sorry,” Anna said. “That such awful stuff happened to you, I mean. But we’re going to find him, and justice will be done, I promise.” She pointed across the bay at a boat headed straight for the pier. “There.”

The team on board, four men and a woman, all armed with stun guns, seemed uneasy with the idea of Brysen accompanying them.

“He’s a civilian,” one argued, drawing Anna aside, a pointless exercise since he didn’t bother lowering his voice. “He’ll get in our way. Has he signed a waiver if he gets hurt?”

Driven to fuming by the lack of action, Brysen called out, “I’ll sign in blood if you’ll leave now.” He pushed past the constables clustered around Anna and boarded the skimmer before anyone could stop him. Gripping the railing, standing tall, he added, “And I’ll sue every one of you if Jax is hurt because you wasted time.”

“You heard him.” Anna seemed amused by the startled looks she got. She gestured to the skimmer, herding the team back onto the fast, if shabby, boat. Funding for the constables was never a high priority for whichever party won the elections. “For now, think of him as a sworn-in consultant, not a civilian. He knows where we’re going, and what the skimmer in question looks like, plus he makes good bait.”

If she expected to scare him, she was wrong. Brysen glared at her and the snickering constables. “If offering me to Layne will get Jax out of his hands, I’ll do it.”

“Believe me, that won’t be necessary,” Anna said under her breath as she joined them. “But I’m sure Jax would appreciate you were willing.”

Brysen, who was trying hard not to think too carefully about Jax and what he might be going through, didn’t respond. He looked out across the sea as the skimmer pulled away from the pier and headed toward open water. The engine was louder than he was used to, but the man steering was more experienced than Layne, who’d generally set the boat on autopilot, then found something more enjoyable to focus on. The smell of the sea was heavy with salt, and the suns were low on the horizon, tingeing the blue-green water with pinks and a hint of orange.

He couldn’t have said how long a trip it was to Callis Bay—paying attention to the passage of time had never been important before—but it felt as if it took forever. Brysen paced the deck, back and forth, until one of the constables snapped at him to sit, and Anna, conciliatory, brought him a water pouch.

“Drink this. You won’t be of any use to us if you’re dehydrated.”

“I’m not,” Brysen said, but he drank some of the water anyway. “What’s going to happen?”

“Well, hopefully we identify the waveskimmer, board it, and take Layne into custody with as little resistance as possible. Once we’ve found him, I expect you to go below and stay there until I’ve told you otherwise. You aren’t authorized to be in the middle of a situation like this, and no matter what I told my coworkers about waivers, I’m risking my job allowing you to be here at all.”

Brysen wasn’t concerned for her job, but he wanted her focused on the task at hand. If she chose to consider that task “taking Layne into custody” rather than “rescuing Jax,” that was okay; in either case Jax ended up out of Layne’s reach, and that was what mattered.

“You said he had men with him?”

Brysen nodded. “Enforcers. Two of them, but he could have more on board.”

Anna chewed the inside of her cheek, a frown creasing her forehead. “We’re armed, and they shouldn’t be, but…”

“Layne wouldn’t think the peace laws applied to him, but the men with him weren’t armed. He’s rich enough to get illegal stunners for them, but he doesn’t think you’ll find him, so why bother? He’s angry you tried to arrest him, but he assumes the problem will solve itself. I doubt he’s worried.”

“You sound sure of your analysis.” Anna sipped from her water pouch. “I find it hard to believe a man with his brains could be so stupid.”

“He doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong.” That made Brysen sad, not angry. Layne was missing something in his makeup, something vital, something human. “Not before taking Jax, anyway. And kidnapping someone is justified in his eyes if it lets him stay free.”

“Arrogant, entitled asshole,” Anna summed up. “You know how to pick them.”

It was said with a small grin, accompanied by a friendly jab of her elbow, as if inviting him to see the joke. Brysen appreciated her clumsy attempts to lighten the mood but couldn’t manage more than a strained smile in response.

“Seriously, though, how did you come to be with him? He’s from a First Settler family background, and you’re not, from what I recall of your file.”

“It’s a long story.” Personal stories always were, Brysen thought.

“The short version, then.”

He could refuse, change the subject, but that would increase her curiosity, stretch out the silence. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was lonely, wandering from relationship to relationship. None of them gave me what I wanted. When I met Layne, I discovered what it meant to be a sub.”

“Before the drugs.” She said it gently, not as a recrimination.

“Yeah. So at least I know that part of it is real.” Brysen looked down at his pouch. “Maybe later I’ll figure out where and when the line was crossed, but right now I’m not sure.”

“Once your system’s clear, you might end up remembering more than you think.” Anna glanced at him. “More than you want to, even.”

“I’ve accepted that.” He tilted his head back, the breeze off the water soothing the headache he’d had since removing his collar. The worst of the withdrawal was behind him, but he wasn’t fooled. It would take a while for his body to adjust fully, and who knew what long-term effects Layne’s concoction had caused?

All this so Layne could get a sick thrill from hurting him past his limits, compelling a subservience Brysen would have given willingly if Layne had been the owner he’d seemed. The kind of owner Jax was.

In the short space of time he’d known Jax, even when the drug had muddled his perception of the man, an imposed loyalty to Layne skewing his judgment, he’d liked Jax.

Now he was scared beyond reason he’d never get to see him again, never see that warm smile flash across Jax’s face, hear that soft rumble of a voice, the sure, confident touch of his hands.

Never know if they could have become friends. Or more.

The constable standing at the bow of the skimmer, who’d been scanning the horizon with a set of tiny binoculars, turned to look back at them. “There’s a waveskimmer fitting the description given anchored in the bay.”

Brysen crossed the deck to join the man, reaching out to take the binoculars without asking. The constable relinquished them, along with a startled look, as if he hadn’t expected assertiveness from a sub. It took him a minute to figure out how to adjust them, but once he had, he recognized Layne’s skimmer immediately. “That’s it.”

“Go below,” Anna said. “Now. I’ll come get you when everything’s over.”

He wanted to argue, but he knew there was a benefit to Anna focusing her full attention on Layne and Jax, so he went down the narrow staircase and sat on one of the benches bolted to the floor of the skimmer. Without the horizon to remind him the world wasn’t dipping and swaying, it was easy to get seasick, so he shut his eyes and listened to the murmur of voices above deck when the engine dropped down into idle, and he heard something above the loud hum.

He couldn’t tell what was happening. Footsteps, voices, shouts, more voices, then nothing for so long he clenched his hands into fists because the pain of his nails digging into his palms distracted him from imagining horrible scenarios. Then more footsteps and the low rumble of Jax’s familiar voice. Brysen was up the staircase in a flash.

Jax was being supported by Anna and one of the other constables. He was naked, but someone had found a blanket and wrapped it around him. There was no sign of the other constables, not that Brysen cared; he only had eyes for Jax, who looked exhausted and unsteady.

“Are you okay? What happened?”

Anna shook her head and lowered Jax to a chair. “Sit here. Brysen, get him some water.”

He obeyed, grateful for the chance to help, but when he handed the open pouch to Jax, he saw the blood crusted on Jax’s hands.

Layne.

Without a word, he spun and took the few steps needed to reach the narrow bridge between the two boats, locked in place by the constables, effectively making the two skimmers one vessel temporarily.

Anna yelled to him to stop, but he ignored her, determined to confront Layne before the legal system absorbed him and all interactions were cool, polite determinations of guilt. He didn’t want an advocate dealing with Layne on his behalf. He wanted to face the man, no enforcers between them, and make Layne understand how evil he was.

If Layne didn’t know he was a monster, he wouldn’t feel guilt, wouldn’t suffer. Brysen wanted him to agonize over his crimes, to never feel clean again.

He knew the skimmer’s layout and avoided the main stairwell. The constables’ voices floated up in low mutters, the words indistinguishable; Brysen darted around to another access stair, narrower, more of a ladder that the crew was supposed to use.

After scrambling down it, he ran toward the main sitting area, a luxurious space, sure it was where he’d find Layne.

His first thought was that Layne had redecorated. The curved walls were paneled in pale yellow, a narrow strip of bronze and black tiles running down the center of each panel, the decking covered with a cream-colored velvet rug, impractical but soft as kitten fur. Layne had replaced it with one in the same material, but with an abstract pattern of scarlet.

The delusion shattered with his first breath. Blood and shit and fear. The stink of death lashed out, leaving him choking, stomach heaving.

“Hey! Get him out of here. Who let him—”

Brysen turned in the direction of the constable’s voice and saw what the man was standing beside.

Like his misinterpretation of the blood-splattered rug, it took him a second look to realize the covered shapes were bodies.

“Who…” He couldn’t finish his question.

“You shouldn’t be here.” Anna entered the room, hurrying, then gagging as the smell reached her. She covered her mouth, then dropped her hand and glared at the nearest constable as if challenging him to comment on her moment of weakness. “Brysen. Come with me.”

Three unmoving shapes on the floor. Layne? The enforcers? It couldn’t be. Jax wasn’t an enforcer, wasn’t trained to… Or was he? “No,” he said stubbornly. “What happened?”

“We won’t know until we’ve talked to Jax in more detail.” Anna came closer and touched his arm with awkward gentleness. “Layne’s dead. I’m sorry.”

It was on Brysen’s lips to say I’m not, but he wasn’t completely sure that was true. His insides felt tied into knots. “Are you sure?”

She nodded. “If you need to see for yourself… But I don’t recommend it.”

He squeezed his eyes shut tightly for a moment, then opened them again. “Can I? I think I have to.” Otherwise he might never believe it, not deep down.

“It’s not—” one of the male constables started, but Anna hushed him with an impatient wave, and he fell silent and backed off to consult with the other, their tones quiet as they shared a screen pad.

“You can be the one to officially identify him,” Anna said. “Not that there’s any question.” She crouched down by the nearest covered body and drew back the edge of the blanket.

Layne. Pale, bloody. It wasn’t the first time Brysen had seen blood on Layne’s lips, but it had always been his. He didn’t look afraid or in pain, or as if he’d suffered. He looked peaceful, as he sometimes had while sleeping, but there was no doubt he was dead. “Do you need me to say it?”

“Can you positively identify this as Layne Hamiel?” It sounded like a phrase Anna had learned but not had many opportunities to repeat.

Brysen had to clear his throat before answering. “Yes. That’s him.”

“The others…” Anna shook her head. “You don’t want to see them. One is Lellin Sak. He was with Layne during Jax’s kidnapping. The man beside him was tortured to death. I can’t tell you his name until we’ve notified his family, but he was reported missing some lunar cycles back. It’s possible Layne took him to experiment on, or maybe he was a runaway who fell in with Layne more recently. We’ll know more when we’ve interviewed Jax and the others on board, though one woman is in shock.”

“Tortured?” Brysen looked away from the bodies, vision blurring. He blinked to clear his eyes and caught a glimpse of metal in a patch of blood. A clamp. Vicious, strong, shreds of flesh caught in the metal teeth. His head swam, sparks filling his eyes like tears. “I’m going to—”

“Sit!” Anna caught him as he crumpled, easing him to the deck. “Head between your knees, deep breaths. Yeah, take it easy. It’s over now. It’s all over.”

The buzzing, suffocating darkness receded, leaving him light-headed and weak. Over? With Layne dead and Jax lost in horror?

An end to the nightmare seemed as far away as his life before Layne and as impossible to reach.

Chapter Thirteen

“And there.” The nurse pointed at the last place on the screen pad Jax needed to press his fingerprint. “Great. That’s it. Why don’t you get dressed while I go pick up your prescription? I’ll be back in a minute.”

In Jax’s experience, nothing at the hospital took “a minute,” but he was eager to be released and didn’t want to say anything to slow down the process. It had been difficult enough to convince the health counselor he was in a fit emotional state to be trusted alone. So he limited himself to saying, “Thank you,” and picked up the wrapped bundle of clothes the hospital had provided him.

He’d pulled on the shirt when Anna appeared in the doorway to his room. “I’d hoped I would catch you before you left.”

It would have been a lie if he’d claimed to be pleased to see her; in all honesty he’d prefer to forget she existed, though he was smart enough to be grateful for her help. “Constable. How are you?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“Glad to be getting out of here. Is there something I can help you with?”

Anna had been at the hospital several times in the past few days. The first morning she’d questioned Jax for two hours in great detail until he felt he’d repeated everything to the point where it became ridiculous. That was followed by an intensive therapy session focused on Jax’s emotional health after his ordeal. He knew it was meant to provide support and a place for him to express his feelings, so he’d been as cooperative as possible, but he’d mostly been going through the motions. What he needed was sleep and enough time for the systemic blood cleanse to clear his system of the drug, which the doctors had promised him would be complete in two days at most.

The second morning, Anna had brought a therapist with her; the man was an expert in hypnosis who specialized in assisting the constables during the questioning of victims and suspects alike. Jax was unsure which he was considered to be—maybe both—but he’d cooperated and been hugely relieved when the hypnotist had announced his description of the events was truthful.

“No,” she said now. “I wanted to let you know—in person, though unofficially—that you won’t be charged with anything. I called an emergency justice session, submitted your statement and my report, along with the lab findings on the drug Hamiel created, and requested an immediate decision. The magistrate agrees under the circumstances your actions were defensible. So you’re free to go back to living your life without the threat of legal punishment hanging over you, at least.”

It was a relief to hear, though the thought of returning to his old life seemed laughable in a way that was entirely unamusing. “Thank you. That’s good news.”

She shrugged. “It’s small comfort after what you and Brysen went through, but it’s all I have. Dragging the investigation out wouldn’t have benefited anyone.”

Something roused him from his bleak mood, a need to connect with her in a positive way. “It isn’t all you did, though. You listened to Brysen. You found me.”

“When we took you back to land, did you see the news shuttles buzzing us, trying to get footage? Because someone’s going to wish they hadn’t leaked the story.”

“I don’t remember much of the journey back.” Except Brysen’s hand locked around his, never letting go, and Brysen talking to him without asking questions, requiring only that Jax listen.

And to do that, he needed to stay present. Without Brysen’s unspoken demand, he might have given in to impulse and slid overboard, letting the ocean wash him clean before he died.

“I saw them in their fancy flitters and thought if we had the funding to buy air-response vehicles or access to the medical ones in emergencies, we could’ve been at the skimmer in time to save young Matthias.” She slammed her fist against the door frame, enough strength behind the blow to leave her wincing. “Telling his two mothers they’d lost him was bad enough. Telling them how he died, even leaving out most of it to spare them, left me wondering what the fuck is wrong with people that they can’t see my department needs help. Hamiel was a monster, but it’s not as if there’s a quota and he’s filled it so we’re safe now.”

“Dragon.”

“What?”

Lips stiff, skin clammy, Jax shook his head. “Nothing. Layne didn’t know his name, so he called him that because of the ink he wore.”

And I fucked him, whipped him, broke him under a psychopath’s orders because I didn’t have the strength to save him, only myself.

“Okay, you’re all set.” The nurse returned with a small package she pressed into Jax’s hand. “If you have any questions, message the service, and they’ll be able to answer them. It might be me; I have a half shift later today.” It was possible she was flirting in a subtle way, but Jax couldn’t tell and didn’t care.

“Thanks.” Jax was tired of thanking people; he wanted to get out into the fresh air and breathe. He hadn’t decided what he’d do. Go home, he supposed.

“Can I give you a lift somewhere?” Anna offered, and he shook his head.

“I thought I’d walk.” He doubted he was up to a long walk, but he’d worry about it when the time came.

“I’ll take you as far as the front entrance, then.”

The halls were long and smelled of antiseptic, luckily something floral-scented. If he’d smelled lime, he would’ve lost his breakfast. Jax was glad the shoes the hospital had supplied were the right size; the highly polished floors might not be slippery, but they certainly looked it.

“You have my comm code,” Anna said as they stepped through the automated doors and onto the sidewalk. An emergency vehicle was being unloaded, the paramedics sliding the grav-assist stretcher out of the back smoothly, and when the driver pulled away from the building, it revealed a stretch of brilliant, lush grass on the other side of the roadway. There were some stone benches there. On one of them was a couple, the woman in a hospital-issued robe and slippers.

On the other was Brysen, who looked up, saw Jax, and raised a hand in tentative greeting.

If his life depended on answering honestly, Jax couldn’t have said if the emotion uppermost at seeing the man was relief or revulsion. He knew a conversation with Brysen was inevitable, but did it have to be now? Having said that, Brysen’s smile, as hesitant as his wave, drew an urge to reassure from deep inside him.

He couldn’t reject the offer of company if it was what Brysen needed from him. He didn’t deserve comfort, but Brysen did.

Anna faded away after patting his arm, giving him a sympathetic, vaguely amused glance. He didn’t know how to interpret it, but he didn’t waste much time in trying. Step by step, he cut the distance between them until he was close enough to reach out and pull the now standing Brysen to him for a hug.

Close enough, if he’d chosen to reach out, but he kept his arms by his sides. Touching Brysen with hands that still felt tacky with blood, no matter how often he washed them, would be a desecration.

“Anna let me know when you’d be released.” Brysen’s eyes were shadowed with fatigue, but he stood straight with an air of confidence that was new and attractive. “Are you sure it’s not too soon?”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.” That wasn’t true in one sense, but physically he was stable. “They flushed the drug from my system and checked me over. No injuries to speak of.” He raised his hand, cupping the air around Brysen’s injured jaw without touching skin. “The bruising’s spectacular, but the swelling’s gone down.”

“The medic said the injection she gave me accelerates the healing, so the bruises look terrible for a few days, then disappear.” Brysen gave him a smile that wobbled around the edges. “I’m getting weird looks from people. I hope it’s my purple-and-green skin, not because they recognize me from the news.”

“I haven’t seen any of the reports. Haven’t accepted any calls.” Some of them were from family and friends, but replying had seemed too daunting a task. Later. They knew he was alive. That would have to do. The reporters clamoring for interviews had been told by Anna if they came near either Brysen or Jax, she’d arrest them for violation of personal privacy.

The lack of reporters outside the hospital meant she’d been convincing, in the short term, at least. And Layne and his friends were the juicy story. Everyone in Layne’s group was under investigation, their subs undergoing tests. Jax wished them well in a vague way without having the energy to get worked up over their predicament. They were safe now, which was all that mattered.

“You don’t want to hang around here,” Brysen said, reading him accurately.

“No. And you want to talk.” Was it wise to suggest Brysen came home with him? It would be private, and they’d have however much time they needed, but maybe Brysen associated the place with withdrawal and anxiety.

Brysen shifted from one foot to the other. “It doesn’t have to be now.”

“No. But I’d rather not do it in public.”

“Layne’s property reverted to me when he died. Bank accounts, the apartment. Everything. It won’t be final for half a lunar cycle, I guess, but… I don’t know why I told you that.”

Jax raised an eyebrow. “Have you been back there?” He’d have been surprised if the answer was yes, and for once Brysen didn’t surprise him.

“Not yet. But I will. I want some of my stuff. Not that there’s much.” Brysen scrubbed his hands over his face. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have shown up. Maybe we can get together in a few days.” He turned away, and Jax finally reached out and touched him, barely a brush of fingertips against the bare skin above Brysen’s elbow where the sleeve of his lightweight shirt ended.

“Don’t.”

Brysen half smiled, looking as confused as Jax felt. “You’re better at giving orders than that. I may have forgotten a lot, but I remember that much.”

“I don’t want to give you orders.” It came out with more vehemence than he’d intended, and he softened his voice. “Sorry. I think we’ve had a bellyful of them recently. I’m asking. Don’t walk away. Let me come with you. Let’s talk and get this over with; then you can forget we met and start your life over the way it’s supposed to be.”

“If you can draw my future, give me a picture, because from here all I see is a therapist getting rich.”

“You’re stronger than that. Some help now? Sure. But a hand up is all you need. After you’re back on your feet, you’ll stand alone.”

“I’m not happy alone.” The intensity in the words matched the flare of passion in Brysen’s eyes. “I’m not happy standing. I kneel, Jax. To men like you.”

It was a nightmare he couldn’t wake up from, the knowledge he was more similar to Layne than he wanted to be. “You don’t want to kneel to men like me. You’ve learned that.”

He felt the weight of Brysen’s gaze on him, heavy and questioning, but to his relief the questions went unasked. “That’s not what I learned,” Brysen said. “There’s something I need to do. Come with me?”

If Brysen could be brave, so could Jax. “All right.”

“Only if you’re okay. Maybe you should be in bed?” They’d already started walking, though, and moving felt better than staying still.

“I didn’t need to be in the hospital,” Jax said. “It was more a precaution than anything else. When did you get out?” The last time he’d seen Brysen had been the night they’d been admitted, from the gurney they’d strapped him to.

“They didn’t keep me overnight.” Brysen hesitated, then added, “I slept on a sofa in one of the waiting rooms the first night. A nurse gave me a blanket.”

It would have been stupid to ask why he hadn’t gone home—Jax already knew, and he didn’t consider himself a stupid man. Instead he said, “You could have gotten a hotel room somewhere.”

“That’s what I ended up doing.”

Not his business to push or demand details if Brysen didn’t want to share them. “Where are we headed?”

Brysen slowed his steps. “I thought…a fancy salon I’ve heard of for a renew session. I don’t want to go to the one Layne sent me to. But there’s no reason to settle for a budget renew, is there?”

“No.” If Brysen had said he wanted to visit a salon on one of Lanteal’s moons, Jax would’ve agreed. Not that Pallas or Annedo had salons. Mining communities, yes, vast operations covering the airless rock, but the miners weren’t the type to care if their hair shade was on trend or their nails shaped and gleaming. “The high-class ones have waiting lists, though.”

Brysen smiled, cynicism that didn’t suit him showing through. “We walk in, and a space will open. Maybe not next lunar, but today? We’re news.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”

“It does, but not as much as knowing I’m walking around looking the way he wanted me to. When I look in a mirror, I want to see what I’ve chosen. My next owner might not like it, but I’ll deal with that when it happens.”

It was difficult to imagine Brysen with anything but the bright blond hair and aqua eyes he’d had since Jax had met him, but he understood the impulse to wipe away another part of Layne’s influence. As they walked, Jax was aware of the curious looks of some of the people who passed by, and he saw how right Brysen was in thinking the salon would find an opening for him. He’d never been the subject of public interest before, and he disliked it.

The salon Brysen chose was by the water, an elegant building faced with silver panels glittering opulently in the sunshine. Tall plants, exuding a heavy, rich fragrance, flanked the entrance, set in urns decorated with bronze and purple gems.

Walking through the double doors took effort, but at least it got him off the sidewalk and into a cool, quiet space.

“Through here, I guess.” Brysen led the way after giving Jax a questioning look. If he’d expected Jax to take charge of this expedition, he was doomed to be disappointed. Jax had accompanied clients to places like this from time to time, but that was part of his job. Using them to alter his appearance had never appealed.

The young woman who greeted them as they went into the salon wore a tiny, tight dress that resembled bronze bandages wound around her body more than an article of clothing. She gave them a cursory, dismissive glance; then her eyes widened with recognition, her gaze darting between them. “Brysen! You don’t have an appointment?”

“No.” Brysen smiled at her, leaning in to kiss her cheek. “I was hoping you could fit me in.”

“It’s going to be difficult, but…” She bit her lip teasingly; then, when Brysen arched his eyebrows, she relented. “For you? Of course.” Her name tag said Scarlet, but her hair was a deep mauve. “Give me a minute.”

“She’s dying of curiosity, but she won’t ask questions.” Brysen seemed confident as they went to sit in comfortably padded chairs. “Well. Not personal ones. People in places like this never do. It’s easier to invent the gossip than share the facts.”

“You don’t have anything to be ashamed of,” Jax told him, leaning close and keeping his voice low. “You don’t have to hide what happened.”

Brysen snorted. “It wouldn’t matter if I did. It’s been all over the news. You haven’t seen any of it?”

“I made a point of not looking.”

“Hard to miss headlines like SUPER RICH DOC BREEDS SEX SLUTS IN SECRET LAB.”

Disgusted, repelled, Jax had nothing to say that wouldn’t end in him ranting loudly. He settled for rolling his eyes.

“Yeah.” Brysen tapped in an order for refreshments at the unit built into his chair. People were staring, openly and covertly, clients and staff alike, but Jax thought he was the only one to see how Brysen’s hand shook.

This wasn’t easy for him. Instinctively, Jax angled his body to block Brysen from view, grateful the waiting area was in a corner.

“How do you know Scarlet?” Jax wasn’t fond of small talk, but if it worked as a distraction, he’d use it.

“She’s a regular at the juice bar, and we got talking one day when it was slow. She told me about this place, but back then I couldn’t afford it. I mentioned it to Layne, and he said he had an account at Paradiso; I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere but there.”

Everything circled back to Layne. Jax knew it was to be expected, but he wished he could wipe the man from Brysen’s memories. As he thought it, he shoved the idea away. Brysen’s mind had been subjected to enough tinkering.

“Do you want a drink?” Brysen asked. “They’re free for clients.”

“I’m not thirsty, and I’m here to keep you company, not have any work done.”

“Pity,” a man cooed behind him. “Your skin tone is divine, but these ocean breezes we get are so drying, don’t you think? You’d glow after a full-body wrap and facial with maybe a hint of glitter in your final rinse-off.”

Jax turned his head. The willowy man smiling at him with avid curiosity, gaze flicking from Jax to Brysen as if he couldn’t decide which of them was the tastier morsel, held Brysen’s drink on a tray, the sparkling pink juice frothing up artistically. It was the only reason Jax didn’t send him away using force if words didn’t do the trick.

“I’m Stannar, and this is your Pink Peril,” the man announced, handing Brysen his drink with an unnecessary flourish. “And I am totally, utterly, devotedly at your service today.”

“Thank you.” Brysen smiled as if Stannar was who he’d been hoping for, and Jax’s heart did something unfamiliar and decidedly unpleasant. “Maybe you could convince my, um, friend there’s some service he’d enjoy. Since we’re here.”

“You’re not the type to frequent salons.” Stannar had blue-tinted nails and blue eyebrows to match. “Something small, I think. A foot massage and a pedicure? Clear polish, of course.”

“Of course.” Leaning closer, Brysen nudged Jax’s knee with his. “Go on. It’s relaxing, and after the past couple of days, don’t you deserve it?”

“I don’t know that I’d find it relaxing,” Jax said, but honestly he suspected agreeing to do anything Brysen wanted was a small price to pay in exchange for all Brysen had been through.

Scarlet came to find them. “I’m ready for you, Brysen. I’m going to pass the reception desk to Milo and take care of you myself.”

“And his friend is coming with me.” Stannar took Jax’s hand between his and drew him gently to his feet. Jax could have resisted, but it would have been rude, and it wasn’t as if he had anything else to do with his time while Brysen was doing…whatever it was he’d be doing.

Despite his initial resistance, Jax found the foot massage relaxing. The soaking water was hot, the massage oil warmed, and the difference between someone doing something for his pleasure and several nights in the hospital where everything had been so clinical was stark and depressing on some level. He tried to focus on the sensation of strong thumbs digging into the muscles of his feet and closed his eyes.

“Would you prefer more gentle pressure?” The slight woman with golden hair so long her braids brushed the floor was solicitous to the point of being suffocating.

The idea of a massage being too much for him was amusing, but he remembered his manners and shook his head. “It feels good. Relaxing.”

“Oh, it is.”

She turned, placing her hand under the essential-oil dispenser, and the vibrantly colored scarf wound around her neck slipped, giving him a glimpse of a collar. He tensed, muscles rigid, the scent of seagrass and lemon wafting over him. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Many subs loved jobs that involved providing service to people, though there were plenty who only felt comfortable sharing that part of themselves with their owner.

Picking up on his mood, the sub sank into a waiting position, glistening hands held palms up, head bowed. “If I’ve done something wrong, please accept my apologies. If I can make amends—”

“Nothing. You’ve done nothing.” Knowing physical reassurance was the quickest, most direct way to soothe, he rested his hand lightly on her hair. “Please continue. I’ll be sure to tell Stannar how much I enjoyed your service.”

Jax saw her relief, shoulders lowering with her soft exhalation. So much effort. Telling himself it was penance didn’t help. This wasn’t suffering, the way the boy he still thought of as Dragon had suffered. This was irritating, no more than that. He could handle it. Smile and project a false calm, keep every emotion trapped until he was alone with Brysen.

And what then? Burden Brysen with an outpouring of guilt and grief? That would be yet another cruelty. No, he’d make his excuses and leave. There was a rocky stretch of shore to the east of the zone, unpopular because apart from the vast dunes, there was little beach to speak of and the currents made bathing unsafe. He’d go there, hide, sit, and hear nothing but the rush and beat of the waves and the mournful calls of the gulls.

Maybe then the clamor inside his head would quiet to a whisper.

Jax authorized payment from his account and slipped out before Brysen was finished, avoiding Stannar, who seemed to be searching for him. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but it was easier than trying to explain.

He’d barely gone two blocks when he heard Brysen calling his name. He turned around and watched as a man with Brysen’s build and voice but no other similarity came toward him. “You left without saying anything.”

“Sorry.” There was no excuse. “I needed some air.”

“Okay.” Brysen stopped, leaving some distance between them, and they studied each other. His hair was a rich copper with streaks of shimmering metallics, his pupils amber. He held his hands away from his sides and spun around. “What do you think?”

“Different.” Jax hoped that didn’t come over as a way of avoiding saying he didn’t like it, because it wasn’t what he meant. “It’s how you were…before?”

“Before Layne. Yes. It’s all right to say his name.” Shy, Brysen tucked a lock of hair behind his ear. “You were trying to ditch me.”

Jax sighed. “Not exactly.”

“What, then?”

“I don’t know.” That was such a blatant lie he felt bad as soon as he’d said it. “My head’s a mess. I don’t think you should be around me when I’m like this.”

“So you’re trying to protect me.” Brysen tilted his head to one side. “I’m not your sub. It’s not your job to take care of me anymore.”

The sound Jax made was a broken, twisted version of laughter, as if he’d forgotten how to do it and was guessing. Not far from the truth. “Take care of you? I’m unfit to take care of anyone again. Not after what I did. What client would ever trust me with their sub?”

Brysen nodded. “Yeah. You’re better off alone feeling this way. Then you can wallow and sink deeper until you hit base level.” He snorted. “You get that I’m not serious, I hope? Because I’m the only person on the planet you can talk to who’ll understand. Let’s get this over with. Talk it out, cry if you want to, get drunk, whatever. But we do it together.”

There was nothing but resolve in Brysen’s expression and stance. Jax thought anyone watching them would peg Brysen as the owner and Jax the sub receiving a stern lecture. Throat achingly tight, he tried to answer but failed.

Brysen’s face softened with sympathy. He stepped close without touching and gazed up at Jax. He wasn’t on his knees, but he projected that air of submissive pleading with subtle cues Jax read automatically, responded to instinctively. “Wherever you were planning to go, take me with you. Please?”

Jax grumbled but relented. “Okay. For now. I’m not making any promises.”

“I’m not asking for a long-term commitment.” A smile crossed Brysen’s face briefly. “This is— Listen, I know how complicated this is.”

“I know you do.” Revealing he’d planned to sit on some rocks and look out at the sea made him feel like an idiot, but he wasn’t willing to let go of the idea completely. “Maybe you’ll be less inclined to come with me when I say I was heading east.”

Again, Brysen seemed to read his mind. “To the shore? That sounds good. Quiet.”

They walked to the station, Brysen keeping close to Jax’s side. Protective? In need of protection? It was difficult to tell, and Jax wasn’t sure it mattered. There was nothing either of them was more in need of protection from than their memories, and little either of them could do to act as a shield for the other.

Jax was content to walk in silence, but he glanced at Brysen often. The other man’s face was still his, familiar now; the hair and eyes would take a bit of getting used to.

“You don’t like it.” Disappointment made Brysen’s face crumple like a child’s.

“It’s not that,” Jax hastened to reassure him. “It’s so different.”

“And before, I reminded you of Nikhil. Was that why I appealed to you?”

It was a loaded question without a simple answer. “There are a lot of reasons I’m attracted to you.”

Brysen reached out and slipped his hand into Jax’s in reply. “I feel the same way. Especially knowing your toenails are shinier than they were.”

“How can you joke? How can you—” Jax swallowed, gripping Brysen’s hand. “I’m sorry. That sounds as if I want you to be as messed up as I am, and I don’t.”

“You think I’m over everything that happened?” Brysen blew out a long breath. “Whoo. Not even close. I’ve shut down. I’m not thinking about it, any of it, until I know it all. I can’t deal with it twice.”

“So that’s why you want to be with me? To find out what happened on the skimmer?” If anyone else, with the exception of Anna or another constable, had asked, Jax would’ve refused to answer, but Brysen was owed the facts. Even if it meant losing him and destroying the fragile relationship they’d built during their short acquaintance.

“Partly,” Brysen admitted. “Anna wouldn’t tell me much, but I was there. I saw.” With his free hand, he chopped at the air, narrowly missing a woman passing by who sniffed, adjusted a wildly extravagant hat topped with golden feathers threaded through twisted strands of violet-and-blue-striped challan grass, and hurried away, her glide boots chiming sharply when the soles struck the sidewalk. “I can’t let myself remember that yet. Let’s wait until we’re alone to talk.”

Jax couldn’t say it was a good idea when he didn’t want to discuss the events at all, but he nodded and headed for the nearest solar tram station, Brysen’s hand warm in his every step of the way.

There were fewer people around now. Jax relaxed, the tension that had plagued him since he’d woken easing incrementally. “We should have gotten you something to eat,” Brysen said.

“I haven’t been hungry.”

“I know. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat.”

Jax nodded. “I did have breakfast. It was one of the requirements of being released from the hospital.” He couldn’t recall the time previous to this stay he’d had a meal from a hospital cafeteria, but he didn’t think things had changed much.

“They gave me dinner that first night.” Brysen was quiet for a few footsteps, then offered, “I went back to work this morning. To explain. They knew what was going on because you called, and they’d seen the news. Like everyone.” They joined the others who were boarding the tramcar and found seats.

“I’m sure they understand. Your boss didn’t seem angry when I spoke with him.” Jax wasn’t certain Brysen wanted reassurance, but felt compelled to provide it either way.

“He wasn’t. I asked if I could take some time off, though I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to come back, and he said that was fine. They wanted to ask a lot of questions; I could tell. I thought if I showed up, and I looked okay, and I seemed okay, that would go a lot further than sending them a message or whatever. To stop the gossip, I mean.”

“We need a celebrity breakup or a political scandal to divert interest away from us.”

“The Revisionist leader and the Populist one found in bed together with Zella Starr?”

The mental image was enough to make Jax snicker, granting him a precious moment when he forgot his situation. The Revisionist leader attributed his longevity to his celibacy, and the Populist leader was vocal in her dislike of Starr. Jax couldn’t blame her. Starr had taken the leading role in a movie of the politician’s career to date, portraying her as weak, indecisive, then, at a time of financial crisis, spiraling into panic and heading off-planet. To say the truth was bent was an understatement. “That would do it.”

By the time they’d left the city, Jax had relapsed into brooding. Even his awareness of Brysen’s concern couldn’t rouse him. He ran through the events of the previous few days, seeking the point where he’d made the first of many mistakes, attempting to force the past into producing a different future. The futility of it all exhausted him mentally. He leaned back against the padded headrest running behind the bench seats on the tramcar and closed his eyes. Maybe he could stare at darkness and not see blood, sleep and not hear screams.

He slipped from a hazy awareness of the people around him into memories so sharp they had the immediacy of a slap to the face.

* * * * *

The skimmer, rocking slightly, the stink of death and pain saturating the air. Matthias, safe at last. Layne walking over, smiling, expectant, his cock rigid, blood-streaked.

“Now it’s your turn to please me.”

The touch of Layne’s hand on his cheek sent a shudder of revulsion through Jax. He shook his head, rejecting what he’d done, and everything the man before him represented.

“We’re beyond that, don’t you think?” Layne’s voice thickened. “On your knees. Beg to suck me. Make it sincere, or I’ll fuck your mouth with a blade first, then my cock.”

It wasn’t a threat Jax could dismiss as empty after what he’d seen Layne do to Matthias.

What he’d tried to make Jax do to Brysen.

Enough. The quiet command inside his head came from him, he knew it, that small part of him the drug no longer controlled seeking to reach him. He flexed his hands and found he could clench them into fists, pictured his hands around Layne’s neck and saw a path to making it a reality.

Guilt and horror clouded his mind, but the scorching rage cleared the mist. Later he’d mourn and do penance, but now he had a job to do.

He was a subsitter. Under his care, subs were safe, protected from harm. Layne posed a danger to every sub he met. Time to remove that danger.

He clamped his hands around Layne’s neck.

“What the fuck are you doing? Let go!”

He squeezed harder, trapping Layne’s protests inside crushed flesh. Layne had asked a question, though, and enough of the drug remained to make answering it easier than ignoring it.

“I’m killing you,” he told Layne. “You employed me to keep Brysen safe, and I’m doing exactly what I was paid to do.”

Layne struggled to breathe, terror flooding his eyes, hands flailing weakly as he sought to escape his fate, but Jax compressed his windpipe too tightly for that to happen. There’d be no more breathing, no more words. Layne couldn’t be trusted with words or anything else. Certainly not with a sub like Brysen, so beautiful and gentle, deserving of an owner who’d treat him with affection beneath the pain he craved.

It didn’t take long for Layne to lose consciousness. A simple shift of Jax’s grip and it wasn’t about oxygen intake; it was about the flow of blood to the brain, and without that things shut down quickly. Eight, nine seconds at the most. It wasn’t the first time Jax had done this, thumbs pressed firmly against the thin skin of the throat—there were subs who loved the moment when they slipped into darkness—but it was the first time he’d done it with negative intent. He didn’t feel guilty about his actions. The moment Layne went limp beneath him was the moment he could have let go, but he didn’t. He needed to complete his task.

The only way to protect Brysen from Layne was to make sure Layne could never hurt anyone again. Jax had to do what he’d told Layne he would.

Had to kill him.

* * * * *

“We’re here.” Brysen stood and offered Jax a hand. Dazed from his nap and the violent, disturbing images his mind had conjured, Jax blinked up at him, then roused enough to stand and exit the transport. The dunes lay in the distance, a twenty-minute hike away along a well-defined but narrow pathway. The trail curved to take advantage of the potential viewpoints and was bordered by waist-high hedges of aromatic flowering bushes, thick with fluttering butterflies.

“It’s beautiful,” Brysen said. “I’ve never been out here, but I can see why you wanted to come.”

Still struggling to quiet his turmoil, Jax said, “I felt if I could have some time away from all those people—even the nice ones who mean well—I’d be able to…”

“Breathe?” Brysen suggested when Jax left the sentence unfinished. “Yeah. I get that.”

“Not you.” It felt important to clarify. Jax didn’t want Brysen thinking he was included in the people to be avoided, though it ought to be clear he wasn’t.

“I know. But thanks. So you’ve been here before?”

“Often. Though it’s been a while since the last time.” It was a beautiful day. Too beautiful, considering how miserable and conflicted he felt.

Brysen interrupted his train of thought by taking his hand again. “Show me.”

The path was barely wide enough for two; they had to walk close together, side by side. After the fifth time they’d bumped inelegantly into each other, Brysen abandoned the hand-holding in favor of wrapping his arm around Jax’s waist. He was the right height for it, and it seemed unfriendly following all they’d been through for Jax not to put his arm around Brysen in return.

It was a longer walk than he’d remembered. Jax was glad when they reached a bench near the spot where the path naturally ended and the sea lay before them like something an artist had painted, all broad brushstrokes and bright blue-greens. He looked down at Brysen’s face and smiled at the wonder he saw there as they settled themselves on the bench. “You’ve never been here?”

Brysen shook his head and tightened his arm around Jax’s waist.

For a while they sat in silence. The horrors, the screams, the guilt seemed to belong to another man. Jax let the beat of the waves teach his heartbeat a pace to follow and sank into the peace the place offered.

When he spoke, that same sense of detachment stayed present.

“I woke on the skimmer, full of the same drug he used on you.”

Brysen made a soft, protesting sound, too quiet to be an interruption. He withdrew his arm and slid off the bench to his knees, gazing up at Jax. “May I listen like this? Please?”

“It’s not for me to say yes or no.”

“Then I choose to be here.” Brysen rubbed his cheek against Jax’s knee.

It shouldn’t have helped so much to have a sub kneeling in front of him. He’d lost the right to be an owner in that way, though it was still who he was. Nothing could change that. Even so, Jax dared to stroke Brysen’s hair, the strands shimmering in the golden light of the overhead sun.

“He gave me a lot of it when I resisted him. I…went away. I don’t remember—” He bit his lip, welcoming the sharp pain because he’d been close to returning to that cabin, the pale carpet darkening with every drip of blood, the raw stink of fear overwhelming the salt tang of the sea. “I did things. Dreadful things. He had a boy he’d captured, and he made me hurt him. We hurt him together. He told me I was a natural, that we’d do this again, but I wouldn’t need the drug next time. I’d been scared he planned to kill me, but after he said that, I was terrified he wouldn’t.”

Brysen pressed the side of his face against Jax’s thigh. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. You know that as well as I do.”

“Yes.” Brysen sighed. “I’m still sorry.”

“He had to keep giving me more and more of the drug. He complained because my metabolism didn’t behave the way he expected it to.” In retrospect, Jax wondered if the whole scenario would have been easier on him if the drug had worked more consistently. There would have been less to remember. “I kept going back under, then swimming up again, not understanding what was happening.”

“I know.” Of course Brysen did. His hand slid down Jax’s calf and settled at his bare ankle; it was comforting, but Jax felt angry. He didn’t deserve to be comforted.

“Don’t. Don’t try to make me feel better.” He stood. Brysen wobbled but didn’t lose his balance, and moved back to give him room. “I hurt that boy, and I liked it.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” Brysen’s protest was calm, his voice low. “Any more than it was mine when Layne did those things to me. You think I didn’t enjoy some of them?”

“That’s completely different. You were his sub; he had a responsibility to you, and he took advantage of his position and abused you, but he didn’t make you hurt someone when deep down you wanted to do it.” Jax’s mind was whirling, and he felt no less confused than he had on the drug. He didn’t know what he was arguing for.

“You’re the black-stripe equivalent of an owner. You get off on inflicting pain on people who like receiving it.” Brysen brushed his fingers over his bare throat. “You’re good at it. But have you ever given a sub more pain than they wanted? More than they could handle?”

“Not deliberately. Sometimes I’ve pushed their limits and pushed too far, but that’s what the system is for, so a collar can flash and provide a warning. We stopped, regrouped, moved on. But have I wanted to keep going? Yeah. Sometimes. I prefer it intense, and my needs aren’t always met. It’s frustrating, but what can you do?”

“And you accept that. Layne didn’t. That’s where you’re different.” Brysen shook his head, a quick jerk as if he’d been stung. “Not the only way either. So I know if you’d been in control, that poor sub would be alive today. You wouldn’t have hurt him past his collar limits. Even if part of you wanted to do more, you would have put his needs first. That’s what makes you a good owner.”

Stubbornly clinging to his guilt, Jax argued, “I should have fought Layne harder. I didn’t. Maybe I wanted what he offered.”

“Maybe you did. Everyone’s got darkness inside them, Jax.” Brysen spread his knees, arched his back, offering himself for a touch, the movement seemingly unthinking, as natural as a breath. Jax ached to caress him, to pinch a nipple hard, put color on the smooth skin with his hand, but over his desire lay fear. “I can tell myself I was drugged into servility when what I wanted was to submit—two different things—but how much was the drug and how much was me?”

“You’ll find out with your next owner.”

“Maybe.” Brysen swallowed, nervousness surfacing, his shoulders rounding, head drooping. “Jax…I know how Matthias died—or as much as I want to know—but Anna wouldn’t tell me about Layne or his guard. She said she hoped no charges would be filed. That means either they killed each other, or…you did it, under the influence of the drug.”

“Is that what you want to hear?” All the strength went out of him; Jax sank down onto the bench again. “It was me.”

Brysen remained where he was, unmoving. Waiting.

“Not enough?” Jax managed not to sound as bitter as he felt, but it was a near thing. Or maybe he was fooling himself. “Layne killed Matthias. I think he wanted me to be the one to do it, and if he’d been a bit more patient—or used more of the drug—I might have.” Thinking about that made him feel ill again. “He ended up doing it.”

“On…” Brysen pressed his lips together, then tried again. “Was he trying to kill him? Is there any chance it could have been an accident?”

Jax understood why Brysen would want to believe that, but he didn’t want to lie to him. “It was deliberate.” He stopped there, hoping Brysen wouldn’t ask for details.

“Okay. Okay.”

“But what I did after that, when I killed Layne. That was too. It wasn’t an accident. It was me. I wanted Layne dead, and if I’d had to kill a dozen enforcers to accomplish that, I’d have figured out a way to do it.” Jax leaned forward and put his face in his hands, shaking.

“How did you do it?” There was little to no curiosity in the question, more bewilderment. “I tried to argue with Layne once or twice, and getting the words out was difficult. I can’t imagine hitting him.”

“Matthias looked at me when he died. Roused for a moment and looked right at me, asking for help, though he couldn’t talk by then. It was— That’s what I do. I help subs. Make up for their owners being away. And Layne had taken that and twisted it, made me someone else. I got angry. Remember, I was new to the drug, and he’d given me so much it’d stopped working. As if I could only absorb so much, no more.”

And he was babbling without telling Brysen what he’d told Anna. She’d needed to know; Brysen deserved to know.

“I choked him, then snapped his neck. Quickly, before he gave me another order. He stood next to me, smiling down at Matthias’s body and saying how what he planned for me would be so much worse, and I took my chance.” Jax held out his hands, studying them. “I’m strong. Trained. My uncle was a mercenary in the Selarian corps. He fought in the Troubles, and he said I needed to know some moves in case I ever got into a tight place. I guess that qualified.”

Brysen sighed, a long exhalation of relief. “I’m so glad you weren’t helpless.”

Wanting to finish it, aware he’d left out many harrowing details, Jax added, “The enforcer came in, saw what I’d done, and charged at me. He slipped on the blood and cracked his skull open on the bench. I didn’t try to help him. I knelt there on the floor and watched as he took his last breaths. He knew what Layne was doing and didn’t try to stop him; I couldn’t make myself move, not to stop him bleeding or to call for medical assistance.” He’d killed one man and let two others die before his eyes.

“Layne deserved what he got, and so did the enforcer.”

Jax shook his head without lifting his face, disturbed but not surprised by the venom in Brysen’s voice. “That’s not your call to make, and it certainly wasn’t mine. I wasn’t thinking about justice; I was thinking about revenge.”

“Matthias is the only one who deserved revenge more than you or I, and he’s gone.” Brysen sounded bleak now, his voice stolen by emotion and the gusts of cool air blowing up from the sea. “If I’d had the chance…”

“You wouldn’t have done it,” Jax finished for him. “Even with the training and the drug. You’re not me.”

“Obviously.” It was the response Jax would have expected, but Brysen’s tone was so distant it made Jax look up at him for the first time since he’d admitted to what he’d done. Brysen was still crouched on the sand, trembling, arms wrapped around himself. “I never would have been able to. I’ve never been strong that way. He could have killed me—probably would have, if things had gone on much longer—and I’d have let him.”

Jax didn’t know how to argue with that. It was the truth. “You’re stronger than you think.” That was true as well.

“Not strong enough.” Brysen turned his face toward the water; Jax wasn’t sure his gaze was focused on anything. He was either looking at something far away or at something that didn’t exist at all. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked to come with you. You don’t need to be taking care of me after…everything.”

“I’m fairly confident it’s still my job to take care of you until Layne comes back.” Which couldn’t happen, and of course there was a clause that released a sitter from his contract if an owner became incapable of resuming his role. Jax had a vague memory of it, but it hadn’t been something he paid much attention to because it happened so rarely. In all his time as a sitter, he’d never heard of a single incident.

“Well, then, I guess you’re fucked.” Brysen didn’t look at him. “Sorry about that too. I guess…”

“What?” Jax asked when the silence had stretched on too long.

“I’m not collared.”

“You’re not wearing a collar. It’s different.” Brysen had consented to having his collar removed because it was endangering his health. That was a far different act from breaking off his relationship with Layne, though if Layne had survived, that would’ve been Brysen’s next move, Jax was sure of it. “Is it bothering you?”

“It’s weird.” Brysen slipped his hands around his neck. “I’m so used to the weight of it. What it means. But when I think of how he used it to poison me, I’m not sure I could ever wear one again. Then I think of not wearing one ever again, and this sadness comes over me.” He let his hands fall. “I’m a mess. A fucked-up sub who belonged to an owner they’ll use to scare little subbie kids into eating their veggies in case Layne comes to get them.”

“And I’m a fucked-up owner who doesn’t have the sense to see when a sub in his care is being systematically drugged and going through personality changes.”

Brysen picked up a pebble, nondescript, flecked with white and brown. “My mother used to tell me to put my troubles into a stone, then throw it as far away as possible.”

“Did it work?”

Brysen rose, took three running steps, and hurled the pebble away from him. It flew, hit the top of its arc, then plummeted, lost in the loose sand. He shaded his eyes as if searching for it, then shrugged. “Not yet.”

“Maybe I should try.” Jax looked for a bigger stone than the one Brysen had chosen and bent forward to pick it up. He stood and walked past Brysen, headed toward the water. There wasn’t a clear path, and nearer the edge the dunes shifted into a collection of large rocks covered with barnacles and tangled in seaweed. He felt if he threw his stone far enough that it hit the water, that might mean something.

Brysen had followed him, as if any distance between them, no matter how small, made him uncomfortable. He caught Jax’s wrist and kissed his knuckles. “For luck. Can’t hurt, right?”

It did hurt—everything hurt—but Jax appreciated the sentiment. “Here goes.” He took half a step away from Brysen, drew back his arm, and threw the stone as hard as he could toward the water.

It clattered against the boulders, bouncing half a dozen times, and disappeared. Jax breathed, deep. Let the air out slowly and sank down onto the sand. All the strength had gone out of him. Brysen sat next to him and put both arms around him, head resting against Jax’s chest as if listening to his heartbeat. Sitting, the breeze didn’t do more than ruffle Brysen’s hair. The sun was warm.

“I don’t know what to do,” Jax admitted.

“Nothing.” Brysen’s hold on him altered subtly, supporting him in a way Jax appreciated even while he felt desolate that the role of comforter wasn’t his. “Let’s do nothing for as long as we can.”

It wasn’t moving them forward, but it was an achievable goal. Jax nodded and closed his eyes, isolating each sound, each scent, drifting into a light sleep when he was sure there was no threat present.

Chapter Fourteen

“I don’t want to go.” Slumped in a chair, Brysen kicked the leg of Jax’s kitchen table, knowing he was behaving childishly and not caring.

“You don’t have to go.” The patience in Jax’s voice was unbearable. It chafed Brysen like a too-tight shirt. He was a brat, rude, ungrateful, surly, and Jax wasn’t doing anything to change that.

“It’s Layne’s memorial. I’m his heir. I have to go. How would it look if I didn’t? When the legal stuff is untangled, I’ll own millions of credits, his apartment, the summer house, the—” He broke off.

“The waveskimmer,” Jax finished for him, taking a seat opposite. “Once it’s released by the constables, that is.”

“They did that already,” Brysen confessed. “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to bring back memories.”

Mouth twisted wryly, Jax said, “You can’t bring them back when they never went away.”

He looked diminished these days. The tall, broad-shouldered man with the kind eyes had become a dull-eyed, silent figure, drifting through the days without purpose, rousing to make meals or send Brysen out for a walk, but never showing any signs of returning to the Jax Brysen had known.

Even drugged into blissful adoration of Layne, he’d noted how hot Jax was, the sub in him drawn to Jax’s vibrant strength. Now that spark of dominance and control was missing.

Brysen reached for his collar and found only skin. He had to stop doing that. Every time he did—and it was often—Jax winced. Not that he’d offered to put a new collar around Brysen’s neck, one properly calibrated to suit his needs. Too soon. Not appropriate. Wait.

Brysen was sick of waiting, tired of this nothing state where Jax was technically his owner without exercising any of the rights and privileges that went along with it. “I have to go,” he repeated. “But I don’t want to.”

“I don’t care if you go or not,” Jax told him. “Make up your mind, and stop talking.” He sounded irritated now, and it was hard for Brysen to blame him.

“If I could make up my mind, it wouldn’t be a problem.” He pulled his feet up onto the seat of the chair and rested his chin on his knee. “Everyone’s going to be looking at me. Talking. Some of them won’t be polite enough to do it quietly either.” They’d be pointing, and the ones who’d been Layne’s friends would be trying to figure out a way to blame him for what had happened. Thinking about it made him cringe; what would it be like when it was real?

Jax came over and pulled out a chair, sitting with his knees touching Brysen’s. “You don’t have to go,” he said gently, for the hundredth time. “Do you need me to decide for you? Tell you to go? Is that it?”

“You’re not my owner.” Brysen wanted to push Jax away, but that would be mean. None of this was his fault.

“Maybe not, but until the legalities have been finalized, I’m still responsible for you.” They’d had this conversation several times, and Brysen felt he had to keep hearing it. “I want you to go to the memorial, Brysen.”

“I don’t want to.”

“And I don’t care what you want. You’re going.” Jax made his voice hard and cold; a thrill went through Brysen, his nervous system responding to the tone and order combined, and he knew what he needed.

He pushed his chair away from Jax and stood. “No. I’m not going.”

“It’s no longer your decision to make.” Jax nodded at the door of the room Brysen slept in, repurposed from a storage space and cluttered with a mixture of Brysen’s belongings and whatever was in the neatly stacked crates Jax had put along one wall. “Dress in something suitable, and we’ll leave. You’ve got ten minutes.”

“Didn’t you hear me? Not going. Not. Want me to spell it out? Put it in writing?” A nervous exhilaration filled him. This wasn’t a test Jax would fail, could fail. A disobedient sub was to be schooled into better behavior before disrespect became a habit or escalated into serious wrongdoing. Every owner and sub knew that. Jax would take him in hand for arguing, with luck, literally.

As an adult, Brysen had never gone so long without a spanking or sex. He felt parched, starving for either or both. He craved the discipline that made his life work, and he knew Jax could provide it in a way no one ever had, with a firm kindness lacking any hint of softness.

He hadn’t experienced Jax as his true owner yet, only Jax filtered through Layne’s wishes. He wanted to be the focus of Jax’s desires, no matter how extreme, push his limits, crawl and beg and scream for more. He’d done all that for Layne without choosing to, but with Jax, it would be his choice to submit, and he would, oh, he would.

Dizzy with lust, longing to be punished, he glared at Jax, mouth set defiantly, searching Jax’s face for any sign his needs would be met.

There wasn’t the slightest hint of kindness in Jax’s face. “On your knees, Brysen.”

“What if I say no?” Willful defiance felt wrong, unfamiliar, but also thrilling.

“Then you’ll be punished for more than one act of disobedience and unable to sit for days instead of uncomfortable this afternoon at the memorial.” Jax was calm. “Is that in your best interest? You’re smarter than this.”

That made him falter; for so long submission had been linked to Layne’s criticisms and put-downs that Brysen felt off-kilter being reminded he wasn’t stupid. Anyway, he wanted this. Needed it. He lowered his eyes and murmured, “Yes, Jax,” as he sank to his knees.

“Come here.”

He’d stayed in the habit of being naked when at home, so it was bare skin that pressed to the floor as he crawled closer. This didn’t feel quite right, but he was so desperate for it he’d worry later what might be wrong. Jax had shoved Brysen’s abandoned chair out of the way and gestured at his lap.

“You know what I want. Make no mistake—it’s about what I want, not you.”

That was reassuring. Brysen did as he’d been told and draped his body over Jax’s knees, ass up, head down. Jax caressed his skin gently, slowly, and he got the distinct impression he was being inspected. Then Jax hit him, hard and unexpected, and he gasped.

“This is what you need,” Jax said and hit him again, harder. “A reminder.”

He’d needed it for days, but pointing that out would have been stupid, so he closed his mouth, trapping the moan of delight inside to be savored. Soon the slaps would hurt, become unbearable if focused on one spot, but now they left a sweet sizzle, warmth spreading through him. His cock hardened, and he arched, rubbing his erection against Jax’s thigh.

Without commenting Jax spread his legs wider, feet planted squarely on the floor, giving Brysen nothing but air to fuck. The unspoken reprimand left his face burning as hotly as his ass, but he had an excuse. He was used to coming often, his climax torn from him by extreme pain or the humiliation and scorn Layne had used as a spur. With no permission to see to his needs with his hand or one of the many sex toys in his room, he’d been left with two choices—disobey a standing order, or beg for permission to touch his cock.

He’d chosen neither, hoping Jax would see his suffering and soothe it. Jax hadn’t.

What he was doing now, though, was finding a rhythm. Jax was using his hand and not holding back—the blows were strong—but Brysen knew from experience his palm and fingers would get sore before a real punishment was dealt out. He tried to focus on the sensation and get lost in it the way he needed to. It wasn’t working. He squirmed in an attempt to ask for more in the only way he knew.

Jax hit him again—harder, that was good—and said, “Stop.”

It wasn’t enough. He needed the pain to drive him out of his head, to take him away from the worry about where his life was going in the bigger picture and how to get through this fucking memorial in the more immediate. Layne would have had him sobbing in agony by now, probably with a crop. He wouldn’t have been able to think about anything but how much he hurt and how much he wanted it to stop, and what a relief it would be when Layne let him come. Remembering made his cock jolt eagerly, and he squirmed again.

Jax grabbed the hair at the back of his neck and jerked his head up. It was deliciously unexpected and brought tears to Brysen’s eyes. “I told you to stop. If you can’t behave, I’ll have to restrain you. Is that what you need?”

With his head pulled back, it was difficult to respond, but it would have been difficult either way. Brysen needed Jax to push him down onto the floor and fuck him relentlessly until he screamed, wide cock splitting him open. His hole ached for Jax’s prick, and if he couldn’t have that, he wanted enough pain to forget.

The realization he longed for what he’d rejected from Layne made him shudder.

“I asked you a question.”

“Hurt me.” It emerged as a strangled gasp. He sucked in a breath and repeated it louder, angry he had to ask. Jax knew what he needed. Why was he holding back? “Make it all go away for both of us. Hurt me.”

“I can do that.” The dark threat had Brysen tense with anticipation, nipples pebbled, balls drawn up tight. What would he get for pushing Jax?

Jax hooked his foot around Brysen’s and forced Brysen’s legs wide apart, leaving him exposed, blatantly, obscenely open. “Move and you’ll wear clamps on your balls for the next hour.”

The next slap, as hard as the ones before it, landed between his cheeks. Pain exploded through his struck balls, his taut hole smarting. Slaps rained down on vulnerable flesh, agony building until Brysen sobbed with every breath, tears trickling down his face.

It felt fucking glorious to be punished again.

Jax paused between blows, grabbing and squeezing Brysen’s balls, rolling them casually against his palm. “Shut up. You can take this. If you were mine, I’d make you wear weights on these tight little balls and wiggle your ass for me. Listen to you moan and beg me to take them off, and every time you did, I’d add a clamp or another weight.”

“I am yours, I am. Please!”

Jax shoved his middle finger into Brysen’s mouth. He sucked and licked it eagerly, drawing it in, lavishing it with attention.

“You’re so eager for it, aren’t you. So desperate to be fucked you’d agree to—” Jax stopped abruptly and stood, fumbling in an attempt not to drop Brysen on the floor while still moving as quickly as possible.

Brysen landed on the kitchen floor anyway, the tile cool against his bare ass, hot from the spanking he’d endured. Jax backed away until there was nowhere else to go, bumping into the wall behind him. Smart enough to realize the expression of revulsion on Jax’s face wasn’t directed at him, Brysen didn’t ask if he was all right; it was clear he wasn’t. Instead he ignored his body’s half dozen minor complaints and waited.

Jax looked close to throwing up. He was breathing heavily, sucking in air as if he’d been underwater for a while. “Did I hurt you?” Jax asked, his voice hoarse.

“No.” A more honest response would have been to say yes and point out Brysen had asked to be hurt, but this wasn’t a moment for honesty. He’d supplied the information Jax needed, not the answer to the specific question he’d asked.

“I think that was… I don’t know. A flashback.” Jax lifted a trembling hand to his mouth, and Brysen nodded.

“Maybe you should sit.” He stayed where he was, unmoving. He didn’t want to startle Jax, and it would be all too easy to do that.

Jax cast a glance of loathing at the chair he’d used during the spanking. “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

“May I bring you a drink?” Brysen kept the question neutral, striving not to sound too, well, too submissive. It wasn’t easy sprawled on the floor, ass throbbing, balls bruised, cock disappointed yet again. Everything told him to placate his owner and do his best to bring peace and comfort to a stressed-out man. Knowing that would make matters worse left him out of options.

Ordinarily, he’d have crawled over, abased himself, then offered not a drink but his mouth to be used as Jax saw fit. The thought of it made him swallow hard, his cock reawakening.

“I don’t want coddling,” Jax snapped. “I need space. You should leave before I—”

“What? Give me the discipline I need for being disrespectful? Or some relief from this?” Brysen smacked his erection, skirting the edge of what was allowable. Subs weren’t usually allowed to give themselves pleasure or punishment. Both were the prerogative of their owners. “You’re my owner. Temporary or not, you’re responsible for my well-being, and you’re not doing your job.”

“You’re right. I’m not capable of doing it either. I shouldn’t be near you.” Jax looked down at the clothes he wore, then toward the door where his shoes lay neatly side by side. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re leaving?”

“If I stay, will you go to the memorial?” Shaking his head, Jax clenched and unclenched his fists as if they ached and it eased the tension. “No need to answer. Do whatever you need to do—go, don’t go, get on a ship heading off-planet and never look back.” He met Brysen’s eyes. “You’re smart, Brysen. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You can do this on your own.”

Brysen shifted into a more comfortable position, carefully so the movement couldn’t be interpreted as threatening. “What if I don’t want to?”

“Then sooner or later you’ll find someone who’s right for you. Someone who’ll make a commitment to you and treat you the way a sub deserves to be treated. Whatever you might be thinking, that’s not me. It’ll never be me.” He walked to the door and shoved his feet into his shoes, and Brysen made no move to stop him. “I’m sorry. I need to go walk around for a couple of hours, clear my head. I’ll be back, and if you’re here, we can talk. But if you aren’t—if you’re done with this whole nightmare—I’ll understand. It’s your decision.”

Jax shut the door quietly behind him as he left.

Brysen stared at the closed door with disbelief. Owners didn’t do that. Didn’t walk away leaving subs in distress. Didn’t stop halfway through a well-earned punishment. On the heels of his irritation came worry. For Jax to act against his instinct and training, he had to be in a worse place than Brysen. Which meant he needed help.

In the days following Layne’s death, Brysen had come to terms with what had been done to him. It had been a struggle, but he had no reason to feel guilty, which made a huge difference. He’d been a victim, and though he cringed to think of his unquestioning docility under the drug, he viewed that Brysen as a stranger. It hadn’t been him. In fact, it was so far from him that it explained why Layne had turned to the drug. He certainly wouldn’t have gotten that unlimited compliance from Brysen without it.

Layne had shown Brysen a new world of submission, though. He knew when he went to be tested for new stripes—yet again—it would be a different color from the one he’d worn in his first weeks with Layne. He could take far more pain than before, and more importantly, he wanted it. Craved it. The therapist the hospital had recommended had assured him the training he’d gotten from Layne was to blame. That he’d been conditioned into associating extreme pain and humiliation with pleasure and should consider hypnotherapy to adjust his responses.

Without discussing it with Jax, he’d refused. If this was who he’d become, he would live with it. No one was messing with his head again. Layne had pushed him too far at times, hurt him in dangerous ways, treated him badly, and none of that was what he wanted in his next owner, but…

He’d liked the harshness of the discipline. Loved being owned by someone with a creatively sadistic side. Jax had those elements too, tempered with a respect for subs Layne had lacked, and a genuine concern for Brysen’s needs and feelings.

But Jax was broken in a way Brysen wasn’t, haunted by guilt and self-loathing, not for the death of Layne or the guard so much, but for what Matthias had suffered at his hands. Brysen understood that, of course he did, but it wasn’t Jax’s fault!

He shook his head, clearing it of thoughts he’d gone over so often they’d worn ruts in his brain. This was beyond him. He’d argued it out with Jax, suggested therapy, but Jax had muttered that his annual subsitter assessment was due soon anyway and refused to see anyone until then.

Something needed to change before that. Brysen didn’t know Jax well enough yet to manipulate him in the subtle ways a sub learned. Today, for instance, he should have asked for his spanking the way Nikhil used to, with a kiss on Jax’s hand. That would have softened Jax’s mood, maybe, reminding him of the sub he’d loved. Instead, Brysen had misbehaved and pushed Jax into remembering Matthias.

“Stupid,” he chided himself, rising to his feet. His ass twinged, but he ignored it. He had to decide what to do next. The memorial wasn’t it. Without Jax by his side, or a collar around his neck, it would be an ordeal he couldn’t face. And Layne didn’t deserve his presence, if it came to that.

Instead, he went to the desk in the entryway where Jax usually left his screen pad. It was there, in sleep mode, but woke to a touch and responded to him as if it were his. Jax had programmed it so Brysen could use it as needed, and although Jax had been taking care of things for the most part since, he’d checked in a few times. The pad read his fingerprint and took him directly into his mail account, where to his surprise there was a message waiting for him.

It was from his friend Illya. They hadn’t spoken in more than a solar—his fault since he’d pulled away from his friends when Layne had made it clear he’d prefer it that way—and although Brysen had messaged Illya, he’d never expected a reply.

Wondered if I’d ever hear from you again! Well, not so much since I saw the news reports. I’m sorry you had to go through that; it sounds rough. It makes sense in retrospect why you fell off the radar, though. If you want to get together and talk through some of it, I’m around.

Before he talked himself out of it, Brysen quickly messaged Illya back: Great to hear from you. I’d love to talk. Let’s figure out a time. Where are you these days?

The reply was immediate: Still in Zone 4. It’s last minute, but any chance you’re free to meet for lunch? Warning—I’ve put on some weight, and my hair resembles a Hallasian sunset.

Grinning, Brysen replied: Is that Manipuri place with the black rice in the same spot near the public fountains? I’ll meet you there in twenty minutes.

Illya didn’t keep him waiting. It’s a date.

Luckily, Brysen’s nerves didn’t kick in until the arrangements had already been made and it was too late to back out.

He dressed, sternly chopping off his reaction to seeing his bare neck in the mirror. Jax’s place was basic, and the mirror only showed him from the front and sides. He’d gotten accustomed to checking his appearance in Layne’s circle reflector and decided if he moved, he’d buy one. He wasn’t overly invested in fashion—not much point when he spent so many hours naked—but when he dressed, he liked to look good. He’d seen it as a show of respect for his owner rather than vanity.

It’d been a while since he’d taken much interest in his clothes, but Illya would notice if Brysen met him wearing last season’s shades or cut. Then there was his new hair and eye color to take into account. The colors that had suited him under Layne’s regime didn’t flatter him now. He should have ordered some new things instead of paying to have his old ones picked up from Layne’s and delivered to Jax’s apartment.

With a moan of pure frustration, he dragged on a loose pair of pants in a vibrant green and a strap top in copper fabric. The top was two seasons old but barely worn. It wasn’t designed for a sub to wear; the straps circled his neck before crossing his chest in a complex pattern. Wearing it with a collar would’ve been impossible, so after meeting Layne, it’d gotten shoved to the back of his closet.

At least it gave him the illusion of being collared.

He made the journey to meet Illya with his gaze kept firmly on the ground, refusing to listen to the murmurings of people around him on the express walkway when they recognized him and—on two occasions—made rude comments. He’d walk on the way back, he decided, and sidestepped an older couple holding hands so he could cross on the surface of crushed stones and avoid the crowd. It was the middle of the day, and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that lots of people were out and about, but that didn’t mean he had to enjoy the crowds, especially not when all eyes were on him.

“There you are!” Illya rose from the table he’d secured outside the food stand. “I wondered if I’d recognize you.”

“I haven’t changed much.” It wasn’t the truth, and Brysen ran his hand over his hair self-consciously.

“I don’t know if I’ll believe that, but still not as much as me.” Illya held his arms out at his sides so Brysen could get the full effect.

The last time they’d met, Illya had been slender. Now his friend was heavy with muscle, as if he’d been working hard to sculpt his body.

“What do you think?”

Brysen smiled. “I think I’m impressed. How many hours a day do you spend at the gym?”

“Two at least, but it’s worth it. The offers I get now I look this way!” Illya chuckled. “I spent Settlers Day with a trio, two men and a woman. They said they were bored with one another and wanted to spice things up.”

Once he would’ve been mildly shocked. Now Illya’s escapades seemed harmless fun, no more than that.

“Then they chose the right person.”

With a wicked grin, Illya nodded. “It was wild! I’ll never repeat it because then I’d be the one bored, but they were the perfect distraction from the celebrations. I mean, yes, the first landing on Lanteal was important once, but we’ve been here so long, who cares? It’s an excuse to get drunk and party, and that I approve of, but if I have to watch the footage of the landing one more time, I’ll expire on the spot, and when I’m with my parents, they insist on it.”

“Mine do too, but they’re so far away I don’t visit them often.” Brysen wriggled uncomfortably. His parents were a lot older than him, and explaining the news reports had been exaggerated to the point of being outright lies had calmed them down, but he knew he’d need to take a trip over to their island soon to reassure them in person.

A bright idea struck him. He could say Jax had refused permission to make the journey. They were old-fashioned enough to believe an owner’s word was law. His father would never have disobeyed his mother in the smallest way.

“So how did you spend Settlers Day?” Illya asked.

The inquiry was polite and banal, but Brysen flinched. The truth wasn’t something he was willing to share. Vague though his memories were in places, it was difficult to forget a day spent being passed around between Layne and his friends, his cock swollen and dark with arousal, coated in a clear gel that kept him hard but numbed all sensation, so when Layne fondled him, there was no pleasure to trigger his orgasm.

When Layne had applied the liquid to dissolve the gel, Brysen’s climax had been explosive and agonizing. He’d passed out with Layne’s laughter and the applause of his friends ringing in his ears, not sure his cock would ever work properly again.

His discomfort must have been written all over him, because the casual, public Illya melted away, leaving Brysen’s friend in his place. Without touching him, Illya gestured him closer to the table and into a chair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think. What can I do?”

Brysen shrugged, trying to look as if it were no big deal. “It’s okay. I’m still adjusting, that’s all.”

“Let me order us some food. Is that good? Or would you rather wait? You decide.”

“That was the problem in the first place,” Brysen said. “Um, you know. Making decisions. Not my strong suit.”

“I’ll guess what you want for lunch, then?” Illya was terrible at pretending to be innocent. “Curried longfin? How does that sound?”

“Your memory’s too good if you haven’t forgotten how much I hate squid.” Brysen made a show of getting more comfortable in his chair. “I’ll trust you to surprise me with lunch.”

He watched as Illya cued up the menu in the center of the table and pressed the screen, choosing their meal from among the options. He couldn’t get over how different his friend looked with more weight and stronger musculature, though the stiff spikes of orange-and-pink hair were the most eye-catching change. By the time Illya completed their order, Brysen noticed people staring at him again, some of them whispering behind cupped hands.

Illya leaned back in his chair; then his eyes narrowed, lip curling with disgust. “Is this what it’s been like?” He’d always been observant.

“Mostly. I haven’t been leaving the apartment that much, though, so it hasn’t been as bad as it could have been. As long as they keep their distance, it’s fine.” It was the idea of crowds of curious strangers getting close to him that made his skin crawl.

Illya nodded. “I don’t blame you for staying inside if the alternative is having everyone stare at you. But have you considered giving them something to look at?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Here, lean in, and let’s pretend we’re having an intimate conversation.”

“We are having an intimate conversation,” Brysen pointed out, but he couldn’t deny the thought of people imagining he and Illya were discussing something fantastical and scandalous held some amusement. “What are we talking about?”

“I’m telling you all the erotic details of my most recent tryst.” Up close, Brysen saw Illya’s amber eyes had flecks of gold shining in them. That was new too. “Here’s our food.”

The server, a serene older man, dropped off a tray loaded with Illya’s choices, including two bottles of pale ale.

“So. Sana Thongba with paneer and poori, Yongchaak Singju, ngari, and of course black rice. I went light on the meat because I forgot to ask if you’re eating it these days. Weren’t you a vegetarian at one point?”

Lots of people were these days, but Layne had been firm about his desire for Brysen to eat meat. “I was, but I’m not anymore.” Now he wasn’t Layne’s sub, of course, he could reconsider that, but it was easy to push some things aside when there were so many others clamoring for attention. “It looks great. I haven’t had anything this spicy in a long time.”

“Why not? You used to love a hot curry.” Illya held up his hand. “Never mind. I get the feeling the answer to questions like that is a name, and I’m so fucking angry over what he did I don’t want to say it.”

Warmed by Illya’s evident concern, Brysen picked up his chopsticks. It was amazing what a lift it gave him to see someone get angry on his behalf. Jax had done that before becoming a victim, and now his anger was turned inward, misdirected in Brysen’s opinion.

“Forget him. I’m looking to the future now. I inherit his estate, and I could use it to live the life he did, but it’s not me. When the credits are safely in my account and everything of his is sold, I’ll set aside enough to live on and use the rest to do something worthwhile.”

“Such as?” Illya scooped up some rice, not a single grain falling back onto the plate. “You were never much of an activist.”

“Truthfully, I don’t know yet,” Brysen admitted. “But we don’t live in a perfect world. There’s always someone who needs help.”

“Hmm. Well, after what you went through, you should be top of the list. Don’t do anything in a rush. And wouldn’t your owner have a say in it?” Illya’s gaze went to Brysen’s bare neck, and Brysen saw realization dawn in his eyes. Another sub would’ve checked his collar first as a matter of course, noting the stripe, but Illya didn’t identify as owner or sub. “I’m sorry. I should eat more, talk less.”

“I have an owner.” Brysen blurted the words, as if being an ownerless sub was shameful, which it wasn’t. Sad, yes. “The subsitter Layne assigned me. But my collar… It’s complicated.”

“We don’t need to discuss it.” Illya’s gentle voice grated rather than soothed. Brysen preferred the outrage. “Try some of the—” He broke off as the screen in the center of their table lit up. “News flash. Want to listen?”

Listless now, his appetite gone before he’d taken a bite, Brysen nodded. Illya tapped the screen, and the sound kicked in, the projected image appearing between them, poor quality but clear enough for Brysen to see Layne’s face in the corner of the screen. The rest of it was filled with the face of a reporter, a brick building behind her. Frozen in place, he fought to listen over the roar in his ears.

“—here at the memorial of Layne Hamiel, creator of the controversial drug nicknamed Genie because it grants an owner’s wishes.” The reporter’s voice was serious, but the thread of excitement running through it made Brysen’s stomach twist with revulsion. “No sign yet of his sub, the victim of his experiments, but crowds are gathering, and the constables have set up a perimeter shield. Hamiel’s body was atomized, as per procedure, and the results of his research destroyed, but rumors abound that the collar his sub wore still works. Constable Anna Hiljin has confirmed to the press that attempts have been made to break into the evidence safe where the collar and other items believed to contain traces of the drug are being held.

“Shut it off,” Brysen said, and Illya hastened to obey. “I know, I know. I should listen to it so I know what I’m up against, but it’s…too much.”

“I wasn’t going to say that.” Illya glanced to their left and right, and Brysen realized the people at the tables around them were still watching the flash, the volume of the report audible from all directions. “Do you want to get out of here?”

Stubborn, Brysen shook his head. “No. Eat your lunch. It’s not as if I can escape it. Tell me, is everyone looking at us now?” He leaned forward and rested his chin on his palm to at least hide his face from some small percentage of those nearby.

“Only a couple of people.” Illya shoveled some food into his mouth. “I can eat fast.”

“No, don’t. I’m serious. I’m going to have to get used to it sooner or later. I can’t hole up inside indefinitely—and anyway, everyone will forget about me and move on to the next big story.” Brysen hoped he sounded more pragmatic than he felt.

“You should eat too. You’ve lost a lot of weight.”

“Side effect of the drug,” Brysen said. “I’m hoping my appetite comes back.”

Illya pointed at Brysen’s plate. “At least try a few bites. It’s good. And tell me about this temporary owner or whatever he is.”

“Jax. He’s the one Layne kidnapped and—” Maybe it was best not to go into details, even if their story had already been plastered all over the news. “He’s pretty messed up over the whole thing.”

“Understandable.” Illya wiped his lower lip with a knuckle and drank some of his bitter ale. “But he’s good to you? I mean, it’s not a case of replacing one bad owner with another?”

“No, it’s not like that. He’s trying. I think he should go talk to someone about what happened—he blames himself for, I don’t know, not hating what the drug made him do as much as he should, or something—but he says no. And he’s avoiding his friends—”

“Not that you’d know anything about that,” Illya said, rolling his eyes.

“So he doesn’t have anyone to talk to,” Brysen finished.

Illya sighed. “Isn’t there a licensing board? Could you register a complaint?”

“And say what? He went through a traumatic experience and isn’t bouncing back as fast as I think he should?” Brysen picked up his chopsticks and moved some of the food around on his plate without trying it. “I’d sound heartless.”

“Then move out and on.” Illya illustrated with a dramatic swoop of his hand, luckily for a passing waiter, not the one holding his chopsticks. “He was your subsitter, sure, but with the evil one we won’t name dying, the contract between them is void. Even if it wasn’t, you’re a sub. You choose to leave and your owner has no choice but to help you pack and open the door.”

“That’s not the point.” He was being evasive, but the truth was more convoluted. Jax was tied up with some awful memories. Brysen’s nightmares had eased off with the drug out of his system, but he still had bad dreams, and hanging waiting for Jax to deliver a killing blow with the E-stim whip featured front and center. Jax knew what he’d gone through, and Brysen clung to him for that reason. No need to explain or excuse his panic attacks. Jax understood and had moments when he lost it too. They were broken in the same way, even if they were healing differently.

And the potential in Jax to be a great owner dazzled Brysen to the point where he wondered if he longed for a fantasy, not a reality. He had so little to go on—a few spankings, some sex, all tangled with the effects of the drugs. But today there’d been a glimpse of Jax in control, and it’d been glorious while it lasted. He’d sensed Jax’s strength of will and responded to it with an eagerness he’d never felt before, and with that response had come a realization.

He didn’t want a new owner. He wanted the one he had. He wanted Jax.

“You’re falling for him,” Illya said playfully; then his eyes widened. “Oh my! I was kidding, but you are!”

“I didn’t mean to.” Brysen let his chopsticks drop to the table with a clatter. “Shit. What am I going to do?”

“If you’re serious, then you have to help him figure out how to get past what happened. Could you talk to some of his friends?”

“I don’t know any of their names, and I doubt he’d appreciate me scrolling through his message history if I could get into his account.” Brysen tried to think of another option.

Nikhil.

“Oh! His former sub. Maybe I could find him and see if he has any ideas. I mean, I’m under the impression things between them didn’t end so well, but if he was in a relationship with Jax, I have a hard time believing he’s a terrible person. He might be willing to talk to me.”

“Jax is the one he should talk to, if you ask me.” Illya’s eyes widened. “Uh, there’s a group two tables away pointing at us and snapping shots. Let’s pay and go before they come sig-hunting.”

“What?” Brysen gulped down the last of his drink and pressed his wrist unit to the pay tab to leave a tip. “Go. Now. Because if they do that, I’ll stab them with their own stylus, I swear it.”

They escaped into the nearest mall, losing themselves in the shoppers, but Brysen couldn’t escape glimpses of his face and Layne’s plastered over every screen until a new story replaced it.

Chapter Fifteen

Finding Brysen in the apartment when he returned sent a wave of relief through Jax. Today of all days, Brysen had needed him, and he’d let him down, but at least the walk had cleared his head. Tomorrow he’d do better. Make an effort. And it wouldn’t be difficult to act the owner with a sub as responsive and well trained as Brysen. In some ways, it was because he found Brysen so appealing he’d been holding back, punishing himself by denying himself the joys of ownership. That wasn’t healthy, and he knew it, and it wasn’t fair to Brysen either.

But he couldn’t escape the fear that in his arousal he’d go too far. Layne had shown him the darkness, and he’d glimpsed horrors, but he’d felt at home there too. Brysen’s ready acceptance of the punishment Jax had given him earlier was seductive, tempting him to go further, hurt Brysen more. Brysen wouldn’t stop him. He’d learned how to suck cock and open his ass, to scream and sob and beg, but had he also learned his body’s limits were inconsequential when that was the furthest from the truth?

Jax needed to trust his self-control. His biggest fear was that Brysen’s collar would flash and he’d ignore the warning and carry on, lost in the pleasure from disciplining his sub.

And if it happened once, he’d never forgive himself.

“Hello, Jax.” Naked, smiling, Brysen slid to his knees, arms folded behind him. “Did you enjoy your walk?”

“Yes.” It was impossible not to be charmed by Brysen’s obedience. “Tell me what you’ve been doing since I left.”

The brightness dimmed but didn’t fade completely. “I didn’t go to the memorial.”

Jax reached out and touched Brysen’s hair comfortingly. “I don’t blame you. You were counting on me to go with you, and it would’ve been an ordeal solo.”

Brysen nodded. “I had lunch with a friend instead. I hadn’t seen him for ages, and when he suggested it, I didn’t want to say no.”

“Let me guess: you didn’t eat.” Jax couldn’t have said why he was so confident of that.

“Not much. I’m hoping my appetite comes back now my system’s cleared the drug. How do you feel? If you’re hungry, I’d be happy to make you something.”

“I had something while I was out.” It had been a sandwich he’d eaten half of while walking, and he’d abandoned the rest in a nearby compost bin when he was finished with it, but he doubted he’d be hungry again for a while. Jax toed off his shoes and put them neatly side by side near the door. “Was it pleasant to see your friend?”

“Yes. When I messaged him, I wasn’t sure I’d ever hear back—I would have understood if I hadn’t—and it made me feel better to see him. As if, well, even if I can’t turn back time and erase what happened with Layne, I might not have to start my life over again from the beginning.”

“You don’t,” Jax assured him. “I’m going to take a shower, and I want you to—”

The chime of the door interrupted him. “Request for entry by Nikhil Ojha.

Shocked, Jax glanced instinctively at Brysen, who had started at the sound of the chime but now looked both worried and guilty. “I take it you knew about this,” he said slowly.

“Um. Yes. I…I contacted him. Will you let him in? Please.” Brysen bit his lower lip.

Leaving his former sub in the hallway didn’t seem an option, so Jax opened the door. Gripping the edge of it, he took in his former sub’s appearance in hungry, greedy glances, his gaze flicking from the hair—longer now, still blond but tipped with metallic copper at the ends—to the deep blue eyes and slender, resilient frame.

His appraisal ended with Nikhil’s collar. That hadn’t changed. It was still silver with yellow stripes, signaling the gulf between his wants and Nikhil’s needs as clearly as it ever had.

“Jax.” Nikhil sank to his knees in formal greeting. “It’s good to see you. May I request entrance and speech with you?”

“Oh, get up.” Jax reached out his hand and pulled Nikhil to his feet before giving him an awkward hug. The scent of Nikhil’s hair had changed. His choice or his owner’s? “Come in, though I don’t know what we have to discuss.”

For a horrible moment, he wondered if Nikhil and his owner had decided to commit, and Nikhil wanted him as witness. No, he was the sadist, not Nikhil.

Brysen was still kneeling, though he’d raised his head to peek at the visitor, his curiosity evident. Not surprising since Jax had told him how similar he and Nikhil were. Jax gestured Brysen up, and Nikhil walked over to greet him. With them side by side, the differences stood out more than the matches. Brysen was thinner, but his frame was larger. Once he’d regained some weight and muscle, he’d fill it out pleasingly. And Nikhil had a settled, sleek air about him, a sub well matched with an owner who adored him, a house pet, pampered and tame.

Brysen had been tamed using different, crueler methods, and it showed.

“Come in, and we’ll talk,” Jax said. “Unless you’re in a hurry?” He still didn’t know why Nikhil was here, and if it was something simple, that might be better for them. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate getting to see the sub he’d almost committed to—would have, if it had been up to him—but there were good reasons things hadn’t worked out between them, and no amount of time would have changed that if Nikhil wasn’t clearly happy and fulfilled.

“I’m not in a hurry.”

They went into the kitchen, where Jax sat in a chair and Nikhil and Brysen both knelt. He wouldn’t have asked it of Nikhil, who no longer belonged to him except as a memory; still, he wouldn’t suggest a different option. “Brysen could get you something to drink?” he said instead.

“Thank you, no.” Nikhil’s familiar way of speaking, even without the more formal sub language, was deferential. “Brysen messaged me and asked if I’d meet with the two of you. He’s concerned, and because he’s uncollared, he isn’t sure how to deal with it.”

Jax looked at Brysen, whose gaze was focused on the floor, shoulders tense. “Concerned about what?” It crossed his mind Brysen might be worried for his safety, an idea that made Jax’s heart sink because it wasn’t unfounded. “Brysen?”

After a few seconds, Brysen lifted his face. “About you.”

Then that was it. Shame, scalding and bitter, washed over him. Two subs at his feet and he’d failed them both in different ways. “There’s no need. I’ll find somewhere for you to stay tonight, and tomorrow we’ll do whatever it takes to dissolve any shred of connection. You’ll be free to choose another owner, and I swear I’ll stay away from you.”

Saying it hurt, as if he were rejecting something as necessary to him as water, but he couldn’t be the cause of more unhappiness for Brysen.

“No!” Brysen didn’t break position, but he tensed, brittle as dry wood, expression desperate. “That’s not what I want at all! Please, Jax. I want you as my owner, the way you were before—I want you to feel safe with me, not the other way around.”

“That makes no sense at all,” Jax said flatly. “What could you do to me?”

“Make you doubt yourself until you can’t function as an owner,” Brysen whispered, staring down, voice so low it verged on inaudible. “Can’t find the strength to give me what I need—what we both need.” He flung back his head. “I won’t let him ruin being an owner for you, Jax. He doesn’t get to win.”

“And that’s why I’m here,” Nikhil added. “My owner’s given me permission to observe, to safeguard Brysen during whatever discipline you see fit to give him. I know you, Jax. I’ll see if you lose control. I’ll stop you.”

“What makes you think I’d listen?” And there was the bitterness again, souring his words.

Nikhil smiled. “Because you always listened to me, and I can’t believe you’ve changed that much.” He turned to address Brysen. “He once had me at the point where one more stroke from the crop would have sent him over the edge. I was tied to our bed, legs up while he used it on my ass and the backs of my thighs, and I saw his face change, his climax right there for the taking. He drew back his hand, and I couldn’t take that last blow, not for love of him, not for anything in the world. It’d been hours of it, and I was done. My collar flashed, and I saw the disappointment in his eyes and ached for him, but he let the crop fall to the floor, and I was untied and in his arms a moment later.”

Brysen looked at Jax. “If I didn’t believe that was true, I would have walked away by now. I’m not collared, and legally the terms of your contract with Layne were terminated when he died. I could have told you this was over anytime, and I know you would have accepted that.”

“I would have.” Jax was unmoved and unmoving, unconvinced he deserved the trust Brysen placed in him, but he refused to lie.

“Then why didn’t I?”

Jax didn’t know the answer.

“Because I have feelings for you. I think I did—or part of me did—on that first day. You’re nothing like Layne in the ways he was bad for me. Would have been bad for any sub, and I can see that now, that it wasn’t about me. He didn’t love me. Any sub he thought he could have put into my place would have suited him, and once he drugged me, I might as well have been anyone. I wasn’t me anymore.” Brysen took a deep breath; it was clear he had a lot to say, and Jax wondered how long he’d been thinking all this, sorting it out in his head until he could put it into words and offer it up. “And don’t hate me, but you are similar to Layne in some ways. In the ways he was good for me, taking me as far as I could go along this road. I mean, he tried to take me further than I’m capable of, but now I know where I end and where the drug began, and that’s… Well. It’s something. Something I might not have known otherwise, and now I don’t have to question where I draw the line.” Glancing at Nikhil, Brysen added, “Okay, stop me now.”

“You’re doing fine,” Nikhil told him. “Isn’t he, Jax?”

So much better than fine, Jax was reminded how little he deserved a sub as bright and willing as Brysen. “You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”

“I’ve had a lot of time to think. And to figure out what I want. But if you don’t want me…” Doubt crept into Brysen’s voice.

“That’s not a possibility.”

“I remind you of what happened.” The sorrow in Brysen’s eyes caught at Jax’s heart. “Is seeing me every day what’s holding you back?”

“No.” Jax crouched beside Brysen, offering the comfort of his proximity without thinking. “What I did to that poor sub isn’t something I can forgive myself for easily. Someday, when I can get through it without breaking down, I’ll visit his parents if they’ll allow it and tell them how sorry I am in person. But when I see you, I don’t see a victim. I see a survivor. You’re good for me, Brysen, but I hate myself so much I don’t think I deserve you.” He grimaced. “And saying that aloud, I hear how wrong it is, and I guess that’s something. A week ago, I’d have thought it was the truth and accepted it.”

“It’s not.” Brysen’s face tightened until he looked fierce, even angry. “Not close to it. I’ll tell you that over and over if you need to hear it. If I’d been told to kill myself to please him, I would’ve asked him what method I should use. That drug and the man who created it are evil, not us.”

“Not you,” Nikhil echoed softly.

“So finish what you started this morning,” Brysen begged, eyes bright with longing, cock stirring as if talking about it aroused him. “I was rude and disrespectful, and yes, it was to earn a punishment, but that’s wrong too. I tried to manipulate my owner. Nikhil, what would Jax have done to you for acting that way?”

“I wouldn’t have,” Nikhil said, which was entirely honest, and he went on to explain when Brysen gave him a look of disbelief. “Not that way, I mean. Hang on, it’s been a while, let me think. Were you hoping to get some, uh, relief?”

Brysen flushed. “Maybe.”

“He would have known.” Nikhil bit his lip thoughtfully. “He’d probably have strapped me down and teased me. You know, played with my cock but told me I wasn’t allowed to come. Taken me to the edge a dozen times or more. Sometimes he told me I couldn’t talk, not even to beg, but other times he wanted to hear me promise I’d be good, do anything if he’d give me permission to orgasm.” Nikhil smiled the slow smile Jax hadn’t seen in so long. “Then remind me he could do anything he wanted anyway.”

“What else?” Brysen was spellbound, caught up in the fantasy Nikhil was weaving for him.

“You don’t need me to tell you.” Nikhil reached out and, after a glance at Jax for permission, touched Brysen’s knee, fingertips caressing the skin until Brysen shivered, and any patience Jax had been nursing fled.

“No.” Firm but not angry. “Brysen. Into the other room. Kneel on the floor beside the bench, and wait for me.”

The look he got was one of pure gratitude. He wished he knew what came next, and was sure it ended with Brysen safe and happy. He watched Brysen leave the room, his eagerness making it a run, not a walk, then turned to Nikhil to express his thanks.

“I owe you this,” Nikhil said before Jax got out a single word. “I left you. Let you down. And it’s for the best I did, for both of us, but I could’ve hurt you less doing it.”

Jax nodded. There was no argument there. “You’re happy now?” They couldn’t talk for long, but it would heighten Brysen’s arousal to wait for his owner. Jax liked the idea of his sub worked up, uncertain, mind racing, before he arrived, bringing back the certainty and calm.

“I’m with the owner I need.” Nikhil smiled a little mischievously. “Brysen seems to be in a similar place.”

“We’re not there yet. Too soon.” The denial was automatic, but Jax couldn’t pretend there wasn’t a part of him that hoped. If only he could stay in control when Brysen drew out his darkest desires and begged him to satisfy each and every one. “You’ll watch me? Stop me if it’s going too far?”

Nikhil grinned wryly. “It’ll go too far for me fairly soon, but I’ll keep an eye on Brysen. He’s the one on the receiving end.”

“He can take a lot, but how much of that is training and how much comes from him is the question I need an answer to.”

Nikhil rose, slipped his hand into Jax’s, and kissed him lightly on the cheek. “You’ll get your answer, I know it. And relax! This is supposed to make you feel good.”

“It always used to.” Jax shook off his doubts and headed for the room where Brysen waited, naked, kneeling, anticipating.

He often preferred working without clothes, but today he needed the emotional protection they offered so he left them on. Nikhil slipped into the room behind him, saying nothing, and settled in a corner on a chair Jax tended to use more as a table than anything else.

“Brysen, tell Nikhil your safeword,” Jax said instead, ignoring Nikhil’s soft, surprised exhalation.

“Guava.”

“Have you ever safeworded?”

Brysen shook his head. “No, Jax.”

“And why is that?” Jax was aware of stalling, and he didn’t intend to do it for long, but he needed reassurance Brysen was taking this seriously. It was important they were all on the same page and, no matter what he’d said, impossible for him to fully trust Nikhil to know if he needed to be pulled up short.

A trace of impatience peeked through. “Mostly because I didn’t have one. No collared sub needs one. That’s what the flash is for.”

“Tell me how you’ll know if you need to use one today.”

Brysen didn’t answer immediately, and when he did, it was slow and thoughtful. “I don’t, not for sure, but I think… If the hurting goes into a place where I’d do anything to make it stop, but also where I’m still tempted not to stop it. I don’t know where the line is because there hasn’t been a line before. The drug was blurring it.”

That was a valid point, and it made Jax warier, but he shook off his hesitation. Brysen wanted this, and if he went to another owner for it, they wouldn’t appreciate what he’d gone through or understand how screwed up his boundaries were.

For all his concern about going too far, from one perspective, he was the best choice for Brysen because of what they’d shared. And now they could share this.

With a slick of calm over his apprehension, he settled Brysen onto the bench, on his stomach, ass raised, restraining him with wide leather cuffs at wrists and ankles, appreciating how they enhanced Brysen’s look. Naked and bound, he was spectacular in Jax’s eyes. His cock hardened, taking away one worry: that fear would render him impotent.

“You’re going to show me the proper respect from now on,” he told Brysen. “I’ve made allowances for your situation, and I see now that was a mistake. You require a firm hand. A certain strictness.”

He saw Brysen’s response. Saw the faint tremor running through the beautifully displayed body, the way Brysen’s balls tightened. Heard the soft groan Brysen couldn’t hold back if he tried.

He picked up a light flogger from the rack on the wall and brought it down across Brysen’s shoulders, drawing another muted sound. They’d be screams by the time he’d finished. He hoped he’d hear them without comparing them to the screams haunting his thoughts night and day.

Flogging Brysen lightly along his back, ass, and thighs, raising some color and leaving a sting, he said, “You’re being punished for that lack of respect and your failure to be honest. If you needed me to discipline you, you should have told me directly.”

“I tried.” There was desperation in Brysen’s voice, not protest. “I wasn’t hiding my needs, Jax, I swear!”

Knowing the truth of that—he’d been ignoring every signal—Jax nodded. The bench was positioned before a reflector panel, and Brysen could see him. “I’ll pay more attention going forward.”

“Thank you. Thank you— Oh!”

Jax grinned, the muscles in his arm and shoulder loosening at that surprised squeak. He’d made that last one count. “I think I need to address that neglect. Let’s multitask. You haven’t been fucked for a while either. That tight hole of yours needs reminding of what it’s for too.” He had a selection of dildos, some of which had unusual features, but for now he chose a slim one, kept cool with an internal core of freezite. Nikhil had whined pitifully at the sight of it, but Jax loved pushing it deep into a hot hole and seeing his sub’s reaction. After coating it with a gel to enhance the sensation of being fucked by an icicle, he returned to Brysen’s side.

Brysen’s reaction when Jax slowly pushed the dildo into his eager and recently neglected hole was both arousing and gratifying. He sighed and wriggled his narrow hips, body welcoming the toy, though it had to seem equal parts pleasing and uncomfortable. Jax suspected if he’d been free to move more, he would have.

“You’re such a beautiful little slut.” Jax held the base of the dildo steady with one hand and slid the other lower to tease Brysen’s cock.

“Oh! Jax, please.” It had been too long for a sub used to regular release; Jax stroked Brysen’s prick once from base to tip and felt it twitch in his grasp.

“I can guess how much you want to come,” Jax told him. “But I don’t want you to. Not anytime soon.”

“I won’t.” Brysen’s eyes had been closed briefly, but he opened them to look at Jax in the reflection of the panel. “I promise.”

“You don’t have to promise. I won’t let you.” Remembering how Brysen had responded to his balls being tormented, Jax ran his fingertip over them in both a tease and a threat. “If I see a drop of cum before I allow it, I’ll squeeze these dry.”

From the hungry whimper Brysen gave him, it didn’t seem as if that punishment scared him. After Layne’s sadism, probably not much did. Jax wasn’t interested in following Layne’s example, but he was determined to make Brysen realize he was as inflexible as the sternest owner at times. He walked around to stand in front of Brysen, then grabbed a handful of hair and tugged Brysen’s head back. Neck strained, throat taut, Brysen stared up at him, a hint of concern showing, as if he realized he’d screwed up.

“You’re mine now,” Jax said simply. “All of you. You won’t come until I say, Brysen. You don’t have a choice. I’m taking it away. I’ll keep you hurting for days with aching balls if I want to, and trust me, I will want that. Often. I love seeing my sub suffer. It’s a discipline you’ll beg me to inflict when you get to the point where my pleasure’s more important than your climax.”

Brysen fought to swallow, and after watching him struggle, Jax slackened his grip. After swiping his tongue over his lips, Brysen darted a sideways glance at the silent Nikhil. “Did he beg for that?”

“Of course he did. And sweetly.” Jax watched Brysen’s expression for any hint of jealousy. “He was happy to go without release for weeks if that was what pleased me.”

“I want to please you,” Brysen whispered. “More than anything.”

“Good. Because you will.” Jax let go of Brysen’s hair and moved back to where he’d been standing before.

Without warning, he slapped Brysen’s ass with his bare hand, aiming so that he bumped the base of the dildo. Brysen whimpered but kept his head upright where Jax had left it, as if Jax had asked him to. Unexpected, and interesting. Jax slid the dildo a bit deeper—it had a flared end so it couldn’t accidentally go where it didn’t belong—then rotated it, pressing it to Brysen’s prostate until the sub shuddered.

“This one doesn’t vibrate,” Jax said conversationally.

“That’s—” Brysen began, then cut off his next word.

“I didn’t say you couldn’t talk. Don’t presume to know my mind.” Jax slapped Brysen’s thighs, knowing the mildness of the blows carried with them a certain measure of humiliation. Brysen could take so much more.

Layne would’ve gone for the big, splashy pain, the heavy whips, the skin-slicing crops. Jax had no objection to those implements, but he was curious and intrigued by Brysen’s reactions to less pain delivered over a longer period. He’d sensed Brysen’s dissatisfaction with a light spanking and filed it away to consider. Any vulnerability a sub revealed was precious information for an owner. It could be used to break down resistance or smoothed away if it presented problems. Brysen had been trained to expect a lot of pain, and Jax wanted to amend that expectation without affecting Brysen’s tolerance for extreme discipline. It required a delicate balance, and under normal circumstances, he would’ve relished the challenge.

No. He couldn’t doubt himself. If he began to question his judgment, this would unravel, leaving them nothing to do but walk away from each other. He didn’t have to forge a perfect connection today. That wasn’t feasible. He had to make a start; that was all.

He glanced over at Nikhil and wondered why the sight of his former sub didn’t bring him to his knees with loss. The grief he’d felt over Nikhil’s departure had become muted, vivid colors rain-washed to pallid shades. Maybe he was accepting the truth; they weren’t right for each other, and they were better apart.

Or maybe he had a different relationship to compare it to. Brysen, this new Brysen, strong enough to submit to Jax’s most intense fantasies, resilient enough to offer himself up to an owner after the trauma he’d gone through, appealed to Jax.

Once, that would’ve seemed a betrayal. Now it struck him as progress.

Brysen made a small, protesting sound, clearly unhappy Jax had drifted into a reverie. With a private grin, confident now, Jax patted Brysen’s ass. “Talking is allowed; complaining isn’t.”

An hour later, Jax let the pinwheel he’d been using on the underside of Brysen’s cock drop to the floor. It didn’t bounce far enough away, so he nudged it with his foot and gave Brysen’s shaft a firm squeeze that made his sub groan. He knew if he looked at his hand, he’d probably see a few drops of blood smeared there; the pinwheel’s spikes were sharp enough to pierce skin, and he was practiced with it, so he knew how firmly to press to cause pain but only superficial damage. The sounds Brysen had made while he’d been rolling it from balls to the top of his shaft had been delicious.

He’d taken Brysen to the edge of screaming several times, and at no point had he been worried he’d gone too far. The pain he wanted to inflict was the pain Brysen wanted to experience.

“I’m trying to decide if I want to fuck your mouth or your ass.” He’d replaced the freezite dildo with a more slender toy, an electrode that stimulated the prostate, and it did seem a shame to remove it when the electrical play was obviously driving Brysen half-mad with arousal; there was a sheen of perspiration on Brysen’s lower back. His skin glowed with it.

Having made his decision, Jax glanced over at Nikhil, who’d been sitting silently on his chair the entire session.

“Nikhil, it’s time you returned to your owner. Please thank him for allowing you to visit.”

Nikhil smiled. “I was wondering how long it would take before you realized I’m as necessary as feathers on a cat. Sure, I’ll pass the message on.” He rose and came over, his expression serious now. “Am I forgiven?”

“There isn’t anything you’ve done that needs forgiving.” It was something Jax should have realized sooner.

“I’d argue with you, but you have better ways to occupy your time.” Eyes sparkling with tears, Nikhil tapped his lips with his fingers, their sign for a kiss when they were standing at opposite ends of a room, then bent to whisper in Brysen’s ear.

Jax wasn’t sure, but it sounded like “Take care of him.”

He waited until Nikhil had left the apartment before picking up the lube, all his attention on his sub. With Brysen’s cooperation—and he knew he’d have it—fucking Brysen’s well-used hole with the dildo in place wouldn’t be difficult at all.

And after that, he’d let Brysen come.

Maybe. It was still early, after all. He scratched the back of Brysen’s neck, the skin damp and warm, making his sub shiver. Odd to fuck someone with a bare neck. Technically frowned on too between owner and sub. They’d have to take care of a new collar for Brysen as soon as possible.

But for now… He eased slick fingers into Brysen’s hole, the hot clench of muscle a promise of pleasure to come, then worked his cock in deep. Brysen’s moans and frenzied writhing as he tried to fuck himself on two sources of stimulation made Jax chuckle.

“Easy there, or I’ll leave you empty. Hold still for me. Show me some control.”

And if Brysen succeeded, Jax would do everything in his power to break that control, leaving Brysen a whipped, fucked, exhausted sub with a blissful smile on his face.

He couldn’t wait to see that smile.

Chapter Sixteen

Brysen couldn’t move, but it wasn’t because of his restraints. It was the drug, and he’d been ordered not to move. He had to follow orders. No matter how much he wanted to get up from the chair he sat on, he couldn’t force his muscles to flex. He heard sounds from the adjoining room, a person walking and maybe shifting things around, and he knew it was Layne and he’d be back any minute to kill him.

He wanted to scream, wanted to cry. He couldn’t do anything. Layne came through the doorway into the room, the modified E-stim crop in one hand, swinging it as if the murder he anticipated were of no consequence, unimportant. Brysen was worthless, unloved, about to die, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

His gaze focused on Layne’s face, and it wasn’t Layne’s face at all.

It was Jax.

The scream he’d been fighting to get out tore at his throat, and he broke free, scrambling out of the chair and crashing to the floor with enough force his teeth rattled together. The floor was…Jax’s bedroom floor, and what had been a chair was now a bed. The bed in which he’d been sleeping with Jax.

Jax roused from sleep with a startled sound, and Brysen cringed, a stab of fear overriding his distress. Waking Layne for any reason had been a cardinal sin, punished with the utmost severity, and though he knew better than to judge Jax by the same standards, anyone would be annoyed at having their sleep disturbed.

“Brysen? Hey, where did you go?” Voice muzzy with sleep but calm, Jax swung his legs over the side of the bed, then joined Brysen on the floor. He didn’t ask any more questions. Brysen guessed there was no point; his convulsive shudders and hitched breaths were clear signals.

He resisted when Jax pulled him close in a comforting hug, instinct making him unable to believe no rebuke was forthcoming, but Jax ignored his stiffness, settling Brysen against his broad chest. Relaxing against Jax’s strong body happened in stages, Brysen freeing himself from the clutches of his nightmare with difficulty, but sooner than he’d expected, he was limp, clinging to Jax, breathing in the scent of his skin.

“Want to tell me what it was about? Or let it fade away?”

“I’m sorry.” Brysen swallowed, throat raw. “Sorry for waking you, sorry for spoiling things.”

They’d gone to sleep so happy, proud of the progress they’d made, bodies replete and sated. Brysen’s ass ached from use, his skin tender in a score of places, but they were reminders of pleasure, not signs of failure.

“I expected a reaction to today.” Jax squinted at his wrist unit. “Huh. Four in the morning. Yesterday, then, I guess. We turned over a few stones. Bound to be creepy-crawlies under some of them.”

Maybe so, but Brysen hadn’t thought any of them would be his. He’d believed he’d dealt with his demons and was ready to move on with life, not counting on the possibility that his subconscious might not be fully on board. “I thought I was okay.” Out loud it sounded stupid.

“You are okay.” Jax’s voice was low and comforting, his fingertips soothing where they rubbed across Brysen’s shoulder.

“Not if I’m waking you up.”

“If you want me to punish you for interrupting my sleep, you’re going to be disappointed.” The gentle humor behind Jax’s words made Brysen press more firmly against Jax’s warmth. “You don’t have any control over what happens when you’re sleeping. I’m not angry.”

Brysen knew that intellectually, but a deeper emotional understanding would take longer.

“And if you wanted a spanking for the fun of it, I’d say no to that too.” Jax caressed what he could reach of Brysen’s ass, making Brysen want to shift position and lie across Jax’s lap. A shiver of desire coursed through him, unexpected, powerful. “I like seeing the marks I put on this, but I’m not interested in adding to them when you’re this tender.”

“Please,” Brysen begged, not sure what he was asking for. “You don’t need to hurt me, but touch me? Please?”

He felt the rumble of laughter as much as heard it, the last shreds of his dream chased away by the clear evidence of Jax’s good mood. “You’re tempting me. I’d paddle you for that if it wouldn’t be playing into your hands. Come here.”

With a twist of his body and a tug at Brysen’s arm, Jax pulled Brysen across his thighs, ass up. The position was familiar, though he couldn’t recall being spanked when his owner was on the floor with him.

“So, a spanking will settle you enough that we can get some sleep?”

“Yes!” He wanted to hear the crisp slap of skin on skin, have the burn in his flesh reignited.

“But your ass is still hot enough to turn berries into jam.” Jax sighed theatrically. “Guess we need to compromise. Now, I said I wouldn’t spank you, and I’m a man of my word, but my hand’s hovering over your ass. If you want to feel it on your skin, you’ll need to do the work. You subs get off easy, lying there while us poor owners get sweaty and tired paddling away. Let me see how much you want this. Up.”

Puzzled, unsure, Brysen raised his ass until it met Jax’s curved palm, then lowered it.

“You’ve got the idea,” Jax said approvingly. “Up and down. Yeah, that’s it.”

Brysen did his best to honor Jax’s wishes, but he’d have had to perform specific muscle-building exercises every day to accomplish the task for more than a minute or so, and the only thing that let him continue that long was the short distance between his ass at rest and where Jax’s hand was suspended. His thighs, upper arms, and abs ached with the effort, and calling it a spanking was laughable. The contact of ass and palm was barely more than a tap.

“Not what you had in mind?” Jax slapped his ass once, hard and unexpected, and Brysen dropped into Jax’s lap. “You see? It’s not so easy to be the one doing the work, is it?”

“No, Jax.” Brysen realized there had been no order to stop and lifted his ass again, seeking Jax’s hand and failing to find it. He turned his head to look for an explanation and saw Jax smiling at him.

“You managed that longer than I thought you would.”

Everything about his face—his eyes, his strong jaw, the shape of his nose—made Brysen long to please him. He’d have continued the farce of a spanking until he literally couldn’t move anymore for the chance of Jax’s lips curving into that smile. “I can keep going if you want me to?”

“I don’t think you can.” Jax rested his hand on Brysen’s ass. “And in any case, you don’t need a punishment or a spanking for fun.”

“I only need what you tell me I do.” It was easy to say words that had been trained into him and mean them when he was doing it for Jax.

“That’s putting a lot on my shoulders, but they’re broad enough.” Jax rolled Brysen to his back as if he weighed as much as the air around them, then patted the bed. “Into bed with you. What you need right now is sleep. If the nightmares come, hold on to the thought that’s all they are. Dreams can’t hurt you, and if you wake me again, neither will I. Ever.”

With that reassurance, Brysen found his way to a few hours of sleep untroubled by memories. He woke to hear Jax talking to someone on the comm in the main room, voice sharp with annoyance, the caller’s side of the conversation set to Jax’s ears only.

“—appointment isn’t for another two weeks. Why move it up? I have plans for today. No, they can’t wait. I have a bare-neck sub who needs a collar, and that’s more important than a regular assessment we both know I’ll pass. What? No, that isn’t in doubt. Why would it be?”

Brysen crept out of bed, padding over to the open door without hiding his presence from Jax, but moving quietly to avoid disturbing him.

Jax turned to look at him, expression set in angry lines that softened when he saw Brysen’s concern. He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and listened, then said, “All right, fine, but it will have to be after two, and I can’t promise I won’t be late if my earlier appointment goes longer than anticipated.” He ended the call and sighed.

“We could put off the collar testing,” Brysen suggested hesitantly.

“No, we can’t, and I should put you over my knee for considering it.” It was the voice Jax used to give a warning but not meaning it at the same time. “Go take a shower, and I’ll see if I can have them move the test a little earlier.”

He’d barely adjusted the water to his liking when Jax joined him. “Is it okay?”

Jax shook his head, and Brysen’s heart sank until Jax continued, “It’s fine. They couldn’t change the time, that’s all. If I’m late for the assessment, they’ve no one to blame but themselves for not giving me more notice.”

“You don’t need to be with me. It’s not as if they’ll let you do more than observe through the view window.” Brysen knew without the reassurance of his owner nearby the test would be an ordeal. Jax would be under the same roof, but the O/s building was vast, sprawling over a huge section of Zone Eight. Housing the testing rooms, counseling and training rooms, the monitoring section, Assessment Board’s offices, and the factory where the collars were assembled and fitted, it employed hundreds if not thousands of people.

“You’re my sub; of course I’ll be watching. Close your eyes.” Jax tapped the soap dispenser, a fine mist of it joining the water, frothing up on contact with skin before rinsing away.

Brysen twisted away from a jet targeting a bruise on his ass, his thoughts elsewhere. The last times he’d been tested, he’d been under the thrall of the drug. Genie. What a stupid fucking name for people to give it. What would Layne have thought of that? Not a lot. How would he handle testing without the drug and Layne’s orders ringing in his ears? Layne had made it clear a good sub took as much pain and humiliation as his owner required, warning him of the consequences if he completed his testing and came out of it with the same stripe colors he’d gone in with.

And what color stripe did Jax want him to get?

“I preferred you where you were.”

Blinking away the water in his eyes, Brysen met Jax’s amused gaze. He opened his mouth to ask what Jax wanted him to do, then gasped when Jax turned him so the full force of the jet struck his ass.

“Mmm. Stay right there.”

It would have been impossible not to get hard with Jax’s hands sliding over his skin even when he knew Jax was getting him clean, taking care of him the way an owner did. Brysen felt his cock growing heavier as Jax rubbed soap over his chest, then thumbed and pinched his nipples. Oh. Maybe this wasn’t about getting clean.

The realization made Brysen’s blood flow faster, his prick erect before Jax reached it. “You’re so responsive,” Jax murmured and leaned in to kiss him.

Even better. They hadn’t kissed much, not yet, and Brysen was eager for it, happy for Jax to control the depth of it, thrilled when Jax’s tongue parted his lips. He couldn’t contain a whimper of delight as Jax’s sudsy hand trailed down to his cock and encircled it. The combination of Jax’s kisses and hand and the determined tattoo of the shower water on his sore ass was amazing; he never wanted it to end.

Jax’s lips slid lower, down across Brysen’s jaw to his ear. “I don’t want you thinking too much,” he said. “Hmm, what might I think up to relax you?”

It wasn’t a real question, not the sort he wanted answered, and Brysen was focused on not coming, though Jax had moved his hand to the tip of Brysen’s cock, working it slowly.

“Why don’t I see if all the soap’s gone?”

Jax went to his knees, water coursing over his short dark hair, leaving it sleek. Brysen bit his lip to keep from protesting. Jax was his owner. If he wanted to go to his knees, when that was where Brysen should be, well, it wasn’t Brysen’s place to suggest otherwise.

After licking the skin below Brysen’s navel, the drag of his tongue making Brysen’s toes curl, Jax shook his head. “None there. How about here?”

The tease he’d expected didn’t come. Jax leaned in and took Brysen’s cock inside his mouth, closing his lips around the shaft, capturing it, sucking on it.

Impossible not to react to that hard pull, the flicker of a strong tongue. Brysen cried out, the wild hunger in it shocking him. He wasn’t supposed to be so forward, so expressive. This was for Jax’s satisfaction, not his. But oh, Jax’s mouth felt good!

“So much soap,” Jax said regretfully, taking his mouth away, clasping Brysen’s hips to hold him still. “Pity, because you seemed to be enjoying that.”

“I was!” Brysen swallowed back a plea for more of Jax’s attention. “You…you liked doing that?”

“Sucking you? Sure.” Jax grinned. “You’re not soapy, you know. I’m playing with you.”

“I, uh…” Brysen scrunched up his face. “I’m not sure what to do. What you want me to do.”

“I told you, so obviously you weren’t paying attention. That’s earned you a small penalty.” Jax swung Brysen around so that damnably placed jet pummeled his erection, the drumming water finding every tender place left from the pinwheel. That put his ass within reach of Jax’s teeth, and he yelped as Jax bit down on bruised flesh. “I want you not thinking and relaxed. Got it? Let’s try again.”

That sounded like a suggestion he stop talking along with thinking, neither of which was all that easy, but Jax shifted him into the position he wanted, and Brysen went along with it, letting his feet be spread farther apart. Jax parted his ass cheeks, his hands warm and firm, and Brysen gasped at the unexpected lick of a hot tongue near his hole.

He managed not to move, mostly because if he slipped and fell, he’d hurt both of them, but he definitely whimpered. Jax did it again, twice, then replaced his tongue with his finger and slid it into Brysen to the first knuckle, carefully, not hurting. To be fair, Jax could have been rougher, and Brysen wouldn’t have considered it actual pain.

Jax tugged at Brysen’s balls with the other hand. “I’m going to let you come,” he said, which was a relief. “But not yet.”

The water cut off, the silence a blow to his ears. The bathroom was warm, but his skin prickled, not from the chill of evaporation, but anticipation.

“Listen,” Jax told him. “To the sounds you make, your breathing. Nothing else. We’re safe in here.”

Lulled by that assurance, Brysen soon discovered that the slick, limber wriggle of a tongue into his hole made him squeak and writhe with abandon, the scent of citrus soap was an aphrodisiac, and Jax was the best owner on the planet. No, in the whole system.

After he’d gotten past the strangeness of having nothing to do but accept delirious ecstasy at his owner’s hands—and mouth—Brysen surrendered to sensation. It helped that Jax had ordered him to enjoy this, but truthfully, how could he not?

His hole was licked and scraped at gently, his balls sucked, his cock permitted to ride the tight curve of Jax’s hand. He was pampered toward a climax, urged to come at the precise moment when holding back had become torture, delicious agony, but verging on discomfort.

He gasped with shock when water coursed over him again, this time rinsing sweat and cum from his skin, the jets turned off so the spray cascaded over him like spring rain, warm and plentiful.

And when he was dry and snuggled beside Jax on the low, wide couch, he didn’t have a thought in his head but how best to please his owner.

“I want to talk.” It came as a surprise because of the timing, not because Brysen didn’t understand who Jax was. “No, don’t tense up. I want you calm and relaxed for this. It’s not bad, so there’s no need to worry. We’re having a conversation, that’s all.”

“I think when you tell me not to worry, that’s when I tense up.” Brysen was careful to obey, to keep his body soft where he leaned against Jax.

“None of this is what you expected, how things are with me.”

“I wouldn’t say none of it, but yes. Being a sub isn’t what I thought it was. I mean, underneath it is. But on the surface it’s so complicated. Or maybe not complicated. I don’t know how to describe it, I guess.”

“It’s complicated if you think instead of letting yourself trust your instincts.” Before Brysen protested, Jax added, “And I know you think your instincts got you into trouble before, but that’s not fair. Tell me why.”

Brysen didn’t enjoy being quizzed. He tensed and forced himself to relax again. “Because of the drug.” That was the easy answer, and they knew it. He could do better. “Because it was never my instinct. I gave it all over to Layne and pretended making one choice meant I never had to make another one ever again, when I was afraid of messing up.”

“What would have happened if you did? Beyond Layne dreaming up a punishment, because he did that pretty much every day, by the sound of it.”

“I didn’t mind them.” Brysen reconsidered. “Maybe without the drug I would have minded. He was harsh. And he wasn’t fair. I got punished because he was in the mood to discipline me, not because of anything I’d done wrong. And yeah, he didn’t need a reason, but looking back—fuck, it’s hard to criticize him even now!—I wish he’d said that instead of making me feel guilty for failing. I wouldn’t have minded. He could’ve said he wanted to whip me until his arm ached because he loved seeing me bleed, and I’d have fetched him the whip on my hands and knees and begged him to use it. He didn’t need to twist it around and make it my fault, my failure, my—”

He broke off, panting, shaking, all Jax’s efforts undone.

“That’s good.” Jax’s voice was quiet, pleased. “You’re venting and angry, but you’re communicating. I want to hear it.”

“I was scared he’d send me away.” He spit out the words as if they were poison he’d swallowed. “Scared of being without an owner. That was his worst threat, the one he used to get me to agree to stuff even the drug couldn’t make me want.”

“Is that why you’ve stayed with me? Because any owner is better than none?” There was pain behind the question, and an awful waiting tension, as if the answer was one Jax knew but didn’t want to hear.

Quickly, scrambling to throw his arms around Jax, Brysen said, “No! No. Believe me, it’s not that. You were my owner by a technicality, I get that, and we could walk away from each other…but I don’t want to. I want to belong to you. To please you and know I’m doing it by being me, not some fake version of me.” He sighed and nuzzled in, kissing Jax’s cheek, loving the roughness of stubble and the smooth skin beside it equally. “And I want a collar. I wake up with my neck bare, and I hate it. It’s why I don’t leave the apartment unless you tell me to. I think people are staring at me, judging me for not wearing one, or worse, not seeing what I am. A sub.”

“It doesn’t matter what other people see or think,” Jax told him, and it was good to hear it, though he knew it was true. “Only what we know. So I need to be sure you understand if at any time in the future, even with a silver collar around your neck because we’re together, if you change your mind… If you decide you need something different… I want you to tell me. Anything else—knowing you had doubts but were too afraid to say anything—would break my heart.”

Brysen heard the emotion in Jax’s voice, and he hugged him more tightly. “I understand. I will.” Not that he imagined it happening, not in a million solars, but arguing that wouldn’t make Jax feel any better, and that was what he was focused on, Jax’s feelings.

Jax stroked the back of Brysen’s neck. “Would you recognize if you’d changed your mind, do you think?”

His tone was casual and light, so Brysen didn’t take offense. He pressed his mouth and nose to the soft spot under Jax’s ear and inhaled the scent of him, then answered. “I think so. Maybe not instantly, but fairly quickly. I can’t know for sure because it took so long with Layne, and I don’t know how much of that was stubbornness and how much was the drug.”

“I’ll probably ask you more often than I should, at first.”

“I’ll probably ask you too. If you wish you’d chosen another sub instead of me.”

“I already know the answer to that.”

Brysen shrugged a little, not much because of the position he was in. “Now, maybe. Later might be a different story. Let’s agree we’ll both try our best to be honest about what’s going on and how it feels.”

“Not only emotionally either.”

“The collar testing will help with that,” Brysen said. “It’ll give us a starting point. Where we go after that is up to us, but you won’t need to worry you’re doing stuff to me I don’t like.”

“The testing isn’t foolproof,” Jax pointed out. “People see it that way, but it can’t be. What you’d welcome one day could be intolerable the next, depending on your mood or physical state. That’s why I need honesty from you. If you walked out with black stripes, that’s not licence for me to whip you bloody every morning before breakfast.”

“Good, because that would get boring fast.”

Jax laughed, rich and mellow. “For both of us.” He sobered. “I’m not seeing you with black stripes, though. You started out as what, a yellow-striper? From that to black is a huge leap.”

“But you’d be happy if I was at that level.” It wasn’t a question. Jax preferred subs who could soak up pain. From Brysen’s brief conversation with Nikhil to set up the visit, that had come across loud and clear. “You could let go without worrying.”

“After what happened? Never again. Ever.” Jax smiled wryly. “You think I’m cured? All better? No. You and Nikhil boosted my confidence enough to let me work with you, but part of me couldn’t let go all the way. And that’s a good thing. Your boundaries are fuzzy. We need time, both of us, before we can be sure of what we’re doing, but I’m in no rush.”

Brysen nodded, without shaking his doubts. Would they ever get past what Layne had done to them? The publicity had died down, the story wrapped neatly enough to make it over and done with. Layne was dead, the drug destroyed, and the victims who’d survived weren’t interested in talking. No one cared much about Matthias or his family. His mothers had closed the door on every reporter who’d come knocking, retreating into private grief, and Layne’s friends had scattered off-planet after the inquiry, desperate to escape the negative publicity, abandoning their subs.

Time. It all came down to that, and it hadn’t been that long. He had to be patient.

“Well, let’s both get some food into us before it gets any later.” Jax patted Brysen’s sore ass as punctuation, and Brysen responded by withdrawing and standing.

“At least I’m starting to get hungry again.” It was so much easier to eat now his appetite was returning; he’d worried it would never happen, and while he didn’t mind this thinner version too terribly, he knew he was stronger at the higher weight his body seemed to prefer.

“Definitely an improvement.”

They didn’t bother to dress before going into the kitchen to rummage for food. Jax made some strong coffee and laced it with sugar syrup while Brysen used the ’wave to heat up two thick slices of egg pie left over from a few nights before. “There’s some mango salad too, if you want some,” he said, head half in the fridge.

“Sure.” Jax slid Brysen’s coffee nearer across the counter.

He felt relaxed and calm as they ate and as he chose what to wear—he’d be naked for the actual testing, of course—but as they left the apartment building, he reached out to slip his hand into Jax’s.

“Whatever happens, it will be fine,” Jax assured him.

“It’s not a new experience for me, but this feels different. As if whatever stripes I get this time will be my real ones.”

“I already know I like the sub you are and what we do together. The stripe color on your collar won’t change that.”

“We played hard yesterday,” Brysen reminded him. “Suppose once I have my collar, that’s too much and it flashes? Suppose—”

Jax guided Brysen around a child running headlong down the sidewalk, giggling wildly, her father a few steps behind her, pretending to be too slow to catch her. “Did it feel too much for you?”

“No, but…”

“You worry too much.” Jax spun Brysen into his arms, kissed him soundly, then tapped his nose. “Relax. I want to see a collar around your neck. It could be green, and I wouldn’t care.”

“Green?” Outraged at the idea, lips tingling from the kiss, Brysen sniffed. “I am not a green. I know who I am and what I want, thank you very much.”

“That’s better.” Jax got Brysen moving again with another tap, this time on his ass. “We’ll be late if we don’t hurry. March.”

Their journey took them past a juice bar. Not the one Brysen worked at—if he still had his job—but another owned by the same company. He wouldn’t need to work again once he inherited Layne’s credits, but idleness didn’t appeal. After Jax’s license had been renewed, he’d be out a lot, working, and Brysen hated sitting in a sparkling apartment with nothing to do but wait for his owner’s return. Maybe he could look into doing something good with Layne’s money, the way he’d planned. Lost in thoughts, the trip to the O/s building passed quickly, with Jax seemingly content to allow Brysen’s silence, though he maintained physical contact no matter how busy the express walkway got.

When they arrived, the building—which might have more accurately been called a complex—loomed intimidatingly, but Brysen refused to let his footsteps slow. Putting this off wouldn’t make it any easier, and learning the truth would be a relief even if it was a disappointment.

Well, that was a lie, but sometimes he had to lie to keep going.

He thought he’d be fine until he caught sight of the restroom inside the entryway and recognized a chance for reprieve. “Can I have a minute?” he asked Jax, gesturing at the door.

“Only one,” Jax said but let go of his hand so he could slip away.

There was a woman at the row of sinks, her face streaked with tears. Seeing her brought Brysen up short, but when their eyes met in the reflective panel, she smiled and brought a hand up to touch her collar. “I always cry when I’m happy.”

“New stripes?” Brysen guessed.

She nodded. “I was worried I was going to test higher than I did. My owner didn’t think she should keep me if I needed more than she could give.” Lowering her voice, the woman added, “She’s older than I am, you see. But I couldn’t bear the thought of not being with her. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” She reached for a clean towel from the pile and used it to pat her face and dry her hands, then dropped it into the laundry unit. “I’m sorry, you’re not—”

“Collared? That’s why I’m here. I was, before, but…” Brysen’s heart sank when he saw she recognized him from the news.

Braced for questions, distaste, even anger, he got sympathy, warm and sincere. She didn’t touch him—no sub would touch another without permission from both owners—but she pressed her hand to her heart, then extended it, offering her respect. “You’re so brave. I hope all goes well today and you find the happiness you deserve.”

She left before he did more than smile at her, throat tight with emotion.

The encounter left him unsettled and reassured in equal proportions, but the sight of Jax waiting for him, a tall, imposing figure, exuding confidence, restored his balance. He hurried over, dropping to his knees when he reached Jax’s side, a much-needed reminder of who he was.

“You look good at my feet,” Jax told him, his hand light on Brysen’s head, smoothing his hair. “You belong there.”

Always the right words, the perfect understanding of his mood. Brysen lowered his head and kissed the top of Jax’s shoe, gratitude filling him. The lobby of the building was huge, the roof many stories above them, a vast space filled with muted voices or sharp, ringing orders, but his awareness shrank to the two of them, safe in a bubble of silence.

The moment ended too soon. He rose at Jax’s quietly spoken command and fell into step, avoiding the gazes of those they passed.

Processing and the brief written questions designed to get a rough idea of his limits and preferences before the true test took little time. He wished they’d taken more time, that there’d been some issue with the forms he’d completed, some technical difficulty with the examination chair. Anything to keep Jax with him longer.

Knowing Jax would be watching from the other side of the wall, able to see him but invisible to Brysen’s eyes, wasn’t as much comfort as he’d hoped. Brysen sat in the chair patiently as the technician secured his wrists—“So you don’t hurt yourself,” she murmured, as if Brysen hadn’t gone through this before—and attached the monitoring equipment to his skin with small adhesive pads.

He tried to remember how he’d felt before, when it had been Layne instead of Jax waiting, but he hadn’t been nervous the same way. It had probably been because of the drugs, of course, but knowing that didn’t make his current anxiety any less upsetting. If Jax were there, he’d probably tell Brysen to take slow, deep breaths, so Brysen focused on doing that while the tech finished up and went over to make sure the rest of the equipment was ready to go.

“This part of the process will take approximately thirty minutes,” she told him. “Some steps may repeat more than once if your responses are unclear or insufficient. If you experience any problems or need to stop for any reason, raise your left hand to indicate that you need a break, and I’ll pause the program, but you should know that if we have to stop in the middle, you run the risk of needing to restart from the beginning for the sake of accurate results.”

“I know,” Brysen said. “I’ve done this before.”

She turned and looked at him, nodding. “I’ve read your file. I’m required to use the same language no matter how many times a sub has undergone testing. Don’t worry; I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

He wished he were as sure, but no matter what, in a couple of hours the worst would be over. At least he’d know.

The room dimmed after she’d retreated to the monitoring desk in the corner. Dimmed, then darkened, the shimmer of the imaging screen in front of his face the only light visible. The headrest curved, blocking his view, making it easy to focus on the screen as it went from a shimmer to images.

He was never disconnected from the room or his body. He knew he was watching, not experiencing directly, but it didn’t matter. The science of the screen was beyond him. A spin-off from a gaming system, refined, adjusted, intensified, it allowed a sub’s responses to stimuli to be assessed and quantified against a scale. The stripes on a collar were visual indicators of a sub’s limits, a quick guide, but every sub was different and the collar knew that. A thousand subs could wear the same color collar, but during a flogging it would flash at different times for each of them. The precision and accuracy of the procedure had been perfected after decades of tweaking.

Layne had exposed a weakness. Before he’d reached the chair this time, Brysen’s blood had been tested for drugs—normal—but this time the testing had taken twice as long. He’d known why the screening was more thorough without being told. Stupid of him to feel guilt. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t.

He swallowed, aware of his bare neck. This had to be done. He wanted his collar back, Jax fastening it around his neck, smiling at him.

Brysen relaxed and fell into the images, letting go of his doubts.

He walked into a featureless room, warm, soft lighting, the floor under his feet yielding and smooth. Two owners waited for him in the center of the space, a man and a woman, faces indistinct, both naked. He was allowed to kneel between them, indicating no gender preference for the test, in which case the owner alternated between male and female. Brysen preferred male owners, so he went to his knees in front of the man, contentment surging through him as he demonstrated his submission.

The female owner melted away from his peripheral vision, letting him direct all his energy toward the male figure. The owner stepped forward and slapped him. The slap came as a surprise—the test was designed to follow a different pattern each time so a sub couldn’t anticipate what would happen next—and the pain was no less real to his mind, although Brysen’s body would bear no marks when it was over. He gasped, then responded as he knew Jax would want him to, by recovering his former position so his face was within easy reach of another blow if his owner wished to hit him again.

This was followed by three more slaps, each harder than the last, but when the fourth one left his cheek burning and the taste of blood sharp in his mouth, there was a gentle beep in the background, and the owner stepped back again, giving Brysen time to recover. He wished he knew more about how this all worked so he could make a guess what his reaction might mean to the test results, but his first examination had been so long ago and his memory of the other clouded by drugs.

Next, shadows appeared around him and solidified into a collection of machines, from a spanking bench to a bed with a complicated restraint system to a bondage cross. Several of the pieces were new to Brysen, but he knew hesitation in making a decision on his part would affect the test results. Still, he paused for a moment longer than he should have before choosing the largest, most intimidating fucking machine he’d ever seen. He’d always found them fascinating but had been afraid of what Layne might do with one, though he’d done his best to pretend he was eager so Layne wouldn’t guess his true feelings. Now, knowing he wouldn’t be hurt or worse no matter how far his test owner took things, he was genuinely excited to find out what it would be like to be penetrated by a machine controlled by his owner’s fingers on a keyboard.

The other machines faded, and the male owner—indistinct but no less solid for it—gestured for Brysen to climb onto the padded bench on his knees, leaving his bare ass exposed and in reach of the slim dildo attached to the mechanical engine. The owner fastened cuffs around Brysen’s ankles, then his wrists, so tightly he couldn’t move at all; his heart beat faster as it sank in that any semblance of control was gone. He was able to relax, to let the cushion support his weight and accept that he would take whatever came next.

There was the faintest hum from the machinery, and the tip of the dildo penetrated him. Eager for more, he attempted to push back, but his bondage made movement impossible, and the reproving slap his ass got told him his owner wasn’t pleased. He hung his head, abject, apologetic, but with a familiar curl of dark anticipation in his gut. Here in the safety of the test, he could disobey and push his discipline to a sterner level. Layne had never minded; why would he? An excuse to heap on more pain was a gift. Something told Brysen Jax’s reaction would be less forgiving. He’d see it as Brysen usurping his role, defiance and lack of respect. He’d train the tendency out of Brysen using whatever—

The dildo plunged deep, and Brysen’s tangled, erotic thoughts resolved into a low-voiced cry of pleasure. His owner moved to stand in front of him, cock erect, the dark skin taut, the rounded head glistening. Brysen wanted to taste it, have it fuck his mouth, slide into his throat, choking him, possessing him.

The owner raised the slim, handheld keyboard and tapped it. The dildo thrust back and forth, its girth expanding incrementally every few strokes, allowing Brysen’s hole to adjust. Soon, he was panting, straining to accept the thickness splitting him in two. His owner stepped in closer, raising the bench until his cock was level with Brysen’s mouth.

Cautious of anticipating a command—another fault of his—he kept his mouth closed between gasps. If the man wanted to fuck Brysen’s mouth, he’d make his wishes clear.

Instead he used his cock as a club, the weight of it bruising Brysen’s lips, his cheek aching dully. Was he being punished, or was this for his owner’s pleasure? Did it matter? Either way, he had to accept, submit. After a short rebellion—he’d wanted to taste it—Brysen tilted his head, offering himself for more of those powerful blows, the twist of humiliation spicing the arousal that had him quivering with desire, cock rigid, balls heavy and full.

He knew he wouldn’t be permitted to come, not like this, so he tried not to think about it and focused on the way the owner moved. The simulation of a man didn’t have an expression for him to read; he had to pay attention to the choices that were made instead, to try to imagine what this owner might want based solely on his actions. When his owner grabbed his hair and pulled his head back, hard, forcing his cock between Brysen’s lips and down into his throat, it was both expected and unwelcome, though he’d wanted it only moments before.

What he loved was giving his owner pleasure, having his owner’s moans drive him to stronger suction. This, having someone who couldn’t show pleasure using his mouth the same way any hole might be used, without regard for him as a person, was different, and the steady, deep thrusts of the dildo into his ass had already moved into discomfort. A human cock would be leaking precum by now, smoothing the way and reminding Brysen his owner was being driven toward release through enjoyment of his body. The dildo was an object being moved back and forth by mechanics. It didn’t enjoy this.

Brysen’s calves ached as the dildo pushed into him again. It was impossible to accept it now, when it was stretching him to the point of pain and his owner’s cock was deep in his throat. He couldn’t breathe, but knowing he wouldn’t lose consciousness from lack of air because this was nothing more than a manufactured scenario didn’t make it easy to fight the urge to pull away. He couldn’t move, and when panic overtook him, the owner and machine disappeared, leaving him kneeling on the floor, hands braced on it as well.

So that part of the test was over. What came next?

A whipping frame appeared, attached to the wall, a padded surface with equally padded restraints. Brysen rose, all aches and pains gone, as if a reset button had been pressed. His mental state couldn’t be so easily restored to calm, but he knew the test allowed for the cumulative effects.

Wrists cuffed, feet planted on the floor, he waited for the first stroke. It was from a flogger, thin, soft strands striking his back, the sensation laughably light in comparison to what he was used to, almost an irritant. He wanted more than that. Needed more.

He got it. Without warning, the flogger became a crop, a vicious slice of pain searing his ass, robbing him of breath. Tears stung his eyes, his body jerking with shock as his cock hardened. Yes. This.

Stroke after stroke landed, their placement precise, his ass and upper thighs burning, the savage sting unbearable, until he surrendered and went with the pain, letting it lead him forward. His breathing steady now, he moaned, then screamed, the harsh, primal expression of his agony and delight arousing him to the point where a single touch would have made his climax inevitable.

It felt like flying, the deep knowledge he did love this level of pain, that it wasn’t something he’d been forced into but something that had been brought out of him. He wanted this, wanted to get lost in it. Wanted it to eclipse everything else but him and his dedication to his owner, to Jax. There’d be this one perfect moment containing nothing but peace.

When he thought he wouldn’t reach it, the crop changed again. This time it became a flat paddle treated with a substance that burned on contact with Brysen’s skin. His nerves had already been screaming from the whipping with the crop; now they turned white-hot, and Brysen’s shout had no strength to it. It was an airless, soundless cry of agony without thought. Brysen felt his body convulse uncontrollably, unable to derive any pleasure from his orgasm because his nervous system was much too busy communicating pain.

The whipping frame disappeared, and he stood alone, all pain fading. He was as weary as if everything he’d been through was real, but he noted his ass no longer hurt and, more surprisingly, his cock was still erect. He was sure he had come, though the aching in his balls assured him otherwise.

The male owner stepped into view, naked, holding a slender dildo with something attached to the base. Understanding what was wanted, though he’d never experienced this scenario before, Brysen went down onto his knees and turned, offering his ass. The dildo was slick and slid into him easily; it had a ring for his hole to tighten around, and he felt the brush of something soft—fabric? Hair?—along the backs of his thighs.

“Such a pretty pony,” the owner murmured, stroking Brysen’s head and neck. “Everyone’s going to admire you.”

They were surrounded by a crowd of people who’d materialized on all sides, watching Brysen. He’d learned to accept an audience under Layne’s ownership. Layne had offered him up as entertainment to his close circle often enough, disciplining him casually in front of guests with a slap or a series of commands, forcing Brysen to assume increasingly humiliating poses until tears trickled down his face at the laughter around him. There’d been more formal displays of his ownership too, severe whippings, with his friends taking turns to choose the implement Layne used, or the number of strokes. Sometimes they’d bet on how long it would take him to scream, or beg for release from intense, prolonged arousal.

He’d accepted being the center of attention, but he’d never enjoyed it. Being out with his owner and behaving perfectly, basking in his owner’s warm approval, knowing people around them were impressed by his good behavior was one thing, but an audience for the searingly intimate moments when he submitted utterly seemed wrong.

This fell somewhere between. He submitted docilely to a harness and bit, to boots that gave his feet the appearance of hooves, to mittens removing his ability to use his hands. Allowed himself to be urged to run in circles, a long whip flicking his legs and ass, correcting his posture and speed.

The crowd applauded, and he preened, tossing his head, adding in a saucy wiggle of his ass so the tail swung jauntily.

“Bad pony!” His owner strode over, body language threatening, disgust twisting his voice. “Don’t you agree, everyone?”

There was a chorus of agreement, the audience’s scorn dousing Brysen’s mild enjoyment. He cringed when he was led into a stall, positioned on his hands and knees on a layer of coarse straw, ass toward the door.

“Bad ponies get punished.” A bucket of water was by his head, cloudy, straw floating in it. His owner grabbed Brysen by the hair and pushed his face toward the water. “Drink it now, or I’ll piss in it, then make you—”

His revulsion was sharp, instinctive, and the program changed before his face touched the surface of the water, leaving him sprawled on the floor of the original room. Shaking, confused, he struggled into a kneeling position, head down, waiting for what came next.

The room faded, and he blinked into the face of the technician, who smiled reassuringly as she unfastened his wrists.

“The test’s complete,” she told him. “When you feel able to walk, I’ll take you to the recovery room.”

“Now, please.” Brysen was so eager to leave the examination room he didn’t care if he stumbled. He did, once, but the woman steadied him and paused until he was ready to move again. He was grateful for the robe she offered him, and for the bottle of vitamin-laced water she pressed into his hand.

“You’ll feel better when you’ve replaced some of your electrolytes,” she said. “Your owner will be in soon to check on you, and when your results are in, I’ll let you know. It won’t be long.”

He sat and drank thirstily, an ear toward the door for Jax’s footsteps. He’d never asked Layne what it was like being on the other side of the privacy wall, watching. Had Jax seen the simulated scenes? Or had there been nothing to look at but Brysen strapped to a chair? Did he get to see the results of the test in detail? Brysen finished his water and set the empty bottle down.

When Jax came in, he jumped to his feet, wobbled, and shrugged out of the robe, dropping it onto the small sofa. It felt wrong to be covered up under the circumstances. “Did you see? Was I okay?”

“Stop talking and sit,” Jax told him.

“I can’t. I’m too nervous.” Some sub he was, disobeying his owner before they’d learned the results of his test. Maybe he’d failed entirely, and they’d send him out alone, without a collar forever.

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” Jax wrapped a hand around the back of Brysen’s neck and squeezed the base of his skull gently, providing comfort. “Deep breath. Sit.”

Brysen found the strength to obey, though he’d prefer to run than sit.

“How do you feel?”

“Honestly?” Brysen exhaled. “My cock’s confused.”

Jax’s chuckle made the room feel like home. “Well, that’s not good.”

“I mean, I was hard as rock for some of it, then soft as, well, sand. The dry kind. And the owner resembled you, but he wasn’t you, so it didn’t feel right getting aroused, but I did, because some of it was great, but when it wasn’t, I hated that he looked like you, and I’m babbling. I don’t remember babbling the other times.” He gave Jax a look of pure appeal. “Make me shut up. Please.”

Jax shrugged and leaned in, kissing Brysen before his lips shaped another word. It wasn’t a romantic kiss, but it held a possessive edge to it Brysen loved, a firm, thorough kiss, Jax taking his time over it, until Brysen’s scattered thoughts regained focus.

“When we get home, I’ll remind your cock who gets to make it hard, and I don’t think there will be any confusion by the time I’ve finished.”

Transfixed by the hunger and heat in Jax’s dark eyes, already achingly erect, Brysen nodded eagerly.

Jax reached down and clasped Brysen’s cock, squeezing it with the perfect amount of roughness, his thumb massaging the crown. “Hold that thought, because I have an appointment too, remember? Wait here for me. I won’t be long, I promise, and when I get back, your collar should be ready, and you can wear it on the way home.”

Watching Jax leave was a wrench, but with that promise replaying in his head, Brysen knew the wait for his return would seem endless.

Chapter Seventeen

Jax was impatient to get his assessment over with; it was nothing more than a formality, and he looked forward to putting all this behind them and deciding what they were going to do with the rest of their lives. As much as he’d enjoyed living in Marraka, he suspected a fresh start somewhere else might be the best thing for both of them, but he hadn’t wanted to discuss it with Brysen, not yet. Once Brysen was properly collared, they’d discuss the future.

The Subsitter Assessment Board was in a completely different wing of the building, so he had time to imagine living with Brysen full-time, learning more about him, and indulging in whatever pleased them. They could take a lengthy vacation if they wanted to, go somewhere beautiful where no one would recognize them.

He checked his wrist unit for the time before stepping close enough to his assigned assessor’s office door for it to chime his arrival. The door slid open, revealing not only the man he’d met with the last few assessments—the board preferred its assessors and subsitters develop a relationship—but two others he’d never seen before.

“Jax, good to see you. Glad you were able to be here on time.” Orson stood to greet him, smiling encouragingly, but Jax was already on the defensive.

“I did make it clear I had an earlier appointment, and you didn’t give me much warning.” He did his best to keep his voice calm.

“Yes, I understand Brysen’s collar testing went smoothly. I’m sure he’ll have the results by the time we’re finished here. Take a seat.” Orson indicated the stern-faced man to his right, who wore the cuff of an owner who’d committed to a sub. “This is Chell Antrim, my immediate superior.”

Antrim nodded without smiling.

“And to my left is Del Silva, the head of the legal department.”

Jax got a broad smile from Silva, but he wasn’t reassured. Too many teeth showing. “Is there a problem? Because this is overkill for a routine assessment.”

“Ah, well,” Orson began after clearing his throat.

Antrim waved him to silence, then leaned forward, creasing the fitted sleeves of his elegant dark-gray jacket. “Routine? I’ve read your file. You didn’t strike me as naive.”

His voice was deep and accented, betraying his off-planet origins with a drawl that under different circumstances Jax would’ve found attractive.

“I see no reason why recent events should have any effect on my license.”

Silva sighed. “I wish I agreed, but sadly, that’s not the case.” He steepled his fingers, tapping his thumbs together, the wide rings he wore on them chiming as they met. “As a subsitter, you’re in a position of great responsibility. You have to be trustworthy, fair, sympathetic, and flexible.”

Jax relaxed in his chair, resting his ankle on the opposite knee, projecting none of the anxiety he felt. “And which of those admirable characteristics no longer apply to me?”

“How can any owner trust a man who took part in the torture and murder of a sub?” Antrim demanded, color rising in his thin cheeks. “Yes, I’m aware you were coerced, drugged. I’ve spoken to the constable in charge of the case, and she was quick to point that out. It makes no difference. I’d leave my Sella alone for days before I’d trust her to you, and I know the vast majority of owners would feel the same.” He rose, walking around the desk to loom over Jax, his expression one of disgust, his scorn pouring over Jax, leaving him stunned, searching for words. “Those desires weren’t created by the drug. They lay dormant within you, waiting to emerge. You’re unsafe, and if you cared about the subs you’re supposed to protect, you’d have resigned immediately.” Antrim glared at his two coworkers as if daring them to argue. “This meeting is pointless; we’ve already agreed. For the safety of the subs we’ve taken an oath to protect, he needs to be banned from owning one ever again, in his private life and as a subsitter.”

Orson sighed and looked at Jax. “We felt it was best to tell you as a group, but to make it clear this isn’t a termination. It’s a suspension.” The tension between Orson and his supervisor, Antrim, was palpable, and if Jax weren’t so shocked at what was transpiring, he would have spent some time wondering what had gone on behind the scenes.

“A suspension,” he repeated blankly.

“A termination would be final. You’d be banned from ever working as a subsitter again or entering into a relationship with a sub.”

Rapists, abusers received that ban. Evil men and women, a danger to any sub they were with. Was that how they saw him? “And this isn’t final?”

“It’s a one-solar-cycle suspension. When the time is up, you’re welcome to apply to have your license reinstated.” Orson looked sympathetic, and that made Jax feel worse instead of better.

“The assessment would be exceedingly thorough, of course.” Antrim’s expression was sour as he sat again. “Procedure has to be followed.”

Jax was stupidly trying to make sense of this when it already made sense. As much as he wanted to protest, to insist that this was unfair, that he was being punished for something he wasn’t responsible for doing, part of him felt he deserved this. He couldn’t picture what this would do to Brysen, who was waiting for the results of his test and would be devastated to learn whatever collar stripes he’d been awarded didn’t matter in the slightest because the man who’d have owned him had been removed from the equation.

“I’m going to send you all the details.” Orson reached for a screen pad and typed quickly. “There, that should be everything. The official suspension, and of course copies of the statutes we based our decision on.” He glanced at Antrim, who rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “And if you have any questions at any time, please don’t hesitate to contact me. It’s a solar, not forever.”

Small consolation, Jax thought. He was numb more than anything; the implications hadn’t sunk in yet.

“Brysen.” The name felt alien on his lips, a sound he’d never made before. “He’s waiting for me. He expects me to…”

“Put his collar on for him? Well, that won’t be happening.” Silva shuddered dramatically with evident relish. “Can you imagine the lawsuit if you did and something happened to him at your hands?” There was a clear warning in the glance he gave Jax. “You can explain what’s happened, of course, but the only fair thing is to let him move on with his life. It’s not as if it’ll be difficult for him to find a new owner. He’s quite the celebrity, isn’t he?”

“And I’ll make sure he knows any unwanted advances from you will be dealt with by me personally, so stay away from him.” There was no mercy or sympathy to be had from Antrim. Jax had met his kind before, old-fashioned when it came to subs, treating them with courtesy tinged with condescension, unable to accept that a sub had brains or could act without an owner guiding every step. He was like Anna in that respect.

“Now, now.” Orson patted the air as if that would calm Antrim down. “Jax is a sensible man, and there’s no indication Brysen sees him as a threat. This is an awful situation, and I know we all want what’s best for Brysen. He’s the victim here, and—”

“I saved him.” Jax surged to his feet. “If it wasn’t for me, he’d still be with that monster. How can you think I’d hurt him? Ever?”

A sneer tugged Antrim’s thin lips into an ugly shape. “Saved? Or took from his rightful owner for less than honorable reasons? I’m sure to a man like you, an abused, broken sub is particularly appealing. He’s gone from one monster to another, if you ask me. Well, he’ll be safe with his next owner.”

He’d be safe with me. But prey to doubts, Jax couldn’t say that with any sincerity. He turned on his heel and walked away, forcing his expression into a blank mask to hide behind.

He was surprised they let him go, though fully aware they could have someone following him or be monitoring him on the building’s security system. It was hard to know how firmly Orson was on his side, though it seemed the man had made an attempt to limit the severity of his punishment.

Punished for having been kidnapped and drugged and abused, for having been forced to hurt a young man against his will, for having survived the experience. It was horribly unfair, but this wasn’t the time to focus on that. He’d mope later, when he’d explained to Brysen what had happened and made sure he’d be all right. The O/s department couldn’t prevent him from speaking with Brysen, at least, and after everything Brysen had been through, there was no way he’d abandon him outright.

He was only dimly aware of his surroundings and reached the recovery room where he’d left Brysen, the door sliding open so there was nothing between them. Brysen’s face lit up when he saw Jax. Sitting on the sofa was a clear collar box, the collar’s stripes easily visible through the thin material.

“Red,” Brysen said triumphantly.

Red. So perfect, everything Jax would have wished for in a sub, his match in every way, and now lost to him.

A solar wasn’t forever, but Antrim had hinted his chances of getting his license back were slim to none, and it wouldn’t be fair to Brysen to ask him to wait. The assessors had been correct: Brysen wouldn’t have a hard time finding an owner.

He still hadn’t said anything, and Brysen’s pride shifted to worry. “What is it? Am I not—”

Jax heard that Brysen thought the problem lay with him, that his test results were unsatisfactory to Jax in some way, and Jax was disappointed. “It’s not you,” Jax said quickly. “You’re fine. Perfect.”

“Then what’s wrong?” Brysen sank down onto his knees, naked and so beautiful it made Jax ache to look at him.

There was no point putting off the inevitable. “They suspended my license.”

“What? Why?”

Jax shrugged. “They don’t trust me with a sub after what happened with Matthias. Worried about their liability if something were to happen. It’s not unreasonable under the circumstances.” He didn’t want Brysen to know how upset he was; that wouldn’t help.

“Not unreasonable?” Brysen stood, face lined with anger and confusion. “But it wasn’t your fault! How can they blame you?”

“Apparently, it wasn’t the drug making me torture a nonconsenting sub to death, but my deviant urges glad of an excuse to come out and party.” He tried to keep it light, but it was impossible. He’d been insulted in the worst possible way, his vocation reduced to a ploy to get his hands on vulnerable subs and hurt them. Would Antrim interview his past clients? Dig up dirt to keep the suspension in place?

He’d been touched by an incoherent message from Tarl soon after Layne’s death, sobbing too hard to be understood in places, but assuring Jax he was the best subsitter ever, and if Brysen wanted someone to talk to, he was there for him, though he didn’t know him, but he looked nice on the news reports. Would Tarl be supportive faced with hostile questions from Antrim?

“That is so fucking stupid they need to invent a new word to describe it.” Brysen was incandescent with rage, rigid yet quivering, tears standing bright in his eyes, fingers clutching air as if he longed to punch someone. “I had that shit in my system too, and yes, I’m submissive, but I’m not suicidal, and I would’ve killed myself to please Layne. Literally. Jumped off the building, slit my wrists, let him flog me until my skin was shredded— Jax, oh shit, I didn’t mean that—”

Jax waved him back, nausea roiling his gut as memories of that final session with Layne assaulted him. Not important. Not now. He had to focus on Brysen, soothing him, making him see they couldn’t be together. “Sit.”

“I don’t think I can.” Brysen paced to the other side of the small room and back again. “This isn’t fair. None of it was your fault. What if we tell them to talk to the constables? I mean, how can they decide this without taking everything into consideration?”

“They have,” Jax told him. “And they did talk to Anna. They know no charges were brought against me—that isn’t the point. You and I know what Genie is like, but they aren’t sure if there might be any lingering effects on me, and they can’t take a chance I might hurt or kill a sub. The system is set up to protect subs, and they can’t risk letting a sitter with a dubious history slip through the cracks because there’s no precedent.” He didn’t add if Brysen were his sub, he wouldn’t want a sitter with his past caring for him. Traveling that conversational road wouldn’t help.

“What does suspended mean? It’s temporary?” Brysen sounded hopeful, and that broke Jax’s heart. He couldn’t make the mistake of letting Brysen think they’d wait it out and everything would be fine.

“No.” But that was a lie. “Well, officially it’s a one-solar suspension, but they made it clear my chances of getting my license back are slim. I don’t blame them.”

“Then you’re stupid too!” Brysen rolled his eyes at Jax’s expression in response to his disrespect. “My collar’s still in its box, and we’re not in a relationship. I can tell you what I think, and what I think is this: you feel guilty over what happened, and that’s normal, or at least understandable, but it doesn’t make sense for them to make a decision based on one limited period of time when you were under the influence of a drug they don’t know enough about. We can fight this.”

Jax was touched by Brysen’s loyalty, but he shook his head and lowered his voice. “I don’t want to.”

Brysen pressed his hand over his mouth, eyes wide. He looked as if someone had slapped him. Carefully he went over to the sofa. He picked up the box his collar was in, closed, and sat, box in his lap, one arm over it protectively. “Then what are we going to do?”

Suffer. Miss each other. Regret what might have been. None of which was helpful to say aloud. “I’ll help you find a place to stay in while you look for a new apartment. You could use Layne’s, but…”

“I can’t stay with you? You want me to leave?” The dazed hurt in Brysen’s eyes made Jax’s misery retreat under a tidal wave of fury at the system.

“It’s not my choice. I’m not allowed to be near you. If we argued we were living together without acting as owner and sub, I doubt anyone would believe us, and they’d still say you were at risk.”

“That’s my choice!” Brysen drew in a sharp breath. “I’m a sub, not a slave. I’m able to make decisions for myself, and I have rights. Choosing my owner is one of them. They can’t do this to us. Not after all we’ve been through.”

Jax sighed. Intellectually, he knew it was for the best, but in the face of Brysen’s resistance, it was difficult to stay detached. Impossible, in fact. He’d fallen in love with Brysen without realizing the moment attraction, and later, admiration, had deepened to something lasting. Losing him was the ultimate punishment, but he couldn’t shake the feeling he deserved it for his mistakes in judgment, even if he absolved himself of responsibility for Matthias’s death. “If you’re going to say it’s not fair, I agree, but I can see their reasoning even if I don’t appreciate the end result. Your safety, the well-being of the subs I deal with—that’s what’s important. Helping subs is my life, Brysen, not only my job. I’m still dealing with what I did to Matthias. If I hurt anyone else, I’m not sure I could handle the guilt.”

Brysen tossed his head, lips set in mutinous lines. “There are owners and subs out there making mistakes every day. How many times does a collar flash in this city? How many subs realize they’ve made a mistake and their owners coerce them into staying in ways the collar doesn’t pick up? You’re safer than most owners because you’ve crossed that line. You know where it is, and you can avoid it.”

“Words.” Jax wanted to draw Brysen close, soothe the tension out of him with touches he’d keep gentle until Brysen was ready for more. It was killing him to keep a physical distance between them. Owners and subs touched frequently, at ease with each other. His instincts were at war with the situation. “We can stay here arguing all day, but it won’t change a decision that’s been made for us. Get dressed. I need to get out of here.”

Not least because he knew the room was being monitored, their conversation recorded as potential evidence to be used against him if he disobeyed the ruling. He pictured Antrim’s glee if he caught Jax in behavior worthy of a permanent ban. The man would love making Jax an example with which to scare potentially abusive owners and to reassure people of the O/s department’s efficiency.

Brysen’s eyes narrowed. “You think they’re listening to us.”

He nodded. “I know they are. They’re concerned for your safety.”

“They’re not worried about me.” Brysen was dismissive and far too clever for his own good, but that didn’t stop Jax from being impressed. “They’re worried about their own asses. In a legal sense, anyway. Right?” He raised his voice and stood, still holding the box his new collar was in. “Are you monitoring us? Well, here’s news for you: I don’t belong to you. I belong to myself, and I make my own decisions.”

“This won’t help,” Jax pointed out.

“I don’t need it to. I don’t need their permission to talk to you, or to leave here with you, and you know what else?” Brysen locked eyes with him. “I don’t need their fucking collar.”

“Brysen, no.”

“Yes. Definitely yes.” Brysen threw the box, which slid across the floor and came to a stop near the wall. He trembled as he picked up his neatly folded clothes and pulled them on. “I don’t want it anymore. Not like this.”

“You can’t.” Jax didn’t know what to think, but he hated that Brysen would give all this up for him. It wasn’t right. “Not after what you went through with that testing.”

“So it could tell me what I already knew? That we’re right for each other? Go on, tell me we’re not. Tell me.” Tugging his shirt into place, Brysen met Jax’s gaze again. “Tell me I’m not what you want, and I’ll stay here. You can go, and I’ll put on that collar and start looking for an owner. Is that what you want?”

Jax picked up the box, light in weight, heavy in meaning, the smooth sides cool against his palms. He held it out to Brysen. “I don’t have the right to give you orders, but if I did, it’d be to put on this collar and get on with your life. If you have any respect for me—and I know you do—it’s an order you’ll obey without me needing to say it.”

Brysen snatched the box from him and jerked his head at the door. “You wanted to leave? Go. I’ll send Illya over for my stuff.”

Jax took a step back, then another, every muscle screaming a protest. When he reached the door, it slid open, and he turned away from a defiant, scowling Brysen and walked out of the room.

Tears had been in Brysen’s eyes, close to spilling. Jax loved making a sub cry, kissing a wet, hot cheek and tasting salt, but unhappy tears were different. For every tear of Brysen’s that fell, Jax wanted to exact revenge on someone, but he wouldn’t be there to count them.

It was over.

And he wondered where he would be if he’d turned Layne down, and if Brysen would still be alive, trapped, lost in false adoration, or dead with Layne ready to select his next experimental subject. Given those options, he couldn’t regret ruining his life by saving Brysen.

But he wished his last memory wasn’t of Brysen crying.

Chapter Eighteen

“I know.” Brysen sighed and went out onto the balcony, screen pad in his hand, to continue his conversation with Illya. The view was amazing—the literature for the exclusive and expensive Khatari Royal claimed it had the best view on the planet, and he believed it—and it was a gorgeous afternoon. The ocean lapped around the base of the towering building, held back by a crystalline wall, shimmering with an internal light; rising out of the water were huge natural outcrops of white rock, the famous Spires, covered with dense vegetation, deep-green foliage, and vibrant splashes of color from various flowers. Seahawks glided around the Spires, huge wings unmoving, the thermals carrying them high, and to the right he glimpsed the misty outline of the mountains that surrounded the city like protective arms. The sky was an endless well of blue, mirroring the sea, not a cloud visible. Easy to believe if he jumped off the balcony—if the safety features allowed that, which they didn’t—he could dive into the blue overhead as easily as the ocean beneath. “You’re right; I have to move on, but…”

“You’re not ready,” Illya said. “And that’s okay. Normal, even, but I don’t want you to get stuck where you are.”

“Here? It’s the nicest place I’ve ever lived.” Not that it was permanent. He was nearing the end of his third week and knew he couldn’t afford to stay there forever, even with Layne’s credits to dip into.

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

He sighed again. “Yeah. I’ll make a decision soon, I promise.”

“We’re still having lunch tomorrow, right?”

“Of course. My shift ends at noon.” Brysen hadn’t known what else to do with all his free time, so he’d gone back to his job, though it meant a much longer commute. It was a relief to return to the familiar routine and his friends, with the added benefit that while he worked, he was too busy to think. The incongruity of his job and his current living quarters didn’t escape him. “Do you want to meet me there?”

“Sounds good.”

Brysen ended the call and put the pad down on the nearby table. He leaned on the railing and looked out over the city, telling himself he should go back down to the hotel’s gym for another hour. His appetite had come back with a vengeance now his system had cleared the last of Layne’s drugs, and although he’d only gained two pounds and could gain another ten before reaching what he considered his normal weight, he wanted to put on muscle, and hard workouts had the added benefit of helping him sleep.

He’d put on his collar. The red stripe looked stark, exciting. Same colored stripe, but earned now. He couldn’t pretend he wasn’t a sub; it’d be as futile as trying to cut off his shadow. And he was honest enough to admit no matter how much he missed Jax, a time would come when he’d look for another owner.

His body, unmarked, unused, craved a whipping, a hard fuck, and he’d stood too long alone. Time to kneel at an owner’s feet.

Almost time.

He couldn’t shake his longing for Jax, though. Love for an owner came naturally to him, but the artificially inspired devotion for Layne had been fake, and before Layne used the drug on him, he’d never felt the sweet heat that sizzled through him at the thought of Jax.

He ached for Jax. For what they’d come so close to having. They’d known each other for a short time, but it’d been crammed full, concentrated time. He didn’t know Jax’s birthday or his favorite food, color, show, animal. If they went to a movie, would Jax enjoy the action-packed ones or the kind that won awards for being inspiring or heart-wrenching? Brysen wasn’t sure what side of the bed Jax preferred. Jax had let him choose, saying it didn’t matter. And none of that was important because Jax was an owner he could kneel to for the rest of his life and never feel bored or dissatisfied or anything but cherished.

But Jax didn’t want him enough to fight the authorities for him, and Brysen had to accept that.

“Tomorrow,” he said aloud. A bird flew by, too small to be a seahawk, gray wings tipped with silver by the sun, wheeling gracefully in an updraft, free to go where it pleased. And so was he.

Impatient with standing still, literally and figuratively, he headed for the gym. Maybe after he’d worn himself out exercising, he’d be able to think about more than Jax’s deep voice and the way he gave pain without cruelty, matching every desire Brysen had, leaving him fulfilled and happy.

Who was he kidding? He could run from here to the highest of the Destiny Peaks, and the memory of Jax would keep pace with him.

The gym wasn’t usually too crowded at this time of day—it was worst early in the mornings and after dinnertime, when most people were done with work—and this afternoon was no exception. Brysen preferred when there weren’t a lot of people, not only because he hated waiting for a machine but also because the Khatari Royal’s clientele were so high-class it made him uncomfortable to be near them. In his room, which was more a suite, he could forget he was surrounded by the ultrawealthy. At the gym, it was a little more difficult.

He claimed his favorite machine near the windows, a fancy elliptical designed to work all the major muscle groups, and set it for thirty minutes. That wouldn’t be enough to thoroughly exhaust him, but he’d do a second round after a five-minute break to rehydrate. He wore a pair of tight-fitting shorts and a light shirt, with the pair of exercise shoes he’d owned for a while but rarely used until a few weeks ago, and he knew he’d be sweating heavily as soon as he got going.

“Hi.” It was the same man he’d seen the night before, a tall, handsome specimen with white in his hair supplied by age and not a salon.

Brysen murmured a greeting and focused on his workout; the machine was complicated, and though he’d been using it for a few days, he still needed to concentrate if he didn’t want to end up tossed to the floor. He lost himself in the burning of his muscles and in regulating his breathing, and when the machine beeped and slowed, he was surprised his time was up.

He went to get a drink of water, and when he came back, his new friend was waiting for him. “I’m Skylar King. Didn’t I see you here yesterday?”

“Yes. I saw you too.” That verged on flirting, which he wasn’t trying to do, but any other answer would have been dishonest. “I’m Brysen.”

“I know. I remember, from the news.” Skylar was keeping his voice low so they wouldn’t be overheard, which Brysen appreciated. “That must have been hard, going through that. Are you in hiding?”

With a snort he tried to keep amused, not derisive, Brysen shook his head. “If I wanted to do that, I’d have gone off-planet, not come to stay here. And people have moved on. I still get looked at when I’m out, but it’s more a don’t-I know-you-from-somewhere deal than true recognition.”

“Or perhaps they’re staring for other reasons. You’re attractive, though I doubt that’s news to you, not that I’m the first person to say it.” Skylar didn’t do anything as crass as touching him, but he nodded at Brysen’s collar. “You’re single.”

Self-conscious about the compliment and his new collar, Brysen didn’t know what else to do but agree. “Yeah.” He corrected his answer, responding to Skylar’s air of command. “Yes. And thank you. I’m glad my appearance pleases you.”

Ooh, where had that come from? He needed…something. From someone. Why the fuck hadn’t Jax stayed with him?

Skylar raised his eyebrows, surprised, maybe, but flattered by Brysen’s response, judging by the warmth in his gaze. “It does, and so do your charming manners. I can’t imagine you’re ready to take a step toward changing your status yet, but we could go to my room and spend some time together. I’m more used to yellow- or orange-stripers, but I’d do my best to meet your needs.”

Twenty minutes later, Brysen was on his knees in Skylar’s room and wishing he wore something other than his tight-fitting exercise shorts. Or wishing he weren’t wearing anything at all, but they hadn’t gotten quite that far yet. They’d started with some conversation; then Skylar had kissed him—he’d gotten hard immediately—and asked him to kneel.

“Come here.” Skylar was standing near the bed, and Brysen crawled to him, hands behind his back, head low with respect. Though this man was a stranger to him, it felt good to honor his instincts. “You’re lovely. There are so many things I’d enjoy doing to you.”

“I hope you’ll do anything that pleases you, Sir.” Brysen closed his eyes as Skylar’s hand caressed his hair.

“I think it would please me to spank you. Take off your clothes.”

It was a relief to strip off the shorts and free his erection, and more so when Skylar moved him into the position he preferred—on his knees, shoulders low on the mattress, ass high in the air—and hit him once, and much too lightly to do anything but sting.

“Mmm. I think I’ll spank you until your ass is hot and red. Maybe use your mouth for a while. Do you enjoy that?”

“Yes, Sir.” Brysen wanted to suck him dry.

“After that, I’ll fuck you. I don’t think you’ve been fucked often, isn’t that right?”

Brysen was confused at first—it had been a long time since he’d played games—but he soon realized what was being communicated. “Please, Sir, please don’t. I’ll do anything else to satisfy you, whatever you want, but please don’t fuck me.”

“Surely you’re not a virgin?” Skylar touched his hole with one fingertip, and Brysen whimpered as if he were afraid instead of desperate for more.

“My owner, my…my previous owner tried to fuck me. But he couldn’t.” Ugh, he didn’t want to think about Layne and ruin this, so he invented an imaginary owner, one who loved him too much to hurt him. “He said I was too tight. He was afraid he’d damage me.”

“I’d never do that.” It was said with such sincerity and compassion Brysen’s eyes stung with tears. Skylar cleared his throat as if sensing the moment was in danger of tipping from erotic to emotional. “But I see no reason why I should be denied the pleasure of fucking you.” He shoved his fingertip in, the dry rasp igniting a spark of desire in Brysen. Skylar worked it in deeper, Brysen automatically relaxing, enjoying the mild burn, before pulling it out. The loss was a thousand times more painful than the penetration. “There, see? That didn’t hurt, and neither will my cock.”

It didn’t matter if it did. He wanted it to hurt.

“Subs who deny their owners access to their bodies on a whim deserve punishment. Your spanking was going to be a short one, but I’ve changed my mind. You’ll be sore when I’ve finished with you, but it will teach you a valuable lesson about honesty between sub and owner.”

Skylar was sweet, but impatience undid most of Brysen’s progress toward enjoying the encounter. He had no objection to playing a role, though Layne had never bothered, but he ached for the simplicity of a hard paddling, no words exchanged, only heat. “Yes, Sir. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to deny you anything. How could I? I’m yours.”

Words. No, lies. This was all wrong. Why was he doing this? Jax. He needed Jax. Panic gripped him, his breathing choppy, head spinning. He would throw up, he knew it.

“Yes, you are.” Skylar patted Brysen’s ass. “Let me show you what I do to subs who—” His voice changed, stripped of artifice, concerned now. “Brysen? What’s wrong? Turn over. Let me see you.”

Unable to obey, Brysen shook his head and moved away, to the edge of the plush hotel mattress and over it onto the floor. He knelt there, reassured by the solid floor underneath him, taking in a deep, shuddering lungful of soft air.

“Okay. Everything’s okay. I won’t touch you unless you tell me it’s all right.” Skylar was such a genuinely nice man, and he clearly understood, maybe better than Brysen did, that this was a panic attack.

“I’m fine,” Brysen managed to say, then laughed. “Okay, no. But I will be.”

“You will. Take all the time you need. I’m in no hurry, and nothing’s happening unless you want it to.”

Brysen risked a glance at Skylar, but the man hadn’t moved. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s my fault. I took things too far too quickly, without asking enough questions first.”

“I thought I was okay.” He wanted to punch something, but he was too busy focusing on breathing and the rapid pounding of his heart.

“Can you look at me, please?”

It was a gentle request, nonthreatening, and Brysen managed.

“How long has it been? Since what happened to you with your previous owner?”

Brysen thought. “Um. Four and a half weeks? I think.”

“Then I’d say you are okay. Maybe not perfectly, but considering everything you went through, it’s a miracle you handled any of this.” Skylar smiled encouragingly. “I wish I’d realized it was so recently. Was this the first time?”

“That I freaked out? No.” Brysen’s gaze traced the pattern on the duvet. “I did submit, though. To a different man.”

“The subsitter from the news reports?”

“Jax.” It seemed important Skylar knew his name.

“But it didn’t work out with him?”

Brysen shook his head. “It did, but he’s in trouble because of what happened. He was drugged and had no choice, but they think he’s a risk to subs, and he’s not allowed near me. Near any sub.”

“And you don’t feel that way?”

The questions, even asked gently, were scalpel cuts, each one drawing blood. “I know he’s safe. If you’d seen how guilty he feels—” Brysen hammered the floor with his fist. “It’s so fucking unfair! I get nothing but sympathy, and he gets blamed when he was as much a victim as any of the subs Layne and his friends abused.”

“I agree.” Skylar didn’t touch him, but he patted the bed. “Up here, Brysen. I know the carpet’s indecently soft, but I’d prefer you off it. I’ll use the chair by the window.”

“You don’t have to.” Brysen ran his hand through his hair, finding the strands damp with sweat. “I trust you too.” He gave a small huff of laughter, shaky to his ears, and crawled back to sit on the bed. “When I’m not drugged, I’m a pretty good judge of character.”

“Thank you.” Skylar tapped his lips, his expression thoughtful. “It’s not my line of work, but my brother specializes in wrongful-dismissal cases. If your friend wanted to appeal his suspension, it seems to me he has grounds. I could give you Marko’s comm code for you to pass on. Or if not Marko, any other lawyer, of course.”

“I thought of that too.” Brysen shrugged, bitter at how easily Jax had given up. Given him up as well as his job. “He says they’re right to worry, and he agrees with them.”

“Jax sounds like a good man and a responsible owner.”

“He’s both those things. And more. He’s amazing, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to move on to another owner, not knowing he’s out there somewhere.” He wasn’t sure he’d realized it until right then, but it was true. “Um, would it be okay if I got dressed?”

“Of course. Have you spoken with him?”

“No.” Brysen found his shorts and pulled them on, grateful his erection had subsided. “He said it was over. I sent a friend to his apartment to get my things, and that was it.”

Skylar nodded. “Do you think that was the right thing to do?”

“What, leave him alone after he told me to? I’m a sub. Plus, you know, I respect other people. If he doesn’t want me, for real, I won’t force myself on him.” He sounded dramatic, but he meant it; no matter how much he wanted Jax, there was no way he was going to go over to Jax’s apartment and insist Jax take him back. That wasn’t the kind of person he was.

“I can’t imagine him not wanting you.”

“Well, that’s a nice sentiment, and I appreciate it, but it’s not that simple.” Brysen sighed and pulled his shirt on, then sat on the bed again, making sure he left some space between them. “I don’t think staying here is working out. At the hotel, I mean. I need to go somewhere else. Off-planet, even. Somewhere I can start a new life without all this history hanging over my head.”

It was difficult to imagine that new life, but he knew as long as he stayed here, he’d keep thinking about Jax and wishing things were different.

“You’ll take him with you, wherever you go.” Skylar scratched his cheek, his expression rueful. “That sounded remarkably trite, but it’s true. If you want to forget him—”

“I don’t!” Brysen swallowed. “I couldn’t. But if we can’t be together as owner and sub, it’s torture knowing he’s in the city, a few zones away, and we might bump into each other or something. If I went off-planet, at least I wouldn’t have that to deal with.”

“You’d be lonely.”

“I’m lonely now.” Saying it brought home the truth of it. His family, his friends… He loved them, but his experience had left him cut off from his old life. Bridges could be built over time, maybe, but right now, he was stranded with Jax his only companion. And Jax kept walking away.

“I wish I could help, but I’ve made things worse.” Skylar looked at him, studying him in a way Brysen linked with owners, a careful appraisal that went deep and left a sub exposed. “You’re not ready for another owner. Don’t push yourself. If you become desperate for release, don’t turn to a stranger who doesn’t appreciate the complexity of your situation. You might find yourself in an awkward situation.”

Knowing some owners wouldn’t have been as quick to back off as Skylar, Brysen nodded. Few would’ve forced him to go through with spanking and sex, but disappointment and frustration might have led to angry words.

“I’m lucky you’re like Jax. A good man.” Moved by impulse, he went to his knees on the bed, bowed forward, and offered Skylar the little he had to give. His respect.

The lightest of touches on his head; then Skylar sighed, moved off the bed and over to the window, his back turned, voice stifled. “You should leave now, I think. And don’t make any hasty decisions. Ask yourself what you want, then work out how to get it. There’s usually a way.”

Too polite to point out that as far as he could see, there was no way out of his dilemma, Brysen took the hint and left.

His collar should come with a warning label; he seemed incapable of leaving any owner happy.

He thought his sleep would be interrupted by nightmares and he’d wake sluggish and in need of an energy boost, but to his surprise, for once he slept heavily and woke refreshed. He took a long shower and put on the shirt he liked best for work, one with sleeves fitted to the elbows that didn’t get in his way. He debated not bothering to eat anything and having a smoothie when he got to work—one of the perks of the job was free smoothies—but decided to grab a breakfast roll from the tiny refrigerator unit instead. He had plenty of time to eat during the commute to work.

* * * * *

“Brysen! I didn’t know you were working this morning!” Keli, a large woman with dark skin and a headful of thick curls, hugged him as he came in the back door.

“That’s because you never check the schedule,” he told her. She smelled of flowers and new-fallen rain.

“Not true! I check it to see when I’m working. I don’t always notice when anyone else is.” They were ready to open, and she pulled her hair back carefully, securing it with a shiny clip before sanitizing her hands. “When was the last time we worked together, fourth day?”

“That depends. What day’s today?” Brysen grinned. “I’m kidding. Yeah, I think it was fourth day. What have you been up to since then?”

As they turned on the smoothie blenders and checked to be sure everything was clean for the morning rush, Keli told him about her two small children, both girls, and all the trouble they got into. It didn’t sound like trouble to Brysen, not the way she told it; it sounded fun and made him envy her, even the part where she’d spent half an hour washing finger paint out of their hair. “They make paint dissolver, of course,” she said. “Can you imagine what it must have been like when they didn’t?”

The first two hours went by in a flash; then things slowed to a crawl when one of Brysen’s least favorite customers turned up. She had a list of questions that would have been as long as her arm if she’d written them there instead of on a slip of paper.

“I don’t use screen pads.” She’d told him this a hundred times at least, so he smiled and tried to look interested. “Now, I’ve heard the papain enzyme is good for digestion.”

“Is that an area you’re having trouble with?”

“You have no idea,” she said, then proceeded to tell him in nauseating detail.

He listened, nodded, smiled, or frowned in all the appropriate places, but his heart wasn’t in it. She’d end up with green sludge, reminding him of the nutrishakes Layne had forced on him. It was inevitable. She had a multitude of dislikes, and once they were eliminated, there wasn’t much left. Around him, customers were being served drinks in bright colors, some layered in rainbows, some sparkling or topped with extravagant mounds of shaped whipped cream, but his customer would walk away with swamp water and mud, pretty much.

He handed it over and watched her take a suspicious sip. “You left out the thistleberry dust!”

“No, there’s a double helping in there. See?” He showed her the itemized receipt. “Enjoy!”

It was less a hope than a plea.

“I can’t taste—” she began, but a new customer had walked in, obscured by a crowd of chattering teens. Brysen’s attention snapped to him, every instinct he possessed telling him who it was before the teens moved away.

Jax looked tired but at peace, his dark eyes calm, standing tall. He met Brysen’s stunned, questioning gaze with a faint smile, then came over to stand behind the woman, ignoring Keli’s welcoming gesture. It wasn’t discourtesy; he hadn’t looked at anyone but Brysen since walking in.

“Excuse me? I said I can’t taste the lemongrass either.”

Breaking eye contact with Jax took an effort of will, but he managed it. “It’s free if you don’t enjoy it.”

She huffed, blushing, fiddling with her braided hair, an unremarkable brown shade. It needed washing. “I didn’t say I didn’t like it, and I’ll certainly pay, but it’s important for my constipation that everything is in there.”

“It is.” He couldn’t snap at her. She didn’t know his heart was hammering as fast as if he’d been running, his skin tingling. Jax wasn’t supposed to see him. Something had changed. It had to be good news, or Jax wouldn’t be here. He smiled at her, a brilliant, dazzling smile, words tumbling out, nonsensical, random, saying anything to get her to leave. “You’ll poop like an angel.”

“Oh! Well. Thank you, dear.” She was flustered, but his attention was on Jax, and as soon as she stepped aside, Jax moved into her abandoned spot.

“Hi,” Brysen said. “What can I get for you?”

Jax blinked as if surprised to learn he stood at a counter and Brysen’s job was to serve him. It was such an amusing thought it forced a smile onto his lips.

“What do you recommend?” Jax asked. Buying time.

“Hmm. That depends on what you’re looking to correct.”

“That’s right; it’s a cure for all that ails you.” Jax looked up at the screens listing their weekly specials and the dietary add-ons that were currently all the rage. “I didn’t come for a smoothie.”

“I know,” Brysen said, but he was playing a part and aware Keli was listening in as best she could. “Let me make you one anyway.”

Jax nodded. “Yes, of course. Something with sunflower-seed butter, maybe?”

“High in protein and good for mood disorders.” Brysen focused on pretending he didn’t know Jax, as if he were a stranger in need of analyzation. “Is sleeping a problem for you? Insomnia?”

“Sometimes. Recently more than usual, I suppose.”

“Nightmares?”

“Occasionally. And my appetite hasn’t been the best. I’ve lost a few pounds. What would help with that?”

Brysen looked up from checking boxes on the tiny screen pad that would suggest a final recipe for the customer. “Well, the sunflower-seed butter, for one. High in fat and calories. Passiflora incarnata for the sleep. How would you rate your mental acuity? Some people find that suffers when they aren’t sleeping well.”

“My decision-making hasn’t been all it should be.” Jax rubbed the back of his neck, making Brysen long for that hand on him, the touch gentle or rough, he didn’t mind which. He was starved for contact, too used to it as a constant in his life not to miss it. “I’m second-guessing myself too much. Forgetting important details.”

“Ginkgo biloba,” Brysen said automatically, processing what lay behind Jax’s words, hope stirring to life. “It’s a new superstrain they developed on Marlla Six.”

“Sounds perfect.”

Brysen set the smoothie maker to blend and was left with nothing to do after processing the payment but stare at Jax, absorbing every feature, storing Jax’s face in his mind in case this wasn’t the reconciliation he wanted it to be.

“If I promise to drink every drop, will you take a break so we can talk? Or if you can’t do that, I’ll wait until your shift is over.” Jax smiled with a clear effort. “It has to be in public, but I guess this qualifies. And if you’d prefer not to, that’s your right, and I’ll respect it and leave.”

“With the smoothie or without it?” Wicked of him to tease, but he needed to keep his words light or he’d melt down, explode, something. Why was he on his feet, not his knees? Why wasn’t Jax ordering him to leave here and go with him? Sure, he had a date with Illya, but Illya would understand if he canceled.

He knew why. That fucking suspension, hanging over them like a storm cloud.

“I’ll take the smoothie either way.” Jax waited.

The machine whirred into the higher gear it used to complete the blending process, then shut off. Brysen put it into a cup, snapped the lid on, and handed it to Jax with a straw. “It’s on me.” There was a possibility this would be his last chance to give Jax anything, and he wanted to take it.

He guessed Jax’s first instinct was to refuse, but after a moment Jax said, “Thank you.”

“I can take a break, if you give me a minute to tell Keli.”

Keli was dying to know what was happening, of course, and Brysen promised to share everything.

“As soon as I know what there is to tell.” It was a reckless promise—there might be things he wouldn’t have the emotional strength to discuss, depending on why Jax was there—but he made it anyway.

Jax had sat at a table nearby. “It’s good.” He gestured with his cup when Brysen joined him.

“I’m glad you like it.” I’ll make you three smoothies every day for the rest of your life if you’ll let me. “What did you want to talk about?”

“I should have messaged you and set up a time to meet,” Jax said. “Instead of showing up.”

“Why didn’t you?” Brysen did his best to sound calm, though he didn’t feel it, not remotely.

“I didn’t know if you’d talk to me. I wouldn’t have blamed you for refusing, after the way I walked out on you.”

“It was a shitty situation. We were both under a lot of pressure.” Fuck, get to the point! Why are you here?

“Right.” Jax drank some more smoothie as if trying to put off the inevitable part of the conversation, which didn’t do much to reassure Brysen. “I wanted to see you. To make sure you’re okay.”

“That’s all?” Brysen asked when Jax fell silent. “Well, I’m not. I’m lonely, I miss you, and I miss being what I am. I tried submitting to a man staying at my hotel, and he was sweet and understanding, but he wasn’t you, and I couldn’t do it. I don’t think I’ll ever find an owner who suits me the way you do. Did.”

Jax grimaced, hunching his shoulders. “I’m sorry. But give yourself time. It’s in your nature to submit, and there’s a planet full of owners better than me to choose from.”

“Weren’t you listening?” Brysen demanded. “I chose you. My right, my choice, and I made it. Why is everyone forcing me to accept second best when you’re right here?”

“You know why.”

“I know they suspended you, but why won’t you fight them?” Voice low but forceful, Brysen glared across at him, willing him to see sense. “No charges were laid against you. You’re innocent, and they’re punishing you for being a victim. If they tried to do that to me, you wouldn’t let them. You’d create such a fuss they’d have no choice but to back down. We can give an interview, spread the word about how fucking unjust they’re being. With me by your side, backing you up, they’d reinstate your license before the interview had finished airing.”

“I don’t want to put you through a media circus.”

“Because you have to make all my decisions for me?” The man was infuriating, and Brysen honestly didn’t know why he felt the need to fight so hard for someone who didn’t seem willing to put in the same effort. “If you stop worrying about protecting me, and what might be best for me, and what I deserve and all that… What do you want?”

Jax leaned back in his chair. “I want to know you’re going to be all right.”

“Are you listening to yourself?” Giving up on trying to be subtle and calm and whatever else wasn’t doable anymore, Brysen stood. “That wasn’t the question. If things were different—if the Assessment Board decided tomorrow your license was reinstated—would you want me as your sub?”

“What I want isn’t the point,” Jax snarled. “I can’t have what I want. I want for none of this to have happened in the first place.”

Brysen let that sink in. “You wish you’d never met me? Is that…is that what you’re saying?”

Jax’s gaze was fixed firmly on the table, and he didn’t look up when Brysen kicked the chair he’d abandoned hard enough that it bumped into the table.

“Fine,” Brysen said. “Why did you come here? To make sure I was okay? You’re so full of shit!”

“I—” Jax glanced up, his strength drained, making Brysen realize how off his initial assessment of Jax’s mood had been. Jax wasn’t in a good place at all. “I can’t do this. Not here. Not anywhere. I can’t do this.”

With a shove that matched Brysen’s kick for violence, Jax pushed the table aside, his smoothie spilling, splattering a nearby woman who’d been eavesdropping shamelessly.

She cried out, batting at the cold liquid clinging to her tunic, and Jax growled out something that might have been meant to be an apology and headed for the door, customers scattering as if he were a wild animal charging them.

Brysen watched him go, furious, upset at the way the meeting had gone wrong, then turned to placate the equally furious woman. He’d gotten her calmed down without doing anything to change his foul mood when a touch on his shoulder had him spinning around ready to do battle on another front.

The manager stood behind him, his face forbidding. “More drama, more disturbances? I’ve been as understanding as anyone could expect, but we both know you don’t need this job, and you’re bringing nothing but a negative attitude to work.”

“Fine,” Brysen snapped. “I’ll save you the trouble of firing me and quit.”

“That’s a good idea.” The manager nodded at the door. “Follow your friend, and tell him I don’t want to see either of you in here until you can control your behavior.”

There was probably a perfect reply—scathing, succinct, and cutting—but Brysen was too distraught to search for the words he needed. Making sure he turned in the opposite direction to Jax, he left, tossing his hat, emblazoned with the store’s logo, in the first recycle unit he passed.

He was done with overpriced smoothies, owners who couldn’t see sense, people who kept staring at him, and this whole fucking planet.

Chapter Nineteen

Jax had been walking for miles along the shore. He’d known from the beginning it would be exhausting to do it with shoes on—the sand was soft and deep enough that sturdy soles were no match for it—so he was barefoot, shoes left behind not far from where he’d first stepped off the path. Now his calves ached and the back of his neck was hot because he was walking away from the sun.

It was the same beach he and Brysen had been to together not long ago, though he’d skipped the area with the dunes as well as the heavily pebbled surface past that. The waves were rough here, crashing against the shore and leaving deep furrows where they drew the sand out to sea, and although Jax’s pants were knee-length, they were damp with salt water.

He hadn’t had any plan when he’d come; he only knew he’d felt ridiculously empty and lost since his argument with Brysen earlier and didn’t know what else to do. The thought of the fresh air and the waves seemed comforting, so here he was, weary, eyes stinging, perfectly willing to accept he’d never go back for his shoes. He didn’t care.

He had to pause when the sand gave way to larger rocks. Barefoot, he wasn’t sure he could cross them, so he had to turn away from the water and follow the line of dunes and boulders toward the place where he and Brysen had been. He hadn’t planned to come this far, but he’d lost track of where he was and how much time had passed, and knowing there was a bench nearby was enough to keep him moving.

It wasn’t until the path curved and the bench came into view that he saw he wasn’t alone.

Turning away from Brysen would’ve been the wisest action. Keep slashing at the ties binding them until Brysen was free. He couldn’t do it. Bring a crop down on Brysen’s ass and watch the red bloom under the skin, twist and clamp sensitive flesh until a breath on it was torture, keep Brysen on the edge of orgasm until the climax, when it came, was more agony than pleasure—all that he’d do willingly, knowing how much they’d get out of it.

Hurt Brysen by yet another rejection? Beyond him.

He trudged up the slope, aware of his lack of grace, sand shifting under his feet, giving way to shale, the sharp-edged stones bruising his soles, grit stuck between his toes, chafing them. A penitent’s walk.

Brysen watched him approach, unsmiling, hands clasped in his lap, making no move to go to his knees. Odd how that bothered him. Brysen was correct not to do so; Jax wasn’t his owner, but Brysen loved kneeling, the visual affirmation of his submission precious to him. The order that separated them had been given to protect Brysen, but so far all it’d done was cause him pain.

He reached the bench, too fit to be out of breath from his exertions, but finding it difficult to speak. For a fleeting moment, he wanted to go to his knees, abase himself in front of the man who’d taken his settled life and reshaped what had seemed solid into a new form. Knowing how disturbed Brysen would be by the reversal of their roles kept him on his feet, but he nodded at the bench, wordlessly asking permission to sit.

Brysen’s lips quirked at one corner. No one would have called it a smile. “It’s a public place.”

“If you don’t want me here—” Jax started, but Brysen shook his head.

“No. I mean, it’s fine. As long as we don’t have a repeat of our previous conversation, because that sucked.”

Jax sank onto the bench, trying not to wince. “It did.”

They looked out at the sea. The crash of the waves and the distant cries of birds were a pleasant distraction from Jax’s sore feet, but he’d probably practiced denial enough for one day.

“I’m sorry,” he offered.

Brysen sighed. “I know.”

Lulled by the steady rhythm of the water, Jax kept talking. “You wanted me to tell you if I wanted you. I did. I do. Too much, and I can’t bear the thought of putting you through all the drama that would entail. No, don’t interrupt me and tell me it’s not an issue. It is an issue. You’ve been through enough for multiple lifetimes, and I want to imagine you living out the rest of this one in peace, with an owner who’s confident. And free of legal issues.”

“I hear that it’s an issue for you. I want you to hear it isn’t one for me. I don’t care. If the future holds eight solars of suspension and problems, or…or twenty cycles, but at the end of that we’ll be together, I’m on board.” Brysen turned toward him, earnest and so attractive it was killing Jax not to reach out and touch him.

“That’s easy to say at the start of it, but after a solar or two, you’d feel differently. You’d be driven to find pleasure, and one of the owners would click with you. Then I’d be part of your past, not your future.”

He expected Brysen to argue the point, but he was learning how unpredictable Brysen was at times. “If you’d died on that skimmer, maybe. I would have been a mess, but there wouldn’t have been any choice for me beside moving on. But you’re not dead. You’re here, right here, and I can’t see a single reason why we can’t be together. I love you. That counts for something, or it should.”

Hearing Brysen say that hurt and healed him at the same time. “You only think you do. You, uh, transferred what you felt for Layne to me because I was in his place, and—”

“Are you listening to me?” Brysen demanded, sitting up straight, quivering with indignation. “Stop letting them talk for you or saying what you think they want to hear. They’re not watching us now. It’s you, me, and a whole lot of empty beach. If you can’t give me your love, give me your honesty.”

“I do love you.”

“And you’re allowed to call it that, but I’m not?” Brysen threw his hands up in the air. “I’m going to ask you something. When you met me, did you think I loved Layne?”

“Yes,” Jax answered unhesitatingly. “You adored him. Pleasing him was your primary goal in life.”

Brysen snorted. “And we know that was fake for the most part. I liked him at first, but without the drug, once the glamour wore off, I’d have moved on, and he knew it and hated me for it. But I can remember how loving him felt, and so when I tell you what I feel for you is real, I’ve got something to compare it to. What do you have? Nikhil, I guess.” He scrubbed his hands over his face, his breath ragged. “So do you love me more than you loved him? Less? The same? Don’t answer, because you can’t. Love isn’t measured that way, and we know it. You can love us both without robbing one of us to pay the other. But if you love me so much, don’t let me go! I’m fucking lonely without you. I’m broken in half. Be my owner, Jax. Hurt me, love me, own me. Put me back together. Please.”

Jax had tried to interrupt Brysen’s torrent of words and gotten nowhere. When Brysen fell silent, chest heaving, a tense, agitated sub in need of reassurance, he couldn’t hold back.

“Come here.” He gathered Brysen close without waiting for his consent, because only a stupid man wouldn’t see it was what Brysen wanted. “Of course I want you to be mine, to do all those things to. Most especially to love. And I’m going to be the one lonely and broken if this doesn’t work out, which makes you a thousand times braver than I am. If it were up to me—”

“Then we go back and do whatever they need us to do.” Brysen pulled back enough so they could look at each other properly. “Fight the suspension. Whatever it takes. Say we’ll do it.”

Jax wanted to, desperately. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. You know I’m stubborn, right? I won’t fade quietly away and let you pretend none of this happened, let you forget me. All I need to know is you’re on board, and I’m in. One hundred and ten percent. But you have to say it.” Brysen touched Jax’s face gently. “I need to hear you say it.”

Heart in his throat, terrified, Jax nodded. “Yes. Okay? Yes. We’ll do it.”

Brysen threw both arms around him and kissed him, then hugged him tightly, face pressed against Jax’s neck. “Thank you. Thank you. I love you so much.” Jax strained to hear the words, but there was no question about what was being said.

“What if—” He hated himself for asking and for the way Brysen withdrew from him again. “What if things don’t go the way we hope?”

“If they say your license is suspended for longer than a solar, you mean?” Brysen frowned. “No. There’s no way that’s going to happen.”

“If it does, they can keep us apart,” Jax pointed out. Now he’d admitted to Brysen how he felt, it was an upsetting thought. “They could probably send me off-planet and ban me from coming back.”

“Then I’d go with you. Anywhere. A prison moon, an ice planet, that weird world over in the Centauri quadrant where they think the universe is going to implode, so they live underground as if that would save them if it does. Anywhere. I mean it.” Brysen shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about moving off-planet to get away from the memories, so it wouldn’t bother me.”

It couldn’t be that easy. Not allowing himself to picture a fresh start on a new world with Brysen at his side, Jax said, “You have family and friends here. A job.”

Brysen waved that away dismissively. “We’d get a place big enough for visitors to stay, and I don’t have a job now. I got fired for causing a scene. Which was your fault too, but I’m not holding a grudge because it wasn’t my dream career.”

Oddly, Jax didn’t feel guilty over Brysen losing his job. The smoothie had tasted vile and cost three times more than he considered reasonable for a drink.

“Look, let’s get out of here. Not here the beach, and not here the city… Let’s go off-planet. Take a vacation so we can put a little distance between everything that happened here and give ourselves time to think. The sale of Layne’s apartment went through, and all the financial stuff’s been settled, and it’s not like half a lunar somewhere is going to cost any more than I’ve been racking up paying at the Khatari Royal.”

“You’ve been staying at the Khatari Royal?” Jax hadn’t imagined that wasteful luxury appealing to Brysen.

Brysen shrugged. “Yeah. I couldn’t have afforded it long-term, but I had to stay somewhere until I figured out what to do next, and it seemed distracting.”

“Meeting-would-be-owners distracting?”

“That wasn’t something I was considering, but it was definitely distracting for an hour or so.” Brysen sounded regretful. “Jealous?”

“Insanely. I’m going to want to know how far it went.”

“I need to be punished for attempting to submit to someone who wasn’t you.” Brysen touched Jax’s knee lightly. “I knew it wasn’t right.”

“We’ll deal with it another time.” Jax meant it as a promise. “Are you serious about going off-planet? Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t care. Somewhere warm like this, where we don’t have to wear clothes.”

“You naked all the time would be a plus, but I’d cover you up if your ass was bruised.”

Brysen looked intrigued. “Why? No one would mind what marks I had unless we went somewhere primitive.”

“I’ve got a possessive streak when it comes to you. If I’d put the marks on you, I wouldn’t want another owner staring, getting hard, picturing themselves whipping you, making you cry and beg for more.”

“Your job.”

“My pleasure,” Jax corrected him. He shook his head. “Are we doing this?”

“If they won’t see reason, and maybe if they do.” Brysen tilted his head back, staring up at the sky, banded with color now, the setting sun turning blue into a muted rainbow. “So many worlds out there to explore, and one of them will feel right for us, I know it.”

He leaned in to kiss Jax, the soft press of his lips respectful now. Give him a moment, and he’d be on his knees, Jax thought, anticipating their return home. He’d ignore the ban on being with Brysen. What could they do to him now the decision to leave had been made?

“Take me home?” Brysen begged, the wistful pleading in his voice making Jax hard. He’d make Brysen beg again later, for every touch he got. “We can—” He broke off, eyes wide, scrabbling at his collar as it flashed a warning. “No! What— Why is it doing that?”

“Fuck!” Jax sprang to his feet, stepping back. “They must have added a proximity sensor to your collar and keyed it to me; they’d already decided about my suspension before they gave you the collar. Too long close to you and it signals them.”

“But that’s for criminals, not people like us!”

“To them, I am a criminal,” Jax told him, sick to his stomach. He knew what would happen next. A team would be dispatched, he’d be arrested, interrogated, bound by law—and Brysen would be left alone again.

Brysen stood. “Take it off me.”

“What?” There was no way Brysen meant that, not after all he’d gone through to earn it honestly this most recent time around.

“Jax, listen. I know what I’m asking, and I’m doing it of my own free will. I’ll tell anyone so. It wasn’t put on me by an owner, and if you weren’t the one who put it on me, I don’t want it. Please. Take it off.” He was capable of removing it himself, though the collars were designed to stay on no matter what a sub might undergo, and the fastening was tricky. It would be hard for the wearer to unclasp it without a mirror, even with the tool. “Please.” Sensing Jax’s hesitation, Brysen went to his knees, head bowed.

The collar was still flashing, and that more than anything else made Jax want to get it off him. He kept the required tool in a pouch at his waist; most owners made sure one was to hand at all times, though they were rarely used. The impact of his action didn’t hit him until he’d lifted Brysen’s face and pressed the collar into his hands. Unclasped, it stopped flashing and lay, unremarkable, in Brysen’s grasp.

“Thank you.”

Jax knew the slightest doubt in Brysen’s voice when he was inevitably questioned might bring their carefully built house of cards falling down around them, but Brysen was already setting the collar on the bench and keying his wrist unit.

“I’m contacting Constable Hiljin,” he explained. “Better to do it before someone shows up here. I mean, they might anyway, but if— Constable? This is Brysen Allun. I’m being monitored without my knowledge and made the decision to remove my collar. It’s flashing because I’m with Jax, but there’s no point. I’m his, and we’re going off-planet to escape this undeserved persecution.” His gaze met Jax’s. “I wanted it to be a matter of record that I did it of my own free will, in case there’s any question of coercion.”

Noted and recorded,” Anna said, her voice clear, some amusement showing. Jax thought he knew why. Brysen had sounded adorably indignant. “It isn’t in my jurisdiction, though of course we follow— Yes, here comes the notification from O/s that they’re sending an intervention team your way. Why they tell us, I don’t know, but I have the authority to stop them, and believe me, I will. Using force if necessary.

She sounded as if she were hoping for the opportunity to get violent. Maybe she’d acquired a taste for it, but Jax couldn’t find it in himself to care, if she got the O/s department off their backs. In fact, he’d send her flowers.

“Thank you from both of us,” Brysen said.

No problem at all. You’ve been through enough without those self-righteous, judgmental bastards giving you more grief.

“Um. Yeah. Thank you.” Brysen shot Jax a look conveying his bewilderment at Anna’s support and evident disapproval of the O/s authorities as he ended the call.

“She’s scary.” Jax grinned. “I like her.”

“I do too, at least when she’s on our side,” Brysen clarified. He lifted the collar, weighing it in his hand. “I want to do something dramatic with this. Throw it into the ocean or off a cliff.”

“The littering fine would be worth it, but it wouldn’t be the best idea to pollute the ocean. Toss it in the recycle unit at the station on the way home.”

“Okay.” Brysen slid his hand through the collar instead, wearing it like the world’s biggest, most awkward bracelet. “Um. Where are your shoes?”

Jax had forgotten his feet were bare—and sore. “I left them on the beach. Back that way.” He waved in the direction he’d come from.

“I think you’re going to want them.”

“Probably.”

“So… What should we do?” Brysen was shading his eyes from the sun, looking up at Jax with his head tilted to one side, smiling as if he’d received a gift.

Jax knew how he felt. A sense of freedom filled him, unlimited possibilities opening up.

“Whatever we want.”

Brysen shook his head and sank to his knees. “Whatever you want,” he corrected. “Collared or bare-necked, I’m yours to command.”

“Love me,” Jax said softly. “Don’t leave me.”

Brysen bowed his head, but not before Jax saw a flash of delight cross his face. “Always and never. I promise.”

Looking out past Brysen to the sea, Jax inhaled the scent of salt water. It was a beautiful spot, there was no denying that, and he appreciated it in a way he wouldn’t have been able to ten minutes before. It wasn’t purely feeling happy to have Brysen as his, though of course that was part of it. It was more that their lives had clicked into place, their two puzzle pieces fitted together in the big picture.

They were where they belonged, and the next collar Brysen wore would be gold, matching the cuff on Jax’s wrist.

Jax rested his hand on Brysen’s head, the breeze blowing whisper-soft strands of hair against his knuckles. “So do I,” he said. “I promise too.”

* ~ * The End * ~ *