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Daddy's Boy

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The sound of Alex laughing was what caught James' attention as he was finishing his lunch. He probably wouldn't have heard it if he'd been upstairs, but he was just across from the play room, and he wasn't sure what was going on. Greg didn't normally play with them during the day, not that he'd noticed anyway. Sure, he hadn't been here long, but he felt he'd got a sense of the rhythms of the house by now. Hadn't he?

James sat there and finished eating, trying not to let his curiosity get the better of him, but Alex crying, 'Daddy no!' in a conspicuously child-like, laughter-filled way just sounded so strange, he had to go and see what was going on.

James got up and carefully went down the hall just enough to see into the play room but not be seen, and he wasn't sure what he was looking at. The play room was almost unrecognisable. It's like it had been done up like a children's nursery. Greg had mentioned he did do this kind of thing with Alex, James remembered that now, but he'd never seen it before. This was all that inner child stuff, right? Age play? James scoffed at it, because it was just grown adults pretending to play like children, right? It just seemed pathetic to him.

But he still found himself just sitting down in the hall to watch them, as if he was somehow suddenly transfixed. He'd never seen Greg like that before, just playing with Alex as if he was a child. Alex was wearing what looked like slightly oversized flannelette pyjamas with teddy bears on them, which honestly did make him seem a lot younger. He also noticed Alex wasn't wearing his collar, which surprised him. Greg was usually so strict about that.

It was so strange to see Alex like that. There was a defensive part of him that wanted to just straight out tease Alex for being so childish, but he didn't want to interrupt. It was also strange because an hour ago, Alex had been in his uniform like he should be, cleaning the guest lounge with him. Alex had just disappeared into Greg's office, and James had been too involved in cleaning out the fireplace to notice what happened to him after that, except to notice that he didn't come back. So when lunch time came around, he just went to lunch, and assumed Alex was busy with Greg.

Alex had seemed - fine? James hadn't noticed anything different with him that might have suggested this was coming. They'd traded barbs all morning as they usually did. They were mostly friendly, none of them ever came from a place of malice or anger, but there was always a slight edge to them, a challenge, and it kept James on his toes as they worked around the house doing their jobs.

It was fair to say that James didn't really know all that much about what Alex did with Greg though. Those sessions were private, and James respected that. He only really knew what Alex told him, and that wasn't much. Alex was terrible at talking about sex, and his reluctance to speak about it made James hold his tongue too. But he did sometimes wonder what they did. Perhaps this was it.

He didn't really know why he was watching either. He had plenty of work still to do. He hadn't finished in the lounge yet, there was some dusting to do, and he had to bring in some more wood, and finish vacuuming the rugs. But for some reason, he didn't move. The house felt like it was holding its breath, taking a pause, and so James did too.

James had always been good at observing people. That had been his way out of trouble all his life. And even though he hadn't been here long, and he hadn't seen much of how Greg played with Alex, the more he watched, the more Greg, too, seemed like he wasn't acting like the Dom James knew him to be. There was no sense at all that this was kinky or sexual or something either of them were getting off on. It just looked like grown men playing with toys. He didn't understand the appeal of that.

James wondered how often they did this. Was it a regular thing? Or just when Alex needed it? Greg hadn't said anything about that when he'd been going over the schedule with him, so perhaps it was just when Alex needed it. He wondered what Alex got out of it. It wasn't like he was playing like he was a teenager, he looked like he was playing with baby toys. James could see wooden blocks, and a train set, and there was Alex, making a tea party for his cuddly toys with some sort of babbling commentary that James couldn't quite hear properly because he had his back to him.

And Greg was just… being a dad. He was just being a dad. To be fair, Greg was good at that, even though he'd never had kids of his own, but it was still weird when it was Alex, and not an actual child. The way Greg was speaking to him was as if he was addressing a child, and James didn't know why that surprised him, but it did. And Alex's voice was … different, but not different. The pitch was a little different, but he wasn't putting on a fake sort of baby talk the way people do when they're making fun of it. He just … James honestly couldn't put his finger on just how differently Alex was speaking, even though his voice didn't sound that different, not to him. His vocabulary had shrunk, and his words were somehow even more innocent than they usually were, and he was still unapologetically polite when Greg asked him questions or gave him something.

If James was being honest, there was a part of him that still wanted to be a kid again. He felt he'd just been a fuck-up since he'd stopped being that good little boy, and he missed it in ways he just couldn't quite articulate. Would he go back to being that kid again if he was given a choice? Was it always the rose-tinted perfect magical time that he imagined it was? Were things just better then? Things had certainly made more sense. He knew his place. He knew the rules. He knew how the world worked. And then he'd grown up, stopped being a child, and started thinking, and it had all crumbled down around him. He couldn't go back to that. He couldn't just go back to being a child. He knew too much. He knew what was really there now. He knew how the world really worked. He knew what he was really driven by. He couldn't be that kid again, he was sure of it.

But somehow, Alex seemed to be able to forget all of that. Somehow, he was sitting in there, and maybe it was just a weird kind of subspace he didn't really understand, but he'd forgotten how to be an adult. Or he was consciously forgetting and being a child instead. Remembering how to be a child. But there was no way James could go back, right? James didn't have that kind of mind. He hung on to things. There was no way he could ever get himself into that kind of state of mind where he was just a child and nothing else. That he could block out the rest of the world and remember what it was like to be that good little boy again. When he didn't hate himself for what he'd failed at, how he'd just given up on that faith that had been so good to him. He just wasn't good enough for that kind of thing to work.

"No, no! I don't want a nap, daddy! I'm not tired!" Alex said, breaking James out of his thoughts as something appeared to hit something, as if it had been thrown.

"Yes, you are, you're a very tired little boy who needs a nap, or you'll just get grumpy. I can tell. You only throw your toys when you're grumpy. Now, come on, be a good little boy and have a nap, then maybe there'll be something yummy waiting for you when you wake up, yeah?" Greg said.

"But I'm not tired!" Alex protested.

"You always say that and then you fall straight asleep as soon as I put your blanket on. Now, go and get settled down. Do you want your teddy? Where'd you put Timmy?" Greg said.

"Not Timmy! Ollie! Read me a story, Daddy!" Alex said.

"Are we really doing this, Alex? Really? I thought you didn't want stories before a nap anymore. I thought you said you were a big boy now and you didn't need bedtime stories anymore," Greg said.

Alex stamped his feet. "No! Story! Then nap!"

"Alright, I'll read you a story. Which one do you want? Do I even need to ask?" Greg said.

"Ollie! I want Ollie!" Alex demanded.

"Alright, alright. You get comfy and we'll read Ollie again," Greg said.

James shifted just a little closer, because he couldn't quite see what was going on now, but he still didn't want to make it obvious he was listening. He was impressed at the restraint Greg was showing; even though there was a little frustration in his voice, he never sounded angry, and his voice was always gentle with him. James wasn't sure he'd be able to hold his temper if he had a misbehaving child to take care of.

James wished he could get a better look, but he was afraid of interrupting them. He heard Alex stamp his feet, and Greg chided him gently but firmly before he started reading the story to him. James couldn't quite hear the story, Greg was reading it fairly quietly, but Alex seemed to be enjoying it because he kept exclaiming 'Ollie!' and 'Dragon!' every so often.

After that, it seemed that Alex did eventually give in and lie down wherever it was Greg wanted him to sleep. Then there was just silence. And then before James was aware of it, Greg was standing there, softly closing the door behind him, and James felt tiny, and a little ashamed for eavesdropping.

"Come on, come up to the lounge, we'll talk there where we won't wake him up. I'm assuming by the confused look on your face that you have a lot of questions about what you've seen. I didn't really explain it when you moved in, did I?" Greg said, keeping his voice low, as he gestured upstairs.

James raised his eyebrows, surprised he wasn't being told off, but perhaps he was saving that for when they got upstairs. "No, no, you really didn't. And I do have some questions, yes."

"I thought you might. Come on, I'll make us some tea and you can ask anything you like about it," Greg said.

"Yes, sir," James said.

James got to his feet and followed him upstairs, where he waited for Greg to return with the tea, not sure where to sit. Strictly speaking, he wasn't really allowed in here unless he was cleaning or serving. That's what he'd been told when he'd arrived. But those rules had been loosened when they'd all started hanging out together in the evenings and playing games together, and Greg loved this lounge so much he was willing to let them relax in here too, albeit never alone, and always on the proviso that they were on their best behaviour and cleaned up after themselves. Any mess was harshly punished.

But lovely though it was, it wasn't the place for serious conversation, at least not in James' limited experience. Those kinds of conversations always happened in Greg's office. That's what Greg had trained him to expect. So, for him to be brought up here for a chat, that was weird.

It was a nice room though. James could appreciate his taste. And while it was quite tasteful in style, James could see very clearly where Greg's silly side had been allowed a little spot of attention, and he smiled at that. It might on first glance look like a house of old money, because that's what it was, but it was very clearly Greg's too. He'd made sure that was obvious. You just had to look at some of the photos, or let your eyes be drawn to some of the weirder bits of décor that he'd put on display. James didn't know anyone else who would have what looked like a shelf of old family photos but on closer inspection, were all just pictures with his silly faces photoshopped on to them.

Greg didn't let him have too long to look around before he was back with the tea. James waited to be asked to sit, because he felt like he was about to be punished for watching when he should have been working, and he didn't want to presume that he would be allowed to sit down here at all. He would have knelt before him out of instinct, but Greg gave no indication that this was what he wanted.

"Go on, sit down, anywhere you like, James. You're not in trouble for watching," Greg said as he handed him a cup of tea.

"Thank you, sir. Are you sure I'm not in trouble? I should have been working, I know you said we shouldn't spy on private sessions, it's not allowed, is it?" James said, hesitating.

Greg sat down on the sofa and gestured for James to join him. "You're really not in trouble, James, I promise. I know I said private sessions are private, and that still stands, but I can't help it if Alex won't let the door be closed while we're having those sessions, so if you happen to see it, well, it'd be silly of me to get mad at you for that."

"Oh, uh, he doesn't like the door being closed? Why?" James asked.

"He just doesn't like it. But, come on, sit down. We've got a bit to talk about. Get comfy, yeah? Don't worry about Alex, though, he'll be fine for a while, he's just sleeping. I might go check on him if he's been sleeping a while. I can never quite tell just how long he's going to nap for after a session like that. But we might get maybe half an hour, forty minutes, if we're lucky."

"Oh, right, I didn't think he was actually sleeping?" James said. He hesitated a moment more before he sat down beside Greg.

"Oh, yeah, it's how he gets himself out of that space. I don't know why that's the way it works for him, but it's how he does it. He just sleeps himself out of it and then he's fine. If he's been particularly stroppy, he might need a bit of aftercare, but usually I can just leave him alone and he's fine," Greg said.

"What do you mean? Isn't he just playing pretend out there?" James said.

Greg shook his head. "No, he's not pretending. I'm glad you just kept quiet and watched, because if you'd come barging in asking about it, he'd have got very upset about that. You'd have dragged him out of that headspace too quickly, and he wouldn't have coped. It's very much a state of mind for him. Like subspace, but different. He's not pretending to be six years old, he is six years old. You can't talk to him as if he was still an adult when he's like that, because he won't understand."

"Pfft. Yeah, right. He's not an actual child, Greg," James said, not sure he believed it at all.

"I mean, you're more than welcome to try, but don't come crying to me when he tells you off for using big words and starts having a tantrum," Greg said.

"No. No, it's not like that. How can he just-? That kind of thing just doesn't work like that, does it? He really believes he's six years old? Really? That's madness," James said.

"He is six years old, James, he doesn't just believe it, he is. That's how you have to treat him. And I need you to really understand that because you need to be careful with him when he's in that state, particularly if you're going to keep hanging around watching. And I don't mind, I really don't, because it is weird, and it's going to happen every now and then, and you should be alright with it, even if it's not your thing. But just be aware that if he spots you, he might just beg you to play with him, and you'd definitely be a real shit if you didn't, James," Greg said.

"No. No way am I playing with him. He's - no, that's not my thing at all," James said.

"You're his big brother, you little shit. You can't just not play with him if he asks. He's been so excited to have you come and live with us, because he's been on his own for so long and he's desperate for someone to play with. I'm sorry to say I've had a lot of boys who haven't worked out lately, and Alex has been really sad about that," Greg said.

"No. No. I am not his big brother. No way. That's not happening. And anyway, how can I be his big brother? I'm younger than him!" James said.

"Not to him as a child, you aren't," Greg said.

James had to stand up. He had to pace. He was just. Flailing. "This is weird. This is so fucking weird. It's so weird, Greg. He's just - and you're - like, why? What does he even get out of it? Why would he just want to … regress like that and sit around playing with toys like a baby? I don't get it," James said, grasping around for understanding.

Greg just shrugged. "What's not to get? He enjoys it, and so do I. It's not like I'm having sex with him or anything, because that would be weird and if he asked, I'd be very concerned, because that's absolutely not what this is at all. It's just play, James. We are literally just playing with toys like silly overgrown children, because why wouldn't you, if you could? I mean, he'd hate me describing it that way even though it's true, but that's all it is. It's honest to God just a lot of fun. Besides, he says it helps his creative process, keeps his brain young. I guess that's why he sleeps it off, so he can let that work its magic on him or something. You should try it one day. Haven't you always wanted to be a kid again? You do remember how to play, don't you?"

James shifted, stared at the floor, tried to make sense of things. He was relieved to hear that it wasn't a sexual thing, but it was still weird, and he was beginning to feel like he was being interrogated now because whether he remembered how to play or not was not a question he wanted to answer. This was meant to be about Alex, not him. James flailed around for words. "But it's - adults can't play like kids. That's not how it works. We just - can't do it right."

"That's because you've never tried. Come on, sit down. I don't expect you to understand it after one conversation, that would be too much. Just sit and think about it. Maybe once you understand it a bit better, maybe you'll try it one day and see how much fun it is," Greg said.

James turned away from him, squeezed his eyes shut, pressed his fingers over his eyes. This was just too weird. He didn't get it. Why did he even come here? He didn't fit here. Surely he didn't fit. He wasn't like Alex. He couldn't do … all that stuff. That kid stuff. Bedtime stories and play and whatnot. Maybe Greg didn't want to pressure him to be into it, but that's what it felt like. That he'd have to play with Alex and he was sure he would hate that.

"No! I'm not playing, Greg! This isn't my thing. I'm not a kid. I'm not. I'm not. Why did you bring me home that night? God, I don't belong here. Let me go, sir, please," James said, frustration getting the better of him.

Suddenly Greg was right behind him, whispering harshly in his ear as he gripped his shoulders tightly.

"Keep your fucking voice down. If you wake Alex up with your carrying on, you'll be the one paying for it, alright? Now come and sit and just calm yourself down," Greg said.

James straightened, all the anger leaving his body immediately as he was reminded how hard Greg could hold him. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."

"Good boy," Greg said, releasing his grip.

James let Greg manoeuvre him back to the sofa and he sat down obediently. And then, Greg sat down and turned to face him, and his hand was gently stroking his hair, and something about his energy just made James feel small. And not just because Greg's sofa was gigantic and he felt so tiny sitting there beside him.

"I wonder what you'd be like as a kid. I wonder if you'd let me play with you like that. I mean, you've got the temperament for it, even if you don't want to acknowledge it. And you look twelve, so, I mean. Why wouldn't you be his big brother? And anyway, I might need you to be able to watch him if I need to step out, because he doesn't do this on a schedule so I can't plan around it. It just happens when he needs it, so having you around to watch him if I needed it would be helpful. You'd do that, wouldn't you? You just need to watch him and make sure he doesn't hurt himself. Just pretend he's your younger brother or one of your nephews or something. You're such a kid at heart, James, even I can see that. You'd be good at it," Greg said.

James sipped his tea, pointedly not looking at him, because he might give in then. "No. I'm not. No. I don't. Do that thing. I'm not a child. I'm not a child."

"And yet, you say that like you regret so much that you grew up. What kind of kid were you? I mean, I bet you were a brat, right? Were you the kind of naughty boy who got in trouble all the time? I bet you were, right?" Greg said.

"No! No, I wasn't! I was a good boy! I wasn't a brat! I was-" James paused, unsure. His brain was a mess, this conversation was just so weird, and he was angry at the insinuation that he had been a bad kid.

Greg spoke before he could finish what he'd been trying to say. "So what turned you into a brat, then, if you were such a good little boy?"

James found himself clenching his fist, and he put his tea down, not enjoying where this was going. "I changed. I… I grew up. I gave up. I just wasn't good enough."

"Weren't good enough for what? For your parents?" Greg said.

"Yes. No. I mean." James couldn't think, didn't want to talk about this. "Not that. But for a lot of things. For everything." James sighed, refused to elaborate. "Why are we even talking about this? This isn't about me. I'm not into … that kind of thing."

Greg just looked at him, and stroked his hair. "Oh, don't mind me, I'm just trying to figure you out, that's all."

James just gave him a confused look. "Figure me out? What do you mean? What are you trying to figure out?"

"Oh, nothing."

Greg tucked a strand of hair behind James' ear, and smiled. He seemed to just study his face for a while, and James wasn't sure he liked the attention, but he didn't say anything because he didn't know what to say. Greg just kept stroking his fingers through his hair and it was as lovely as it was irritating.

"You really want to be that good little boy again, don't you? The world made sense back then. Everything made sense. Then you grew up. Am I right?" Greg said.

"No, no, I don't, I- it's not like that. I don't - want to be- I can't, I just-" James struggled to find the right words. His head was swimming a bit, because he hated how Greg just knew. God, he just somehow knew just what was going on with him. James had never told him any of this, but somehow that fucker just knew, like he could read his mind. James was furious. He was even more furious at Greg just gently laying his hand on his arm, as if reminding him who was in charge.

"If you're going to have a tantrum, please at least wait until Alex has woken up. I don't need two grumpy little boys screaming the house down, alright?" Greg said, and James hated the way his voice was just so … commanding, even though his voice was just so gentle and calm.

James contented himself by crossing his arms across his chest and scowling. "Fine. Just- Fine."

"Good boy," Greg said, stroking his hair.

James scowled. He kept on scowling as Greg brought him into a hug, bringing him to cuddle up next to him. But then, Greg was still just gently stroking his hair, and God, it was beginning to get to him. Being called a good boy was getting to him. Greg just softly kissing his temple was getting to him. All of this was getting to him.

"I'm sorry, this got a bit weird, didn't it? I'd understand if you wanted to move out. A lot of people can't cope with it, and that's fine. It is a weird thing, and if you do want to stay, it might take you a while to get used to it, but that's alright. But you've got to be okay with this, because Alex needs it. I can't just stop it. Tell me what you're feeling?" Greg said.

James sighed, and this time, he hugged Greg back, settling into his arms in that way that always seemed to make him feel so calm. "A lot of things. Confusion, mostly. I think I need to see it more. Like. I think I need to be okay with it, that it's just play. I mean, I wouldn't want to just have to have you leave him if I wasn't able to watch him. But I'm very much not sure about a lot of this. It still feels weird to me. It's definitely not a sex thing, right?"

"It's really not, I promise you that. We made some ground rules on touch when we first started doing age play sessions, and Alex made it very clear he didn't want any kind of sexual contact at all. Trust me, it's really not like that at all," Greg said.

"Alright, that's - okay, good. I'm glad it's not - like that. Cos that really would be weird, and I would probably leave if it was. I don't think I could handle it if it was," James said.

"Believe me, I wouldn't let him do it if he wanted to make it sexual. The child's play I can handle, but I couldn't do sexual age play with him. That would be too weird even for me. But it's what everyone assumes when they hear about it, so don't feel bad for asking," Greg said.

"Is that why he doesn't wear a collar then? Because it's not a kink thing?" James asked.

"Yeah, that's why. Made the mistake of leaving it on the first time, and he hated it so much. It just pulled him out of that kid subspace in really uncomfortable ways, so I take it off every time now. It's better that way. I'll put it back on him later when he's woken up. It's just another way to get him out of that mindset and back being an adult, when that collar comes back," Greg said.

"Hmm, fair enough. Am I still allowed to think it's weird? Because it is weird, Greg, even if it's not - sex, you know? I guess I don't really understand what he gets out of it? Or what you even get out of it? Like, what do you get out of just playing with baby toys like that?" James said.

"You're definitely allowed to think it's weird. Even Alex will acknowledge that it's weird, he's well aware of that. It's hard to really say what he gets out of it, you'd have to ask him that, but for me, it's just fun, you know? Maybe I'm just a frustrated dad who should've had kids years ago, and now this is as good as I'm going to get. But honestly, it's just fun. Why don't you come and watch it a few more times? See what it's all really like? Some boys really need to see that it's just play before they believe it," Greg said.

James thought about that for a moment. Did he really want to just watch it again? It's not like he was interested in trying it out himself. But then again, he had sat there for quite some time, transfixed by what he was seeing, so perhaps he should. Maybe he was more into it than he thought he was. "He's not going to get mad if I watch again, am I? Like, I know he's got a thing about being watched, so I just - I don't want to like, take him out of his head if it just triggers all that kinky shit he really doesn't want, you know?" James said.

"Hmm, that's a good point. I'd have to ask him. He might be alright with it. But then again, if he knows you're watching, he might just try to get you to play with him. But don't feel you need to come and watch, either. I know it's weird, and if you're not into it, it might just turn you off it. And I really don't expect everyone to get it, or to be okay with it. We all have different limits. Don't feel like you have to stay because Alex wants you to. I don't want you being guilt-tripped into staying. This is your decision, not ours. You have to feel comfortable being here too, and if it's too much for you, that's fine, we'd both understand," Greg said.

"Now I really do feel like you want me to move out. It's just… this is a lot to take in. Would Alex be willing to at least talk to me about it? I feel like I need to hear it from him. What he gets out of it. I mean. I know he has some weird kinks, I think we all do, but I need to hear it from him, I think," James said.

"No, no, I'm not trying to pressure you at all, just making it clear you don't need to stay if it's too much for you. And sure, you can talk to Alex about it, that's fine. He's never shied away from trying to explain it when asked, because he knows it's weird. Just ask him. Sit down and talk to him about it over a meal or something. Just don't push him or judge him for it. There's no kink-shaming in this house, alright?" Greg said.

"Oh, no, I wouldn't- I mean, we all have our thing, right? And it was - sweet, watching you with him. Weird. But sweet. You know?" James said.

Greg smiled. "Yeah, it was sweet. He's a lovely kid, he really is. I mean, I couldn't find that kind of headspace, you know? But he can, and he just has the kind of boundless joy I thought I'd forgotten how to feel. You just wait. You think you can resist it, but when you see him playing, you'll get caught up in it just like I do."

"Ha! Yeah, right. I won't give in, just you wait," James said.

"I admire your confidence, but you'll give in when you realise how much fun it is," Greg said.

James wasn't sure, but there was a part of him that didn't mind fun. Fun wasn't work. Why would he want to work when he could have fun? But it was still just weird, because it was the idea of being a child that he just couldn't get his head around. Why did Alex need to be a child to do that? Couldn't he just have fun like a normal person?

James shifted a little, and settled in next to Greg, thinking, and Greg seemed quite content to let him just think it over for a while, without prompting him with questions. It's not that there wasn't a lot he liked about being here. Even if he didn't quite understand why, this place did feel like where he belonged. He fit. That was a strange thing that he was still trying to understand, because he often felt he didn't fit anywhere or with anyone. But in spite of his earlier protestations, he fit with Greg. And potentially, he fit with Alex.

But then James wasn't sure he'd enjoy it as much here without Alex being there. Alex kept him on task. Alex made it all work. James was sure that if it was just him and Greg, nothing would get done, because neither of them were good enough at the work Alex did. Alex held the entire household together. Alex held them together.

And he did like Alex when they weren't competing to outdo each other. He enjoyed his company, and he felt they worked well together. James particularly enjoyed helping him out in the kitchen, because he cared so much about food, and he loved getting Alex to try new things that he thought Greg might enjoy. The pay-off he got when he'd been proved right was worth it, as was the praise from Greg. He loved those moments so much. He liked being able to make Greg happy.

But it wasn't just work either. James enjoyed spending time with him. He enjoyed all the little moments of downtime, the way Alex had made him feel at home as he was settling in, all their late-night conversations, how they kind of never really spent all that much time apart from each other, and James hadn't grown tired of him. Even just the way Alex liked having James tuck him in after he'd put Greg to bed, when it was late, and James was the last one still up, and he took the time to make sure Alex was comfortable and got a goodnight kiss before he went to bed himself. And he could make Alex laugh, and Alex would always sit and pay attention to his stories, captivated, before he fell apart laughing. James loved that so much.

But there wasn't laughter now. The house was very quiet, James noticed. Apart from the traffic noises, it was quiet. He gazed absently at the bookshelves opposite him, not really paying attention to anything he saw. Greg shifted his arm then, and James shifted around him. He was vaguely aware of Greg glancing down at him and gently kissing the top of his head. It's not that James had forgotten he was there, either. But the silence did send him ruminating.

"What're you thinking about? Anything in particular?" Greg asked, not necessarily expecting a reply.

"Just - things. You know the silence makes me think," James said.

"Yeah, I know. Sometimes, it's hard to find that silence, I know you need it every now and then, and I have thrown some weird conversations at you today," Greg said.

"Yeah, you really have, Greg. I - I think I'll be okay with it. Eventually. Maybe. It's still a lot to take in, though," James said.

"Oh, I don't expect you to accept it after one conversation. It might take a while, and that's fine. You'll decide if you're okay with it or not in your own time. We won't rush you on that at all," Greg said.

"Thanks, Greg, that's … I appreciate that," James said.

"I mean, I could just make you stay if I wanted to be a dick about it, but where's the fun in that? It's way more fun when everyone wants to be here, you know?" Greg said.

"I suppose so," James said, though he didn't really know. All of this was new to him.

James felt that was the end of that conversation, and settled back to think. He scanned the shelves, just because he was curious, and he never had time to just take it all in. Most of the books were unfamiliar to him, but that wasn't really what drew his eye. It was all the other things. The strange ornaments, the way there was just one shelf where all the books were arranged by height and colour while everything else seemed to be a mess. The set of old vintage water skis above the door to the dining room. An entire shelf filled with what looked to be custom-made rubber ducks. Every single one of them seemed to be wearing a collar, but they all had different outfits on. It's not like James hadn't noticed them before, but for some reason, today, they were just begging for his attention.

"Alright, what's with the ducks, Greg? Are they meant to be your boys? Normal people just do a photo wall, you know," James said, unable to think of what else they might be.

"I'm not normal. And yeah, they're my boys. All my little adorable ducklings all in little rows. I really love that shelf. I like having you all together," Greg said.

"Are we all up there then? Even me?" James said.

"All of them, even you," Greg said. "You're in the middle just below the one with puppy ears at the back. That's Alex. I like to keep my current live-in boys together in the middle. The others are ones who've been through and don't need me anymore. They learned all they could from me and it was time for them to move on. But they're all still family. I love them all very much."

James got up to look at his duck. He wasn't sure how he would portray himself as a duck, but Greg had chosen a dark green jacket, a maroon shirt, a little black tie, and the duck had an iPod, as if it was listening to music. It also wore sunglasses.

"That's what you chose to represent me? Really? Where'd you get that from?" James asked.

"I just thought it'd suit you. Why? Don't you like it?" Greg said.

"No, no, I love it! He's so cool. I like the iPod, too, that was a nice touch," James said.

"I'm glad you like it. It only arrived last week. I wanted to wait to get to know you a bit before I ordered it, just so it was right for you," Greg said.

"Ahaha, Alex is wearing his uniform, and he has those puppy ears. Do you really do puppy play with him?" James said, picking up Alex's duck.

"I might do, though, to be fair, that is none of your business, James," Greg said.

"Fair enough. But, I mean, you do, though, right? He's your adorable little puppy?" James said.

"What did I just say? I don't tell Alex what I do with you, so why the fuck would I tell you what I do with Alex? Come on, sit down, leave the ducks alone," Greg said.

"Okay, fine, I'm sorry for nagging. I still don't get why they're ducks though. Why ducks? Why not … I don't know, little troll figures or dogs or My Little Ponies?" James said, confused, as he joined him back on the sofa, lying down beside him again with his head in his lap.

"My Little Ponies, James? Really?" Greg teased.

James scowled. "Shut up. You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do. But, I dunno why ducks. I mean, why not? They're cute. I like 'em. It's easy to get them custom-made. You're all my little pets, why wouldn't I make you all as little ducks?" Greg said.

"I thought we were your boys, not your pets," James said.

Greg seemed to shrug. "I mean, I could call you my pet if you like. I didn't know you were into pet play. I could make you into my little pet, that'd be no trouble at all. A cat, am I right? You'd be a cat. You just have the look of it."

James shifted to look up at him. "A cat? You think I look like a cat?"

"Yeah, definitely, I mean, have you seen your face, James? Trust me, you're a cat. Alex is a puppy, and you're my cat. But I don't think you want to be my cat, do you? You just want to be my boy. Do you know why I call you my boy and not my pet? Why would I choose that word for you?" Greg said.

"Well, I mean, I am a boy, Greg. That's what I am," James said, confused.

"A boy is a type, it's not necessarily about your age. You're a boy just like Alex is a boy. But there are plenty of young men who aren't boys. I'm sure you know the kind of men I'm talking about, don't you?" Greg said.

James did know, now that Greg had pointed it out to him. He hadn't thought of that as a type though. He only knew that as a weird sort of D/s thing; some men, like Greg, were dominant, and others, like himself, were submissive. He just knew it as another word for young submissive queer men; if it had a specific kink meaning, he was oblivious to it.

"Why am I a boy then and not a pet? I don't get it," James said.

"It's your temperament. And I'm always attracted to boys who need a Dad to take care of them. This is a kind of age play too, James, even if you find that hard to believe. Age play isn't just sitting around playing with baby toys. Sometimes, it's about letting a Dad turn you into a man. Helping you grow up. Bring you up properly. Take care of you like a good Dad should. Like a coming-of-age thing. Some boys really need that, and I think you need it too," Greg said.

"Pfft, no, I don't need a dad. I'm not like that," James said. "I'm not a kid. I don't need this."

"You would've left by now if that was true. Trust me, I've seen a lot of boys in my time. I know my type. I know your type too," Greg said.

James wanted to protest, but he couldn't deny he was right. He'd stayed. Willingly. He wanted to be here. Never once did he think about actually leaving, running away like an unwanted child. There was nothing out there for him anymore. Everything he needed was right here. Greg was all he needed.

"But - I don't - how is this age play too? How are these things even remotely related?" James said, unable to see the connection.

"It's parental. Fatherly. That's the relationship dynamic. I'm a dad to you as much as I'm a dad to Alex. You just need different things from me. Perhaps you're not a six-year-old like Alex, maybe you're a teenager instead. Doesn't mean it's not coming from the same place. You need someone to protect you and take care of you, and that's what I give you," Greg said.

"Yeah, but that's - that's not - it doesn't mean - I don't need a dad for that, do I?" James said.

"I mean, maybe you don't. But maybe that's the kind of man you've always been drawn to, I don't know. Only you know that. But you just think on that for a while and see if you can begin to understand what it means to be my boy," Greg said.

James made a noise, unsure, but didn't know how to reply so his mind wandered again. Because he was thinking back over all the men he'd ever been with, and perhaps Greg was right. Perhaps they were all Dads in their own way. It's not like he'd had some kind of traumatising childhood. He had a good relationship with his dad. And yet, he was still chasing that somehow with, let's be fair, all the wrong men.

No. Not all the wrong men. They'd all been right for him at the time. But maybe it was like Greg said, maybe he'd just learnt all he could from them and moved on. Each one of them had taught him something. And now he was with Greg, and perhaps he'd never have been here if he hadn't been with all those men in the first place.

He wondered what Greg would teach him. Would he move on from him too when he'd learnt all he could from him? Would Greg just be like all those other men? He wanted to stay here forever, he didn't want to leave. He didn't want to think about what he'd do if he left. He wasn't ready to be out there on his own, not yet. Maybe that was why he needed Greg. Maybe that's why he needed a Dad. Because he was still a boy, all vulnerable and frightened of the world, and he wasn't ready to face it alone yet.

"You won't abandon me, will you, sir?" James asked, the question leaving his lips before he'd really been aware of wanting to ask it.

"Of course not. I don't abandon my boys. That's not what I do. That collar doesn't just bind you to me, it also binds me to you. It's a promise to take care of you and guide you, to train you and make you a better boy, a better man. See these?" Greg lifted a necklace out from under his shirt. It was a simple gold chain with two plain gold bands on it.

"Yeah, I've seen them before. What are they? I don't think you've ever told me," James said.

"They're your collars as rings. Alex gave me the idea a long time ago. There's one for Alex and one for you. I wear them close to my heart, where you both belong," Greg said.

James sat up and looked at the rings, intrigued. "Can I have a look, sir?"

"Sure, see, this one's yours. It's got your name inscribed on it," Greg said, showing him which ring was his.

James lifted the ring gently. He could tell which one was his because it wasn't as worn and scratched as Alex's. But then Alex's seemed - James felt it was sweet for Alex's to be so worn, that maybe Greg never took it off, and it bore all the marks and scratches of that wear. Maybe one day, his ring would look like that too, all battered and marked from years of wear.

"I mean, it's not like I didn't know you wore them, but I didn't realise you wore them for us. I - I thought they were just. I don't know. I don't know what I thought they were," James said, shocked. The very thought that his master would show that kind of devotion back to him felt rather overwhelming, and he wasn't sure how to respond to it. He didn't think he deserved it. "B-But - I mean - they're not wedding bands are they, sir? Surely - surely - it's too soon for you to be wearing a - a wedding band for me? We're not married!"

"Yeah, they're wedding rings, but that's not why I wear them. I'm not wearing them as wedding rings. I'm wearing them as your collars, not as rings. It's so I can keep you both close to me. It's a reminder of my promises to take care of you and keep you safe. Which, yeah, sounds like a marriage, but it's not. They're for me, not for you," Greg said.

"So I guess, like the ducks, you only wear them for the boys who are living with you? What's the most you've worn then?" James said.

"Four, I think, but that was years ago, maybe a year after Alex came to live with me. The ones I'm not wearing are kept in a little box on my dresser. Not all of my boys get rings of course, just like they don't all get ducks, but I can tell. I know who needs a ring and who doesn't. And you needed a ring," Greg said.

James looked at him, surprised. "Really? You knew I needed a ring? You- you just felt I was going to stay?"

"Yeah, I did. It was that first scene I played with both you and Alex, that's when I knew you were going to work out. That's when I had the ring made," Greg said.

James remembered that scene. It hadn't been particularly hardcore, but Alex had been the main submissive while James was there to help Greg. Together, Alex had been tied up, blindfolded, and flogged, and James had been told to hold him still while Greg did a particular kind of pain play with him that James had never seen before. It looked like acupuncture but it definitely wasn't. James was sure he didn't need to hold Alex down; Alex might have been mistaken for catatonic, given how still he was. But he sat by his head, and watched with a weird kind of fascination, giving Alex little soft kisses at Greg's instruction.

Alex had reached some kind of trance. James didn't know what else to call it. Alex lay there with the most blissful expression on his face, and that was when Greg backed off and just sat there, watching Alex enjoy the high. But he wasn't done yet. It was just a brief pause before Greg went down on him, and the sounds Alex had made when he came were unlike anything James had ever heard before.

And then - and then it had just become a cuddle pile in the corner. Alex lay between them, still kind of out of it, while they gently touched him and loved him and fed him chocolate and brought him back to earth. James didn't know kink could be like that. That it could be gentle and loving. That he could be allowed to be gentle and loving and not be shamed for it. And - and the kiss Alex gave him at the end, that little thank you, the way he smiled at him - James could still picture that. He didn't realise how much he enjoyed it until it was over.

"That was a wonderful scene, sir," James said.

Greg smiled fondly at the memories. "Yeah, yeah it was. I like doing scenes like that with a new boy because I can tell if he's going to work out. And you were so gentle with him. He really enjoyed your touch, James. I don't know if you knew that. But after that scene, Alex begged me to keep you on. I'd already decided I wanted to, but it was nice to know he agreed with me. There's a deep kindness in your soul, James, and it shone very brightly that night."

James offered a shy smile before he sat down next to Greg, cuddling up beside him. "I-I didn't know that, no, but I'm glad. I - I haven't - I just want to be gentle sometimes. Without being laughed at."

Greg brought him into a tight hug. "I will never laugh at you for being gentle, James. Anyone who laughs at you for being gentle doesn't deserve your love. Whatever your past has taught you about relationships, set it aside. Whoever hurt you in the past, let it go. You're with me now, and I'll keep you safe and loved as long as you live here, I promise. I will never, ever abandon you, James. Never."

"Promise?" James said, desperately wanting to believe him.

"Promise. You stay as long as you need to. Forever if you want. I don't mind. There's plenty of room in my heart for you and Alex, and all the boys who need me. Love never runs out, James, not with me," Greg said.

James hugged him back, trying not to cry. He wasn't sad. He was happy, and he didn't quite know how to just enjoy that. He felt bad just enjoying this. What had he done to deserve a master as wonderful as Greg? He didn't know, but he didn't want to let him go.

"Can I stay forever? I never want to leave. I don't want to just move on like everyone else. I want to stay here with you and Alex forever," James said.

"My collars don't have time limits, James. You can stay as long as you want to," Greg said.

James hugged him tight, burying his face in his chest. "Thank you, sir, thank you."

Greg gently stroked his back and held him tight. "You're alright, James. You're alright. You just stay here as long as you need to. I'm not going anywhere."

"Thank you, Greg," James said, his voice sounding smaller than he would have liked.

James clung to him, his mind unsure what to even think about. But Greg was just gently rubbing his back, kissing his forehead, just being gentle and reassuring and comforting, and James adored it.

He felt so small and tiny then. Greg was just so big, and he felt so small, all gathered up in his arms like a child as his dad comforted him. And maybe, when he did start crying because the emotions were just too much for him, maybe that's when Greg cradled him, wrapped him up tight, whispered gentle words of comfort, and never let him go. Maybe that's when James started to really believe that Greg wasn't going to leave him.

He could feel Greg's love for him, and James wanted to embrace it. He wanted to just drown in it and let it overwhelm him and heal him. He wanted to do that so very much. But he could still feel a tug of resistance in his heart, that he didn't deserve this sort of kindness and love, that he hadn't earned it, that Greg was just like all those other men. James wanted so very badly to make those thoughts go away, so he shifted until he was able to pull Greg into a kiss and kissed him until he began to feel calmer.

The initial fierceness of the kiss, the neediness James showed, eventually gave way to more gentle affection, and James let himself surrender as Greg kissed him. He wrapped his arms around his neck and sat in his lap, and eventually, he let Greg hug him tight, and James didn't want to let him go.

"You feeling any better then?" Greg asked after a while.

"Yes, daddy," James said without thinking before he realised what he'd said. He felt so embarrassed, and quickly corrected himself. He wasn't going to call Greg 'daddy'. That wasn't his thing. "I-I mean, yes, Greg. Yes, feeling better. Just - memories."

"I tell all my boys this, so don't think I'm singling you out, but if you ever need any help, if there's anything going on in your head that you really need proper care to deal with, let me know. I don't need you to tell me what it is. I don't need to know the reasons why. That's your business. But if it ever gets too much, let me know so I can get you the help you need, alright?" Greg said. "No pressure, of course. Maybe you're fine, just a bit fragile, and that's okay. But the offer's there if you ever need it."

"Thank you, sir, I appreciate it," James said, over-correcting with politeness, though he was relieved Greg hadn't said anything or teased him about what he'd said. He appreciated his offer too, though he wasn't sure he was really ready to face that yet.

"Feel free to wander around if you like, too, if you need some space to think. You don't have to sit here with me if you don't want to. We've got plenty of time to kill," Greg said.

"But I do want to. I like being with you, sir," James said.

"Fair enough, just thought I'd give you the option. I know you don't always like being still, that's all," Greg said.

James glanced up at him, surprised he'd picked that up already, but at least he appreciated the fact that he'd noticed. Greg was far more observant than he'd expected. He didn't really want to move about, though. He was content to just snuggle up with Greg. He shifted off his lap and curled up beside him, letting Greg pull him close with his arms.

"No, I'm good for the moment. It's been a while since we've just cuddled like this. I miss it. We should do it more often," James said.

"Oh, really? Well, I'm sure we can find more room for cuddles. I didn't know you enjoyed them so much. I'll remember that," Greg said.

"Oh, I do, I like it when you hold me. I feel safe with you, like nothing can hurt me," James said.

"Have you been hurt a lot then? You don't have to tell me if it's too personal. I've got to earn your trust as much as you've got to earn mine. Maybe it'll be a while before you trust me with your past. But whatever happens, you're safe with me. I'll take care of you. No one'll hurt you here," Greg said, making a point of hugging him a little tighter.

James loved the strength in his arms, how he could hold him so still and so securely, like nothing could ever get him when he was in Greg's arms. They were like iron. A shield. This place, this man, this was the safest he'd ever felt before. But he wasn't sure he was ready to talk about what happened before. That was. He still needed some time with that.

"You've gone quiet. I haven't upset you, have I? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry," Greg said.

James shook his head. "No, no, it's fine. I'm just - not ready for that yet. It's not - I didn't do anything wrong. It's just - difficult. I'm just glad you found me, because I never want to leave. Maybe it's weird, but we're all weird, in our own way, yeah? What made you notice me anyway? Like, why did you take me home? You didn't need to, I would have been fine on my own."

Greg kissed the top of his head. "It was your eyes. Your body might have been pretending things were fine, but your eyes were scared. I felt you needed a way out, but were too scared to find one yourself. You needed someone else to get you out of there. I've seen it often enough in some of my other boys that I know what that look means, you know? You didn't need to work for me, either. I'd have let you stay here as long as you needed to get back on your feet. But I'm glad you feel safe here. Everyone deserves to feel safe."

"Oh, I just. I'm no good when I have nothing to do. It seemed only fair, and like, if I'm going to stay here forever, I felt bad not doing any work. And I like it. It's good for me. I didn't realise I needed that discipline so much in my life, but I do, and maybe I fight you more than I should about it, but I appreciate it, I really do," James said.

"Oh, come on, you'd be no fun if you weren't a brat. It doesn't suit you. But I do want to talk to you about your schedule soon, just to see how you're coping with it all and whether we need to make some changes. Not now, of course, we'll do it formally, when you're in a better mood to talk about that. I do it every now and then with Alex too, so this isn't me singling you out. Actually, I might do you both together, just to see how well things are working out with you two sharing the workload. We can make some adjustments if we need to," Greg said.

James hoped that didn't mean he would be getting more work to do, but his objection to it was mostly trivial, if he was being honest. He'd do whatever Greg asked him to if it meant he could keep on staying here.

"Oh, sure, no, that's fine. It's been - it's been good, sir? I've enjoyed it," James said, not trusting him to say anything more than that.

"Of course you have, I've eased you into it. It's not like you're getting up at 6am, are you? But don't worry, I'm not going to make you replace Alex, because I think you'd be shit at his job. But I might give you a bit more to do. We'll see how well Alex feels the balance is, and if there's anything we need to drop or give to you to make things easier for him. He's got more complicated work to do for me anyway with all the admin, but I know he likes taking care of me too, so we'll see how he feels about changing things up," Greg said.

"And here I was thinking you weren't giving me as much work as him because you liked me," James said, hoping his joke was obvious.

"Not on your life, boy. I mean, I can give you the same kind of workload as Alex if you like. I don't mind. You're the one who has to do all the work, not me," Greg said.

"Oh, no, I really wouldn't do that, no, I'm not good at that kind of thing. In fact, I'm not sure I'd trust me to do Alex's job if he wasn't here. I'm terrible on my own, and I'm guessing you are too, so I reckon we'd be fucked if he left, yeah?" James said.

Greg couldn't help laughing. "Oh yeah, it'd be pizza and fuck all till he got back and sorted us out again."

"You say that like it's a bad thing, sir. I wouldn't complain about that," James said.

"Don't encourage me, boy, Alex would go spare if I dared suggest anything like that. He likes the work too much," Greg said.

James had to agree. Alex did seem to just enjoy being a servant in a way that James was still grappling with. It's not that James didn't like serving, because he did. He liked the routine of it that Greg gave him, and it gave him a good structure for his life that stopped some of the worst parts of his character from getting too comfortable. But he wasn't as naturally obsequious as Alex, and he and Greg both had a lazy streak that needed to be tamed.

But as much as he liked service, for James, it was just work. He didn't get off on serving the way Alex did. It was just his way of paying Greg back for taking him in. It's not like they weren't paid for their work either; Greg insisted on it so they weren't dependent on him and could make a life of their own if they wanted to. James felt that might be why it was just a job to him, and not something kinky. But then the jobs James had to do were less about personal care and much more domestic. He did cleaning and laundry and dusting and helping in the kitchen and running errands and serving guests, the usual fair for domestic servants. Alex was the one who had all the personal care on top of all the admin.

That Alex had to do all the admin work that James knew he'd be terrible at brought him some pleasure. Alex had much more responsibility than he did. James was just there to help out, and he was fine with that. Besides, James got to sleep in, Greg was right about that. His schedule was nowhere near as punishing as Alex's, and he wasn't going to complain about that either. That would just make Greg give him more work to do because he'd take it like he felt he had too much free time. He wasn't stupid. He wasn't going to just hand Greg an own goal like that, not if there was an actual chance that Alex might suggest it was time for James to have more responsibilities and he'd end up with more work and less of a sleep-in.

Sure, he wasn't just left to follow Alex around needlessly. He had jobs to do, and he had a schedule that he was required to stick to. He knew when he had to go to bed, and when he had to wake up. He knew when he needed to go and find Alex and get his jobs for the day from him, and when they needed to be done by. There was routine, and work, and James generally found that was alright. It was helpful. He liked knowing when he was going to be doing things. He liked Greg taking all that choice out of his hands and forcing him to stick to it, because he knew what he was like on his own, and this was a vast improvement.

And there was time for fun, too. Generally, the evenings were set aside for that, so once dinner was out of the way, that was their time together. Sometimes, Alex needed something specific that James didn't need to sit in on, or Greg wanted to spend some time just training James with some specific things he wanted him to be able to do. But for the most part, it was play, and if James wasn't involved, he'd be up in his room listening to music or gaming or killing time before he had to go to bed.

They didn't always play scenes together, though they were always fun. Sometimes they played games, watched movies, or just hung out together. Most of the games were Alex's ideas, and not, as James had assumed, things like board games, though he wouldn't have complained about those either. Alex's games were absurdly fun, and in some cases, utterly stupid, but James found he really enjoyed them. Those were the moments their competitiveness was more friendly than antagonistic, and James was never one to shy away from a challenge.

The best thing was that now that James was there, Alex finally had someone to compete against who wasn't going away, and they'd just started a more formal competition between them, overseen by Greg, using Alex's ridiculous games and other silly contests to test each other. They hadn't quite decided on a prize yet, Greg hadn't made up his mind about that yet, but that didn't matter. Once a week, they'd spend the evening in competition, and even when he'd done badly, James still had a lot of fun.

But there were moments of silence, too. After about 9pm, that was the quiet time. Alex tended to go to bed then in preparation for putting his master to bed later on, so it just tended to be James and Greg still awake. James had come to really enjoy those hours they had all to themselves. Sometimes, that's when he and Greg played scenes just for the fun of it, to try out some new things and see what James really liked. There'd even been a couple of nights where Greg had just invited him to bed, and the sex had been very good, even if he hadn't quite necessarily wanted to have to talk afterwards. Because Greg had a way of making him talk about things he didn't necessarily want to talk about, and he kind of hated him for it, but not really, because he always felt better afterwards.

James enjoyed it, he enjoyed getting such attention from his master, but he always found it strange. There was something about Greg just being nice to him, and trying to get a better sense of what he liked and didn't like as he got settled in that he found strange, perhaps because no one had ever taken that much time to get to know him before. But he still never quite knew how to relax around him, because he was always aware of his place, and half the time, he was still sore from punishments, and he didn't think he deserved this sort of kindness from him.

Like now, when Greg was just letting James sit there in his arms, and all the work was on hold until Alex joined them. James felt he hadn't done anything to deserve this kindness from him. He'd just been working. He hadn't done anything specific to feel like he'd earned this. But then that was something Greg was still trying to train him out of thinking, that he had to earn kindness from Greg, rather than just Greg wanting to just give it to him because he loved him.

No one had ever called his bluff before, either. Well, no one except Greg. Greg had a way of completely breaking through his defences, and James had not been prepared for it. So much of this was new to him, though he'd never readily admit that. He put on a show of understanding, of being competent enough to breeze through it all like he'd done this a thousand times before, but he hadn't. He'd just got very used to watching people and copying them as he blagged his way out of trouble and into a new job.

But this was different in ways he hadn't anticipated. Sure, he'd done scenes before. He wasn't a total virgin. He knew what he liked and what he didn't. But something about this place just made him feel small and inexperienced. Sometimes, he thought that if he'd been here on his own, he might have adjusted better. But there was Alex, who'd been with Greg for years, and James just didn't know how to compete with him. He was sure Alex could see right through him, that he knew he was putting on this swagger to protect himself, to make it seem like he had done this before, and knew what it was all about. Their rooms were next to each other too. It wouldn't be a stretch for Alex to have heard him crying after an intense scene because he was too proud to accept aftercare.

That really frustrated him. Aftercare was something he was still struggling to accept for all the times when he wasn't so sore, he couldn't escape it. He felt he didn't need it half the time. He was fine. He felt fine. He'd just. Sit in his room and listen to music. That was fine. That helped him come down and he was fine. He'd made playlists and everything, and he didn't need Greg hovering around paying attention to his mental state. He was fine.

But sometimes, he wasn't. He really wasn't fine. He could tell by the music he chose to listen to, but he didn't want to acknowledge that this was a problem. That would mean admitting he had been lying to Greg about, well. About everything. There was no way he could admit that to him. He'd be in so much trouble. Greg might kick him out for it, and he had nowhere else to go if he had to leave. It was a shitty reason to stay, he was aware of that, but he just couldn't bring himself to tell him. That would be like asking Greg to stab him in the chest.

But then perhaps Greg was right, that he just didn't know how to deal with kindness. That thought was still percolating from something Greg had said to him a week ago, during one of those lazy late-night conversations, and he still didn't really know if it was true. Perhaps it was. It wasn't like Greg needed to just let him sit here and ruminate on things. In all honesty, he had work to do that he'd need to catch up with later. But Greg seemed to be in no hurry to scuttle him back off to work. James felt he was waiting for Alex to wake up, as if the play session wasn't over until Alex was back and ready to work again, and then things could go back to normal. So perhaps he should just enjoy this break while it lasted.

But then Greg was now just gently running his fingers through his hair, and James shivered, suddenly aware of those sensations now that he wasn't stuck in his head with his thoughts. It's not that he hadn't noticed before, he'd just been focusing on other things instead, and the sudden sensation brought him right back to his body.

"Oh, do you like that, James?" Greg said.

"Maybe?" James said, unsure what Greg wanted him to say. It was nice, after all, but whether he would be allowed to say that, he didn't know.

"Do you like it when I stroke your hair? Do you find it calming? I've noticed you tend to respond well to that when you're kneeling. Do you want me to keep doing it?" Greg said.

"I-" James stopped. Greg had never asked him about it before. Why now? Why did he suddenly care that he was enjoying it? The - the - those fingers he loved so much gently stroking his hair? Greg was his master. Why did he need to ask to do anything to him? That wasn't the point of this kind of relationship, was it?

"Are you stuck in that undeserving mindset again? Is that why it's so hard to say yes to this?" Greg said, sensing his hesitation.

"It's not - I just." James sighed. "I guess I just thought you would never ask. I just do what I'm told."

"Why wouldn't I ask? At what point did I ever say you were never allowed to say no to me? That you just have to accept everything I do to you without question? That's now how I work at all, and you're doing yourself a disservice by thinking I'm that kind of master. I mean, if you want to chase down a master like that, feel free. There are plenty of abusive dicks out there who'll take a boy like that, but I'd rather have you here with me where at least you know I'll take care of you," Greg said. "Why do you think that's all you deserve?"

James shrugged helplessly. He wasn't sure he could really explain it. At least, not in a concise way, nor without rambling his past to him in a way he really wasn't ready to do yet. Greg returned to stroking his hair gently, and didn't pressure him for an answer, as if he intended James to think about it rather than just explain himself. James kind of hated him for that, because those kinds of questions always got stuck in his head. That was how he ended up lying awake all night, turning those questions over until he had not slept, nor found an answer he was happy with.

After a while, James shifted, lying down next to Greg with his head in his lap. He was feeling small again, and Greg just rested a hand on his shoulder and perhaps kept stroking his hair. James had too many things going around in his head, and he didn't know what to focus on.

The gentle stroking was beginning to get to him. It was just sensation after sensation, and he shivered again, beginning to feel overstimulated. He didn't know why, because Greg was being so gentle with him, but his nerves were getting weird again, he could just tell. He hadn't felt like this since coming to the house, and he was afraid of admitting this was a problem for him, because he loved the way Greg touched him. He adored those sensations. He just had a limit that he'd apparently hit today, and he could feel it. His nerves were protesting.

James pulled away from him suddenly and curled up, his back facing him. "No! Please, just - can you not? Please stop touching me. It's too much."

Greg took his hand away immediately. "Alright, I'll stop touching you. Is that why it makes you shiver? Gets a bit much does it? Skin's a bit sensitive?"

"I dunno, maybe, something like that. Just - need to stop. Just leave me for a while," James said, his voice shakier than he had really wanted Greg to hear. It always made him feel so fragile and vulnerable, like he was suddenly made of glass, and any touch would shatter him completely.

"Sure, you just do what you need to. You don't need a blanket, do you? Not cold or anything? Don't need to hide away from the world for a while?" Greg said.

"H-hide? N-no, it's not hiding, just - but - a blanket would be nice, yes please," James said, unsure how Greg knew that was what he wanted. He didn't have enough mental space to consider Greg had just seem him curl up with his arms over his head and joined the dots from there.

Greg got to his feet. "Are you going to be alright here? I just need to grab one from my room. I won't be long."

"No, that's fine. I'll be alright," James said.

"Alright, won't be long," Greg said.

James lay there, his head buried in his arms. He almost hadn't said anything, but he could hear Greg's voice in his head, telling him not to have a tantrum before Alex was awake again, and he knew that's where he was heading if he didn't stop it then. He was glad Greg listened, surprised, even, but also grateful that he didn't scoff or ask him to explain himself. Greg believed him. He wasn't sure anyone had ever believed him before.

"Here you go, that'll keep you safe," Greg said, coming back into the room.

All James was aware of was a heavy blanket covering him, something like a duvet perhaps but with more weight to it than he was expecting. It wasn't the kind of blanket he thought he would be given, but it would do, and he pulled it tight around him, hiding away from everything. He felt Greg sit down on the sofa beside him again, but he didn't touch him. He didn't speak, either. He just left James to do what he needed to do to calm himself down.

"Thank you, Greg," James said, remembering his manners.

"Whatever you need, James. You can keep that blanket if you like. In case you need it," Greg said.

"Pfft, I don't need to keep it. I'm not a baby," James said, because he was definitely not going to have a special blanket, definitely not.

"Well, you decide that when you emerge. I'll be here if you need me," Greg said.

James might have sniffed again, but he was feeling fragile, and just needed to curl in on himself and ignore the world for a while. He hated feeling like this, and he didn't really understand why he reacted this way. It was just - sometimes, touch that he was very much enjoying was suddenly too much and he needed it to stop. He usually tried his best to avoid this kind of situation by not letting anyone touch him anyway, then he wouldn't get overstimulated in the first place, but that wasn't always practical, because he did like being touched, if it was in the right way, and with the right people.

He didn't really know why hiding under a blanket helped either, but there was something about the dark, and being curled up, that helped settle him down. Mostly, that just involved turning into himself and closing his eyes, letting everything just stop and calm down and reset itself. He didn't really have any good ways of coping with it, apart from hiding under a blanket until he felt better. It was either an outburst, or he'd withdraw like this for as long as it took for him to feel alright again.

Before he'd come to the house, he'd just used an ordinary wool blanket, and that was perfectly fine. He'd never had a particular one he'd used, just whatever was on hand, and he'd curl up and hide until he felt better. But Greg had brought him one with some kind of weight to it and he'd never experienced one like that before. It felt heavy, but not in a bad way. It held him down in a way that he found weirdly relaxing and calming. His body just instantly relaxed the moment it was on him, and he didn't really know why. It would still be a while until he was ready to emerge, but there was something comforting about the weight of that blanket upon his body, and he curled up and closed his eyes, letting his body recover.

He appreciated Greg not trying to talk him out of it, or even just to sing or hum to fill the silence. James needed that. He needed to just be quiet and wait till he felt alright again. He felt that someone else might use this time to ruminate, but James never wanted to think in this mindset. There was too much stimulation to think, so mostly he just squeezed his eyes shut and waited it out.

The only thing he did think of, weirdly enough, was how on earth he would even describe this situation. He had no idea how to describe the feeling. It wasn't like the sensation had grown slowly from nice to irritating. It was more like a switch flipped in his head and suddenly what once felt nice now felt like sandpaper. Or perhaps like he'd been stung or electrocuted or possibly burnt, depending on the sensation he'd grown irritated by. He didn't know why. But that's what happened. And it didn't need to be all in one go, either. Sometimes, it built up over the course of a day, all these separate little touches, until he got to the one that pushed him over his limit.

But then this was why he didn't really touch people. He just. He joked about it, brushed it off, pretended like it didn't matter, or at least, didn't make a show of touch being important or irritating to him so no one had to see him react like this. Mostly, they got him lashing out instead, because they were used to seeing that. But they hadn't seen this, and they never would, if James had anything to say about it. He only let Greg see it because the alternative was a tantrum that James just knew would result in such a severe punishment for waking Alex up that he might not be able to sit for a week. He definitely did not want that.

James sometimes wondered why the sensation of a blanket against his skin when he was hiding away like this never triggered him either, because every other touch felt like it would when he was in this state. But not the touch of a blanket. He could hide away in it for as long as he needed and it didn't trigger him. It made him feel safe and secure. Perhaps it was just because he'd learnt how to wrap it so tightly around him it was like being swaddled, that it being tight was what helped calm him down, like a bandage that stopped bleeding. And, if he was being honest, the extra weight in this blanket was working a lot better than he had expected.

There was never really a time limit for this. It was different every time. He just had to wait while his body slowly unwound itself, and the feeling of touch, of his nerves overreacting to everything, calmed down until he couldn't feel them anymore. But even then, he was still sensitive to touch for some time after that too, as if he was in this liminal space where it wouldn't take much at all to throw him back into overdrive again.

He'd have to tell Greg about this, particularly if Greg was going to keep stroking his hair. James did love that sensation so very much, but it was also one of the more sensitive kinds of touches for him, and Greg would need to pay more attention to him to know when he was pushing him too far. He kind of felt he worked much like he was just being edged a lot, only it was with every kind of touch and not just being constantly aroused. As long as he didn't come, or get triggered like this, he was usually alright. He could moderate the touching and he could handle it then. But once he was triggered, that was it.

His fingers unclenched, that was what he noticed first. His grip on the blanket loosened slowly, and it was only at this point that he even realised how hard he'd been gripping it. His fingers were sore, but he didn't really care. His body still felt wound up though, but once he had finally let go of the blanket, that was when he tended to be on the way out of it.

He wasn't really aware of how much time had passed either. If he'd been triggered really badly, he sometimes dozed off for a while, but not today. He'd just closed his eyes and waited till his body stopped tingling. Sometimes, he kept his head hidden during that time, but today, when he reached that point, James took a deep breath, and just found himself poking an eye out, and just. Watching.

He knew he'd have to try to explain it. Greg deserved to know what was going on with him. But the words he needed had fucked off to Fuck Off Town, and his brain was just mush. He let his gaze wander over the books on the shelf opposite him, trying to find the words he needed.


"Hmm? You alright?" Greg said, glancing down at him.

"Can you not - touch me? Like, I'm always a bit on edge even hours after sometimes. Maybe? It all gets a bit - weird, I'm sorry. I know, I should have told you this when I moved in, but I just - I couldn't, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to lie to you," James said, not sure they were the right words, but better than nothing.

"No, no, it's fine, I understand being cautious about telling me these things if you're not sure you trust me yet. It's fine. I'm not cross with you. I promise I won't touch you until you say so. Though, fair warning, when Alex turns up, he will ask for touch to ground him, so you might want to mention to him what you're comfortable with, if anything. He'll understand, don't worry about that, but just be aware that that's what he wants when he comes up here," Greg said.

"What do you mean, when Alex turns up?" James asked.

"Oh, he usually just comes up to find me when he wakes up after a session like that. He needs a bit of touch, just to rewire his brain again, then he's fine. It's not really proper aftercare, because it's usually just snuggling on the sofa, but that's how it always ends up. So yeah, just be aware he might want to at least hold your hand. You can say no, of course, he'll get enough from me to calm him down. If you're fine before he gets here, by all means, retreat to your room if you can't stand it, but I'll leave that decision in your hands," Greg said.

"Thank you, Greg. I'll - we'll see how we go, yeah?" James said.

"Yeah, you see how you go. I won't force you to touch him if you don't want to, don't worry about that," Greg said.

James found himself poking more of his head out then, and reaching for Greg, who reached down to him and gently touched his hand for a moment before pulling away.

"Getting better then? Need another tea? Or some cake?" Greg said.

"There's cake?" James said, hopefully. "I mean, some cake would be nice. Sugar helps. Sometimes. I mean."

"Alex will like some cake too, so I'll go get you some. Just take your time. Don't push yourself to emerge before you're ready," Greg said.

"I know, thank you, Greg," James said.

James watched him go, and settled down, most of his body still wrapped in the blanket, with just his head remaining free. He was definitely getting there, but it might be a while yet. But cake would help. Sweet things always made him feel safe.

He lay there breathing slowly, listening to the silence around him. His eyes weren't really focused on anything, but at least he could feel he was on the way out. He still felt fragile though, and the nerves in the tips of his fingers and toes felt like fire.

"Oh, James. I didn't - are you alright?"

Alex's voice was like a bolt of lighting through his body, and James was shocked, his body moving involuntarily as he felt his heart rate rise and his nerves crackle again. He turned to see Alex standing in the doorway, wearing jeans and a baggy jumper, almost hesitating to go any further.

"Oh, I'm sorry! I should have knocked! I didn't mean to scare you!" Alex said, keeping back.

"Oh, no, no, it's fine, I'm just-" James knew he had to tell him, but his mind had gone blank again. He didn't know how to explain it.

"Do you need me to go? I don't want to upset you," Alex said.

James closed his eyes, forced his brain to focus. This was important. He needed to tell him, but the words were evasive, perhaps because he hadn't needed to explain this in a very long time.

"Oh, um, no, no, you don't need to go, you just surprised me. Yes. I'm fine. Just - a bit touch-sensitive. I like him stroking my hair so much it makes me go all tingly, and not in a good way. Got a bit overstimulated. He's gone to get me some cake," James said, forcing himself to speak.

"Oh, right, no, that's fine. Thank you for telling me. Do you need me to - sit somewhere else?" Alex ventured, still hesitating to enter the room, which James appreciated.

"Oh, you can sit where you like, just I might not be up for touching for a while. Still calming myself down," James said. "At least you slept long enough for me to be able to speak again, so you got lucky there."

"How'd you know I was sleeping? Did he - oh, did you see what we were doing down there?" Alex's face went both pale as snow and blush pink, in a way that James just could not fathom.

"Just the end, I think, but yeah. I mean, he told me it was a - a thing you do? But that was kind of it. I didn't really know what it would be like. It's … weird, alright? I think it's weird. It's fucking weird, Alex, but like. We all have our weird thing, right? Like, I'm curled up in a ball because my nerves are fucking needles right now, all because he just fucking stroked my hair and I liked it too much, and you were like. Doing that stuff. Like. We've all got our things. I just. Yeah. It's weird. But we're all weird, so I mean-"

James was aware he was babbling at this point, and he stopped, looking away from Alex, as if he had just said all the wrong things.

"I'm sorry, Alex. It's just - a bit much. I don't really understand it. I'm sorry. There's just too much going on in my head right now. I'm not trying to be a dick to you," James said finally.

"Oh, no, don't apologise, I know it's weird. I'm sorry you had to see it like that without any warning. It's like - it's like - I just suddenly know when I need it, and I can't really plan it. I'm sorry. I'll try to give you some warning next time," Alex said.

"Hey! There's my boy! I thought I heard you. I got you some cake too, Alex, come and sit down, tell me how it was," Greg said, coming in with three slices of cake.


Alex couldn't help running to him and hugging him tight, and Greg had to lift the plates out of the way so he didn't drop them.

"Steady on, mate, let me sit down first!" Greg said.

Alex did let go, and looked at Greg shyly. James watched them, and he was thankful the sofa was so large because they didn't need to sit all that close to him. Greg sat between them, handing James some cake. Chocolate cake, by the looks of it. That was just what he needed.

"There you go, James. That should help," Greg said.

"Thank you, Greg," James said.

He almost wanted to sit up, but his body just would not move so he sat the plate in front of him, and slowly scooped it into his mouth with the cake fork. It wasn't the most elegant way to eat, and he was so, so careful not to make a mess on Greg's lovely sofa. After three mouthfuls, he was beginning to feel his body unwind, and he set the plate down on the table, knowing he needed to give himself room to stretch out. He wasn't really sure what Alex and Greg were doing, he wasn't really paying attention to them. They might have been talking softly, but James wasn't really listening.

His body was feeling springy and stiff. When one leg eventually decided it was ready to stretch out, James felt he was almost there. He had moments where he buried his head under the blanket again, needing to shut everything out, but eventually, James got to the point where he could sit up, and he sat there, still wrapped in the blanket, as he finished his cake, staring off at the wall, his eyes focused on nothing in particular. There was something about the weight of that blanket against his back that felt very calming and supportive.

"You alright now, James?" Greg said, noticing he was sitting up.

James didn't respond until he'd finished his cake and set the plate down on the coffee table. "Yes, I think so. Still a bit fragile, but - okay. Might be okay to play tonight, but we'll see."

"You don't have to play tonight if you don't want to, not if you don't think you're up for it. Are you still alright here or do you need to head up to your room for a while?" Greg asked.

"Oh, no, I'm alright here. I just. Maybe another tea and I'll be alright. Just don't touch me. I can't abide touch right now," James said.

"Sure, I'll go make you another one. You and Alex can keep each other company while I'm gone," Greg said.

"Thank you, Greg," James said.

It was only when he was gone that James turned to see Alex sitting at the end of the sofa, just watching him curiously. He didn't approach, or make any move to talk to him. It made James want to just turn around and stare back at him, but he didn't. Alex wasn't being hostile. He was being considerate.

"I-if you ever need me to - explain the - the thing we do, the kid thing, um - you can just ask me? I don't mind. I-I know it's weird, and I don't want you to - like it. Just - be alright with it," Alex said.

"Honestly, I don't even know where to start with it. It is weird, but I mean, it is just play, right? It's just play? It's not … smutty or anything, is it?" James said, trying not to look or sound too disgusted, because he really wasn't trying to shame him for it, he just didn't understand it.

Alex shook his head. "Oh, no, no, it's not sexual at all, it's not that kind of kink for us. A lot of people assume it is, though, but it's not. I wouldn't - I don't know if I would cope with him being - like that with me when I'm being a kid? I don't want him to touch me like that. It's not what I want. I don't get off on it, and neither does he. It's just play. I just need it."

James appreciated his honesty. "Oh, okay. I'm sorry for having to ask, too, I just. It's weird, and I'm still trying to understand it. I'm sorry if that was too personal, but I needed to know."

"Oh, no, that's okay! I-I don't mind! I know it's weird, and it's not weird to assume it's sexual because a lot of people do, but it's not, it's okay. I don't mind trying to explain it. I'm not always good at that, but I'll try, if it helps. I don't need you to be into it like I am, but just. It's just something I need," Alex said. "Are you feeling okay now too? Did he give you a weighted blanket? I didn't know you needed one of those."

James glanced at the blanket. "Oh, I mean, I just asked for a blanket and that's what he gave me. Is that what it is? A weighted blanket?"

"Oh, yes, it's a weighted blanket. I have one for when I'm sleeping off the age play stuff. The weight of it sends me right to sleep. It makes me feel safe, like Greg's holding me. I really like it. Did you like it? I hope the weight's alright for you, the weight should be proportional to your body weight. He might need to get you a different one if it's too heavy for you," Alex said.

"No, no, the weight's fine? But, um. It feels good? I didn't expect to like it. If he'd just told me to lie under it, I doubt I'd have done it. But he just gave it to me without warning, and I mean. I didn't expect the weight to help? But it did? It's weird. But good weird?" James said.

"Good weird. Yes. I know what you mean." Alex dared to shift just a little closer to him. "Can I-? Can I just hold your hand for a moment? Please? I just - I need to-"

James felt a little apprehensive, he wasn't sure he was really ready for that, but he could see Alex was feeling just as fragile as he was. Maybe it would be alright. "Alright, sure. Just for a moment. Greg said you needed touch after, so. That's alright with me."

"Thank you, James. I just - it grounds me, and I just - need it right now," Alex said.

James offered his hand, and Alex shifted closer, taking his hand gently, cautiously, keeping his eyes fixed on him as if watching to see if James was going to pull away because it was too much.

"I'm not too close, am I? I just-" Alex started.

"No, no, it's fine. Holding hands is nice. I don't mind that. Besides, you're not trying to hurt me. You just need comfort like I do," James said.

Alex squeezed his hand a little. "Thank you, James. I really do love having you here, you know, even if I do wind you up a bit."

Without being aware of why he was even doing it, he lifted up Alex's hand and kissed the back of it. "I know, I like being here too, even if I do wind you up as well. I don't mean to, but - I just want to be as close to Greg as you are. And I guess I'm jealous of that."

Alex blushed. "Oh, well, I mean, that's something only you can work on, not me. But he's a wonderful master, he really is. I've never been happier. He does love you very much, James, even if you still kind of want to run away from it."

"Really? I-I guess I'm still … settling in. Getting to know him. I feel like I keep messing up too much though. Why would he love me when he has to keep punishing me?" James said.

"I don't know, I just know that he loves you. Maybe you just need to let him into your heart. But I know that's scary, too, being so vulnerable, to let yourself be loved. Submission is hard. Letting yourself be loved is hard. It takes a lot of courage. But it's so worth it I can't imagine my life without him," Alex said.

James went to reply, but he didn't know how to answer him. He became aware of Alex just gently stroking his hand with his thumb, but the sensation wasn't bothering him the way he thought it should be. It was just. A gentle touch. Maybe his hands were different, maybe they weren't as sensitive. He'd spent so long avoiding being touched in this condition, he'd never really tried to see what kind of touch he could stand, and what was too much. But it was nice. And maybe it was just Alex's submissive nature too, that he wasn't demanding, he was keeping his distance, he wasn't doing anything other than holding his hand, he hadn't asked for anything more than that. Maybe in that vulnerable state, where they were both fragile, maybe that was different. Maybe James needed touch instead of avoiding it, it's just no one had ever given him the right touch when he was freaking out like that, so he'd always assumed all touch was going to set him off.


Alex's voice broke him out of his thoughts. "Yeah?"

"Please stay. I … I feel like - Greg finally brought a boy here that I click with. You and I just work. And I - I don't want to lose that. It's lonely upstairs on my own. But you've made it better. And you like playing my silly games. And I love it when you help me cook. You push me to try new things, and Greg loves them. Maybe you'll never be into all the age play stuff I do with Greg, but that doesn't matter. That's not why I want you here. Just - please stay. Please?" Alex said.

"You're making it sound like I was preparing to leave because it was too weird for me, but I wasn't. I mean - I still don't really get it, but I'll take your assurances that it isn't sexual, and it's just play. It's weird, but I guess I can be alright with that. At least I know what it's like now. I didn't really know before," James said.

"I'm so sorry, I-I told him not to tell you, it's scared other boys off before, you see? I'm sorry, I didn't want to lie to you about it. It's just weird, but I need it," Alex said.

"Oh, no, that's fine, I understand. I mean, I still kinda don't, but I know what you mean. It's weird, and hard to understand. But I'll stay, if you want. I like it here," James said.

Alex offered a shy smile. "I do want you to stay. I - I, James. Can I-?"

"Can you what? Do you need more touch?" James said.

Alex went red. "Would you let me kiss you? Just a little one?"

It was James' turn to go red. He'd never imagined Alex would want to kiss him, but now that was all he was thinking about. "Oh, I - uh, sure? If you want? I-I've never been kissed when I'm like this, I don't know how I'll react, but let's find out, shall we?"

Alex shifted closer, still holding his hand, and hesitated. James wasn't sure if he was going to go ahead with it, but then Alex gently touched his cheek, and gave him the softest little kiss James had ever had in his life. Alex sat back, half-averting his eyes, but still looking at him, as if trying to see if he'd done the right thing.

James wasn't sure what to feel. That kiss had made him feel all tingly, but in a good way. At least he knew Alex did really like him, even if they did wind each other up all the time. And then, Alex let go of his hand and moved away, embarrassed, shifting away from him.

"I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to- I just- please don't hate me, I just - I'm so sorry, James-"

"Don't be sorry for that. It was nice? And maybe I'd let you kiss me again, later on, if you want? I mean, we're allowed to kiss, aren't we? Or doesn't he let us have that kind of relationship?" James said. "I'm sorry, I don't know the rules here about this kind of thing!"

Alex gazed at the ground, glanced anxiously over at him, and reached for him. "Oh, I mean, we can, if you want? I mean, we don't have to, we can just-"

Before Alex could finish, Greg arrived back with the tea, and some more cake, and Alex shied away, shrinking back to the corner of the sofa where he'd been originally.

"How are my little chickens? Getting on, are we? I didn't hear any arguments, so I can only assume you two didn't actually try to fuck each other over for once," Greg said as he sat down between them and set the tea on the table.

"Oh, no, no, we just - we just talked, for a bit," James said. "About the thing. The age play thing."

"That's good, I was hoping you two might talk about that. Are you alright with it, James? Everything alright with you?" Greg said as he handed him a cup.

"Yeah, no, I'm fine. It's - still a bit weird, but I'm alright with that, I think. And I'm feeling alright now, I think. Still a bit fragile, but alright," James said.

"That's good. Just take your time. There's no rush to finish the work. It can be done tomorrow. Maybe we'll take an afternoon for ourselves, if you feel up to it. Maybe I'll take you both out. It's been a while since Alex has had a break, and it might be nice to just take you both into the city for a while. Get out of this house, you know?" Greg said.

"Really? We get to go out with you?" James said.

"Sure, why not? You're my boys, not just my servants. If I want to take you out, I'll take you out. Where'd you like to go?" Greg asked.

"Somewhere with good puddings?" James said hopefully.

Greg smiled. "Alright, we'll see what we can find. If all else fails, I'm sure we'll be able to find some ice cream. That sounds like just the sort of thing you two boys need right now, yeah?"

James suddenly felt a lot better. "Yes! Ice cream! Make it good ice cream, please sir?"

Alex's face lit up. "Oh! Ice cream, sir? Oh, that would be wonderful, sir."

"I did wonder if that would perk you two up. Well, if we're going to go out, you two had better get yourselves dressed and ready to go. No uniforms, James. Just whatever you want to wear. Not right now, of course, just when you're ready. Have your cuppa, get your head sorted, alright? We'll go when you're both ready. And I mean that, don't go getting so over-excited you forget to get your heads sorted out, you hear? Now, I've got a couple of things I need to take care of before we go, but you'll both be fine here while I'm gone, right?" Greg said.

Alex nodded. "Oh, yes, sir, we'll be perfectly well-behaved. Thank you for letting us into your lounge, sir, it's very much appreciated."

"Yeah, it's lovely in here. We'll be very careful, and we'll clean up after ourselves," James added.

"Oh, I know you will, that goes without saying, and it had better be spotless. I'll be in my office if you need me," Greg said.

"Yes, sir, we'll come and find you, sir," Alex said.

"Oh, I'd better collar you again, hadn't I, Alex? Can't have you going out there half-dressed. Go on, on your knees for me," Greg said.

"Yes, sir," Alex said and immediately knelt before him, lifting his head to him to expose his neck.

"This should help get your mind back on the job, shouldn't it?" Greg said as he took his collar out and fastened it around his neck. "There you go. One beautiful collared boy."

"Thank you, sir," Alex said. He took his hands and kissed them, leaning forward to get as much touch as he needed from him.

"We really have to wear our collars out then? You weren't kidding about that? Isn't everyone going to know we're, like, you know?" James said, suddenly panicking a bit.

Greg shrugged. "I mean, Alex gets off on it because he's a kinky little fucker, aren't you, Alex?" Alex nodded vigorously. "But no one notices, not really. The city's too big. No one's paying attention to a giant and his two little collared boys, trust me. I scare people off without even trying. It's a very useful skill. And besides, when you've got money, no one gives a shit. You can get away with anything. My name will keep you safe."

"Alright, I mean, it's not like I haven't gone out before with like, errands and such, but sorry. I'm still a bit weird right now, sorry," James said.

"No, it's fine, I haven't taken you out before, I get that it feels different. It's alright. You don't need any new clothes while we're out, do you? You're certainly allowed to have some more if you want them," Greg said.

"Oh-oh, no, I think I'm fine, sir. I have enough." James said.

Greg gave him a look. "Are you sure? This is your home too. You're allowed to have your own things, James. You're allowed to have nice clothes. In fact, I'd argue it's a requirement. When was the last time you bought new clothes anyway?"

James looked pointedly at his feet. "I-…"

"My point exactly. We'll get you some new things. My treat. I know you didn't bring much with you when you moved in, and I don't want you to feel ashamed for that. We'll get you some nice things. Maybe get you measured up for a nice suit. You ever had a good suit before, James?"

"No, sir, I could never afford anything good. At least, not what you'd call good. I know how to dress nice though, I'm not a grub, Greg, I've got more class than that. I did my best with what I had," James said.

"Alright. We'll get you a nice suit. You need anything while I'm making a shopping list, Alex?" Greg said, looking down at Alex.

Alex sat up, surprised at being asked. "Oh. Um. Well. I do - sh-shoes, maybe, sir? B-been a while, sir. Soles are getting - thin. And - maybe some slippers?"

Greg sighed and gently stroked his hair. "You need to get better at asking, Alex. You don't have to wear your shoes down until the soles are broken. How many times have I told you that? And you know what? I think I'm going to make this a regular thing, just because I know you won't ask, you little fucker. Every six months, Alex. Put it in the schedule, starting from today. I'll take you both shopping and get you what you need. I won't have my servants going around with fucking broken shoes, Alex, for fuck's sake. Are you trying to make me look bad?"

Alex bowed his head. "I'm so sorry, sir, I'll put it in the diary, sir, I promise. I'm so sorry, I don't want to make you look bad."

"And yet that's exactly what it looks like when you're serving my guests with fucking broken shoes, Alex! Your appearance reflects on me. You are meant to be immaculately dressed, that's part of your fucking service. That's why I spend so much money on your fucking uniforms. If you look like shit, I look like shit. For fuck's sake, your clothes are not part of your humiliation! That's not how this works! In fact, just to make my point very clear to you, Alex, I want a hundred lines, my clothes are not part of my humiliation, on my desk tomorrow morning. Your neatest, most perfect handwriting, please, on the best paper you have. And there'd better not be any mistakes. Because if you fuck it up, I'll make you do it again and again until you really understand this, alright?" Greg said.

"Yes, sir, one hundred lines, I'm so sorry, sir, I didn't mean to make you look bad, I'm so sorry," Alex said, almost on the verge of crying as he bowed down before him and began kissing his master's shoes.

"So you should be. Now, go get ready, the both of you. I'll be about twenty minutes, I think, but do come and interrupt me if you want, I might need it if they bang on too long," Greg said.

"Yes, sir. Good luck, sir," Alex said, sitting back up on his heels.

Greg smiled, petted Alex's head, and got to his feet. "Thanks, Alex. I'll see you both soon."

"See you soon, sir," James said.

"Bye, sir," Alex said.

Neither of them moved until Greg was out of sight. It was strange to be in the lounge without him, James felt he was trespassing, but Alex wasn't panicked, and took a moment to quietly finish his tea before he stood and gathered up the plates. He was, however, still blushing from the shame of being punished, but James sensed now wasn't the time to rib him about that. He knew what it was like to have clothes that worn out and to feel that was all he deserved. He wasn't really in a position to criticise.

"Come on, let's get this place cleaned up. Take your blanket to your room, then join me in the kitchen to wash up, please, James," Alex said.

James could tell Alex was not a child anymore by the way he was taking charge of the cleaning. This was the Alex James was more used to. "Sure thing, Alex. Be right back."

James gathered up the blanket, and it only then occurred to him how heavy it really was when he began carrying it upstairs to his room.

"Jesus Christ, what's in here? Fucking marbles or something? When Alex said it was a weighted blanket, he really meant it, didn't he? Fuck," James cursed as he trudged up the stairs.

He dumped it on his bed when he got there, and quickly lay out what he planned to wear into town, which was a pair of old dark grey trousers, his best button shirt, which happened to be emerald green, and the only jumper he had, which was a weird burnt orange colour. He hated how they all looked together, the colours were all wrong, but he didn't have much choice. This was the best he had.

Perhaps Greg was right. Perhaps he did need some new clothes. It's not his fault most of his things had disappeared before he'd been able to go back and salvage them. His laptop and iPod were only saved because he needed those to survive, and he kept them locked away in a secret place. But his clothes had mostly disappeared the night Greg had taken him home for the first time. This was all he had left, what he had laid out on his bed as well as two other pairs of trousers, four more shirts in dire need of replacement, and one pair of shoes, an old pair of trainers he hated wearing.

He spent a moment thinking about what he even wanted to buy, but he didn't want to waste too much time so he didn't leave Alex to do all the work. It's not that Alex wouldn't do it if he didn't turn up, but James was still, at his heart, a good boy, and good boys don't leave someone to do all the cleaning up when they were both told to do that job by their master.

He headed back down to the lounge and found Alex with his hands in the sink, handwashing all the precious china Greg had brought out for them. James quickly grabbed a tea towel and began drying up.

"Thank you, James. If you could wipe down the coffee table and the sofa, I'll take the carpets and the dusting," Alex said.

"Sure thing, Alex. I hope you're not going to, like, do obsessively more than he asked you to do because you can't help yourself, are you? Because he just gave you lines and you're feeling like you need to impress him and prove how good you are? Because you could spend three hours cleaning in there. I know, I've seen you do it. Let's not do that today so we can go get ice cream, please?" James said.

Alex glanced at him, looking a little surprised that James had noticed that. "Oh. Right. Yes. Alright. We'll - we'll be quick."

"Quick, but thorough. How bout I do the dusting too, so you can just focus on the carpet?" James said.

"Oh, alright, sure. There's not much, I mean, we did clean in there two days ago, but just make sure it's all clean and tidy. You know how fussy he is, and he did say he wanted it spotless!" Alex said.

"I did hear him say that, loud and clear," James said.

Once they were done in the kitchen, they went back to the lounge to clean. James got on with his jobs, wiping down the coffee table and making sure he really hadn't left any cake crumbs on the sofa. Thankfully, he hadn't, but there were a few on the carpet that he drew Alex's attention to. Once that was done, it was just dusting and making sure it was cleaner in there than when they'd arrived. James plumped up the cushions and arranged them the way Greg liked, and helped with the carpets just to help speed up the work. Soon enough, they were done.

"We'd better go shower and change, we can't go out in our uniforms, it's not that kind of outing. Come on," Alex said.

"Oh, sure, yes, I'm coming," James said, though by the way Alex took his hand, James was going to come along anyway whether he wanted to or not.

Alex led him to the bathroom, and James wasn't expecting him to insist they shower together to save time, but that's clearly what was on Alex's mind, and James wasn't willing to question it. The busyness of cleaning had rid him of the last of the ragged nerves and he was feeling alright now, but it was still strange to be pulled into the shower with him once they'd both undressed, as if Alex just needed him now, all of a sudden.

And then, Alex kissed him again before he backed off, smiling shyly at him. James didn't really know how to react, so he just stared at him, startled.

"I-I mean, there are rules, James, but- but he won't stop this. We're allowed to - you know," Alex said, as if he couldn't even say the words but could only hint at them.

"Alright, I'm keen. What are the rules, then, Alex?" James said.

Alex blushed, and not just from the hot water. "N-no penetration, hands and mouths only, and only during downtime. Apart from that, w-we can do what we like, unless he's forbidden us from having - well," Alex made a sound as if the word 'orgasms' had got caught in his throat, "y-you know, t-touching ourselves. But - but other than that, it's fine. We can - be together. If you want. I mean. I wouldn't want to presume you'd be-"

Alex stopped, seemed to have decided he'd said too much, been too forward, and he turned away from him and started soaping himself down as a distraction.

James rested a hand on his shoulder. "Why would you think I wouldn't want you?"

"Why would you think I wouldn't want you?" Alex said, spitting his question back at him with perhaps more spite than he needed.

James wasn't expecting that, and he didn't have an answer. No, he did have an answer. He turned Alex around, grabbed his face, and kissed him really hard, just to make a point. Alex made a noise, and James just held him until he felt he'd done enough.

"There. That enough proof for you, you weird little fucker?" James said, trying to read his expression.

"W-weird little fucker-!?"

Alex squealed and inhaled sharply as James pushed him against the wall, making his dominance clear. "Kinky weird little fucker. That's you, isn't it? And now we're going to go out and what if I just happened to tell people how weird you are? Hmm? Would you get off on that, you fucker?"

Alex clearly didn't trust himself to answer, but James could see him beginning to harden up. James smiled. Sure, he might really want to be with Alex, but that didn't mean he was going to stop winding him up. It was just too much fun seeing Alex squirm under his gaze.

"I wonder, does this count as downtime, Alex? Are we allowed to fuck around like this right now? Or are we being naughty little boys? After all, you led me to the shower, you insisted we had to shower together, what will Greg think if I tell him that, hmm?" James said.

"N-no, we're not - not being - bad, no! It- it's fine!" Alex insisted.

"Then why the fuck are you trembling, Alex? You're not scared of being caught, are you? Afraid I'll tell on you?" James said.

That seemed to scare Alex into fighting back, and he pushed James away. "Yeah? Well- well, you didn't have to just obey me, did you? And- and you kissed me first!"

"I think you'll find you kissed me first, you prick," James said.

Alex paled as he realised that was true. He had kissed James first. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry! I'm so bad at this, I - don't - it's fine, I'll go, I'll - leave me alone," Alex said as he pushed past James and left the shower, grabbing a towel and his clothes before scurrying off to his room.

James smirked, and enjoyed having the shower all to himself. Perhaps he'd been a bit mean, maybe he'd teased him too soon, but Alex had kissed him first, that was not in denial. Alex had started it.

He didn't waste too much time though. He was eager to get out, and didn't want to wait too long. He gathered up his clothes and went back to his room. He was surprised to hear Alex crying, and wondered if he'd gone too far. He weighed up the possibility this was Alex getting back at him versus just being genuinely upset, and decided he wasn't so much of a dick he'd leave him being upset like that, and stuck his head around Alex's door. He saw Alex, half-dressed, curled up on his bed, clearly crying.

"Hey, um, I'm sorry about that. I - I pushed you too far, didn't I? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to, I'm not very good at this either. Are you alright?" James said. He stayed by the door, not wanting to intrude if he wasn't wanted.

"I-I really thought you wanted me, but- but maybe I was wrong. Maybe - maybe we don't click after all, just like with all the other boys. No one wants me. I'm too weird. I just want someone to be friends with. I don't want to be lonely up here anymore," Alex sobbed, refusing to look at him.

"Ahh, jeez, I fucked up, didn't I? I'm really sorry, Alex. I - you didn't ask for that when you kissed me, and I went too far. I shouldn't have done that. I do want you, Alex, I do like you. I'm sorry, I thought you'd like that, I know you like that kind of thing, right? But maybe I misjudged it. I do think we click, and I want to stay here. I just - we're going to go out with Greg this afternoon, and now I've wrecked the mood. I'm so sorry, Alex, I didn't mean to make you upset," James said.

Alex wiped his eyes and turned to look at him. "You - you want me? Really?"

James came and sat next to him. He didn't reach for him or touch him, but gave him space to move away if he needed to. Alex looked hesitant, unsure, and James hoped he hadn't messed this up. Because seeing him now, James knew he wanted this. He wanted him. He wanted him more than he was weirded out by the age play, which was not a place he expected to be right now. He touched his cheek gently, hesitantly, and gave him a little kiss, just to reassure him, to make his affections clear. Alex might have blushed, and James thought he looked adorable.

"Yeah, I want you, Alex. I like you, Alex. I want to stay here! Because of you! And Greg, of course. I fit here, and I haven't fit anywhere, well, ever, really. But I fit here. With you. And - and if that means I have a little brother to play with, well, maybe there are worse things, you know? I mean, I should know, I know there are worse things than that, and I much prefer this."

Alex's demeanour changed completely when he heard James call him his little brother. He was crying with joy now, though his face was filled with disbelief, as if he couldn't believe he'd just said it.

"L-little brother? Y-you called me your little brother?" Alex said and pulled him into a tight hug. "No one's ever called me little brother before, except - well, except for my family. D-do you really mean that? A-am I going to have a big brother at last?"

"Yeah, yeah, you can have a big brother. I mean, I still think it's a bit weird, but I mean, it's just play, isn't it? Can't be anything wrong with that," James said.

Alex thanked him so many times James lost count. But he didn't care. He still had a lot of questions about it, but maybe next time, he'd play with him, rather than watch from afar. James knew what big brothers were meant to do for their younger siblings, and he felt he was finally beginning to understand why Greg called him his boy. That was just another kind of age play, wasn't it? A Dad and his boys? Maybe it wasn't so weird. Maybe it was something he was into after all.