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The Cost of Harvard

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“Macallan 18.”

Mike eyed the man who had just slid onto the last free stool at the bar. He was startingly good looking, tall, lithely muscled, dark-haired and dark-eyed, perhaps ten years or more older than Mike. What he’d likely shelled out for his suit would have paid Mike’s rent for half a year. Good tipper? The odds of that were about fifty-fifty, Mike judged.

“Hello? Don’t try to tell me you don’t carry it here, because I can see it sitting on the shelf right over there.”

Mike blushed, realizing he’d been staring for an embarrassingly long time. “Coming right up,” he said, and turned to grab the bottle and a glass. He poured an over-generous amount and slid the glass in front of the man. “Are you running a tab?”

The man eyed him up and down. “Sure, why not?” He fished a credit card out of his wallet and handed it to Mike.

Mike glanced at the name on the card. Harvey Specter.

“You’re new,” said Harvey.

Mike shrugged. “Not really. I’ve worked here about six months.”

Harvey’s eyebrows lifted. “Huh. That tells me how long it’s been since I’ve been in.” He laughed shortly. “I’ve been working too hard.”

“What do you do?”

“Would you like to guess?”

One of Mike’s other customer raised a hand to get his attention and Mike gave Harvey a regretful smile. “Duty calls.”

He went to refresh the other man’s drink, and was kept busy for the next ten minutes or so, pouring and mixing and ringing up orders. When things slowed down again, he glanced over at Harvey and found him in a low, intense discussion with another dark-haired man who was nearly as handsome as Harvey. They weren’t arguing, exactly, or if they were, they seemed reasonably friendly with one another despite whatever their disagreement was about.

Mike strolled their way. As he reached them, he saw Harvey place a hand on the other man’s arm, stopping whatever he’d been saying. They both regarded him.

“Are you ready for another?” Mike asked Harvey, motioning at his empty glass.

“Please. And bring one for my friend, here. Put it on my tab.”

Mike grabbed the bottle and another glass, quickly filling the order. He started to move away, but Harvey stopped him.

“Wait a second,” he said.

Mike raised an eyebrow.

“What’s your name?” asked Harvey.

Mike wasn’t sure why he hesitated. His regulars all knew his name. This wasn’t a regular, though, and this felt … different. There was an interest there which, while flattering, also raised his hackles. He’d learned the hard way not to get involved with a customer. That disaster, the Stefan fiasco, had taken place about three years ago, at a different bar, when he’d been new to bartending.

Maybe he was reading something into the question that simply wasn’t there. Why would Harvey be hitting on him when his … boyfriend? … or whoever the other man was, was standing right there?

“My name’s Mike,” he finally said, giving them both a blandly professional smile.

Harvey stuck out his hand. “Hello, Mike. I’m Harvey.”

Mike stared at the proffered hand, and then reached halfway across the bar to grasp it. “Nice to meet you, Harvey.” The hand was large, hard, warm and smooth. Harvey gave Mike’s hand a quick squeeze before releasing him.

Placing a hand on his companion’s shoulder, Harvey said, “And this is Travis.”

Instead of offering Mike his hand, Travis eyed him what might have been suspicion. Certainly, it was an assessing look, the opposite of friendly. Mike didn’t know what to make of it. He tucked his own hands underneath his armpits and nodded once. “Nice to meet you too.”

Harvey glanced at Travis, appearing exasperated with him. Some sort of nonverbal communication passed between them, and then Harvey turned back to Mike. “I guess I’m ready for my bill.”

Mike closed out his tab and returned with a receipt and a pen, setting them in front of Harvey.

The two men sipped their drinks while Mike stood awkwardly in front of them feeling as if he’d been dismissed. Other customers required his attention again, and he hustled around the small space behind the bar to keep up with all the demands. When he finally had a moment to breathe, he realized that Harvey and Travis were gone. The bill was signed, and both of their glasses were empty.

Harvey had left him a hundred-dollar bill as a tip.

 

*******

 

It had never been Mike’s dream to be a bartender. The plan had been to attend Harvard Law and make his mark at a prestigious Manhattan firm. He’d come so close to getting into Harvard, only to see it yanked away from him. He could blame his friend Trevor all he wanted for dragging him into the exam cheating scheme at Columbia that had blown it all up, but he’d eventually come to terms with the painful reality that he’d made his own choices, and ultimately only had himself to blame.

Some days, he told himself he was lucky just to have his current job. It paid well, for what it was, and on a good night the tips were outstanding. He’d been able to afford a decent one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, almost always paid his rent on time, and often ended the month with enough discretionary funds to be able to pursue various forms of entertainment. If, on most of his nights off, he found himself in one Brooklyn dive or another, seated on the other side of the bar, he supposed it was better than isolating himself at home.

Tonight, he was huddled with two of his friends at Beatty’s, a small neighborhood bar two blocks from home. He knew Frank and Chelsie only from the time he’d spent at the bar. Like him, they lived in the neighborhood, but he doubted he’d recognize them if he ran into them at the market or in the park nearby. Their acquaintance began and ended on the barstools at Beatty’s, but during the time they spent there, it felt as if they were as close as brothers and sister. If he thought about it at all, he would have acknowledged that the friendship was artificial, and greatly helped along by the amount of alcohol they consumed together. Still, spending time with them felt familiar and comfortable.

“You should have asked him out,” said Chelsie, running her swizzle stick back and forth in straight lines through her gin and tonic.

Mike had been relating his encounter with Harvey and Travis.

“Which one?” he asked.

“Either.”

“Both,” chimed in Frank, who never let a quip go unquipped, or a snark unsnarked.

“Yeah, right. They looked like they were together.”

Chelsie smiled slyly at him. “But you said the first guy – Harvey? – was definitely flirting with you.”

“Definitely maybe. I don’t think his friend Travis was happy about it either. They weren’t real obvious about it, but they looked like they were fighting, you know how couples do in public? With everything under the surface.”

“Maybe they were fighting over who got you?”

Mike scowled. “First of all, that’s insulting and demeaning.”

“And hot,” said Frank.

“Secondly, they left as soon as I turned my back.”

“And left you that killer tip.” He raised his kiwi daiquiri. “Thanks for the drinks, by the way.”

“But he didn’t leave his phone number, so that’s the end of that.”

They might have pointed out that if that was the end of it, why was Mike bringing it up three days later? Even if they were only fake bar friends, they were good fake bar friends, and usually didn’t call him on his bullshit.

They spent an enjoyable night getting drunk on Harvey’s hundred-dollar tip, playing darts (badly) and gossiping with the bartender about the other regulars at the bar. Before he staggered home, Mike talked Frank into calling his dealer, who showed up around midnight to sell Mike some weed.

At home, he smoked until he fell asleep. Before he nodded off, he muzzily decided that he’d skip Beatty’s on his next night off and go someplace where he could reliably get laid.

 

******

 

It was nearly two months before Harvey showed up at Mike’s bar again. He gave Mike an enigmatic smile as he slid onto the barstool, and then smiled more broadly when Mike set a glass of Macallan 18 in front of him without being asked.

“That answers that question,” said Harvey.

“What question?”

“Whether or not I made an impression on you last time I was here.”

“Oh, don’t take it personally. I remember everyone’s drinks.” He spun away to mix a martini for another customer.

Perhaps ten minutes later, during a brief lull in orders, he found himself in front of Harvey once more.

“Mike,” said Harvey, “I feel like I should apologize.”

“For what?”

“For taking off without saying goodbye.”

“You’d already cashed out,” Mike reminded him.

“Sure, but …” Harvey trailed off, appearing self-conscious, which didn’t quite match up with the initial impression he’d made. His gaze flicked back to Mike. “Hey, you never did try to guess what I do for a living.”

Mike had actually thought about this more than he’d ever admit. He gave him a playful grin. “If I guess right, what do I win?”

Harvey’s eyes darkened, as if he approved of Mike’s question, or as if Mike had just played right into his hands. “How about … dinner? On me.”

This is not what Mike had expected. He hesitated, weighing the pros and cons. “Somewhere nice?”

“Absolutely.”

He’d be breaking his rule about getting involved with a customer, but Harvey had definitely piqued his interest, and surely he’d learned something from the whole Stefan debacle, hadn’t he? If he used his common sense and exercised some caution, he could get everything he wanted – a decent meal for once, and Harvey for dessert.

“Okay. You’re on.” Mike frowned, pretending to give the question deep consideration. “I think … are you an attorney?” A quick internet search had showed him that much, along with a rundown of Harvey’s most high-profile cases, and an indication of his reputation for winning whatever the cost. Basically, the sort of attorney Mike had wanted to be, before his chances for Harvard crashed and burned.

“Very good. You got it in one.” Harvey didn’t seem surprised that Mike had guessed correctly. Perhaps he suspected that Mike had, in effect, cheated. He seemed almost smug, once again giving Mike the impression that he had played directly into Harvey’s plan – whatever that plan might be. “When is your next night off?”

“Monday.”

Harvey handed Mike his phone. “Enter your number.”

It sounded so close to an order that Mike experienced renewed misgivings. A good meal and maybe something more, though … this sounded like a better way to spend his night off than hanging out with Frank and Chelsie again. He typed in his number, handed the phone back to Harvey, and then sidled away to check to see if anyone else needed a refill.

As he moved around the bar, he recalled Harvey’s friend Travis. Had he been more than a friend? Should Mike have asked Harvey to clarify that situation before he agreed to dinner? He had no desire to get in between a committed couple, or to be used as some sort of pawn in a revenge scheme.

He never got the chance to ask, though, because by the time he made it back to Harvey’s stool, he was gone. This time he’d left three twenties on the bar.

 

******

 

Harvey offered to pick him up on Monday, but Mike insisted on meeting him at the restaurant. He hardly knew the guy, didn’t know him at all, in fact, and would prefer he wasn’t privy to Mike’s home address.

The location Harvey texted him was in Manhattan. He wouldn’t give Mike the name of the place and acted secretive enough that Mike came close to cancelling. When he arrived at the appointed place, it turned out to be a restaurant, all right. The only problem was that it was closed on Mondays.

Mike stood on the sidewalk, one hand on his hip, and the other holding up his bike, which he’d ridden all the way from Brooklyn. Was this some kind of joke? A prank on the gullible bartender? Was he being videoed as he stood there looking as stunned and forlorn as if he’d been stood up on prom night?

He shook his head in disgust, preparing to head home, and planning what scathing things he would say to Harvey if he ever showed his face at the bar again, when the front door of the restaurant swung silently open.

“O-o-o-kay,” whispered Mike. “Major serial killer vibes.”

He stayed where he was, debating how much a good dinner was worth to him. Was it worth getting chopped into pieces, or turned in a skin suit? Well, no, but he’d come all the way here, so he might as well see what this was about. Which, he reflected, was probably what every hapless victim told themselves just before they were clobbered with a meat tenderizer.

Pushing his bike forward, he approached the door with caution. Keeping his feet on the sidewalk, he learned forward as far as he could, in order to get a view of the interior. It looked like a closed restaurant should look, dark, with the chairs turned upside down on the tables. In the far corner, one table was illuminated by candlelight, and he could see there were two place settings of fine china, silver and crystal. The two plates, which were on opposite sides of the small table, were covered with warming lids. A bottle of red wine had been opened and stood ready to pour.

In other circumstances, this might have seemed charmingly romantic. In the present circumstances, it felt … off. He barely knew Harvey. This was excessive, over the top, not at all what he’d expected. It spoke of … not desperation, exactly, but something aggressively forward, something arrogant and miscalculated.

He nearly turned around and walked away, but just then Harvey stepped out of the shadows, smiling invitingly at Mike. He appeared sheepish and terribly sweet, all which was likely an act, but it made Mike pause. His mood inched upward from angry to wary.

“Too much?” asked Harvey.

“You think?” Mike entered the restaurant, leaned his bike against the wall, and walked toward Harvey, but stopped with the table still between them. “Do you own this place or something?”

“No, but I know the guy who does.” Harvey extended a hand, gesturing toward one of the chairs. “Have a seat. You don’t want your dinner to get cold.”

Mike sat and waited while Harvey took the chair across from him. “What are we having?”

“See for yourself.” He nodded at the warming lid.

Hiding a smile, Mike lifted the lid, inhaling the fragrances that wafted up to him. There was a ribeye steak that looked like it had been cooked to perfection, new potatoes, and roasted asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Filling but not too heavy. It all looked … perfect.

“Do you approve?” asked Harvey.

“It looks great. Did you make this all yourself?”

“Tempting as it might be to lie and take the credit, no. I borrowed the restaurant’s chef for an hour, and then sent her home. Go ahead. Let’s eat.” He poured wine for both of them.

They were quiet for a few minutes as Mike enjoyed his first steak in he couldn’t remember how long. He wasn’t much of a meat eater these days, except for his burgers, and the pepperoni on his pizzas, but he had no philosophical objections to the occasional red meat.

Across from him, Harvey ate silently and efficiently, wielding knife and fork like an expensive set of scalpels. When the worst of his hunger had been satisfied, Mike started thinking about what came next. Did Harvey expect him to put out? Did he want to? Of course he did. He’d been thinking of little else since the last time he’d seen Harvey. It had been two months since he’d been with anyone, and Harvey seemed like the type of guy who commanded expertise in anything he put his mind to.

The next question was, were they going to do it here, in the restaurant? Unless there was a comfortable cot or mattress in the back room, Mike would rather go someplace with a proper bed. A hotel was fine with him, as long as Harvey paid for it. He was formulating ways to bring this all up, trying to figure out the right questions to pose, when the front door of the restaurant opened.

A man entered, hidden in the shadows, but lightly silhouetted by the streetlights and headlights of passing cars. Was it the owner? Were they about to get kicked out? He glanced at Harvey for guidance, and found that he had risen to his feet, and did not look happy.

“Damn it, Travis, I told you to give us at least an hour.”

Mike looked back and forth between the two of them. Travis? He gathered that this was the guy he’d met briefly at the bar the first night he’d met Harvey.

Travis stalked towards them, stopping just outside the flickering ring of candlelight. “Don’t be like that, Harvey. We share everything. Why should he be any different?”

Mike had a mouthful of meat, which he was tempted to spit out into his napkin. Instead, he chewed carefully, having no wish to choke, and swallowed what felt like a cold, congealed lump of flesh. “What?” he asked when his mouth was empty of food. “Share? I mean … what?”

Harvey was shaking his head. His eyes flashed with anger. “God, Travis, you have the subtlety of a … a … of you. That’s why we agreed that I’d be the one to soften them up.”

Mike lay down his knife and fork and stood slowly, all too aware that he was both outnumbered and out muscled. He couldn’t take one of these guys in a fight, much less both at once. He was fast though. If he picked his moment, maybe he could dart past Travis and make it out the door. He might have to leave his bike behind, but that was better than … than what? What exactly were these two planning? He stopped panicking long enough to actually consider agreeing to whatever it was they had in mind, and then gave his head a rough shake. Meeting Harvey alone had been risky enough. Adding Travis into the mix? No. Not a good idea. Time to bail.

Harvey seemed to have either read his mind, or deduced his intentions from his tense body language. He nodded at Travis, who rushed forward to place a hand on Mike’s shoulder, pushing him back down onto the chair. He might have resisted, but couldn’t quite wrap his head around what was happening, or what seemed to be happening. Later, he would reflect that it was this sort of indecision and paralysis that turned people into victims. For now, he concentrated on remaining calm, and not allowing his dinner to make an unscheduled reappearance.

Letting out a longsuffering sigh, Harvey said, “This could have been handled more gracefully, but Mr. Bull – ” he gave Travis a look of pure scorn – “has violated the china shop once again, so I’m forced to just lay out the bald facts for you.”  

“I think I understand what’s going on here,” said Mike. His heart was beating much too fast. This, he told himself, is why you don’t date customers, and you don’t trust strangers.

“No,” replied Harvey, “you really don’t.” He pushed his plate aside, folded his hands on the table, and leaned forward. “The short version is, you’re being recruited.”

This surprised a snort of laughter out of Mike. “Recruited?” he repeated incredulously. “Recruited for what? The CIA?”

Harvey and Travis both laughed in unison, almost as if they’d rehearsed it. “No, Mike,” said Travis “not the CIA.”

“Then, what?” He wondered if there was some way he could surreptitiously pull out his phone and dial 911.

“An apprenticeship of sorts.”

“You’re going to need to expand on that.”

“It’s pretty simple. Our research indicates that you were pre-law at Columbia, and were accepted to Harvard before the events which led to you being expelled from Columbia and blackballed from Harvard.”

“How did you –”

“We also know that you’ve taken the LSAT’s numerous times. This was undertaken under false pretenses, but your scores were impressive all the same. Additionally – and don’t bother asking again how we know all this because our source prefers to remain anonymous – you also sat for the bar exam, which you aced.”

“Uh, that’s not concerning at all, that you know all that about me,” said Mike, and although he infused his voice with sarcasm, it was terrifying as hell. “Leaving that aside for now, I still don’t know why I’m here.”

“You haven’t connected the dots yet? We’re lawyers. You want to be a lawyer. We can make that happen. You give us a year, and we give you Harvard. We’re talking a full ride. Tuition, books, room and board. Does that sound like something that might interest you?”

Mike was momentarily speechless. “Interest?” he squeaked, paused to take a sip of wine, and tried again. “Of course, I’m interested. But – ” He frowned. “What’s this year you’re talking about? What do you mean, give you a year? Are you offering an internship?”

“No, not that.”

“Then, what?”

Travis gave an impatient sounding sigh. He snagged a chair from a nearby table and pulled it over so that he could sit next to Mike. He was so close Mike could feel the heat rising off him.

“Come on, Mike. You’re an intelligent guy, or so Harvey claims. What do you think?”

“I don’t know. Is it like, a loan? Only I have to start paying it off in advance?” This sounded shady as fuck, but why would two attorneys, at least one of whom (Harvey) had a high profile in the community and a six-figure (or higher) income to go with it, involve themselves in a scam like that? So, not an internship, not a loan. Harvey had called it an apprenticeship, but wasn’t that something like an internship?”

He was still puzzling it out when Travis gave an exasperated huff. “Fine. I’ll spell it out for you.” He spoken in an exaggeratedly condescending tone. “When one attorney has special, tingly feelings for another attorney …” He gestured between himself and Harvey. “And they meet a bartender who also gives them those feelings …” He raised his eyebrows and waited.

Okay. That was anything but subtle. Mike glanced around the shadowy room, wondering how the hell he got himself into these situations. “I’m going to take a wild guess. When you say I would have to give you a year, you’re talking about making myself available for sex?”

“Well, look at that, Harvey. Maybe he’s Harvard material after all.”

Harvey shot Travis an aggrieved look before returning his attention to Mike. “You’ve got the basic gist, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Yes, your body would be available to us, whenever and wherever we choose, but you would also belong to us.”

“I don’t – ”

“We would direct your life for the next year. You’d come stay with one of us, wear the clothes we provide, study the books we give you, follow a diet and exercise regimen directed by us.”

Mike shook his head in disbelief. “But mainly it’s about the sex, correct?”

“We’d be making an enormous investment in you. Much of that is monetary, but if you’re going to rise to the top at Harvard, and after Harvard, you need to be made ready. Refinements are required, and in addition to the cash outlay, we’ll be spending time and effort on you. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that we’d be owed something in return?”

Travis spoke up again. “Don’t forget to mention forging the bonds of loyalty that this will form between us.” His use of air quotes indicated his scorn for those “bonds of loyalty.”

“Some of us,” said Harvey, “still place a high premium on loyalty. However, I consider that an entirely separate issue. This year would be more about forging your unquestioning obedience.”

Mike was seized once more by the urge to run, stronger this time. What they were saying was only made more surreal by how reasonable and matter-of-fact they sounded.

“Mike? What are you thinking right now?”

Mike shook his head, finding difficulty articulating his thoughts. He cut his gaze to Travis, and then back to Harvey. “I’m thinking this us about the craziest proposition I’ve ever received. This is … you guys are shitting me, right?”

“I know you’re confused right now,” said Harvey, sounding almost kind. “You’re thinking that you’ve stumbled onto something nefarious, that you’re far out of your depth.”

Mike chewed on his thumbnail, eyes darting between Harvey and Travis. “I don’t – ”

“No. Don’t answer right now. We’re going to give you the week to think about it. Think long and hard about your dream. Harvard. Practicing law with one of the most prestigious firms in the city.”

Mike allowed himself to seriously consider the offer for about half a second. Then he remembered the sticking point, the thing that had dashed his dream forever. “You know where I stand with Harvard. No way are they letting me in. Plus, I don’t even have my undergrad degree yet. Columbia kicked me out before I completed my final semester.”

“We’ll see to it that you earn the necessary credits during our year together. And you see, your little fall from grace with regards to Harvard is not the obstacle you imagine it to be. We know people that can erase that episode from your history, who can make it as if it never happened.” Harvey paused. “Do we have your attention yet?”

“Oh, you’ve had it all along.”

“And? Do have any questions?”

Only about a million.

“Mike? This is your opportunity. Talk to us.”

 “Fine. I’ll say it straight out: I suspect this is just a weird and convoluted way of asking me to join you in a threesome. There’s no Harvard education, is there?”

Harvey frowned. “So cynical. You’re partially correct. If we weren’t interested in fucking you, we never would have made the offer. We’ll own your body and use it in any way we choose, separately and together, in ways you’ve probably never imagined. Additionally, we would have the right to loan you out to any of our clients or colleagues if we deem it strategic. So, yes. Sex and lots of it. I wouldn’t think a young, healthy guy like you would object too much to that. You’re wrong about Harvard, though. Harvard will absolutely be there, waiting for you when the year is up. All you’ll need is the courage to reach out and take it.”

“And I’m supposed to just trust that you’ll follow through?”

“Of course not. There will be a signed contract.”

“We’ll even sign it in blood if you want us to,” said Travis.

Harvey shook his head in apparent disapproval. “We won’t, actually.”

“Speaking of blood,” said Mike, “would any of mine be spilled?”

“No. Absolutely not. Or rather, minimal amounts only. The contract addresses this, but basically, we’re not allowed to cut you, to beat you so hard that you bleed – ”

“Wait. Hold up. Beat me?”

Harvey continued as if Mike hadn’t spoken. “We are also not allowed to harm you in any way that is irreversible.”

“You were talking about sex, but now you’re talking about hurting me? This just gets better and better.”

Travis let out a scoffing sound. “Are you really that naïve, Mike? You’ve never been tied up and spanked, or whipped, or flogged? If done correctly, it can be immensely enjoyable.”

Mike blushed. He never had. He’d been asked a few times, but it had seemed too far outside his comfort zone. “Oh. Okay. I get it. The light breaks. You’re into BDSM. And no, it’s not something I’ve ever been interested in.” Which wasn’t exactly true. He had a collection of DVD’s that he broke out every so often, and had imagined himself in the role of the weeping, screaming sub in more than one of them. These guys couldn’t know that, though.

Could they?

“We’ll be gentle with you,” said Harvey, eyes gleaming with mischief, “to begin with.”

“Speak for yourself,” Travis added, and gave Harvey a mocking look.

And just like that, Mike was imagining it, imagining himself naked, tied up and vulnerable, with Harvey and Travis hovering over him, one of them grabbing his hair and yanking his head back while the other beat his ass with a paddle. And then there would be fingers inside of him, or maybe a dildo, and he’d be forced to suck someone’s cock, and –

The legs of his chair screeched as he pushed away from the table and stood. “This is … I mean, thanks for the dinner, but this is all too wild. You’re asking way too much from me. I don’t even know why you chose me. Because, I can’t. I can’t get involved in something like this.”

“You love your life so much?” asked Travis.

“That,” said Mike, “is a really fucking unfortunate turn of phrase.”

Harvey sighed, rolling his eyes. “He means your lifestyle, not your life. And the question stands. Do you enjoy bartending so much? Is that what you plan to do for the next fifty years?”

“No. I plan to go back to school eventually. I just need to get some money together. Or maybe take out a loan.”

“Jesus, Mike. You’re not stupid. You know how that ends. You take out a loan, spend several more years in school, maybe get a decent job afterwards, maybe go back to slinging drinks, and spend the rest of your life crippled by debt, still living in the same crappy walkup, never getting ahead, never traveling like you always wanted to, or buying a home, or being able to afford anything nice for yourself.

“Sure, you could go that route. Or you could take one single year out of your life, learn some things about yourself while being pampered like the most treasured of pets -- ”

“Are the beatings part of the pampering?”

“ --  and then go on to get the premier education you always wanted, and come out of it with zero debt and the entire world at your feet. Is it really such a hard decision?”

“Did you honestly think I’d say yes?”

“We figured you’d be smart enough to see the advantages of our proposal. Perhaps you’re not as smart as we thought you were. Time will tell. You have one week to accept or reject the offer. If you reject it, we’ll search out another candidate and never give you a second thought.”

Mike laughed, a rough, cynical sound. “Wow. You two are really something. A couple of apex predators for sure. What if I go to the authorities and inform them of this little scheme of yours? It might not be enough to get you arrested, but surely the New York Bar Association frowns on this sort of thing.”

A brief, ominous pause, and then Harvey and Travis burst out laughing. Harvey’s laughter died quickly, while Travis continued to chortle, so it was Harvey who replied, “Who would ever believe you? I mean, it’s cute that you still have enough faith in Justice, capital ‘J,’ that you would be willing to humiliate yourself by sharing this ridiculous story.”

Harvey’s expression darkened. “Don’t bother. No one will believe you, and your life, your simple little workaday life, will become more difficult than you ever imagined. You’ll never trace your problems back to us, but you’ll know, because I’m telling you now, that we will be behind every bit of misfortune that comes your way. Run to the cops, if you must, but you’ll soon realize that decision was even more misguided than the one to turn down what we can give you.”

His gaze had been fixed on Mike, but now he flicked a glance to Travis. “Let’s leave Mike to think about his future.” He moved around the table, brushed past Mike and led the way out of the restaurant.

It might have been Mike’s imagination, but just before they were obscured by the shadows, he thought he saw Travis place a hand on Harvey’s back, only to have it roughly shaken off.

 

******

 

Thursday night, Mike huddled with Frank and Chelsie around a corner table at Beatty’s.

“You’re totally shitting me,” said Frank, a huge grin splitting his face. “They want to fucking put you through Harvard fucking Law, and all you have to is – ”

“Get fucked,” finished Chelsie, a look of horror on her face.

It wasn’t pure horror, Mike noted. More like fascinated horror. In fact both of his fake bar friends seemed weirdly jazzed by the entire scenario.

“Just tell me you believe me, at least.”

Frank and Chelsie shared a look, which told Mike all he needed to know. Of course they didn’t believe him. Harvey had been right. If even his fake bar friends thought he was lying, what chance did he have that the police, or anyone else, would believe him?

What did it matter anyway? He hadn’t been forced into anything. No one had tried to abduct him. He’d been offered a choice and he’d turned it down, just as any rational person would do. Well, he hadn’t actually turned it down yet, but he intended to. Probably. Still, the reaction of his friends had kind of thrown him.

“Look,” he said, “you don’t have to believe me. I wouldn’t believe me. So, let’s keep it theoretical.”

“Sort of like fuck, marry or kill?” asked Frank. This was his favorite topic of discussion.

“Sure. Sort of like that.”

“Or that movie?” Chelsie put in. “Indecent Proposal, or whatever it was called.”

Frank grinned. “Right. Would you get fucked for a million dollars? Shit, this is kind of the same thing, if you think about it. Except you get fucked – and whatever else – for an entire year, then you have to work your ass off for three years, and then you have to work your ass off for who knows how long at some law firm and then maybe – maybe – you finally get to reap your reward.”

Mike leaned an elbow on the table and rubbed his forehead, trying to coax the incipient headache away. “Would you do it?” he asked.

Chelsie pursed her lips, seeming to think it over. “I might do the million dollars for one night thing, but I don’t think I’d even make it through one semester at Harvard, much less the full three years.”

Frank was staring at Mike, a calculating look in his eyes. “Are you actually thinking about it? And by ‘it,’ I mean the purely hypothetical thing that never, no fucking way, ever happened.”

“No,” said Mike. “Of course not.” Even to his own ears he sounded uncertain.

Was he considering saying yes? On Monday, when he’d blown out the candles and left the dark restaurant behind him, he’d been certain that there was no way in hell he’d go along with such an outlandish scheme.

Three days later, he was having second thoughts.

During those three days, he’d received a letter from his landlord, informing him his rent was going up by two hundred dollars a month. He’d also had his hours cut at the bar, and the owner had called a meeting of all his employees to let them know that he’d put the place up for sale. As things stood now, everything he’d saved up for school would be gone in two months, and in another two months, he might be out on the street.

Of course, he could look for another job, but he had the uneasy feeling that the manipulation of his life that Harvey had spoken of had already begun, even though he hadn’t gone to the cops. That much bad luck in three days seemed too much of a coincidence. He didn’t doubt that if they wanted to, Harvey and Travis could see to it that he became unemployable, and then where would he be?

 

A few more days went by. It was now Sunday. He had one day left before he had to either agree to the arrangement or turn it down. He spent most of the day trying to imagine what a year spent with Harvey and Travis might be like. Travis seemed the sterner of the two, and Harvey the kinder, although only by degrees. They were both ruthless assholes.

He should have unequivocally rejected their offer already, but every time he picked up his phone and started to compose a text to Harvey, he was halted by a fresh wave of the fantasies that had been running through his head all week. One of them was fucking him while the other watched. Or they were both fucking him. Or some stranger was fucking him while Harvey and Travis were somewhere nearby, watching, not watching, fucking each other. It changed every time, but it was always hot as hell. His hand should be callused from all the times he’s beaten off to these images.

That night, because of his recently reduced hours, he had his first Sunday night off in six months. He walked into Beatty’s and found Chelsie with a cast on her wrist and a haunted, vulnerable look in her eyes,

“Mugged,” she replied tersely in response to his question. “Twenty-five fucking years in this city without a problem – not that kind of problem, anyway – and last night – ” She broke off, too upset to say more.

Just then, Frank returned from the bar carrying drinks for himself and Chelsie. “Hey,” he greeted Mike without a trace of his usual humor. “You heard, I guess. They grabbed her purse and pushed her to the ground so hard her wrist snapped.”

Chelsie shuddered. “Can we not talk about it for two seconds? Give me my drink.” She sucked down half the gin and tonic, after which she let out a slow, shaky breath.

“Tell Mike what they said to you. Tell him how this is probably his fault.”

“My fault?”

Chelsie sniffed, her mouth twisting with emotion. “I’m sure it didn’t mean anything.”

“Well, what did they say?”

“Just, ‘say hello to Mike’. Who knows what that was supposed to mean? It could have been a different Mike.”

Mike realized three things in that moment. First, Harvey Specter and Travis Tanner were not joking around. Second, he inexplicably cared more about his fake bar friends than he’d previously realized, and hated the idea of either of them being harmed because of him. Third, and most startlingly, he was going to accept the arrangement, and had intended to all along, despite what he’d been telling himself all week.

It turned out that the chance to go to Harvard far outweighed his multitude of misgivings.

“Don’t worry,” he said to Chelsie. “Nothing else is going to happen to you.”

“Ah ha,” said Frank, “it was your fault. I knew it.”

“No. It wasn’t. Not directly, anyway.”

“You know what, Mike? If I were you, I’d probably just leave.”

“Frank, I swear – ”

“As in, go. Now.”

The bartender materialized with a beer for Mike, took one look at their faces, and beat a hasty retreat.

Mike turned his gaze to Chelsie, but she seemed to be having difficulty meeting his eyes. “Okay. I’ll go, but you know you’re going to miss me.” He spoke with more bravado than certainty. “You’re also going to miss out on all the wild stories over the next year.”

Frank sniffed, shaking his head. “You mean all your fucking lies? I bet what really happened was you got mixed up with your friend Trevor again, and those guys that hurt Chelsie were some of his drug pals.”

Mike hadn’t spoken to Trevor for nearly a year. The last he’d heard, Trevor had left the state. He didn’t say any of this to Frank and Chelsie. They – especially Frank – did not seem inclined to believe anything he said right now. Maybe it was time to move on from Beatty’s. He could always find a different bar to hang out in. Guaranteed there would be another Frank and another Chelsie waiting for him wherever he went.

He threw money down on the table to cover his beer and hurried toward the door. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough. He’d only taken a couple of steps down the sidewalk when he felt a hand on his arm, and turned to see that it was Chelsie who had followed him out the door.

“Look,” he said, “I already told you I was sorry, but if you need to hear it again … ”

“I don’t blame you,” she said. “Not really. Even if it was Trevor.”

“It wasn’t.”

“How can you be so sure?” Her frown deepened. “So … you were telling the truth about those two guys, Harvey and Taylor?”

“Travis. And yes, I am. I know you don’t believe me.”

“I don’t know. I sort of believe. I don’t not believe you.” She gave a bitter laugh. “I’ve seen some weird shit, had some weird shit pulled on me. Guys like Frank lack the capacity to even imagine it, because they never get put into those situations. Rarely, anyway.”

She huffed, sounding frustrated. “What I’m trying to say is, we’re cool.” She gestured at her injured wrist. “This is nothing. Well, almost nothing. And I can take care of myself. Frank wants to damsel in distress me, but I can assure you this will never happen again. As soon as I get this cast off, I’m signing up for every kickboxing and martial arts class I can find. I should have done it a long time ago. I mean, what am I doing walking around the mean streets of Brooklyn without any fighting skills? If you think about it, this is kind of on me.”

Mike barked out a laugh, shaking his head and gazing past her, down the dark street. “That’s total bullshit, and I know what you’re trying to do. It wasn’t on you. If we’d never met …”

“Hey, life is just a bunch of ping pong balls, bouncing around and smacking into one another, all random and shit.”

He smiled wryly. “That’s you’re theory of life?”

“Life, and fate, and the universe and everything.”

“Ha.” Mike shifted his gaze back to Chelsie, wincing inwardly as he looked at her cast. “I’m still sorry about what happened to you, and I want you to know that it’s not going to happen again, not because of me. I’m … taking steps.”

“Oh, shit. You’re gonna take the deal, aren’t you?”

“So, you do believe me.”

She wasn’t smiling anymore. “I believe that you believe these guys are legit. I also believe that you believe you can survive whatever they have in store for you.”

“Come on, Chelsie. Don’t be so dramatic.”

“All I’m saying is, be careful.” Using her good hand, she punched his shoulder playfully. “I don’t want to get stuck with just Frank for company. He’s okay, but a little Frank goes a long way.”

Mike pulled her in for a one-armed hug, careful not to jostle her cast. “If I don’t have to worry about you, then you don’t have to worry about me. I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”

She didn’t have a response for that, other than thinning her lips and shaking her head at him before she went back inside.

 

******

 

On Tuesday, Mike met Harvey and Travis for lunch at a diner near his apartment. They were there to sign the contract and talk logistics.

After they placed their food orders, Mike read through the contract, which was only two pages long. It was both concise and thorough, and laid things out just as Harvey had explained at their dinner. His pen hovered over the signature line, but he paused before signing.

“How, exactly,” he said, “would you define my role for the next year? Short version. Boyfriend? Sex worker? Sub?”

Harvey and Travis shared a look, both appearing amused by the question. “I find labels so limiting, don’t you?” Harvey’s question was directed at Travis.

“Sometimes they’re useful,” said Travis. “You’re welcome to apply whatever label makes you feel most at ease. ‘Apprentice’ is fairly apt. The truth is that for the next year, you’re ours. Full stop. We own you.”

“Right. And, according to …” Mike ran a finger down the page, pretending to look for a particular clause, even though he’d already memorized the entire thing. “According to paragraph three, section two, you’re permitted to share me with whomever you choose.”

“To be fair,” said Harvey, “if and when that occurs, one of us would be present at all times to supervise and place any necessary limits on their access to you.”

Travis’ face took on a pained expression, and he waggled one hand back and forth. “Present? I mean, we’d be nearby, but not everyone appreciates an audience.”

Mike stared at him. He set the pen down next to the unsigned page. “Who, exactly, are you envisioning? I mean, as the recipient of, well, me?”

Travis frowned thoughtfully. “Clients and colleagues, mostly.”

“Not ‘mostly,’ exclusively,” Harvey said firmly.

“Ah, Harv, come on.”

“He’s not a goddamn party favor.”

Their gazes locked again. “Wow,” murmured Travis, “I guess your experience was a bit different than mine.”

This comment caught Mike’s attention. He’d assumed that Harvey and Travis had cooked up this arrangement between the two of them, perhaps as a way to spice up their sex life. Now, based on that offhand comment, it sounded as if their way to Harvard had been paid in the same way Mike’s would be.

Harvey’s expression had softened at Travis’ words. “I know. You didn’t have it easy, did you? But if you’re looking for vengeance, you’re going about it the wrong way. We can use our apprentice, as is our right, but abuse is out of the question.”

Mike had read the contract, and had to wonder what Harvey considered abuse. At least half the stuff spelled out by the contract contained the potential for abuse, if you wanted to get technical about it. He kept his opinions to himself. His eyes were wide open, and he knew (or thought he knew) what he was getting himself into.

“I would prefer not to give up my apartment,” he said into the thick silence. Of all the things required of him, this rankled the most.

Harvey turned his gaze back to Mike. “We can’t force you to break the lease, of course, but we can assist, and insure you aren’t stuck with any fines or penalties. If you decide to retain it, you’ll need to have the resources to keep up your rent payments. And since you’ll be quitting your job at the bar …” He trailed off, as if no further explanations were required.

“Can I get a different job?”

Travis shook his head in apparent disgust. “Look at that, Harvey, he hasn’t even signed the damned thing, and he’s already trying to weasel out of it.”

“I’m not trying to weasel out of anything. I’m the one taking a risk here. It would be nice if I had some kind of escape contingency in place.”

“We’re not going to rewrite the contract for you,” said Harvey, “or make it easy for you to quit. If you decide you can’t go through with it, we can all walk away right now, no harm, no foul.”

“Yeah, except for the harm you’ve already done,” Mike muttered.

“What are you talking about?” Harvey sounded genuinely confused.

“Oh, come off it. It can’t be a coincidence that in one week I got a rent increase, my hours at the bar were cut in half, I may not even have that job in a month, and a friend of my was mugged, which I never would have connected with any of that other shit, except the mugger mentioned my name.”

“And you think we had something to do with your bad fortune?”

“Didn’t you? Like I said, it’s too much of a coincidence. You warned me you could mess with my life, and clearly that was no idle threat.”

Harvey’s eyes had narrowed as he regarded Mike, taking in what he was saying. He let out an aggrieved sounding sigh and eyed Travis with disfavor. “We agreed to give him the week, no pressure.”

Travis’ answering grin was utterly unrepentant. “Without a little pressure, he’d have turned us down, and we’d be back to square one, with no apprentice and the deadline looming.”

Now, that was interesting. Nobody had mentioned a deadline before. Whose deadline? What were the consequences if it wasn’t met?

“If you’ll notice,” said Harvey, “he hasn’t signed the contract yet.”

Avoiding their gazes, Mike stared down at the table and fiddled with the pen, aligning it with the two-page document. “How big,” he asked slowly, “is this apprenticeship program? Obviously, there are at least two law firms involved. Has every lawyer at those firms submitted to this arrangement?”

“We can’t tell you that,” Harvey stated.

Travis laughed cynically. “Why the hell not? He deserves to know. I wish I’d known, all those years ago. Whether you admit it or not, I’ll bet you do too.”

Harvey propped an elbow on the table and rubbed at his forehead, as if he’d developed a sudden headache. He opened his mouth to speak, but the waitress arrived with their food just then. The three of them sat in silence as she set their plates on the table, asked if they needed anything else, and then marched back to the kitchen.

“Look,” said Harvey, “all you need to know is that both Travis and I signed the same contract you see in front of you. We each spent a year like the one you’re about to.”

“Assuming he signs.”

“Assuming he signs. We made it through, we thrived at Harvard, and if you were to ask any non-biased observer, they would likely tell you that we’re two of the toughest closers in Manhattan. Somebody saw something in the two of us, and made an investment which paid off for everyone concerned. Now it’s your turn. We see something in you.”

Mike took a bite of his burger, set it back on the plate, and wiped fingers and lips with a napkin. “Is it some kind of secret society?”

“No,” said Harvey.

“Yes,” countered Travis every bit as firmly.

Harvey bit back a groan. “It’s secret,” he conceded, “but it would be a stretch to call it a society. If forced to label it, I’d say it’s a narrowly defined tradition.”

Which didn’t tell Mike much of anything, but did raise a few new questions. “Wait. Are you telling me that if I sign the contract, stick it out for the whole year, attend Harvard and, presumably, gain myself a spot at one of your law firms, I’ll be required, at some point, to team up with another dickhead and recruit my own apprentice?”

The brief silence that followed his question seemed more than a little telling.

Harvey finally replied, “It’s not a requirement. Not, that is, unless you want to move past junior partner and perhaps someday get your name on the wall.”

“So, you’re saying …” Obviously, that was exactly what they were saying. Every name partner at either of their firms had served out a year in the same way as was spelled out in Mike’s contract. “Is it just … I mean, how many firms participate in this tradition?”

“You may possibly earn the privilege one day to learn the answer to that,” said Travis. “That day is far, far in the future.”

“Travis is correct. Right now, today, you have to decide.” Harvey reached over, picked up the pen, and offered it to Mike. “Do you want to go after your dream? Do you want to earn a seat at the grownup table? Or do you want to wallow in mediocrity for the rest of your life?”

Mike gave a huff of annoyance, but he took the pen from Harvey. As it hovered over the signature line, he smiled grimly, imagining he smelled a whiff of brimstone in the air. The pen descended and he signed away the next year of his life.