Jensen smelled the salt in the air the moment he and Jeff stepped off the shuttle. Mila pressed up against his side and he dropped his fingers in her fur to settle her. She probably wanted to protect him from the other passengers, since her genetic enhancements made her more perceptive than the average dog.
Jeff took Jensen’s arm and guided him through the crowd. Their voices were loud – a mix of people talking, laughing, and going about their day. The Atlantic base was a hub of activity at the best of times, but especially so now when the tide of the galactic war had turned so thoroughly.
Fourteen years ago he’d stepped foot here as a green recruit for the Sex Corps. He’d left crippled and blinded after that disastrous last mission, with his sanity barely intact. Jared had spirited him back home to Texas to recover and it was there that Jeff had come to find him.
"All right?" Jeff asked in a low voice. He was so close that Jensen caught his unique scent – something strong and powerful that just screamed Jeff. It calmed him, damping down the panic that lurked just under the surface.
Jensen had adapted to his blindness -- he had -- as long as he kept to places he knew well, like the ranch back home. Here the empty space surrounded him without ending and he couldn’t begin to picture his location. He touched the device attached to the back of one ear. If he’d actually turned it on he’d get a verbal description of his surrounding area, but those descriptions were often more annoying than useful.
"Fine," he told Jeff, though Jeff knew damn well when Jensen wasn’t being entirely honest. "It’s been a long time."
Jeff continued to guide him, and Jensen left the device off. He trusted Jeff more than technology. "Not long enough for me. Ferris isn’t going to be happy to see me."
"She’ll be thrilled once she finds out you’re giving her exactly what she wants." Jensen still hated the idea. The military had wanted Jeff to bring Jensen back, to have him return to duty in order to go back to Harmony.
Harmony. Just the thought of the city had Jensen’s heart thumping a little faster. On that planet, he and Jeff had found each other, though it had started out as just another assignment for Jensen. He’d been the expert, guiding Jeff through a society with strict submissive/Dominant roles. But by the end of the mission, the playacting had become reality.
"Jensen, you want to go back." Of course he did. Jensen’s injuries had relapsed, thanks to the genetic engineering of the bastard who’d tortured him. Harmony was the only place with technology advanced enough to have a chance to heal him.
"It doesn’t mean I want to do it on their terms."
Jeff laughed. "You're not. It might be their ships and fuel, but it'll be under your rules."
Jensen couldn't help but grin. Jeff always knew exactly what to say. Even so, it had taken a while before Jensen had let him back into his life. So much time had been wasted thanks to Jensen's last mission, which had left Jensen injured and Jeff thinking Jensen had been killed. After Jeff had come to look for him, Jensen had pushed him away, uncomfortable with his injured body. Jeff refused to give up on him, and now here they were.
Was Jensen ready to go back to Harmony? After being tortured and enslaved by the Confed, Jensen had shied away from sexual contact. The sudden aversion had taken him by surprise, since his entire career had been about letting his body be used by whomever the UP military had ordered him to. Jensen had taken pride in his skills and ability to use his sensuality against their enemies. Jeff had awakened that desire again, and Jensen had felt a sense of relief – he hadn't lost something that was so intrinsic to who he was.
But on Harmony he'd be Jeff's sub again. They'd shared a scene or two in the bedroom, and Jeff had gotten it into his head that being Jensen's Dom meant being responsible for him outside of it. On Harmony they'd live that life and Jensen would be on his knees more often than not. At one time it had felt like a sanctuary, a place where Jensen could be himself, the natural submissive that he was. Now, he feared he was too broken to be that sub again.
"Ackles and Morgan, here to see General Ferris." Jeff spoke for them both once they entered the administration building. They had an appointment. Jensen wasn't dumb enough to spring this on Ferris without preparing her.
"Of course, sir. Please go on up. I'll let her know you're here." The aide sounded familiar.
It took Jensen a moment to remember that voice – to be fair he'd been half out of his mind with painkillers at the time. "Cadet Gyllenhaal? Is that you?" He fussed with the device on his ear, finally turning it on.
"It's Lieutenant Gyllenhaal now."
Jensen had never seen Sergeant Gyllenhaal's brother, so his mental picture of Jake was of a more masculine version of his sister. He told the device to mark the name and face for the future and then grinned at the young man. "What are you up to?"
Gyllenhaal had been training for the Sex Corps, but after Jensen's capture and very public torture, the UP had recalled all scuts – Sex Corp soldiers - from the field.
"We're all grounded. Some transferred to the other branches, but I really think they don't know what to do with us." Jake sounded exasperated. Jensen couldn't blame him; working a desk was not what they’d been trained to do.
"You could always transfer to the space branch," Jeff said. "We could use some good recruits in the Reclamation zone."
Jensen tensed a bit. Jeff had said 'we' – so much for being retired!
"I'll keep that in mind, sir."
They said their goodbyes and headed up to meet with the general. Jensen didn't want to be late. Tension tightened the back of his neck the higher the lift rose. Ferris had been his mentor when he'd been in training. She'd meant a lot to him; she still did.
"Hello, Jensen. It's good to see you again." Her voice rushed over him and gave Jensen the oddest sense of home. She was the closest thing to a parent Jensen had left. There might be others in the Corps who felt like family to him, but Sam Ferris was the only one to hold that role of mother and mentor.
"I wish I could say the same." He touched his temples, so she'd get the joke.
She caught her breath, so loud Jensen could hear it. He hadn't wanted to make her feel bad. Why was this so hard?
General Ferris looked genuinely happy to see Jensen. However, when her gaze fell on Jeff, her eyes narrowed and she all but glared at him. Jeff ignored it; he hadn’t left on the best terms with her the last time he visited. Hell, she might be more upset with him for bringing Jensen back here.
Mila guided Jensen to the empty chair next to Jeff, and sat on his feet, as if protecting him. It had been a damn good idea to get the dog. She calmed Jensen, providing extra support during his panic attacks. Right now Jensen sat up straight, but his hands were curled into claws in his lap, as if they pained him. After this was over Jeff vowed to massage each palm, to kiss and nuzzle the scars that marked where Jensen had been stabbed and pinned to the ground.
The thought of what had been done to Jensen still set rage boiling in his gut. The Confed liked to torture for the sake of torture and Jensen had been a political prisoner; they'd delighted in attempting to break him. But despite everything, his Jensen had not broken. He'd escaped, taking down the emperor of the Confed in his wake, and saving the UP in the process while the Confed fought itself looking for a new leader.
Still, Jeff couldn't completely stop the guilt that crept up on him in the middle of the night. Jensen had been alone out there and there had been nothing Jeff could do. He’d been helpless, just like when he’d lost his wife years ago.
"Jeff told me they wanted us back on Planet 328." Jensen leaned forward as he spoke.
Ferris picked up a stylus and tapped it absently on her pristine desk. "After the scuts were recalled, the Space corps replacements were hardly adequate." She let out a sigh. "Captain Bell went back in an attempt to smooth things over, but even that didn't make them happy."
"They're picky like that." Jeff remembered that all too well.
"We're willing to go back to 328." Jensen got very serious. "But on our terms."
Ferris looked right at Jeff, as if Jeff was the one responsible for all of this. "Oh? What terms?"
"Neither is us is going to re-enlist. If the UP wants us, we go in as civilian contractors. It's not completely unprecedented." Jensen was right - there were civilian team members in the Reclamation project. But by doing this, they wouldn’t be bound by certain military rules.
"I think we can work with that." She slid her fingers over the flat of her desk, pulling up a holoscreen. "But I'll have to run it past my superiors."
Jensen nodded. Neither of them expected otherwise. Jeff could only anticipate what other concessions the UP would want in return. "Is Hodge currently on base?"
Ferris looked surprised. "Yes, he is."
"I'd like to meet with him. We need to know what state he left Harmony in."
"I'll have Gyllenhaal see if he's available. If you’re heading out, we want you on that ship as soon as possible." Now Ferris looked just as determined at Jensen.
Jeff hoped this wasn't a terrible idea. Not the going back to Harmony. He wanted that with every fiber of his being. If there was a chance that Jensen could be healed with their advanced technology, Jeff would grab it. What he feared what the price the UP would enact for that healing.
Jeff hadn't seen Hodge for almost two years now, but even still, he knew the former scut hadn't looked so rigid and polished. Aldis Hodge was dressed in Space Corps colors, the uniform shirt stretched across his broad shoulders, which were held stiff as he walked into the conference room Ferris had arranged for their use.
"Commander, Major." Hodge stood at attention.
"At ease, soldier." Jeff smiled, but Hodge didn't shift his position. "At least have a seat, Hodge. This will take a while."
That cracked Hodge's stoic expression. He sat across from Jeff and Jensen. "Ackles – it's good to see you again."
Jensen grinned. "So everyone keeps telling me. I'm not used to being a celebrity."
Jensen's face had lit up the news feeds twice – the first when the Confed had sent the vid showing off their captives, and the second when he'd returned a hero. But Jared had kept Jensen out of the public eye, so he could heal from his injuries. That's why it had taken Jeff so long to find him.
Hodge sank the tiniest bit in his seat. "Man, we were all pulling for you. They tried to raise a coup over in Harmony."
"A coup?" Jensen repeated.
Jeff dug his fingertips into the hard wood of his chair. He could see it clear as day: the accusing eyes glaring at him, demanding that he do something. "Back when we first saw the feed of your capture, Hodge and some of the others tried to get a rescue mission going."
Jensen bit his lip. "But by the time you got the vid it was probably months out of date."
"And not a damn thing we could do about it." Hodge straightened again, into that perfect military bearing that looked so alien on him. "You know every scut was thinking – that could be me."
Jensen bowed his head. Jeff knew he was remembering his friend Mike, who'd been murdered on the vid, as well as the twenty-seven other scuts who'd died at the hands of their captors. He squeezed Jensen's thigh, giving what support he could.
"Well, doesn't matter now, does it? No scuts in the field anymore." Jensen took a deep breath.
"No." Hodge agreed. He tugged on the collar of his uniform as if it were uncomfortable. "I'm retraining for the Space Corps."
That explained the exaggerated care in his posture. "That can't be easy." Hodge was in for a hell of a lot of hazing. The Space Corps was Jeff’s branch and prejudice against scuts ran deep.
Hodge shrugged. Jeff realized Hodge didn't have much of a choice. Even if he wanted to say something or complain, he couldn't, not here on base, where the cameras always watched. He'd have to take his medicine like a good soldier.
"Aldis." Jensen surprised them both by using the man's first name. "What can you tell us about Harmony when you left? Why would the queen want me and Jeff back?"
"Besides the fact that they all love you there? Shit, man, you talk about celebrity." Aldis grinned. "Are you seriously going back to Planet Kink?"
Jeff coughed to hide the laughter that wanted to bubble up. That was certainly one way to describe Planet 328. "We're hoping their tech can heal Jensen's injuries.”
Hodge grew very serious. "If their tech could do that – well, that's something the UP would be VERY interested in. Very interested." He waggled his eyebrows and Jeff got the unspoken message.
There was no denying their government's interest in the alien technology that made up the city of Harmony. The war with the Confed had stretched them to the breaking point and only some sort of advanced weapon would turn the tide of war. But right now the Confed was hardly in a position to fight back, not unless the four remaining heirs stopped fighting each other and joined forces. New weapons tech would only be greedy at this point – and would let the UP devastate the remaining Confed forces.
"I'm sure they would," Jeff agreed, nodding to show he understood. How much of the UP's demand for progress had marked Hodge's mission?
"So, yes, we're going back." Jensen appeared to be looking right at Hodge. "Can you tell us anything we need to know? How did Kristin get to stay behind?"
Kristin Bell had been Hodge's partner – she should have been recalled as well. Jeff wished he'd paid attention to that back when he was still stationed out there, but he'd avoided Harmony and thrown himself into the rest of the Reclamation project – finding new planets with old UP colonies on them – to avoid thinking about Jensen and what they'd found together.
"Bell was recalled, just like me. We hadn't even made it halfway out when the base called the ship in a panic. Two Spacemen weren't cutting it." Hodge shook his head. The Space Corps were ill equipped to deal with the unique features of Harmony. If it hadn't been for Jensen, Jeff would still be ignorant of how a D/s society worked. "Command would only let one of us go back. I guess it's easier to fake being a Dom than a sub. She's assigned to some Spacer named Hartley."
"Fuck," Jensen muttered under his breath. He and Justin Hartley had history, going back to when Jensen was at the academy. Jeff had even had to get Hartley off Jensen's back while they were both on the Mercury.
"Look," Hodge leaned forward, clasping his hands on the table. "When I left there was a whole lotta political shit going down in Harmony. I can send my reports to your comm code – once you get the clearance settled."
"That's probably the best idea," Jeff agreed. "We have to catch the shuttle back to Texas."
He was worried about Jensen. It had been a long day, and they still had some traveling to do. After Jensen's relapse, Jeff had taken it upon himself to make sure Jensen was talking care of himself – taking his meds, and not overdoing it. It was time to go home.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
"So when are you leaving?"
"If they approve my request, we'll be on the Desert Moon by Friday." Jensen reached down and patted the neck of his horse, Blossom, catching some of the metal plates along with the hair. She had been modified to save her life, and was more robot than horse. It made her the perfect ride for a blind man, doing whatever she'd been programmed to do.
Right now she followed Jared's lead as Jensen's brother led them on a trail throughout the ranch. Jensen gripped the horse with his thighs and sank into the soothing rocking motion. He tried to memorize every detail – the way the leather reins felt between his fingers, the sound of the hooves on the hard packed dirt, and the smell in the air – a mix of horse and fresh greens. They didn't have horses in Harmony.
"You sound almost . . . happy about it." Jared hadn't been pleased with Jensen's decision to leave, but Jensen thought they'd come to some kind of understanding.
"I want to be able to see again, Jared." Jensen closed his eyes, his heart pounding at the thought. He wanted to see Jeff again – those crinkles in the corners of his eyes, his salt and pepper hair, and that crooked grin. Fuck, if he got his sight back Jensen would stare at Jeff for as long as he could.
They clip-clopped along for a minute or two before Jared spoke again. "It just seems like such a long way to go. And you don't even know when you'll be coming back."
If he was coming back. Jensen kept that thought to himself. There was every chance that if they gave the UP what they wanted, then they'd be strongly encouraged to stay. But that wasn't the only source of Jensen's concern.
Some part of him had loved Harmony. Back when he was so sure of himself and his sexuality, Jensen had longed for a worthy Dom, someone he'd gladly submit to. He'd found that person in Jeff, and on that alien planet, a city where that was respected. For once he was going back because he wanted to – the assignment from the higher ups was only incidental.
"I'm glad, you know, that you're doing something for yourself." Jared must have stopped, because Blossom stopped moving.
"You've done so much for me, Jen. My entire life – it's all been because of you."
Jensen could feel his cheeks burning. He'd joined the Sex Corps in order to pay for the high tech treatments that had saved Jared's life when he was only a teenager. The past fourteen years had been spent working off that debt and being beholden to the military. Jared was right - this was the first time Jensen was doing something just for himself.
"Does that mean you're okay with me going now?"
Jared laughed. "I'll never be okay with you leaving. But I want you healed, Jensen, probably as much as you do. I want, I want you to be able to see my kid, when he's born."
Jensen swallowed. "I want that too, Jare."
When Jeff opened the guestroom door, Jensen was curled up on their bed, wearing a set of headphones, with Mila snuggled against his side. The dog jumped off the mattress and came up to Jeff, tail wagging. It also had the effect of getting Jensen's attention.
"Jeff?" Jensen pulled off the headphones.
"Yeah, sweetheart, it's me." Jeff shut the door behind him and went to join Jensen on the bed. "What are you listening to?"
"Hodge's reports. The clearance just came through." Jensen grinned, the smile transforming his face completely. "Looks like we're leaving on Friday."
That should have been good news, but it only made a pit open up in Jeff's belly. He wanted Jensen healed, more than anything. But marching into Harmony with an injured Jensen would just be proof of how badly Jeff had screwed up his responsibilities as Jensen's Dom. He wasn't sure that would be forgiven in the city.
"Jeff, aren't you happy that we're going back?"
He debated making a joke about it. But this was Jensen, the man he wanted to make a life with. Jeff could only tell the truth. "It'll be hard for me, going back there. Being out there, while I thought you were dead . . . ."
Jensen curled an arm around Jeff's waist, tucking his face against Jeff's chest. "I'm alive, Jeff. I'm here."
"Not because of me." And would he ever stop feeling guilty for that?
"Well, you can't always rush in and rescue me." Jensen poked him in the stomach. "I've got to earn my keep somehow."
Jeff snorted. "What did I ever do to deserve you?"
"Jeff, let me be serious here for a second." Jensen's hands came up and framed Jeff's face, seeking out each curve with his finger tips. "I am so grateful to have you in my life. Let's not talk about who's more deserving, okay?"
Jensen's words only reiterated Jeff's point, but he didn't say so. Instead he took the opportunity to draw Jensen up for a kiss. Jensen's lips were sweet, like plums, and Jeff could devour them for hours, licking and sucking until they were swollen and red. Beneath him, Jensen moaned, and Jeff hardened in his trousers.
He couldn't help but touch Jensen everywhere, lost in the warmth and softness of his lover's skin. Jeff brought Jensen's palm to his lips and licked gently at the scar there. "Do you need me to massage your hands?"
Jensen let out a throaty chuckle. "I'd certainly like a massage, but of something else." He slotted his body against Jeff's, so Jeff could feel the answering erection between Jensen's legs.
Jeff wouldn't turn down the invitation. He brought his lips to Jensen's jaw and neck, rubbing his stubbled chin against Jensen's skin, knowing how the sensation drove Jensen wild. It was so simple to lift Jensen's shirt and tug it off him, throwing it somewhere on the floor. Jeff slid his hands down the waist band of Jensen's sweats and pulled them off as well, leaving Jensen nude while Jeff was still clothed.
The sight of it – Jensen's luminous skin against the dark bedding, the way the silvery scars traced paths along Jensen's body – awakened something inside Jeff. He palmed Jensen's cock, already stiff and leaking. "You like that?" Jeff said in a low voice. "You're gonna like that in Harmony? Being naked and on your knees for me, like a good sub?"
Jensen moaned, and it sounded like it had been torn from him against his will. He was flushed and thrusting himself into Jeff's hand, unable to help himself. "Want that," Jensen whispered. "Want everyone to know I'm yours."
Jeff shuddered, just as lost in their shared desire as Jensen. He tore open the fly of his pants, freeing his cock. "Suck me." He moved Jensen into position. "Get me nice and wet."
He leaned back, closing his eyes for a moment as Jensen's warm mouth engulfed his dick. Jensen knew his trade – he could suck Jeff off in seconds if he wished, but he was obedient, keeping the blowjob sloppy and wet, perfect for slicking Jeff up.
Jeff threw a hand out, grappling for the lube he knew was on his end table. Damn it, one day he was going to train that dog to fetch the lube so he didn't have to turn into a contortionist. Finally, he made contact with the tube and pulled it off the table.
"That's good, Jen." He eased Jensen off of his cock. Jensen licked his lips as he pulled off, making them shiny and wet. Jeff didn't restrain himself - he dived in for a taste, devouring Jensen's mouth with his own. He pulled away long enough to whisper: "You up to riding me?"
Jensen shuddered. "I think so."
They'd had to be careful – Jensen's injuries sometimes caused his feet or hands to lock up. But Jeff would take most of the weight upon himself. He turned Jensen around, so they were tucked together, back to front, with Jensen straddling Jeff so his knees were on either side of Jeff's legs. With the lube within reach, it was simple now to prep Jensen with his usual care. Jeff would not be responsible for hurting him.
Then Jensen was easing back on Jeff's cock. Jeff kept one hand on Jen's hips, the other locked around his torso. Soon they were locked together, as Jeff sunk in balls deep inside Jensen's tight heat.
"Jeff!" Jensen cried out.
"Shh," Jeff hissed in his ear. "Do you want to wake Jared and Adrianne?"
Jensen shook his head. He'd bitten his lip to keep from shouting. "Good boy," Jeff praised. "Now ride."
He guided Jensen into the right motion – a rolling of hips, rising up on his knees and back down again. Jeff thrust up into him, gasping as his cock was squeezed with Jensen's motion. It was good, so good. He wanted to feel Jensen come apart around him. Jeff slipped one hand down and cupped Jen's cock, so every time he moved, Jensen would fuck himself on Jeff's hand.
They rocked together, a slow, slip slide of motion. Jeff bit Jensen's ear and ordered him to come. As if he'd only been waiting for the words, Jensen did, letting out a moan from deep within. Jeff pushed himself up into Jensen and rode the waves of his orgasm to climax himself, spilling his seed deep inside.
"So good," Jeff whispered as they fell back to the bed together. He cleaned them both up before slipping out of his clothes and snuggling up to Jensen's warm body.
"Mila, come," Jensen called in a wrecked sounding voice. The dog leapt onto the bed, curling into a ball at their feet. She'd gone to her bed in the corner the moment Jeff had gotten on the bed. Damn dog was smart.
"Sleep well," Jeff murmured.
"Yeah. We gotta lot of packing to do tomorrow." Jensen yawned.
Jeff didn't ask if Jensen had taken his nighttime meds. He did, however, check the drug patch on the back of Jensen's neck, making sure it hadn't changed color before ordering the lights off. This time, he vowed, he was going to take good care of Jensen, whether on Earth or Harmony. Somehow, it would all work out. Jeff had to believe that.
Jensen's comm chimed early the next morning. He didn't even have to call Mila before the dog was bringing him the handheld device. "Good girl," Jensen murmured, taking a moment to scratch her behind the ears. Jeff had given him the genetically modified dog to function as an extra set of eyes, but Jensen found himself falling for Mila on her own. She was more than just a gift.
"This is Jensen," he answered.
"Hey, Soph." Jensen was surprised to hear Sophia's voice on the other end of the line. She'd been one of his best friends from the academy, and was one of the few people to really understand the toll the Sex Corps had taken on him. She'd dropped out of active duty very soon after they'd all gone into the field, but she'd never told Jensen why. "Haven't talked to you since Jared's wedding. What's up?"
He heard her slight intake of breath. Jensen frowned and listened harder. It was times like this where he missed his ability to see, to discern someone's emotional state from their facial expressions.
"There's a rumor that you're going back to planet 328."
Jensen frowned. "Where'd you hear that?"
"Please, Jen. I work in admin. That hasn't changed, even when they recalled all the other scuts."
He frowned. "All right, I'll give you that. Yeah, Jeff and I are going back. We're scheduled to leave on the Desert Moon on Friday."
"Damn," she muttered under her breath.
"Sophia, what is it?"
"I want to bring Tom there."
Her words had Jensen falling to sit back on the bed, probably scattering the clothes he'd been packing everywhere. Tom had been part of their little foursome back at the academy and rated as a masochist. After Mike's death, Tom had gotten lost in his mind, unable to function without constant pain. The last time Jensen had been in his presence was at Jared's wedding. Sophia had to bring him in a hover chair after Tom had purposely broken his own legs. Again.
"Sophia, what the hell are you thinking?"
"What do you think, Jensen? From what you've told me, and the reports, these people really understand our kind of business. They might be able to fix Tom."
What had Aldis called it? Planet Kink. That didn't even begin to describe the intricacies of Planet 328. Their entire society revolved around the principles of domination and submission. Someone like Tom, a hard core masochist, wouldn't be strange at all in that world.
Jensen sighed. "You might have a point." Not necessarily fix Tom, but certainly help him more than military psychologists. "But, Soph, I was lucky they gave me and Jeff the clearance. I didn't ask for guests."
"I'll talk to Ferris. Don't worry about it."
"And I'll talk to Jeff." Jensen didn't know what Jeff would think about having Sophia and Tom coming to Harmony with them. He wasn't sure what to think about it, himself. Going back to Harmony was almost like a honeymoon for them, returning to the place where they had found each other. This was a reminder that returning to 328 was a mission, even if they'd be doing it as civilians instead of soldiers.
"Thank you, Jen. It means a lot. If they can help Tom. . ." she trailed off, her voice breaking.
They were pinning a lot of hopes on Harmony, weren't they? Jensen hoped they'd be ready.
Jeff had left Jensen and Mila in their shared civilian quarters aboard the Desert Moon while he went to meet with the captain. There was no reason both of them should suffer, and Jensen needed the time to familiarize himself with the rooms and unpack. They would be on ship for nearly an entire month.
"Ah, Mr. Morgan, come on in." Captain Acevedo waved him in through the open door.
"Thank you, sir." Jeff couldn't drop the urge to salute, even though he was here as a civilian.
The Captain's ready room was decorated in soft blues and grays – much like the rest of the ship. The Desert Moon was commissioned after the Mercury, so it was newer and a little brighter in all things. Still, Acevedo had an old fashioned wooden desk unlike the modern plexiglass one that Devine had on her ship. There was a perpetual motion machine, and a scattering of holophotos along its surface. The captain liked his toys.
"I hope you find your accommodations adequate." Acevedo gestured to one of the curved seats in front of the desk.
Jeff sat. "Yes, thank you. I left Jensen and Mila unpacking." At the captain's confused look he explained, "Mila is the dog."
"Dogs on a starship. What next?" Acevedo had a raspy voice that made Jeff want to lean closer to hear it better.
"She's a genetically engineered service dog." Mila was hardly a typical puppy.
"I'm sure." Acevedo tapped the panel on his desk and pulled up a holo screen. "There were two recent additions to your party – a Colonel Sophia Bush and a retired Major Tom Welling. Anything I need to be aware of, Morgan?"
Don't let Welling near anything sharp. Jeff bit his tongue to keep from blurting the uncharitable comment out. Tom hadn't looked good at all when Sophia had led him aboard, and Jeff feared dragging the man across the galaxy would hurt much more than it would help. "No, sir."
Acevedo looked up from his holo screen, his eyes searching Jeff's. Satisfied, he pushed his chair back. "There are just a few things I want to go over with you, Morgan. You and Ackles are here as civilians. You will, of course, be afforded with every courtesy. But you have no authority over any of my personnel."
"You will also not be permitted a sidearm. Clear?"
"Yes, sir," Jeff ground out. He didn't need to be told these particulars - Jeff knew what the rules were.
Acevedo raised an eyebrow at him. "Look, Morgan, my responsibility is just to get you there. I've never been planetside on 328, and I'm not interested in knowing what's so important they need to recall a blind ex-scut to deal with it. Just respect my ship and we'll be fine."
"We do know how to behave on a starship."
"I don't doubt it. Final bit of business, there's a data packet from the admiral sent to your comm code. It'll only open once we enter hyperspace."
Finally, the real reason Jeff was called to this meeting. He'd wondered when he'd be contacted by Admiral Shatner. Jensen's stipulation meant the Admiral couldn't order Jeff to do anything, but he wouldn't be surprised if there was a strong suggestion or two in there. "Thank you, sir."
"Enjoy your trip, Mr. Morgan."
Jensen closed the last drawer, having arranged his clothing exactly as he liked it. He'd already walked throughout their borrowed room, counting the steps from the bed to the door, and to the attached bathroom. The device in his ear made such things unnecessary, but Jensen had learned not to depend on it. He wanted the freedom to move around as much as he could.
He knew he'd need the device to get around the starship. The Desert Moon was bigger than the Mercury, though the bulk of it was cargo hold, since it was mostly used for supply runs between the UP and the planets on the rim of the galaxy. Jensen would not be able to manage to navigate its massive corridors without some help at first.
He heard the door slide open behind him and turned. "Jeff?"
"Hey, sweetheart." Jeff sounded tired, and that wasn't good, not so early in their journey. "Where's Mila?"
Jensen grinned as he heard the toilet flush right on cue. "In the bathroom."
Jeff barked out a laugh. "Is there anything you can't train her to do?"
He heard Mila bark and guessed she'd run to Jeff. When she wasn't working she loved to play with him, although Jensen was still her person. "I suppose we'll find out. I imagine we can teach her to select the proper toy out of your bag."
"And the lube, don't forget the lube," Jeff said.
Jensen moved carefully back to the bed and sat on the edge. "I'll have to work on that next. How did the meeting with the captain go?"
He felt the bed dip as Jeff sat beside him. "The man has no fucking idea why he's ferrying around two used up scuts and an old man."
"Something like that." Jeff sighed. "It doesn't matter. Acevedo does transport. He's not a concern. What I'm worried about is the data packet the Admiral's sent to my comm. It won't open until hyperspace."
Jensen winced. "Must be bad news then."
"We'll find out soon enough. Are Sophia and Tom settled?"
"They've got the quarters next to ours." They were sharing since Sophia was Tom's caretaker during this journey. Someone had to make sure he didn't hurt himself too much.
Jeff grunted. "How did she manage to finagle herself onto this trip anyway."
"Sophia has connections. She works directly under Ferris, probably called in a few favors."
"Jen it's just – Harmony isn't a place for miracles. We can't get our hopes up that they can fix everything."
Jensen rubbed his temples. No, they shouldn't.
Jeff pushed around the food on his plate, unable to finish his very large dinner. The ship restaurant had served them all generous portions, probably because this place was targeted to the civilians on board and not the soldiers, who typically ate at the mess. He'd have been more comfortable there, except that tonight they were dining out with Sophia and Tom. Tom was having a very good day, according to Sophia, and they were taking advantage of it.
Jeff kept an eye on Jensen to make sure he was able to navigate his own meal. He knew Jensen wouldn't want to embarrass himself in front of his friends, but eating in a strange place was still a little tricky. Every so often Jensen would tap his ear piece and frown, probably dismayed by whatever description the device sent his way.
There was something else lingering on his shoulders. Jeff had opened the Admiral's packet as soon as they hit hyperspace, and he knew he'd have to share the contents. He was just waiting for the right moment to bring it up.
"…Hartley? Really? Now that's a name I haven't heard in forever." Sophia let out a little giggle. "Though I can still picture his face that time we stole all of Alpha unit's clothes and replaced it with fetish gear."
Jensen laughed. "Shit, I haven't thought about that in years."
"It was Mike's idea," Tom said softly. There was a moment after he spoke where things turned tense, as everyone waited to see if the mention of Mike would set Tom off. Sometimes, with his thin face and blue-green eyes that were huge over sunken cheeks, it didn’t look like he was paying attention to the conversation, lost in thoughts he never seemed to share. Instead, Tom grinned. “Mike always has the best ideas.”
"Yeah, Tom, he did," Jensen agreed.
Jeff cleared his throat and put down the fork. "Sounds like you guys had a very different experience in basic than I did."
Sophia waved her hand. "Not really. I mean, we all had six weeks of bootcamp, and every class in the academy was the same for the other branches. We just had extra courses."
"Like Sex Toys 101 and Introduction to Sexual Espionage." Jensen sounded amused and when Jeff looked over he had a fond smile on his face. Clearly training for the Sex Corps wasn't nearly as traumatic as Jeff imagined.
"They weren't all that fun." Sophia's eyes lowered. "I think we shared sessions with the black ops guys."
Jeff was under the impression that the scuts were black ops – assassination was a regular part of duty, if what Jensen said was typical of others. "And now they don't know what to do with any of you."
"Except send us to Planet Kink." Surprisingly it was Tom who'd made the joke, and Jeff couldn't help but smile.
Unfortunately he would have to bring down the entire tenor of his conversation. "Speaking of 328…" He leaned over and touched the button that would pull a privacy screen over the table, ensuring that they wouldn't be overheard by the wait staff or anyone else in the restaurant. "I received a data packet from Admiral Shatner."
"Jeff." Jensen squirmed a bit.
He touched Jensen's shoulder. "I turned on the privacy screen." Sometimes he still forgot he had to tell Jensen these things, that he couldn't see them for himself. Jensen was so good at pretending that everything was all right, even somehow managing to fake eye contact.
"So what did the admiral say?" Sophia leaned forward.
"Nothing good." Jeff pulled his napkin off his lap and started to fiddle with it. "The first is that we'll be provided with a military escort into Harmony."
"Makes sense, if we are technically going in as civilians. Except for Sophia." Jensen nodded.
Jeff put the napkin down, smoothing it on the table. "More problematic is that they want us to specifically look for weapons technology."
"God damn it," Sophia spat. "I can't believe it. . ."
She rubbed her forehead. "With the Confed rattled, they're planning on grabbing as much of the territory as possible. We've been behind for so long, that if we had some sort of advantage, any advantage, it would make it so much easier."
Sophia would know better than Jeff or Jensen. She was the only one of them still privy to military secrets. Without the scuts working on the inside of the Confed, there was no reason the UP couldn't attempt the total annihilation approach. The thought made Jeff's blood run cold. That way led to them becoming the Confed with every planet they took.
"But it's Harmony," Jensen protested. "What possible weapons could they be thinking of?"
Jensen was right at first glance. The people of Harmony loved their sexual games, to the point where everyone assumed their worst weapons were whips and paddles. But Jensen had forgotten one major point.
"You're forgetting the cloak, Jen." When representatives of the Confed unexpectedly showed up on planet 328, the Queen had used Jensen to activate a weapon that caused the city to disappear completely – to the naked eye and any scanner they had. It would be a valuable piece of technology. Imagine a ship that could disappear and reappear? The Confed wouldn't stand a chance.
"That's hardly portable. And only a 'worthy sub' could activate it. Those aren't exactly a dime a dozen in the UP."
"And it nearly killed you," Jeff spat, remembering how he'd had to carry Jensen's unconscious body out of the control chamber and to the infirmary.
"She would never have hurt me."
"Wait, wait, wait," Sophia interrupted. "Back track a second. What the hell are you talking about?"
Jeff squeezed Jensen's knee under the table. "I assume you read the reports? You know about the city disappearing when the Confed arrived?" At Sophia's nod, he continued. "But in order to make the city disappear Jensen was chosen by the queen to link with the city."
"Apparently Harmony only speaks to worthy subs." Jensen had ducked his head as he spoke. "The city has her own consciousness. She spoke to me, chose me. Without linking with my mind, she wouldn't have been able to hide the city from our technology."
Sophia sat back. "Well. That explains why they're so eager to get you back there."
And why it was even more important that Jeff protect Jensen. Jensen was far too valuable to risk. Jeff would not fail in his duty again.
As they spoke, Jeff noticed a flash of silver out of the corner of his eye. Tom had taken his fork and was stroking it along the back of his hand, pressing hard enough to leave red welts on his skin.
"Tom, stop." Sophia grabbed his wrist to keep him from doing any further damage. "We talked about this. Not in public."
Just what the hell where they getting up to behind closed doors then? Jeff knew there were people who liked pain, but he'd never encountered someone who needed it as badly as Tom.
Tom curled his hands into fists and pulled away from Sophia's grip. "I know. I just can't…" He shuddered, as if he were in pain without the fork digging into his skin.
Sophia frowned. "We need to get back to our room. But this conversation isn't over."
"We have the rest of the voyage to review the reports on Harmony and the general's request." Jensen pushed away from the table. "I suggest we make the best use of the time and show up prepared."
Jeff agreed. This time they were going in knowing exactly what they were in for and with a plan.
The shuttle jerked and stuttered as it made its way down to planet 328. The month had gone by so quickly, and Jeff hardly felt prepared at all. Excitement rose in his belly the closer they got to Harmony. Jensen wasn't the only one who was looking forward to going back.
He was more worried now about Sophia and Tom. They were strapped in across from him and Jensen in the hard shuttle seats. Tom still looked hollow and pale, and his long sleeves nearly reached down to his fingers. Just what were they hiding? Sophia kept looking at him and biting her lip. Jeff hoped that this worked, that they could find some kind of healing for Tom.
"Easy, Mila, almost there." Jensen stroked one hand down the dog's fluffy yellow back. She was strapped into the seat next to Jensen and had started to pant and whimper. Even the very best trained dog would be disconcerted by the shuttle ride down to the planet.
Jeff felt it when the shuttle engaged its hover thrusters and braced himself for the landing. After so many trips between planets and ship, he knew exactly when they were about to hit. Part of him missed this – the joy of exploration he'd found in the Reclamation Project, never knowing what they were going to discover when they landed. These colonies had been left alone for three hundred years. Was it any wonder that the people of 328 developed their own, yet strange to him, society based on sexual roles?
The shuttle doors hisses as they decompressed. "Welcome to 328," the pilot said as they all unbuckled from their seats.
"Thanks for the smooth landing." Jensen grinned, but Jeff still couldn't tell whether he was joking or not.
Jeff released Mila, then let Jensen grab his arm to lead him out of the shuttle. He expected to walk onto grass and to be greeted with the green forest that surrounded the city of Harmony. He didn't expect to step onto a perfectly formed shuttle port, the pseudocrete hard beneath his boots.
"Fuck, Jen," he whispered. "The base is finished."
Instead of the tents and half-modified trailers that had made up the base the last time Jeff was on 328, there were complete buildings, made of glasstic and shiny metal. Lights blinked along the path of the shuttle port and bots drove by pulling cargo boxes. Jeff could be on any colony in the UP.
"Well, it has been two years," Jensen pointed out. He sounded tired, but not surprised. Sometimes Jensen was the far more practical one.
Jeff turned at the sound of his name and grinned when he saw the group approaching them. "Sterling Brown!" He clasped hands with the Lieutenant Commander, pleased to see him. They'd worked well together and Jeff was glad to see a friendly face.
"Just Jeff, please. I'm not that much of an asshole." Jeff grinned.
"Then it's true you retired? Men were laying odds that the rumors were bullshit." Brown shook his head.
"Even a broken chrono is right twice a day, Brown."
Brown laughed. "It's good to have you back here. You too, Major Ackles."
"Just Jensen here, too." Jensen smiled. "Who else is with you?"
Jeff turned his attention to the others waiting behind Brown. He couldn't stop smiling, so pleased to see his own crew. "Looks like Gyllenhaal, Chikezie, Whitfield and Bell." He was surprised at the latter. Shouldn't Bell still be in Harmony working with Hartley? Was their intel that out of date? Jeff turned to Sophia and Tom, who stood waiting for them. "I'd like to introduce Colonel Sophia Bush and Tom Welling. They'll be accompanying us into Harmony."
"I'm sure the base commander will love that." The tone of Brown's voice told Jeff far more than his words.
"Who's in charge of the base?" Jeff feared for the answer.
"Commandant Kurt Fuller."
Jensen swallowed down the sudden burst of nervousness at being surrounded by so many people. His earpiece couldn't handle this, not when there were so many faces it didn't recognize. He had to switch it off to keep from being overwhelmed.
She stepped closer. Jensen could tell by the warmth of her body. "Can I hug you?"
The question startled him for a moment. But only another scut would understand and ask before moving forward. "Yeah."
Then her arms enveloped him and he smelled her femininity, the wisp of perfume and scent of Kristin. "Jensen, we're so glad you're here."
Here and alive, instead of dead and lost. He closed his eyes, appreciated how far he'd come since his capture and torture. "Thank you."
She pulled away and punched his shoulder. "Sophia."
Jensen tuned out their reunion. Kristin had been at the academy with them too, although she hadn't been part of their little group. "Maggie?" he said, not sure exactly where she was.
"Major - Jensen." Her voice caught on his name and he grinned.
"Jake says hello."
"Can I get a hug, too?"
Jensen wasn't sure about the sudden urge everyone had to hug him, but he grinned and held his arms out. When he felt Maggie trembling, he understood. "Jake's fine, Maggie. He's just fine. He didn't even go out on active duty." Maggie had been so worried about her brother joining the Sex Corps and Jensen couldn't blame her. He understood what it meant to be the older sibling.
When she pulled away, Jensen turned in the direction he assumed everyone was standing and said, "I'm glad to be back here." As if sensing his unease – Jensen hated not having a sense of his surroundings – Mila pressed up against his legs. He crouched down and petted her. "This is Mila, by the way."
It was easier to lose himself in her soft fur and warmth, to let it distract him from the fear threatening to rise and choke him. "I'm looking forward to going back to Harmony." Jensen wanted to be there now. He wanted to pit his injuries against their tech and he wanted to see again, so desperately.
Someone cleared their throat. "We're going to be on the team that'll escort you into the city." Brown stated, his voice even.
"That's a good thing," Jeff said.
"More than you know. None of us have been allowed in the city since the queen threw out Bell and Hartley." Maggie put forth that observation.
Jensen imagined Kristin stiffening at the accusation. "What the hell happened, anyway?"
"I don't blame her." Kristin surprised him. "Hartley makes a terrible Dom. He's even worse as a diplomat."
"Why was he chosen?"
Kristen let out a laugh. "Because he had a history with the Sex Corps." That history was that Hartley had qualified for them, but had turned down the opportunity in favor of the Planet Corps. "And since Commander Morgan had succeeded so well, they figured anyone could be the Dom."
"Not everyone is Jeff." Jensen felt a smile touch his lips. Thank the stars for that!
"The Commandant wants to meet with you. I'm supposed to bring you to him. Then you should debrief with Bell and Hartley." Brown let out a breath. "We should be able to set out for Harmony first thing tomorrow morning."
Jensen did not relish spending a night at the base. He had to push down his impatience. It was only one more day.
Jeff had never met Kurt Fuller before, but he could take the man's measure from the moment they walked into the commandant's office. Fuller was mostly bald, with beady little eyes and very round around the middle. He clearly had spent more time behind a desk than out in the field. That wasn't always a bad thing, but from the way he looked at Jensen – like Jen was a five course meal ready to be devoured – Jeff disliked the man immediately.
Mila didn't seem to like him either. The hair on the back of her neck rose and she plopped herself between Jensen and the desk, keeping him from going any farther.
"Ah, Commander Morgan."
This time Jeff didn't correct him. He kept one hand on the small of Jensen's back. "Commandant."
"And you must be Major Ackles." Fuller smiled, and it looked sinister.
"Retired." Jensen pursed his lips. "We're here as private citizens." The implication was clear: the UP military couldn't order them to do anything.
Fuller stood and came around to the front of his modern and austere desk. He leaned against it, crossing one foot over the other. "Well, yes, but you are subject to the same laws, and directives of the Reclamation Project. You're still technically my employees."
The man looked entirely too gleeful as he spoke. It made the hackles rise on the back of Jeff's neck.
He pushed away from the desk and came close, stopping just in front of Jensen and perusing him as if Jen were some sort of object. "The Harmonians are very eager to get you back. You must have made quite the impression on them."
Jensen, to his credit, only smiled as he said, "I often have that affect on people."
"Mmm." Fuller frowned. "Apparently. It is, after all, thanks to you that the Confed is in shreds right now."
Jeff felt Jensen tense beneath his fingers, though you couldn't tell by looking at him.
Fuller smiled. "Well, now. I begin to see."
Jeff didn't like that look at all. He gritted his teeth. "Why did you want to see us?"
"I assume you've received the Admiral's orders?" Fuller waved his hand in the air and headed back toward his desk.
Sadly, Jeff had. "Yes."
"I merely wanted to reiterate our objective here, gentlemen: scientific progress. The whole purpose of the base is to study the unique technology in the city. Surely you can agree there are tremendous benefits – particularly in the medical field." He gestured in Jensen's direction, as if he'd forgotten Jensen was blind. Jeff bit his lip to keep from speaking, besides, Fuller wasn't done.
"For some reason, you seem to be the only two capable of communicating with the Harmonians. Either that or their queen is inordinately fond of you." Fuller paused. "Whatever the case, we need access – to the city, their tech. We need information."
"And if they won't provide? We can't force them to do anything." Jeff pointed out.
"Well, I'll just have to try sending in a different team, then."
Jeff nodded slowly, understanding the implicit threat. He and Jensen would be dangled over Harmony as a lure. If the queen wanted them so badly, she'd pay Fuller's price. Fuller didn't know Queen Michelle very well at all.
"When did the queen cut off your access?" Jensen asked, getting to the important part of this meeting.
"Shortly after we replaced Hodge with Hartley." Fuller scowled. "It turns out you scuts are useful, after all."
Before Jeff could give voice to the anger rising in his chest, Jensen questioned: "What about Major Tappen?"
If possible, Fuller's scowl grew even deeper. "What about him?"
"You already have a man on the inside. Couldn't you have utilized his expertise?" It had been almost two years since Henry Tappen had been claimed by Guard Ian of the Harmonians as his sub. Jeff had written the exception in the Harmony agreement himself.
"Tappen has gone native. Refused to share. Shame. Don't know what he's going to do once his tour is up and we ship his ass back to Earth."
Well, fuck. That wasn't good news at all, but hardly unexpected. They would have to warn Hank once they actually got to Harmony.
"I see." Jensen's reply was soft. He looked thoughtful and Jeff wished he could read Jen's mind right then. "What do you expect from us?"
"Constant communication. I don't want to be in the dark at all. Is that clear?"
"Oh, yeah," Jeff muttered.
"And I want access to that cloaking tech. Even if you can only get Gyllenhaal in to look at it. That girl's sharp enough to figure something out."
Fuller wasn't stupid, Jeff concluded, just an asshole. But he knew how to make use of his assets.
"All right." Jensen moved so his fingers brushed against Jeff's thigh. "Let's not waste any more time."
Jeff couldn't agree more.
Sophia tapped her fingers impatiently on the conference room table wondering what was taking Jensen and Jeff so long. She wanted to get this meeting over with as quickly as possible. Tom was all alone in their shared quarters, and if Kristen hadn't asked her to come, Sophia wouldn't even be here.
Tom had promised to be good and although she trusted him, she knew sometimes he just couldn't help himself. Part of her wanted to tie him to the bed before she left, but she knew better. He'd just tug his wrists raw and love every minute of it. Oh, Tom. Stars, she hoped this place could help, that she hadn't just crossed the galaxy for nothing.
Finally the door slid open. Jensen entered with one hand on Jeff's arm and the other holding on to Mila's lead. It must be so horrible for him, navigating yet another new place without his sight. She had to admit, however, that Jensen looked good, better than he had at Jared's wedding. His cheeks were full of color and he'd gained back the weight he'd lost during captivity. Despite not being able to see, his eyes seemed bright and focused.
She had to give some of the credit to Jeff. He seemed to have done so much for Jensen's healing. Jensen had finally found someone he could rely on – that Dom he'd been searching for ever since Jensen had accepted his need to submit.
"Thank you all for waiting." Jeff led Jensen to the table. "There's a chair around a conference table, Sophia is to the right." He kept his voice low as he described things to Jensen. She noticed he didn't mention how Kristen and Hartley were not even looking at each other as they sat as far away as possible from the other.
Jensen pulled out the chair and carefully sat down, using the table as a guide. To her surprise, he pushed out the chair next to him and Mila hopped up into it, looking like she was taking part in the meeting. Well, that was one smart dog. Jeff sat on Jensen's other side.
Jeff had a stormy look on his face. Their meeting with the commandant must not have gone well. Then again, Jeff always seemed like he was ready to bite off the head of anyone who so much as looked at Jensen wrong.
"Let's get started," Sophia said. The sooner they began, the sooner she could get back to Tom.
"Let me guess," Hartley leaned forward, finally looking across the table. "You want me to go over every damn thing I did wrong out there."
"Actually, I don't really care what you did. We need information." Jensen tucked his hands in his lap, as if they pained him. Sophia frowned. "We need to know what happened in Harmony over the past two years. What's the political situation?"
Kristen looked over at Hartley, grimaced, and then turned back to Jensen. "It's rather sticky, at the moment. After that Duke got exiled, the queen's daughter – Alona – was named duchess of his former district."
Jensen looked startled. "I can't imagine how that happened."
"It was actually thanks to Major Tappen. He apparently suggested a vote, and who knew democracy would go over so well?" Kristen smirked.
"Oh, Hank," Jeff muttered under his breath.
Sophia had never met Hank Tappen, but she was intrigued by the soldier who'd willingly become a sub. Perhaps Tappen had missed his calling. He might have made a perfectly good scut. She scrawled a note on her tablet to look up his service record. It might prove enlightening.
"What does that mean for the queen? Is the princess still the heir?" Jensen frowned.
Sophia waved her stylus. "You're going to back up a bit for me. Can you give me a quick rundown of the governing structure?" She was going to have to take a lot of notes.
"They do everything in fives," Jensen explained. "There are five main districts and the queen rules one, with four dukes or duchesses ruling the remaining areas. Those areas are then divided into five and so on. If her daughter is now a duchess and then inherits the throne, that upsets the balance."
"You're not the first one to have thought of that. That's why there's a new heir – the sub Prince's child." Kristin took up from there.
"Levi has a child?"
"With his mistress, the healer Nicci. Honestly, Jen, things are a little tense in the city. Some people don't think a sub should be in the royal line. Others are not happy at all that the princess now rules her own district – which they renamed Alonan, by the way. You throw in our little fuckups and it was like the queen couldn't stand the tension anymore."
"We've already influenced their civilization. Dr. Johnson is probably throwing a fit." Jeff leaned back in his chair.
"He'll be part of the escort tomorrow. You can ask him yourself."
Sophia scrolled through her notes – Dr. Johnson was the anthropologist from the first mission to Harmony, the one who had been imprisoned with Major Tappen until Jeff had proven himself a worthy Dom to the queen's satisfaction.
Jensen twisted his hands together in his lap, as if he didn't know he was doing it. "Is there anything else you can tell us?"
Jeff snorted. "Stars help us if there's anything more."
"I have a question." Sophia cleared her throat as all attention moved towards her. "Despite the tension in the city, do you think they'll be willing to help us? To use their technology to heal Jensen, for example?"
"Are you kidding? They fucking love Ackles there." Hartley shook his head. "He's practically a celebrity. They were always watching vids of his performances."
"Stars." Jensen covered his face with his hands.
The only performances Sophia could think of must have been sexual scenes. From the look on Jensen and Jeff's faces, neither of them had known they'd been captured on video.
"Much as I hate to agree with Hartley," Kristin sighed. "He's right. They'll do anything for Jensen. I know you want help for Tom, Soph. I think all you need is for Jensen to do the asking."
"And I will." Jensen took a deep breath and let his hands drop back down to his lap.
"Thank you." It was the only thing Sophia could say.
"If you don't have anymore questions, I'll inform the queen that you've returned. I think just the fact that you're back will ease a lot of tension." Kristen smiled. "Popularity goes a long way, Jensen."
"I'll try to remember that."
Sensing the meeting was drawing to a close, Sophia shut down her tablet. She hoped she'd find Tom in one piece when she got back to the room.
Hartley stood up but didn't go to the door. Instead, he stopped just beside Jensen's chair and cleared his throat. "Listen, Ackles. This whole experience. I mean. I probably wouldn't have cut it in the Sex Corps."
"Wow, Justin, was that supposed to be an apology?" Kristen folded her arms over her chest.
"It's okay." Jensen smiled. "It's enough that he knows now – it's a lot harder than it looks."
Trust Jensen to accept a sort of apology with a double entendre. Sophia hid her grin and excused herself. Tomorrow was going to be very interesting.
Jensen bumped his elbow coming out of the standard issue shower and cursed. He hated that they had to stay overnight at the base, not wanting to commit another location to memory before arriving in Harmony. The place smelled too sterile. It hadn't been lived in enough and lacked anything unique to guide Jensen.
Even the shower soap was pure military grade. He missed the smoky soap Jeff used back home, or even his own cinnamon wash.
Mila barked, startling him out of his soap remunerations. "Sorry, girl. Almost done." Soon they'd be in Harmony and leave all of this crap behind. Jensen couldn't wait, now that they were so close.
Dressing quickly, he called out to Jeff as he entered the bedroom. "Jeff?"
"Over here, going through our bags." Jeff's voice sounded muffled. "Do we not have a collar in your toy bag?"
Jensen felt a rush of heat hit him. He'd given over his collection of sex toys into Jeff's care when they'd restarted their relationship after Jeff's return. Jensen had accepted Jeff's desire to be his Dom, and showed that he'd trusted Jeff to choose when they were ready to move to the next level.
"I want a Harmony collar." His voice came out hoarse and raspy.
The rustling sounds stopped and he could only imagine Jeff stiffening in reaction. Oh, how he wanted to see Jeff's face again – the way that warmth lit up his expression and his eyes would crinkle at the corners. "Jensen…those only come off under certain conditions."
"I'm not asking for one of the lifetime collars." As far as Jensen understood it, even in Harmony they were rare. A golden life collar would link a sub's life to his or her Dom, ending it when that Dom died. Jensen touched his throat, missing the weight of leather that should be there. "I'd be okay with one of the temporary ones. I just want. . . ."
Jensen wanted to be part of Harmony. The city had been the only place where he could truly be himself, where Jeff could be acknowledged as his Dom. But what if that’s not what Jeff wanted? He'd never even considered this kind of relationship until he and Jensen had been forced to play those roles two years ago.
"I'm just wondering how it'll look when we walk in there without you wearing one."
Oh. "I'm sure we'll be able to pick one up fairly easily. If not, we'll just explain we want a proper collaring ceremony. I'm sure they'd love that." More fodder for the vids at least. Jensen had escaped one form of celebrity for another and he wasn't sure how to feel about that.
A comm chimed, ending the discussion. "I got it," Jeff said, otherwise Mila would run for it. She'd retrieve the portable even for Jeff, who could see perfectly well. Jensen thought she just loved to be helpful.
"Good girl!" He scratched behind her ears, figuring extra praise couldn't hurt.
"Open link, audio only." It was kind of Jeff to use the voice commands so Jensen knew what he was doing. "This is Morgan, go ahead."
Jensen was so surprised to hear the queen of Harmony's voice that he stumbled around for the bed and sank down onto it.
Jeff seemed to adjust to it faster than Jensen. "I've retired from the service, mistress. It's just Jeff now."
"Dom Jeff, then. I've had the most excellent news. You and sub Jensen will be returning to us today?"
"That is correct. We'll be taking the place of the previous Dom/sub pair."
"Wonderful. Your timing is most auspicious – it coincides with the first day of this year's Choosing. I'll have a tram waiting for you when you arrive in the city."
"Thank you." Why didn't Jeff seem more startled? Her words only caused Jensen's heart to beat faster.
"I look forward to seeing the both of you."
"Morgan out." Jeff clicked the comm shut.
Jensen tried to find his voice. "How the hell…?"
"Gyllenhaal patched our comm system into their tele network not too long after we left. Jensen, are you all right?" The bed dipped as Jeff sat beside him. Jensen leaned into his warmth.
"I don't know. I honestly don't." Jensen had been spared much of his celebrity status back on Earth. Jared had protected him from the worst of it, and it had been Jeff who'd even told Jensen what he'd done to earn such acclaim. His escape from the Confed had involved taking down the emperor, and the UP had played that up for all it was worth. "She's the queen. The queen herself commed us. That's. . . ."
"She did always seem fond of you." Jeff sounded amused. "Besides, you're the only sub with green eyes, remember? They're bound to remember something like that."
How much were his eyes worth, now that they couldn't see? Jensen tightened his grip on Jeff's arm. He'd hoped Harmony would be an escape, but now Jensen knew he was only heading straight for the spotlight. Terror coiled around his spine.
Jeff knew something was off. Jensen was too quiet, and even surrounded by people, he never shut down so completely. Mila also stayed close, butting her head against the back of Jensen's knees, as if to remind him she was nearby. To top it off, Jensen kept rubbing at his hands, massaging the center of his scarred palms. They shouldn't be hurting him - Jeff had checked the medication patch himself.
He'd have to wait to ask. They didn't have any privacy at the moment. The military escort was teeming around the transport vehicles, loading them with bags and cargo boxes. There were a hell of a lot more people coming than Jeff had thought, and many he didn't know. That wasn't good at all.
They found Sophia tying a red band around Tom's right arm. She looked up and smiled as they approached, although her eyes looked tired. They must have had a long night. "No armbands for you?"
Jeff grinned. "No, they already know me for a Dom."
"Armbands?" Jensen asked in a low voice.
"Part of the agreement to prevent any more mistaken ideas about who's a sub and who isn't. Red armbands are for those from the UP who want to be treated as a sub. Green for Doms and gray for those not looking for any sexual contact whatsoever." Jeff realized Jensen had missed all that when he left for his next mission.
"I'm not sure which one to wear." Sophia held up a gray and a green strip of cloth in each hand.
Jensen smiled, the first smile since the queen's call that morning. "They don't have switches in Harmony. You're either a Dom or a sub."
She made a face. "That seems rather short-sighted."
"You'll have to educate them. It's probably better if you do go in as a Dom and take responsibility for Tom. We don't want anyone else trying to claim him." Jensen wiped at the beads of sweat on his forehead.
"All right, people!" Brown called. "Get your asses in the transport. We're heading for the city in five minutes."
"He doesn't mince words, does he?" Sophia quickly tugged on the green band before heading for the transport.
"Nope." Jeff took Jensen's arm and helped him up the step onto the vehicle. They were sharing with the rest of the escort, grabbing seats that lined the edge of the transport. He saw plenty of familiar faces here and nodded, saving a wave for Dr. Johnson who sat with some of the other scientists. Fuller wasn't taking any chances, was he? He was sending all in hopes of distilling some intel from Harmony.
The ride didn't last long - about thirty minutes, and Jeff itched the entire time. When the spires and bridges of the city came into view, he felt a weight lift off of his chest. They were finally here. Jensen could finally be healed. And Jeff? He'd have to pay the price of a Dom who hadn't taken very good care of his sub, and he would pay, gladly, anything to have Jensen's sight back.
They came to a stop outside the great golden gates. To an outsider they looked as solid as the wall, made of pure polished metal. Jeff knew better.
"The queen is sending a tram for us," he told Brown in an undertone as they disembarked. He didn't mention today was the first of the month long holiday called the Choosing - where contracts were negotiated and signed, and subs went on the market for new Doms. After all this time, Brown should know that.
Jeff approached the gate and announced himself. He heard all activity behind him cease as the doors began to shimmer and spiral away, the metal interlocking like the scales of a fish. He grinned, remembering that the city was alive. It would respond to his thoughts and not just his commands.
Jensen squeezed his arm. "Let's go."
"Hang on to Mila." Jeff didn't want her getting lost in the shuffle.
They walked through the gates, leaving the green of the forest behind them and entered the city.
The great square was on the other side of the gates and their boots clomped onto the terracotta cobblestone. Jeff couldn't see the great fountain in the center or the stage where subs often performed for crowds. There were far too many people, extending into a sea of bodies and faces, all holding banners or waving colored flags.
"Hold on tight." Jeff worried about losing Jensen in all of this. "There's a bit of a crowd."
Jensen's fingers dug into his skin. Jeff winced. There would be bruises beneath his sleeve.
"Dom Jeff, sub Jensen, welcome back." A man approached them wearing the uniform of Harmony's guard - a chest plate that seemed made from a mix of shiny futuristic metal combined with an archaic gladiator skirt. "I am Guard Cliff. The queen sent me to escort you to her court." He looked past them to the rest of the UP military escort waiting still mostly outside the gates. "I'm afraid I'll have to request a second tram."
"Might be a good idea." Jeff took a deep breath. "Today is the first day of the Choosing?" He gestured to the multitudes filling the square.
"Oh, yes. Although I'm sure they are all hoping for a glimpse of you. Your return has been long anticipated. Excuse me." Cliff went to the tram pillar, presumably to summon a second vehicle.
Jeff didn't like how Jensen seemed to be trembling ever so slightly. Jensen's jaw was clamped tight and his skin had gone pale.
He turned to Brown. "Put Gyllenhaal, Chikezie, Whitfield and Johnson on our tram. Let the rest of the escort load up onto the second vehicle." Jeff didn't want any of Fuller's spies so close to Jensen, especially not when it seemed like Jensen was on the verge of a breakdown. Fuck, all Jeff wanted was to get him somewhere private and take Jensen's mind off of everything.
Cliff returned. "The next tram shall be here shortly. Please, follow me."
Jeff nodded to Brown who went off to divide the group. They passed through the crowd like a knife through butter. Jeff had long enough to glimpse Doms in leather and bright colors, with collared subs showing various levels of skin ranging from skimpy kilts to flowing silk outfits. The people of Harmony slid out of the way, too polite to do anything more than stare. Once they stepped onto the tram - a large red vehicle that looked rather like a public transport shuttle back home - Jeff breathed a sigh of relief. He guided Jensen to a seat, not bothering with the normal Harmony custom of having subs kneel.
"You said we're going to the queen's court?" Jensen asked in a small voice.
Cliff grinned at him. The guard had sat at the very front of the shuttle directly across from them. "Yes. All of the guests have arrived to celebrate the Choosing. They only await you and your escort."
That meant the rulers of the four districts - including Duchess Claudia and her sub Misha, who'd taken a shine to Jensen and him during their first trip out here. Jeff felt himself flushing, remembering the time the four of them had shared a scene. But the entire court meant a crowd and an event certain to be broadcast on the tele. He could feel Jensen stiffen next to him.
Jeff met Sophia's eyes over Jensen's head. Sophia bit her lip and clutched Tom's hand on her lap. She had her own problems to worry about.
Jensen started to stroke his hands through Mila's fur. The dog sat between his legs and reached up to lick his face. "Jeff. I can't. I can't face everyone. Not yet."
Jeff knew that. Damn it, he should have stepped in before Jensen had to say anything. "I'll handle it."
The tram lifted up as soon as the doors closed, the only indication of movement was the view changing in the large windows. "We're moving?" Sophia exclaimed, startled as Jeff had been during his first trip. The trams moved so smoothly you never even felt the motion.
Jeff took the opportunity while everyone was distracted to move to Cliff's side. "Jensen can't face the queen's court." He would allow no arguments. "Can you make arrangements so that he'll be able to be taken to a private place while I address the queen?"
Cliff looked puzzled for a moment, but he only nodded his head. "You are his Dom. I'm sure the queen will defer to your judgment. I will send a message."
"Thank you." Jeff moved back to his seat and kissed Jensen's temple. "It'll be all right."
Jensen nodded, but didn't say anything. His hands were clenched into claws in his lap and Mila nudged them sadly. She looked up at Jeff with her huge brown eyes, as if wanting Jeff to fix things. Jeff scratched behind her ears, silently promising that he would.
The tram soared into the sky, rising above the square and under the bridges that linked the buildings to various levels. They were heading for the tallest spire in the distance - the queen's palace. It glittered in the sun, shining with a golden light. Jeff knew up close you could see the terraces and gardens that dotted the castle, but now it just looked like an incredible piece of art.
"Almost there now." Jeff whispered as the tram stared to descend toward a platform. There were stone columns with gauzy fabric waving in the wind, with flowers winding around the base. Two figures waited in the center of the terrace and after a moment, Jeff recognized them. He did not expect to see Hank Tappen wearing nothing but a leather kilt, even if it was the outfit customarily worn by male subs.
The tram settled into place and the doors slid open. Jeff led Jensen out first, Mila at their feet as he called. "Major Tappen. Guard Ian."
"Commander Morgan. Welcome back." Ian grinned. Unlike Hank, he was fully dressed, wearing a fancy embroidered green and gold shirt over dark pants and high, shiny leather boots.
"It's good to be back."
"Is that your dog? She's adorable." Hank dropped to his knees – not before Jeff saw a flash of silver in his nipples – and scratched Mila behind both ears. Mila normally distained any contact from strangers – she was a working dog. But she seemed to love Hank, licking his face before rolling over to let him rub her belly. Hank laughed and Jeff realized that Hank's personality matched that of a dog.
"She's a service dog," Jensen said in a low voice. While that wasn’t technically true – she lacked the real training needed to be a service dog – it was the simplest way to explain her role in Jensen’s life.
Hank looked up with those electric blue eyes of his. "Why would you need. . .?"
Hank looked at Jen, really looked at him and Jeff saw the moment when he realized Jensen was blind. "Fuck, man. That sucks. That's why the queen sent me to babysit you..."
"Henry!" Ian's voice was a sharp reprimand.
Jeff wasn't surprised at the reprimand - it wasn't strange for Hank to let his mouth run off without thinking first. But what downright shocked him was the flinch that ran across Hank's face before he mumbled "Sorry, sir." It appeared that two years in Harmony had changed Hank far more than Jeff would have thought.
"It's all right." Jensen actually looked amused, that smile still lingering about his lips. At that moment Jeff would have kissed Hank for his runaway mouth. "It's true, anyway. Where are we going? Somewhere private, I hope."
Hank seemed to have recovered from his chastisement. "I figured we can get massages at the groomers."
Jeff blinked. Well, Jensen did need some relaxing. "Jen?"
"It's fine. Our bags?" Jensen tilted his head.
"Let the grunts take them. Might as well make use of them." Jeff turned to where the second tram was just reaching the terrace. Best if Jensen went on his way before they all got off. He cupped Jensen's cheek in one hand and placed a sloppy kiss on his cheek. "Be good."
Jensen actually laughed. "Aren't I always?"
"Should I, ah, hold your arm?" Hank stepped forward, then back, as if uncertain.
"Let me hold yours." Jensen reached out and grasped Hank. "Mila is a pretty good guide. Between the two of you, I should be fine."
Jeff watched them head towards the entrance into the palace and hoped that Jensen was right.
Jensen held Hank's arm loosely, letting him lead, but trusting Mila to guide his steps. For the first time, he felt like he was back. He could smell it in the air - that sense of oddness that told him he was on an alien world, combined with that heady scent that just said Harmony to him. Or perhaps that was the smell of whatever they were burning when they walked into the massage parlor.
He could hear the trickling of water coming from somewhere - perhaps a fountain. Otherwise sounds were low and muffled, probably meant to be relaxing. Jensen wished he could see where they were. He hated this feeling of being lost in space, not certain where he stood in relation to anything else.
"Sub Jensen! May I say it's an honor to have you here." A voice greeted them. Without his sight, Jensen could not acknowledge the woman as a sub or Dom. He needed Hank to guide him.
"Thank you. . ." he trailed off.
"I am sub Ann. I will take care of you. We have a private room ready, this way."
Hank leaned close to whisper: "She's kinda hot."
Jensen snorted. "You suck as a guide, you know that?"
Luckily Hank just laughed and led them through to the private room. "There are two tables back here. Lots of plants and smelly stuff."
Sub Ann cleared her throat. "Just strip down to where you feel comfortable. The masseuses will be in shortly."
"Mila, lie down, relax." Jensen undid the leash and let her find a place to settle. It would be nice to give her some down time as well.
"Ah, do you need any help?" Hank sounded bit closer than before.
"I can actually pull down my own pants." Jensen felt for the closest table and sat on it. Despite his words, he left his pants on, only stripping off the top of the black duty uniform he'd worn from the base. Even civilians on the Reclamation Project were given the basic uniforms – it was standard procedure apparently.
Hank whistled and abruptly Jensen remembered the scars on his back. He could feel himself heating and wished he could stop himself from blushing. Casual nudity was so often the norm here on Harmony that he should have been prepared.
"They really worked you over, huh?" Hank sounded angry. "I gotta tell you man, it's good to see you. Despite everything, you're looking good. A lesser man. . ."
Jensen ducked his head. "Thanks. Even though I thought you didn't like me very much."
Hank sighed. "That was two years ago, you know. Back then I didn't know what I wanted."
But he'd clearly learned something from being Ian's sub. Even so there was something still off about him. Jensen didn't think Hank had changed that much. "What's going on with you? You seem different."
"That obvious, huh?" Hank didn't speak for a moment. "You know about me working with the princess over in what used to be Pasdar?"
"I heard her election was all your idea."
"I'm never gonna live that down." Hank sounded amused. "But some people didn't like an uppity sub stepping out of place. I was poisoned with some crazy Harmony drugs. One of them makes subs even more submissive. I got an overdose of that one and the counter didn't work."
"Was it permanent?" Hank didn't seem that off, but Jensen couldn't be sure. He needed his eyes, damn it.
"It's taken me a while to work through it. In some ways I'll never be the same." Hank let out a laugh. "And that's not counting the way this place is fucking with my brain chemistry."
Jensen felt a breeze over his shoulders and shivered. "Brain chemistry?"
"I'm not crazy. Well, crazier than usual. They did scans at the base on both me and Bell. Our brains were different from our last military checkups."
"Fuck if I know. It's all just blobs on the screen to me."
Jensen couldn't blame Hank for not demanding the details. Still, the idea that Harmony was having some effect on their brains wasn't anything to sneeze about. Fuller hadn't mentioned that at all but Jensen would bet his left ball that one of those grunts on the second tram was sent to test for that.
Fuller hadn't been too happy with Hank. He was going to be even less happy with Jensen and Jeff. Jensen respected these people too much to use them for military gain, not when, for once, the UP had the advantage in this damn war. He just needed to make sure Jeff agreed. They had to play this very carefully.
He had to admit that Hank had done a damn good job of rescuing Jensen from the brewing panic attack. The idea of facing the entire court still made him break into a sweat, but here in this room, he got a chance for a moment of quiet, to just be himself and not worry about what was expected of the green-eyed sub from the stars.
"Hank," he said. "What are you going to do now that your two years are almost up? The UP wants you back." That didn't even begin to state Fuller's apparent rage at Hank.
"I don't know. Not yet." Hank sounded very small, not like himself at all.
That's when the masseuses arrived. Then the only sounds Jensen and Hank were making were grunts and groans from being so thoroughly relaxed.
At first Jensen had been wary - he didn't really like anyone but Jeff touching him. But the sub had a deft, practical touch, must like his physical therapist back home. So it was easy to melt into the table - which was firm, but covered with silky soft fabric - and let her hands dig into his back and release the knots he hadn't known had been back there.
Another sub arrived with refreshments - even asked Jensen if there was anything she could bring for Mila. Jensen grinned, half asleep from the massage. He could definitely get used to this.
Jeff knew he'd done the right thing the moment he walked into the Great Hall and found it filled to the brim with people, only a handful of whom he recognized. There was Duchess Claudia and her sub Misha, of course, standing up at the front near the Queen. On the queen's other side stood the princess Alona, with two subs kneeling at her feet. Jeff remembered one of them - he'd helped her pick out Dourdan during the last time he was here.
They'd decorated the hall with green banners wound around the pillars leading to the massive staircase near the front of the room. Queen Michelle sat on a throne - a chair carved out of a dark wood - dressed from head to two in glittery silver. Her sub Fredric knelt at her feet, wearing the leather kilt that the other male subs wore, although his matched her dress.
Jeff held his hand out to keep the UP crowd back. He didn't want anyone screwing up this meeting and he had a feeling that Fuller's handpicked crew might not be the most tactful. He walked down the hall himself, his footfalls silent on the scarlet carpet.
"Welcome back, Dom Morgan." Queen Michelle smiled.
"Thank you, mistress." Jeff nodded his head as a gesture of respect. He did respect the Queen. She was a strong leader who genuinely cared for her people, Dom and sub alike. That was probably why Fuller couldn't crack her.
"I understand sub Jensen is indisposed? Is he well?"
Jeff took a deep breath. "Jensen is as well as he can be. As you know from your connection to our news sources he was captured and tortured by our mutual enemies." Those words could never do justice to the horror Jensen had lived through. Jeff relieved it often enough in his nightmares. "The torture left him scarred and blind."
There were gasps throughout the room. Jeff knew that particular bit of knowledge hadn't reached the general population of Harmony. Jensen's injuries had been kept under wraps even on Earth. Jared had done a good job of sheltering his brother.
"He's returned hoping that your healers can help him. Your technology is far greater than our own." Jeff knew he was taking a risk, asking this in public. But the queen had forced his hand, having their return take place in such a setting.
"Of course. Whatever he needs." She turned and nodded to someone Jeff couldn't see. "It shall be done."
"Thank you." Jeff meant it, every word. He'd get down on his knees if it were appropriate. All he wanted was for Jensen to be healed. However, there was more business to attend to. "I'd like to introduce you to two of Jensen's friends." He turned and waved Sophia and Tom over.
Sophia kept shooting glances around her with wide eyes. He couldn't imagine what she thought of the pageantry and outlandish costumes. Surely someone in the Sex Corps had seen something like it before? Tom only shuffled forward, looking very pale in the warm light.
"Sophia Bush and Tom Welling." Jeff introduced them. "They trained with Jensen."
"Welcome." The queen narrowed her eyes, as if trying to figure them out.
"You can trust them as you would Jensen or myself." And certainly not one of Fuller's cronies. By the way the queen's expression turned shrewd, Jeff knew he'd be in store for some private meetings later. "Jensen would ask a favor on their behalf."
"If Jensen asks, then I will grant it."
To everyone's surprise, Tom dropped to his knees and bowed his head. "Thank you, Mistress," he choked out. Jeff didn't realize how much Tom himself wanted to get better. It had always been Sophia speaking for him.
"Of course." The queen pursed her lips and looked behind Jeff. "Who escorts you?"
Jeff cleared his throat. "Now that Jensen and I have come to take the place of the liaison pair, we hope you'll allow our people to resume their study of your city."
She narrowed her eyes. Michelle would never grant something without a lot of thought. Jeff was putting her in a bad position, although he hadn't any choice in the matter.
"I will allow it for the time of the Choosing. We will reevaluate after the celebration is over."
That gave them nearly a month to screw this up. Please, let them not make a disaster out of it. Jeff had to trust in his team, those he'd worked with for years before leaving to find Jensen again. Together they'd have to keep the others in line.
"Thank you, mistress."
She gestured to the side. "Sub Colin. Please arrange chambers and accommodations for all of Dom Jeff's staff. Healer Nicci, prepare to receive sub Jensen as soon as possible."
A young man slipped out of the crowd of people and it took a moment for Jeff to recognize him. Colin had been just a boy the last time Jeff had seen him. He'd forgotten how they could change so quickly, going from boy to adolescent in the two years Jeff had been gone. Colin still had the large blue eyes and tousled blond hair. But his limbs were ungainly, uncomfortable in his taller body, which was just starting to fill out.
The most notable change was the white collar around his neck. Jeff swallowed back bile at the sight of that. He'd known Colin was to go into training when he turned fifteen. The boy had told them that himself back when he was showing Jeff and Jensen around the palace. Still it was a shock to see it so blatantly. He wasn't sure how he felt about how early training started. Fifteen seemed so young.
"If your staff will follow me," Colin gave Jeff a polite bow. "Then I will make sure they are all taken care of."
"Of course." Jeff made a mental note to seek Colin out later. He wanted to talk to the boy, make sure everything was all right.
Tom pushed himself to his feet. He and Sophia followed Colin out of the great hall, along with the rest of the UP team.
Jeff needed to find Jensen and get him to the Healers. If they could help him, stars, he prayed they could. He would give anything to make Jensen well again.
"And Dom Jeff?" The Queen caught him before he turned to leave. "I do hope you can join me for dinner later."
Oh yes, she would want a complete accounting. Jeff couldn't blame her. "Yes, mistress."
Sophia knew they'd done the right thing in coming here. Already this place seemed to have an impact on Tom. His eyes were clear and he'd stopped clawing at his wrists. Stars, she never wanted to walk into another situation like the one she'd stumbled on last night when she'd returned from the meeting. At least she didn't have the same aversion to blood that Jensen did.
The young man who'd led them out of the hall was conferring with each person and writing something down on a hard tablet like device – probably one of those slates she'd heard about. He finally came to them and gave Sophia a wide smile.
"Since you are friends with sub Jensen I will give you quarters near where he and Dom Jeff will be staying. I must ask, is he your sub?" Colin nodded in Tom's direction.
Sophia was about to say no, of course not. She touched the band around her arm. "If he'll have me," she said in a low voice. She was already responsible for him, and had taken on that knowing no one else would ever understand what it was that Tom needed. All the psychologists on Earth were focused on getting Tom to stop hurting himself. None could understand that he needed the pain, but he needed to relearn how to control himself.
"Soph. . ." Tom turned to her in surprise. "Of course."
Colin cleared his throat, drawing their attention. "I will put you both in the same set of rooms then. And have a collar sent up."
Oh, what had they gotten themselves into?
Jeff found Jensen curled up with Major Tappen in a room filled with nothing but fluffy pillows. Sunlight filtered in through the large windows, illuminating the two men who were sleeping like giant cats. He exchanged smiles with Ian, who'd led him here to retrieve their subs. Apparently the massages had taken a lot out of them.
He crouched down and touched Jensen's cheek, not wanting to startle him. When Jensen blinked sleepy eyes open, Jeff murmured, "I didn't know it was naptime."
"Jeff." Jensen smiled. "You gotta get one of these. The hands on that masseuse. . ."
Next to them, Ian had knelt to wake Hank. He stroked his hand through Hank's blond hair, making it stick up in all directions and murmured: "Henry."
Hank's eyes opened and he gave Ian a drowsy smile. "Master," he said in return and pushed himself up on his knees to nuzzle against Ian's jaw.
Jeff turned away, feeling that he was intruding on a very private moment. His heart pounded and he remembered when it had been so easy, when Jensen had called him 'master' and they hadn't had the specter of Jensen's capture haunting them. Could it be that simple again?
"Where's Mila?" he asked, just as the thumping of her tail caught his attention. Mila was draped over her own pillow and let out a jaw-cracking yawn.
Jensen laughed. "She got a massage of her own. I think she liked it."
Jeff shook his head. Harmony was a paradise even for dogs, it seemed. "I'm glad she's well rested. Are you ready to go to the Healers?"
Jensen stiffened. "Already?"
Not soon enough for Jeff's taste. "The queen seems eager to help. She told Healer Nicci to be ready for you."
"I just hope. . .to have come all this way. . . Jeff, what if they can't fix me?"
"Hey." Jeff brought their foreheads together, their breaths mingling as he spoke. "You don't need fixing, you know? If they can't heal you, it doesn't matter. I'm still here and so is Mila."
Jensen smiled. "Thank goodness for Mila."
Jeff kissed his impertinent nose and pulled away. "Ready?"
Jensen reached out with one hand and Jeff grasped it, pulling him up. "Yes."
There was the determined Jensen he knew. Jeff turned to Hank and Ian. "Are you coming?"
"If you need us, we'll be there." Ian said and Hank nodded in agreement.
Jensen bit his lip. "I think we'll be okay, as long as Jeff remembers how to get there."
Jeff didn't think he wanted them watching while he was being examined by the healers and didn't blame Jensen one bit. "I do. Come on, Mila, follow."
"We'll see you later." Jensen told Hank and Ian.
When they left the lift, Jeff should not have been surprised at the number of people waiting for them at the healers. The lobby was filled with Healers in their distinctive white robes, standing around the room with its soothing pale colors and towering leafy plants. Conversation ceased as the lift doors closed and one of the subs moved forward to greet them. "We've been expecting you. Healer Nicci is preparing the surgery. I'll tell her you've arrived. May we escort you to an exam room?"
"Thank you." Jeff could barely choke that out. It was overwhelming, how they'd all come to help his Jensen.
Jensen squeezed his hand, as if sensing Jeff's sudden swell of emotion. He couldn't see the crowd of people, and Jeff bet he'd turned off his earpiece again. Still, he didn't doubt that Jensen could somehow sense the number of people in the room.
They were led through the crowd, past the reception area with its comfortable chairs and rumbling fountain. The heart of the center was very practical, lacking any of the usual more ornamental aesthetics. A central hall led to a number of doors. Jeff knew the private rooms were to the right - he'd visited Jensen here twice the last time they were in Harmony. At least this time they were walking in on their own two feet.
"Dom Jeff, sub Jensen, welcome back!" Healer Nicci greeted them with a large smile. She looked the same as Jeff remembered - with blond curls framing her face and a sardonic glint in her eyes, although those eyes seemed tired. "Levi is looking forward to seeing you, but I told him to wait until after we're done here."
"Thank you. I've been looking forward to coming back to Harmony." Jensen allowed Jeff to guide him onto to the exam table. "It felt like we'd never get here!"
"Well we did spend a month on a starship." Someday Jeff hoped they could make travel to the outer colonies much faster, but that would involve discovering another wormhole, or creating their own. He knew some scientist out there was pouring over their screens and might even make it possible. For now, they had to be patient, and Jeff felt that he had been more than patient.
Nicci took a slim device out of the pocket of her robes and shined it in Jensen's eyes. "Your eyes still dilate."
Jensen swallowed. "There’s actually nothing wrong with my eyes. It's the nerves in my brain." He touched his temples, massaging the tiny scars there. "And the way they twisted my DNA to keep any healing from happening."
She frowned and took out another scanner, which she ran over Jensen from head to toe. "That wasn't the only place they altered your genetic code, was it?"
Jensen cupped his hands in his lap. "No. Anywhere I'm scarred - it was done on purpose, to keep me down and enslaved. The only reason I'm not in pain right now is because of all the drugs I'm on."
Jeff came over and pointed out the medication patch on the back of Jensen's neck. "That's the latest one to work. I can give you the formula." He had all the information for Jensen's drugs, in case they needed to replicate them here on Harmony. Jensen hadn't reacted well to Harmony painkillers in the past.
She frowned down at the patch. "I'd like to have that information on file at least, thank you."
"So how screwed am I?" Jensen bowed his head, expecting to be given bad news. And why not? It wasn't like they hadn't tried everything the UP had to offer. The only thing Jensen hadn't let them do was replace his eyes with cameras wired into his brain. He'd told Jeff he didn't like the idea of being part machine or anyone messing with his brain.
Nicci had moved to a terminal in the corner and began running her fingers against a panel. "I think our best course of action is attempting the HRM – Harmonic Resonance Machine. It will interface directly with Harmony and if the knowledge of how to heal you is within her, it shall be done."
"What does it involve?"
"You'll be enclosed within a tube and surrounded on all sides. I’ve been told that some subs find it very relaxing, actually.” Nicci looked up from her station. “But I can’t guarantee it will work.”
Jensen wrapped his arms around his chest. "I understand that, healer. I want to try."
Jeff swallowed. He hoped with everything within him that Jensen wouldn't be disappointed.
Once thing Nicci hadn't mentioned was that Jensen would have to be naked inside the machine. He really should have known. Harmony wasn't picky about clothes.
Still, he was nestled on a soft, fluffy platform and it was incredibly comfortable. Just before the sides closed up, Jeff came over and gave him a gentle kiss. "I'll be right here, all right?"
"I know." Jensen tried to smile, knowing it must look weak. It was hard to breathe evenly, to keep calm as he heard the pressure sound the sides of the machine made as they closed around him.
"Listen to my voice, sub Jensen." Nicci's voice came from some speakers on either side of him. "We're going to count backwards from ten. . .nine. . .eight. . ."
Jensen's eyes fluttered closed. He felt weightless, like he was floating in water. Nicci's voice faded away into nothingness.
A breeze fluttered across his face. Jensen opened his eyes and found himself sitting on the grand fountain in the center square of the city. There was no sound except for the bubbling water over the pale stone. He skimmed his hand through the water and delighted in watching the droplets swirl around his fingers.
Jensen turned at the sound of her voice to see a young woman sitting next to him. He remembered the wild red curls and eyes so blue they could make the ocean envious. "I'm dreaming." There was no other explanation for why he was speaking with the living personification of Harmony - or how he could even see her right now.
"Not quite." She tilted her head. "We are speaking in a shared subconscious state, but this is very much real."
Like when he'd interfaced with the city in the queen's control room in order to save them all from the Confed. That was why the UP wanted him to come back here, and here he was, speaking to Harmony. The last thing he wanted was to play into their hands so easily. But, then again, it wasn't like she was just going to hand over the tech.
As if sensing the direction of his thoughts, Harmony frowned. "May I show you something?" She stood and held out her hand.
Jensen swallowed and missed Jeff's presence beside him. "Yes." He grasped her hand and pulled himself to his feet.
Around them, the empty city began to shift and change, melting like blocks of ice and reforming like jagged pieces of clay. Jensen shielded his eyes with his free hand as he stared into the sun. The buildings and bridges grew twisted, elongated into exaggerated proportions. The sight began to hurt his eyes more than the light. This place shouldn't exist.
"This is the city as it once was. This was how I found it. Come." Harmony tugged on his hand, leading him over scattered rocks instead of smooth cobblestone to the great gates.
The metal began to spin and turn, much the way Jensen remembered. Something was off about it - maybe in the way the sun's rays glinted off of the polish - the angles were all wrong. The gate opened and a figure stepped in, covered in a heavy coat and hood. It drew back the fur lined hood and Jensen gasped. Harmony stood there.
He turned and made sure he was still holding hands with the real Harmony. She smiled sadly. "This place was my last hope. The supply ships hadn't come and we weren't ready for winter. Of course, we had no idea the wormhole had collapsed - that the ships would never return."
The other girl, the one who couldn't see Jensen and Harmony, looked around the city. Her cheeks were stained with tears and her nose was red. "I'm here!" She shouted. "You called me, damn it, you called me."
She walked a few steps forward and then jumped back as the ground before her began to tremble and shudder. The stone pathway fell away to reveal a stairway into the ground. The other Harmony stared into the darkness for a moment, and then took one step down, and then another.
"Shall we follow?" Harmony swung their joined hands and they walked towards the steps.
It was hard going at first. Each step was too long and too deep for a normal sized human. But the further they went, the more the stairs started to resemble something the correct size. Lights flickered into being along the walls as the other Harmony walked, guiding her down.
"What is this place?" Jensen whispered. They came to another gate, closed shut until the girl touched her hand to the sigil in the center. It retracted rapidly from her fingers, revealing only darkness beyond.
She took a deep breath and stepped into the blackness. The moment her foot touched down the room sprang to life, lights popping into being so quickly it was almost blinding.
"This is the very heart of the city. Or, perhaps the mind, depending on your point of view."
Jensen thought he was beginning to understand. He took several rapid steps forward, needing to keep up with the other Harmony who'd gone ahead. The room wasn't very large at all, but what had him gasping was the large cylindrical tank in the very center. The being inside it wasn't human at all - it resembled something like a giant insect with elongated limbs and an enlarged head.
"What do you want from me?" The other Harmony whispered. "Can you help us?"
Jensen heard the answer in his own mind, as he assumed Harmony heard it the first time.
"Yes. And no. You are the one who awakened us. Only you can make this city livable for your kind. My time is long past. Will you take this burden?"
She looked away, wiping at the tears streaming down her face. "Will it hurt?"
"All births require some sort of pain. But I promise sensations you'll never experience otherwise."
"All right then. I accept."
"I thought I was going to die, you see," Harmony said, startling Jensen away from the tableau in front of him. "Matteo had been killed. I had lost my world and wanted so desperately to join him. But I wasn't so selfish that I couldn't think of the others at the colony."
Jensen heard a gasp and he looked back just as cables started to emerge from the control panel beneath the giant tank. The cables moved like tentacles, wrapping around the other Harmony and sliding under her skin. She screamed, and threw her head back, unable to fight as they dragged her towards the tank. The liquid flushed away, taking the alien being with it.
He turned away, not wanting to see Harmony take the thing's place. "Oh, stars." Still his mind conjured up the image – the girl being stripped, her body violated by wires and tubing as she was imprisoned inside.
Harmony touched his shoulder. When Jensen looked up again, the tank was filled and the other girl was hovering in the liquid like some mermaid. "I didn't understand my fate – to be neither alive nor dead, but something in between. Now the city and I are one, never to be separated - until my organic form can no longer be maintained."
Jensen walked forward, unable to stop staring at the tank. The city drew all its knowledge from the woman within, even now. "When you used me to hide the city. . . ."
"Not everyone's minds can join with the city. It's why they ask for a worthy sub, but worthy means something entirely different."
"And they don't even know." Jensen turned back. "It's because of you, isn't it? That everyone has to be a Dom or a sub?"
She gestured to her eyes and smiled. "My Dom had brown eyes. The city took my love for him from my mind and sought to give it to everyone. It hasn't always worked out."
Jensen laughed. "You can't blame the city for that. Humans are funny things."
But when he turned to regard the tank once more, he realized exactly what she was trying to tell him. "This tech – I can't just hand it over to the UP. It would require a sacrifice every time." A person – a soul – trapped in symbiosis with some sort of machine. In this case it was a city, but he imagined the UP creating ships, with a person at the center, giving up their life to the cause.
"And would your superiors ask for that sacrifice? Or take it?"
At one time Jensen would have had an answer for her, but now he couldn't. He thought he knew what he was fighting for. The UP were the good guys, struggling against an empire that enslaved and tortured its way through the galaxy. Now, he wasn't so sure.
He looked at the ground, unable to meet her eyes. "I don't know."
She touched his face, and it was like a benediction. He blinked and they were standing next to the fountain again. "What was done to you, Jensen, can't be healed in a day. I can change people's brains, yes, but over time and slowly, ever so slowly. Will you be here long enough for that?"
"You keep asking me questions that I don't have the answer to." He tried to smile, but couldn't. No wonder her people worshipped her. She was like a goddess – enigmatic and beautiful. And a sub, he mustn't forget that.
"I like that you don't give false answers, that you don't try to lie. You'd be surprised. . ." She shook her head. "I will give you a gift, Jensen, and I hope you can stay with me. You're the first I've met that I've been able to speak with for this long."
How lonely. Even though she must know the minds and hearts of every citizen in Harmony, not a single one could ever talk to her like this – person to person.
Harmony stood on her toes and kissed him on each eyelid. "I give you my eyes."
Before he could ask for an explanation, the world dropped out from under him. Jensen was falling, tumbling into darkness. He gasped, coming up to hit his head on the top of the HRM chamber.
"Sub Jensen, can you hear me?" It was Nicci. How long had she been calling for him?
"Yes, yes." He was out of breath, as if he'd been running for hours.
"I'm going to open the chamber now. Please stay calm."
Jensen blinked and couldn't hold back his startled cry when Nicci began to retract the lid. There was light beyond, seeping through the crack that appeared as it opened. He watched the metal slide away and join with the sides of the device, and saw the steel colored ceiling overhead. "Stars."
"Jensen? Are you all right?'
That was Jeff. Jensen lifted a hand out and Jeff grasped it. He wanted Jeff to be the first person he truly saw. "Jeff."
Jeff leaned over, the light illuminating him from behind, making it look like he had some sort of halo. There were the dark eyes that Jensen had missed, that mussed salt and pepper hair, and those dimples, surrounded by stubble with far more gray than Jensen remembered. "Jeff, I can see you."
He watched as Jeff's face changed, watched the shock as his eyes widened and the grin split his mouth. Jensen could stare at him all day. "How? Nicci said the device couldn't do a full healing."
"It was Harmony." She'd given him a gift, but Jensen didn't understand yet. What price would she ask of him?
Jeff turned Jensen's palm over in his and rubbed it with his thumb. "Your scars aren't as deep or bright. It's like there was just enough juice to erase them a little bit."
Jensen flexed his hand and wiggled his toes. There wasn't the usual ache that reminded him of how badly his nerves had been damaged. "Get me out of this thing."
Taking him literally, Jeff slid his arms under Jensen's legs and back and swept him up in his arms. Jensen could feel his face heating and he realized there were other people in the room. When Jeff put him down on unsteady feet, Jensen leaned against him, slightly dizzy.
There was a bark and Mila ran up to him. Jensen dropped to his knees and ran his fingers through her soft fur. "You are even more adorable than I imagined." He kissed her little pink nose, marveling at the intelligence behind those amber eyes. She licked his chin, as if in answer. Jensen laughed, he couldn't help it. "Thank you!"
Jeff was speaking to someone in an undertone. "If you could postpone my dinner with the queen tonight? I'd like to spend some time with my sub."
"Of course, Dom Jeff. I'll tele you with a revised meeting."
Jensen looked up at the gangly sub conferring with Jeff. There was something familiar about him, but it wasn't until Jeff said "Thank you, Colin" that Jensen recognized the boy they'd last seen two years ago. He gasped. What else had changed?
After getting dressed, Jensen let Jeff lead them back to their quarters, Mila following with her tail wagging. Jensen couldn't stop himself from examining every little thing – from the intricate tile pattern of the floors to the way the threads of the wall tapestries interwove together. He appreciated color the most – the red of the banners, the milky gloss of marble and the intricate shadings of Mila's sandy fur. He felt like a glutton, gorging himself on every thing he could see.
Jensen didn't have time to appreciate the room's décor – not that he'd stare at the room when he had Jeff right in front of him. Jeff turned as soon as the door slid shut and cupped Jensen's face between his large hands to kiss him soundly.
It was harder to keep his eyes open than Jensen had thought, especially the way Jeff kissed. But Jensen wanted to watch as Jeff's eyes squeezed shut, the tightness in the corner of his eyes. Jensen pulled away and stroked his fingers down Jeff's cheeks, and along his eyebrows, matching touch to sight.
"Jeff, I want to see everything."
With trembling hands, Jensen undid the buttons on the shirt of Jeff's uniform, impatient when that only revealed the t-shirt below. "You're wearing too much."
Jeff laughed, a deep rumble that started deep in his chest. Jensen couldn't help but join in. He could see. Nothing could compete with that.
Jensen tugged at the bottom of Jeff's shirt, pulling it off. He stopped to admire Jeff's chest – the dusting of hair, his tight nipples, the tan skin leading to his taut abs and the divot of his navel. Jensen licked his way down, matching taste to sight. He spent a lot of time around each nipple, loving the way the skin pebbled around his tongue. Blowing over the wet skin, Jensen watched Jeff's face change as he gasped. Every change in his expression was a delight.
"You're killing me here, boy."
"I'm just getting started." Jensen tucked his hands around Jeff's waistband. He couldn't wait to see Jeff's cock. The pants unsnapped easily and he pushed them down in one impatient shove. Jeff's dick sprang free, bobbing slightly as the fabric brushed it.
Jensen dropped to his knees, so he could really look at it. He stroked the tips of his fingers along the crown, rubbing back and forth along the slit. Clear fluid leaked out and he could tell Jeff was holding himself back, hell he could see the tightness in Jeff's muscles and the way he nearly trembled. Jensen followed the vein down the base, marveling at the soft skin pulled so tight. He cupped Jeff's sac, rolling it to watch Jeff grow even harder.
Jensen looked up, taking in the look on Jeff's face, the way his eyes narrowed into sleepy bedroom eyes and how he bit his lip to keep himself restrained. Jeff was so damn beautiful and he didn't even know.
"I'm not done, yet." Jensen slid his gaze lower, around Jeff's ankles. He undid the lacings of the combat boots, so Jeff could step out of them and his pants. Jensen found himself lost in Jeff's toes, unable to keep from examining each digit and the fragile bone and sinew that made up each foot.
Apparently Jeff could no longer wait. He reached down and tugged Jensen up to growl. "Now you're the one wearing too many clothes and we need to take this to the bed."
Not that Jensen was averse to being taken over the dining table or one of the large chairs. But not for this first intimacy since getting his sight back. He realized – this was the first time he'd seen Jeff in two years. Jensen swallowed hard. "Yeah. The bed."
"Move." Jeff took his arm and led him into the bedroom.
Jensen laughed, still filled with that giddy joy. He stripped out of his uniform, delighting in being able to drop articles of clothing on the floor without having to worry about tripping over them later.
They landed on the bed together, and Jeff had the presence of mind to bark over his shoulder – "Mila, go sleep." Jensen caught sight of a little dog bed in the corner, but before he could marvel at that, Jeff was kissing him again. Jensen let his eyes close for a moment, lost in the moment, feeling nothing but Jeff's lips beneath his and how their bodies met all along their sides, skin to skin.
Then Jeff broke away and reached for the lube – conveniently located in a dispenser on the wall. Stars, Jensen loved Harmony. He pushed himself up on his knees and spread his legs, moaning as Jeff started to prepare him. Still, he kept watching Jeff, how the muscles in his arm bulged as he worked his fingers inside Jensen. It was almost distracting him from the pleasurable burn inside him.
"Ride me," Jeff said.
That was an easy command to obey. Jensen fitted himself over Jeff's thighs, balancing with his hands on Jeff's shoulders as he lowered himself down on Jeff's cock, which Jeff guided into him. Jeff looked up at him, with his lips parted and eyes widened, like Jensen was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen.
For every inch that Jensen sunk down, Jeff's eyes narrowed, becoming heavy-lidded with lust. Jensen didn't even want to blink, for fear of losing a moment of seeing Jeff's face.
Jeff bottomed out inside him – so deep at this angle. Jensen rolled his hips, his cock sliding against Jeff's belly. Jeff fitted his hands around Jensen's waist and began to thrust up. They found a rhythm together, rocking into each other. As he grew closer to climax, Jeff's face flushed, he bit his lip and creases appeared in his forehead. It was almost like he was in pain.
Their eyes met and Jensen couldn't think beyond the liquidity of Jeff's gaze. Jeff was inside him, and he could look at Jeff. He could see Jeff.
"Oh, sweetheart, don't." Jeff's thumb brushed against Jensen's cheek and only then did Jensen realize he was crying.
"I can see you," Jensen murmured, bending so they were touching forehead to forehead.
"Darling, you always could."
And then Jeff pulsed within him and Jensen was lost.
"Are we just supposed to sit around with our thumbs up our asses?"
Maggie looked up from her tablet, finally being forced to acknowledge Whitfield who'd been pacing across the room for the past half hour. It wasn't so much pacing as stomping, really. They – including Caroline Chikezie and Dr. Karl Johnson – were working in a sitting room that joined their bedrooms together. It was much larger than the bedchambers Maggie had been assigned to before, and this room was big enough for about five more people.
"Some of us actually have work to do." Caroline set down her stylus. She'd been sharing the long table with Dr. Johnson, who was surrounded by piles of Harmony slates.
"We're supposed to be babysitting Ackles and Morgan." Whitfield dropped into one of the couches and sank into the thick cushions.
"You really want to do Fuller's dirty work for him?" Caroline snapped.
Whitfield let out a sigh. "I don't get it. What's wrong with finding weapons? That was the whole damn point of the treaty in the first place – to study their technology."
"Not with the cost of completely disrupting their society." Karl let out a sigh. "Although I think we've already done irreparable damage to this culture."
Maggie cleared her throat. "There's the difference between treating this place with respect and not. Fuller's people are currently scouring the palace, looking for the control room." She touched the long empty wall, turning it into a larger version of the screen she'd been working on. It turned into a map, with tiny blue dots representing the other members of the military.
She pointed at the four groups in various places – one on the higher levels, two in the mid-level and one on the ground level. "Here, here and here. However, if they understood how the tech works here, they'd know that the city will never let them find the control room."
Johnson pushed back his chair and stared at her grid work. "Of course. The city works on thought – it can literally read their intentions."
"She can read their intentions." Caroline exchanged a look with Maggie. The two of them had found the diary of the girl named Harmony in the logs of the old colony on this planet. They had their own theories about how this city came into being.
"On the other hand, I have no intention of using the information for ill gain, so all I have to do is. . ." Maggie put her palm against the wall and asked the city to show her the location of the control room. A red square appeared several levels below the palace. "There."
"Seriously?" Whitfield laughed. "You just asked and it – sorry she – gave you the information?"
"I don't expect to actually be let inside. Although I'm pretty sure all I'd need was to find the right lift." Maggie commanded the screen to close and the image blinked out of existence.
Whitfield pushed himself to his feet. "Okay – we don't want to actually find the weapons, right?" He looked around and waited for everyone to nod. "And right now that festival thing is going on – the Choosing? Plus you," he pointed to Johnson, "want to observe their culture. So I say let's go and observe some culture."
"You honestly didn't get enough when Hank took us out?" Caroline looked like she was trying not to smile and failing.
Johnson started to stack the slates into a single pile. "You know, I believe you all have the advantage. I didn't get shown around by Major Tappen."
"We could give him a call," Maggie suggested.
Caroline threw up her hands. "Why do I even bother? All right, let's get out of here – after I tell Commander Brown where we're going."
Someone had to be the responsible one, Maggie guessed. She looked down at her tablet and shut it down. This issue of weapons was still troubling. She wasn't sure where she stood, though she was still so damn curious about this place. Her hands itched to get a hold of the tech. Maybe the city would even let her.
Jensen opened his eyes. For a moment all he saw was darkness and panic rose up in his throat. Had it only been a dream?
Then Jeff flicked on the light, revealing that beloved face and Jensen had to blink back tears. Stars, could he stop being so emotional about this? It was like that spot where he'd been balling everything up inside him had come unwound and Jensen couldn't shove it all back in, the way he had to make Jared think he was okay.
"Shit, I forgot to comm Jared."
"It can wait." Jeff sat on the bed. He was already dressed – in Harmony clothes this time, not the standard duty uniforms they were given at the base. The colors – deep maroon and chocolate brown embroidered with golden thread - looked good on him, only accentuating the flecks of light in his eyes and the silver in his hair. "I wanted to know if you wanted to watch the sun rise?"
That explained why it was so dark in here. Jeff had gotten him up before the crack of dawn. Jensen smiled. "I'd love to."
"Get dressed. I know the perfect spot." Jeff pointed to a bundle of clothes on the bed. He must have put it there while Jensen was sleeping.
Jensen pulled on the pants and shirt quickly – loving the feel of the soft Harmony fabrics. The clothes were almost luxurious after the stiff and practical duty uniform he'd been wearing yesterday. "Mila, come."
The dog opened her eyes and glared at Jensen. He guessed it was a bit too early for her.
"Let her sleep in," Jeff said. "For once she can."
Jensen couldn't go without stroking her ears and promising that they'll be back soon. He took Jeff's hand in his as they left the room, a sour thought ruining the morning. "I won't have to give her back, will I? Now that I can see."
Jeff gave him a startled look. "No, Jen. She's bonded to you – part of the genetic programming. It would be just as cruel for her if they took her away."
He let out a breath, relieved that he wouldn't have to give her up. Mila had become as much a part of his life as Jeff had. It would hurt to part from her.
They stepped out of a lift onto a garden terrace. Jensen looked up at the brightening sky and realized they were at the very pinnacle of the tower. They could not go any higher in Harmony without a tram. From here they could see the ocean, a sea of dark blue that stretched out across the horizon.
Jensen leaned against the low stone wall that guarded the edge, Jeff pressed against his side. An odd climbing plant with oblong shaped leaves wound its way up the pillars of the wall and he picked at it absently. When he broke one of the leaves it smelled like burnt cinnamon. The sun began its slow peaking above the horizon – a ball of red that bled into the sky. Streaks of color painted the clouds.
He felt the moisture on his cheeks and Jensen wiped at them impatiently. "Am I ever going to stop crying when I see something beautiful?"
"Eventually, I suppose." Jeff wrapped his arm around Jensen's waist. "Enjoy it while it lasts."
"Thank you. It's amazing." Jensen frowned, Jeff's words reminding him of Harmony's words. "Jeff, she said she couldn't heal me. Not right away."
"No, Harmony." Jensen hadn't had the chance to tell Jeff about what he'd seen while in the machine. Their mouths had been otherwise occupied. "She spoke to me when I was in that tube. The things I saw . . . Jeff, this city, it's all because of her – her consciousness blended with the alien technology."
"Okay, slow down. You've lost me."
Jensen took a deep breath and told Jeff everything that he witnessed – how bizarre the city had looked before bonding with Harmony, what this meant for the UP's hopes about the advanced tech, and her parting words to him. "She said she was going to give me her eyes. What does that mean?"
Jeff brushed a thumb over Jensen's eyelids. "I don't know. We'll get Chikezie to scan you – see what shows up. Whatever it is, Jen, I'm so grateful that she's given you this."
They kissed, the rays of the sun brightening over them. Jensen held tight to Jeff, not wanting to let go.
"Wish we could stay up here all day. Alone." Jeff licked his lips. "But we have a breakfast appointment with the queen."
Jensen took a deep breath. Now it all began. He'd gotten his healing, but now he'd have to pay the price. "Let's go."
Harmony's words bothered Jeff more than he wanted to admit. If something had been given as a gift, it could always be taken away. The first chance they had, he'd insist Jensen get scanned. Still, these moments together – watching Jensen watch the sunrise, meeting his eyes while they made love – meant so much to him. Jeff would do whatever he could to make sure Jensen could keep his sight.
"It's weird to be walking around here without a guide." Jensen flicked the wall of the lift as it stopped. It opened to the queen's personal quarters, which, as far as Jeff knew, took up an entire floor of the massive palace.
Jeff had to stop himself from reaching out and grabbing Jensen's arm or shoulder. He'd gotten comfortable in leading Jensen. At the very least, he missed the connection of having his hand on Jensen's body.
"I think Colin's been promoted past guide." Jeff had to smile, remembering the boy who'd shown them around so earnestly during their first time in the city.
Jensen frowned as the lift doors opened. "I'll have to find time to speak with him. He looks so different."
"Kids tend to grow up." Jeff shrugged, although he knew there was more to it than that. Colin had been uneasy with his upcoming training, and Jensen probably wanted to make sure the boy was all right.
They stepped out into an empty hallway. Jeff supposed it was too early for most of the queen's subs to be out and about. Either that or they were taking advantage of the lovely day and had already gone out on their errands. "The sitting room is. . ."
"This way." Jensen seemed happy to be the one in the lead and Jeff couldn't blame him. He grinned at the way Jensen strode purposely to the correct door. He hadn't seen Jensen walk with that confidence in years. There had only been tentative steps and hesitant movements, even with all the adaptive equipment Jensen had worked with.
Jeff palmed the chime on the outside of the door. A male voice called "Enter," and the door slid open.
The first thing that hit them as they entered was the smell of the food. It was warm and inviting, and he heard Jensen's belly growl in response. They hadn't eaten since last night and Jeff's mouth watered at the table of pastries and finger foods set up along one wall.
A blond man was kneeling on the soft carpet, but not, as Jeff first thought, because he was a sub, but because he was playing with a toddler who had a matching set of curls. He looked up at them and grinned, and only then did Jeff recognize the queen's son.
"Levi!" Jensen stepped forward. "It's good to see you."
Levi scooped up the child, who only laughed in return. "Welcome back, Jensen."
It was almost strange to see Levi with a smile on his face. Jeff remembered him as very dour and serious, but back then, Levi had been trapped in a contract with an abusive master - the same man who'd kidnapped Jensen and tried to take control of Harmony. Things had clearly improved for the sub prince.
"I see you've been busy." Jensen went up to the baby and tugged at one chubby foot.
"A bit. This is my son, Alohn, the next king of Harmony." Levi's lips twisted as he said those last words and for a moment Jeff saw the troubled sub from two years ago.
"We'd heard a little about that." Jeff cleared his throat and moved closer to admire the child.
Alohn started to babble and stuck one hand in his mouth. He kicked his feet against Levi's side, probably wanting to get back down. Levi kissed the side of his head. "I'm not surprised. It's been all everyone can talk about."
"You never can get out of the spotlight, can you?" Jensen frowned.
Levi tilted his head. "You understand."
Jensen nodded. Jeff felt disconnected from them both. He'd had his own bout with celebrity years before, but nothing like what the two of them shared. Then again, he'd never be a sub or have his own humiliation broadcast across the entire city for everyone to see. Jeff rubbed his hand along Jensen's side, for his own reassurance.
A door in the back slid open and the queen entered, followed by her sub Fredric. Unlike the carefully coiffed persona he had seen in the Great Hall, she was wearing a comfortable looking outfit of soft blue pants and a tunic that belted across her middle. Her feet were bare and her hair was pulled back into a simple tail. Behind her, Fredric was dressed similarly, although his tunic gaped open at his chest.
"Fair morning." She smiled, lighting up that usually stern face. "I am so pleased to have you here. Sub Jensen, you are looking remarkably well."
Jensen gave her a little bow. "I have you and your city to thank for that, Mistress."
"Good. We have so many things to discuss."
Levi bounced his son on one hip. "And I'm afraid Alohn needs a diaper change. I will see you both again soon." He nodded at Jeff and Jensen, before walking past his mother, who kissed both Levi and the baby's cheeks before letting them leave.
"Let's partake of breakfast first. Conversation is always best over good food." She waved at the table. Fredric moved to make up a tray.
Jeff looked at Jensen who gave him a quick smile and a nod. Today he was perfectly capable of doing the duty of a sub and making them both a platter of food.
The queen settled in a large fluffy armchair and Jeff sat in the loveseat across from her. She watched Jensen work for a moment. "You haven't collared him."
"He wanted a Harmony collar."
"And a collaring ceremony." Jensen placed their platter on the table in front of Jeff and slid gracefully to his knees.
Jeff looked over the selection Jensen had chosen – he was particularly fond of the little puff pastries stuffed with greens and cheese. Jensen, however, liked what looked like tiny little pies filled with spicy alien flavors that gave Jeff heartburn. He picked up one of the latter and fed it to Jensen, watching as Jensen took the food from his fingers, licking them clean afterward.
Here on Harmony, it was customary for a Dom to feed his sub. It was part of his responsibility – a symbol of the care that was due in exchange for what was asked of subs. It reminded Jeff sharply of how he'd failed in his responsibilities.
"We'll arrange it as soon as possible. It will not do for him to go uncollared. Someone else might try to claim him."
"Never," Jeff all but snarled. No one would ever take Jensen from him.
The queen nodded and if Jeff wasn't mistaken, that was approval in her eyes. She plucked a piece of fruit from the platter Fredric had put together and began to peel it delicately. She fed her sub the juicy piece and smiled down at him. Then she turned her gaze back to Jensen and Jeff.
"We've been aware of your adventures, thanks to the connection to your news feeds. I was so pleased to learn you'd returned home. But then you disappeared, and we had no idea what had happened."
"I needed to recover from my injuries, mistress." Jensen's hands curled into fists in his lap. Jeff needed to ask him if they still hurt him, or if Harmony had healed those as well. "My brother, Jared, took care of me."
Jeff frowned. "I should have been there." He should have tried to move Heaven and Earth to get back to Jensen. Instead he'd let himself be swayed by his superiors, who'd thought Jensen had been killed by the Confed.
"You didn't know," Jensen said in a soft voice. He'd forgiven Jeff, but how did Jeff forgive himself?
He met the queen's eyes and she nodded slowly at him, as if she understood. Jeff used to be better at hiding his emotions. "We have a ritual," she began. "For a Dom to make amends for wronging a sub, if you are interested."
Jeff wasn't surprised. These people had a ceremony or a ritual for everything. He wondered if it would help. "I may take you up on that."
Jensen squeezed his calf, and Jeff wasn't sure if it was meant in reassurance or in warning. "We've much to tell you, mistress. My master told me you met my friends Tom and Sophia."
"You're asking for aid for them, as well."
"It's for Tom. Like me, he was tortured by the Confed. And then he lost his Dom. He's a masochist who can't stop causing himself pain. I hope your Soul Healers. . ."
She covered her mouth with her hand and nodded. "I will send a healer to them immediately."
Jeff squeezed Jensen's shoulder. "You have been very generous to us, mistress. I think it's only fair for us to be generous in return." He exchanged a quick glance with Jensen, who nodded. "Our military is very eager to obtain weapons technology. The new leader of the base has sent his people as our escort. We don't trust them."
"I've spoken with this Fuller. I was not impressed." The queen always was a shrewd judge of character. "Harmony will keep her secrets. I'm surprised you are not more eager for such technology."
"We don't trust them," Jensen burst out. "The Confed isn't the threat it once was. More powerful weapons would only be misused in the wrong hands."
And they would do everything in their power to prevent the military from sacrificing a person in order to use the technology. Both of them had witnessed firsthand how the UP chewed up and spat out its tools.
"It is important to find the right hands." The queen seemed to be speaking to herself. She shook her head. "Sub Jensen, I would ask a favor of you. Would you be willing to address the people of Harmony? Most are eager for a glimpse of you, and I believe a tele broadcast would quell some of the fervor surrounding your arrival."
Jensen looked up at Jeff. "Only if you want to, sweetheart."
"Then I would be honored, mistress."
"We thank you. I look forward to seeing you at dinner later."
If Jeff recalled correctly, it would be one of the formal dinners. He remembered last time how they'd had to perform for the queen and her court, part of Jeff's proving himself to be a worthy Dom. This time, he did not want to be the center of attention, not again. However, Jeff doubted that he and Jensen would ever be out of the spotlight completely.
Maggie had never been in the city during the Choosing before. She was amazed at the difference from the night Hank had taken the group of them out to see the sights and visit the clubs. There were many more people around, all celebrating the holiday in various ways. Any child she saw carried a little red cloth flag that they waved happily in her direction. Most of the buildings were decorated with similar flags and banners in different colors etched with unfamiliar symbols. She was sure a native would understand what they all meant.
Hank had been happy to show them around once again, meeting Maggie and the others as they stepped off the tram that brought them to the heart of the city. It was very convenient to have public transport that simply showed up right outside their window!
They walked as a group through the crowds, and received happy greetings and waves. Several buildings seemed to have different events going on, and more than one figure attempted to wave them inside. Whitfield seemed tempted by a woman in a long sarong, red collar and nothing else who beckoned at them from the archway of a tall stone building on the second level. He stopped in mid-stride and only moved on when Hank poked him in the shoulder.
It shouldn't seem odd to have Hank with them without the presence of Ian, but it did. Maggie had gotten used to the native Dom – he'd been a very good guide for them in the past. Hank had been here for almost two years, and seemed to be able to answer a lot of Dr. Johnson's questions. Johnson had a tablet in his hand and kept jotting down notes at they walked.
"Nice that your other half let you off the leash for today," Whitfield shot at Hank.
Hank winked. "He lets me out of my cage every so often."
"He keeps you in a cage?" Whitfield grimaced.
"Only if I ask him to." Hank grinned and Maggie couldn't tell if he were serious or not. She supposed that was the point.
They came to a moving stairway that led back to the main square. From here they could see the scores of subs standing on little raised platforms arranged around the fountain and throughout the square. Doms walked the maze in groups, moving from section to section. Some appeared to be taking notes, others engaged the subs in conversation, giving out little tokens.
Whitfield leaned over the railing. "It's a fucking meat market."
Maggie exchanged a quick glance with Chikezie. She hoped they wouldn't have to intervene again. Last time Whitfield had gotten annoyed when Hank's master had led him away on a leash to a dark alcove for some private time. Annoyed wasn't the right word, actually. Whitfield had been livid. He didn't seem to understand that Hank wanted to be here as Ian's sub. Maggie might not understand herself why Hank had made that choice, but she respected his decision.
"They're not there against their will, Whitfield. There are plenty of private negotiations going on, too. Some people get off on being displayed like that." Hank rolled his eyes. "You'd think you'd know about shit like that, man. You've been to Meridian."
Whitfield shrugged his shoulders. "It's one thing to be kinky for a night. But your whole life?"
"Man, it's okay if it's not your thing." Hank's voice had gotten lower, so low Maggie had to lean forward to hear the rest. "Just stop bitching at me for my choices."
At least Hank had finally said something. Maggie looked out at the city, pleased she wouldn't have to intervene again. She saw something hovering over the fountain – it moved like a tram, but it was a circular capsule, reminding her of a life pod. "Hank? What's that?"
He followed her pointing finger. "Ah, that's the bound sub. He'll make the rounds throughout the city, so everyone will get a chance to see him."
"Okay, you're going to have to explain what that means."
Hank looked over at Johnson. "You want to take this, doc? I bet you're itching to show off some of that studying you've been doing."
"You can correct me if I’m wrong." Johnson pushed a button on his tablet. "At the beginning of every Choosing, a sub is selected for the honor of being the bound sub. They are placed in suspended animation, I believe for the purpose of ultimate communion with Harmony."
"It's a symbol." Hank bit his lip. "Ian told me it's a reminder to hold all subs in esteem. Never mind how some people have forgotten that over the years."
He'd been working in the former Pasdar for the past two years. Maggie guessed he'd seen some of that firsthand.
There was a flash of light, and then various tele screens started to appear throughout the square. The crowd paused, looking up. All the screens reminded Maggie of some of the cities in the UP, where newsfeeds and advertising constantly lit up the skies. It must be nice to be able to turn it off every so often.
"Official broadcast," Hank murmured. Of course, that explained the sudden take over of the skies.
The first image to appear was that of the queen, who announced the sub Jensen would be addressing them all. The camera changed to show Jensen, who was speaking from what looked like a balcony. A few notes of music played before he opened his mouth to speak.
Hank jostled Whitfield with his elbow. "Do you think he's going to sing? Don't cry for me, Harmontina?"
Jensen took a deep breath and then began to speak. Maggie could hear him clearly – all sound in the square had ceased. "Thank you all for taking a moment to listen to me today. I've heard that most of you have seen the UP news feeds about what happened to me two years ago. I honestly wish you hadn't. I was a soldier and I was just doing my job. Sometimes the consequences of that job are terrible things.
"But it is thanks to your queen and this city that I am standing before you now, healed in a way I could not have been back home. I have been overwhelmed by your good wishes and support. You have no idea what that means to me.
"I am here in Harmony now – with my Dom, Jeff Morgan - to take on the duty of liaison between our people. Though we have come very far in understanding each other, there is much more to be learned on both sides. To that end I will be having a private collaring ceremony tomorrow, taking a Harmony collar for the first time.
"I ask now one more favor. Though we are here to represent the UP, remember we are just people, just a Dom and sub, like you. Thank you."
The screen flickered and fluttered closed. Hank turned back. "Not bad. Think he got himself several hundred more fans with that one."
Maggie ignored him and Whitfield's answering rejoinder. This tech had healed him. Her hands itched to get back to studying it. There was so much more work that needed to be done.
"Will you take us down to the square?" Johnson asked Hank.
"Karl. Are you sure?" For once Hank seemed serious. Maggie remembered that Karl had grown up as a slave in the Confed before being liberated. His history had started the whole clash with Harmony in the first place.
Johnson smiled. "As Major Ackles said, I'm willing to admit when I have more to learn."
"In that case, I'm going to head back to the palace," Maggie interjected. "There are scans I need to run."
"And walls to take apart?" Hank grinned at her. "Don't work too hard, Gyllenhaal."
"I think I can find a balance." She returned his grin.
Sophia woke to find Tom staring out the window, sunlight pouring in so bright that she had no idea how she'd overslept. He must have been up for a while; he was no longer in the loose drawstring pajamas he'd donned last night. She opened her mouth to say good morning and that was when she noticed the splash of crimson around his wrists. "Oh, Tom." Sophia threw off the covers and went to him, taking his hands in hers. Luckily it only looked like he'd scratched the skin raw. Her first aid kit should be enough to handle this.
"Sit down and let me clean these."
He didn't resist, just let her push him into the nearest chair. Sophia went to dig the kit out of her pack. She should have sedated him last night, but she hadn't expected him to wake before she had. After the excitement of yesterday and being taken on a tour of the palace and its grounds, Sophia had been tired. She'd thought Tom had been as well.
"I'm sorry." He watched as she cleaned the wounds with alcohol wipes. Tom liked those because they stung. It was one of the small things she could do for him.
She didn't answer him, just dug in the kit for the bandages and antibiotic cream. "We have to bandage those. It's been too soon since we last used the skin sealer." The night before last, in fact. She'd have to be extra vigilant with these wounds. Tom tended to reopen the cuts on his wrists; sometimes it looked like he didn't know he was doing it, just digging his own nails into the abraded skin.
Sophia smoothed the waterproof synthetic sealant over the cloth bandages. That would take him a while to get through. "What do you want to do today? We can see if Jensen is around or maybe get a tour of the city if he's still busy."
She hoped they were able to heal Jensen. If they could do that, then these people could do anything. Possibly even heal Tom. Sophia looked over to the decorated box on the end table. The young sub had sent the collar up last night, but she hadn't done more than look inside. It was dark blue – the color they used in Harmony for a limited period of time. Sophia could bind Tom to her for a matter of weeks or years.
It was for his safety. With those big blue eyes he was prime meat here, especially with his desperate need for pain.
Tom shrugged. "I can stay here and look out the window."
"You know you won't just look." Sophia's tone was harsher than she'd meant it to be. Damn it, she lacked patience. She should know better, unlike those interns at the hospital where Tom had spent the past year. "Come on, let's eat some breakfast." She checked her chrono. "Brunch, then."
It was while she was figuring out their food system – a strange device tucked into the corner of the room – that the broadcast from Jensen came through their tele. She'd gotten a crash course in it yesterday, but it still startled Sophia when the screen just appeared. Tom didn't seem surprised at all, but then again, his eyes barely seemed to notice what was right in front of them.
"Have something to eat." She'd eventually gotten something out of the machine – it looked like a sandwich, but Sophia didn't recognize the spread between the warm bread. She took a bit herself, and found it tasty enough. "You need to keep up your strength." Especially if Tom insisted on bleeding all over the place.
As soon as the thought crossed her mind, Sophia felt guilt sour her belly. She was the one who'd dragged Tom all the way across the galaxy. It wasn't his fault that he couldn't control himself. She was just so damned tired and sick of not being able to do anything to help.
But Tom was her responsibility. And they would help him here. Sophia just had to do her part. She walked over to the decorated box and tugged off the lid. The blue collar looked so innocent, sitting there on fluffy cotton stuffing. Sophia lifted it, surprised to find the leather so soft and supple between her fingers. There wasn't a clasp, but from Jensen's reports, she knew not to expect one.
"Tom?" She had to clear her throat before she could continue. "Did you still want? I mean." Sophia took a deep breath and began again. "Will you accept my collar for as long as we are here?"
Tom gave her a brilliant smile, looking like himself for just a moment. "Of course, Soph."
It went so easily around his neck, as if it had been made for him. Sophia touched the two ends together and they sealed perfectly, not even leaving a seam behind. She slipped her finger between the leather and skin, making sure it wasn't too snug. It was perfect. When she stepped back, Sophia thought it suited him.
It wasn't long after that before the door chime sounded. She exchanged glances with Tom, who looked just as puzzled. For a minute she thought it might be Jensen coming to visit – although she was sure if he was giving speeches for the queen that he would be much too busy.
Sophia put her palm on the sensor to open the door. Two strangers waited in the hallway. They were both dressed in pale blue robes, although the man wore a black collar around his neck.
"Just Sophia, please." That wasn't a name she was ready to answer to just yet.
The woman smiled. She had very dark eyes lined in black and gray. "I am Soul Healer Gina and this is my sub Timothy. We were sent by the queen on behalf of sub Jensen."
Damn it, Jen, you work fast. "Please, come in." Sophia could feel her heart race. So it would begin.
Tom stood, kicking the chair behind him. "Tom, this is Soul Healer Gina and sub Timothy." Sophia hoped she got the naming convention right. That was so important when integrating with a new society. It had been years since she was out in the field and it was all coming back to her, if a bit slowly.
"It's good to meet you, sub Tom." Timothy moved to Tom's side. "You can just call me Tim, if you prefer. We match you see – Tom and Tim."
"Nice to meet you, too." Tom's hand went to his forearm and he began to scratch.
"Tom," Sophia warned before she could catch herself. He snatched his hand away and looked down.
Tim exchanged a look with his mistress. Sophia guessed they passed a thousand words along with a single glance. "We've come to help you. Do you still wish healing, sub Tom?"
Tom looked up with eyes blazing. "I do."
“Excellent.” Gina took over. “With your permission, Tim will take Tom to the Healers for a check up, then show him our offices on the lavender level. They are quite nice, actually. There’s even a pool in the garden.”
“Of course.” Anything to help Tom.
Tom seemed eager to go, letting Tim lead him from the room. Sophia bit her lip. She couldn't shake the anxiety having Tom out of her sight caused. Oh, please, let this work.
"Now, would you prefer to speak here or come down to our offices?"
Sophia blinked over at Gina, who was still standing in their sitting room. "Excuse me?"
"Darling, Tim was here for Tom, but I'm here for you."
Jensen had dressed for dinner, wearing one of the leather kilts that hung just to the tops of his knees and a pair of sandals that wrapped around his calves.
"Are you sure you don't want to wear a shirt? I know you don't like your scars." Jeff offered a simple white shirt from the wardrobe. It appeared to hold all of the clothing that had been ordered for them two years ago.
It was different now that Jensen could see them. He didn't fear that his appearance was grotesque – he knew exactly how ugly the scars were and now they held no power over him. He couldn't exactly explain this to Jeff. "I'm fine. Let's go, I don't want to be the last arriving."
"You're saying you want a good seat?"
Jensen laughed. "Of course." The formal dinners always included a performance from one of the queen's court. If he remembered correctly, the first pair to perform would be Duchess Claudia and her sub Misha. It would be so good to see Misha again.
Apparently the feeling was mutual, for when they arrived in the Great Hall a blurred figure came out of the shadows. Jensen didn't have time to do more than blink before hands grasped his shoulders and he was being kissed soundly.
Jensen wiped at his mouth as Misha pulled away and dropped to his knees. He laughed. It reminded him of Jared and his giant dogs who always wanted to tackle Jensen and give him kisses.
"My apologies, mistress."
Duchess Claudia came up and tapped him on the back of the head. "You know better than that."
"I see someone hasn't gotten over his need for punishment." Jeff held out his arms and embraced her.
She laughed. "He wouldn't be my Misha if he had." Claudia pulled away and looked over at Jensen. "We are both so glad you've come back home."
Jensen could feel his cheeks heating at her words. This place had seemed like home at the time. He didn't have to hide his submissive nature and his true relationship with Jeff. It was the only place in the galaxy where being a Dom and sub meant more than just having kinky sex on the side.
"I'm glad to be back." Jensen smiled at them both.
She gestured and Misha stood. He wore a simple aqua robe that belted at his waist and obviously nothing underneath. Jensen guessed it was for the performance for tonight. Claudia had clothed herself in black leather from head to toe with a belt that matched Misha's robe. Jensen didn't see any unusual toys hanging from her waist, but with Claudia, you never knew what she was up to. The duchess could be quite inventive.
"We're performing tonight. Michelle was kind to invite you."
These dinners were usually limited to the royal court – until the sixth night when the doors to the palace were thrown open and an orgy like atmosphere emerged.
"I'm going to be riding the fucking machine throughout dinner." Misha all but vibrated with excitement.
Jensen grinned. "Slut."
Misha bowed at the compliment. "Naturally." Before he'd taken the black collar, which meant he'd signed a long-term contract with his mistress, he'd worn the red. Red bands on Harmony had a bit of a reputation and Misha had been a celebrity. Jensen wondered if he was still famous now that he'd settled down.
"We will talk afterwards." Claudia grasped Jeff's wrist and squeezed. "And possibly scene again? Our boys do look so good together."
Jeff smiled. "I'll see what I can do. Our schedule seems to be rather booked at the moment."
"We can be patient." Claudia sighed. "Well, I can be. Enjoy the dinner, we must prepare." She slapped Misha's shoulder and led him away, towards the tables set up in the center of the room.
Instead of a large round table, there was a series of smaller ones, set low, around plush little divans that formed a circle. Inside that circle Jensen saw the equipment Claudia had set up before dinner. It certainly didn't look like any fucking machine he was familiar with – it was too sleek with all the moving parts tucked away. But the padded bench and restraints were more than familiar.
"Dom Jeff!" A happy female voice had them both turning to see the princess enter with two men following just behind her. A dark blue gown hugged her frame, though the curls that hung around her shoulders dampened the severe look of the color on her. "Sub Jensen!"
Jeff gave her a little bow. "Princess, or I suppose I should say 'Duchess' instead?"
She frowned. "Just Alona, please." There was something in her eyes Jensen couldn't quite decipher. Jeff had spent more time with her their last time here and would know her better. Alona straightened and attempted a smile. "I have a new sub since your last visit. This is sub Dylan. And you remember sub Dourdan?"
Both men were wearing matching black leather kilts, although they didn't resemble each other at all. Dourdan had darker skin and very pale eyes, while Dylan had dark blue eyes that reflected light like deep pools of water. Jensen smiled and nodded at them, while wondering how Alona had acquired a second. Of course, as a duchess, she was entitled and expected to have many subs.
"Come sit with us." Alona led the way to the tables and sat on one of the divans, careful with her long skirt. Her subs fell to their knees on either side of the small lavender couch. She gestured to the one next to her and Jeff sat. Jensen knelt to his right.
The floor gave a little, providing cushioning for his knees. Jensen appreciated the small comfort. This city cared for its subs, and modified the very environment to keep them from discomfort or bad pain.
"We won't begin until Mother arrives. It should only be slightly awkward tonight." Alona bit her lip. She still seemed so young to have so much responsibility.
"I've heard you've been busy." Jeff gave her a nod.
"I led a delegation into Pasdar to heal the damage Adrian had done. It was more insidious than I had expected." She reached out, almost as if unaware she was doing it, and started to card her hand through Dylan's hair, like he was an overgrown pet. The sub closed his eyes and leaned in her direction. "We had several subs ask for amnesty and leave Harmony for your UP."
Jensen met Jeff's started gaze and shook his head. He hadn't heard of this either. "Mistress," he leaned forward. "May I ask where the subs went?"
"As far as I know they are still living at the base. I wanted to check up on them, actually. I was hoping you could facilitate that, as our liaison."
"I will do my best."
While they were speaking the other members of the court filtered in – Duke Leonard with his young sub Alicia and Duchess Rachel with sub Amanda. Neither of them looked in Alona's direction, although they both gave greetings to Jensen and Jeff before sitting on the other side of the room.
That boded trouble. Alona's change of status obviously wasn't popular with the other two very powerful nobles. Jensen made a mental to note to keep an eye on the situation. This was something they couldn't afford to forget in their roles here. Harmony wasn't always unified.
Shortly afterward the queen made her entrance, gliding down the staircase as the notes of fanfare announced her presence. Her outfit wasn't completely outrageous tonight – she was clad in snow white – a gown that clung to her figure and was cut low, with silver accents around her bodice. "Tonight we have a special treat. Duchess Claudia will start the entertainment from the beginning. Claudia?
"Thank you, mistress. Tonight Misha will be showing off his endurance during the dinner. I will take wagers on how many times he comes by the end of the night." She winked at the room.
The mood shifted as laughter filled the empty spaces. Jensen relaxed a bit, less worried that they'd openly challenge Alona now.
"Misha, strip and get into place." Claudia's words were sharp.
Misha slipped out of his robe. He was completely nude as he moved to straddle the bench in the center of the tables. As he moved into position Claudia followed to snap restraints around his wrists and ankles to keep him in place. His legs were spread obscenely wide and when she tilted the bench forward just a tad, it gave them all a view of his exposed ass. Jensen could see it glistening and knew they had prepared him well for this.
Claudia moved the fake phallus into place. Jensen wondered if it were rubber or leather, or if it felt like a real cock would feel. He squirmed slightly. It had been so long since he'd had any sort of visual stimulation.
Misha let out a moan as she penetrated him with the dildo. As if it had been a signal, Claudia picked up a ball gag and fit it over his mouth. She patted his head gently and gazed into his eyes for a moment. Misha gave her a nod and then Claudia turned the machine on.
It began with a slow rocking motion, pushing the dildo in and out at a pace that was hardly enough to tease, never mind satisfy a sub such as Misha. Claudia held up a little remote and the machine picked up speed. "We'll change it as the dinner progresses."
She settled into her own divan and another sub appeared beside her. Jensen guessed this one would serve her while Misha was otherwise occupied.
"Thank you." The queen took her own seat and clapped her hands. "You may now begin serving."
Jensen moved to his feet, knowing he was expected to take care of Jeff and the other Doms in the room. It felt good to be able to do this again. He'd been able to maintain a measure of his independence, even while blind, but Jensen could never have served Jeff as he deserved. A good Dom needed to be treated as such.
The food was already arranged on trays in the kitchen. All Jensen had to do was follow the other subs. They moved quickly, not taking the time for conversation like he remembered happening in the kitchens. Jensen held back and watched, nodding to himself as he saw Leonard and Rachel's subs keeping away from Dylan and Dourdan. There was definitely discord here.
When Jensen returned, he could hear Misha panting around the gag before he could see him. Jensen tried to keep his eyes lowered as he did his part serving, but it was hard. He wanted to watch Misha, to take note of every moment, every groan, every thrust of the machine into his willing body.
By the time Jensen took his place at Jeff's side, his cock was thickening. It had been years since he'd ridden a fucking machine. Maybe he could persuade Jeff to play with one. But no, Jeff was the one in charge now. Jensen felt a flutter in his chest. Jeff would decide from now on what he would do to Jensen.
Stars, he hoped Jeff would start tonight!
Jeff could hardly wait for the dinner to end. Claudia would up the speed on Misha's machine, and then abruptly lower it again, leaving the sub to sag, unsatisfied, in his restraints. Finally, towards the end, she pushed the dial to its fastest speed yet and added a vibration feature, which left Misha screaming behind his gag.
If he hadn't been hard before then, that would have done it. Jeff kept shifting in his seat, trying to adjust himself without looking too obvious. Jensen was so close that he could smell him – and the arousal that Jensen couldn't hide beneath his kilt. Would this night ever end?
After Misha came for the fourth time, the queen wished everyone a good night. Jeff bounced up on his feet as soon as it was appropriate and led the way out of there. It wasn't till they were on the lift that Jensen started to chuckle. "You don't think everyone noticed?"
Jeff backed Jensen up against the wall of the elevator, delighting in the way his eyes dilated and his breath started to speed up. Jensen's cheeks were pink and his lips parted, just perfect for kissing. Jeff didn't hold back, just took Jensen's mouth, biting on his lower lip until his sub moaned.
"Jensen, tell me this is all right?" Jeff couldn't stop himself from asking. He needed to be sure. Jensen had been through so much.
"The whole time I kept thinking I wanted you to do that to me," Jensen gasped against Jeff's lips. "Put me on that machine and let me ride it till I was sore."
If Jensen wasn't careful, he was going to get fucked against the lift wall. Jeff reined in his lust. No, he was going to do this right and proper – with a cock ring, some lube and a pair of handcuffs, like he'd been itching to do since they made it back to Harmony.
"Don't tempt me," Jeff rasped against Jensen's jaw. He smelled so damn good – all musk and spice. It went straight to Jeff's dick.
Luckily the lift doors opened before he could lose himself completely. Jeff grasped Jensen's arm and manhandled him to their door. The walk seemed to take forever, even though it was only a few steps away.
Mila barked a greeting as they came in. Jeff felt a pang – they'd left her alone all day. Tomorrow they would have to do better. Right now nothing was going to stand in Jeff's way. "Good girl. Go to your bed."
She looked at him for a moment before turning up her nose at him as she walked away. Jensen laughed. "I swear she's part cat."
"You." Jeff dug his fingers in Jensen's hair, forcing his head back. The dog had cooled the mood a little, but he wasn't going to back down. "Strip and get on the bed. I've got plans for you."
Jensen shivered. He stepped away and gave Jeff a smile. The kilt fell away from his hips with nothing more than a flick of a finger. The sandals took a little longer to undo, and for a moment Jeff contemplated telling him to leave them on. He liked the way the leather crisscrossed over Jensen's pale skin.
But an even better sight was that of Jensen completely nude. He'd filled out, putting on that weight he'd lost during captivity. All the riding on Earth had given him strong, taut thigh muscles. Jeff knew from having those thighs wrapped around him.
Jensen walked backwards, keeping his gaze on Jeff as he backed up onto the bed. He slid one hand down along his chest and cupped his own cock. Fucking tease.
Jeff stripped off his own shirt as he moved across the room. He toed off his boots and crawled up the bed. There was no way he was going to let Jensen get started on his own. "Hands above your head."
Jensen swallowed, his throat working as he obeyed. Jeff grasped Jensen's wrists in each hand, pressing down on the sensitive flesh. He touched them to the headboard and gave the mental order for restraints. Cuffs formed from the metal and encircled Jensen's wrists, keeping him bound tight.
"Mine." Jeff mouthed the word against Jensen's neck and down his abdomen. He ran his tongue around a perfect pink nipple. The bud tightened and Jeff couldn't help biting it.
Jensen cried out and arched into Jeff's mouth. He'd bitten his lip and stared at Jeff with wide eyes.
Fuck, just the fact that Jensen was staring at him – could even look at him, just ramped up the entire situation. Jeff wanted this to be good, so good. He reached up and tweaked Jensen's other nipple, loving how Jensen struggled to keep his eyes open as Jeff did it. Jensen's entire body writhed and he pulled against his bonds.
"This okay?" Jeff murmured. He had to check one more time.
"I'll tell you to stop if I don't like something."
He had to trust that Jensen would, that he wouldn't let Jeff go too far just because Jeff wanted to. This had to go both ways. Jeff cupped Jensen's jaw in one hand. "Good boy."
Then he pulled the cock ring out of the drawer. Jeff had plans.
"Spread your legs. More."
Jensen shifted down a bit as he obeyed, spreading his thighs wide. Jeff could see him straining to do it. He slid his hands up each leg, feeling the tension in Jensen's muscles. Jensen's cock was nestled against his belly, reaching upward with a bit of fluid already leaking. Jeff couldn't help but bend down and grab a taste.
"Oh." Jensen let out, like it had surprised him.
Jeff snapped the ring around the base of Jensen's cock. He watched that pretty thing get red and swollen as Jeff stroked it from crown to root. Jensen rocked his hips upward, unable to move much more.
His open mouth looked too inviting. Jeff thrust two of his fingers past Jensen's lips and told him to suck. Jensen narrowed his eyes and obeyed, sucking Jeff's fingers like they were a cock, and getting them nice and wet for Jeff. Jensen was such a very good boy.
Jeff pulled free with a pop and Jensen attempted to chase his treat. He chuckled. "Not yet." No, now it was time to give Jensen's other hole some attention. Jeff reached between Jensen's legs and sought out the tight little thing. He circled the soft skin before pressing inside.
Jensen opened for him, as if he'd been made for this, a hungry slut with Jeff's hand between his legs. Jeff had to cup his own erection through the fabric of his pants. It almost hurt, waiting to get inside Jensen. But one thing he wasn't willing to do was hurt him – unless Jensen asked for that.
"You like this, don't you?" Jeff leaned in close as he twisted his fingers. "You like being tied down and fucked. You just sit there and take it, take whatever I give you."
"Fuck, please." Jensen gasped out. Sweat pooled on his skin and Jeff lapped it up from the hollow of Jensen's neck. He relished the salty taste, the flavor of Jensen's skin. "Please."
"What are you begging for? We've got all night." Jeff didn't mean it, of course, but Jensen didn't know that. He unsnapped his own pants, then grabbed a palm full of lube from the dispenser on the wall – he had to admit, Harmony made things so simple sometimes. Jeff slicked himself up before pulling out of Jensen's tight hot little hole.
"You're gonna take it now, boy." Jeff couldn't hold back any more. He lifted Jensen by his buttocks and split Jen over his cock. It didn't go in easy at first; Jeff had to work at it, with slow rolling motions of his hips to get inside where he belonged.
Jensen whimpered, but his cock stayed hard against his belly, so Jeff wasn't worried yet. Plus, Jensen had promised, and Jeff trusted him. His sub could take this. So Jeff gave in and let himself go. He was far too gone to wait with Jensen bound and pliant beneath him, smelling of sweat and sex, surrounding him in nothing but heat.
"Almost there," he growled, leaning in to bite at Jensen's chin, down his jaw and then latched on to the place where his neck met shoulder. Jeff sucked a bruise into being as he let go, filling Jensen up with his hot come.
Jeff didn't pull away, not at first. He reached out and grasped for the plug he knew would be in arms reach. Just as he pulled his softening cock out, he replaced it with the hard rubber plug – it was long and wide, just perfect for keeping Jensen open and ready.
"Not gonna let you come tonight. Gonna fuck you again in a little bit, and then in the morning. And then after we have our collaring ceremony, I'll let you come. You'll have to kneel through it all wet with me inside you."
"Stars, Jeff!" Jensen tugged at his bonds. "Let me touch you, please."
Jeff chuckled and undid the restraints. He gathered the warm and ruffled Jensen in his arms, already on the edge of sleep himself. They still had to clean up a bit though – he wouldn't fall asleep without making sure Jensen was okay.
Jensen ran his fingers up and down Jeff's back, snuggling close. When he humped his still hard cock against Jeff's thigh, Jeff laughed and flicked his nose. "Not yet."
"You. . ."
His words were interrupted by the chiming of the comm. "Damn it." Jeff muttered. "You go get cleaned up, I'll get it." Jeff rolled out of bed and refastened his open pants. He grabbed a shirt from somewhere, not bothering to do it up as he picked up his unit and answered it.
"Ah, Mr. Morgan. You haven't reported in yet."
Jeff was glad he had left the video portion off. He made a face at the comm at the sound of Fuller's voice. "I believe we hadn't set a schedule."
"I did ask for frequent reports."
"Perhaps next time you might wish to specify the frequency." Jeff wiped at his face. Fuller's voice was like a splash of cold water, washing away the warm glow he'd had from fucking Jensen.
"Don't play semantics, Morgan. You've been there for two days now; surely you have something of substance to say."
"I'll have a preliminary report for you tomorrow morning." Jeff's finger hovered over the disconnect button.
"I'll be expecting it."
Jeff tossed the comm, not caring where it fell. He dropped onto the bed and clasped his hands between his knees.
"I think we've agreed we're not going to tell him about my communing with Harmony?"
He looked up as Jensen approached, wearing a soft looking robe and carrying two mugs. Jensen handed Jeff one of the cups and knelt at his feet.
Jeff opened his mouth to tell Jensen to get off his knees, but shut it. Here they were Dom and sub, and Jensen was only serving as he saw fit. He combed his fingers through Jensen's damp hair. "Don't worry, sweetheart, I'm good at bullshitting reports."
"Of course. How else did you make Commander?" Jensen chuckled as Jeff's caress turned into a gentle smack. "He can't touch us, Jeff. No matter what he thinks."
Jeff hoped Jensen was right.
There was a lot on their to-do list, but Jensen had agreed with Jeff that they should talk to Brown and his staff. He needed to make time to talk to Sophia and Tom too, but that might have to wait until after the collaring ceremony. Jensen had shot them an invite to the reception over the tele, along with an extra message to Sophia's comm code in case they hadn't figured out the tele just yet.
He admitted he might be a little impatient to get the ceremony over with. The plug filled him, but not quite enough, and his cock ached. Luckily the long tunic he wore allowed him to cover the evidence of his arousal. Otherwise he didn't think he could look Brown and the others in the eye without blushing.
"Commander. . .I mean, sir," Chikezie looked flustered for a moment when she opened the door to them. It hadn't been that long ago that Jeff had been her commanding officer on the Reclamation Project. Jensen could understand the confusion involved with Jeff suddenly being a civilian.
"Jeff is fine, Caroline." Jeff grinned at her. "Are all of you hard at work already?"
They stepped into the room to find Dr. Johnson at a table with stacks of slates and Maggie on her knees surrounded by the guts of some machinery. There were wires everywhere, and flat panels that didn't seem connected to anything. Whitfield seemed to be assisting her, although he was staring at a circuit board like he didn't know where it went.
Brown came over to greet them, stopping to pat Mila. Her tail thumped the ground hard, although she didn't move from Jensen's side. Jensen had sworn to keep her with them all day, no matter what. It wasn't right to keep her cooped up inside.
"We're continuing the projects we'd started before." Brown nodded over at Maggie and Johnson. "Though Fuller's men are still wandering the palace."
"Looking for the control room?" Jeff shook his head. "Fuller wants a report from me. What are you telling him?"
"I give him an exact accounting of my day, hour by hour." Brown grinned. "And since my duty here is making sure my staff is safe, it makes for pretty boring reading."
"We can't put him off forever." Jensen tugged at the neck of his shirt. It felt wrong to be here without a collar. It was unsettling and he couldn't wait for the ceremony. He was already overheated and impatient enough. Damn Jeff for putting him in this situation, although Jensen had to admit, it was certainly creative. Jeff had learned much.
"Have you told him about your healing?" Chikezie asked. "We saw it on the vid."
Jensen exchanged a quick look with Jeff. "Not yet. But I'm sure he'll want details, and I don't want to tell him what she said."
"She?" Maggie stood from her pile of tech and brushed off her hands. "You mean the city."
"It's not the first time I've interfaced with her." Jensen ducked his head. He knew Maggie would want to know more about it.
"Speaking to her is something completely different." Maggie gestured. "Was it verbal communication? How did you perceive it?"
Jeff held up his hands. "First things first. You'll have plenty of time to quiz Jensen later. I'd like Caroline to check him over with one of our medical scanners. We've got some questions about the healing."
Oh, good. Jensen wanted to get the scanning over with as quickly as possible. He'd be happy to talk about everything with Maggie, just, not right now.
"Of course." Caroline went off to one of the stacks of crates along the wall and started digging through for a scanner. Jensen felt his heart race at the thought that she might be able to pick up on his low simmering arousal. He forced himself to breathe deep and tried to draft his report to Fuller instead of thinking about the plug pressed in deep between his cheeks.
"I'm going to have the queen assign one of Harmony's techs to you. Even if I don't like Fuller, I still think understanding their technology is important." Jeff ran his hand through his hair. Jensen wanted to smooth it back down, but curled his hands into fists instead.
"Have a seat, Jensen." Caroline pulled out one of the chairs from the table. "This will only take a moment."
He obeyed, closing his eyes as she ran the scanner over his face. The light of the device gave off a slight warmth as she worked. Jensen could hear the hum change in tone. He'd gotten used to his other senses during his medical exams and it was strange comfort to know that now he could just open his eyes and look at Caroline.
"We'll have more time to meet with you after the ceremony." He could hear Jeff saying to Brown. "Although you're all invited to the reception afterward. There will be plenty of food."
"As long as nobody'll be naked," Whitfield muttered.
Jensen laughed. "Can't make any promises about that." Casual nudity wasn't a problem in Harmony in the right setting.
"I'm done, Jensen," Caroline said in a low voice.
Jensen blinked open his eyes. He sought out Jeff's face and smiled. The ceremony would be just for them, and he was planning on enjoying every moment of it. He'd worry about all of this later.
"Hmm." Caroline had picked up a tablet and began pushing buttons.
"That doesn't sound good."
Caroline shook her head. "I'll need more time to analyze it and I may have to send the results up to the Mercury so a real doctor can look at it."
Jeff grinned. "I trust your judgment, Lieutenant. We'll see you later."
Jensen followed Jeff out, with Mila at his ankles. Finally, now that was over with he could enjoy the anticipation of their ceremony and exactly what Jeff would do to him afterward. He felt the flush of heat rise in his cheek again.
"I'll meet you at the chapel?" Jeff turned as the door closed behind them and cupped Jensen's face between his hands. He kissed the tip of Jensen's nose before taking his mouth.
Jensen hummed. Luckily there weren't any rules about seeing the sub before the ceremony being bad luck. Still, he needed to change and get ready. "Yes. I can't wait."
"Then you'd better go off and get ready!"
Jensen leaned in for one more kiss before trotting down the hallway. Soon, now.
Jeff couldn't help but think of the first time he got married. They didn't call it that here, and he'd found most people in Harmony couldn't quite wrap their heads around marriage as it was understood in the UP. When he'd asked Katie, so many years ago now, they'd been wrapped up in the covers of her bed in the tiny apartment above one of the stores in downtown on Georgia. His marching orders had come through, and he wasn't about to leave her when he left her planet behind.
He'd brought her to meet his family first, and for a moment the memories blended together. Jeff saw Katie setting the table in his parents' dining room, and then he saw Jensen doing the same thing by touch, robbed of his vision by the same people who had taken Katie away from Jeff. Katie's time in his life had been like the burst of a mortar shell – so brief, but explosive, searing her presence in his mind's eye forever.
But Jensen, Jensen was a slow burn, the kind that smoldered until it was far too late to do anything about it at all. They were alike, in some ways. Both Katie and Jensen fit Jeff, though so differently. He would never have called Katie submissive, but he'd never call Jensen weak.
This was ridiculous, it wasn't a matter of either/or. Katie was dead. Jeff would always treasure their time together, would never destroy the wedding pictures he still took out every now and then. But Jensen was the one in his life right now.
Now that he thought about it – Jeff realized he did want to marry Jensen. He should have thought of it before they got on that ship and made it legal in front of the UP, their families and everyone. Jeff hadn't exactly been a good husband to Katie, but maybe he could be a better Dom. It was closer to being a commanding officer, and that Jeff damn well knew he could do.
The collar meant a lot to Jensen. It meant just as much as that ring Jeff had placed on Katie's finger all those years ago. He'd try to be worthy of it – to be a better man than he'd had in the past.
The idea of that responsibility weighed heavily on him as he walked to the stylized golden doors of the chapel. The metal converged in a wave pattern that spun out in a spiral as it opened at his approach. Inside the room nearly matched the pattern on the door, being circular, not square as Jeff expected. Rows of seats circled the round platform in the very center of the room and colored glass windows let in a rainbow of light.
Sub Fredric waited on the platform in the center, surrounded by dozens of lit candles in golden stands. The stage was covered in red carpet, with a table in the center blanketed by a white cloth and a small box on top.
"Welcome, Jeff Morgan of the United Planets in the stars." Fredric nodded at him. "Is it your intention to offer a collar on this day?"
Jeff swallowed. "It is."
"Then stand and wait for your sub."
Jeff moved into the place Fredric had indicated, just to the man's right. He'd read up on collaring ceremonies last night – everything Johnson had compiled in the reports database. There were so many different varieties, each more complex than the one before. He'd asked for the simple version, not wanting to get tripped up in the intricacies of what he didn't understand.
The spiral door opened again, this time to reveal Jensen. Light spilled over his body, as if intended – by the city herself, perhaps, Jeff didn't know. All he knew was that Jensen looked breathtaking. He wore nothing but a short kilt made of strips of white leather, even his feet were bare. His chest gleamed with a matching silver shimmer. Jeff wondered how far the shimmer powder went. Would he find it when he lifted up a strip of leather?
"Welcome Jensen Ackles, the green-eyed sub of the United Planets of the stars."
Jensen winced a little at that greeting, and Jeff couldn't help smiling. In his mind, Jensen should be acknowledged as someone special - beautiful and brilliant and alive. He was glad they felt that way here too.
"Is it your intention to take a collar this day?"
"It is." Jensen had to clear his throat to get the words out. He made eye contact with Jeff, and his eyes all but glowed in the chapel's odd light.
"Then kneel before your Dom." Fredric gestured to the spot on the stage.
Jensen took a few more steps before he dropped to his knees and crawled the last few feet up the stage, until he was kneeling in front of Jeff. He kept his head tilted up, as if he could not bear to look away from Jeff's face.
"The Choosing is a time of new beginnings – of contracts and collars – of coming together. This ceremony is especially blessed today. There is no one in Harmony who does not wish you well."
Jeff figured there were probably a few who didn't feel quite that way, but he appreciated the sentiment. He smiled at Jensen, who offered up one of his rare gems up in return. Jeff couldn't wait to touch those lips, to suck them plump and red, after Jensen was given to him.
Fredric picked up the box on the small table and gave it to Jeff. He then directed Jensen to put his hands on the top and bottom, so they were both holding on to it. "Harmony gives a collar to match the hearts wishing for one. Do you, Jeff, swear to uphold all the responsibilities of a Dom – to care for your sub, to direct him where he needs direction, to punish him when he is wrong – for as long as the collar shall last?"
"I do." And in sickness and health, he thought, remembering those vows he'd made once long ago. May he keep these better.
"And will you, Jensen, swear to uphold all the responsibilities of a sub – to care for your Dom, to take direction when you need it, and to accept his loving punishment for as long as the collar shall last?"
"I will." Jensen's throat worked as he swallowed. His cheeks were flushed and Jeff didn't know if that was from emotion or from being aroused at the plug still inside him. Perhaps it was both.
"Open the box and see what collar Harmony has given you."
Jensen pulled the top off and Jeff gasped. Nestled within snowy white cotton was a black leather collar. On Harmony, where the color of the collar indicated the length of a contract, black signified a twenty year contract. It was the level just under a golden lifetime collar, like the one Fredric wore. Last time Jensen had worn black, true, but that was before either of them understood what the color meant.
"Jen?" Jeff asked. He wouldn't do it, not if Jensen didn't want it.
Jensen looked up at him with watery eyes. "Yes, Jeff, yes."
Fredric stepped back and Jeff forgot he was there. He lifted the collar out of the box and left the box in Jensen's hands. Jeff didn't realize he was shaking until he saw the collar vibrate between his fingers. He took a deep breath. They both needed to be calm.
The collar fit Jensen's neck perfectly. Jeff wrapped it carefully around Jensen's smooth skin, bringing the ends together and watching as they sealed without leaving a seam. Jensen was his and no one would ever deny that again, at least on Harmony.
"Feel free to make use of the room. There is no one scheduled after you. I will see you at the reception." Fredric said in a low voice, then disappeared out a side door that Jeff hadn't noticed before.
"Mine," Jeff rumbled, tugging on the leather. It looked right, like it belonged, like Jensen had been missing something before.
"Yours," Jensen agreed. He smirked. "Are you going to fuck me or what, old man?"
"Trying to get punished already?" Jeff teased. They hadn't been this free with each other in so long. There had been so many shadows between them, and it felt like now he could breathe.
In response, Jensen stood and undid the clasp on his kilt, letting it fall to the floor. His cock was full and flush between his legs. The shimmer powder did go everywhere, making Jensen gleam from toe to neck. "How do you want me?"
Jeff wanted to tell him everywhere and anywhere. His own erection took him by surprise, filling so fast he felt like all the blood had rushed out of his brain to do it. "Over the table, spread your legs."
Maybe that had been the whole point of the table in the first place. As Jensen moved into position Jeff realized the thing was padded and just the right height. Stars, he loved this place.
He'd missed this Jensen – this confident, self-assured man who understood what he wanted and wasn't afraid to ask for it. They'd taken that from Jensen in the Confed, and while Jeff didn't think Jensen would ever be completely himself, they were moving down that road, each mile another bit closer to finding himself again.
Jeff trailed his hands down Jensen's back, over the scars that crisscrossed his skin, made only more beautiful by the shimmer. He followed his fingers with his mouth, using lips and tongue to worship every inch of his sub's body.
Jensen had gripped the end of the table, his fingers curling over the edge. He'd closed his eyes and Jeff wanted to run his fingers over the fragile looking lids, to worship each lash that fluttered as Jensen writhed beneath Jeff's touch. "Please."
"You've been so good." And Jensen had. Jeff had taken him three times since last night, and his boy had held off. His cock must ache so hard. "I want you to come on my dick."
"Do it, please. Take me." Jensen startled to babble, a litany of filthy, filthy things.
Jeff unsnapped the fastenings on his pants as he pulled free the plug between the cheeks of Jensen's pert ass. His hole gaped wide and glistening. It was still wet and ready from this morning. He loved being able to just fuck right in, to cram his cock inside that heat where it belonged.
Jensen cried out as Jeff did so, lifting his head off of the table. Even with the lube, he must be sore. Jeff pulled his hand back and slapped one round cheek. He wanted to hear Jensen make that sound again. And again.
"Harder, I can take it," Jensen pleaded. Jeff didn't know if he meant the slap or the fucking. He decided to give Jensen a bit of both, another hard smack and then a fierce thrust inside. Jensen moaned and Jeff kept it up.
He curled his fingers around Jensen's waist and started to pull Jensen back into his thrusts. Jeff bit his lip to keep from coming. This was for Jensen, this time. "Come for me, boy, I know you can."
"Oh, stars. . ." Jensen gasped out, his body stilling as he came across the table and his own belly.
Jeff gave him a moment before rocketing forward again. It didn't take long before he moaned out his own climax. Jensen had him randier than a teenager, or maybe that was the effect of being back here. Even still, Jeff didn't think he could duplicate the performance – four times in less than twelve hours was pushing it at his age.
"You all right?" He pulled out of Jensen's body and used the cloth on the table to wipe them both down.
Jensen turned and ran a shaky hand through his hair. "I will be. Stars, Jeff, I haven't come that hard in forever."
Jeff laughed before kissing him, unable to leave those lips alone. "Glad to oblige." He ran his fingers over the leather collar, tugging on it again and grinning as Jensen hummed with pleasure. "I'll do right this time. I promise."
"Jeff." Jensen placed his hand over Jeff's. "I know you will."
He was glad for Jensen's confidence in him, even when Jeff doubted himself. "Thank you, sweetheart. Now we somehow gotta get cleaned up before the reception."
"Hmm. Wanna bet there's a shower outside that side door Fredric went out of?"
Jeff wouldn't be surprised.
Jensen couldn't stop grinning. He normally hated being the center of attention in larger gatherings like this, but today was different. He was proud of the collar around his neck and he was surrounded by people who understood and appreciated what that meant. Back in the UP he could never hope for that kind of acceptance.
"You hungry?" Jeff whispered in his ear.
The reception was held in the palace gardens to accommodate all the people who'd come to offer their goodwill. Heavy tables full of food sat under the trees on every level. Subs knelt at their Dom's feet or served from platters. Everyone seemed happy to be out in the sunshine enjoying the queen's hospitality.
"Maybe a little. It can wait. I think some more people are coming to talk to us." Jensen gestured to Duke Leonard, who was approaching with his sub.
"Dom Jeff, sub Jensen, I wish to offer my congratulations." Leonard nodded at them both. "It means much to many of us that you respect our traditions."
"We are honored for being offered the opportunity," Jensen said.
Leonard smiled, a slow thing that took years off of his aged face. "See that you remember that. Come, Alicia." He gestured to his sub and moved back into the crowd.
"What was that about?" Jeff murmured.
"I think he's trying to see where we stand. But I can't figure him out." Jensen frowned as the duke began to mingle with the crowd. "Is it because of Alona's new rank? Or Fuller and the UP?"
Jeff rubbed his forehead. "Too much crap at once."
Jensen laughed. "We're just getting started. Neither of those problems will be resolved any time soon."
Before Jeff could respond, Jensen spotted Tom and Sophia in the crowd. He squeezed Jeff's arm. "I'd like to talk to Sophia."
"Go ahead." Jeff smiled. "I'm going to find Brown and the others. See how badly they stick out in this bunch."
Jensen laughed. He slipped through the throngs of people, smiling and nodding while thanking them for their good wishes. As he got close to Sophia and Tom, a bark had him looking down. He'd told Mila to run and play, and she had, working off some of the energy of being stuck inside during the ceremony. Now he gathered she'd rather spend time with him. "Good girl."
"Jensen!" Sophia's face lit up as he approached. She threw her arms around him and held him close. "You finally found what you wanted, haven't you? Jeff's not a bad guy."
She and the others had known about Jensen's hopes for his future – to find a master worth serving, someone who'd accept and understand his gift of submission. Jensen had used his own nature as a weapon for the UP for far too long. To be able to offer it now with the purest of intentions meant everything.
He felt tears well up in his eyes and Jensen pressed them closed, willing them away. "Yeah. Yeah, Soph, I have." Jensen pulled away, searching her face. "How about you? How are you and Tom doing?"
She took Tom's arm and drew him forward. "We've only just got started, but, all things considered, I think this place is good for us."
That's when Jensen noticed the collar around Tom's neck. "Soph, you collared him?"
"Why shouldn't she?" Tom asked, looking honestly puzzled. "She's been responsible for me for so long."
"Tom." Sophia brushed his hair out of his face, tucking a strand behind his ear. "You deserve so much more than me."
"And what do you deserve, Soph?" Tom looked genuinely curious. He shook his head and turned to Jensen. "Thank you. For the first time in a long time I'm not hurting."
Jensen knew Tom meant that emotional pain that could only be contained by the physical damage he kept inflicting on himself. He didn't doubt that the healers here understood the issues of a masochist so much better than the UP doctors. "I'm just glad you're doing well." He reached out and squeezed Tom's hand.
"And you. Congrats." Tom smiled at him. "I think Mike would've been happy for you."
"I think so, too." Jensen smiled back. It still hurt to think of Mike, but Jensen could finally remember his friend as he had been, not as the man who'd died at the hands of the Confed just to prove a point.
He waved goodbye to them and turned to find Jeff again. Instead Jensen caught sight of Colin out of the corner of his eye. The boy was adding platters to one of the food tables before disappearing into the foliage. Jensen followed, Mila chasing after him.
"Colin!" Jensen called as he emerged from the sea of trees into a clearing bordered by benches separated by tiny basins filled with water. Water jumped from fountain to fountain just as Jensen walked past each basin.
Colin turned from the archway that led back into the palace. He smiled, looking almost like the boy Jensen remembered. He'd changed so much in the two years. "Hello, sub Jensen. Congratulations."
Jensen pulled at his collar and grinned. "Thank you. And it's just Jensen, okay?"
Mila looked over as one of the fountains shot a stream of water across the path. She then looked up at Jensen with sad eyes. "Oh, fine, go chase the water."
With a bark and tail wagging she ran from basin to basin, following the path of the water. Soon her paws and muzzle were soaking wet, causing her hair to curl. Jensen never thought he'd be able to ever see and enjoy this simple pleasure of watching his dog get into trouble.
Colin laughed, seemingly delighted at Mila's antics. Jensen wondered if he'd ever had a dog. Jensen had seen dogs on the streets here, but figured 'pet' meant something entirely different in Harmony.
"It's been a long time," Jensen said. "I'm surprised to see you with. . ." His fingers brushed against his own collar.
"I'm fifteen," Colin retorted. "It's time for me to enter training. I start at the Schola when the Choosing ends."
"And you don't mind?" Jensen cringed. Even to his own ears his words sounded trite. He remembered Colin being unsure about going into training, especially after watching what Adrian had done to Prince Levi. Adrian had been an abusive and cruel master, the kind every sub feared.
"What choice do I have? Should I leave Harmony like those subs who've asked for amnesty from your people?" Colin brushed his hair out of his eyes.
Jensen blinked. He barely remembered Jeff mentioning that, but it had escaped his mind. He rubbed his temples. Stars, so much had happened here while they were gone! "If you want to," he finally told Colin. "There's a whole galaxy out there."
"Jensen, this is my home." Colin shook his head, but there was a slight smile on his face. "And, I ache." He touched his chest. "There's something I'm missing and I need to find it. I don't think I need to go all the way to the stars to do it."
How hard it must be to be a teen here. Jensen remembered being all mixed up and confused with a curiosity about sex that pervaded his every waking moment. And that was before he figured out he was a submissive by nature. At least Colin would be guided by competent trainers. "You've grown up."
Colin laughed. "Not yet."
Mila scampered over to him and barked. She crouched down and then backed away, inviting Colin to play with her.
"Mila, come. I need to get back to the reception." He'd left Jeff on his own long enough.
"And I need to get the kitchens to refill the platters. It seems everyone is hungry." Colin waved. "Be happy, Jensen."
Jensen kept smiling as he walked back to the crowd. Talking to Colin reminded him that he really needed to contact Jared. With the beacons in place, he should be able to make a live call, instead of having to worry about message packet transmissions. Jensen would have to remember to do it later.
He spotted Jeff sitting on a bench having an animated discussion with Hank. Jensen slid to his knees beside Jeff, noting how the hard cobblestone path turned soft around his bare knees.
"…Ian and I found them living in the sewers," Hank said. He nodded at Jensen and clarified. "All of Adrian's former subs."
Jensen bit his lip. "Those are the ones who left Harmony." He leaned into Jeff, who began to stroke his hand through Jensen's hair, as if Jensen were Mila, who sat beside them.
"I need to find out what's happened to them. Fuller didn't mention them and you think that's something he would hold over our heads."
Could even Fuller be so cruel? To hold hostage people who'd been so abused and tortured that they'd left everything they'd ever known for a chance at a life among aliens? Jensen didn't know.
Jeff brushed Jensen's hair back. "You're looking a little pink. Did you use any sunscreen?"
Oh, stars, no. He'd been out in the sun in nothing but a kilt all afternoon. Jensen would be red as a lobster tomorrow. "Damn it."
Hank laughed. He had a healthy golden glow, damn him, probably one of those people who tanned instead of burned. "Don't worry. They have a cream for that here too."
And Jensen would enjoy every moment of Jeff putting it on him. Maybe risking a sunburn wasn't that bad after all.
The tech they'd assigned Maggie was a Dom named Jasika. She was perky and bright, had dark curls that fell into her eyes and teased Maggie about looking for a sub of her own. Maggie liked her immediately. When Jasika took her to the tech archive, she would have proposed marriage if she thought Jasika knew what that was.
"So this is where we store all the old stuff that we don't understand and mostly doesn't work anymore." Jasika gestured to the narrow room that stretched out before them. There were plastic cases along the walls, each lit up with its own light.
Maggie peeked at the first items, almost giddy. "I think these are from the UP colony. It certainly matches the technology of that time."
"That would make sense, since you think we're their descendants." Jasika bent to look into one of the cases. "What is this thing?"
Maggie pulled out her scanner and ran it over the device. "It's some sort of food processing thing. Apparently it was used to chop vegetables."
Jasika laughed. "Someone cared enough about it to bring it here, I guess. We don't really have a need for something like that."
"Oh, this one is a music player." Maggie looked over the readings on her scanner that held several specs of the tiny square device. "The battery is completely drained. I wonder if any of the data is retrievable."
Jasika touched a panel and the clear cover slipped away. "Maybe you'd like to find out?" She wrapped the device in a thick cloth and handed it to Maggie.
"Oh. I could try." Maggie tucked it into her kit, making a mental note to look at it later. "What I'd really like to see is anything you have on early Harmony technology. We've got plenty from the old colony itself."
Jasika frowned. "It's hard to find anything like that. We recycle everything and it becomes something new. I can show you the files on the city's history. Maybe that would help?"
"I'll take whatever you can give me."
Maggie followed Jasika through the hall and to another lift. There weren't many people around and Maggie guessed this wasn't exactly a popular destination, especially not with the Choosing going on and naked people on display in the town square.
"I appreciate you taking the time to show me all this," Maggie said just before the doors slid open. "Instead of taking part in the Choosing events."
Jasika winked. "Oh, I'll have plenty of time for that. I've got tickets to see sub Adam perform tonight."
The name sounded familiar. "Oh, I think I've seen him. Major Tappen took us to one of the clubs one night – I think Adam was the name of the red band performing."
"He's come a long way since then. You can't even get in to see him without an advanced ticket these days." Jasika led the way to a silver door set into the wall. She ran her hand over it and it peeled away. "This is a viewing room: it's made for reviewing data."
Maggie stepped over the threshold and gasped. The room was empty except for a very comfortable looking couch that faced a large blank wall that shot up several levels. When she touched the wall the screen came to life. It was like having their own personal theater.
"There are slates here if you'd like to take notes." Jasika picked up a pile from a low end table to the side of the couch.
"And snacks too, I bet." Maggie shook her head. They certainly liked to be comfortable here.
"If you're hungry." Jasika took a seat and patted the cushion next to her. Maggie sat. "Now the trick in searching the archives is knowing what you're looking for. That's what I’m here for. Where do you want to start?"
Maggie frowned. "Well, let's start with the earliest files. Did the city know about the colony? Does it show up on any maps?"
Jasika nodded. She turned toward the screen, held out her hands as if waiting for something to be placed in her palms. Without speaking a word, she somehow communicated with the city. The image flickered and spun, before breaking into hundreds of little segments of data, all various pictures and maps.
"Perfect." Maggie stood and walked up to the screen for a closer look. She touched one of the pictures and it resized to take over the whole wall. It was Harmony, but the city looked sparse, missing several large structures she'd known where there, including the queen's palace. "So you've built since then?"
"Harmony has. The city has been known to change overnight."
Maggie shook her head. Just when she started to think she was getting used to this place, they threw her another curveball. "Can you make it go back to the previous selection? I want to see more."
"Just flick the screen like this." Jasika made a motion with her hand and Maggie mimicked it. She took a step back to review all the pictures.
"That looks like a satellite map." She pointed upward and Jasika showed her how to bring the image down. Maggie selected it to find that she was right. It was a satellite overlay of the entire planet, which she could spin like a globe and zoom in where she wanted. "When was this made?"
Jasika pulled up the supporting data. "It looks like. . .five hundred years ago? But, that can't be right."
"You mean it predates your people." Maggie pulled out a tablet and pulled up a holographic topographic map taken from the Mercury. If she could overlay the hologram over the map on the screen, she could compare the differences between then and now. "Where would Harmony be?"
"Zoom to Harmony's location." Jasika ordered. The screen obliged and it took Maggie a moment to get her own image in line.
"That's where the ruins of the colony are." Maggie pointed to a cluster of buildings that were obvious against the green of the forest. "There's the base, and that's Harmony. But what the hell is that?"
Jasika stood and got close to see what Maggie meant. The tree line was broken again, this time several leagues south of Harmony, also against the coast of the sea. To Maggie's untrained eye, it looked just like another city. "Can you get the computer to identify it? Why doesn't it show up on our scan? Stars, this is incredible."
"Let me check." Jasika pressed her fingers against the wall, calling up a data screen.
If this really was another city, it would be an incredible find. Maggie felt her skin flush, heat rising in her cheeks with excitement. Then she realized that she'd have to share this with her superiors.
Maggie knew this was too important of a discovery to keep to herself. She couldn't ignore it either, but she feared what Fuller would do with this knowledge. Damn it, she believed in the UP – had dedicated her life to serving it. But Fuller was an example of everything that was wrong. He was arrogant and self-absorbed and only cared about scientific progress if it meant weapons.
She couldn't put off reporting it forever. She could, however, delay the information getting to Fuller if Maggie reported it to Jeff and Jensen instead. They were the liaisons to Harmony and this was clearly Harmony business. Yes, that's what Maggie would do.
"Show me how to save this data, Jasika." Maggie would make the most of this access while she had it.
Jensen hoped he had the calculation right and that he wasn't calling Jared in the middle of the night. He still wasn't quite certain this would work. Earth was a long fucking way off and his comm unit was tiny. Jensen dialed Jared's code and waited for the connection to go live.
The hologram sputtered into being – looking fractured and colorless. Still, the link was live. After a moment, Jared appeared, looking slightly grainy and out of focus. Jensen ran his fingers over the holographic control panel trying to get it clearer. This was the first time he was able to see his brother in years. He wanted to appreciate every moment.
The image got sharper and he could see Jared narrow his eyes as he stared at the hologram on his side. "Jensen?" His lips were slightly out of sync with the audio.
"Hi, Jared. It's good to see you." Jensen smiled. He blinked away the tears, willing himself to keep it together for Jared, at least.
Jared's eyes got wide. "Jen, you can! You can see me!"
He laughed. "Yeah, bro, I can."
"So going all the way there was worth it then." Jared wrapped his arms around himself and leaned forward. "They healed you."
"Not completely, but enough." Enough so that Jensen felt like himself again, not locked in his body like he'd been for the past two years.
"Jensen, why are you wearing a collar?"
"I did explain how this place works, right?" Jensen did tell Jared about Harmony, but it might be hard for someone not familiar with a D/s lifestyle to really understand it.
"Yeah, but I thought you and Jeff were. . .you know."
"We are." Jensen tugged at the collar, feeling the leather warm between his fingers. "In Harmony they don't really have a concept of marriage. They measure all relationships in term of Dom/sub."
Jared blinked. "Are you saying you got married and you didn't invite me?"
Jensen really couldn't tell if Jared was serious or if his brother was just fucking with him. He ached for their separation. It seemed he and Jared hadn't been on the same planet for very long other than during Jensen's convalescence. He cleared his throat. "Well, I couldn't wait another month for you to fly out here."
"Always so impatient." Jared smiled and Jensen knew they were okay. "Listen, Jen, they've started to release info about Harmony to the media – along with a whole bunch of formerly classified scut missions."
"I wouldn't be surprised if they started offering tourist packages here." Jensen knew a few people who'd be attracted to a city completely based around BDSM.
Jared shook his head. "That's not quite the angle they're pushing, Jen. It's all about the alien technology and beating the Confed once and for all."
Jensen rubbed his eyes. "They get the UP news feeds out here." The queen wasn't stupid. Jensen bet she was monitoring them. Did they honestly think the people here would be so foolish as to just hand over their technology? He'd have to start monitoring the feeds himself. "Thanks for letting me know."
"Any time." Jared smiled. "I'll tell Adrianne you called. She's napping. The first trimester is really hitting her hard."
Jensen grinned back. "Take care of her, Jared."
"I will. Take care of yourself. And tell Jeff we were asking about him."
"Will do. I'll call you when I can."
Jensen closed the connection, feeling a bit more solid. Something about talking with Jared always made him feel better. He was grateful it wasn't a tension filled conversation with Jensen about to leave for another dangerous mission. Harmony was safer than any of the places Jensen had been assigned to over the past ten years – even considering his kidnapping by Adrian two years ago.
The tele flashed into being, startling him. Jensen accepted the incoming call to see a worried looking Maggie peering at him.
"Jensen? I have something you and Jeff really need to see."
"He's meeting with the queen right now. Can it wait till he's done?"
"Sure. Meet me after he's finished?"
Jensen wondered exactly what she'd found. It was bound to be interesting….
Jeff stared at the collection of tiny pewter figures on the gameboard. He was playing the ones with the green jeweled eyes while the queen had the blue. Jensen had taught him to play Turnabout, although Jeff lacked any sort of skill at it. He glanced up at the queen, who sat in the plush sitting room chair as if she were holding court, before making his next move – pushing forward a timid looking rabbit.
She leaned forward and tapped one of her wolves, which scampered across the board and right in the way of his little rabbit. "I've noticed groups of your men wandering around the palace."
Turnabout wasn't the only game they were playing here. "Not all of them are mine. The ones looking for the control room are Fuller's."
"Hmmm. You know very well where the control room is."
"Nobody's asked me." Jeff moved his raven into a defensive position. "My role here is to facilitate communication between our peoples."
"And not to steal our technology?" She raised an eyebrow at him.
Jeff sighed. "I've never hid the fact that my superiors were interested in your tech. As I recall, you agreed that the Confed was a threat to both of our people."
"They are cowards." She flicked her lioness. "Resorting to trickery and cruelty."
"Yes." And worse. Jeff had fought the Confed his entire career. He'd lost his wife to their capriciousness. "Look, I don't agree with Fuller's methods or his goals. But I do think it's important that we share information. Your city healed Jensen. There are countless others who could be helped by that same technology."
"And how do I ensure that people are helped and not harmed because of what you learn here?"
Jeff was honest. "You can't. There are some things out of your control, mistress." He was gratified when she laughed. "And this city, this technology, all of it will be here long after we both are gone."
"You're rather philosophical." She picked up one of the pieces and rolled it between her fingers. "I think that nearly losing Jensen changed you."
Jeff couldn't deny her words. He wasn't exactly the same man he'd been two years ago. "Perhaps."
She put the lioness down, but didn't take any other action on the game board. "I wanted to speak to you about the Rite."
His mouth went dry. "To atone for not being there for my sub when he needed me?"
"If that's what you feel you need. I could administer it myself."
"What does it consist of, exactly?"
"Punishment." She stared down at the board. "A Dom offering himself in the place of a sub."
Could Jeff do that? Could he submit to this woman in the hopes of obtaining some kind of forgiveness for what he failed to do? "Is this Rite successful?"
She gave him a bitter smile. "That's something only the Doms who've been through it can answer. You have to decide for yourself. If you still feel that you need to atone, then perhaps you do need it."
"I'll have to think about it."
"Let me know what you decide."
Maggie all but vibrated with excitement. Although she'd been cautious by asking Jensen and Jeff to meet with her privately, she still yearned to share her discovery with someone. She tapped her stylus on her tablet absently, shifting once again in her seat.
Jensen laughed. "He'll be here soon. Are you sure you don't want something to drink?"
He'd invited her up to their sitting room for the meeting. It was smaller than the one she shared with her coworkers in the suite, but it was cozy and warm. Maggie wondered if the rooms started to take on the personalities of the people who inhabited them. The furniture in here looked a little less bright, a little more worn, and the colors seemed better suited to the two men – brown, cream and pale green.
"You don't have to, you know, serve me." She snapped the stylus back in place to keep from playing with it.
Jensen sat across from her. "That's not what I meant. I'm only obligated to serve Jeff, you know." He gave her a smile that lit up his eyes. Since he'd been healed she hadn't seen anything but a smile on his face. It made her want to grin in return. "I'm trying to be hospitable."
"Thank you. But I'm fine." Plus she was worried she'd spill something, the way she was feeling now.
The sound of the door sliding open had them both turning to look as Jeff entered. "Everything all right?" He paused when he saw Maggie waiting there.
Like Jensen, he was wearing Harmony style clothing. It changed his appearance, made him look softer than the hard-assed commander she remembered. Of course, she knew that there were outfits here that would give just the opposite impression – and she did not need that mental flash of Jeff in head to toe leather. Damn Hank for bringing them out to that club!
"Maggie has something she wants to share with us." Jensen patted the chair next to him. "Have a seat. How'd your game go?"
"I lost." Jeff stopped to pat Mila before obeying Jensen and taking a seat at the table. "You'll have to show me some more tips."
"Sure." Jensen squeezed Jeff's hand before turning to her. "Maggie? What was so important you couldn't tell us over the tele?"
She slid her fingers across her tablet and brought up the hologram map of the planet. "I've been meeting with that tech you arranged Commander. . .I mean, Mr. Morgan." Stars, habits were so damn hard to break.
"Please, it's Jeff."
"Right, sir." She cleared her throat. "Dom Jasika took me to a sort of tech museum, where they have relics of the old colony. While that is interesting on its own, she also showed me the archives – information created in Harmony's past. This map, for example, is five hundred years old."
"It predates humans in Harmony," Jensen breathed.
"And I believe I've found what could be other cities just like Harmony." Maggie switched on the overlay which showed the corresponding points on the map. "And at least one of them isn't too far from here."
Jensen stared wide-eyed at the map. "Jeff, if this is true, then all these cities could be waiting for someone to bond with."
"Fuck." Jeff rubbed his eyes. "And the tech is raw, not modified by three hundred years of human inhabitants."
"It's an incredible discovery." Didn't they see how amazing this was?
"And a dangerous one." Jeff pushed himself out of his seat and began to pace. "If Fuller got a hold of this – he wouldn't need Harmony at all."
"You're assuming everything in these cities still works." Jensen turned in his chair to follow Jeff's pacing. "For all we know it was a fluke this city was awake enough to accept Harmony. We're going to have to check it out."
"Maggie, have you reported this to anyone else?"
She shook her head. "Just the two of you."
"That could cause problems for you." Jensen turned that liquid green gaze back on her.
"I know it's important. And I don't like Fuller any more than you do."
"The problem isn't just Fuller. It's the whole damn admiralty." Jeff had stopped by the window and stared out at something. "They've been fighting a war for so long they've forgotten what it's like to not have to scramble."
"Jeff. This is going to steamroll ahead whether we want it to or not." Jensen moved to Jeff's side and touched his shoulder. "Wouldn't it be better to be involved than to bury the thing and let someone else discover it?"
"You're such a fucking optimist, Jen."
"No, I'm a bit of a control freak." Jensen laughed and Maggie felt she was intruding on something incredibly private.
"Thought that was my job." Jeff ran his hand through Jensen's hair. He turned back to Maggie. "Get a team together – Brown, Whitfield, Chikezie, Johnson, maybe even Hank and Ian, but nobody else. We'll use one of the UP vehicles stationed outside the city. We can't very well report on it if we haven't seen it yet."
Maggie stood. "Are you coming too, sir?"
Jeff tossed her a grin. "Hell, yeah."
"You sure no one's going to mind us taking this transport?" Jensen leaned against the wall that led to Harmony's gates while Chikezie and Whitfield loaded up the truck with a few crates. He'd never done this kind of work – his military service had been totally different – but watching Jeff in action as he directed everyone reminded him that Jeff had been a leader first.
"It's mine to authorize." Brown grinned from the driver's seat.
"Well that's handy." Jensen pushed himself off the wall and started for the transport. He'd pulled out the plain duty uniform for this, which was more practical than anything he'd been given to wear in Harmony. Although he thought the combat boots might do double duty in the city.
"We're just going to do a quick look around." Jeff's tone had everyone looking his way – Chikezie and Whitfield in the back of the transport, Brown and Maggie in the cab, and Hank and Ian coming up the path from the gates. "Assess the place and see if it is another city like Harmony. But if there's a hint of things going sideways, we're going to pack it up and call in reinforcements – even if it means letting Fuller and his people know. Understand?"
There was a chorus of "Yes, sirs!" and Jensen had to damp down a stirring of arousal. He knew damn well that Jeff in charge did something for him. They'd have to play with that later and he shivered at just the thought.
"All right, people, let's go!" Brown waved them all onto the transport.
Jensen gave Mila a boost and then climbed into the back after her. A wave of dizziness hit as he stood and he took a second to get his bearings. He must have gotten up too fast. Jensen dropped onto the bench next to Whitfield and across from Jeff. It was pretty dark in here. They should turn the lights up a bit.
"Been ages since I was in one of these." Hank was already talking before he and Ian got inside. They settled into seats on the other side of Jensen.
Brown started the transport up and it rocked as it began to move. Jensen looked up and grinned at Jeff.
Between one blink and the next, everything went dark.
"Jeff." He tried to speak, but at first it seemed like his lips didn't want to work any better than his eyes. "Jeff!"
Jensen pushed himself to his feet – Jeff was only a few feet away – but he lost his balance and fell to his knees. Everything hurt, the old scars aching as if they'd been freshly opened. There were hands on him, so many hands, and it was dark and it was just like it had been back there and he couldn't even scream.
"Jensen, sweetheart, what's wrong?" Jeff. Jeff's arms were around him, holding him close. Mila was barking and Jensen felt her wet nose on his neck.
"I can't see. Jeff, oh, stars, Jeff, I can't!"
"Fuck. Go tell Brown to turn this thing around."
There were other voices, the clamoring of boots on the floor, but Jensen buried himself against Jeff, breathing in that familiar scent, desperate for something to hold on to. He thought he heard Chikezie saying something about a scanner, but Jeff snapped at her. Jensen needed the Harmony healers.
He felt it when the transport stopped and turned around. But Jensen was lost, feeling like he was floating in space with no way to ground himself. Had he forgotten everything he'd learned as soon as he got his vision back? Jensen began to shiver and was only wrapped tighter in Jeff's embrace.
"I got you, sweetheart, I got you."
When the transport stopped again, Jeff scooped Jensen up in his arms. Jensen wanted to make a joke – he was too heavy for this – but he appreciated being taken care of by Jeff. Jeff would fix everything. Jensen hid his face in the crook of Jeff's neck, keeping his eyes tightly shut. His hands began to spasm and Jensen tucked them close to his own chest.
"Open the damn gates."
Jensen knew exactly when they passed through back into Harmony. He felt like he'd been under the ocean and now he could breathe again. His lungs filled and he gasped, grateful for the fresh air.
"Dom Jeff, do you need assistance?" Jensen thought he recognized the voice of the guard from the first day they were here – Dom Cliff.
Jensen blinked his eyes open, his heart beating rapidly. What if he were wrong? But the sun shone so brightly his eyes watered and he had to wipe at them. "Put me down, Jeff. I'm okay."
Jeff gave him a look, but eased him down, not letting Jensen out of the circle of his arms even when his feet touched the ground.
"I think I understand now." Jensen looked around him, swearing he'd never take this gift for granted now. The others had circled him and Jeff, all looking worried and speaking in tight whispers. "She said she'd give me her eyes. I can only see while I'm in her city."
"Fuck." Jeff's grip tightened.
"So we're not taking him to the healers?" Hank asked.
"I'm fine." Jensen tucked his hands into his pockets to hide the shaking.
"But you're sure as hell not coming with us to the other city."
"We're aborting the mission for now." Jeff's tone was harsh. "And you are going to see the healers. We're not taking any chances, damn it."
"Jeff, I'm fine."
"You're not arguing. Chikezie, bring the records from your scan. We're getting this resolved. Then we'll reconsider leaving the city."
It was too important to leave that new discovery unexplored. Jensen opened his mouth to protest, but yawned instead. He felt tired and heavy. "Yes, sir," he told Jeff and let his Dom lead the way.
Maggie clutched the slate to her chest as she stood outside of Commander Morgan and Jensen's door. She'd checked the tele, so she knew they were back from the healers, but she still wasn't sure about intruding. Seeing Jensen fall to his knees and start to panic had shaken her. Jensen had always seemed so strong, even after the horrors she knew he must have faced in the Confed.
Part of her was still grateful that they did shut down the Sex Corps. Jake wouldn't necessarily be safe now, but he wouldn't be vulnerable in the same way Jensen had been. She fully admitted her own selfishness at wanting to keep her younger brother whole and unbroken.
Before she could change her mind, Maggie reached out and ran her hand over the door chime.
Morgan answered, looking disheveled with his hair sticking up in different directions and wearing nothing but a pair of sleep pants. Maggie could feel herself blushing and forced herself to look the man in the eyes. "What can I do for you, Sergeant?"
How did he make her feel like she was back in boot camp? The man wasn't even technically military any more. Maggie knew despite the official designation, something in Jeff Morgan would always be a soldier. "I'd like to talk to Jensen."
She held out her slate. "I might have figured out a way for him to leave the city."
There was a beat of silence before Morgan moved back from the door. "Wait here, I'll let him know you're waiting."
When Jensen emerged from the bedroom he looked much better than Morgan. His eyes were bright and he smiled when he saw her. His clothing was no less comfortable looking, although unlike Morgan he wore a shirt, left open in the front. "Hi, Maggie."
She smiled back. "How are you feeling?"
He shrugged. "Honestly I felt fine once we got back into the city. The healers only confirmed that. Jeff insisted I rest."
Maggie remembered how overprotective Morgan could be. But she didn't blame him for wanting to make sure Jensen was really okay. They all had a bit of a scare watching him meltdown on the transport. "But they did clear you?"
"Clear is a relative term." Morgan had come back into the room, now wearing a shirt. "They couldn't find anything wrong in the first place."
"Jeff." Jensen sighed. He turned to Maggie. "I have a theory. In my conversation with Harmony she said it would take time to fully heal me. I think the longer I stay here, the better I get. In the meantime, the city is beaming images directly into my brain."
"You don't know that for sure."
"I don't have any proof – except that once we got too far from the city, my ability to see disappeared."
Morgan all but growled. "Some gift, trapping you here."
Maggie cleared her throat. "About that. I was thinking. . ." She had both of them focusing their attention on her now, and it felt rather intimidating. They had very intense eyes. "Any tech we take out of Harmony still functions. When Hank brought Ian up to the Mercury, Hank's collar didn't fall off. And he mentioned they used other Harmony tech on the ship that functioned fine." That had been a rather awkward conversation, at least on her part. She really didn't want to hear about the equipment used in Hank's sex life.
"So what does that have to do with Jensen?" Morgan snapped.
She swallowed. "I've been speaking with Dom Jasika – the Harmony tech. We like to think that everything in Harmony is just pulled from our thoughts. But that's not always the case. The techs create designs and the city can produce the items or even just the parts to make them."
Jensen gave her a shrewd. "And you've designed something."
"Well, the beginnings of something." Maggie put the slate on the table and turned it on. An image of the specs she started working on came to life, showing the blueprints of a pair of goggles.
Jensen looked over her shoulder. "It couldn't just be a pair of glasses?"
She laughed. "I wanted to make sure to include a power source that would last for a long time. And the strap would keep them in place."
"Fine, so that lets him see. But, Jen, there are other considerations." Morgan sounded as if he were pleading.
"Which we can compensate for by using my pain patches." Jensen turned to face him. "I think half of the panic was sense memory. It was dark and I couldn't figure out where I was. Jeff, we have to explore this new city."
"That doesn't mean you have to go."
Jensen stiffened. "Are you ordering me to stay behind?"
"Damn it, Jensen."
Maggie picked up her slate. "Um, perhaps I should go."
"Maggie, wait." Jensen took her arm. "Make up the goggles, please? Even if I don't end up going with you, I'd like to be able to leave the city if I need to."
"They should be ready by tomorrow." That would give them some time to talk about this. Maggie hoped they worked things out. She really wanted to see the new city, but she didn't want to do it without either of them.
Jeff still thought this was a bad idea, no matter how much Jensen had attempted to placate him last night. It wasn't anything he disagreed with – Jeff knew Maggie did good work. He understood that now that Jensen knew what had happened, he'd be less likely to panic if it did happen again. But he could not bear the thought of seeing Jensen brought so vulnerable again.
That was why he'd sent the queen a private message this morning while Jensen was still in the shower. Jeff would accept the Rite. Yesterday only made it clearer to him. Jeff had to do this, if only for his own piece of mind. Jensen continued to suffer from what the Confed had done to him. Jeff would not let him suffer alone.
"Planning on going underwater?" Hank teased as Jensen emerged from Harmony's gates. The goggles did give Jensen the appearance of a very large fish. They fit around his face – a gold metal frame around green lenses. Jeff found himself missing Jensen's true eyes. It was hard to know what he was thinking while they were hidden.
Jensen smiled at Hank. "If we have to, I'll be prepared."
It was too much like yesterday. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, ready to explore something new and exciting. Jeff couldn't stop the bile that kept rising in his throat. He wanted to throw up, maybe that would ease his belly a bit.
Jensen came up to him and took his hand. "I'll be fine, you know."
"We don't know what we'll find out there. I don't like putting you in danger."
"Jeff." Jensen touched their foreheads together, then smirked when the goggles got in the way. "You do remember that I was a perfectly capable field soldier before you came around. I can tie my own boots, too."
"It's my job to protect you."
"No." Jensen placed his finger over Jeff's lips. "That wasn't exactly one of the vows we took. You're responsible for me, but I'm responsible for you too, Jeff. This thing goes both ways. As a Dom you're supposed to have a realistic outlook of my abilities and limits. You damn well know I'm capable of this. Stop trying to rationalize it and call it protection."
"You can't blame me for wanting to."
Jensen sighed. "No. I don't. Come on. The sooner we leave, the sooner we can get back."
Jeff agreed and followed Jensen and Mila onto the transport. This time he made sure to sit next to Jensen, so he'd known the moment anything happened. Jensen adjusted his goggles and nodded to Maggie, who sat across from them.
"They feel fine."
"Let me know if anything seems off," Maggie said.
"We ready to get this show on the road?" Whitfield and Chikezie made up the last of the party.
Jeff gave Brown the go ahead, and the transport started to roll out. He held his breath when he engaged hover mode and they moved out into the wilderness proper. It was at this point where Jensen had lost his sight.
Jensen squeezed his thigh, but didn't speak. Jeff relaxed a fraction of an inch. The goggles worked. "How's the patch?" They'd placed it before leaving Harmony, knowing it would take time to work.
"I'm fine." Jensen stroked his other hand through Mila's soft fur. "I promise I'll tell you if anything hurts."
Jeff wished he could believe him. He knew damn well Jensen might try to tough it out to make a point. He'd just have to keep an extremely close eye on him.
"It should take us an hour to get there, if that map is correct and we travel at maximum speed." Maggie scrolled through her tablet.
"So time for a nap, then?" Hank leaned back against the wall of the transport.
"If you honestly think that's a good use of your time," Ian replied dryly. Even though the words were harsh, he looked at Hank with fondness in his eyes. Jeff couldn't help but think that the two of them were made for each other.
"Well, I could plan my outfit for the orgy party."
Ian rubbed his forehead. "Henry, it's not technically an orgy."
Jensen laughed. "You mean the last night of celebration at the palace? If I recall correctly, there's plenty of good reasons to call it an orgy."
"You're outnumbered." Hank laughed. "So what are you wearing, Jensen?"
"I haven't thought about it, really." Jensen turned to Jeff. "Do you have a preference?"
At first Jeff couldn't believe they seriously wanted to talk about clothing choices. Then he saw the spark in Hank's eye and realized it was the perfect topic - light and fluffy enough to take the edge off of this trip. He settled into his seat. "Well. Something with leather, I would hope."
Jensen laughed. "Of course."
"And you guys?" Hank turned to Maggie.
She stared at him for a moment. "I didn't know we were invited."
"The entire city is invited. The queen throws open the palace. It usually spills out into the streets. I'm sure you're welcome as well." Jensen gestured with his hands.
"And we need some kind of costume?" Whitfield asked.
Hank grinned. "If that's how you want to think about it. . ."
Jeff let the conversation wash over him. It was frivolous enough to keep his mind from dwelling on Jensen's injuries. He couldn't wait to see if Whitfield and the others did show up. They probably wouldn't listen to Hank's fashion tips – he hoped.
When the transport started to slow, Jeff felt the tension build in his shoulders again. This was still an alien world. Who knew what they would find out there? And Jeff couldn't rely on any reasonable backup from the base. The queen knew they were out here, they'd needed her permission to leave the city, but even she didn’t know what they might face.
"These are the coordinates. Let's see what's out there." Maggie was the first to leave the transport. She was probably the most excited out of them all. Jeff couldn't blame her. At one time he'd enjoyed this process of discovery, the possibility of finding something new and amazing.
He must be getting old. All Jeff wanted right now was to curl up in bed, with Jensen on one side and Mila on the other.
At first when they got out of the transport, Jeff couldn't see anything but thick green forest. He didn't know how Brown had even managed to land in this cluster of trees. But then Jeff realized that the wall of green to his right was actually a wall, covered with creeping vines and shrubbery. He couldn't see beyond it.
"We should fly over it," he told Brown.
"Didn't look like much from the air. If it was like Harmony we'd be seeing the buildings from straight off." Brown shrugged.
Maggie looked up from her scanner and tablet. "I'm not getting any energy readings."
"Is it dead, then?" Hank stared at that wall and something about the look on his face gave Jeff the creeps.
Jensen started forward and Jeff ran to catch up with him. He would not let Jensen get far out of reach. They had no idea what was out there.
As they approached the wall, Maggie shouted something about picking up a new reading. Jensen brushed away some of the vines to reveal a dull bronze metal beneath. "It's the same metal as Harmony."
"We're not sure about that. We need to take samples." Jeff waved over to Chikezie and Whitfield, who were bringing the sample kits. This was just like old times on the Reclamation project. He knew his team would be efficient and grab what they needed.
Jeff turned in time to see a gap appear in the wall. It was nowhere near as smooth or fluid as the way Harmony moved. An opening had appeared where one hadn't been before. It was just big enough for a man to pass through. "Fuck."
"Are we going in?" Jensen was still, waiting for permission.
Jeff took his hand. He wasn't letting Jensen do this alone. "We've come this far. Might as well." He led the way, pulling Jensen through after him.
The other side of the wall was pretty disappointing. Large chunks of metal and stone seemed to have fallen out of the sky, making a spectacular ruin covered with more foliage. Brown had been right: there must not have been much to see from the air.
"You know," Hank said, startling Jeff. The others had followed them in. "For a place that's been abandoned for five hundred years, it still looks remarkably good."
"And there's power coming from somewhere." Maggie waved her scanner.
Jensen frowned at them. "Do you hear that sound? Like a hum?"
Jeff didn't hear anything. Everyone else shook their heads except for Hank.
"It's like a buzz to me."
Something prickled at the back of Jeff's scalp. A noise only Jensen and Hank could hear? "Where's it coming from?"
"Everywhere." Jensen murmured. He was staring straight ahead and began to walk toward the largest boulder.
Jeff followed, just as the earth started to shake. He stumbled, just a few feet shy of Jensen who'd also dropped with the force of the quake. When he got his bearings again there was a hole cut into the ground in front of Jensen. Something was terribly wrong here.
Jensen couldn't get the noise out of his head. It hovered in his ears, a low hum that sang a discordant tune. After the hole had opened up in the ground it had only gotten louder. There was only one way to get it to stop. He pushed himself to his feet and started for it, only to be halted by Jeff's hand on his arm.
"I don't like this." Ian pulled out his weapon and extended it to its full staff length. Hank stood just behind Jeff and Jensen, also apparently eager to see what the city had revealed.
"We have to check it out." Something waited for them. He could feel it. Jensen leaned as far as he could to see inside the hole and only saw light and a set of stairs cut into the ground.
"We don't have to do anything." Jeff grip around his arm grew tighter.
"Don't you understand? It's trying to communicate but it doesn't know how." This matched Jensen's vision from Harmony almost exactly. The city had opened a portal for her, but it had changed to meet her needs. There must not be enough power here for this city to do the same. They had to reach out to it.
"Slowly. And we go together." Jeff didn't let go as they descended down the stairway. The weight of him was frustrating and Jensen wanted to shake him off. It was hard to walk because the steps were awkwardly cut – too long and deep to be comfortable.
Jensen's forehead began to throb and he reached up to rub it, only to be met with the metal of his goggles. Funny, he'd forgotten all about them. As his hand brushed the metal he could have sworn he heard a voice murmur: mine.
"This is . . . some kind of control room?" Maggie's voice broke Jensen out of the strange vision, clearing the cloud in his mind. They continued forward into the room proper.
"Holy fuck," Hank swore as the room brightened.
It was exactly as Maggie said – some kind of control room with screens and machinery all along the perimeter. But what had them all in shock was the tank in the very center of the room, on a platform that elevated it above everything. Inside the solidified gel was a skeleton – but one that would have towered over them had there been flesh covering it. The bones were elongated and misshapen, capped with a skull that resembled a crocodile more than a man's.
"It's an honest to fucking goodness alien."
Jensen ignored Hank and climbed the steps to the platform. He needed to get closer. That would stop the ache in his head.
"Jensen." Jeff kept pace with him. "What are you doing?"
"It wants to understand . . ." Jensen touched the glass of the tank. He could feel it, just waiting beyond his reach.
The moment he made contact it was like he'd been jolted with electricity. Jensen jumped back and nearly fell down the stairs, but Jeff caught him. The room shook and something uncoiled from the shadows and slithered toward them.
Abruptly Jensen remembered the tentacle-like wires that had attached to Harmony and made her part of the city. He started to back up as quickly as he could while keeping the things in sight. "Get out of here."
"Run." Jeff grabbed his arm and started to pull Jensen up the steps.
The coils shot forward, almost making contact only to be slapped back by Ian's staff. They shuddered and fell to the ground, seemingly wounded. Jensen didn't have time to see if they would come back, Jeff kept pulling him up out of the room, shouting for Maggie to stop scanning the things and run.
"Ian!" Hank cried out and Jensen turned back to see one of the coils wrap around Hank's ankle and start to pull him back down.
Maggie pulled out her sidearm and shot the coil, but it didn't react. Ian jumped down the last stair and slammed his staff into it, and then the snake-like thing let go. Hank scrambled to his feet.
The stairs seemed to go on forever, but finally they made it back into the fresh air. Jensen gasped and bent over, trying to catch his breath. He grabbed the sides of his face as pain radiated from the goggles. "It's all right, I'm okay," he murmured, though he didn't know if Harmony could hear him.
"Let's get out of here. Grab the samples," Jeff called to Chikezie and Whitfield, who'd stayed above ground. "And get the fuck back in the transport."
Jensen didn't argue. He was just glad the crack in the wall was still there so they could slip back out of the city.
"Do you feel it?" Hank asked, looking back at the green coated wall. "It's lonely."
Jensen understood exactly what he meant. He nodded as Hank wiped at his eyes. The city hurt.
"The power levels are rapidly fading. I wonder if we killed it." Maggie tucked her scanner away.
"I don't give a shit if we did," Jeff snapped. "That place is dangerous."
"Only to me and Hank. Did you notice that?"
"Course I fucking noticed, Jen."
Hank's voice was so quiet that everyone turned toward him as he spoke. "Maybe that explains what's happening to my brain. Harmony has been changing it so I can eventually interface with her."
Jensen thought about it. "But I haven't been in the city as long as you have." He hadn't been in Harmony long at all that first time when he'd been deemed a worthy sub and allowed into the control room. "Unless there's something unique about people who are natural submissives? It could be why Harmony was able to interface with the city the first time."
"So even if Fuller wanted to use this tech, he couldn't unless he had a steady stream of willing subs." Maggie pulled out her tablet and started scribbling notes.
"Fuck." Jensen rubbed the back of his neck. "It's a perfect use for the Sex Corps. They already have ratings on everyone in the service."
"Let's not jump to any conclusions here." Brown took charge. "We're going to get those samples to the labs and let the scientists figure this all out."
"What are you going to put in your report?" Jeff asked.
"I'll figure it out eventually."
Jensen had a collection of slates spread out over the table, each displaying different data depending on whatever tangent his thoughts had scattered to before moving to another set. Since their return from the mysterious city – which Hank had named Discord – Jensen had been digging in the tech archives, trying to find some clues about the alien race that must have been here before humans landed on 328 three hundred years ago.
It was frustrating work. Jensen wondered if the information did exist, but just in no language a human could understand. Otherwise, he could only guess that the history of the previous inhabitants had been obliterated when Harmony had merged with the city.
The door chimed, and he was damn grateful for the excuse to get his ass out of the chair to answer it. Hank stood on the other side, with his arms wrapped around his chest. "Hey. Come on in." Jensen stepped back to let the other sub inside. "I'm just working on the archives. So far I haven't found any mention of Discord or any of the other cities. I can't wait to see the lab results. . ."
As he spoke Jensen went back to his slates, which he began to stack in some sort of order. It would make it easier to show to Jeff later. Hank came inside just enough for the door to close, but he didn't say anything. Jensen stopped and really looked at Hank. Something was definitely wrong when Hank was quiet.
Now that he took the time to notice, Hank looked downright pale. "Are you all right?"
Hank shrugged. "Depends on your version of 'all right.'"
"Sit down, Hank." Jensen pulled out a chair for him. "What's wrong?"
"Got my orders to report. I have two choices – I can re-enlist and get reassigned off 328 or I can take my discharge and move back to Earth."
"Fuck." Jensen dropped into the opposite chair. He'd known Fuller was willing to do anything to get what he wanted and that included using Hank as a playing piece. "Hank, what do you want to do?"
Hank folded his arms on the table and propped his chin on top of them. "I don't like either of my choices."
Jensen frowned. "They're not your only ones."
"No? You honestly don't think Fuller will have a couple of grunts drag me out of here once this contract is up?"
"It doesn't mean we're going to let him." Not if Jensen had anything to say about it. "Have you talked to Ian?"
"I haven't told him yet. It'll be hard enough to say good-bye."
There was something there in his tone. Jensen was sure if Hank only talked to Ian, the Dom would move heaven and earth to keep Hank with him. He'd never seen anyone so far gone about another person – except maybe Jared for Adrianne. Did Hank honestly doubt Ian's affection for him? Maybe it had something to do with that drug that had altered Hank's brain.
"Snap the fuck out of it, soldier," Jensen used his best drill sergeant voice. "Speak up and tell me what the hell you actually want. Do you want to stay here with Ian?"
"Sir, yes, sir!" Hank sat up ramrod straight in his chair. Then he blinked and shook his head. "Okay, that was weird."
"Not really. You're conditioned to respond to it." If it hadn’t been from Hank’s time in the Corps, Hank would have picked it up from his time on Harmony. "Hank, Jeff and I will figure something out, okay?" Jensen checked his chrono. "I'm supposed to meet him a little later." Together they'd stop this from happening.
"You know, I almost believe you, Ackles." Hank looked a little brighter – there was color in his cheeks now, and his eyes almost sparked. "Thank you."
Jensen squeezed Hank's hand. "Your welcome. Hank, you really need to talk to Ian. He needs to know you want to stay with him."
"I don't think another melodramatic gesture is going to cut it." Hank smiled, probably remembering the very public claim Ian had staked during the Choosing two years ago. That's what enabled Hank to stay here for the duration of his service.
Hmm. That gave Jensen the inklings of an idea. He'd have to double check with Jeff, but it was certainly doable if both Hank and Ian were willing.
The black robe felt itchy on Jeff's shoulders and he wondered if that was part of his penance – even the fabric had been chosen to punish him in some way. He was naked underneath, but wouldn't bare himself completely until the Rite began. Queen Michelle had told him what to expect and how to play his role. That was one of the good things about these people – they told you beforehand before you got sucker-punched.
He let out a frustrated breath. No, he had to be honest with himself here. Jeff needed this for himself. Jensen's breakdown in the transport only brought to light how much Jeff needed release from the guilt that still gnawed at his belly. It was the only way for them both to move past the horrors that had nearly destroyed them.
"Are you ready?" The queen asked. She was dressed in a red so dark it was nearly black, in an outfit that had straps crisscrossing all over her body.
"I am." Jeff steeled himself. He had chosen this.
He followed her into the room designated for this – a circular dungeon not unlike the chapel where he and Jensen had cemented their relationship, except this room had walls of steel gray stone without a single window. Torches and candles were set along the wall and around the center stage. Unlike the chapel this stage went down a few steps, almost like a pit. There were rows of empty benches that looked like they’d been made from polished black obsidian. For a city of marvelous technology, this room was an intentional stark throwback to the past.
There would be nothing to distract him from the Rite itself. There would be just Jeff, the cold hard stone, and his punishment. His heart sounded loudly in his chest and Jeff started to count each beat. Had Jensen felt so when he’d been captured and tortured? Had his blood pumped cold with fear? Jeff only had to endure one moment. Jensen had endured months. He could do this.
Jeff moved to the very center of the pit and knelt. The stone scraped against his knees. Sometimes waiting was the hardest part.
A door slid open and Fredric led Jensen inside. Jensen's eye went wide at the sight of Jeff on his knees. "Jeff? What's going on?"
"Your Dom has chosen to endure the Rite of Atonement." With one arm, Fredric gently prevented Jensen from moving from the perimeter of the room.
Jeff made eye contact with him, and nodded. Jensen's face went from worried to determined. Jensen would go along with this if Jeff asked him to. Warmth rose in his chest for Jensen’s trust in him.
"Stand, Jeff Morgan, Dom to sub Jensen." The queen ordered, her voice just as cold as ever.
Jeff stood. He remained focused on Jensen, his strength. He could endure anything as long as Jensen was there to witness. Jeff never broke eye contact.
"Do you accept this Rite and all it entails?"
"Do you accept me as the instrument of your punishment?"
"Do you admit wronging your sub?"
"How have you wronged him?"
Jeff threw her a look. They hadn't covered this part and he hadn’t prepared an answer. He moistened his lips. "I should never have let him leave without me by his side." Even if Jensen couldn't turn down the mission that had caused his injuries, Jeff should have found a way to be there for him. He should have been willing to risk court martial to keep Jensen safe.
"Oh, Jeff." Jensen's whisper was loud in the quiet room, echoing off the bare walls.
"You have accepted the responsibilities of a Dom. Do you acknowledge that this is something you owe your sub?"
"We begin. I will decide when the atonement has been reached." The queen stepped forward and tied a blindfold around Jeff's eyes, taking away his ability to find solace in Jensen. It shouldn’t surprise him that she’d known exactly what to do to increase his fear.
Jeff tried to keep his breathing even. He couldn't see, just as Jensen couldn't see when he had been tortured by the Confed.
The robe was stripped from his body, and Jeff could feel the cool air on his skin. He was conscious of his nudity, of being the only naked one in the room. His hands flexed with the urge to cover himself.
His wrists were taken and bound in front of him, then pulled forward until he was bent over with his legs spread for balance. Something with padding was placed under his chest, and at first Jeff was grateful for the support. Then he realized the queen figured he would NEED the support and he grew tense, not knowing where the first blow would come.
Jeff listened as hard as he could, but heard nothing, not even footsteps. He tried to remember if he had heard it when they first walked in, but couldn't. It wasn't something he'd paid attention to before, although he bet the tech could dampen any sound. His belly went sour as he thought of Jensen like this – bound and helpless and not knowing what was coming.
This was their world – the subs of Harmony. They asked for this, needed this. Jeff had never wanted pain or to be bound, although he'd taken pleasure out of doling it out. This moment of silence twisted everything he'd known and Jeff wasn't sure of anything at the moment.
The first blow struck him on one calf – it was hard, as if from a cane or crop. But he didn't have time to get used to that before something whipped the fleshy skin of his ass. She was trading tools, going from hard to soft – from cane to whip Jeff guessed. He could never anticipate the next strike – sometimes it would be hard, other times soft, with the location always changing. That made it hard to accept the pain, since his muscles tensed in reaction each time.
He let out an involuntary cry when she sliced open his back. Jeff had known pain and thought he could take it silently. But nothing compared to the burn of his skin being flayed open. Stars, Jensen hated blood. What was it doing to him to watch?
What had it done to him to be taken by the Confed? To have his fears used against him?
Oh, Jen, he thought. I'm so fucking sorry.
The blows came faster now – the cane being used over and over, each strike a hard smack against his flesh. Jeff couldn't help the whimpers, although he tried to hide them for Jensen's sake. He understood now, why he was denied a gag. There was a moment when everything stopped, and he could hear the ragged sound of his own breathing and that of the queen's. Then something hard probed between his ass, at his balls and flaccid cock.
"No. . ." he struggled to get the word out, but it never passed his lips.
She drew back and didn't pull the strike. If there hadn't been a support under his chest, Jeff would have fallen. Even still, he lost his footing, but she didn't hold up and Jeff couldn't hold back. He screamed.
"Stop this. Stop it now!"
Jensen's words ended the blows and Jeff was grateful for the reprieve. He didn't think she'd let him up so soon. But then the blindfold was being lifted off of Jeff's eyes and he blinked up at Jensen's tear-stained face.
"Jeff, you've had my forgiveness."
"Needed . . . to forgive myself," He choked out of his raw throat.
Jensen's face hardened and he turned to the queen. "This is over. I'm going to take him to the healers myself."
She nodded. "As you wish."
Jensen undid the ropes and helped Jeff to his feet. Jeff wrapped his arms around Jensen's back and leaned on him. It felt good to let Jensen support him for once.
Jensen paced the length of the waiting room in the healer's center. He'd gone in with Jeff, and dozens of healers had pooled out of their enclave to take over, loading Jeff up on a stretcher and taking him deep inside the chamber. Apparently the damage had been so great Healer Nicci had asked Jensen to wait outside while they worked to repair it. Jensen slammed his fist into one of the pale couches every time he passed, but it could not hurt nearly as much as what Jeff had gone through.
He was kicking himself for not stopping it sooner. The entire time the queen had been looking directly at Jensen, as if seeking his approval. It had finally dawned on him that she was waiting for him to decide when Jeff had had enough. Jeff was only bound because he wanted Jensen's forgiveness.
Jensen stopped and dug his palms into his eyes. Stars, how Jeff must love him, to let his body be used like that! That should not be flattering. But he couldn't deny the warmth in his chest or the awe at watching Jeff take his punishment. Even with the blood, Jensen could not look away. He would not leave Jeff to suffer alone.
His comm unit chirped in his pocket. Jensen had almost forgotten about it. Most of the time people from the military base contacted Jeff anyway, while anyone from Harmony used the tele to get in touch with Jensen. He looked at the display and frowned at the incoming caller. This couldn't wait. Finding an alcove between two columns to tuck himself into, Jensen hit the answer button. "Ackles."
A man he assumed to be Fuller appeared in a tiny hologram that hovered over the unit. "Ah, Mr. Ackles. Just the person I was looking to speak to."
"You did dial my comm code, sir." In his own head Jensen replaced the sir with asshole.
"I was just going through Mr. Morgan's reports. He claims you were healed by the city."
Jensen frowned. "That's correct, sir."
"Indeed, it appears you are looking at me right now. You can see me?"
"If the bald man in the hologram is you, then yes." Jensen kept his face as bland as possible. He shouldn't really be having fun with Fuller right now.
Fuller humphed under his breath. "You see, Mr. Ackles, the intriguing thing is that although Mr. Morgan reported you healed – which apparently is the case, disparaging remarks on my cranial palate aside – the scans that Chikezie sent in for analysis don't show much difference from your last medical checkup. Can you explain that?"
Jensen felt like ice had been poured through his veins. "No, sir, I can't." And he couldn't explain how Harmony had done what she had – giving Jensen sight and keeping him pain free while he was within her walls.
"I suppose it could be a problem with her scanners. You need to come back to the base for a full medical workup."
His heart sped up. Even with Maggie's device, Jensen did not want to leave the city. They'd take it off at the base anyway, and poke at him to try to find out why he couldn't see. "I'm afraid I can't. Right now we are at a crucial part of the Choosing. To leave now would be insulting to our hosts."
Fuller stared at him for a moment and Jensen swore the commandant was going to call Jensen on the bullshit. "Well, then, let me know when it's convenient for you to come back here."
"Of course, sir." That would never happen. Jensen closed the connection, running his fingers over the smooth metal of his comm unit.
He turned and smiled at Healer Nicci. "Yes?"
"You can come in now. He's been asking for you."
Jensen tucked his comm away and followed her back into the heart of the center. She slid open the door of a private room and gestured him inside. Jensen was grateful that she slipped away as soon as he entered. "Jeff."
Jeff looked drowsy as he reclined on a plethora of pillows. Beds here were far more luxurious than any other hospital Jensen had even been in. The soft covers were pulled down to Jeff’s waist, showing off his bare chest mercifully free of any cuts or bruises. "Hey, Jen. Climb on up here, would ya?"
He didn't need to be asked twice. Jensen toed off his sandals and hopped up on Jeff's bed, curling in close to Jeff's body so he wouldn't fall off. It was a bit of a tight fit, but Jensen didn't care. He tucked his head under Jeff's chin and threw his arm around Jeff's waist, soaking in the warmth emanating from Jeff’s skin.
Jeff chuckled. "Comfy?"
"I'm sorry," Jensen whispered. "I should've stopped it sooner."
"Jensen. . ."
"It took me too long to figure out. Stars, Jeff, I was so stupid. She was waiting for my signal and without it, she just kept going." He squeezed his eyes shut, but couldn't drown out the images of Jeff torn up and bloody, bound and at the mercy of the queen’s whip.
"Not your fault. I should have told you what I was planning beforehand. Then you would have read up on the damn Rite and know more about it than I did." Jeff ran his fingers down Jensen's back. It felt so soothing, Jensen thought he could fall asleep right here.
"You didn't need to do it at all. Jeff I told you. . ."
"Jensen, as hard as it is to believe, it's not entirely about you." Jeff gentled his words with a kiss to Jensen's forehead. "I needed something to help with the guilt. It had me twisted all up inside. I think I needed to feel what you felt, to suffer like to you did, so I could let that time go."
Jensen understood. He was too much of a scut not too. Sometimes the only way to deal with emotions buried deep inside was with the whip. "Fine. But we're done with that now, right?"
He sighed. "Good, because we've got other problems to deal with.” Jensen winced. It seemed like they’d never get enough time for themselves. “Fuller wants me to come in for a medical checkup and they've already recalled Hank."
"All right." Jeff paused. "What did you tell Fuller?"
"Told him it would be insulting to leave just now, so that's put off for a bit." At least until the end of the Choosing, if Jensen had his way. "I'm more worried about Hank."
"I take it he doesn't want to leave."
"No, but it was like pulling teeth to get him to admit that." Jensen lifted his head and rubbed his chin against the short beard on Jeff's cheeks. He loved the feel of stubble against his skin. Hell, he just loved the feel of Jeff. "I think I've got an idea how to help them. It just needs Ian to go along with it."
"It's right there in the treaty. Actually, it's standard in all UP agreements. If a UP citizen marries a native, then the UP can't force that citizen to return. It also makes the married partner an automatic citizen."
"But Harmony doesn't have a concept of marriage."
"Harmony doesn't need to. It just has to be legal in the UP's eyes." Jensen didn't have all the legalities worked out just yet, but now that Jeff knew, he was sure they could figure it out together.
"Have I told you, boy, that you're devious?"
Jensen laughed. "Not lately, no. But I'm looking forward to you calling me a lot worse things than that." He trailed his fingers up Jeff's chest.
Jeff caught Jensen's hand in his. "Then let's get me discharged. Fucking in a hospital is not exactly one of my kinks."
"I'll get the healer."
Maggie stared at her reflection in the mirror and pondered the problem of her hair. Should she pull it up or leave it down? She wasn't sure what went with the outfit the queen's tailor had designed for her. This wasn't the kind of thing that Johnson's notes on Harmony culture helped with, and she wasn’t about to go and ask the anthropologist for hair tips.
She pulled her dark curls back into a ponytail and made a face at her reflection. Odds were that nobody was going to be looking at her face anyway – not with the cut of the leather bodice and the short lace skirt. Maggie didn't know if she liked the outfit or not – although she loved the boots that laced up to her thighs. They made her feel sexy and that wasn't something she thought about every day in her duty uniform.
The door chimed. Maggie swept her gaze over her bedroom making sure it looked decent before palming the door open. Unlike the military order of her quarters, Maggie hadn’t spent enough time in here to straighten it to her satisfaction. At least she hadn't left any underwear out – although she wondered if that would shock anyone here.
Hank grinned at her from the other side of the door with Ian at his side. "Hey, Maggie, ready for the orgy?"
Ian rubbed his eyes. "It's not an orgy. Technically."
No matter what tonight's event was, Hank was certainly dressed for it. A black leather harness wrapped around his torso, with straps disappearing beneath his leather kilt – which made Maggie wonder how far down the straps went – and what exactly they wrapped around. He had matching cuffs on his wrists, biceps and ankles. That only served to show off his bare feet. Hank had lovely feet for a man – long and lean with delicate bone structure.
Ian's outfit didn't show a speck of skin, covering him from neck down in black leather. Like Maggie, he had boots that laced all the way up to his thighs, emphasizing the power in his muscles. He even wore gloves. Something about those encased fingers made her want to shiver and Maggie couldn't explain why.
"I trust Ian's opinion on the matter." Maggie gestured to let them come in. "Caroline and Whitfield will be joining us. I think Johnson and Brown are both staying in for the night."
"Mmm. I wouldn't want to subject Karl to tonight." Hank started to walk around her bedchamber, flicking at the tapestries hanging on the wall opposite her bed. They were rather sedate, showing off a woven pattern of leaves and flowers as opposed to some raunchy scene.
Karl Johnson had been a slave once, before being rescued by the UP. Hank was probably right about keeping him away from the event. Despite his work here in Harmony, Johnson seemed to keep himself removed from the actual participation in events. At first Maggie had thought that good strategy for an anthropologist. Hank’s words reminded her that there was more to it.
"Are you expecting to find company?" Ian reached out and touched the green band around her arm. It had clashed terribly with the rosy cream of her outfit, but it was necessary.
Maggie touched her arm. "I thought most subs were already paired up with a Dom."
Ian smiled. "Most that you encounter, yes. But the Choosing is the time for many to go on the market, so many yellow bands will be offering themselves in hopes of finding a Dom."
Maggie didn't know what she would do with a sub of her own. Maybe make him clean her room?
"That's just what we need, another UP/Harmony couple." Hank had gotten to her window and was braiding the lavender drapes. Could he never keep still? She was glad he hadn’t started rifling through her drawers!
She frowned. "What happened?"
"Henry was recalled." Ian's face hardened, but his eyes never left Hank.
Hank let the braided curtains fall back. "But Jeff and Jensen might have a solution. Would you mind explaining marriage to Ian, here?"
Maggie blinked. "Well, when two people love each other very much. . . ."
Hank snorted. "It's not love he needs help with."
"From what I understand it's a mutually beneficial contract between two people. What I can't figure out is what role each plays in said 'marriage.'" Ian honestly looked confused.
She cleared her throat. "Well, honestly, you should be asking Dr. Johnson about this. I'm sure he could tell you all about the history of marriage on Earth – how at one time women were considered property of their husbands."
"So all women were considered subs? How strange."
"Not exactly." Maggie didn't even know where to go from there. She shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Now we consider marriage a joining of two equals."
The look of confusion only increased. "But how do you know which is the sub if it is not codified in the contract?"
"This is where I get stuck." Hank crossed his arms over his chest, the muscles in his biceps bulging against the cuffs.
"Well, you see, in our society it's not anyone else's business who, uh, tops." Maggie could feel her face heat. "That's usually considered private between two spouses." Or three or four, depending on what planet you were talking about. Maggie decided to keep things simple for now.
"I see." Ian did look like he was beginning to understand. He turned back to Hank. "So our roles wouldn't change?"
"Wait, wait, wait!" Maggie cut off Hank's answer. "What do you mean? Are you two thinking of getting married?"
"Jensen seems to think that if we do, then the UP can't make me leave. It's in all the standard treaty agreements, so it's even in this one."
"Huh. He might have a point." Maggie would have to look it over herself, but it made sense. "Do you want to get married?" She was looking at Hank when she asked and the moment she saw his eyes get soft, she had the answer to her question.
"I'm waiting for someone to ask me." Hank winked at Ian.
"No commitment should be considered lightly," Ian returned with a fond smile.
Maggie resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Well, just put my name in the hat for bridesmaid."
When Ian gave her a confused look, Hank just shook his head and said: "I'll explain later. We should see if Caroline and Whitfield are ready."
They should. Maggie grinned. Tonight sounded like fun after all.
Jensen ended up not wearing any leather at all, despite Jeff's comment in the transport. Instead he wore a pair of blue harem pants that hung low on his hips, just below his belly. He'd covered his bare chest with golden body shimmer. As things went here on Harmony, he wasn't outside normal fashion for tonight. Tonight everyone would be decked out in their best fetish gear.
"Ready?" Jeff's outfit looked like a warped military uniform – all black leather with red straps crisscrossing in strategic places. Jensen especially liked the ones that wrapped around Jeff's thighs. If Jensen pulled the right strap, the pants would give away in critical areas, like Jeff's crotch.
"Oh, yeah." Jensen turned away from the mirror and wrapped his arms around Jeff's waist. The leather felt smooth under his fingertips.
"I miss the navel piercing." Jeff tickled at Jensen's naked belly button. "You look less like a harem boy without it."
"Kinda worried that you know what a harem boy looks like." Jensen pressed their lips together briefly. "I want to scene tonight, if you're up to it."
"Jensen, are you sure you're up to it?"
It would be the first time they'd scene in public this trip to Harmony. "It's nothing like the Confed. This place, it makes the dark times go away." The longer they stayed here, the less real the past two years seemed. Of course, Jensen tried hard to forget what had been done to him, despite it sneaking up in unexpected places. "Are you up to tonight?"
It had only been two days since Jeff had undergone the forgiveness rite. Jensen knew Harmony healing was good, but the physical issues were not the ones Jensen was worried about. Jeff had always been the Dom and had never submitted under someone else’s hand before. Now that he’d gotten the experience, Jensen worried Jeff might hesitate in fear of hurting Jensen; but sometimes Jensen wanted to be hurt.
"Why wouldn't I be?"
Jensen bit his lip. "Because of the Rite. I don't want you to be uncomfortable."
"Jensen, because of the rite, I feel freer than I have in a long time." The grin spread slowly across Jeff’s face, as if his own words had taken him by surprise. "Now, come on. There's plenty to see before we decide on where to scene." He pulled a thin leather leash off of the dresser.
Jensen felt proud to wear the leash, as Jeff led him through the halls of the palace. Here in Harmony his desire to be owned wasn't seen as something odd or a fringe fetish to only be enjoyed on rare occasions. Everyone could see that he belonged to Jeff, that he was a good boy ready to serve his master.
The plug in his ass was a reminder of that. He wanted to tease Jeff at first – ask him why he was so insistent on plugs lately. But as Jeff pushed the hard rubber inside him, he'd murmured: "Need you ready whenever I want you." Jensen couldn't argue with that.
He wondered when Jeff would take advantage of it. Every moment they walked ratcheted the anticipation level higher and Jensen was already hardening in his too revealing pants.
They passed a Dom in the hall leading two subs by chain metal leashes. Both of the subs wore black masks that completely covered their faces and matching black mitts on their hands as they crawled. Jensen shivered at the sight, caught with arousal.
"You okay?" Jeff murmured when they'd gone a little way past the Dom.
"Oh, that was a good shiver." Jensen grinned at him. Maybe Jeff hadn't been the only one to benefit from the rite. Jensen no longer shied away from kinks that would have had him hesitating only months before. Perhaps the darkness really had lifted.
The lift took them to the second level of the great hall, to the balconies blocked off with carved obsidian railings where they could survey the action that stretched on for the length of the room. It was filled with people as far as the eye could see, the crowd moving and laughing with a heightened energy that thrummed in Jensen’s veins. He could see alcoves set off from the hall for the more private scenes, and several stages throughout the main path where exhibitionists could show off to their heart's content.
Sophia and Tom were also looking over the railing. Both were indistinguishable from Harmony natives, wearing clothing that wouldn't look out of place at a fetish party. Sophia looked powerful in her scarlet catsuit and lace-up black boots as she led Tom toward them. Jensen was struck with the thought that Harmony would make a great retirement community for the displaced scuts. He grinned at Sophia. "You made the orgy."
She blinked. "Actually. . ."
Jensen shook his head. "Don't mind me, that's what Hank's been calling it for days."
"Hank tends to come up with things like that." Jeff leaned against the railing, curling his fingers over the spiraled carving.
Sophia shook her head. "I'll take your word for it. I haven't really officially met him."
"You've been busy." Jensen nodded toward Tom. He actually looked good, wearing a pair of tight leather pants and little else, emphasizing the dark collar around his pale throat. His skin was smooth and unscarred, which meant he hadn't been hurting himself lately.
Tom grinned. "We're going to scene tonight. Maybe."
"We'll see how it goes." Sophia squeezed his arm. "The Soul Healer gave us the okay."
"I'm supposed to be learning control." Tom nodded very seriously.
"And you're doing wonderfully." Sophia kept touching him, smoothing her hand down his skin. Jensen thought she might be keeping him grounded. "We'll see you later?"
"Of course." Jeff waved them off.
Jensen watched until they faded into the crowd. Something eased inside him. Tom was going to be okay.
Jeff tugged on the leash. "Ready to go downstairs?"
Jensen admitted to peeking into all the little alcoves as they walked. He swallowed hard when he saw a group of subs suspended from hooks under their skin. He'd never wanted the hooks, but he loved suspension. Maybe he could talk Jeff into playing with a swing or with ropes, like they had their first trip out to Harmony. That scene had gotten so intense it had sent Jensen into subspace and had freaked out Jeff just a bit. They’d come so far since then.
What struck him the further they walked into the dimly lit room, was how beautiful it all was. These Doms and subs were proud of their art and had gone to great lengths to present something to be admired. Of course, that could just be his own optimism talking. Everything looked lovely to Jensen's eyes right now. Everything added to the arousal that hummed through his body.
Jeff touched his shoulder, the leash going slack. "Is that Hank and Ian?"
Jensen looked where he gestured. Ian was leading Hank by a leash as well, this one attached to his cock, and what looked, from the flash of light, to be a piercing attached to Hank's foreskin. Hank wore little else except for a leather harness and straps that covered his body. Ian took them over to one of the shaded alcoves, which was set up more like a lounge with couches and chairs. He sat and Hank crawled up into his lap. Jensen turned away to give them their privacy.
"I thought they were coming with Maggie and the others." Jeff still stared.
"Probably ditched them so they could play." Jensen curled against Jeff's body, breathing in deeply of Jeff's scent mixed with the leather. It brought him to full hardness so fast he thought he'd pass out. "Looks like they found the orgy."
Hank's description wasn't far off. There were plenty of other pairs and trios in the little lounge, all in various states of coitus. Unlike the ones on display, who were creating art to Jensen's mind, these couplings were fierce and frantic and above all, very intimate.
"Speaking of, there's Claudia and Misha." Jeff moved them in that direction, finally turning away from Hank and Ian. Jensen supposed Jeff might find it odd to see Hank like that, since Jeff had known Hank before he was a sub, and, in fact, had been Hank’s commanding officer.
Jensen followed Jeff’s lead, surprised to see that Claudia and Misha weren't in the middle of a scene. He knew Misha had a bit of a reputation to uphold. Instead they appeared to be observing just as much as Jensen and Jeff were. However, when Misha saw them his bright eyes lit up and he ran to Jensen and grasped his arms.
"Jen! Scene with me, please? You've been so busy we keep missing you," Misha pouted.
It was true. Between everything that had happened with finding Discord and their normal liaison duties, Jensen hadn't had much time for his friends in Harmony. He'd have to fix that. "That's up to Jeff, you know."
Claudia put her hand on Misha's shoulder, which seemed to relax him a bit. "Well, then, Dom Jeff, I formally request that our two subs perform together. If you're willing?" She winked at Jensen.
Jensen turned to Jeff, to make sure Jeff could read the consent in his eyes. He nodded for good measure. The idea of scening with Misha again made him want - the desire burning its way through his gut. It had been so long. Jeff ran his fingers through Jensen's hair, petting him like a cat. Jensen closed his eyes and went with it, being soothed by Jeff's touch.
"Yes. How shall we do this?"
Claudia grinned. "Oh, I have a plan."
Jensen kept pace with Misha as they followed their Doms out of the crowd. He knew Jeff and Claudia would be conferring over the terms of the scene and he didn’t want to interfere with that. So instead he turned to Misha. “Do you miss being a red band?”
Red banded subs didn’t belong to a single Dom, instead they were often attached to a tavern or house. They were usually contracted out for a shorter period of time, too. Jensen guessed they were the closest thing Harmony had to prostitutes, except that their work was considered sacred, as submission was held to be almost holy here.
Misha laughed. “How can I when my mistress does her best to make sure I never lack for wanting?” He gestured to the stage they were heading for. “She gives me every opportunity to indulge myself.”
“And yet, you are hers, aren’t you?” Jensen marveled at how the two of them had come together – royal duchess and street red band – and yet they were perfectly suited for each other.
Claudia turned to give them a wink. She was incredibly inventive and Jensen felt arousal curl in his belly. He could not wait for what she had planned.
Jeff wasn't sure how this was going to work. The last time they'd scened with Claudia and Misha, he and Claudia had done a fair bit of negotiation and planning first. That wasn't the only issue behind his hesitation. So much of coming here had been about he and Jensen finding their way again. Adding other people in the mix just seemed to be calling for trouble.
Claudia led them to an empty alcove that was semi secluded from the others, half hidden behind a tall silvery gray curtain. Maybe she'd reserved it in advance? Jeff had no idea how these things worked.
"I remember," Claudia said in his ear. "No one fucks your boy but you. I hope you don't mind if your boy sucks off mine."
Jeff had a flash of Jensen's pouty lips stretched wide around Misha's length and thickened in his trousers. "No," he said, unable to hide the hoarse cast to his voice.
From start to finish, this would be Claudia's show. Jeff would follow her lead and hope he didn't make a complete ass out of himself. First, she stripped Misha, who allowed it as if he were nothing more than a large doll for her entertainment. The strip show started to garner a crowd and Jeff became more aware of how they were on stage. He would be performing for these people, and the thought of it started to excite him. Jeff never realized he had an exhibitionist kink.
Misha was still very popular with the people. He waved and flirted with their audience until Claudia dragged him back by his collar and bound his arms over head, the ropes leading up to the ceiling. She tugged to make sure they were tight, and then put cuffs around his ankles. Misha spread his legs and she attached them to the floor. He was very prettily tied.
Stars, two years ago Jeff had just been starting to think like that. It was Jensen who had taught him to find beauty in this gift of submission. He was grateful to Misha for wanting to share this with both of them.
Claudia stood behind her boy and began to run her fingers all over him, digging her nails across his smooth body and leaving trails of red over the pale skin. "Isn't he lovely?" She looked at Jensen as she said it. She cupped Misha's cock in her hand, stroking it until it was shiny with precome. "Would you like a taste?"
"Crawl to him," Jeff murmured in Jensen's ear. "Suck him slowly. Make it last."
Jensen shuddered, but nodded. He dropped to his knees and crawled across the stage with careful languid movements. The energy in the crowd seemed to increase once they recognized Jensen, leading to murmurs that swelled among their audience.
That was his boy out there. They all wanted him, but Jeff was the only one who got to take him home.
Jensen threw a look over his shoulder at Jeff, giving him a smirk before reaching up to take Misha's cock between his lips. The sight was even better than Jeff had imagined. Misha could do nothing but moan with the way he was tied. He couldn't even thrust into Jensen's mouth. Jensen controlled the pace and it was just as slow as Jeff had ordered.
First Jensen licked the very crown of Misha's cock, then slid his lips over the tip, hollowing his cheeks as he moved further down the base. Misha threw back his head and moaned, but even Jeff could tell it wasn't enough.
Claudia wasn't done. She emerged with a long red dildo – one big enough that it made Jeff wince. It made the crowd cheer when she slid it between the cheeks of Misha's ass. Misha let out a loud groan, just this side of painful.
Jeff had to step forward. He couldn't just stand and watch, not while Claudia became part of the show. Placing his hand on the back of Jensen's head he guided Jensen's motions, speeding them up every so slightly.
"Make him come." Claudia nodded at Jeff.
"Suck harder, boy," Jeff ordered. He heard Jensen moan deep in his throat. "Swallow him down."
Claudia murmured something in Misha's ear and twisted the dildo. He cried out and his body arched as he strained against his bonds. Jensen pulled off and licked his lips.
"Don't think you're done, slut," Claudia clucked. "I know you're good for at least two more."
Jeff heard the buzz of a vibrator and realized Claudia had added to the sensations in Misha's ass. Misha tried to twist in his bonds – he must be so sensitive right now. "Help him," Jeff commanded.
Jensen started with his fingers, gently stroking Misha's soft dick back into hardness. Then he reached out to lick once more, looking like nothing so much as a giant cat. Jeff couldn't hold back anymore. He plastered himself against Jensen's backside, pressing his hard cock against Jensen's ass.
He wanted to strip those pants off of Jensen's tight ass and fuck him senseless. But Jeff didn't want to make this about his own pleasure and he didn't want to come for the crowd. He undid the ties around Jensen's crotch and pulled out Jensen's dick.
"Gonna take you back to our rooms and fuck you so hard you'll feel it in your throat," Jeff rumbled in Jensen's ear for him to hear alone.
Claudia twisted Misha's nipples with her free hand, getting yet another cry out of her sub. Misha was awfully vocal. Jeff would have gagged him by now.
"Please," Jensen murmured and Jeff didn't know if he reacted to Jeff's words or Jeff's hand around his cock.
"Make him come all over you. Want to see you marked like a little slut." Jeff increased the strokes of his hand, the other pulling on Jensen's heavy balls.
Jensen sealed his lips around Misha's cock again, sucking hard. It took a little longer this time – Misha had had the edge taken off with that first orgasm. But then Misha was crying out and Jensen pulled off just before the other sub came. Streaks of milky white fell across Jensen's cheeks and lips.
Jeff groaned and tightened his hand. "Come for me, slut."
Jensen stiffened below him and he let out a keening groan before emptying into Jeff's hand. Jeff brought his fingers up to Jensen's mouth and made him lick them clean. Fuck that was so hot.
Jeff pulled Jensen back to nestle in his arms while Claudia brought Misha to a third orgasm. He loved how Jensen looked when he was post-coital – all sleepy and sensual. Jeff could cuddle him for hours, or at least until he was ready for another round.
Eventually Claudia let Misha out of his restraints and the cheeky sub bowed for the crowd who applauded and cheered him. Jeff had seen sports starts with less enthusiastic fans. Misha waved until Claudia closed the curtains, leaving them in relative privacy in which to clean up.
"That was fun." Misha sauntered over to Jensen. He was walking a bit funny, but Jeff bet he would be feeling it even more tomorrow.
"I'm glad we had this chance." Claudia came over to Jeff's side, wiping her hands on a damp cloth. "If I had known you'd be so busy I would have scheduled an appointment much earlier."
Jeff laughed. "Honestly, I didn't expect to be this busy either." He sobered. He hadn't expected to be pulled in so many different directions. If Fuller and the UP weren’t enough to worry about, Jeff had to think about Harmony politics too.
Claudia gave him a serious look. "I do not think I'd have to strength to take the Rite as you did, had I wronged Misha."
Her words surprised the shit out of him. "How do you know about that?" He knew Claudia and the queen were close, but he hadn't expected her to speak about it like this.
"Jeff, it made the tele. It wasn't on an official citywide broadcast, but it was held up to the Doms as an example of the worth of a true Dom. That definition has been debated these past two years, ever since Adrian was cast out."
All traces of arousal fled his veins and was replaced with ice. Jeff could only stare at Claudia before he could form words. "Why would she do that?"
Claudia seemed to sense his rising anger. She touched his shoulder. "You haven't been here these past two years, Jeff. After Alona took power in Alonan there have been questions and outcry. Some of her critics were questioning whether Adrian was really a criminal. Michelle needed to make a public statement – a Dom has a responsibility."
"So she used me as an example." Jeff shook her arm off. Nothing changed, whether in the UP or here, he and Jensen were just tools to be used by whoever had the power.
"Have a good night, Duchess." Jeff went to retrieve Jensen, who had been sitting and laughing with Misha. "We're going back to the room."
Jensen frowned, but he seemed to catch on to Jeff's mood and followed him meekly out of the alcove. Jeff didn't even need to attach the leash. He waited until they got into the lift before slamming his hand against the wall. It hurt, but not enough.
"Jeff, what the hell happened?"
"The Rite was made public," Jeff spoke as best he could with his jaw clenched. "The queen used us, Jen."
"Wait, wait." Jensen grabbed Jeff's hand and kissed the bruised fingers. "What exactly did Claudia say?"
"Just that it was being used as an example for Doms." Jeff allowed Jensen's lips on his skin to distract him. It was either that or give into the urge to march himself to the queen's chambers and demand to know what the hell she was thinking.
"All right. Let's see for ourselves." Jensen let go of Jeff's hand long enough to call up the tele. He formed a screen with his fingers and it appeared in the center of the lift. Jensen scrolled through the lists of broadcasts. "This wasn't an official broadcast?"
"No." Jeff looked at the listing, curious despite himself. "I wonder if it showed up as a workshop?" During the Choosing the people of Harmony dedicated themselves to learning new techniques.
"Got it." Jensen flicked the screen and the video started to play.
The queen appeared in that red outfit she'd worn to discipline Jeff. She must have planned this. Jeff squeezed his hand into a fist to keep from hitting the wall again.
"Doms of Harmony. I present this as a reminder of the purpose and beauty of the Rite of Atonement. The Rite has been nearly forgotten in recent times, and I believe it is time for a resurgence."
She looked fiercely at the camera and spoke about the history of the rite for a few moments. Then she started to talk about Jeff and Jensen. ". . .they are outsiders who have chosen to follow our ways. They honor us and shame us, because we have forgotten something so basic."
What followed was a very edited version of what happened in that dungeon. Jeff's beating was captured from a distance, only to end up with the camera closing in on Jensen cupping Jeff's face in his hands and whispering his forgiveness. No one should have seen that! That moment was meant to be between Jensen and him, no one else.
"We need to remember our responsibility as Doms. Subs are in our care, and it is only right that we submit ourselves. . . ."
"Shut it off," Jeff growled. "I don't want to hear any more of her bullshit."
Jensen closed the screen and touched the wall of the lift, which began moving again. "Jeff…"
"I've half a mind to ride this thing to her chambers and give her a piece of my mind right now."
"You won't." Jensen cupped Jeff's face between his hands, much as he did in the video. "You're going to come back to our bedroom with me and cuddle Mila until you can think rationally about this."
"Cuddle Mila, huh?"
"She is most cuddly." Jensen's lips twitched. "After a good night's sleep you'll be in a better shape to speak with her tomorrow. And don't get me wrong, I definitely think you need to have a chat with the queen. Just not when you're this upset and wound up."
"Aren't you pissed off?"
Jensen kissed him. "Fuck, yes. But I'm willing to withhold judgment until we speak to her ourselves."
"Wish I had your patience." Jeff could see the soldier in Jensen – in the measured way in which he thought about this and the thoughtful look in his eyes. He bet Jensen had a thousand theories, but wouldn't share them until damn good and ready. That lightened him a bit – his Jensen was coming back, becoming more like himself every day. "All right. I am looking forward to that cuddle with Mila."
Jensen laughed. "As is she, I'm sure."
Jensen woke, thrashing in the bed sheets and covered in a sheen of sweat. He managed to slide out of bed without waking Jeff, though at first he could only stumble instead of walking upright. His hands were shaking and he had to rub at the palms to make sure they weren't bleeding.
Mila jumped out of her bed and followed him to the window that looked out over the city. Jensen sank to the floor in the ray of sunlight and buried his face in his hands. The nightmare lurked behind his eyelids. He couldn't hide from Issacs' face as his torturer pinned him and blinded him again and again.
It was only when Mila licked at his face that Jensen realized he was crying. He threw his arms around her and let go, sobbing into her soft fur. He'd been so foolish. Jensen had put all his hopes in Harmony, thinking just coming here would magically make everything okay. But the darkness still lurked in his soul, not matter how much his body healed.
"Jen?" Jeff's voice startled him into looking up. "Are you all right?"
Jeff climbed out of bed and started for Jensen. He dropped to his knees, but when he reached for Jensen's shoulder, Jensen held up his hand. "Please. I'd rather not be touched right now." Not when the horrors of his past were still so close to the surface. Jensen didn't want to associate Jeff's touch with that, not ever.
"All right." Jeff sat back on his heels. "What happened, panic attack?"
"Nightmare." Jensen tensed. He didn't want Jeff to give him any of the sedatives he knew Jared had put into their luggage.
Jeff didn't say anything, just sat there and his solid silent presence actually helped. Jensen wiped at his eyes and grinned when Jeff handed him a handkerchief. "I guess I thought this would all stop once we got here. Maybe I was just pushing it down, pretending I was okay."
"Jensen. We came here for healing." Jeff put his hand next to Jensen's bare foot, close enough for Jensen to close the distance and touch, if he wanted. "But while we were so focused on your body, we forgot your soul."
Jensen rubbed the back of his neck, taking comfort in the feel of his leather collar. When he’d been captured back in the Confed he'd been forced to wear a heavy collar with an embedded chip to monitor him. Taking Jeff's collar had been a way to take control of those memories, of making this his again. Jensen thought he'd had it all under wraps, that he didn't need the same kind of healing Tom required.
"Maybe you're right."
"Of course I am." Jeff gave him a dimpled smile. "I know you haven't been in touch with any of your Earth doctors since we got here."
Even his therapist, who, damn it, Jensen had promised to keep in touch with. Luckily she couldn't call Jared and tell on him. "I guess I should take advantage of the Soul Healers here, then."
Jensen shifted his foot so it touched Jeff's hand, and the contact was soothing. Jeff slid up the arch of Jensen's foot and settled his fingers around Jensen's ankle.
"Here's the plan then. We have a nice long breakfast. . . or brunch, rather, and then take an even longer bath. Maybe by then everyone will finally be awake after last night's orgy. . ." Jeff winced as he caught himself. "Damn it, Hank."
Jensen laughed, though he was sure the slip had been intentional. "And then I'll go the Soul Healers."
Jeff nodded. "And I'll have a chat with the queen."
"Jeff." Jensen covered Jeff's hand with his own.
"Don't worry. I think I've calmed down enough to be rational. I just want to know what the hell she was thinking."
Jensen shrugged. "This place isn't some magical wonderland, Jeff. I'm sorry I've been treating it like that. People are people and they fuck up."
"Take some of that advice about yourself." Jeff stood and helped Jensen to his feet. "Stop trying to be more than human. You can’t tough through this by yourself."
"I'll try." Jensen couldn't make any promises. He knew himself too well for that.
Jeff's comm buzzed shortly after he dropped Jensen off at the Soul Healer's center. Of course. He couldn't just worry about Jensen without another crisis being dropped on his plate. And stars it had terrified him to see Jensen rocking and weeping with Mila in his arms. Jeff should have known it was coming. Jensen had been going full throttle since they landed. Something had to break. He was just glad he’d been there to pick up the pieces.
He pulled the comm out and reluctantly flicked the answer switch. "Morgan."
That really couldn't be good. "What's wrong, Commander?"
"Well, sir, I have to account for the use of the transports to leave Harmony in my report and I'm wondering just what you want me to say."
Jeff sighed. "We can't hide Discord forever, Sterling. Just depends on what we want to say about the city."
"I'll be happy to leave certain details out. Want me to send you my report before I file it?"
"Please." Jeff read between the lines and knew Brown wasn't going to mention Jensen's breakdown or the Harmony technology they used to get Jensen out of the city. Fuller was already harping on Jensen coming down for a medical scan and that was the last thing they needed.
"No problem. Brown out."
Jeff shoved the comm back into his pocket. Now onto the next crisis.
The lift doors opened to the queen's private floor. Jeff didn't know if he had a blanket
invitation to come here or if they did open for anyone who had a legitimate reason to visit her. He didn't have an appointment this time, but Jeff was damned if she wasn't going to talk to him after flashing his ass on the tele for the entire city to see.
With that thought on his mind he burst into the hallway and stomped down towards where he knew the queen's sitting room was. Several of her subs scattered at the sight of him. Jeff hadn't gotten past the twin fountains in the courtyard before sub Fredric stepped out and stopped his progress.
"Dom Jeff. What brings you here so early?"
"I need to speak with your mistress."
"I'm afraid you'll have to wait a moment. She's in the middle of a scene." Fredric folded his hands and looked apologetic.
Jeff had to wrap his mind around that for a moment, since, in his mind, if the queen were in the middle of a scene she'd be doing one with Fredric. Just because Fredric was her primary sub didn't mean she could ignore her two hundred other subs. Jeff honestly didn't know how she did it. "Normally I'd respect that. However, since my issue is the lack of respect the queen has for my privacy, I think I should take precedence at the moment."
"What do you mean?" Fredric's eyes widened.
Did he not know? "I'm referring to your mistress putting video of my Rite up on the tele."
Fredric pressed his lips together and Jeff thought he might be hiding anger. "It was only meant to be seen by Doms seeking information about the Rite."
"Well that's kinda hard to control when it's public." Jeff didn't know if she could control who saw what on the tele, but if anyone could, it would be the fucking queen.
"Come with me."
Fredric led him away from the sitting room, down a narrow hallway that Jeff had never explored before. They came to a door set in under an archway made up of a mosaic of colored tiles. "Wait here for a moment." The door swirled open long enough for Fredric to slip through, and then closed up back again.
Jeff leaned his forehead against the wall. If she hadn't even told her primary – what Jeff considered the equivalent of her husband – then the queen had done this on purpose knowing Fredric would not be happy. She’d better have a damn good explanation for betraying Jeff’s privacy like this.
The door opened and Fredric finally emerged, face flushed a deep red. "You may enter." But Fredric walked away from the room and back toward the way they had come. Someone wasn't happy and it made Jeff feel even more justified. If the queen’s own sub didn’t approve, then she really had been in the wrong. He turned back and entered the room.
Inside he found another dungeon, this one small and almost cozy compared to the stark room where he’d undergone his Rite. There were the usual implements hanging on the violet and gray walls, within arms reach if one needed them. Jeff was startled by the table in the center of the room and the sub wrapped in ropes upon it. The ropes crisscrossed the girl's body, much like the time he'd used rope bondage with Jensen. These circled her breasts, making them stand up like two perfect globes, and split her mound, so that she was completely opened up.
The queen, dressed in a corset of black leather and little else, stood beside the table with a little bowl of ice cubes at her fingertips. She trailed one cube around the sub's lips – also parted by rope – and then down the girl's neck and chest, circling each bright red nipple. The sub whimpered and writhed, her cries going straight to Jeff's cock. Damn it, he hadn't come here to get aroused.
"One moment." The queen nodded at Jeff before sliding the cube down between the sub's parted legs and pushing it between her nether lips. "Now be a good girl and we'll finish up soon. Understand?"
The sub nodded and moaned around her gag. Michelle smiled at her, but it was a wicked, filthy smile. For all her power and grace, Jeff forgot that the queen could be a sensual creature as well. She usually held herself so tightly controlled that he never got to see this side of her. Now she was in full force of her Dom persona, and Jeff could see the queen that commanded in the bedroom as well as the great hall.
The queen clapped her hands and another sub emerged from a side door. "Keep an eye on her. Make sure she doesn't struggle too much and hurt herself."
Michelle pulled on silk robe that had been thrown over a chair and gestured toward the side door. Jeff followed, clenching and unclenching his fists. The other room matched the first, down to the purple color of the carpet.
She turned as soon as the door closed behind them. "You wished to speak to me, Dom Jeff?"
Her words only fanned the flames of his anger and Jeff had to struggle to be rational. He'd promised Jensen, damn it. "You put my Rite on the tele. You took something private and made a lesson out of it."
"Jeff, you don't understand. . ."
"You used me for political gain! You wanted to cement your own daughter's position and damn anyone in your way!"
"No." She slammed her hand down on the back of the chair she stood behind. "I did what I needed to do to protect my subs."
"Bullshit!" Jeff shook his head. "That doesn't make any sense."
"Dozens of subs dead at Adrian's hands. Five subs who left Harmony forever because they could not stand ever having a master again. And then I have Doms who have the audacity to assert that they know best – that their subs are nothing more than things they can discard at will. Yes, Jeff Morgan, I used you as an example – because you are an outsider and yet you understand what you owed your sub more than those blowhards!" She was panting by the time she finished, her face flushed and nostrils flaring as if she'd just been in battle.
“You could have asked me first. I’m not one of your subjects. You don’t have exclusive rights to my life just because of Jensen’s relationship with Harmony.”
“I am not accustomed to asking for permission.”
No. As queen, she was the highest authority in all of Harmony. She commanded and everyone obeyed, Dom or sub.
“It’s a new era, mistress. You don’t rule over the people of the UP.” Jeff looked away. “And besides, it was a shitty thing to do to a friend.”
“I know.” For a moment that royal façade faded from her face. “But I had to weigh the cost of losing your friendship over the good it could do.” Clearly he had come out the loser in that dilemma.
"Fuck." Jeff rubbed his temples. What would he do, if he were in charge of thousands of people? Would he sacrifice the privacy of one man if it could help save others? Her words made sense, and even though he was still damn angry, Jeff didn't blame her, not any more.
"I'm sorry." She turned away from him and stared at the wall, as if examining the whip that hung there. Jeff knew better. "I know what the Rite meant to you. That's why it was so powerful."
"I hope it was worth it." Worth losing Jeff's trust, his belief in her and this city. He knew he would have to forgive her in time. He couldn’t deny the greater good. Even Jeff wasn’t so wrapped up in himself that he didn’t care about the subs Adrian had abused or the mess the former Duke had left in his wake. Jeff just didn't have to like it.
The place the Soul Healers called home looked like someone had brought the garden inside. There were flowers and climbing plants everywhere. Jensen supposed they balanced out the water features that trickled down the walls into basins of greenery. Otherwise the room was decorated in pale pastels, what were probably considered to be soothing colors. Jensen would never know if his therapist back on Earth decorated similarly – he'd been blind the entire time he had spoken with her.
Mila pressed closed against his leg. She always could sense his nervousness. Jensen stopped long enough to giver her a reassuring pat behind the ears before taking himself up to the sub – a young man dressed in a green toga – who stood at a little reception desk that looked more like a hosting stand at a fine restaurant.
"Sub Jensen." The sub grinned at him. "How may we serve you?"
For a moment he paused, wondering if he were in the correct place. He cleared his throat. "I'm looking to make an appointment with a Soul Healer."
"Of course. Please, have a seat and I'll see if someone can see you immediately." The sub led Jensen to one of the large couches in the center of the room. Jensen sank down into it far further than he was comfortable. There was such a thing as too soft. Maybe Harmony was sensing his uncertainty and was playing it back through the environment. He never knew exactly how much of his thoughts and emotions she picked up on.
Mila hopped up next to him and licked his chin. That made him smile despite everything. She hadn't left his side since the nightmare, almost as if she needed the comfort as well. Jeff had been a genius to find her and gift her to Jensen. He rubbed her head and bonked their foreheads together.
He looked up at the sound of his name. The healer was an older sub – with deep set blue eyes and a mop of unruly curls. "Yes."
"I'm soul healer Tim. I am currently working with sub Tom." Jensen started at that. "I understand that you're here today for yourself, but I was wondering if you'd meet with me and sub Tom. He's expressed interest in having you join him in this session."
Why would Tom want Jensen there? "If it will help Tom."
Tim smiled. "I believe it will help both of you. Follow me, please."
Tim led the way through a spiraling hallway and palmed open an innocuous looking door. The room on the other side was a toned down version of the main reception area. Someone had scaled back the number of plants in here, but there was still a fountain of water trickling down one wall and plenty of comfortable seating.
Tom sat hunched over on one of the couches, his hands clasped between his knees. When Jensen walked in, he stood up and grinned. "Jen."
"Please, have a seat." Tim gestured to the couch. He sat across from Jensen and Tom and picked up a slate he had waiting on an end table. Mila dropped to lay between the couches, resting her head on her paws.
Jensen wiped his palms on his pants. "So, what did you want to talk to me about?"
Tim smiled. "We've been talking about Tom's past. He’s had fond things to say about you and your schoolmates – Sophia and Mike."
Mike. The sound of that name was like a punch to Jensen's gut. For a moment he was back in the Confed, on his knees and helpless to do anything but watch as they slit Mike's throat in front of him. Jensen felt the gorge rise in his chest and he swallowed convulsively to keep it down.
"Tom wanted to ask you something." Tim's voice was gentle, so gentle, as if he were aware of the panic attack lurking in Jensen's chest.
Jensen licked his lips and rubbed at his thighs, unable to keep still. He turned to Tom. "What did you want to ask?"
Tom reached out and covered one of Jensen's hands, stilling it. The physical contact made it better, somehow. Jensen flipped his arm so his palm was facing up and they were clasping hands. It was so easy to forget that he'd been intimate with Tom once, though that time was nearly fifteen years ago now.
"Last night, you weren't wearing a shirt. I saw the scars on your back. The ones on your shoulders. . .Mike gave you those, didn't he?"
"Fuck." Jensen closed his eyes and rubbed at his forehead, so he wouldn't have to look at Tom.
"It's just - the scars, how they look. There's a certain beauty to them, the way I remember Mike working. . . ."
Jensen opened his eyes. He needed to look at Tom for this. "When we were being held by the Confed, they forced him to hurt me." It had been the kind of mindfuck the Confed usually specialized in – carve up your friend, or we'll hurt him even worse. "I think he tried to make it as easy as possible on me."
"He knew you didn't like cutting." And fuck, if that wasn't Tom giving HIM comfort.
Jensen didn't know how to respond. "You did." It had been something private between Mike and Tom, between sadist and masochist. Jensen had walked in on them once and nearly passed out.
"But I don't have any scars from him." No, because the UP used skin sealers that reknitted the body seamlessly. Jensen's torturers hadn't cared if he scarred or not, they had just been interested in healing him fast so he could take yet another round of pain and abuse. "I don't have anything to mark what he meant to me."
Tom had gone pale and his large eyes filled, but the tears never left to trail down his cheeks. It made sense to Jensen now. In some fucked up way Tom had been trying to recapture his memories of Mike. It made him realize something.
"I never talked about it." Jensen squeezed Tom's hand as hard as he could. "I never told you what we went through over there."
"We hadn't even known he'd been captured."
No, Mike was supposed to be on a different assignment entirely. Jensen had been just as shocked to find him in the dank Confed prison as Mike had been to see Jensen. By that point the Confed had been rounding up every UP scut they could get their hands on. It was a miracle Jensen had made it out alive. None of the others had.
"Jensen," Tim's voice reminded Jensen that the soul healer was still there. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Jensen had rehashed his time in the Confed over and over. Telling his therapist about it had never seemed to help the nightmares or the panic attacks, not when all he wanted to do was push down the memories and forget they'd ever happened. But he'd never really talked about Mike. It had always been about his torturers and what they'd done to Jensen. Watching Mike die had been a horror Jensen had pushed away from the moment it happened.
"I want to give Tom this," Jensen decided. He faced Tom again. "I'll tell you how brave Mike was, even at the end. And how he tried, even when he hurt me, to make it all a little better."
"I'd like that." Now the tears did spill from Tom's eyes.
Jensen found his own eyes were wet. He gave it up and embraced Tom, holding his friend close. He'd lost two friends when Mike had been killed. At least now he had the chance to get Tom back.
Anger still burned under Jeff’s skin, not tempered by the queen’s logic. He understood now, but that didn’t make all the hurt suddenly go away. She could have asked – should have trusted that he wanted the best for her people, just as she did.
Jeff took the long way to the Healers’, walking along the terrace outside the castle instead of riding the lift right into the lobby. He couldn’t meet Jensen like this – not when his Jen had been so freaked out this morning. One of them had to keep it together.
“Dom Jeff, welcome.”
Jeff smiled at the very earnest sub who’d run up to greet him as soon as he entered. “Thank you. I’m here for sub Jensen.”
The sub moved back to her station and touched the screen behind it. “I’m sorry, but sub Jensen has already left.”
Jeff should have gone back to their shared quarters first, or at the very least commed Jensen. Well, the walk had helped clear his head a bit. If only the Soul Healers had done so much for Jensen. “It’s all right. Thank you.”
When he turned to leave he spotted Alona sitting in one of the comfortable chairs in the lobby, a slate on her lap. Her hair was pulled back and she was dressed very casually in black slacks and a lavender tunic. It was odd to see her without either of her subs by her side. She looked up at his approach. “Jeff!”
“Princess. I mean, Duchess.”
“Alona,” she corrected with a smile.
“Alona,” he repeated. “We haven’t seen much of you at all.”
She gestured with the slate. “There is still so much work to be done, I hardly have a moment to enjoy the Choosing. I decided to take some time while Dylan had his appointment.”
“That’s your new sub?” Jeff remembered the man. Like Alona’s first sub, Dylan was a good deal older than she. He was tall with a shock of dark hair and a perpetually scruffy beard. Other than that, Jeff didn’t know anything about him.
Alona nodded. “I found him in Pasdar. Or rather, he found me.” A smile played about her lips. “He was one of Adrian’s subs. Once mother had freed them they’d hidden in the sewers.”
Jeff dropped into the chair across from her. “I remember Hank saying something about that.” He’d really have to make time to read Hank’s reports – if they existed. His work in Harmony had nothing to do with the UP and was only subject to Ian’s scrutiny.
“Ah, sub Henry.” She laughed and shook her head. “Yes. He and Ian discovered the subs. Dylan challenged me to prove I was different than Adrian, that not all Doms were like his former master.”
“You were successful, I see.” Jeff couldn’t imagine Dylan staying with Alona if she hadn’t been.
“In Dylan’s case, yes. There were still five of Adrian’s former subs who chose to leave Harmony forever.” She hugged her slate to her chest.
“Five out of how many? I would hardly consider that a failure, princess.” Jeff touched her arm. Adrian had hurt hundreds of subs, so it was a miracle to see the subs recovering and finding new Doms to serve.
If he was more Machiavellian, Jeff might think the queen had tossed Alona in his path to prove her point. There had been so much pain left in Adrian’s wake that she’d had to take any means necessary to counteract it, even if it meant destroying Jeff’s privacy. Was he so selfish that he couldn’t accept that?
“I just hope they will be all right in your UP.” Alona shook her head. “That world must be so strange to them.”
Especially if the only guidance they had was under Fuller. Jeff didn’t know much about the Commandant, but the one unpleasant meeting with him had been enough to leave a sour taste in his mouth. Still, the UP had standards in place for dealing with refugees. Even Fuller would abide by those.
Unless Fuller thought he might be able to use the subs to get more information about Harmony’s cloak. Jeff rubbed his forehead.
“You know you are within your rights to check up on them.” Jeff was inspired. Why not give Fuller something to worry about? “The tele is hooked up into the comm system for a reason.”
Her eyes lit up at the suggestion. “Would you mind if I?” She gestured, calling up a tele screen.
“Not at all.” Fuller wouldn’t be able to see Jeff from this angle and he was damn curious as to what exactly the commandant would say to Alona.
It took a moment for the connection to go through and Jeff expected to be routed to a receptionist or answering service. So he was surprised when Fuller himself answered his comm code. Perhaps the man had gotten a clue about diplomacy, at least enough to know to answer the comm when the queen’s daughter called him.
“Good afternoon, Duchess.” Fuller appeared. From where he sat, Jeff could see the mirror image in the transparent screen Alona had summoned.
“Commandant.” She nodded at him. “I don’t mean to take much of your time. I was hoping to find out how the exiled subs are faring.”
There was a flicker of emotion across Fuller’s face, but he smoothed his expression quickly. Jeff couldn’t read him at all. “The refugees are doing well and are being given the best of our services.”
Alona frowned at him. “They remain at your base?”
“They have found purpose here.” Fuller smiled, but it wasn’t pleasant to look at.
“I see. You may let them know they can always return to Harmony if they wish it.”
“That will not be necessary.” The words were snapped out. “From my observation, they are content to remain here.”
Alona’s frown grew deeper. “The offer still stands, even if they change their minds years from now.”
“I highly doubt they would wish to return to the place of their slavery.”
Jeff bit his lip to keep from interjecting. He could see why Fuller was so very bad at diplomacy when it came to Harmony. It was obvious the man didn’t understand the alien culture at all and seemed to have no desire to learn.
“I’m sure some of them would see it that way.” Alona was much more even-handed than Jeff would have been. Still, she had seen first hand the damage Adrian had caused to these subs Jeff had never met.
“If that’s all, Duchess?”
“That’s all, Commandant. Good day.” Alona cut the connection.
“To be fair, the UP has extensive experience rehabbing former Confed slaves.” Jeff cleared his throat. “I’m sure that’s the angle the commandant is approaching this from.” He hated having to defend Fuller.
She tapped her lips. “Apparently so. I just wish I knew if they were happy.”
Jeff smiled. “Now that’s not something you’ll probably ever be sure of, for anyone really.”
“Is that your way of telling me I’m being silly?” Her cheeks turned pink.
He squeezed her hand. “Not at all.” The problem was that Alona cared too much. She would be a far different ruler than Adrian. Stars, she was going to be a very different ruler from her own mother. Jeff shook his head. “I think that caring for the happiness of your people is a fine quality for a leader to have.”
Jeff excused himself to head back to find Jensen. At least now he had control over his anger and maybe a little bit more of an understanding of why the queen had done what she had. Alona had reminded him that there was more at stake than his own pride.
“Go on, Mila, play.” Jensen patted her gently before making a little shooing motion. “It’s okay, really.”
Mila trotted a few steps away before turning to face him, tilting her head and giving him a doggie-glare, as if asking if he really wanted her to go.
“You need the exercise.” He smiled. “And I’m fine, really.”
She shook herself, disbelieving, but dutifully pranced off into the grove of trees.
Jensen sagged against the stone wall that bordered this stretch of the gardens. The session with the Soul Healer had taken more out of him than he’d originally thought. He’d tried so hard to push down all those dark memories that dredging them up again had felt like running a marathon. Jensen needed a moment to himself.
He turned to look out over the city. Just out there within the stretch of his hand there were thousands of subs and Doms, some happy together, others seeking that perfect partner. Up here, he was apart from all of that, watching like a sentinel.
Something had broken open inside him. The session with Tom was only the beginning, he knew. Jensen wasn’t completely healed after just one conversation. But he felt like he could be whole again, one day. That was why he’d made a reoccurring appointment with Tom’s Healer. The man already knew about many of the demons that dogged Jensen, and he’d obviously helped Tom so much.
Jensen turned at the sound of laughter. He’d thought himself alone in this section of the gardens. It turned out he was wrong.
Mila emerged from the copse of trees followed by Colin who skidded to a stop at the sight of Jensen. “Jensen! I knew you had be around here.”
He couldn’t help but smile in return. “I was just letting Mila get some fresh air.”
“She’s very smart. I asked her where you were and she led me right here.”
Colin didn’t know the half of it. Jensen suspected they didn’t have dogs like Mila in Harmony. “She is. Were you looking for me for a reason?” Colin had served as a guide for Jensen and Jeff during their first visit to Harmony. Although they didn’t need him now, Jensen missed having the young man around.
“Oh, not really. I was having lunch in the gardens when I saw Mila.” Colin joined Jensen at the wall, leaning against the stone with one hip. It was remarkable how much he’d changed in the two years Jensen had been gone. He was reminded sharply of how Jared had grown when Jensen was out on assignment, returning to find his younger brother much taller than he.
“Taking a break, then.” Jensen grinned. “Are you doing anything special to prepare for training?”
Colin shrugged. “I’ve been watching other subs and Doms.”
“Observation. That’s a good skill to have.”
“And I’ve been talking to Levi. He’s really happy with Healer Nicci.” Colin looked surprised at that. Well, even Jensen was surprised at how well Levi was doing after being in Adrian’s clutches for years.
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“He said. . .” Colin looked out at the city. “That he was born to be a sub and no matter how much his last Dom had tried to break him, that we subs were stronger than that.”
Huh. Jensen crossed his arms over the wall and leaned on them. “I guess I agree. We subs are pretty strong.”
“He said it was important to choose the right Dom. How did you know Dom Jeff was the one for you?”
“Colin.” Jensen closed his eyes for a moment. He couldn’t tell Colin the true story – how he and Jeff had been thrown together for the purpose of this mission to Harmony. But he remembered falling for Jeff during that first mission. “I’d had many Doms before. Jeff . . . .” How to explain all that Jeff was to him? The brilliant Commander, the warm friend, the confident dom? “I was lucky that Jeff came into my life.”
Colin let out a little laugh. “They say that I’ll just know when I meet the right one. I hope I don’t make too many mistakes before then.”
“Hey, the mistakes are part of it.” Jensen jostled Colin’s arm. “That’s how you learn. That’s the whole point of training.”
“Subs learn and Doms teach?”
“Hmm. Not necessarily.” Jensen grinned. He was sure he taught Jeff a thing or two. “You’ll figure it out.”
“You know, I think I will. That’s why there are six years of training.”
Jensen thought it might take far longer than that. It had taken him over ten years to find Jeff. Now he was determined to keep him and everything they had worked so hard for.
Jeff signed off on Brown's report before opening up the file on his own. He stared at the text on his tablet, which blurred before his eyes, without reading a single word. Finally giving up, Jeff pushed himself out of his chair and began to pace the length of their room.
He turned as the door slid open to admit Jensen and Mila. Mila barked and ran up to him with her tail wagging. "Someone had a good day." Jeff gave her a good scratch behind the ears.
"Yeah, I took her outside after we left the Soul Healer. I think we both needed some sunshine."
"I went to the healers looking for you." Only to find that Jensen had been there and gone. Jeff could have used the tele to contact him, but had decided Jensen needed the time alone. It didn’t stop Jeff from worrying. He’d hated to see Jensen so regressed this morning, and Jeff knew there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to help. Maybe the Soul Healers could do what Jeff couldn’t.
"Oh. Sorry. I didn't know how long your meeting with the queen would take."
Jeff cupped Jensen's cheek in one hand, pleased that Jensen didn't flinch away. He could see, however, the tear tracks on Jensen's face and his red-rimmed eyes. "You've been crying."
"Trust me, it was actually the good kind of crying." Jensen leaned up and kissed Jeff, his lips tasting just as sweet as ever. "I ended up meeting with Tom and his Soul Healer. We both had some unresolved issues to work out."
"I'm glad he's doing better." At least that part of this trip was going off without a hitch. Tom was being healed, and they were doing a damn better job of it here than back on Earth.
"Me too." Jensen smiled. "Now you have to tell me what the queen said."
Jeff honestly didn't want to talk about it. He rubbed his forehead tiredly and dropped into the closest chair. "She explained why she did it, and I can’t really fault her logic as a leader. It’s just – she betrayed our trust, Jen. I’m going to need some time before I can forgive her.”
Jensen slipped to his knees in front of Jeff, the gesture so natural it caught Jeff's breath. "What were her reasons, exactly?"
"Apparently there was a shitstorm after we left. Some idiots actually defended Adrian's views on subs." Jeff stroked his hand through Jensen's hair, loving how Jensen tilted his head in the direction of Jeff's movements. "She wanted to make a point about a Dom's responsibility to his sub – that even an outsider understands better than some of these jackasses."
Jensen grinned. "I take it she didn't use those words exactly."
"You'd be surprised." Jeff let his head fall back on the couch. "I understand now and I don't mind if it will help other subs. I just wish she'd asked first.”
"I expect queens aren't accustomed to asking for anything."
“No. And she said as much. I ran into Alona afterward. I can’t help but think how different she’s going to be as a leader.” Alona asked where her mother demanded. “I think that’s going to help change some people’s minds more than any grand gestures on the queen’s part.”
Jensen bit his lip. “You might be right.”
Fuller frowned at the latest reports from the civil war in the Confed. Apparently another heir to the throne had been killed in battle, leaving only three left. The last thing they wanted was a united Confed. The best they could hope for was these three carving up what was left of the empire.
Damn it, they were rapidly losing their chance to capitalize on this. Fuller needed to deliver the tech that would help the UP crush the last dregs of the former Confed. If he could figure out how Harmony's cloak worked that would ensure the UP's victory. The Confed wouldn't stand a chance and would be destroyed utterly.
And nobody would ever be captured and sold into slavery again.
He gripped his tablet so tightly his knuckles went white. That's if they could figure out this damn technology. Morgan's reports were hitting his bullshit radar something fierce. What was the man hiding? And why? Morgan had to hate the Confed just as much as Fuller did. The bastards had killed Morgan’s wife. That could never be forgiven.
A knock at his office door had him tossing the tablet on the desk in frustration. "Enter."
He nodded at the sight of Lara in the doorway. She was one of the subs who had defected from Harmony. Fuller didn't understand why there hadn't been more than five of them who'd come to the UP to get away from the sexual slavery of their former life. The other subs must be so controlled by their masters that they couldn't even consider escape.
From the stories they told, Fuller had no doubt that was the case. This Adrian had been a real bastard, so evil to his slaves that even the other owners in Harmony had exiled him for his crimes.
Fuller was lucky to get Lara and the others to work for him. Nobody knew Harmony better than former natives, especially those with no loyalty to their former home.
Lara walked in, wearing the basic black duty uniform that everyone, civilian and military alike, wore on the base. It hugged her in all the right places, making her look more like a vid celebrity than a refugee. Of course, Fuller had never seen one of these people look anything but ridiculously beautiful and could only conclude it had been coded in their DNA along with their natural submissiveness. That was only one of the guesses by their scientists to explain the separation of Harmony society. But there was so much they still didn't know.
Fuller hated not knowing.
"You're back earlier than I expected."
She shrugged before dropping into one of the chairs in front of his desk, crossing her long legs in an unconsciously sexual motion. Damn the bastards who'd owned her. Even now that she was free, Lara was still suffering from her lifelong training as a sex slave.
"The city – Discord – is dead. Nothing so much as twitched when we entered. There's a science team still there scavenging metal and stone, if you're worried we left something behind."
"I'm more interested in what Morgan and his team found there. It must have reacted to Ackles in some way."
"Sub Jensen, you mean." She raised an eyebrow. "He is rather popular in Harmony. There must be something likeable about him."
"So, what? Even the city likes him?" Fuller waved the thought away. "I'd love to get a hold of a recent brain scan. You can bet your ass there's something in that."
"You think Harmony changed him. That's the latest working theory, yes?"
"You seemed rather fond of it." Fuller winked at her, ignoring the scowl he got in response. "Harmony forced you into its image of a sub, just because your genetics gave you blue eyes. It's the best explanation we got for your people's little quirks."
"They're not my people anymore."
"I know." Fuller sympathized. No one knew more than he did how she couldn't leave her past behind. "But it's not like I can just drop you off in the UP and you'll fit right in." Even someone born and raised in the UP sometimes couldn't live a free life after once being a slave. Damn that every day this job reminded him more and more of his son's fate. "It's irrelevant anyway. In three days Major Tappen is due to report in. When he doesn't, I'll have my men bring him in for going AWOL. They might as well drag Ackles in too."
"Ackles won't give you what you want. He's too fond of the queen."
"He might if I generously offer to let Tappen stay in Harmony."
Lara pursed her very red lips. "Have you met Sub Henry?"
"Major Tappen," Fuller corrected. "And, no, I haven't."
"He's rather stubborn. And resourceful. He might even find a way to dodge your men. Then what of your plans for sub Jensen?"
"There's always plan B." Fuller played his cards close to his chest. "I'll get Ackles into that control room sooner or later." Hopefully sooner – the UP depended on it.
"I guess we should start getting ready then." Lara uncrossed her legs and stood with that same unconscious sensuality.
"Good idea." He waved her off and debated the merits of going back to his reports. Fuller didn't give a damn about the dead city. He needed the living technology that was almost at his fingertips. And sooner, rather than later, he would have it.
Jeff hadn’t seen the queen for days. Neither he nor Jensen had been invited to any private dinners or for a game of tournabout. She had always loved to play with Jensen, claiming he was a natural at the game. But now, there was nothing but silence.
So when he saw her walking away from the Great Hall when Jeff was making for it, he moved to intercept her. He and Jensen were here to do a job, and they couldn’t do that if she wouldn’t speak to them.
“Mistress,” he greeted her, stopping her in mid-stride.
He didn’t recognize the sub she led by a white leather leash, but that wasn’t surprising. As queen, she had many subs. Jeff was just surprised to not see sub Fredric by her side.
She stilled. “Dom Jeff.” Her face lacked emotion, and while he was used to seeing that expression when she spoke publicly, Jeff did not expect to see it now.
“Are you not attending the wedding?” Why else was she walking away from the Great Hall?
“I think it best if I distance myself from you and your people for the moment.” She tugged on the leash and started to lead the sub away. “After all, we wouldn’t want anyone to think I was taking advantage.”
Jeff didn’t have the chance to respond. Oh, he had fucked things up pretty good after all.
Jensen didn't know how he'd ended up in Hank's chambers, helping the other sub to get ready for his wedding. He'd come around to make sure Hank would be in the Great Hall on time and somehow it turned into Jensen helping Hank apply liner around his already electric blue eyes.
"I'm just not good at this stuff." Hank shrugged and handed over the brushes and pencils that graced a small vanity table.
Jensen stood between Hank's spread legs as Hank sat on a tall stool. It was easier to apply the makeup this way, plus it kept Hank from pacing and fidgeting. "Don't blink." Hank might do better with the brush than the pointy end of a pencil. Jensen dabbed a little bit of the black inky liquid onto a slim applicator and started with Hank's right eye. "It's not like you had makeup training back at the military academy."
"That's not exactly what I meant."
Jensen pulled away to survey his handiwork. The dark liner accentuated Hank's already spectacular eyes, but Hank needed something else - this was his wedding day after all. Jensen sorted through the makeup bag on Hank's table. "Oh? What do you mean?"
"You know, sub stuff. I kinda suck at it."
Jensen was about to retort with a play on 'sucking' when he stopped and really looked at Hank. Hank's cheeks were tinged with pink and he'd lowered his eyes, unable to look at Jensen. "What makes you think that?"
Hank shrugged. "Come on, Jensen. I'm not like everyone else here. Hell, you have more experience than I do. Ian's mother said I lacked 'grace.' She's not the only one to make snide comments right in front of me."
"Hank, you can't expect to compete with subs who've been training for this their entire lives."
"That's exactly it." Hank glared at him with eyes blazing, which was infinitely better than the downcast look he had moments before. "What is Ian thinking, saddling himself to me when there are subs out there who know better than to get themselves tricked and drugged for being an uppity sub?"
"Okay, stop right there." Jensen didn't know how much of this was a bad case of cold feet and how much was Hank's honest concern about the future of his and Ian's relationship. He also had no idea that Hank was still hanging on to what had happened to him almost two years ago. Hank had been a victim of political scheming and yet it still must hurt so very much. "Ian chose you, didn't he? He doesn't have to marry you. He could have just let the contract lapse, but that's not what he's doing."
Hank ran his fingers over his bare neck and looked lost without his collar. He'd be getting a new one at the marriage ceremony, but that didn't seem to mollify him at all.
"You ever think it's exactly because you're not like every other sub that he wants you?" Jensen pulled out a small glass case from the makeup kit and shook it at Hank as he made his point. "Maybe he likes being the one to train you. Sometimes it's all about the training." He could feel himself blushing now. Jensen liked it when Jeff used that drill sergeant voice on him – barking out orders that Jensen scrambled to obey if only Jeff would keep speaking.
Hank grinned. "You've got a point."
"I've got more than a few points." Jensen opened the case and shook some of the golden glitter into his hand. "Now hold still." He stroked it through Hank's blond hair. Hank would glisten as he walked into the Great Hall. Ian knew what he was doing by dressing Hank in gold and blue – it only enhanced all of the man's best features.
"Not too much. I don't want to look like I just escaped from a Meridian brothel," Hank grumbled as glitter fell onto his eyelashes and across his cheeks.
Jensen couldn't help the snort. "Trust me, there's no way anyone would think that about you." Hank was just too big and broad to be a rent boy on Meridian.
The door chime interrupted their little heart to heart. Jensen went to open it, leaving Hank to finish up. Maggie and Caroline both stood on the other side wearing matching dark blue gowns. "Don't worry," Jensen told them. "I'm making sure he's not late."
The girls pushed past him. "That's not exactly why we're here."
"He needs to be attended by his bridesmaids after all."
"Oh for fuck's sake." Hank emerged from the bedroom, looking magnificent in his wedding outfit – a short golden sarong with matching sandals and dark blue harness. "I thought you were kidding about that."
"I did call dibs." Maggie grinned at him. "Is Jensen going to be one too?"
Jensen shook his head and tried to back up. "I think I'll just head on out then, if you two have it covered."
Hank grabbed his forearm. "Oh, no, you are not leaving me with them."
"Let me put an order in through the Dumb Waiter. We can get Harmony to make you up a matching outfit quick enough." Maggie went to the device in the corner, fingers flexing evilly.
Caroline laughed. "That girl has gotten the city to make her some amazing stuff lately."
"Has she?" That was interesting. Jensen would have to share that with Jeff. After, of course, his upcoming embarrassment. "I really don't want to wear a gown. I don't have the boobs for it."
Hank laughed and Jensen gave in. If it was the least he could do to help Hank, it wasn't very much to ask at all.
Jeff liked the decorations in the Great Hall, and while he realized they were for all the collaring ceremonies going on this week, he thought they were especially nice for Hank and Ian's wedding. Swaths of crimson fabric stretched across the high ceiling, capped with bright flowers. Water danced between the fountains that lined the pathway from the main doors to the altar set up on the great stairway. There were little flutters of light that followed the water, changing colors as they moved.
He looked over at Whitfield and Brown, who stood with him on Hank's side. They'd worn their dress uniforms, standing out among the crowd of Harmony natives in crisp navy blue. Ian's side was filled with people who must be his family and friends, though Jeff didn't know any of them. It was a pity that Hank had no family here, although he'd mentioned something about sending a vid to his aunt back on Earth. Jeff had no idea if it would scandalize her or not.
Mila sat on her haunches and scratched behind her ears. Jeff bit his lip to keep from laughing. It seemed she was just as impatient as he was for the proceedings to begin. They were still waiting for Jensen to get back. Jeff checked his chrono, wondering if Hank had pulled a runner. He snuck a look back up at the altar, where Ian stood in his finest clothes – a crisp white dress shirt, dark pants and tall boots. Nah. Hank was too stuck on Ian for that.
Music grabbed his attention as the great doors opened. There was a little troupe of musicians stationed right near them, playing a combination of strings and synthesizers. Jeff would have to take a closer look at their instruments later.
Maggie Gyllenhaal walked in first, followed closely by Caroline Chikezie. Both were carrying bouquets of white flowers and wore matching blue gowns. Jeff grinned at the sight of them. He wondered what the Harmony natives would make of them, since he was darn sure they didn't have bride's attendants here.
Jensen came in on their heels, no longer wearing the clothing he'd had on when he left Jeff to find Hank. Instead he was wearing a long kilt made of the same fabric as the gowns the girls were wearing and he too carried a bunch of flowers.
"Don't even think about it," Jensen mouthed to Jeff as he passed.
Jeff's lips twitched. Oh, he was going to tease Jensen about this for years.
The timbre of the music changed as Hank entered. He literally sparkled, the golden glitter making him the brightest thing in the room. Jeff might consider it a little overboard, but well, it was a pretty special day.
Ian's smile was just as bright as he watched Hank walk the length of the room. Hank climbed up the little altar and slid gracefully to his knees.
"Welcome everyone." Sub Fredric officiated. It was odd to see him without the queen, and her absence was the only thing that marred the celebration for Jeff. Still, he was glad that Fredric was the one performing the marriage. He wasn't the only priest in Harmony, but ended up conducting most of the high profile collaring ceremonies during the Choosing. And this particular ceremony was going to be especially watched, given how public Ian had made his claim for Hank two years ago. "You are about to witness something never before seen in the history of Harmony. Today we join sub Henry and Advisor Ian in a collaring and in a special ceremony called a wedding."
Jensen came to stand beside Jeff, leaving Maggie and Caroline standing at the foot of the altar. Jeff reached out and linked their hands together.
"They are too cute," Jensen whispered.
"Not as cute as you in that flower girl outfit." Jeff grinned as Jensen rolled his eyes.
"I prefer sub of honor."
Jeff nearly guffawed out loud. He had to cover his mouth to keep from interrupting the ceremony. He gave Jensen a look to show he'd be paying for that one later.
"Today," Fredric was saying, still in the middle of his monologue. "We add a new word to this union – husband – as we join this sub and Dom in a relationship binding both here and in the stars from where sub Henry hails."
Nice touch. Fredric's words would help when Hank used his wedding as a reason to stay in Harmony. Even Fuller couldn't break the binding contract.
Fredric took the decorated box holding the collar and offered it to Hank and Ian, who held it between their shared hands. "Do you, Ian, swear to uphold all the responsibilities of a Dom – to care for your sub, to direct him where he needs direction, to punish him when he is wrong – for as long as this collar shall last?"
"I swear." Ian did not move his gaze from Hank.
"And will you, Henry Tappen of the UP, swear to uphold all the responsibilities of a sub – to care for your Dom, to take direction when you need it, and to accept his loving punishment for as long as the collar shall last?"
"Yeah." Hank cleared his throat. "I mean, I do."
Fredric stepped back. "Now the couple will offer each other private vows for other each other's ear."
That was interesting. Jeff hadn't seen that on Harmony before, but thought this might be the marriage portion of the ceremony. They must have written their own vows.
Ian bent and whispered something in Hank's ear. Hank grew very flushed and whispered something back. When Ian straightened up, his eyes were bright. He pulled open the box to reveal the black leather collar inside.
Jeff caught his breath. This would be no mere temporary contract between them.
"Finally," Jensen murmured.
"Will you accept my collar?" Ian asked simply.
"I will." Hank bent his head and remained still as Ian clasped it around his neck.
"Will you accept this ring?" Hank held up something small that glinted gold. "To wear as a symbol of our marriage?"
Ian grinned. "I will." He held out his hand and let Hank slip it on his finger.
Fredric stepped forward to declare them united. Ian reached down and buried his fingers in Hank's hair, pulling his sub's head back before taking his lips in a possessive, hungry kiss. There was absolutely no doubt who Hank belonged to.
Jeff shifted, growing uncomfortable with the display for entirely different reasons. He whispered in Jensen's ear, breath hot and heavy: "Want to skip the reception and head back to the room?"
Maggie watched as Hank and Ian greeted yet another group of well-wishers at their reception. She’d camped out near the veggie platter and filled her plate again with the alien food. Along with familiar items like carrots and cucumbers, she munched on something that was blue and heart-shaped and tasted like chocolate. They’d have to export that to the UP.
“Save some of those for us.” Whitfield came up behind her with his own plate and Caroline beside him.
“I don’t think it’s possible for them to run out of food.” Maggie stepped aside and let them have access to the table. She’d love to get a look at their hydroponics or wherever they grew the food here. So far that was one question that hadn’t been answered. They’d been so occupied with other technology that something so simple had been completely ignored. She’d have to ask Jasika the next time they spoke.
Caroline watched as Whitfield filled his plate. “They look happy, don’t they?”
Whitfield snorted. “Probably will be more happy when all these people leave ‘em alone for five minutes.”
“You better with things now?” Caroline lowered her voice. “You’ve never seemed fond of Ian.”
“Or this place?” Whitfield threw something that looked like a purple slice of cucumber on his plate. “I gotta tell you, Chikezie, this place has grown on me.”
“Maybe that has something to do with the sub girl you met last night?” Caroline arched an eyebrow.
“Gotta respect a people who advertise whether they’re available or not.” He snuck a look at Hank and Ian before turning back to them. “He’s actually happy, you know. It doesn’t make a lick of sense to me, but you know, I’m not gonna stand in his way.”
Caroline squeezed his shoulder. “Good for you.”
“Let’s go give them our good wishes.” Maggie put her plate down, finally having had her fill. She led the way across the room and waited for their turn. There was a woman – tall and regal with a lovely sub beside her – speaking to them.
“I’m relieved that you’re settled, Ian,” she said. “I thought you would never find a decent sub.”
Hank appeared to be choking. He coughed and Ian pounded on his back absently. “Thank you, mother.”
“Be sure to visit before you go back on assignment.” The woman nodded and stalked off with her sub in tow.
“I thought she didn’t like me,” Hank murmured.
“She’s come around.” Ian laughed.
Maggie stepped forward. “I just wanted to wish you guys congratulations. We’re really happy for you.”
Hank, to her surprise, gave her a hug. “Thank you. Although I’m not sure I forgive you for that bridesmaid stunt.”
She laughed. “I think Jensen has more of reason to be pissed.”
“At least you didn’t put him in a gown, too.” Hank pulled back and winked. “There wasn’t time to shave him.”
“Thank you.” Ian smiled at her. “Let’s just hope this satisfies your people.”
Hank pursed his lips. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
Maggie hoped Hank would be able to stay. It was rare enough to find someone and the fact that they’d found each other from across the galaxy was too much to ignore. “You know we’ll fight for you both.”
He nodded. “I do now.”
The moment they got back to their rooms, Jeff had his hands on Jensen, stripping off that slip of blue fabric. He ached with wanting and not just to have Jensen in his bed. Jeff pulled away long enough to open up the toy box and pull out a round of dark rope. “Is this okay?”
Jensen licked his lips, leaving them shiny and wet. “Oh, fuck, yeah.”
They’d used ropes the last time they were on Harmony, when they had to perform for the queen and her court to prove that Jeff was a worthy Dom. Jensen really liked the scene and it had been Jeff’s first introduction to sub space. He grinned at the thought of sending Jensen there again.
“Turn around and put your hands behind your back, boy.” Jeff barked the order as if Jensen was one of his subordinates on a ship.
Jensen’s eyes went wide and he swiveled to obey. He clasped his hands together at the base of his back, but that wasn’t quite what Jeff wanted. He stepped forward and manhandled Jensen’s arms until they were twisted up toward the middle of his back.
Jeff tied them there, relying on his own memory of the last time they’d done this, and the seemingly magical properties of Harmony rope. Every knot tied perfectly, in a pattern that could only be described as beautiful. He bent to kiss Jensen’s scars, mouthing where the rope crossed over one.
“So beautiful, all tied up for me. Try to get out of this, I want to see you struggle.”
“Stars!” Jensen hissed, twisting as he pulled against his bonds. But the knots held true and he was securely bound until Jeff decided they were done.
Two years ago Jeff would have doubted his own desire – who was he to do this to Jensen? A few months ago he would have doubted Jensen’s desire for this. But now Jeff finally felt like they were united. He wasn’t afraid any longer.
Jeff circled Jensen, bringing the rope with him. He kept winding it around Jensen, fitting it through his mouth – not enough to truly gag Jensen, but enough to make it difficult for him to speak – and across his chest, over his nipples. The last bit he saved to wrap around Jensen’s abdomen, catching his cock just under the head and trapping it against Jensen’s belly.
Jensen whimpered when Jeff withdrew his fingers from his dick.
“Not yet.” Jeff smacked Jensen’s ass. He wasn’t finished just yet. The last time he’d needed Claudia to summon the ropes from the ceiling for him. Now Jeff knew how to do it himself. It was a matter of flicking his wrist to give the signal and they dropped. It would be a little more challenging to suspend Jensen with them.
Jeff was able to connect the hooks to the ropes that crisscrossed Jensen’s chest like a harness. Two of the ropes had loops like stirrups that he fitted around Jensen’s knees. He stepped back and clapped his hands.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Jensen was lifted off of the floor. Jensen grunted. He was at the mercy of Jeff now – his struggles only made him swing, unable to get any purchase or relief on his bound cock.
Jeff slid his hands over Jensen’s thighs, prying them open. He mouthed along the very sensitive skin, kissing Jensen’s balls and that sweet spot behind them. Jensen could do nothing but take it. With a grin, Jeff rubbed his stubbled chin over Jensen’s leg, causing another moan to erupt from Jensen’s gagged mouth. Jeff knew how much Jensen liked the scrape of Jeff's beard against his body.
“Good boy.” Jeff stepped away only long enough to grab a bottle of lube. It wasn’t as if Jensen could object.
He took a moment before he returned to savor the sight of his boy, hanging from the ceiling, caught up in his ropes like a fly in a spider web. Jeff pressed his palm against his dick, so hard under his clothes. He got off on this sense of power – he was clothed and Jensen was bare but for the dark stripes of the ropes on his pale skin.
Jensen made a sound. It might have been “please.”
Jeff had every intention of fulfilling that whimper. His slid his fingers up inside of Jensen, coating that little hole thoroughly before dropping the bottle of lube and undoing the fastening on his crotch. For a second he just stood there, stroking himself with the remnants of the lube on his fingers.
Jensen’s cock twitched. It looked so red and swollen beneath the sliver of rope, leaking splatters of precome against his belly.
Jeff couldn’t hold back any longer. He’d learned a lot about anticipation from Jensen, but even he could only bear so much. With one fluid movement, he entered Jensen, delighting in the gasp that elicited from his sub. Jensen felt perfect around his cock – so warm and tight. Jeff gripped Jensen’s buttocks in each hand, keeping him spread and using that hold to maneuver Jensen’s body as he liked.
“You’re gonna come from my cock.” Jeff growled as he increased his thrusts, rolling his hips into Jensen’s. “Bet it feels so good, doesn’t it, boy?”
Jensen nodded. His lips were slick with saliva and his face was flushed. He was absolutely beautiful.
Jeff held back. He wanted Jensen to enjoy this, so he took his time. When it seemed he couldn’t deny the orgasm curling in his belly, he gave the order. “Come for me, boy.”
It wrenched a sound from Jensen’s throat – something between a moan and a wail. Jensen clamped his eyes shut and stiffened as he spurted against his belly. Now Jeff could let go, coming deep inside Jensen’s body.
After he got Jensen down from the ropes, Jeff coaxed him into the bath. Jensen couldn’t keep his eyes open and clung to Jeff in the huge tub, the warm water swirling around them. It was nice to have him so loose in Jeff’s arms. This was the kind of thing Jeff could get used to.
Jensen couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a very bad idea. He stood at the gates of Harmony, watching as Brown pulled up in one of the transports. Hank was going to report in, as required, and then reveal his sudden marriage, which would hopefully keep him from being forced to leave Harmony.
“We’ll be back before dinner.” Jeff ran his hand down Jensen’s back.
“I wish you weren’t going.” Jensen turned and leaned against Jeff’s body, taking comfort in his warmth.
Jeff pressed a kiss to his temple. “I have to. I’m the liaison between the UP and Harmony.”
“Along with me.” The queen had fought long and hard to get Jeff and Jensen back here. It felt wrong to have Jeff going off on his own. There was a point to having the liaison being a Dom/sub pair, after all. In that, Jensen agreed with the queen, even if he was still rather annoyed with her for using them both. It seemed the feeling was mutual, since she hadn’t so much as spoken to them since Jeff’s confrontation over the tele vid.
“I know, Jen. But you can’t come, unless you want to show off those fancy goggles of yours.”
And then reveal that Jensen hadn’t been completely healed. Jensen didn’t want to give Fuller that much power over him. They’d throw him at the medics and Jensen had enough of being poked and prodded to last a lifetime.
Jensen rubbed the back of his neck, running his thumb under the collar. “You honestly think you’re going to convince Fuller that Hank’s marriage is legal?”
“It is legal. We even filed a license with the appropriate channels.”
Jeff must have slipped that one in when Fuller wasn’t looking, perhaps even bypassing the base as intermediary completely. Fuller was not going to be happy when he’d learned how he’d been fooled. “You’re going to be dealing with one pissed off Commandant.”
“I think I can handle it.”
Hank and Ian came towards them. Both were dressed simply, foregoing Harmony’s bright colors and soft fabrics for black, utilitarian jumpsuits. Hank still wore his collar, but didn’t look so much like a sub when he was fully clothed. Jensen assumed that was intentional.
“Let’s get this show on the road.” Hank looked like he was about to burst with something. He was jittery and couldn’t keep still. For once, he was acting exactly like the Hank Jensen remembered. Marriage must be good for him.
Ian looked over at Hank with fondness in his eyes. “I, too, am eager to have this matter settled. Hank belongs to me, now.”
“I love it when you get possessive.” Hank butt-checked Ian. “But don’t talk like that in front of Fuller.”
Jensen laughed. “He’s right. Although feel free to refer to Hank as your ball and chain.”
“I’ll explain later.” Hank slung an arm around Ian.
“We’ll be back soon, Jen.” Jeff pressed their lips together before following Hank and Ian out to the transport.
Jensen touched his mouth and hoped he could shake this bad feeling.
The base looked raw and unfinished to Jeff’s Harmony influenced eyes. It was nothing like the gently sloping curves of that alien city, lacking any of the beauty in its cold linear construction. Even the transports seemed to stutter along, not as smooth in their movements as Harmony trams. They pulled into the checkpoint and Brown presented their credentials before they were waved through. Coming back to this military life was like a slap in the face. For the first time, Jeff knew with a certainty that he never wanted to go back.
Hank sighed as they got off the transport. “Let’s get this over with.” His good mood seemed to have faded the farther they’d gotten from Harmony. It seemed that Jeff wasn’t the only one affected by leaving the city.
“I’ll wait here for ya.” Brown nodded. It was probably good to have a getaway vehicle.
Jeff followed Hank and Ian inside. He was only here as the liaison anyway, ready to intervene if Fuller didn’t accept Hank’s explanation. Otherwise this was Hank’s show.
“Major Tappen here to see Commandant Fuller,” Hank spoke to the soldier on duty once inside the base. “He’s expecting me.”
“One moment, please.” She touched the panel and two MPs – military police - appeared to escort them. That immediately set Jeff’s hackles on edge. It meant that Fuller was expecting trouble, and was prepared to fight back.
The MPs left them at Fuller’s door and didn’t enter when they did. Their one exit was effectively blocked.
Fuller barely looked up from the tablet on his desk to greet them. “Ah, Major Tappen. I assume you are here to renew your commission?”
“No, sir. To resign it.”
Fuller stopped writing and dropped his stylus. He looked up very slowly. “I see. Have you already booked your passage on the Dessert Moon?”
Hank clasped his hands behind his back, falling into a military posture that probably was as easy to him as breathing. “Sir, I’d like to introduce you to my husband, Ian.”
“Husband?” Fuller stood. “I was under the impression that there was no such thing as marriage in Harmony.” He came around his desk and stared Hank down.
Jeff thought it was time he spoke up. “Technically, there isn’t. But there is in the UP.”
Fuller glared at Jeff. “And that matters because?”
“If you have a moment to check, Hank and Ian’s marriage has been filed with all the proper channels.” Jeff straightened and threw his shoulders back. It was time to remind Fuller exactly who Jeff was – a former military commander, a Dom and liaison officer to Harmony.
Fuller stalked over to stare Jeff down, though the effect was minimized by the height difference. It was hard to look intimidating when he had to look up at Jeff. “Of course it has. And as I’ve no doubt you’re about to remind me, forcing Major Tappen to leave Harmony without his spouse goes against UP law and the agreement with Harmony.”
Jeff inclined his head. “I see I don’t need to remind you.”
“Is this what you want, soldier?” Fuller moved back to Hank, getting in his face. “For them to make a slave of you?”
Hank bristled. “I assumed you were familiar with our first mission reports. Subs on Harmony are not slaves.”
“Saying so only insults our way of life.” Ian finally spoke. “And insults my husband.”
Fuller dismissed Ian with a look. “Fine. Congratulations. I hope you’ll be very happy together.”
Even Jeff winced at Fuller’s words. It sounded like he wished them anything but happiness.
“Thank you, sir.” Hank apparently decided to ignore the snide tone. “I’ll sign my resignation on the way out.”
Jeff stepped back to let Hank past him. But before any of them could get very far, Fuller spoke up.
“Not so fast.”
Damn it, what now? Jeff knew there was no way Fuller could get around the marriage law, but he could question the validity of Hank and Ian’s marriage. He just hoped there wasn’t a loophole they hadn’t thought of yet.
“I believe you owe me some reports, Mr. Morgan.”
Jeff relaxed his shoulders. “I’ve kept you up to date with every new development, Commandant. There isn’t anything new to report.”
“Then you either are very bad at your job, or you are purposely stymieing my request. Have you even attempted to discover how the cloak works?”
Jeff was surprised Fuller would bring this up in front of Hank and Ian. “There are many techs working on that. I’m afraid it’s not my area of expertise.”
Fuller went very red in the face. “I am sick and tired of your excuses. You had one simple mission, Morgan – get your boy into that control room. If you’re such a favorite of the queen, it should be cake for you to do that. I can only come to one conclusion.”
“And that is?”
“You don’t want to. You value loyalty to this city of sex and sin over the UP. I have no choice but to arrest you for treason.”
“Isn’t that a little extreme?” Hank got between Jeff and Fuller, which was probably a good idea, since Jeff didn’t think he could have stopped himself from slugging Fuller.
“Your opinion no longer matters, Mr. Tappen.” Fuller emphasized the ‘mister.’ He slapped his hand on the door panel, opening it to reveal the MPs on the other side. “Guards, take Jeff Morgan to the brig.”
Jeff exchanged a look with Hank. He had long enough to mouth “Jensen” at him before the MPs dragged him away. Hank nodded and Jeff would put his faith in him.
Mila barked and backed up with her tail wagging, just waiting for Jensen to throw the ball. He grinned at seeing her so playful. “Is this what you want?” He waved the ball and laughed when she yelped in return.
Jensen drew his arm back and let the ball fly through the palace gardens, through the trees and down the hill. Mila ran after it, leaping over several small bushes to get to it even faster. She carried the ball back eagerly, ready for another try.
They’d had so little time to just play like this. She’d entered his life to help him manage without his sight and now she was free, just like him. He knelt and ran his fingers through her fur, pulling out stray twigs and leaves.
“How’d you get so messy? Maybe we should move this inside.” He had a flash of throwing the ball through the great hall and watching Mila duck and dodge around the people attending whatever event was going on down there right now. That probably wouldn’t go over very well.
She dropped the ball and licked at his face, leaving a slimy trail of saliva behind. Jensen winced and attempted to wipe it away. Okay, so maybe there was a downside to her acting like an ordinary dog.
A tele screen flashed to life in front of him, signaling a live message. Jensen straightened and ran his hands over it to accept the call. “Yes?”
Hank’s image appeared. As far as Jensen knew, Hank was still with Jeff and the others at the UP base. He wasn’t expecting them back for a while yet. For some reason Hank wasn’t using his comm, instead connecting to the Harmony communication system. “Jensen.”
“Hank, what’s wrong?” Jensen felt cold, even in the sunshine. Why wasn’t Jeff the one contacting him?
“I don’t have long.” Hank looked over his shoulder. “Fuller’s arrested Jeff for treason.”
Jensen blinked, not sure he heard right. “What?”
“He just threw him in the brig for not bringing back info about the cloak technology.” Hank’s image grew larger as he got closer. “Just say the word and we’ll break him out.”
“And then what, Hank? There’s not exactly anywhere we can run.” Even as he was speaking Jensen’s mind was reeling. Fuller’s ploy with Hank hadn’t worked, so now he was using Jeff as the game piece to get Jensen to do what he wanted.
“I don’t know man. I just wanted you to know we had your back.” Hank looked behind him again. “We’ll stick around here as long as we can. If I find out anything I’ll let you know.”
“Thank you, Hank, I appreciate it.” Jensen closed the connection. He looked down at Mila, who sat up straight, having picked up on the serious nature of the conversation. “What are we going to do, girl?”
There was only one course of action. Jensen would have to go to the queen. He wasn’t sure exactly if she would help. As far as he knew, she and Jeff hadn’t really resolved the issue between them. But he had to try. It was his only chance.
Jeff paced the length of his cell. Like most brigs it was utilitarian – gray walls and floor, a single bunk hanging from the wall with a toilet behind a privacy shield. That was the only bit of privacy he got since the fourth wall was nothing but a forceshield. He waved at the guard who walked past every quarter hour.
It had been a long time since he'd had to cool his heels in jail. Jeff thought the last time might've been that bar fight he'd gotten into on Alpha Riven 5. They hadn't thrown him in the brig when he'd slugged a commanding officer after his wife had died. Instead they'd sent him to the shrink.
Jeff dropped onto the bunk and rubbed his eyes. Fuller couldn't keep him here very long. He was still a UP citizen whatever the charge of treason said and Fuller still owed him due process. Jeff knew very well that this was a ploy to scare Jensen into giving up Harmony's secrets.
He heard the footsteps long before he saw Fuller coming down the hallway. The forceshield wasn't sound proofed at all – easier to interrogate a prisoner from the safety of being outside the cell. It also made it more difficult to plan any kind of escape.
Fuck. The last thing he needed was Jensen and Hank teaming up to pull some kind of jailbreak. It was just the kind of hare-brained thing Hank would try. He trusted Jensen had more sense to wait at least until formal charges were filed.
Jeff sat back, attempting to look nonchalant when Fuller strolled up to his wall. He crossed his arms over his chest and kicked his legs out.
"Getting comfortable, I see."
"I'm just waiting for my legal representative to show up." Jeff leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees. "I trust you've taken care of that."
"I don’t get you, Morgan." Fuller got close to the forceshield and peered inside with narrowed eyes. It made Jeff feel like an exhibit in a zoo. "From what I know about you, you should hate the Confed just as much as I do. What's the problem with wanting to out-tech them for once?"
It didn't surprise Jeff that Fuller knew about Katie. That had been in the news at the time since it wasn't every day that the wife of a hero of the military had died in a Confed raid. But maybe Fuller was talking more about what the Confed had done to Jensen.
Jeff pushed himself to his feet and got as close to Fuller as he could with the forceshield between them. It shimmered at his approach, giving a little warning before he could make contact with the thing and get a shock for his troubles.
"What's the difference between them and us? If we sacrifice whoever we can just to beat them, then how are we different?" Jeff should his head.
"This isn't a philosophical discussion, Morgan. What the hell are we doing here on a planet of slaves if we're so superior?"
"They're not slaves, Fuller. Have you even taken a moment to understand the difference?"
Fuller looked like he was going to burst through the forceshield. "I've got five traumatized refugees who'd disagree with you."
So that's what happened to the subs who had left Harmony. Jeff wished he'd been able to find out more about them before now. "Five people out of hundreds who were victimized by one man – who's currently serving a life sentence in their prisons, by the way. There are thousands of subs living happily in that city."
"How could anyone be happy living like that?" Fuller turned away and from the stricken look in his eyes, Jeff knew there was something behind that offhand comment.
"It's not for everyone." Jeff understood that. He'd doubted his own desire for what Jensen had offered him from the beginning. Jeff had finally moved past that, accepting that he wasn’t sick or wrong for wanting to dominate Jensen. "But you've got no right to vilify those who've chosen that life."
"Your arrogance knows no bounds, Morgan. Just because you think you understand the sexual politics doesn't mean you get to make decisions for the rest of the UP."
Jeff held out his hands. "Maybe you're right. I just do the best I can."
His words seemed to upset Fuller even more. The commandant turned on heel and walked away, not even finishing the conversation. What's your story? Jeff watched as Fuller left, fingers itching for a panel to look up Fuller's record. He bet there was something going on that Fuller was hiding.
Maybe it wasn't up to him to protect Harmony or all the potential scuts who could be used to power the alien tech. Maybe Jeff should just focus on being Jensen's Dom and let all the politicians and military gurus fight it out. He sat back down on his bunk, missing the warmth of Jensen by his side.
"Jensen? What are you doing here?"
Jensen was glad to see that it was Maggie who'd answered the door. He didn't know who else besides Brown had gone with Hank and Ian back to the base. "Who's the ranking officer with Brown away?"
"I am." Chikezie stepped into his line of vision.
They looked like they were very busy in the suite. Maggie's pile of tech parts had grown and some pieces were lighting up and pulsing to their own rhythm. There was a Dom Jensen didn't know lifting a spanner from a circuit board. She must be the one tech Jeff had found to work with Maggie.
Over where Chikezie stood there was a table filled with slates and tablets and even some old-fashioned books. Dr. Johnson put down his stylus and stood from his station. "Has something gone wrong with Hank's resignation?"
"Not exactly. As far as I know they accepted the marriage as valid." Jensen leaned against the doorway. "But they've charged Jeff with treason for keeping information from his reports."
There were gasps and they all glanced at each other, but this news wasn’t a surprise. Jeff had been walking a fine line since they got to Harmony. The Dom – Jasika, that was her name – turned off the spanner. "Excuse me, but what does that mean?"
"It means I have an appointment to see the queen and I'd like you all to come with me." Jensen needed people who understood the technology better than he did, and he needed Chikezie's authority as team leader.
Maggie nodded. "Lead the way."
Jensen had called ahead and requested an audience. He hadn't wanted to take the queen away from a scene like Jeff had. They needed her in a good mood. Jensen still wasn't sure if she wasn't pissed at Jeff herself. Their relationship had suffered in the wake of the vid release.
"Jensen, we've got a tail," Maggie said in a low voice as they approached a lift. "One of Fuller's men."
He sighed. There wasn't anything they could do about it and it wasn't like the guy was going to make it into the queen's chamber. "They probably think I'm going for the control room. Let them follow. They'll find out soon enough."
Fredric himself met them on the queen's level and led them into a room Jensen hadn't been in before. Unlike her comfortable study this was clearly a formal receiving room, decorated in very stark colors with torch-like sconces on the walls. There were no other chairs except for the one at the head of the room where she sat, dressed simply, but very regally in a simple dark gown and her hair pulled back into a knot.
Levi stood at her side, holding his son. Jensen wondered if the baby would learn how to govern at his grandmother's feet. The tableau reminded him of an old painting back on Earth. They all looked like creatures out of time.
Jensen dropped to his knees before her. It seemed like the right thing to do.
"Sub Jensen, what's wrong? Where is Dom Jeff?"
At least Fuller hadn't gone ahead and contacted the queen himself. No, the man would rather play with Jensen. Fine, he'd get exactly what he deserved.
"Jeff has been accused of treason – of being more loyal to Harmony that the UP. They've taken him into custody at the base." Jensen swallowed, fisting his hands on his knees. "Mistress, they desperately want access to your control room. They want to know how we cloaked the city from the Confed two years ago."
"But that was your doing, sub Jensen." She leaned forward. "Harmony pulled the thought from your mind. You did us a great service hiding us from your enemies."
"We need to know how he did it." Maggie stepped forward. She performed a little curtsey, looking uncomfortable as she did it. "Your majesty. I mean, from what we've been able to find in the archives – there is one mind that joined with the city three hundred years ago. Somehow Jensen was able to join with that mind and affect changes to the city. And then she even let him go at the end."
"You speak of mysteries. Sacred things." The queen clasped her hands on her lap. "No one is meant to understand Harmony."
Jensen gave her a small smile. "Regardless, we want to try. They'll hold Jeff in order to get me back in to the control room. I'm sorry, mistress, we wanted to protect Harmony."
She stood, drawing herself to her full height. "Jensen, we are more than capable of protecting ourselves."
As if in answer the doors slid open and several of her guards charged the room, tossing one of Fuller's men onto the floor.
"He was outside, mistress. Trying to listen in with this device." The guard bowed, holding up a UP issue tablet and hookup.
Jensen let his head drop into his hands. Fuller's people were idiots. The city would not let anyone where they weren't wanted and the only reason Harmony let him get this far was to reveal their machinations.
"I see." The queen looked down her nose at the newcomer. "I assume he is with those who hold Dom Jeff hostage?"
"He works for Commandant Fuller, yes."
"Hmm.” The queen regarded them for a moment. Jensen would have given anything to figure out exactly what she was thinking. He never could read that impassive face. “I will let you, sub Jensen, and you," she pointed at Maggie, "access the control room and leave it to Harmony to reveal what she will."
Jensen felt a weight lift from his shoulders. "Thank you, mistress." He had no idea what made her decide to let them do this. But perhaps she was confidant that Harmony would show them nothing of consequence. Jensen hoped it was enough to earn Jeff's freedom.
Maggie held her breath as the queen palmed open the door to the control room. Finally, they were going to see the only reliable way to communicate with the city. Maggie couldn't believe she'd been chosen for this honor. She didn't know if she had made an impression on the queen or if it was simply because she had been the only UP tech in the room.
The queen turned to Jensen before stepping out of the way. "I trust you, Jensen. You've proven yourself to us time and time again. Please, don't be harsh with her."
Jensen smiled. "I wouldn't dream of it."
The queen stepped aside and allowed them in. The doors slid shut behind Maggie, leaving only her and Jensen in the room.
Maggie hadn't expected the room to be so small. It was circular in shape, with screens on every wall and panels she itched to examine. A single chair sat in the center of the room, looking like some ominous thing from a surgeon's office – it was slanted back with slots for the arms and legs cut into the chair. Jensen hopped up into it and it gave her the chills.
She pulled her scanner from her bag and began taking readings. If this was the only time she was going to be in here, Maggie was going to take every advantage of it. Jensen probably wouldn’t like it if she tried taking apart the walls.
"It feels different," Jensen murmured to himself. "Oh. I may pass out. Just call the healers if that happens, okay?"
"You might have mentioned that before we got in here!" Maggie looked up from her readings. Jeff would kill her if anything happened to Jensen.
He grinned at her. "I'll be fine. I've done this before. Just make sure you keep collecting data."
She waved the scanner at him. "I'm all calibrated. Whenever you're ready."
Jensen grew serious as he leaned back in the chair. It was astonishing to watch the way the chair molded around him, surround his feet and hands and cover part of his head. It was like Harmony was taking him inside of her.
They should have had Caroline in here to keep tabs on Jensen's vital signs. Maggie could add them to the list of things she was scanning for, but she lacked the medical knowledge to know if a reading was out of whack. She looked around the sealed room and realized there was little she could do if there was something did go wrong. They were trapped in here until Jensen was finished communing with Harmony.
The scanner showed a spike in energy and she tried to fine-tune her instrument to get more specific data. It reminded her of Discord and how the basement control room there had spiked before reaching out for Jensen. There was a disturbing similarity between the two. Maggie made a mental note to follow up with the labs and see if they had identified the power source yet. That would be key in her experiments.
The screens surrounding her flashed to life, startling Maggie so much that she dropped the handheld portion of the scanner. She scrambled for it and was relieved to find it was still working. When Maggie straightened back up, there was a woman on the screens - a single face staring at her from every angle. The woman was lovely, with large blue eyes and red curls framing her face.
This woman had to be Harmony.
"Hello, Maggie. I've wanted to speak with you for a long time." She spoke as if she could see Maggie, and perhaps she could. Maggie couldn’t even begin to understand how a single personality could interface with an entire city.
"Oh," Maggie struggled to come up with something to say. "Why haven’t you?"
Harmony smiled. "I couldn't, not until Jensen made this connection. I'm only in this form when I join with him."
Maggie was glad she was recording this. Too much was happening too fast for her to take detailed notes.
"Would you mind using just one screen, please? It's a little much to have to look at you all over the place."
"Of course." All the screens dimmed except for one.
"There is so much I want to ask you," Maggie breathed. She'd have to prioritize her questions since she couldn't risk keeping Jensen hooked up for too long. There was still the matter of the cloak and she knew she needed to find that out first.
"Jensen tells me that your people wish to know how to cloak their ships like we cloaked this city."
"Huh. You don't think of yourself as the city?"
Harmony smiled. "Actually, yes, I do. But before I joined with the city I was just a girl, like you. And when I'm bonded with Jensen like this, the girl is the loudest voice."
Maggie shook her head. She couldn't imagine the kind of effect that would have on a human mind. Then again, they weren't really sure Harmony was alive any more, if she was anything but an AI based on the long dead girl's personality.
That posed another problem. How could they work the cloak if the technology needed to be bonded to a person? Would the person have to die for their minds to become the AI needed? Or . . . Maggie looked at the command chair where Jensen sat so still and lifeless. Could such a connection be only temporary?
"You said you couldn't speak to me unless you were connected to Jensen. I don't quite understand how that works."
Harmony rubbed the back of her neck – a gesture Maggie had seen Jensen do multiple times. Something clicked in her mind. Jensen was affecting Harmony with something of himself, just as she had infected this city with her own sexual lifestyle. Every connection to the AI made some sort of impact. Dr. Johnson always said they affected Harmony’s civilization just by being in the city. How much more was the impact of Jensen joining with the AI?
"The best way to describe it is like a long dream. Some moments are more lucid than others." Harmony shrugged. "But there is no way you will ever truly know. Your brain would never be able to interface with one of the cities."
"Because I'm not a natural sub." Like Harmony was before she became the city and Jensen before he ever stepped foot here. "But you've been changing Hank's brain to fit? So he could connect to you?"
"Not all subs would be able to do this either." She frowned and her eyes grew soft. "I deeply regret the lives of those lost when Adrian made his grasp for power. But I couldn't do anything about that because I can not act – I can only react."
Maggie didn't know how many subs had died when they'd been forced into Adrian's control room. They must have had just enough of the right brain pattern to connect, but not enough to survive the encounter. "This means. . .even if you gave me the protocols for the cloak. . ."
"You'd have to be very careful about who would control it. Yes."
"And would they have to be like you? Trapped forever?" Maggie gestured to the chair. "Why can Jensen connect and then disconnect just as easily?"
"I've become one with the city. I am the soul of Harmony." She stretched out her arms, as if encompassing everything. "You only need someone to temporarily control the technology. They are two very different things."
"I'm not sure I understand."
"Understanding will come with time. Everything takes time. Do you think the city sprang to life in this form three hundred years ago? No, Maggie. The first hundred years were very difficult."
Until Harmony had molded the city and all of its people to match her worldview. They probably had no idea what was happening to them as their brains and bodies changed ever so slightly. Maggie hadn't considered it creepy before, but now the concept made her shudder. "So if Jensen were to have bonded with Discord...."
Harmony gave a little laugh. "I like how you've named my brother city. It's own name is lost to the dust now. . .but yes, it would have become Jensen." She narrowed her eyes. "But Jensen is mine. He belongs in my heart now, no other city shall have him."
The city was very possessive of Jensen. Maggie would have to consider those implications later. "You've given me a lot to think about."
"While we were speaking I've sent the specifications for the cloaking technology to your little device there. What do you call it? Your tablet."
Maggie touched the tablet tucked in to her belt. It felt warm against her fingers. "Thank you."
"Just be sure to bring Dom Jeff home. He is mine just as much as Jensen is." The screens faded to black.
Maggie barely resisted the urge to whip out her tablet and check the specs. No, she had to make sure Jensen was okay first. She ran to the chair and watched as the folds and wires pulled away from him.
He sat up and gasped. "That was amazing."
She grinned. "Yes, it was. Are you all right?"
Jensen stared up at her with cloudy eyes. He blinked a few times, then went very pale until he slumped against the headrest of the chair.
Maggie patted his cheek a few times, but he was out cold. "Well. Shit." Time to contact the healers.
Jeff contemplated what passed for breakfast in the brig – something watery and yellow that might be reconstituted eggs, stiff toast, and something round that bounced when he dropped it. Perhaps Fuller was trying to starve him into submission? He longed for the fluffy pastries and warm fragrant tye that he was accustomed to having every morning in Harmony. He pushed the tray to the side and took another sip of the scalding hot coffee. At least the heat kept him from tasting it.
He'd spent the night tossing and turning on the small bunk, missing his much larger bed and the weight of Jensen beside him. Jeff had eventually dropped off at some point, though the dim lighting in the brig hadn't helped him sleep either. He hadn't heard from Fuller or Hank, so he could only assume there wasn't any news to have yet.
Jeff didn't appreciate cooling his heels like an ordinary grunt. Charge of treason or not, he was still a political prisoner, and Fuller risked pissing off the queen yet again. He was beginning to get a little insight on how they'd managed to screw up during the time he and Jensen were away.
There was something about Fuller. Their conversation yesterday had tickled Jeff's memory. He'd have to have a reason to hate the Confed – which wasn't hard to find in the UP military. Damn near every one who'd served under Jeff had lost someone important in the war. But this was something that affected how Fuller felt about Harmony – so he might have lost someone to the Confed slave trade.
Fuck, Jeff couldn't really blame the man. He knew exactly how heartbreaking it was to know someone he loved was out there, being tortured, and not being able to do a damn thing about it.
"Morgan." Fuller appeared outside the forceshield. Jeff must be more out of it than he had thought. He took another gulp of the atrocious coffee.
"I hope you're here to tell me my lawyer has arrived." Jeff frowned at his breakfast. "Or to bring me a sandwich."
"Not your lawyer, no." Fuller had his eyebrows narrowed, as if he were trying to figure something out.
Jeff stood and moved to the forceshield. "Jensen, then?" Damn it, Jeff would have a few words to say to his sub.
"Among others. Including the queen of Harmony herself!" Fuller's arms flailed. "There's a whole flipping parade out there coming right for the base!"
"Well, she was issued an open invitation." And the people of Harmony liked their pageantry. Jeff could only imagine the spectacle. "Are you going to meet with her?"
"Of course I'm going to meet with her. And you're coming with me."
Fuller touched the panel controlling the field. "The reports say these people love negotiations and contracts more than anything else."
Jeff waited until the forceshield went down and he stepped through before speaking. "You expect me to help you after having me arrested?"
"I expect you'll be interested in saving your own ass and protecting these people you seem overly fond of. Am I wrong?" Fuller stared him down.
Jeff didn't answer. He just pushed past Fuller and strode down the hallway first. "I'll need a shower first."
"There's one on the way. I'll have them brought to the Conference room on the fifth floor."
"I'll be there.
Fuller thought the Harmony procession only lacked a few elephants to be truly remarkable. Luckily they hadn't found any of those creatures on this planet. Still, the parade of people and vehicles traveling down the path from Harmony were certainly a spectacle. They gleamed in the sunshine, wearing bright colored clothing that all but sparkled. The open-roofed trams hovered close to the ground, surrounded by guards holding their golden spears.
"Sir, what do we do?" Carly, his secretary, asked.
Fuller shut down the view screen. "Let them in, of course."
"All of them?" Her voice squeaked.
He rubbed the bridge of his nose, fighting off a headache. "Send up the queen and her entourage to the fifth floor conference room. Morgan is supposed to meet us there." Fuller had set a guard on the man to make sure he didn't escape after his time in the communal showers in the brig. Morgan would be there. "Also have catering send up some decent food. The rest – let them into the auditorium. I think that's the only room big enough to hold them all."
Fuller resisted the temptation to pull out the bottle of whiskey he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk. He'd definitely need it later. This conversation could not go well, not when he was sure he'd be unable to look the queen in the eye.
He bumped the edge of his desk when he stood to leave, knocking over the little holo stand and sending the family photos it displayed back into rapid rotation. Fuller picked it up and touched the stop button, frowning at the image of the four of them standing outside the beach house. This had been right before Cole had been deployed and if Fuller had known it would be the last time he'd see his son for five years he never would have let Cole leave.
"And what they did to you." Fuller slammed the holo back on his desk, switching it off completely. Cole had escaped from a brothel on Meridian, but it hadn't been Cole who returned. His son had come back with deviant desires. Fuller shuddered. He didn't need to be thinking about this right before meeting the queen of Harmony, not when she represented a world where everything that had been forced on Cole was not only considered perfectly fine, but something of a religion.
Damn it. Fuller made for the elevator bank outside his office. He could focus. He was known for his focus. It's what got him this far.
"Sir, is it true?" Lara's voice caught his attention and he turned to meet her coming down the other end of the hallway.
"Depends on what you're asking about."
"The queen . . .she's come here?"
The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. Fuller gestured Lara inside. "Yes. In fact, I think it's a good idea for you come to this meeting. I could use your inside information."
"She's not come to ask for us to return, is she?"
"Of course not." Fuller tried to reassure her, but for all he knew, that's exactly what the queen was going to demand. He'd finally pushed her too far, and now Fuller was either going to have to put up or shut up. "Carly." He lifted his wrist comm to his mouth. "Make sure to assign a detail of MPs to the fifth floor conference area." Fuller would not be caught off-guard again.
The doors opened to reveal Morgan and two MPs standing on either side of him. Fuller raised an eyebrow. He’d only assigned one. Was Morgan that much of a pain in the ass?
"Sir, a security detail will escort our visitors to the conference room."
"Excellent. Shall we await our guests?" Fuller pushed past them and opened the door. Morgan followed with a sour look on his face. Apparently the shower hadn't done his mood any good, or perhaps it was the standard issue black uniform he'd been forced to borrow. It was much better than those bright Harmony silks anyway. So impractical.
"Do you honestly think they'll just give you what you want?" Morgan growled as he slid into one of the seats around the large conference table.
"I don't see why not." Fuller sat down at the head of the table and gestured for Lara to take a seat. "Not when I have something to offer in return. Isn't that how negotiating works, Lara?"
She gave him a puzzled look before responding. "Generally, yes."
"Have you met Jeff Morgan, Lara?"
"I've seen him on the tele before." She gave Morgan a look that could burn coals.
"Lara is an expatriate of Harmony." Fuller touched the table, calling up his files on the tiny square in front of his seat. He would not going into this meeting unprepared.
"You're one of the subs who left." Morgan stared at her. "I'm sorry you felt you needed to."
Lara bristled, but didn't have the chance to answer before the doors slid open. An MP entered and saluted. "Presenting the queen of Harmony and her entourage, sir."
He stood aside and was followed by five or six of Harmony's guards. They were all tall, strapping men and women in scarlet carrying the golden spear weapons. The guards spread out and flanked her as the queen entered the room.
She was statuesque and lovely, as Fuller had expected. Her clothes were subdued – dark slacks and a long jacket that hung past her waist over a crimson corset. The outfit was a far cry from the outlandish costumes Fuller had seen on the video reports.
He recognized the man at her side as one of her subs. The sub was dressed just as simply, and except for the golden collar around his neck, there was no other indication that Fredric was anything but a man accompanying his wife. Fuller was almost disappointed. Where were the whips? The leashes?
It took him a moment to recognize Ackles when he filtered in. Ackles wore a set of golden goggles with green lens that hid his expressive eyes. It took Morgan gasping and tensing for Fuller to really get it. Ackles was accompanied by Sergeant Gyllenhaal and they were followed by Major Tappen and his master.
Fuller didn't recall inviting the last two to this little party. He scowled and Tappen only grinned as the door shut behind him.
Fuller remembered his manners and stood to welcome the queen. "There will be food arriving shortly. We weren't expecting you, so it may take a little time."
"No matter. I don't expect to be here long." She didn't crack a smile or even a frown. Her expression was as flawless as a marble statue.
"Please, have a seat." Fuller sighed. "All of you."
The guards remained standing, but the others all took chairs facing Fuller. Ackles sat next to Morgan and his arm slipped beneath the table. Fuller could only guess at what was going on out of sight.
"Your base is rather interesting. Amazing, really, what you can accomplish with nothing more than cranes and raw building materials." She folded her hands on the table.
Fuller wondered if that passed for small talk. "Um. Thank you. We make do with what we have." Not everyone could live in a self-propagating alien city, after all.
She didn't answer that. In fact, she didn't say anything at all. The queen continued to stare at him, that cold expression still on her face.
Fuller tapped his fingers on the table. This was a game, clearly. If he spoke first, he'd lose. But if he didn't, Fuller had no doubt the queen would keep staring at him for hours.
"Why have you come here?" Lara was the one who broke the silence. He couldn't blame her. She wanted to know if she was going to be forced back to Harmony as one of its slaves. Fuller wouldn't let that happen.
"Even without a collar I recognize you as one of ours, child." The queen's face softened as she spoke to Lara. "I have no quarrel with you. The contract with the UP allows you to live here, and I would never go back on a contract."
Her words had the hackles rising on the back of Fuller's neck. The implications were clear – he was going back on the contract by arresting Morgan and depriving Harmony of their Dom/sub liaison pair.
"I'm here because this man has asked for something which is not mine to give."
Jensen thought it was a good time for him to take over the conversation. "If I may explain. . ."
"Someone had better." Fuller threw him a sharp look, his eyes shifting down to where Jensen had his hand on Jeff's knee.
Jensen fought to keep from fidgeting in response. "The only one who can give you the specs for the cloak is Harmony."
"The city." Fuller sat back, crossing his arms over his chest. He raised an eyebrow, as if daring Jensen to tell him another one.
"Yes, but she's more than that." Jensen cleared his throat. "The mind of the city, if I can call it that, comes from the brain of a long dead woman from the first colony here. Her personality is still alive within the neurons of the city. She is more than just an AI. No one can program her, she just simply is. So it's not a matter of just grabbing the tech and duplicating it."
Fuller leaned forward. "How do I know you're not just making shit up? You brought the queen here, hoping I'd swallow some cockamamie story just to get Morgan back."
Jensen really wanted to shake Fuller. The man had his head so far up his ass it was a wonder he could see straight.
"Actually, sir, if I may?" Maggie cleared her throat. "I've been looking at this tech for the past two years and yesterday I got lucky enough to speak with Harmony herself."
"The AI, you mean?"
Fuller just didn't understand. Jensen couldn't explain what it had been like to be part of the city, to commune with the soul of the lonely girl inside. Most of the people who lived in the city would never be able to experience what he had.
"I wouldn't call her that." Maggie fiddled with her tablet. "An AI is pure code, made to act like a person and give human responses. Harmony was – is – a human who's bonded with the city. You can't separate them any longer. I think the alien technology was designed to thrive when joined to an organic mind. You'll notice the other cities are dead."
Maggie touched a button on her tablet, calling up a hologram of Discord. "I don't know how long an organic mind can be sustained. We know Harmony has lasted 300 years. But these cities have been abandoned for far longer."
"Gyllenhaal, I don't give a damn about the dead cities."
"But you should, Commandant." The queen spoke up. "Because if you are so desperate for our advanced technology, you need to be willing to sacrifice a human being to power it."
Fuller opened his mouth, and then closed it.
"And not just any human being," Jensen added. "The tech likes those genetically predisposed toward being subs."
"Though we haven't quite figured out what makes a person a natural sub." Maggie shut off her hologram. "And not all subs will work, only those with specific brain patterns."
"Is that why all those subs died? The ones Mast . . . Adrian put in the control room?" the former sub next to Fuller asked.
Maggie nodded. "Exactly. They could connect and get the city to do what Adrian wanted, but at the cost of their lives."
Jensen pressed his leg against Jeff's, taking comfort in the warmth of his body. He didn't look at his lover, knowing they weren't out of the woods yet. Every word they told Fuller had been the truth, but would the stiff-necked bastard believe them?
Fuller stood and began to pace. The queen's guards watched him, but it didn't seem like he was going to do anything but walk back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back. He stopped and pointed as he turned. "But Ackles connected to the city - twice now?"
"Right. It's theoretically possible to build something that resembles the control room and have a person be able to connect and disconnect at will. I have all the knowledge Harmony was able to give me. But whether I can actually get it working is another story." Maggie smoothed her hand down the tablet. "And we're still risking lives no matter what. I can't predict how the tech will respond."
"It's not a simple yes or no question. It's not a matter of us being insubordinate or not wanting to do our jobs." Jensen slammed one hand on the table. "Too many people have died in this war to risk more lives on tech we don't need!"
"That's not for you to decide, Ackles!" Fuller snapped at him. "Your job is to report to me."
"Actually," the queen cut in. "His job is to be a liaison between our people, to facilitate understanding between us on matters such as these. As such he should hold no allegiance to your UP any longer." She stood and met Fuller full on, stopping him from continuing his pacing. They stared at each other, and right now, Jensen would put his money on the queen. "I claim both Jensen Ackles and Jeff Morgan as full citizens of Harmony. They belong to her now. You no longer have any right to command them."
Oh shit. Jensen looked at Jeff, trying to read the expression on his face. This was not what he expected when the queen had demanded to accompany them to the base.
"You can't just do that," Fuller sputtered. "You can just say something and make it true."
"I can't?" She gave him her coldest smile. "Do you want access to our technology or not? Yes, your Maggie has the specs, but does she have the materials? Without us she will not be able to test on working specimens. And what exactly did you plan on using to power your new creations? You see, Commandant, this is simply a matter of give and take. You may have your technology, but I get my liaisons. Agreed?"
"Damn you. Fine. Yes. Good riddance!" Fuller spat at Jeff and Jensen.
"Have a good day, Commandant." The queen turned on heel with sub Fredric at her side and her guards filing out behind her. She’d accomplished what she’d set out to do and now Fuller was inconsequential.
Hank leaned over to Ian. "Remind me never to get on her bad side."
Jensen couldn't help but agree completely.
"I didn't know whether I wanted to kiss you or punch you when you walked into that conference room." Jeff hated that he couldn't see Jensen's eyes. But until they got back to the safety that was Harmony, Jensen would need his goggles to see.
As they approached one of the trams – and that was the first time Jeff had seen the convertible model – there was a sharp bark and Mila jumped out of one, running to greet them both.
Jensen knelt to allow his face to be sniffed and licked. "Well, since you didn't do either I assume you never decided on which?"
Jeff pulled Jensen up and wiped the dog slobber off his chin before leaning in for a kiss. He touched their foreheads together and murmured. "Thank you for coming to my rescue."
"Too bad I left the horse back in Texas."
"And neither of us has shining armor." Jeff laughed. "Who's idea was all this?" He gestured to the parade of Harmony's citizens, all climbing back into the vehicles about ready to head back to the city.
"The queen's, of course. I think we've all been doing her a disservice. As much as we've been trying to learn about them, she's been learning about us."
"And managed to beat Fuller at his own game." Jeff shook his head. The queen had offered them full citizenship in Harmony – more than that, she'd staked a claim on them. That would surely make the tele.
The sound of someone clearing their throat had him breaking away from Jensen. The queen and Fredric waited for them. "Would you care to ride with us? There is room on the tram." Her lips curved as she spoke.
"Mistress," Jeff began. "What you've done for us..."
"Harmony's will. She's just as fond of you as I am." She touched Fredric's shoulder, as if needing the physical contact.
"I wasn't sure that was still the case." Jeff felt Mila nosing at his fingers. He petted her absently, taking the comfort offered.
"I wronged you, Jeff. I am not so petty that I can't admit that."
"And I understand why you did it." Jeff thought of the fear in that sub's eyes, the one sitting next to Fuller, when she thought she might be forced back to Harmony. Adrian's deeds had been bad enough; Jeff understood why the queen felt she needed to stamp out his philosophy before it spread throughout the city.
"So can we all go back and finish celebrating the Choosing?" Jensen leaned against Jeff.
There was more than just the Choosing that Jeff wanted to celebrate. He wanted to get Jensen alone, to thrill in his body and let go of the darkness at the base. It had hurt to be away from Jensen for just one night and Jeff had every intention of slaking his desire and not letting Jensen out of arm's reach.
The trip back to the city felt like it took hours. The parade that followed them back to the palace did take hours. By the time they had made it past the well-wishers and back to their apartments, Jeff was ready for a nap.
But Jensen had other ideas.
As soon as the door slid shut behind them, Jensen ordered Mila to go play. Then he dropped to his knees right in front of Jeff.
"Jensen." Jeff reached out for Jensen, trying to get him to stand or to at least take this to the bed.
"Jeff." Jensen put his hands on Jeff's waist and rubbed his chin against the bulge in Jeff's pants. "This is us. I am your sub. You are my Dom." His fingers tightened on Jeff's skin. "Let me serve you."
Jensen looked so beautiful like that – on his knees, looking up at Jeff with his wide green eyes and full lips. He wore Jeff's collar – marked for everyone to see. It wasn't wrong to want this, to desire Jensen's willing submission. Here, unlike anywhere else in the galaxy, this was seen as something sacred and bright, not dark and deviant. It's why they'd come and now they'd been taken in by the city.
Jeff swallowed and stroked his hand through Jensen's hair. "Yeah, boy. Suck me."
With deft hands, Jensen unfastened Jeff's uniform pants. They weren't as practical as much of Harmony's clothing, but there was something about wearing the last vestiges of his life as a soldier while Jensen was on his knees in soft silk fabrics like a harem boy. Jeff's cock thickened, swelling against the cloth of his pants.
Jensen freed Jeff's dick from its confines, stroking it to full hardness with skilled hands. He pressed a kiss on the very head, that light touch had Jeff clenching his fists and hissing. With a smile, Jensen stretched his lips over Jeff, sliding down over his length. The warm tightness was almost too much, and then Jensen started to suck.
It wasn't enough. Want coiled in his belly. He was the Dom here. Jeff took hold of Jensen's head and started to guide the motion, forcing himself deeper down Jensen's throat with each thrust. "Gonna fuck your face, boy. But you like that don't you?"
Jensen let out a sound deep in his throat that Jeff took for assent.
"Touch yourself. Let me see how you're a slut for me."
Moaning around Jeff's cock, Jensen undid his own pants. He pulled out his cock and began stroking it fiercely. Jeff started to thrust faster. "You don't come until I do."
There was something about this – how helpless Jensen was. He couldn't speak around the cock gagging him and he couldn't control the pace now that Jeff had a hold of him. Yet he'd willingly opened himself for his. Not only that, but he fucking loved it.
"Like that, yeah. Fuck, yeah." Jeff found himself chanting, unable to help himself as he rocketed towards his climax. When he started to come, he pulled out, just far enough to cover Jensen's face with his seed.
"Jeff." Jensen choked out as he came, spilling over his hand. He shuddered as he continued to milk himself.
Jeff dropped to a crouch and cupped Jensen's face between his hands. His sub was flushed and his lips were swollen. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Jensen's voice sounded rough, probably from the abuse to his throat. "Actually, really good."
Jeff pressed a kiss to Jensen's forehead, then his nose, before nuzzling at his lips. "You're a mess."
"Whose fault is that?"
Jeff responded to the insubordination with a little pinch to Jensen's shoulder. "I believe a bath is in order."
"Oh." Jensen grinned. He looked slightly out of it, despite his earlier cheekiness. Perhaps Jeff had pushed him just to that edge of subspace. It didn't matter. From here on out Jeff would take care of him – settling him in the bath and then drying him off later. And if that turned into round two, well that was just fine with him.
Chapter 19: Epilogue
Jensen fiddled with the belt of his robe, sliding the smooth fabric between his thumb and forefinger. He had his outfit for tonight's gala on underneath, but thought it prudent to keep covered up while he chatted with Jared. There were some things he wasn't quite ready to share with his little brother just yet.
“Sam Smith was over earlier today. She’ll be upset that she missed you. You really need to comm her, Jen.” Jared leaned forward. The tiny hologram version of him looked funny, as if he sat on the edge of the end table where Jensen had placed his comm.
“I will.” Jensen would definitely be talking to Sam, who’d been like a mother to Jared back when Jensen was in the academy. A fellow scut, she’d be very interested in hearing about the developments with Harmony. “I got the ultrasound picture you sent. I still can’t make any sense of it.”
Jared laughed. “We’re thinking about naming the baby after Mom if it’s a girl.”
"What do you mean 'if'? Don't tell me that you of all people haven't checked yet!"
Jared shrugged. The connection was good enough now that Jensen could make out the blush on his cheeks. "Adrianne wanted it to be a surprise. So I've restrained myself."
Jensen was never gladder that Jared had Adrianne in his life. She had always been good for Jared, and now the two of them were going to form their own little family. Jared was going to make an excellent father. He had so much to give to a child. Jensen only regretted that he wasn’t going to be on Earth to see that part of his brother.
"Just make sure you take plenty of holos. I don't want to miss a moment."
“Jensen? You’re not planning on coming home any time soon?”
He crushed the fabric of his belt in his hand. “Jared, you knew this was a long term mission. And now. . . Jeff and I were just granted citizenship in Harmony.”
“Damn it, Jensen.” Jared slammed his hand on his thigh.
“Jared.” Jensen had to nip this in the bud. He wasn’t going to cut Jared out of his life, but Jensen needed to live his own. “Jeff and I are happy here. This place is like home. They’ve healed me.” Jared knew about Jensen being able to see unaided only inside the city. It was just one reason of many that Jensen wanted to stay, but it was the one Jared might understand the best.
Jared’s shoulders dropped. “I know. I just wish it wasn’t so far away.”
They’d spent so much time apart. Jensen had been absent on so many missions over the past ten years and had missed so much. But Jared was an adult now, and didn’t need his older brother hovering over his shoulder playing parent. Jensen hated that he couldn’t be there for Jared, but he’d decided he wasn’t going to miss out on his own chance at happiness. For once, he had to live for himself.
"You know what? I wish you were coming here." Jensen grinned, trying to lighten the mood. "They're about to open this place up to tourism, once all the paperwork clears." That was his and Jeff's latest project.
Jared laughed. "Maybe when the baby is a little older."
"I'll hold you to that."
"Jen." Jared got serious. "I'm glad you're safe and not running around the stars anymore. Even if you are millions of miles away."
"Thanks, bro." Jensen smiled. "Till next time?"
Jensen switched off the comm. He was glad they found the time to talk like this. Despite the distance, sometimes they spoke more when Jensen was out on assignment. He missed Jared and despite being happy with his choices, Jensen would always miss him.
"Hey, you just about ready to go?" Jeff popped into the bedroom with Mila at his heels. She was wearing a fancy sparkling blue collar and her fur shone in the light. The groomers had done a nice job. It was hard to believe a month had passed and tonight was the last night of the Choosing.
Jensen stood and slipped off the robe, revealing the custom made kilt Jeff had bought him for tonight's occasion. He smoothed down the braided leather pleats to make sure they laid straight. Over his chest he'd used a shimmer lotion to give him a glow, but not a sparkle. His sandals were a splurge, with straps that crisscrossed up his shins. "How do I look?"
"Good enough to eat. Maybe we'll make this a short appearance?" Jeff looked at him with hungry eyes.
"You're insatiable." Jensen took up the leather leash on the bedside table and handed it over to Jeff.
Jeff clipped one end to Jensen's collar. "You know we never use one of these things on the dog."
"I guess she's better trained." Jensen winked.
Tonight's party would be a little more subdued than the previous occasions. The last night of the Choosing was always a little sad. Friends would be returning to their districts and subs would leave for their new contracts. The excitement and frenzy would not happen for another year.
The mood in the great hall was more like a cocktail party than a celebration. Soft instrumental music came from the speakers, setting a quiet, focused ambiance, along with the dim lighting and arranged seating. The queen sat on a throne set up on a little dais, with Fredric kneeling at her side. It looked like there was a line to speak with her if one wanted to offer their respects.
Jensen was about to suggest they go do that when he felt something latch on to his leg from behind. He looked down, startled to find the queen's grandson clinging to him.
"I'm sorry, he's just started escaping." Levi pried his son away from Jensen and gave the toddler a little bounce and a kiss on his forehead.
Nicci came up beside him and tweaked the baby's nose. "That's because he's smart."
Jeff laughed. He twisted the leash around his wrist and pulled Jensen close. "Clearly. He's certainly energetic."
Maybe Jensen would get to see Jared’s child when he or she was about that old. Surely he could bring a toddler on a spaceship? With the way the baby squirmed in Nicci’s arms, Jensen wasn’t entirely sure.
"He's just getting started." Levi grinned. "You'll find out when the two of you have children of your own."
Jeff's laughter turned into a cough. "We're not. How is that? I mean."
Jensen patted him on the back. "We can contract out for a surrogate." He'd spent a lot of time examining the rights of subs and contracts. Jensen knew the ins and outs of it all. At Jeff's stricken look, he realized Jeff must think he had been planning this. "If we want to take that step."
He hadn't thought about having children with Jeff. Jensen still sometimes thought about that possibility, the one unfinished thread in his military career – that Dani’s son was also his. It should have been impossible since Jensen, like all scuts, had been sterilized for the duration of his duty rotation. But still he wondered.
"Consider it, Dom Jeff." Nicci took her son from Levi. "I've found he adds so much to our lives."
"He's offered me a different kind of healing." Levi's gaze never left his child's. Jensen could only imagine the kind of trauma Levi had suffered under Adrian's rule for all those years. But now he looked happy, and Jensen could attribute that to both Nicci and the baby.
"Now that the Choosing is done you'll have plenty of opportunities to play with Al if you want." Nicci winked at them. "Excuse me, he needs to be put to bed."
Jensen waved them off. "Did we just get suckered into babysitting?"
"Possibly." Jeff shook his head. "Seeing Levi again. . .makes me think about Adrian."
"Don't. Bastard is getting what he deserves." The last Jensen heard, Adrian had been slapped with the collar of the unwilling and had been forced into hard labor in the mines. He still needed to examine what exactly Adrian was mining for – that might be relevant to Maggie's experiments.
"At least someone is." Jeff growled.
Jensen knew Jeff meant Isaacs, the man who'd tortured Jensen on behalf of the Confed. But he was safe here. The Confed would never be able to touch Harmony. Jensen squeezed Jeff's hand. "That's the past, remember? Come on, we have to go speak to the queen before we can get food."
The line of people had mostly dissipated, leaving the queen speaking with her daughter and her two subs. Alona turned at their approach and grinned. The former princess looked just as regal as her mother, wearing jewels that sparkled at her throat, ears and in her hair. "I am so happy that you'll be staying. You really must come visit me in Alonan." She blushed. "I really do hate that they've named it that, you realize."
"They could not have done otherwise." The queen smiled fondly Alona before regarding Jensen and Jeff. "We too, are pleased that you are now part of Harmony."
"I don't think she could let us go, mistress." Jensen had lowered his eyes was proper for a sub meeting the queen. He gave a sidelong smile to Jeff. "And we're rather fond of her too."
"Good. Enjoy the evening. For tomorrow the year spins anew, and work begins again."
Her version of work and his were slightly different. This would be like no assignment he'd ever had in the Corps. Jensen was following his own path for the first time since his parents had been killed.
"Thank you, mistress." Jeff guided Jeff away from the queen and towards the food. Jeff was such a very good Dom.
They filled plates with the little pastries that Jeff loved, and the odd colored vegetables and a few of the more erotically shaped cookies. Jensen carried them over away from the crowds to an empty set of seats and knelt beside one of them, placing the plates on one of the low tables. Mila sat on the other side of Jeff, expectantly waiting to be fed, just like Jensen.
"I think you're right. The dog is better trained." Jeff said just as he popped a bite of food into Jensen's open mouth.
Jensen chewed slowly, savoring the combination of flavors in his mouth. "You'll just have to fix that, won't you?" He couldn't wait for Jeff to start 'training' him.
"Would you care for a drink, sir?"
Jensen looked up at the familiar voice and grinned at seeing Colin standing there with a serving pitcher and two glasses. He looked relaxed and confident, wearing his white collar and kilt with an ease Jensen hadn’t seen from Colin before.
"Yes, please." Jeff gestured to the table. "When do you leave for the Schola, Colin?"
Colin blushed as he poured. "Tomorrow after the closing ceremonies. I'm already packed. The queen said she'd take me herself." He seemed a little in awe of that prospect.
"You'll be fine." Jensen frowned. "Training isn't easy, but it's worth it. Most of the hard stuff usually is."
"I'll try to remember that. You know you can come visit me there?" Colin looked hopeful.
"Then we will." Jeff nodded at Jensen before taking up one of the cups and drinking his fill.
Mila whined and scratched at the carpet. "Oh," Jensen said. "Could you bring a bowl of water for her?"
Colin laughed and patted Mila. "Of course."
It was nice to sit back and enjoy sitting alone together as they finished their food. Jensen licked every crumb from Jeff's fingers, watching as Jeff's eyes grew more heavy lidded as the evening went on. If he kept up the teasing, Jensen knew he'd be in for a wild, out of control Jeff when they got back to their chambers. There was something to be said for this method of eating.
Jensen licked his lips after he swallowed the last bite. "We should mingle a bit more before heading upstairs."
"Because leaving early would look suspicious." Jeff rolled his eyes. "We could probably find an alcove, strip down and no one would bat an eye."
Jensen winked. "I didn't know you were such an exhibitionist."
"You've no idea." Jeff stood and tugged on the leash. "But you're right about mingling. Besides, it'll be a while before we're all together again."
That quashed Jensen's nascent arousal. This might be the last time he'd see some of these people for a while, at least until next year. They’d have plenty of time to go upstairs and enjoy each other later.
Jensen spotted what looked to be the UP contingent, all seated together around a low table covered with empty plates and goblets. Some of the chairs looked to be pulled from other areas. He cocked his head in that direction and Jeff led on.
As they approached the group, Mila ran forward and launched herself at Hank, who knelt at Ian's feet. She licked his face and her tag wagged furiously. Hank laughed and gave her a good scratch. Even though Jeff and Jensen were her people, Mila seemed to have a fondness for Hank.
"How is everyone tonight?" Jeff greeted.
It was a mixed group – besides Hank and Ian, there were Maggie, Caroline and Whitfield, and Tom and Sophia. Jensen wondered if they were sharing stories.
"Jensen, we've been waiting for you!" Sophia grinned. "We wanted to know if you'd heard the news?"
Jensen exchanged a looked with Jeff. "What news?"
Ian went and pulled over another seat and gestured for Jeff to take it. Jensen slid to his knees and leaned against Jeff's leg. He decided he'd let Mila stay with Hank for now. They both looked so happy – now Hank was rubbing her belly as she rolled over onto her back.
Sophia leaned forward. "They're sending Ferris here."
"She's going to be in charge of the base. They're pulling Fuller – good riddance by the way. But ever since Maggie made the discovery about sub brainwaves, it only makes sense for a scut to be in charge." Sophia touched Tom's hair as she spoke.
Tom looked so much better. Jensen would have called it a miracle, except he knew how hard Tom had worked with his Soul Healer to get to this point. He had to give some of the credit to Sophia, as well, who'd stepped up and proved herself to be a very good Dom.
"Well, that actually makes sense." Jeff rubbed Jensen's back. "Are they transferring all the sex corps soldiers out here too?"
"They're giving them all the option to come or not. Most of them have been reassigned by now."
"My brother is considering it, though I'm not sure how I'd like working with him." Maggie made a face, though she immediately laughed. "At least I'd know where he was!"
Maggie would be leaving Harmony to start work on dismantling Discord. Jensen would miss her, but couldn't deny her this opportunity. She would be able to really figure out how the alien tech worked without having to worry about breaking something in Harmony. If he had any aptitude with tech, Jensen wouldn't mind joining her.
"We're going to be working with the project too." Sophia gestured to Tom and herself. "They're looking at a variety of brain scans and genetics. I think they're hoping something will stick out."
"Will you be staying here or at the base?" Jensen asked. He didn't want to see all of Tom's hard work unravel.
Tom grinned. "We're going to get an apartment in Harmony and commute."
"It makes sense – if the city has already starting affecting us biologically, they'll want to study the effect from the beginning." Sophia shrugged. "I'm not complaining. I've got my eye on some apartments on the west side."
"Just make sure you're not too close to the clubs if you value silence," Ian said. As the lone Harmony native in the group, he would know.
"Will you two be returning to Alonan?" Jensen knew Ian and Hank had worked as Alona's advisors before now.
Hank looked up from where he had sprawled next to Mila. "Oh, we didn't tell you. Someone has to go back on the Desert Moon to fetch Ferris. Ostensibly we'll be debriefing her and giving her insider information about Harmony. But really? I'll be showing this guy the stars."
Ian grinned and ruffled Hank's hair. "It will be a most interesting journey."
"It's exciting. You'll be the first person from this city to go out into space." Maggie grinned.
Jensen thought of something. "Will the other subs be leaving too? The exiles, I mean."
"I'm not sure." Ian frowned. "We'll have to find out."
"They would probably be assimilated in some of the relocation programs." Sophia looked thoughtful. "Those are usually used for ex-Confed slaves."
The mood got a bit sober after that comment. Jensen remembered that Dr. Johnson had once been a slave – which had started the whole mess on Harmony two years ago. But if it hadn't been for his freak out at the sight of the subs, then Johnson and Hank wouldn't have been taken prisoner, and Jensen would never have been brought in as a consultant to work with Jeff. It was an odd thing to have to be thankful to the Confed for.
"I wish them well, whatever they end up doing." Hank closed the door on the subject, and the conversation moved on to other topics.
Jeff stood and excused them after that. Jensen got a hug from both Sophia and Tom before he left. "Let me know when you find a new place." He'd love to see more of what Harmony was like outside of the palace. He doubted that the apartments of the ordinary citizens matched this opulent luxury. Then again, who knew? This place had its own set of rules.
Hank gave Mila a final pat and rubbed their noses together, giving her a kiss on the forehead. "Maybe we can get a dog?" He looked over at Ian.
"Perhaps." Ian looked like he was trying not to smile.
Jensen followed Jeff back into the crowd of people, which was already starting to thin. At this point, most people were probably tired and taking an early night. It was sad that the Choosing was over, but at least there would be time to rest from its frenetic pace.
"Jeff!" Claudia waved them over to where she and Misha were sitting. "I didn't see you."
Jeff smiled at her. "We were chatting with some friends for quite a while."
"Sit with us for a moment, will you?" Claudia patted the couch next to her. "We haven't had much time together at all."
Jensen slipped into place beside Jeff, on the same level as Misha who greeted him with a wave. At least that was a bit more subdued than the last greeting Misha had given him. Jensen flushed, suddenly heating at the idea of physical contact with Misha again. He liked scening with the Duchess and her sub. It was always fun and never failed to be hot. They would have to make some time for it in the future.
"Well, you've been very busy yourself." Jeff leaned back on the couch. "I haven't seen either of you performing at any events."
She frowned. "There were many contracts I had to oversee. Plus, there was a minor issue involving citizens wishing to migrate to my district."
"Oh?" Jeff tilted his head. "From Alonan, I presume?"
"And others. There were a good number who wanted to go to Alonan, which was good. We have to monitor things like that carefully, so the population doesn't grow unbalanced." Claudia shrugged. "I fear there is still contention on how some Doms view their subs."
"As well as some Adrian sympathizers." Jeff made a face.
Jensen agreed with him. Why did it seem like snakes like Adrian always had their followers? It seemed like his evil should be obvious to everyone, and not something to try to emulate. The queen had been wise to not just execute him. The last thing she needed was to create a martyr.
"That is why we're glad you're staying," Misha leaned forward to say. "Many people of Harmony look to you and your example."
Jensen had never wanted to be a celebrity. He had no choice here, not the way they'd come to this city and changed everything its citizens had ever known about who they were and the stars that surrounded them. Jensen had to bear some of the responsibility for the way things were changing in Harmony. He and Jeff had started that wheel turning from the moment they'd stepped foot in the city two years ago.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us." Jeff let out a sigh. "Especially if things are still so unsettled politically."
"Well, we wouldn't want it to be boring, would we?" Jensen asked.
Jeff and Claudia laughed. "Never."
"You will come visit us?" Misha turned to his mistress. "They are invited?"
She patted his hair. "Of course. Though you should have waited for me to issue the invitation, slut."
He ducked his head. "I'm afraid you'll have to punish me for that, mistress."
"I'm looking forward to it." Claudia had a downright evil look on her face. Whatever she had planned, Misha would certainly enjoy it.
"There are many things I'm looking forward to." Jeff tugged on Jensen's leash. "If you will excuse us. We'll see you at the closing ceremonies."
They bid them good night and headed for the lifts. Once inside Jensen sagged against the wall. He felt drained. It had been a long night and an even longer month.
"You all right, boy?" Jeff murmured, throwing an arm around Jensen's waist and pulling them together.
"Mmm." Jeff pressed his lips to Jensen's. He tasted warm, like home.
Jensen caught his fingers in Jeff's shirt and let Jeff kiss him, opening up his mouth and taking it as Jeff pressed inside. When they parted, he was panting. "Okay, maybe not that tired."
Jeff laughed. "Good." He rubbed his thumb over Jensen's cheek. "You know, Jen, I know there's still shit to deal with, but I'm content."
"Maybe even happy?" Jensen tugged Jeff closer. He wouldn't deny that. Jeff made him happy, whether they were in Harmony or not, but Jensen was glad they had come and had found a place here. It didn't matter if the war still raged on out there in the stars. He and Jeff had given enough to the UP. Finally this was their time to be together and carve out a life free from those responsibilities. They only had to answer to each other.
"Yeah," Jeff agreed. "Happy."