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Negotiations (Edgeplay in Mayhill #1)

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And now that he has come to welcome his lover and to take pleasure in his company and converse, it comes home to him what a depth of friendliness he has found, and he is filled with amazement, for he perceives that all his other friends and kinsmen have nothing to offer in comparison with this friend in whom dwells a god. . . . So he loves, yet knows not what he loves: he does not understand; he cannot tell what has come upon him; like one that has caught a disease of the eye from another, he cannot account for it, not realising that his lover is as it were a mirror in which he beholds himself.

—Plato: Phaedrus (translated by R. Hackforth).


CHAPTER ONE

Loren had grown reconciled to the fact that he would never be a god. No one would ever kneel at his feet and offer him undying worship. No one would ever pledge complete obedience to his will or offer the supreme sacrifice of body and heart.

It would have been nice, though, to be a demi-god. To worship at another man's feet and then, just for a short time, to accept the other man's worship. It was a vision that gripped him, luring him back time and time again to the frequently boring weekly meetings of the Mayhill Sexual Education Society, popularly known as the Black and Blue Club.

As Loren made his way down the dimly lit stairs leading to the club's cellar meeting-place on that autumn evening in 1985, his mind was focussed on trying to find something to say to these people that he hadn't said a dozen times before. He was one of the founders of the club, so he had belonged to it now for eight years, long enough to give several dozen talks. And since most of the people in the society had been there for the same eight years, it was becoming increasingly difficult to be original. Like being forced to teach a Philosophy 101 class every year for the rest of one's life, Loren thought with a sigh as he pushed open the door to the brightly lit basement.

Then he stopped dead in his tracks.

He knew immediately that a newcomer had arrived. The Black and Blue members, often tediously unoriginal in their sexual tastes, were equally unoriginal in their socializing. Under ordinary circumstances, the members would be paired off like animals from Noah's ark: long-term couples mainly, with a few dating couples, and only a very few people, such as himself, who played the field. He would drift from pair to pair, smiling and pretending that he wasn't the mateless bachelor of the group.

Tonight was different. The time was barely five-thirty, a half hour before the talk was set to begin, but already the room was crowded. Word had evidently spread quickly, as it often did in Mayhill. And nearly everyone in the room was jammed into one corner, surrounding the newcomer.

Loren, who disliked looking eager, made his way over to the abandoned refreshment table at the other end of the room, trying not to be conspicuous as he eyed the newcomer. Despite the welcome party massed around him, the newcomer was partly visible, for he was several inches taller than any of the other men, and up to a foot and a half taller than the women. Another man was standing in front of the newcomer at the moment – one of the Esses, his arm protectively curled round his em in an evident effort to keep her from throwing herself at the newcomer. So all that Loren could see was the top half of the newcomer's face: attentive eyes, honey-gold skin, and dark hair that curled loosely in a manner that made him look like a Hollywood sex god. Loren wished that his own hair was so well-behaved.

The potato chips at the refreshments table were as stale as always, the red fruit punch was too sweet, and the chocolate cupcakes were utterly inedible. Loren sampled them all, this being his best excuse for staying on this side of the room. He eyed the small podium at the center of the long wall, the whiteboard stand beside it, and the folding chairs lined up neatly in front of it. He doubted that anyone would be watching him this evening. Not unless he placed the newcomer next to him and used him to demonstrate the finer points of obeisance.

Darn, that was a tempting thought. Loren reached for the punch ladle, his mouth having suddenly gone dry.

In the next moment he spilled the punch onto the table. It ran like blood over the white tablecloth, then dripped down onto Loren's slacks. Loren barely noticed, even though these slacks had managed to last him for six years. The crowd at the end of the room had parted, giving him his first full glimpse of the newcomer.

A body like that of the man who had beach sand kicked in his face, after the man had undergone his wonderful transformation with the help of Charles Atlas. A face that the Hollywood sex god would have killed to borrow: full lips, high cheekbones, and a perfectly shaped nose, neither too broad nor too narrow. Strong hands, bare of any ring. More of that luscious sun-golden skin. And a uniform of bright blue, with gleaming buttons.

Well. This was something new. When the Mayhill police force sent its officers to the Black and Blue Club, the officers were usually disguised in mufti.

Loren became aware finally of the dripping punch and reached toward the napkins, only to find a hand offering several napkins to him. The hand belonged to Melody, who was carrying her ubiquitous umbrella and had her husband in tow, though for once her husband's gaze wasn't glued upon her. It was glued upon the newcomer instead.

"Checking out the latest fly caught in our cobweb?" she asked Loren with a smile.

Loren didn't bother to deny it. "I thought he might be here to inspect us."

"Heavens, no – he came here with a recommendation from one of our former members. I do wish," she added reflectively, "that the ems would give him a little more room. He looks as though he's going to bolt out the door at any moment."

Loren thought otherwise; the newcomer was smiling now, speaking to an em who was crowding up to his chest as she stared up at him with worshipful eyes. Loren sighed. Sloppy training. But then, she probably hadn't received any training at all. Ems and Esses often didn't, these days.

He tried to make his voice casual as he asked, "Has he shown interest in any particular female em?"

"No, nor in any particular male em." Melody's voice was dry.

Loren raised his eyebrows. Melody's testimony on such matters was usually to be trusted; she was a sharp-eyed observer. "Well, then," he said, "I suppose I should ask whether he has shown any interest in you."

She laughed. "No, nor has he approached any of the other female Esses here. And Dick stopped by briefly to leave a note for you. Our newcomer's head didn't so much as swivel in his direction."

That settled it, then. Dick was a tall, self-assured man who was often mistaken for an Ess, to his amusement. He could generally be counted on to catch the attention of any male-attracted em in his vicinity. If the newcomer hadn't gone for Dick, then he was probably an Ess.

As his uniform hinted. Loren had already guessed that the new man hadn't arrived garbed this way out of hopes of playing that he was cadet to a higher officer.

"Oh, well," said Loren. "One out of two isn't bad. I can live with his being an Ess. Provided you're right that he's interested in men."

"Well," said Melody, "it's fairly obvious that quite a number of men are interested in him. —Vernon, stop staring, dear. You know I have a jealous streak."

Her voice held no more than a slight snap. Loren expected her husband to immediately turn whimpering to her, like a dog curling its tail between its legs. Instead, Vernon continued to stare at the newcomer with a dazed expression. "But I'm not gay. I'm not even bisexual!"

"Yes, dear." Melody's voice was patient this time. "Close your mouth, Vernon. You're drooling."

Vernon closed his mouth quickly. Melody hooked the collar of his shirt with the curved handle of her umbrella and pulled him down onto his knees. "Remember, dear," she said. "You belong to me. No one else."

"Yes, ma'am," Vernon said in a penitent voice and kissed her hand. But Loren noticed that his eyes wandered back toward the other side of the room as he did so.

Melody sighed. "Loren, you would be doing this club a very great favor if you snagged that young man before the other ems start clawing each other's eyes out for his favors. At least if he has you, you can give him a tip or two about how to turn away unwanted attention."

Loren snorted. "Oh, yes, I know a great deal about that problem. You're being overly optimistic on my behalf, Melody."

"Mm, I don't think so." Melody's gaze returned to the newcomer. "I think he needs a tactfully guiding hand. If he's as intelligent as he seems from his conversation, he'll know that. Besides" – she smiled suddenly – "he'll be butter in your hands after you give your talk."

Loren tried not to dwell on this thought as he stood at the podium a while later, pretending to read Dick's note. Actually, the note was only a single sentence saying that Dick would not be visiting the bar tonight, as he had volunteered to work overtime so that a fellow worker could have the evening off. Dick was always good about letting Loren know when he would be unavailable to serve as back-up bartender – this, despite the fact that Loren and his partner did not yet earn enough money to be able to pay Dick for his occasional substitute services. "A community service," Dick called it, a phrase that always made Loren glow with warmth. A decade ago there had been no community to which Dick could have offered his service.

The seats were slowly filling up now as Melody sent her husband to retrieve the goggling onlookers in the corner. Loren glanced up from time to time, though the sight in front of him was no different than it ever was. A crowd fairly evenly divided between ems and Esses – that would be unusual at his workplace, where the ems outnumbered the Esses, but it reflected the stability of the club's membership. Nearly everyone here was in a state-sanctioned marriage or on the way to joining one; they didn't need to worry about losing their jobs if they were seen too often in a lover's company.

Most of the Esses here were male, most of the ems were female. No lesbian couples – the lesbian community in Mayhill was very small. No gay male couples either – the gays had their own venue now, and Loren was the only one of the club's original gay members to continue to attend meetings regularly. A shame, the splitting of their community like that, but Melody had never seemed overly concerned. In Mayhill, it often seemed, everyone knew everyone, regardless of where they spent their leisure hours.

Loren glanced at the crowd again as the remaining members filed into their seats. Most of the members sat on chairs; a few of the Esses, such as Melody, kept their ems on the floor beside them. It was a remarkably homogenous picture. Only half a dozen ethnic groups, all from Europe. No blacks or Asians – they were scarce in Mayhill, where the word "integration" still needed to be spelled out for schoolchildren who often had learned no such concept at home. The only darker skins that provided variety to the crowd came from the members who, like the newcomer, had evidently spent much time in the sun.

Loren forced himself to gaze down at his notes, which he had already decided to discard; the complex lecture he had planned would not suit this particular occasion. The newcomer had taken a seat in the back row. Loren had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it meant that Loren's audience wouldn't be distracted by the sight of the handsome policeman. On the other hand, it meant that Loren wouldn't be able to watch the man as much as he would have liked.

Loren turned away from the podium and picked up a marker hanging from a string at the top of the whiteboard. The club members, who had been exchanging light chatter, immediately quieted. That was one of the advantages of lecturing to a group of people who all knew something, to one degree or another, about the importance of obedience. Loren smiled at this thought as he uncapped the marker.

"Ess . . . and . . . em," he said, writing down "S&M" on the whiteboard. "Who can tell me what this means?"

He turned round to find that nearly everyone was looking at him suspiciously. They were used to his trick questions by now. Finally an em glanced at her Ess for permission, then said, "Sadism and masochism."

Loren nodded. "Correct, ma'am." He always used formal titles when lecturing; it was easier than trying to figure out whether newcomers were ems or Esses. "Sadism and masochism. Or, if we are referring to the participants in S&M, the sadist and the masochist." He wrote these words below the appropriate letters and turned back to the audience. "For the benefit of newcomers, could someone here explain what is meant by these words, in the context of our own community?"

This time, the answer was quicker. "A sadist doesn't mean what it says in the dictionary, someone who creates pain for cruelty's sake," said one of the female Esses. "The sadist creates pleasure for her masochist by use of carefully limited pain. It's like if you give your husband a bite while you're making love – that's sadism. You don't do it to be cruel; you do it so that he'll enjoy himself. As long as he likes it, it's okay."

There was a murmur of agreement from the rest of the audience, everyone bobbing their heads up and down like courting penguins. Loren suppressed a sigh. One of these days, he decided, he would have to give the club a lecture on the ethical complexities of giving another person what that person wants. He could supply the group with abundant quotations from satisfied child laborers, battered wives who refused to leave their husbands, and most pertinently of all, Uncle Toms. Perhaps that would shock a few of the club members into living an examined life.

But not tonight. Tonight he would pitch his lecture to a beginner's level, for the newcomer's sake.

"Very well," he said, leaving it ambiguous as to whether he agreed with the previous speaker. "An Ess is a sadist, who gives pain for pleasure, and an em is a masochist, who receives pain for pleasure. What else do these letters stand for?"

Silence. Loren sighed inwardly. He could see in front of him at least three couples who ought to be able to give him the answer; he himself had prepared the rite for one of the couples. He forced himself not to drum his fingers on the podium. "Anyone? A hint: You need to reverse the initial letters to find the proper answer."

Still no response. Then, just as Loren was about to give in to the impulse to roll his eyes toward Mount Olympus, a voice said quietly, "Master and slave?"

The newcomer's voice, Loren was delighted to find, was as rich and golden as his skin. "Correct, sir," he said quickly before his audience could be distracted by this fact. "Master . . . and . . . slave." He wrote the word "master" under the word "sadist," and the word "slave" under the word "masochist."

"Sadist and masochist, master and slave," he continued. "Two sets of titles that do not necessarily occur together. There are plenty of sadists and masochists who are only interested in inflicting and receiving pain for pleasure, and who have no interest in any form of dominance and submission. Likewise, I've known one Ess, trained to be a master, who was uninterested in practicing sadism. So let us examine tonight what the essence of mastery and slavery is, apart from the possibility of combining it with sadomasochism." He paused; his throat was growing dry, and his audience's eyes were beginning to glaze over. Time to let the audience take charge of the conversation for a while. "Perhaps," he said, "some of you could explain why voluntary, absolute servitude – known in S&M as slavery – can be argued to be legal in this country."

He let the conversation wander for a while as the members attempted to provide legal defenses, in a manner that his partner could have sliced through in a second. He took care to turn his gaze toward each new speaker, but out of the corner of his eye, his gaze was forever fixed on the newcomer. The man looked to be about the age of Loren's partner, in his mid-twenties. A few years out of college – a college education was likely, given his profession. Assuming that the uniform was authentic, but Loren thought it must be. If nothing else, Mayhill's police would be zealous about arresting any civilian wearing their uniform.

Which suggested a certain carelessness on the newcomer's part, to arrive in a costume that could so easily reveal his identity. Equal opportunity employment had not yet arrived in Mayhill; the man could be fired simply for being attracted to men, much less for the rest of it. Carelessness or naiveté? Either prospect put a damper on matters. He couldn't afford to let himself fall into the hands of a careless sadist, not given the kind of games Loren liked to play. As for naiveté . . . Well, perhaps that could be remedied. It all depended on which way the newcomer was leaning. Loren had no desire to drag a fresh recruit into scenes stronger than he was ready for.

Loren interrupted a particularly inept attempt to explain the difference between S&M slavery and white slavery, saying, "Since we're short on time, I think we should continue on to the demonstration portion of this talk."

Several of the club members leaned forward, renewed interest on their faces. Loren let his gaze skim over the audience, seeing no one but the newcomer. Darn, but it was tempting to bid the newcomer forward and instruct him to kneel down. Some of the Esses here would be willing to do that, for the fun of it. But Loren couldn't take the chance of offending a new Ess. And he disliked playing in front of crowds anyway.

He managed to wrench his thoughts away from the newcomer. "Melody, would you be so kind as to come up here with your em?"

Melody walked forward, smiling, followed by her husband, who had his eyes carefully cast down as he followed at her heels. He was directly behind her rather than half a step behind, to the left. Melody, having been cut off from the sort of traditional education that Loren had received, had created her own rules during the first years of her marriage, and Loren was quite willing to admit that the rules were elegant in their own right. As Melody reached the front, she turned and made a gesture with her hand. Vernon, without looking up, sank onto his knees, his legs spread far apart to provide access for his Ess. His hands rested lightly on his thighs, ready to serve his Ess. His gaze was directed somewhere in the vicinity of his belly button.

"Now, then," said Loren, "the Ess and em before you are not bound in a master/slave relationship, either by contract or by spoken word – though I believe that you two are fond of playing master/slave scenes." He glanced at Melody, who nodded. Vernon remained silent and motionless.

"Although this is not a classic master/slave relationship, it incorporates certain features that can be found in such a relationship," Loren continued. "Would you be so kind, Melody and Vernon, as to demonstrate how you greet one another when you are being formal?"

Melody, leaning upon her umbrella, stared down at her silent em for a minute. Then she said, "Good evening, Vernon."

"Good evening, ma'am," Vernon promptly replied, his gaze still fixed downward. "In what way may I serve you?"

Melody spun the umbrella round with her hand and used the handle to raise Vernon's chin. She smiled at him. Thus given implicit permission, he smiled back.

"Thank you," said Loren and waited until Melody and Vernon returned to the audience, amidst light applause.

"Now," said Loren, "what is it about that exchange which marks it as a master/slave relationship?"

Blank expressions. There were always blank expressions when he asked questions that everyone thought had obvious answers. He waited, as patiently as he could. Finally a male Ess said, "He knelt to her."

"He knelt to her, showing his respect to the one who masters him. Yes, good. What else?"

A female em cried out eagerly, "He waits until he has permission to— Ow! Why'd you do that?" She glared at the Ess next to her, who looked embarrassed that his discreet pinch had been so widely advertised, but nevertheless held her gaze until she turned pink.

"Oh. Um." She ducked her head and waited until her Ess nodded. Then she said in a subdued voice, "The slave waits till he or she has permission to speak."

"Good," said Loren. "In long-standing master/slave relationships, that rule may be broken frequently, but in theory at least, a slave cannot speak until the master or mistress gives permission. What else?"

"Obedience," said a male em quickly, having taken care to look toward his Ess for permission before he spoke.

"Obedience, as was just demonstrated by the slave's willingness to obey his mistress's orders concerning posture and speech. What else?"

The club members exchanged glances, then whispers. No response was forthcoming. Loren sighed – openly this time – and leaned forward onto the podium. "What else shows that this is a master/slave relationship? Something very obvious, something that anyone here who has been in a long-term S&M relationship should be able to notice, regardless of whether you are masters and slaves to one another."

The club members' expressions turned to puzzlement, then to consternation. Everyone looked at one another, waiting for the other to speak. Loren had to set aside an impulse to bury his head in his hands.

From the back came a quiet voice. "The master makes the slave happy."

Loren let his gaze drift back to fasten upon the newcomer. This time he did not care that everyone in the audience was turning to look at the newcomer. The newcomer deserved this moment in the spotlight.

"Thank you, sir," said Loren softly. "That is indeed the essence of mastery. The master guides the slave, nurtures the slave, but above all the master cares for the needs of the slave. That is what is most important in a master/slave relationship; everything else that has been mentioned – respect, obedience, specific rules for accomplishing those goals – is only there to support the central task of the master caring for his or her slave."

He straightened up and waited for the gazes to return to him. He did not bother to remove his own gaze from the newcomer now. It would be natural for him to address this speech to the audience member who had made the needed breakthrough, and the newcomer was showing no signs of letting his own gaze drift.

"All of you," Loren said, his eyes on the newcomer, "are sadists and masochists. Only a select few of you are likely to become masters and slaves, other than in passing scenes, performed for play. The master/slave relationship is the most serious S&M relationship that can be entered into, and it ought not to be undertaken lightly. But to a certain extent, all S&M relationships carry the essence of the master/slave relationship. We call what we do play, we speak of performing scenes – but we forget that the origins of the Western theater lie in sacred performance. The gods watched over the Greek actors, ready to strike them down if they performed their play in a blasphemous manner. Whether gods exist or not today, our small plays continue to be holy within the context of our various beliefs.

"For all of us, theists and atheists alike, to be an Ess or an em requires hard work and commitment. The em must be committed to allowing another person to take charge of his body and sometimes his life. The Ess must be committed to the responsibility of caring for the em who has offered up his sacrifice in this fashion. It is a terrible responsibility. I want to underline that. Every time we play, every time we engage in fun and games, ems require Esses to take on the heavy burden of holding another person's life in balance. Every time we play, Esses take into their hands the life of someone who could be harmed by what they do. In rare cases, the harm could be irreparable. We all know the reasons why we believe this risk to be justified. What I would like you to contemplate as you return home tonight is this: Do I have what it takes to justify placing the weight of my life in another person's hands, or taking into my hands the weight of another person's life?"

There was a long, unbroken silence. Faintly, Loren could hear the cars passing on the street upstairs. No one moved. The newcomer's gaze remained fixed on Loren.

Finally Loren picked up his notes and shuffled them together, the sign that his talk was through. He heard the audience loose a collective sigh, and he would have been tempted to smile, if not for the fact that the question he had just asked touched him too deeply.

Chapter Text

Usually the club members surrounded him after his talks, peppering him with questions. Today they seemed more interested in going over to the refreshments stand, where the newcomer was now standing. He had a cupcake in one hand and a plastic cup of punch in another, and he didn't look as though he was going to get a chance to eat either, because he was being kept busy answering questions. Across the room, Melody gave Loren a pointed look. He ignored her, turning to pick up a rag to wipe the board clean. Melody ought to know him better than that. His former master had taught him a paradox at the beginning of his training: The masochist picks the sadist. And the sadist is the one who first indicates his wish to speak with the masochist. Loren found it very tempting now to abandon that second rule; he could feel the seconds ticking down before the newcomer made his choice. But Loren had only one card that his rivals did not possess: he had been trained. Fully trained, back in the days when training still meant something. If he lost that advantage, he lost everything.

He had finished cleaning the whiteboard. He hastily wrote a few words in Greek to give himself something else to erase. So he loves, yet knows not what he loves. He glanced over to the desired object in question. No mirrored desire here; the newcomer seemed wholly absorbed in talking to one of the male ems.

Drastic measures, Loren thought, needed to be taken. He turned his head toward the newcomer and deliberately smiled, one of his beaming smiles. Almost immediately the newcomer's gaze flicked his way. Quickly Loren turned back to the whiteboard. A mistake, a momentary outbreak of happiness that he had not expected the Ess to notice. So he hoped the newcomer would erroneously conclude, and act accordingly.

He heard a collective groan that told him what he needed to know. He continued to scrub diligently at the word era, waiting. Then he declined eros in his head. No footsteps sounded; the basement floor was carpeted. But he could see the newcomer now, standing a yard away, waiting to be noticed.

Loren would have liked nothing better than to turn, look down upon the policeman with a steely eye, and say in a deep voice, "Am I what you want, boy?"

But looking down upon the newcomer would have required Loren to purchase a new body. Not to mention a new voice, face, and wardrobe. He waited.

The newcomer waited too. Loren wondered what his assessment was of the man in front of him. "A runty nance with no taste in clothing and a squeaky voice," most likely. Loren shook this thought away. The policeman was probably just checking to see whether anyone would come up and claim Loren; he might know the dangers of speaking to an em without his Ess's permission.

After a full minute, the newcomer finally spoke. "Excuse me, sir."

A polite Ess. Loren felt a tingle go through him. He loved polite Esses, and not only for the obvious reasons. He found the combination of strength and gentleness to be especially appealing – a product of his time with his former master.

He turned then – relieved that he would not have to write more quotations on the board to be erased – and positioned himself properly: legs spread slightly, eyes down, hands crossed behind his back, head bowed. "Yes, sir. May I be of service to you?"

The words themselves were innocuous, the sort of words that could be easily spoken in public, if need be. It was the gestures – never performed in public unless the Ess was determined to make the relationship public – that indicated what Loren was offering. Not that he could count on the newcomer understanding the exact code Loren was abiding by. The days had long since passed when Loren thought that every sadist and masochist in the world followed the same code of behavior. But he hoped the newcomer was intelligent enough to get the gist.

It seemed he was. When Loren dared to lift his eyes somewhat, he saw that a change had taken place in the newcomer's posture. The policeman was standing straighter now, his chin was higher, and his face had turned as hard as steel. He said in a voice that had a no-nonsense clip to it, "I was wondering whether I might ask you a question."

The "sir" had been dropped, but the Ess was still polite. Thank the gods for that. Loren found it frustrating to work with men who thought that being a sadist meant being as rude as possible during negotiations.

He lowered his eyelids again and said, "I would be glad to help you in any way I can, sir."

There was a pause as Loren stared at the grey fibers of the run-down carpet. He knew what he ought to be feeling; the ems he knew had described it to him. Pride at being singled out. Burning desire to be of service. Humility in the presence of the Ess.

All he felt was the faint nausea that always came upon him during these first few minutes. The nausea would be gone soon, as his mind became occupied with the best way to carry out his plans. He tried to ignore it, like a gay man trying to ignore sickness as he undresses to have sex with a woman.

"During the demonstration you gave," the newcomer said. "During the lecture. The masochist in that demonstration maintained a formal posture and kept his eyes cast down during the entire time he was speaking. How long does this normally go on, in your experience? Throughout the whole . . . scene?"

A slight hesitation before the final word. Loren was glad of that hesitation. He was not being tested, a test to which he might give the wrong answer. The newcomer genuinely wanted to know Loren's opinion on this subject.

"Well, sir," Loren said, feeling a crick begin to develop in his bowed neck, "I would say that is in accordance with the sadist's wishes. Some Esses prefer to keep matters formal from the time they first speak to the em until the time they depart. Others may wish only to demand formal postures at the appropriate moments in the scene. In absence of orders from the sadist, the masochist will most likely adopt the highest standards of training he or she has been given."

There. He had gotten the most important word in: training. The newcomer now knew that Loren wasn't simply winging this.

"I see." The newcomer's voice was quiet. "Well, I think that my own preference is that the masochist look me in the eye. If he should feel comfortable doing so, that is."

Loren raised his gaze carefully. Receiving no sign from the other man that he had just been tested and had failed the test, Loren relaxed himself out of his previous stance and slipped his right hand into his pocket. His fingers met cold metal there, a welcome reminder of what he was, no matter how he might be playing this scene.

Melody would have kittens if she knew what Loren carried to the weekly meetings. But he had found that he needed some symbolic reminder that this was all just a game. He wasn't changing himself; he was simply playing a different role for a few hours, as a form of harmless release. A better way to cope with the matter than sitting alone at home, drinking and brooding on life's misfortunes.

"It is kind of you to take into consideration the em's feelings, sir. Do you have any other questions, sir?" Loren used a more causal voice this time but retained the "sir," so as to make clear that he would not take advantage of the privilege he had been given and be disrespectful.

The newcomer nodded, then glanced over toward the refreshments table. The policeman's admirers were still clustered there. A couple of the male masochists were glaring at Loren. As far as Loren knew, those men were one hundred percent straight, but that didn't seem to matter tonight. He gave them a smile with an ever-so-slight sharpness to it, and one of the female ems, who had been creeping slowly forward through the chairs, hastily retreated.

Loren looked back at the newcomer, worried that his expression had become too proprietary for the policeman's taste. But the man merely said, "I'm afraid I didn't catch your name at the beginning of the lecture."

"Loren," he replied with a smile. No last name; he didn't use it here, where everyone knew him. "And you, sir?"

A slight hesitation, then: "My name is Ken."

"Just Ken?" It was a liberty to press him for a last name, but Loren was still worried about that uniform. Either the policeman wasn't really a policeman, or he was being lax with his security. And if he was lax with his own safety, he could very well be lax with his em's safety.

Another, longer hesitation, then: "Well, my sister's on a Waltons kick, so sometimes she calls me Ken-Boy. But I didn't think that would be the appropriate way to introduce myself here."

Loren laughed. "No, sir, calling yourself a boy would certainly confuse people here."

A brief expression of puzzlement passed over Ken's face, like a breeze across grass. Good heavens, the newcomer certainly was new to this. It could be, then, that Melody was right: the policeman needed an em who had the ability to guide him onto new paths.

In which case, though Ken could not know it, he had chosen the right em. Loren allowed himself to smile up at Ken.

Ken swallowed, twice in a row. Nervousness, perhaps? It was too much to hope for that Loren's smile had aroused the other man. He resisted the temptation to look, instead keeping his gaze firmly upon Ken's, in the manner that the Ess had requested. Loren's neck was beginning to get a crick again, but for the opposite reason than before.

"My friend," said Ken. "The one who told me about this club. He told me a little about how things work here. Limits and signal words. Can you tell me anything more about that?"

Right to the heart of the matter. For the first time – and what would undoubtedly be the only time that evening – Loren felt the impulse to kneel down and kiss the man's shoes. If there was one thing above all other things that made him want to scream with anguish, it was the endless, hours-long negotiations that the club's members were fond of engaging in. Loren's first negotiation twenty years ago had been limited to five words – "Fucking okay?" "Yeah, that's cool" – and so he had never been able to hide his impatience as the Esses in the Black and Blue Club carefully and tenderly asked him whether he preferred nylon ropes or silk scarves. By the time that the Esses finally got around to figuring out that Loren's tastes ran more along the lines of barbed wire, he was usually half asleep.

"Well," he said slowly, as though giving careful consideration to a question he was rarely asked, "some ems do use special words to signal that they wish to stop the scene. Personally, I've never seen any use in such words, sir. If an Ess can't tell the difference between a play 'no' and a real 'no,' then I don't think he should be performing a scene at all." He waited to see whether this pronouncement would create an explosion. The Esses who were least likely to stop at a firm "no" were the ones who usually protested most hotly against the implication that they would fail to halt. Ken merely remained silent, his face giving nothing away. Loren added, "As for limits, that depends a lot on the individual. Some people don't want more than a spanking or having their hands tied." He waited again, this time to see whether the Ess's eyes would light up. Might as well know the worst from the start.

Ken merely said, in an utterly neutral voice, "And other people?"

Loren drew in a deep breath before taking the plunge. "Other people have much higher limits. Myself, I go with the basic groundwork: The scene stops if I ask for it to stop. And no permanent damage. That includes safe sex," he clarified.

Then he waited again, worrying. He had the misfortune to be virtually the only gay in town who practiced safe sex at the same time he played on the edge. An uncommon combination, though likely to become more common, Loren thought, as more of Mayhill's gays learned the difference between risking one's life and committing suicide.

Once again, Ken's face revealed nothing. "And those are your only limits?"

Loren hesitated, wondering whether he should give a few hints of where his tastes lay, then dismissed the idea. He was lucky to have gotten this far. "That's as high as I go. But of course," he added carefully, "anything below that is the Ess's decision. He can decide to keep the scene fairly low if he wishes to."

Please, please, please not that. Loren kept himself from pleading aloud. Grovelling was definitely not his thing, though with his no-real-limits policy, he'd unfortunately found himself forced into that position in more than one scene.

Ken nodded after a moment. "And is there . . . any particular type of scene you like? Any special sort of tale?"

Loren sent up a silent prayer to the gods in thanks to the friend who had briefed Ken. Loren really didn't want to have to give his "Basics of S&M" lecture more than once a year. "Well," he said, "I'm quite flexible. I've played out pretty much every fantasy scenario, from daddy and son to Inquisitor and heretic. Though, mind you," he added letting his eyes drift over the bright buttons, "your outfit tonight does give me ideas, sir."

He waited to see whether Ken would make a noise of annoyance. Some men did like to keep their work separate from their play. Assuming that Ken really was a policeman. Loren still didn't know.

Then he saw a tightening of a hand, a slight shift in posture, and he reacted instinctively, dipping his eyes and saying quickly, "Not here, sir!"

Ken's hand, which had been about to reach forward, stopped suddenly. "What?"

Loren cautiously looked up, ascertained that Ken wasn't angry at his response, and said in a more relaxed manner, "Officially, sir, this society is for lectures on various educational topics related to sexuality. Occasionally the lectures include mild, inoffensive demonstrations, but nothing more than that. The police who visit us from time to time would take a very dim view if hardcore S&M acts were performed during the meetings."

Another hint dropped; he hoped the Ess was smart enough to catch it. Just in case he wasn't, Loren smiled and added, "And Melody really wouldn't want us to get bloodstains on the carpet."

From the stillness in which Ken kept himself during the next few moments, Loren thought he had probably struck home. Loren waited to see whether Ken's reaction would be to run from the room squawking; one Ess that Loren had negotiated with had done exactly that. But Ken merely gave a jerk of a nod and said, "Where, then?"

"Oh," said Loren, casually gesturing, "the club boundaries end at that door, sir. Beyond that . . . Some people prefer hotels. Given the notorious nosiness of this town's hotel-keepers, I've never been fond of that solution. And the cruising grounds aren't the best place to try anything involving bondage. The police are usually polite enough to give notice of their arrival by stomping around a bit, but I once had an Ess who simply didn't know how to untie a knot quickly, so he ended up leaving me, bound and naked, as a present for the boys in blue. Very embarrassing."

For the first time, a small smile appeared on Ken's face. "I can promise you I won't do that. What happened to you?"

Loren shrugged. "The charges were dropped. It was my first offence, and I was only twenty. Plus, the police were inclined to think of me as the victim, since I had been bound." He gave what Melody referred to as his shark's smile. "Their mistake."

A moment later, he would have begun making plans for a slow suicide if it weren't for the fact that Ken, after a startled look, burst aloud laughing. "I guess the outdoors aren't an option, then," the policeman said. "Where would you like to go? Your place or mine?"

Ken's question was phrased causally, but Loren could see the tension gather in his face. Good, the newcomer wasn't stupid, then; he realized the dangers of what he was suggesting. There remained only the possibility that the newcomer was far too clever, and that Loren was the one in danger.

Loren shrugged as though indifferent to the answer. "We could go to my place, though I live above a noisy bar. Or we could go to yours. Either one is fine with me, sir."

The degree of relief on Ken's face worried Loren. He hoped the relief only existed because Ken was nervous at the idea of entering a stranger's home. "My apartment is within walking distance of here," Ken said. "You might find it more convenient."

Again, the emphasis on the em's convenience. Loren was beginning to like this man. Assuming that Ken wasn't figuring out the easiest way to murder his chosen victim, Loren had picked an Ess who spoke the same language he did.

Playing on the edge meant taking risks. Loren made his decision. He pulled out of his shirt pocket a card and offered it to Ken. "Here's my business card, sir. Perhaps you would like to speak with some of the people here; they all know me and can tell you of my reputation. I'll just go call my roommate to let him know when to call the police if I don't come home." He smiled, turning the threat into a joke.

Ken looked up from reading the card and licked his lips. "I'm afraid I don't have a card," he said. "But hold on . . . ." He unbuttoned his jacket. Loren watched the procedure with appreciation. Nothing came into view except an opaque dress-shirt and a bit of the neck that had been hidden by the high collar of the policeman's jacket. Loren resisted the impulse to reach out and help Ken with the shirt buttons.

Out of an inner pocket of the jacket, Ken pulled a small spiral notebook and pencil. He scribbled something down, then tore the page off and handed it to Loren. "Here. In case your roommate needs to reach you in an emergency."

Loren looked down at the page. Ken's first name – no last name, but that was natural. Following the name was an address and telephone number.

Oh, bless the man. With this in hand, Loren could do his usual detective work.

The pay phone near the door wasn't clogged with the habitual line of parents checking to see whether their babysat children had died of loneliness during the half-hour talk. Loren glanced over at the refreshments table to assure himself that Ken was again occupied with speaking to his admirers. Setting aside a momentary twinge of fear of what this might mean, Loren dialed the number on the piece of paper.

Ken's voice answered on the fourth ring. "This is Ken," the answering machine said. "I'm busy at the moment, so please leave me a message if you'd like. If you need to reach me in an emergency, my work number is . . ."

He rattled the number off in the same neutral voice with which he had spoken the previous sentences. Loren smiled, memorizing the number with the same attentiveness that he had once held toward verb declensions. Then he hung up and rang the second number.

The voice on this answering machine was subtly different: clipped hard, as Ken's had been when he was speaking to Loren. "This is Private Kenneth Olson of the crime prevention unit. Leave a message at the beep."

No "please" this time. Loren hung up the receiver slowly. Interesting. The crime prevention unit was in charge of offering demonstrations to the public on how to keep themselves from being trapped by criminals. It was also in charge of patrolling the town for potential criminals. Part of the unit consisted of the vice squad, popularly known as the sodomy squad, who took it upon themselves to regularly patrol the cruising grounds across the street from Loren's bar. Loren had received periodic visits from the sodomy squad during the first year of his business and much fewer visits during the last four years, after it became apparent that Loren ran a bar that was as clean of illegal activities as a fifties sitcom.

If Ken was a member of the sodomy squad, he could be here to entrap any gay members of the Black and Blue Club, though it had been quite a few years since such entrapments had last occurred. Clever to wear his uniform, pretending to be a policeman on his night off, rather than risk being recognized as an undercover cop.

On the other hand, Ken might be a policeman who was especially at risk of being strung high if his sexual tastes were publicly revealed. In which case he played very close to the edge indeed.

Shoot. Loren looked over at the other end of the room. Ken was holding Loren's business card in his hand, nodding as he listened to a club member speak. The club member would mention, no doubt, that Loren had engaged in a certain activity that the state legislature took a very dim view of. Loren grimaced. After all, the club member wasn't saying anything that the police didn't already suspect. Loren was one of the town's few openly gay residents, protected from arrest only by his refusal to speak publicly about what he did in bed and by the police chief's lack of interest in wasting resources by rounding up the town's gays, given the explosion in juvenile delinquency over the past few years. But that could be changing. With news arriving from the outside world that gays were once more a threat to society, the police might be taking this opportunity to hold a purge.

Playing on the edge. How very tempting.

Loren sighed. It wasn't just his eccentric libido that was driving him in the wrong direction. He needed to know whether the town was heading back to its policy of the seventies, arresting any gay resident who engaged in anal sex, publicly or privately. If one of the town's many closeted gays was the first man arrested, it was unlikely that anyone would hear of the matter; the arrest would be hushed up in order to allow further arrests to take place. But if Loren was arrested, the entire gay community would hear of it.

Darn, it was hard at times being an Ess. Loren resolutely turned back to the phone and dropped another dime in.

His partner answered on the first ring. "Loren's Lashes."

"Have you driven us out of business yet?"

Elia's voice smiled as he replied, "Nearly. I've been giving out free drinks tonight every time someone walks through the door who's wearing an article of clothing that isn't leather or denim. We're almost out of stock with the drinks."

"I'd better not come home, then," said Loren, "or you'll deplete the stores the minute I walk through the door."

A silence. Elia was too clever not to read implications into comments like that. Loren let his gaze drift back to the refreshments crowd, allowing himself to hold the optimistic thought that Ken was what he was presenting himself as. It turned out that Ken was listening to a bisexual Ess with whom Loren had played a scene before the man's marriage. Loren frowned. He did hope that the club members' obvious jealousy over his good fortune wouldn't cause them to give away the game. He thought that was unlikely. For one thing, Loren's ruse was a harmless one; the chances were high that Ken would end this night pleased with the scene they'd performed. Loren was a good enough actor for that.

For another thing, Loren was the unofficial pet of the club: the poor, middle-aged wallflower who never got any proper dates. It made Loren grind his teeth at night to think about it. But it meant that the club members were usually eager to pair Loren up with any man he showed interest in.

On the other end of the line, Elia asked, "Having a good meeting, then?"

"Possibly," said Loren, caution returning to his mind. "I need you to look up a name in the town directory for me. Kenneth Olson."

A pause. Loren could hear faintly the sound of clattering glasses and chatter behind Elia. Then his partner said, "There's a K. Olson at 620 Harmony Street—"

"That's our boy. If you need to reach me tonight, that's where I'll be. Don't wait up for me."

Another pause, and then Elia said in a voice so level that an engineer could have used it to create building foundations, "Fine. I'll see you tomorrow."

Loren smiled. "What I mean is that, when I relieve you from duty at ten this evening, I expect that you'll want to go straight to bed, so don't bother to stay awake till I've finished cleaning up the bar at one."

A sigh travelled through the receiver. "Loren, your humor can be so dry at times that it's brittle."

Loren chuckled. "You should know me better, dear. When have I ever left you in the lurch when you were scheduled to be off-shift?"

"Not yet," Elia replied, "but you have the perpetual air of a man who is just waiting till his victim turns his back before he brings down the first lash."

"How flattering," Loren replied, warmed by the compliment. "No lashes tonight, though – at least, not for you. So get your beauty sleep for your prayer meeting. Is that what you drag yourself out of bed at dawn for?"

"It's Holy Communion this time," Elia replied. "Reggie wants me to visit his church and talk to his pastor."

"What exciting scenes you play." Loren's voice turned dry.

Elia gave a soft laugh. "You too. Keep it safe, Loren."

"Oh, yes, you know how good I am at following that advice."

Elia was still laughing when Loren hung up. Loren turned, only to find Melody standing behind him, tapping her umbrella point on the floor as she frowned at him.

"You know," she said, "you aren't setting a very good example."

Loren gave her a bright smile. "You said to snag him."

"I didn't say to go home with him ten minutes after you'd been introduced. Loren, how do you expect the club members to pay attention to our safety lectures—"

Loren raised his hand to stop the flow. "Melody, if you're looking for a Safe and Sane Poster Boy, I'm the last person you should choose." He waited for her to give a very loud sigh, then added with a smile, "On the other hand, I would be glad to serve as your poster boy for Not Suicidal and Not Entirely Crazy. Will you be so kind as to keep your eye on the stairwell when I leave, so as to ascertain that a certain gentleman stops when I ask him to?"

Melody raised her eyebrows, but all she said was, "And if he doesn't? What do you expect me to do then?"

"Why," said Loren, still smiling, "I expect you to knock him out with your umbrella and stomp on him with your spiked heels, just as any decent dominatrix would." He looked pointedly at Melody's sensibly flat shoes.

Melody's face broke into a reluctant smile. "If he doesn't stop, I'll send Vernon after him. Vernon may not be able to defeat a man like that in a fist fight, but he is very effective at pleading anxiously with assailants to flee for their lives because I've just called the police."

Ken had already left his clinging admirers by the time that Loren started toward him. They met at the doorway. "Am I acceptable, sir?" Loren asked, allowing just a bit of the concern he felt travel to the surface. One of the worst parts about posing as an em was that he had to overrule much of the training he had received. Uncertainty, anxiety, need – these were all acceptable emotions for a slave to express. Not a master.

Ken merely nodded and opened the door for Loren. That was Loren's job, but he wasn't about to argue. He glanced quickly over to ascertain that Melody was noticing them leave, then stepped through the doorway.

The sound of street traffic grew louder as the basement door closed behind them with a thud. The stairwell was as dim as before; the only light came from some frosted windows high upon the cement wall at the landing where the stairs turned to climb toward the street. Following Ken's silent gesture, Loren took the lead, carefully climbing up step by step, his hand on the railing, his eyes on his feet.

They had reached the landing when Ken attacked.

Loren was ready – he had been the one to drop the hint about the club boundaries, after all – but he still nearly broke his nose as Ken shoved him into the wall. Only Ken's hand, turning Loren's head at the last moment and shielding it from the impact of the cement blocks, prevented a disaster. The rest of Loren's body met the cement full on, like a VW smashing into a tanker.

Ken already had hold of his right wrist; in the next moment, it was twisted up behind his back. Loren gave a sharp gasp, and Ken's grip slackened somewhat.

Not a good start. Loren didn't want to spend the rest of this evening worrying that Ken would show him mercy every time he made a noise. He sent an obscenity in Ken's direction, and the arm was suddenly twisted tight again. Loren heard himself emit a whimper.

More discarding of his training. Well, he hoped all this evidence of his discomfort was helping Ken enjoy himself.

"Sir, you have the right to remain silent," said Ken, twisting the arm yet further to make his point. "Anything you say can and will be used against you . . ."

Good heavens – not just a polite sadist. A polite sadistic cop mauling his victim. How delightful. Loren tried to enjoy the word "sir" through the haze of pain, but it was difficult. He was coming quite close now to begging to be let go, and he was only one minute into the scene.

Either this was going to be the best scene of his year, or it was going to be the shortest.

"Let me go, copper!" he cried, trying to flail free of the grip. Uselessly; he might as well have been a fly trying to lift an elephant's foot off of him. "I ain't done nothing to nobody."

He hated talking in movie script language, but it was easier for a new sadist – the Ess could tell immediately when Loren slipped out of his role. Ken responded by placing his knee against the small of Loren's back. Loren's pelvis ground against the wall.

Shortest. This was definitely going to be the shortest scene of the year if Loren couldn't figure out a way to get Ken to ease off of him.

"I . . . don't have anything on me," he gasped. "You can search me if you like."

Ken didn't take the hint. Instead he slid his knee down and jammed it between Loren's legs, then began pushing upwards.

Oh, gods. Loren emitted a groan, and this time Ken didn't ease up. Instead he pulled Loren's arm down with a jerk – Loren only just managed to swallow a scream that would have reached all the way to the police headquarters. "Fuck you," he sobbed. "I'm innocent!" The tears were genuine, and he despised himself for them. Ems cried; Esses didn't.

"Of course you're innocent, sir," breathed Ken, leaning down to speak in Loren's ear. "So innocent that you ran from me the moment you saw me. I'm afraid I'm going to have to question you further to learn more about this 'innocence.'" He moved back slightly, and cold metal touched Loren's right wrist.

Oh, cripes. Handcuffs. Ken had been carrying handcuffs all this while, probably behind his back. And Loren hadn't noticed.

Suddenly Loren's pain was overcome by a wave of real, starkly cutting fear. How long had it been since he'd felt real handcuffs upon his wrists? That had been eleven years ago: a second arrest on the cruising grounds, a second offense that could send him to prison for sodomy. Twenty-four hours spent in the town jail, listening to the guards laugh as they told him what happened in the state prisons to faggots. Then, blessedly, release, as his dean made a squawk, claiming he'd sent Loren to the cruising grounds to do a sociological survey of societal inverts. Nothing worse followed than a lengthy lecture on the sort of public behavior the dean expected from members of his department.

Eleven years. The state prisons were just as bad now as they had been then, if not worse. A gay prisoner had been beaten to death last year.

If it was coming, it would come now. It came.

"Fuck me? Is that what you want, sir?" The voice was quiet, dark, and hot in his ear. Loren felt his own breath growing unsteady and he strove to focus himself. Elia. He would think of Elia. He couldn't think of all of Mayhill's gay community at once, but he would think of what it would mean for Elia if their customers started quietly disappearing, victims of entrapment.

He felt his strength return to him, the strength of a trained master. Wording himself carefully in order to echo the proper statute, he said in a cool voice, "Yes. I want to have anal sex with you."

Ken grew suddenly still. Loren closed his eyes, feeling the coldness of the cement against his cheek, the hardness of the stone against his body. The handcuffs on his wrists.

Then Ken leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Not yet. I'll do it in your mouth, though, if you want."

He felt so shaken by relief in the next moment that all he could do was nod. Ken pulled him back from the wall and began groping his groin in a manner that no on-duty policeman would dare do, unless he wished to face sexual harassment charges. Loren could feel Ken's hardness pressing now against his back.

So either Ken was what he was posing as, or he was a homicidal maniac who was too shy to fuck his victims. Loren felt himself relax.

"Nothing there," Ken reported after his search, which was a lie. The knowledge of the danger Loren had been in had finally done its work; Loren was as hard now as the cement blocks. Ken added, "I'm afraid, sir, that I will need to take you down to the police station for a full body search."

Loren sent another expletive in his direction. Ken gave a sharp laugh as he took a firm grip on Loren's arms and swung him round, shoving him toward the remaining stairs.

Ten steps left, nine steps, eight . . . Loren waited until the second step before saying, "Stop!"

He kept his voice firm. Ken halted immediately. After a small pause, Ken murmured, "Do you mean that?"

"Yes. I want to stop the scene, Ken." Using the Ess's name made clear he was serious.

Before Loren had even finished the sentence, Ken had loosed him and was leaning over to fiddle with the handcuffs. Loren's wrists were released. He flexed his hands, feeling the bruises developing on the front of his body and on his face. He'd have some killer marks there tomorrow. Thank goodness he worked in a job where bruises were a plus.

Ken walked round Loren and up the remaining two steps, which left him looming high over Loren. The policeman had already put away the handcuffs; his hands were empty. He seemed to be more interested in looking at the mailboxes on the landing than in meeting Loren's eye. "Well," he said, "thank you, sir. I enjoyed that. I'll just leave you here. . . ."

Ken's breath was heavy, and his erection, nicely shaped against his pants, had not disappeared. Yet he was easing himself in the direction of the outer door.

Darn the man for not being an em, Loren thought. Any em who thanked his Ess so sweetly for a five-minute scene would have the Ess melting on the spot. Ken was doing a good job of melting Loren.

Loren smiled at him. "Not yet," he said.

Ken turned his face toward Loren. His expression was cautious. "Sir?"

"You can continue the scene when we get to your home. I don't play in front of crowds. I'm sorry, sir – I should have mentioned that."

The look of relief on Ken's face was quite the most flattering event that had occurred to Loren in a long time. "Oh, of course," Ken said, and he glanced at the door. Loren took the opportunity to look down over the railing to where Melody and Vernon stood, watching the show from below. Melody smiled and gave him a thumbs up. Loren grinned back, then quickly turned his attention to Ken, who was once again holding a door open for him, this time the door to the outside world.

Loren waited until he was abreast of Ken – and brushing against that nice hard-on – before he added, "You might want to take my arm on the way. I'm dangerous when I'm left on the loose."

Ken gave a small laugh at the joke. Loren laughed back as Ken's hand gripped him tight.

Poor, innocent boy. Well, he'd learn.

Chapter Text

Zephyra wasn't particularly surprised to see her brother walking down the street in uniform, apparently escorting a prisoner. After all, Mayhill's police headquarters were located at the other end of the street. What caught her eye was not the sight of her brother doing his daily duty, but the expression on the prisoner's face.

She had been just about to step out from the area under the marquee, having finished replacing a poster of upcoming attractions as she muttered under her breath how a bachelor's degree should have at least prepared her to know how to hold down four corners of a poster at once. Now she ducked back behind the ticket-seller's box and peered cautiously through the glass to examine closer what was coming down the street.

Her brother looked as he always did when he was at his work: confident, strong, in control, with just the slightest touch of deference that helped to keep him from appearing to be a bully. The man he was escorting looked confident too, but in a different way. He appeared to be in his thirties, though it was hard to tell because he was as short and thin as a boy in his early teens. He was also wearing out-of-date clothes; he seemed not to have noticed that disco had given way to punk, which in turn had given way to New Wave. His silvery blond hair looked more coiffured than Zephyra's mother's had been on the days she spent the entire afternoon in the beauty parlor. All of this gave the man a soft – no, a downright effeminate – appearance.

But his face was hard. As hard as that of any criminal Zephyra had seen during her perusal of the wanted posters at her brother's workplace. Hard and grim and pleased. There was no doubt about the last; his mouth was turned up at the corners, and even his eyes seemed to be smiling.

Zephyra pulled back abruptly and rushed back into the movie theater. Pretending not to hear the shouts of Albert – who wanted to know why she wasn't checking that the popcorn machine was operational as he'd instructed her – she ducked out the emergency exit, ignoring the blare of the emergency alarm. After a minute spent running down the alley in the direction of the back of the theater, she turned left, in the direction her brother and his prisoner had gone.

She reached the corner where the grocery store stood, just as her brother and the prisoner reached the corner of the street she had left behind. She paused, trying to decide whether she should continue running after them. To her surprise, they did not cross the street but turned right.

Oh, shoot. Quickly she pulled back round the corner, then looked frantically around for a hiding spot. The grocery store was the likeliest prospect, but as luck would have it, its entrance was blocked at that moment by a group of teenagers, jostling as they used the public phone next to its doorway. Looking further, she found a hiding spot in a ratty old sofa that someone had left on the curb for the trash truck. She ducked between the sofa and the curb just as the prisoner and his escort arrived at the corner.

She bit her lip, wondering what she would do if they turned right, in her direction. But they did not turn right, nor did they go left in the direction of the police station. Instead they crossed the street, her brother's hand gripping the prisoner's arm firmly. She wondered why the prisoner wasn't handcuffed, but she supposed that a prisoner that size would know better than to try to run. She raised her head slightly to get a better view of them as they passed, and she saw close up the prisoner's gleaming, triumphant eyes. She shivered.

Crawling now on her hands and knees – to the detriment of her work slacks, for which she would pay hell with Albert – she crept round to the front of the sofa, which was facing the sidewalk, then pulled herself up onto the cushions, kneeling and crouching down as low as she could, so that most of her body would be hidden. The teenage boys walked past behind her. One of them emitted a whistle, and another slapped her bottom, which she ignored. Boys were like that in Mayhill; they were raised by fathers who were still convinced that a pat on the buttocks complimented a woman.

Fortunately, her brother didn't hear the whistle; he was busy climbing the steps to a multi-dwelling townhouse across the street. He paused at the top of the steps and released his prisoner, who did nothing except inspect carefully the number 620 that hung next to the townhouse's door.

Her brother opened the house's door with his keys. Then he turned his head suddenly, looking over his shoulder, and Zephyra froze, remembering a long-ago lesson her brother had given her: if someone ever hunted her, movement was the easiest way for the hunter to find her.

Her brother appeared not to notice her. He turned back to the prisoner and said something to him that failed to carry across the noise of a passing car. Zephyra lost sight of him for a moment as the car obscured her vision. When the car was gone, the prisoner was speaking, saying something in a voice too low to be heard.

Her brother smiled. It was the smile he used at his work: hard and merciless. With one hand he reached out and shoved the prisoner into the open doorway with such force that the man fell face-first onto the floor.

Her brother froze, then stepped inside, carefully reached down, and picked the prisoner up onto his feet. He said something to the prisoner. Zephyra could not hear the prisoner's reply, but she heard his laugh: it was as grim and amused as his face.

Her brother glanced over his shoulder toward the open doorway, then pushed the door. In the moment before it closed, Zephyra saw him lower his head and plant a tender kiss on the prisoner's lips. The door shut with a click.

Zephyra settled back onto the sofa cushions, her mind dazed by what she had seen. She thought a moment, then fished a dime out of her pocket, rose, and walked over to the public phone.

Albert would just have to check the popcorn machine without her. A far more interesting show was taking place this evening than the coming attractions.

o—o—o

Loren stood facing the wall, stripped to the waist, with the link between his manacles caught on a coat hook so high upon the wall that he had to stand on his barefooted toes. As the next lash of the belt landed on his upper back, he reminded himself that he was supposed to be enjoying this.

He would enjoy this. Hours from now, lying in bed, imagining himself being the one to bring the belt down on sensitive flesh. The memory that he had been the man who endured the beating would fade; all that would be left was fuel for his fantasies. A real belt on a real body – better fuel than any porn book that one of the customers at his bar might pass round on an idle evening.

The trouble was that, in order to receive this delicious reward, Loren must first go through unwanted hell.

He knew what he ought to be feeling, in theory. It had been explained to him by the ems he knew, who went starry-eyed as they explained how the rush of endorphins released by the pain created a better high than could be produced by the most expensive drugs. It was the ultimate pleasure, like being a world-class athlete who had broken past the barrier of bodily anguish in order to soar onto a plane higher than the moon.

All very well and good, if you were a masochist. As far as Loren could tell, he'd been gifted at birth with a matchbox's worth of endorphins. He could enjoy the same amount of pain as the average man could: a light bite on the shoulder, a slight squeeze of the balls. Anything more than that caused a distinct flagging of what his favorite classical philosophy textbook delicately referred to as the membrum virile.

He thought that, if he could have been honest about this with his play partners – explained to them that he wanted them to hurt him as much as possible in order that he could create fantasies later about himself hurting them – his life could have been relatively simple. Strange, but simple. Alas, none of his play partners had ever been keen on the idea of an Ess pretending to be an em. The moment they realized that Loren had no interest in being an em, the play stopped.

And so Loren spent every scene trying to achieve the impossible balance of begging his partner to hurt him as much as possible, trying not to beg his partner to stop, and pretending that anything more than a stinging slap brought him ecstasy.

Figuring out Hegel's logic had been easier.

He was too well known among the sadists of Mayhill by now. Though all of them, while faced with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, continued to insist on believing that Loren was submissive, they were unable to ignore the clear fact that he wasn't a masochist. Whole months could go by before he found someone who hadn't yet clued in to the fact that he hated receiving pain. Loren was determined not to mess up this evening's scene. With any luck he could get three, perhaps four sessions out of this charming young man before the Ess realized that Loren had engaged in false advertising.

At least Ken hadn't stripped Loren of his pants yet. That was a good start.

The belt whistled down onto his back again, and a cry of pain escaped him. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Plenty of ems cried out when they were being beaten, either for show or because the endorphins hadn't yet kicked in. Loren kept his face turned away from the policeman, lest his expression reveal too clearly how much he wanted this to stop. He wanted it to stop now – or better yet, several strokes ago. And he wanted it to continue, harder and harder, driving him toward the edge as he would drive his em in his fantasies.

He tried to grasp that image in his mind – Ken writhing under his blows – but the image slipped from him. He had never been able to master the trick of weaving sadistic fantasies at the same moment a sadist was hurting him.

"Do you like this, sir? Are you enjoying yourself?"

Ken's voice was faintly mocking – the voice of an abusive cop who is making his victim enjoy the pain forced upon him. It was good fuel for the fantasies; too bad that it had no application to real life. Loren found it easy to achieve the right tone of anguished bewilderment and sullenness as he replied, "You won't get anything out of me this way, copper."

"No?" Ken grabbed Loren's hair and used it to jerk Loren's head back, so that his face was turned toward the ceiling. Oh, this was lovely, Loren told himself, even as he felt his neck muscles ache. He could do wonderful things with that movement in his fantasies.

"I think," said Ken with that continued air of polite mockery that had been there since the beginning, "that you are incorrect, sir. You are certainly going to tell me what you did. You are going to tell me where you buried that young man and what you did to him before you killed him. And then, when you are through, you are going to beg me to punish you. Because that's what you like, slut. You're a pervert who enjoys being punished."

Without warning, Ken's voice had turned from polite to raw. Loren felt a slight stirring in the part of himself that had shown no interest in the previous proceedings. Oh, yes, yes. Verbal abuse he loved. Verbal abuse didn't hurt him; he could easily translate it in his mind into his own abusive tongue. Sometimes he could even do this at the moment the sadist was speaking.

"Don't you dare talk to me that way," he grumbled. A hint.

Ken released his hair and stepped closer. Loren could see him now out of the corner of his eye. The policeman had stripped himself to the waist as well, and the sight was well worth seeing. A broad chest and broad shoulders; strong, muscular arms; sun-gilded skin; and a pelt of chest-fur that made Loren just ache to be given the opportunity to carefully, delicately harvest it.

Ken said in a low, menacing voice, "You don't decide what I can do, you sorry bit of dick-licking, butt-sucking, turd-eating, ass-peddling, cock-kissing, self-fucking—"

The sentence lasted for five full minutes. Loren had the opportunity, through his growing arousal, to be impressed. He hadn't thought there were that many ways to curse a man. Ken had obviously accumulated quite a storehouse of invectives; Loren felt as though he should be taking notes.

"You deserve everything I do to you," Ken concluded it. "You deserve it because you're a sick bastard who likes being hurt. Likes being destroyed. Likes letting others destroy you."

Ken seemed to have forgotten about the murdered young man, which Loren thought was a shame. He found the reference to a male kidnap victim to be intriguing; he would have thought that Ken's imagination would naturally turn toward a female victim. Surely Loren hadn't been wrong about the nature of Ken's looks toward the female ems? Or perhaps he was one of that rare breed: a 50/50 bisexual who could easily swing either way.

"What shall I beat next?" Ken asked, his voice returning to polite sarcasm. "Your thighs? Or your ass?"

Immediately all of Loren's hard-won efforts to keep himself hard vanished. Darn, just when things were getting good. A full night's worth of verbal abuse would have been his idea of paradise.

But he wasn't simply here for his own enjoyment, he reminded himself. He was also here for Ken's enjoyment. Partly because Ken wouldn't repeat this encounter unless he enjoyed it sufficiently. But mainly because Loren's former master would have slapped him senseless if Loren had put his own pleasure above that of his partner.

"Never forget that your slave's needs come before your own," his master had told him, tugging at Loren's collar to make his point clear. "Never! Your job as his master is to fulfill his needs. This doesn't always mean giving him pleasure, for what he needs isn't necessarily what he enjoys. But if there's no pleasure at all – if your slave never enjoys your time together – then you're not worthy of the leather you wear."

Loren – who was wearing not a single scrap of leather tonight – wondered what the policeman would think if he knew that Loren was surviving this scene by pretending that Ken was his slave.

Best not to let his mind wander in that direction. The last sadist who had guessed that Loren was imagining him as submissive had turned quite ugly. Only Loren's sharp reminder of what position he held in Mayhill's S&M community had kept the Ess from "showing Loren his place."

Play destruction turning into real destruction. Loren's fantasy life had peaked after that, but it was an experience he had no desire to repeat.

A more pressing concern was weighing on him now, a concern that, in the interests of his fantasies, he would have liked to have ignored. It would make a nice addition to his storehouse of S&M memories. But since he had been the one to compile the Black and Blue Club's list of "25 Warning Signs to Watch Out for in a Scene," he dared not remain silent.

"My hands," he said, his voice half-muffled by the arms on either side of his head.

Ken had begun reaching round toward Loren's belt. He paused. "What did you say?"

"My hands have been numb for the past half hour."

"Judas!" Ken reacted more quickly than Loren had anticipated; Loren had forgotten that these were real cuffs and that Ken was a real policeman. No doubt police officers were given a similar list of warning signs. Immediately Ken wrapped his arm around Loren's chest, easily lifting the other man into the air. With his free hand, Ken reached up and released the handcuffs' chain from the coat hook.

The movement caused Loren's now-raw back to scrape against the hair of Ken's chest. Loren gave a sharp cry. The next thing he knew, Ken had swung Loren up into his arms, with one arm holding his back and the other behind his knees. Just like a bride being carried over the threshold, Loren thought bitterly as Ken deposited him into a sitting position on the edge of the bed.

A moment later, Ken had taken off the cuffs and was gently rubbing the wrists, trying to restore circulation. Loren felt blood begin to pump into his hands, making its painful way back into its old place. The nerves seemed to have resettled themselves. "They're all right now," he said and jerked his hands back. He hated being nursemaided.

He looked up a moment later to see Ken looking down upon him uncertainly. "Do you want to stop here?" the policeman asked.

Did he want to stop? He'd been manhandled, beaten on his bare back, and strung up to the point where his nerves had nearly been cut off, causing permanent numbness. Did he want to stop?

He'd have sooner stopped a bikers' convention from being hosted at his bar. Oh, this was all wonderful. A little bit more of this, and he'd have a very nice storehouse of sadistic images.

He forced himself to ignore the aches upon his back. "Not unless you want to, sir," he said, smiling at the Ess. "I'm enjoying this."

Ken merely looked at him for a minute, then got up and went over to the dresser. Loren took the opportunity to stare round at Ken's bedroom. It was bland Middle America: department-store furniture, a quilt that looked as though it had been made by a female relative in 4-H summer camp, a rug woven with pictures of motorcyclists, a framed print of an elk tearing at a mountain cat with his antlers, another 4-H project – this one a mosaic of dyed macaroni spelling out the name "Ken-Boy" – and a large closet, closed to prying eyes.

The motorbikes and the elk were interesting but could no doubt be found in half the male bedrooms in this town. Mayhill was that type of place. The only men in this town to have escaped from the relentless drive to manly behavior were the town's gays, who had engaged in an equally relentless drive to be as womanly as possible, until the outside world burst in upon Mayhill a few years before and startled the town's gays into the awareness that that type of thing hadn't been in fashion for a while now.

It had been too late for Loren by then.

Ken returned to the bed; he was holding his belt and two scarves. Loren eyed the scarves suspiciously, hoping that soft nylon rope wouldn't come next. Ken pulled him to his feet, spun him round, and then passed the belt around the upper arms. Then Ken pulled the belt into a loop.

Well done, Loren thought in a mildly approving manner as he felt one of the scarves encircle his lower arms, above where the cuffs had lain. Variation in bondage suggested a certain amount of imagination. Loren hadn't been sure whether Ken possessed such imagination when the belt came out from under the bed at the beginning of the scene. He had half expected to be placed over Ken's lap and beaten on the bottom like a naughty schoolboy. Some of the scenes Loren had participated in over the years were simply too popular in Mayhill. Either that, or Loren fit the perfect profile for a naughty schoolboy, which seemed more likely.

The second scarf went over his eyes; then he was twirled round, too rapidly for him to be able to reorient himself. He waited, hearing the sound of rustling cloth. Ken must be undressing, then. That was odd; usually it was the em who was undressed first. Another sign that Ken was new to this game.

Loren was beginning to feel chilly. It was October, too warm for the apartment's heaters to be functioning yet – such a shame, hot-water radiators had their possibilities – but too cool for Loren to really be comfortable with a bare chest, standing still. Besides, he was getting bored. He hoped this wasn't a sign that a simperingly sweet bondage session was ahead.

"Well?" he asked sharply, since that was in character with his new persona. "Aren't you going to do anything?"

The slap hit his cheek so hard that he toppled. There was a brief, delicious moment in which he was seized with fear that he would drop to the ground and crack his head open. Then the mattress caught his fall.

Ken was upon him immediately, seizing him and pushing him back onto the bed. This meant that Loren's shoulderblades underwent another scourging. Loren began to cry out again, but his shout was truncated as Ken's ass landed upon his stomach.

Oh, lord. Like having a tanker land upon a VW. Loren struggled to take in a breath, then used that breath to make a suggestion to Ken of where the copper's ancestry lay. In Mayhill, that meant a racial epithet.

The second slap – a backhand against his right cheek – took him awares, and he let his head roll with the movement. Ken said, in a voice combining viciousness with amusement, "I must not have heard you right, sir. I believe that you meant to say, 'I'll do whatever you want.'"

"Fuck y—"

The slap was harder this time, returning to his left cheek, which was still resenting the impact of the first blow. Loren didn't even have time to try to draw a breath out from under Ken's weight before the fourth slap landed, the hardest of all. He heard himself moan.

"'I'll do whatever you want.' Say it." Ken's voice was as hard as his palm.

Loren wanted to spit into Ken's face. Not because he resented the man – on the contrary, Ken was giving him the most wonderful material for Loren's later dreams. Loren wanted to spit at him so that the slaps would continue. But he could feel that he was approaching his limit, and he needed to save himself for whatever came next.

Besides, he was lying on his arms. On his arms, on his aching back, with Ken atop him. The Inquisition must have hired people like Ken.

He said in a shuddering voice, "I'll do whatever you want."

The blow sent his face whiplashing into the mattress. The mattress was far too hard. His throat was whimpering now. Ken said, "Sir. You call me sir."

"I'll—" He tried to retain power of speech. Surely it couldn't be that hard; he'd known how to speak a few moments ago. "I'll do . . . whatever you want, sir. Please, sir . . ."

The last sentence was involuntary, and he could feel his gorge rising. It was usually at this point in the scenes when his anger at himself began to override his pleasure at acquiring new memories to spin tales with. What the fucking hell was he doing, letting another goddamned sadist treat him this way? Didn't Loren have any self-respect? Better that he should drink himself under the table every night for the next year than that he should let himself be turned into a pitiful, whimpering, limp-wristed bundle of softness.

Not into an em. Unlike some Esses, he had never felt contempt for any em who pleaded and whimpered during play. That was an em's nature; an em's strength lay in other areas, and to scorn an em for passively submitting to pain and humiliation was as silly as scorning a leopard because he had spots rather than stripes. It was right and proper that an em should act like an em.

But it was not right and proper that Loren should act this way. It was a defilement of the leather he had once worn.

"You're a fucking prick," he muttered to himself.

Fortunately, Ken didn't hear him. At that moment, the Ess rose from the bed, unbuckled Loren's belt, unbuttoned his pants, and jerked Loren's remaining clothes off. Then he flipped Loren over onto his stomach and pulled him down so that his legs hung over the bed. Then he did nothing. A minute later, Loren heard the sound of a dresser drawer opening again.

He took several deep breaths to try to drive away the anger that gnawed at him. This was his choice, he reminded himself. He had been the one to decide five years ago that he couldn't bear another fifteen years with virtually no play partners. And having made his choice, he could not back out now. If he did, he would disappoint Ken. And that wouldn't be fair at all.

Is it fair to pretend to him that you're an em? a voice whispered in his ear. He ignored it.

He heard Ken walking toward the bed again and wondered idly what came next. The promised beating on his backside? A spanking? Or had Ken changed his mind in favor of sex? If so, Loren could only hope that Ken would keep his promise about the condom. Loren wasn't in any position to stop him if Ken played too dangerous.

The thought sent a thrill of fear through Loren. He could feel an immediate swelling, achingly trapped between his groin and the mattress. He took several more deep breaths in an effort to deal with this new pain.

Ken touched him on the ass with something cold and wet; Loren couldn't immediately identify what it was. The touch was small, covering an area no bigger than a quarter. Then there was the sound of plastic rattling, and Ken's hand touched Loren near where the cold wetness lay. The hand was covered in rubber.

Oh, shoot. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Loren bit away a stronger curse, trying to figure out how to handle this. No limits meant no limits, but there were certain games Loren simply wasn't prepared to play with newbies. Handballing was one of them. With an experienced player, he would play it in an instant – play it, hate it at the time, and lovingly recall it afterwards, with his fist being the one that did the work. But he couldn't take the chance with someone this new. Handballing was an act that required skill to carry out properly.

What could he do? The only power he possessed was to stop the scene, and he'd already done that once to change the rules. If he asked for a second rule-change, Ken was likely to lose interest in him. Loren felt the woollen yarn of the quilt scratch at his cheek as he tried to decide which path to take.

Then he felt a prick, and his heart stopped.

Blood.

"Is this what you want, sir?" Ken was still speaking in character, the mocking cop, but Loren knew that the question was real; the point had not yet penetrated Loren's skin. He resisted the impulse to scream, "Yes! Exactly!" This could be as dangerous as handballing, unless Ken knew what he was doing.

He whispered, "How far in?"

Ken leaned over and murmured, "As far as you want." Then he added in a soft voice, "The needle's sterilized. I bought it through a medical supply catalogue."

All of Loren's earlier thoughts about Ken's innocence vanished in that moment. Cripes, a medical supply catalogue? He'd heard that some of the big-city Esses went to such elaborate lengths to prepare a scene, but he'd never met an edge-playing Ess in Mayhill who did more than pass the needle or blade through a flame beforehand.

Sterilized needles, rubber gloves, and a belt under his bed. Yes, this boy was ready. Whatever inexperience he might have in playing a scene with an em, he'd evidently been playing in his mind for a long time.

Loren had a moment to feel sympathy for his old master, trying to ascertain whether Loren was ready to be taken up to the next stage. The difference, of course, was that Loren's master had not been the one to receive the needle. Loren chewed at his lip a moment, trying to determine how far he could carry this through. He knew from past experience that he'd be screaming like a banshee from the moment the needle went in. Which, in all likelihood, would mean the end of the scene. Could he possibly hold off the screaming for a few seconds, long enough to savor the experience for memory's sake?

Is it fair to pretend to him that you're an em? He told the voice to shut up. With Ken's looks, the Ess would have plenty of opportunities to play. Loren rarely did.

"Through my tits," he said finally. The very thought made his nipples stiffen in terror. He bit his lip, lest he say the word that would bring an end to the scene.

Ken lifted him again, as he would a baby, turning Loren over and placing him further up the bed. He was lying on his arms again, but that was the least thing Loren had to worry about at the moment. He was contemplating the double-edged blade of fear.

Fear was a good thing, a precious thing, and any em who thought that Esses never felt fear were fooling themselves. The few times that Loren had been permitted to play the sadist – never in anything more than mild bondage and a slap of the palm against the buttocks – he had felt an Ess's fear: The fear that he would hurt his em beyond the em's capacity to bear. The fear that he would do something that caused permanent injury or death. The fear that he would not go far enough and would disappoint them both.

And now he knew the very essence of fear: the screaming, cutting edge of terror that had always made ordinary sex seem as dull to him as a children's tea party. He had been forced to the edge now, could see over the cliff to the long fall toward destruction. Ken's hand could tip him over at any moment. Delicious, soul-satisfying fear, which Aristotle had never known or he would have elevated it above pity as the highest emotion to be felt in drama.

It was fear that slaked Loren's appetite for excitement and made him rock-hard. But it was fear that would come at the very great price of pain.

He could feel cold wetness on his right nipple now – oh, gods, it would be his right one – and recognized it this time as rubbing alcohol. The policeman was well prepared, there was no denying that. But he did not know Loren, and it was Loren's duty, in his present capacity as an em, to bring to Ken's attention a matter that might mean the difference between life and death.

Easier to contemplate the needle going in.

"I need to be held, sir." He could barely force the words past his gritted teeth. Fortunately, Ken made no comment; he simply shifted from where he knelt next to Loren, placing his right knee upon Loren's chest. This left his right foot draped over Loren's groin and tickling his balls, a fact that Loren would have appreciated more if it had not been for the fact that Ken was now twisting Loren's nipple with his rubber-clad fingers. Loren set his teeth in a firmer grip in an attempt to keep from biting off his tongue.

"This is what you did to the young man, wasn't it?" Ken said, his voice as vicious as the twists of his finger. "You made him plead for his own torture and death. Now you'll do the same for me. I'll put this sharp metal into you, and you'll go hard at its touch, pleading to me for more. And more and more, until blood pours from your body. You'll obey me because you know it pleases me. You'll do anything that pleases me, even if it means your death. You fucking sick bastard." He leaned forward and whispered in Loren's ear, "When they put you in the coffin, they'll have to make it extra-large, to leave room for your erection."

Oh, cripes. A snuff fantasy. Not the sort of thing one expected from a new Ess, and definitely not the most reassuring knowledge: to know that he lay bound under the power of a man with a taste for sharp objects and dreams of murder.

Loren felt his membrum virile perk up with renewed interest.

Ken must have felt it as well, for he gave a low, humorless laugh as he raised himself back up. "When it comes time for the funeral, sir, do you wish your coffin lid left up for the viewing? So that your family can see what you are? So that everyone in this town can know what a fucked-up, narcissistic, schizophrenic, psychopathic, autoaggressive, borderline, hypersexual hedonist you are? Will that give you more of a thrill?"

Definitely something wrong here. Definitely, definitely. Preparation for a scene was one thing, but it sounded to Loren as though Ken had spent a year perusing the journal of the American Psychiatric Association, looking for all the appropriate terminology. And that wasn't . . . normal. Not even by the quite loose standards for normality that prevailed in Mayhill's S&M community.

"Beg for it, pervert." Ken's voice was shaking now, another bad sign. "Beg for me to hurt you. I want to hear you scream."

Screaming definitely seemed like a good idea at the moment. Screaming for the police, preferably. Loren opened his mouth just as Ken's fist smashed into the side of Loren's face.

"Beg me to hurt you!" screamed Ken.

Oh, Christ. Oh, Christ and Mother Mary and Pan and all the other gods he didn't believe in. So much for Loren being the author of "25 Warning Signs to Watch Out for in a Scene." He seemed doomed to break his own carefully constructed rules for safety.

He could taste blood in his mouth; he hoped it came from a cut cheek rather than a loosened tooth. Not that he expected now to have the chance to find out.

He thought of Elia then. Christ, this would kill him.

And then suddenly Ken's hands were on him again, only now they were gentle, stroking back Loren's hair, softly brushing the bruised cheek. "I'm sorry," the Ess whispered. "Was I too hard? Just . . . just let me know if I'm too hard."

The Ess's voice was still shaking, but Loren felt the breath he had been holding leak out of him. He swallowed the blood in his mouth and said in a gruff voice, "Go on, copper. I'm ready. I . . . want you to hurt me."

For a long moment, nothing happened. Loren, blinded to any visual knowledge of what was taking place, felt his balls contract, his body tense from the uncertainty of whether he would be touched next by a needle or a blow. The uncertainty as to which he feared most. Then Loren's right nipple was yanked high, and before he had time to do more than gasp, the needle pierced him.

He screamed. Screamed and bucked and would have impaled himself if it had not been for the fact that Ken's leg remained firm upon his chest, preventing movement. A white-hot flame of pain travelled down to his groin and burn there. He didn't feel the moment of the needle's withdrawal, but he knew that it must have happened quickly, for Ken's fingers released his nipple almost immediately. The nipple, ungrateful for its early release, continued to send jets of fire through his torso. Loren became aware that he was still screaming.

He managed to choke the sound in, only to hear it replaced by a loud thumping in the next room. "Mr. Olson?" said the muffled voice of a man. "Are you all right?"

"Oh, God," breathed Ken. Then he slid off Loren's chest, turned Loren on his side rapidly, and began tugging at the belt. Loren was barely aware of the release from his bonds and his blindfold. He was struggling to swallow further screams as the line of flame sparked by the needle's entrance continued to burn its way down to his groin. A clear, unimpeded path between two erogenous zones. Most ems would envy him. Loren just wanted to bury his face in the quilt and sob for a thousand years.

Ken was leaning over him now, his face anxious. "Someone's knocking at the—"

"Answer it," Loren said, his teeth aching as he set his jaw against the pain. He felt the bed shift as Ken rose, then heard the bedroom door close. A moment later, he heard Ken speaking in a low voice with someone.

He pulled himself into a sitting position and hugged his chest with his arms, carefully avoiding the tiny hole where the needle had gone in. It was no more than a prick, damn it! A soldier might have his leg shot off. A biker might be dragged from a fiery wreck. And Loren was making all this fuss over a simple needle passing through a portion of the skin that even some Esses deigned to allow pierced.

And he had nothing to show for it. Nothing at all. His back ached, his toes still resented their earlier efforts to keep him upright, his scalp hurt where Ken had pulled his hair, his arms and wrists were dully resentful of their mistreatment, his cheeks and mouth bore the signs of their abuse, and his nipple felt as though Cerberus had torn at it with his teeth. And Loren had nothing to compensate for that. The needle had gone in and out too quickly for him to remember it; he wouldn't be able to reshape this in his mind into a fantasy for his after-hours. From the feel of his body, he wouldn't be able to shape any fantasy for several days – not until his nipple fully healed.

"Shit," he said, hugging himself closer and knowing he was dangerously close to tears. "Shit and hell. It just hurt too much."

Something touched him then. An awareness that the conversation taking place in the next room had ended. He lifted his eyes and saw Ken standing in the bedroom doorway, horrified guilt clear upon his face.

The policeman had evidently snatched up a thick bathrobe on his way to pacify the neighbor at the door, but the robe had fallen open slightly, and his erection was clear to be seen. It was flagging quickly, though, as though it had been dowsed in cold water. Ken walked forward slowly and knelt down beside the bed. He said, in a voice that strained like a puppy on a leash, "I'm sorry, sir. Please tell me whether there's anything I can do to make up for this."

It was this – the sight of an Ess kneeling to his em – that brought down upon Loren the full knowledge of what he had done.

He closed his eyes. Is it fair to pretend to him that you're an em? No, it had never been fair, not in all the times that Loren had posed as an em. Loren had been able to self-justify his deception only as long as he believed that he was giving the Ess short-term pleasure, if not long-term. Short-term was what scenes were, after all. The actors came on stage, performed their play, and departed, never to meet again. Only the oddity of Mayhill – the fact that Loren lived in a rural town that was hundreds of miles from the nearest big city, as closed a community as could be imagined – broke the usual pattern, raising the likelihood that the actors would meet again and the deception would be discovered.

But he should have known better in this case. This was a new sadist, who had never performed a scene before and who evidently held a fully functioning conscience. Of course Ken would be specially anxious to give pleasure to his em. Of course he would have doubts as to whether he was right to do this; that would be natural even if Ken had simply been a virgin having sex for the first time. Loren should never have allowed matters to go this far: he should not have driven the scene to the edge, where it was guaranteed that his anguish would become clear. Because of Loren's blunder, Ken would be left, ever after, with the knowledge that his first scene had been a failure.

Loren opened his eyes. Ken hadn't moved; his honey-gold skin had taken on a greenish tinge. He waited mutely, like a calf awaiting the next move of the butcher.

Loren smiled at him. "I don't understand, sir," he said.

"I . . . hurt you." It was evidently costing Ken a great deal to speak further. He kept swallowing, as though driving back bile in his throat.

Loren's smile deepened with genuine amusement. "I thought that was the point of this, sir."

Ken looked as stunned as though the butcher had knocked him out with a board. Loren hesitated, then gave Ken the nearest thing to the truth that he dared. "I'm afraid my endorphin count must be down today."

"Your . . . what?"

Loren forced himself to chuckle. "The body chemical that makes pain bearable. Masochists feel it when they're hurt – that's where the pleasure comes from."

"Oh." Suddenly Ken's face was shuttered again, the policeman returning. "I didn't know that had a name."

"Oh, yes, the doctors call it nature's wonder-drug," Loren said cheerfully. "Only it fluctuates from time to time, you see. Mine seems to be low today – I'd guessed beforehand that might be the case, so it's really my fault for asking for more than I could handle at this time. I apologize, sir."

Ken turned his eyes down, contemplating Loren's lap. He was still kneeling beside the bed; Loren had a moment during which to appreciate the glossy curls on Ken's head. Slightly kinked, he thought. Very attractive.

When Ken raised his eyes again, they met Loren's with a steady gaze. "I didn't plan all of that," he said in an equally steady voice. "I started to lose control of myself at one point. I could have harmed you badly."

Well, thank goodness for that confession. Loren would have had to figure out a way to tear it from the man otherwise.

It was too early, really, for absolution, and Loren wasn't entirely sure whether such absolution was justified. Loren contented himself with muting his smile and saying, "It won't happen again, I'm sure."

No quick reply, which Loren appreciated. But after half a minute, the Ess said firmly, "No, sir. It won't happen again."

Enough. The Ess was on his knees, calling his em "sir," which was more than his brief crime warranted. Loren tried to figure out a way to invite Ken to rise without actually issuing the invitation, but at that moment Ken got up of his own initiative. He walked out of the room, closing his robe as he did so. When he returned to the room a minute later, he was holding two pills and a glass of water.

Loren looked down onto Ken's proffered palm and read the name across the pills. Ordinary pain relievers. He would have appreciated a stronger cure, not to mention a bottle of hard whiskey, but something was better than nothing. He took the pills and glass, watching as Ken walked over to his dresser and pulled yet another drawer open.

From where Loren sat, he could just see the contents of the drawer. Holy cow, the boy must have bought every item in the medical supply kit. Loren swallowed the pills and water, then checked his teeth with his tongue, ascertaining that they were all where he had left them last. His inner cheek had stopped bleeding.

He kept an eye on Ken as the policeman rifled through the items. He was relieved when Ken returned to the bed with nothing more dangerous than a pair of scissors. Ken used this to cut strips of tape and gauze with deft motions. Either he was married to a nurse or he had done this before. In the line of duty, perhaps; Loren had a moment to wonder whether police officers were required to possess a certain level of endorphins before they were allowed to deal with dangerous criminals. That caused his mind to wander back to the medical supply drawer.

It was very crowded. Of course, Ken might simply have been anticipating this day; the belt under the bed suggested as much. But was it possible that he'd been practicing S&M on himself? Even though it was no longer common for Esses to start their training as ems – alas – Loren knew that some of the more fashionable young Esses took pride in doing to themselves any act they planned to do to an em. In which case—

No. He would not let his mind wander in that direction. He'd hurt the new Ess badly enough as it was; he wasn't going to damage Ken's pride further by suggesting that the Ess might have the capacity to switch roles.

Ken finished bandaging Loren's nipple and sat back on his heels, contemplating his handiwork. This gave Loren time enough to think clearly. By the time Ken raised his eyes to meet Loren's again, Loren was ready.

"I hope you won't consider me presumptuous, sir," he said. "You may have had enough of me for one scene, given how badly I've performed tonight. But I was hoping that you hadn't forgotten your earlier promise."

From the blank look on Ken's face, it appeared that he had. That was interesting. Loren would have sworn that Ken would recall that particular moment in the proceedings, if no other. Unless, of course, Ken was one of those sadists who considered sex to be an unnecessary addition to S&M. In which case, Loren had just made the worst possible proposal.

Then he saw the blood rush into Ken's face. "Oh," said the policeman. "I— No, I hadn't forgotten. I just wasn't sure— Are you sure that you feel up to it?"

Part of Ken felt up to it, that was clear enough, even without need for Loren to dip his eyes to look. He smiled and said, "It's exactly what I would like right now."

After a moment, Ken rose, silent as an em, and walked out of the room. A minute later Loren heard him in the bathroom next door, rustling and clanking objects there. Apparently his well-supplied drawer had failed him in this instance. Loren spent a moment ascertaining that, if he stood up now, his skin would not slough off and his skeleton would remain intact. Then he rose, every part of himself aching, and walked back to the head of the bed to place his glass on the night-stand, bare except for a clock with neon-green numbers. Loren frowned at the clock before glancing at the window next to the bed, which had its shade rolled down. He stepped over and pulled the shade back a crack.

The night-black panorama before him was as ordinary and quiet as the town he had chosen as his home. Nothing of Mayhill's pioneer origins could be seen. The downtown business district – built thirty years before, when the older business district next to Lonesquare Park grew disreputable – was a jumble of bland fifties architecture, blander seventies architecture, and an occasional eccentric building from the sixties. To the right rose the hill on which lay the police headquarters and town jail; the left portion of the street led to the bridge over Firewater River, and from there on to Lonesquare business district. Directly ahead, to the west, were the Gothic Revival spires and towers of the university's small campus. Beyond the campus, its golden dome gleaming under spotlights, was the town hall, with its many bureaucracies that affected Loren's life: the building department, the health department, and a little office with a door humorously inscribed "Free Beer," which housed the liquor licensing board.

The street below was empty except for a dark figure sitting on the opposite side of the road.

The noises in the bathroom had stopped a while ago, but Ken had not returned. Loren could guess why. It was a shame that he couldn't pass out to every new Ess his business's brochure entitled, "How Much Chance Do I Have of Getting Sick If I Do This?" with the relative risk factor of each act clearly marked for every relevant disease. The health department had been eager to work with Loren and his partner in preparing the brochure, until the department realized that "unprotected vaginal intercourse" was on the list of highly risky activities. Then the health department dropped the proposed brochure in favor of its own, vaguely worded pamphlet concerning the dangers of immoral acts.

As though viruses sat in church on Sundays, figuring out which persons to attack on the basis of whether the persons were breaking the Ten Commandments. Loren and Elia had gone ahead and produced and paid for the original brochure on their own.

Loren wondered idly whether Ken had read the health department's fuzzily defined views on what constituted risky behavior, and if so, whether Ken knew that the state definition of sodomy did not embrace oral sex. The police had been inclined to forget that at times over the years, arresting any man who so much as necked with another man, as being a risk to "public safety." Loren shook his head. Confusing nonconformity with immorality, confusing immorality with illness. Sometimes he wished every member of Mayhill's government offices had been forced to take Logic 101.

He was growing tired of standing. With a sigh he slipped down onto his knees beside the night-stand, facing the bed. He knew why he was allowing his mind to wander, of course. He was trying to avoid thinking of what came next.

Pain was bad; pain such as he felt now, coursing through his body, was very unpleasant. But submission was far worse. Pain would pass within a few days, but submission would remain in his mind for weeks afterwards, reminding him of what he had done, in all of its excruciatingly humiliating details.

It would have been easier if he never enjoyed submitting.

He could guess the reason why pleasure often overcame him when he was submitting himself to an Ess. It was due to memories resurfacing of his time with his master. He had hated the training he received in receiving pain, but he had not hated the training he received in submitting. It had seemed proper to him, as an apprentice, to serve his master. He had enjoyed doing so. In the ordinary way of things, that would never have been a problem, for he would have gone on to be served himself, laying aside the old memories.

But he had never really had his chance to be an Ess, and so, kneeling in wait for Ken, Loren felt the first damning touches of pleasure begin to stroke him.

Not worthy of his leather. That thought seemed determined to force itself upon him over and over tonight.

He supposed that, for some of the younger Esses, this wouldn't be a problem. Loren remembered how thoroughly shocked he had been the first time he had seen an Ess go down on his knees during a scene. To an em, no less. Switching, versatility – whatever it was called, it made no sense to Loren. Though he had come to respect at least one switch, he could never respect the act itself. He would never allow himself to sink that low.

The bedroom light suddenly went out, leaving Loren in a stream of light that led to the door. He blinked, staring at the naked outline of Ken, standing like dark Pluto upon the threshold. Then Ken placed the robe in his hand upon the coat hook and walked slowly forward before seating himself on the shadowy bed in front of Loren. He was holding something in his hand that he tore, placing the torn wrapper on the night-stand.

Loren waited to see whether he would be asked to help; when no such order came, he cast a quick glance at the wrapper. The room was dark, but he could just make out the wrapper's expiration date. The date was recent enough to suggest that Ken hadn't been carrying around the condom for years, but not so recent that he would have bought the rubber specially for this occasion. Loren felt his mouth twitch into a smile as he looked at the color of the wrapper. Red as a cherry. Well, he supposed that was appropriate.

Ken was rolling the rubber down himself now, with deft movements suggesting he had done this in the past. Unless the safe sex guidelines had undergone a radical change since the last time Loren had checked, this was overkill, but at this point in the evening he would prefer that Ken was too cautious rather than too risky. Loren set his mind, instead, to the problem of how he would tackle the monument before him.

Loren had listened to far too many conversations over the years on the proper sizes for Esses and ems, a conversation that always left him feeling as though he were a losing market in a competitive-shopping world. Being of a classical frame of mind, Loren cared more about proportion than about inches, and Ken didn't disappoint him in that respect. But given Ken's overall size, that still left Loren with quite a mouthful to tackle. As Ken finished, Loren waited to see whether he would be given orders on how to proceed, or would simply have his head forced down in a single thrust. But Ken said and did nothing, so Loren was left to his own devices.

He worked his way slowly up the tight circumcised skin, glancing up from time to time to see Ken's shadowed face turned to look down at him. The Ess seemed reassuringly interested in what Loren was doing, rather than travelling off into a space of his own. By the time that Loren licked his way up to the top, Ken's chest was heaving, but the policeman continued to say nothing. He simply placed his hand upon Loren's head as Loren took him into his mouth. Still no thrusting; Ken guided rather than forced.

A gentle dominance. Oh, damn. Loren could feel the results in his own body and was tempted to ignore them. But that would have spoiled the whole point of this exercise. Loren forced himself to raise his head, prompting a protesting sound from Ken but no accompanying movement to compel Loren to continue. Which increased the feeling in Loren.

He took a deep breath, like a soldier about to shout his location when surrounded by enemy guns. "Sir," he said, "may I be permitted to stroke myself?"

Ken's head moved forward suddenly, as though he could not believe what Loren was saying and needed to see proof for himself. Then a smile broke across his face – a wide, easy smile, unlike the shadow-smile he had worn at the Black and Blue Club or the vicious smile he had worn as the abusive copper. It transformed his face.

"Please do," he said, and his voice was transformed too, brimming with deep satisfaction and even eagerness.

Darn, what Loren wouldn't do to have Ken kneeling at his feet at this moment, smiling that smile and speaking with such eagerness in response to Loren's orders. Life just wasn't fair.

Enough. He had received from Ken's reaction the reward he needed for his hard work. He would have to endure his own self-hatred for the enjoyment he was receiving from this act. He bent his head to the task.

In the end, Ken came before he did, then pulled Loren up onto the bed and finished the other man off with a hand job. That wasn't too bad. Loren lay on his back with his eyes closed, pretending that Ken was serving him. He began to weave the first few threads of a tale in his mind, in which he captured a prisoner and put the man through hell. The hell climaxed, of course, with the man kneeling at Loren's feet and being forced to admit to himself that he enjoyed submitting to Loren. When Loren finally came, it was in an explosion of bright warmth that drove from his mind all thoughts of past humiliation and present pain. He could feel Ken's hands on him, steadying him, and even that didn't bother him.

That was what made scenes so much more wonderful than lone fantasies. You never knew what twists they would take along the way.

He lay back-down upon the scratchy quilt afterwards; Ken owned a double bed with two pillows, so Loren wasn't forced to share space with Ken's sweaty body. The room was still dark, which gave Loren hope that, if he propped himself up sufficiently, he could see the neon-bright clock from where he lay. At the moment, Ken was blocking the view because his body was turned to look at Loren. After a while the policeman said, "I enjoyed your lecture."

"Oh?" said Loren vaguely, staring up at the lightless ceiling. It was not that Loren had any inherent objection to holding conversations after a scene. He enjoyed such conversations when he had played a scene with a friend. It was just that "scene" and "conversation" were two different acts in his mind, which had little relation to each other.

Elia, who had received the dubious benefits of New Math, had explained the matter to Loren one day by cutting out two paper circles, one labelled "People I Have Sex With" and the other labelled "People I Talk With." He had shown Loren how the circles lay atop each other in his own case, while in Loren's case, the circles barely touched each other. Loren, laughing, had taken the circle labelled "People I Have Sex With," had burnt it to ashes with his lighter, and had then pointed to the remaining circle, saying, "That's yours."

Loren himself was satisfied to keep the two circles barely touching. He didn't pick his play partners on the basis of whether they could provide intelligent conversation; he picked them on the basis of their looks and whether they were capable of carrying through a scene. Still, Ken had shown himself tonight to be talented at verbal abuse, which implied a certain cleverness with words. Loren forced himself to pay attention to what the policeman was saying.

"I hadn't thought of sex as being a type of theater," Ken said. "And they never taught us in my high school's mythology class about Greek theater being sacred. Did someone tell you that, or did you figure it out yourself?"

"Oh, it's there in the original texts," Loren said, his eye still on the ceiling. "My master's thesis was on the mythological elements of Plato's and Aristotle's views on drama in the Republic and the Poetics."

Silence. Loren, tracing in his mind a thread of memory about the moment when Ken had touched him with the needle, wondered dimly whether Ken would push him off the bed. The town's university was good enough to attract students from throughout the state – if rarely from out of state – but it wasn't good enough to dispel the traditional Mayhill suspicion that education was a waste of time for anything other than getting a high-paying job. Loren understood that scornful attitude well. He had shared that opinion up through his senior year of high school.

Ken finally said, "I guess you like mythology, then."

"Yes, it's fascinating." Loren was growing bored; he wondered whether he should make another attempt to see where the hands lay upon the clock. After all, his duty called him, and that was far more important than caring whether he mildly bruised the feelings of a passing partner.

Ken said, "I was wondering . . . I know I didn't do very well tonight. I was wondering whether you had any suggestions on how I might improve my performance."

That got Loren's attention. He turned over onto his side, trying to scrutinize Ken's shadow-dark face. Loren couldn't remember the last time an Ess had asked for feedback on his performance. One of the few benefits that Loren had received from his over-extended spell as an em was the knowledge that, if he ever had the opportunity to truly work as an Ess, he would do well to find out what his em thought of the scenes they did together.

"Oh," he said, seeking to be tactful without actually giving away that most of the night's disaster could be traced straight to his own doorstep, "some aspects of doing a scene can't be taught, you know. They come with experience."

He waited to see whether Ken would ignore this blatant hint, but Ken dipped his eyes immediately and began running his fingers along the gnarled yarn of the quilt. Finally he said, "This is my first time. You probably guessed that."

"Really?" Loren tried to sound surprised, then added jokingly, "Your first time as an Ess or your first time ever?"

Ken's eyes flashed up at him, then immediately down again. His finger moved along the yarn. "My first time as a sadist. As for sex . . . Well, I've done that before. Just not with a man." His voice was soft.

Loren, suddenly sobered, felt his smile disappear. Oh gods, a virgin. How many times had he lingered over fantasies of taking a virgin to bed? And when it had finally happened, he hadn't even known.

Cripes, a first-timer on two accounts. Loren truly had treated Ken shabbily.

"Then I am doubly honored," he said quietly. He saw Ken's eyes move up to his face suddenly, and was not surprised. This side of himself – the grave instructor, imparting wisdom and receiving due service – was not a part of himself that he usually dared show to his play partners. These days, he reserved that part of himself for the lecturer's stand, and only Elia still received glimpses of Master Loren in Loren's private life. It was too easy to antagonize an Ess by taking over his appointed role.

Ken didn't seem offended. After a moment, he said, "I guess you have lots of experience at this."

An Ess acknowledging that his em might know more than he did. Chalk yet another point up on Ken's scorecard. "Well, I'm older," Loren said, avoiding answering the question, because the true answer was too sickening. "I received my training twenty years ago, when I learned to be a slave."

A more tactful answer than the truth, which was that he had trained as a slave in order to learn to be a master, but had never been given the opportunity to make use of his training. From the change in Ken's expression, though, Loren realized he had blundered. The last thing Loren wanted to do was to hint to Ken that Loren wanted a serious master/slave relationship. That would be like camping out at Ken's doorstep, throwing rose petals in his path every time he passed by. Loren quickly added, "Of course, that was a long time ago. These days, I don't do more than a scene or two with any given partner. Perhaps three or four, at most."

Ken said nothing; his gaze simply returned to the quilt. Loren wondered whether he had blundered again by suggesting that he sometimes did return engagements. He sighed inwardly. This was why he hated pillow conversations; the possibilities for ruining a good scene were endless. He tried lifting himself onto his elbow, but the clock was still out of view.

Ken said, without looking up, "So you don't have any suggestions for me."

Loren eyed him in the dark. It would be too cruel, he decided, to reply, "Don't force your play partners to stay too long after the scene." Instead he said, "I could pass on a safety suggestion, if you like. Why did you wear your uniform to the meeting tonight?"

Ken raised his eyes. "It was my friend's suggestion, the one who recommended the Mayhill Sexual Education Society to me. He said that the other members would be more interested in me if I wore my uniform."

Loren resisted an impulse to ask the friend's name so that he could track him down and beat him senseless. "That's certainly true," he said. "But it's a bit risky to wear anything that identifies you so easily—"

"Because of the policemen who visit the society."

Very well, the boy wasn't stupid. "Exactly. As it happens, all of the attendees tonight were regular members, and I doubt that any of them would spread gossip about a policeman of your description visiting the society. But if another policeman had been present . . . They usually come undercover, you know."

He knew from Ken's stillness that the shaft had struck deep this time. After a while, Ken said, "Thank you. I appreciate the advice."

"No problem." Loren resorted to sitting up. He glanced at the clock and said, "Shoot! I'm off."

He was out of bed and had most of his clothes on before he noticed that Ken hadn't moved. He couldn't see Ken's expression well in the dark from that distance, but it occurred to him that his departure had been somewhat abrupt. He smiled at the other man, saying, "My apologies, but I'm due at work in a short time. I have a night shift, and it begins at ten."

"Oh, I see." Ken got off the bed and walked over to the chair where Loren's jacket lay. He picked it up and brought it over to Loren as Loren checked his right pocket to see that he had all his belongings. Ken helped Loren into the jacket, which was a surprisingly considerate gesture – not the sort of thing an Ess would ordinarily do. Perhaps he was taking his cue from the fact that Loren hadn't called him "sir" since the end of the scene.

"You said—" Ken stopped as Loren went over to the night-stand to check the time again. He had stayed too long, darn it; he would have to pay the extra money to get back to his bar quickly.

"You said that you sometimes do a scene more than once with the same person." Ken's voice was soft, tentative.

Loren reached down and picked up the abandoned water-glass on the night-stand, then sipped from it in order to give himself time to answer. The answer was not as obvious as it had been at the beginning of this evening.

Loren supposed that he had greater clarity about this situation than a younger man would have. Gays of Elia's generation had grown up with the understanding that they were normal and deserved all the rights of normal citizenship in their society. Even many of the Black and Blue Club's members took that attitude, and considered themselves to be daring only because they acted out the more risque pictures in best-sellers such as The Joy of Sex.

But Loren had grown up when he was illegal. Illegal, immoral, and sick. He had lived with the knowledge all through his teens that his thoughts and fantasies would earn him a long stint in therapy if anyone knew about them, and that if he played out his fantasies he might receive a long stint in prison.

And that was only for being homosexual. Being a sadist was something beyond that.

Loren had long known that he wasn't normal – not by the standards of his own society and perhaps not even by the standards of humanity. He didn't let it bother him. Loren didn't judge people by whether they fantasized of committing depraved acts, or whether they played out such fantasies in the bedroom, in circumstances that could cause no lasting harm.

Plato had said that actors should only perform good deeds in their plays, or they would bring evil into the world. Plato was an idiot. Loren didn't care how dark a fantasy life his partners had. What he cared about was whether they were capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality.

And by those standards, Ken had turned in a near-perfect performance tonight. He had lost control briefly for a few seconds – hardly surprising, given how long he had evidently been cherishing such fantasies before he was granted the opportunity to try them out. Loren had never lost control during a scene, and he doubted he ever would; the training he had received had been too strict. But he had briefly lost control of his own life: of his drinking habit and of his will to continue forward. He was in no position to cast judgment over an Ess who had made a grievous error and had apologized for his error in the strongest manner possible.

He lowered the glass to the night-stand and turned his smile upon Ken. "Only with partners with whom I enjoy playing the first time."

Ken turned his face away abruptly, as though he had been struck by a blow. Oh, dear. Not merely a shy Ess but one with low self-confidence too. This boy would need some building up before he could be trusted with one of those ems who did nothing more useful than look up at him worshipfully, expecting the Ess to do all the hard work. On those grounds alone, Loren should play a second scene with Ken.

He walked forward, still smiling. Ken forced his face round to watch him, which was brave, under the circumstances. Loren stopped in front of him and reached up to tuck a stray lock of hair back from Ken's forehead. "I should think," he said, "that I already gave proof enough of what I thought of tonight's performance. Or do I need to show you the stains on the bed?"

Loren saw Ken's shoulders sag with relief, and he permitted himself to laugh aloud. "You'll be at next week's meeting?"

Ken nodded.

"Good. I'll see you there, then. And I'll see you after the meeting." He glanced back at the clock, frowning. "I really need to go, I'm afraid."

"Yes, of course." Ken escorted him back to the apartment door after hastily robing himself. Loren found himself weaving a fantasy about Ken being his housebound slave, naked to Loren's pleasure at all times. When they reached the door, Ken placed his hand upon it, blocking passage. "I was wondering . . ."

"Yes?" Loren tried to keep impatience out of his voice. He hated prolonged farewells.

He must not have succeeded, for Ken swallowed hard. Then the policeman said in a low voice, "I was wondering whether you would mind if I kissed you."

Loren laughed again, a bright, sharp laugh. He was seized by a vision of Ken kneeling atop his chest, taunting him and thrusting a needle through his nipple. Yet Ken was nervous about asking for a kiss. Really, shy Esses were the most delightful creatures.

"I'd consider that to be the perfect end to this evening," Loren said, and tilted his head back.

He had known some Esses who considered S&M and affection to be incompatible. Such Esses hadn't been trained by Loren's master. Loren had never gone out of his way to seek affection from his play partners; affection wasn't on his list of top priorities. But he never rejected it when it passed his way. In Ken's case, the affection took the form of a kiss which had such hard urgency to it that Loren reflected he might have underestimated the value of kisses in S&M. Perhaps he could persuade Ken to incorporate one of those kisses into their next scene together.

When Ken finally drew back, he was panting. "Thank you, sir," he said between breaths.

Polite to the end. "Thank you," Loren replied. "I'll see you next week." He opened the door and slipped through it before the other man should begin running off his tongue again.

He hurried down the steps to the front door of the building, half his mind on getting back to work and half his mind on assessing the evening's play. Subtly training a new Ess, pulling in memories of pain and humiliation, a climax that had been surprisingly strong, and then a kiss at the door that had been different from any kisses he'd experienced in the past. Yes, overall, and even taking into account his earlier failures and Ken's loss of control, he would consider the scene to be a success.

Perhaps he would even remember Ken in a few years' time.

Chapter Text

Zephyra had spent three hours sitting on the sofa by the curb, trying to figure out how she had missed the warning signs.

In retrospect, they were there. She remembered, for example, the time that Ken had visited her at Eastside Metropolitan College. She had left Ken momentarily with a gay friend of hers who lived in her co-ed dorm, and who was prone to tease straight men by flirting with them. When she returned a few minutes later, she had found that Ken was flirting back.

She hadn't thought much about it at the time. That was just the way Ken was. But in retrospect, she realized that all of her concerns about Ken meeting a femme fatale should have been matched by worries of him meeting a homme fatal.

She wished she could be sure that this was just some nice, friendly guy who wouldn't hurt a fly. The trouble was, people could hurt Ken without knowing they were doing so. Hurt him in a very bad way.

She stared at the shade of Ken's bedroom. The room had been lit for most of the time, and occasionally she had seen a shadow against the shade: always her brother's shadow, which she knew too well to mistake for anyone else's. Then, a short while ago, the shadow of her brother's visitor had stood against the window, alone. And then the light had gone out, and there was nothing.

Ken, she thought, would never forgive her if she burst in on him while he was in his bedroom with some guy he'd fallen for. Or rather, he would forgive her but wouldn't want to do so. And that would be infinitely worse.

Mayhill was night-dark now, though light and occasional conversation continued to pour out from the door of the grocery store. When the store closed at ten, she would have to leave – she couldn't justify being alone on a dark street at this time of night, even if the downtown business district was relatively safe. Ken would have a fit if he knew she was out here on her own.

The light from the grocery store suddenly winked out. She glared down at her watch, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer light of the street-lamp. Darn, the store was closing a few minutes early tonight. Should she wait a little while more? Surely Ken and his date would have had plenty of time to . . . do whatever they were doing in the bedroom. On the other hand, perhaps Ken had invited the man to stay the night, and they were sleeping now. She gnawed at her lip, feeling the familiar sense of impotency rise in her. If only Ken had a guardian angel, watching over him at every moment, she wouldn't feel this helplessness whenever he hooked up with someone new.

The townhouse door opening and shutting took her so much by surprise that she felt herself jerk in place. She watched as the man she had seen before stopped at the curb and looked left and right, as though waiting for traffic to pass, even though the street was empty. Most of Mayhill's residents were at home by now; only a few venues, such as the movie theater and the bars, would still be open.

She found herself wondering with uneasiness whether the man really was Ken's prisoner. A prisoner who had discovered a secret about her brother that had enabled him to escape. It had never happened before – she had been sure it would never happen – but perhaps the unimaginable had come true. So much else had come true in Ken's life that she could not have imagined.

And if the man had been a prisoner, what would he have done with the policeman who had originally arrested him?

Her heart was hammering now. She wanted to run across the street to Ken's apartment, but the man was blocking her way. He was crossing the street now. He was turning to his left.

He was approaching her.

She scrunched down against the sofa arm, hoping that he would pass by her without noticing her. A useless motion, really; the streetlight fell straight upon her. The man paused, looking down at her. In the streetlight, she could see that his face wasn't ugly. But there was no warmth in his eyes, no indication in the hardness of his face that he was capable of warmth.

"Excuse me, miss," he said. "I was wondering whether there was a pay phone in this area."

His voice was light and high and lilted slightly. Like Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon, she thought. He had a scar across his brow that she hadn't noticed before. She pointed a finger silently at the phone he had just passed.

"Ah." He didn't turn to look. Instead, he sat down upon the other arm of the sofa. He reached into his jacket.

She felt her heart begin to race. All that came out of the jacket was a silver case, the size of his hand. As it emerged, she saw the letters inscribed upon it: LB.

"It's rather late to be out," he said reflectively. "Keeping watch. All on your own."

Oh, jeez. Oh, heaven help her. What would her brother do in this situation? She'd heard him give a talk to high school students on "What to Do If a Mugger Approaches You." That anything worse than a mugging could occur in Mayhill wasn't usually acknowledged by the police force.

She straightened in her seat, stiffening her spine. "I'm part of the police's volunteer crime prevention patrol," she said. "There are a bunch of us out tonight, checking to see that nobody does anything criminal. I'll be reporting back to the police in a short while. If I don't show up, they'll come looking for me."

"Oh?" There was a smile upon the man's face now, the same grimly amused smile that she had seen at the beginning of the evening. He didn't look at her; he was contemplating the silver case, which he had placed on his thigh and opened. Inside the case were cigarettes – at least, she hoped they were cigarettes, though they looked as though they were handrolled. He picked one up, held it up to the streetlight, and clicked his tongue at it. Then he reached into his right pocket.

She only had time to see that he was holding something metal. Then the metal thing split open, like the jaws of a tiger opening infinitely wide, and where the tongue should have emerged was a three-inch blade.

She would have screamed if she had been able to move. Instead, she mutely watched the blade move to its destination. With the "jaws" now pulled back into a single handle, the man held the switchblade up to the streetlight, examined it with a smile, and then brought it down hard upon the silver case, slicing off the edge of the cigarette. The blade screeched as it carved its way across the metal.

The man checked the trimmed cigarette briefly, nodded his satisfaction, placed the cigarette in his mouth, and returned the silver case to his jacket. He didn't let go of the switchblade. Instead, he brought a lighter out from his jacket and proceeded to light the cigarette, shielding the flame with his knife-bearing hand and peering at her through the screen of the blade. His smile never wavered.

He took a long drag from the cigarette as he pocketed the lighter. Then he blew out the smoke slowly, his fingers stroking the switchblade handle.

"Well," he said, his eyes fixed upon her, "when you see the policeman from the crime prevention unit, you can tell him that I had a very good time tonight."

Still smiling, he stood, dropped the cigarette, and ground it under his heel.

He smiled down at Zephyra. "Would you care to share a taxi?" he asked.

She shook her head. It wasn't the only part of her that was shaking by now.

The man nodded and turned, making his way back to the phone. Without looking down at it, he twirled the switchblade in his hand, its jaws collapsing to hide the blade. He slipped the knife back into his pocket, then brought out a dime and deposited it into the phone.

She ran then, nearly into the path of a patrol car that was slowly making its way down the street. The man, in the midst of dialing a number, glanced over his shoulder at the car, then turned back unconcerned to his task. Zephyra reached the door to the townhouse, fumbled at the keyhole with the key Ken had given her, and stumbled her way into the refuge. The man was still standing at the telephone, his back to her.

Her legs felt as though they would give way, but once she had locked the townhouse door behind her, she didn't allow herself to pause. She raced up the stairs to the second floor and pounded on the door of Ken's apartment. One minute, she thought to herself. She would give Ken one minute to answer; then she would use her key to gain entry.

Her brother's voice said, "Who's there?"

It was his neutral voice, the same one he used on his answering machine. She nearly collapsed in her relief. Instead she swallowed away the screams and sobs she had been holding within and said, "It's me."

A pause, and then: "Hold on a sec."

By the time he opened the door three minutes later, she was nearly back to normal. She managed to give him a bright smile as he looked down at her. He was wearing the bathrobe she had given him as a Christmas present the previous year.

"Sorry for the delay," he said. "I was just about to take a shower. Come on in."

Ken's living room, as usual, was irritatingly spotless. This was because he never used his living room himself and rarely had guests over – most of his socializing, to Zephyra's relief, was done during work hours or in a café near the station, with other men and women from the station. Ken usually kept dates to the dinner-and-a-movie level; only a few women, Zephyra knew, had made it into the inner sanctum of his bedroom.

Only a few women had he trusted that much, and all of them, in the end, had betrayed his trust.

Zephyra, of course, had always been welcome in Ken's bedroom, except on the few occasions during his childhood – frightening in retrospect – when he had locked his door against the outside world. She followed him into his bedroom now, trying not to be conspicuous as she looked around for signs of his visitor. She couldn't see any. The bed was still made, though the awful quilt she had created during Girl Scouts, which Ken resolutely refused to throw out, was a bit rumpled. That was no surprise; when Ken was at home, he often spent hours lying on his bed, staring blankly up at the ceiling. Whenever Zephyra had visited him – both as a child and in adulthood – he'd always readily told her of his daydreams. He had a vivid imagination. Masters and slaves was his favorite type of tale, followed by cops and prisoners, pirates and captives, and Nazis and POWs.

Only in recent years had it occurred to her that she might be receiving an edited version of Ken's daydreams. Yet she had forced herself to continue listening to Ken's tales, hoping that talk might help him.

Nothing else had.

"I really do need to take a shower," said Ken. "If you don't mind . . ."

"Go ahead," she replied, flopping onto the bed. "I'm bushed. I might nap a bit."

Ken glanced at the clock. "Don't you usually work till midnight on Fridays? I thought Albert gives you a ride home when you work late."

"Yeah, but I was tired tonight. Albert said I could leave early, since the late-show folks had already gotten their tickets and refreshments."

Ken frowned as he lingered in the doorway. "He should have given you a ride home anyway. It's not safe for a woman to be out alone late at night, even in Mayhill."

As she'd just learned. "Ken-Boy, it's one block from the movie theater to here. I knew you'd walk me back home, and Albert couldn't leave the projector running on its own."

"Well . . . okay." Ken continued to frown, though. It was sweet how protective he was about her.

"The shower," she reminded him.

"Oh, yeah. Sorry. I'll be right back. Sorry to leave you hanging." He disappeared from the doorway.

Zephyra sighed. Only Ken would apologize for taking a shower in his own home rather than entertain a sister who turned up at his doorway unannounced at ten o'clock on a weekend evening. She pulled herself up into a sitting position, took a piece of gum from her pocket, and looked for a wastebasket to put the wrapper in. The wastebasket was shoved under the night-stand, as it often was. She pulled it out, dropped the wrapper, and was about to push the wastebasket back into its usual place when she frowned. Carefully, she picked a sandwich bag out the trash.

The bag was sealed but the plastic was clear, so she could see that it contained a jumble of latex – gloves, she thought. Mixed in with them were two pieces of bright red paper – a square torn in half. She clicked on the night-stand lamp in order to see the torn wrapper better, then had to bite her lip to keep from laughing aloud.

She glanced hurriedly at the bedroom door. It was open, but she could hear the sound of the shower now. She looked at the torn wrapper again. A red wrapper. She was used to seeing those. Ken's favorite candy was cherry-flavored Lifesavers. She wondered whether he or his date had been the one who received the pleasure of licking what lay inside the wrapper, once it was in place.

Well, at least she knew now what the two men had been up to and that they had used protection. That was one less worry on her mind. She was about to drop the bag back into the wastebasket when the contents shifted and she saw the needle.

Her breath stopped. She carefully held the bag up to the light. Just an ordinary needle, which Ken might have bought at the Mayhill 5&10 Store. He could have been using it to burst a blister, or to probe for a splinter, or even to sew a button.

Oh, God. She knew that it wasn't for any of those things. It had begun again.

The shower stopped. She quickly dropped the bag in the wastebasket and shoved the basket under the night-stand, beginning to feel guilty. She knew that the reason Ken had left home was because he had tired of having their father paw through his belongings every time Ken was at work. She hadn't meant to rifle through his wastebasket, but that was still no excuse. Ken had problems enough without losing what was left of his privacy.

By the time Ken came into the room, Zephyra was sitting against the bed's headboard, chewing on her gum and playing with the wrapper that she had remembered to retrieve from the wastebasket at the last minute. Ken dropped the robe, and she gave a whistle. Ken – who was wearing his usual boxer shorts now – merely laughed as he turned to open the closet door.

"How many whistles do you get during the day?" she asked out of idle curiosity as she abandoned the wrapper and bed and walked up to join him.

"God, don't ask. It's embarrassing." He pulled a belt off of a hook. Ken had the largest assortment of belts and ties of anyone she knew; he had even bought a belt in the shape of a metal chain recently, though punk was definitely not his style. He liked leather better, and she had spent many an hour with him in the local department store, comparing the relative merits of the different leather belts.

"That's sexual harassment, you know," she said. "Albert gave me a pamphlet on it. How to know when people at your workplace are sexually exploiting you."

"Did he? That's forward-thinking of him." Ken sounded approving as he pulled a polo shirt off a hanger. "We should have a pamphlet like that at our place. Not that there's been any problem like that at the station."

"Are you sure?"

"Well, I think I'd be the first person to know if there was."

A long silence followed. Zephyra, biting her lip to keep from replying, turned her attention to the shelf where Ken had laid odds and ends: clothespins and strings and plastic wrap. She picked up a paper bag that was lying on the shelf and read its label. "Mayhill Toy Store?" she said with a laugh. "Ken, aren't you a bit old to buy toys?"

"It's for the second grade at the elementary school. I'm giving a talk there next week about not taking rides from strangers, and I thought I'd bring along some trinkets for a treat."

His voice had the studied casualness that always made alarm bells go off in her head. She resisted the impulse to look in the bag; she knew from past experience that she probably wouldn't recognize the objects' significance in any case. Instead she dropped the bag back onto the shelf, saying, "I came by during my dinner break to see if you wanted to go get hamburgers, but you weren't in."

Ken slid his way into some slacks before saying, "I was off at a self-help group I just heard about."

"Oh!" she said with interest. "I thought you'd run out of those."

"I hadn't heard of this one. Vance told me about it."

"Oh." She kept her voice flat. "Well, what's the group for?"

Ken carefully pulled on his shirt, then buckled his belt, then sat down on the floor to put on his socks. Finally he said, "It's sort of hard to describe. It's kind of a drama therapy group."

Zephyra considered this for a minute. "I've heard of art therapy. One of my college roommates said it was the new big thing. She said you draw pictures in order to bring out all your hidden emotions."

"Yeah, this is the same sort of thing, except, instead of drawing, you act out your emotions. I guess the idea is that, if you let your demons have a place to play in fantasy, they won't bother you in real life."

Suddenly Zephyra saw the needle again in her mind, and she could have cried with relief. Not real. Just play.

"You mean like playing cops and prisoners," she said.

His eyes jerked up toward her. She didn't know why he was surprised; they'd always been able to read each other well. After a minute he gave a tentative smile. "Yeah, like that. I guess I didn't do enough of that when I was a kid. Always dreaming my dreams rather than playing with other kids. Maybe if I'd done more cowboys and Indians with the other kids, things would have been different."

She lowered herself onto the floor and sat cross-legged next to him. "That group sounds really good. Do you get to pick the other actors you play with, or does the head of the group pick people?" She hoped her voice sounded casual.

"I got to pick. I picked this guy . . ." His voice trailed off suddenly, and he turned his attention to his sock, carefully adjusting it so that its seam was precisely halfway across the front of his toes. "He's . . . Well, I don't know him very well, actually. I invited him back here to help me act out the scene we'd agreed to do – there wasn't any opportunity at the meeting itself to do more than agree on what scene we were going to perform. He's a lot more experienced at this than I am; he's been doing this for a long time. I . . . It didn't work out quite the way I'd expected. But I think it will be okay. I've asked him to do another scene with me next week."

Oh, God, she could just see it. Ken inviting the man back to his apartment to act out a scene. The man suggesting that they do something besides acting. Ken saying yes. Ken wondering whether he had done the right thing.

Ken always knew when he was in over his head, even when he couldn't find the strength to swim back to the shore.

"Maybe you should pick another acting partner," Zephyra suggested. "Or even take a break from the drama therapy for a while. See whether that first session helped before you do any more."

"Yeah, maybe." Ken carefully slid his shoes on, tied them, and said, without looking at her, "The thing is, I think he was interested in doing another scene with me. I wouldn't want to disappoint him."

She wanted to bang him over the head, scream at him, make him look in the mirror and see what the rest of the world saw when they looked at him. But it was no good. He had fallen. Fallen as he had fallen so many times before. And each time he fell, it became harder and harder for him to extract himself when the inevitable moment came when the other person betrayed him.

Zephyra had no doubt this time – none whatsoever – that the other person would betray him.

"I tell you what," she said. "Why don't I come over next Friday after work, and see how the scene went? And if this other guy is still here, you can introduce us." Taking the position of defense was better than doing nothing at all, even if it meant speaking nicely to a man who kept a switchblade in his pocket.

Ken's face brightened at once. "That would be great! I'd like you to meet him. And maybe you could help me prepare next week's scene. I want to create some scenery for it."

"What type of scenery?" she asked as Ken lifted her to her feet. She was feeling relief pour upon her. The moment when Ken stopped trusting her, when he stopped letting her into this part of his life – that would be the day when she knew full disaster had befallen. As long as he kept the doors open to her, there was still hope of helping him, no matter what happened.

"I'm not sure yet. Maybe we can figure something out while we're walking back to your place. I found out what type of plays he likes."

o—o—o

He walked her to their father's house by way of the riverbank, which he knew she loved. It was also the safest route home, since most of the town's bars were located along the scenic view. Though the majority of Mayhill's residents went to bed at an hour that shocked Zephyra's big-city friends when they came to visit, much of the younger crowd was still up at this weekend hour, sitting outside on the warm evening. A young man dressed in what was Mayhill's version of a highly radical outfit – a tee-shirt and jeans of light purple – saw Zephyra and eagerly gestured to her to come join the group he was sitting with. She smiled and waved back, but shook her head.

"That's Johnnie, isn't it?" said Ken, who had a good memory for the names of her many dates. "You should go join him."

"I'm too tired to party tonight," she replied. "Besides, I'd rather spend the rest of the evening with you." She put her arm around Ken's waist.

A group of three boys, overtaking them on the riverside path at that moment, emitted whistles – at her, she assumed, not Ken – and one of them made a lewd remark. She knew the three brothers from their visits to the movie theater – not to mention the bottom-smack she'd received from the eldest boy earlier that evening – and so she stuck out her tongue at them. Then she glanced up at Ken. He was smiling.

She and Ken had been thirteen the first time that another boy dared to make an incest joke in her presence. She had burst into tears; Ken had promptly slugged the offender. It had been the proudest moment of her life. Afterwards, Ken had taken her to a nearby ice cream shop and had spent all his allowance on a giant banana split for them both. By the end of the evening, they had been laughing at what had happened. After that, she and Ken had treated any similar remarks in the same way.

She was not unaware that Ken was what was referred to in Mayhill as "a good catch" – at least as far as looks were concerned. Zephyra, having seen what Ken's nicer girlfriends struggled through, was of the opinion that she was far better off than Ken's dates. It wasn't as though her own life hadn't been shaped by what Ken was. She knew, for example, that she would not have majored in pre-medicine in college if she hadn't thought her studies might make all the difference to Ken's future. She would not have decided to come back and live in Mayhill after college if it hadn't been for Ken's situation. Nor would she have opted for a minimum-wage job that allowed her to take unexpected breaks when emergencies arose. She was living a far narrower life than she had ever anticipated.

But it would have been far worse to have fallen in love with a man who seemed strong enough to handle anything she trusted him with, only to learn the terrible truth.

They made their way along the gravel path, bright under the street-lamps and under the light spilling out from the bars nearby. The river embankment was directly to their left; the rushing river-water swallowed up the sound of their steps. Zephyra asked, "How did things go with Dr. Malloy this week?"

"She wanted to try me on another drug."

Zephyra looked sharply at him. Ken's statement were always precise. If he said, "I want," it sometimes – though not always – meant that it was what he wanted. If he said, "He wants" or "She wants," it meant that he was outright opposed to the idea.

"What did you tell her?" she asked.

Ken shrugged as he stared down at the path. In the passing light of the street-lamp, his face looked strained. "I told her that, since the last five drugs had made me so zonked out that I couldn't function at work, I didn't see the point."

"Good!" she said quickly. "Don't let her bully you into doing what you don't want to do."

She knew the moment she spoke that she'd made a mistake, even before Ken lifted his head and looked at her, his expression more taut than before.

"The chief wouldn't have liked it," he explained. "He told me he couldn't afford having me take lots of sick days in the future."

And the decision – whether to follow what his boss wanted or to follow what his psychotherapist wanted – had clearly cost him a great deal. Zephyra could have cursed herself for reminding him of the decision. Instead she said, "I'm not surprised he was upset at you missing work. You're so good at what you do."

His expression softened then. "Yeah, it's the one thing I'm good at."

She forced herself to smile. "Only one thing, Ken-Boy?"

He laughed and wrapped his arm around her shoulders to squeeze her. "Well, I chose my relatives well."

They fell silent again. Zephyra could hear the boys further up the path, shouting at each other, and she wondered what on earth they were doing out at this time of night. The oldest boy couldn't be more than fifteen. Her brother, she knew, was in support of a curfew for the town's children, believing that young people who were still learning to control themselves needed external control placed upon them in the meantime.

Which brought her thoughts round full circle. "So what did Dr. Malloy say when you told her that?"

"Well." Ken scuffed at the gravel path, kicking one of the stones that had rolled over from the edge of the embankment. It twinkled in the lamplight as it skipped forward. "She said that, in that case, she couldn't see any more options for me. Other than the one we talked about last year."

Zephyra stopped dead in her tracks, grabbing Ken and pulling him round to face her. "Ken, no! You didn't say yes, did you?"

His eyes drank misery from the air. "I told her I'd talk to you and Dad about it."

"Well, you can tell her no, then." Zephyra's voice was firm. "That's not the right choice. Not for you."

"Zeph, she thinks I might endanger other people—"

"That's ridiculous! You haven't hurt anyone at work, have you? Not unless it was your duty to?"

"That's different. I'm under orders at work. Outside work . . . It might be safer for everyone if I—"

"No!" She was shouting now, and couldn't stop herself. "No, no, no! Ken, I won't let you do that. There's got to be other options. What about this drama therapy thing? And the guy you were going to perform a scene with?"

This was ridiculous. Just a short while ago, she had been trying to figure out a way to keep Ken away from that blade-carrying man; now she was throwing them back together.

But it was better than the alternative. Anything was better than the alternative.

Ken released his breath slowly. He had that terrible look on his face that he had whenever Zephyra yelled at him, but the look was easing now. "Yeah, I'm hoping that will work. I think if anything can, it will."

"Fine." She took his arm and pulled him along the path. "So that's settled, and you can tell Dr. Malloy next week that you're working with another self-help group. Now, tell me about this scenery you want to make."

"Well, it's— Hey."

"Hey?" She looked down at Ken, who had suddenly dropped to his knees on the path. He was picking up the rock he had kicked forward a short while ago. He held it up to the light, and it glittered again.

"What do you suppose this is?" he asked.

"I don't know. Quartz? There's a lot of that along the embankment."

Ken was peering at the level edge of the embankment now. "Do you suppose anyone would mind if I took some?"

"Oh, Ken." She had the feeling she often had when she was with him, of trying to decide whether to cry or laugh. One moment they'd be discussing inconceivable horrors, and the next moment they'd be talking about rocks next to a river or some equally mundane topic. "Nobody's going to mind if you swipe a few stones. What do you need them for?"

"The scenery." Ken was picking through the stones now, selecting the ones that glittered. "I want to create a rocky background. These'll look nice. I wish I'd brought a bag."

Zpehyra looked round. "Hold on a tick." She darted off before Ken could say anything and disappeared into the nearest bar.

When she returned, she was holding a large, sturdy duffel bag. Ken stared at it in disbelief. "They gave you that? Just for the asking?"

"I used to date the guy who owns this place."

Ken gave a mock groan. "I should have known. Okay, all that we need to do is pick the right ones. —No, not that one; it's too smooth," he said as she reached out. "I want the jaggedy ones."

"Why jaggedy?"

"Because I—" He stopped suddenly, his head lifting. Zephyra looked round toward the sound interrupting Ken's thoughts. It came from the boys; they were standing further down the path, jeering and throwing rocks at a passing boy, who was running to try to escape from their volley.

"Zephyra?" Ken's voice was quiet and calm, different from the way it had been a moment before.

"I'll be okay," she assured him. "There are people all around."

Ken said nothing more; he got up and strode down the path in the direction of the boys. Zephyra picked up the bag and followed him, stopping close enough that she could overhear the conversation. The younger boys were looking nervously at each other now. This was a small enough town that they knew who Ken was.

Ken had evidently already made his opening remarks, for the eldest boy was saying angrily, "But he's gay!"

"I don't recall," said Ken in a cool voice, "that this state's laws provide any exceptions based on the sexual orientation of the person you attack."

"But he's a criminal!" the boy said indignantly. "It's against the law to have gay sex. You should arrest him!"

"And how would you know whether he's been having sex with anyone, sir? Unless you've been in his bedroom, of course."

One of the younger boys sniggered. Without warning, the eldest boy swung his fist at Ken. Ken caught his wrist easily and took hold of his other arm to keep him at bay. "Gentlemen," said Ken, addressing the younger boys now, "I really cannot ignore this matter if your brother starts assaulting me. Can't you make sure he gets home safely?"

One of the younger boys tugged at the eldest boy's shirt. "Come on. Come on! Dad'll skin us if we get into a fight with a cop."

Ken released the eldest boy and watched till the younger boys had hauled their brother back and were persuading him down the path. Then he turned away. At that moment, the eldest boy turned and shouted, "You're gay too! I saw you at Lonesquare Park last weekend!"

Ken went still. Zephyra, still kneeling to collect rocks, looked quickly over her shoulder. The boy's shout had attracted the attention of several bar customers lounging outside. They were watching curiously now, waiting to see what the man's reaction would be.

Ken turned and walked slowly back to the boys. The younger boys looked as though they would like to flee, but the eldest boy held his ground, glaring up at the large man looming over him. Ken said, in a voice that carried over to the bar customers nearby, "And how do you know that I was at Lonesquare Park last weekend?"

The boy opened his mouth, and then his mouth hung open as he saw the trap ahead.

"Oh, yes." Ken had his back to Zephyra, but she could hear the smile in his voice. "I seem to recall that I saw you there, when I was doing my patrol."

The bar customers laughed at the punchline and turned their attention back to their drinks. The boy flushed, but in the next moment Ken had begun pounding him lightly on the back, as though they were sharing a joke. Taking the path of least resistance, the boy laughed too.

"Have you ever been to the police headquarters?" Ken asked him, resting his arm on the boy's shoulder. His body was half-turned toward Zephyra now, and she could see his smile.

"No," said the boy, suddenly grown suspicious.

"Well, if you three come down to the station tomorrow at noon, I can give you a tour of the place."

"All of it?" asked one of the younger boys eagerly. "Even the cells?"

"Of course." Ken smiled at the eldest boy. "You can even try on my handcuffs. To see if they fit."

The boy laughed uneasily, as though unsure whether this was meant to be a joke. Ken stepped back and said, "Good night, gentlemen. I'll see you tomorrow."

The boys gave a chorus of goodbyes; when they turned away they were already discussing the upcoming tour in excited tones. Ken made his way back to Zephyra, who glared at him as he knelt down beside her.

"Ken, you have the weekends off!" she reminded him.

"Well, I could hardly give them a tour during my working hours, could I? —Oh, this is great." He was examining the rocks she had placed in the bag.

"Are those the kind you want?"

"They're perfect. Very jaggedy. Just a few more and we'll have enough for now. I'll come back for more later."

Zephyra was silent a minute, sorting though the embankment rocks. Then she said, "Ken, could the boy have seen you at Lonesquare Park?"

"No, of course not," Ken replied promptly. "That's the vice squad's patrol area."

"Yes, but I thought— Well, if you were passing by—" She fumbled, not knowing how to ask.

Ken looked at her quizzically, then burst into laughter. "Zeph, I may be bad off, but I haven't reached the point of having sex with strange men behind bushes."

Zephyra felt her face grow warm. Still laughing, Ken helped her to her feet, then easily picked up the heavy bag of rocks. "Come on, let's go back to your place. Maybe I'll stay over tonight. That'll make Dad happy. And I can collect more rocks on the way home in the morning." He started down the path at such a quick pace that she had to rush to keep up.

Not until she was lying in bed later that night, listening to the comforting sound of Ken snoring in the next bedroom, did Ken's voice come into her head: "Very jaggedy."

Her eyes flew open. She couldn't fall asleep again for the rest of the night.
 

Chapter Text

Loren wasn't sure how he had arrived at Mount Olympus.

The entire day had been full of unexpected twists and turns: Arriving at the Black and Blue Club a few minutes late, only to discover, like a sharp blow to the solar plexus, that Ken wasn't there. Listening with fitful inattention as Melody gave a lecture on birth control; three out of every four weeks of the month, the club offered talks aimed at the ordinary folk of Mayhill, partly to adhere to the club's ostensible mission of providing sexual education, but partly also as the keystone of Melody's devious plan to hunt out potential ems and Esses who might be too scared to attend a meeting specifically on S&M. Loren, who normally enjoyed the sly manner in which Melody managed to slip references to S&M into her regular lectures, had found himself twisting round in his chair every few minutes to see whether any latecomers had arrived. None did.

Skipping the social time after the talk and turning his steps in the direction of the bridge leading to the Lonesquare district. Trying to ignore the voice in his head, urging him to turn round and go to Ken's place. Realizing belatedly that Ken was walking beside him.

They had proceeded back to Ken's apartment in a leisurely manner, Ken making his apologies and explanation: a decision not to risk being recognized by any undercover cops who might attend the club's future meetings. And then, unexpectedly, Ken had asked Loren to explain what Aristotle's views were on drama.

They had just reached Ken's living room, and Loren was about to explain how Aristotle believed that the depiction of evil deeds on the stage could create catharsis for the theatergoers, when Ken shoved Loren down onto the floor and tore his clothes off.

A clichéd move; Loren had undergone it more times than he could remember. There was no reason, therefore – none at all – why he should have ejaculated five minutes later, spurred on by no greater image of pain than hard kisses interspersed with the friction of his circumcised cock against Ken's slacks.

Being bound to the showerhead afterwards was also a cliché. So was the too-hot water, though admittedly Loren wasn't used to a fully clothed Ess joining him in his discomfort. All that followed after that was Ken standing with his body pressed against Loren's as the water soaked them both and Ken whispered vile little threats in his ear. Why this tame play should have left Loren with a raging hard-on was a mystery to him.

He was not allowed to come. Instead he was released from his bonds, jerked out of the shower, barely permitted to dry himself, and then dragged into the coat closet in the living room. There he was forced to his knees, bound hand to foot, and left in the darkness, along with his erection.

At that point, Loren had to admit to himself that Ken had a certain amount of imagination.

Outside the closet came sounds of thumping; apparently some preparation was taking place. Loren, his back arched due to the binding, spent the time examining Ken's knots. The policeman had evidently never belonged to the Boy Scouts; Loren discovered the way to untie himself within two minutes. Sighing, he left the knots as they were and waited impatiently for the next portion of the scene.

Ken returned finally, unbinding him before blindfolding him, then leading him into what Loren guessed must be the bedroom – at any rate, they ended up sitting on a bed, Loren positioned between Ken's boxer-clad thighs, Ken running his hands over Loren's body. Which would have bored Loren to tears if it had not been the fact that Ken's whispers revealed that Loren now sat imprisoned within the arms of the Lord of Lightning, Zeus.

He wondered what role he was supposed to play. He hoped it was Ganymede. With Loren's luck, he'd be told to play Io.

"I want your secret," Ken murmured, his fingers sliding lightly across Loren's balls.

"What secret, my lord?" Loren replied, trying to reach into his mind for a fantasy that could make his present indignity bearable. He had always liked the fact that Mayhill, with a certain charming eccentricity, bestowed military ranks upon its police officers. The fact that Ken ranked as a private held possibilities for Loren's fantasy life.

"You know which secret I mean. You stole the secret that I placed in care of Heephaystus. You gave it to the mortals."

Loren would normally have been screaming in agony at Ken's mangled pronunciation of the name of the blacksmith god. As it was, his breath caught short. "Fire, my lord?"

"Yes, fire. I want you to teach me its power." There followed a rasping sound that Loren recognized.

He felt sweat begin to form on his skin. "My lord, fire is a powerful element. It is dangerous if it has not been tamed properly." He hoped Ken would take the hint.

"I know," Ken whispered in his ear. "I want you to teach me to tame it."

Intelligent boy. Loren felt his interest quicken, but not enough to overcome the sweat beginning to pour down his body. "My lord . . . It is my very great regret . . . I love fire, but it is too powerful for me to endure its touch. Forgive me."

A pause, and then the blindfold was tugged off Loren's eyes. The first thing he saw was his own lighter, bright with flame, resting within Ken's hand.

Behind him, Ken said, "Teach me through touching me, then. My body will endure it better than yours."

Well. That might even be true. And whether or not it was . . . Loren could feel his breath begin to increase. Fire. He'd never been permitted to play with fire. His master had taught him the secrets of fire, and he had passed on that knowledge to others, offering demonstrations. But never during a scene. This would be the first time.

Gods, he wanted this so much that the longing was like nectar to his lips.

"My lord," he said, "this will require preparations."

A blanket, set aside in case it should be needed to smother the flame. A bucket of water, for the same purpose. Scornful comments from a big-city Ess on the pathetic safety measures taken by Mayhill's edgeplayers had left Loren with the impression that big-city Esses never entered into fire play with anything less than a bathtub full of water, a room full of fire extinguishers, and a medivac unit on call. Life was simpler in Mayhill.

Loren had been told that big-city fire play was equally complex, involving props such as alcohol and glass cups. Mayhill's fire-players, all trained by Loren, made use of a single device: flame.

Candles were nice, because one could use hot wax at appropriate pauses in the play. But a cigarette lighter would do in a pinch. The main precaution Loren always took was to make sure that the em remained utterly still. His own hand was always steady as a rock during fire play; he had received the proper training and never allowed himself to drink during such play. But ems could be unpredictable. An Ess undergoing pain was even more likely to be unpredictable.

Loren took no chances: he bound Ken's arm firmly to the handles of the false dresser drawers. Ken offered him a variety of bindings; the only bondage item that seemed to be missing from his dresser drawers was rope made of the fur of llamas from the Andes. Loren chose plastic fishing line; cloth might burn, and metal was likely to grow too hot.

Ken watched with apparent interest as Loren bound his arm. The policeman had no body fat; his tendons and blood vessels sprung out clearly. Loren traced a line with his finger, saying, "Fire, water, earth, air. . . . We have water and earth." He touched the bucket and Ken's arm. "Air, though, we do not want. Air is our enemy." He stood up, then began prowling the room. He detected no drafts at the windows, a tug of the latch closed the room's vent, and a shirt under the door closed out all air from the hallway. These were measures the big-city Ess would have gaped in awe at, but Loren had been taught the power of fire on a windy night in Lonesquare Park. He still bore the scars.

"Now," he said, sitting down next to Ken, and holding the lighter flame up toward the other man's face. "We begin."

The flame danced in Ken's eyes.

The boy asked for the chariot – control, for one day, over the winged horses. Too late to take the oath back, but Sun repented having sworn it. "It is not easy to hold these horses, hot with fire, and snorting from mouth and nostrils. I can hardly hold them when they warm up for the work and fight the bridle. Beware, my son! I do not want to give you the gift of death . . ."


He worked his way slowly along the inner forearm, following the curved line above one of the veins, his thoughts fully concentrated on bringing the flame as close to the skin as was possible without irreparably scorching it. He did not feel like the foolish boy Phaethon, who lost control of Sun's chariot; he felt like the Sun God, brilliantly shining.

Under his feet the boy feels the chariot glowing white-hot; he cannot bear the sparks, the ashes, the soot, the smoke, the blindness.


He reached the end of the fiery trail and drew the flame back. Only then did he raised his eyes to look at Ken. Ken's breath was shallow and rapid; his pupils had grown wide. He was staring at the flame, and the corners of his lips were turned up very slightly. Loren's eyes narrowed; then he looked down at Ken's lap. Ken was wearing nothing but his boxers, the same ones he must have worn in the shower. The boxers were still wet, and Loren could see clearly the outline of Ken's body under them.

Well. This boy was full of surprises.

Loren sat back, contemplating the red path of the fire-line. Loren had never before met an Ess who enjoyed receiving pain as much as he enjoyed inflicting it, but Loren wasn't particularly surprised to encounter such a creature. He knew one em who enjoyed inflicting pain. "Versatile" was what the em called himself, but to Loren the em's tastes were simply proof that the essence of being an em or an Ess did not lie in masochism or sadism. It lay in mastery. He who had the power to master others was an Ess; he who wished to be mastered was an em.

Ken was an Ess. There was no doubt about that, from the authority with which he had controlled Loren, from the instinctive manner in which he had taken the reins of power from the moment they first met. But Ken was, it seemed, an Ess who enjoyed receiving pain.

The possibilities this offered made Loren's body tingle. If he could just persuade Ken that ordering Loren to hurt him was a form of power . . . Then, perhaps, Loren could subtly begin to take hold of those reins, begin to move himself into the driver's seat. . . .

Loren traced the fire-line with his finger and then with his fingernail. He heard Ken's voice catch. Loren murmured aloud, "The mountains of earth catch fire, the prairies crack, the rivers dry up, the meadows are white-hot . . ."

Zeus, furious at the boy Phaethon for taking the reins of Sun's chariot and misusing his power, threw a bolt of lightning. The boy fell, was broken, died of fire.


"Presumption," Loren's master had once said, "is the greatest crime a slave can commit. For a slave to presume to take on the rights and privileges of a master is to turn the world upside down. Even if the master is foolish enough to offer to give up his power, the slave must refuse. He must show true service by remaining what he is: an em, one who serves. Not one who leads."

Loren closed his eyes. It took him a moment, as it always did, to accept the hard truths his master had taught him. Then he opened his eyes again.

"My lord," he said in a steady voice, "I will explain to you how you too may wield the power of fire. And once that is done, will you honor me by using that fire upon me?"

Ken's pupils remained wide as the policeman looked at him for a long moment. Then Ken said, "I havfe another fate for you, fire-thief."

o—o—o

With Ken released, Loren was blindfolded again and his wrists were bound in front of his body by a chain. A belt, Loren noticed with amusement as the buckle brushed over his hands. Then he was led by the chain from the bedroom. He wondered idly where the preparations for the next portion of the scene had been placed. His guess was the bathroom; Ken hadn't allowed Loren to fetch the bucket of water himself.

Idle thoughts. They were an effective way of keeping at bay the memory of lost opportunities.

Yes, it was the bathroom; Loren recognized the cool tile under his feet. He tried to remember what the room had been like before, when he had been summarily deposited into the shower. Ken's apartment was in one of the older townhouses in the town, so the shower consisted, not of a stall, but of a bathtub with claw-legs, above which hung a frame that held a shower curtain and a hook for the shower-hose. The bathtub was made of slippery porcelain, hard and cold. Loren teased this thought in his mind, trying to create a scene out of it.

The blindfold was removed. Loren looked for the bathtub and saw only rocks.

Hundreds of rocks, placed tight together upon a wooden board that lay atop the rim of the bathtub. The shower curtain and hose were gone; hanging in their place was a spotlight, as piercing as the sun, shining down upon the white rocks. The rocks glittered with the fire of the light above.

Loren moved slowly forward. The rocks covered the entire board except for a band where the board was empty. To protect the organs in his lower back, he guessed. He made a quick calculation in his mind, based on the placement of the empty band; yes, his head would hang over the end of the board. Leaving his mouth to the mercy of his captor. His legs . . . He glanced down at the other end of the bathtub and saw a long chain attached to one of the claw-feet, just long enough to reach his left ankle if his legs were spread apart. No doubt there was another ankle-chain on the other side of the tub. He took hold of one of the rocks. It was a real rock, firmly attached to the board in an upright position.

It was exquisite. It was the most beautiful scene preparation Loren had ever witnessed. He felt like a man who has spent his life in a repertory company, and who then visits the set of a Broadway theater for the first time. He ran his finger over the top of the rock he had been touching. It was keen to the touch, like a knife pointed to the sky.

Time to stop the scene.

"No, sir," he said firmly and stepped back.

"No?" Ken was still behind Loren; Loren could not tell his reaction from his tone of voice.

"Ken, this won't work for me. I've been placed on a bed of nails before, and I know I can't take it. If you put me on that, I'll scream so loud that your colleagues at the police headquarters will be able to hear me."

Ken said nothing. He simply reached round and released the chain from Loren's wrists. Then he walked out of the bathroom, turning off the spotlight as he went.

Loren followed him back into the bedroom. He noticed, as he had not noticed before, small signs that work had taken place here before his arrival: Extra-strength glue atop the dresser. A small handsaw poking out from under the bed. A duffel bag in the corner with a few extra rocks in its bottom. A receipt on the night-stand for an expensive spotlight.

Ken sat down on the bed, with his back against the headboard. He was staring straight ahead now, not looking at Loren. After a moment's consideration, Loren picked up his clothes from where Ken had placed them on a chair, put them on the spare pillow, and lay down on the bed, resting his head against the clothes. The room was dim, with only the lamp on the night-stand shedding light upon Ken. The policeman's expression had shut down abruptly, like a teller's stand at the end of a long workday.

Loren finally asked, "When did you come up with that idea?"

Ken took a while in answering. "Fifteen years ago. When I was ten, my mom gave me a book of myths as a going— As a present. It had a picture of Prometheus chained to a rock, awaiting Zeus's punishment for stealing fire. I really liked that picture."

Ah, that long ago? Loren wasn't surprised. He had known a female em who had first begun to realize what she was at age four, because she got more excited than the other children did when they played Cowboys and Indians.

Fifteen years, waiting to put his dream into action.

Ken said, "I hope your bruises from last time have been healing all right. I realized later that I should have given you ice as soon as possible. I'm sorry about that. I still don't have much experience in this, I'm afraid."

So I've screwed up again. That was the unspoken text of the message. Loren frowned at the ceiling. This was becoming intolerable. Two scenes in a row in which his play partner had felt compelled to apologize for something that was entirely Loren's fault. Loren was usually able to do a better job than this at hiding his distaste of pain.

Probably because he rarely ran across an Ess who played as close to the edge as he did. It was time for a confession – or at least, for what would pass as a confession.

"I'm afraid that I haven't been entirely truthful with you," Loren said to the ceiling. Out of the corner of the eye, he saw Ken's head snap over to look at him. He went on, "I led you to believe that I enjoy playing hard. I do – when it's in my mind. But when somebody's putting me through pain— Well, that's a different matter. I'm afraid I can only enjoy it in retrospect. I should have told you, but I was afraid you wouldn't do any scenes with me if you knew."

A silence. Ken continued to gaze at Loren, as though waiting to see whether the other man would speak further. When Loren didn't, Ken's face fell, as though he had hoped Loren would add more. Loren reflected sourly that Ken was probably expecting him to say, "But you've transformed me so that I now enjoy being pierced and adore submitting myself to you." It was always that way in porn stories; the reluctant victim transformed himself into an eager masochist.

Well, this was reality. If Ken hadn't realized that yet, it was time he did.

Ken turned his gaze back to boring a hole into the quilt. After a couple of minutes in which Loren reminded himself that it really wouldn't be tactful to get up and leave at this point, Ken raised his eyes and said, "I could tell you what I was going to do. Not do it, just describe it."

Loren was tempted to reply that, if he wanted to hear dirty talk, he knew all the appropriate phone numbers. But he forced himself to pause and think. Half the times so far that Ken had gotten him hard, it had been through speech. Well, why not try this? At worse, it would only mean that Loren came once tonight rather than twice. And Ken – Loren realized with a belatedness that would have earned him a smack across the head from his old master – had not yet come even once.

Loren smiled at the Ess. "That sounds delightful."

It turned out there were props even for this. Loren watched with dubiousness as Ken carried a bowl of water into the bedroom and set it onto the night-stand. The water bubbled. Loren also didn't much care for being made to lie down with his head placed in the crook of Ken's arm, a reminder that Loren was not the lead actor in this play.

His mind spun away from these grievances, though, as Ken launched into his tale of a prisoner bound naked to a rock, tormented by thirst and heat and the cutting edge of the stones. The flies bit him, the birds pecked at him and pulled his hair. At night, the prisoner shook from the icy wind. Then, in the morning, came the worst of all: Zeus's bird, swooping down to tear at his skin and eat his liver . . .

"How did you plan to do that?" Loren asked. He hated to break into his own vision of Ken screaming as the vulture's beak bit into him, but curiosity overcame him.

Ken hesitated, then said, "With a knife. I'd have been very careful."

A good thing, then, that Loren had halted the scene from the start. It took more than care to cut the skin over the abdomen; it took experience. "And then?" Loren prompted.

"And then . . . Well, I'll show you." Ken reached for the bowl.

The water had cooled to blood temperature. To blood temperature – yes, that was the idea. Loren, now lying free of Ken's embrace, watched with interest as the policeman carefully smeared water over his em's abdomen. Then, without warning, Ken leaned down and bit gently.

Loren nearly sprang to the ceiling. He had to hold tight to the quilt as Ken carefully and softly nibbled and licked his way across the abdomen, down to the balls, and up the stalk that was straining out of the pubic hair. By the time Ken's tongue reached the cap of the stalk, Loren was gasping for breath.

He supposed that, if he had been merely watching this scene, he would have been frowning by now. A perennially favorite topic for conversation among Mayhill's gay Esses was whether it was acceptable to give your em a blow job. Loren – who was never invited to take part in these discussions – was of the firm opinion that it was not. Didn't the other Esses understand the meaning of the word "top"?

Now, though, all of Loren's disapproval seemed to have drifted away. How long had it been since anyone had done this to him? Years, he was sure – it had last happened back in the days when he had tried to convince himself that he could be satisfied with normal sex, vanilla sex. It had meant nothing to him then. Now, with his mind filled with visions of Ken's suffering, it meant everything. It had been years since he had felt a moist tongue circling under the edge of the head; so long ago it had been that he had not even had to worry in those days about deadly diseases—

He came to himself suddenly, as though cold water had been dashed upon him. He yanked Ken's head back by way of his hair, just as the policeman was opening his mouth so wide that he looked like a pit dug to China. "No!" said Loren, his voice stern though unsteady.

Too late it occurred to him that this was not the right approach to take with an Ess. He quickly released Ken's hair, but the policeman merely looked up at him with puzzlement. Loren explained quickly, "Sir, you used a rubber when you had me go down on you. That means we use a rubber when you do the same to me."

Ken said softly, "I thought you might enjoy it more if we went without."

The temptation made Loren's voice gruffer than it might otherwise have been. "What I enjoy doesn't matter. I told you I play safe. Your safety is more important than my pleasure."

For a moment Ken merely stared, as though the idea of an em sacrificing himself for his Ess had never occurred to him. Then he launched himself at Loren, attacking him with body and mouth.

Loren was too far taken aback to do anything except gasp for the next minute. Ken had landed his body flat atop Loren's, trapping Loren's legs with his powerful thighs, filling Loren's mouth with his tongue. Loren reflected to himself that, if he were an em, this sudden attack would have made him come on the spot. As it was, it wasn't unpleasant to receive another of Ken's hard kisses. The only problem was that Loren was about to die of suffocation due to Ken's weight. He gave Ken a nudge with his hand, but the policeman appeared not to notice it. With an effort, Loren wrenched his mouth away and said, "Ken, I don't want to—"

Ken's hand pushed his face back, and the tongue plunged in once more.

If he had been most people, Loren thought, he wouldn't have recognized what was happening. This was a trope from the type of old-time movies that were popular in Mayhill: the man grabs the woman, ignores her puny efforts to stop him, and gives her a kiss that makes her melt into his arms. Loren, carefully replacing the woman with a man in his mind, enjoyed such movies. As fantasy.

He made another try with his left hand, pushing hard at Ken's shoulder. Pushing a ten-ton boulder would have been easier, and Loren wasn't Theseus. Ken merely grabbed Loren's wrist and pinned his arm to the bed. Well, that left no doubt in the matter. Loren didn't bother to take any action that would result in his right hand being trapped likewise. He didn't need to. He always came to scenes prepared.

The need for preparation had come home to him with vivid sickness on a Bicentennial night when the town fireworks cast red light onto the alleyway where he screamed and screamed. No rescue came. There would be no rescue, he realized on that night; even the vice squad was busy elsewhere in town, for everyone in Mayhill was watching the fireworks that celebrated their country's anniversary. Everyone was watching the sky's fire-play except Loren and the man who was destroying him.

Loren had made sure from that day onwards that he was always prepared. Given that he played on the edge, the chances were high that he would be unable to make use of his preparation – he would be bound or would be wounded too badly to fight for himself. But he had seen no point in increasing the odds that he would kiss death again. And so he had bought himself protection, and he carried it everywhere.

His right hand slid up to the pocket of the slacks under his head.

Ken must have seen the movement of the hand returning, or perhaps he heard the click of metal, for he pulled back suddenly. Then he went still as Loren's switchblade touched his throat. They stared at each other for a moment, Ken's lips puffed up from the harsh kisses he had rained down upon Loren. Then Loren said in a low voice, "Get off me."

Ken moved slowly. Loren's switchblade followed him until the policeman was completely off Loren. Then Loren rolled swiftly, pulling the blade up above his head to avoid cutting himself. He fell off the bed and sprang up as quickly as he could, his blade already pointed outward, at his hip.

Ken was crouched on his knees on the other side of the bed, like a predator about to spring. Loren had no doubts of the outcome if he did. The switchblade was a beautiful instrument that sliced through skin like paper. Loren used it for opening envelopes. He had no training in defending his life; Ken was a policeman and could disarm him easily.

But Ken merely continued to crouch low, his expression dim in the single night-stand light. Finally Loren said, "Do I need to hold this to keep you from attacking me again?"

Ken slowly shook his head.

"Good." Loren briskly closed the blade and placed it on the night-stand, then turned and walked toward where his lighter still lay on the dresser. He felt his shoulderblades draw toward each other, but no attack came.

Returning to the bed, he donned all his clothes, even his shoes, then took a cigarette from his silver case and lit it. He went over to the window next to the night-stand and pulled the shade up. Light from the street-lamps fell onto Loren; the light from his cigarette was brighter, glowing red. Loren drew in the biting taste of the smoke and held it in his mouth for a moment.

He didn't look at Ken; he was very angry. When he was angry, he was dangerous. He knew that much about himself.

If the girl had been sitting across the street again this week, she would have received a good view of Loren. But the street was empty. Loren blew out the smoke and then tapped ash off the end of his cigarette. The ash fell onto the floor; a spark from one of the ashes became a tiny flame, eating at the helmet of one of the bikers on the rug. Loren watched the fire burn, unmoved.

Some fools, he thought, would have been flattered by what had just happened. Loren knew better. He knew that the only thing – the only thing – that separated S&M from real rape and torture was consent. And twice now he had been denied consent. He had not only been denied consent, but he had been promised after the first denial that this would not happen again.

In retrospect, all the signs were there. Ken's ready apologies, his inability to stay in his appointed role as an Ess – even his first, impulsive attack in the stairwell. Ken was an Ess without control. Or rather, he possessed some control, but not enough to carry himself through an entire scene. He was a real rapist, a real torturer, one who had enough conscience to know that he was a danger to society and should seek help, but not enough control to keep from endangering others. Perhaps Ken had never acted on his impulses until now; perhaps he had raped and tortured a dozen victims before now. Loren didn't care.

He might have been willing to help Ken if the Ess had approached him in the proper manner, confessing to his lack of control and asking for assistance. Instead, Ken had forced Loren to use his switchblade to defend himself. That wasn't something that Loren was willing to forgive.

The slow-burning flame had eaten away most of the biker by now. Loren put out the fire with his heel, grinding it underfoot. Ems, he thought to himself, could afford to lack control – indeed, some men took on the role of em precisely because they knew they lacked control and desired a master to control them. But for an Ess to lose control was the ultimate crime. An em's life lay in the hands of an Ess; any Ess who was unsure of his ability to control himself needed to be trained, preferably in the manner that Loren had, by becoming an apprentice. Ken as a slave, training to be a master: that was an image Loren could respect. Ken taking the chance on his em's life in order to learn where his boundaries lay: unforgivable.

Loren reached the end of the cigarette and let it fall to the floor, grinding its ashes into the rug. Then he turned. Ken remained where he had been before, crouched on the bed. Loren waited. After a minute Ken said softly, "Sir, I apologize. I . . . broke my promise to you. I think . . . I think you shouldn't do any more scenes with me."

Loren reached over to the night-stand for his belongings. "Good," he said, his voice as cutting as a single-tail. "I'm glad I don't have to tell you that."

He didn't bother to look at Ken again. He simply slipped the case into his jacket, placed his lighter in his pants pocket, and opened the blade. Then he turned toward the window again and began playing with the knife. Edgeplay: if you flicked the switchblade while holding the correct side of the handle, the blade slid closed in a beautiful arc, then swung open again at a second flick of the wrist, like a lady's fan. If you held the wrong side of the handle, your fingers would be cut off.

He didn't hear Ken retreat from the room, but he heard the bathroom door shut, and then the sound of water. He wondered what Ken was doing. Cleaning up his tools after his work, he supposed. Then he felt annoyance at himself for phrasing the matter that way. Esses no longer spoke of tools and work; now they spoke of toys and play. And here was the result of such sloppy training: an Ess who shouldn't be allowed near an em – who shouldn't be allowed near anyone who could be easily harmed.

Loren flipped the blade open and closed, his eye on the empty sofa across the street. No old girlfriend watching tonight. At least, he assumed that was what the girl across the street had been. He had debated with himself earlier whether to tell Ken that one of his old lovers was camping at his doorstep, jealously watching whomever Ken brought home. Loren had been worried about reminding Ken that he had other options besides Loren. Well, now the issue was moot.

He closed the switchblade, placed it in his pocket, and turned round to find something else to play with. He was still furious; if he went home in this mood, he'd be likely to shove against the wall the first fellow who made a crack at him. Which wouldn't be a problem except that it would mean that Elia would have to rescue him. What Loren needed, he decided as he scanned the room, was petty revenge.

Eventually he decided that invasion of privacy would do. He shoved back the closet door; the squeak of rollers sliding was obscured by the continued rush of water in the next room. He turned on the closet light to see better, and then, despite himself, he smiled.

Oh, my, what a revealing closet. No doubt it would pass inspection with the relative who made 4-H quilts. But to anyone with an eye for such things . . . He ran his hand down the line of objects on the shelf nearest him, trying to decide which was Ken's favorite toy. Trying to decide which one to destroy. His hand paused as he reached the paper bag; then he spilled the contents onto the shelf.

Inside the bag was nothing but a plastic bag holding a children's ball-and-jacks game. Loren held the jacks up to the light, overcome momentarily by nostalgia. During the month after his old master had left him, Loren had distracted himself from grief by going through his childhood belongings and finding appropriate instruments of torture. He had speculated on the possibilities of jacks, he remembered, then had thrown the jacks into the trash in horrified recognition that they were a girls' game.

Little had changed in twenty years. Mayhill's Esses and ems still browsed through the five-and-dime store and the toy store and other such innocuous places of business for the toys they needed for their play. For the tools they needed for their work.

Loren returned the jacks to the paper bag, sobered. No sentiment clouded his thinking about Ken, only practical considerations. He remembered his desperate desire to seek new partners in those early days. Having experienced a taste of what S&M could be like when practiced with another person, Ken was unlikely to return to solitary experiments. No, he would go searching for new partners. Probably not at the Black and Blue Club, with its undercover police; more likely he would head for the cruising grounds.

And there, sooner or later, he was certain to meet an inexperienced em, willing to let him have his way. . . .

Loren closed the closet door softly. A corpse at the cruising grounds would be bad. Bad for the corpse, bad for Mayhill's S&M community, bad for Mayhill's gay community, and bad for Mayhill itself. Loren was surprised to find that the last consideration was as important to him as the first three. He sighed, wishing himself back in the days when he was responsible for no one but himself – when he did not bear the burden of being a community leader.

But no, he had never been responsible for himself alone. Not since he agreed to be trained as a master.

He found that his steps had carried him as far as the bathroom door. He rapped on it sharply. "I want to talk to you," he said, then walked through the remainder of the hallway into the living room. He took the armchair there and waited.

Ken emerged a minute later. His robe was thrown over his body; sweat covered his face and plastered his hair to his forehead. He said nothing, but at Loren's gesture he seated himself. He chose to sit on the ottoman rather than the couch.

"You need to learn control," Loren said in his grimmest voice.

Ken didn't deny this. He simply nodded, his eyes fastened upon Loren's. Seated, their height difference wasn't as accentuated, but Ken was still the taller of the two.

Loren ignored this fact. "If you're seriously interested in learning control, you can come to a party at my place tomorrow, at ten p.m. It's a leather party."

He could see from Ken's expression that the policeman had no idea what he was talking about. Loren didn't bother to explain. "The party will be monitored. If your scene gets out of control, it will be stopped. If you need advice, there will be experienced players there who can give you advice."

"Will you be there, sir?" Ken's voice was as soft as it had been in the bedroom.

"I'll be one of the monitors." His eyes narrowed as he tried to read Ken's thoughts from his expression. "I won't play with you again. I don't play with men who break their promises."

Ken's gaze fell. After a minute he nodded in acknowledgment of what Loren had said. "Thank you for giving me another chance, sir. I know I don't deserve it."

Loren got to his feet and looked down at the policeman. "No," he said, "you damn well don't."

He left Ken then, still sitting on the ottoman. As the door to the hallway closed behind him, Loren shifted his mind to more important matters: Delivery dates. Inventory. The new equipment which had arrived that afternoon. By the time he reached the outside door to the townhouse he had almost been able to clear his thoughts of what had happened.

On further reflection, he hoped very much that he wouldn't remember Ken in a few years' time.

o—o—o

The popcorn machine was as stubborn as herself. It simply wouldn't pay attention to any of her pleas, nor to her inexpert knowledge of machinery. Zephyra wished she knew someone who had such knowledge. North, perhaps? Not her brother; she had steered Ken away from machinery for the past few years, concerned about the endless possibilities they offered. Perhaps Johnnie would know what to do; she seemed to recall that he was good with cars. Or perhaps Mike or Lennie; she thought she still had their numbers—

Alfred's shout cut into her thoughts. "Zephyra! Your brother's on the line! And tell him to stop calling you during working hours!"

She sighed, trying to decide whether it would be worth the effort to rise from her crouched position behind the refreshments counter. She didn't blame Alfred; she was getting tired of Ken's calls as well.

She was used to the way Ken behaved whenever he fell for someone: lots of phone calls, lots of conversations when they got together, about whatever topic it was that interested his latest date. That meant they'd spent this past week discussing theater. Ken had brought home a pile of books from the public library about classical theater – which was a bad sign in itself, since he wasn't a bookworm. She had been the one who had to listen to all of his excited talk about theater techniques in ancient times. She had actually found herself wishing that the week was over and Ken was with his date again so that she wouldn't have to keep pretending she was interested in how well the performance went.

Suddenly she remembered. It was Friday; tonight was the night. She bounced up and grabbed the receiver.

"Hey, Ken-Boy," she said. "How's it going?" She glanced at the clock. Only nine o'clock. Could the man with the switchblade still be there? She had promised she would come to meet him if he was there at midnight, when the movie theater closed.

"Zeph?" The voice was faint, as though coming from long distance.

Immediately she tensed. "Ken? Is something wrong?"

"Zeph, I really messed up tonight. He doesn't want to do any more scenes with me."

She felt like shouting, "Hurrah!" but she couldn't. She understood now why Ken's voice sounded so muffled. He'd been crying.

She glanced at the clock again. The tickets for the late show would go on sale in ten minutes; she couldn't leave her post now. "Ken," she said, "I'll be right over—"

"No, don't come. I've taken some pills."

"Pills?" In her mind she screamed the words, but her voice emerged sounding calm.

"Sleeping pills. I took a couple of them. So you'd better not come over this evening; I'll be asleep soon."

He'd be asleep for the next twenty-four hours, if past experience held. Drugs did that to him. She heard herself say, "Are you sure you took only two pills?"

"That's all I have in the apartment. I always throw out the rest when I get a new package. Just two pills, in case of an emergency."

She let out her breath slowly. Ken was the bright one of the family, she reminded herself. She shouldn't have worried. "All right," she said. "Just don't do anything foolish, okay?"

A silence. Suddenly her heart was pounding again. She gripped the edge of the counter. "Ken? You didn't do anything, did you?"

"I'm sorry, Zeph."

Oh God oh God oh God. "Ken, don't worry. I'll call for help—"

"No, it's okay. It's nothing. I – was interrupted before I got far."

"I'll come and see—"

"It happened half an hour ago, Zeph." Ken's voice sounded sleepy. "Honestly, it's all right. I would have called you before now if it was anything serious. Really." His voice trailed off; the pills were beginning to take effect.

There was a knock on the glass door of the lobby; a customer outside gestured toward the ticket box. Alfred was gesturing too. "Okay," she said reluctantly. "But I'll stop by to see that you're sleeping all right when I get off work. And I'll come by tomorrow evening, and we can talk."

"Yeah, I'd like that. I'm sorry, Zeph. Thanks for understanding." He hung up before she could say more.

She hung up the receiver and stared at the popcorn machine for a moment, trying to figure out how she could turn it into a machine gun so that she could blast Ken's date into itty-bitty pieces. Then she shook that thought away. It was over. It was all over, and it had been no worse than in the past. She should be grateful.

But God, what about next time?