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Out of the Cold

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Stef could count the moments he’d seen Vanyel over the last fortnight on ten fingers. Probably five, now that he thought about it. Since the night at the Bell, the Herald had thrown himself into work and barely stopped to breathe, much less eat or sleep. As King’s Own, he was handling all the major coronation details, writing missives to their foreign allies, and Mindspeaking other Heralds in the border regions to relay news, their planned trek to the North postponed until after the coronation. 

Well after supper, Stef reclined in their empty suite reading by firelight. He had removed his boots and hose hours ago, but had left the doublet on to ward off the chill in the room. He’d lit a reading lantern, but the fire was bright enough that he’d left it forgotten on the night table. The door to the suite opened softly and Van almost stumbled into the room, dropping his satchel with a soft thunk as he bolted the door behind him. He saw Stef half laying on the settee with his feet up on the cushions and without thought, Van crossed the few paces to his lifemate and sank to his knees on the rug, cheek resting against the bard’s thigh. 

His book forgotten on his lap, Stef’s hand went instantly to the top of Van’s head, stroking his hair. “Hello, ke’chara. I’m glad you’re here. Did you eat supper?”

Van nodded. “Tran brought me something.” Sensing Stef’s next question he added “And watched me eat it.”

“Thank you for taking care of yourself.” Stef smiled at him softly. “What do you need, ke’chara? Pleasure? Pain? Or just to be held?”

“I don’t know.” Van whispered. 

“Stay there.” Stef stroked his cheek softly. “Close your eyes and put your hands on your knees. The only thing you are to do right now is breathe and think about what you need. I’m going to finish reading this passage and then I’ll ask you again, and I expect you to have an answer for me.”

“Yes, milord.” Vanyel did as instructed, closing his eyes and leaning his temple against the warmth of Stef’s leg, breathing deeply. Seemingly absentmindedly but actually quite deliberately, Stef’s hand returned to stroking Van’s hair as he turned pages with the other, not actually reading anything but his lifemate’s body. He could feel the tension radiating from Vanyel’s back and shoulders; his neck was so tense Stef was sure he had a headache. He was fairly certain about what his lifemate needed in this moment, but he needed to know that Van knew it too. 

Minutes passed until Stef saw Van’s shoulders dip in an inaudible sigh of acceptance. Stef waited another moment to let his lover’s mind settle, and then spoke. “What do you need, ke’chara? Pleasure?”

“No, milord.” Vanyel responded softly. 

“Comfort?”

“No, milord.” Came the even quieter whisper. 

“Do you want me to hurt you?” The question came just as evenly as the others. 

“Yes.” Van swallowed audibly. “Please, milord.” 

“Shall I improvise, or do you have something particular in mind?”  

“Something in mind, milord.” Van closed his eyes again, finding it easier to speak to Stef without looking at him. 

Finding the communication to be more important than the eye contact, Stef let that slide. “Tell me what it is.” It was spoken softly, but clearly not a request. 

Van took a shaky breath. “In your note, milord—“ He hesitated and then forged ahead. “You’d mentioned your belt?”

“Is that what you want?” 

“Yes, milord.” A whisper so soft it was almost inaudible

Stef leaned over, brushing his lips close to Vanyel’s ear. “Have you been thinking about it since you read my letter? Wanting to hear the crack as I bring it down? To feel it burn as it kisses your skin?”

Van shivered. “Yes, milord.”

“And to see me wear it in court after and all you can do is look at it and remember how it made you hurt so bad but somehow felt so—“ Stef kissed him softly just below his ear. “Damn—“ Another kiss. “ Good?”

“Gods—“ The tension running through Van’s body was almost tangible. “Yes, milord.”

“And if you find it to be too much, what will you do?” 

“I will ask you to stop, milord. You have my word.” 

Stef closed his book with an audible snap, smiling as he saw his lover startle at the sound. “Stand up, strip, and kneel next to the bed.” 

“Yes, milord.” 

Van shucked his clothing efficiently, placing it in the laundry bin and waited, kneeling, on the rug next to the bed. Stef joined him and unbuckled the thick leather belt right at Van’s eye level. He tossed it on the bed, the buckle clinking against the decorative metal end tip as it bounced softly on the mattress. 

“Do you want me to bind your hands?”

“Please, milord.” Van’s voice quavered only slightly. Stef was sure anyone not knowing him as well wouldn’t have noticed. 

Stef collected a bag from the lower drawer of the night table. Reaching in, he pulled out a set of black leather cuffs, lined with soft wool. “A little cliche, but these should prevent any more visits to Healer’s.”

Van silently offered both hands, wrists up, and Stef secured each gently with a cuff. “On the bed. Face down.” 

The belt jingled again as Van moved to comply. Stef took the moment to toss his own doublet and shirt over the back of a nearby chair.

“Grab the headboard.” 

He complied as Stef secured the cuffs, running a length of rope from the attachment points to the sturdiest part of the headboard, leaving a bit of slack for movement and comfort. 

“How does that feel?”

“Good, milord.”

“Look at me.”

Van rolled slightly so he could see his lifemate. 

“What do you do if it’s too much? Or you want to stop for any reason?” Stef asked again. 

“I ask you to stop, milord.”

Stef kissed his lips sweetly . “I love you, ke’chara.”

“I love you, milord.”  Van responded softly. 

Stef picked up the belt and doubled it over, holding both metal ends in his hand. The leather was one thing, but the metal could cause a lot more damage than he was intending to inflict. It certainly wasn’t his first time belting a man’s ass, but he tested the weight anyway. He aimed for a chair cushion and then his own forearm and palm a few times, gauging the reach and intensity and then turned back to his lifemate. “Try not to tense. We’ll start out slow and light.” He trailed his fingertips from the nape of Van’s neck, down his back and over the curve of his ass. You have beautiful skin, ke’chara.” Unable to resist, he slapped one inviting cheek with his bare hand. “It turns such a lovely shade of red.” He rubbed his hand over the palm print, soothing the sting. “Ready?”

“Yes.” Van breathed, exhaling sharply as Stef brought the belt down across his ass. 

Stef wielded the belt rhythmically, slow but steady, and building ever so slightly. He stretched out the warm-up longer than he ordinarily would have and smiled when he saw his bondmate lifting his pinkened ass up slightly to meet the strokes. “Harder now?”

Van nodded. “Please, milord.”

Stef delivered five smacks with more force and then backed off ever so slightly, keeping the rhythm steady. Van mumbled something into the mattress, still moving into the belt as it crossed his flesh.  “What was that, ke’chara?”

“More.” He strained against the cuffs. 

“I’ll decide if and when you get that.” He lightened his strokes a touch more to make his point and Van groaned in frustration. Stef ignored his bondmate’s wordless pleas and struggles, the fall of the belt remaining constant until he saw what he was waiting for. Van’s body relaxed into the mattress, no longer fighting the restraints or seeking more sensation, just waiting and accepting what Stef wanted to give. 

“There you go, ke’chara. Just let me take care of you. You look beautiful like this. Do you know that?”  He smiled at his bondmate, not expecting an answer. “Shall we continue?”

“Please—” His whispered plea ended in a gasp as the Bard put his wrist into the next stroke. “Yes—”

Blow after blow rained down in increasing intensity, leaving pink stripes behind as Van took several shuddering breaths, tears in his eyes. A tear escaped down his cheek and glistened in the lamplight. Stef paused in concern. “Still want to keep going?”

“Yes, please.” Van nodded almost imperceptibly. “Please, milord?” 

Hearing his bondmate’s voice shaking but certain, Stef nodded. He now knew exactly where his lover was asking to be taken. “You will let me know if that changes.”  

He brought the belt down hard, once, twice, and again as red welts rose up in its wake until Vanyel’s breathing gave way to silent weeping, his tears dripping onto the mattress below. Stef hesitated for a brief moment and felt the touch of Van’s mind against his own, not with a demand but a soft request backed with desperation. :More? Please?:  

Stef granted the wish without hesitation as Van’s silent tears became audible, racking sobs. His entire body shook with the emotional release as Stef watched stripe after stripe turn white then glowing red. 

A few of the welts began to seep blood as the marks crossed each other, and Stef dropped the belt to the floor. He caressed Van’s back, running one hand up and down softly as he reached with the other for the rope binding Van’s cuffs to the headboard. “All done now. You were so good, ke’chara. So very good. I know that was hard. I’m proud of you. I’m going to untie you, but we’ll leave the cuffs on for now. Understand?”  

Van nodded, still sobbing as his body began to shiver. Stef gave the tail of the rope a sharp yank and the knot came free. He tossed the rope to the side and gathered his lifemate into his arms, pulled the blanket up and curled his body protectively around his lifemate’s, his hand caressing Van’s back in a gentle rhythm. “You’re safe here. I’ve got you.” He dropped a sweet kiss onto Van’s forehead. “I’ve got you.”

Stef held him as the fire died to nothing, whispering sweet nonsense in the warm cocoon of their blankets until the tears and shivers gave way to needed, peaceful sleep.

A few candlemarks later, Stef felt Van begin to stir and was instantly awake himself, turning up the flame on the lantern and gently stroking Van’s arm as he became aware again. “Can you drink some water for me, ke’chara?”  

Vanyel nodded, and Stef pressed a cup into his hands, helping to keep it steady as his bondmate drank deeply. “Thank you. I mean—Not just for the water—I don’t know what happened. I’m sorry for—”

“I do know what happened, and you have nothing to be sorry for, ke’chara.” Stef took the empty cup from Van’s hands and returned it to the table. “I knew what you needed from the moment you knelt for me, and I wanted to give it to you.” He kissed Van’s forehead again. “Thank you for trusting me. How are you feeling?”

“Better.” He smiled self-consciously. “More than a little—raw, but better.”

“Raw in more ways than one, I’ll bet.” Stef looked down at him affectionately. “Can you roll over for me? I need to clean a few of those welts.”

Van complied, hiding his face in his folded arms as Stef grabbed Van’s saddlebag from under the bed and dug for the first aid kit he knew the Herald kept there. He dabbed some witch hazel on the worst areas as Van hissed with the sting. “Want me to take the ache away?”

“No.” Van murmured into the mattress. “I want to feel it.” 

“I figured you’d say that, but thought I ought to offer anyway. He finished up quickly, stowed the kit away, and settled back into bed. Van cuddled up into his shoulder, and Stef reached for his hand, sliding a finger gently under the cuff still buckled around Vanyel’s wrist to check the tightness again, fairly certain he already knew the answer to his next question. “Want these off?”

Van shook his head. “Can I keep them a while longer, milord?”

“Of course, ke’chara.” Stef kissed his lips softly. “We can leave them for the morning.”

Van buried his face in Stef’s chest, content to hide from the world a while longer.

“Do I even want to know how you got these?” Vanyel asked as Stef unbuckled the cuffs when they woke in the morning. 

“Bought ‘em. Easy enough, if you know where to go.” Van shot him a concerned look. “Don’t worry. I was careful.” He shrugged. “Oim quite sure, milord, that tha prop’ytor wouldna hae thunk ‘at ‘is majesty’s bard’d ‘e lookin’ ‘en talkin’ rough ‘en spottin’ molly’ouse chits ta se’tle tha fee fer brothel ‘ack.” 

“I have half a mind to tell the palace spymaster you can do that!” Van burst out laughing. “But I have to admit that I don’t have any idea what you just said!”

Stef grinned. “I said that I’m sure that the shopkeeper wouldn’t think that the king’s bard would be scruffy, speaking street cant, and paying for equipment used in brothels with tokens from a shaych bar.”

“I would hope not!” Van grinned. “And I’m not asking where you got the tokens.” 

Stef shrugged. “Bottom of my old lute bag. I did have a life before I met you, lover.”

Van smiled “You have no idea how grateful I am that you did!”

Stef’s expression became serious. “Ke’chara, we do need to talk about what happened last night.”

“I’m sorry, Stef—I wasn’t thinking. I shouldn’t have used mindspeech without your permission.”

“Bloody hells, Van! You think I give a rat’s arse about that?” Stef took both of Van’s hands in his own. “You communicated with me. You did what I told you to do. When you got to the point where you couldn’t say it aloud, you said it in the best way you could.” He tightened his grip on Van’s hands. “You always have permission to tell me what you need, if you want to let me know something, do it. Write it down. Speak it. Talk in my head. It’s all fine, and I’ll be pleased you’re doing it at all. Van—“ Stef searched his mind for the right words. “What I wanted to talk about is what you did to yourself to get so emotionally tied in knots that you begged me to beat the tears out of you?” 

“I didn’t do anything.” 

Stef looked at him disbelievingly. 

“Really. I didn’t do anything.” Van let his head flop back onto the pillow. “That was the problem. I was hoping that if I just kept busy and didn’t think too much about it, that the—The pain of losing Randi, that it’d just become something I got used to. So I threw myself into looking after Jisa at the Bell so I wouldn’t—I didn’t want to start crying because it felt like I’d never stop.  Then I just started doing everything I could, even if it should’ve been delegated, just to stay busy. And the more I tried not to think about it, the more I couldn’t not think about it.”

“Van, ke’chara, is that the first time you’ve cried since Randi died?” Stef asked softly, brushing Van’s hair off his forehead. 

The Herald nodded. “I miss him, Stef. Shavri, too.”

“What was he like? I mean before he got sick?” 

“I have so many stories. There was this one time, before he met Shavri, before he was even Heir. He was still the Queen’s grandson, and just wanted to go out for a drink, so he decided we would get dressed up in guard’s uniforms—” Vanyel dove into telling the story, and soon both Bard and Herald had dissolved into fits of laughter on the bed.