Michael eased his way back into the shadows, letting Tem take the attention. But Tem’s eyes were quick, his mind always working behind the easy smile and the radiant sexual energy that seemed to flow so naturally, so comfortably from every perfect contour of his body. He cast a grin at the guy holding his shirt and took it back, pulling it over his head and pushing through the throngs of protesting men. Michael winced, unable to retreat further without being uncomfortably obvious, but desperate to keep physical distance between himself and his friend. They wanted to see Tem, not him. He didn’t want them looking at him anymore, didn’t want them to see him, to compare him…
Tem grabbed his leather jacket from the back of a chair and caught Michael by the arm, guiding him toward the front doors. The music had changed again and the crowd had broken up into smaller groups of dancers, drinkers, trollers… Michael bit his lip, trying to casually slip his arm from Tem’s grip, but Tem managed to tighten it without actually exerting more pressure. The people around them still called to them. To Tem. To dance, to perform, to give them just one more… Tem just grinned and brushed them away with easy words.
They passed the chair where Michael had left his own coat. Tem grabbed it and continued out. “I need a smoke,” he said only loud enough for Michael to hear him over the pulsing music.
“I don’t,” he replied flatly, irritated at being virtually dragged out into the cool, night air.
The doors closed behind them and the last strains of music were suddenly muted. The night quiet felt heavy and cottony in Michael’s head. He glanced around, shrugging into his jacket while Tem lit a cigarette.
Tem smiled. “Yeah. But you gotta give a guy his vices…” Traces of Australian still accented his words.
Michael looked at him for a long time then turned to stare at the buildings across the street.
“What happened? They were eatin’ you up. Lose your balls?”
Mike cast him a sideways glare. “There’s nothing wrong with my balls.”
“Ah.” Tem spat through his teeth. “The rest of you that’s unacceptable, then?” Michael turned fully to stare at him, and Tem held his gaze until it became uncomfortable. “There’s nothing wrong with you, Mikey. You’re fuckin’ hot. Who do you think they were yelling for in there?”
“You,” he said, flatly.
Tem stared. “Both of us. They were calling for you, Mikey. They wanted to see your body. They wanted to see your fire. They wanted to see *you*…”
“That’s because they saw you and they thought I would be the same.”
Tem opened his mouth then let it close slowly. His eyes fixed on Mike’s face for a long time. Finally, he flicked the cigarette butt into the gutter and sighed heavily. “You’re wrong, Mikey. You better learn that before it kills you.”
Michael cringed. “I’m sorry.”
“Will you stop saying that? For Christ’s sake, Mike!”
“Oh, for fucking…” Kyler’s grip on Mike’s arm was painful, but it barely registered. Tears were beginning to spill down his face.
“Please, Ky, please don’t…”
“You ASKED for this, didn’t you?” He gritted his teeth and shoved his boyfriend through the doorway into the bedroom. “You ASK me to do this, and you PUSH me to the fucking LIMIT to get me to do what you want… Fine! You win!”
Mike tripped over clothing he’d left on the floor. Ky’s hand was still tight on his arm as he lost his balance. Ky, sensing resistance, pulled him viciously toward the bed even as his own weight pulled him down. Over the blinding pain, Mike heard only the anger and impatience in his boyfriend’s voice, then only his own screams.
Michael fought the tears that threatened to rise up and drown him. A gaping chasm had opened under his feet tonight and only a sheer skim of ice held him from an eternal fall into darkness. He clutched his left arm tighter to his chest, the pain was making him sick to his stomach, but he was afraid to say anything. Ky hadn’t spoken to him since they entered the dingy, emergency department waiting area. He hadn’t sat or so much as looked at Michael. He stood a few feet away, staring out of a window into the pools of light in the parking lot. His expression was strange and frightening and Michael felt a cold dread in his belly when he looked at him. So he said nothing, just concentrated on breathing past the waves of pain that made his vision fade and his stomach roll.
When the triage nurse came to bring him into an examining area, Ky trailed several steps behind them, then took up a position in a corner of the exam room near the door and stared blankly at Michael’s right knee. Michael doubted he was seeing anything at all. His expression had not changed.
Moving had reawakened the torment, and it was now bright and violent once more. Michael found himself only vaguely aware of his surroundings himself, turning most of his attention inward, his consciousness hazed by pain. He heard the doctor speaking and roused enough to cry out, first in anticipation as the man reached for his left wrist, then in agony as bones and tissues were wrenched and twisted. There was someone else holding him, he couldn’t escape the doctor’s torture. With the little clear thought he had left, he prayed for unconsciousness, but it didn’t come.
Eventually, the pain receded enough for him to see again. The doctor was talking to him, but he couldn’t understand. Then the doctor gently took his arm once more and he began to sob. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ky move suddenly. Michael flinched back and screamed as he felt the bones shift again. Then Ky was beside him, holding him, murmuring in his ear. He couldn’t process the words, but they were gentle and they were kind. He began to sob in relief even as the doctor began to wrestle once more with the mangled shoulder.
It was more than three hours before his arm was finally in a sling, and Michael was impatient to go home. But the doctor had asked Ky out of the room without explanation and Ky had not returned, though nurses had been in and out three times in the intervening time.
Abruptly, the door opened again, and a uniformed police officer stepped into the room. His expression was stony as he looked Michael up and down. He introduced himself, but the name slid past too quickly to register, Michael was still grappling with the fact that the man in front of him wasn’t a nurse.
“I hear you’re a lucky man, Mr. Verdent.”
Michael blinked at him. “I am?”
The officer looked pointedly at the sling. “The doctor tells me you got away with no more than some torn muscles. Could have been a lot worse.”
“Yeah…” He wasn’t sure what to make of this man, but he couldn’t quite hold onto his thoughts well enough to form a productive question.
“Want to tell me what happened?”
The fog cleared suddenly to clamoring alarms. Michael felt his gut tense and the blood drain from his face. “What do you mean?”
The officer drew a pad of paper and a pen from within his jacket. “Don’t waste my time here, Mr. Verdent. I really have no interest in you or what you do behind closed doors as long as you ain’t breaking any laws. So, just tell me how you dislocated your shoulder and we can both go back to our own lives.”
“I fell.” It was the automatic answer. And Michael flinched as it hit his ears. But it was the truth, if the officer would accept only that much of it.
The man scribbled on the pad. “Uh huh. What did you fall on?”
Michael took a breath this time before he answered. “I, uh, tripped on some clothes on the floor, and I fell, but my…” The officer didn’t look up from his scratching notes. Michael licked his lips. “My…boyfriend…grabbed my arm…” He watched the man write. “That’s all I remember.”
The officer grunted. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Verdent. Have a nice evening.” He left the room without another word.
Michael replayed the conversation in his head, picking apart ever nuance. There’d been nothing overtly hostile or even discourteous in the officer’s manner. But Michael still felt filthy in a way he knew he couldn’t clean with soap and water.
The drive home was painfully silent. Ky stared at the road as he drove, his face was hard, inviting no conversation. For a long time, Michael stared out of his window, fighting the fatigue that made him ache to close his eyes. The events of the evening weighed on him. For the first time in their relationship, he’d felt afraid of Ky. Glancing over at the stony profile, he realized, deep in his belly, the cold knot was still there.
“I told them it was an accident,” he ventured finally. The words hung in the air. The knot grew tighter. “Ky?”
“What?” Muscles jumped in Ky’s jaw, the car slowed and the red of the traffic light bled over the dashboard. “Should I thank you?”
The question hurt. Michael couldn’t answer for a moment, too shocked at the way his words had been taken. “That’s not what I meant!”
“It *was* an accident, Michael.”
“I know! I know that! That’s not what I was saying!” The conversation had just turned to quicksand beneath his feet. Fear and exhaustion muddied his thoughts and Michael struggled to sort out where he’d gone wrong and how to repair it. “I’m sorry…”
It was the wrong thing to say. His boyfriend’s face tightened with rage and Michael found himself flung against the seatbelt as the tires screamed on the pavement. Ky didn’t look at him, he didn’t speak. His breath was coming quick and short, his knuckles were white on the steering wheel.
Michael sat frozen in his seat. He didn’t know what to say. Had no gauge on which word would soothe or send Ky over the edge into violence. He fought back the apologies struggling toward his lips and waited in silence.
Finally, Ky let go of the wheel and unbuckled his seat belt. His movements were steady, tightly controlled. He opened the door and stepped out onto the deserted street. He didn’t slam it, merely closed it with enough force for it to latch, then walked around the front of the car.
Michael’s heart was in his mouth, he expected Ky to open his door and pull him bodily out of the car. Part of his mind even wondered if he’d be pushed over the hood and spanked like some gay Penthouse story. Another part of his mind raged at him for being so childish and self-centered. But the desperate craving didn’t fade until he realized that Ky wasn’t coming toward him. He had stepped onto the sidewalk and was walking away from the car into the darkness.
A stab of panic cut him and he fumbled with the latch, letting himself out onto the street.
“Go home!” Ky shouted from the shadows, the sound retreating with his footsteps. There was a jangle of metal and Michael instinctively snatched the keys from the air before they hit him in the chest.
Ky didn’t come home that night. Or the next. Or the third.
Life became a numbing exercise of stumbling through the barest requirements of sleep and hygiene. Food became a luxury of better times. The old routines, the old paths that he’d worn into his soul with years of walking drew him down into their old, familiar depths. The nagging voice that was the only gift of years of therapy was the only thing that told him he was losing control, careening toward an edge in the darkness beyond which he could not save himself. Not this time. No one would catch him this time. Not this time. He smothered it and closed his eyes, letting the familiar walls of pattern guide him and blind him until he could almost convince himself he was going to live.
On Friday, after four days absence which he made no effort to explain, Ky appeared at his normal time after work. He looked at Michael for a long moment then said only, “You’re not eating enough,” before disappearing into their bedroom to change clothes.
For the first night since Kyler had left, Michael prepared a meal. It was feeble, pulled together from the freezer and cupboards as he hadn’t been to the store in days. As he set it on the table, he found that his belly was tight with anxious anticipation.
Kyler returned to the kitchen, still damp and smelling like soap. Ky’s gaze swept the set table then settled on his lover’s face. He approached slowly, raising his hand to brush his fingers along Michael’s jaw. “Smells good,” he said, his voice a low rumble in his chest. Michael felt the knot of ice melt in his belly. He met Ky’s mouth eagerly and allowed himself to be pushed, stumbling backward until his back was to the kitchen wall, and Kyler was pressed against him as if their two bodies could become one.
A week passed. They returned to their normal routines. A second week and the doctor gave Michael’s shoulder a wary but optimistic diagnosis. He was allowed out of the sling and mild stiffness seemed the worst effect. Michael was ecstatic to have full use of his hand back, but that night, Ky came home in a dark mood and said nothing about his lover’s new condition.
Michael watched him while he finished cooking their dinner. He reached with his left hand to take two dishes from the shelf, but the sudden weight levered his arm into his shoulder and he yelped as a shock of pain drove clear to his fingers. The plates crashed to the floor, shattering.
“Shit…” Michael muttered, crouching to gather the largest shards, holding his left arm against his belly, as his shoulder still ached. He tossed the pieces into the waste basket then straightened to grab the broom, and started. Kyler was standing inches from his face, his expression hard. He snagged Michael by the back of his shirt and pushed him roughly into the dining room.
Michael felt his belly begin to tighten again in fear. As Kyler shifted his grip to his shoulder, Michael flinched away, expecting a blow. Instead, he was turned forcefully around to face the smooth, oak table.
“Bend over.” Ky’s voice came from behind him. Michael, spun, incredulous.
“Now, Michael!” Ky was pulling his belt from it’s loops. Michael stared at him.
“Are you joking?”
Ky paused for a moment, his eyes fixed on Michael’s. His gaze was cold and distant and made Michael’s gut tighten. “No, I’m not. I take requests from my lover very seriously…”
Michael shook his head. “This isn’t what I meant…”
But Ky interrupted him. “You fuck up, you face a consequence. I am in charge of that, not you. Isn’t that what you said? What you wanted? Someone to enforce rules and discipline you when you broke them?”
“It was a plate!” Ky just stared at him until Michael looked away. His gaze fell to the belt that was now doubled in Ky’s hand and hanging at his side. He sighed. “How many?” His voice was dull, he felt confused and defeated and deep in his belly, he felt a burning resentment that he wouldn’t let surface.
“Until I decide you’ve had enough. I’m in charge. You wanted it that way, didn’t you?”
Michael stared down at the floor. Ky brought his hand up under Michael’s chin, the belt draped over his fingers feeling cool and smooth against Michael’s skin, the smell of leather filling Michael’s mind. “Yes, or no?”
Michael closed his eyes as he felt his face raised, then opened them slowly, refusing to meet Ky’s gaze. He studied the buttons on Kyler’s work shirt, breathed the scent of leather. “Yes, sir…”
Michael winced as he rolled onto his back, staring at the shadowy ceiling of their bedroom. Ky shifted in the darkness beside him. “Still sore?”
Michael shrugged, then realized Ky wouldn’t see the gesture and said, “A little.”
“This is what you asked for…”
“Yes.” But it wasn’t what he’d expected. He’d been whipped before for play, or for sex, and it had always hurt, but always been tempered with an edge of sexual hunger that sweetened the pain to something that nearly made his mouth water.
He’d always thought he wanted to take it another step, to another level. To completely give his power over to another person. To take, when he truly deserved it, real punishment. He’d imagined it would be the most amazing experience of trust and pain and absolution… And then, cleansed of guilt and having shared their souls, the sharing of bodies would be more than amazing.
However, under the harsh light of reality, the fantasy evaporated, as so often they do.
“Are you having second thoughts?” Ky’s voice again came out of the darkness.
Michael thought about it. The earlier resentment had burned down into black depression. The pain was nothing more than pain. He felt more cold and distant from Ky for having been punished by him, not closer.
“No,” he said finally. He’d committed himself to this path. Though it hadn’t played out the way he expected, in his soul, he still wanted someone to hold him accountable, to call him on the carpet when he did something wrong. It should hurt… If it was to be true punishment, he shouldn’t enjoy it at all…
Ky reached over and pulled Michael on top of him. He kissed him long and deeply, and Michael tried to respond, but his heart ached and his mind was distant. Then Ky’s hands slid down his back and over the welts on his ass and Michael jerked, tensing at the jolt of pain.
In a shaft of filtered moonlight, he saw the flash of Ky’s teeth as he grinned. “It’s kinda hot…”
“What is?” Michael asked as he squirmed against Ky’s hands.
“Whipping your ass.” He grinned again. “Hearing you scream. Never thought I was into that shit, you know?”
Michael felt a mixture of heat and dread at Ky’s words. The familiar enchantment of the pain dance between lovers was hardening his cock and quickening his breath. But in the back of his mind, something was cold… Something that heard cruelty in the words.
Tem rolled a cigarette over his fingers, put it between his lips, then pulled it from his mouth and began rolling it again.
“Can’t smoke in here, Tem…”
Tem glanced at the source of the voice. The DM of the entire party. Ryan was a good Dungeon Master. People left his parties with bodies, minds and souls intact. It was much more than could be said for many in the dark labyrinth of underground S&M.
Tem fixed his old friend with a lazy smile. Ryan could hear the arrogant words that danced, unspoken, in the emerald eyes that glowed against faintly dark skin. They gave him an exotic look that drew men to him like drone bees. Most, however, retreated quickly, seared and awed by the fire that burned behind the perfect body and brilliant eyes. Ryan just smiled back. He’d known Tem too long to be caught in that flame.
Tem, rolled the cigarette between two fingers and broke it. He flicked the pieces into the metal trash can and took a sauntering step toward an approaching dom dressed in leather. Tem dropped his shoulder then stepped forward chest and chin thrust forward in challenge. The top smirked stepping forward himself. Mating dance of the dominant and irrepressible bottom. The man’s eyes raked over Tem’s bare chest, down the smoothly muscled belly, pausing at the narrow track of downy brown mane that trailed down to disappear beneath the worn edge of faded denim. He finally raised his eyes once more to Tem’s face and Tem gave him a slow, arrogant smile. The top slid four fingers into the waist band of Tem’s jeans and tugged him a step closer, eyes bright with cruel desire. Tem slid his arms behind himself, trapping one wrist in his other hand, allowing himself to be led.
Ryan followed the exchange with his eyes, a slight smile playing on his lips. He was just turning away to scan the floor when Tem caught his eye again. The younger man’s body had gone rigid, eyes focused intently. His left hand was on the dominant’s wrist and the dom was hissing in outraged pain. Slowly, Tem removed the other man’s hand from his jeans and thrust it away from him, the dom’s expression shifting from agony to impotent fury. Ryan took in the exchange and dismissed the larger man in a breath. His attention focused on Tem, who was now striding across the floor, his movements simultaneously taut and smooth as a stalking panther. Ryan glanced quickly in the direction of Tem’s attention and saw a scene playing on a far wall, isolated from the main action of the floor.
Ryan began moving quickly. “Safeword!”
Scenes froze, eyes turned. Ryan recognized the bottom in the isolated scene. A man he knew peripherally as a friend of Tem’s, dressed in faded jeans, back striped with angry welts… The dom had stopped their scene at the call of “safeword” and was looking perplexedly at the two men now approaching him. At first his eyes were focused on Ryan, the DM and caller of the safeword. But now, his gaze shifted to Tem, and his eyes widened. He tossed the whip in his hand away from his body as if it were raw meat and Tem a charging lion. The bottom had turned now, too. He, however, looked only mildly perplexed by the approach of the two men.
Ryan was barely a step behind Tem when Tem stepped within reach of the top. Ryan braced himself for a violent encounter, but Tem merely smiled and grabbed the younger bottom roughly by the arm.
“Tem!” Ryan shouted, echoed more indignantly by the bottom.
Tem ignored them both, refocusing his attention on the top who seemed to have been holding his breath. His words tumbled out nearly on top of each other. “It was consensual, he asked for it, I didn’t even have him restrained!”
Tem just smiled. “I’m sorry, sir, Michael can’t play with you tonight, his judgment is impaired.”
Michael stared at Tem. “My what?!”
“You see,” Tem went on, ignoring the interruption, his expression was placid, but Ryan saw the younger man’s face contort in pain as he tried to loosen his arm from Tem’s grip.
“Tem…” Ryan warned, although he wasn’t sure what he could do to stop the raging train wreck he saw heading toward him.
“What??” Apparently the pain wasn’t intimidating the younger man, the fury in his tone could have melted glass, but Tem seemed invulnerable. Ryan just watched, feeling helpless.
“He’s what?” The top’s tone was considerably less outraged than his bottom’s. He sounded more bewildered and relieved that he didn’t seem to be the immediate target of Tem’s wrath.
“Yes,” Tem said, nodding with nearly believable regret. “He’s on crack…” The top’s eyes shifted quickly to the bottom, his face creasing with the beginnings of suspicion. But Tem’s voice was taking a dangerous edge beneath the feigned sincerity. “It’s sad really, so much life ahead of him… It is always a shame to see a lamb wander from the flock.”
Michael was sputtering incoherent curses at his friend as Tem gave the top another beneficent smile. “If you’ll excuse us, now. I’m going to see if we can’t lead our little lamb back onto the path of true righteousness and salvation.” He bared his teeth in a fierce smile, then turned before anyone had a chance to say anything more. He nearly pulled Michael off his feet with a vicious tug. As he stepped past Ryan he said, “Room. Now.”
Ryan hesitated at the command, then pulled a ring of keys from his belt and sorted one from the cluster. He led them a few feet to one of the smaller storage rooms and unlocked the door.
Tem, Michael still in tow, fumbled for the light, eyes quickly scanning the layout of the room, before throwing the younger man toward the center of the floor. Ryan stepped in behind Tem, closing the door and bodily intervening between the two men.
“Respect my rules, Tem…”
Tem stepped around Ryan, smiling coldly. “I’m not going to hurt him…”
Michael, having regained his balance, took step toward Tem. Rage twisted his features. “What the FUCK is wrong with you?”
Tem strode forward, closing the distance between them. His left hand flashed out, palm striking Michael hard in chest. The blow sent the younger man stumbling back several steps, his eyes widening in surprise.
Ryan, against all better judgment, grabbed Tem’s shoulder, pulling him back. “Keep it up, Tem, you’ll be fighting *me*!”
Tem ignored him but didn’t take another step toward Michael. After several moments of tense silence, Tem took a breath and let it out slowly.
“You don’t take it on your back, Mikey…” His words were low and soft, but something dangerous still rippled beneath the surface. Tem’s gazed flickered toward the other man’s jeans. “What ‘cha hidin’? ”
Ryan’s eyes narrowed and he glanced at the other man’s face. For a fleeting moment an expression of startling grief and vulnerability crossed the young features. But it was gone so quickly and replaced with one of such hardened cynicism that Ryan suddenly doubted that he’d seen anything at all.
Tem, however, seemed to be very certain of what he’d seen. His eyes had narrowed with keen intensity. Michael looked away, shaking his head in disgust. “How I play is my business, Tem, you broke up my scene for that?”
Tem smiled. “Strip.” He drew the word out lazily, but there was fire behind his eyes.
This time Ryan was certain of the quick, uncertain shift of the eyes before Michael’s lips curved into a sneer. “Go to hell.”
“Have another accident, Mikey?”
Ryan felt his jaw tightening and fought the anger that was rising in his chest. He studied the young man. Looking past the jaded eyes and hardened smile, he looked barely more than a boy. Then he saw other things. Faint traces of old bruises along the fine cheekbone and jaw. A more recent, half-healed split in the lower lip.
Allowing his gaze to trail down the naked upper body, he noted more faint bruises across the smoothly sculpted belly and a dark purplish-black smudge was barely exposed where the jeans had ridden down low over the boy’s right hip. The line was clean, a belt or strap, high, too high and dangerously close to bone…
Ryan raised his eyes as Michael spoke again. The cockiness had gone from his posture. His expression was haunted and pleading. Ryan was startled by the abrupt transformation. “You don’t understand…”
Ryan felt a tug in his belly. Tem was silent for a long time. When he spoke, his tone had changed as well. Ryan glanced at him. “I do, Mikey… I *know*…”
Michael was shaking his head. “He loves me… I want him to, I asked him…”
Tem stared into the boy’s eyes which were beginning to glitter. “But it feels wrong… He’s the wrong person, Mikey…”
Ryan watched, aching for the boy as a tear escaped the brown eyes. Michael brushed it away angrily then swiped at his eyes and nose, then stared down at the floor, hiding his face. He took several deep breaths through his mouth and sniffled slightly, but when he raised his face again, his eyes were dry and resolute. “He loves me.”
Tem stepped close to the boy and took his chin in his hand. He leaned in, tilting his head and kissed him gently on the lips. “So do I, Mikey.” Ryan watched the muscles work in Michael’s jaw and throat. “So will someone else…”
Tem turned abruptly and walked out of the room.
Michael caught the older man’s eyes on him and flushed, the sudden emptiness after the fire of Tem’s presence left Michael feeling awkward and acutely self-conscious.
The other man cleared his throat. He seemed to be feeling at least as uncomfortable as Michael, his gaze quickly shifted away from the boy’s face, and he cleared his throat again. “Do you need any help?” he asked finally, his eyes skimming over the smooth body before meeting Michael’s gaze evenly. There was no hunger or arousal in the perusal of his body. And now, Michael read only wary concern in the grey eyes.
Somehow, that made him feel worse. Michael shrugged his hands into his front pockets and shook his head. He’d not had the time nor the forethought to grab his T-shirt before Tem was dragging him across the room. And the fierce encounter that followed had driven his thoughts far from his state of undress. Now, however, he felt vulnerable and naked beneath the man’s sympathetic gaze. He resisted the urge to hug himself and shook his head again. “I’m okay. Thank you.”
The man looked hesitant. “I, um…” He pulled a leather card holder from his back pocket. He slid a card from it and extended it. Michael glanced down at the man’s hand for a moment, then freed one hand to take the card. It was on heavy, grey cardstock. The print was raised and glossy. He studied the lettering for a moment without comprehending the words. In large letters it read “Colorado Leather and Power Exchange.” Beneath was an intricate knot… Three ropes intertwined in a seamless bond and the words “Safe. Sane. Consensual.” Then a website address. The man nodded toward the card. “It’s a group. We run these parties. And workshops. Safe play. That sort of thing, you know…” He shoved the card case back into his pocket, he seemed unsure where to look, finally he settled his eyes back on Michael’s face. Michael suddenly felt both warmed and self-conscious under the man’s even gaze.
“Thanks,” Michael said, finally, uncertain what response to give. But the man seemed satisfied enough, though Michael saw lingering concern in his eyes. He opened the door and held it for Michael to step back out onto the play area floor.
Ryan found Tem against one of the far walls of the main room, he was standing on one foot, the other against the wall, arms crossed carelessly over his chest. His expression was sulky and the overall image was sexy as hell. Except that his eyes glittered with such a predatory ferocity that potential tops veered off mid-approach.
He was wearing a T-shirt. It was dark and well-fitting but had obviously been tucked hastily into his jeans leaving him looking slightly rumpled. Ryan noted that only less experienced doms and those new to the local scene bothered to approach the man. The covered torso signaled to those who knew him that he was off limits for play.
Ryan approached anyway. He leaned his back against the wall and folded his arms over his own chest. His left shoulder was barely six inches from Tem’s. Close enough to speak without being overheard, but not close enough to spark the furious destruction of the younger man’s temper.
“Do you know who it is?” he asked after several moments of silence. Tem hadn’t moved away and Ryan took that as consent to conversation.
Tem didn’t move, his eyes were focused on a scene across the room. He said nothing for a long time. Ryan was beginning to wonder if he’d answer, when he finally spoke. “Have you ever watched a butterfly emerge from it’s cocoon?”
Ryan spared a sideways glance at his friend. Tem was well-educated. Dangerously intelligent. Articulate and creative and poetic. None of the things he normally put forth to the world in his patterns of speech or behavior. It was strange to hear him speak so formally. “No…”
“It’s painful.” Again Tem was silent for so long that Ryan thought he was finished before he spoke again. “Watching something so delicate and beautiful struggle so terribly.” Ryan watched Tem’s face. His eyes had gone distant. “Everything inside of you wants to help it, free it from the prison of it’s own creation… But if you do… It will die. The struggle to free itself is what strengthens it’s wings enough to fly.” Tem suddenly turned, his glowing eyes fixed on Ryan’s. “You can’t save him…”
“You’ve saved others.”
Tem’s lips curved in a humorless smile, the fire in his eyes cooled to sadness. “No. I let them escape. They just needed the chance to fly. He doesn’t have the wings…”
Ryan fought to control his frustration. “What does that mean?” Tem’s methods were vicious, destructive, and often violent. But he was nothing if not champion of the maltreated and abused. This apathy was at odds with every instinct Ryan had.
“He’s there because he still wants to be there. If I put out this fire, he’ll run to another and another and another. How can you save him from himself?”
Before Ryan could respond, Tem had pushed himself away from the wall and was striding away, pulling his T-shirt off over his head as he walked. He approached an older dom, dressed in leather pants and vest. The man appraised Tem quickly. He was a regular on the scene, a long-time player. Very hard. Very smart. And very good. One of the few good enough to dance with Tem in a rage and come out whole.
This time there was no posturing, no interplay, only a silent offer and assent. Tem stepped up to one of the steel support pillars that were interspersed through the warehouse. He tossed his shirt aside and stripped before allowing the dom to bind him firmly to the post.
Ryan turned away to scan the rest of the room. He busied himself with DM duties, but a part of his mind still worried at the problems of the boy with brown eyes and bruises on his face and the strangely eloquent philosophies of a friend he’d known for years yet sometimes felt he’d barely met.
Michael retrieved his shirt and jacket and wandered out into the night. Autumn was chilling the air. The stars shone brightly this far from the city. His back ached and stung, but the welts should be gone by the next weekend when Ky returned from business in Hong Kong.
Michael stopped at his car, crossed his arms above the door and let his forehead fall onto them. The cold of the metal and glass seeped through his jeans and T-shirt, quickly cooling his skin until it ached.
He heard the warehouse door open a distance away, and voices rumbled across the gravel lot. He jerked his head up and quickly dug into his coat for his keys before anyone noticed him and asked questions.
Sliding into the seat, he winced as his back pressed into the leather. He started the car and pulled onto the street, gravel kicking up against the chasse. For a while, he drove without direction. He turned the stereo off and listened to the hum of the engine and the whisper of the tires over the road.
Finally, with nowhere else to go, he turned homeward. He parked in the numbered space beside Kyler’s car, Ky having taken a cab over to Denver International… Michael slid out of car and slammed the door. He crossed the grass in front of the building facing the lot and ducked under the lower hanging branches of a thorny, fruited tree.
He strode along the paved walk to the steps of his own building then froze, one foot on the first step. Through the sliding doors that opened onto the patio, light glowed through the drapes. His heart began to pound, possibilities racing across his mind. He drew his keys, careful not to jangle them, and slowly ascended the steps.
He approached the door silently and reached for the knob. The metal was cold and hard in his hand. He turned it as slowly as he could, pushing the door gently. It opened.
Michael slowly widened the gap, the living room revealing itself to him by increments. The lamp by the door was on, casting warm light on the fireplace… The couch… The armchair… And Kyler.
Michael let go of the door, allowing it to swing, lazily, open. Ky looked up from the armchair, a strange look on his face. Michael stood on the threshold, his mind tumbling over a number of thoughts. Ky was home. He wasn’t in Hong Kong. There were stripes on Michael’s back. Kyler looked pissed already and he didn’t even know about the stripes on his boyfriend’s back…
Michael opened and closed his mouth twice before stuttering out, “You’re home…”
Ky raised an eyebrow, momentarily looking like the familiar, bemused Ky. “They cancelled the conference. I took a cab back home.” Then his eyes narrowed, his expression one that was familiar for much darker reasons. “But you didn’t know that when you opened the door.”
Michael swallowed. His heart, which had begun to slow upon realizing the intruder was actually not, now began hammering again. His mind quickly worked out the implications of the menacing words. He was in trouble. He tried to say something but Ky cut him off.
“You thought I was half-way around the world right now. So who did you think was in the house?”
“I don’t know,” Michael mumbled, not willing to admit that he had walked in on what he had fully thought could be an intruder.
“Expecting visitors while I was away?”
Michael blinked at the sudden shift in accusation. That hadn’t occurred to him. “No!”
But Ky was already smiling. It was a cruel twist of his lips that didn’t warm his eyes. “Don’t worry, Mike, I know you wouldn’t cheat on me. However…” He reached for the buckle of his belt. Michael felt his breath quickening. For a dizzy moment, standing on the threshold of indoors and out, he considered running. Somehow, it was the house, it was being inside, behind those closed doors that held mystical power over him. That robbed him from his power, from his ability, from even the possibility of thoughts of escape. But here, the cold, fall air brushing against his neck and ruffling his hair, here the possibility rose in his mind.
And Kyler saw it. Something in Michael’s face, maybe a shift of his eyes, the lines of his body sent Kyler into a savage blur of movement. Tonight, for the first time Michael saw a strange glint of emotion in his lover’s eyes, almost fear before rage twisted his face and he was across the room and hauling Michael bodily through the door.
Michael stumbled, off-balance, and hit his hands and knees heavily on the tile entryway. Pain jolted through him, momentarily shocking the fear from his mind. The confrontation with Tem, the gentle words, the kiss that still lingered in his thoughts. Sudden fury surged up from his belly and he shot to his feet. The moment of fear in Ky’s eyes, the glimpse of vulnerability through the armor of confidence and fury woke something in the back of Michael’s mind.
Ky slammed the door and threw the deadbolt with one hand, grabbing the front of Michael’s shirt. “Get your clothes off,” he snarled, shoving Michael farther into the room. Michael staggered back several steps then caught his balance again and stepped forward. His face setting in a mask of rebellion.
Ky’s body coiled like a spring, Michael felt himself flinch, anticipating the blow he knew would probably knock him from his feet.
But it didn’t come.
Slowly, the tension went out of Ky’s body. His face softened. The fury in his eyes cooled. He smiled slightly, and this time, though small, the smile was sincere.
“Okay, baby. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
Michael felt his mouth fall open and quickly closed it. He blinked, emotions swirling.
Ky walked back to the armchair and sat down. He picked up a notebook from the side table and flipped through it. “I’ve been reading,” he said. His voice was calm, he sounded reasonable, even conversational. Michael approached slowly, wary of the sudden change. He glanced down at the notebook in Ky’s hands and his mouth went dry.
“You read my journal?”
Ky looked down and was quiet for a long moment. “Sit down, Michael.” Michael sank into another chair. Ky chewed his lip. “I don’t understand you, Michael.”
Michael frowned, utterly lost at the direction of the conversation. “So you read my journal? You’re a bastard.” But the words held no heat, he was suddenly too exhausted to get angry.
Ky looked hurt. “I don’t…” He glanced down again. “I don’t know how to make you happy, Michael. I’ve tried to do what you asked. You tell me it’s what you want, but you’re always unhappy.”
A bitter reply rose to Michael’s mind and remained unspoken. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know how to do this, Michael. I thought I was doing what you wanted. But I’ve been doing it wrong. So… I did some research. Talked to some people…”
“You read my journal,” Michael said, flatly.
“I need to understand you better. You’re obviously not very good at explaining this to me…”
Michael said nothing, just stared, feeling disconnected. He listened to his own breath for a moment. “Talked to people?”
“Yeah. You know. People who are into this stuff.”
Ky shrugged dismissively. “Doesn’t matter.” He held up the journal again. “This told me a lot.”
Michael felt a distant tightening in his belly. Everything he’d wondered, fantasized, agonized over trying to grasp the thing he wanted, the intangible desire, always just beyond his fingertips. What would Ky do with that? How would he take it? How would he warp it, that very deepest part of Michael’s soul. “What do you want?”
Ky gave him a strange look, his stare was fervent, bordering on fanatical. “You haven’t been listening, Michael. This isn’t about me. It’s about you. I understand you, now. I understand what you want. I know how to make this work!” He motioned for Michael forward.
Warily, Michael rose from the chair and crossed the room to stand before the strangely transformed man. Ky was reaching for something beside the chair and gave a curt gesture which Michael knew meant for him to kneel. He did so stiffly. The fall early had left his knees bruised and sore and his muscles tight.
Ky drew forth a long, narrow box and a set of small, fine tools. A moment of irrational fear jolted through Michael’s body as it occurred to him Ky might have invented a new brand of torture.
Ky opened the box and lifted from it an uncoupled gold chain. It’s intricate woven links shone in the light. Michael looked at it, confused for a moment, then choked on icy cold realization. Ky reached up and looped the chain around Michael’s neck, letting the loose ends fall free. The cool metal sent shivers down Michael’s back. He watched Ky lift another piece from the box. A short length of the same metal as the chain. Michael realized that it was not a solid piece but many fine threads, woven together like a tiny length of unbreakable rope. Ky’s eyes met Michael’s, his expression was blank. “Hold still…”
Ky gathered the ends of the chain close to Michael’s throat, his actions out of Michael’s line of vision. Michael closed his eyes, feeling his lover’s fingers brush lightly over his skin, then he opened them again and studied Ky’s face as the man focused intently on his task. He lifted a pair of diminutive pliers and worked at the links of the chain beneath Michael’s chin.
Finally, Ky leaned back and grinned. Michael lifted his hand to his throat. The links wound through each other seamlessly. He felt a sudden claustrophobic panic tear at his breath. Ky’s gaze was burning into his skin.
“You’re mine now.” Ky sat back and was silent for a moment. Michael couldn’t speak. He just kept running his fingers over the perfectly joined links. No beginning. No end… The words slowly seeped through his mind. He raised his eyes to meet Ky’s. Ky leaned forward and grasped Michael’s jaw lightly with his right hand. He drew Michael’s face toward his and kissed him.
At first, the kiss was light, chaste, a feathery touch against Michael’s lips. Then it grew eager, then hungry. Michael felt his body rush to respond, thought fleeing his mind as Kyler slid down from the chair to his knees, pressing their bodies together. Michael felt his hands pinned behind his own back, the grip wasn’t tight. He could break it if he wanted to, but the submission of restraint and Ky’s mouth working down his neck kept him desperately still. Whimpering. Unwilling to break the illusion of helplessness. Then Ky’s fingers wove into the chain and pulled lightly. The pressure was gentle against Michael’s neck, but a reminder… Emotions tumbled through his belly. His cock still strained against his jeans, the heat of his lover’s body thrummed against his skin, but his mind was suddenly awake; aware and guarded. He let his eyes close as Ky pushed aside the collar of his shirt and scraped his teeth over the sensitized skin. Then he felt gentle heat against his ear and a roughened whisper. “You’re mine, boy…”
Hands still held immobile. Eyes closed. Delicate collar guiding his head back, exposing his throat… Michael moaned, tumbling down into the heady depths of submission.
They never made it off the hard, oak floor. Ky pushed Michael onto his back, the wood cold against his naked skin, wrists pinned above his head in Ky’s strong left hand. He nearly cried in desperate, aching desire as Ky’s free hand brushed lightly over his right nipple. Ky’s eyes met his, a wicked smile dancing at the corners of his mouth. Michael knew what would come next… He implored silently, not willing to beg out loud, but Ky’s eyes just brightened with cruel pleasure and his nails bit into tender skin, twisting violently.
Michael screamed, tears coming to his eyes. He struggled half-heartedly against the restraining hand, more desperate to escape the pain than the grip. He sobbed as the torture was repeated on the left.
He’d never liked this kind of play, but Ky loved it so it was done. Like so many things in his life it seemed. He was still trembling, as he felt Ky’s hand leave his wrists. “Stay put,” was the growled warning. Ky just tilted his head back and choked back another sob, the blinding pain now lessening to a stabbing ache that seemed to tap a nerve that ran from his teeth to his balls. His hard-on had faded as well. He focused on steadying the desperate breaths that whistled softly through his teeth.
A sharp slap landed on the outside of his right thigh, shocking him alert. He gasped and hissed. “Ow,” he muttered, quickly pulling his legs up, submitting his body to his lover’s will.
The penetration wasn’t gentle. He winced and bit his lip until his body caught up with the violent fuck and he snatched at the wisps of arousal, coaxing them to a flame that brought him hard and sobbing over the edge only moments after Ky.
Ky tossed Michael a towel and walked down the hallway. In minutes, Michael heard the shower hiss to life. He slowly cleaned the floor and his own body and eased himself to his feet. He was sore and tired. The thin chain felt suddenly heavy around his neck. He gathered the towel and discarded clothing and tossed all of them onto the pile of laundry atop the drier as he padded down the hallway to the bedroom.
He grabbed a clean towel as he heard the shower turn off in the master bathroom. The door opened and Kyler stepped out, towel hugging his lean hips. He stepped past Michael, brushing a casual kiss across his lips before tugging the towel away from his waist and tossing it toward the hamper. He turned his back on Michael, reaching for the remote control as he settled back on the bed.
Michael shook out his towel and stepped toward the bathroom door when a hand landed abruptly on his shoulder. He jumped and turned to stare into frighteningly blank eyes.
“You didn’t expect me home for a week…”
Michael blinked. “What…?” Then, slowly, the lingering, faint ache of the stripes on his back filtered through his mind, the confusion cleared and his heart sank. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, Ky, I’m so sorry…”
Ky grabbed the chain and yanked it hard. The links bit cruelly into his skin and he yelped. “You’re mine, Michael. From now on, whatever you need, you get it from me. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Sir!” The force on the chain was hurting, Michael edged forward, trying to relieve the sharp bite of metal on his skin.
“And whenever you fuck up…” He gave another vicious jerk to the chain. “You answer to me.”
Michael glanced toward the door. Gaze shifting for just moments. A fleeting thought. An echo of words… “So will someone else…”
He refocused his attention on Kyler who was studying him carefully. “You know what you need, Michael. You know what you want… The freedom… The safety…”
Michael stared at Ky, angry at the twisted mimicry of his own words. Words written only for himself. “You don’t understand me,” he said, his voice gaining strength. “You don’t know who I am… You don’t know what I want!”
The bite of the chain around his neck lightened as his voice rose to a shout. Ky was smiling softly. Michael wanted to hit him but clenched his hands tightly at his sides. “But I do, Michael… I know you better than you know yourself. I know what you need, deeper than lust, deeper than desire… The hunger that’s in your soul…”
Michael felt his fists loosen, his guard relax. He suddenly and desperately wanted to give himself to his lover. Heart and soul. Wanted to take the pain and the punishment that would cleanse him of all the confusion, all of the uncertainty. He nodded, dropping his gaze to the floor.
“You betrayed my trust tonight, Michael. Didn’t you?”
Michael closed his eyes. Sex had drained his strength and his courage. As much as he wanted the purification of pain, his fortitude was shattered. “Please, no… Please, Sir…”
Ky’s voice hardened. “I am your Master, Michael. Inside this house…” He touched the chain at Michael’s throat. “And out.” He pushed Michael’s chin up. Michael kept his eyes downcast, fighting tears. Not tonight… Not now… “Get the strap, Michael.”
Michael shut his eyes, swallowing a sob. He trembled.
“Now, Michael!” The command snapped across Michael’s ears like a whip crack. He jerked, pulling his head down.
“Yes, Sir,” he shuddered and forced himself to walk stiffly to the closet. He could feel Ky’s eyes on his back as he moved. His hands felt numb as he fumbled to slide open the door.
For a moment he couldn’t free the strap from its hook.
“Move it, Michael!”
Michael fought a moment of nausea as the weight of the strap settled in his hand. The world seemed to taper to a narrow tunnel of sight and sound. He barely felt himself deliver the strap into Ky’s hand. Pushed the feel of the restraints from his mind. Even swept away the fear and the dread. Deadened everything inside him until the pain seared through his body, until all he could do was scream…
Tem jerked awake at the quiet tap on the door of his apartment. His eyes focused quickly in the dark and he oriented himself before sliding silently out of bed and pulling on his jeans. He slipped his sheathed knife into the back of his waistband before stealing across the darkened living room, silent and fluid as a phantom.
He checked the peephole and his eyes narrowed. Warily, he slipped the deadbolt and inched the door open. He snatched the boy on the step by the front of the shirt, hauled him into the darkened apartment and quickly closed and re-bolted the door.
Michael yelped as he was hauled into the darkness. He gasped while his heart slowed and his eyes adjusted to the lack of light. Then he winced as the fluorescents in the kitchen flooded the small room.
Tem was studying him through narrowed eyes. “What happened?”
Ryan watched Tem approach through the throngs of lunchtime patrons. He managed to move through the tightest hordes seemingly without touching a soul.
Ryan rose smoothly, offering his corner seat to Tem who settled into it, his eyes scanning the room restlessly.
“I’m shipping out again… In two days,” he said, answering the unspoken question.
Ryan nodded. There was nothing to say. “How long?”
Tem shrugged. “A month or two. I need a favor.” Ryan nodded. “Remember Michael?”
The boy with the soft brown eyes. The bangs that desperately needed to be cut. The cuts and bruises marring the perfect, lean body. The hardened, jaded shell of a man around a frightened boy in a world over his head. “I remember him.”
“I need you to keep him alive until I get back.”
Ryan felt his body go rigid. He didn’t bother hiding the anger from Tem. Tem saw too much anyway. “What changed?”
Tem didn’t answer, but the look in his eyes sent an icy finger down Ryan’s spine.
Ryan ran a hand through his hair and forced himself to concentrate on his work. He rolled his head from side to side, staring at the splashes of color across his computer screen and sighed.
His business partner, Greg, tapped at his own console and dragged a section of text across a cover-model’s pouting face. Ryan watched him for a moment, looked back at his own screen, and pushed back from his desk.
“I’m going to lunch. Want me to bring you anything?”
Greg shook his head, eyes never leaving his monitor. Ryan nodded to himself, grabbed his coat, and let himself out of the glass doors of the cramped office.
The trees were golden overhead, and leaves swirled around his feet as he strode along the outdoor mall. There was a chill in the air that cut through his open jacket, despite the bright sun.
He stepped into a bagel and sandwich shop but left with just coffee. The steaming liquid seeped warmth through the paper cup, into his icy fingers.
He kept walking. He had no particular destination in mind. But he was restless and needed to move.
As he walked, he realized that the agitation driving him wasn’t simply a desire to be moving, but a desire to be moving toward something… To be doing something… He fished the folded paper from his pocket and opened it again. The creases had been worn soft by opening and closing. Ryan stared again at the blocky, swift letters of Tem’s hand. A name and an address. …keep him alive until I get back…
Ryan folded the paper once more and dropped the coffee into a wrought-iron trash bin.
“Hi. Do you have a Kyler Jackson working here?”
Ryan gave the receptionist a charming smile and was rewarded with a faint flush and broadening of the pupils of the pretty, green eyes. She bowed her head, demurring slightly as she picked up the phone and dialed four digits. “He’s a project manager. I’ll just see if he’s available.”
She broke briefly into the phone to a “Heidi” who conveyed the information that Mr. Jackson was just wrapping up an investor meeting and would be available in a few minutes.
The pretty-eyed receptionist gave Ryan a visitor badge and directions to the third floor offices where he could find Heidi and Mr. Jackson.
Ryan thanked her, letting his gaze linger on her eyes a moment too long, leaving her blushing and pressing her lips against a smile as she turned back to her computer.
He grinned to himself as he turned away and walked to the bank of elevators.
The third floor was spacious offices interspersed with conference rooms. Ryan took his time wandering past them, listening to snatches of conversations and the rattle of keystrokes.
He turned a corner and found Heidi at her desk behind a lacquered name plate. The door to the office behind her was closed, and murmured voices came from behind a conference room door at the end of the short hall.
Ryan smoothed an easy smile over his features and strode up to the desk. “Hi.”
The petite woman looked up at him. She didn’t react as profoundly as the pretty woman downstairs. Her manner remained coolly professional. “Yes?”
He pulled a sheepish look and shifted his weight. “I think I’m lost.”
The secretary smiled, her expression warming slightly. “Who are you looking for?”
Ryan looked relieved and grinned. “Thanks. I appreciate it. I’m trying to find Mr. Jackson. Kyler Jackson…”
The woman’s smile broadened. “Well, there you go, you aren’t lost at all. He’s in a meeting with clients right now,” she nodded toward the conference room. “But he should be free in just a few minutes.”
“Oh, that’s just great,” Ryan made a point of casting his gaze onto her nameplate. “Heidi… Thank you so much for your help! I’m Ryan.” He held out his hand and she shook it somewhat hesitantly. Her grip was warm, slightly delicate. She seemed ready to say something else when the door to the conference room opened to the sound of male voices.
Several older men wearing dark suits stepped into the hallway first, followed closely by a younger man in shirtsleeves. The latter was nodding and smiling and shaking hands and had not yet noticed Ryan’s presence. Ryan took advantage of the moment to study his prey.
Kyler was of average height and just shy of average build, but his presence would get him noticed in life. He had well-cut, dirty-blonde hair. A few locks fell over his forehead, still tidy and professional, but giving him a slightly tousled air. Paired with the shirtsleeves rolled up his forearms, he looked like a boss who spent his time down in the trenches with the laborers. His eyes were blue slate, his gaze quick and assessing. His smile was easy and confident. He looked far too young for his position, but his air inspired a warm assurance of his abilities.
His clothes were expensive and fit well. The cut was modern, he maintained his youthful approach, new ideas, fresh perspectives, but the colors were traditional and conservative, maintaining the respectability of the firm and the generations above and before him.
Ryan was impressed. He could understand how a boy like Michael could be swept away with a man like this. Tem’s image of the butterfly rose to his mind. As much as he may want to, taking the boy away and saving him from the world wasn’t going to make anything better for him. He took a deep breath, reining back his more primal desires to beat sense into the man and replacing them with careful rationality.
The group of men was breaking up and Kyler approached Heidi’s desk. His eyes caught Ryan’s for a moment and Ryan let his gaze travel smoothly over the other man’s form, lingering for barely a breath too long for Kyler to miss his intent. Meeting the other man’s eyes once more, he knew he’d been understood. The confidence in the slate-blue eyes was shaken. Kyler glanced quickly at Heidi as she began to speak.
“Mr. Jackson, this is Ryan…” She paused and flushed at the realization that she didn’t know his last name. Ryan smiled, his eyes never leaving Ky’s.
“Dalry,” Ryan supplied, smiling and extending his hand to Kyler.
Ky returned the handshake and tilted his head. “Kyler Jackson. May I help you with something?”
“You know, actually, I’m here about a mutual friend.” He felt his senses hardening to a predatory edge. “Someone I believe you know… Intimately.”
Ky’s smile fled his face and his eyes hardened. He ran his tongue along the backs of his teeth. A forced smile creased his face. “Perhaps we could discuss it over lunch? I’m afraid I don’t have any time today, maybe later this week? Heidi has my schedule. I’m know she’ll be more than happy to work you in.”
Ryan widened his smile. “Oh, that’s too kind, but, really, I’d prefer to discuss it now.” He let his own gaze go hard, and the two men stood for a moment in silent challenge.
Ky’s tongue flickered across his lips. “I’m afraid that’s not possible, Mr. Dalry. Heidi will make arrangements with you, I’m due at a meeting. If you’ll excuse me.”
As the young man stepped past him, Ryan placed a hand on his upper arm. His smile faded to a malicious twitch of his lips. “I think you’re going to miss your meeting.”
Ky gave him a humorless smile. “Heidi, call Security, please.”
Increasing the pressure on the other man’s arm, Ryan met his eyes with a steely gaze. “I would be happy to discuss it here, but I really think you’d prefer to invite me into your office.”
Heidi glanced at Kyler, then at Ryan, then her hand moved toward the shiny black phone. Ryan heard her speaking quietly into the receiver.
Softly, Ryan said, “I know what the chain means…”
The color drained from Ky’s face. His hand darted down and he snatched the telephone from Heidi’s hand. He lifted it to his own ear, never taking his eyes from Ryan’s. “This is Kyler Jackson,” he paused, “Yes, it was a misunderstanding, it’s all taken care of… Yes… Thank you.”
He settled the receiver back on the cradle. Heidi stared at him. “Mr. Jackson?”
“It’s all right, Heidi,” he said, his voice strangely detached. “Mr. Dalry and I are going into my office. Please call downstairs, ask them to begin without me.”
Closing the door, Ky stared at Ryan. He was very pale.
Ryan studied him for a moment, letting him sweat through the implications of everything Ryan had said, and not said.
“What do you want?” Kyler remained hovering near the door. Ready to escape? Ryan wondered. Or to prevent his adversary from doing so.
“Michael and I have a mutual friend…a friend who has concerns about Michael’s safety and well-being.”
Ky stared at him for a long moment. “Michael is a grown man, I’m sure he can take care of himself. Aren’t his choices his own concern?”
“They are,” Ryan conceded. “As long as they are his own choices…”
Kyler’s eyes narrowed, he took a heavy breath. “Michael and I,” he said, finally conceding the relationship, something Ryan was sure would put him in a very precarious position with his superiors. “Are consenting adults. What we do in the privacy of our home is not anyone’s concern but our own.”
Ryan tilted up the corners of his mouth in a humorless smile. “Until it becomes abuse.”
Ky’s face darkened. For the first time, Ryan saw a hint of an anger that could fuel violence. “I don’t abuse, Michael.” He said the words very slowly, his manner shifted once more from edgy to predatory. “I have never done *anything* that he hasn’t asked me to do.”
Ryan nodded slowly, taking a mental step back from the edge of confrontation, he forced a softer note into his voice. “Sometimes the lines get blurred…”
“I don’t beat my boyfriend.” The words came out in an angry hiss, loud enough only for Ryan to hear.
Ryan stared at him for a long time, the younger man, glowered back, behind the anger and defensive posture, Ryan felt a sincerity in the younger man’s words that he hadn’t expected to find.
Holding Ryan’s gaze, steadily, Ky finally said, with less anger, but equal intensity. “I love him.”
Ryan felt as if the ground had shifted under him. He didn’t want to believe the younger man. He wanted to harbor a simple hatred which he could nurture without complication. Instead, he found his anger tempered with compassion. He cursed himself silently, dropping his gaze for a moment.
“I can see that you do,” he said finally. Ky hadn’t taken his eyes off him. Ryan eased his wallet from his pocket. “But, sometimes all our best intentions still lead us to places we never meant to go…”
Ky’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t speak as Ryan slipped a gray card from his wallet and extended it. Ky looked as if he were being offered a venomous snake. He took the card with two fingers, his gaze flickered over it then allowed his hand to drop to his side, his complexion paling further.
“What you do in your bedroom is between you and Michael.” An abrupt flush darkened Ky’s face. “However,” Ryan pressed on, “If certain lines were crossed, it would become a much more public matter.”
Ky looked up. “Are you threatening me?”
Ryan smiled softly. He nodded toward the card. “That group offers education and counseling for people practicing this lifestyle. I’m sure you don’t want to do anything that would compromise your relationship with Michael.” He took a step closer, taking advantage of his larger build. “Or with me…”
He stepped past the smaller man, and Kyler moved aside to let Ryan through the door. He said nothing else, and as Ryan caught a glance of him in passing, he saw that the young man’s face was pale and expressionless as a porcelain mask.
Ryan thought about the confrontation as he kicked his way through the leaves along the outdoor mall. It seemed the right choice at the time, but now he was regretting his haste. He’d thought that intimidating the younger, smaller Kyler would be satisfying, but, he found it left an ache of gnawing guilt and anxiety in his chest. In retrospect, it now seemed immature and irresponsibly reckless. For all he knew, the man would go home and take out his fear and frustration on the one person he knew he could control.
Tem believed he was dangerous. Enough to enlist Ryan in his protection, but now Ryan wondered if approaching the boy first wouldn’t have been a better tact. Maybe the police. Anything but further antagonizing the perpetrator.
By the time he reached his block, Ryan knew he had to talk to Michael. He’d no idea what convincing arguments he could give the boy, but, at the least he owed him a warning.
Back in the office, Ryan found Greg exactly as he’d left him. He grunted at Ryan’s brief greeting and Ryan walked past him to his own desk.
He sat down and quickly minimized the windows of his project until he reached the desktop where he opened the web browser and ran a phone number search for Kyler Jackson. All his searches came up “unlisted” or gave a message about cell phone carriers and untraceable numbers. He sighed. He didn’t know Michael’s last name. If they lived together, his name would probably be labeled unlisted as well. But if he could find a cell number… He was in the scene, someone would know how to reach him…
Ryan started by calling DM’s and received a few recognitions of the description or the first name, but no help in how to reach him. Several of them offered numbers of other men who might have had closer contact with Michael. And so, Ryan began the arduous task of tracking down leads.
It took two hours for him to reach a dead end. He still had calls out to four people whose voicemail had picked up. Every other lead dried up.
With nothing better to do, Ryan sat down in front of his computer and brought up his projects again. He stared at the screen for an hour, fiddling with his mouse and listening to Greg click and clack away at his keyboard. At four o’clock, he jumped when his cell phone vibrated on his belt. He snatched it up.
“Hey, Ryan, it’s Landon, I know the kid you’re talking about, his name is Michael Verdant. I don’t know his number.”
“Damn,” Ryan muttered. “Thanks, Lan, he lives with a boyfriend and the boyfriend’s number is unlisted. I was hoping to find a cell or something.”
“Yeah… Sorry, man, I dunno.”
“No, that’s alright. I’ll figure something out.”
“Hey, Ryan? You going to the party tonight?”
Ryan stared at the screen in front of him, the layout still untouched since noon. “Can’t. I gotta work.”
“Ah. That sucks. But I’ll ask around for you. I find out anything, I’ll give you a call.”
Ryan sighed. “Yeah, all right.”
“No problem. Hey, I’ll talk to you later, huh?”
“Sure. Thanks, man.”
Ryan snapped the phone shut and tried to refocus on his work.
By six he’d gotten calls back from two more of the three he was still waiting on, he still had no information, and he had only half of the project finished when Greg pushed away from his desk and stretched. Ryan glanced at him. “You finished?”
“Yep.” The lanky man rose from his chair and adjusted his glasses. “Late night,” he observed, looking over Ryan’s shoulder at his screen.
Ryan sighed. “Late night,” he agreed.
“Well, see you in the morning.”
“Goodnight, Greg.” Ryan watched his partner don his coat and step out into the darkened hallway. He sighed again and turned back to his work.
His fourth contact returned his call but with no result. It was nearly ten. Ryan justified to himself leaving the rest of his work until morning and locked up the office.
The night air was frigid and he buttoned his coat against the wind’s icy teeth. Brittle leaves rattled in the branches of the dark trees lining the walk.
His own car was the only one left in the lot and he let the engine grumble at the cold for several minutes while he waited for the cold air blowing from the heater vents to warm. And even then, he sat for several more minutes, staring at the dashboard, wondering, unhappily, if he’d already condemned the one person he was entrusted to save.
Kyler came home early. Michael looked up at him over the kitchen counter and felt a jolt of familiar trepidation. Ky’s face was set and dark and he said nothing as he walked past the kitchen, shedding his jacket and hanging it in the closet.
He came back and leaned one hip against the counter. He stared into the pan on the stove where Michael was pushing at vegetables with a spatula. “What’s wrong?” Michael wasn’t sure he wanted to open the conversation, but sometimes talking worked Ky down from physical anger.
Kyler was silent for several minutes. Michael watched him furtively as he stirred the vegetables. Finally, he slid the pan off of the burner and turned to face his lover head-on. Ky chewed his lip for a moment then raised his gaze to Michael’s face. “Who did you tell about us?”
Michael stared at him. “Nobody!” Concern rushed in quickly on the heels of surprise. “Why? What happened?”
Kyler pushed himself away from the counter and crossed to the refrigerator, pulling out a bottle of beer and wrenching the lid free. He took a long draught, his eyes never leaving Michael’s face. “You told somebody,” he said, finally lowering the bottle.
Michael shook his head. “No. I’ve never told anyone about you. I swear.”
“What about your little leather friends?” Ky’s eyes were cold and hard. Michael felt his belly tighten.
“No, I swear. Only one person even knows I have a boyfriend. He’s my best friend, he knows I’m your sub, but that’s all. He doesn’t know who you are, I never told him your name. I swear to God, Ky.”
A humorless smile curved the corners of Ky’s mouth. “He found out.”
Michael opened his mouth, but didn’t know what else to say. Ky turned away from him and strode down the hall to the back of the house.
For a moment, Michael stood frozen and uncertain in the middle of the kitchen. Finally, he glanced down at the still-steaming pan. He pulled a lid from the cupboard, clapped it over the pan, and trailed his lover back toward the bedroom.
Ky was changing out of his work clothes, and cast Michael a sideways glance before turning back to what he was doing. Michael eased himself onto the bed and watched Ky for a moment.
Kyler hung his slacks over a hanger and pulled on a pair of worn jeans and an old T-shirt. He stared into the closet for several seconds. “I quit my job.”
Michael stared at him. “What?! Why?”
“I can’t hide anymore.”
Michael felt a tinge of cold fear. “Did someone out you?”
Ky turned, he looked weary, his eyes sad. He shook his head. “No. But they could. Anyone could. And it would all be gone.” He waved a hand lazily. “A house of cards.” He looked into Michael’s eyes. “That’s my whole life, Michael. House of cards built on a soap bubble.”
Michael shook his head. “No, Ky, no you’re more than that. You can get a different job. Somewhere you can be more open…”
Ky was smiling sadly. “No, I can’t.” He crossed the room to sit down beside Michael on the bed. Michael could smell the lingering tinge of cologne on his skin and the fresh scent of detergent in his clothes.
Abruptly, Ky wrapped one arm around Michael’s shoulders and pulled him close, pressing his lips into Michael’s hair.
“I love you,” he murmured, his breath warm past Michael’s ear. He pushed their bodies apart slightly to look into Michael’s face. He freed his hand and brought it up to brush lightly across Michael’s cheek and lips. “Do you know that?”
Michael stared at his reflection in the gray-blue eyes. He’d never seen Ky so vulnerable before. It twisted something in his chest until he ached. His throat was too tight to speak, he just nodded.
Ky swallowed, his breathing had become rougher, and he glanced down for a moment. Muscles tightened in his jaw, and Michael wondered for a moment if he was crying. But when Ky raised his face again, his eyes were dry. “I never wanted to hurt you, Michael.” His voice broke and he glanced away again, breathing heavily. His eyes were glittering when he turned back. “I’m sorry I ever hurt you. I… I never meant to hurt you…”
Michael couldn’t speak. Ky pulled him forward into a rough hug and brushed a kiss across his forehead. “I love you,” he whispered once more into Michael’s ear, then pushed himself away and walked quickly out of the room.
Michael listened to Ky’s footsteps pad along the wooden floor and into the study. The door clicked shut quietly. And suddenly, Michael felt as if a load of bricks had dropped on his chest, forcing the air from his lungs, leaving him gasping. Tears streaking down his face as he sobbed.
For several minutes, he could only struggle to breathe and cry silently. Then a muffled pop, like the release of a champagne cork, startled him. His head jerked up, the tears suddenly suspended. His heart beating hard and fast, now, he rose to his feet and went slowly to the bedroom door.
The hallway was silent. There was no sound from behind the study door.
“Ky?” Michael stepped toward the door and knocked gently before easing it open. “Ky?”
The smell hit him first. Acrid, like firecrackers, and a coppery smell that made his stomach tighten. Then his mind took in what he saw. For a moment, he stood, frozen, his breath coming in shallow, frantic gasps, his entire body shaking. Then he flung his hands to his mouth muffling the anguished scream that seemed to come from a place so deep and primal that he didn’t even recognize his own voice.
He stumbled backward, deep sobs ripping his chest. “Oh, no… Nonono…” The wall knocked against his back and he slid to the floor, his mind no longer forming words. His body locked in a racking anguish that tore clear to his soul.
Ryan dropped his keys onto the table by the door, not bothering with the lights, he shrugged out of his coat and headed for the kitchen. He jumped as the buzz of his phone broke the silence. He snatched it from his belt and flipped it open. “Yeah?”
“Hey, Ryan.” Landon’s voice floated over a background of heavy music and voices.
“Hey!” Ryan felt his hopes rise…
“I found your kid… Turn on the news.”
It was sobering how quickly the story died. Up and coming in a prestigious company, found shot to death, apparent suicide in the house he shared with a gay lover. You’d think the scandal would earn it more than a two-minute story on the local news. More than twenty lines four pages deep in the Denver papers. His company didn’t want attention and it made that happen with ruthless efficiency. The story broke in time for the late news on Thursday. By the late news Friday, it had been replaced by gang shootings, car accidents and abused dogs.
Ryan, despite the fact he was already nearly two days behind on his latest project at work, spent Saturday in bed. At ten, one of his roommates knocked gently, concerned for his health. Ryan sent him away with muttered assurances, turned to his other side and watched the clock tick away the seconds of the day.
On Sunday, his project still sitting untouched, he got out of bed long enough to shower and fetch coffee from the kitchen. His other roommate was reading the paper at the table, he glanced up as Ryan padded across the tiles. “Hey, are you sick, man?”
Ryan snagged a mug from the cupboard and slopped coffee into it. “Yeah,” he grunted, taking the cup with him back to his bedroom.
Back on his mattress with his back to the headboard and his knees tucked up, Ryan gulped down the coffee, ignoring the heat that scalded his mouth and throat. He pulled his sketchbook onto his lap, flipped it to a blank page and found a pencil in the drawer of his bed stand. For a long time he stared at the white expanse, pencil hovering. Finally, the paper still unmarked, he flung the pencil at the closed door of his closet. Then, dissatisfied, he hefted and threw the sketchbook. It hit the closet door with a satisfying thump and fell to the floor in a jumbled heap.
After a moment, he picked up the empty coffee mug and threw that as well. It broke into large chunks that rained down on the floor with heavy thuds.
Ryan went to work late on Monday. Walking in at ten, Ryan knew Greg had already been there for two hours, maybe three. He sometimes wondered if the taciturn man actually had a life outside of work. Although, he admitted reluctantly to himself, Greg always left on time in the evenings. It was Ryan who chose to sacrifice his evenings for an extra hour of restless sleep once the sun came up.
Both comfortable with silence, Ryan didn’t greet his business partner and received no greeting in return. He hung his coat, went to his work table and powered up his computer. He glanced over Greg’s shoulder while he waited for the computer to complete it’s cycle up. He saw with a pang of guilt that his partner had finished his last project and was already working on their newest contract.
His body was achy from two days in bed, and his eyes felt gritty as if he’d slept only two hours instead of the twenty he’d racked up in the past forty-eight. He sighed and opened the necessary files to finish the first of the now two projects he was behind schedule.
Greg broke for lunch at noon, Ryan wasn’t hungry and had only been at his task for two hours so he worked through lunch and several hours into the afternoon before he finally pushed away from the desk and rose for a breather. Greg, without taking his eyes from his own screen, plucked two sheets from the printer and held them up. Ryan took them, skimming the information quickly. It was a new contract, logo design, website, full page color ads. They needed the business, but Ryan felt a weight of responsibility settle onto his shoulders.
“I’ll be finished with this tomorrow,” Greg said, if he was irritated by Ryan’s lack of progress, he didn’t show it. “I’ll get the logo design ready, have it to you by lunch.”
Ryan ran a hand through his hair and sighed heavily. “I’ll get these done before I go tonight,” he said gesturing vaguely toward his computer. Greg’s back was to him, but Ryan wasn’t worried. Their ability to communicate was uncanny. It made them good partners. When one of them wasn’t dropping the ball, Ryan thought bitterly. Hunger was beginning to gnaw on his belly, but he didn’t want to leave while Greg was still working. He sank back into his chair, one foot tucked under him and hunched over his task.
At five o’clock, as predictable as ever, Greg leaned back, powered down his computer and clicked off the lamp over his desk. He rose to his feet, put on his coat and went to the door. “See you in the morning,” he said. Ryan glanced up and nodded then watched Greg disappear through the door.
He worked another fifteen minutes, but hunger pangs had morphed into a headache and at a quarter after he pushed away from his desk, grabbed his coat and headed downstairs.
Stepping out into the crisp air, Ryan zipped his coat against the breeze and strode up to west end of the mall, crossed the street and strode up another two blocks before turning into a hole in the wall Mexican place that boasted the city’s best burritos.
He settled onto the high-backed wooden bench of one of the unpadded booths where he could watch passersby through the small expanse of window that fronted the restaurant. He ordered his food with iced tea rather than beer, aware of the hours of work still ahead of him. The waitress returned with his drink then left him alone. It was early yet for the dinner crowd, and the front of the restaurant was relatively quiet. He opened his cell phone and thumbed through his contacts, finally selecting the one he wanted and pressing the phone to his ear.
He listened to it ring twice, three times, at four he sighed, hesitant to leave what he wanted to voicemail, but before the phone could ring a fifth time, it connected with a click and a male voice answered, “Yeah?”
Ryan studied the information he’d scribbled onto his napkin. The single night’s news story had taken on it’s own life in the tight circles of the underground leather community. As Ryan expected, the boy was known around the scene. The lover, Kyler, was apparently a stranger, but Michael’s face was recognized and his name was quickly connected to the story. Calling in favors, Ryan had managed to piece together enough information to get the boy’s full name and a few leads on where he might work. Tem would be away another three weeks at least, without him, Ryan had to rely on the legitimacy of the social construct of the rumor mill. The leads he’d written down were not as solid as he’d hoped for, but he had a name now and a place to start.
By Monday, Michael felt as though the past four days had passed in a single endless blur. He crashed on a friend’s couch Saturday night, he thought it was Saturday, he wasn’t sure what happened to Friday, Thursday he’d spent all of the darkness hours with police. One after another. Uncomfortable questions about him and Ky. About the police report filed the night of his emergency room visit. About the faint but still visible bruises on his body. The officer had asked so nonchalantly, and he was so shell-shocked, he hadn’t thought to say no when they asked him to lift his shirt.
They ran over the events of the evening with him so many times that eventually the horror and shock detached themselves from the words and he could recount the story without sobbing, and eventually without tears. Weary and numb, he could finally describe the bloody scene in a flat monotone, all emotion gone to ground deep in the shadowy corners of his mind where he pointedly refused to explore.
They’d released him with warnings to remain available, and, without a home to return to, he’d spent the last hour until sunrise at an all night diner, drinking coffee until his gut protested the abuse, and avoiding the dark corners which crowded in closer every time he let down his guard.
He called in sick to work Friday night, a police officer informed him via a brusque phone call that the coroner had ruled Ky’s death a suicide and that he was now free to travel as he pleased. He had nowhere to go.
He went to Chautauqua Park, at the base of the low foothills. He sat under a tree and watched people with dogs walking and running the trails into the forested hills. As evening fell, he went back into the city, driving the streets, turning randomly until he finally was too tired to go on and didn’t remember sleeping in his car, though he’d awakened to the glare of morning sun off the mountainside of sheer rock faces known as The Flatirons.
Saturday he went to work because he didn’t know what else to do with himself. Unable to face returning to the condo, the generous owner of the couch had taken his key and retrieved his meager belongings. Mostly clothes and toiletries, the rest had been Ky’s.
He showered and dressed at the friend’s apartment and walked into the bar where he’d earned his income for the past year, feeling strangely out of place in the familiar surroundings.
His coworkers, most having seen the story on the news, and those who hadn’t, made knowledgeable by the efficiency of restaurant gossip, cast him hooded glances and whispered to each other after he passed. He ignored them.
Behind the bar, setting up his station, his manager approached, his body language was stiff and awkward. He stood in silence for a moment until Michael finally looked up from his work.
The man seemed unable to meet Michael’s eyes, his gaze shifted quickly over the clean glasses, the cutting board, the jeweled bottles on the shelves behind Michael’s head. “Uh, so… You okay to be back? You need some time off or something?” Michael stared at the man, waiting for eye contact, but not getting it.
He finally set down the glass he’d been drying with slightly more force than needed and gave his head a quick shake. “I’m fine.”
The man nodded, still studying the rows of glasses. “All right. So… Okay, good…” He hesitated and Michael waited for him to say more, but he turned abruptly and practically fled from the work area and disappeared through the swinging glass doors into the back of the restaurant.
Michael took a deep breath. He was aware of two waitresses talking quietly by the receptionist’s station. He turned away, stacking glasses on the shelves behind him.
He turned to wipe down the lacquered wood and glanced up in time to see Melody, a perky blonde who did part time behind the bar, approaching him. She was in black slacks, wearing a black pocketed apron around her waist. Waitressing tonight rather than bartending, she levered herself onto a stool and laid her hand over the one in which he gripped his rag. He risked a look into her face, and found her gaze direct and penetrating. At once he wanted to look away, but found he couldn’t.
“Hey, I saw the news. I’m so sorry.” She was the first person since the police who’d actually admitted frank knowledge of the tragedy. “If there’s anything you need… If you need someone to cover a shift or anything…” She held his gaze, her hand was soft and warm. Michael felt his numb detachment shifting dangerously. A knot formed in his throat. He tried to swallow it and took a shuddering breath. Finally he was able to wrench his gaze from hers and he studied the shiny surface of the bar.
He nodded and muttered an inadequate thanks. She gave his hand a brief squeeze and slipped off the stool, striding away to her own prep duties. Risking a glance back at the two girls by the receptionists’ station, Michael caught the eye of one of them and she, apparently emboldened by Melody’s approach, she gave him a sympathetic smile. He looked away.
Insurance investigators were an unexpected and unwelcome intrusion. After two days on the friend’s couch, Michael moved into a pay-by-the-month motel room until he could save up first and last month for an apartment. An insurance investigator, apparently suited to the investigational aspects of his duties, found him on Wednesday evening. He directed the man to the officer in charge of the case and gave vague and sullen responses to his questions until the man left him alone.
Days passed. He worked. He slept. Sometimes he remembered to eat. Sometimes he cried. He tried to hold the tears at bay, but they built in him until some nights, in the darkness, they wrenched free and spilled, uncontrolled down his face. Once free, they worked open ever deeper wounds until he inevitably sank down to the floor, wedged into a corner of his room, keening softly, gasping and choking until he exhausted himself into uneasy sleep.
Those nights were the only ones he didn’t dream.