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					    The Slave Breakers
             (Book 2)

        Jesse’s Story

       By Maculategiraffe 
 

                
The Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story

By Maculategiraffe

Note: This book originally appeared as posts on LiveJournal and still
contains some editing notes. The text is sexually explicit (including m/m and
polyamorous situations) and is intended for adult readers.

All rights reserved by Maculategiraffe.

If you like the story and want to support the author, please make a donation
at:

http://maculategiraffe.livejournal.com/profile
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                 Maculategiraffe


CHAPTER 1

“Perfect,” said Lord Presniakov, smoothing Jesse’s hair back from his
forehead and surveying him approvingly. “I don’t believe even the slave
breakers could find anything to improve upon in your attitude now. And to
think what you were ten days ago. Perhaps I should go into their business
myself.”

“Perhaps, master,” said Jesse quietly.

Presniakov laughed. “Men of my class don’t go into business, you fool. It’s
well enough for trash like Alix and Holden. Jamesen and Larssen, excuse
me– as if they were born high enough in the world to lay claim to surnames.
But a pig will lie back down in the mud however well you scrub it. It’s
fitting that they deal now with their own sort of filth. Gutter rats and
wayward brats– and runaways. Those whose masters can’t deal with them
themselves.” He touched Jesse’s cheek gently. “Not like me, eh?”

“No, master,” said Jesse, lowering his eyes.

“Still, they serve a purpose, and if they want to meet with me– well, I won’t
turn down a contact, however distasteful to me personally. And you’ll be on
your best behavior, won’t you, dear boy?”

“Yes, master.”

“Of course you will.” Presniakov kissed Jesse lightly on the mouth. “If I’d
known it would improve you this much, I’d have killed your little boyfriend
a long time ago.”

“Yes, master,” said Jesse without emotion, moving to follow Presniakov
downstairs.

****


                                         1 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                  Maculategiraffe


He had not been surprised when his master had ordered him to serve the
drinks and stand in attendance at this meeting. Gregorei Presniakov no doubt
wished to show off Jesse's new, exemplary behavior to the well-known
couple. As for the slave breakers, their motives for seeking an informal visit
with his master were less clear; slave gossip and his master's muttered
remarks in the past had left Jesse and Quen with the distinct impression that
they dealt only with an exclusive cabal, selected for reasons of their own,
and that their master was not part of this privileged circle. But Jesse and
Quen no longer existed, and Jesse alone could not care enough to speculate.

His first vague impressions of the infamous couple were of a handsome and
well-matched pair in their early forties, the woman blonde and prim, the man
dark and expansive, both charming and almost effusively polite. The slave
they had brought with them, a young man of about Jesse’s own age, knelt
between them with his gaze submissively lowered.

“Isn’t he pretty,” Alix remarked of Jesse, and Jesse caught a quick glare
from her husband. “And so well behaved.”

Presniakov smiled, pleased despite himself. “Yes, he’s greatly improved
lately. You may have heard of my trouble recently with an attempted
runaway.”

“We did hear something about it,” said the woman– Alix– absently, still
looking at Jesse. “Killed trying to escape, wasn’t he? Too bad– perhaps we
could have made something of him. Bran here was a runaway once, you
know.”

“It was, of course, an accident,” said Presniakov, smoothly, the distaste in
his voice so delicately modulated as to be undetectable to anyone who did
not know him well. “My dogs are trained with soft mouths, but-- the thrill of
the chase, you know. They do sometimes get carried away. However, I
doubt if even your considerable talents could have rehabilitated Quen. The
boy was a troublemaker, and he incited Jesse here to defiance and


                                         2 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


disobedience. But since Quen was killed Jesse has been a positive model.”


“Happens that way sometimes,” agreed Holden, glancing down at his
cocktail glass as if surprised to find it empty and holding it out to Jesse, who
mutely moved forward and took it to refill. “Neither is so bad individually,
but together--” He shook his head. "Sorry you lost the other kid, though."

Jesse tuned out their chatter, focusing on standing straight and still at
attention and refilling any glasses that emptied. He registered only vaguely,
as the hour progressed, that the slave breakers were both looking less
attractive and refined by the moment. Holden had downed four drinks in an
hour, and his tone had grown rough and boisterous. Alix's lips, meanwhile,
had thinned to a slit, and she sat drawn in on herself, shooting frightened
glances at her husband, who had laughed much too loudly and too long at
Presniakov's last joke and was now draining the last drops of his fourth
drink, glancing around for Jesse. Their young slave, Bran, knelt in as small a
space as possible, obviously hoping to escape his master’s notice.

Jesse managed to catch the other boy’s eye and lifted his hand unobtrusively,
glancing at Holden as he pointed at himself. It was one of the discreet
nonverbal signals most slaves understood: am I in danger from him? Bran
could have touched his fist to his own chest-- you're safe-- or rubbed at his
eyelid-- watch out-- without being noticed by his owners, but he seemed not
to see or understand Jesse's signal, staring up at Jesse with large, frightened
eyes.

“Darling,” Alix said softly to Holden, laying a protective hand on Bran’s
head, “don't you think you've had enough?”

Holden slammed his empty glass down roughly and glared at her.

“Women,” he said bitterly to Presniakov, then laughed again. Locating Jesse
with unfocused eyes, he snapped his fingers. “You, boy– what's your
name?”
                                           3 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe




“Jesse, sir,” he said, moving forward quietly.

“Jesse, your master has the finest damn liquor in the country. And my dear,
sweet wife here doesn't want me to have any. She wants me to die of thirst.
So she can fuck her little slave boys.” He jerked a thumb at Bran, who
cringed, biting his lip. “That's what happens when a man gets old, Jesse.
Ain't that a fucking shame?”

Jesse bowed his head as Presniakov started to speak.

“I asked you a fucking question, boy,” Holden slurred, moving as if to get
up. Alix laid a timid hand on his arm. He slapped at it furiously and she
pulled back, biting her lips and trying to smile at Presniakov.

“Get me another fucking drink, Jesse,” Holden said, and Jesse glanced at his
master, who mouthed “Weak” at him. Obediently Jesse moved to the bar in
the corner and began pouring with his back to them, mixing a drink with a
large proportion of tonic to a mere splash of gin.

“You're a smart guy, Grisha,” Holden told Presniakov, leaning forward
earnestly. “Never married. Now me–“ He flung out his hands expressively.
“Man turns forty-three and his old lady won't even let him in the bed. Loves
her little boys, this bitch.” He glared at Alix again, then, as Jesse approached
with his fresh glass, snatched it from him and took a long swig. After a
moment, he choked and threw the glass at the wall. Alix cried out as it
smashed, and Bran whimpered and curled up into a near-fetal position. Jesse
took an automatic step back as Holden surged upright.

“You fucking with me, boy?” he bellowed, as Jesse stared at him, wondering
if he should feel afraid and instead merely feeling a dull disgust. “You fill up
my glass with water? You fucking stare at my wife's tits all afternoon and
now you fucking disrespect me– Don't you fucking disrespect me–“



                                           4 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


As Jesse backed away, Holden aimed a punch at him. Jesse felt a moment of
detached wonder before the older man's fist smashed into his face with
unbelievable force, knocking him flat on the floor with a choked cry and his
mouth filling with blood. Something hard-- two hard things-- came loose
inside his mouth and he spat them out onto the rug as his tongue
disbelievingly probed the bleeding spot where his top front teeth had been.
Presniakov leaped to his feet. Alix jumped up a second later, her hands
making futile gestures towards Jesse while she edged away from Holden.

“Lord Presniakov, I apologize, I'm very sorry, I, is the boy all right?” she
babbled.

Presniakov had grabbed Jesse roughly by the upper arm and yanked him
upright. He pulled Jesse's bleeding face close and shoved his cut lip up from
his teeth. Half conscious and dizzy, Jesse gasped in pain and nearly choked
on his own blood; Presniakov let him crash to the floor again and turned on
Alix, who stood dithering and wringing her hands. Holden had sunk back
into his chair, muttering to himself about disrespect.

“His front teeth have been knocked out,” Jesse’s master said grimly, while
the room spun around Jesse.

“Oh no,” said Alix unhappily. “I– I'm very sorry– my husband– he's been
under a great deal of pressure lately–“

”Ms. Jamesen. Your husband has ruined a valuable piece of property. He's
of no use to me now. I expect to be compensated.”

“Of– of course,” said Alix, diving for her pocketbook. “I should think– ten
thousand–?”

“Ten thousand–“ Presniakov made a visible effort to contain his rage. “Jesse
would fetch easily five times that on the market if your drunken boor of a
husband hadn't just permanently disfigured him. I don't think fair market
price is too much to ask.”
                                          5 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                  Maculategiraffe




Alix's manner grew markedly less apologetic. “Fifty thousand? You have a
very high opinion of your lad's attractiveness, Lord Presniakov. Fifteen
thousand.”

“So did you, until two minutes ago, I believe. Forty-five thousand.”

“Twenty,” said Alix, looking down at Jesse. “I didn’t like the look on his
face, even before.”

“I understood that attitude adjustment was your specialty. Forty thousand is
the absolute minimum I can accept.”

“And how do I know he’s not going to try and run away, too? I’ll give you
twenty-five thousand for him, and that’s more than he’s worth even without
the damage.”

“Thirty-five,” said Presniakov coldly, “unless you want to address in court
how your husband punched my slave in the mouth while ranting about your
marital difficulties.”

Alix's eyes narrowed. She yanked a checkbook and pen from her bag and
began to write a check.

“This is blackmail,” she said, ripping the check out angrily and pushing it at
Presniakov. He took it fastidiously and tucked it into a breast pocket.

“He's all yours,” said Presniakov. “What’s left of him. Now I recommend
you take your husband home and put him under a cold shower.”

Alix grabbed Jesse by the arm and pulled him upright again. Jesse was
drooling blood, open-mouthed with shock. Alix looked at him with obvious
disgust. Jesse pulled back against her hand, gathering his scattered senses as
he reached out his free hand desperately towards Presniakov.


                                          6 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


“Master, please,” he gasped through through swollen and split lips, his
speech thick and strange to his own ears. "Don't let them--"

Presniakov eyed him coldly. “I’m not your master.”

“Shut up, you worthless brat,” said Alix viciously, and then, “Pick up the
teeth, Bran. We still might be able to– Holden? Are you coming?”

Holden got heavily to his feet, following Jesse, who was being dragged by
Alix, feeling as if he had gone to sleep peacefully and awakened on fire in a
burning building. Bran scrambled after them, looking ready to cry.

“Thirty-five thousand for a toothless twink,” Holden managed to mutter
fairly comprehensibly, glaring balefully at Jesse. “Well, she's the one with
the money.”

****

Alix slammed the passenger door of the car on Holden, who lolled back with
his eyes closed, while Jesse huddled in the back seat with Bran, one hand
over his mouth, trying not to bleed on the upholstery. She got in the driver's
seat herself, shut and locked the doors, and drove off. Holden sat up quickly,
rummaged at his feet for a moment, produced a small jar of opaque white
liquid, unscrewed the top, and turned around, holding his hand out to Bran.
Bran put Jesse’s detached teeth into his master’s palm, and Holden dropped
them into the jar. As Holden replaced the lid, Bran put a hand on Jesse's
shoulder, smiling when Jesse turned to stare at him.

“Hey, Jesse,” he said, and made a fist with his free hand, touching it gently
to his own chest. “Nice to meet you. I’m Bran.”




                                          7 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


CHAPTER 2

“Here,” said Holden, passing Bran back a clean white square of cloth. “Help
him get his face cleaned up.” His voice was quiet and cool, with no trace of
drunken slurring.

Bran slid over on the seat and carefully wiped at the sticky residue of blood
and saliva that had run down Jesse’s chin.

“It’s okay,” he said softly as Jesse's eyes met his.

“It... is?” Jesse managed, staring at Bran's calmly friendly face and
wondering at what point he had gone mad.

“Yes,” said Bran firmly. “Sorry about your teeth. It was the only thing we
could think of to get you out of there.” He leaned in and touched the cut on
Jesse’s lip with the soft cloth. “Master? Painkillers?”

Holden reached back again and dropped three small white pills into Bran’s
outstretched hand, and Bran popped them between Jesse’s lips. Jesse
swallowed automatically before Bran lifted a bottle to his lips, and he drank,
the water metallic and strange from the blood in his mouth.

“I don’t understand,” he said flatly, with a lisp from the missing teeth that
made him feel sick. “What do you mean, get me out?”

“Get you out, like you and Quen were planning to get out,” Bran explained
patiently. “You had a plan, right? To meet at the place in the forest?”

Jesse snapped his mouth shut despite the pain, his throat suddenly dry. No
one knew he and Quen had planned the escape together. And no one was
supposed to know about the place in the forest– certainly no one who would
talk about it in front of the slave breakers.

“Quen made it,” said Bran softly. “He’s alive, Jesse.”
                                           8 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe




Jesse blinked, feeling as if he had been struck in the chest with something
large and heavy.

“Quen is dead,” he said as loudly as he could.

Bran shook his head.

“Presniakov lied,” he said. “Jesse, my master and mistress know the
runaway people. They... help each other out." He gave a quick, crooked
smile. "Quen got safely to Karl and Tara’s, but when you didn't show up on
schedule, he got hysterical and wanted to go back, and they came to us to see
what we could do. My master and mistress put out some feelers, but
Presniakov wasn’t selling, and his security’s pretty airtight right now. As
you probably know.” He nodded at Jesse’s face. “This was all we could
come up with. I'm sorry.”

Jesse shook his head, his head spinning, knowing only that he couldn’t
afford to believe the boy. “I don’t know what you mean. I’ve never heard
of– a place in a forest.”

“It’s true, Jesse,” said Alix calmly from the front seat. “And we’re sorry it
took so long– it must have been hell. But Quen said you were a survivor.
Tougher than him, he said.”

Jesse opened his mouth, hearing with a clarity more like hallucination than
memory the voice he had managed not to remember for ten days. It was one
of the last conversations they had had.

“Jess– oh gods, Jess, look at your hands–"

“Quen, come on, don’t cry. I’m fine. It barely even hurt.”

“Liar. You were screaming.”


                                          9 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


“If I don’t scream he just keeps going till I do, you know that.”

“Gods, Jesse, how can you take it? I can’t take it and I wasn’t even the one–"

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m tougher than you, ever think of that?”

Jesse set his jaw and made his face expressionless to look at Bran, who
grinned, suddenly and irresistibly, and squeezed Jesse's shoulder.

“It’s okay if you don’t believe us,” he said. “You’ll see soon enough. We’re
taking you home to him now.”

“He wanted to come with us,” said Holden gently, turning around to look at
Jesse, “and be waiting in the car for you, but we managed to persuade him
that coming back onto Presniakov's property would endanger not only him,
but you as well. He loves you very much, I hope you know.”

“Of course he knows, idiot,” said Alix. “We know, and I somehow doubt
Quen’s less effusive around Jesse than he is around us.”

“Shut up, you castrating bitch,” Holden slurred in the voice of the the
aggressive brute who had knocked out Jesse's teeth. Jesse startled, and
Holden turned back to him, grinning, as Alix shook her head at him. “Sorry.
My dad was a mean drunk. It’s not often I have occasion to speak my first
language, but it’s nice to keep my hand in.”

Jesse put a hand to his mouth as he stared at Holden, and the older man
grimaced.

“I'm really sorry about that, kid. We’ll call the dentist when we get home–“
he held up the jar of white liquid– “and see if he can’t get them back in. If he
can’t, we’ll figure something out.”




                                          10 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


Jesse swallowed, turning back to Bran, whose smile was like sunlight. Tears
began to trickle down his face as if he, or something inside him, were
melting.

“It's all a bit much, yeah?” Bran said gently, offering the bloodstained white
handkerchief. Jesse dried his tears and crumpled the bloody rag in his hand.

“I still don’t fucking believe you,” he said.

“That’s okay,” Bran repeated, squeezing his shoulder again. “We’re almost
home.”

****

The door of the slave breakers’ house had hardly slammed behind them
when a blur of blue-black hair and pure joy flew into Jesse's arms, nearly
knocking him over.

“Quen,” Jesse whispered, feeling the familiar warmth and shape in his arms
again, leaning on his lover to keep from falling.

Quen hugged Jesse until his ribs creaked, raining kisses on his face and hair.
The floodgates of Jesse’s tears broke while Quen kissed every part of him
that he could reach without letting go.

“Gods, Jess, they really did it, you're really here–“ Quen kissed Jesse's lips,
then gasped and pulled back. “Oh, baby, your poor mouth--“

”It's okay,” said Jesse between sobs, trying to smile without displaying the
toothless gap. “They say maybe they can fix it or– Baldur the beautiful,
Quen, baby, I can’t believe you’re... I can’t–”

“I'll call the dentist now,” said Alix from behind him.



                                           11 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


“Let me-- sit down,” Jesse begged quietly, and Quen guided him to the
steps, helped him sit, and put his arms around Jesse’s neck.

Alix was at the telephone, dialing. Holden had his arm around Bran and was
saying something in his ear while Bran watched Quen and Jesse. Quen was
saying, “Jess, Jess, I'm so fucking sorry I left you behind, I've been going out
of my mind, but you're okay, everything's--"

“Hi, Marjorie,” said Alix into the phone. “Alix Jamesen. Yes, please.” She
turned and made a shushing gesture at Quen. “Hello, Dr. Lewis. Yes, I'm
afraid I've got a bit of a situation on my hands. Two front teeth knocked
completely out. Yes. No, no one you know-- a new acquisition. Yes, I'm
afraid so. Yes. Yes. Do you think you can-- Oh, thank you, doctor. Yes, of
course. I'll see you in half an hour then. Thank you so much. Goodbye.”

She hung up and turned back to Quen and Jesse. Jesse looked up at her, then
at Holden.

“Thank you,” he heard Quen say. “Thank you so much.”

“Pshaw,” said Holden. “Thank Karl and Tara. They're the ones who dealt
with those goddamn bloodhounds of Presniakov's. Alix and I just do the
drawing-room work. Swilling cocktails, punching out innocent slave boys.
Nothing to it.”

“You’re welcome, dear,” said Alix gently, as Quen kissed Jesse's neck.

“Master?” said Bran, turning to Holden with a small smile. “Do you think
Jesse and Quen might like to be alone for a little while?”

“Of course,” said Holden, with a quick answering grin at Bran. “Quen, why
don't you take Jesse upstairs? We'll come get him when the doctor is here.”

Jesse nodded; Quen was already tugging at his arm. He let himself be helped
to his feet and led at a scramble up the stairs, across a wide landing, into a
                                          12 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


neat, smallish bedroom, and onto the bed, where he rolled, exhausted, into
Quen's arms. The bed was wonderfully soft to his tired, tensed muscles, and
he felt himself relaxing in Quen’s embrace. Quen smiled at him, stroking his
face and pressing his body hard against Jesse's.

“Do we have time?” Jesse whispered as Quen's hand found his cock through
the cloth of the light robe he wore-- still Presniakov's light blue slave livery,
as he realized with a slight shock. He noticed for the first time that Quen was
wearing neither blue nor the green Bran had been wearing, but a brown tunic
that was slightly too big for him.

“By the Ash we'll make time,” Quen said softly, pushing folds of cloth out
of the way as his mouth fastened to Jesse's neck. Jesse moaned, his body
lifting to meet Quen's, crushed against his lover, dizzy now with more than
the blow to his head.

****

Some little time later, a quick, soft, oddly paced knock came at the door.
Jesse jumped and instinctively began straightening and smoothing his
clothes, while Quen, slightly bloodstained in places, slid off the bed and
opened the door. Jesse scrambled to his feet in time to see an unfamiliar
man’s face peering in at him and Quen; his heart nearly stopped before Quen
said, “It's okay, Jess. This is Yves. He belongs here.”

“Hi,” said Yves, stepping into the room and drawing the door closed behind
him. He was a handsome man in his late thirties, with an intensely blue gaze
that lingered with sympathetic amusement on the disarranged bed and the
two disheveled boys. “Glad to see you two have been, uh, catching up.”

Quen grinned. Yves winked at him. “The dentist's here. Come with me,
Jesse. Quen, you know the drill: lock the door and stay here till someone
comes to get you.”



                                          13 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                     Maculategiraffe


Quen sat up and pulled Jesse down for a quick kiss on his cheek, just shy of
his cut mouth. “I love you, baby.”

“I love you,” Jesse whispered, tears starting in his eyes yet again, as if all the
tears he hadn't cried for ten days were bound to come out in this one
afternoon. He turned quickly and started for the door.

“Just remember,” said Yves quietly and quickly to him, his hand on the
doorknob, “act scared and confused. Crying's fine, too, if you feel so moved.
Don't talk. If he asks you a direct question, hesitate long enough for the
master or mistress to jump in. And don't act surprised at anything they say.”

Jesse nodded, and Yves opened the door for him, took his arm and guided
him out. Behind them, the door clicked shut, then locked.

“Dear me,” said the dentist. Jesse lay on his back on the high bed in what
looked to be the master bedroom, his mouth propped wide open as the
dentist examined him. “How long ago did this happen?”

“Almost an hour ago,” said Alix, and the realization that it had indeed been
less than an hour since the moment that Holden's fist had come at him was
so bizarrely funny, especially after what the dentist had dosed him with "for
the pain," that Jesse had to hold his breath to keep from laughing.

“A most unfortunate accident,” the dentist said, using a pair of small pincers
to fish one of Jesse's teeth out of the small dish of milk on the table at his
elbow, “though, I hope, a repairable one.”

“It wasn't exactly an accident,” said Alix grimly. Jesse held very still as the
dentist fitted the tooth back into the bloody socket with a mildly curious,
“Oh?”

“Let's just say,” said Alix, “that Jesse's former master has a bit of a temper.”



                                           14 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


“Oh,” said the dentist expressively, doing something to Jesse's gums with a
sharp instrument.

“A bit of a temper is a bit of an understatement,” said Holden. “Presniakov
looks like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, but once he got a few drinks in
him--”

“Presniakov?” said the dentist. Jesse fought back a gag reflex, whether at the
name or at the dentist's poking around in his mouth. “I seem to recall--
wasn't it Presniakov who-- of course, I only hear rumors, but wasn't there
recently a case of a runaway--“

”Torn to pieces by hunting dogs?” Holden supplied. “That's no rumor.
Presniakov confirmed it while we were there. With some relish, I might
add.”

“How horrible,” said the dentist. “To boast about such a thing-- and in front
of this poor lad, no doubt. Was the runaway a friend of his?”

“More than a friend, I think,” said Alix softly, and tears sprang to Jesse's
eyes as the dentist dug into his gums with the sharp thing. “Apparently they
were very close. And Presniakov kept goading Jesse, you know, making
little comments about the other boy's death-- I shouldn't get into it with Jesse
here. Really nasty stuff.”

The dentist made a tch-tch sound as he dug harder into Jesse's gums. Jesse
whimpered in protest.

“There, there,” the dentist said to him soothingly. “That's a brave lad.” Jesse
swallowed another whimper. “He seems docile enough.”

“I think he will be, with proper training,” said Holden. “You can hardly
blame the poor kid. Here he is, his friend's been horribly killed, his master
won't stop needling him about it-- I'd probably have mouthed off too, you
know?”
                                          15 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                      Maculategiraffe




“I take it Presniakov didn't see it that way,” said the dentist, as Jesse tried to
breathe deeply.

“I don't believe he did,” Alix said dryly. “And I hadn't even planned to make
an offer on the boy, but there he is, bleeding on the floor, Presniakov's
clearly not the type to take time to nurse an injured slave back to health, and
with the dog story-- well, I didn't see what else I could do.”

“Of course, of course,” said the dentist, putting something cold and metallic
into Jesse's mouth. “I wouldn't expect you to do anything else, Ms.
Jamesen.”

Alix chuckled. “I know, I'm a soft touch. But I'm a good businesswoman,
too. Got the kid dirt cheap, and if those teeth survive I'll be able to make a
pretty tidy profit.”

“I hope they will,” said the dentist, straightening, “but the only thing we can
do at this point is wait and see. Leave this brace on at all times and don't let
him eat any solid foods. Call me back in a week and I'll check the progress.”
He chuckled. “That is, if you don't need to call me before then for a filling.
Entirely too many sweet teeth in this house!”

“You know us too well,” Alix grinned. “Thank you so much, doctor. We'll
see you in a week.”

When the doctor had taken his leave, Holden came to the bedside and put his
arm around Alix. Jesse looked up at them dizzily, tasting the metal brace on
his teeth, as Holden kissed his wife on the lips.

"It's a good thing," he said, "that he knows us so well."

“Much too well,” Alix agreed primly, adjusting her collar, “to put any stock
in any cock-and-bull story Presniakov might try to put about to save face.
Not that you'd have to know us particularly well to know any such story was
                                            16 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


nonsense. I think having met us once would suffice. I mean, really. You,
getting drunk and taking a swing at a slave? While babbling about my
proclivities towards younger men? Towards Bran, for heaven’s sake? I doubt
anyone who's seen you anywhere near Bran would believe that.”

“That part,” said Holden, "is particularly implausible. And I must say that
even if I could imagine myself throwing punches at pretty slave boys for
imaginary inappropriate advances on you-- instead of making inappropriate
advances on them myself-- I certainly couldn't imagine you just fluttering
around ineffectually and letting it happen. You've always seemed like-- well,
to be frank, I've always gotten the impression-- I could be wrong, of course,
but I think you'd probably bitchslap me.”

"Till your head spun around, darling,” said Alix, laying her head on her
husband's shoulder. “Really, Presniakov couldn't have come up with a more
far-fetched story if he'd tried. Although-- on the other hand--I suppose it’s
just the kind of story you’d expect him to come up with."

"That's the trouble with class prejudice," said Holden, shaking his head
sadly. "Makes you so predictable, doesn't it?”

Jesse laughed suddenly, loudly, and Alix and Holden looked down at him,
arms still twined around each other's waists.

“I think he's high,” said Holden, amused.

"And exhausted," said Alix. "It's been a long afternoon." She pulled away
from Holden to touch Jesse's forehead. "Would you like to sleep for a while,
dear?"

Jesse closed his eyes to consider whether to risk nodding or speaking.

"I'll send Quen in to sit with you," said Alix, but Jesse was already asleep.



                                          17 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


CHAPTER 3

When Jesse woke, his face throbbing painfully, it was nearly dark. He lay
very still, trying to figure out how much of what he could remember had
been a dream. There was a brace on his teeth, and the bed where he lay was
wide and soft, the room-- he turned his head cautiously-- certainly not any
room in Presniakov's house. And someone was sitting beside him, someone
whom he thought for a moment was Quen, but the brief illusion, caused by
the dim light and perhaps by the other boy's concerned, almost tender
expression, quickly resolved itself.

"Hey," said Bran softly. "You're awake."

Jesse nodded and lifted his head tentatively, then sat up, looking around. He
saw a glass of water and three pills by the bed, and he looked at Bran, who
nodded; Jesse snatched at them eagerly, swallowing the pills and draining
the glass.

"Where's Quen?" he asked as soon as he was finished.

"Downstairs with the mistress," said Bran. "He sat with you for a few hours,
but she wanted to talk to him, and we sort of thought you were out for the
night. You want me to take you to your bedroom, or you want to go
downstairs and see him?"

"See him," said Jesse, trying to mask his incredulity at the stupidity of the
question.

"Right," Bran grinned. "Come on, then. I'll take you down."

Jesse followed Bran from the room and out, blinking, onto the lighted hall.
As they passed another open door, a man of about Holden's age, dressed in
the house's green, came out and slung a casual arm around Bran, halting him
as Yves came out a few steps behind. Jesse eyed the stranger, and his
clothes, uncertainly; the older man raised an eyebrow as Bran, his arms
                                          18 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                     Maculategiraffe


clasped fondly around the other man’s neck, kissed him and said, "Hi, Jer.
This is--"

“I know who he is,” said Jer, looking Jesse up and down over Bran's
shoulder.

"The famous Jesse," said Yves, smiling. "We've been hearing about you
non-stop, you know. Glad you made it, kid."

"Yeah," said Jer as Bran pulled away. "Just don't get too comfortable. We’re
running out of bedrooms.”

His tone was faintly hostile, and Jesse shifted nervously. Yves laughed.

“He’s doubling up with Quen,” he said. “And they’ll both be gone soon
enough.”

“I should hope so,” said Jer darkly, still looking at Jesse. “This is getting out
of hand. I don’t know why the two of them can’t just stay with Karl like
normal runaways.”

“Because Jess isn’t a runaway,” said Yves, and leaned in to kiss Jer’s neck
seductively or reassuringly, Jesse wasn’t sure which. “Not yet, anyway.
Don't get so antsy. Remember, Inga’s leaving this week. Won't that be
nice?”

“Oh, Inga,” said Jer dismissively. “I don’t mind her. It’s all these lithe little
boys piling up in the spare bedrooms, with their silken skin and shy,
appealing mannerisms. Bran, I expect you to twine yourself around the
master non-stop until they’re gone, you hear? Remind him he’s already got a
pet teenager to spoil.”

“But I’m almost twenty now,” said Bran, wide-eyed. "So he'll be needing a
new teenager anyway after my birthday, right? Isn't that how it works?"


                                           19 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


"Don't you get sarcastic with me, you little brat," said Jer, but he rumpled
Bran's hair affectionately as Yves laughed again. “The other one's
downstairs in the kitchen. Go on, get moving."

Bran ran a hand through his hair to try to straighten it-- but only succeeded
in disarranging it further-- as Jesse followed him down the steps and across a
hallway. Jesse could hear Quen's voice faintly, then a woman's, which as
they came closer to an open doorway he could recognize as Alix's. He
stopped instinctively before they reached the doorway, glancing at Bran,
who looked back at him inquiringly. Jesse cupped his ear, and Bran nodded,
leaning back against the wall to let Jesse listen unseen.

Quen's voice, full of emotion. “We'll pay you back. Once we're free we'll
find jobs and we can start paying you back–“

A laugh. Alix's. “Don't worry about it.”

“But you--“

”Really, Quen,” said Alix. "Not that you're not extremely sweet to offer, but
we do a good business and we don't have many expensive tastes. Our one
real luxury expenditure is the financing of runaways. Please, let us indulge
ourselves.”

A pause, then, “When will we leave here?”

“Now that's a bit of a complicated question,” said Alix. “If it were just a
matter of two runaways, we'd get you out within the week. But everyone
knows Jesse is here, so we have to give it some time. He can't just vanish.”

“Why not?” Quen asked a little bitterly. “Slaves vanish all the time.”

“Not from my house,” said Alix. “At least, not without a good reason. Don't
worry, Quen. We'll get you both out. First we have to see to Jesse's teeth.”


                                           20 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                  Maculategiraffe


“Yes,” Quen pursued. “What if they don’t– heal?”

“Then Jesse can vanish.”

A longer pause. “And if they do?”

“We'll use other channels,” said Alix cryptically.

“How long will it take?”

“I don't know. The doctor said a week to see if Jesse's teeth will survive. We
can take advantage of that time to set something up just in case, but-- I'm
sorry, Quen-- you might have to be patient for a little while longer.”

“No, I'm sorry,” Quen protested. “I hate to-- impose on you-- like this. And I
hate that you're losing all this money. And--“

”It's okay, Quen,” said Alix firmly.

Jesse took a breath and stepped into the doorway, followed by Bran, who put
a friendly hand on his back as Alix looked up with a smile. Quen turned
around and then jumped up from the table and threw his arms around Jesse
again, crushing him close and kissing his face till Jesse laughed softly at his
lover's enthusiasm.

"I thought you were dead," he said in Quen's ear. "What's your excuse?"

"You were with him," Quen whispered. "Didn't we agree that was worse
than being dead?"

"I thought we agreed it was worse than risking being dead." Jesse held Quen
tightly. "Anyway, we're both--" As Quen finally released him, he glanced at
Alix, not sure whether to follow his training and kneel to his new mistress or
simply stand as Bran was doing beside him.


                                         21 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


"Sit down," said Alix helpfully. "Are you hungry?”

“No, mistress,” said Jesse as he sat obediently, his stomach lurching at the
thought of food. Quen sat down next to him, putting a hand over his; Jesse
squeezed it.

"May I go, mistress?" Bran asked respectfully.

"Yes, dear," said Alix, and as Bran went, "Let's talk about the future, Jesse.”

Jesse nodded, his stomach twisting into double knots as Alix sipped from a
delicate china teacup.

“You know my husband and me as the slave breakers. It's true our business
is in slave training and retraining. But as we discussed earlier-- though I'm
not sure how much you took in, you were in a bit of a state-- we have friends
whose business, so to speak, is helping fugitive slaves. And Holden and I
help when we can. Besides our financial contribution, we have contacts, and
a certain standing in the community.” She sipped again. “Did you ever hear
Lord Presniakov speak of a Nikol Argounov?"

Jesse flushed and tried not to look at Quen; the terms in which their master
had spoken of Argounov were not ones he was anxious to repeat.

"Ah," said Alix. "Yes. And did he ever speak of Lady Tatiana Rostova?"

"Yes, mistress," said Jesse, rather intrigued now despite himself. "Lord
Argounov's sister, right? Isn't she the one who married the--" Jesse caught
himself, on the verge of repeating one of Presniakov's expletives. "The, uh,
abolitionist?"

"The very one," said Alix gravely, looking as if she might know what he had
almost said. "Lady Rostova and I first met when she came to visit for the
occasion of her brother's wedding, and although we didn't agree on
everything, we did rather hit it off. And ever since I-- since my own
                                          22 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


marriage-- we've corresponded. She lives quite near the western border of
this country, you see, and as you note, she and her husband have certain
principles."

"She's an abolitionist too, mistress?" Jesse asked, even more intrigued. "But-
- your business--"

"As I said, we don't agree on everything. But she's a dear woman and she's
been invaluable to us as a contact. She's not received in society here, of
course, but she does visit her brother from time to time. If your teeth
survive-- which I certainly hope they will-- I think we may have to arrange a
visit with her. She might be interested in buying."

"Buying?" Jesse repeated, his hand tightening convulsively on Quen's.
"Buying me? But--"

“Yes," said Alix. "If Lady Rostova's quixotic principles should stretch to
accomodate buying a pretty young boy from the slave breakers, well, that
would certainly give everyone around here a hearty chuckle. And if you
should happen to manage an escape across the border quite soon after she
takes you back home, that would be an even better laugh, wouldn't it?
Westerners-- what can you do?”

Jesse blinked at her for a long moment, trying to take this in.

"That's just an option," she said. "First things first. We have to see to your
teeth, and-- it may all take some time. I'm sorry. I know you'd hoped-- when
you planned your escape--"

“That's okay, mistress,” Jesse said awkwardly. “I don't mind waiting.”

“It's just.” Alix sipped again. “People know you're here. And we have
visitors.”

Jesse stared blankly at Alix, who was looking apologetic.
                                          23 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                     Maculategiraffe




“You have to keep acting like a slave,” she said. “Just until we can sort this
all out. I'm sorry.”

Jesse looked down at the table, his mouth suddenly dry, then back at Alix.

“Okay,” he said. “Sure. I've done it for years, I can-- It's just, my mouth.”

Alix regarded him with friendly incomprehension, waiting for more.

“I can-- I mean, it's okay, right, that I can't use it? Everything else is fine,
my-- my--“ He found himself blushing crimson and strangely angry as Alix
continued to examine him attentively, as if waiting without impatience for
him to start making sense. Surely she must realize what he was trying to
convey.

“Jesse," said Quen softly. “She just means you have to be polite, say master
and mistress, keep your eyes down when there's people around.”

Jesse stared at him, then at Alix, who looked utterly confused.

“What did you think I-- oh, gods. You thought I meant sexual service."

”You said act like a slave,” said Jesse, hearing the edge that had crept into
his voice, but too angry and humiliated to stop. “Maybe that means
something different to you and your-- contacts-- but you know whose slave
I've been. Do you really think-- I mean, for Njord's sake, what did you think
I was going to think? I--"

Quen's nails dug into Jesse's wrist; Jesse gasped and stopped.

“Quen, dear,” said Alix gently. “I think Jesse is still tired. Why don't you
take him up to your room?”



                                           24 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


The telephone rang, and Jesse jumped so hard that Alix's teacup sloshed,
then bit his lip, fighting his reflexive urge to drop to the floor. Instead he
stood, shakily, clutching Quen's hand, as Alix hurried ahead of them from
the room to answer the telephone.

****

“I'm sorry,” he said unhappily to Quen when the bedroom door had closed
behind them. “I’ve just had sort of a long day, you know? Do you think
she’s pissed at me?”

Quen put his arms around him and kissed him.

“It's okay,” he said. “Everything's going to be okay now.”

“Gods,” said Jesse, tears pricking in his eyes for what felt like the hundredth
time in this very strange day. “I wish I could believe that. I really do. And
maybe you're right. I just can't--”

Quen kissed his ear. “You think it's too good to be true?"

"Good things usually are," said Jesse grimly, and then abruptly yanked Quen
closer. "Except you. When I thought you were dead-- but you fucking did it,
Quen, you made it. You must have been so brave and smart and fast and--
I'm so damn proud of you, baby. You're the survivor. You're the toughest of
all."

Quen blushed and buried his face in Jesse's shoulder just as the quick,
rhythmic knock came at the bedroom door. It opened and Alix came in
without waiting for a response, her face grave. Quen pulled back, looking
worried.

“Quen,” Alix said quietly. “Jesse. I’m not sure if this is good news or bad
news.”


                                           25 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


Quen swallowed and grabbed Jesse’s hand.

“That was Tara on the phone,” Alix said. “She says there’s a perfect
opportunity– she didn’t say what, they don't like to say more than they have
to. But she says there’s practically no risk and opportunities like this don’t
come along every day and... she wants to take Quen now. Tonight.”

Jesse felt the blood drain from his face.

“No!” said Quen immediately. “Not without Jess.”

“Yes,” said Jesse, after a pause to get his voice under control. “Sweetheart,
you’ve got to. You can’t turn down something like this. I’ll be fine. You can
be... getting everything ready for me, when I come. I’ll know you’re okay
and you’ll know I’m okay and... and we’ll see each other soon.”

“No,” Quen nearly snarled. “I’m not leaving you behind. Not again.”

Jesse smiled calmly into his eyes. “Don’t be stupid. It's not like leaving me
with him. The, um-- the master and mistress--” He avoided Alix's eye. "You
trust them, right?"

Quen nodded, then flung his arms around Jesse and held him so hard that
Jesse struggled to breathe.

“Are you sure?” he whispered.

“Yes,” said Jesse again, swallowing a treacherous sob before pulling back to
smile at Quen. “This is good news, baby. Don't cry. I'll see you soon.”

But Quen did cry. Jesse held his shaking lover in his arms, looking up at
Alix with a face he tried hard to keep blank and unreadable.

"I'll give you two a few minutes alone, then," she said quietly, and left the
room, shutting the door behind her.
                                            26 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                Maculategiraffe




"Quen," said Jesse, and stopped.

"What?" Quen choked out.

"Nothing," said Jesse, who had started to say, Promise you won't try to come
back for me. But that was stupid. Doubly stupid because he had almost said
it ten days before, at Presniakov's. And he'd known, even then, that Quen
wouldn't go at all if he knew Jesse didn't believe they could both make it.




                                         27 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


CHAPTER 4

Alix gave them more than a few minutes— perhaps twenty– and although
Quen had stopped crying by the time she came back, Jesse was thankful
when she came back to take him. They kissed at the door to the bedroom,
careful of Jesse’s mouth, before Quen tore himself away and followed Alix.
Alix glanced back only once, Quen not at all, but it wasn’t until he heard the
car start outside that Jesse let his control slip. His face twisting so hard that
his mouth hurt, red and black building up behind his eyes, he spun around
and punched the wall, the physical pain that shot through his fist and elbow
such a relief that he kicked the bed till it shook and he thought he might have
broken a toe. Then he flung himself face down on the bed, letting the pain
fill him, hurting too badly for tears.

He was so preoccupied with riding out the flood of rage and misery that
threatened to overwhelm him that it wasn’t until a gentle hand was laid on
his back that he realized someone else was in the room with him, sitting on
the edge of the bed. He rolled over quickly, his face carefully blank again.

“You okay?” Bran asked softly.

Jesse nodded, trying to smile.

“I know it’s all crazy,” said Bran. “I’m really sorry Quen had to leave
already.”

“It’s good, though,” said Jesse, surprised and pleased by how normal his
voice sounded. “They said it’s a perfect opportunity.”

“Yeah,” said Bran, “it’s good, but– it’s too bad. I was thinking he’d be here
to help you get a bit more settled in, you know, so you’re not just wandering
around all disoriented. But I’d like to try and help with that. If you want. I
mean, I’ll leave you alone if you want, I just thought I’d– offer.”



                                          28 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


“How come?” Jesse asked curiously, sitting up. Bran looked nothing like
Quen, really– but something in his expression was like Quen’s wistful look
when he wanted something but didn’t want to be a bother. Jesse’s instinctive
distrust warred with his equally instinctive desire to turn that half-hopeful
expression into a smile.

Bran shrugged, fidgeting slightly. “I know what it’s like to be new and
confused. Of course it was easier for me, because I was being trained, so my
master was there with me telling me what to do, but he’s not training you,
and he’s busy a lot– and I’ve got free time. And–“ He blushed. “I heard a lot
about you from Quen, before you came. More than– well, I was the only one
near his own age, the rest of them sort of made him nervous, and I liked
listening. He was so worried about you. He told me all day long about how
wonderful you were, how bad it had gotten sometimes at Presniakov’s, how
you always– looked after him. I– well, I sort of like you already, I guess.”

A real, if small, smile stretched Jesse’s swollen lips for the first time since
the telephone had rung. Bran smiled back, and Jesse felt warmed, a little of
the pain of Quen’s departure leaving his clenched muscles.

“Thanks,” he said. “I do need someone to show me around and explain
what’s going on. Will you? I’d like that.”

Bran nodded, pleased. “Of course. I thought– you might like to hear– who
everyone is around here?”

"Yeah," said Jesse. "There's the master and mistress, Alix and Holden, right,
and then that old guy, Jer, and Yves-- they're both slaves? And there's
someone named Inga?"

"Good memory," said Bran. "Yeah, Jer and Yves and I all belong to the
master. Yves is a sweetheart. Jer is too, once you get to know him, but he's a
little jumpy around people he sees as a threat– it might take him a while to
warm up to you. Inga's a trainee, she’s seventeen, but she'll be leaving this


                                          29 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


week, so you probably won't see much of her-- but she's nice, anyway. The
mistress has a slave named Greta, red hair, about thirty-five--"

"They like them well broken in, huh?" said Jesse, interested.

"I guess you could put it like that," said Bran wryly. "Yves and Greta have
both lived here almost twenty years. They're sort of-- part of the family.
Plus, well, it's a long story, but Greta, when she was young, she got
pregnant, and the master and mistress sort of adopted her daughter."

"They took her baby?" Jesse asked with appalled fascination. "I bet that kept
Greta in line!"

"It wasn't like that," said Bran, surprised. "They treat her like she's really
their daughter. I mean, she knows Greta's her real mother, but-- she's
nineteen now, Miss Valor is, she just recently moved out and got her own
place, she's on scholarship at the university in Arthenia. But she comes over
for dinner pretty often, so you'll see her too, probably. Tall, dark hair, very
intense, scared the shit out of me when I first got here-- she's particularly
good at pushing the master's buttons."

"Great," said Jesse. "Sounds like a lot of fun for the slaves."

Bran smiled slightly. "You don't have anything to worry about. Really. The
master and mistress are-- they're-- you can trust them."

"Mmm." Jesse looked away. "I'm-- not quick to trust people, Bran.
Especially not people who can legally kill me if I piss them off.”

“How about me?” Bran asked, serious again. “Think you could trust me?
Quen did.”

Jesse smiled a little bitterly. “Quen trusted– trusts people, yeah. I mean, you
seem really nice, and you’re being sweet as hell to me so far. But--”


                                          30 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


“Fair enough,” said Bran philosophically. He hesitated, then said shyly, “Do
you, um– would you like me to sleep here tonight? With you?”

“Is that okay?” Jesse asked, surprised. “I mean, with your– with the master
and everything?”

Bran blushed. “Sleeping in the same bed, that’s fine. And if you wanted to–
you know– touch, hold each other? But if you want– sex, or anything like
that, I’ll have to ask him for permission. I don’t think he’d mind, but I’d
have to ask.”

“No sex,” said Jesse quickly. “But sleeping. Yeah, that sounds nice.”

Bran undressed rather self-consciously, and folded his tunic neatly; Jesse
dropped Presniakov’s tunic to the floor with a distaste that probably would
have expressed itself with greater violence if Bran hadn’t been watching.

“There’s one in the drawer there,” said Bran tentatively. “I mean a green
one. Like mine. For in the morning.”

“Great,” said Jesse again, and Bran smiled a little wryly at his palpable lack
of enthusiasm, then flicked out the light. They climbed into bed from
opposite sides and lay down, not quite touching.

“Thanks for this, Bran,” Jesse said softly. “I wouldn’t have liked to wake up
alone.”

“I know,” said Bran gently, and moved closer in the dark, cuddling rather
tentatively up against Jesse. Jesse moved closer as well, and kissed Bran
impulsively on his naked shoulder.

“You sure you don’t want to have sex?” Bran whispered. “I’m pretty sure I
can get permission.”



                                          31 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


“No, I don’t want to,” said Jesse rather shortly, and was surprised when Bran
pulled away immediately. “Sorry, I just– I’m really tired.”

“Course you are,” said Bran, sounding a little muffled. “Been a long day.
Sleep well, Jess. See you in the morning, okay?”

Jesse lay still, his cock achingly hard, missing Bran’s touch. He wondered
for a moment if he should tell Bran he’d changed his mind. But the idea of
Bran asking permission from Holden was somehow insufferable, and he
turned over, letting himself– for the first time in ten days– think about Quen.

****

Jesse woke up the next morning enveloped in warm arms and legs. For a
moment he thought it was Quen wrapped around him, and panicked, jerking
himself violently away; then he saw Bran’s hair and heard his slight groan of
protest as he came awake. Heart still pounding, he tried to lie still,
remembering where he was.

“Oh,” said Bran groggily. “Damn. Sorry.” He peeled himself the rest of the
way off of Jesse, looking sheepish. “I should have warned you-- I can get a
bit clingy in my sleep. Sorry to bother you.”

“No, no,” said Jesse awkwardly. “You didn’t. I just– it’s fine.”

“Thanks. I’ll try to keep my hands to myself in the future. I mean– if you
want to–” Bran looked down. “We don’t have to do that again. I’ve got my
own bed and all.”

Amused by Bran’s shyness, Jesse smiled reassuringly. “No, it was nice. I’d
like to.”

Bran looked up, relieved, his glance lighting on the clock by the bed.



                                          32 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                  Maculategiraffe


“Damn,” he said again. “Throw on your clothes, we’re late for breakfast.
Top drawer there, by the bed.”

As Jesse scrambled to do so, someone knocked at the door.

“Come in,” Bran called, half into his tunic. Holden came in, darkly
handsome in steel gray and black, and Jesse’s heart gave another unexpected
lurch of terror. He glanced at Bran, who didn't kneel, so Jesse didn't either,
but his hands shook as he tried to unfold the unfamiliar green garment.

“Morning,” said Holden, smiling and holding out a hand to Bran; Bran went
to him eagerly, offering his mouth for a kiss, and Holden obliged, pulling
Bran close and embracing him with obvious affection. “You two coming
down?”

“We overslept, master,” said Bran apologetically, stepping back as Holden
let him go.

“I came in earlier and you both looked very comfortable,” said Holden, and
Jesse’s pulse raced. Presniakov had only had to catch Jesse and Quen asleep
and entwined once to cure them of the habit forever. “I didn’t like to wake
you. How late were you up?”

“Not much after Quen left,” said Bran. “I offered to show Jesse around and
help him get adjusted, and he let me sleep here.”

“That’s nice,” Holden said, then looked at Jesse curiously. “You okay?”

Jesse moistened his lips and nodded.

“Maybe he’s just nervous around you, master,” said Bran. “You did punch
him in the mouth yesterday for no apparent reason.”

“Mmm. Good point. Did I mention I’m sorry about that, Jesse?”


                                         33 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


Jesse nodded silently.

“I am. Really. And you don’t have to come down to breakfast if you don’t
want to. Fox made a few things that should be okay on your teeth, but she
can leave them in the kitchen for you if you’d rather take it easy today, and
Bran can bring them up to you later.”

Jesse nodded again.

“You can stay with him, Bran, if you want to,” said Holden. “I’m taking
Inga to Galenova’s again this morning, and we probably won’t be back until
after lunch. Then-- well, you know how Jer’s doing right now. I think in his
mind there are at least six teenage boys currently staying here, and I’m
fucking five of them. I’ll need to spend some time with him this afternoon,
see if we can’t get it down to two and one. Today’s your day to go to the
market, right? Want me to get someone else to go? Or would Jesse like to go
with you?”

Bran glanced at Jesse. “Jess? Feeling up to getting out of the house? It might
be nice. Take your mind off things.”

“Sure,” said Jesse, and cleared his throat. “If it– sure.”

“Fine,” said Holden. “You know where we keep the cash, Bran. Take some
extra and browse around a bit if you like– have fun, annoy the vendors, try
and get Jesse to relax a little. No solid food for him until those teeth heal,
though, okay?”

Bran nodded, smiling into Holden’s eyes. “Thank you, master.”

Holden kissed him again, lightly. “My pleasure, sweetheart.”

“What’s wrong, Jess?” Bran asked when Holden was gone.

Jesse sighed. “I’m sorry. I guess he just makes me nervous, like you said.”
                                           34 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe




Bran nodded. “Don’t judge him on the way he acted at Presniakov’s. He’s
not like that, not at all. He’s– nice.”

“Sure,” said Jesse, then gave Bran a quick smile. “You in love with him or
something?”

Bran blushed crimson. “Is it really that obvious?”

“I’m observant,” said Jesse, touching Bran’s hot cheek gently. “Wow. I’ve
never met a slave in love with his master before. I thought they were
mythical. Lucky him.”

“Lucky me, you mean,” said Bran, smiling a little.

“Nah,” said Jesse. “Pretty sure I meant lucky him. Must be fun for him,
having so many slaves, you and Yves and Jer all just to serve him, right?
Plus whoever he’s training? Young and tender, old and broken in, scared and
confused... all desperate for his attention. Yeah, that's not fucked up at all."

Bran raised his eyebrows. “You’ve been here about fifteen hours, Jess, and
for twelve of them you were asleep. Observant or not, I’m pretty sure you
don’t know my master as well as I do just yet.”

Jesse laughed, rather liking the flash of defiance from the shy boy. “No
impugning the master's honor in front of you, huh? Okay, fine. I can keep
my mouth shut. Just don't expect me to fall in love with him, too."

"Believe me," said Bran, "that’s the last thing I want. You want me to go
down and grab you your breakfast? I’ll get something for me too, and we
can eat and get out of here.”




                                          35 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


CHAPTER 5

Jesse felt almost like a kid again as he and Bran wandered the cheerfully
bustling market, except that he was wearing shoes and– considering the
circumstances– didn’t feel it was politic to steal anything. Several of the
merchants seemed to know Bran and made light chatter with him as he and
Jesse admired their wares; others gave them cool stares or shook their heads
indulgently, obviously dubious whether the two young men had any money
to spend, but willing to indulge their poking and prying. Bran made several
purchases that were clearly routine while Jesse wandered off to play with
brightly colored toys or flip through lavishly illustrated books, though he
refused to let Bran buy him anything with Holden’s money.

“I’m costing them enough money, just being here,” he said, and Bran raised
an eyebrow, but didn’t argue.

One matronly woman at a fruit stall tossed an apple at Bran as he started to
walk past her, and he caught it, laughing, and turned back.

“I have to bribe you to notice I’m alive, now?” she complained good-
naturedly, and, as Bran started to fish in the pouch slung around his waist,
“No, love, keep your master’s money, just so you give me that pretty smile
of yours. Who’s your new friend?”

“Marta, this is Jesse,” said Bran, with a dazzling rendition of the smile she’d
asked for.

“And has Jesse got a smile to give me?” Marta asked, turning to Jesse, who
looked down, uneasy with her familiarity and rather conscious of the brace
on his teeth. “No? Then I’ll take a coin. What’ll it be?”

“He can’t have anything,” said Bran apologetically. “But could I get a
couple of pears for Inga?”



                                          36 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


“How is Inga?” Marta asked, slipping the pears into a paper sack. “Ready for
the big day?”

“Definitely,” Bran grinned. “She’s really excited. Thanks, Marta.” He gave
the woman a coin and took the paper sack she handed him, tucking the apple
inside as well.

“So conscientious, isn’t he, Jesse?” Marta said fondly, winking at Bran.
“Wouldn’t dream of eating anything without asking permission first. If his
master found out, he might very well frown, and we couldn’t have that,
could we?”

“She certainly seemed to know a lot about you,” said Jesse as they walked
on.

“They know us around here,” said Bran, still a little pink from Marta’s
teasing. “I mean, all of us– people mostly know who we are, the slave
breakers’ slaves. Some of them are sort of nervous around us, but–“

He stopped talking and walking at the same time. Jesse turned to find a
pretty young girl in a faded blue dress that was much too small for her,
clutching at Bran’s arm.

“Bran, I need to talk to you,” she said, ignoring Jesse.

“Sure, Trini,” said Bran, looking concerned. Jesse didn’t blame him; he
hadn’t seen such a scared expression since his own in Presniakov’s mirror
the night Quen had run. “What’s wrong?”

The girl hauled at his arm, dragging him closer.

“I messed up,” she almost whispered.

“What happened?” Bran asked gently. “Tell me.”


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The girl leaned even closer to Bran and said something too softly for Jesse to
hear.

“Trin-- why didn’t you talk to Yves yesterday?”

She shrugged, tears spilling down her cheeks.

“It’s okay,” said Bran, putting an arm around her and kissing her on the
temple. “Meet me here about seven tomorrow morning at Leaf’s stall. Can
you? Cheer up, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be fine.”

“Yeah?” she said hopefully, pulling back to examine his face.

“Yeah,” said Bran, smiling at her, and she beamed back, wiping her eyes on
her sleeve, and turned to hurry away.

“What was all that about?” Jesse asked, bemusedly watching the girl’s
retreat.

Bran sighed. “The kids around here– I mean the kids who know they’re
going to get sold– they like to chat with us sometimes, get a feel for what’s
about to happen to them. So when they’re in trouble–”

“What kind of trouble?”

“All kinds of trouble.” Bran grimaced. “Parent trouble, sometimes– a certain
kind of parent gets grabby as hell in those last couple of weeks. Or if there’s
a sweetheart, and they want, you know, one perfect moment to remember
forever. I was lucky– my parents were dead, and my granddad really didn’t
give a shit about me except for the money he could get– and I never had a
lover. I actually thought things might get better after I was sold.”

Jesse was surprised by how much the bitterness in Bran’s normally sweet
voice upset him. He opened his mouth to ask, then closed it.


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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


“She seemed awfully eager to talk to you,” he said instead.

“That’s just Trini,” said Bran, smiling a little. “We’ve all got our fans. Well,
except Jer, he’s such a sarcastic bastard they all hide when he comes out–
but Trini thinks I’m her big brother.”

“Brother?” said Jesse, with a sidelong grin. “I don’t know about that.”

Bran looked at him in surprise, then grinned. “You think she’s got a crush on
me? I don’t know– maybe. If it means she’ll talk to me about this stuff–
She’s a good kid. Don’t want her killing herself or anything, you know?”

“Does that happen?” asked Jesse, shocked.

“If they’re scared enough,” said Bran grimly, “and don’t think they can tell
anyone. My master told me they once had a father bring in the dead body of
his pregnant daughter– she’d hanged herself– and demand to know what he
could get for it. Greta answered the door. She was sick for a week
afterwards. Seven years later and she still doesn't like to answer the door.”

“See,” said Jesse, and took a breath. “See, okay, if my master– my former
master, I mean. Presniakov. If he owned Greta, he’d make it– he’d make
sure she was in charge of answering the door. Always. And if it seemed like
she didn’t mind any more, he’d make sure... interesting things... sometimes
came to the door. It would be worth the trouble. For him.”

“Yeah,” said Bran quietly. “Okay. I know what you mean, Jess. Quen told
me– I’m sorry.”

They said nothing for a few minutes, while Jesse passed several vendors
without having any idea what they were selling.

“What did he tell you?” he asked finally.



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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


“He said–“ Bran hesitated. “He said Presniakov liked to hurt one of you
and– make the other watch, that kind of thing.”

“Yeah,” said Jesse. “But that wasn’t the worst thing. At least when– and he
liked me to be the one in– physical pain, because when it was Quen– I never
cried or begged when Quen was the one screaming, I never gave the bastard
anything, so he got tired of that pretty quick. But Quen– couldn’t help it, he
loved me, and he– but I didn’t mind. It just meant he– Presniakov– liked to
hurt me better, and I liked that better too, I could stand it better than Quen.
And at least when he was hurting me I knew–“

He stopped walking abruptly, feeling sick. Bran stopped with him, waiting, a
little pale. The bustle of the market went on around them, shouts and
haggling and arguments and shoppers pushing past them laden with bags and
parcels.

“He liked to separate us,” said Jesse finally, and Bran moved closer,
listening. “Quen would be gone for days, weeks, and I wouldn’t know where
he was, and it turned into this game where he’d wait– Presniakov– and wait
and wait for me to ask and when I asked he’d... gods, it was fucked up, okay,
I don’t want to talk about it.” Someone jostled him and knocked him off
balance; Bran reached out a hand to steady him, and Jesse clutched it
gratefully, not letting go even when he had his balance back. “But every
time it happened I was sure he’d finally killed him. And then he really had. I
mean, Quen was really dead, he wasn’t coming back. And it was all– over.
And now it’s started again, and– Bran? I'm not sure I can take this.”

“You can,” said Bran gently. “You know you can. You have to, Jess. We’ll–
I’ll do everything I can to make it easier. But Quen said you’d always been
the strong one. You just have to be the strong one for a little longer.”

“Yeah,” said Jesse, looking up into Bran’s wide, worried eyes. “Yeah, you're
right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–- I miss him, Bran, you know? I almost think
I miss him more now that he’s not dead than– I know it doesn’t make
sense.”
                                          40 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                  Maculategiraffe




“Sure it does,” said Bran quietly. “Come with me, Jess. Let’s find
somewhere to sit down. I think you might need to talk.”

****

It was well past noon when they returned to the house, and the young
woman in the kitchen, Fox, was annoyed with Bran.

“Where the hell have you been?” she demanded, grabbing bags from his
hands. “Behind a bush with the new boy? Your master’s looking for you.”

Bran looked up, startled. “I didn’t think he’d be back yet.”

“They came back early. Another fight with Kai, I guess.”

“Shit,” said Bran, biting his lip. “Is he upset?”

“Not with you, I don’t think,” said Fox, her pinched face softening slightly
as she looked at Bran’s troubled expression. “But you’d best go find him.
And you, new boy, what’s your name,” she added, as Bran hurried out,
“make yourself useful and wash these for me.”

Jesse spent the next hour and a half in the kitchen, rather clumsily
performing the various tasks Fox peremptorily set him. He was grateful for
the distraction at first, but had just about decided to rebel under her bad-
tempered rule when Bran came back in with a spring in his step, smiling
brightly.

“Fox,” he said, looking at what Jesse was doing, “quit taking advantage.
You don’t have to do all that, Jess.”

“Don’t boss free people around, boy,” Fox snapped.



                                           41 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                 Maculategiraffe


His smile slipping only a notch, Bran dropped dramatically to his knees at
Fox’s feet, clutching her around the waist and looking up winsomely.

“Forgive my insolence, please, worshipful madam Fox,” he said. “You know
I’m just jealous. I thought ruining the pie crust was my special privilege.”

“Get off, you idiot,” said Fox grumpily, but the corners of her mouth were
twitching. “And stop being so obscenely cheerful. It leaves nothing to the
imagination.”

Bran got up obediently, his grin full-on again.

“Let me,” he said, taking the sifter from Jesse’s hand. “Tell me you’ve at
least fed him something, Fox.”

“I’m not hungry,” said Jesse quickly. “But I’m kind of tired.”

“Why don’t you go lie down for a while?” Bran turned and quickly, shyly,
kissed Jesse’s cheek. “Take it easy. No one will bother you. Promise.”

Jesse looked back into Bran’s eyes, but was too conscious of Fox’s presence
to say anything but, “Yeah. Okay. Thanks, Bran.”


Lying down on his bed, he didn’t expect to sleep, but when he opened his
eyes again it was three hours later and dreams of Quen had put such an ache
in his stomach that he couldn’t stand to be alone another minute. He
stumbled out of bed and onto the hall. Passing an unfamiliar, ajar door, and
thinking it might be Bran’s room, he pushed it farther open without
knocking.

He sucked in his breath at the sight of the implements lining the walls and
the benches and horses scattered menacingly throughout the room. It took a
moment before he registered the two other people in the room. A sloe-eyed
girl, tawny hair with streaks of burnished gold spilled like a halo around
                                         42 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


features almost too strong for beauty, lay naked on a mattress on the floor,
her skin golden and perfect against the pristine white sheet, her breasts full
and high, her knees raised and wide. Stretched out beside her, fully clothed,
one arm indolently flung across her belly, his hand between her legs, his
darkly handsome face intent on her face, was Holden. The whole affair,
implements and all, reminded Jesse of certain paintings that had hung in
Presniakov’s house, except for the blissful expression on the girl’s face.

The girl noticed him first and moved, smiling; Holden followed her gaze and
raised an eyebrow at Jesse.

“Can I help you?” he asked, his fingers still moving. Jesse swallowed and
looked down.

“I’m sorry,” he said, already starting to back out. “I–“

“Come in,” said the girl, her voice rich and husky. “I haven’t met you yet.
Can he, master? I’m Inga. You’re Jesse... right?”

Jesse nodded and looked at Holden, who jerked his head in mute assent, and
Jesse came in and knelt awkwardly on the girl’s other side, trying to look
only at her face.

“Hi.” The girl breathed in sharply, her eyes half closing. “How was... the
market?”

“Busy,” said Jesse, his eyes glued to her face as she sucked her bottom lip
between her teeth, her eyes, the color of bruised violets, widening again.
“Bran, uh, bought you some pears.”

Inga’s laugh trailed off into a soft, throaty moan.

“Isn’t he... sweet,” she gasped. “I’m glad you’re here, Jess...ssse.” The
middle part of his name was a drawn-out hiss of pleasure. “Quen was...
worried sss– sick about you... you know... oh–“
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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                     Maculategiraffe




She arched gently, her eyes closing without stress, her lips full, flushed, and
parted slightly as if in sleep. Then she exhaled, long and satisfied, and
opened her eyes again, turning her head to smile radiantly at Holden.

“That’s cheating, wench,” said Holden lazily, lifting wet, musky fingers to
his lips and tasting them with his tongue before drying them on the sheet.

“We were just having a nice conversation, master,” said Inga innocently.
“About pears. Right, Jesse? That’s not cheating.”

“It is if you’re an exhibitionist,” said Holden, tapping her lightly on the
cheek in a parody of a slap.

“Or if you’re really fond of pears,” said Inga lazily, her voice still full and
soft as velvet. “Hope you didn’t mind, Jesse. He’s taught me to come from
most kinds of stimulation, but it’s still a lot easier with someone else
watching.” She smiled at Holden again. “Not that it matters much at this
point. I don’t expect many more breakthroughs before Friday evening.”

“What kind of an attitude is that?” Holden asked, sitting up and patting his
own chest. Inga lifted herself up from the mattress without strain or haste,
seeming to glide effortlessly into his arms, and leaned back against his chest,
her head on his shoulder, exposing a flawless neck. “It’s never too late to
learn. In any case, I expect your new mistress will continue where I left off.”

“I’ve come a long way, master,” said Inga contentedly.

“That you have, my darling,” said Holden, slipping a finger between her
lips. She sucked it seductively. “Look at that. Not even a nibble.”

“I used to bite,” Inga said helpfully to Jesse when Holden withdrew his
finger.

“Bite what?” Jesse asked, unable to think of anything else to say.
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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe




“Anything I could get my teeth into,” said Inga, baring the teeth in question
in another satisfied smile. “But it was my master’s cock that got me sold
here.”

Jesse blinked.

"Former master's, I mean," she added. "I bit it. Just a little. Unfortunately. A
little bit harder and--"

“You'd be dead,” said Holden, "and that would be a real waste.” He turned
his head to kiss Inga lightly on the mouth before pushing her gently away.
“That’s enough. Run downstairs and find Greta. Get dressed first, you little
hussy,” he added as Inga flowed gorgeously to her feet and started for the
door. “We’re all well acquainted with your flawless physique; there’s no
need to rub it in now that we’re about to lose you.”

Pouting slightly, Inga picked up a slightly crumpled green tunic from the
floor and shimmied into it before blowing a kiss to Jesse.

“Thanks,” she said, grinning, and was gone.

“I’m glad you’re here, Jesse,” said Holden, recalling Jesse’s slightly open-
mouthed attention from the door to himself. “I want to talk to you.”

Jesse nodded, training his eyes on his master’s knees with careful dispassion.
The man seemed gentle enough with his pets, but Jesse wasn’t interested in
becoming one of those, and he wasn’t sure yet what terms that left him on
with his current master.

“Bran told me the two of you spent some time talking this morning,” Holden
said, and Jesse glanced up involuntarily into his face. “No, he didn’t tell me
any particulars– you don’t need to worry, he wouldn’t betray a confidence,
even to me– but he was pretty upset.”


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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


Jesse nodded again. So help me gods, if he tries to comfort me I’ll fucking
hit him.

“Bran has a very affectionate nature,” said Holden, “as you’ve probably
observed. I realize you’re having a difficult time right now, Jesse, and I
know it can be quite a temptation to pour your heart out on a sympathetic
shoulder, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t pour too much onto Bran. He’s...
sensitive.”

Taken completely aback, Jesse laughed.

“What’s funny?” Holden asked, raising his eyebrows.

“You sound like–-" Jesse shook his head. “This skinny noblewoman who
used to bring her snot-nosed son over to Presniakov’s. All she could talk
about was how sensitive he was.”

Holden laughed, to Jesse’s surprise, a real belly laugh. Though he refused to
smile in return, Jesse had to admit to himself that his master’s willingness to
laugh even at himself could be considered an endearing quality, if you liked
that sort of thing.

“Well, my own daughter’s about as sensitive as a cast-iron frying pan,”
Holden said finally, “so I indulge my maternal instincts with Bran. Please try
to be considerate of him, Jesse. If you don’t take care, he’ll wear himself out
trying to make you happy.”

“Do you take care he doesn’t do that for you?” Jesse asked.

“I’m sorry,” said Holden mildly. “Did I give you the impression that was
any of your goddamn business?”

Jesse lowered his gaze again, smirking slightly. Holden sighed.



                                          46 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                     Maculategiraffe


“This isn’t an ideal situation for either of us, Jesse,” he said. “You’re living
in my house and wearing my livery, but you’re not mine, and I don’t expect
you to act as though you are. I won’t expect obedience from you, except for
the benefit of company. I’ll try to treat you as a guest, and I’d appreciate it if
you’d observe a guest’s basic courtesies in return, especially when it comes
to certain cherished and fairly delicate possessions of your host’s. Bran gives
of himself with great generosity, but that doesn’t mean he’s yours to take.”

“Gives of–?“ Jesse blinked. “You mean, like, in bed? He told you about
that? Does he tell you everything?”

“No,” said Holden, “apparently not. In bed? What?”

“He offered, last night,” Jesse said, rather stung by Holden’s amused
incredulity. “Sex, I mean.”

“You’re telling me Bran let you fuck him? Without asking my permission?”

Fear flared through Jesse, and his eyes widened with it. An instant later he
made his face slam shut, all expression leaving it, but it was too late. Sick
with shame and self-disgust at his recklessness, Jesse looked at Holden and
saw Presniakov’s face on the morning he had found Jesse and Quen wrapped
in each other’s arms, every line full of cold contempt, the curl of his lip
almost a smile. Got you.

Holden got up, stepped across the mattress, knelt down next to Jesse, and
grabbed his chin, holding his gaze. Jesse stared into the older man’s face,
afraid to open his mouth, afraid that the only words he was thinking at the
moment, the worst possible under the circumstances– Please don’t hurt him–
would leap to his lips before he could stop them. Not that it mattered, now
that he’d shown as much as he had. Jesse cursed the idiotic complacency
that had let him be taken enough by surprise to let a flicker of fear onto his
face. Like I don’t fucking know better. Holden would know exactly how to
get to Jesse now.


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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


“Jesse?” said Holden softly. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Jesse said, shrugging, making his voice rough and insolent. “I
just thought it was funny that you’d think that. I haven’t been here long, but
I know Bran wouldn’t do much but breathe without your say-so, and I’d
think you’d know it too. Unless you’re the kind of jealous, paranoid bastard
who’d bullwhip a kid for blinking if he thought it might be a signal. Are
you?”

“No,” said Holden calmly, his face softening slightly as he released Jesse.
“All right. I thought I must have misunderstood. Unless you were the kind of
backbiting, shit-stirring little punk who’d slander a kid to his doting master
if he thought it would work to his advantage. Are you?”

“No,” Jesse managed a little breathlessly, wondering if the punch to his face
the day before had caused some sort of brain damage. The number of times
that Holden had managed to take him completely by surprise in the last
seven minutes was both deeply unnerving and perilously enjoyable; he
found himself almost liking the man.

“So what happened last night?” Holden asked curiously.

Jesse held absolutely still for a moment, choosing his words. Brain damage
or not, he wasn’t giving an inch more than he had to, especially not when it
came to Bran.

“He offered me a pity fuck, if he could get your permission,” he said coolly,
“and I turned him down.”

“Did you?” Holden asked, still looking intently into Jesse’s face. “May I ask
why?”

Jesse shrugged, his face blank. “Because I didn’t want him. He’s not my
type.”


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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


“Really,” said Holden.

“Yes, really,” said Jesse coldly.

“I did meet Quen, you know,” said Holden, and stood up, offering Jesse a
hand. Jesse took it cautiously, and Holden raised him to his feet and stepped
back, examining him thoughtfully. “You’re an interesting kid, Jesse. I wish...
All right, go find Bran. I’m glad you two have hit it off. Just be considerate,”
he added, as Jesse started, a little weak-kneed, for the door. And then,
affecting a surprisingly accurate mincing lady’s voice, “He’s a terribly sweet
boy, almost too sweet, sometimes I do worry...”




                                          49 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                     Maculategiraffe


CHAPTER 6

“Jesse?” said Yves, coming out into the hall as Jesse passed another door
that stood ajar. “Come here. I want to talk to you.”

“Join the club,” Jesse muttered, following the older man into a neat small
bedroom not unlike the one where he and Bran had slept the previous night,
except that this one contained a bookshelf and, to Jesse’s surprise, a small
desk with paper and pencils scattered across it. Yves closed the door behind
them and sat down on the bed, motioning Jesse into the desk chair. Jesse sat
down uncomfortably, eyeing the papers on the desk, which were covered
with unintelligible numbers and symbols, then looking rather suspiciously at
Yves.

“How are you?” Yves asked gently. “Settling in a bit?”

Jesse shrugged. “I guess. It’s kind of weird around here.”

“Don’t I know it,” said Yves, smiling. “I’ve lived here almost twenty years
and I’m still not entirely used to it. It’s a good place to be, though, Jesse. For
however long you’ll be staying.”

“Yeah?” Jesse asked, looking into Yves’ blue eyes with interest. “Why?”

Yves shrugged. “It’s safe. The master and mistress are good people. Bran’s
taken to you like crazy, and he’s your own age, so you won’t get too lonely.
The rest of us wish you well. What’s not to like?”

“Well– Jer,” said Jesse uncertainly, examining Yves carefully; he seemed
sincere enough. “I don’t think he liked me.”

“Jer’s nervous around pretty young things like yourself,” said Yves. “His
last master gave him to Holden because he considered him too old and worn
out to keep or sell.”


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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                      Maculategiraffe


Jesse winced. “Ouch.”

“Yeah,” said Yves. “It was pretty rough. The master adores him, but Jer’s
still insecure.”

“You’re not, though, are you?” Jesse asked. “Even though you’re old.”

Yves raised his eyebrows. “I’m thirty-eight. Not exactly senile.”

“Didn’t mean to be rude,” said Jesse quickly, “but thirty-eight, it’s not
exactly young either, is it? Especially for a slave.”

“No, you’re right,” said Yves, “but you’re also right that I’m not insecure.
I’ve felt loved and safe for nineteen years, and for the record, if you’ve ever
wondered, that’s just about enough time to get used to it.”

Jesse smiled a little. “Something to look forward to, then.”

“You bet,” said Yves. “Okay, Jesse. You seem like a nice kid, and so did
Quen. I know you two have been through some seriously bad shit, and I’m
really glad you’re finally catching a break. It’s great that the master and
mistress are doing all this for you.”

Jesse crossed his legs uncomfortably. “You sound like you’re about to say
‘but.’”

“But,” Yves agreed mildly, “there are one or two things I’d like to make sure
we’re clear on. The master told us he plans on leaving you more or less
alone– which is quite a departure from his normal methods with, let’s say,
troubled kids, but he says you’ve got enough to worry about without trying
to learn a whole new set of rules for behavior in the few weeks before you
start learning to act like a free person.”

Jesse nodded. “Yeah, he told me he was going to treat me like– a guest?”


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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe


“Right,” said Yves. “And– okay. You’ve got a lot on your mind right now,
for sure. The first thing I want to make sure we’re clear on is: so does the
master. He runs a business, he’s got a kid at university, he’s training Inga, he
looks after me and Jer and Bran, and now there’s this thing with you. Don’t
get me wrong– like I said, it’s great they’re doing this. But the master
doesn’t need any extra trouble, and he doesn’t always have the leisure to see
it coming. I do. So if you start looking like you’re going to be trouble,
you’re going to have a problem with me. And when I talk, he listens.”

Jesse raised his eyebrows. “Go on.”

“Sure. I should clarify– he listens to all of us, not just me. But Jer’s
paranoid, like I said, and Bran’s...well, he’s a bit of an innocent. I’m neither.
If you want to keep me on your side– and trust me, you do– all you’ve got to
do is smile when you’re spoken to nicely, say please and thank you, and stay
out of trouble, which I’m going to define as anything that requires the master
to furrow his already overburdened brow over you. Does that sound
reasonable?”

“Yeah, okay,” said Jesse. “I’ll try. Thanks.”

“No problem,” said Yves, looking curiously at Jesse. “What are you
grinning about?”

“I’m just wondering if Jer’s going to grab me next and tell me not to give
you any trouble,” said Jesse. “You all seem awfully protective of each
other.”

“We look out for each other,” Yves agreed calmly. “Like you and Quen,
except there’s six of us, so it’s a little bit complex sometimes. Right now
Bran’s decided to look out for you, and he’s everyone’s darling around here–
even Jer likes him, and when Jer likes a gorgeous teenager with a terminal
crush on the master you know he’s a hell of a likeable kid– so you just relax
and let him take care of you, and the rest of us will take care of each other.


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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                     Maculategiraffe


But if you don’t want to find out the hard way which of us is looking out for
which, and how serious we are about it– just stay out of trouble, kid.”

“I’ll try,” said Jesse stiffly.

“Do that,” said Yves. “And if you’re not sure where out of trouble is, just
stick close to Bran. That boy– well, he was in some pretty bad trouble before
we got him settled here, but it’s hard to picture, isn’t it? If you squint I think
you can actually see waves of goodwill pouring off him. I’m always
expecting squirrels to hop onto his shoulders and chatter merrily to him, or
some shit like that.”

Jesse grinned at that, thinking of Marta and Trini, and of Fox’s reluctant
smile in the kitchen. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“He slept with you last night, didn’t he?” Yves asked. “Did you have sex?”

“No,” said Jesse shortly, rather taken aback by the question.

“Highly recommended, if he offers,” said Yves with a quick wink. “Okay,
kid, that’s about all I had to say. I hope I didn’t come off as nasty. Like I
said, I’m really glad you’re finally getting a break. But we’ve got a good
thing going here, and although I don’t think you could fuck it up if you tried,
I see no need to test that theory, do you?”

“Nope,” said Jesse, getting up. “Got it. Smile, stick with the good boy, and
stay out of the master’s way.”

“Good,” said Yves, watching Jesse as he started for the door. “Don’t forget
please and thank you.”

“Thank you,” said Jesse obediently, and after the door closed behind him, in
an undertone so cautious as to be inaudible, “And please.”

****
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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                         Maculategiraffe




“Mistress,” said the pretty red-haired woman across from Jesse at dinner,
where they sat, to his astonishment, at the same table as their master and
mistress, “I think we may need a new dining room table, after this
weekend.”

“Never,” said Alix determinedly. “The size of this table limits the number of
people your master can acquire. Any more and he has to either disown his
daughter or move out himself.”

Jer lifted his water glass in his mistress’ direction in a silent gesture of
celebration.

“Nah,” said Holden imperturbably, as Fox served Jesse something mushy
and unappetizing. “We’ll just have to share chairs. Bran can sit in my lap
and I’ll feed him from my plate.”

“Good idea, master,” said Jer in an undertone. “That won’t put me off my
dinner.”

“Then he can sit in your lap, wiseass,” said Holden amiably, as Bran
blushed. “Don’t you boys get enough of each other? Some masters don’t let
their slaves have unlimited amounts of sex with each other, you know. You
and Quen had to be pretty clandestine at Presniakov’s, didn’t you, Jesse?”

“By the way,” the red-haired woman said, smiling at Jesse as he squirmed
uncomfortably at the address. “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced,
Jesse. I’m Greta. How are you settling in?”

“Fine,” said Jesse, and, catching Yves’ eye, managed a fairly respectable
smile in return. “Thank you.”

“Bran’s looking after him, isn’t he, Jess?” said Yves cheerfully.

Bran glanced at Jesse, who smiled at him, sincerely this time. “Yeah, he is.”
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“Good,” said Alix briskly. “Holden, before I forget, some last-minute
paperwork came today about Inga. I looked at it earlier, but it asks some
rather personal questions that you may be better equipped to handle. It’s in
the middle right-hand drawer of the desk, if you could get to it after dinner.”

“Sure,” said Holden readily, as Jesse glanced at Inga, who was eating
unconcernedly.

“And don’t forget the physical evaluation. You should probably go see Dr.
Carey tomorrow morning in any case, so then might be a good time. The
checklist is with Inga’s other papers, in the bottom drawer of the filing
cabinet.”

“Work, work, work,” said Holden with exaggerated querulousness. “I’ve got
a writ of manumission around here somewhere, you know.”

“Top left-hand drawer of the bureau,” said Alix automatically. “Salt, please,
Bran.”

“I knew that,” said Holden, as Bran passed his mistress the salt, grinning.
“That’s where you keep the marriage contract, too, and I’m always having to
check that to make sure it actually says all the crazy stuff you claim. I don’t
know what I was on when I signed that thing.”

“The same thing I was on when I freed you, dearest,” said Alix good-
naturedly, salting her food.

“Dangerous substance,” said Holden. “Should be controlled. Pass the bread.”

****

Jesse lay awake for a long time that night, as Bran slept next to him, looking
very young and faintly troubled. His mind raced, running over his
conversations with Holden and Yves, wondering what to make of them and
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of this strange house where the “family” foregathered for meals and for
comfortable chatter and paperwork in the lounge afterwards, and where he
was beginning to feel he might eventually learn to relax– a feeling that, he
was faintly aware, absolutely terrified him. He was so far from sleep that he
was still fully conscious when Bran, sound asleep, rolled over almost onto
him, flinging an arm and a leg over him and hugging him as tightly as a
lover.

Jesse moved his cheek against Bran’s, nuzzling into his hair, which smelled
warm and sweet, like tea with honey in it. Still asleep, Bran murmured softly
with pleasure, cuddling closer, and his lips found Jesse’s cut and swollen
ones. Jesse pulled back slightly, wincing, and Bran suddenly opened his
eyes.

“Sorry!” he said, pulling away and biting his own lip. “Damn. I’m really
sorry. Didn’t mean to–”

“It’s okay,” said Jesse softly. “Just watch the lips. They still hurt a little.”

“Oh,” said Bran, blinking owlishly at Jesse, his eyelashes damp with sleep.
“I– you mean–“

His eyes nearly closed again as Jesse stroked the sweetly bemused face
gently with his fingertips, brushing over the veined eyelids with their long,
dusty lashes, smoothing the slight furrow of confusion on Bran’s brow,
teasing the lips into a small, tentative smile. Shyly, Bran kissed his
fingertips, glancing up at him with a kind of hopeful puzzlement as Jesse, as
delicately and thoroughly as if memorizing, caressed his neck, the line of his
jaw, the downy whorl of his ear– Bran squirmed slightly– and made his way
gently down Bran’s shoulder, stroking his collarbone, then his chest.

“Jesse?” Bran whispered. “Do you–?”

“Do I what?” Jesse said softly, and Bran gasped as Jesse’s fingers brushed
lightly over his nipple.
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“Do you want me?” Bran asked huskily, and Jesse’s cock, already half erect,
leaped to full attention.

“Yes,” he whispered in Bran’s ear. “If you still want me.”

“Of course,” Bran breathed. “How do you–? I mean, do you want to– be the
one to– take me?”

“I usually am,” said Jesse, blushing slightly. “With Quen, I mean.”

Bran nodded. “How do you want me?”

The timidity of the question combined with the warm eagerness of Bran’s
body, pressing hungrily up against Jesse, was so seductive that Jesse was
afraid he was going to come right then.

“On your face,” he said, his voice a little rough from the rush of weakness
that had come over him, and Bran moved in his arms into the prescribed
position. Jesse caught his breath at the sight of the other boy’s swift
obedience, the invitation so promptly offered that Jesse felt suddenly almost
frighteningly powerful.

“Not yet,” he whispered. “I want to– touch you– you’re so– warm, you’re
beautiful–”

Bran moved back towards him, lifting his face, his lips parted, his breath
coming quickly.

“Oh, gods,” said Jesse involuntarily, and yanked Bran to him, rolling over
on top of him.

Sex with Quen had been many things– a short-lived escape from the misery
of their lives with Presniakov, a ferocious defiance of their master’s power, a
solemn seal on the intimacy of their bond, and at rare and precious times,
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pure joyous play. But this was different. Bran’s eager submission was such a
heady draught that Jesse moved almost restlessly, now urgent with greedy
lust over what was being offered, now tenderly protective and gentle
towards the other boy who moved so vulnerably under him. Bran seemed to
read Jesse’s mind, becoming languid and relaxed when Jesse slowed, stifling
cries and arching fiercely when Jesse thrust hard. When Jesse slid his hand
into Bran’s hair and made a fist, a subdued whimper from Bran shot straight
to Jesse’s cock and nearly made him come long before he was ready.

When he had released the hair he dug his fingers into the other boy’s
shoulders, wanting to bite at that smooth expanse of skin, but hesitating even
to kiss with his broken mouth.

“Bran,” he whispered instead, tasting the name instead of the boy’s skin, and
Bran answered, but so softly it was impossible to tell whether he’d said
“Jess” or simply “Yes.”

When Jesse finally came, overwhelmed, with a stifled, wordless cry, Bran
went still until Jesse had stopped shuddering, then let out his breath in a long
sigh of perfect contentment.

“Did you–?” Jesse whispered, when he could speak again.

“Yeah,” Bran said peacefully. “That was fantastic, Jess. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” said Jesse, half laughing as he pulled carefully out of Bran. “I
mean, wow.”

“Yeah?” Bran turned his head and seemed to search Jesse’s face. “It was
good for you?”

“It was... amazing,” said Jesse honestly. “I felt like, I don’t know... you
knew just how to move, and the sounds you made, it was like...” He paused,
and then added rather perversely, “No wonder he’s so wild about you.”


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Bran grinned, embarrassed. “Ah, he gets plenty of good sex. You’re just
easily impressed.”

“I am not,” said Jesse, smacking Bran lightly on the shoulder before lying
back down beside him. “Quen and I had– have– great sex. And this wasn’t
better, exactly, it was just... different. You’re something special, kid.”

“You sound like him,” said Bran, smiling, and Jesse tensed slightly. “It was
really good for me, too, Jess. You were so... it was really good.”

“Wanted to bite you,” said Jesse casually, “but I guess it’s a good thing I
couldn’t. Might have left a mark.”

Bran squirmed closer. “I wouldn’t have minded.”

“He might’ve, though,” Jesse pointed out rather tersely.

“Nah,” said Bran, closing his eyes. “Yves leaves marks all the time, and he’s
never minded that. And he told me today– yesterday– what time is it?
Anyway– he told me I could do anything I wanted with you.”

Jesse raised his eyebrows. “Did he now.”

“Sure,” said Bran, opening one eye to peer curiously at Jesse. “I told you
before, I couldn’t do anything without his permission.”

“Right,” said Jesse. He was quiet for a moment, then asked with another stab
at casualness, “What would he do to you? If you did ever– sleep with
someone, without permission? And he found out?”

Bran opened both eyes, considering, then smiled a little sheepishly. “You
know, I don’t know. He’s never... he doesn’t really... threaten me. But he’d
be angry. I can’t stand it when he’s angry at me.”



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“And I’m sure he’s angry at you on a regular enough basis that you even
know what it’s like,” said Jesse, a trifle acerbically.

Bran laughed. “Fuck off. Nothing wrong with being a good boy.”

“I guess not,” said Jesse, “if that’s what you like.”

“You didn’t seem to mind,” said Bran with a rather mischievous smile. "Me,
I mean."

“No,” said Jesse, smiling back. “It was great. I mean, really great. I just hope
he appreciates what he’s got.”

“You’re so sweet,” said Bran, and laid his head down on Jesse’s chest.
“Hold me?”

Willingly Jesse wrapped his arms around Bran and held him close.

“Bran?” he whispered.

“Hmm?”

“At dinner, when he said he had a... a writ of manumission. Is it really true
he used to be a slave?”

“Yeah,” said Bran. “Both of them did. Master and mistress.”

“That’s what Presniakov said, but I thought he was just... so they– but how–
“

“Long story,” said Bran, and yawned. “Tell you in the morning, ‘kay?”

“Okay,” said Jesse, and was quiet for a while. Finally he whispered again,
“Bran?”


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“Mmm,” said Bran drowsily.

“You’d rather be with him tonight, wouldn’t you? Instead of me, I mean. If
you could.”

“Sure,” said Bran, sounding half asleep. “Wouldn’t you rather be with
Quen?”




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CHAPTER 7

“Wake up, Bran,” said Holden softly. “You’ve got to meet Trini.”

Jesse came awake reluctantly, Bran pulling drowsily out of his arms. The
flash of panic at seeing Holden sitting on the edge of the bed passed more
quickly this time, though it still left him feeling slightly weak as Bran sat up,
rubbing at his eyes.

“Shit,” he mumbled. “Time is it?”

“It’s all right,” said Holden. “You’ve got about ten minutes before you need
to leave.”

“Okay,” said Bran, sounding marginally more awake. “I’m up. Thanks–
thank you, master.”

“Of course,” said Holden gently. “I’m glad you’re sleeping well.”

“Yeah,” said Bran, and looked down at Jesse, smiling a little. “Sorry, Jess–
go back to sleep– I’ll be back.”

He dressed fumblingly but quickly. Holden reached out a hand and pulled
him in for a tender embrace and a soft kiss; when he let go, Bran smiled,
blinking sleepily, at his master before hurrying out on bare feet, one fist
tightly closed.

“And how was the sex?” Holden asked, looking down at Jesse.

Jesse blinked up at him. “What? How did you–“

“I’m observant,” said Holden, winking. “He’s something else, isn’t he?”

Jesse looked up, bemused, at Holden’s friendly expression. “Yeah. He is.
You don’t mind? I mean... sharing him? With me?”
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“I’m selfish,” said Holden, “but I’m not a dog in the manger. If I could have
him every night, I would. I can’t, so...” He shrugged.

“But you could,” said Jesse, puzzled.

“Yes, all right. If I could without neglecting my wife and my other boys and
while still getting enough sleep to be any use to anyone in the daytime, how
about that. Then I would.”

Jesse grinned a little. "Fair enough."

Holden sat silently as if lost in thought.

"Sir?" said Jesse finally.

Holden glanced at him thoughtfully. "Yes."

"You know he'd never... do anything without your permission."

"I do know that, yes," said Holden, examining Jesse curiously.

Jesse cleared his throat. "I don't-- I mean. I don't want to-- I wouldn't want to
do anything to-- to cause trouble. For him."

Holden smiled, and Jesse was startled by how much pleasure the smile's
warmth gave him. "I'm glad to hear it."

“It must be kind of nice," said Jesse slowly. "To feel the way he does, about-
- to trust your master.”

“It is,” said Holden absently, and Jesse suddenly remembered that Bran had
promised him a long story this morning. He looked up at Holden, wondering
if he dared ask, but before he could make up his mind Holden stood up
abruptly.
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“Go back to sleep, Jesse,” he said over his shoulder as he left.

But Jesse didn’t go back to sleep. As the morning light from the window
slowly grew brighter and Bran didn’t come back, he slipped quietly out of
bed.

***

LAST WILL

I, Holden Larssen, being now competent in my mind to assign my property
as I choose, leave everything in the event of my death to my wife, Alix
Jamesen.

In the event that my wife shall have predeceased me, I direct that upon my
death my slave Yves shall be freed, and all my remaining property,
including my business, all monetary assets, my house, and any other slaves
of whom I die possessed, I leave to him, with the request that he shall
provide lovingly and carefully for the needs of my daughter, Valor, for as
long as she shall require such provision.

In witness whereof are signed

Viktor Duchovny (Executor)
Nikol Argounov
Tatiana Rostova

***

“Planning to bump me off, are you?” Holden asked mildly from the doorway
to the master bedroom, making Jesse jump so badly the bureau rattled. He
looked up at Holden, still clutching the will.



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“You look about as shocked as the first lawyer did,” said Holden, coming
towards Jesse, who held his ground, his heart pounding. “‘Highly irregular,
your daughter should inherit, slap in the face to any child on top of parent’s
sad untimely whatever.’ Valor fully intends to make her own way in life.
And she knows Yves would take as good care of her as we would, if she
ever needed it.”

“Does Yves know about this?” Jesse asked, as Holden took the will from
him and replaced it in the top left-hand drawer, shutting it firmly and turning
the key in the lock.

“Of course. And he didn’t have to go snooping in my bedroom to find it,
either, since it’s actually his business. May I ask what the hell you thought
you were doing?”

“I’m sorry,” Jesse muttered; Holden’s brow was definitely furrowed, and
Yves was going to be annoyed. And if Jesse had had any doubts that “when I
talk, he listens” was the truth... “The key was in the lock. I wanted to see–
your marriage contract.”

“You could have just asked,” said Holden coolly. “It’s mostly stuff
providing for the humane treatment of the slaves– I was a world-class prick
when Alix married me, and she wanted to make sure she had grounds to
divorce me if I hurt Greta.”

“Really?” Jesse asked, fascinated.

“Yes. And that if I poisoned Alix, I wouldn’t inherit the wench– since that
was Greta’s other main concern. Her will freed Greta unconditionally, back
then. We trust each other nowadays, though– she’ll provide for all my boys
if I die, and I’ll do the same for Greta. There’s even been some talk of my
marrying Greta if Alix dies first, just to make Valor’s family tree look
slightly less weird. I worry that might hurt Yves’ feelings, though.”

“Why don’t you just free Yves now?” Jesse asked curiously.
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Holden shrugged. “I can’t marry him, and short of that there’s not much
more secure a legal bond than slavery. As long as he’s mine, he has all the
protection and status that comes with belonging to me, and no one looks
askance at the fact that a happily married man keeps a few pleasure slaves. If
he were free, things like his living here and my providing for him would get
quite a bit more complicated. It’s fine to take your slave to society functions,
but if you do it with your male live-in lover, people start dragging your wife
off into corners and murmuring sympathetically at her about how it’s too
bad, dear, and they know a really understanding lawyer.”

Jesse smiled slightly; Holden had a gift for mimicry that perfectly evoked
the syrupy tones, overlaid with schadenfreude, that he had heard so often at
Presniakov’s dinner parties.

“And besides that,” said Holden thoughtfully, “it would be particularly
tricky business for people who make their living the way we do. Can’t get a
reputation for being too sentimental.”

“But you are,” said Jesse boldly. “Sentimental. Aren’t you? I mean--” He
gestured towards the locked drawer.

Holden shook his head. “Yves is a special case. And I’ve got history with
Jer. But you can’t be sentimental in this business. Nineteen years of it and
there’s only been one kid I– and it’s not exactly unheard of for a man my
age to pick up a pretty young thing to warm the bed and stroke the ego. One
lecherous whim in twenty years, that’s not such a bad track record.”

“Is that what you tell people?” Jesse asked, amused. “That it was a lecherous
whim?”

Holden raised an eyebrow. “Speaking of ill-advised sentimentality, Jesse,
just for the record, polite guests don’t usually go rifling through their hosts’
bedrooms and reading their personal legal documents. Some hosts would


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find that to be grounds for revoking a guest’s status as a guest, as a matter of
fact. Now where would that leave you, exactly?”

Jesse flushed and dropped his gaze. “I’m sorry. Sir. I really am.”

“It’s okay, kid,” said Holden in a gentler tone. “Consider this a friendly
warning. And if you find yourself at a loose end for something to do, feel
free to browse the library anytime.”




“I can’t tell if he likes me,” said Jesse pensively that afternoon, as he and
Bran sat on a stone wall bordering the marketplace, watching the crowds
bustle past. Bran had suggested they get out of the house again– “You had
fun yesterday, right?”– and had told Jesse the promised long story while they
people-watched and Jesse tried to keep his mouth from falling open.

“Who?” said Bran absently.

“The master,” said Jesse. “Holden. I can’t tell what he thinks of me.”

“Oh,” said Bran, putting a hand on Jesse’s knee and smiling slightly. “He
thinks you're... unmanageable, I think he said. Not that he blames you. It's
sort of a code," he added, as Jesse squinted at him. "Means you're confused,
and pissed off about it."

"How does 'unmanageable' mean that?" Jesse demanded, feeling particularly
unmanageable by Bran's definition.

"It's a thing-- he says he can tell what slave owners really mean, when they
say stuff about the delinquent slaves they sell him. Like Inga, Inga was
‘volatile,' which he says means she tried so hard to behave under
unfavorable conditions that when she did lose her temper it was volcanic. I
was 'unresponsive,' which pretty much meant 'too scared to move,' and--


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"You?" Jesse interrupted, shocked. "You were a delinquent?"

Bran glanced at him. "Yeah. You didn't know?"

"Hell, no," said Jesse. "I thought you were the perfect slave."

Bran laughed. "Not quite. Four-time attempted runaway. Though it only
took two to get me stamped as a delinquent-- the other two were after I got
sold to the slave breakers."

"You ran away from him?" Jesse demanded, goggling. "Twice?"

"Tried to, anyway," said Bran, his eyes on the crowd. "The second time I
actually made it as far as Karl and Tara's, which did me a fat lot of good
once they realized who I was. That whole 'helping each other out' thing cuts
both ways, you know. They made a phone call, and I got dragged back home
in chains. Gods, it was embarrassing."

"In chains?" Jesse asked, wondering if the real reason for Bran's total
submission to Holden was simple terror. "But why did you run? I mean,
what had he done to you? To make you want to?"

"Well, the first time," said Bran seriously, "he'd tried to give me a bath. The
second time, he'd tried to sell me to a nice man who kissed me and promised
never to hit me."

Jesse stared. Bran glanced at him again and smiled rather ruefully.

"It seemed to make sense at the time," he said. "Anyway, I guess he finally
decided it was going to be more trouble to try to sell me than to keep me, so-
- here I am."

"But why would he ever have tried to sell you?” Jesse asked, more puzzled
than ever. “He worships you!”


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Bran blushed furiously. "He-- what makes you say that?"

"Are you kidding? You've seen the way he looks at you, right? And heard
him when he talks to you? Or about you? And the way he holds you, even–
like he wants to crush you to him but he’s half afraid he’s going to break
you."

Bran looked down, going even redder. "That's just the way he is. He's very...
kind. To all the... to everyone."

"I don’t hear his voice going all soft and mushy when he says Inga’s name,”
said Jesse, amused.

Bran smiled a little, but shook his head.

"He's very good to me," he said. "But he doesn't love me. He's made that
clear. At first I thought he did and he just didn't know it, you know, but it's
been almost two years-- I'm pretty sure he would have realized it by now."

"He just won't say it," said Jesse cynically. "Just to keep you guessing. It's
great for him, isn't it? You're never sure how he feels, so you stay desperate
to please him, and he sits back and enjoys it."

"Jess, no offense, but-- you don't know what you're talking about. He's not
like that. I mean, he tells Yves and Jer that he loves them all the time."

"In front of you?" Jesse scowled. "That's cruel."

"You really want to make him the bad guy, don't you?" said Bran, looking at
Jesse curiously. "Why?"

It was Jesse's turn to flush. "No I don't. I just think--"

"You just think I'm stupid," said Bran.


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"Of course I don't think you're--"

"Sure you do. You think I'm some stupid kid with stars in my eyes and he's
the evil mastermind who's got me right where he wants me."

"Bran, I don't think you're stupid. Just... vulnerable. You're young, you're...
ridiculously sweet... and you're love-hungry. And he's taking advantage of
that. I just think that's fucked up."

"Yeah?" said Bran, with a hard expression Jesse had never seen on his face
before. "Funny, I don't remember asking for your opinion."

"Bran--" Jesse began, surprised.

"Who the hell do you think you are, anyway?" Bran asked evenly. "You've
been here, what, a day? Two? What do you think you know about my
master? Or me, for that matter?"

"If I'm completely off base," said Jesse softly, "then why are you so upset?"

"Sharp enough to cut yourself, aren’t you?" said Bran, his eyes narrowing.
"If you want to know, he had some very kind concerns himself about taking
advantage of my youth and sweetness and neediness and stupidity, and it
took some doing to convince him to let me stay here anyway.”

“Okay,” said Jesse, unnerved by Bran’s anger. “I just meant–“

“Look, Jess,” said Bran, still with the uncharacteristically hard look on his
face. “I know I must look like a real pushover to you. I’m the baby of the
house, everyone cuddles me and bosses me around, and I don’t mind that, I
like being looked after– most of the time. But you don’t outrank me and you
don’t know me that well and you don’t get to decide what’s best for me just
because you think I’m too sweet and dumb to know better myself.”

“Bran–"
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“Just a minute. I know he’s been talking to you about me– and I don’t mind
that either, I’m not jealous, but if you say one single fucking word to him
about taking advantage of me, anything to make him doubt it was the right
decision to keep me, I’m not too dumb to figure it out, and I am sure as hell
not sweet enough to forgive you.”

Jesse sat stunned, staring at the other boy. Bran’s cold gaze swept off him
and back into the crowd. They sat in silence for a few minutes.

“I’m sorry,” said Jesse finally.

“It’s okay,” said Bran rather tiredly. “I guess I’m a little touchy about this.”

“Yeah,” said Jesse cautiously. “I didn’t mean to be– condescending. I just– I
still think he’s nuts about you, you know.”

Bran shook his head, still not looking at Jesse. “He feels responsible for me,
that’s all– and, well, he enjoys me. Everyone does. You did.” He smiled at
Jesse, who smiled back, relieved. “I just worry sometimes, I guess, that the
novelty will wear off eventually and he’ll get... tired of me. And then all
that’s left is a clingy, needy brat who got so whiny over getting sold that–
but speaking of being whiny, I think I’ll shut up now.”

“You’re not whiny,” said Jesse, furious at himself and, even more, at
Holden, for the pain he could hear in Bran’s voice. “You’re great, Bran,
seriously, if I owned you I’d–“ He blushed. Where had that come from? “I
mean, anybody would be lucky to–“

Bran gave him a slightly wavery smile. “Don’t be so nice to me. It’s not
smart. I tend to– fuck, I’m sorry–”

“Oh, gods, Bran, please don’t cry,” said Jesse, panicking. “I’m sorry I said
anything. I didn’t mean to– Come on, Bran. If anyone around here sees I


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made you cry they’ll kill me with their bare hands, and then think about poor
Quen waiting for me across the border.”

Bran chuckled softly through his tears. “Nobody’s going to kill you– and
anyway you didn’t make me. I’ll stop.” He wiped his face with the back of
his hand, but the tears continued, silent and awful. “Shit. I’m sorry. I’m such
a damn crybaby, they’ll all tell you, anything can set me off, especially
people being nice to me... I’ll be fine in a minute.”

“Um,” said Jesse, as people started to stare. “Maybe we should start for
home?”

****

Bran’s tears had stopped by the time they reached the house. He paused on
the front steps to dry them as best he could, but the door opened before they
touched it, Holden– with his usual impeccable timing, thought Jesse–
emerged, and his eyebrows shot up as Bran tried to turn his face away.

“Stop right there,” he ordered, catching Bran’s arm with one hand and
grasping his chin with the other, and Bran stood resignedly still as his master
examined him. “Bran, darling, what’s wrong?”

For a moment Bran looked as if he might start crying again. Jesse rolled his
eyes, just a little, while no one was looking. I wonder where I got the idea he
loved you?

“It’s nothing, master,” Bran said without meeting Holden’s eye. “Jesse and I
were talking and–“

“Jesse made you cry?” Holden asked, with a narrow-eyed look at Jesse over
his shoulder. Jesse swallowed.

“No, no,” said Bran hastily. “You know how I am– I get myself all worked
up over nothing.”
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“And I don’t suppose Jesse supplied the nothing,” said Holden, but he was
no longer looking at Jesse. “I’ve been neglecting you.”

“No, master, really, I–“

“It wasn’t a question, sweetheart.”

Bran bowed his head. Holden leaned forward and kissed his brow. “How
long has it been since I spent the night with you?”

“I-- don’t know. It’s not– it’s been nice sleeping with Jess.”

“Good. I’m glad. But I want you in your own bed tonight.”

“Yes, master,” said Bran, with a shy smile that sent a number of conflicting
emotions rocketing through Jesse. “Thank you.”

“‘Thank you,’” Holden repeated, shaking his head. “You’ll be the death of
me, boy.” He kissed the corners of Bran's eyes softly, as if soothing the tear
ducts, and then dropped a quick kiss on his lips. “I’d get to the bottom of this
‘nothing’ right now, but I’m on my way out. Meeting Irina to wrap up the
Inga thing. You want to come?”

“May I?” Bran asked, looking relieved and pleased.

“Sure. You'll have to wash your face first, though-- if you walk into
Galenova's all tearstained, Kai will never let me hear the end of it.”

Bran smiled. “Yes, master. Can Jess come, too? To Lady Galenova's, I
mean?”

Holden looked dubiously at Jesse. “If he can keep his mouth shut.”



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“I can keep my mouth shut, sir,” said Jesse, more respectfully than he might
have if not for the uncomfortable consciousness that it had been at least
partly his failure to keep his mouth shut that had made Bran cry, and Holden
must know it.

"I'm glad to hear it,” said Holden, giving Jesse a long, appraising look as
Bran disappeared inside.




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CHAPTER 8

Rather to Jesse’s surprise, Bran climbed into the back seat of the car as
Holden got into the driver’s seat. Jesse got in next to Bran, suddenly flashing
back to his last ride in this particular back seat, and put his hand
involuntarily to his mouth. Holden caught the movement in the rearview
mirror, but said nothing. Bran moved closer to Jesse and put a hand on his
leg; Jesse wondered if he, too, had caught the quick gesture.

“So what were you two talking about that set Bran off?” Holden asked as
they drove off, and Jesse felt Bran tense.

“Could we wait until later to talk about it?” he asked. “Please?”

“All right, Bran,” said Holden after a few moments’ pause. “But I’m not
going to forget. I don’t like you coming home tear-stained.”

“I’m sorry,” said Bran meekly, and Holden glanced sharply up at his
reflection in the rearview mirror.

“Don’t try to play me, kid,” he said. “You know damn well that wasn’t a
reprimand. I’m not backing off just because you pull your little please-
master-don’t-hurt-me voice.”

Bran looked up quickly, then gave his master a small, sheepish smile in the
mirror. “Yeah. Okay. Sorry. Talk about it later?”

“Count on it. How are your teeth, Jesse?”

Jesse jumped at the abrupt change of subject. “B– better.”

“Good. Are you doing okay? Anything you need?”

“No,” said Jesse. “Thank you.”


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“We’ll be sure to let you know as soon as we hear from Quen,” said Holden,
making a turn. “But don’t worry if it’s not for a few days yet. No news is
probably good news. Karl and Tara know their business.”

Jesse nodded.

“Already practicing keeping your mouth shut?” Holden said after a moment,
eyes on the road.

Jesse shrugged. Bran sent him a curious look.

“Kai and Sophie will be glad to see I’ve brought you, Bran,” said Holden,
changing the subject without segue again. “Kai’s always asking about you.
Suspiciously.”

Bran chuckled. “Well, he worries. I mean, you’re so cruel to me.”

“He probably thinks I’ve knocked you up,” said Holden. “Speaking of
which, Jesse, my daughter and her best friend are coming to dinner
tomorrow night, which will be another opportunity for you to keep your
mouth shut.” Jesse nodded. “And Bran, Pavel says Lisa’s broken up with
what’s his name, so she may be wanting your services. If you’re up for it.”

“Of course,” said Bran readily. “I like Lady Kareyeva.”

“Please don’t call her that,” said Holden, shuddering elaborately.

Bran smiled. “No relation to the first Lady Kareyeva.”

“Thank the gods. I don’t think I could have learned to like those kids if
they’d been half Maria. As it was, I’m actually a bit disappointed Val and
David broke up. He’s a good kid.”

“Yes, but you said yourself she was too young to be thinking of getting
married, master,” said Bran. “And at least they’re still friends.”
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“Awkward if they weren’t,” Holden agreed, and lapsed into a thoughtful
silence. Bran moved a little closer to Jesse and laid his head down on his
shoulder; Jesse put an arm around him, enjoying the feeling of Bran’s warm,
supple body resting against his, and they rode the rest of the way without
speaking.

****

Lady Irina Galenova was tall and spare, her hair a salt-and-pepper gray, and
dressed with austere elegance in dark blue, with no jewelry, but her slaves
were dressed in a vivid crimson color that was particularly startling against
the male slave’s russet hair. Jesse thought it must have been chosen to
complement the female, whose skin was the color of tea, her hair black and
glossy as a crow’s wing, and who curled indolently on the couch with her
head in her mistress’ lap, her pleasurable languor nearly as sure a sign of a
favorite as her age, which must have been at least thirty.

“Irina,” said Holden, smiling at the lady and going over to the couch. “Don’t
get up. Sophie looks comfortable.” He bent down to kiss the noblewoman’s
cheek.

“Holden, dear,” said the noblewoman, smiling back. “You’ve brought Bran.
Aren’t you thoughtful. Was that to console me for the loss of Inga, or as a
peace offering for Kai?”

She glanced up at the male slave, who was standing to the side and slightly
behind her, as she spoke.

“Kai is Greta’s twin,” said Bran in Jesse’s ear, and Jesse blinked, startled,
and missed Holden’s answer. The man had Greta’s red hair, but otherwise
Jesse could see no resemblance– where Greta was short and soft, full of
rounded, maternal curves, with delicate-looking skin and features, Kai was
tall and sinewy, coarsely handsome, with large freckles on a broad-featured,
rather pugnacious face, unless that was only the expression he had assumed
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on seeing Holden. As Jesse looked, his gaze shifted to Bran, and his
expression softened slightly. Bran glanced at Holden, who nodded, and Kai
almost smiled as Bran came close enough for Kai to put an arm around him
and kiss him on the cheek.

“And who is this?” Lady Galenova continued, looking at Jesse, who dropped
his eyes quickly, determined to behave himself as impeccably as Presniakov
himself could have wished. Holden might be forbearing in private, but he
obviously valued his reputation as a trainer. Jesse didn’t think he’d hesitate
to punish him for Lady Galenova’s benefit if he acted other than the
respectful slave in front of her.

“This is Jesse,” said Holden, putting a hand on Jesse’s shoulder. Jesse
flinched very slightly, but no more than would have pleased Presniakov.
“I’m sure you’ve heard that story.”

“He’s the one who belonged to Gregorei Presniakov, isn’t he?” Lady
Galenova asked with interest. “I did hear, but I didn’t know– were his teeth
really knocked out?”

“Show the lady your teeth, Jesse,” said Holden, and Jesse bared his brace
obediently. “We still don’t know if they’re going to survive, but we’re
hopeful.”

“Apart from that, he’s quite attractive,” said Lady Galenova thoughtfully.
“How is his temperament?”

“Moody,” said Holden. “Well, he’s still grieving for his friend. I don’t think
there’s anything time and patience won’t fix, especially once Inga’s out of
the house and I can give him more attention. Why, are you interested?”

He sounded so convincingly businesslike that Jesse was unnerved. Bran
must have seen him tense; he winked quickly from where he stood in the
crook of Kai’s arm.


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“Not at my age,” said Lady Galenova, smiling. “It’s all I can do to handle
these two. Though we’ll miss Inga. Sophie’s really enjoyed her visits.” She
nodded down at the dark girl, who smiled suddenly and brilliantly at Holden.
“And so have I.”

“So have we,” Holden said. “Speaking of which, shall we get down to
business?”

Lady Galenova rose, dislodging Sophie, and took Holden’s arm.

“You two behave yourselves with Bran and Jesse,” she said over her
shoulder.

“Yes, mistress,” Kai and Sophie chorused.

When Holden and Galenova were gone, Kai picked Bran up
unceremoniously and carried him around to the front of the couch, where he
sat down at the opposite end from Sophie with Bran half in his lap. Smiling,
Bran leaned his head back easily against Kai’s broad chest. Sophie motioned
lazily to Jesse, who came and sat down cautiously between her and Bran;
she stretched her legs across his, resting her bare feet in Bran’s lap, and Bran
automatically began rubbing them with a practiced motion, his thumbs
describing gentle circles of pressure on her insteps.

“It’s good to see you, Bran,” she said, in a sweet voice with a slight, lilting
accent.

“Yeah, it is,” said Kai, and kissed Bran’s hair quickly and rather clumsily.
“Larssen still treating you okay?”

“Sure,” said Bran, “except that he’s started smacking me across the room
every time he sees me, on general principles, he says. And he doesn’t feed
me. I live on pot scrapings and semen. But other than that...”

“Okay, smartass,” said Kai, and bit Bran’s ear. Bran squirmed, grinning.
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“Kai doesn’t like your master, Jesse,” said Sophie. “Why is that, do you
think?”

Jesse shrugged nervously.

“Because his master is an asshole,” said Kai grimly, and then, in a more
conciliatory tone, as Bran stiffened, “Now come on, kid, don’t get mad.
You’re so damn touchy about him, I swear.”

“I just don’t get why you always have to be making comments about him
when I’m around,” said Bran irritably. “You know how I feel.”

“How does Jesse feel?” Sophie asked.

Jesse looked into her dark, piercing eyes. “He’s nice. So far.”

“So far,” said Sophie thoughtfully. “Yes. My mistress is good to me, too, so
far. Nine years now. But it’s still only so far, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” said Jesse, “exactly.”

Bran shook his head. “That’s no way to live your life.”

Jesse opened his mouth, then shut it again with a snap. Sophie smiled at him.

“Tell us about your former master, Jesse,” she said. “Was he as much of an
asshole as Holden Larssen?”

Jesse couldn’t help but smile a little. “A bit more of one, I guess.”

“Yes?”

“Don’t, Soph,” said Kai when Jesse hesitated. “His friend got killed. He
doesn’t want to talk about it.”
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Sophie sighed.

“My first master only liked to fuck girls,” she said, apropos of nothing. “He
didn’t like boys, so he didn’t know about artificial lubrication. Girls got wet
at his touch, his hairy face on theirs, his big paws grappling their nipples.
Except me. The first time he touched me my cunt went–“ She made an O
with her index finger and thumb, then curled her fingers in on themselves,
closing it off. “But he fucked me until I was wet– with blood. Then he grew
angry. It should not have hurt me. There was something wrong with me. He
hit me and cursed at me. I was fifteen. I was a virgin. He had never had a
virgin.

“He thought his wife had been one. Hence the confusion.”

She smiled at Jesse, who looked back at her thoughtfully.

“He hadn’t wanted to hurt me. Only to fuck. The blood frightened him, and
my tears. I think he was ashamed that he had hurt me so much, and the fear
and the shame made him angry.

“Was your master like that? Or did he like to hurt?”

“He liked to hurt,” said Jesse laconically.

“Ah.” Sophie reached out and touched Jesse’s hair. He was startled, but not
displeased. “Kai says Larssen liked to hurt, too, when he was first Greta’s
master. I can believe it. He looks into a slave’s face. He looks for– desire,
respect, trust. But I can imagine him looking for pain, just as intently. Can’t
you? Not like that first master, who never looked into my face at all.”

“He looked for more than pain in my sister’s face,” said Kai. “He was trying
to beat her, to grind her down, to win– and she wasn’t even fighting. The
sweetest kid in the world. All she wanted was to please Alix– she
worshipped her, still does– and that bastard couldn’t stand it.”
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“That was twenty years ago, Kai,” said Bran rather wearily.

“Yeah, I know how long ago it was,” said Kai. “The kid’s at university now,
isn’t she? Their kid? The one he browbeat her into having?”

“He didn’t browbeat her,” said Bran. “She says you’re making that up.”

“Yeah. The sweetest girl in the world, like I said. She’d have cut off her own
hand if she thought Alix wanted her to– and when they gave her the option,
she fell all over herself to ruin her life and tie herself to that prick for good.
And who do you think told her Alix had always wanted a child?”

Bran sighed. “Yeah, yeah. You’ve explained it all before, Kai. He
engineered everything to bring about the abomination in the sight of the
gods that is Miss Valor.”

“I’ve got nothing against Valor,” Kai said, threading his arms under Bran’s
and clasping them firmly across Bran’s solar plexus. “She’s a nice enough
girl, even if she does take after him more than a kid with none of his genes
has any right to. But she should never have been born. My sister was only
sixteen, and he came along and her life was over, just like that.”

“No, Kai, her life would have been over if they’d killed her,” said Bran
patiently. “You know, like some owners would have, for getting pregnant
when she wasn’t supposed to be fucking anyone with viable sperm.”

“And who made her miserable and lonely enough to do that?”

“She did what she did,” said Sophie firmly. “And she lives in peace now
with the woman she loves. Not many of us are so lucky.” She looked at
Jesse, shaking her head. “Every time Larssen comes over, the same
argument. At least today he has it with Bran, instead of having it with
Larssen, and being punished afterwards. I tell him he should be careful, or
our mistress will sell him to the slave breakers.”
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Jesse smiled at the joke.

“And I’m no fun for him to fight with,” Sophie added, “since I neither love
nor hate Larssen. Though I could wish he had been the one fucking me for
the first time, when I was fifteen.”

“I hear he’s good with virgins,” Kai admitted grudgingly.

“And with those who aren’t virgins,” said Sophie, with a broad wink at
Bran. “My mistress has told me I have a home with her for as long as she
lives, and I’m very grateful for her kindness. But if she ever grows tired of
me and of keeping her promises, I wouldn’t mind belonging to Holden
Larssen.”

“Has he ever fucked you?” asked Jesse, who was beginning to like Sophie.
Her sharp observations and matter-of-fact, unsentimental attitude struck a
chord in him, and he rather enjoyed playing her straight man as she widened
her eyes at him dramatically.

“Heavens, no,” she said. “I haven’t had a cock in me for nine years. Another
kindness my mistress has done me.”

Jesse smiled again. “Then how do you know you wouldn’t mind?”

She grinned back. “I’ve spent some time with Inga– she’s a very pretty girl,
isn’t she? Golden all over. I think you’re imagining us together, Jesse.”

She moved her legs slightly against Jesse’s half-erect cock. Jesse reddened,
and Sophie laughed.

“Inga will belong to a woman soon,” she said, “though not my mistress,
more’s the pity. Larssen brought Inga to us to learn to please women– and be
pleased by them. Do you know she hadn’t had an orgasm in two years?”


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“No wonder she bit,” said Jesse, and the three others laughed. “But why did
he have to bring her here for that? I mean, what about his wife and Greta?”

Sophie shrugged. “I didn’t ask. At a guess, because he wanted her to learn
from the best.” She glanced up at Jesse through long black eyelashes.
“That’s me, by the way. Too bad you don’t have a cunt, so I could show
you.”

“You’re a cock-tease, Sophie,” Kai drawled.

“It gives me pleasure,” Sophie agreed serenely. “What about you, Jesse?
Does your master fuck you?”

“No,” said Jesse quickly, and then, “Um. Not yet.”

“I don’t know how he’d have time,” said Kai.

“True. Inga and Bran and Yves and Jer and your sister and his wife...”
Sophie yawned softly. “It makes me tired just to think of it. Poor Larssen.”

“Yeah, my heart bleeds,” said Kai grumpily, and Bran and Sophie giggled.
Jesse smiled.

****

Enjoying himself much more than he’d expected, Jesse found it an
unwelcome interruption to the pleasant chatter when Holden and Galenova
came back in, but Bran was obviously pleased; he smiled at his master from
Kai’s lap. Smiling back, Holden gestured to him, and he pulled out of Kai’s
arms and came to stand at his master’s side.

“Such a sweet-natured boy,” said Lady Galenova, looking at Bran, “and so
pretty. You must get offers constantly.”



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“I currently have–“ Holden paused, his lips moving silently, his fingers
tapping sequentially against each other. “Eight. Eight standing offers– no, I
forgot Anna. Nine standing offers from approved buyers, for Bran. Not
counting all the ones that are defunct or that I don’t bother to keep on file.”

“Is that Anna Lavrova?” Lady Galenova asked, amused. “What does she
want with another boy?”

“Bran’s unique. Plus, I think Mal’s in love with him.”

“And nothing but the best for Mal,” said Lady Galenova, smiling. “Bran’s
filled out a good deal since you first got him, too, hasn’t he? Could I see him
naked before you go?”

“Sure,” said Holden with no particular interest. “Bran.”

Bran looked away. “I’d rather not.”

Jesse was fairly sure he heard Kai and Sophie stop breathing at the same
time he did.

“Why not?” Holden asked after a pause, not ungently.

“I just don’t want to,” said Bran, flushed, without meeting Holden’s eye.

Kai made a quick, involuntary movement, and his mistress sent him a
warning glance, but Holden’s eyes stayed on Bran.

“Do it, Bran,” he said softly. “Now.”

Crimson and glassy-eyed, Bran pulled off his tunic and stood naked, head
bowed, before his master and Lady Galenova.

Holden walked around him once, looking him up and down, then said
brusquely, “Get dressed.”
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Bran pulled his clothes back on and dropped to his knees at his master’s feet,
touching them lightly, in the supplicating pose of a slave who had
misbehaved in public and hoped to escape equally public discipline. Jesse
had seen the gesture before, but to see Bran doing it to Holden was horribly
unsettling. He waited, his heart in his throat, for Holden to grant or deny the
reprieve.

“We should be going,” Holden said. “Sorry, Irina.”

“Don’t apologize,” said Lady Galenova graciously. “Compared the way
Kai’s behaved in front of you before– Bran’s a good boy. Perhaps a little
spoiled. You do indulge him a great deal.”

“I do,” Holden agreed politely, and reached down a hand to Bran, who
allowed himself to be helped to his feet, his head still hanging low. Holden
made a few more courteous farewells to Irina, snapped peremptory fingers at
Jesse, who scrambled to his feet, and turned to lead the two boys out to the
car.




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CHAPTER 9

Bran followed Holden meekly to the car, Jesse tagging behind, trying to
breathe, and stood waiting beside it, his head down, not touching the handle
of the door. Holden put a gentle hand on his back and opened the door to the
front passenger seat for him, motioning him in. Jesse climbed in the back
seat as Holden shut the door on Bran, got into the driver’s seat and started
the engine.

“So,” he said conversationally as he drove off. “What was that about?”

“I’m sorry, master,” said Bran in a small voice. “Thank you for not
punishing me in front of Lady Galenova.”

“You’re welcome. Now answer the question. You must have had a reason.
You wouldn’t defy me just for the hell of it.”

“I didn’t want them to see me,” said Bran in an even quieter voice.

“I gathered. But why not? They’ve all seen you naked before. I thought at
first you must have some kind of mark you didn’t want anyone to see, but
you’re spotless as a virgin, so what gives?”

Bran said something inaudible.

“Speak up,” said Holden. “I can’t hear you.”

“That’s why,” Bran repeated, more clearly.

“What’s why what?” Holden asked, puzzled. “Being spotless as a virgin? Is
why you didn’t want them to see you?”

Bran nodded without looking up.



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“You’re not making any sense, Bran,” said Holden sharply. “You didn’t
want people to see your body with no marks on it? Why the hell not?”

Bran was huddled in on himself as if trying to disappear. Holden glanced
sideways at him, and when he spoke again his voice was gentler.

“Don’t look like that, kid,” he said. “I’m not going to kill you for a little
backtalk. And I’m not going to do anything to you until I understand what’s
going on. You’ve never been self-conscious about your body, and you’ve
always been pathologically well-behaved. I hope you can see why I’m
confused.”

"I'm sorry," said Bran again.

“All right,” said Holden after a pause. “Take your time. No hurry. Let’s talk
about something else. Why don't you have any marks? Jesse looks like a
biter to me.”

Jesse raised his eyebrows, half annoyed by the offhanded comment and half
amused by its accuracy. Holden caught the expression in the rearview mirror
and mirth flickered in his own eyes for a second before they returned to the
road.

“His teeth,” said Bran indistinctly.

“Oh, right. What about Yves? He normally doesn’t leave you unbitten for
too long at a time.”

“Hasn’t taken me for a while, master.”

“Ah. Because you’ve been spending so much time with Jesse and Quen.”

“I guess,” said Bran.



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“You guess. But not very convincingly. Let’s see. I know you and Yves
haven’t quarreled; Yves would have told me. Is it that you think he’s lost
interest in you?”

Again Bran said nothing.

“Aha,” said Holden. “He doesn’t want you any more. Nobody wants you any
more. We’re all too bored with our charity brat to keep your skin
interestingly variegated. And then I order you to demonstrate your
humiliatingly immaculate body in front of everyone. Is that it?”

Nearly crimson, eyes fixed firmly on his feet, Bran stayed silent.

“And punishment might mean marks. And it’ll definitely mean my attention.
It’s not in you to seriously misbehave, but a little defiance, just a few quiet
words, over something you– Gods, Bran, I really have been neglecting you.”

“No,” said Bran, almost angrily, to his knees.

“Yes,” said Holden firmly. “Why can’t you be honest with me, kid? Do you
think I’m going to be angry at you for complaining? Is that it?”

“I’ve got nothing to complain about, master,” said Bran quietly.

“No?” said Holden dryly. “You could complain about sharing my attention
with a wife and two other sex slaves and a steady stream of delinquents. Or
you could complain that every time you make a friend close to your own
age, they get sold a couple of months later– or leave the country altogether
by dead of night. Or you could complain about these dreams where you
wake up crying and then claim you can’t remember what you were dreaming
about.”

“None of that’s your fault,” said Bran, barely audibly.

“So? Even if there’s nothing I can do, wouldn’t it help to talk about it?”
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“But I promised,” said Bran. “When you agreed to keep me. Not to be a
bother.”

“Oh,” said Holden softly. “Now we’re getting there. You promised, huh?
Sure, I remember that. ‘I’ll be so good you won’t even know I’m there,’
wasn’t it?”

Bran said nothing.

“But you know by now, or you should, that I like knowing you’re there. You
do know that, don’t you? You see me smile whenever I see you?”

“If--” Bran began, then fell silent.

“If,” Holden repeated. “This is a fascinating little semaphore you’ve
invented, sweetheart. So much more invigorating than normal conversation.
Silence when you agree, mumbled cryptic statements when you don’t, and
now 'if.’”

“I’m sorry,” said Bran miserably, though Holden's tone had been light and
not angry. “You smile when you see me if– I look happy.”

“Okay.” Holden sighed. “All right. Yes. I worry. I feel responsible for your
welfare. So you think you can’t complain about things that aren’t my fault
and that I can’t fix because I’ll think they are my fault and I should fix them.
Maybe you worry about how I’ll decide to fix them. Maybe you worry that
I’ll say, “Ah, kid, you’re so miserable here with me, I knew keeping you was
a bad idea, I guess I’ll have to sell you now for your own good.’”

Silence.

“I think that’s right,” said Holden. “I also think the bigger problem here is
that you don’t really understand why you’re still here, or there, in the house,


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so you walk around on eggshells in case you accidentally say the wrong
thing and break the magic spell.”

“I know why,” said Bran, staring at his hands. “Because I begged you to let
me stay.”

“What?” said Holden, and Bran looked up for the first time, alert to his
master’s incredulous tone. “Bran, my job is to have sex with fucked-up
teenagers while attempting to untangle their heads. If I caved every time
someone decided he was in love with me and would just absolutely die if I
sold him, forget a new dining room table, I’d have had to build another
entire house.”

“No you wouldn’t,” said Bran, his eyes suddenly bright and defiant,
frightening Jesse, “because they would all have moved on by now, right?
Like you thought I would? You wanted me, and you were willing to put up
with me for another month or a few more months, maybe a year, however
long it took before you got tired of me or I got tired of you. You didn’t love
me and you didn’t think I really loved you so it was all fine, wasn’t it? And
now you’re sick of me and here I still–“

“Wait,” said Holden, squinting at Bran with a trace of a smile. “Didn’t I just
fuck you yesterday?”

Bran drew back as if Holden had reached across and slapped him. Jesse
clenched his jaw, hating Holden. Everything’s fucking funny to you, isn’t it?

Holden sighed.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s a defense mechanism. Like you and apologizing
for everything. I try to turn everything into a joke. But you’re serious, and
you’re hurt, and you’re scared. And you’re wrong. I didn’t keep you because
you begged and I didn’t keep you because I wanted you– although you’re
also wrong that I’m tired of you, but we can discuss that in bed tonight.”


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Bran glanced up swiftly, his eyes searching Holden’s profile. “Tonight?”

“Yes, tonight. Didn’t I tell you I’d be spending the night with you?”

“Yes,” said Bran, flushed, “but that was before I– disobeyed you.”

“So? You really think I’d punish you for a cry for attention by withholding
my attention? Give me a little credit, kid.”

Bran nodded, blinking away sudden tears. Holden was silent for a moment,
watching him in quick glances.

“You’re wrong,” he repeated finally, slowly, as if picking up his train of
thought again. “Up until you ran away, I really thought you just had a run-
of-the-mill teenage crush on me. More intense than some, more honest than
most, but– and even when you went missing I thought it was some kind of, I
don’t know, I couldn’t figure it out. But if I found you alive I was going to–
figure out what the fuck had happened, first of all, and then I was going to
fix it and sell you and get on with my life and let you get on with yours. Or,
if it wasn’t fixable, I was going to wake up at three o’clock every night for
the rest of my life wondering what I should have done differently. But
keeping you was not an option.”

“But you did,” Bran protested.

“Oh, did you notice that?”

“Why?” Bran asked, ignoring the sarcasm.

“Because.” Holden hesitated, seeming uncertain for the first time. “I– When
I asked you, once I ran you down, what the hell you were thinking, why
you’d run away at all, but especially if you were allegedly in love with me–
do you remember what you said?”



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“Sure,” said Bran, rather bitterly. “I said I’d rather die than belong to anyone
but you. I remember the look on your face when I said that. Sort of a ‘wow,
he’s even crazier than I thought’ look.”

Holden smiled briefly. “More of a ‘not that old line again’ look. No, I was
thinking of what you said just before that.”

Surprised, Bran thought. “I– something about how– I was afraid I’d change?
Get all cynical and jaded, like Jer? If I– had to live– without love. Without–
hope.” He swallowed, embarrassed. “Something like that.”

“‘The best things about me, master, they’re all for you,’” Holden quoted
gently.

Bran nodded. “And– yeah. That.”

“And then the ‘I’d rather die’ line, right,” said Holden, reconstructing, “and
then the look on my face, and then the look on yours, kid. And that’s when
you got me.”

“What?” said Bran, sitting up straight. “No it’s not! You fought me for ages
after that!”

“Yeah,” said Holden. “I fought. I fought like a cat in a sack. You had me,
but I still refused to believe it. I thought– maybe– I could talk my way out of
it. Figure out a way I didn’t have to keep you.”

“I thought you wanted to,” said Bran, staring as if trying to bore through
Holden’s skull with his eyes. “I thought you wanted me.”

“I did– and do– want you, Bran,” said Holden softly. “But I told you then, I
can’t afford to just take whatever I want. I don’t have the time and I don’t
have the right.”



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“Then why did you keep me?” Bran cried, and there was such raw
desperation in his voice that tears sprang to Jesse’s own eyes.

“Because–“ Holden took a deep breath, and his voice, when he spoke again,
was as raw as Bran’s, painfully tender. “I don’t pray much, kid, but I’d been
thanking the gods for letting me be the one who-- helped you-- watched you-
- come alive again. Watched you forget to be afraid, remember how to
laugh, come out with all that intelligence and humor and fire. For a kid
who'd been through what you'd been through-- you are an extraordinary
person, Bran. And the more I understood that, the more I kept remembering
how you looked when– do you remember the day we bought you from
Dunaev, how you sucked my cock in the back seat?”

“Of course,” said Bran, flushed from the praise, and smiling faintly.
“Anything to postpone the torture.”

“Yes, well, you were very good, despite being scared half out of your mind.
But afterwards, you pulled back and just sat there with your head down, and
I said something, I don’t remember what, something inane to try and get a
smile out of you, and you glanced up at me and you had this– look on your
face. Like you’d done your absolute best and now you were waiting to be
punished for not having done better. Like you thought you deserved to be
punished, for not having a better best to give.”

“I remember,” said Bran very quietly. “You looked at me– you looked–
strange.”

“I felt strange. I've seen some fucked-up shit in my line of work, but that
look, I-- and once I'd started to understand what kind of person you were, it
was even worse. But at least I could tell myself I’d see to it that look was
never on your face again. And then– at Karl’s, after you’d said your piece,
after you looked into my face and saw that I still wasn’t buying it– there it
was. The same fucking look. Only a thousand times worse, because by then I
knew you, and I’d seen such light on your face, and you hadn’t just offered
me your mouth, you’d offered me– everything. The best things about you.
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And there you were sitting in front of me, believing all over again that you
were nothing, that you couldn’t ever be good enough. For me, for fuck’s
sake. It was like a nightmare. I–”

He broke off, swallowing. Bran’s eyes were glued to his master. Holden’s
were on the road.

“I thought, this isn’t happening, he can’t really still– I was furious. With
myself, with Dunaev, with your fucking grandfather. I was ranting, I was
explaining to the universe how fucking impossible this all was, and you
closed your eyes and–”

“You slapped my face,” said Bran, with an odd note of shocked reproach, as
if it had just happened.

“Yes," said Holden. "I slapped your face. Because you closed your eyes and
your face went slack and you looked dead. Gone. You’d just... left. And that
was– not– bearable. And I slapped you and you opened your eyes and you
were still there and even a little angry– but I knew that I hadn’t–“ He
swallowed again. “I hadn’t failed you altogether, but I hadn’t succeeded,
either. You were alive, you were you, but if I pushed you away, if I let you
go, you’d just– go under.”

“I’m sorry,” Bran whispered.

“No,” said Holden fiercely. “Don’t you dare blame yourself. You’re the
bravest kid I’ve ever seen. I’ll never know the strength it took to keep hold
of all your– best– your sweetness and trust and hope– after how hurt you’d
been, and for how long. The Ravens know I didn’t manage it. But you were
so tired, sweetheart. And my eyes were maybe the first place you’d seen–
what you really were. It’s still hard for me to believe, but it must be true–
that no one had ever told you how fucking beautiful you were.”

Bran looked down, tears spilling over. Holden still wasn’t looking at him;
his gaze was steady on the road ahead.
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“You think you love me,” he said. “You were drowning, and I was there,
and you reached out with the last of your strength and got a death grip and
hung on for dear life– and you’re still hanging on. It’s sweet that you think
it’s love, Bran, sweet like you’re sweet, and young and innocent and
idealistic.”

“I don’t care what you think,” said Bran defiantly, tears still streaking his
face.

“Good,” said Holden calmly. “You shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter. You’ll
realize someday, you know, that you don’t need me any more, that you
know what a goddamn treasure you are, without me having to tell you. Just
time will do it, maybe, or the sheer number of people you hear saying how
lucky I am, or– I don’t know. But something will click, and you’ll move on.
And I’ll be glad, because it will mean I did all right by you. But– Bran? I
honestly don’t care how long it takes. Another month, another year, twenty
more years– for as long as you still need me to hold you and look at you and
state the fucking obvious, I’m here. I’ve got you. And if you even think
about closing your eyes and disappearing on me again, I’ll smack you cross-
eyed. You’re not getting lost again. Not someone like you. Not on my watch.
Not if it takes the rest of my life.”

Bran buried his face in his hands and wept.

Jesse sat stunned, staring from Bran to the back of Holden’s head. Bran cried
in long, hard, racking sobs, Holden drove quietly, and Jesse was fairly sure
neither man remembered Jesse existed at all.

The car stopped. Startled, Jesse realized they were at the house. Holden shut
off the engine, got out, came around and opened the door.

“Come here,” he said, and Bran, still sobbing, let his master help him up and
out of the car. He would have dropped to his knees on the ground, but


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Holden held him upright, kissed him softly on the forehead and drew his
head down on his shoulder.

As Jesse emerged from the car, blinking, Holden said his name, and Jesse
looked up, startled, into the dark brown eyes.

“Thank you,” said Holden.

Jesse stared, speechless.

“For whatever you said to him earlier,” said Holden, as Bran sobbed quietly
against him. “You didn’t make him feel this way. You just brought it to the
surface. And that’s where it needed to be, for an idiot like me to notice it. So
thank you.”

He turned his attention from Jesse to Bran, stroking the weeping boy’s hair
gently. Jesse stood still for a moment, staring at them, before he slammed
the door of the car and made for the house, thank you still echoing in his
head.




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CHAPTER 10

Jesse didn't see Bran again for about an hour. At a loose end, he wandered
the house, getting odd looks from the other members of the household. They
seemed friendly enough, but Jesse wasn't interested in making any more
friends, not if all went well-- when he'd be out of here in a matter of weeks--
and not if it didn't, when these people really weren't his friends.

Finally he went to "his" room and shut the door, lying down on the bed with
his eyes open. Irresistibly bits and pieces of the conversation in the car came
back to him. You are an extraordinary person. You were gone, and that was
not bearable. How fucking beautiful you are. I've got you.

He'll say all that, Jesse thought, but he won't say "I love you"? Won't even
admit Bran loves him? Doesn't make any fucking sense.

Jesse had told Bran he'd thought slaves in love with their owners were
mythical, but of course he'd known slaves whose masters and mistresses had
'fallen in love' with them. Easy to fall in love with someone you could
control utterly; easy, and very safe. Much easier and much safer than falling
in love with someone who controlled you utterly. He thought of Holden
saying in that intense voice, "You're the bravest kid I've ever seen" and gave
an irritable twitch of the shoulders, an involuntary, directionless shrug.

People who think they're in love with you when you're not in love with them
are irritating, Jesse thought firmly. Everyone knows that. Unless you're an
emotional sadist like Presniakov, of course, and then no slave in his right
mind falls in love with you anyway. For anyone halfway decent it's a drag,
being loved by someone you don't love back; it's a demand. Even if they're
basically nice people and you feel sorry for them, you still wish they'd quit
that. Move on, like Larssen said. That's why slaves don't fall in love with
their masters unless they're masochists. Slaves can't afford to be irritating.
And even if your master decided to keep hold of you for whatever reason,
because he's got it in his head that you'll go crazy or something if he doesn't-
- he wouldn't sound like that about it. He'd try to sound kind, maybe, but he
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wouldn't sound like he was about to break in half from trying so hard to
explain how-- You don't sound like that unless you love a person.

So Holden loves Bran. Why the fuck won't he say it?

Maybe his wife won't let him. Maybe she's jealous. He's got three boys and
she's just got the one girl. Maybe she's fed up. Maybe she's just like, Look,
you, I don't care what you fuck but no more true love forever, you're cutting
into my slice here. Maybe he's afraid she'll do like what's her name did, that
lady who owned them both, who made her husband get rid of all his slaves. I
wish I'd gotten a look at the marriage contract.

Jesse stared at the ceiling.

Maybe it's a power trip, like I said to Bran before. As long as Bran thinks his
master doesn't love him he stays desperate to please because maybe he can
convince him, maybe he can make him love him. But that doesn't make
sense; he wants Bran to feel safe, that's obvious, that's what that whole thing
in the car was about, you're not getting lost again. He doesn't like Bran to be
scared, you can tell that. He doesn't want fear, he doesn't want love. What
the hell does he want from the kid? I don't believe that shit about being glad
if Bran was ready to leave him for a second. He'd be heartbroken if Bran
'moved on,' he fucking loves him. Why's he pushing him away so hard?

Why do I care?

Jesse knew the answer: because he was good at this. Quen used to be fairly
impressed by Jesse's quick, vicious analyses of Presniakov's social circle.
Ugly old bag in pink lace and makeup an inch thick, wants to be a little girl
again so she fucks little boys, we're a little too old but she'll make do, bet
you she'll want us to call her Yelena in bed, no, Lenochka, Lenchik. Soft,
nervous guy, son of a rich merchant who bought his title; beating slaves
bloody makes him feel a little less nouveau, but I'm pretty sure he sticks to
girls who look like his wife. Super-refined old-family gold-digging bitch


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trying to get her claws into the master; fucking hates that he has boy slaves
but she'll follow his lead on how to treat us, at least until after the wedding.

Holden and Alix had made perfect sense when they first showed up at
Presniakov's. If Jesse had had the mental energy he'd have whispered as
much to an imaginary Quen. Rich and successful but still not quite there,
trying a little too hard to impress the aristos, the wife more than the husband,
he lets her have that boy as an outlet, she wants me but he wears the boots,
and so on as the afternoon progressed, their performance flawless, the
gathering drunken rage, the direction of Bran's frightened cower. If he hadn't
been past caring about anything he probably would have been able to gauge
the exact minute at which he needed to duck Holden's fist, and even as he
lay on the floor bleeding he wasn't really surprised, not on any deep level.
They fit the patterns he understood.

The real shock and disorientation had begun in the car, when the patterns
started unraveling, when it became obvious that not only did Alix and
Holden and Bran not fit the pattern, they had deliberately faked it. An eye as
keen as Jesse's for social cliches that no one would question-- Alix's,
Holden's, one of the slaves'?-- had planned it out in perfect, finely shaded
detail. He imagined them in the car beforehand, and it was Holden's quiet
voice he heard: You know the scenario. We're both trying a little too hard to
impress, but you care more than I do. Bran, you're afraid of me but you're
also afraid to be too obviously clinging to Alix. We'll set it up early on that
Alix thinks this Jesse kid is pretty and I don't like that, so later, when I'm
drunk--

If anything, they'd overestimated Presniakov; for all his refinements of
torture, he didn't have the eye for these things that Jesse did. He wouldn't
ever have figured Jesse out if Quen, sweet trusting Quen, hadn't come onto
the scene, curled up in Jesse's arms, seduced him into betraying weakness.
Not that it was Quen's fault. The weakness was Jesse's, and the surrender to
it; he loved Quen, would have given up far more than that sense of safety
and impenetrability for his sake. Love made you weak, but Jesse, unlike
Presniakov, knew it was worth it.
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(Maybe that was Holden's problem. The way he felt about Bran made him
weak, and he couldn't handle it. The blood frightened him, and my tears. The
fear and the shame made him angry. But that would make Holden close
himself off to Bran, or lash out, not pour out his heart but just refuse to say
those three fucking words, I love you--)

Jesse was used to understanding the people who had power over him and
Quen. Now these new people itched at his mind, almost forming
recognizable patterns, but not quite, never quite, falling into place.

Holden made sense. Mostly. A little under his wife's thumb, grateful to her
for freeing him; sentimental over Yves, since Holden was to Yves sort of as
what's his name, Pavel, had been to Holden. Sentimental over Jer, since
they'd belonged to Argounov together. Liked playing with pretty teenagers,
but not much trouble letting them go, since there'd always be more. And
then this one kid, sweet and beautiful and shy and adoring, and he'd fallen,
hard. Jesse didn't have any trouble understanding why anyone would fall in
love with Bran.

Holden's explanation of Bran made sense, too. You were drowning, and I
was there. It's sweet that you think it's love, sweet like you're sweet, and
young and innocent and idealistic.

What didn't make sense was why Holden said that, saw that, if he was
fucking in love with Bran. Nobody was capable of that much disinterested
clarity. If you were madly in love with someone and they insisted over more
than a year that they were madly in love with you back, you caved at some
point. If you were as emotional as Holden was in the car, choking with
tenderness over the shivering kid next to you, every tone in your voice
screaming I love you, the words came out, unless there was a damn good
reason for them not to. Jesse's inability to figure out any reason good enough
was like a ferocious itch suddenly flaring on your leg when your hands were
cuffed to the ceiling and your master was concentrating on your back and
ass. It really shouldn't matter, but fuck it was irritating.
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Maybe Holden was doing this just to get under Jesse's skin. Jesse smiled
briefly, mirthlessly, at the ceiling.

He was still trying to figure it out when Bran came in, tear-stained and quiet-
faced, and sat down on the bed next to him. Jesse sat up quickly.

"Hey," he said. "You okay?"

"Fine," said Bran. "Sorry about all that. Must have been an interesting
show."

"Yeah," said Jesse. "Did he punish you already?"

"No," said Bran with a wan smile. "He isn't going to. He said he thought I'd
had enough of a beating on the way home."

"Gods, he's weird," said Jesse. "Can I say he's weird, or does that piss you
off?"

"No," said Bran. "He's weird."

Jesse smiled, then said tentatively, "Do you-- uh, do you think he might be
right? About you?"

"That I'd lose it if he sold me? Yeah, probably," said Bran.

"No, that you only think you're in love with him because--"

Bran shrugged. "He's said that before. Maybe. Who knows. What did you
think of Kai and Sophie?"

"I liked Sophie," said Jesse, with a curious look at Bran. "She seemed to
have her head on straight. Kai's fucked up."


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"Aren't we all?" said Bran. "I feel sorry for Kai. He just can't make himself
move on. Like me."

"Oh, come on, Bran," said Jesse irritably. "He's had twenty years to move
on. That's longer than you've been alive."

Bran grinned. "Point. He's a sweet guy essentially, though. Really likes me,
even though you'd think I'd drive him crazy, as devoted as I am to the guy
who ruined his sister's life. My master says he just concentrates all his hate
and aggression and bitterness on that one thing, so he's totally serene and
friendly otherwise."

"He said that?" Jesse asked, amused. "Does he talk like that to you a lot?"

Bran smiled. "Sometimes. He likes to figure people out. Well, it's his job.
But it's his hobby, too. Thinks he's got me all figured out, for sure. Wish I
had him figured out."

"Me too," said Jesse fervently, wondering whether Holden thought he had
Jesse figured out. I'd like to see him try, he thought derisively, and then
wondered if he really would like it, thinking of Bran's racking sobs in the
car, Holden's relentless voice, I saw, you looked, I knew then, you were so.
What would it be like to have someone turn such an unblinking stare on you,
devote such energy to decoding and untangling what went on in your head?
Terrifying. Infuriating. Unbearable.

"Are you okay?" he asked again, suddenly.

Bran looked at him thoughtfully.

"I'm fine," he said. "I told you before, I always cry when people are nice to
me."

"Come here, Bran," Holden ordered that evening after dinner, as he settled
down at one end of the couch in the lounge, and Bran, with a quick glance at
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a surprised-looking Inga, obeyed immediately. He started to kneel, but
Holden grabbed his arm and pulled him back up, then tugged sharply at the
edge of Bran's tunic. "I want this off."

Bran lowered his eyes and said something Jesse didn't catch.

"Bran," said Holden gently. "Wearing clothes is a privilege. One more
hesitation and you lose that privilege until further notice."

Paling, Bran yanked his tunic off swiftly and hit the floor before it did,
bowing his forehead almost to the carpet in apology as Jesse, seated in an
unobtrusive corner with a book he hadn't even glanced at, swallowed hard,
disturbed by a faint flicker of excitement at the threat. That's sick. Poor kid.
Gods, he looks good like that.

"Eyes on me, sweetheart," Holden said softly, and when Bran lifted his head,
Holden reached down to draw the boy up onto his lap, speaking to him too
softly for Jesse to hear, but apparently in a series of instructions, as Bran
adjusted himself in his master's lap, his long legs stretched out along the rest
of the couch, his back against Holden's arm. Smiling, Holden began stroking
his chest, drawing small circles around his nipples with an index finger.
Bran's cock hardened almost instantly, and he closed his eyes, spots of
crimson burning on his cheeks.

Holden bent down and said something, and Bran moved suddenly to put his
arms around his master's neck, turning his body so that it was half hidden
against Holden's chest. Holden allowed it, wrapping his own arms around
Bran and holding him closer while he continued to speak softly with his lips
close to Bran's ear. Bran was trembling. He shook his head emphatically,
and Holden smiled.

Inga looked around absently for a moment, then caught Greta's eye and
moved easily to her side. Greta smiled at her and she sat down, watching
Bran and Holden with interest. Jesse was watching, too, and he saw Bran's
shivering abate as Holden went on speaking into his ear. When Holden
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stopped speaking, Bran nodded, then made a small convulsive movement as
if to bury himself more deeply in Holden's arms. Holden hugged him hard
for a moment, then began kissing him softly, first his lips, then cheeks, chin,
nose, eyelids, forehead, temples, covering Bran's face with kisses, coaxing
out a slow, irresistible smile.

Jesse watched the other boy's tensed body growing slowly pliant and languid
as Holden kissed his throat, his collarbone, then drew his head down to kiss
the nape of his neck. He watched Holden's lips, trying to decipher what he
was saying to Bran between kisses-- "Beautiful," he thought he saw shaped,
more than once, and "dear," and then, just before pressing his lips to Bran's
naked shoulder, an unmistakably emphatic "mine." Bran moved slightly into
every kiss, not demanding any more than the touch Holden gave him, but
rising to meet it with an electric responsiveness that sent a rush of blood to
Jesse's cock.

Bran said something inaudible, and Holden grinned, shaking his head,
pressing his lips to Bran's forehead. And spoke again, into Bran's hair. Bran
nodded again, his face half hidden in his master's neck; Holden nuzzled
down the trail of soft hair at his nape, his mouth latched on to the place
where neck met shoulder, and then he bit, hard. Bran had been expecting it;
his body jerked and shuddered, but he didn't make a sound.

Holden gently grasped Bran's shoulder and peeled him off his own chest,
supporting his back with the other arm. Bran, trembling again, reluctantly let
his arms slide from around his master's neck, and Holden stroked him
soothingly, pressing a kiss to his lips, whispering something in his ear. Bran
relaxed slightly as Holden kissed his way down his chest, took his nipple in
his mouth, and lapped and nibbled at it gently while Bran breathed hard. At
last he pulled back, kissed the hard nub of the nipple, laid his lips to a patch
of skin an inch or two above it, and suckled for a moment before biting
down. Bran shuddered again, his mouth opening in a silent cry, as Holden's
lips and tongue slipped gently down his chest, teeth caught his nipple (a
shred of sound slipped out then, the barest breathless hint of a moan), and
fastened on to another smooth patch of skin.
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Jesse was watching so intently that he nearly jumped out of his skin when
Yves spoke in a normal tone of voice.

"Can I help with that, master?" he asked lazily.

"Be my guest," said Holden, and Bran lay very still against his master's arm,
watching as Yves got up, crossed to the couch and knelt at the other end of it
from Holden, pushing one of Bran's legs off the couch and sitting where it
had been, between the now spread legs. He bent down and pressed his lips to
the crease between Bran's pelvis and his leg; Bran's back arched, pressing
the skin of his collarbone harder against Holden's mouth as Yves' teeth sank
into the tender flesh of his inner thigh.

Holden looked up and raised his eyebrows, and Jesse followed his glance to
Jer, who was shaking his head, grinning, his hand wrapped around his cock,
half covered by his tunic. Jesse would have liked to do the same, but had no
intention of giving Holden the satisfaction, should he happen to glance in
Jesse's direction. Which he didn't seem particularly likely to do, at the
moment.

"What are our thoughts on this?" Yves asked Holden quietly, brushing a
fingertip lightly along the length of Bran's cock, so hard now that it stood
upright and away from his body, the tip glistening.

"Besides 'a thing of beauty,' you mean?" Holden asked, his mouth hovering
above Bran's other nipple, hard already from the barely-there tickle of his
breath.

"So you don't want me to...?"

"Go ahead," said Holden, and flicked Bran's nipple with his tongue, starting
the boy trembling again. "More where that came from."



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Yves grinned and took Bran's cock in his mouth in one quick motion just as
Holden's incisors clamped down on his nipple. Bran gave a choking cry and
then drew in his breath sharply, biting his lips hard as Yves sucked his cock
and Holden, mouth still on his nipple, reached down and wrapped his hand
around Bran's balls, kneading gently.

Bran's lips formed the word master, a faint hiss escaping on the st.

After a moment Yves' hand reached up and tapped at the back of Holden's,
in a let me gesture, and Holden took his hand away, letting Yves' replace it,
and lifted it to Bran's mouth, pressing his fingers between the boy's parted
lips. Bran took them in eagerly, sucking and licking with an almost
desperate enthusiasm; Holden leaned back to say something in Bran's ear,
and Bran squirmed forward slightly, breaking Yves' rhythm for a moment.
Holden pulled his hand away and kissed his lips, deeply, forcing Bran's head
back as his hand disappeared from view. Bran's guttural groan was only half
stifled by his master's mouth, and he continued to whimper softly as Holden
kept kissing him, catching his lower lip between his teeth, then cried out
again as he came into Yves' mouth, biting back at Holden's lips, Yves
licking him clean with long, leisurely strokes of the tongue.

"Holden, love, if you could just keep him a little quieter," said Alix without
looking up from her work at the desk.

"Sorry," said Holden, pulling back from Bran's lips. "He's supposed to be
keeping silent." Bran bit his own lip as Holden added with a teasing smile
into his slave's flushed face, "He seems to be having some trouble following
instructions today."

"Then either gag him or take him upstairs, there's a dear," said Alix, turning
over a fresh sheet of paper. "I just wrote 'in my orgasm' instead of 'in my
opinion.'"

Holden laughed out loud.


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"What do you say, Bran?" he asked, brushing the boy's hair back carefully
from his damp forehead. "Am I going to have to gag you?"

Bran swallowed. "Unless-- it might please you to take me where you could–
hear me cry out for you, master."

"Ah, you're good, sweetheart," said Holden cheerfully. "Hear that, Inga?
What did he do there?"

"Said what he wanted as if he was thinking of ways to please you, master,"
said Inga promptly.

"Good girl. And good boy. Let's get you upstairs. Coming, Yves? Jer?"

"Absolutely," Jer grinned, getting to his feet along with Yves as Holden half
dragged Bran up from the couch.

****

"Bran has all the fun," Inga grumbled when the men had gone, except for
Jesse, who sat blinking in his corner.

"I'm not sure that was entirely intended as fun, Inga," said Greta gently.

Inga nestled against Greta, who put an arm around her. "Sure looked like fun
to me. So, what, was it supposed to be a punishment or something?"

"Punishment is misery as a deterrent to misbehavior," said Alix, still without
looking up. "Bran can work up all the punishment he needs from inside his
own head. Right now he just needs a little recalibration. Please be quiet,
girls. I've got to get this done tonight."




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CHAPTER 11

The next morning when Bran woke Jesse up, he was naked, displaying a
body spattered with bruises and bite marks.

"Uh-oh," said Jesse with groggy alarm.

Bran grinned. "Don't worry, I'm still allowed to wear clothes. I'm just
showing off."

"You're hilarious," said Jesse, sitting up and examining Bran more
attentively. "Did you get much sleep?" He put a hand on Bran's hip to turn
him gently around.

"Some," said Bran. His back had more bite marks and several red, angry-
looking scratches; there were a few mottled bruises on his ass and thighs.

"Doesn't that hurt?" Jesse asked, somewhat befuddled by Bran's obvious
pleasure.

"In a good way," said Bran. "Like when you pull my hair."

Jesse tried not to show his surprise and pleasure at the comment. "Does he
pull your hair?"

"No. He plays with it. Jer pulls it, sometimes."

"You don't mind being everyone else's fuck toy?" Jesse asked curiously.
"Even though you're in love with him?"

"Early in the morning to be trying to make me cry again," said Bran, with a
small grin over his shoulder at Jesse. "No, I guess he's right. You aren't
trying to be hurtful, you're just naturally curious and not naturally over-
endowed with tact."


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Jesse flushed. Bran wasn't the mimic Holden was, but hearing himself
analyzed in such terms and in Holden's speech patterns was unpleasant. He
bit back the truculent answer he would have liked to give Holden, focusing
on Bran and on his first sentence. "I'm sorry."

"It's fine. The others have fucking rights to me, but that was my choice when
he first agreed to-- when I first-- you know. Figured it would make Yves and
Jer a lot easier to deal with. Anyone else I sleep with is my choice, too. You
heard him ask me about Lisa Kareyeva yesterday. He'd have let me say no."
Bran paused for a moment, then added, "I guess I'd like it if he cared enough
to get jealous over me, but I don't really want to spend all the nights he isn't
with me alone."

"Tell me about the Kareyeva girl," said Jesse quickly, wanting to change the
subject from his inconsiderate question and the ever-irritating topic of
Holden's love, or lack thereof, for Bran. "They're coming over tonight, is
that right?"

"Yeah. She's a really nice girl," said Bran, and Jesse was relieved at his
warm, sincere smile. "Very gentle. Very shy-- with me, anyway; she seems
to be able to hold her own with Miss Valor. But we've been sleeping
together off and on for almost a year now, and she still doesn't quite have the
hang of the whole 'sex slave' concept. It's all 'Do you think you could' this
and 'Would you mind if I' that."

"Some of them get off on that," said Jesse wisely. "Does she like you to play
rough?"

"No, no. I mean, I've never tried. I don't think she'd like that. She once saw
the mistress slap a trainee's face and almost got hysterical. I'll have to
prepare her tonight so she doesn't faint dead away at the sight of this." Bran
slid a hand almost caressingly over his own marked chest.

"What about the daughter?" Jesse asked.


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"Miss Valor? She-- has a strong personality. She's nice, though. She's settled
down a bit since I first met her. I think Lady Lisa has a calming influence
now that they're living together. Are you coming down to breakfast?"

"Aren't you getting dressed?" Jesse asked.

"I guess I should. Fox will be there. Not that she doesn't already know I'm a
complete slut, but no need to rub it in." Bran hurried out the door and Jesse
began to dress himself absently; he was still smoothing down his tunic when
Bran came back in, dressed.

****

When they came into the dining room, everyone else was already seated
around the table, food served. Holden reached out as Bran tried to walk past
him and caught his arm, pulling him down into his lap. Bran looked up at
him, surprised, and Holden pulled him close with one arm and reached for
his plate with the other, lifting a piece of fruit to Bran's lips. Bran opened his
mouth obediently and took it in, lapping juice carefully from his master's
fingertips, then leaned his head back with a small sigh onto Holden's
shoulder.

"I don't want to hear it," Holden said to Jer, reaching for another piece of
fruit.

"I didn't say anything, master," said Jer, with a small smile. "Actually you
two look very picturesque. Skirnir bargaining with Freyr."

"I always fancied myself more as Loki," said Holden, amused, as he fed
Bran another morsel. "You're not religious, Jer."

"No, but my mom had a religious picture like that when I was a kid. You
know, just printed cardboard, but I liked it. I thought when I was little that it
was a dad holding his son on his lap."


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"I think we had that picture too," said Alix, interested. "My parents, I mean.
It must have been a popular one at the time."

"There was a whole series," said Jer. "Freyja with Brisingamen, the death of
Baldur, Loki venom-eyed, all the old chestnuts. I just... liked that one. I liked
the look on Freyr's face."

"I don't really remember it very well," said Alix. "I know Skirnir looked
quite young."

"Yeah," said Jer, smiling again. "And he was all draped over Freyr, with this
sort of 'c'mon, pleeeeease' look on his face, and Freyr had this little smile,
like he saw right through him. But not angry at all, just, well, gentle." He
paused for a moment as if examining the memory, then shrugged. "You
know how you make things up in your head, when you're a kid looking at a
picture. When I finally heard the actual story it sort of pissed me off."

"I always suspected Bran planned to sabotage me at Ragnarok," said Holden
lightly, as Jesse examined Jer with interest; this was the most he'd said in
Jesse's presence since the night of Jesse's arrival.

"I don't think it was deliberate sabotage in the story, was it, master?" Greta
asked idly. "He just wanted the sword for himself."

"I thought he needed it to fight his way to Gerd," said Yves, diverted.

Jesse had already eaten all he planned to; he hadn't been particularly hungry
since he came here, at least not for the textureless things that were all he was
served for the good of his teeth. Nor was he interested in the theological
chatter the five adults were carrying on with. Instead he watched intently as
Holden fed Bran from his plate with his fingers. He had seen this game
played before and knew that, like all games masters played with slaves, it
was generally designed for the master to enjoy and the slave to handle either
well or badly. The master got the pleasure of his slave's mouth, his hunger-
sharpened focus, the catch of his breath as he waited between bites for his
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master's whim; the slave, if he was lucky and good at the game, got a half-
full belly before his master got bored.

Bran was good, there was no doubt of that-- the way he opened his mouth,
just wide enough that his master's fingers brushed against his lips, but not his
teeth; the way he took in the food eagerly but not voraciously, gratefully but
never impatiently, the gratitude implicitly for the master's kindness and not
for the food itself; the slow sensual licking and sucking of his master's
fingers as they withdrew from his mouth: all were part of the game, all
would keep a master enjoying himself for as long as possible, maximizing
how much you actually got to eat.

Holden cut a bite-sized piece from his omelette with a fork, then used the
fork to delicately dissect the piece before lifting it to Bran's lips. He repeated
the operation twice before Jesse realized he was removing the mushrooms
from the omelette's filling before feeding it to Bran, and that Bran was
looking at Holden with wide, startled eyes.

"You don't like mushrooms," Holden said softly to him, touching another
bite to Bran's lips; Bran opened his mouth automatically, still staring at his
master. Jesse blinked at both of them, somehow less able to absorb this tiny,
mundane gesture than the myriad other shocks his expectations had received
over the past three days.

It was certainly conceivable-- he thought-- that a well-nourished slave who
routinely ate at the same table with his owners would grow confident enough
about food to develop preferences, likes and dislikes. But Jesse couldn't
imagine Bran picking over anything he was served. Holden was a trainer
who wouldn't encourage young slaves in a dangerous habit like fussy eating,
and in any case Bran would surely be horrified at the idea of such ingratitude
as a refusal to eat anything his master was pleased to give him. He might
privately dislike mushrooms, but Jesse would have bet his own life Bran
would eat them cheerfully. Yet somehow Holden had observed the
preference, and was taking the trouble to indulge it as he fed Bran.


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Jesse would have felt sillier for being so profoundly affected by the odd little
gesture if Bran's own eyes, now back on Holden's hand, hadn't looked
slightly glassy.

Holden was feeding him pieces of apple and melon, interspersed with bites
of omelette. Left behind in the bowl, like the small piles of mushrooms on
the plate, was an increasing proportion of grapes.

When Holden's place was nearly clean-- only grapes left in the bowl, only
mushrooms on the plate-- Holden began feeding Bran the grapes, one by
one. Bran accepted them with his lips, crushing them in his mouth, licking
the sweet juice from his teeth, and bathing his master's fingertips with kisses.

"An antler," said Holden to Yves, who had just asked something of the table
in general. He offered Bran the last grape and added, "It doesn't matter,
anyway. Ragnarok's rigged. Everyone loses. Freyr's just the first to go down.
He might have lasted longer with the sword, but..." He shrugged, one-
shouldered, while Bran sucked his fingers clean. "I guess he thought it was
worth it."

"Yeah, well, love will do that to you," said Jer, without looking at either
Holden or Bran.

The telephone rang, making Jesse's heart leap into his throat. Alix jumped up
and hurried into the hall to answer it.

After a moment she came back in and said to Holden in a resigned tone,
"Irina."

Bran got up quickly, as Jesse slowly swallowed his heart again. No news is
good news, he reminded himself. Holden rose, looking slightly annoyed but
not surprised, and grabbed Bran by the hand, leading the boy after him out
into the hall.



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Jesse looked after them for a moment, dazed, then was halfway up from his
seat before he remembered to mutter, "May I please be excused, mistress?"
Alix nodded, and Jesse jumped up to follow Bran and Holden, somehow
unable to resist any chance to watch them together.

"Of course," Holden was saying into the phone, still holding Bran's hand. He
nodded briefly to Jesse, and Bran shrugged to Jesse's questioning look. "No,
not at all. Actually, Bran is right here-- would it help if I put him on?"

Bran blinked at his master, who grimaced at him.

"Fine," he said. "Here he is." He handed the phone to Bran, who took it
nervously and held it up to his ear as if it might bite. After listening for a
moment, though, his eyebrows shot up and he looked at Holden, who
shrugged elaborately, as if to say What can you do?.

"As it please my lady," Bran said politely, and then after a brief pause, in a
completely different voice, "Okay, she's kidding, right?

"Worried about what? Yes, gods forbid I actually get punished for public
disobedience. You've got to be--

"No, yeah, absolutely. That's completely reasonable. He was actually in the
middle of skinning me alive, but maybe if you irritate him enough with
pointless telephone calls he'll go--

"Sure he did. In the car on the way home he raised his voice to me for two
whole sentences." Holden, obviously trying not to laugh, held up three
fingers in front of Bran's face. "Three whole sentences. He's been nursing
me back to consciousness ever since.

"Kai! I cannot fucking believe she let you waste his time with this. I thought
I was spoiled rotten. Give her back the phone.



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"My lady? Thank you for permitting me to speak to you. I beg you to accept
my humble apology for my misbehavior in your presence yesterday."

Chuckling softly, Holden took the phone back from Bran.

"Hi, Irina," he said. "No, I didn't. Yeah, he is." He laughed. "True. No. Of
course. Imagine that. Okay, Irina, it's no problem. Glad we could help. All
right. Goodbye."

He hung up.

"What was that about?" Bran demanded. "Master? You don't seem
surprised."

"I'm not," said Holden. "He's been completely fucking paranoid about
anyone under my power since... well, ever, but the phone calls to check up
started after Greta got pregnant. Irina's always indulged him. You've just
never seen it because you've never acted up in front of him before."

"For fuck's sake," Bran muttered. "You'd think after twenty years of no one
ever showing up mangled or traumatized-- except for the pregnancy, and
that wasn't exactly-- what are you grinning about, master?"

"You," said Holden, putting his arm around Bran. "You're adorable when
you're indignant on my behalf."

Bran blushed, then laughed. "Well, if he's been doing that all this time I
doubt I'm the first to tell him he's an idiot."

"Actually, I think you are," said Holden, and kissed Bran's cheek. "I'm not
sure anyone else has ever felt the need to defend me with quite that degree of
incredulous sarcasm. I wonder if he'll call again."




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Bran laughed again and leaned his head against his master's shoulder. "Not
worrying about me, master, because I'm not ever acting up at Lady
Galenova's again-- but if he does, give me the phone anyway."

"I think I will." Holden hugged Bran to him. "Ah, Bran--"

"I love you." Jesse could almost hear the words, but Holden just hugged
Bran and kissed his hair, and Jesse thought, I've got to figure this out or I
will fucking go crazy before I even know if Quen is still--

The phone rang again. Holden reached out and picked it up without letting
go of Bran.

"Larssen," he said. As he listened, a satisfied smile curled his lips. "Of
course." He looked up at Jesse and silently offered the phone.

Jesse leaped for it, snatching it so eagerly that he nearly dropped it, and
pressed it to his ear, barely breathing.

"This is J-- jesse," he stuttered.

"Baby?" said Quen. "Now do you trust them?"




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CHAPTER 12

Jesse's conversation with Quen was over almost before it began-- a few
gasped "I love you"s and "I'm fine, everything's great here"s on both sides,
"I miss you so much" from Jesse and "I miss you too beautiful, have you
slept with Bran yet?" from Quen.

Jesse laughed. "Yes. Did you? I didn't get a chance to ask."

"A couple of times. I don't think either of us really likes topping though. I
thought you'd like him."

"Tell me about the trip, Quen. Where are you?"

"I'm here. I mean, we crossed the border. It's a big city, bigger than Tenarus,
and it's weird, there are beggars everywhere on the streets, Faye says it's
because they don't have slavery here, isn't that funny? But I don't have time
to-- Are they treating you okay?"

"Sure, fine. Who's Faye? Where are you? I mean, where are you calling
from?"

"Some friends of Karl's and Tara's. They're letting me stay with them for
now. There's a whole organization-- But I can't run up their phone bill,
international rates... I've got to go. I'll see you soon, sweetheart."

"Okay," said Jesse, "but you're okay, right?"

"I'm great. I'll be better when you're here. I've got to--"

"I know, I know. Call again when you can, okay, I love you so fucking
much, baby--"

"I love you, I love you, I love you, goodbye," and a click.


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It wasn't until then that Jesse realized Holden and Bran had both withdrawn,
perhaps to give him some privacy. He ran upstairs to his room, slammed the
door shut, lay down on his back on the bed and smiled brilliantly at the
ceiling.

"Everything," he told it softly, "is now officially okay."

****

He reiterated the sentiment to Bran as they sat on the steps outside the front
door that evening, waiting for Valor and Lisa Kareyeva to arrive, and
garnering a few interested looks from passersby who clearly knew the house
by sight.

"Is it?" Bran asked, amused. "But what about you? You're not out yet."

"Doesn't matter," said Jesse. "He's safe. I'll be fine. I'm a survivor. He's not."

Bran started to answer, but stopped as a cab pulled up to the curb in front of
the house and a tall, dark girl emerged laughing, turning to say something to
a somewhat shorter, chestnut-haired girl, who was smiling as she followed
the first girl from the car.

"Hi, Bran," said the dark girl, coming up to the outer steps as her friend paid
the cab. "Don't get up, I'm sitting down. Hi, new kid."

"This is Jesse, Miss Valor," said Bran, making room for Valor on the step
between himself and Jesse. "Hello, Lady Kareyeva."

The other girl had already come forward and sat down on the other side of
Bran; to Jesse's slight surprise, she leaned in and kissed him softly on the
lips. Jesse realized he hadn't seen anyone but Holden kiss Bran on the mouth
since he had arrived. That in itself wasn't strange, but the difference between
the passion with which Bran responded to Holden's kisses and the quiet
though full compliance he was giving Kareyeva was astounding. There was
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nothing reluctant about his mouth on the girl's, but nothing remarkable,
either; Jesse could have kissed her with equal competence, now that his
mouth was healing. Even when, after she broke the kiss, Bran reached out to
smooth back the girl's fine, flyaway hair with an affectionate look, and the
two smiled into each other's eyes like a pair of young lovers on a park bench,
Jesse couldn't help but think of the contrast between this quiet pleasure and
the fierce, hungry joy that seemed to radiate from Bran when Holden's lips
were on his.

"Get a room, lovebirds," said Valor amiably, opening an enormous black
patent leather purse and reaching inside without looking.

Kareyeva giggled, putting a hand on Bran's back. "Shut up, Val. Just
because you've sworn off men--"

"I have not sworn off men," said Valor, looking Jesse up and down with
frank interest as she produced a mirrored powder compact from her bag.
Jesse, remembering Holden saying My daughter's about as sensitive as a
cast-iron frying pan, looked back rather nervously.

"When's the last time you brought one home?" said Kareyeva. "You're
fidgeting, Val. Want a cigarette before we go in?"

"Can't smoke around the boys, sweetie," Valor said, inspecting herself
critically in the mirror. "They're expensive. Anyway, I don't need one. I'm
fine." She snapped her bag shut before looking back up at Jesse. "Jesse,
right? So who are you in love with?"

Jesse hesitated, unsure what she meant, but sure that 'My supposedly dead
runaway ex-fellow slave Quen' was the wrong answer.

"Who in this house have you picked out to follow around like a little puppy
dog?" Valor clarified.

"Oh," said Jesse. "Um-- Bran, I guess. Miss."
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"Oh, good choice," said Valor, unexpected dimples popping out as she
smiled at Jesse.

Jesse grinned back despite himself. "Yes, Miss Valor."

"Hey, what's that on your teeth? Let me see." Jesse displayed his brace.
"What happened to you?"

"My master punched me in the mouth," said Jesse truthfully, if ambiguously.

"Ouch. Guess that's why you're here, huh?"

"Yes, Miss Valor."

"I'm sorry. Hi, Mom!"

"Hello, darling," said Greta, stepping out onto the stoop, as Valor jumped up
and flung her arms around her mother, kissing her affectionately and
narrowly missing stepping on Jesse's fingers. "Why don't you come in?"

"I was just powdering my nose," said Valor, "and meeting Jesse. He's cute."

"You're easily distracted, darling," said Greta, smiling. "Come in. We're all
in the lounge."


When they had all trailed inside, and proper greetings with Lady Kareyeva
had been exchanged, Holden put an arm around his daughter and kissed her
on the cheek. "Hello, trouble."

"Hi, Dad," she said, smiling. "Hi, Alix." Alix kissed her on her other cheek
as Inga hung back with the closest thing to shyness that Jesse had seen from
her yet. Valor looked up at her, blushing an oddly becoming pink. "Hi,
Inga."
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"Miss Valor," said Inga softly, smiling at the taller girl.

"Let's get this done, love," said Alix briskly. "Do you have the paperwork
from the university?"

"Every last ream," said Valor, snapping her bag open again and producing a
sheaf of folded papers, which she handed to Alix. "That was an interesting
application process. You could see the wheels in their heads spinning. No
title, made-up last name, parents not married, mother a slave--"

"Now do you see why we didn't want to do this while you were still legally a
minor?" said Alix, paging through the stack.

"I thought it was because I was a complete self-absorbed brat," said Valor
cheerfully.

"That too," said Holden. "Even now-- well, let's just say I wouldn't give you
Bran."

"You wouldn't give anyone Bran unless it was at knifepoint, Dad," said
Valor, grinning. "Is everything in order, Alix?"

"Looks to be," said Alix. "Come here and sign this, love." Valor obeyed;
Jesse thought her hand was shaking a little. "There. You are now officially a
slave owner."

"Don't do anything we wouldn't do," said Holden, as Valor turned, her eyes
shining-- to Jesse's surprise-- with tears, and reached a hand to Inga, who
came close to her, smiling. Valor blinked furiously as Inga knelt and bowed
her head to the other girl's feet, pressing her lips to Valor's shoe.

"Mistress," she said, without looking up.



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"Wow," said Valor, trying to laugh. "That sounds better than I expected. Get
up, dear, and give me a kiss."

Inga rose obediently and the two girls shared a sweet, almost ceremonious
kiss before Valor pulled away, adding with a valiant attempt at briskness, "I
brought you some new clothes. Green does nothing for your complexion,
Inga."

She fished in her bag and shook out a rolled-up black garment of a fine, light
cotton. Inga smiled at the sight of it.

"Thank you, mistress," she said. "May I put it on now?"

"Do," said Valor. "I want to see how it looks."

Inga pulled off her green tunic-- making Lisa blush slightly and turn her face
away from the slave girl's naked body-- folded it neatly and let Alix take it
from her before accepting the black garment from Valor and slipping it over
her head. Her golden skin and hair seemed to glow against the black, and the
material flowed over her curves, accentuating them, but subtly. She looked
stunning.

"Perfect," said Valor. "Oh, God. I'm going to cry. Thank you, Dad. Thank
you, Mom. Thank you, Alix."

"Don't thank me," Greta said, smiling at her daughter. "I didn't give you
anything."

"Of course you did," said Valor, and smiled crookedly at her mother. "You
decided I was ready, or they wouldn't have-- and I am, I swear, I'm going to-
- do this right."

"Luckily," said Holden, "you picked a girl who will bite you if you don't."



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Valor cackled as Inga blushed, then leaned forward and kissed the slave girl
on both cheeks. "She wouldn't bite me. Would you, Inga?"

"Not unless you wish it, mistress," said Inga softly, smiling.

Valor laughed again. "I might just... God, you're beautiful. Let's go eat
before I make any more of a fool of myself."

Valor was extremely talkative over dinner.

"I'm already infamous on campus," she announced proudly. "You two are
notorious, you know, everyone knows the slave breakers' daughter got the
Blackburn fellowship, and just as icing on the cake there's the fact that I'm
obsessed with all this slavery legislation. You would not believe some of the
titled kids who act like I'm a runaway slave myself-- and then there are all
the bleeding hearts who've never met a slave in their lives and want to talk
about how all pleasure slaves should be automatically euthanized at age
thirty as an act of kindness."

"Loki," said Holden, as Jesse glanced, startled, around the table at all the
slaves over thirty. None of them looked surprised, though Jer's eyes were
lowered and he looked tired. "Must startle them when you tell them they're
advocating killing your mother."

"I know, right? And some of them want to free all slaves at a given age--
which isn't a bad idea in theory, but you'd have to go further with it, I mean
economically, how is the workforce going to support a glut of thirty-five-
year-olds with no trade training and with the stigma of being an ex-pleasure
slave? Which isn't always just a stigma, I mean, no offense to you guys, but
being a slave fits you for a very specific lifestyle, doesn't it, and not
everybody's an entrepreneur waiting to bud."

"I'm a lazy slut, myself," said Holden. "But I think that was a pre-existing
condition."


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"How about legislation requiring owners to teach slaves a useful trade?"
Greta suggested, as Jer sent a quick grin at Holden.

Valor pointed at her. "Exactly! That's what I'm talking about when I say
you've got to take it further. Something should be done, though. The current
legislation is a mess, nobody knows what the hell is going on, or what to
protest exactly, because you've got the ones who land on their feet, like
everybody here, and Uncle Kai and Sophie, and then you've got the ones
whose owners sort of find something for them to do around the house and
yard when they get too old for the bed and then put them to sleep nicely
when they're too old for manual labor, and then you've got the ones who are
dead anyway by twenty from suicide or exhaustion because their owners are
evil bastards like Dunaev--"

"Or Presniakov," Alix agreed, nodding at Jesse, as Holden reached out and
put a hand on Bran's back. Bran smiled at him.

Valor blinked at Alix for a moment, then resumed, "Anyway, what's really
needed is more legislation on how to treat slaves before you're sick of them,
maybe a background check before you're allowed to buy one, just basic
stuff, like if you've killed one kid already maybe you don't get to buy
another one."

"I like that idea," said Alix. "But would it work? I mean, could it be
enforced?"

"Not totally," said Valor. "You'd always have the black market. But it would
be a step in the right direction, and it would raise awareness." She looked at
Yves as if for approval; he smiled at her.

Holden caught the look and raised an eyebrow. "Yves, have you been
educating my daughter behind my back?"

Yves smirked at his master. "I do what I can. In those precious three minutes
after the nineteenth orgasm when she's too exhausted to talk."
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"Hey!" said Valor, as Lisa, who had been very quiet through all the meal so
far, giggled nervously.

"It's a good thing you're doing, love," said Alix gently to Valor. "Especially
considering the way you'll be... seen. By others."

Valor laughed suddenly. "Mom, tell the story about when I was six and the
lady asked me who my parents were."

"We've all heard that story, lamb," said Greta, smiling.

"Inga hasn't. And Jesse."

"I'd taken you out shopping," said Greta indulgently, "and she must have
assumed I was your nurse, so she ignored me and asked you who your
parents were. You didn't answer, so she said, 'What grown-ups do you live
with, dear?' and you said--"

"'My mama and my daddy and my mama's mistress and my daddy's slave,'"
Valor recited with satisfaction. "That shut her up. Priss-faced bitch."

"Language, Val," said Greta, but she was laughing.

Valor smiled back. "Of course, when I was thirteen I found out it should
have been 'my mama and my mama's mistress and my mama's mistress's
husband and my mama's mistress' husband's slave.' But I'm still going to try
to do you all proud."

"You already do, Miss Valor," said Yves, smiling fondly at her. "Gods, it's
hard to believe you're the age now that I was when you were born. That was
a strange night. The master was a complete nervous wreck, and Greta--"

"I was very, very calm," said Greta. "After the most weepy, angsty, violent
pregnancy ever."
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"Tell me about it," said Holden, laughing.

"No, please don't," Valor said, raising an eyebrow in a gesture weirdly
reminiscent of her adoptive father.

"Oh, so oft-repeated anecdotes are fine when they're about your lisping
precocity–"

"–but not when they're about my pregnant mom getting pissed off and
kicking my dad in the balls, right," said Valor. "I'm weird, I know."

"If we've all finished eating, I think we should let the young people have
some time to themselves," said Alix, as Jesse stared from Holden to Greta
and back again. "Valor, love, why don't you take Lisa and Inga to the
lounge. And Jesse and Bran may go with you."

"Do we still need a chaperone?" Valor grinned good-naturedly. "All right,
you're right, I need to catch my breath, and you're all driving me crazy
beaming at me. Come on, kids. Let's go."

****

In the lounge, Lisa Kareyeva's flirtation with Bran and Valor's running
commentary quickly escalated to the point where Lisa took Bran by the hand
and led him from the room, presumably towards some bed or other.

"Now that they're gone," said Valor, turning back to Inga, "tell me, most
beautiful girl in the entire world--"

Inga grinned. "Mistress?"

"God, that sounds good. Say it again, sweet."

"Yes, mistress," Inga purred.
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"Give me a kiss. My God. I've completely forgotten what I was going to
say."

"Something about Bran or Lady Kareyeva, mistress?"

"Bran. Right. Oh, yes. Is it just me, or did something happen between Bran
and my dad? My dad's got this whole 'hey you, what are you doing way over
there' thing going on with the eyes."

"Something happened yesterday, mistress," said Inga, "but I'm not sure what.
They went over to Lady Galenova's and Bran came back sobbing all over the
master-- I mean, your father. Jesse was there."

"Ooh," said Valor, intrigued. "So spill, Jesse. What happened? Did my dad
finally admit he's head over heels for his little orphan boy?"

Jesse was surprised into laughing out loud.

"No, Miss Valor," he said.

Valor dimpled at him again. "Ah, too bad. I think maybe he thinks Bran will
feel safer if he thinks my dad just-- takes care of him. Because people fall
out of love, but they don't fall out of feeling responsible for people. Except
they do, don't they? Maybe I should marry Bran, to keep him in the family.
What do you think?"

Jesse shook his head, grinning. "Bran would be scared of you, Miss Valor."

Valor grinned back. "How do you know that's not what I want in a
husband?"

"I think you want someone who can stand up to you, Miss Valor," said Jesse
thoughtfully. "Maybe even someone who'll bite you a little bit."


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"Heh," said Valor appreciatively, as Inga giggled. "Stick around, Jesse.
Maybe I'll marry you."

He was saved from having to answer by Bran's return, alone and looking a
little flustered.

"Where's Lisa?" Valor demanded.

Bran blushed. "With Yves, Miss. The master said he didn't want to deal with
the screaming if she saw what my body looks like right now."

"Uh-oh," said Valor. "What does your body look like right now?"

Bran glanced sideways at Jesse with a small, secret smile.

"Never mind," said Valor, grinning. "I saw that look. You're such a slut,
Bran. I don't know how Dad ever has time to do anything else. Or anyone."

"I try not to be trouble, Miss Valor," said Bran, sitting back down next to
Jesse and taking his hand in an easy, unselfconscious gesture. Pleased, Jesse
squeezed the other boy's hand.

"Heard you'd been making trouble at Galenova's," said Valor casually, and
Bran flushed and looked accusingly at Jesse, who jerked his head
emphatically at Inga. Inga smiled serenely at Bran. "Is that right, Dad?"

Bran and Jesse looked up, startled, to see Holden pausing in the doorway,
hand in hand with Jer.

"No, that wasn't trouble," he said, coming halfway in the door, as Jer sent a
thoughtful glance at Bran. "Attempted trouble, maybe. Bran is not very good
at being bad."

His tone was teasing, and Bran smiled a little, looking embarrassed.


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"Well, that's lucky," said Valor, "because you're not very good at punishing
him."

"I can see how you feel qualified to comment on my disciplinary practices,"
said Holden, "out of the wealth of experience that is your ninety-three
minutes so far of slave ownership."

"I'm just saying," said Valor with an unruffled grin at her father. "If this is
how he looks the day after attempted trouble, I'd like to see him on the day
he actually pleases you."

"He always pleases me," said Holden calmly, before moving on past the
door, Jer in tow, leaving behind a furiously blushing Bran.

"You don't say," said Valor, shaking her head and looking at Jesse, who had
to bite his cheeks to keep from laughing.




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CHAPTER 13

"Beautiful," said the dentist happily, tapping Jesse's forehead with
satisfaction. "If I say it myself. The brace should stay on for another week,
and I wouldn't let him eat anything particularly challenging until then, but
there's no doubt both teeth will live. You shouldn't have any trouble selling
him, Ms. Jamesen. Not on that account, anyway." He smiled, pleased with
himself.

"Wonderful," said Alix. "I can't thank you enough."

"My pleasure. Entirely my pleasure. I'd hate to have– well. There's a good
boy, then."

Jesse managed to resist biting the man's fingers off when he stuck them in
his mouth again, although the patronizing tone grated. He'd been a very good
boy all week, mindful of Yves' watchful though not unfriendly eye, enjoying
Bran, thinking of Quen. Trying to avoid Holden.


"Well, that answers that," said Holden when the dentist was gone. "I'm
afraid you're stuck with us for another week or so, kid, but at least you've
still got your teeth."

"I'll write Tatiana today and see if we can get things in motion sooner than
later," said Alix. "I know you're anxious to be with Quen again."

Jesse nodded. "Thanks. I-- thanks."

"You're welcome," said Alix briskly. "Hop up. Go find Bran. Holden, I need
to talk to you."

****



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It was the small hours of the next morning, and Bran couldn't sleep. Jesse
was rather too acutely aware of this. They'd had sex, kissing carefully, talked
for a while about Valor and her plans for social reform, and Jesse had made
the mistake of saying something about how it must be nice to have an owner
who was in love with you.

Now Bran wasn't exactly tossing and turning; he would lie very still for a
few minutes, and then, carefully and quietly, turn over, readjust his position,
then repeat the whole process. Jesse suspected the attempts to be still and
quiet were for his benefit, that Bran didn't want to bother him with the real
extent of his restlessness, and that only made Jesse more tense.

"Can't sleep?" he whispered finally.

Bran sighed. "I'm sorry. I'd better go back to my own bed."

"You aren't bothering me," Jesse lied.

"I think I might sleep better in my own bed, anyway." Bran rolled over and
kissed Jesse quickly on the lips. "See you in the morning, Jess."

Jesse lay still for some time after he had gone, seething with rage at Holden.
Fucking lying-ass power-tripping stupid blind game-playing... The fact that
some of his adjectives were contradictory, that he still hadn't managed to
figure out what the hell Holden's problem was, only made him angrier.

He tried to lie still himself, then sat up abruptly and climbed out of bed,
hurrying downstairs with no particular aim in mind except motion. He was
surprised to see a light burning in the lounge. Putting his head in curiously,
he saw Holden at the desk, writing. The older man looked up as Jesse
hesitated in the doorway.

"Hey, kid," he said. "What are you doing up? Come on in."



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"What are you doing up?" Jesse asked, coming in and closing the door
behind him automatically.

"Thought I'd knock out some paperwork. Sit down. Couldn't sleep either?
Where's Bran?"

"Dunno," said Jesse, sitting down. "Where's everyone you sleep with?"

"You know," said Holden, "it's interesting. You're not a bit shy around me,
and you manage to say enough to Bran to upset him practically every time
you're alone with him. But whenever you're around the two of us at the same
time, you shut up like a clam."

"Uh-huh," said Jesse with elaborate non-interest. "Is that a question?"

"Just an observation," said Holden mildly. "I'm not training you. Wish I
were."

"Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" said Jesse, abandoning his bored tone
for one that was outright nasty.

Holden's eyes narrowed, but he only said, "There's no need to be like that,
Jesse."

"Sorry, master," said Jesse even more nastily. "Didn't mean to displease you.
Why don't you whip me into shape?"

"There's no need to talk like that, either," Holden said, his voice controlled.
"I haven't lifted my hand to you."

Jesse glared, knowing he was pushing too hard, but unable to let the obvious
lie pass. "You punched me in the mouth the first time you saw me!"




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"I knew you held a grudge for that." Holden sighed. "Look, Jesse, I'm sorry,
I said I was sorry. But it was the only thing we could think of. Would you
rather we'd just left you to rot at Presniakov's?"

"Not that your interference isn't greatly appreciated," said Jesse between
clenched teeth, "but I was actually fine at Presniakov's."

"Sure you were, kid," said Holden. "With Quen gone everything was easy
again, am I right? Such peace. Such safety. Nothing and nobody could ever
hurt you or scare you again. Because the worst had happened, and it was all
over, and nothing mattered any more."

"Don't talk to me like that," Jesse flared. "Don't you dare talk to me like I'm,
like you think I'm Bran. I wasn't-- I didn't-- give up. I was fine. I just--"

"Believe me," said Holden, "I am under no illusion that you are Bran. You
had about, oh, another week before the numbness wore off. And once it did,
you were going to start screaming, and you weren't going to stop for awhile.
And with a master like Presniakov– no, you wouldn't have lost yourself, kid;
you wouldn't have been that lucky. He's a ghoul, he feeds on agony, and
you'd have given him a feast for a lifetime."

"And what do you feed on, master?" Jesse asked, with the same sarcastic
emphasis on the honorific that had always driven Presniakov to fury. "What
do you want from me?"

"To be absolutely frank," said Holden more coolly, after a moment's pause,
"I don't want you at all. It's been a while since I had to spend this much time
around a teenager with an attitude the size of yours, and resisting the urge to
adjust it for you has been more of a strain than I expected."

"Then get me out!" said Jesse furiously. "Do whatever you're going to do
and get me back to Quen!"

"I am trying my best to do so," said Holden evenly.
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"Then try harder!"

"You know, Jesse," said Holden, spinning in his chair to face Jesse and
leaning forward, "I realize you've been through a lot, and I've been trying to
make allowances, but I'll tell you right now, you are dancing pretty close to
my last fucking nerve."

"Then hurt me," said Jesse coldly. "Knock me down. Again. Clip my wrists
to the ceiling and whip me till I'm hanging from them. Make me scream and
beg. Get my blood all over your nice clean training room floor. You think
I'm afraid of you? You can't do worse to me than Presniakov did. What are
you going to do? Kill me? Kill my–" He broke off, his teeth together, his lips
pulled a little back, staring at Holden's face, where anger had given way to a
sudden, disquieting alertness.

"Your what?" Holden asked softly.

Jesse swallowed.

"You are afraid," said Holden. "Now you are. And it's not for Quen, because
Quen's not here. It's for Bran, isn't it? You're afraid I'll hurt Bran just to get
to you."

Jesse narrowed his own eyes, feeling sick. "Why do you think that would get
to me?"

"Why do you think I give a shit whether it would get to you or not, you
solipsistic little prick?" Holden snapped. "You really think you're so
important to me that I'd hurt someone I love just to get to you?"

"I knew it!" Jesse screamed, pointing triumphantly at Holden.

"Keep your voice down! And put that finger away before I fucking break it.
You knew what?"
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"Someone you love," said Jesse more quietly but no less vindictively,
lowering his hand to his lap. "You said it. You love him. And you lie to him.
You feed him all that crap about what an amazing person he is and how
you'll be glad when he's ready to move on. Fucking liar."

He spat the last words out, daring Holden to hit him. Instead Holden
examined him for a long time, with the same unnerving care as before.

"What if I told you I love him like a son?" he said finally.

"I'd say bullshit," said Jesse brutally, unnerved by Holden's stare. "Fathers
don't fuck their sons."

"Do you think I shouldn't fuck Bran?" Holden asked, and Jesse realized it
was a real question. He swallowed, remembering Bran's cold look as he said,
if you say one single fucking word to him about taking advantage of me...

"I think you should stop lying," he said, "and admit you love him, period."

"Why?" Holden asked, still sounding as if he really wanted to know the
answer.

"Because it's true! And you know it's true!"

"Do you always admit everything you know is true, Jesse?" Holden asked
softly.

"To people I love, I do!"

"Yeah?" said Holden. "Like to Quen? What if you knew it was pretty nearly
impossible for two boys to escape together from a sadistic slave owner, but
one alone might just stand a chance, especially if the other stayed behind to
keep the master distracted? Do you think you'd have told Quen that? Or do
you think maybe you'd have lied and told him you planned to follow him,
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when really your plan all along was to stay behind and feed Presniakov's
misery fetish for the rest of your life, if it meant your boy could get free and
clear?"

Jesse stared into the penetrating brown eyes for a long moment.

"You don't know that," he said finally.

"I don't know anything," said Holden calmly. "It was a hypothetical
question."

"Anyway," said Jesse, trying to collect himself, "what does that have to do
with– I asked you why you won't tell Bran you love him. He wants to hear it.
It fucking kills him that you don't say it. And you won't– why? Would it just
give him a little too much power, to let him know? Because you got your
poor little heart broken by your master, and now you can't love anybody who
might hurt you?"

"You're unbelievable," said Holden, staring at Jesse. "I think you're actually
hoping I'll snap and beat you to death. You'd die happy if it meant you'd
managed to get under my skin that badly. Gods, but you remind me of–"

"Who?" Jesse demanded when Holden trailed off.

Holden smiled, meeting Jesse's eyes. "Myself."

"What?" said Jesse, outraged.

Holden laughed. "Sorry, kid, but it's true. You know I belonged to Alix,
don't you? Ask her. She'll tell you how much trouble I always gave her, how
the more she tried to give me space to sort myself out the worse I got, the
more I pushed. I should have realized sooner. I'd have kept you on a tighter
leash from the beginning, like she should have done with me."

"Yeah, go ahead, threaten me," Jesse snarled. "That must mean you're right."
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Holden was still smiling. "I'm not threatening you, kid. It's too late now. And
you'll be out of my hair soon enough. I'm just saying. We're the same kind of
trouble, you and I. And we're in love with the same thing, aren't we?"

"Bran isn't a thing," said Jesse more or less automatically, still furious.

"I'm not talking about Bran," said Holden, with a curious look.

Jesse sucked in his breath, suddenly realizing what he'd just said. Holden
looked at him for a long moment, then went on.

"I'm talking about the challenge. The rescue. Jumping into the boat to hide
the kid from the evil marauding giant, maybe copping a quick feel in the
boathouse afterwards.* I know. I make a living off it. And you're a natural.
You tried to save Quen from Presniakov and now you're trying to save Bran
from me, aren't you? You just can't leave well enough alone."

"I guess you get to decide what's well enough," said Jesse aggressively,
ignoring the first part of what Holden had said, which was clearly nonsense.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. For one thing, I might know Bran just a little
bit better than some pissed-off kid who came charging into my house a week
ago spitting fire in every direction. Did you say I can't love anyone who
could hurt me? Do you think there'd be any surer way of keeping Bran from
hurting me than letting him know he could?"

Jesse blinked, stopped in his tracks. "I-- what?"

"Bran would rather walk a mile on broken glass than hurt me," said Holden
matter-of-factly. "If I tell him I love him and don't want to let him go, I
might as well chain his sweet little heart to my ankle and throw away the
key. So yes. Sure. I lie to him. Don't fucking tell me you don't know about
lying to someone to save him."


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"Save him from what?" Jesse asked, bewildered.

"What do you think? Even I'm not selfish enough to tell him something that
would tie him for life to a tired middle-aged man who-- what?"

Something about the words had caught at Jesse's mind, closing his mouth
just as he'd opened it to shout something back at Holden. They were too like
something he had heard recently. He sat very still, trying to recapture the
inflection, the voice, bitter and tired, as if it had spoken the same words too
many times before.

"What's that look?" Holden demanded.

"Oh," said Jesse slowly. "That's what Kai said."

Holden peered at him. "Kai said I wasn't selfish?"

"No, Kai said you were selfish. That Greta was tied to you for life. Because
of the baby."

"So?" Holden demanded.

"So you've been buying his bullshit," said Jesse calmly. "Haven't you?"

The older man's face went still, permanent lines born of past expressions–
laugh lines around the eyes and mouth, grooves in the forehead from raised
eyebrows, a deeply worn vertical crease between the brows– momentarily
giving the whole face its only meaning. Jesse found himself examining the
contradictory traces of expression, thinking that Holden's personality had
stamped his face too thoroughly for it ever to turn as slack and absent as he
had spoken of Bran's being.

"What do you mean?" Holden asked quietly.



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"What do you think I mean? You think he's right, don't you? That you ruined
Greta's life? That you'll ruin Bran's?"

"I–" Holden looked nonplussed. "What, you don't think so? I thought you
and Kai agreed I was a fucked-up control freak."

"You're fucked up," said Jesse, too interested to worry about whatever
remnant of caution he hadn't already tossed to the wind, "but you're not a
control freak. You're-- sort of-- the opposite."

"Slow down," said Holden, squinting at Jesse. "I can't take these hairpin
turns at my age. What's wrong with me now?"

Jesse smiled, the genuine puzzlement on Holden's face suddenly making him
feel friendly and almost protective. "It scares you shitless to own Bran,
doesn't it?"

Holden watched him without speaking.

"That's it, isn't it? It's fine with Yves because you two are more like lovers
than master and slave. And it's fine with Jer because he hasn't got anywhere
else to go and at least you can tell yourself he's better off with you than at
the knacker's yard. But you think the only way you can do right by Bran is
by making it so you don't own him and he doesn't love you and you don't
have any power over him at all. Because you'll fuck up his life if you do.
Don't you? Same with all the kids you deal with. Pick them up, straighten
them out, and hand them off. You don't trust yourself."

"Should I?" Holden asked, his eyes intent on Jesse.

Jesse laughed. "How the fuck should I know?"

Holden shook his head, blinking. "I--"



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"I mean," Jesse went on heedlessly, "do you mean should you trust yourself
to make sure Bran's never unhappy or worried or miserable again in his
whole life? For fuck's sake, Larssen. You think that's going to happen if you
do manage to shake him off your ankle? You think Greta would have
married some fucking fairy prince if she hadn't had your baby? And you call
him idealistic. You said it. Ragnarok is rigged. And you love him. Fucking
tell him."

Holden stood up abruptly, and Jesse felt a sudden, exhilarated thrill of fear,
wondering if he had finally pushed the man past endurance. Holden crossed
the distance between them in three steps, reached down and touched Jesse's
face, stroking along his jawline with his thumb as Jesse met his eyes,
fighting not to flinch or pull away.

"Jesse," he said, his voice strangely caressing, then released Jesse's chin with
a quick, peremptory gesture and turned away. "Go back to bed."

"Alone?" said Jesse, looking up at Holden with a faint grin.

"Don't even think about it," said Holden, sitting back down at the desk. "I'm
worn out just talking to you."

"If you're tired," said Jesse demurely, "I could top."

"Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" Holden grinned suddenly back at him.
"Move it, kid. Some of us have paperwork to finish."

[Holden is referencing the myth retold in the ballad of Lokka Tattur. In
another culture, he might have said something about white horses,
damsels, and dragons.]




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CHAPTER 14

Wandering the house at night had become a bad habit of Jesse's, but the
failure to close bedroom doors tightly was a bad habit of the entire
household's, so it wasn't entirely Jesse's fault that after prowling around the
upstairs hall for a few restless minutes, three nights after his confrontation
with Holden, he found himself lingering in front of the slightly-ajar door of
Holden and Alix's bedroom. There was no sound from within. Alix might be
in Greta's room; Holden might be any number of places. The drawer of legal
documents usually had the key in it. Marriage contract, wills, certificate of
manumission-- what did that look like?

He remembered Holden's warning last time he'd caught him snooping---
revoke your status as a guest. Where would that leave you, exactly?-- but
shrugged it off. What are they going to do to me? I already bitched the guy
out to his face and he just sent me to bed. Over the past three days, Jesse had
stopped wondering when the other shoe was going to drop for that snarling
midnight conversation. Holden acted so much as if nothing had happened
that Jesse might have wondered if he'd dreamed the entire thing, if not for
the oddly absorbed, speculative look he had begun to catch on Holden's face
when he was looking at Jesse. Bran had noticed the stray glances too, and
although for the most part Bran’s behavior was as friendly as ever, he was
getting quieter around Jesse, who was starting to look forward more and
more to leaving.

Tired of standing in the hallway dithering, Jesse pushed the bedroom door
open, and his heart nearly stopped for a moment. Holden was in the bed,
alone and apparently asleep. Alix must be sharing Greta's bed tonight. But
why wasn't Holden sleeping with Yves or Jer or Bran, then? Moving the
door back to its original position before coming further into the room, Jesse
went to the bedside and stared down at the slave trainer's face, which looked
drawn and anxious even in sleep.

Poor Larssen. Yeah, my heart bleeds. Both voices-- one lazy and amused,
one bitter and sardonic-- echoed in his head.
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Snooping was obviously out of the question, but Jesse didn't like the thought
of going back to his own room and trying to sleep, either. Instead, he crossed
to the wide windowsill of Holden's bedroom and sat down on it, curled half
behind the curtains, watching the sleeping form on the bed pensively, as if
whatever Holden was dreaming about might materialize in the air above his
head, giving Jesse some clue as to what the man was thinking.

Some little time later, Jesse was badly startled when the door creaked faintly
and someone else came into the room. Motionless, his heart pounding, he
realized it was Bran.

He might have seen Jesse if he had looked in his direction, but he made
straight for the bed and stood by it for what seemed like several minutes,
looking down at his sleeping master, before bending down and pressing his
lips to Holden's. Holden came awake by degrees, already kissing back as he
opened his eyes, and his hands came up to cup Bran's face; as Bran tried to
pull back, Holden sat up, following him, kissing him insistently.

"Hi, sweetheart," he murmured when he had finally let Bran pull back
slightly.

"I'm sorry to wake you, master," said Bran in a low voice, "but you've told
me I could, if I-- needed you."

"You can wake me up every hour of the night if you do it like that," said
Holden drowsily. "What do you need?"

Bran smiled crookedly. "Nothing. I mean. You. I just need-- you."

"Come here," said Holden after a moment, moving over and motioning to
the bed next to him, and Bran lay down. Holden reached across him and
smoothed out a wrinkle in the sheet under him, then adjusted the pillow
under the boy's head, looking down at him with such tenderness and concern
that Jesse's heart skipped a beat. "Can't sleep?"
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Bran shook his head.

"Bad dreams?"

"No, master," said Bran without moving. "Just can't get to sleep. Head won't
quiet down."

Holden nodded and touched the head in question tenderly. "Do you want to
talk about it?"

"There's not really anything to talk about, master, just-- me being
ridiculous," said Bran, and then took a deep breath before adding, "Master?
This is-- may I ask you for something really, really stupid?"

"How stupid?" Holden smiled.

Bran tried to smile back. "Never mind."

"I'm just teasing, Bran," said Holden, sobering and touching Bran's forehead
again. "You know you can ask for anything, kid."

Bran cleared his throat. "I was just-- you know when I was sick last year?"

"Yes," said Holden. "And if you're asking if you're ever allowed to spend
time around those plague-ridden moppets again, the answer is no."

The corners of Bran's mouth twitched. "Master, you know the odds of me
catching something from the same kids twice are pretty slim, right?"

"I don't care," said Holden, scowling.

"Neither do I," said Bran. "That wasn't what I-- but I was just remembering.
There was one night when I had a pretty high fever, and I couldn't-- settle
down-- and you-- well, you-- sang to me."
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Holden was silent for a long moment before answering.

"I didn't know you remembered that," he said finally. "You weren't very
lucid at the time."

Bran nodded. "I don't remember much. Just that you sang, and it was-- nice.
It was a nice song. It was about morning."

"It was a silly song,” said Holden, stroking Bran’s cheek. “But for almost a
year, when Valor was three or four, me singing that particular lullaby was
the only thing that stood a chance of getting her to sleep. I must have sung it
to her a thousand times; I think it’s permanently printed on my brain. And it
seemed to calm you down."

"It-- did," said Bran dreamily. "I felt-- well, sick, and crazy, but while you
were singing to me, and I could hear your voice, I could-- lie still. I could
rest. I could sleep.”

Holden examined Bran silently for a few moments, then said, in an oddly
constricted voice, “So you want me to sing it to you now?”

Bran squirmed. "I told you it was stupid."

"It's not stupid." Holden hesitated for a moment, then added, with an effort
at a smile, "Just bear in mind that you were delirious the last time you heard
it. I doubt my voice is as pleasant as you remember."

Bran smiled back, his eyes bright, and said nothing.

Holden cleared his throat and, after another moment's hesitation, began
singing softly, in a gruff, uncertain baritone that grew slowly clearer and
sweeter as the song went on:

"At the root of the tree at the heart of the world,
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With a chain round his neck, the Wolf lies curled.
His gleaming teeth and jaws are furled,
And the sun shall rise in the morning.

His chain, it is forged of the nerve of a bear,
Of the voice of a fish, and a girl's chin-hair.
His chain, it is light and strong and fair,
And the sun shall rise in the morning.

With a mountain's root, and a cat's foot-fall,
And the spit of a bird, he is held in thrall,
Though iron could bind him never at all,
And the sun shall rise in the morning.

The sun shall rise, the stars shall fade,
For the binding which the good gods made
Still loops the Wolf in its lovely braid,
And the sun shall rise in the morning."

Bran's eyes were closed. In the light of the half moon filtering through the
window, Holden's face shone bright with tears.

"You’re so good to me," Bran murmured without opening his eyes.

"I love you, Bran," Holden said clearly.

Bran's eyes snapped open, but he lay otherwise perfectly still and silent for a
moment. Then–

"Say again?" he said.

Holden reached out and gathered Bran up into his arms, crushing him
against his chest. "I said I love you. I love you so damn much."



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"That's what I thought you said." Bran nestled closer into Holden's arms.
"Well, go on. How long have you loved me?"

"About... two years, I think," said Holden, pulling back to look curiously
into Bran's face, which was calm and unsurprised, though mildly pleased.

"Okay,” said Bran a little impatiently, “but be specific. What made you
start?"

"Does it matter, darling?" Holden asked, puzzled.

"Of course it does," said Bran indignantly, sitting up straight. "That's usually
the best part of the dream. Not much of a dream if all you can come up with
is 'about two years,' is it?"

"Dream...?” Holden echoed blankly.

"Look at you," said Bran, his own expression softening, and reached up to
touch Holden's wet face. "It's nothing to cry about, master. I just like to hear
it. When you first realized."

"I--" Holden cleared his throat again and swallowed. "I'm sorry, sweetheart.
I can’t remember... starting. Or realizing. I can't remember knowing you
without loving you. I can't imagine knowing you without loving you. And I
can't imagine what the hell I ever did to deserve to have someone like you
love me as much as you do. I can't imagine I do deserve it. But fuck it. I love
you."

"Mmm," said Bran contentedly. "That's more like it. Go on."

Holden snorted with laughter through his tears. "You really think you're
dreaming, don’t you? How do I convince you you're awake?"

"You don't," said Bran sharply. "Don't wake me up. Keep talking."


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"I can't wake you up if I'm just a dream," Holden said, pushing tears
impatiently from his eyes with the heel of his hand.

"Sure you can. You have before." Bran reached out and took Holden’s hand
in his, lifting it to his lips. "Come on, master, don't cry. You were saying
you've always loved me, because I'm so perfect, and you don't deserve to
have me love you. That was great. Just say more stuff like that." He put
Holden's hand at the nape of his neck. "And pet my head."

Holden began stroking Bran's hair obediently, amusement mingling with the
pain and love on his tear-stained face. "I do this all the time, idiot. You have
very modest wish-fulfillment dreams. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.
And you're still calling me 'master.'"

Bran moved his head sensuously into Holden's touch. "What else would I
call you?”

“Asshole,” Holden suggested, still caressing Bran's head. “Liar. Coward. It’s
your dream. Go nuts.”

Bran smiled. “No, you mean– Holden." He said the name solemnly, almost
reverently. "But I like calling you master. Remember when I first asked you
why you couldn’t keep me, how you said you weren't really my master, you
were just my trainer?"

"And now I'm a figment of your imagination," said Holden gravely.

"Yes," said Bran with equal gravity. "But you’re really my master... even
when I wake up... and that’s...” He smiled again, pushing his head insistently
against Holden’s hand, which had gone still at his neck. “And... maybe... I
really came in here, before I fell asleep, and you sang to me, and I’ll wake
up next to you. What else would I have wish-fulfillment dreams about,
master?”



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“You’re killing me, kid,” said Holden, fresh tears spilling down his face.
Bran’s eyes were brightening, too; he swallowed and moved closer to
Holden, putting his head down on his master's shoulder as Holden's arms
went around him.

“I wish...” he said softly.

“What do you wish, Bran?” Holden asked hoarsely.

Bran kissed him on the neck. “I wish you’d hurry up and talk some more
about how madly in love with me you are, before I wake up. It’s bad enough
trying to explain why I’m crying to you, I mean the real you, but if I’m still
in bed with Jesse–"

Jesse made an involuntary startled movement at the mention of his own
name, and accidentally smacked his elbow against the glass of the window
with a loud bang. Holden looked up and saw him, perched on the
windowsill, only half hidden by shadow and curtain. After a moment Bran
lifted his head and followed his master's gaze bemusedly. Jesse stared back
at them, frozen.

"Hi, Jess," said Bran, then looked back at Holden. "What's he doing here?"

Holden laughed quietly.

"Trespassing," he said, his eyes back on Bran, drinking him in. "Go have
your own damn dreams, Jesse."

Not sure whether he wanted to laugh or cry himself, Jesse got shakily to his
feet and nearly fell before he could steady himself, his knees unexpectedly
weak. Holden kissed Bran's lips, long and slow and deep.

"That's nice," said Bran a little breathlessly, when Holden had pulled away,
"but tell me– "


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"No, you tell me," said Holden, laying Bran down carefully on his back.
"This is the closest you've ever come to bossing me around, and I'm not
wasting the opportunity. I'll tell you I love you all you want during and after,
but we are having sex now, and I am taking notes."

Bran grinned up at him. "Yeah. Well. It's not like I'm going to say no to that.
Although I'll probably wake up molesting Jesse again."

"We'll see about that, won't we?" said Holden, and leaned down for another
kiss as Jesse slipped silently from the room.

At breakfast the next morning neither Holden nor Bran appeared. Jesse
braced himself for questioning and speculation from the others, but no one
said anything. If Alix noticed her husband's absence, she gave no sign; she
and Greta chatted easily about Valor for most of the meal. Jer was quiet and
preoccupied, and Yves seemed more than usually physically attentive to
him, touching his arm or his back or even leaning across to kiss his cheek at
intervals during the meal, but aside from that, Jesse saw no difference in
anyone's normal behavior.

It was well past noon, and Jesse had just gotten desperate enough for
distraction to decide to check out the library, when he heard someone
running down the stairs. As he hurried into the foyer, Bran pelted down the
stairs and slammed without pausing into Jesse, shoving him up against the
wall and attacking him with a ferocious open-mouthed kiss on his lips.
Winded, Jesse struggled half-heartedly, Bran's fingers digging bruisingly
into his shoulders as his tongue plunged halfway down Jesse's throat. Bran
kissed him and kissed him, pulling back from his mouth only to begin biting
and licking at his face like a psychotic puppy.

"So," Jesse managed finally as Bran sucked his eyelids. "Tell me again about
how he's just very kind to everyone."

Bran laughed so hard he fell against Jesse.


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"He fucking loves me," he said in Jesse's ear, and then stuck his tongue into
it before adding, "and you fucking got him to say it."

"Yeah, well, hey!" Jesse said, as Bran dragged him down onto the floor and
straddled his chest, trying to kiss him and talk at the same time.

"Sif's golden, Jess, what the fuck did you say to him? I thought it was just
the longest most sadistic dream ever, I finally just begged him to wake me
up, I couldn't stand it any more, and he– um– managed to convince me I was
awake–"

"And he said I got him to say it?" Jesse asked, rather smugly.

"Well, I asked him why now, I mean, why now, and also why never before
for the past two damn years--"

"And what did he say?"

Bran sat back on Jesse' s stomach, grinning. "Well, before he could really
say anything he had to wrestle me onto the floor and pin my arms behind my
back. I was a little... agitated."

Jesse cracked up. "So once he had you down, then what did he say?"

Bran started to answer, then grinned, laughed, tried to stop laughing, failed,
and finally collapsed face down on top of Jesse, shaking both their bodies
with laughter.

"You're hysterical," said Jesse, rolling Bran off him onto the floor and sitting
up while Bran lay on the floor, kicking his feet. "Go on, tell me."

"He said," Bran gasped finally, "that, he said you were way too damn
obnoxious to be merely human, so you had to be some kind of divine
messenger, and he figured he'd better do what you said quick so you'd go
ahead and disappear."
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Jesse squinted, but Bran's laughter was so infectious that he ended up
grinning.

"He was kidding," Bran managed, sobering enough to sit up, "but he said--
that you were a lot like him."

"He said that to me too," said Jesse. "Arrogant bastard."

Bran smirked. "And he said you told him a lot about himself."

"Damn right I did," said Jesse belligerently.

"Yeah. He said you thought you were so fucking smart and you knew so
much about everybody else and you didn't know shit about yourself, and he
realized maybe he didn't either. Know shit about himself."

Jesse shook his head, not sure whether to be offended or pleased. "What else
did he say about me?"

"That he found you disturbingly attractive," said Bran, with a sideways grin,
"and he wondered if that meant he was a narcissist. But then he said he
usually ended up wanting to fuck anyone I was obviously attracted to
anyway, and it was probably a competitive thing, and by the way if I didn't
stop making cow eyes at Lisa Kareyeva he'd sell me to her, love me or not."
Bran thought for a moment as Jesse tried not to cackle. "Oh, he said wasn't I
in love with you because you were so much like him except younger and
prettier and less overcommitted, and then I hit him and he tackled me and we
had sex again."

"I guess that was a no," said Jesse dryly.

Bran laughed again. "Sorry, Jess." He climbed half into Jesse's lap, locked
his arms around Jesse's neck, and kissed him again, hard.


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"Where is he now?" Jesse asked, gasping for breath, when Bran finally
broke the kiss.

"Asleep. I wore him out," said Bran, not without satisfaction.

"You didn't want to sit and gaze adoringly at him while he slept?" Jesse
teased.

"No, I wanted to come find you and express my eternal gratitude to you for
finally getting him to spit it the fuck out," said Bran, and crushed his lips
against Jesse's again as Alix came out into the foyer. Jesse met her eyes past
Bran's head.

"Bran," she said gently, and Bran pulled away and looked up at her, a
shadow crossing his face for the first time. "Where is he?"

"In your bed, mistress," said Bran nervously. "Asleep."

"Come here," she said softly, and Bran scrambled to his feet and approached
her tentatively, standing before her with his gaze respectfully lowered.

"You don't have to look so guilty," she said, reaching up to touch Bran's
cheek. "It's just that I deserve a kiss, too."

Bran looked into his mistress' clear, untroubled green eyes for several
seconds before leaning down to kiss her gently on the lips. She kissed back
softly. When she pulled away, Bran sank to his knees and put his arms
around her waist, burying his face against her stomach. She stroked his hair,
looking down at him fondly.

"One thing you can say for my husband," she said to Jesse, "he's always had
good taste in men."




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CHAPTER 15

Alix's brisk "Now run along and finish kissing Jesse" sent Bran, with only a
backwards grateful glance at his mistress, dragging Jesse by the hand up the
stairs and down the hall. As they passed Yves' door, Jer and Yves came out
of Yves' room; Jer picked up a startled Bran's hand and pulled him off in a
different direction, while Yves grabbed Jesse's upper arm and dragged him
into the room, slamming the door behind him and pushing him hard towards
the chair. Jesse sat down hard and swallowed, his eyes on Yves, wondering
what was going on.

"It happens," Yves said in a friendly tone, as he sat down opposite Jesse on
the bed, "that your appalling behavior has, so far, had a net result of good.
So if you actually behave yourself for the next two weeks, you might not
spend them unable to sit down. Your call."

Jesse eyed Yves. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying," said Yves, "that the only reason my master-- and yours-- hasn't
given you the hide-tanning you so richly deserve, is because of that same
obsession with what he has the right to do that kept him from turning Bran
into a supernova of pure joy until this morning. And I am at least as silver-
tongued as you are, and a hell of a lot more likely to be in a position to talk
in his ear, so I suggest you don't do anything to ruin my good mood." He
grinned suddenly. "And gods but I'm in one. Did you see that kid's face?
Have you ever seen anything so happy in your entire life?"

"You're not jealous?" Jesse asked curiously.

Yves laughed, sounding genuinely amused. "If I were going to be jealous, I
wouldn't just be starting now. This isn't exactly news to anyone but Bran."

"How do you even know what happened?" Jesse asked, eyeing Yves warily.




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"Because before he says anything to Bran he has to agonize for a while over
what's the right thing to do, doesn't he? He was so quiet and spaced out with
Jer and me, after you ambushed him in the study, that we finally bullied him
into telling us what was wrong, and he looked so damn guilty that we just
started laughing at him. Even Jer told him he was being an idiot. We told
him to stop moping and go to Bran and tell him last night-- but I guess he
chickened out and Bran came to him, judging from where he is now and the
way the kid is incandescing around the house."

Jesse squinted at Yves, choosing not to mention his own privileged
information about how the scene had played out. "Jer is okay with this?"

Yves was still grinning. "Like I said, this isn't exactly news. And you can't
look at the kid and not be happy for him. Can you?"

Jesse sighed and leaned his head back, finally letting a smile creep onto his
face. "I guess not."

"You did good, kid," said Yves, standing up and ruffling Jesse's hair, and
instead of resenting the familiarity of the gesture, Jesse found himself
enjoying it. "You're a meddling ass, but you did good. And if you put one
dainty toe out of line for the remainder of your stay here I will fucking end
you, is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," said Jesse, still smiling. "Thank you for not ending me now."

"You're welcome. That was all. Oh, no it wasn't. I wanted to say that your
best behavior-- which you're going to be on from here on out--"

"Yes, yes."

"--does not necessarily preclude seducing the master, if you feel so inclined.
Normally that would go without saying, but this is sort of an odd situation,
you know?"


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"No!" said Jesse. "You think?"

Yves cackled.

"I meant you," he said. "This whole is-he-or-isn't-he thing, where you're a
slave he's spending a fortune and risking his reputation to help, but he's not
going to fuck you or smack the shit out of you for your incessant insolence
because he doesn't have the right. But he's starting to crackle a little with
sexual tension when he's around you, so if you feel like making the offer,
you don't have to worry about the rest of us getting territorial. Especially
now that you've done so well for Bran."

"I'd rather die," said Jesse grimly.

"Don't knock it till you've tried it," said Yves lazily. "Now get out of my
room."

****

Jesse stood in the hallway for a few moments, a little shellshocked, before
Bran came out of Jer's room to join him, looking like he'd been crying.

"People being nice to me," he said, waving his hand dismissively before
Jesse could say anything. "I'm actually starting to think this is just a really
long, really convincing dream. I mean, Jer just told me-- Never mind. Jess,
am I awake?"

"You're awake," said Jesse. "Remember, he convinced you. How did he do
that?"

Bran blushed.

"Because," Jesse added, grinning, "I could do the same thing. I mean, if you
wanted. If you were still wondering if you were awake."


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Bran grinned back. "You think you can do it as well as he does? He has a lot
more experience."

"Please," said Jesse, leading on towards Bran's room. "Try me."

****

Leaving Bran asleep in his own bed with a smile on his face, Jesse got up as
quietly as he could and walked out into the hall, which was deserted. Yves'
door was shut. Holden's wasn't. Jesse barely hesitated this time before
walking in.

"What the fuck are you doing in my bedroom?" Holden asked a few
moments later, as Jesse panted with the pain of the vice grip in his hair.
"And for that matter, while I'm asking, what were you doing here last night?
Have you ever heard of respect? Gratitude? Simple fucking good manners?"

He threw Jesse down on the bed; Jesse managed to roll over on his back as
Holden knelt over him. Holden slapped him across the face, hard. Jesse
grunted.

"Like it rough?" he purred.

"Turn over," Holden gritted.

"You can do it like this, you know," said Jesse without moving.

Holden slapped him again. "I was doing it like this when you were an evil
little gleam in your mother's eye, boy. Turn over."

Jesse rolled over, his head ringing, and wasn't surprised when his tunic was
yanked out of the way and Holden's hard palm hit his bare ass with blistering
force. Well, not surprised that it had happened anyway, but the pain-- the
man had a hand like an oak plank-- wrenched a gasp from him. "Ah-- fuck!"


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"You have no idea how long I've been wanting to do this," Holden grunted
out as he spanked Jesse hard enough to cross Jesse's eyes. He wanted to talk
back-- Oh, yes I do-- but when the first syllable came out as a heated mewl
and he heard Holden's answering gasp of satisfaction, he clamped his mouth
shut furiously on the second, glad his hardening cock was trapped safely out
of sight between his belly and the bed.

But the spanking went on, and when Jesse, lost in a welter of burning pain,
realized how hard his treacherous hips were bucking up to meet Holden's
hand, it was too late.

"You little slut," Holden growled without stopping. "You love this, don't
you?"

"Fuck you," Jesse gasped.

"On the contrary--" and the spanking stopped, startling Jesse more than its
beginning, so much that he lay still for a moment, and then Holden's weight
was on top of Jesse, his teeth worrying at the nape of Jesse's neck, his hips
grinding agonizingly against Jesse's throbbing ass. Jesse bucked and fought,
and Holden laughed, easily capturing his wrists and pinning them in one
hand as the other fisted itself in Jesse's hair, crushing his face into the
mattress.

"Feel good, boy?" Holden whispered in his ear, and Jesse choked on so
many obscenities that the only thing to come out was a wordless, wanton
moan. "Keep struggling. Don't think I don't know you're grinding your cock
up against the sheet. Think you can come this way?"

"Yes," Jesse hissed defiantly.

"That's right," said Holden, and licked Jesse's neck. "You are like me."

Rage rocked Jesse so hard that before he had time to realize it had shot
straight to his cock, he came, with an inarticulate shout of ferocious ecstasy,
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into the mattress, shuddering, and Holden laughed as he peeled himself up
off Jesse's trembling body and sat up.

"Is that it?" Jesse managed, fairly steadily, rolling out of his own wet spot
and staring at Holden.

"What do you want now?" Holden asked, watching Jesse through half-closed
eyes, his own cock still rock hard, pointing at Jesse where he lay.

"Nothing," he said between his teeth.

Holden smiled. "Nothing?"

"Please," said Jesse then, and cleared his throat, trying not to choke on the
words.

"What do you want, boy?"

Jesse swallowed. "Fuck me."

"Yeah?" said Holden, his eyes still half closed. "That what you want? You
want me to open your red ass up with my cock? You want me to make it hurt
nice and hard? You want me to fuck you till you can't walk, Jesse?"

Jesse hadn't realized his own cock could get hard again so fast. "--Yes."

"Yes what?" Holden asked, moving in.

"Yes," said Jesse, closing his eyes and letting Holden's weight roll him
closer, "master."

"By which," he added a little over an hour later, "I don't mean I want to stay
here or anything."



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"That works out well," said Holden, lying boneless on the bed beside him,
his eyes closed, his hair plastered to his forehead, "because it just so happens
I don't have a death wish either."

Jesse rolled over, wincing, and grinned. "Tired, master?"

"Don't flatter yourself," said Holden, still with his eyes closed. "This is
cumulative. Bran kept me up all night. Where is Bran? And what were you
doing in my bedroom?"

"Bran's asleep," said Jesse, biting his lip as he squirmed out of another wet
spot, "and I was checking to see if you were awake."

"So you could murder me, or just go through all my personal papers again?"
Holden shook his head. "Did I say I wished I was training you, kid? What I
meant was that I'd be spending the rest of my life thanking the gods on my
knees that I didn't have to."

"Aw," said Jesse, trying to wiggle his toes, without notable success. "Maybe
it's time to retire?"

Holden chuckled without opening his eyes. "Maybe it's time for you to get
the fuck out of my bed. Unless you want to ruin Bran's day with the news
that one of us is dead."

"Can't get up yet, master," said Jesse lazily. "Can't fuck me till I can't walk
and then make me walk. But I'm young. Give me ten minutes. I'll bring you
some water in an hour or so."

Holden sat up with lightning quickness and, before Jesse had time for more
than an abbreviated yelp, dragged him over his lap and started spanking his
already painfully raw and searing ass with a vigor that didn't seem to have
abated at all after his recent exercise.



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Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                         Maculategiraffe


"Fucking hell!" Jesse screamed, seeing stars. "Stop, stop, please master, I'm
sorry, I'm sorry!"

Holden stopped, shoved Jesse off his lap and fell back onto the bed, closing
his eyes again.

"Death wish," he repeated. "One more word, Jesse, and you get out of this
bed whether you can walk or not."

"I won't--" said Jesse, and hit the floor hard, bruising his shoulder, still
laughing.

****

(TWO WEEKS LATER)

"I wish this didn't have to be so public," Holden said, giving Jesse, who'd
been scrubbed and groomed and combed within an inch of his life, a
skeptical look as the four of them walked down the stairs. "I'm not really
convinced he can keep his mouth shut for long enough to pull it off."

"It would look too strange for Tatiana to visit us without her husband," Alix
explained patiently, "and even stranger for her to buy a slave on impulse
with her husband there. He's the abolitionist, after all. It's got to be this party.
Besides, the more public the better, really."

"I know, I know," said Holden as they reached the foot. "The more public
the transfer, the less scandal attaches to us when the kid vanishes. Still. I'm
getting too old for this life of constant subterfuge and skullduggery. It'll be a
relief when it's all over and I can go back to teaching kids how to look
impressed at the size of their masters' cocks. Just keep your eyes on Bran
and me, kid. That's still the only time you seem disinclined to talk."

"Oh," said Bran, as Holden's arm went around his waist, "so you do
remember my name, master?"
                                           161 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                    Maculategiraffe




"What?" Holden asked, puzzled.

Bran grinned at him. "It's just that I don't think you've called me anything
but 'love' for about-- two weeks."

Rolling his eyes, Holden smacked Bran's ass. "High time we got Jesse out of
here. He's starting to rub off on you. Damn, I left the keys in the bedroom.
Run get them for me, Jesse."

Jesse started to make a comment about his own competence at stair-climbing
versus Holden's, glanced at his master's eyebrows, thought better of it, and
went.

Looking around the master bedroom, he spotted the keys quickly, lying on
top of the dresser, then saw another set of keys sticking out of the lock of the
drawer of legal documents. Perfect. He could get a look at something he'd
been curious about since his first days here, before he left forever.

He opened the drawer; the will still lay on top, and he shuffled it out of the
way to find the document in an unfamiliar handwriting headed
CERTIFICATE OF MANUMISSION, which he picked up and started to
read.

"This is to certify that I, Tatiana Rostova, being heretofore in lawful
ownership of the slave known as Jesse, having lawfully purchased him from
Alix Jamesen and Holden Larssen, who lawfully purchased him from
Gregorei Presniakov, who lawfully purchased him from his legal guardians
at the age of fifteen, do now and with the signing of this document renounce
my ownership of Jesse, rendering him masterless and free at the age of
nineteen--"

"I'd have just given it to you," said Holden behind him, and Jesse whirled to
see the older man leaning against the doorframe, his arms crossed, smirking


                                          162 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                     Maculategiraffe


at him, "but I didn't want to deprive you of the thrill of nosing through my
private affairs without permission one last time."

"Why?" Jesse managed. "I thought--"

"Don't worry," said Holden, "the official story's the same. We sell you to
Tatiana tonight, and once she's gotten you home and packed you a lunch and
drawn you a little map to the border, you take off. But this means that if you
ever come back to this country, if anyone still remembers you and wants to
start anything by that time, you can prove you're a free man. With a spotless
record, even. Which is a bit of a laugh, isn't it?"

Jesse considered this, still a little breathless, then asked carefully, "By-- what
time?"

Holden winked at him. "By the time I'm dead or officially too old for this
damn job, and you get a frantic call from Alix or Yves saying they can't
figure out what these fucking kids are thinking and the business needs you as
a consultant."

"Consultant?" Jesse echoed numbly.

"Yes, consultant. I'm not actually giving you anything. The will hasn't
changed, as you may or may not have noticed in your rush to chart new
lands of none-of-your-business. But a talent like yours for comprehending
the criminal mind shouldn't be wasted-- so I'm offering you a job,
eventually, if you want it. I think you will. This country's fucked up in some
ways, but it's home, isn't it? And you've got that itch for rescue. You'll be
back."

"But I can't come back," Jesse insisted, with the only thought still clear in his
mind. "Quen is still--"

"--dead," said Holden. "Presniakov dug his own grave on that one. Can't
claim you've found your long-lost runaway when you've already claimed
                                          163 
 
Slave Breakers (Book 2): Jesse’s Story                                   Maculategiraffe


you watched him torn to pieces by your dogs. Must be someone else who
just looks like Quen. Aren't you the lucky one, finding your dead lover's
doppelganger off in barbarian country? And if anyone wants to make any
allegations to the contrary, you can always consult my daughter, who I
suspect will by then be a particularly ruthless attorney with a reputation for
verbally eviscerating abusive slave owners."

"You're completely shameless," said Jesse, fascinated.

"Coming from you, Jesse, that means a lot," said Holden gravely. "Now
come along and try to look like a naive rich lady's ill-advised impulse
purchase. Shouldn't be too much of a stretch. Especially the 'ill-advised'
part."

Jesse started for the door, still clutching the document in his hand, but when
he reached Holden, he hesitated. "Master--"

"I'm not your master," said Holden, and reaching for Jesse, drew him in and
kissed him, briefly and sweetly, on the lips. "Jesse--"

"Yes," said Jesse, swallowing.

"I'm really sorry about your mouth."

THE END                                   




                                             164 
 
Other Stories in The Slave Breakers series
by Maculategiraffe
The Slave Breakers (Book 1): Bran’s Story

The Slave Breakers (Book 3): Lee’s Story


Even more shorts and mini-series set in The Slave Breakers universe can be found
at on Maculategiraffe’s LiveJournal.

http://maculategiraffe.livejournal.com/10338.html

				
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