Armen Markus strode down the long walkway of the guard floor, the heels of his knee-high leather boots banging against the steel grates. His crisp black uniform blended with the dark walls of Sardek Prison, and he felt nearly invisible. At the end of the walkway, he leaned over the railing to peer down into the receiving area. The metal railing was cold against his hands. Jenek was already at the railing, as were two other guards from Cell Block A. Jenek looked up and gave Armen a smile.
“Hey, Commander. Didn’t expect you to show up.”
Armen didn’t respond. Instead, he looked down at the long line of prisoners being processed. He couldn’t believe how many there were. Ever since the keychip to the Council’s satellite system was stolen, the Council had been performing massive sweeps of insurgents throughout the country. The prison was already past capacity.
“There’s a fuck load of ’em, isn’t there?” Jenek said conspiratorially, leaning over the railing with him. “Any headed to your block?”
Armen nodded. “Three.”
“I hear most of them were picked up at Saturday’s protest. Don’t know what we’re supposed to do with them.”
Armen watched the guards below freeze-burn idents into the naked men’s necks and then prod them with shock sticks to another line, where they were scanned by the bioreads for diseases. Most of the men walked in stiff terror. A few wept openly. Some looked almost bored, as if this wasn’t the first time they had been arrested and processed as traitors by the Council.
Armen usually didn’t bother to witness the processing of new prisoners, since so few ended up in Block B for interrogation. It was one privilege of being in charge of only the most dangerous traitors. He dealt with a select few. But Jenek and the rest in Block A would have their hands full.
Armen could not immediately identify the prisoners who would be sent to him. There had to be at least fifty men being processed below, with another sixty scheduled to arrive tomorrow. Armen scanned the inmates for someone with silver hair. It was the only inmate he was expecting, but not because of any official report from Warden Haeg. Armen expected the man because Ryan, his contact in the resistance, had told him he would be arriving.
Armen wasn’t just the commanding interrogator at Sardek. He was also secretly working for the insurgency, with one very special role: to keep the secrets of the uprising safe. Whatever was screamed in the torture chambers, whatever desperate secrets were spilled, he altered. He took out dates and names and places. Sometimes he killed the poor bastards if they were too likely to reveal sensitive information.
At moments like this, when Armen saw how many men protested the brutal regime of the Council, a slick, oily nausea sloshed through him, the noxious aftermath of his burden. He could not free these men. He could not even help them. They had to be nothing to him, merely shells, protecting precious words inside. He could not consider them as men, men with the same values as him, who suffered similar indignities. His job was cold, and merciless, and important, and that was why he was so good at it. The years had hardened him, made him empty of feeling. Only in moments like this one, staring at the vastness of injustice, did the wounds of his conscience make themselves felt. With practiced care, Armen blocked the sensation and concentrated instead on finding the man the resistance was so desperate to keep safe.
Armen caught a glimpse of silver hair in the crowd, and leaned over for a closer look. His contact had informed him that the man’s name was Trevor Kavarian, and he knew the location of insurgency weaponry. It would be Armen’s job to see that he interrogated the man personally, to falsify his reports and make sure his fellow officers never heard the location.
Trevor Kavarian made his way to the branding station. He was in his sixties, his pale, wrinkled skin hanging like wet tissue from his skeleton, his genitals shrunken in the cold, steel hall. The air smelled strongly of solvents; someone must have been sick in the entry. Warden Haeg believed in sterility, and on his orders his staff maintained the prison as if it were an operating room.
Kavarian flinched as the frozen iron seared his prisoner ident to the left of his jugular, and he swayed slightly before shuffling his bare feet forward to the bioread.
Armen was distracted by the beautiful body of the young man directly behind Kavarian. This prisoner was lean, with tawny muscles moving under tight, tanned flesh. The man’s black hair hung over his face and eyes.
“Look up,” the guard administering the brands demanded. The man looked up.
Armen stifled a gasp. He knew this face. He knew this man. Very well.
It had been six years since Ravi Jai had left Armen alone on the grass in front of the national university. Armen had departed for his army post a week later, and had neither seen nor heard a word from Ravi since.
Even with six years between sightings, Armen could still translate the subtle nuances of Ravi’s expression. He saw Ravi’s tightly coiled fear, hidden under a blasé veneer of boredom. Ravi’s dark brown eyes and long lashes stared dispassionately back at the guard. For one sudden, illogical moment, an urge to shout out filled Armen, a desire to stop the guard from marring Ravi’s flawless skin with his brand.
Ravi clenched his jaw as the guard pressed the cold brand hard against his neck. Ravi shuddered but did not cry out. He did not need prodding to move to the next station.
Armen’s bewilderment at the sight of his old lover in the prison gave him a momentary sensation of vertigo, and he stepped back from the railing. When Armen had last seen him, Ravi hadn’t given a shit about politics or about the corrupt Council regime. He had only cared about drinking, and cooking, and fucking. He had been wild, the most shameless man Armen had ever met, and it seemed unlikely that someone so self-absorbed would ever entangle himself in the resistance. He must have been at the protest by accident.
As Ravi stepped forward in line, Armen watched Ravi’s buttocks tighten, and he could feel his groin stir with memory. Ravi turned his head to the side, revealing his thin neck, one of Armen’s favorite places to kiss. Armen could imagine, even now, running his hands through that thick black hair, see the slanted eyes of Ravi’s desire, feel him shift to pull Armen deeper into him. These memories seemed to live in his bones, in his flesh, and the sight of Ravi now brought tingling pleasure across his body, as real as a touch. He could feel that first unexpected kiss, even now, the burning heat of Ravi’s lips, the playful smirk on his face, when he had first cornered Armen that evening in the university’s sportsplex.
At the time, Armen was silent and studious, preparing for his history and culture degree during the day and working at the collegiate sports center in the evenings. He knew of Ravi even before he met him. Everyone did. Ravi threw outrageous parties, he was openly homosexual, and he had apparently slept with half the linguistics department.
Armen had watched Ravi furtively for half the semester before he ever spoke to him. Under the cover of his data screen, he stole glances as Ravi and his friends brashly discussed sex and sports and cinema. Ravi held himself with self-assured dishevelment, his arm always casually draped around a companion, his slim body leaning against desks, his dark jeans always tight enough to show the impressive contours of his crotch. Occasionally Ravi and Armen made eye contact. Armen always hastily looked down at his screen, but every once in a while, he caught Ravi’s mouth curve up in a knowing smile.
Armen assumed Ravi would never approach him, and of course, Armen himself would never be so bold. But, as he closed up the sportsplex one evening, he spotted Ravi lingering at the equipment counter, eyes locked on Armen, sparkling with mischievous intent.
“I’m closing,” Armen said, feeling uncharacteristically nervous. Ravi eyed him like Armen was something to be devoured. It was unsettling and deeply exciting on a level Armen had never known he was capable of feeling.
“Then I’m stuck in here with you.” Ravi’s mouth quirked into a grin. “What shall we do to pass the hours until opening?”
Armen felt his cheeks grow hot, and he stumbled for an answer.
Ravi moved closer. His dark eyes stared at Armen, focused, almost predatory. “Don’t play coy with me,” he said huskily. “You’ve been watching my ass for months now.”
The coarseness of Ravi’s tongue offended and deeply aroused Armen, and as his mind considered his options for response, Ravi brazenly leaned over and kissed him, uninvited.
It was sudden, unexpected, and so warm that Armen was left breathless, stunned with the surge of his desire. Ravi’s tongue penetrated his mouth. Ravi’s soft, slick heat filled him, and his body instinctively pressed closer, craving more of that sultry taste.
Ravi pressed Armen against the wall behind the equipment counter and thrust his hips into Armen’s. They were the same height, and Armen felt the thickness of Ravi’s erection press against his own. Urgency flooded Armen, the sensation powerful and primal, and he felt close to breaking with the strain of holding back such a strong need to claim him. Armen cupped his hand around Ravi’s neck and pulled him closer, wanting to push this aching desire out of him, into Ravi, possessing him with a piercing kiss.
Armen’s hands traveled down Ravi’s body, assuredly, as if they had done this before even when Armen himself had not. They stroked Ravi’s powerful shoulders, slowly sliding downward to squeeze Ravi’s ass. Ravi moaned into Armen’s mouth and pressed harder against him, their cocks straining through layers of clothing, each flirtatious second of contact fueling Armen’s fervor.
Ravi broke their kiss, panting. “Have you done this before?”
“You’re a natural, then.” Ravi grinned. He reached down between them and deftly unbuttoned Armen’s trousers. Armen froze against the wall, terrified and exhilarated. His heart beat rapidly, pounding arousal through his system with furious speed.