When they reached Layne’s apartment, Jax made him strip immediately, and they showered together, rinsing away the residue of salt and sand. There had been showers at the beach, but food wasn’t allowed in there, and Brysen hadn’t wanted to throw away what was left of his treat. Jax had indulged him, though it meant both of them had pulled on clothing over damp, gritty skin. That was kind, but part of Brysen knew no good came from spoiling a sub. Accepting Jax was in charge and that it wasn’t his place to question Jax’s actions helped erase some of his guilt over so many happy hours with no discipline or correction, but not all.
While he altered the drying chamber’s setting to Jax’s preference for hot and strong blasts of air, he ventured a question. “May I ask if you’ve sent Layne a report?”
“You may, and yes, I spoke to him last night and told him you were making progress. He didn’t tell you?”
“I’m not permitted to bother him when he’s away.” Brysen sighed, calling up an image of Layne smiling approvingly at him, the way he had when Brysen had agreed to be evaluated for new collar stripes. “I miss him. You might see him as strict, but he gives me so much attention. I like that. And he wants me to improve. I need his help. Alone, I slack off.”
Jax stepped into the chamber, water beading his body in patterns that fascinated Brysen. It would be fun to follow a line of water with his tongue. Desire rose within him. His sensuality levels were high, his sex drive matching them, and Layne saw to it he came fairly often, claiming it made periods of denial more of a punishment. With Layne not there and Jax withholding the necessary permission, Brysen was increasingly desperate for release.
“That’s common,” Jax called over the rush of air, turning slowly to direct the air jets. Brysen eyed him with appreciation. Jax’s cock was lax now, but Brysen had felt it nudge him during the massage and knew, erect, it was capable of stretching his mouth and ass in good ways. “You’ll concentrate better when you’re rested. I checked your sleep pattern and saw disturbed periods when I assume you were having bad dreams, but overall, you did better.”
Brysen didn’t want to share his nightmares. “I’m trying. Layne gave me a sleep medication one night, but I didn’t respond to it the way he wanted.”
Instead of sleeping peacefully, he’d had worse nightmares than before, and sunrise had found him confused and shaking with terror. Layne had fucked him anyway, hard and from behind, then pulled out as soon as he’d come, saying with disgust, “I should have known you wouldn’t make an effort to please me. I don’t know why I expected it.”
“I forgot you’d be able to check my sleep patterns,” Brysen said now.
“Layne must do it as well. Maybe he thinks you’d rather not talk about it.”
There was a chime from the front door, then an announcement. “Request for entry by Constable Anna Hiljin.
Jax looked at Brysen, who was aware his face showed his sharp concern. Layne, hurt, dead? What else would a constable be at their door for? “It’s fine. If something was wrong, we would’ve heard before this. Go let her in, and I’ll be there in a minute.”
With his heart pounding fast, Brysen went quickly to the door and opened it, bracing himself for bad news. There was no chance the woman on the other side of the door wasn’t who she said she was; the computer would have scanned her identity. The door slid aside to reveal a blonde woman of average build, wearing a constable’s uniform. She looked unconcerned, and the tight band around Brysen’s chest eased. If Layne was hurt, or worse, she wouldn’t look so bored.
Brysen couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a constable in everyday life. The city’s central monitoring system kept track of anyone who broke the law, and assigned fines or denied them access to public areas and services. Most crimes that made it to the courts were financial misdemeanors complex enough to require skilled investigators.
The constables dealt with everything that fell between the cracks. Scavengers for scandal, according to some, taking a career with no future for reasons Brysen had never understood. Murders, abuse, violence were rare. Collared subs were protected by what was locked around their necks, and the right of the state to administer truth drugs and monitor habitual offenders dissuaded most from planning, let alone implementing, a crime.
Their world was safe. The constables were an anachronism, their powers limited. They wore the blue tunic and pants of their office and carried stun-sticks and restraints on their wide black belts, but Brysen doubted the woman in front of him had ever used hers.
Still, she was technically an authority figure, and Layne insisted he show appropriate respect to those, so Brysen went to his knees. “My owner, Layne Hamiel, is absent, but my subsitter, Jax, is on the premises, and he will be with you shortly. May I serve you refreshments?”
“No, thanks. And you can get up. I’m not an owner, and I don’t need evidence of your submission. You’re naked and collared; I get the message.”
The lack of civility bothered Brysen, but he rose as ordered.
“It would be my honor to get you something,” he said. “A glass of water? Will you sit?”
“No. I’ll wait here.” She glanced down at her wrist unit and tapped it. “What did you say his name is?”
Brysen wasn’t sure which man she meant, but had to assume it was Jax, because if she’d come to the apartment, she must know it was owned by Layne. “Jax. Um, he’s my subsitter. I…don’t know his last name.” That made him sound so stupid, like an ignorant child.
“Idrindi,” Jax said, coming to join them, dressed and dry. “Jax. And you are?”
“Constable Anna Hiljin. I’m here to question Layne Hamiel’s sub.” She was making no apparent effort to hide her distaste at the situation. It made Brysen feel ashamed for her bad manners. He wished Layne were there to do what he couldn’t and point out her incivility was unacceptable.
Jax frowned, stepping closer to Brysen. “On what matter? Legally, you aren’t allowed to question Brysen without his owner present.”
“He isn’t under suspicion or in trouble,” the constable said. “I was hoping to get a little bit of information about someone he knows. Knew.”
“Sylvan,” Brysen whispered. He’d been trying so hard to forget Sylvan’s death, to pretend he’d never seen the images or heard the details.
“I don’t know why he died or anything about his state of mind. Only what I saw on the news feeds.”
“But you were his friend.”
Brysen nodded. “I don’t know why he’d do what he did.”
“He wasn’t unhappy? Didn’t speak of being depressed?”
“His owner abandoned him,” Brysen said sharply. “Of course he was unhappy and depressed.”
“He talked to you about the breakup?” She was so unemotional, as if she didn’t care a person was dead.
“No, but it’s safe to assume Sylvan was depressed after Miles broke up with him. Wouldn’t you be?” Brysen heard the anger in his voice and hoped Jax wouldn’t take issue with it. Hiding his emotions was impossible.
She snorted. “If I ever lock a collar around my neck and lick an owner’s feet, you can guarantee I’ve lost my mind, and you have my permission to terminate me to put me out of my misery.”
Jax stepped forward, not blocking Brysen’s view of the woman but angling his body so she wasn’t all Brysen saw. Not that much was visible through his tears. Angry tears, because he’d shed the ones for Sylvan in private, making sure his eyes showed no trace of his grief when Layne saw him next.
Layne liked Brysen perfect at all times, hair and eyes the shade Layne had chosen, neither of which would’ve been Brysen’s preference, body trim and taut, clean inside and out. Brysen had learned to keep his breath fresh and his nails trimmed smooth. Willingly given his hole the daily intensive cleansing Layne considered necessary after discovering the penalty for being a filthy little shit-slut who’d soiled his owner’s cock.
But Layne wasn’t here to chastise him for the rebellious tears reddening his eyes or to protect him from this woman’s disdain. Loss ripped through him, replacing his anger. Layne wasn’t here, and if he felt this empty with Jax as proof of Layne’s love and Layne’s absence a matter of days, how desolate and bereft must Sylvan have been?
“Your attitude is unacceptable, and I intend to report this conversation to your commander.” Jax’s voice was harsh but controlled. “If you have a problem with our lifestyle, though I can’t imagine why, be professional enough to set it aside during your investigation, or you won’t get far.”
She curled her lip. “I have a problem with a healthy young man self-terminating. Don’t you?”
“Of course I do.” Jax slipped his arm around Brysen, who leaned into that strength with a sense of relief. “It’s been a while since I crossed paths with Sylvan’s owner, so I never met Sylvan. Miles was with another sub then. I don’t recall her name.”
“Cari Delaine. I’ve spoken to her. She broke off the relationship because her owner was pushing her limits and she realized they weren’t suited. From what she says, they parted amicably.”
“Why wouldn’t they have? These things happen.” Jax sighed and jerked his head toward the sitting area. “If you have more questions, can we talk in there? I want to get Brysen a drink. He’s been in the sun, and he’s dehydrated.”
Anna—maybe thinking of her by her first name would make her seem more human—nodded. “Of course. I don’t mean to take up too much of your time, but I do want to get to the bottom of this.”
“He was nice,” Brysen offered as Jax ushered him over to a chair and pushed him down into it. “Sylvan. I liked him. I didn’t know him well—we didn’t have many opportunities to talk when Miles and Layne weren’t around.” He flushed, remembering a time when their respective owners, more than a bit drunk on strong liquor, had ordered Sylvan to suck Brysen’s cock. He wouldn’t have minded, except Layne had alternated between telling him how hot they looked together, how Sylvan’s face would look painted with Brysen’s come, and insisting Brysen wasn’t allowed to climax without permission. Miles had countered that by urging Sylvan to redouble his efforts, promising him a whipping if Brysen didn’t climax soon. There’d been a bet made on which sub would win the battle. In the end Brysen had bitten his tongue to stave off release, blood filling his mouth, but Layne had ended up angry with him anyway. He’d choked on the blood, some of it dribbling out of his mouth to stain a valuable rug.
He forgot what his punishment had been that night. It didn’t matter. He’d earned it.
“Here, drink this.” Jax pressed a glass of cold water into his hand, and Brysen blinked up at him gratefully.
“What did you know about his relationship with his owner?” Anna asked.
Forcing calm into his voice wasn’t easy, but he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of a shaky, hesitant reply. “Not much. I thought it was good. I know Sylvan loved him.” Miles had seemed gentle on the surface, but beneath that Brysen suspected he’d been hard and impatient. Most of Layne’s friends were the same, always wanting more from their subs, never satisfied with what they’d achieved. “I guess they weren’t a good match.”
“Had you ever heard Sylvan mention ending his life?”
Brysen shook his head. “He would have done anything for Miles. Anything.”
“How is Miles taking it?” Jax asked abruptly.
Anna raised one shoulder, the gesture eloquent. “Superficially horrified but quick to stress Sylvan wasn’t his responsibility once they’d broken up and to distance himself from the event. I’d guess he was worried about finding a replacement if it wasn’t for the cute little thing on the end of his leash, staring up at its owner with adoring eyes.”
“And we’re done here.” Jax stood, leaving Brysen no option but to follow him. Subs didn’t have to kneel all the time, but they weren’t allowed to remain lolling around while their owners were on their feet either. “Your attitude is appalling, your lack of empathy disturbing. I’ve always refused to join in when people laughed at constables or declared them leeches, taking a salary for doing nothing, but you make me wonder why I bothered.”
Anna flushed but got to her feet readily enough. “Oh, I’m not typical. One of the few who doesn’t buy into the O/s system being safe for all and beneficial to everyone involved, but go ahead and judge my ability to investigate this case based on my beliefs.”
“You’re not giving me any choice.” Jax spread his hands. “You don’t understand what drives us or what rules we follow. To you, Sylvan’s act was evidence of his instability, an instability you think drove him to take an owner in the first place.”
“You’re wrong.” Brysen spoke with the respect her uniform demanded, directing none of it at her. “We’re not unstable. We know what we want, and our owners give it to us. Sylvan should have waited. Given himself time to heal. It’s sad—no, it’s a tragedy—but what is there to investigate?”
“You think he self-terminated?” Anna pursed her lips, painted a discreet rose that clashed with her blush. “I don’t. Initially, sure, but not now. I’ve watched the vidfeed frame by frame, in real time and sped up. He didn’t throw himself under the tramcar, and he wasn’t pushed.”
“It was an accident, then.” The impatience in Jax’s voice had Brysen cringing, conditioned into expecting a blow since he was usually the cause of Layne’s irritation. “Or are you searching for an invisible assailant?”
“No. I’m wondering why he grabbed his collar, stiffened as if he’d been shocked, then toppled in the path of the tram.”
Brysen sank to his knees. It wasn’t a conscious decision, more as if the strength had gone out of him and the easiest thing was to do something familiar and let the floor support him. “Why…why would he do that?” It wasn’t the question he meant to ask; they were the words that came first to his lips.
“That’s what I want to know,” Anna said. “What do you think?”
“Sylvan must have been heartbroken.” Brysen barely knew what he was saying anymore, but he felt a need to say something. “I mean, I didn’t know him that well, but he was sweet, and I know he loved Miles. Could something have happened? Medically?”
“Maybe.” Anna sounded as if she was trying not to say what she was thinking, which made Brysen wonder why she’d said anything at all. He felt confused and distant from the conversation. Was this shock?
“Can we continue this another time? Brysen’s had enough.” Jax was patient but firm, and Anna seemed to accept his authority in the situation. It made Brysen feel safe, made him want to curl in close to Jax and be held and protected.
“Let me take your comm code, and I’ll contact you to set something up.”
“Stay here,” Jax told Brysen and went off with Anna to the front door, while Brysen crawled onto a chair and tried to forget the sight of Sylvan’s body half-covered by some random bystander’s jacket, his legs thinner than Brysen had remembered them being. He heard Jax and Anna talking and knew paying attention to what they were saying would have been a good distraction from the thoughts racing through his head, but the thoughts were too powerful.
Sylvan had decided that dying was better than living without his owner, and Layne had made it clear if Brysen didn’t learn to behave as expected, being similarly discarded was a distinct possibility. He couldn’t fail. A life without Layne was no life at all.
I survived without him before. There are other owners out there. Kinder ones who can still give me the discipline and pain I need. Ones like—
Aghast, trembling so violently his teeth clashed, trapping his tongue, Brysen fought to silence the voice in his head. No. No. Layne was the only owner for him. The only one capable of training him, improving him. Disloyalty to his owner even in thought was a terrible crime. He deserved the most severe punishment in the world for that.
Jax came back into the room, his expression grim. “She’s gone, and I’m so sorry you had to go through that. She was unbelievably insensitive. Hey, you’re shaking!” He crouched beside Brysen, smelling like Layne after the shower, as commanding as Layne, but not giving Brysen what he needed. He didn’t want concern and gentle hands. Not after what he’d done. “Are you cold? Let me get you a blanket.”
“I don’t want a blanket.” He formed the words with difficulty, lips numb. “Whip me. Make me bleed. Fuck me with the biggest dildo Layne owns, and let me scream my throat raw.”
Surprise widened Jax’s eyes. He rocked back on his heels, then steadied himself. “Brysen—”
“It’s what I want!” Tears trickled down his face, but he ignored them. They didn’t match his mood. He wasn’t sad; he was desperate for expiation. “What I deserve.”
He saw the denial in Jax’s eyes, and something inside him snapped. He’d heard subs talk in giggles and whispers about how they had the ultimate control over their owners and wondered why they’d want that and who they were fooling. Now he knew they were right. Layne could deny him orgasms day after day, slash his skin, make him burn with desire and agony until they became one and the same, but Brysen could always say no—not that he ever would—and that made him the owner of the pain.
And now he could make Jax say yes. He raised his hand and struck Jax across the face, remembering how it stung to be slapped, how the print of Layne’s hand lingered in memory long after the flush had faded. “Punish me.” He made it an order. “You’re supposed to be taking care of me the way Layne would. Punish me.”
Grim, jaw clenched, Jax took Brysen’s wrists in one hand and squeezed them so hard Brysen felt the bones grind. Good. That was what he wanted. He wanted Jax to be angry with him. “Stop this.”
“No!” Brysen struggled to his feet—because he’d been sitting and Jax had been crouching, he was able to do that much, kicking the chair back into the table—and squirmed to free himself from Jax’s grip. Jax stood easily, restrained him without obvious effort. Not giving up, Brysen kicked him in the shins.
Jax twisted his wrist until exquisite pain shot up Brysen’s arm and brought fresh tears to his eyes. “Stop.”
“You have to punish me.” His elbow would pop out of its socket, he knew it.
“Take a deep breath,” Jax ordered, and Brysen obeyed automatically. “Better. Now tell me: what have you done wrong that you think you need to be punished for?”
If he struggled, he’d get injured, and that wasn’t the same as having his owner hurt him. It didn’t count. “Layne would punish me.”
“I’m sure he’d be happy to discipline you whether you deserved it or not,” Jax agreed. “But that wasn’t my question. What do you think you did?”
Brysen didn’t want to remember, let alone describe it aloud. Jax should punish him; then he wouldn’t have to think. He’d find oblivion in the pain, and when it was over, he wouldn’t feel guilty. He shook his head, lowered his eyes.
Jax twisted his wrist another millimeter, bringing an anguished whimper from Brysen. “Tell me.” Pain radiated through his body as if all of it were being wrenched.
“Disloyal,” Brysen whispered. “I had…bad thoughts.” And hated himself for it. “About Layne. I wish— I’m sorry. Please punish me. Please.”
“For your thoughts? No. For hitting me? I’m tempted, but I don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior, and that’s what it would be.” Jax slackened his grip as if underscoring his words. No pain. No relief. Brysen wanted to howl his despair. “But you’re right. I’m here to take care of you, and I’ve failed if you’re this worked up, so I’ll deal with you as you deserve.”
“Please.” He barely heard the word, but he felt it to his core. Begging came easily, bringing with it the safety of knowing his owner would only grant his plea if it was the correct course of action. He could ask for anything, secure in that trust.
“I’m staying here. All night. You don’t move out of my reach without permission, and unless it’s to piss or shit, you won’t get it.” Jax nodded, though Brysen hadn’t questioned him. “Yeah. No more hiding from me. I’m going to be here when you sleep and when you wake. And if you dream, better look for me there too.”
He reached down and caressed Brysen’s cock, rousing it to full hardness without difficulty. Layne had taught him to get hard and hold it for as long as required. “I’ve got full body rights. I wasn’t going to use them, but I will tonight. I plan to wear you out, Brysen. I won’t be gentle. You don’t deserve that, and you won’t get it. I’ll put you in tight bondage. Use you until I’m spent and you’re begging to come.”
“Thank you.” He relaxed, mind hazy with arousal, floating on anticipation.
Jax chuckled, no amusement lightening the soft sound. “You won’t be grateful when I’m done with you.” He ran his finger through the wetness on Brysen’s face. “Hope there’s more where these came from. I love seeing a sub cry and knowing I’m the cause.”
He wouldn’t be the cause, Brysen reminded himself. Layne owned him, and everything he had, everything that was given or taken away was because of Layne. He was going to be perfect and accept every bit of pain Jax dealt him until Layne was happy. All that mattered was Layne wanting to keep him forever. He’d do anything to have that.
Jane Davitt & Alexa Snow