That got everybody’s attention. Pablo felt his face flush. Why the hell did he wear a pale yellow jersey today? He should’ve known hauling that pack around would chafe the cuts he’d sustained via Pie Man’s flail.
He decided to brazen this out rather than be cowed by Tole. He was damned sick and tired of being cowed. And what did he have to lose?
“I don’t have a résumé,” he said. “My shirt looks the way it does because a client got carried away. A Vip, actually. I guess he liked me as much as that shifter liked Win. In my case, though, I took some hits because I accepted him, not because I rejected him.”
Tole nodded. “I figured as much. I think I’ve seen you on some corner with your coworkers.”
The other two men looked utterly baffled.
“So you think that makes you qualified to act as a Touch?” Tole asked. “Sadistic bigwigs get their jollies by waling on your firm, young body?”
Pablo mustered his confidence along with his defiance. “In a roundabout way, yes, it does qualify me.”
Frowning, Win raised his arm, which had been draped on the back of the couch. “Would one of you care to explain what the hell you’re talking about?”
“This man isn’t a trained Touch, he’s a common whore.” Tole got up from the couch, walked over to yet another mounded table, and turned on a large lamp with a stained glass shade. Pablo could’ve sworn he glimpsed movement on the parti-colored pieces of glass, but he was too preoccupied at the moment to focus on them.
Zee looked stupefied. He gaped at Pablo. “You’re a giver?”
a giver. Damned if I’m going back to it. The same asshole who did this” -- he plucked his shirt away from his body -- “wants me assigned to him.”
Win’s look softened. “Would you mind showing us what he did to you?”
Pablo stood and yanked the jersey over his head. He turned to display his back, then turned forward once more. His chest had taken the worst of the whipping, although the tips of some tails had flown across his shoulders and struck his back.
“Jesus,” Zee whispered.
Win’s arresting gaze moved over Pablo’s torso. “Are you good at what you do?”
“I’ve never had any complaints. In fact, that overly enthusiastic client I had last night slipped me a gullion to thank me for the pleasure of my company.”
Zee uttered, “Wow.”
Pablo was still focused on Win. The man’s eyes seemed to draw him in. For the first time in months, Pablo’s cock stirred without any physical coaxing. “Have you ever seen an indigo bunting?”
Win’s inviting mouth moved a few millimeters toward a smile. “The bird? Yes, as a matter of fact. Why?”
“I noticed that…” Pablo lowered his eyes. What was he thinking? “Never mind,” he said, and slipped his shirt back on. “Anyway, I’d be much more of an asset to your group than some classroom-educated Touch.”
Tole, still standing, eyed him with lingering distrust. But the assertion clearly intrigued him. “Care to explain?”
“I’ve spent a lot of time in intimate situations with Pros and Vips. I’ve spent a lot of time, period, with common folk. Needless to say.”
“And?” Tole prompted.
“Isn’t it obvious? A person lets his guard down when he’s seeking or having sex. It’s not often we’re afforded a glimpse beneath people’s shells -- you know, the facades they present to the world. But I’ve had plenty of glimpses. In fact, I’ve often gotten a pretty good eyeful. All the schooling in the world can’t give you that kind of insight into human nature.”
Win had been watching Pablo since the big revelation. His eyes, slightly narrowed, seemed to be honing his perception. Pablo tingled beneath his scrutiny. It was as if Win were delving into him, layer by layer, the way one might carefully peel an onion.
“How long have you been a giver?” Tole asked.
“Six, seven years.”
“And how many Pros and Vips have you spent time with?”
“A lot,” Pablo said. “They make up the majority of my business.”
“And now a Vip wants you transferred to Assigned Service,” Win said, as if he were weighing that fact.
“Yes. That’s what pushed me into coming here. I need another job ASAP. Because as long as I’m an employee of the Givers Agency, I’m at that Vip’s mercy. And the man makes me sick.”
Win angrily slapped the couch arm, startling Pablo. “That’s an untenable situation,” he said to his comrades. “It has to change. I had no idea those egotistical bastards running the OC were putting such a stranglehold on people.”
Tole, his knuckles resting on the table, leaned forward and seemed to study the lamp. Maybe he was considering the pros and cons of hiring someone he didn’t particularly want to hire. Maybe he was thinking about something else entirely. It was hard to tell.
“Vips have too damned much autonomy,” Tole said. “Nobody keeps them in check. People being what they are, you give them power and they’ll likely abuse it.” With a forefinger, he lightly touched one of the glass pieces of the lampshade. Then he smiled. After staring at the shade a few moments longer, he swiveled his head to face Pablo. “What else do you have going for you?”
“I know my way around the human body.” Pablo was determined to make his case. “I’ve been with women and I’ve been with men.”
“Do you have a preference?” Win asked, his voice going quiet and smooth, his gaze changing in the opposite way.
The current between them resurfaced, shivering and snapping. “I believe you already know the answer to that.”
Win’s eyes glimmered. “And do you still enjoy sex, in spite of the job you’ve had?”
“I think I do.” When Pablo realized what he’d said, he grimaced and added. “Jesus, that was a lame answer, wasn’t it?”
“No, not at all.”
“What I meant was --”
“You need to rediscover it,” Win suggested. “With someone of your
choosing. Then you’d enjoy it again.”
Pablo could barely breathe. An unsettling tension curled ever more tightly in his lower abdomen. Just looking at Win made his nuts hurt.
“Yes,” he said. “I’d enjoy it a great deal.”
The inscrutable Tole continued to pay keen attention to their conversation. Zee did, too, but he seemed considerably more accepting.
“I assume you’re quite familiar with the Overcity,” Win said.
Pablo nodded. “I’ve spent a lot of time on the streets.”
“Are you comfortable in the Undercity?”
“Comfortable enough.” Pablo couldn’t suppress a smile. “Of course, I haven’t run into any horny shifters.”
Win smiled back. “Don’t worry about it. That was a rare occurrence.”
“I’m not too familiar with the UC, though. I’ve only been down here twice before now.”
“Don’t worry about that either,” Win said. “You’d get a tour.”
The longer Pablo was there, the more hope took hold of him. It was a sweetly persuasive but alien feeling. Maybe there was
more to life than drudgery and dead sleep.
He realized how much the men’s acceptance meant to him. He particularly wanted to know Win better. The other two fascinated him, as well, but not in the same way. In fact, their whole lifestyle fascinated him.
“What do you like to do?” Zee asked. “Just for fun. Just to relax.”
Tole rolled his eyes and shook his head, probably because he found the question irrelevant, but Win seemed interested in all of Pablo’s answers.
“Simple things, like hanging out in the greenspaces on nice days, watching people.”
“And watching birds?” Win asked with a hint of a smile.
“Yes. And playing with people’s dogs, listening to music, reading, writing a little.”
“Writing what?” Win asked. His fine, dark eyebrows had drawn together.
Pablo felt himself blush. The question made him self-conscious. “Poetry. Random thoughts. It’s kind of a release for me, I guess.”
“Do you go to bars, clubs?”
“Only occasionally, maybe to meet up with friends and have a drink or two. But I hate the crowds and the noise. I never stay long. Besides, since I work the evening shift…”
Win nodded in understanding.
Tole glided back to the couch and eased into its available corner.
Silence engulfed the room. Pablo, still sitting at the table across from Zee, looked down at his tightly interlinked fingers. He had no idea what he’d do if the Coven of Three didn’t want him. Pie Man had certainly put in his request by now, and that meant Pablo couldn’t quit the Givers Agency even if he kicked up a fuss. Only if he had other employment secured could he get off that foul hook. That’s how it was for Coms.
Maybe he’d just head for the Interzone. He’d heard it was possible to disappear there. The Regenerie metroplex was ringed by its own farms and greenhouses, waste dumps, and treatment plants and factories -- what was called the Production Area. Beyond that lay dense woods, open fields, and occasional small settlements. Humans and Otherbeings who dwelled in the Interzone were completely free creatures who could live however they chose. They just had to live without metroplex amenities. Pablo figured if he found the Interzone lifestyle too primitive, he could always travel to the next metroplex and petition for residency.
It wasn’t that Pablo disliked living in Regenerie. All in all, it was a decent place to be -- a hospitable, orderly, almost crime-free city that had achieved zero population growth and offered all its residents a solid education, continuous employment, and complete health care as well as elder care. But being indentured to a repugnant “Master” would definitely take the bloom off the Regenerie rose.
“Shall we move on to the next step?” Zee asked. “I
think we should.”
Pablo looked up. He didn’t know what Zee meant.
“I think so too,” Win said. “Definitely.”
All eyes turned to Tole. He merely shrugged -- still resistant, but at least willing.
“We need to do a little interpersonal-chemistry test,” Zee explained to Pablo.
“All right,” Pablo said, although he had no idea what the man meant.
“I hope you don’t mind, but there has to be physical contact involved,” Zee went on. “You touch us or we touch you or both. Nothing heavy, though. We just need to determine how much spark can be generated.”
He rose from the table and went to the center of the room. Tole and Win got up from the couch and did the same. The men stood in a loose circle.
“Come, join us,” Zee said to Pablo. “Stand in the middle.”
Pablo was nervous. He wasn’t used to the feeling. Touching was part and parcel of his job, after all, and he’d always been confident of his ability to please. Now, though, he wasn’t sure what was expected of him.
He joined the Coven of Three, positioning himself in the center of the small group.
“I assume we’ll do this by age?” Zee said to the others. He untied the sash on his bathrobe, letting the garment hang open.
Pablo’s breathing became shallow. The combined force of the trio’s masculinity made him light-headed. Trying to control himself, so he wouldn’t seem like some bumbling, hormone-driven teenager, he emptied his mind and waited for their cues.
Tole was apparently the oldest in the group, for he said to Pablo, “Please loosen your pants. You can leave them on, but undo all the closures.” His voice sounded rougher, the words more slurred.
The sound fueled Pablo’s excitement. He undid the button and lowered the zipper of his jeans, aware of the pressure of his thickening cock. Tole’s steaming gaze slid below his waist. Lifting one hand, he carefully slid it beneath the waistband and squeezed one of Pablo’s ass cheeks.
His fingers were long and cool. Very subtly, he urged Pablo’s hips closer to his. Head lowering, he let his nose graze Pablo’s neck as his exploring hand moved over Pablo’s butt. His respiration was more like sniffing, rapid and abrupt, as if he were sampling Pablo’s essence. His hand continued its fondling sweep.
“I confess, I would love to fuck you,” he breathed against Pablo’s throat.
Pablo felt the briefest push of Tole’s cock against his own. Then Tole withdrew. Pablo didn’t know what to make of this man’s abrupt shift from surly to seductive, didn’t even know what to make of his own wary, mixed reaction. It was hard not
to be affected by so bold an advance -- hell, Pablo had always been drawn to sexy men -- but Tole’s attitudes made him withhold any obvious response.
Zee parted his robe and let it fall to his waist. He held it there, revealing the impressive contours of his upper body. Impulsively, Pablo began caressing the man’s smooth, mounded chest. He began a slow massage, his fingers digging into the pronounced muscles, his thumbs skating around and pushing against the beaded nipples. Zee’s eyelids closed on a ragged exhalation. Dipping down, Pablo slowly drew each nipple between his lips and flicked it with the tip of his tongue. His mouth returned to each and gave it a firm suck.
Zee groaned. He took a step back and closed his robe.
Weakened by mounting desire, Pablo made an unsteady turn to face Win. The man’s eyes immobilized him. He waited to see what Win would do, what move he would make to indicate what he wanted. But Win did nothing and said not a word.
Pablo cupped the side of his somber face and let the ends of his fingers disappear into Win’s hair. Fucking beautiful
, he thought, so awed by that beauty he didn’t know how to approach it. There was nothing like this in his world -- not in human form, anyway -- so he balked. He knew with certainty what he’d like to do. He knew, but he felt too daunted to take the initiative.
Then Win whispered, “Do whatever you want.”
The space between them disappeared. The balmy press of Win’s lips felt like grace materialized. There was no wildness in the kiss, no lustful desperation. Melding, their mouths flexed tenderly; their tongues touched. Humid breath, another kind of caress, rebounded from Pablo’s skin. His whole being shrank to the kiss, to its obliterating soft passion.
Their mouths parted briefly, only to glide and press elsewhere -- on flushed cheeks and closed eyelids, damp sideburns and pulsing throats. Then their lips came together again, pressing more insistently, and their tongues thrust into each other’s mouth.
Pablo wanted it never to end. Even the aggressive swelling of his cock wasn’t more thrilling than the delicate pulsing of capillaries whenever Win’s lips met his. To kiss simply for the sake of communion -- he’d never known anything like it.
“I don’t think I can walk away from this,” he murmured against Win’s face.
Win kissed his neck. “You won’t have to. I won’t let you.”