"Get away from there," Henry "Hank" Tappen shouted, watching as Dr. Karl Johnson hovered at the large open archway that looked out over the city.
"I'm not going to do myself in," Johnson said calmly, turning and slamming his hand against the air. Hank didn't expect the loud thunk when Johnson apparently hit something. "It's another force field. They're incredibly fond of them."
"I guess it wouldn't look good if prisoners went splat on the city streets."
After the guards had dragged them from the throne room, Hank and Johnson had been thrown into one of the trams, which flew to one of the tall spiraling towers, where they had been deposited through that open doorway, left to watch as the guards left with the tram and their only means of leaving the room. Ingenious prison, Hank thought, with freedom visible, yet completely out of reach.
This room bore little resemblance to the opulent elegance of the palace. There were no tapestries, fancy carpets, or polished dark furniture. Instead, Hank could have been looking at one of any rooms on the Mercury, their starship. Two beds, twin size, flanked the small room, with its bare stone walls, and pale carpeting, with an odd looking shelving unit along one wall, he couldn't tell if it were metal or plastic. He poked his head into the only other door in the room and found the bathroom, which had the usual facilities, plus a sunken tub that looked a bit too decadent for a prison.
He guessed these people couldn't give up their luxuries completely. Either that or they had a thing about cleanliness. When he thought back to the half-naked slave who had offered himself to Hank's team, it made a sick sort of sense. At least they were left their clothes, although the guards in the gold skirts had taken their packs.
Hank dropped onto one of the beds, tucking his hands behind his head as he leaned into the very soft pillow. Might as well rest when he could, there was no way of knowing exactly what their captors planned.
"Are you napping?" Johnson asked, incredulous.
"Do you hear me snoring?" Hank shot back, not opening his eyes.
"Shouldn't you be doing something? Trying to escape?"
Hank could picture Johnson flailing his arms as he spoke. "Right, I'll just grow a pair of wings and get right on that."
"You're military. Shouldn't you have some sort of plan for this type of situation?"
"Usually the plan is 'don't get caught'," Hank sighed. "If we're throwing around blame, you're the one who got 'em all fired up in the first place."
Silence, for a blessed moment. Hank was almost to dozing when Johnson finally replied.
"I don't believe in remaining silent when confronted with slavery."
"Stars," Hank muttered. "You might want to stuff that line of conversation." He gave up on sleep and moved to sit up. Johnson still stood at the odd makeshift window, his back to the room and Hank. "You know, that's not like you, Karl. You usually know when to shut the hell up."
"Major…" Johnson started, the use of Hank's rank a warning. Of course, the room was probably bugged, every word recorded and every action watched.
"Look, Karl," Hank tried again without his usual sarcasm. "Even if we can get out of this tower, then where do we go? We're stuck in the city, and they have every advantage. They have our weapons, our communicators. And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't even know where to begin using the crazy tech they got here."
And Johnson wanted Hank to figure a way out of here? Sure, he'd get right on that. His fingers itched at his belt, where his communicator normally rested. They had taken that too, as if they had known. Hank didn't know how they could have, the tech here looked damned different than anything at home.
"Rest up. Enjoy the quiet while it lasts." He left the whole 'you don't know what they're going to do to us' left unspoken. Better not worry the good doctor just yet.
Johnson never answered so Hank just gave up on him for the moment. He couldn't make the man relax, no matter how soft the sheets were.
In the end, they were left alone for no more than an hour, before part of the wall directly opposite the beds slid away, revealing a score of guards on the other side. Hank hopped out of the bed, ready for whatever was to come. "Hello boys," he said, crossing his arms. "Thanks for showing us the secret entrance."
He could feel Johnson tense behind him, but Hank didn't move, he met the gazes of the guards' head on. After all, how scary were a bunch of guys in skirts? Well, with spears too. The guard who moved to the front and entered first was the guy Hank had sat next to on the tram, Ian. C'mon, Ian, he thought, half giddy.
"The Queen has decided your fates, until your commander comes for you," Ian said. He looked so serious, dark eyes wide, heavy brow furrowed.
"If your commander comes for you," another member of the guard said, stepping into the room. Ian turned and gave him a sharp look.
"Right," Hank said, "I guess it would be too much to hope for a hot toddy and some reading material? I really could use the vacation."
"Major," Johnson hissed. Hank refrained from rolling his eyes, he knew exactly what he was doing – call attention to himself, protect the civilian, do his duty. If the damn doc would just shut up and let him do it.
Hank ignored him. "So? What the hell does she want from us?"
"You are to be trained as proper subs," Ian said, his body stiff. He bore little resemblance to the young man on the tram, the carefree soldier with too much time on his hands. There he'd returned Hank's jokes, had seemed fascinated with the people from the stars, eager to take them to his queen. Now, Hank thought, Ian pulled back his personality, aware he had his own duty to attend to. Ian stepped forward and held out something.
It took Hank a minute or two to realize he was looking at a white leather collar.
"No," Johnson breathed. "No!"
"Doctor Johnson," Hank barked out. "Enough." He tried to channel Morgan's best command voice, the one that got Johnson to freeze and just do whatever the hell he was told.
Apparently he failed at it spectacularly. Johnson didn't stop. He backed away from the guards who approached him, shouting at the top of his lungs. "I will not be your slave, let me go, no! NO!"
Hank forced himself to remain still, locking his muscles at the cries Johnson made as two of the guards forced him down to his knees, while a third put the collar around his neck. Johnson never stopped fighting, his muscles tense as he struggled against the guards, he snapped at the third guard, teeth coming surprisingly close to doing some serious damage. Once the collar was on they let him go and he leapt to his feet, throwing an inexpert punch at the first guard. They tackled him down to the ground.
"Will you fight as well?" Ian asked softly.
Hank turned away from where Johnson struggled, his heart beating hard against his chest. He knew when to pick his battles. "It's just a collar?" he asked. "It doesn't give electric shocks or anything like that?"
"It's only a training collar," Ian agreed. He lifted the one he still held.
"Fine," Hank said, his voice strangely hoarse. He reached for it, but Ian shook his head. He stepped close and wrapped the leather around Hank's throat. For a moment, Hank could feel the warm mist of breath on his cheek, then he was aware of nothing more but the clasp of the collar around his neck. Ian stepped back, and Hank tugged at the leather, unable to find a seam in it at all.
"You will understand," Ian said, and it sounded like a promise.
"Look," Hank said, hoping for a chance to negotiate. "You gotta give us something here. Can we have our packs? We're stuck in here, bored out of our minds, without even anything to eat…"
"I cannot return your belongings," Ian shook his head. "I know you would attempt to escape. As for food, you are well-equipped with the Dumb Waiter." He moved to the strange shelving unit Hank had noticed, and touched a panel on the side.
Hank watched, marveling as the panel opened and a platter of bread and cheese came through to rest on the counter. Every time he watched the technology work – the way the silvery panels moved, slithering like snakes instead of grinding like metal on metal – he could more and more believe this place was magic and not science at all. "Ok, food covered. Could I at least have my tablet? I was reading this really great novel…"
Ian smiled at him. "Trust me, you won't be bored for long."
That sounded like a warning. Ian nodded his head at the other guards, who dropped Johnson, before exiting the room. One gave a final glare before he left, rubbing at the shiner on his cheek. Hell, Hank never knew the doc had it in him.
"Take the time to refresh yourselves. Training begins early tomorrow morning," Ian said, the panel shutting behind his words.
Hank moved, dropping next to Johnson, checking for injuries. "You hurt?"
"Only my pride." Johnson coughed, sounding a bit more like his old self.
"You have to pick your battles, Karl," Hank said softly, screw whatever bugs the aliens had going. "Otherwise you won't last till Morgan gets back."
Johnson looked up, his eyes red-rimmed, a bruise forming around one eye. "You think Morgan's coming back? You think they'll just let him take us away?"
"We talking about the same Jeff Morgan here? Fuck yeah he's coming back. I wouldn't put it past him to bring an armada."
There, that got a smile out of the guy. "It's a collar, Hank," he said, his voice no more than a whisper. "I swore I…" he stopped, rubbed his throat and winced.
"Try not to think about it," Hank said. "C'mon, there's a bathtub with your name on it. You're lucky you got beat up, otherwise there was no way I'd give you first dibs at the hot water…"
They'd make it through this, somehow. All Hank had to do was keep Karl Johnson together until Morgan came back, hopefully with help.
Hank slept in his t-shirt and boxers. If he was going to have to keep wearing the same clothes, then he was going to do his best to make sure they lasted without stinking up the place. Johnson removed his boots and belt, but had remained dressed otherwise, and Hank didn't ask. Something had hurt the doc, and Hank kept going through the different scenarios in his head, wondering if what he imagined was better or worse than what had actually happened.
He'd wished Karl a good night and then the lights had gone out, almost as if they had been waiting for permission. Hank wasn't sure how long he slept, only that he slowly woke as the lights started to return, first coming up soft and dim, like the new dawn. He looked at their window, only to find the panel closed. Come to think of it, had it closed immediately after Johnson had turned away from staring at the outside? Hank hadn't exactly been paying attention.
A warm rich scent reached his nostrils, and Hank realized a steaming pitcher of something stood at the ready on their Dumb Waiter. He slipped out of bed and took a deeper sniff – caught some kind of spice, like cinnamon, but not quite. Next to the silver pitcher sat a platter filled with delicate looking pastries, the sight of which made his mouth water. "Best prison ever," he whispered, picking up something that looked like a cheese Danish. It melted in his mouth, and Hank barely refrained from moaning, he didn't want to wake up Karl.
Well, he had given in to the food – and really, they had to eat, to keep up their strength, no time to worry about whether or not the food was drugged – so Hank poured himself a steaming cup of what was probably some sort of tea. He took a tentative sip, the tang of spice warm on his tongue and hot as it went down.
"Are you sure you should be doing that?" Johnson rasped from the bed.
Hank sighed. "No, but someone has to test it. If I keel over, you know its poison."
"That's not funny, Hank."
"Fine, we'll just starve while waiting for Morgan to show up."
"I'm more worried about it being drugged." Karl pushed himself up out of the bed. "To make us more pliant to whatever they want from us."
"Anyone ever tell you you're one pessimistic son of a bitch?"
"Just realistic." Johnson looked away. There, that went whatever the hell Hank was missing from the story.
Hank took another sip of the tea – it really was quite good. "Look, I'll be the taste tester. If we notice anything weird, you got my back, ok?" Johnson nodded and pushed past him into the bathroom.
Neither one of them mentioned what would happen if they discovered the food and drink were drugged.
Hank had just come out from his turn in the bath - he had turned his boxers inside out, but was not looking forward to many more days in the same underwear – when a gentle knock sounded on the wall. The panel shimmered open again, in that slightly magical way all the technology had of shifting. To his relief, Ian stood there, no other guards in sight, for the moment.
"Good morning," Hank said brightly. No need to be rude, was there?
Ian nodded at his greeting. "I hope you slept well."
"As could be expected," Hank said. "Considering we're your prisoners."
"Not prisoners. Subs," Ian corrected. "Untrained and unowned. It's for your own welfare that we keep you here."
"Right, how about we argue that another time?" Hank ran a hand through his hair.
Ian inclined his head slightly. "I'm to bring you to your first lesson. There are other guards in the hall." He looked at Johnson pointedly. "Will you come or will I need a leash?"
"You…" Johnson started, and Hank could feel the fury in his tone. He reached out and put a gentle hand on the other man's arm, stilling the tirade. Hopefully Johnson remembered what Hank had said about choosing his battles.
"We'll come with you," Hank said softly.
Ian met his gaze for a moment, but Hank couldn't read those dark eyes at all. He merely stepped back and led them out of the room.
Hank at first wondered why they weren't traveling by Tram, as they filed out into the hall and were surrounded by more of the guards. They really didn't want to chance either of them escaping. He craned his neck to look around as they walked down the hall, but saw nothing more than endless walls, shimmering like the scales of a fish, without a single door until they were led down a small staircase to a glass elevator that looked over the entire city.
"You people sure like your views," Hank marveled, catching sight of the great blue ocean even from here, because of the height of the tower.
Ian threw a smile his way, but Hank could see none of the other guards were smiling; in fact they looked down right pissed off. Well, good, as long as he could keep them being pissed off at him and not Johnson.
"We are going to the very bottom," Ian explained, touching the glass, with no visible buttons that Hank could see, and then the elevator began to move.
He only noticed the motion because he could see the view changing, the heart of the city getting closer, the lovely view disappearing as they neared the first floor of the tower. Hank couldn't feel the movement, and even when they touched down, didn't get that odd sense of vertigo he tended to in most lifts. He touched the glass as they walked out, and it didn't quite feel like glass, he swore it rippled against his fingers.
"Major," Johnson said under his breath, catching his attention.
Hank turned away from the elevator and finally noticed that the first floor looked nothing like a prison. In fact, it looked more like a school. Children ran across the atrium as sunlight drifted in through the walls, as translucent as the glass. Plants dotted this room, as if even inside, the greenery could not help itself. The children clustered in groups around different adults, who led them away, letting them talk and laugh all the way.
None of the children wore collars, Hank noticed, although a few of the 'teachers' did. But then again, not all of the teachers. He resigned himself to being confused a bit longer, as Ian moved to speak to a tall woman with a black collar. She smiled at him and nodded, before going back to gather her group of children, a mishmash of ages, Hank noted, some as young as five, others seemed as old as twelve.
"Come," Ian said and led the way once more.
The classroom, Hank called it for wont of a better term, was yet another example of the luxury of the city – fluffy pillows were set in a circle on carpet so plush his heavy combat boots sunk into the fibers. Motion filled the walls, images and pictures that moved, of things you'd expect in any elementary school, letters and animals, and images of the city itself.
"You will stay at the back of the room and not interrupt," Ian told them.
"On these?" Hank toed one of the pillows. He'd rather have a desk and chair but really, he couldn't be picky. "I might fall asleep again."
"Then I will simply have to kick you awake," Ian said, but Hank had no idea if he were joking or not.
Hank slid onto one of the pillows, it reminded him of the beanbag chair his old roommate had in his room, soft but supported his weight. He watched the kids sink down onto their pillows, the older ones each seemed to be paired with a younger, helping them get settled in their places. He caught Johnson's eye, but Karl seemed just as confused as Hank, no help there.
"Hey," he whispered to Ian. "Is it possible we could get something to write with?" He made the motion of a stylus on a tablet. Johnson was always fanatical about taking notes, and maybe with that to occupy him, Hank could stop worrying about the doctor freaking out again. Even now Johnson pulled at the collar around his neck, worrying at it until his skin turned bright pink at the point of contact.
Ian nodded to one of the guards next to him, who left the room for a moment before returning with two gray slates. He handed them directly to Hank, who passed one over to Johnson. The slate was larger than a tablet, it fit on his lap with little trouble, but Hank had no idea how to activate it.
"Ah," Johnson murmured, pulling a stylus from the bottom of the thing. He tapped it on the face and the dark gray material lit up just like one of their tablets.
Hank followed his actions and took out his own stylus. He really didn't need to write himself, but it gave him something to do with his hands while he watched the woman at the front of the room. She had gone from group to group of the children, each set of older and younger, whispering and patting the heads of the young ones before moving to the head of the classroom. With one touch of her hand, the motion on the walls stopped, the screens turning into ordinary walls.
"We have some special visitors today, everyone," her voice was clear, ringing throughout the classroom. It made Hank think of his favorite grade school teacher, the one he had the requisite crush on. This woman looked nothing like her, with her falls of long dark hair and tilted blue eyes, never mind the collar around her neck.
The children looked back at Hank and Johnson and Hank gave a little wave and a grin.
"Aren't they awfully old to still be in white?" one of the older boys asked.
"Hush, Matthew," the teacher scolded. "Training takes however long it needs to, you know that."
Hank's hand was halfway raised to touch his own collar before he realized this. He forced it back down, gripping the very edge of the slate. It had been easy to forget that here he was marked as one of their slaves. He jotted down "white = training" on his slate, though Hank knew he wouldn't be forgetting that any time soon. How much training exactly did the Queen plan on giving him and Johnson?
"I am Sub Rosen," the woman introduced herself. She had the children go around saying their own names, each of them prefaced with that word again, sub.
The slave in the palace had called himself that, Hank remembered. Not slave, but sub. What the hell was the difference?
"And your names?" Rosen asked them.
Hank gave a little salute, half-assed since he wasn't standing at attention. "Major Henry Tappen, ma'am. Pleased to meet you all. This here is Doctor Karl Johnson."
She nodded at him. "Here the polite form of address for a sub you don't know is to add the prefix to the first name. So I would say to you, welcome Sub Henry."
He winced a bit at that, should have told them to call him Hank. "And for someone who's not a sub?" he asked. Hank was aware of Johnson scribbling at a frantic pace beside him. He had a quick flashback to the last planet they had visited, remembering the good doctor going on for a good half hour about naming conventions and kinship systems.
"Now that depends. Would anyone like to help me with the answer?" she directed that to the room at large.
Several children raised their hands, eager to be the first to answer. Hank couldn't help smiling at their eagerness.
"All right, Emma," Rosen said. "You may speak first."
The girl – probably about ten or so – leapt to her feet, clasping her hands behind her back with practiced ease. "If someone has a title, that is used first. Like Guard Ian," she flashed a grin at the group of men in the back of the room. "Or Healer Antone."
"And if they don't?" Rosen asked.
"Then it is Master or Mistress," Emma said. "Except when referring to your own master. Then it is always My Master." She sat down, pleased with herself.
"Very good. And what do doms call each other?" Rosen scanned the class and then allowed Matthew to answer.
"If they have a title, same thing. But no master can have a master, so it's always Dom and then their name."
"Almost correct, Matthew," Rosen said. "A dom is subject to his or her place in society. It is true they can't be mastered, but that isn't quite the same thing."
Hank tried to wrap his head around it. He was in trouble if he couldn't figure out what the hell to call people. "But how do you tell who's who?" he blurted.
All eyes in the classroom moved to focus on him. The little girl, Emma said, "How are you a grown up and you don't know this?"
"We're not exactly from around here," Johnson said, looking up from the slate for the first time. Hank was surprised at the gentleness in his voice, but then again, even Karl couldn't hold on to his anger in front of a group of children.
"There aren't any other cities besides Harmony," Emma said, sounding certain of herself.
"Ah," Hank said, unable to help himself, "but there are other planets, other stars. We came here on a star ship."
He caught Johnson rolling his eyes, and Hank grinned. He always wanted to do the 'take me to your leader' spiel only Morgan never let him. Granted, he was going to give it to a bunch of kids, but hell, he might as well enjoy it while he could.
The kids all burst into whispered and giggling, as if unable to believe him. "Really?" another boy said, standing up before he spoke, though his form wasn't quite as perfect as Emma's. "Like in the old stories about the big ships?"
"Those are fairy tales."
"No they aren't, my gram said they are true."
"Everyone, be silent," Rosen ordered, her voice sharp. She moved over to the wall at the front of the room and touched her finger to the screen. "If what they say is true, that they are from another planet, what do you think they need to know about Harmony?"
The rest of the morning was spent in a flurry of information, all imparted by the children, by what they felt was most important. Hank let Johnson capture it all in his notes, he spent too much time trying to pay attention to every little detail. The kids wanted him to know the layout of the city – five quarters, each ruled by a duke or duchess, except for the center district ruled by the Queen alone. They were extremely proud to be from the Royal district, though they were careful to point out that the other districts had their own charms.
"And Sub Misha lives in Duchess Claudia's district now, even though he was born here," one helpful child pointed out.
It seemed that the members of royalty and their Primary subs were something of celebrities in the city. Hank was startled when the name Misha came up, remembering the naked man with the red leather collar who had offered himself to Morgan and his team. He didn't glance at Johnson, hoping the doctor had missed the mention of the name.
"He's my favorite," another child chimed in, one of the older pre-teens. "He's everything a sub should be."
"And what's that?" Hank found himself asking.
He found several surprised faces turned in his direction.
"He's absolutely gorgeous," one girl chimed in.
"Completely loyal to his mistress, even though he's a red band."
"Honors all of the core values," this again from an older kid. "When we see him on the vids, he looks almost pure, like he's closer to soul than body."
Hank just shook his head, still not understanding, but he let the kids move on, although two got into an argument about whether Misha or Alisha was better at something. Rosen had to quell that debate quickly.
Mid-morning they broke for a snack – sandwiches on a cart with little cups of juice. Hank noticed Johnson looking longingly at the food – he hadn't eaten any of the breakfast from this morning – but he didn't touch anything on the cart. Finally he leaned over and whispered, "Karl, it's their children." Finally, Johnson let himself eat, careful to take from the same pile of food the kids had.
Around what Hank would call lunchtime, Rosen called a halt to the conversation for the fitness break. He raised his hand and told her she was going to have to explain that too. She smiled. "There is a two hour mandatory exercise period for everyone at the Schola. Physical fitness is of utmost importance."
Now she sounded like his seventh grade gym teacher.
"You'll be remaining here," Ian cut in. Of course, the kids were going outside, and Hank and Johnson were only prisoners, not exchange students.
As the children filed out, one of the boys came up to him, the one who was so taken with the idea of coming from another planet.
"You really rode here on a star ship?" he asked, blue eyes wide and eager.
"Yeah, kid." Hank smiled, kneeling to the boy's level. "The Mercury is the biggest ship in the fleet. They built it just for us to come out here and meet you."
"Daniel," Rosen's voice interrupted. "You know the rules. You cannot skip the fitness break. I'm sure Sub Henry would be happy to answer your questions when the rest of the class comes back."
Hank winced at being called 'Sub Henry' but he smiled at Daniel. "I'll be here, waiting for you to come back. Go on, get some fresh air."
That seemed to mollify the boy, who scampered after his classmates happily. Hank pushed himself to his feet, watching as Rosen straightened up the room, pushing the food cart through one of the walls that merely shimmered around the object. He walked over to her side, conscious of being watching by Ian and the other guards at the door. "Do you need any help?" he asked.
Johnson looked up from his slate and regarded them both with a single raised eyebrow. Hank ignored him, he wasn't trying to flirt with the woman, he just needed more information.
She smiled. "You can help restore order to the pillows. I honestly don't know how they manage to toss them all over the room by merely sitting on them!"
Hank laughed, and went to retrieve some of the larger specimens along the wall. He knelt next to her, fluffing his finds carefully while he thought of what to say. "Can you explain something to me?"
"I am a trainer," she said, pausing in her motions.
"You're a sub," he tried out the word for the first time, exchanging it for the other rolling around in his brain. The people of Harmony didn't like the word slave. "How can you also be…this?" He gestured to the room in lieu of an explanation.
She paused, considering his question. "I know you are unfamiliar with our ways. My master is a trainer of the dom children. It is only natural that my duties would include working with the sub children. If you mean how can I command a room while being only a sub, then I would say you haven't met very many subs."
"You know, you'd be right about that."
At the end of the day it seemed the kids were just as glad to disperse as Hank was. His back ached from sitting in the awkward position on that too fluffy pillow and he attempted to stretch out the kinks as they walked back to the elevator from the classroom. Ian had dismissed most of their little troop of guards while they were in the room, leaving only he and one other to guard them.
Hank stepped back to let a group of tweens pass in from of him, momentarily separating he and Karl from their front guard, Ian still stood behind them. The kids laughed as they moved through the opening in the tall glass wall, an opening that wasn't there this morning. Karl saw it too, and took the opportunity to drop his slate, whirl and sock Ian in the face, dropping the startled guard with a single punch, before darting for the entrance.
"Karl, no!" Hank shouted, running after him. Of all the stupid, impulsive things, of course Johnson had to attempt an escape – right into a city full of hostiles, with no way to make contact with their ship. If the man would just think for a moment…
But Hank knew Karl hadn't been thinking clearly since the moment they saw the first collar wrapped neck. Still, he couldn't let Karl run off by himself, so he followed, darting through the crowd, slightly behind the other man. Damn, Johnson was fast.
"Karl!" he choked out, unable to catch his breath. It was another few paces before Hank realized why he couldn't breathe, the collar around his neck tightened to a painful degree. Still, he kept running, stumbling only when he saw black dots swirl in front of his eyes. Karl went down in front of him and didn't get up again.
A hand on his shoulder turned him onto his back and Hank wheezed, looking up at Ian's stormy face, a wicked looking bruise appearing high on his cheek. The guard had a device in his hand, and he clicked something on it. Breath rushed into Hank's lungs, and he took a moment to appreciate that for a moment before gasping out: "Thought you said…just a training collar?"
Ian bent down close, and it was only then that Hank noticed the other man was straddling his chest. "What is training worth without discipline?" he asked.
His drill sergeant at boot camp had just made him run extra miles or take an extra round of cleanup duty. Although, Hank thought ruefully, if the man had had the ability to instantaneously choke a recruit, he wouldn't have put it past him. "Point," Hank said, though he didn't think Ian quite got it.
"Bring him to the healers," Ian called, stepping back and pulling Hank to his feet. Only then did he see the other group of guards who were carrying Karl through the street. Stubborn bastard must have run till he passed out.
Hank wished he had pushed harder, had gotten Karl to confess whatever had gotten him so spooked. Before he could follow that thought further, Ian had gripped one of his wrists tightly and slapped a cuff on it.
"I'm not going to…" Hank started.
"Shut up," Ian snapped, pulling Hank's arms around his back and securing the other cuff.
Well now, there went all the good will he'd spent the day shoring up. If Hank weren't worried about Johnson he'd smack the son of a bitch right about now. Hank didn't resist as Ian propelled him back towards the building of glass, through the crowds, still mostly children, who stared at him with shocked expressions on their faces. He wondered if they had ever seen anyone disobey. Everyone here seemed to take obedience to the extreme.
Ian brought him back into the school and back onto that elevator. This time Hank couldn't appreciate the view, despite the hazy afternoon sun hanging behind the glittering towers and spirals. He doubted he'd be seeing sunlight for a very long time after this stunt. They stopped on a floor and Ian pushed him out into organized chaos.
This must be their version of Medical, he thought, catching sight of the guards carrying Karl running into a room, waved through by a woman clutching one of the slates.
"What have you brought me, Ian?" a female voice had them both turning, to see another woman with a slate. She wore a black collar around her neck, barely visible underneath her clothing, more like the robes of a monk than anything he'd seen slaves here wear before.
"I had to use the strangle feature on the training collar," Ian said, his cheeks tingeing pink. "Can you check him out?"
She stepped up to Ian and tapped at his chin, tilting his face up. "I can fix that too."
"My fault, I deserve it," he answered.
With an ever-suffering sigh, she rolled her eyes and tilted her head. "I can see you in room five. Come."
Hank followed her, Ian still pushing him with a hand over his cuffed wrists. Once inside room five – which reminded him of every exam room he'd ever been in, chairs, monitors, and an elevated bed – Ian pulled one of the cuffs off and pushed Hank down onto one of the chairs. He secured the cuff on to the arm of the chair and Hank looked down at it, dismayed.
"Oh don't look so surprised," Ian said.
"Gonna do this one too?" Hank held out his free hand, his voice raspy.
"Don't tempt me."
The girl cleared her throat. "Is this going to be a problem?"
"He will obey," Ian said, his glare enough to make Drill Sergeant Beatty proud. "And remain still."
"Sure," Hank agreed. He wasn't about to punch out a pretty girl, not one who was going to check out his neck anyway.
She pulled a stool with wheels out from under the table and sat on it, wheeling herself in front of Hank. "I'm Sub Maddy," she told him, "acolyte to healer Antone."
"You know that really doesn't mean anything to me, right?" he croaked out.
A tapping on the door had Ian's attention. A guard stuck his head in and motioned. "Behave," Ian said, before leaving the room.
"They can get a bit overprotective," Maddy said, although that wasn't quite the word Hank would have chosen. She reached out with both hands and touched his collar, which fell into her hands without the sound of a clasp opening. More of that crazy tech, he thought. But who the hell spent that much time designing such a device? "Hmm, you have some bruising, but I can take care of that."
She pushed herself back and typed onto one of the monitors at her fingertips. "No major injury to your windpipe, thankfully. You'll be out of here in no time." Maddy pulled a device from the table, which reminded Hank of one of the skin sealers doctors used, it fit neatly into the palm of her hand, with a rounded end instead of a pointed one. "Stay still."
"Not going anywhere, sweetheart."
"Don't talk either."
He felt warmth around his throat, wherever the collar had touched and bruised, the ache eased, allowing him to breath in fully for the first time since the street. Hank swallowed, marveling at how his sore throat had dissipated completely. For once, he kept his mouth shut, and let the girl finish her task. When she pushed away with a grin, he smiled back. "Thank you."
"You'll be fine." She picked up the white collar and moved forward again.
"Do I have to?" he asked, licking his lips as he stared at the piece of white leather. It no longer seemed so innocent.
"As long as you're in training, then yes." She slipped it around his neck. "I know it seems like training goes on forever, but you'll be on the market in no time."
He reached up with his free hand and caught her wrist, stopping her from moving away. "The market?" he asked.
He got the same look the children had given him in the classroom, when he lacked knowledge in something so basic. "Humor me," he said.
"Not a literal market," she shook her head. "Looking for a master, once you've been fully trained."
"Fucking brilliant," he muttered, letting her go. She wheeled away, no longer so free with him, her hands shaking as she punched more commands into her terminal.
The door peeled open, revealing Ian and two other guards. Ian's dark eyes burned as they met Hank's. "There will be punishment," he said. "Once your friend is done with his treatment."
Hank swallowed, wondering what they were both in for. His mind went straight to that city sidewalk, to the slave trussed up and beaten in front of the crowd. "Karl's not…" he started, but he didn't have the right words for what he wanted to say. "Karl's scared," Hank said instead. "He's not thinking straight. You can't, please, don't punish him for that."
Ian just looked at him, brows furrowed. "I have no say in it. Take him to Mistress Albaney," he told the men behind him.
His arms were bound behind him again, and Hank was marched through the halls of Medical. Ian stayed behind and fear coiled in Hank's stomach. He didn't realize how much the guard had alleviated his fear, how just knowing the man's name had somehow calmed any panic he might have had about this entire situation, taken and enslaved, trained to some unknown ideal. And now, now he was to be punished.
He'd been taken as a prisoner of war exactly once, had the crap beaten out of him before rescue arrived, but Hank knew he'd been lucky. Other prisoners had been starved or forced to turn against their friends, the Confed liked pulling that shit. Punishment here on 328 had this weird sexual connotation, and Hank felt his blood run cold at the thought of being taken against his will.
This elevator wasn't as pretty as the first, no glass walls, no glamorous view, just cold steel colored walls. Hank stood stiffly, alone with his thoughts and the two silent guards. He needed to be strong, so he spent the time pushing back his emotions, thinking of nothing but the mission. If he could protect Karl somehow, he would. Hank was the soldier here, and he pulled tightly on the reins of his control. They wouldn't break him easily.
His resolve faltered the moment the doors shimmered open and the guards pushed him into this dimly lit room. Hank stumbled a bit, unable to catch his balance with his hands cuffed behind him. He looked around, the hair on the back of his neck rising at the sight of the equipment he could make out – a rack along the wall held restraints, paddles, whips, and strips of leather; there were hooks attached to the ceiling, a wooden structure in the shape of an X in the corner.
From the shadows, a woman stepped forward, two young men on either side of her, one wore a collar, the other didn't. Hank frowned, what did it say about him that a collar was now the first thing he looked for? She wore a tight leather bodysuit that didn't show a lick of skin, yet somehow left nothing to the imagination. Hank couldn't imagine crossing her, from the stern expression her face to the power in her stance and the whip in her hand.
"Mistress Albaney I presume?" Hank said.
"I suppose they don't train subs to remain silent where you come from," he could hear the distain in her voice.
"Where I come from I'm not a sub," Hank retorted.
"You're not there anymore," the boy to her right snapped. "Here you will obey our rules."
"You people sure are fond of obedience."
Albaney ignored him, she just nodded to the kid, as if giving him permission. "Remember, Lucas, this is punishment."
Right, he couldn't forget that, Hank thought. There were only three of them, he thought, backing up, his heart thumping hard. But if he resisted…who knew what else they'd do to him if he put up a fight? Who knew what they'd do to Karl?
"Zac," Lucas commanded the boy in the collar. "Strip him."
Zac turned wide eyes at the other boy. "Sir? His hands…?"
"Cut the clothes off. He won't be needing them," Lucas's voice held just the trace of a tremble, like this was the first time he had ever done this.
Huh, training, Hank thought. Perhaps subs weren't the only ones who needed training.
Lucas handed the other boy a wicked sharp-looking knife. Zac approached him carefully, as if afraid Hank would kick. "Go ahead, kid," he said gently. The boy couldn't be any older than sixteen or so. The least Hank could do was make this easy on him, and then he wondered if maybe that wasn't the point, using the innocence of this teen to keep Hank from lashing out.
Zac used the knife first, cutting down the sleeves of Hank's uniform, until the top fell to the floor in tatters, leaving only his black t-shirt behind. At the frown the sight of that engendered, Hank chuckled. "I guess I'm wearing too many clothes." Zac himself only wore a pair of loose fitting pants, his chest bare except for a single ring in one nipple.
A tiny smile appeared on Zac's face, but his didn't respond to the jibe. After slicing up the t-shirt, Zac dropped the knife, then slid to his knees, unbuckling Hank's pants. At least those would be salvageable after this whole thing, whatever they meant to do to him. It suddenly occurred to him that they might make him do something to Zac, and Hank stilled. He stole a glance at the two doms in the shadows, more sinister for their silence.
"Quickly, Zac, this isn't a performance," Albaney snapped.
"Yes, mistress," Zac said. He seemed to be having trouble with Hank's boots.
"You have to untie them first," Hank whispered, holding one foot up to help.
And then everything was off, and he stood there, swinging in the breeze, but of course, there was no breeze. The air felt stale and stiff, pressing down on him.
"Zac, bring me the rope," Lucas commanded, finally drawing close to Hank. He circled around him, and Hank stood at attention, the best he could anyway. He would not look down, he would not back away, or show any sign that this was affecting him whatsoever.
The cuff on one of his wrists came loose and Hank pulled his hands apart, rubbing at the reddened skin quickly, while he still could. Good thing too, because then Albaney was in front of him, grasping his wrists in her hands, long, sure fingers wrapped around the fragile bones. She forced his hands up with more strength than he expected, her unblinking gaze focused directly on him. Hank could not look away.
He realized her motion was all the more powerful because she did not speak. Hank saw condemnation in her eyes and he felt ashamed, with nothing more than a glance.
"The rope," she commanded, taking it from Zac who appeared at her side.
Hank knew a sailor once who could tie knots like this, the way she wrapped the soft braided rope around his wrists and made it do her bidding. He didn't even try to pull his arms apart, Hank knew nothing short of the sharp knife Zac had dropped would make work of these knots. To his surprise, she tossed the other end of the rope up overhead and Hank looked up, startled to find a hook directly overhead. "Oh fuck," he said, as Lucas caught the other end of the rope and pulled.
His arms were forced up overhead, and just when he thought that would be all, Lucas kept pulling, until Hank was forced up on his tiptoes. Only then was the rope secured somewhere out of sight. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This could only affect him as much as he let it.
When he opened them again, Lucas stood in front of him, holding some concoction of leather and metal. "So you remember this is punishment and not pleasure," Albaney said, but let Lucas do the deed, put the strange contraption over Hank's dick and balls.
"What the hell is that?" Hank snapped, looking down on himself, trying not to think about the strain in his arms and legs, never mind the cold metal around his cock.
"It's a cage," Zac offered in a quiet voice from the corner of the room where he remained.
Metal loops surrounded his prick, all attached to a leather strap that buckled just under his balls. With that contraption on, there would be no way for him to get hard, not even if he wanted to. Of course, Hank couldn't imagine getting hard under these circumstances. "Whatever floats your boat," he said.
"Zac," Albaney held out her hand.
What next? Hank thought warily, wondering what else they were going to bond or bind to his body. He saw the rubber ball two seconds before it was shoved into his mouth and secured around his head. He bit down on it, growling deep in his throat.
She slapped him across the face and he recoiled, surprised at the sudden violence. "You are not in control here, slut. You are to be the instrument of punishment."
Her words struck him oddly, but Hank couldn't ask. He could only hang there and wait for whatever torment they devised next. All he had to do was hang on; they couldn't keep this up all night, surely. Although a tiny part of his mind doubted that as truth.
He heard the sound of the elevator doors opening and then a gasp echoed through the room. Hank turned his head as best as he could and saw the guards leading Karl in, one holding him by each arm. "No," he tried to say against the gag, but of course nothing audible came out. How was he supposed to protect Karl while trussed up like a goddamn hunk of beef?
They strapped Johnson down to a chair Zac brought and positioned right in front of Hank. He met Karl's eyes and shook his head, but he couldn't speak to him, couldn't tell Johnson that this wasn't his fault. Of course, it actually was Karl's fault, but hell, Hank wouldn't say that.
"This is your punishment for your actions," Albaney bent close to Karl, speaking directly in his ear, but loud enough for everyone to hear. "For each step you took from the Academy, your friend will take a blow. His body will bear the consequence of your mistake."
"Don't do this, please," Karl pulled at his bonds, his eyes wide and panicking, tears already forming there. "Punish me, I'm the one who ran. He only came after me."
"Silly sub, this IS your punishment," she said with a wicked smile. For a moment she almost looked attractive, something beautiful in her expression, in the pride she took in her work and Hank felt sick.
"Lucas, start with crop." She stepped away and commanded her little protégé.
The kid took something long and slim from the tools on the rack, something that tiny shouldn't hurt, right? Hank tried to tell himself that right up until the crop came down smack against his ass. He reacted to the blow, and nearly lost his footing, the ropes holding him up swayed. It only made it worse for the next one, because he tried not to move, and Hank just couldn't help it.
He bit down on the gag at the sting in his backside and for a moment felt grateful for it. This way he couldn't scream, could not frighten Karl with his cries. Karl already looked stricken, his face pale like the skin of a starship, jaw trembling with the force of his attempts to hold in his sobs.
Hank lost track of time. At first he tried to count the strokes, tried to imagine how many steps they had taken in their run earlier today, to guess how much longer he had to endure the pounding against his skin. Then Lucas had given over the privilege of beating Hank to his mentor and Albaney showed him what pain meant.
She had a deft hand, and he knew she landed every blow on purpose, with the crop, then a wooden paddle, and finally a striped whip that wrapped around his chest and raised fine welts under his nipples. Hank poured out his frustration in the gag, biting down harder and yelling when he could, his toes grasping the cold floor for purchase, but with each strike, it became harder to try to stand upright, until finally he collapsed, sinking till all his full weight rested on his arms.
Albaney stopped, the whip clattered to the floor. She moved until she faced Hank, tilting his chin up with one finger. With her free hand she swiped at his cheek, and only then did Hank realize the wetness on his face had been tears – of frustration, rage, pain, who knew? Then she turned back to Karl, who still tugged at his bonds, unable to sit still; he had flinched for every single blow. Albaney held her finger to his lips as she said, "Taste his tears. See what you have wrought?"
Oh, Karl, he thought. No, no, no.
Hank lost track of time after that, so caught up in his own pain he couldn't remember when they led Karl out of the room. His entire body ached, every movement sent pain shuddering all along his nerves and he could not keep still no matter how he tried. Strong hands grasped onto him as the ropes were loosened.
"Careful, he won't be able to stand after that."
True to the speaker's words, Hank nearly crumpled to the floor, his feet cramping as he tried to stand under his own power. But he didn't fall; they didn't let him.
"I've got him," a voice said, and Hank thought it was Ian. How could it be him, though? He had abandoned Hank in the Medical wing.
Hank didn't open his eyes to check, it was too much work, and everything just felt so heavy. He may have passed out, this time.
When he opened his eyes again, Hank discovered he was out of that dark room, laid out on his belly on a soft cushiony bed. The sub from medical, the healer girl knelt by his side, running that strange device up and down his back. "Go back to sleep," she said, "You need your rest."
"You did so well," another voice whispered in his ear, and Hank was almost sure he imagined it as he drifted off to true sleep.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Hank woke slowly, curled around a pillow and caught under more blankets than he usually used. His body ached, but more like the soreness after a good workout, rather than what he had endured last night. Whatever medical advances these people had, this was amazing, he didn't know of anything that could ease bruising so quickly. Something felt loose within him, and Hank couldn't explain it.
He felt almost as if he were liberated, as if they had done the worst and Hank had survived. It wasn't the worst by a long shot, Hank knew, but waking up on the other side of morning intact made him want to shout. Something had happened to him, while he hung there, bound and at the mercy of others. Albaney herself had told him he was not in control, and by the end of the night, he had accepted it, given in to everything she had demanded. And for some reason, that made Hank feel free.
"Are you awake yet?" a familiar voice said from behind him.
Hank yelped and turned around, holding the covers up to his chest. Ian sat on the edge of his bed – they hadn't brought him back to his quarters with Karl, this was someplace else entirely, once again another opulent room that seemed too bright with all the colors.
Without the guard uniform, Ian looked different. The soft green fabric clung to his defined shoulders and broad chest, showing off a muscular if fine-boned body. His eyes seemed to smolder, so dark in contrast to the brightness of his clothing, yet perfectly round in the angular face. He might have been the type of guy Hank would go for, if they had met in a Planetside bar between missions, back when he was still picking up guys for kicks.
"Were you watching me sleep?" Hank said, aware of his nudity under nothing more than the abstractly patterned comforter. Fuck it, he thought, Ian had probably seen worse. He tossed off the covers and moved to stand in front of the full-length mirror on the other side of the room, twisting to see if any of the marks remained on his body.
"I merely came to wake you. You've missed midmorning meal. I brought you some food." Ian kicked at the cart at the end of the bed, but his eyes never left Hank's body, watching intently as Hank contorted in an attempt to view all of his back.
"I don't get it," Hank said finally, unable to see a single bruise. Even the welts on his chest, which he damn well remembered happening, were gone. "What was the point of punishing me if you were just going to heal it all away?"
"You weren't the one being punished," Ian said.
"Could have fooled me," Hank snorted. But he knew exactly what Ian meant. Watching Hank being beaten was far worse to Karl than if they had done it to Karl himself. "Is Karl okay?" He asked finally, moving back to the bed and pulling the covers over his lap. He was done with the exhibitionist stuff.
Ian didn't answer at first, he merely handed Hank a small plate of pastries. "Your friend is broken," he said at last. "After your words at the Healers' I requested a soul healer be sent to see him."
"A soul healer? That means what exactly?" Hank asked. His stomach rumbled and he bit into one of the treats on the plate. Rich flavor exploded on his tongue, and he barely refrained from moaning at the taste.
"Exactly as it sounds. Someone who can heal the wounds of his heart."
"And you still felt compelled to punish him?" Even after knowing he was so broken? Hank felt the anger in his belly, souring the food he had just eaten.
"I did not order the punishment," Ian snapped. "And yes, he had to learn that his actions have consequences and they affect others beside himself. That is one of our core values."
"Now you sound like one of the trainers," Hank said.
Ian looked at his hands, his fingers unable to be still as he fidgeted uncomfortably. "I requested a leave from the guard, to direct your training. If that is acceptable to you?"
Hank remembered what it had felt like, to be taken off to some unknown punishment, alone, without this man by his side. For better or worse, they had formed some kind of bond, and yes, it would be easier to accept his instruction than from someone unknown. And Ian knew exactly who and what he was, Hank didn't have to explain about the whole being from outer space thing.
"Um, yeah, sure, that's fine." Yeah, great cover there, Major, he thought to himself, wanting to slap his own forehead.
Ian finally looked up and gave him a slow smile, his face changing from the stern guard to the man Hank had befriended on the tram. "You did brilliantly last night, you know. No one would guess you'd never been trained."
"How did you…?" Hank started, but the memory returned, albeit slowly. After they had carried Karl in, he had been all Hank could focus on. But Ian had been there for the entire punishment, and he had helped carry Hank to this room. "You were there."
"Yes." Ian said.
Hank didn't know how he felt about that. It unsettled him, but he couldn't explain why. Ian had not been the only witness to what had been done to him. He cleared his throat and changed the subject. "Do you have any of that drink from yesterday? The warm tea stuff?"
Ian let him do it, Hank could tell as the other man gave him a tiny smile and nod before producing a carafe from the cart. Hank accepted a cup gratefully and got down to the business of eating.
"I also brought you a set of clothing."
"Beyond repair, I'm afraid. I'm not sorry though, black doesn't suit you at all."
"What, are you the fashion police?" Hank shook his head at the blank look on the other man's face. "Never mind. My uniform would have been just fine if someone hadn't sliced through it."
Ian laughed. He pulled a pile of fabric from under the cart, a pair of loose pants and tunic like most of the students wore, but in the color of dark blue with gold embroidered along the edges. "I thought the blue would suit you. I picked the gold to match the flecks in your hair."
Hank ran his hand through his hair, suddenly self-conscious. What the hell was Ian going on about, talking about gold flecks? It wasn't as if he were the only blond on this entire planet. "Uh, thanks. Do I have time to shower? Any pressing appointments?"
"I would like to take you to a class with some older students today. Since you missed most of the morning, we do have to hurry to make it before the fitness break."
"Right, I'll just shower after that then," Hank pulled on the clothing. The pants hung low around his waist, despite how hard he tried to draw them up, and the tunic crossed into a v over his chest, leaving most of his skin bare. He was glad he was naturally hairless – result of aforementioned blond hair, which also meant he couldn't grow a full beard if he tried. He tugged at the collar around his neck, yes still there, which seemed to be showed off by the color and cut of the shirt.
"Perfect," Ian said.
"Right." Hank played with his hair again, knowing his was mussing it hopelessly. "Afterwards…can I see Karl?"
Ian hesitated at the door. He half-turned and answered, "Only if the soul healer deems he won't be harmed by it. Otherwise, these are your quarters now."
Hank tilted his head towards the rest of the room. "I've gone up in the world."
"Surviving Albaney's whip will do that to a sub."
Before Hank could parse that statement, Ian had opened the door and strode out into the hall and he had to run to catch up.
The kids in this class were older, but not by much. Hank towered over the room of 15 and 16 year olds, and instead of being an interested observer, this time he was expected to participate. Ian stood in the corner of the room, arms crossed over his chest, one leg against the wall and just watched. Hank couldn't get the feeling of Ian's gaze off of him and he was sure that was the reason he kept fucking up.
Then again, there was a difference in the flexibility of a bunch of teenagers and a 36-year-old man. Hank could do most of the basic positions easily enough, although the instructor clucked her tongue at his posture while kneeling, but this last one had him tumbling off to the side. His body couldn't do it; he couldn't bend in half and place his hands on the floor. Hank didn't like the idea of Ian back there looking at his ass either.
Before the instructor could make it to the back of the room to correct him, Ian appeared at Hank's side. "Like this," he said, placing his hand on Hank's back after he straightened back to standing. (not present standing, just standing. Damn it, Hank knew he was never going to remember all the new vocab they kept throwing at him.)
Ian held him steady as Hank slowly lowered his torso and whispered in a low voice, "Grasp your ankles, or whatever you can reach. It's an acceptable variation."
"For men my age?" Hank hissed back, slightly annoyed that he could now hold the position after Ian's advice.
"A little seasoning is better than bland obedience," Ian said, and then slipped away, leaving Hank trapped in his position and more confused than ever.
"Ok, I am more sore now than when I woke up this morning. Something is wrong here," Hank complained over the sound of Ian's laughter.
They had gone to the mess after Hank's little attempt at class participation. Well, they probably called it the cafeteria or 'Food Place' or something else appropriately descriptive. The whole set up reminded Hank more of Basic than he was completely comfortable with. The instructors – trainers – were like drill sergeants to these kids, who seemed to have just embraced their lot in life from childhood. Hank wondered what it would have been like growing up with boot camp and shuddered at the very idea.
He poked at the food on his tray, grateful that he didn't have to just gobble it up and rush out to his next task, like he would have to if Hank were actually back at basic training. Even so, this lunch didn't look nearly as appetizing as breakfast had, although he suspected it had something to do with his own distaste for carrots. Stars, come all the way to an alien world, get abducted, whipped and it's the carrots that trip him up?
"You'll never be as good as they are," Ian was saying. "You've started training too late."
"Yeah, there's nothing like early indoctrination," Hank pushed the carrots away from the rest of his meal. "But how do you select them? How do you know who is a sub and who isn't?" And why me and Karl?
Ian looked at him, surprised. "You don't know?"
"Never got around to answering me yesterday," he said. "Remember, you can't count on me knowing what you know."
The other man nodded, putting down his own fork. "Our destiny is determined at birth. Our very genes dictate our nature – sub or dom."
"And you can tell this how?" Hank pictured obscure DNA tests with nucleotides encoded and deciphered by healers in white robes.
Ian tapped the side of his head. "The eyes reveal the soul. Those with blue eyes are born subs."
"Holy fuck," Hank sat down. "You mean I got grabbed cause I got blue eyes?" They didn't put situations like this in the manual. He tried to recall the eye color of the rest of the team, but it wasn't something he knew about his colleagues. Now, ask him who was the better shot, or who he'd want working on the engine of the shuttle and Hank had answers.
"This is different where you come from."
"Hell yeah," Hank shook his head. "Not everyone does this sub/dom stuff. I know it happens, in clubs and stuff, but not like you guys."
"I don't understand," Ian said. "You can choose to live as we do, but you don't?"
Ok, how to explain kinks and fetishes to a guy where those things were the norm. "Well, basically. It's more complicated than that, really."
"I want to know more about where you come from," Ian said, surprising him. "You are a warrior, correct?"
"A soldier," Hank supplied. "I noticed you don't have subs in the guard."
"It isn't permitted." Ian shook his head.
So to Ian, Hank was something Ian had never seen before. Perhaps that explained the interest. "I joined up when I was eighteen. I was born on this backwater little planet called Biloxi, and I loved it. We were in the middle of war and I wanted to help. So I joined what we call Planetside or the Ground Corps. I didn't want to go out into space and get shot at in a tin can. I wanted to see my enemy."
"Yet here you are?"
"Well, yeah, nobody told me back then that Planetside didn't necessarily mean my own planet. And then I ended up taking over my platoon when my commanding officer was killed and the guy above him put me in for officer training." Hank made a gesture with his hand. "One thing leads to another and they need a guy with Ground experience for the Reclamation Project. Here I am."
"You realize very little of that made sense to me," Ian said with a sparkle in his eyes.
Hank laughed. Finally, he was able to get some of his own back.
After lunch Hank and Ian joined in with the fitness break, something Hank got the impression that every citizen in Harmony did as a matter of course. These people put so much emphasis on their bodies – perfect postures, revealing clothing – that an obsession with physical fitness seemed only proper. Hank thought he was in good shape, but Ian wiped the floor with him when they tried sparring.
"Too much fucking time on a starship," Hank muttered, wiping sweat out of his eyes. He'd kept up with his required exercises, but it just wasn't the same under the artificial gravity. Well, he figured he might as well make the most of this while he could and Hank threw himself into the training, going for a run with Ian after the sparring, on an indoor track that spanned the second floor of the gym.
Afterwards Ian took him to the public baths – although why the hell did they need public baths when each room had its own freakin' Jacuzzi tub Hank didn't know. And then he saw the hooks and chains set into the fine tile walls, the convenient surfaces and benches just perfect for bending someone over for a quickie, and the collection of lube along with the soaps and shampoos.
Hank sluiced the sweat off of his skin post haste, and then high tailed it out of the main bathing room, not stopping for a soak in the heated waters beyond the antechamber. With the training collar on he didn't know if he were up for grabs or not, and Hank wasn't about to find out.
Ian followed – probably making sure Hank didn't bolt again – with a puzzled look on his face. Hank didn't explain, just dressed quickly in the dark blue clothing Ian had picked out for him. "Is there any way I can talk to Karl?"
"I'll contact the soul healer. It will be her decision."
An hour later, Hank stood outside the door to his old stomping grounds, the cell the guards had chucked him into three days ago. "It's probably a good idea if you wait out here," he said.
Ian only nodded and pressed his palm to the wall, and the door rippled open.
Maybe I should have knocked first, Hank thought as he stepped inside. He saw Johnson curled up on his bed, the covers drawn up to his neck. "Karl?"
Johnson sat up and Hank noticed two things – Karl no longer wore a white collar, but his arm was shackled, joined to a long stretch of chain that connected with the foot of the bed. "Going native, Major?"
"Well, my uniform was kind of shredded," Hank threw out flippantly only to regret his words at Johnson's flinch. "Karl, it's ok, it wasn't your fault."
"No, it's the bastards who fucking tortured you. I know that." Karl pushed himself off of the bed and walked towards their window, not looking at Hank once. The chain skittered across the floor with a harsh clang and Hank saw it lengthen to allow Karl to reach the window. Perhaps it only shortened if Karl did something threatening?
"Sure, try saying that again when you can look me in the eye." Hank strode across the room and nearly grasped Karl's shoulder, but he thought better of it. The last thing Karl probably wanted was to be touched right now. "Why did you run, Karl? We had no way of getting back to the ship or even contacting Morgan. I know you're not military, but seriously…"
"Major….Hank," Johnson took a deep breath. He reached out and flicked the force field in the square window, but it produced no sound. "I know I haven't been behaving very well."
Hank squelched his sarcastic response to that. He merely stepped back and let Karl walk back to the bed, dropping down to sit on the edge and propping his face in his hands.
"I was a slave," Karl said, so softly Hank barely heard him.
Hank sank down on the opposite bed. "What?"
"It's one of the first things the Confed does when it attempts total take over of a planet – enslaves the children. If the citizens are good enough, they may get them back. I was seven years old when I was taken."
"Fuck, Karl," but the word wasn't strong enough, could never convey the horror Hank felt at those words. "How'd you…"
"The UP captured the slave ship I was being transported on. They were taking us to market in the Core. I was damn lucky we got boarded when we did." Karl waited a beat before adding, "I was sixteen."
Nearly ten years, Hank thought, Karl had spent nearly ten years being someone's property. The fact that he'd survived and then thrived in the UP was a miracle, Hank couldn't conceive of that kind of horror, after living with the pale shadow of it for the past three days. "I'm sorry, man," he said, not knowing what else to say.
Karl shrugged. "Apparently I've never actually dealt with it, at least that's what the soul healer says."
"So she's actually helping?" Hank asked hopefully.
"It would help if we got off this damned planet," Karl snapped. "I don't need their platitudes and their condescending attitudes."
That would be a 'no' then, Hank thought to himself. "The kids here, Karl, they go back to their parents at night. It's not the same thing."
"Oh certainly not. The collars, the whipping, the chains, not the same fucking thing at all." Johnson's voice remained level the entire time, which only freaked Hank out even more.
He knew Karl could never see past the trappings of slavery, and hell, for all Hank knew, Karl was right. But he thought of the people he had met these past two days, the trainer of the little ones who wore her collar so proudly, the healer with the gentle touch, and his fellow students in training. None of them were cowed or beaten into submission. Not yet anyway.
Besides, Hank had a mission here. He couldn't protect Karl from himself, but he could learn all he could about this strange city, so when Morgan finally got here, Hank would be able to report. Giving in to the impulse, he touched Karl's hand gently, relieved when the other man remained still. "Hang in there. Morgan is coming. You know he is. He'd never leave a man behind."
He got up to leave and heard the clatter of the chain as Karl stood. "Where are you going?"
Oh, right. Hank half-turned back. "They changed my sleeping arrangements."
"They're separating us."
"What the hell did you expect, Karl?"
"And you're just going along with this? Just strolling about like you're enjoying the attention?"
Hank stiffened. "I know you're upset, Karl. And that's why I'm not going to answer you just now." He put his palm against the wall where he knew the doorway hid and at his touch, it rippled opened. Hank walked out of the room, leaving Karl behind.
The next morning Hank made sure to shower and dress long before Ian got there. He didn't really want to take another trip to the public baths, the thought of going back there, no matter how luxurious it all was made him twitch and tug at his collar. The dang thing marked him like a piece of meat in there.
When Ian finally did arrive, he just walked in to Hank's room like he owned the place. Of course, Hank was the prisoner here. He just tended to forget since most of the time Ian treated him like a rambunctious prep school student rather than the enemy. This time Ian strode in and snapped out, "Present kneeling."
"Oh for crying out loud," Hank griped, but moved smoothly into the pose he had learned yesterday, dropping to his knees and clasping his hands behind his neck, leaving his body completely exposed, if he had been naked and not wearing another of those brightly patterned suits he had found in the drawers of the fancy dresser in this room. "For fuck's sake, what's next, are you going to check the corners on my bed sheets too? I thought I was done with this shit when I finished boot camp."
Of course, if Ian did check the sheets, he'd find Hank had made the bed to perfection.
Hank's mouth snapped closed with a click when Ian touched his fingertip to Hank's chin, causing Hank to look up, instead of being properly lowered. Ian's eyes burned, and Hank found himself swallowing hard at the intensity there. Like everyone else on this planet, Ian had his own beauty, his chiseled features, his golden skin, but nothing else like the boldness in those dark eyes. Hank felt himself stiffen in his pants in response and had to fight to keep from shifting in his pose.
"Are you gonna run me through my paces?" Hank asked, wincing at how rough his voice sounded.
"You're wearing far too many clothes for that," Ian rasped back. He pulled away, leaving Hank kneeling there as he turned away, rolling his shoulders as if they felt tense. "I just wanted to make sure that you remembered."
"Not likely to forget. Can I get up now?"
"Yes, of course." Ian turned around; the intense look no longer in his eyes. "Today is a rest day for the Schola, so there are no classes."
"Nothing for me to crash then," Hank said. "So what's on the agenda?"
"I thought we'd go for a walk."
"A walk?" Hank repeated. "No kinky orgies?"
Ian crossed his arms. "We can try one of those later, if you wish."
Hank had no idea if he were joking or not.
So that was how they found themselves a little while later, walking along a small cobblestone street, a few clicks out from the Academy. Hank pulled on the leash attached to the basket that held the picnic Ian had packed, it hovered a meter or so in the air behind him. He had balked at first when Ian ordered him to take charge of it, bristling at the insinuation of "You're the sub, you do the grunt work," but once Ian had grinned and made the damn thing float, Hank got that he was on the tail end of some common 328 joke.
Most of the kids were apparently going home for the day of rest, whatever it was. Hank wasn't sure if they had regular weekends here, or if this was some sort of break. Ian said something about preparing before the Choosing, but never explained what the hell the Choosing was. The streets around the tall Schola tower were filled with groups of them, still clustered together and laughing, like any group of students out on leave.
Here the city grew quieter, the lofty towers making way for tall houses surrounded by gardens that crept up alongside the hills behind each home. Though the floor looked like stone, just like the walls on either side of the street, it didn't feel like stone under his sandaled feet. For once Hank didn't miss his boots, glad to air out his feet in the warm weather, although the heat never became oppressive, and a calm breeze darted down.
He saw a few students from the Schola heading into some of the houses, some greeted at the gate by others, he assumed their families. Other than that, no others thronged this narrow road, and Hank was almost disappointed not to see any of the disturbing sights of his first walk through the city, no subs being whipped, no one up for sale on a stage.
"Here." Ian called a halt before a wrought iron gate, curved at the top with a symbol inset into the pattern. He touched it, and instead of creaking open, as Hank expected, the gate shimmered away into nothingness, letting them pass.
Once beyond, they were surrounded by greenery. Hank followed Ian up a set of stairs cut into the earth, part of a path purposely driven through the heart of the garden. A sweet scent of flowers touched his nose, bright and alive, but never cloying. Hank spotted the culprit, a bush with purple buds that looked something like roses. Each tree seemed set to give the perfect amount of shade, all of it coming together in precise symmetry.
"This garden is freakin' amazing," Hank said with a whistle, catching sight of a bush trimmed in the shape of a dog.
"Why thank you, I do try."
Hank whirled around at the voice that intruded. The man who spoke stood off to the side of the path, shielded from view by a leafy branch. He stepped forward, and Hank's eyes flew to his neck, noting the black leather collar there. The newcomer stood tall, very tall, with salt and pepper hair and a half beard, the first sub Hank had ever seen with facial hair. He lacked the prettiness of most of the men Hank had met so far, with a crooked nose and angles instead of curves, he looked older and more polished, his imperfections making him all the more attractive.
"Hello, Father," Ian said with a grin, and Hank whirled around, moving so fast he nearly gave himself whiplash.
"He's your father?" he asked.
Ian shrugged, pushing past him to give his dad a pounding half-hug. With a second glance, Hank could see those angles in Ian's face, smoothed by youth and genetics. "Why do you sound so surprised?"
"Because he's…" He was a sub, and really, Hank needed to re-evaluate that statement before he let it out. He had no clue about how families worked here, and he was the last person to judge, Hank barely remembered his own father, lost to the war before Hank was old enough to walk. "Never mind."
Ian flashed him a slight grin and a raised eyebrow, like he just knew Hank would be chewing his ear off later about this. "Father, this is Sub Henry."
Ian's dad got a funny expression on his face, his eyes widening and he turned to stare at his son. "Is he your…?"
"No! No," Ian repeated. "I am aiding in his training. I know," he said to forestall the question even Hank could see in the older man's eyes. "It's unusual, but nothing about this situation is normal."
"You can say that again," Hank muttered.
"Welcome, Sub Henry. I am Liam, sub to Lady Verona."
"Uh, hi, nice to meet you," Hank attempted to mimic the half bow that Liam threw at him. Couldn't these guys shake hands like normal people?
Ian led them over to a bench nestled between some rose bushes and under a willow tree, long boughs gently caressing the dark wood and wrought iron in the light breeze. Between bits of the picnic lunch he had packed, he haltingly told the story of how Hank came to this city.
"Another planet?" Liam said, stroking his beard as he spoke.
"Well, another star system actually, if you want to get technical." Hank polished the shiny apple on his pants. How did they get fresh fruit here? He hadn't seen any orchards or farms.
"There were stories, but I never believed they could actually be true."
"Yeah, I get that a lot."
"But that does not explain why you are in white? And in my son's care?"
Ian stood and dusted off his hands. "Henry has never been trained."
"Hey, I got plenty of training. I'd like to see one of you field strip a laser rifle in under ten." Hank enjoyed the blank looks he received in return, at this point he took what he could get. "But that's because I joined the military. We don't choose people's life paths from birth like you do."
"Your world must be a very confusing place." Liam shook his head.
Hah, like he had reason to talk! Hank thought.
"But you aren't a trainer, Ian."
"Someone had to ensure Henry actually showed up for training."
It was entirely more complicated than that, but Hank let it slide. He didn't want to bring up Karl, or that the man was currently back at the Schola in chains.
Ian shook his head. "I was hoping you could speak to him, answer some questions I can't." He pointed back towards the house. "May I…?"
Liam smiled. "Mistress Natalie is in the study, helping Ewan go over contracts. I'm sure you could add a word or two."
"Ewan is still here?" Ian seemed surprised. "I thought he completed training."
"Yes, eight months ago. He wanted to wait for the Choosing, so he took the yellow and remained home."
"I see." Ian turned to Hank. "I'll be right back. Don't wander off."
Hank snorted. "Where would I go? Especially when there is still so much food to finish off?"
"Stay away from the parfaits!" Ian called as he ducked back down the path, disappearing from view.
Hank eyes Liam awkwardly, what the heck did Ian mean, questions Liam could answer? It wasn't as if he had prepared Hank for this visit, where he could have at least come up with a few in advance.
"So you're the gardener for, uh, Lady Verona?" He hoped the got the name right.
"It is one of my duties. One that I enjoy."
"So you don't," Hank waved his hand, but when Liam only looked at him curiously, knew he had to clarify. "She doesn't…you're not her … uh sex slave?" Oh stars, just shoot him now. This is why he never should be allowed on diplomatic missions.
Liam burst out laughing, which mollified him somewhat. Hank would rather get laughter than outrage at his offensive comments. "You are untutored, boy. I would not have believed it, of a man your age. Of course my duties include those of a sexual nature. I would not have signed the contract otherwise."
Hank supposed he had to get used to people saying things he didn't understand, but damn it, Ian had told him to ask questions. "Contract?" he asked.
"Every sub learns to negotiate as part of their training," Liam seemed to take Hank's ignorance in stride. "No collar is locked without a contract. However, once it is, a sub must abide by those terms. I have been with my mistress most of my adult life. I am content, and very lucky to have found a good match so quickly."
"So you negotiated a contract with her, before you got that," Hank pointed to the black collar.
"This is my second collar," Liam clarified. "We simply renewed the contract when the first twenty year term expired."
"Twenty years?" Hank gasped. He shook his head at that. Sure, he was career military and might look at twenty or thirty years of service if he managed to survive that long, but he renewed his commission in five year bursts. "Aren't there shorter terms?"
"Of course! A contract can be written for a short as a single night. We aren't savages, Sub Henry."
"Please, call me Hank. It's what my friends call me."
The older man smiled, "Then I shall be simply Liam to you."
Hank looked around, sometimes he still felt like he had fallen asleep and was having one whacked out hell of a dream. "If you signed up for twenty years, you must have been darn sure of what you wanted."
"I had a temporary contract before that. I admit I may have gone for the black sooner than most would have deemed wise, but I am content."
"And what about Ian?" Hank asked. "He's your son? But your mistress isn't his mother?" He'd guessed at that, his intuition pinging strongly with the way Ian had asked permission to go inside.
"No. His mother is Guard Elisa. She asked for my services for the Fertility Rite and my mistress agreed. I only asked to be allowed to know my child."
"Yet another contract?" Hank asked. These people seemed to just love their contracts. He made a mental note to mention this to Morgan, if he ever saw the man again. They had some precedent for an agreement here, if he could ever get the Queen to talk to them again.
Voices from along the path had them both looking as Ian emerged from the foliage with a young woman with large brown eyes and dark hair that tumbled down her back in waves. Behind them walked a sub, remarkable for his red-gold hair. Hank thought he was the first redhead he had seen the entire trip.
He stood on instinct, always wanting to greet a new encounter on his feet. Ian came to his side and put one hand on Hank's shoulder, pushing gently, and Hank got the point and kneeled, the brick of the path hard on his knees. "I present the Lady Mistress Natalie. My sister." Ian inclined his head at the young woman, who merely smiled as he spoke. "And Sub Ewan. This is Sub Henry."
"You may rise, Sub Henry," Natalie said. "My brother has told us much about you."
"Well, this is the first I've heard of you," Hank said, rising to his feet, shaking Ian's hand off of his shoulder.
"You did not exaggerate his boldness," she said, with a smirk for Ian.
Ian merely shrugged. "Have you even known me to exaggerate?"
"Mmm, we'll debate that another time," Natalie said. "It will certainly be an interesting Choosing, if we have visitors from the stars present!"
"Only a few days away now, eh, Ewan?" Liam said, bringing the yellow-collared sub into the conversation. Hank was beginning to finally get some of the odd phrasing Liam had used when he spoke of Ewan 'taking the yellow' but what the hell did the yellow collar mean?
The young man tilted his head. "At first it seemed like it would never come. Now it is far too soon."
"You'll be fine. It's a good contract. I just wish you'd consider staying." Natalie reached out and ruffled his copper locks, fondling him as if he were some kind of pet.
Hank made a fist with one hand and stayed silent. If it didn't bother Ewan it was none of his business.
Ewan's eyes narrowed. "I've lived my entire life here. I want something more."
Natalie frowned and pulled away from him, obviously stung by his words. Uh oh, Hank thought, some trouble in paradise there.
"And what if the Choosing reveals you should stay?" Ian asked, breaking the tension between the two.
"Of course I will abide by whatever Harmony decides," Ewan agreed.
Natalie seemed mollified by that. She put her hand on the sub's shoulder. "Come, let's enjoy the weather before going back to work. It was an honor to meet you, Sub Henry. Don't let my brother grow complacent!"
While Hank was trying to figure out what that meant, the lady and her sub vanished into a deeper part of the garden. Liam bowed at Hank. "I am required inside, but I am glad Ian brought you by. If you have any more questions, please call. I'm sure Ian can show you how."
"Sure. Uh, nice meeting you too."
"And you," Liam pulled Ian into another hug. "You need to settle down."
"It's long past time for you to have found a sub. If you are having trouble finding one I can speak to my mistress…"
Hank got a vivid image of his aunt back on Earth telling him the same thing – find someone and settle down. Of course, he doubted the girls she had tried to set him up with were anything like what Liam had in mind for his own son.
"Please, father." A flush rose across Ian's cheeks, the first time Hank had ever seen him embarrassed like that. "I just haven't found the right sub. It isn't something one should approach lightly."
"No," Liam agreed. "No it is not."
And with those cryptic words, Hank and Ian were left alone in the garden. Hank moved to repack their little picnic lunch, figuring they would be heading back to the Schola soon. He felt a light touch on his lower back, Ian's hand pressing there, coming up just under the shirt that had ridden up at Hank's movement, so warm skin pressed against his. Hank stilled, not certain what the intimate touch meant.
"I wanted you to see," Ian said softly. "How we live. How a man like my father is content with his destiny."
"The other kid sure didn't seem content," Hank took a chance and straightened, but Ian didn't remove his fingers, and they remained like that, Hank facing away from the guard, but aware of the warmth at his back.
"He wants to leave home, and Natalie, who is a little bit in love with him, wants him to stay."
"Ok, ok, wait," Hank rubbed his eyes. "Ewan isn't related to either of you?"
Ian chuckled, the laughter warm breath against Hank's ear. When did he get so close? "He is the child of two subs in Natalie's mother's household. He is temporarily under her guardianship until he finds a master of his own. So, no, we are not related to him. He does not deny what he is, but like any sub, must find someone worthy of being owned by."
"You know, just when I'm starting to figure this place out, you always throw a monkey wrench into things." Hank said lightly.
"Whatever that is," Ian said, "I'm about to throw another one at you. The Queen has given me permission to court you."
Hank swallowed thickly. "Is that…is that what it sounds like?"
"What do you think?" Ian's voice rasped against his jaw, his lips leaving a moist trail against Hank's skin.
Hank turned his head, turning towards Ian and parted his lips as they touched Ian's for the first time. The kiss remained gentle, a chaste meeting of mouth to mouth, a tentative lick of Ian's tongue against Hank's lower lip, before he pulled away. Hank liked how Ian looked, his face flushed, lips swollen and shiny and for a moment, he forgot why they couldn't do this and he wanted to push forward, to claim the other man's mouth with his own, to give into the attraction that pulsed between them.
"We can't," Hank said, stepping away, breaking all contact between them.
"No," Ian agreed.
Hank thought that was the end of it right there, the tentative beginning between them shattered without repair. He couldn't have been more wrong.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Hank remembered there was a name for this kinda thing, when you started thinking the people who kept you prisoner weren't half-bad after all. Damned if he could remember exactly what they called it, but he figured they'd tell him afterwards, if he ever got off of this rock. Right after they court-martialed him for wanting to fuck the enemy.
Of course, even if Ian felt the same way, he hadn't said anything since arriving at Hank's door early that morning to take him to class. Hank couldn't shake the feeling that the young guard had something up his sleeve, if he wore sleeves, and that current outfit didn't include them at the moment, the snug black vest showing off Ian's well-toned arms.
"With the Choosing time almost upon us, Mistress Vanessa is holding a session on contracts for the trainees. She said we were welcome to attend," Ian explained as he led the way through the halls to the classroom.
And for once, it actually looked like a classroom: there were no fluffy pillows anywhere, nor any weird pseudo-gym equipment, not even a soft carpet for kneeling. Instead short tables and chairs lined the room, facing a podium in front of a currently blank wall, but at this point, Hank knew any wall also doubled as a computer terminal. Most of the chairs were taken up by trainees, and for once, Hank saw a mix of subs and doms. It reminded him of grade school, how the girls kept to one side of the playground, and the boys the other.
He took a seat in the back, leaving Ian to his normal guard post at the entranceway. The others glanced at him and whispered to each other, but they had been doing that since he'd started showing up in classes. So far none had been bold enough to actually talk to him, unless they'd been told not too. Hank hadn't anticipated that, but it seemed in keeping with the rigid rule structure of this place.
Mistress Vanessa entered shortly after his arrival, and immediately dropped into a lecture about contracts so complex he thought he was back in officer school. Although apparently this wasn't the first time everyone else had seen this stuff, since she referred to everything as a review and all the other trainees nodded their heads at appropriate times. He'd just about given up understanding anything at all when she ordered the class to split into groups of one sub and one dom to work on a fictitious contract.
Ian slid into the empty seat next to him. "I'll be your partner for this."
"Well, I sure hope you know what you're doing," Hank said.
Ian tapped the desk and the surface rippled into a screen with text scrolled across it. "I have negotiated a contract or two." He sat back and pulled at the front of the table, revealed a drawer with several styli, he took one for himself and gave the second to Hank.
"But you don't have a sub now?" Hank twirled the stylus between his fingers.
Ian stilled. "The contracts were short term."
Yeah, that was an awkward line of conversation. Hank tried to change the subject. "So what should I know here?" He tapped the desk. "She talked like everyone had seen these already."
"Well, most contracts are built on a standard template." Ian tapped the screen with his stylus, cycled through different text, different contracts Hank saw. "The main differences are in the time frame specified and the variation of the contract – whether it's for sexual services, domestic services, or even labor. Some cover all three. This is a short term contract."
At the top, underneath spaces for the name of the sub and dom, there was a section denoting collar color. This one had only three colors available: blue, red, and green.
"Red is what that guy at the palace had on." Hank remembered the name, he just refrained from using it.
"You haven't been trained to be red-banded. Not for green either. Those both refer to specializations. Your only option is blue, which is specifically to denote a temporary relationship."
"How temporary is temporary?"
"It can be for as short as one night, up to a period of five years, but no longer than that."
"Five years is one hell of a long time for temporary," Hank grumbled.
Ian's lips twitched as he kept from smiling. Hank remembered those lips on his and he shifted in his seat to avoid looking at the other man. "Let's just say one night for this contract, all right?" Ian marked the appropriate place. "The most important part is the very first option, what you will absolutely not accept from any dom. Those are your hard limits. Older subs will have that information on file, but you don't. And since you're very new, you should use the checklist as opposed to listing them yourself."
That sounded good, since Hank had no idea what to include here. He used the stylus, mimicking the way Ian had moved it to get the page to scroll down, flipping through a listing of sexual acts so descriptive and exhaustive that Hank wondered how anyone had time for anything else. "I don't even know what some of these things are," he gasped, pointing to 'figging'.
"Maybe we'd better start with the second section, things you absolutely must have. We can default everything else to no."
Hank spent the next half hour flipping through the lists, checking every sexual act that he had enjoyed in the past – nipple play? Sure! Anal sex? Oh yeah! Toe-licking? Not so much.
After that he filled in his list of "no way Jose" which included cutting (ew!), other bodily fluid play (double ew!) and body modification (what did that mean anyway?). He put a maybe next to the bondage section. Hank once tied a girlfriend to the bed, back when he was 19 and willing to do stupid shit to prove his manhood, and he remembered how she had gotten off on it, unable to move while he pushed all her buttons just the right way. He squirmed in the wooden chair, maybe he liked the idea too much.
That reminded him to make sure he checked the "no way" box under whipping. He hadn't liked that experience at all.
"Now what's this part?" Hank pointed to the next section of the contract, after he had finally made his way through the pages and pages of the checklist.
"This is for the dom to fill out." Ian reached over with his stylus. "What he expects of his sub, for example being shaven at all times. Also, what he pledges in return, making sure his sub is well taken care of. This is only a temporary contract though, so daily care isn't covered here."
Hank watched, bewildered, as Ian filled in several of the columns, the stylus all but flying across the screen. He guessed Ian had had his preferences figured out long before working on this contract.
"Now what?" Hank asked when Ian sat back.
"You read my terms and let me know if you agree."
Hank leaned over to read. Ian's script had been converted to an easily readable type, so the only trouble he had was wrapping his mind around filling out a contract in order to have a one-night stand. He didn't see anything in the list of demands that bothered him, and the pledges of care afterwards were a nice touch. "Looks good to me."
Ian's hand shot out and covered Hank's where it rested on the table, holding it against the dark wood. His thumb caressed the soft web of skin, sending a shiver down Hank's spine. "Will you?" he whispered, so no one else could hear. Hank had to lean closer to make out the words. "Will you submit to me tonight?"
"I," Hank started, but he didn't know what to say. His body really wanted him to say yes, his dick strained against the fabric of his pants and his shirt wasn't long enough to hide it. Ever since Ian started tutoring him, things had gotten complicated between them. In ordinary circumstances, Hank would have just fucked him and got it out of their systems. Here, everything needed to be filled out in triplicate before you could even get to that stage. "You know this is a horrible idea."
"I only ask for one night."
How often had Ian done this? Hank wondered, remembering how he referenced to being experienced in contracts. There was a darn good reason Ian's father had lectured him about settling down. "Holy shit, you brought me to meet your family. Ian…"
"Just one night," Ian insisted, gazing at Hank with those inscrutable dark eyes.
Fine, Hank mentally threw at his dick, I'll listen to you just this once. "Yes," he said.
Ian handed him the stylus. "Sign the contract."
Hank took the slim pen, then looked back down on the screen. Last chance to back out, he thought, then scrawled his name on the line provided.
The tram stopped its movement; though it was hard enough to tell it had done so, the things moved too smooth to be natural. Hank still marveled that they had let him get on one by himself, but the thing had showed up at the balcony to his little prison room to take him to Ian's residence. When the doors slid open, Hank understood why they weren't afraid of him running, it hovered just outside yet another balcony entrance, this was probably Ian's place. He lived in a tall tower just like the Schola.
Hank stepped foot on the glittering stone, the doors to the tram sliding shut behind him before the thing was off flying over the city again. No way he could back out now, not that he could back out once he had put his name on that damn contract.
"Henry," Ian said, stepping out from behind the set of paneled glass doors that separated the balcony from the rest of his place. He wore a long blue robe that shimmered as he moved.
"You know," Hank said, "My friends call me Hank." Weird that a lover-to-be was not calling him by his nickname.
Ian made a face at that. "Hank. I don't like how it rolls off of the tongue. But Henry," and here he leaned forward, his words a whisper against Hank's cheek. "That has potential. Henry."
Hank shivered. He never thought he would get off on someone saying his real name, but something in the way Ian spoke, the reverence in his voice just made the word seem to come alive. "Ok, sure. What do I call you?"
"For tonight?" Ian stepped back and threw him a grin. "Tonight it's 'Master' or 'sir.'"
That should not have gone immediately to his groin like that. Hank didn't think he was the type to get off on being told what to do, he never had before, but for some reason this place was infecting him, making him desire things he had never wanted before. He licked his lips, his mouth was suddenly too dry. "Yeah, ok."
"Come inside." Ian held the door open.
Of course the bedroom was immediately beyond the glass doors. A huge bed took up the center of the room, and it made Hank wonder exactly how many Subs had Ian had back here. The headboard and baseboard had tons of slats and more than a few hooks, showing this bed was more than for sleeping. Otherwise everything else seemed normal, a long silvery green curtain hung over one wall, a dresser and an end table, both in the rich dark wood made up the other furniture in the room, both of them covered with a selection of white candles already lit. Hank could smell the spice coming from them, something like vanilla and licorice.
He took a step inside, and the floor gave against his feet like nothing he had ever felt before, somehow soft like a carpet, yet smooth like a floor. If he had to spend time on his knees, this had to be the perfect surface.
Ian's hands touched his shoulders and he stilled, frozen for a moment as he realized the guard was removing the training collar, which he placed on the tall dresser. "Tonight you'll be wearing the blue," Ian pulled one out from the same place. "Once it goes on, we begin. Do you have any questions?"
Hank stuttered out a laugh. "I think it's a little late for that."
"It's never too late for that," Ian said sternly. "It's not even too late to back out."
"I think you'd punch me if I backed out now."
"No." Ian grinned. "Though I certainly would not be happy at all."
"Then, no, I don't have any questions. And I don't want to back out." Hank decided to man up and take his medicine. He'd signed the contract and if this was the only way he'd get to have Ian, then he'd take it.
"Good," Ian leaned forward and bit gently at Hank's lower lip. Hank opened his mouth and tried to advance the kiss, only for Ian to draw away and cover Hank's lips with his thumb. "Patience. Remember who commands tonight. Strip."
Right, Hank thought, he had to have patience. He wasn't sure how long that was gonna last once his clothes came off, but he'd go with it. Hank shrugged off the borrowed clothes, the ones Ian had picked out for him in the first place, and kicked off the sandals. The floor was just as soft as he imagined, scrunching his toes against the fabric.
"You'll get them back tomorrow." Ian took the clothes and dropped them in a drawer. "Standing, presentation." Ian snapped out the last like an order and Hank dropped into the position, spreading his legs, standing tall, with his hands clasped behind his neck. Ian circled him, running one hand along his flank as if inspecting his property. Hank had to hold back the shiver at that thought, moving at this point would break discipline far too quickly.
"You shaved," Ian said softly, one hand rolling Hank's smooth balls.
Now Hank had to shudder. "You asked me to," he gasped out, closing his eyes against the sensation. His dick strained against his belly, already to full hardness.
Ian nodded. Hank wondered if it wasn't a test, to make sure Hank had read through the particulars of the contract and done his part. It hadn't been easy, having to ask one of the other guards for the proper materials to do the job, although once he got them, the hair had come off smoothly. He just didn't want to the think about the itching he was in store for tomorrow!
"Will you pledge to obey me as your master for as long as this collar circles your neck?" Ian asked, holding out the blue collar he had pulled from his dresser.
"Yes," Hank answered simply.
Ian touched the leather to Hank's lips for a moment, then slipped the collar around Hank's neck.. Hank swallowed, feeling the weight around his throat. Somehow it felt different than the training collar, wider and tighter against his skin.
"There," Ian breathed, running his fingers down Hank's chest, tweaking his nipples before moving down, so slowly, a whisper of touches against his abdomen. Hank struggled to remain still. "I want you to speak your mind tonight. Don't be afraid of saying the wrong thing, as long as you obey."
Those fingers continued to trace their way along Hank's body, a slow exploration, as if Ian lazily inspected his property. Hank could smell Ian, sweat and musk and licorice, and he wanted to bend down and lick the skin revealed at the collar of his robe, to see if Ian tasted as good as his scent. "I want to taste you," he blurted, his mouth running ahead again.
Ian chuckled, his laughter deeper than Hank had ever heard it. One hand moved to circle Hank's dick, just holding the base between thumb and forefinger. "You'll get your chance." He pulled something from the pocket of that robe and slipped it over Hank's cock and balls. The metal was a shock at first, causing Hank to suck in his stomach, and then he groaned as it tightened around the base, replacing Ian's fingers.
"I thought about what I would do to you," Ian whispered, stepping back to unbelt his robe and letting it fall from his shoulders. "If I should make you come again and again, until just the thought of getting hard once more made you beg me to let you go."
Hank couldn't help but groan at that. He didn't doubt it, these people had thought of everything, they must have something to do that to a guy, make him orgasm past his limit. "Holy fuck," he whispered.
"You have a filthy mouth," Ian said. "I like it."
Stars, his verbal diarrhea turned the guy on. Well, Hank thought, there was a first time for everything.
"I decided," Ian said, dropping the robe to the floor, revealing his nude body for the first time. Hank let his eyes wander, looking hungrily at those muscled arms, that ripped abdomen, and that scarlet cock, rising out of a nest of dark golden curls. He wanted to touch it, see if it felt as smooth as it looked, trace his fingers around the head and taste the droplet of pre-come. "To make you wait, until you are dripping and begging for it, until you can't go another moment without coming. And only then will I let you."
"Where were you hiding that dirty mouth?" Hank whispered.
Ian smirked. "This is only the beginning." He moved away and Hank felt the lack, missing Ian's regard on him. He felt alone, standing there, bare with his dick constrained and body just waiting to be used.
All too soon Ian returned from his trek to the dresser, holding what looked like chains in his hands. He clipped the chains to Hank's chest, a clamp on each nipple, the bite of each causing Hank to cry out. "If you were mine for more than a night," Ian said, "I'll pierce your nipples, so you'd always have chains on you." A slim silver chain linked the two clamps together and Ian pulled on it, stretching Hank's nipples till the pain grew nearly unbearable.
"Fuck you're kinky."
Ian attached a third chain from the clamps to the ring around Hank's cock and Hank realized he had jumped the gun with that statement a bit. "I suppose. Ropes were always far more popular, but there is nothing like the feel of cold steel against your body." His hands were on Hank again, following the path of the links, pressing the metal against Hank's body. "Or how they look against your skin. Beautiful."
Hank could feel the flush rising in his cheeks, his body heating up at the sensations Ian created with only his words and the bite of the clamps against Hank's nipples. Ian kept his hands firmly attached to Hank's skin, fingers exploring every little divot and freckle, as if Hank would be incomplete without Ian touching him.
"Of course, they also have another bonus," Ian breathed his words across one nipple, and if that wasn't enough to make Hank moan and squirm, the vibrations that followed were.
"Damn it," Hank swore, hips jerking against the sensation. He nearly lost it, almost moved out of position to place his hands on his aching dick – everything throbbed, his nipples were overloaded with pleasure to the point of pain and his cock twitched.
"Don't move," Ian snapped the order out.
Hank stilled, gritting his teeth against the need, against the tiny machines having their way with his body. He met Ian's eyes and held that gaze just as he held his body still, meeting the challenge.
With a bitten off laugh, Ian snapped his fingers and the vibrations dialed down a bit, still very much present, but now more of a tingle than an overwhelming pulsing sensation. Hank let out a relieved breath, but he didn't shift his position, not even when Ian started to circle him again.
"Hands behind your back," Ian said.
Hank obeyed, crossing his wrists just above his bare buttocks. And oh how weird it was to stand nearly 'at ease' while buck-naked. He shivered when Ian's finger stroked up one arm, the small hairs rising along his neck.
"You never give in," Ian said and he sounded almost awed. "When Mistress Albaney had you under her whip…"
Now that was a mood killer, Hank thought, almost grateful for the reprieve. Things were getting a bit too intense. "What?" he asked.
"She stopped the moment you finally gave in, when you stopped fighting, when you realized you didn't control the situation."
Hank growled in his throat, angry at the realization that his entire ordeal could have ended sooner if he had only known that. Although he doubted his collapse could have occurred any sooner. He was too darn stubborn for his own good.
"Hush," a slap against one ass cheek had him out of the memory. Ian pressed his lips against Hank's neck, just below the collar. "Just accept that I'm the one in control for tonight." He lapped at Hank's skin before biting down and sucking hard, sure to leave a bruise behind, something that would last far longer than one night. Hank closed his eyes and let himself feel, drawn into the sensation of Ian mouthing against his body, the soft tingle of the rings, all he had to do was keep feeling.
"Good boy," Ian whispered, sliding his hands over Hank's wrists. Before Hank could move, Ian had a pair of shackles there, binding Hank but good. "Kneel."
Hank dropped as ordered, and yeah, the floor gave against his knees, soft like foam, cushioning his fall. He could crawl on it for a while before feeling any discomfort.
Ian circled back around and sat on the edge of the bed, one hand stroking his cock with long lazy motions. The lack of foreskin to play with was slightly weird, Hank had heard they did that on the border, but he'd never actually slept with any guy who was cut. With his other hand, Ian gathered a droplet of pre-come and held it to Hank's lips. Hank opened his mouth and sucked the finger in, the taste exploding against his tongue, bitter and something else, like the licorice that flavored everything about Ian.
"Do you want it?" With his words Ian increased the vibrations from the clamps and Hank gasped, arching his back.
"Fuck yeah, wanna suck you down," Hank ground out. Then he wanted to jerk off until his dick was sore, but he didn't see any chance of that happening soon. He shuffled forward on his knees, until he was just between Ian's spread legs.
"Open your mouth." Ian guided his cock between Hank's lips.
The flavor he had gotten only a teasing taste of moments before filled his mouth, his tongue sliding against hot smooth skin. Before he could do more than take care with his teeth, Ian took hold of the back of Hank's hand and pulled him close and then away, controlling the motion, making Hank work his dick the way Ian wanted it. All Hank could do was hold on for the ride, enjoy the gasps that Ian let out, proving he wasn't unaffected by this, not by a long shot.
Ian let out a choked cry, just before pulling Hank off of his prick. His come seared Hank's chest, covering his skin in short arcs. Gasping for breath, he let one hand fall from Hank's hair, running his fingers through the mess, rubbing it into Hank's skin.
"You marking your territory?" Hank asked.
Ian laughed. "Just beginning to. Get on the bed, ass in the air."
The vibrations increased again. "How are you doing that?" Hank pushed himself to his feet, not easy when he wanted to curl into a ball and somehow stop the tingling sensation all down the front of his body.
Ian didn't answer, just waited, leaning back on his hands, his dick spent and curved onto one thigh. He looked totally debauched and Hank gave into the impulse to lean down and plant a kiss on those pouty lips. "I'm going, I'm going," he said as he pulled away, then eased onto the bed, his cheek to the pillow, ass in the air.
Once again, he felt Ian's hands on him, gentle yet firm, touching Hank's body like he owned it, like the way Hank thought long term lovers might touch each other. Ian slid fingers along Hank's crack, tapping against his hole "Have you ever been opened?"
"Opened, fucked, yeah, been there, done that." Hank turned his head as best he could, so he could see Ian, but couldn't make out the expression on his face.
"Mmm, not like this." Ian came back with slick fingers, sliding inside and finding that pleasure spot like he had radar.
Hank hissed and wiggled his ass, his body already overloaded. "C'mon man," he said, "I gotta, you gotta let me…"
"Not yet," a kiss pressed against his lower back and then the fingers were gone.
Before Hank could complain about that, something else probed at his entrance and he stilled. "What the hell is that?"
"Sometime to open you up until I'm ready again," Ian said, pushing the object further inside.
Hank could feel his muscles stretch and give around the thing; it felt huge inside of him. Unlike a cock, this wasn't flesh, it wouldn't bend to Hank's body, he had to make room for it. When Ian turned it on – he'd put a fucking vibrator inside Hank's ass – Hank jolted and nearly smacked his head against the front of the bed.
"God Damnit, fucking son of a bitch!" he bit out, letting out the string of obscenities in an attempt to regain control.
Ian's fingers smoothed a trail down his back. "Easy, you can take it. It won't get any harder than this."
Hank sucked in deep breaths, curling his fingers into fists. The sweet smell of the candles was all but gone, overtaken by the scent of sweat and musk and come. It made him want to grind his dick against the bed, to ride the sheets while that thing spasmed in his ass until he finally fucking came.
He could feel the wave crest, that feeling just before he came, when everything seemed a little too vivid, and the world narrowed to between his legs. But the wave never crashed, Hank was trapped, suspended in a haze, unable to push forward and just fucking come. "Please…" he gasped out.
The vibrator slid out of his ass, and he sighed in relief, only to moan when Ian filled him up again, this time with his cock. Finally, some skin-to-skin action, no more lying there and taking it while Ian just watched. Ian pressed up against Hank's buttocks, their skin slick with sweat, everything almost too slippery as Ian fucked into Hank's ass again and again.
"C'mon, fuck me," Hank moaned against the pillow. "Give it to me, fill my ass, c'mon…"
Ian gasped out something Hank couldn't make out, probably a swear or two as Hank clenched against his cock as best he could. He loved how it felt, sliding in and out, pure flesh, no more of these toys, no more bullshit. Fingers gripped his hips, so hard he knew he'd have bruises in the morning, dark spots in the shape of Ian's hands.
With one final deep thrust, Ian stilled, body flush against Hank's as he came, pouring himself inside Hank's body. Hank moaned in frustration, his dick heavy and swollen between his legs, desperate for some form of release. "Not even a reach around?" he gasped, aware how he well-fucked he sounded, voice all raspy and broken.
Ian pulled out and maneuvered Hank to his side, out of the leg cramping position on his knees, though Hank hadn't noticed until he moved and Ian slid behind him. He twitched as Ian fingered his ass, pushing in and out with the same rhythm as his cock had used moments before.
Lips caressed the shell of his ear. "I'll let you come under one condition."
"What now?" Hank moaned, turning his head.
"Beg your master," Ian hissed.
For a moment, Hank hesitated. He'd almost take the blue balls instead of giving in, just like that, giving over his orgasm and his will to this man. But Ian had asked him for this chance, and Hank had signed the contract in good conscience. And really, was "Master" any different than "Captain" or "Commander"?
Even so he had to wet his lips and draw a deep breath before he could speak. "Please. Master. Make me come. Please!"
Ian's fingers shifted, tapping the ring around Hank's cock, releasing it instantly. He stroked once, maybe twice, and that was all Hank needed. His back arched, he couldn't help the half-strangled shout that came out of his mouth as he came and came and came. His cock pulsed against Ian's grip, shockwaves of pleasure as his world became nothing but his dick.
"Easy," Ian soothed, releasing the shackles on Hank's wrists and running his hands all along Hank's arms, working out the muscle stiffness.
Hank buried his face in the pillow, his eyes watering. "Stars, that was fucking amazing."
Ian chuckled. "You were amazing."
He allowed them both a few moments respite, before Ian declared that they both needed to bathe. Hank grumbled but let himself be manhandled into another one of those ridiculous bathrooms. Ian had a huge shower, large enough to fit more than two people, although Hank really didn't want to know. Pale green tile sparkled in curved patterns, large blocks of it underneath his feet, to tiny mosaics on the wall inside the shower.
Ian touched the wall and warm water fell from the large showerhead in the center of the ceiling. Hank closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall, still drained from that fucking amazing orgasm. He felt gentle hands on him as Ian carefully washed him with slick soap and then rinsed him clean. It should feel weird, he thought, to let something bathe him as if he were a child. But Ian didn't treat him like a child, those probing hands between his legs, the hose carefully inserted to clean him from inside and out was undoubtedly sexual. No, Ian cared for him as a dom cared for his sub.
Hank didn't question the lack of a wet spot when they finally made it back to bed. He dropped onto the mattress, tired down to his bones. Who knew that coming could take so much out of him? He didn't say anything when Ian spooned behind him, too tired to make jokes about being the little spoon, and he doubted the other man would have gotten it anyway.
"Sleep," Ian said, and he didn't have to tell Hank twice.
Later, Hank wasn't sure what woke him. The candles cast the room in a dim glow, the only source of light still too strong for his sleep-addled eyes. He blinked and sat up to find Ian sitting on the edge of the bed, just watching Hank as he slept. "Everything all right?" he asked, voice hushed in the darkness.
Ian nodded. "I want to try something, if you're willing."
"Most of your ideas have worked out so far." Hank grinned at him.
"Mmm," a slow smile spread across Ian's face. "Though you might not be fond of this one. I want to gag you and make you come."
Hank blinked, pushing himself up on his elbows. "I thought you got off on my smart ass comments."
Even in the faint light, Hank could see the blush on Ian's cheeks. Huh, he thought, that's the first time I embarrassed him.
"I want to hear what sounds you make when you can't use your words to hide," Ian said.
Well, fuck, Hank thought he was here to get laid, not psychoanalyzed. "I don't hide," he protested, ignoring Ian's raised eyebrow. "And fine, sure, let's try it."
Ian pulled out a gag from behind him, like the one that had been forced into Hank's mouth during his punishment. "I won't lock it," Ian said, as if aware Hank might have some unpleasant memories at seeing one of those.
Hank took a deep breath, he had already agreed after all. "All right. You'll take it off once I've come?"
"Promise," Ian said.
Hank opened his mouth and let Ian fit the ball between his teeth, before buckling the gag around his head. Ian pushed him back, so Hank lay flat on the bed, taking Hank's wrists in his and pressing them to the headboard. "Hold on. I'll chain you if I must, but I think you're too stubborn to disobey."
Hank snorted at that, prevented from answering from the ball in his mouth. He curled his fingers around the slats of the headboard, testing his grip, it would only tire him out if he held on too tightly at the start.
Ian smiled as he backed away, pulling the covers off of Hank's body, leaving them bunched up at the end of the bed. He slid his hands up Hank's legs, again with that strange compulsion to touch everywhere, to be sure Hank's skin never knew what it was to be without Ian's hands on him.
Hank squirmed under the caress, arching up when Ian tweaked his nipples. The clamps had come off before the shower, but he knew he would be sore and aching for days afterward. Ian's pinch was just this side of painful, but his body reacted to the stimulation and his dick hardened, swelling with each stroke of Ian's hands. He never even had to touch Hank's cock to get it to stand up and say hi.
He had to breathe through his nose with the gag like this, but Hank found he liked being able to bite into something, since he couldn't speak, it was the only way to deal with the plying of his body. Hank sucked in great breaths of air, tinged with the candles' scent but more and more of Ian's scent, his musk and arousal. Hank did that to him, made Ian hard and turned on, with nothing more than his bare body, splayed for Ian to play with.
When Ian moved to lie between Hank's spread legs and licked a strip up Hank's dick, he nearly lost his grip on the headboard. He groaned against the gag, the sound coming from deep within his throat. Gagged like this, Hank couldn't beg for more, he couldn't complain or tease Ian about his technique. He could only moan and whimper and hope Ian gave him more.
Ian didn't disappoint. With one hand around the base of Hank's cock, he slid his lips down the length, from crown to root, taking Hank deep down his throat. Hank would've shouted if he could have, instead some weird strangled noise emerged from his mouth. He gripped the headboard harder, reminding himself not to move, not to give in and just grab at Ian's head and guide the man into the rhythm he wanted.
As if on queue, Ian began to move, bobbing his head up and down, hollowing his cheeks and sucking for all he was worth. Fuck, Hank thought, maybe all the training was worth it, if these guys learned to give blowjobs like that.
Ian's fingers brushed Hank's balls, so sensitive now after being shaved and Hank cried out again, once again swept up in sensation. His moaning and grunting grew louder the closer he got to coming, and he threw his head back, feet digging into the mattress.
"You can come," Ian pulled off long enough to say, then he was right back to licking and sucking and just tormenting Hank's dick.
The whimper emerged almost against Hank's will, sounding like he was in pain as he came, wave after wave into Ian's mouth. No, Hank thought, he would not have made that sound if he hadn't been gagged. He also wouldn't be frantically trying to catch his breath, all his air stolen by another fucking amazing orgasm.
Ian climbed up his body and undid the clasp on the gag, freeing Hank's mouth. Before he could speak, Ian sealed their lips together, sharing Hank's own taste with him. Normally he'd think that was kinda gross, but Ian made it seem hot as all hell.
"Beautiful," Ian was saying underneath his breath as he licked at Hank's mouth, sucking on his lower lip like some kind of tasty candy.
"Lemme," Hank whispered, reaching between Ian's legs, but Ian batted his hand away.
"Already taken care of." Ian ran his fingers through Hank's hair, tracing the line of his jaw.
"Okay," Hank said. It seemed the orgasm had robbed his of words just as deftly as the gag had. He let Ian soothe him back into sleep, curled around each other in the quiet.
This time the daylight streaming through the glass doors woke Hank, who had long grown sensitive to that sort of thing, even when it was the artificial light of a starship behind his eyelids. He grunted and rolled over, to find Ian already awake, his head propped up on one arm, once against just watching Hank.
"Morning," Hank said.
"May I kiss you?" Ian asked, sounding almost shy.
Hank moved to sit up. "You don't have to ask…" Before he finished speaking, the blue collar around his neck slid off and landed on the pillow with a plop. Oh, he suddenly realized their time was up, without the collar he was no longer obligated to obey Ian. And he thought maybe Ian didn't know what to do with that. So Hank leaned over and planted one on him, short and softer than he would have liked, but he didn't know where to go from here.
"What now?" Hank asked as he pulled away. "Do I get the white one back or…?"
"Of course." Ian slid out of the bed, throwing on his robe before pulling open the drawer with the white collar and Hank's clothes. "Your things. You may use the facilities, I'll use the public baths downstairs."
"Ian, you don't have to…" Hank began, but before he finished Ian had already pulled back the curtain hiding the door across from the bed and disappeared through it.
"Damn it!" he said to the empty room.
The tram ride back to the Schola shouldn't have been as awkward as it was, Hank thought, watching Ian out of the corner of his eye. They had formed a friendship, or so Hank had thought, out of the time they had been forced to spend together. Ian seemed to not know how to act around Hank now.
For the first time in days Ian had donned his guard uniform, looking closed off and sullen as he stared out of the window, ignoring Hank so fiercely Hank thought his eyes would cross. Ian had never had a serious relationship, Hank had inferred from Liam's words about his son's need to settle down. Had he spent his entire life with a series of one-night stands, of temporary contracts and blue collars?
Or perhaps Ian had remembered Hank was only here temporarily, a ward of the state until his Commander came to claim him. For the first time he wondered what that would entail, if Morgan would have to fuck him in front of the Queen and everyone. He buried his head in his hands and groaned. Poor Karl.
"Are you unwell?" Ian finally broke.
Hank shook his head. "When we get back I need to see Karl. I haven't spoken to him since we argued…" Stars, Hank felt like an asshole, so taken in by everything Ian had to show him he'd dropped Karl like he didn't matter. And he damned well knew better, Karl was the civilian, Hank should have stuck to him like glue, no matter how pissed off he was.
"He is well," Ian said. "The reports would have said otherwise."
Of course, because all of this was just a job for Ian too. How the hell could he have been so stupid?
"But I will take you to him as soon as we arrive." He ran his fingers down the wall of the tram, and the tram started to descend, instead of heading for a higher floor on the lofty tower. Ian, at least, was a man of his word.
Hank admitted he was confused when Ian led him to the lower levels, where the children were schooled. Although it might have made sense, to keep Karl down here with the kids, who weren't studying anything sexual. He didn't expect to find Karl in the center of a circle of the little brats, eagerly taking notes as they spoke.
Karl looked up at Hank's entrance, eyes widening. "Glad you could join us Major, I was wondering where you had ridden off to."
Hank cleared his throat. "Sorry," he said, unable to muster up his usual witty self.
"Let's take a break," Karl said to his audience. "Isn't it time for a snack?"
Then Hank noticed the woman sitting slightly apart from the group, probably the trainer for this class. "Excellent idea, Sub Karl. Come children."
Hank dropped onto one of the cushions vacated by the kids, wincing as he came into contact with the thing. He still ached everywhere and it just wasn't as satisfying this morning as he thought it would be, not with Ian on the other side of the door to this classroom, instead of inside of it.
"Been busy I see?" Karl used his stylus to tap the side of Hank's neck.
The twinge of pain reminded Hank of the hickey Ian had sucked there last night. "Fuck," he said, slapping his hand over it. "That obvious?"
"Rather," Karl agreed.
Hank noticed the collar Karl now wore was a pale gray instead of the bright white. "What happened with you? What's with the gray?"
Karl tugged at his collar and winced slightly. "It means I'm broken and off the market. It was the soul healer's idea, really."
"How's that working out for you?"
"For the first time I felt like I was talking to someone who actually made sense on this entire fucking planet." Karl took a deep breath. "I may have been a tad judgmental."
Hank barked out a laugh. He found himself rubbing his forehead, unable to look up at Karl.
"You look like you had a rough time of it." Karl lowered his voice. "No one forced you…"
"Stars, no, Karl. I think," and here it hurt to admit, "I may have gotten in over my head."
"Just as long as you haven't signed over your liberty."
"Only temporarily," Hank said under his breath.
"Never mind. What are you doing here?" Hank waved his hand to indicate the room, the cushions, the kids coming back with their snacks.
"The children are telling me stories."
Hank really wanted a strong cup of coffee right about now. His stomach growled and he remembered he had missed breakfast. "Stories?"
"Fairytales specifically. Some of the best ways to get to the heart of what's important in a culture is to find out what stories they tell their children."
Well, that was certainly a better way than Hank had been going about it these past few days. "I'm going to grab one of the snacks. Don't move."
Karl chuckled as Hank made his move, charming the trainer in letting him snag a plateful of cookies and one of the cups of juice. Apparently the kids didn't drink the warm beverage he had gotten used to here on 328. Oh well, this would have to do. He brought everything back, only to find his seat had been claimed and he had to take another pillow around the edge of the circle. Now that he had a chance to look, he recognized some of these kids from their first day here, some of the blue-eyed sub children. That's when he noticed there were brown-eyed kids in this group too. Huh, Karl had managed to get a group of sub and dom kids, Hank had thought they were all schooled separately.
"All right, Allie, I believe you wanted to tell the next one?" Karl said, pointing to a brown-eyed girl who looked to be about twelve.
She leapt to her feet eagerly. "Yes, thank you, Sub Karl." Allie put her hands behind her back and executed a fine little bow to her classmates. "This story is called 'The hidden love.'"
"Once there was a duke who had many subs in his household. It came time for him to choose a Primary, but the duke didn't know who to choose. So he decided to discover which of his subs loved him the most and make that one his Primary. So he asked them all, one by one, 'How much do you love me?'
"Each of his subs came before him to give their answer. One said, 'I love you, my master, as far as the sea stretches across the sky.' Another said, 'Master, I love you more than all of the jewels you have ever given me.'
"And then the duke came to one of his most favorite and cherished subs. When he asked her, 'Dear Jennifar, how much do you love me?' she responded, 'My master, I love you as meat loves salt.'
"The duke grew angry at this answer. He sent the sub away, to be punished by the most feared Master in his district."
Hank leaned forward, curious as to how this would end. The other children also seemed enthralled by this story and he wondered if they had ever heard it before.
"When she was returned to the duke's house, the sub did not go to the healer. She went to the kitchens and asked Harmony to serve the evening supper without any salt. Then she hid in the curtains of the dining hall, still marked by the kiss of the whip.
"When the duke dined that evening, the meat turned to ash in his mouth, having no flavor at all. Only then did he remember the words of his favorite sub and cried out that he had done her wrong.
"She emerged from the curtains and knelt before the duke, her body bearing witness to her ordeal. The other subs gasped in shock at the sight of the blood. The duke begged her forgiveness, and asked her to be his Primary. But it was too late, she had kept herself from the healers for too long, and she died in the arms of the master she loved above all."
Karl had scribbled during the entire recitation and Hank wondered how much of the story he had taken down verbatim. "Thank you Allie," Karl said. "Now, can any of you tell me what that story teaches?"
The kids all had different ideas. One thought it was meant to remind doms of their responsibility towards their subs, to ensure proper care even after punishment. Another said it was a lesson against glib tongues and false praise. Yet another kid said it meant a dom should not be selfish in his love, and must love all subs equally.
Hank thought they all might have a point. He made eye contact with Karl, who smiled at him. Yeah, Karl knew his job damn well. Hank wondered how many stories he collected on that slate, and if any of them would help him with his little problem with Ian. He looked at the doorway, still closed with the guard on the other side. Hank decided to stick with Karl for the rest of the day. Maybe he would learn something.
Hank woke after some weird dreams, an amalgam of some of the weirder stories of yesterday involving a wizard and his subs, all wearing collars made out of snakes. He remembered Ian being in there somewhere, watching Hank, but unable to speak. None of the tales had mentioned what to do about dealing with a former master after a temporary contract. They should work on that, he thought, he was sure he wasn't the only one with that problem.
After spending the day with Karl, Hank had debated going back to their shared quarters with him. Then he found out they had given Karl a much better room of his own. Apparently his work with the soul healer had won him some goodwill. Ian had led Hank back here, to his upgraded bedroom, along with the other guard who had been shadowing Karl all day. They hadn't had a chance to speak and Hank wondered if Ian had done that on purpose.
He had eaten, dressed and ended up circling the room endlessly. Ian usually came before now, taking Hank to whatever lesson he had in store for the day. His lack drove Hank mad wondering at the reason. Was Ian in trouble for sleeping with his charge? Had he decided to hand Hank over to another guard? Maybe Ian thought he had nothing left to learn.
A good few hours later he had an answer, of sorts. The door slid open to reveal Ian, still in his guard uniform, looking flushed and out of breath. He stepped in the room, making eye contact with Hank for the first time since their incredibly awkward morning after.
"Sub Henry," he said, then bit his lip.
"Ian," Hank said, hoping that by calling him by name Ian understood exactly how Hank felt, that they were still friends, if nothing else.
"I wanted to give you something." Ian tugged at a pouch at his waist and pulled out a strip of braided leather dyed a pale blue.
It wasn't a collar, Hank hadn't seen any braided like this before, although he had learned his lessons about assuming. "Ian…" he said.
Ian moved forward and caught his hand around Hank's hair, tilting his head back to kiss him. Hank closed his eyes and just let him, memorizing the taste of Ian. Because this kiss? Felt like goodbye.
"It's a wristlet," Ian said as he stepped away.
Hank opened his eyes and looked at the strip of leather. "I can't. Ian, we can't…We never should have…"
Ian winced at that. "Take it as a remembrance of me, then, for when you go back to your stars."
"All right," Hank agreed. He held out his arm and let Ian tie it around his wrist. Of course, it fit perfectly.
"I don't regret it Hank, I don't regret a moment of it."
Only after Ian left did Hank realized the guard had called him by his nickname. Ian had never done that before. Hank wondered what the hell was going on.
He got his answer a few hours later. Commander Morgan had returned.