Tuesday morning. An ordinary Tuesday morning. The only thing different about today was the new yoga program starting, which was why Nick and Jo were clearing a space in what usually served as a storage room for a private class. (TransFabulous Yoga; not Nick’s idea, but Jo was so excited about it that he couldn’t exactly say no.)

“I hope he does the candle thing, Nick. Did I tell you about the candle thing?”

Only seven thousand times since it happened three weeks ago. “Tell me again,” he said.

“So you get this candle, right? Everyone gets a candle. And you light your candle and, like, think really hard about all the stuff in your head, about all the stuff people put on you about your gender, and all the pressure you put on yourself, you know?”


“And you let it all go into the flame—oh my god, I know this sounds so stupid, but it really was helpful—and when you’re completely empty, you blow out the candle and watch the smoke take all of it away.” Jo glanced up, rueful and hopeful at the same time. “God, I know I keep talking about this but it wasn’t as dumb as it sounds, Nick, I swear.”

Never hurts to have a huge crush on the teacher, either. “I don’t think it sounds dumb, Jo. But watch those candles in here, all right? This carpet was probably treated with some gnarly chemicals back in the seventies, or whenever it was installed.”

“I’ll watch out. Promise.”

Nick couldn’t remember how long she’d been on hormones now, but it was long enough to have small breasts and shift some of the fat stores to her hips. He’d been hooked on personal training since the first time he’d seen how powerful the body’s transformation could be on the mind, and vice versa, but Jo showing up a few years ago—with the body of a skinny skater boy and the mind of a take-no-prisoners teenage girl—had brought it all home again. “Thanks, Jo. I’ll be gone for lunch, so—”

“I remember. Ask Tammi if I need anything. Um, she probably won’t remember me, but if she does, uh, say hi to Lucy for me.”

“Lucy remembers everyone, and I will.”

He left the door propped open and headed back towards his office, but was hailed from the far side of the hall.

“Hey, Mr Coates! Delivery for you!”

Luscious Lucas the delivery boy. Nick turned, already smiling. “How goes it, Lucas?”

“It goes and goes. This one wants a signature.”

“Sure.” Nick signed off and handed the little scanner back. “How’re the twins doing?”

Lucas beamed. “Oh, they’re the best. You want to see?”

“Of course I want to see. What’re they now, six months old?”

“Nine. Little D’s crawling all over the place, but Big B doesn’t want anything to do with crawling, she’s already standing up like she’s gonna start walking any minute.”

Nick made amused sounds at the candid shots, noting how much more relaxed Lucas’s wife looked than she had in the earlier pictures. “Glad to hear everyone’s doing well,” he said.

“Yeah. Yeah, we’re all—we’re all doing well, Mr Coates. Thanks a lot for everything.”

“No problem.” He hadn’t done anything, really, except given Lucas Truman’s business card when he confessed he didn’t think his missus was doing so well with the babies. He had no idea what had come of it. “I’ll see you soon, Lucas.”

Lucas saluted with two fingers and backed out the door.

Just shy of noon. He sat down at his desk to finish up some promotional membership accounts he’d left open, but his phone vibrated before he’d even logged into the computer.

Little pig, little pig, let me in.

Nick opened the back door. “Who you calling little, Mistress?”

“Hey, baby.” Lucy lifted up take-out bags. “How does Indian sound to you?”

He’d cleared two hours, figuring they’d go out somewhere, but Indian in the office was good, too. “Sounds like you bought me lunch.”

“Yeah, well, it ain’t exactly altruistic.” Lucy stepped inside the office, then leaned back, sticking her head out again. “Miss Jo is working some serious mojo with a stud down the hall right now.”

“He’s the new yoga instructor.”

“He’s the new something instructor. Mm.”

“Stop ogling my employees. And Jo says hi, by the way.”

“Tell her I say she should definitely hit that.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so, Luce.”

“Yum. I should have brought enough lunch to share.”

“They have a class.”

“Oh, I bet they do.” Lucy stepped inside for real this time, closing the door behind her. “Baby, you look ragged.”

“Thanks a lot, Luce.”

“Uh huh.” She surrendered the bags and sat, heavily, in his other chair. “I need a favor.”

“A favor? Sure. You want me to turn your little slave into a muscledog? ’Cause I’m up for the challenge, Luce.”

Except she didn’t smile.

“Everything all right?”

“You’re going to say no. And you should, but I just—fuck, Nick. I don’t know where the hell else to go. I want you to train the kid. As a goddamn slave.”

No. And what the hell? But mostly no. No was such a good word. Solid. Two letters, everything built right into those two letters. No way, no how, not a fucking chance. No.

“I’m sorry. I know it’s a shit thing to ask, and I’m doing it anyway.”

“What’s up?” He rolled his chair around so the desk wasn’t between them. “Something’s up, Luce.”

“Nothing. Or—it’s snow-balling. He’s snow-balling. He was all right for a while, I thought I had him licked, I thought he was on his way up. But something changed maybe three months ago. He’d been going out on these FetLife dates, guys who look like Leo, who’ll beat his ass and send him home, but now it’s a few times a week. And he says he’s not having sex with any of them, but first off, I don’t necessarily believe him; and second, if he isn’t, eventually he will be, whether he wants to or not.” She looked up at him. “The kid’s got lousy taste, baby. You remember the bad apple Hugh got all obsessed over back in the day? Eddie’s found at least five of them, just like him.”

Nick nodded. “Dominant and coercive. Just what Eddie doesn’t need.”

“Hey, I can give him that without leaving the house. But these guys? Fuck, Nick. I don’t know. I gotta do something. And Leo is—in stasis. It’s painful to watch. He wants, but won’t take.”

“Religious issues?”

“Oh hell no. No, I’ve pushed that line as far as it goes. No. He fears being exactly what Eddie wants. But the bitch of it, Nicky, is the boy could be so fucking good if he let himself. Man, the kid can roleplay.”

“Really, Luce?”

“Oh, don’t give me that. I get off on a good rape play scene just like the next girl, and he does all right for a repressed seminarian, but fuck, he won’t go near Eddie for anything, and Eddie—Eddie would fucking walk on glass to play that scene with Leo. You know what I’m saying? All he wants in the world is for Leo to take control, and Leo’s so fucking afraid of going too far he won’t do anything at all.”

“You can’t talk them through it?”

“Don’t you think I’ve fucking tried? Baby, I can’t. Leo goes into ethics overkill and Eddie shuts down.” She shook her head. “The shutting down scares me. I used to be able to pull him back with a flogger. Then it was the bullwhip. Then it was rubber. Then it was canes as long as I waved them around and made him kiss ’em first. Now he just glazes, like he doesn’t feel pain, even when tears are running down his face.”

“Jeez, Luce. You ever try kissing him, go the other way?”

“The boy is queer as a three dollar bill. And yeah, I tried, but he just looked at me with these fucking sad cow eyes and I couldn’t do anything with him but tell him he’s a good boy and tuck him into bed. They will do that. They’ll sleep side-by-side as long as I’m there, too, and sometimes they cuddle, in the middle of the night, when they can pretend they’re asleep. Shit!”

“Well, I don’t know what you think I can do. I’m nobody’s dominant top.”

“Don’t bullshit me, kiddo. I know exactly what you are and aren’t.”

“And you think I’m a big scary dom?”

“Nicky. I don’t want you to be his dom. I want you to teach him how to be a slave. That’s what he wants. And then I sorta need you to teach Leo how to master him.”

“Oh, well hell, is that all?” Nick stood, stretching to his toes. He jumped up to one of the old pipes and pulled himself up. (Hugh’s idea, to reinforce them and leave them in place. Handy as hell, having a pull-up bar running the length of the room. Handy for other things, too.) “Lucy, that’s not even real. What you’re asking doesn’t exist, and sure as hell doesn’t exist with me doing it.”

“It exists for this kid. And if I don’t find a way of giving it to him, he’ll find someone who will.”

“But hey, no pressure,” Nick added. One-armed, then he swung himself upside down and hung there, looking at her, feeling the buzz of blood to his head.

“I might be able to work with Leo. But Eddie needs a man to play this role for him. To say nothing of— Fuck it, Nicky, I love that stupid kid. I don’t have it. I can enforce his little domestic discipline scenes, and I can rip him up when he needs it, but he’s restless.” Lucy sighed. “Fuck. I’m sorry. I can guilt Hugh into it if you can’t, because he owes me, but he’s distracted, and Eddie’s fucking terrified of him.”

“Terrified of Hugh? Why?”

“You know why. Hugh walks into a room and Eddie feels like he no longer has his fucking skin.”

“Huh. So he has the instinct for it.”

“Only kind of. He thinks he needs a sadist.”

“Does he?” Nick pulled himself back up and set himself lightly down, careful to get into his chair before the dizziness hit.

“Maybe. But no. I think he thinks if he finds some mean motherfucker, they’ll punish him for being a little nigger fag, but he can’t even play that scene right until he understands he doesn’t need to be punished. And the only way that’s gonna get through to him is an actual relationship, an actual daily affirmation, with a man. All of which maybe I could have worked out, with or without Hugh, except the fucking stupid kid went and fell for Leo.”

“Who doesn’t fit your profile.”

Lucy see-sawed her hand. “Leo’s only past relationship was with the almighty god, Nick. Boy looks into your eyes and you can see all the way back to the big fucking bang, you know what I’m saying?”

“I know what you’re saying. Doesn’t mean he can be what you think Eddie needs.”

“Here’s what I see.” Lucy stretched her legs out in front of her and damn, going on thirty-five, Lucy still had the body she’d had at nineteen.

Nick appreciated Lucy’s body like he appreciated any natural wonder; she was beautiful and raw and stunning in a way you couldn’t capture on film. But here she was, thinking about her boys, absently massaging the back of her neck.

“Get your ass over here. Let me do that.” He took over the massage and she purred. “Talk, Mistress.”

“Baby, I am in love with your hands.”

“Mm hm.”

“Eddie needs a big, scary man, Nicky. He needs everything stripped away, all that fucking shame from his mother, all that fear from the church, all that goddamn loneliness I can’t dig my way through. He needs to be taken down to bones so he can look at himself clean. You know?”

If only. “I know.”

“He’s orgasmed in my presence three times, and it’s painful to watch, it’s as if he’s being ripped open, eviscerated by pleasure.”

“Ripped open by pleasure or one of your cocks?”

“Oh, I didn’t fuck him. I’ve never fucked him. I’ve used my hand on him three times, only after a beating, and only with Leo in the room.”

That was a little surprising. “And Leo doesn’t have sex with him? Jeez, Luce, no wonder he’s looking for outside people.”

“I’d agree with you if he was actually having sex with them, but he maintains he isn’t.”

“But you don’t believe him?”

“I mostly believe him. I should say, I see him naked all the goddamn time; there’s no signs on him that he’s fucking any of these assholes, and believe me, they aren’t gentle. Every single one of them has something to prove and is using Eddie’s body to do it.”

“Mm. You say that like it’s wrong.”

“For you it’s not wrong, because you’re in control. For him—god. I want to shake him.”

“Fine, Luce. But what’s Leo’s role in all this?”

“Leo,” she said, voice warning and low. “I could kill him. He really thinks I’d let him hurt the kid. He doesn’t trust me enough to go for it.”

“Doesn’t trust you enough to have sex with Eddie?”

“And Eddie would. Sure. Queer, but he doesn’t mind me. He just wants Leo. But fucking Leo goes stiff and says he can’t.”

“Why?” Because you’d have to be a fool not to go for Eddie. Sweet, eyes-lowered, murmuring Eddie.

“Honest to god, it’s intellectual. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand Eddie’s submission, doesn’t understand his role, definitely doesn’t understand how much he gets off on it. And until he does, the most he’ll do is cuddle. In the middle of the night. In the fucking dark. And occasionally he’ll clean up after a messy scene.”


“Blood, sometimes.” She sighed. “I’ve never had less fun with edgeplay, baby. I shouldn’t even be indulging the little punk, except if I don’t, he’ll find someone who will. So I make him stay home when he wants blood. Or needles.”

“Needles,” Nick said.

“Penetration, all clean and smooth.”

Bernie. Bernie liked needles. Bernie liked most things.

“I can’t train your slave, Lucy,” he said, and pushed her away. “You know I can’t.”

“I know you can. Because you know that feeling. Maybe better than I do.”

“I really don’t. My one massively disastrous attempt at the kind of thing you’re saying he wants ended miserably. And I hated every moment of it.”

She settled back in her chair, watching him far too closely. “For a somewhat conflicted sense of the word ‘hated’, pet. How is he these days? You haven’t mentioned him in a while.”

“He’s fine.” They communicated via email and text message and Twitter. Never in person.

“Bernard LaCroix. I’m still not convinced that’s his real name.”

“Oh really?”

“Mm hm. Nope. Not convinced.”

Why the hell were they talking about Bernie right now? “I don’t know, Luce. Maybe I could help with Leo. You think he could wrap his head around fucking me up? It wouldn’t be sexual, but that could work.”

“Been there, Nicky. And yeah, it helps. He’s not a bad hand with a flogger, but he needs more practice with a paddle. And he still won’t go near Eddie.”

“Wait. You let him flog you?”

“How can you possibly be shocked by that? What do I care? The scene’s what’s hot, baby. You know that.”

“Lucy Martinez, are you in love with Leo? Or Eddie?”

She rolled her eyes. “And if I was? Please. I fall in love with the barista who makes my fucking cappuccino right.”

“Artistic non-denial there, Luce. Jesus. You talk to Hugh about this?”

“Hugh’s fucking busy. Speaking of people who are goddamn in love. It’s vile.”

“Don’t worry, Mistress. He’ll come back to you.”

“Not this time, he won’t. And that’s all right. It really is.” She offered a smile, without edge. “Truman is a hell of a lot smarter than I originally thought, Nicky. It’s okay. He deserves Hugh. Hugh sure as shit deserves someone who can take him down when he needs it.”

And what about you? Nick didn’t voice the thought.

“I don’t believe in happily ever after, baby. And maybe the whole thing is moot, I don’t know. Maybe Leo’s on his way back to the church right this second. He’s been working with Ian for a while now, but he’s still, in his marrow, devoted to God. He still believes.”

Nick nodded. “But you think he should have sex with Eddie?”

“I think he should fucking get over the idea that he can not-feel anything that makes him uncomfortable. He should definitely get over the idea that being turned on by Eddie’s delicious submission is sinful, because it’s not.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t religion?”

“It’s not religion. It’s his own little ethical dilemma. He can hold me down and fuck me while I talk shit about it’s Eddie next, or how pretty his little hole would be, stretched around Leo’s dick, but he can’t fucking make the leap from getting off on the idea to getting off on the actual doing of it.”

“So? How can I help?”

“Show Eddie how to want what he needs. He needs a scene that runs long, and aftercare that runs longer. He needs someone to guide his hand on his dick and show him how good it is to let go. He wants to be beaten until he’s bloody, but he needs to be held. You see the problem there, Nick?”

He looked away. “Is that some kind of a public service announcement you tailored just for me?”

“No. But seeing Hugh happy makes me wish we all were so lucky.”

“I’m happy, Luce.”

“Listen, come watch me do them both, in the playroom. Bring Hugh, if you want, though I don’t know how explicit I’m planning to get with them about being watched, so maybe not. But I just—fuck it. If you have no fucking ideas, after watching them, then fine, it’s not a thing. I’ll keep thinking about it. Or I’ll find some way to make Hugh tone down his need to fucking psychologically eviscerate everyone in his orbit long enough to talk to the kid. But fuck, Nicky, at least give it a shot. For me. Please.”

Nick nodded. Because of course he’d do that. “Not like I can complain about watching you do a scene with your boys, Luce.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s what it is. I don’t know. Just, when he first showed up on my doorstep, I could see death in his eyes.” She tilted her head back. “I could feel it, oily on his skin. Death. Despair. The end of the world. All of it was so fucking clear in this dumb little teenager, standing on my porch. It got so much better, but now I’m seeing shadows again.”

“I get it,” Nick said. “Give me a day and time, and I’ll be there.”

“Thank you. And—thanks, Nicky. I know this is all kinds of fucked up, but I just need another set of eyes.”

“Sure, Luce. And Hugh’s otherwise occupied.”

“Well, Hugh’s not the right set of eyes, but I’d take him.”

“Oh, and I am? How do you figure that?”

“You understand the conflict. One of them thinks he can only surrender if it’s taken from him by force, and the other one doesn’t understand that surrender is necessary on both sides. Fools.” She kissed him and nestled into his lap for a moment. “Did things used to be simpler, or am I just making that shit up because I’m old?”

“I would never say you were old, Luce. But no. Absolutely nothing was simpler. We were just blissfully ignorant.”

“Kind of miss that, kiddo. I’ll let you know when to drop by.”

“Got it. Bye, Luce. Thanks for lunch.”

She waved, unlocked the door, and left.

* * *

Even though Lucy was pretty clear that she didn’t intend to necessarily solicit permission for an audience, Nick found himself calling Hugh to ride along anyway.

“I can’t. This Saturday? Sorry, Nick, I can’t. I’ll, um, be in Santa Barbara.”

“Oh yeah? You guys going down for the weekend?”

“Not exactly. Long story. Can Lucy reschedule? I’m so rarely busy.”

But Nick found himself relieved, in a way. Not that he’d ever turn down Hugh’s presence, but it was all right this time that Hugh was busy.

“Never mind. I’m sure the entire thing is destined to be a waste of everyone’s time. I’ll fill you in when you get back.”

“Please do. I’m intrigued now.”

Nick just bet. “Say hello to Will for me. And Truman, obviously.”

“I will. You should stop by, Nicky. I miss you.”

“Maybe I will,” he lied. “See you, Reynolds.”

“See you, Nick.”

So. That was that. Unless it wasn’t.

He looked at the blank email for a long time, cursor blinking a steady metronome of impatience.

Bernard@LaCroixProductions.com. Nick had never asked him about his name, though now that Lucy said it, he wondered. Had Bernie selected it for himself? Christened himself as an adult, in a life far away from his family, from his past?

Not that it mattered.

Fuck it. He finally pulled out his phone and dialed in, expecting—and getting—a smooth, melodic voicemail message.

“You’ve reached Bernie LaCroix. Leave me a message and I’ll get back to you just as soon as I can.” A brief moment, half a beat of silence, before the message clicked off. Nick pondered it, until he realized he was now bleeding dead air into Bernie’s voicemail.

“It’s me. I could use a second opinion about something, if you have a few minutes to talk. Call me back.”

It’s me. You once pissed in my hair while I beat off on the floor of your shower and you told me I was the most beautiful thing you’d ever seen. It’s me. Nick.

No. He didn’t have to identify himself. Even without cell phones and stored contacts, even after nine years, Bernie would know Nick’s voice.

Not that Nick planned to wait around to see if Bernie deigned to return his call. He pulled on a shimmery silver shirt, calmed it down with a black jacket, and took off.

* * *

Hours later, losing himself in a brutal pounding that had him nearly upside down on a floor padded with a double layer of workout mats, he vaguely heard his phone vibrate.

He blamed the sex, or the conquest, or the mindfuck of pretending to be the conquest and making all the decisions, but the only thought in his brain was I wish it was Bernie pounding me.

Nick tried very hard not to come from the thought of it, but it was far too potent, far too unexpected. He was momentarily blinded with the power of the orgasm, forgetting the anonymous bear topping him, forgetting everything except the sound of Bernie’s voice. I’ll get back to you just as soon as I can.

Was Bernie tossing some twink out right now, after fucking him just like this? Nick shoved the guy, whose name he hadn’t bothered to learn, off him, tossed the condom and deep-throated him until he came.

It wasn’t exactly a “fuck you”, but it wasn’t not a “fuck you” either. The guy didn’t notice and asked him for his phone number.

Nick backed him up against the wall, ignobly pleased by the startled look in his eyes. “Look, you can’t handle me. That’s fine. But you should have looked twice at that otter you brushed off on your way over to talk to me, kid, okay? Don’t be so quick to dismiss people.”

“I think I can handle you pretty fucking well,” the guy said, and smeared Nick’s come over his belly.

“Oh, honey.” Condescension was the ticket. Nick offered a smile laced with pity. “I just got a phone call and needed to finish up. But it’s okay. You’re young yet. You have years to learn.”

Then he grabbed his clothes and pulled them on as he walked, pausing only long enough to jump his pants on before opening the front door of the loft and walking out.

He’d dialed voicemail before he even hit the street.


Nick’s spent dick considered calling for round two, just hearing his name in Bernie’s voice.

“I am at your service. Call me when you get this. Do I sound desperate, sweetheart? I will not say ‘any time, day or night’, but we will both understand that’s what I mean.” Pause. “Nick. Please don’t wait so long again.”


Oh, fuck. He’d told Bern to stop calling after everything went to hell, and Bernie had stopped, completely. Nine years. Nine years since he’d heard Bernie’s voice.

Nick listened to the message again, then deleted it.