flighty_dreams: (embarrassed)
[personal profile] flighty_dreams
TITLE: Spliced 5-5
AUTHOR: [livejournal.com profile] flighty_dreams
WARNINGS: NC-17. slavefic. scifi setting. M/m. some graphic violence.
WORD COUNT:  7,123 (this chapter), over 200k so far
SUMMARY:  In a world where clones are made and sold as commodities, Matt Muldane can't resist purchasing an intriguing slave.
NOTES:  The index to this story available here. Special thanks to [livejournal.com profile] aurila and to [livejournal.com profile] tuawahine . Sorry for the slight delay in posting; I meant to get this out before the end of April but work interfered.

Chapter Five

“There you are,” Tara said, turning when she heard Alex in the doorway.

A glance told him Sadie was glowering at him, so Alex kept his gaze away from her, taking in the customary neatness of the blue and gray kitchen before his attention returned to Tara. Putting on a light jacket, she grabbed her purse from the kitchen table.

“Don’t take too long,” Sadie said, leaning against the counter with crossed arms. “I’ve got work for him later.”

Of course. Alex’s expression was carefully blank.

With a forced smile, Tara said, “I have class at noon. I’ll have him back well before then, Sadie.”

They’d had the same conversation just last week. Tara had his sympathy.

Escaping outdoors, he blinked at the bright morning sunlight. It was early still, Matt having left for work not an hour before. With several meetings scheduled today, Alex had opted out of accompanying him. Truthfully the excuse to stay away was welcome; unease over that little scene in the garage two days earlier still lingered.

He followed Tara down the driveway to her red Tropana. The car shook even at lower speeds and its AGS was fried; Alex suspected only Tara’s expertise with cars kept it running. Matt had offered to help her buy something new, but she’d refused because she used her hovercycle most days, keeping it in prime condition. For the times she needed more space the Tropana was good enough.

I’d say the ‘cycle is safer than the Tropana, he thought, eyeing the latter. Unfortunately, Matt had forbidden her from taking Alex anywhere on the hovercycle. Not that she would’ve brought it today anyway; the whole point of this morning’s errand was to buy art supplies.

As he walked with her Alex surveyed the street—a custom of his each time he left the house, since being watched was always a possibility—but he found nothing he hadn’t expected to be there. Just the usual cars of the neighbors, most gone now because it was during the workday, and a dark blue Varpin parked down the street. Anticipation hummed through his body.

Stepping into the twenty-year-old Tropana, Alex sent a prayer to the Flame or whatever other deities might listen. As if the car’s condition wasn’t bad enough, there was Tara’s driving. If Matt had known about it, he wouldn’t have allowed Tara to take Alex anywhere, or would have paid for a new AGS system himself. Of course Alex was the last person who would tell him.

As Tara pulled out of the driveway he looked into the side mirror. With the way Tara drove, that Varpin had a good chance of getting left behind. Flicking his eyes away, he smiled.

“You’re in a good mood today, Min.”

Alex shrugged. Thankfully Tara didn’t expect formal behavior from him. “It’s nice to get out of the house for a while.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Tara said, shifting gears as she jerked the car around the slow person in front of them. Alex gripped the door handle tighter. It was worn and a little loose, probably from other passengers before him who’d feared for their lives. He got a thrill out of her heedless maneuvering though, a reminder that he was truly alive, not ‘activated.’

“How’s your project going?” he asked, curious. Her latest one involved painting the same subject in three different styles, the professor forcing them to experiment more. Tara had chosen a bridge in Alister’s Revera Park for her paintings.

“The first one was easy. It’s the other styles I’m having trouble with,” she said, going on to describe what she’d done and the ideas she had for the others.

She cut off three people during their fifteen minute ride to the art supplier. He glanced behind them a few times, impressed the Varpin stayed with them. After the Tropana had parked on its rusty skids, Tara reached for her purse as their dark blue follower snuck into a spot farther down the aisle.

Tara led the way to the store. When she stopped outside the entrance to fish out her shopping list, Alex stole a glance at it. Paint, canvases, some new brushes—nothing unexpected.

“May I get something for you, Tara?” he asked, careful to keep his eyes down now.

“I need a new set of brushes. You remember the ones I like?” she asked in a bright voice, like she was speaking to a toddler who couldn’t remember anything. He’d gone with her to buy some two weeks, not two years ago.

“Yes, of course,” he said, striving to keep his own tone even.

“So smart,” she said, patting his arm, and he barely escaped scowling at her. “I bet you remember where the brushes section is too. Go get them for me then.”

He focused on his success instead of his annoyance as he walked away. At least he was alone now, and this early in the day the store was nearly empty. He walked down an aisle, reaching the brushes near the back of the store. A familiar figure joined him moments later, obviously having overheard their conversation.

“Hey,” Ten said in an undertone. “Hate that patronizing shit.”

“I know,” Alex whispered. “Asked her to stop but she forgets.”

It had been a few months earlier, the second time he’d accompanied her on errands like this. After she’d made some similar annoying comment he’d taken advantage of the privacy of her car. “I’m not a child,” he’d said to her. “Please don’t treat me like one.”

It had been a risk to say it. The point of this pretense was to not appear like his renegade self. But surely not wanting to be talked to like a child didn’t equate to being rebellious.

Tara had flushed under her freckles, but she hadn’t gotten angry or offended. “Min…”

“Just because I’m Andorian doesn’t mean I’m stupid,” he’d added, fighting back harsher words.

“I didn’t mean to- Mr. Muldane, he owned a few slaves before you,” she said after a flustered pause, a fact he didn’t like to think about. “There was another Andorian, with hair like yours. He um, wasn’t exactly-”

“I see,” Alex had said, unable to fathom how Matt had been all right with that. But he’d just wanted something to fuck, Alex supposed, and a cowed, childish slave kept things simple. The very thought of Matt with someone like that left him feeling violent—not that the idea of Matt with anyone else left him feeling any less violent—and he’d discontinued the conversation.

Since then Tara had made a more concerted effort not to talk down to him, but the stereotype of ‘childlike’ Andorians was still far too ingrained in her.

“What was so urgent?” Ten asked then, breaking into his thoughts.

He shouldn’t waste the little time they had. Alex bit his lip, eyes on the brushes, wishing he could stare properly at the much-missed sight of his brother, even if at a glance he’d seen enough to notice Ten had disguised himself. “I was hoping you had something. Something you haven’t been able to tell me.”

“No,” Ten said, frustration in the one word. “No leads. Nothing of importance.”

“Shit. Really?” Alex whispered. “Because I can’t keep this up.”

He could feel Ten’s eyes on him. “Say the word and I’ll get you out.”

“It’s not that drastic,” Alex said with a slight shake of his head.

“What’s wrong then?”

“Besides this damn pretense in general and the degradation that goes with it?”

“You’ve gone through it before,” Ten reminded him. “Voluntarily.”

Alex nearly winced at the disapproval in his brother’s voice. Yeah, he lacked all common sense. “It’s different this time. I don’t want to punish myself anymore.”

“Really?” There was relief in the whisper.

“Yes,” Alex said, struggling for a way to bring up what he really wanted to talk about: the recent confrontation with Matt. They had so little time though. Thankfully his brother provided an opening a moment later.

“How are things going with Matt?” Ten asked, picking up a brush and casually examining it.

“They’re better,” Alex said, his mind shying away from the thought of Matt with that other Andorian in the past. Compared to how he must’ve been then, Matt was a completely different person. And yet… “He’s more considerate, worries about me, but deep down he still thinks of me as beneath him.”

“And you don’t want to do anything that might validate that belief,” Ten said.

“Exactly,” Alex said, relieved his brother understood his fear. Although certain things in the right setting were pleasurable, he didn’t want Matt to believe he had the right to run his life for him—or worse really, not let him have a life of his own. He wanted a partner, not a babysitter or a prison guard.

While Alex picked up the set of brushes Tara wanted, Ten cursed under his breath. “I’d be suffocating. Don’t know how you stand it. How you ever have.”

“He’s not a bad person-”

“Didn’t say he was, but I worry about you.” Ten said, their eyes meeting now. Something grim lurked in his brother’s gaze. “Being with someone who thinks so little of you.”

“It’s not that simple,” Alex protested. To describe his relationship with Matt would take at least an hour he didn’t have.

“If you say so.”

Alex didn’t want to argue about Matt with his brother. Instead he whispered, “How are you holding up?”

“I’m fine. So is everyone else,” Ten added, anticipating the next question.

That wasn’t enough. Alex was starved for news, needing to know those he cared about were all right. But there wasn’t time for that, so he stuck to the mission. “Really no leads? Nothing from Festun?”

“No,” Ten said, looking at the stocked shelves in front of them. “And our sister’s calling you an idiot still.”

Alex smiled weakly. Sharra’s disapproval was nothing new.

“Actually,” Ten said in a low voice, and Alex glanced over in time to catch his frown. “Something odd did happen the other day. I-”

“Min, there you are!”

Alex silently cursed Tara’s timing as he turned to her. She walked down the aisle towards them carrying some tubes of paint, and Alex moved forward to meet her. He wanted as little attention as possible drawn to Ten, even if he was disguised. She handed him the paint and walked past him though, her gaze on his brother. Holding her supplies, Alex’s stomach clenched.

“I hope he wasn’t bothering you,” she said to Ten.

Knowing what to look for, Alex caught the momentary tick beside his brother’s mouth. “No, jus’ fine here,” he said, speaking with a thick Festunian accent.

“Oh good,” she said, her body language telling Alex she was a little taken aback by the accent. Festunians were an oddity on Monlea, since neither planet was one of the central trade ones.

When Ten turned away, focusing back on the shelves in dismissal, she stepped back and grabbed Alex by the arm, leading him away. He risked one glance back at Ten, who met his eyes in silent farewell. Tara didn’t speak to him as she selected a couple canvases and then went over to the register. Once they’d been helped and he carried her supplies out to the car, she let them get into the vehicle before turning to him.

“Min, you can’t just talk to strangers like that.” Exasperation laced her voice. “You’re lucky he was from Festun and didn’t get offended.”

When he opened his mouth to defend himself, she just continued on. “If you’re confused about something, you can ask me.”

Jaw clenching, he looked out the window to hide whatever was on his face.

“Min, look at me,” she said, her tone fiercer than he’d ever heard it. He wouldn’t have obeyed, but it would look so much worse if he didn’t. “Tell me you understand what you did wrong.”

It was so hard not to voice his true opinions. That otherwise sane individuals felt they could and should make other people live like this was appalling. He missed the freedom to converse with random people so much. Why did conversation have to be treated as such a bad thing?

Always have to put slaves in their place, he reminded himself. Otherwise they might dare think they are people instead of property.

Instead of agreeing with her he said, “He asked me a question. I thought it ruder to ignore him.”

“He did?” she said, as if it were inconceivable that anyone might ask him something. “About what?”

It was now that he had to lie; Ten had asked him a question. “He wanted to know if there were any other art stores nearby.”

Tara frowned at that, probably thinking it weird for someone to choose an Andorian to ask such a question of, but she sat back after a moment. Hopefully Ten’s Festunian charade was explanation enough for her as to that strangeness. Meanwhile Alex wondered what his brother had been about to tell him. If it were really important Ten would’ve said it earlier, but Alex hated mysteries.

His mouth twitched with wry self-awareness. He sympathized with Matt’s frustration over his secret-keeping, particularly at this moment. When other people’s lives were at stake however, he couldn’t just give in to Matt’s demands and his own guilt. He understood it was terribly unfair though; other than the details of Matt’s family and childhood on Karta, there wasn’t much Alex didn’t know about him. In the meantime he’d given Matt little more than first names and the briefest descriptions for his siblings and friends.

If this whole thing did crater and he and Matt separated one day, he would give him a way of contacting him at least. An agitated Matt possessing one of his siblings' addresses on Festun just didn't seem smart though. More like a recipe for harassment, at least how Matt currently was.

He scratched an itch along his arm, a seed of doubt forming. Maybe Ten had a point. Did people really change that much? Perhaps he and Sharra were right to call him an idiot for hoping his relationship with Matt would get better.

The drive home was quiet, if you discounted the shaking of the car and Tara's dizzying turns. Alex was glad for the lack of conversation, lost in his own thoughts. It had been a stupid risk sending a message, however discreetly, asking Ten to meet with him. He'd hoped Ten was keeping something secret, too afraid to mention it over their covert communications. The meeting had been useless, other than the rare chance to see his brother. If he'd been out with Sadie instead of Tara, the woman would eagerly tell Matt about this little incident the moment he got home.

He didn't intend to keep the meeting with Ten a secret; he'd hidden enough from Matt already. But he certainly didn't want Matt finding out about it from Sadie or Tara first.

Despite Tara's best efforts, they returned to the house in one piece. Alex barely had a chance to put Tara’s supplies down in her bedroom—half of which doubled as her studio—when Sadie's ominous presence filled the doorway.

Tara had led him into her room, and turned with him when the older woman said, “You took a long time.”

“Did we?” Tara said. Like Alex, she had learned a long time ago that arguing with the woman directly was a waste of effort.

“When you're done in here, slave, come to the kitchen,” Sadie said before disappearing.

Alex sighed, turning his back on the door. He brought the two large canvases Tara had bought over to the studio side of her bedroom, settling them where she usually kept her unused canvases.

An easel was set up near that corner, the painting on it covered under a tarp. “Is this the first painting of the bridge, Tara?”

“Yeah,” she said, looking up from the paints she'd bought.

“Can I see it?”

Tara put her hands on her hips. “Shouldn't you be going to the kitchen?”

“One minute longer won't put her in any worse of a mood,” Alex told her, ducking his head. He toed the carpet with his foot for good measure.

“True,” she said, before gesturing to the tarp. “Go ahead.”

He carefully slipped it off, revealing the oil painting, which portrayed the peaceful scene of the bridge spanning the river through the park. A couple sat on the grass on the farther side of the river, a blanket spread beneath them. A few clouds dotted the sky, and she captured the feel of a summer day well.

“Beautiful,” he told her, genuinely impressed. It might not be in some fancy style, but she'd expressed the simplicity of the scene. “I think it's great, Tara.”

“Thanks,” she said, a blush stealing across her cheeks. An Andorian's opinion might not carry much weight with her, but no one would turn down praise of their work.

He slid the tarp back over the painting, wary of delaying too long. He found Sadie in the kitchen finishing up lunch. She didn't acknowledge him. A plate had been set aside for Tara—she often ate here quickly before heading to class—and then Sadie prepared hers and sat down at the table. Alex knew better than to ask after his own meal; she always made him eat last, and on the floor.

“I can come back, Madame,” he said, no more eager to watch her eat than she likely was to have him in her presence for any minute longer than necessary.

“No, wait,” she said. “You haven't earned your lunch yet.”

He could feel the flush of anger warm his face. This was new, and unwelcome.

“Start getting the gardening tools from the garage,” she told him. “You'll need most of them today.”

“Yes, Madame,” Alex said, thinking fondly of the large shovel. He’d love to fling dirt at her with it. Or dig her grave.

At least he could escape her presence now. He went to the garage as directed and removed the tools. A few weeks earlier he’d volunteered to help her in the garden out of sheer boredom, something he regretted now. Since then she’d demanded his assistance more and more often; at first it had only been sometimes when he stayed home, but lately it was any day he didn't go with Matt to work and remained here. Truthfully he didn't mind helping around the house. He was living here and not paying anything, so it was only fair he do his part. But Sadie was so obnoxious about it that it eroded his good will.

“Lazy unnatural,” she said now, crossing her arms when she came outside to find him still removing things from the garage. It was her preferred term for clones. Soon enough she had him digging some plants out of their pots and planting them in the ground, and then a while after that clipping the shrubs that were starting to grow out of the triangular shapes she'd forced them into. Sadie allowed nothing to flourish as it pleased.

She supervised him throughout the planting, but finally decided he was at least mentally capable of maintaining the triangular shapes without her constant correction. He breathed a sigh of relief when she disappeared into the house.

The mindless work and relative peace gave him time to berate himself. He should never have risked meeting Ten; that was becoming clearer and clearer. He knew why he'd done it, as much as he hated to admit it. After Matt confronting him in the garage, he'd panicked. He hadn't had an answer to Matt's accusation, because Flame fucking all, he was right: he wasn't being honest with Matt in that way. There were things he enjoyed in bed that these days he found simpler to pretend he wasn't interested in any longer.

But Matt was also wrong about the items in that slave store. Not that his genes didn't predispose Alex to enjoying certain things, but how could Matt not realize it was impossible to be surrounded by things that had been used on him both abusively and pleasurably and not feel something? Of course he couldn't dismiss them as if they were nothing; it didn't mean he was secretly dying for Matt to chain him up and beat him, damn it. He'd encouraged punishment during their first months together because he'd been beset by a stupid crush and eager for more attention from an indifferent Matt, who back then hadn't shown any interest in him besides getting a good fuck. Like he was no different from the clones before him that Tara had mentioned that day.

Sure, certain things might appear in his fantasies from time to time, but it didn't mean he craved them like a fucking drug. It would just be nice once in a while. Maybe. Someday when Matt wouldn't point at them and declare, “I was right!” in that unbearably smug way of his and claim them as proof that he was nothing more than a slave, and never would be anything else.

Alex slammed the clippers to the ground. Why was it so hard for Matt to see beyond the collar?

He sat down on the grass, reminded of the couple in Tara's painting. They had been two dark-haired men, and their indistinct features made it all too easy to picture himself and Matt in their place. Would they ever be able to do something like that, lay down in the park together, talking openly?

How could such a simple dream seem so out of reach?

And yet there was hope. He couldn’t put it into words, Matt’s need of him. Deep inside the man lay such a well of pure feelings, the type of all-consuming ones that ignored any possible barrier: birth, race, gender, money and more. If Matt could just let go of the stigma his upbringing had attached to Alex’s birth… there was such amazing potential between them.

And such comfort in that possible acceptance. For Alex, who’d always worried about being the outcast, the freak, to believe that just maybe, there was nothing he could do that would make Matt not want him… it was an uplifting thought.

So it was both foolish hope and that vision of a possible future together that had him here, back with Matt. Hayeston had been a valid excuse, but really the most significant thing that threat had done was get him back into a collar. If not for him, his second approach to Matt wouldn’t have involved any pretense at all, in public or in private.

The back door of the house opened then, alerting him to Sadie's return. He picked up the clippers and got up again, but the damage was already done.

“Slacking off already, slave? I see you require more watching,” she said, striding up to him. “You’re spoiled, your master even feeding you by hand from his own meals. Not even a well-behaved pet deserves such privileges, much less you.”

Saying nothing, he continued clipping the shrubs. She could say whatever she liked; he knew Matt had forbidden her from disciplining him herself. He suspected his pretense would've drawn the line anyway at letting her do that to him.

After a brief break for lunch, he worked hard the rest of the afternoon, enduring her running commentary of his efforts—or lack thereof, according to her—throughout all of it. Most of the time was spent in the garden, until it got close to dinnertime. After putting the tools away he was ordered to bathe himself—she found the sweat of ‘unnaturals’ offensive, apparently—and then told to join her in the kitchen.

He ground his teeth throughout his shower, cursing her in various ways. At least the shower itself helped, restoring him some. Unlike the first time he'd helped her in the garden, there was no pleasantness to the soreness from his work today. Her attitude made that impossible. Sighing at the sight of the all too tempting bed, he dressed and reluctantly returned to Sadie.

The food was starting to smell good. Sadie stood to the right of the stove, chopping up an onion. At his entrance she looked over, sizing him up. He kept his eyes down, stifling his unease. Having Sadie's attention never ended well for him.

“Wash your hands and then come here,” she ordered. Stifling an eye roll—he'd just showered, so his hands were perfectly clean—he didn't argue with her.

She finished cutting up the rest of the onion before acknowledging him again. Once she was done, she added it to the pot before returning to where he stood, waiting. That he was tall enough to tower over her was little consolation; it didn't mean anything here.

Alex hoped she didn't expect him to do anything complicated. Cooking was not a skill he had ever mastered. He was pretty awful at it actually.

Sadie grabbed three carrots and put them on the cutting board she'd just emptied. Then she put the knife she'd just been using down next to them, gesturing to it all. “Chop them up.”

“Yes, Madame,” he said, picking up the knife.

Sadie stepped over to the sink. With her back to him she said, “That should be simple enough to manage even for you.”

Alex looked at the knife in his hand and then over at Sadie. With a soft sigh he began chopping the carrots.


The side door to the kitchen opened a while later. “Hey,” Matt said, stepping inside, his gaze encompassing Alex in the greeting.

“Mr. Muldane,” Sadie said, giving Matt the smile reserved only for him. She really was like a different person around him. “How was work today?”

“Busy,” Matt said, giving her a tired smile. Alex turned back to the dishwasher; he was loading the dishes they'd used in preparing the food. “I see you have a helper today.”

“Yes,” she said with a smug smile. “It's good to keep him busy.”

Nice. She managed to be perfectly pleasant to Matt while still scoring a subtle dig. Not that Alex expected any appreciation from Sadie. In her eyes he was a tool, and a flawed one at that.

“True. How much longer on dinner?” Matt asked. Tara hadn't returned yet; she had an evening class tonight.

“A few more minutes,” Sadie said. All that was left was to let it finish cooking. “I can keep it warm for you if you need more time to settle in.”

“Yes, thanks,” Matt said, moving to the kitchen doorway. Beckoning with one hand, he said, “Min.”

Alex wiped his hands and then followed Matt to his bedroom. He'd barely turned after closing the door behind him when he found an eager Matt pressing him against it, lips meeting his. Apparently his body wasn't as tired as he'd thought, because it was suddenly very interested in where this was going.

He gripped Matt's shoulders as he kissed him back, letting him know he was happy to see him too. Usually they made it farther into the room before Matt started kissing him senseless.

When they finally pulled back, Alex murmured, “Someone missed me today.”

“Yes,” Matt said, direct as always. He buried his nose into Alex’s neck. “You smell good. Clean… and delicious.”

Alex laughed, curling a hand into Matt’s hair as he tugged him in for one more kiss.

Matt chuckled against his mouth, kissing the corner of it. “Let me get more comfortable. I'm starving. I only had time to grab a couple snacks at work today.”

Alex let him go. He sat down on the bed while Matt removed and hung up his jacket. His idea of 'getting comfortable' didn't involved removing the slacks or the shirt he'd worn for work. Alex supposed it was a Kartan thing; Sadie usually didn't dress down for dinner either. Matt went into the bathroom, coming out a minute later with a frown on his face.

“Would it kill you to wipe down the sink even once?”

Instead of the scowl he wanted to give him, Alex smoothed out his face. Matt's house, his rules. This certainly wasn't his home. “I'll do it now.”

Matt made a dismissive gesture. “I already did it.”

The man had an obsession about not leaving the sink area wet. Just another of his strange little quirks. Of course Matt’s anal retentive complaining itself annoyed Alex in a similar way, but he rarely brought things like that up. Better to focus on larger issues than waste effort on those.

Matt stopped by the door. When Alex showed no indication of getting up, he said, “Come on.”

Alex shook his head. “I think Sadie and I have had enough of each other today. I'm not that hungry. I can eat later.”

After all afternoon at her tender mercy, he didn't feel like kneeling by the table while Matt and Sadie ate, Sadie watching with disapproval as Matt fed him some of his food. The woman's earlier words were still too fresh despite his attempt to ignore them.

“Min.” Matt crossed his arms. “Either you come with me now, or I bring your food back with me and feed it all to you by hand.”

Alex hated that he didn't stop the flush in time. Damn Andorian genes. The embarrassment pushed him to say, “You can try.”

Matt's eyes narrowed at the challenge. “I-”


The urgency in his voice stopped the man short. Alex looked away, hands clenching against the bed covers. He should be able to handle this situation himself, but his current position didn't allow for that. It didn't make him resent having to turn to Matt any less.

“I'm not comfortable around her,” Alex said slowly.

Walking over, Matt stopped beside the bed. “Did something happen today?”

“Not anything in particular,” Alex said with a shake of his head. “You're hungry. Go eat. I'll talk to you about her afterwards.”

“Yes, you will,” Matt affirmed. Alex repressed his exasperation at the unnecessary command to the tone. He'd already agreed to tell him.

After the door closed behind Matt, Alex remembered that he had something else to tell him about: his meetup with Ten.

“Shit,” he said, falling back against the pillows. His stomach chose that moment to rumble.


“Come here,” Matt said after he returned.

To Alex's surprise he'd taken the covered plate over to the coffee table in front of the couch instead of the small eating table in the center of the room.

Tangled in the covers—he had taken the opportunity during Matt's absence to make himself quite comfortable—Alex pushed up onto his elbows.

“Or we could both come here,” he offered with a wicked smile.

Oh the words definitely had an effect, judging by the stiffening of Matt's body. But he disappointingly shook it off, that forbidding frown gracing his face. “I believe you had something to tell me about?”

Alex sat up with a sigh, letting the covers slip to his waist. He was still dressed, although earlier he'd briefly been tempted to seduce Matt into forgetting about this conversation altogether.

Matt sat down on the couch with an expectant air. Reluctantly Alex rose and joined him there. Feeling Matt's eyes on him, he leaned forward, reaching for the plate.

“Hey,” he protested when Matt slapped his hand away. Glaring at him, Alex said, “I'm hungry.”

“You weren't hungry before.”

“I am now,” Alex countered, reaching for the plate again.

Matt grabbed his wrist, trapping it. Alex's pulse jumped even as his annoyance grew too. His other hand was free; one wrench of Matt's hand at the right pressure points and he could free himself. Then he could push Matt away, get some distance between them, but Alex didn't want to fight him. Not even verbally tonight.

“I gave you two options earlier,” Matt reminded him then.

“I didn't agree to either,” Alex said, every muscle suddenly tense. Instinct urged him to pull his wrist back, but that wouldn't loosen Matt's grip, and he wouldn't give the man the satisfaction of a futile struggle.

“You chose to stay here.” Matt's grasp tightened, his thumb finding Alex's pulse. An infuriating smirk touched his mouth.

Alex scowled. “If this is about the other day-”

Matt's smile widened, and Alex lost control. He wrenched his hand free just as he'd considered before, pushing Matt back against the couch. Before the man could recover, he was already well out of reach. Pacing the far end of the room, Alex cursed under his breath.

“I'm trying to be serious, and you want to fucking play games!”

Matt rose to his feet, fury to match Alex's on his face. “You were just playing games a minute ago, or what else would you call that little suggestion you made from the bed?”

Alex stopped, fists clenched at his sides. “I was joking, but you were serious just now.”

“I thought you were the one 'trying to be serious',” Matt retorted.

Alex wanted to strangle the man for twisting his words. “You know what I mean! Why do you always have to make things so fucking difficult?”

Me?” Matt said.

Alex couldn't help the flush that suffused his features. “We both do, but this time it was you. I wanted to have an honest conversation, but you had to turn this into a play for dominance.”

Matt's expression had sobered, but at the last part amusement slipped through. “Is that what that was?”

“Don't play innocent,” Alex growled.

Matt blew out a breath. “Eat. Then we'll talk.”

Alex watched him, waiting until he'd disappeared into the closet before retrieving the covered plate. By the time Matt finished, Alex was already seated at the small table, eating. Whatever else Matt had planned, he had at least brought silverware with the food.

Matt sat down across from him, watching him eat in brooding silence. Alex ignored him; if Matt wasn't going to push, he'd wait until after he was done before talking.

When he had only a few bites left, Alex said, “I saw my brother today.”

That jarred Matt out of his brooding. “What? Here at the house?”

Alex shook his head, realizing Matt didn't know he'd gone out with Tara that morning. He told him as much now.

Matt leaned forward. “You don't seem surprised to have seen him.”

“It was sort of planned,” Alex said, focusing on his near empty plate.

“What? And you didn't-”

“It wasn't confirmed,” Alex said, before Matt spiraled completely. “I left him a message, but I wasn't sure if he'd even gotten it.”

“From my work?” Matt asked, his eyes narrowed.

Alex nodded. There was an employee of Matt's, a young mother, whose computer he'd used a few times before to send Ten a message. Yesterday he'd snuck into her office during her lunch break under the pretense of delivering something to her from Matt. The covert messages were sent privately between the two accounts he and Ten had setup on a forum for the parents of toddlers.

“You could've said something.”

“And have you worry about a meeting that might or might not happen?” Alex asked. “That you wouldn't be attending anyway?”

“Because you fucking left me out of it, which is a whole other issue,” Matt growled. “Ashen hell.”

Catching the hurt behind the anger, guilt stole over Alex. He hadn't looked at this from Matt's point of view at all, too panicked over the accusation in the garage to think about the ramifications of his meeting with Ten. He'd felt lost and had wanted to talk to his brother, however briefly. Ultimately though, the meeting had given him neither comfort nor information.

Not that he wanted to reveal any of that to Matt. Biting his lip, Alex got up from the table. He grabbed the plate and brought it into the bathroom, leaving it by the sink. Matt hadn't brought him anything to drink, so he filled the cup they kept on the vanity with water from the tap.

Matt was brooding worse than ever when he put the cup down on the table. With a sigh Alex turned his chair around, straddling it with his elbows leaning on the back of it, head in his hands. The heavy silence grew worse, and Alex pushed his hair back from his face.

“I just really wanted to talk to him,” he admitted. “I didn't think-”

“When do you ever?”

Alex glared at him. “That's not fair.”

“What did you want to talk to him about?” Matt asked with a frown, ignoring Alex's previous comment. “Hayeston?”

Even still annoyed, it didn't keep the embarrassment at bay. “Yes, and- and about you,” Alex admitted with reluctance. “That's why I didn't think to include you.”

“Wait,” Matt said, a gleam in his eyes now. “You sent him the message yesterday? I really did get to you the other day.”

Scowling, Alex met his smug gaze. “It was a combination of things. I've gotten impatient. I'm tired of waiting for something to happen.”

Matt grimaced. “I know what you mean. Not that I want something to happen, but the waiting is-”

“Frustrating,” Alex finished for him. “I was hoping maybe he had some info he hadn't been able to tell us.”

“Did he?” Matt asked, straightening.

Alex shook his head. “I wish.”

That gleam returned after a minute. “And how'd the rest of the conversation go?”

“The rest of the private conversation went fine.”

Matt scowled, but instead of pushing further as Alex expected he said, “I'm curious to meet him.”

Alex propped his chin on his arms. “Someday you will.” He felt fairly certain of that.

“Yes, I will,” Matt said with one of those irksome flashes of confidence.

After a minute passed in silence, Matt asked, “So what did you want to tell me about Sadie?”

“Oh,” Alex said with a grimace. He took a drink of water, letting it wash down his throat. He could feel Matt watch him swallow, probably enjoying the way the movement drew attention to the collar around his neck. Alex would be glad to get out of this thing when the time came; it no doubt reinforced certain ideas of Matt’s.

“Well?” Matt prompted, impatient as always.

“I know I volunteered to help around here,” Alex began, though aware he’d initially done so only out of boredom. “And I don’t mind doing it. But she’s starting to demand it more and more often.”

Matt’s eyebrows rose. “So? You just said you didn’t mind.”

That wasn’t the point. “Did she even ask first, or is she just presuming-”

“No,” Matt said, overriding him. “After you helped her that first time, she asked me for permission. Wanted to know if you could assist her around here more often. I didn’t see why not.”

Alex glared at him, fuming. “You had a whole conversation with her about this, and didn’t tell me?”

Matt shrugged. The condescending bastard didn’t see anything wrong with this. “You didn’t tell me about this meeting today.”

“That’s not the same thing at all,” Alex said.

“It involved me,” Matt growled back, leaning forward.

“Only partly, and it didn’t affect your daily life,” Alex said, stiffening in his chair.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

If Matt couldn’t see how missing out on one brief meeting was different from being forced to work on a regular basis for a woman who hated him, Alex couldn’t help him.

“She hates me,” he said instead. “She’s unpleasant.”

Matt rolled his eyes. “I’ve never seen her be anything but civil. Maybe it’s just you that hates her. I know you’re not a fan of her views,” Matt added with a twist of his lips. “But while she might look down on slaves, that doesn’t mean she hates you.”

“She does,” Alex grated out.

“Or maybe you’re just overly sensitive,” Matt said.

The implication in the statement—that Alex overreacted about the treatment of slaves—left him speechless with outrage.

“Is that what you think,” he said at last, his voice oh so soft, “that I’m just overly sensitive?

Matt froze, belatedly aware he was treading on fragile ground here. “I’m just talking about Sadie. You told me before that she hates you, thinks of you as little more than an animal, but that’s not it. She’s simply holding to standard Kartan views of slaves. You’re just not used to it, and you’re misjudging it as hatred.”

Alex stared at him, appalled by the line of bullshit he was selling. Instead of grasping that this entire Kartan mindset looked at slaves as animals, he proposed it as an alien yet acceptable view that Alex just didn’t understand. Well, on one level he certainly didn’t, but how could Matt see nothing wrong with the logic here?

“To Kartans,” Matt continued, heedless of Alex’s disgust, “slaves are slaves. You don’t waste your time hating one of them.”

Because they were property, so far beneath real people that they weren’t worth strong emotions. That was what Matt wasn’t saying, but it was why he couldn’t believe Sadie hated Alex.

“You seem to be wasting a lot of feelings on me,” Alex growled, unable to help himself.

Matt scowled at him. “I don’t hold to the traditional views anymore—something that’s partly your fault—but Sadie still does.”

Alex sighed. He could give Matt examples of things Sadie had said or done to him, but what was the point? Ultimately he’d believe what he wanted to believe. Matt would probably decide Alex was exaggerating—or possibly even lying—because he’d already made it obvious he hated the woman. They’d already talked about her before, and Matt hadn’t listened.

“Forget it,” Alex said finally, getting up from his chair. He couldn’t extinguish his growing unease though. Since this had begun, Sadie had demanded his help more and more often, and with a greater variety of tasks. Given past experience and her low opinion of him, this situation would only escalate.

He stepped over to the bathroom, retrieving the plate he’d abandoned there. When he headed for the door, Matt intercepted him. A smirk to his lips, his fingers brushed Alex’s chin as he murmured, “Good boy.”

Alex’s grip tightened on the plate. “Say that again and you’re going to get hit.”

Matt’s eyes glinted, tempted by the challenge, but he stepped aside after a moment. “Hurry back. I have plans for tonight.”

Alex hated that even though he was still furious with the man, his heartbeat quickened with anticipation.

Chapter Six
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January 2013


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