The Flesh Cartel #16: To the Victor
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In the exciting final season of the Flesh Cartel . . .
With the help of the FBI, Mat Carmichael has let himself be re-taken by the Flesh Cartel. Objective? Rescue his brother, exact revenge, and destroy the entire organization from the inside.
FBI Special Agent Nate Johnson will be playing backup, of course, but to get Dougie out alive, Mat will need to make sure his brother is out of Allen’s clutches before calling in the troops. Now that Mat’s back in bondage, though, there’s no way he can do it alone. He’ll have to ask for help from the only man within the Cartel who cares about Dougie’s welfare: Nikolai. And even knowing it will destroy him, Nikolai delivers.
Bringing down the Cartel should have been the hardest part, but it doesn’t take long to realize that the real challenge has only just begun. Dougie doesn’t know how to be free anymore, and Mat is forced to admit that he may no longer be strong enough to help himself, let alone his brother. But with loved ones in their corner and their love for each other banked but not extinguished, Mat and Dougie learn that you can come home again, no matter how desperate the circumstances you’ve left behind.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Douglas had never thought he’d see the day when he missed that cum-soaked, glitter-stained little bunk room full of mean, spoiled pets. Yet here he was, dreaming of one way after another to earn his ticket back there. Bargain after bargain, an endless list of pleasures and promises, each one as ignored as the last. Allen didn’t care what Douglas could do, what he could offer, how much of himself he was willing to give. Allen only cared about what he could take.
And he was painfully, terrifyingly good at taking.
At first, Douglas had thought the worst of what Allen had ripped away was Penny. Nikolai too, of course, but that didn’t count, not really, not when he’d been trained to leave the nest from day one. But Penny . . . she’d fit into his world, his duties, his purpose. Brought light and love and laughter, joy and passion. Just like Nikolai had. And now they were both gone.
But it didn’t take long for Douglas to remember that, in the right hands, the body could be made to suffer just as much as the heart.
And worse, his body was being used to make Nikolai suffer, too. Douglas was no fool. He knew why Allen was taking all those photos. He tried to be strong, be brave, not scream or flash his teeth or let the tears fall, not huddle in his chains, trembling like a beaten dog every time Allen drew near.
He tried to be Nikolai’s brave boy.
But the truth was that he’d never been very brave, and he’d been sure, so sure, that his days of suffering were long behind him. It wasn’t his job to suffer—that was Mat’s job. But the cowardly dog had run off with its tail between its legs and left its responsibilities in Douglas’s lap.
Well, maybe that’s what Douglas deserved for letting the dog off its chain in the first place. He’d been selfish to do it, thinking of himself, his own needs, his own desires. Thinking of Nikolai, instead of what Nikolai had taught him.
And look at him now.
He deserved this, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to keep begging for it to stop. He wasn’t strong enough not to.
Beg Allen for relief. And then, in the darkness, when he was alone with his pain and suffering, beg Nikolai to save him. Pray to him, like the remote and unhearing god he was.
A knock sounded at Mat’s door, startling him out of a decidedly unpleasant daydream. The hall door, not the one adjoining Nate’s room. He stood, contemplated the robe tossed across the bed, but . . . no. The FBI had booked every room on the hotel’s keycard access–only top floor and told the maids they wouldn’t be needed today, which meant his visitor was most likely an agent. In ten minutes he’d be naked and giving a lecture to a whole room full of agents, some of whom would be naked themselves. Best to get used to it now.
The room was comfortably warm—he’d pushed the heat up before he’d stripped—but his bare skin still pebbled as another knock sounded. He stood, sighed, scraped a hand through his hair. He could do this. He could.
“Mat? It’s me. Can I, um . . . is it okay if I come in?”
Just Roger. Mat’s pounding heart settled, but he still checked through the peephole before undoing the security chain and dead bolt and opening the door.
“Just” Roger, like the man wasn’t Nikolai’s right hand.
Roger didn’t give Mat’s nudity a second glance as he took the invitation to come inside. He’d spent months seeing it every day, after all. Mat nearly even felt comfortable like this in front of the man, though it wasn’t without bitterness that he noted Roger’s fitted gray slacks, fitted baby-blue shirt, only hint of skin at the throat where a single undone button showed a tantalizing flash of collarbone.
Roger hovered beside the bed until Mat waved permission for him to sit. Mat’s instinct was to pull up the desk chair for himself, but he made himself sit beside Roger instead. Something in him demanded he be kind and sensitive to Roger—gentle. But when too many seconds ticked by in silence, Roger staring at his hands fidgeting in his lap, jaw muscles working, Mat finally overcame his scruples and spat out, “Why are you here?”
And then immediately, irrationally felt sorry for it. Roger hunched in on himself, like he expected Mat to strike him. He looked so fucking miserable Mat seriously thought about hugging him.
“Sorry,” Mat said. A reasonable compromise. “I’m sorry, I just . . .”
Roger nodded. “Yeah, me too.” At last he looked up from his lap, met Mat’s eyes. “I just . . . when we have Douglas back, when this is over, what . . .” His gaze drifted back to his hands again, to his fingers worrying the fine cloth of his slacks. “They won’t let us go back, will they? What’s going to happen to us? To Nikolai? To . . . to me?”
Again he met Mat’s eyes, and this time, Mat’s breath caught. The poor guy looked so fucking guilty, like asking after his own fate was somehow unbearably selfish, like he wasn’t entitled to know.
Mat laid his hand atop Roger’s, stilling the restless fingers with a squeeze. “I don’t know, really. There’ll be an investigation. Trials. I don’t think they’ll send you to jail since you’re a victim too, but a psychiatric facility, maybe, where they can help you get your life back. Didn’t they talk to you about this?”
Roger nodded, bottom lip caught between his teeth, green eyes bright with nerves and fear and maybe just a touch of hope. “My life?” He huffed, not quite a laugh, too needy and desperate for that. “Will Nikolai be there too, then?”
“You don’t—” Roger flinched, and Mat realized he’d just crushed the poor guy’s hand. He made himself unclench, brushed his thumb over Roger’s wrist. “Nikolai isn’t your life, Roger.”
The fear in Roger’s eyes when he said that . . . So wide, so lost, like a wounded baby animal. Half of Mat wanted to pull him into a hug again. The other half wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled, until he remembered how to be human.
And Roger must’ve seen that frustration, that anger in Mat’s face, because he pulled his hand back, hunched his shoulders, asked, painfully soft, “Do you hate me?”
“No,” Mat said, just as soft. Except, it wasn’t really as simple as that, was it? Roger had done things. So many things, every last one of which should’ve been unforgivable. Mat shook his head as images flashed in his mind: Roger aiding Nikolai in branding him. Roger turning around in the driver’s seat of what should’ve been their salvation and shooting Mat with a tranq dart. Roger giving him the serum. Giving Dougie the serum, even as Mat begged him not to. “I don’t know,” he amended. “Maybe?” Yet he winced at Roger’s flinch, at the obvious pain it brought Roger to hear that harsh truth.
But Mat’s confusion was evidence that it wasn’t the whole truth.
He reached out, took Roger’s hand again in both his own. So gentle. He realized he didn’t want to hurt Roger. Not even a little. Ducked his head to catch Roger’s gaze. Held that, too. “I mean look, you saved my life, you know? That day you came in and found me on that chair . . .” He had to stop, swallow. That long-ago moment of weakness still flushed him with shame. “I was ready. I was gonna do it, I really was.”
Roger’s free hand brushed Mat’s cheek, and Mat closed his eyes, leaned into the touch. Let himself have that, just for the moment. Even from Roger. “I’m glad you didn’t,” Roger said. “Even if you do maybe hate me.”
The joke Roger tried to turn that into fell very, very flat. No mistaking the man’s pain for anything but what it was. Mat squeezed his hand again, looked him in the eye. “I know you think your world’s ending, Roger. But you gotta listen to me. You’re wrong. You’re gonna go check in to a hospital, away from Nikolai, and they’re going to get you therapy, and you’re going to realize there’s a whole world out there, and that you can have a life beyond all this. Trust me, I was there. Even if it was just a ruse, I spent a couple weeks in care and it did me a hell of a lot of good. I can only imagine how much better it would be if I was there for real. If people were treating me for what happened here, instead of for paranoid delusions.” Mat’s heart thumped in his chest, in his pulse points, at the realization. Being in that facility . . . it had helped. It had really helped. It could help again. There was a way past all this. If he believed Roger could eventually get better—even after decades of brainwashing and abuse—then he had to believe he could get better, too.
And just as importantly, so could Dougie.
Hope. He’d forgotten what hope felt like.
Like power. Energy. Happiness, even.
He pulled Roger into a tight, fierce hug.