The Flesh Cartel #18: The Long Road
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 woke in a strange bed in a strange room in strange clothes and tried very, very hard not to panic. Kept his eyes closed, his breathing steady, lest he tip off anyone that he was awake before he figured out where he was and what would be expected of him now.
Clothes. He was dressed. And not the lacy scratch of panties or the digging constriction of a corset or bra. He shifted, pretending to roll over in his sleep. Flannel, from the heaven-soft feel of cloth brushing over skin. Tops and bottoms. And . . . were those boxers underneath the pants? Yes.
Like Dobby’s sock, underwear meant only one thing: freedom. He was free. He was Doug now, not Douglas. Hadn’t had to remind himself of that in at least a week, but then, today was the first day he’d been outside the group home. New apartment. New identity. Baltimore. With Mat.
It was early still, predawn light creating a gentle glow around the white blinds on his bedroom window. The apartment was silent. So was the street below, though a careful listen revealed the sporadic sounds of traffic somewhere in the near distance.
He tossed the covers back—pale blue cotton sheets and a white down comforter that’d come with the room—and sat up carefully. Muscle memory, that: expecting his body to ache, to need gentle handling. But it didn’t. He felt refreshed, in fact, after a surprisingly good night’s sleep born of exhaustion and a comfortable, private bed. He even felt safe, more or less; he was Samuel Senders for the next two months—my friends call me Sam—and nobody who might hurt him knew he was here.
Except Mat, of course.
But Mat hadn’t ever actually hurt him on purpose, had he. By omission and selfishness, maybe. By recklessness and stupidity, definitely. And yet Doug couldn’t help but think of yesterday, of that pure unselfish carefree joy in them both, if only for a little while. Of Mat dropping what’d once been ten whole weeks’ worth of pocket cash, unasked, on a silly little painting Doug couldn’t even explain why he liked—and this after having spent three times that on clothes and shoes and accessories and food in the span of a single day. If Mat really were only keeping Doug around to support him in his inevitable retirement, he wouldn’t have done that, right? Wouldn’t have done any of it. Not the painting, and not the fancy running shoes, and maybe not even the ice cream. Wouldn’t have hugged him in the middle of that gallery, where people could look and judge and . . . and . . . and punish. Maybe not like Allen or Nikolai punished, but punish nonetheless. Hard stares and raised voices and derision and withheld affection and all that bullshit people everywhere always did to those over whom they wielded power.
But Mat hadn’t done any of that yesterday, or let anyone else do it either. And that had to mean something, right?
Doug slid out of bed, the hardwood floor cold beneath his bare feet, and crept to the bathroom in the hall. Mat’s bedroom door was open, lights off. Better not wake him. He might not beat Doug for it—he’d never had that right in any case, and Doug’d be damned if he’d let some conservatorship change that—but there were plenty of other ways to hurt someone who depended on you. Especially someone who’d been forced to depend on you.
So he closed the bathroom door as quietly as he could, and only then turned on the light. He’d wait to shower until Mat was awake lest he risk the noise disturbing Mat—wasn’t like he had to be all neat and clean for anyone now anyway—but he emptied his bladder and brushed his teeth. Then he ran a comb through his hair out of habit. Wasn’t sure what to do with himself after that. Just stood in the bathroom for a long moment, blinking into the mirror.
He looked gaunt. Tired. Not Nikolai’s pretty boy anymore, not even Allen’s dolled-up toy. Nobody would want him like this. No one but other slaves, anyway—his fellows at the group home had been plenty eager to sample Nikolai’s goods, and he’d gone along with it, of course he had, because how else would he fit in, and what else was he good for? What else did he know? What meaning could he find if he wasn’t making people happy, even if they were just slaves?
No. Not slaves anymore. Broken, discarded, masterless toys, just like you.
God, he missed Nikolai. Fuck the lies, and the scheming, and the manipulations, and the fact that Nikolai had abandoned Doug for money. It was all true—he knew it was true, and he didn’t even care. It didn’t matter. Not when there’d been such clarity of purpose, such contentment, such a sense of love and safety. All he had now were doubts, and fears, and aimless drifting. He would let Nikolai lie and hurt and manipulate him all over again if he could just have that silence in his mind back. That blessed, breathless conviction.
And God, what did it say about him that he’d willingly return to all of that, just to escape the harsh reality of all of this? Of the doubts and the fears and the uncertain future. Of never knowing what to feel or who to be or how to act. Of dissecting every word, every expression, every response to his behaviors in everyone else. Even Mat. Especially Mat.
Hiding in the bathroom forever will not help you find answers, Doug.
No, he supposed it wouldn’t. But at least nothing hurt in here. Not if he didn’t let himself linger.
Except, of course, that lingering was exactly what he was doing. He needed a distraction. A new purpose. Something to take his mind off all the . . . well, everything.
Kind of made a guy want to drink, or get high. He might have no money, but it wasn’t like that’d be a problem; he had plenty to barter in the right circles, after all.
But Mat already thought he was a fuck-up, and so did the courts. And whoring for drug money wouldn’t exactly help with that. If he wanted Mat’s love—and to be fair, he still wasn’t sure he did, but something in him just wouldn’t let it go—then he needed to stay away from booze and needles. If he wanted to be master of his own life—and really, he wasn’t sure he wanted that either, didn’t know if he could ever handle responsibility like that—then he needed to stay clean.
Which brought him back to distractions. Maybe he would go for a run. Not with Mat, not yet. That was too . . . personal, maybe, too much like before. But on his own. For himself. Explore more of the city, regain more of his strength. Clear his mind with the simplicity of one foot in front of the other for as long as he could bear it.
Thus resolved, he shut the bathroom light off, then opened the door and crept back to his room in the dark, one hand on the wall to guide him down the unfamiliar hall. Bedroom door closed, he fumbled for the light switch, then pulled on a new pair of running shorts and an Adidas T-shirt. Just like Mat used to wear. Like Dougie used to wear, too, because big bro liked them and Dougie wanted to be just like his big bro when he grew up.
Hah. Yeah. That’d gone well, hadn’t it.
Whatever. He tugged on a pair of socks and laced up his new sneakers, hoping he’d be able to break them in without blisters.
Not that a minor pain like that bothered him these days. Not likely he’d even notice it.
Or maybe, just maybe, you need it now. Maybe you’re that twisted.
Great. One more thought to try to outrun.
He crept out of his bedroom and down the dark hall, feeling his way into the living room. Couldn’t find his keys without turning on the light; hopefully this far from Mat’s bedroom it wouldn’t be bright enough to wake him.
Turned out he hadn’t needed to worry about Mat’s bedroom at all. Mat was right there on the living room couch. Curled up asleep fully clothed . . . and he wasn’t alone. He was snuggled up against another man’s chest—Agent Johnson’s chest, the one responsible for their case. Well, that answered Doug’s questions as to the nature of their relationship: sleeping with someone was intimate enough on its own, never mind sleeping with someone after going through what Doug and Mat had been through.
Doug’s stomach churned. His hands tightened into fists. Why was it okay for Mat to fuck around, but when Doug did it, everyone looked down their noses at him? Even Mat had half lectured, half begged him to stop when he’d found out Doug had been sleeping with some of the residents at the group home.
And how fucking dare he, when he was doing the same damn thing? Worse, even. At least Doug wasn’t sticking his cock into the fucking trial.
Neither man had woken at the lights being turned on, but Doug could certainly correct that with a yell.
But did he want to, really? Was he being too harsh here? They were both fully clothed, after all; maybe they hadn’t fucked. Maybe they’d never even kissed. Maybe it was just a matter of simple human affection. God knew Doug understood that need well enough. He’d clung to Mat plenty of times, even in the past few weeks, even through his doubts and fears and mistrust. Did he hate Mat so much that he’d begrudge him a similar scrap of comfort and affection?
Didn’t he do the same to you when it came to Nikolai?
But Doug knew that wasn’t really the same. Even if Mat was wrong, his spite for Nikolai had been born of protectiveness. Doug wasn’t protective of Mat, he was just plain jealous.
He wanted someone to hold him like that. Someone who wanted more than a blowjob or a willing ass. Someone he trusted enough to fall asleep with.
And maybe he even wanted to be the one to hold Mat like that. Like brothers should be able to. Should want to. Like they had, once upon a time, when life had seemed so uncomplicated, when he’d been so naive.
He wrapped his arms around himself, watching them both.
Agent Johnson must have felt his stare, because his eyes cracked open. He took Doug in and, apparently deciding he wasn’t a threat, slipped back to sleep, tightening his arm around Mat’s shoulder.
In his sleep, Mat sighed.
Yeah, okay, message received. Their closeness wasn’t for him. Fine. He snatched his keys off the hook by the door, shoved them in his pocket. Laid his hand on the knob, but then found himself turning around, grabbing the beige throw off the back of the couch and covering the sleeping men. Too many long days of service, of anticipating needs, ingrained into his mind. Nothing at all to do with how he might’ve felt for Mat, before or now.
Just habit, that was all.
Mat shifted and sighed again, a contented sound, and burrowed a little deeper beneath the blanket against Agent Johnson’s chest.
Doug left them to it. Closed the front door behind him as quietly as he could, and didn’t bother warming up before he took off like a shot down the sidewalk.
Nate woke when something cracked him in the face.
Mat’s elbow, he realized as he came into awareness, hands cupped around his throbbing nose.
The man himself was crouched on the living room floor in a fight stance, eyes wild and lost, looking nearly feral.
“You’re okay,” Nate said, extending his free hand in truce. Take care of Mat, that was the first priority, even if he was the one who’d gotten hit.
Mat blinked, and the look of fear vanished from his face. He was at Nate’s side in an instant.
“I’m okay?” He wrapped an arm around Nate’s shoulder as he tried to pluck Nate’s hand away from his face. “Are you okay? Jesus, I’m sorry, man. Guess you shouldn’t sleep with a UFC fighter with PTSD, huh?” Nate had expected him to be shaken or humiliated, but he seemed mostly concerned about Nate. He clucked and cooed, then sighed with relief. “No blood, at least. I am sorry, though.”
Nate flopped back against the couch, guilt gnawing at him. Mat’s words, joking though they may have been, rang true. He really shouldn’t be sleeping with Mat. The guy obviously wasn’t ready for that kind of intimacy, not in such an unguarded, unpredictable state as sleep.
But even awake, it was risky. He shouldn’t be kissing Mat, either. The man was too raw, too conflicted, too—
“That nightmare worked up a sweat,” Mat said, and gave himself an exaggerated sniff. “How about we take this to the shower?”
Maybe Nate was completely off base about what Mat could handle. What he was ready for. The nightmares were troubling, and sure, being elbowed in the nose wasn’t awesome, but if Mat could bounce back so quickly afterward, then why couldn’t Nate go along for the ride? Why couldn’t he trust Mat’s resilience more?
Mat stared at him, his mouth slanted with disapproval. “You’re going to pull one of your speeches, aren’t you? That’s your pussying-out face. You’re about to tell me why we shouldn’t be doing this, and how I’m not ready or strong enough, right?”
“Honestly?” Mat’s expression hardened all the more, and Nate’s shoulders drooped. “That was exactly what I was thinking. But then I was thinking maybe I should stop underestimating you so much.”
A grin cracked that stony expression. “So the big fancy FBI agent does learn.” And even though Nate’s head was still full of reasons why this was wrong—some of them profoundly compelling—when Mat extended a hand to him, Nate took it. And smiled helplessly when Mat pecked him on the lips and led him down the hall.
The bathroom was cramped, an old black-and-white tiled affair with a claw-foot tub and a round shower curtain suspended from the ceiling. The lights in here were too bright, too harsh, too damn clinical, so Nate turned them off in favor of the hall light outside.
It made Mat smile. Nate just hoped it was enough to lend Mat the strength to do . . . whatever it was they were about to do. Get naked together, at the very least. Maybe even more? Mat was brave, he wasn’t broken, and it was true that Nate had underestimated him, but everyone needed a little help sometimes.
In the hazier lighting, Mat looked perfect, glowing but cut with shadows at the same time. Nate couldn’t speak, so he didn’t. He just unbuttoned his crumpled shirt. He wanted to unbutton Mat’s too, but no . . . let Mat reveal himself in his own time. No pressure, no commentary, but no pitying comments either. No staring, but also no avoiding. No making Mat feel like a show, and especially no making him feel like an object of pity.
Nate hoped, anyway.
He dropped his shirt on top of the toilet. Shucked his undershirt. Glanced at Mat to find him staring openly back. He hadn’t even begun to remove his clothes yet.
Shit. This was a bad idea. A bad, bad idea. He should just put his shirt back on and leave. Apologize. Not come back until the trial was over. He
No. He should stop fucking falling into the old damaging patterns of behavior, was what he should do. He resolutely brought his hands to the button on his slacks. Made himself meet Mat’s eyes, and wiggled both eyebrows. “Enjoying the show?” he teased.
“Yes,” Mat said, so quickly and firmly there was little room left in Nate’s mind for doubt. Of course, he couldn’t help but notice that Mat hadn’t begun to strip yet. Or that no telltale bulge was tenting Mat’s pants.
Still, this was when, if they’d been a normal couple—Couple? Is that really what we are?—he’d have started stripping Mat in return. And if he didn’t want to get punched in the nose again, he needed to treat Mat like he treated everyone else.
So, smile still firmly in place, he asked, “Do I get to enjoy one too?”
He half expected to be hit for that anyway, for Mat to freak out again, but all it seemed to do was shake Mat out of his funk, like he’d only just now realized he was still fully clothed; the man’s hands went to the hem of his hoodie and stripped it and the T-shirt beneath it off in a single swift motion. He let it drop on the toilet lid on top of Nate’s clothes. Nate tried not to invent meaning for that, something about how mingling laundry implied intimacy or trust, but obviously he wasn’t doing so well in that regard.
Fact was, he was pretty fucking hopelessly head over heels here.
And Mat was fucking beautiful. Nate had to force himself not to stare, let alone reach out and touch.
Especially when it was obvious how nervous Mat was. He wasn’t hiding himself, wasn’t so much as hunching his shoulders, but he made no move to take his pants off, and even in the low light, Nate could see his pulse hammering away in his throat.
So was he or wasn’t he supposed to remind Mat now that they didn’t have to do this? That Mat didn’t have anything to prove to him or anyone else? Would that make things better or worse?
He wished there were a guide for all this. Maybe, if they stuck it out, they could see Mat’s therapist together sometime.
In the end, it was Mat who broke the awkward tension, thankfully taking the decision out of Nate’s hands. “So,” he said, chuckling weakly. “We gonna shower with our pants on or what?”
At least fifty separate muscles unknotted in Nate’s back. His smile wasn’t forced at all when he said, “Well, we should probably at least take our socks off. Wet socks are gross, man.”
And then he lifted one foot and did just that. Mat followed suit. Somehow, after the socks, the pants were easy; Mat visibly tensed when Nate unbuckled his belt (which in turn had Nate wondering if he should make the switch to suspenders—he was pretty sure Nikolai had never beaten Mat bloody with those), but that moment passed too.
Nate didn’t hide his erection when he slipped out of his briefs. He didn’t draw attention to it, either.
Mat took a deep breath, let it out, and then he was naked too.
Gorgeous. Top to bottom, no exceptions. Nate drank him in. Let himself drink Mat in. Avoiding looking at Mat’s body was the behavior of a man who still saw that body as evidence, no more erotic than a crime scene photo.
And that just wasn’t true. Whether or not Nate felt guilty or conflicted, there was no denying the rush of pleasure from looking at the hard lines of Mat’s body. The defined pecs, the ridges of his abs, the perfect shadows etched by his Apollo’s belt. His heavy, hanging dick, soft though it was. No missing that.
“Sh-shower,” Nate said. “Please tell me you like them hot.”
Mat let that little bit of unintended innuendo pass without comment. He turned away shyly to fiddle with the taps, like he was grateful for the excuse to hide himself. Nate’s eyes went immediately to the collection of fading scars on Mat’s back and flanks, the places where belt buckles and whip crackers had met the thinnest flesh, where the bones were closest to the surface. Not as bad as when he’d first escaped, but still impossible to miss. Some Mat would no doubt carry forever.
“Hot’s good,” Mat said, back still turned and shoulders tight, testing the water with his hand. “I’m stiff from the couch.”
Nate let that little bit of unintended innuendo pass without comment, too. Just stepped over the high lip of the tub when Mat did. Left plenty of space between them as he drew the curtain closed, shrouding them in dimness.
We don’t have to do this, Mat. It’s fine. I won’t think any less of you.
But he kept those words locked behind clenched teeth. Wouldn’t do that to Mat. Not again.
Instead, he’d trust Mat. Trust Mat to know what he wanted and what he was ready for, how much discomfort he could handle and whether or not it was worth it. Trust him to speak up if he changed his mind.
“I can feel you brooding back there, Nate.”
The words were judgmental, but his tone was light. Okay, maybe a little frustrated, too, and definitely tense, but he didn’t sound angry, at least. He stuck his head under the spray. Turned around to face Nate. Water plastered his hair to his head and ran down his face and neck and shoulders and— Ahem. Clung to his every curve and hollow, just like Nate wanted to. God, if any more blood ran to his cock, he was going to pass out.
“Sorry,” he croaked. “Are you—” His hands flapped up in some aborted gesture he couldn’t even identify, fell back to his sides. Don’t ask if he’s okay, don’t ask if he’s okay. The bathroom was beginning to steam up; a drop of sweat ran down Nate’s temple. “I mean, um . . .”
Mat held out a bar of soap and a washcloth, and his smile was clearly amused, but his hands were trembling. “Wash me?”
“God yes,” Nate gushed before he could stop himself. He took the soap and washcloth. And then lowered to his knees at Mat’s feet.
He wasn’t sure why he’d done that. His face heated. Mat gave him a bewildered stare, but Nate wasn’t going to ruin this. He wasn’t, so he went along with what his body had started and washed Mat’s feet. Focused really, really hard on them, because otherwise he was going to wind up hypnotized by a faceful of dick.
It was kind of appropriate too, in a way. Washing Mat’s feet, he pictured biblical stories, stories about faithfulness and willing servitude and humility and reverence and ritual cleansing. Every last one of those things rang true in his heart, in his head, as Mat lifted one foot and then the other to allow Nate to run the soap over the arches and under the soles.
Even over his brand. Especially over his brand; to avoid or glance over that scar too quickly was to treat it as something shameful, when it wasn’t. It was a part of Mat now, and while Nate could hate that it had happened in the first place, he wouldn’t let that hate get in the way of loving Mat, all of him, just as he was.
He didn’t touch Mat skin to skin, though he ached to. Soap. Cloth. Up his calves. Behind his knees. His hard, curving thighs, tense and twitching a little beneath Nate’s ministrations, though whether from ticklishness or . . . something else altogether, Nate couldn’t tell.
Come on, Nate. What are the odds he has such ticklish thighs?
But it didn’t matter because Mat was standing still for it. Head down, eyes tracking every movement of Nate’s hand. Breathing hard, though by the looks of his soft cock, not for the same reasons Nate was breathing hard. But Mat wasn’t giving up on them, and neither would Nate.
He worked steadily. Front of thighs. Back of thighs. Inside thighs. Which led him, inevitably, to Mat’s groin. Cock and balls. He washed them tenderly, as tenderly and thoughtfully and reverently as Mat’s feet. It was a privilege to touch Mat this way, and he felt that sense of gratitude from his overflowing heart right down to his fingertips.
He kept eye contact the whole time. To show he wasn’t ashamed, yes, but also to give Mat a face to look at. His face. No anonymous hands pawing at him. Nate’s hands.
Through the barrier of the cloth, he felt Mat’s cock stir and thicken. A part of him wanted to linger, coax that nascent erection to life, but to do so would disrupt the ritual, and Nate needed—needed—to see that to completion first. So he moved on, sweeping his hands around Mat’s stiff body to the plusher curves of his ass.
No surprise, Mat clenched. Nate touched him anyway—gentle, questing touches—holding his gaze the whole time.
Mat didn’t shove Nate away, but Nate saw him swallow.
You’re so damn brave, he wanted to say, but to speak seemed taboo.
He stood, and Mat turned without being directed. Nate scrubbed his back, once again affording his scars the same reverence as the unmarked flesh. All beautiful. All lean and hard and most importantly, unbowed.
Nate was ruined for anyone else.
Maybe he always had been. What man could possibly compare to this fighter at his peak?
He washed Mat’s shoulders, from the blades over to his arms, one by one. When Mat turned around again, the arousal was plain on his face. Huge pupils, flushed skin. He even bit his lip. His hand caught Nate’s wrist. Pushed it low, never breaking eye contact.
But Nate didn’t touch him, not where he wanted to be touched. Not . . . yet. He moved forward, until they were in each other’s space, skin glancing skin as they shifted and breathed. He washed Mat’s abdomen. Circled the soap over his chest. Mat gasped, head tipping back, when Nate swiped the washcloth over his nipples. The urge to lean in then, to put lips and teeth to that strong neck or those tender pink nubs, was nearly overwhelming, but he just tightened his grip on the washcloth and soap and reminded himself of every tense, trembling muscle, every nervous flutter of Mat’s pulse up until now.
He wouldn’t screw this up. Not again. It was too fucking important.