The Flesh Cartel #7: Homecoming
With a wedge at last driven between Mat and Dougie Carmichael, courtesy of Nikolai Petrovic’s expert manipulations, the brothers must each accept their new path forward: Dougie, a perfect slave, sweet and obedient and loving. Mat, a tightly reined dog, snarling and snapping but never allowed to bite.
Unfortunately, no transformation, however well planned, is without its growing pains. Mat’s leash is so tight it’s choking him. Dougie is tormented by a little voice inside his head—a fragment of his former self—that he cannot silence.
And Nikolai’s most difficult tests for the brothers are still to come.
The critical question isn’t whether they can pass those tests, but whether they even want to. Without each other to lean on and live for, a bleak future has become bleaker still. But Nikolai’s too good to let his slaves slip through his fingers—by death or by despair.
A noose, a nighttime sky, a shared lover, an unexpected friend. A foreboding forest cabin. A lavish party with all the debauchery Nikolai’s clientele could want. It’s all coming in season 3 of the Flesh Cartel.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Mat had few regrets in life, but the ones he held on to, those were big. Being too afraid to leave home at eighteen when Coach Darryl had first offered to take him on. Begging his parents to make the long drive to Bristol to watch some stupid fight, then pushing them away from the after-party (I’m nineteen now, Mom, I don’t need a babysitter!), and waking up at 3 a.m. to news of the accident that’d killed them on the way home. Losing Dougie to foster parents for five long years after that.
But none of that—none of that—compared to the regret he felt now at what he’d let happen in that room with Nikolai’s sick-fuck pedo client. At what he’d let Dougie think. The heartbreak, the betrayal on Dougie’s face, was the single most painful thing Mat had ever laid eyes on. How had he let Nikolai convince him that was right? How could he have abandoned—no, shoved away the most important person in the world to him? The one person in the world to whom he, in turn, was also most important?
God, he was a monster.
He rolled onto his back, then curled up on his other side, away from the family photo and younger-Dougie’s innocent, beaming grin, hugging his blanket tight around his shoulders. Moving hurt. Existing hurt. But whatever. That was fine. No less than he deserved.
He lay there awhile. He didn’t know how long. No sense of time in the endless merry-go-round of recrimination and self-loathing he was riding. Every so often, he’d escape it long enough to think about the safety razor in the bathroom. Maybe he could break the blade free somehow. All eighth of an inch of it. Yeah, fat lot of good that’d do him.
He must’ve slept at some point; he woke to the door opening, soft footsteps on the hardwood floor. Not Nikolai—no click of dress-shoe heels. He kept his eyes closed. Couldn’t be bothered to look.
The bed dipped under someone’s weight. A gentle hand brushed across his shoulder above the blanket. “I brought food. You should try to eat.”
Roger. Mat didn’t deserve the sympathy in the man’s voice, in his touch. He lurched away, didn’t bother to stifle the moan of pain at the motion.
“At least take these?” A hand appeared near his face, three little white pills cupped in an open palm. “Tylenol with codeine. You’ll feel better.”
Mat snaked one arm out from under the blanket and knocked Roger’s hand away.
“Hmm.” A thoughtful noise: half sympathetic, half disapproving. “The master said you might feel that way. I’ll just leave them right here in case you change your mind.” A soft tap—the sound of the pills being placed on the nightstand. Roger stood, disappeared into the en suite. Ran some water. Came back a moment later. Another soft tap—probably a cup of water. The man was babying him, for fuck’s sake. He didn’t deserve to be babied.
Roger sighed. “All right then. I’ll come check on you again in a little while.”
Mat ignored him some more.
“Try to eat,” Roger said again, then left, shutting the door softly behind him.
For the first time in a long time, Dougie drifted lazily into wakefulness, like sleeping in until past noon on a Sunday. He shifted inside his cocoon of warm covers and cool sheets, sighed, stretched . . . and remembered.
That horrible man.
Mat, standing by and doing absolutely nothing.
For the first time in his life, Dougie woke up in a world where he was alone.
No. He had Nikolai now.
Nikolai. Last night . . . yesterday . . . when had it . . . No, it didn’t matter. Before he’d gone to sleep, he and Nikolai had . . . They’d kissed. Dougie had been a good boy for him. Pleasured him. Pleased him. Nikolai had been good to Dougie in return. Not just good. Had loved him.
Love seemed to come so easy to Nikolai; why was it so hard for Dougie? He’d felt it for a moment last night, he was sure of it—an instant of clarity, transcendence, his heart light and full. And yet now it was just . . . gone. Slipped away.
He’d found it once in Nikolai’s arms. Maybe he could find it there again.
The last time he’d been a good boy for Nikolai, he’d woken in those arms. And this time? He reached out, searching by feel, not ready yet to pull back the covers and actually face the light of the outside world.
The bed was empty.
But why? Hadn’t he been good enough? Had Nikolai sensed he was a fraud? Nikolai had promised to help Dougie be who Nikolai wanted him to be. He’d promised. Dougie couldn’t do this without him, he knew that now, just as surely as he knew he couldn’t not do this and stay alive in this place. Strange how he felt no more fear about that, no more fear about changing, becoming something else—though the lack of fear itself did frighten him a little. But what frightened him most was the possibility that Nikolai had lied. That he wouldn’t help. That Dougie would be thrust back to the dark days of endless pain and need and terror and uncertainty and never, ever get to be at peace again.
Had it all been another mindfuck, one he didn’t yet comprehend? God, what was about to happen here?
Regardless, he couldn’t stay under the covers much longer, because this wasn’t a lazy Sunday. Lazy Sundays were for free men. Not their pets. Not their slaves. He should get up. Do something. Show Nikolai he deserved to be a cherished pet, not a kicked and broken one. Trust that this wasn’t a mindfuck—that Nikolai had meant all the things he’d said—or that if it was a mindfuck, it was all for the best.
Trust Nikolai. Be the person Nikolai wanted him to be. Which started with waking up.
Except the room spun when he threw the covers back, and his limbs felt strange, heavy, not quite under his control.
“Easy, easy, it’s all right, Douglas. Don’t get up.”
Nikolai. Soft voice, then softer hands at Dougie’s shoulders, urging him back down. Fingers stroking his cheek. Petting his hair. Relief so profound he could’ve wept—he’s not mad at me he hasn’t abandoned me he won’t hurt me. Objectively, he knew he shouldn’t feel that way. But in his heart, he couldn’t change it. Didn’t want to change it. Not when the alternative was going back to how things were before. Or going to a monster like the man who’d hurt him yesterday. No. He’d take this, grab what Nikolai was offering with both hands and never let go. Nikolai would show him how.
“I just went to fetch you some breakfast. I was hoping you wouldn’t wake while I was gone; I didn’t want you to think you were alone.”
Nikolai’s smile could’ve soothed a wailing baby back to sleep. Dougie focused on it, tried to match it with one of his own. Tried to feel something more than . . . than what? Gratitude, perhaps. A lessening of fear. Tried to recapture the affection he’d felt last night, when he’d taken Nikolai into his mouth and sucked him and it hadn’t been a chore at all.
For a moment, Nikolai became two Nikolais, then coalesced back together. Dougie rubbed his eyes, and when he opened them again, Nikolai was sitting beside him, leaning in close, still smiling that soothing smile. He brushed the hair off Dougie’s forehead and followed his fingers with a brush of his lips. “You were quite restless this morning. I gave you something for the pain. Perhaps that’s why you look so confused now.”
No judgment in those words. Mild amusement instead. “Th-thank you, sir,” Dougie managed. He sounded like he’d swallowed a frog.
No, just Nikolai’s cock, spat some quiet little voice in a far corner of his mind. Dougie shoved at it, pushed it farther into the darkness and slammed a door on it. He couldn’t afford to listen to that voice anymore.
Nikolai handed him a glass of orange juice.
“Thank you, sir,” he said again, and made a show of taking a sip. Thank you was easy. Gratitude was easy. And maybe gratitude wasn’t a far step from affection. Maybe that was how all love began. Mothers took care of their babies, and their babies loved them for it. Maybe he just needed to be patient.
Nikolai was watching him closely, but that soothing smile was still on his lips, in his eyes. Crinkling the bridge of his nose, even. He was so handsome when he smiled like that, like he meant it. “Do you think you can sit up?”
Dougie nodded. Nikolai took the juice from him and propped pillows behind Dougie’s back so he could lean against them. Brought over a tray with short legs from the table and placed it over Dougie’s lap. Breakfast in bed? When was the last time anyone had brought him breakfast in bed? Pattie, maybe, back when he was . . . fourteen? When he’d caught bronchitis and missed two solid weeks of school. When he’d wept inconsolably for his dead mother and Pattie had tried so, so hard to fill her shoes.
And now Nikolai was here, filling Mat’s shoes.
And just as with Pattie, Dougie would do his best to let him.
Nikolai didn’t have to tell Dougie to eat, not anymore. Even though he wasn’t hungry at all, he dug into the omelet on the tray, trying to look appreciative as he did so. He told himself that his willingness to choke down food was out of gratitude for Nikolai’s kindness and not out of fear of his wrath. But Dougie remembered all too well what had happened the last time he’d refused to eat.
I can’t let myself be afraid of him anymore. Maybe love and fear could coexist—because what were abusive relationships, if not that exact combination?—but he had a feeling that for that to happen in nature, the love had to come first. And it hadn’t for Dougie and Nikolai, which meant . . . Dougie was sure the fear had to go, even if that meant it had to be surgically excised. Subtract fear. Add love. Nikolai would know the math, have the right prescription.
“You know,” Nikolai said, and though his voice held the same gentle amusement as his smile, Dougie still jumped. “When I was first brought here, I didn’t eat for almost a week.”
Brought here? Nikolai? “I . . . You . . .?” Intelligent, Dougie. Really intelligent. He put his plastic fork down, looked into Nikolai’s eyes. “Brought here, sir?”
Nikolai picked up the fork, cut off a bite of omelet, and held it to Dougie’s lips. Dougie’s mouth knew what to do all on its own: open, accept, chew, swallow. God knew he’d done it enough, with whatever was pressed to his lips. Nikolai smiled; Dougie felt a warm little shiver travel down the back of his neck. That was good, right? He’d pleased him, and Nikolai’s pleasure had pleasured Dougie in return. A step in the right direction, surely. Maybe Dougie could do this after all.
“Yes, brought to this very house, actually.” He speared a cube of cantaloupe and fed it to Dougie. “I was five. I came with my mother. Didn’t speak a word of English.”
“Your mother?” It was hard to imagine Nikolai having parents like a normal person, even though it had to be true. This was the real world, even if it didn’t feel like it anymore; Nikolai hadn’t been decanted. He hadn’t risen fully formed from the shadows. He was . . . just a man. And all men had once been boys.
“A miserable woman,” Nikolai said with a nod. “Until . . . Well. My mentor was her mentor as well. He took care of us both. Made us into our best possible selves.”
Dougie nearly gagged on the bite of toast Nikolai was feeding him. A five-year-old? Here? Being . . . Ugh. He shuddered, swallowed hard. No wonder Nikolai was—
“You misunderstand, Douglas. I was like you, but not. I suppose I could have wound up a slave, had the dice rolled differently for me, but as it was, my mentor was a specialist, like I am now. He had no interest in training a child into service. He did, however, have great interest in raising an heir. I think sometimes perhaps that’s the only reason he acquired my mother at all.”
Swallowing his toast became easier, but not by much. God, to be five years old and ripped from your world, from everything and everyone you knew. Well, not everyone—Nikolai had had his mother after all—but after how things had gone down with Dougie and Mat, Dougie wondered if maybe it was better to be alone. Nikolai had always been so sure of the fact that Dougie and Mat’s relationship couldn’t survive their training. Had he spoken from experience?
“So, um, your . . .”
“Mentor?” Another gentle smile, an arched eyebrow. Had Nikolai always looked so warm and inviting when he was happy? Had Dougie just failed to notice before? Or had he just not managed to make Nikolai happy before today? Nikolai didn’t say anything after that, merely sat there smiling, waiting for Dougie to finish.
“Was he . . . I mean, was he very patient with you, sir?” Dougie didn’t know how else to phrase it. Being any more blunt when talking about a child—even a child who’d grown up to be Nikolai—made him want to be sick.
Nikolai nodded. “Always. Though he wasn’t a man accustomed to repeating himself. Or dealing with children, I don’t think. When I refused to eat for a time, he grew very cross because he worried for me, you see. He didn’t want me to fall ill. I understand that now, training boys of my own. I know now, in my heart—” he flattened his hand to his chest, patted twice “—how wretched the worry can be. How deep one’s love can go. How very much you ache for the best in life for your boys. He no sooner wanted me to suffer than I want you to suffer. But, like any good guardian, he was unafraid to punish me to protect me from myself. And for a long time I couldn’t understand that. So I feared him. I even hated him. I tried to run away. I picked fights. I said terrible things.”
Just like me with you. Dougie picked up his second slice of toast and ate it on his own. See? I can learn. I won’t make you worry about me.