The Flesh Cartel #8: Loyalties
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.
Click on a label to see its related details. Click here to toggle all details.
After Dougie’s revelation in Nikolai’s bed, after Nikolai had shushed him and held him until long after his tears had stopped, he led Dougie back down to the basement bedroom Dougie had been calling home for the last however long. Dougie wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Part of him desperately wanted to be wrapped back up in Nikolai’s arms, in Nikolai’s private inner sanctum, borrowing Nikolai’s strength and conviction and basking in his love. But another part of him knew he needed this alone time to think, to process, to deal on his own. He wasn’t helpless. He needed not to feel helpless. Had to know he could cope, at least a little, on his own.
Nikolai sat him on the bed with a lingering kiss to the crown of his head and a whispered good-night. He closed the door behind him, but he didn’t lock it.
A show of good faith, no doubt. Of trust. Dougie wasn’t sure if Nikolai wanted him to take advantage of his freedom or not, but he suspected there was no wrong answer here. Felt confident enough in that, at least, not to add fresh fuel to the banked fire of his panic. Besides, he was certain as certain could be that all the doors leading up to the ground floor were locked—Nikolai knew better than to trust him that far—and there wasn’t a single thing in the basement he wanted to see.
Mat. Mat’s down here somewhere.
Not a single thing.
His new clothes were folded in a neat pile atop the dresser on the far wall, his sneakers beside them, cleaned of the dirt and leaves he’d tracked through this afternoon. Someone had done that for him and he didn’t even know who. He thought briefly of putting them on. Thought equally briefly of throwing them away. All they meant, all they represented . . . it was too much to trust him with right now. Left him feeling too much like his old self. Maybe he should tell Nikolai that. Ask for his help—ask him to take them away so he wouldn’t have to think about it again before he was ready.
He stared at them for a long time. Until his eyes felt dry and he realized he’d forgotten to blink, even long after he’d stopped thinking of anything his conscious mind could access. Overload. Maybe even shock. Too much to wrap his head around. Too much to wrap his heart around. Best, then, just to put this whole day behind him. Sleep on it. Maybe he’d wake up with answers tomorrow.
# # #
He didn’t, though. Woke, instead, to a tentative knock at his door, and blinked into the darkness, wondering who that could possibly be. Nikolai never knocked, didn’t need to knock; this was his room and his pet inside it. Couldn’t be Mat—Dougie disgusted him, and Nikolai wouldn’t let him wander free besides. Nobody else ever came to see him here.
Another knock, just as soft as the last one. Dougie sat up in bed, groped for the light switch. Blinked against the too-bright flood of full-spectrum bulbs and mumbled, “Come in?”
The door cracked, and a face peeked around its edge. Handsome. Open. Familiar. What was his name . . .?
“Roger?” Dougie rubbed sore eyes, pulled the covers a little higher up his lap. It’d been forever since he’d thought to be shy, but it was hitting him now, powerful enough to heat his cheeks.
Roger nodded, smiling a bit sheepishly. “Mind if I come in?”
“Um.” Dougie made himself let go of the blankets, gestured a little awkwardly. Strange how quickly he’d forgotten how to talk to people. How to behave around them. “Sure?”
Roger let himself in, closed the door behind him. He was dressed more casually than Dougie remembered him being the first time they’d met—a lot like how Nikolai had dressed Dougie yesterday, actually: washed-out jeans and a soft forest-green sweater with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows. He was balancing a tray in one hand. “Brought you breakfast.”
“Um, thanks.” He tracked Roger with his eyes as the man sat on the edge of the bed, placed the tray between them, lifted the lid. Yogurt and granola and fresh fruit—perfect after yesterday’s overindulgence. His stomach grumbled. Was it okay to just dig in? Should he offer to share?
“Go on,” Roger said, nudging it forward. Added, “I already ate, so don’t mind me.”
Dougie took that for the permission it was and started mixing granola and strawberries into the yogurt. Took a bite. The sugar, or maybe just the pleasant tang of it, woke him up a little, cleared his head. He realized Roger was still sitting on the edge of the bed. Watching him with that soft, inviting smile on his face.
Was still watching him when he’d scraped the last of the yogurt from the bowl. It wasn’t unnerving so much as just plain strange. If Roger wanted something, why wasn’t he saying something? Dougie put the bowl back on the tray a little harder than he’d intended and said, “What?”
Roger made a sort of half-shrug, and his smile turned rueful. “The master thought you might find it helpful to talk with me.” When Dougie said nothing to that, he added, “Seeing as I’ve . . . you know. Been where you are.”
He looked a little uncomfortable. Dougie hadn’t seen very much of Roger, but he’d never seen him even hint at unsteadiness. Did Dougie remind him of something he didn’t want to think about? Was he worried that he couldn’t give Dougie what he needed because he’d been faking it for the last twenty years or however long he’d been stuck here? Oh God, was he—
Dougie flinched so hard from the hand landing on his knee that he almost knocked the tray off the bed. “Hey,” Roger said. “Hey, it’s okay, you don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to.”
Dougie was panting, could feel his pulse pounding at his temples and throat. And Roger’s hand, stroking soothing little circles right above his knee. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I . . . Sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Roger’s hand stopped stroking, patted Dougie once. “I’ll just . . .” He hooked his thumb toward the door, began to stand.
Dougie lunged forward and grabbed his wrist. “No!” He was on his knees somehow, his blanket-shield fallen away, the empty tray clattering on the floor. Completely naked in front of this stranger, making a mess of everything, and he didn’t even care. “No, I mean . . . please, stay.” He didn’t know why he wanted that so much—needed it so much—but he did. He did.
And thankfully, Roger sat back down. Offered him that patient smile again. Not patronizing, not condescending, not even mad about the mess on the floor. Just . . . kind. Understanding, too.
I’ve been where you are.
Dougie let go of Roger’s wrist, settled himself back against the headboard, pulled the blankets back up to his waist. All easier things to do than giving voice to any one of the jumble of questions rushing to the forefront of his mind. But he could only fidget for so long while Roger sat patiently by, and who knew how long Nikolai would let the man stay. So Dougie sucked in a deep breath and forced himself to start talking before he could overthink himself into a corner. “What, um . . .” His eyes darted to Roger’s—pretty, bright green like the kind you read about in romance novels but never see in real life—and back down to the blanket bunched in his lap. Had Nikolai chosen him for those eyes? The rest of him wasn’t so bad, either.
Off topic, Dougie. Stop stalling.
Yeah, okay. “When you . . . before, I mean, you know, before . . .”
“Nikolai saved me?” Roger offered.
Dougie nodded, desperately searching for the sincerity in that statement, for any hint of artifice. He found none. “What was it like? I mean, what did you want to be? What did you dream about? Who did you love?”
“Ah.” Roger said nothing else for a long moment, but that Ah spoke volumes. Like he knew the question Dougie was really trying to ask—How did you leave it all behind?—but wasn’t brave enough to articulate. “It was . . . confusing. Messy. Not very nice.” Roger shifted, tucked one leg up beneath him and scrubbed a hand through his dirty-blond hair. It stuck up endearingly—still cute, even at his age. And since when had Dougie started to think about other guys as cute? “My mom died when I was little. I don’t remember her at all. My dad . . . well, he loved me, but he wasn’t very good at the whole father thing, you know?” He looked down at his hands, examining his knuckles. Did he have his father’s hands? “He worked a lot. We never had much. He drank. I was fourteen when I ended up in foster care.”
Foster care. Just like Dougie had been.
No point to thinking about it, though. Trying to puzzle out the reasoning behind his capture was the action of a man still wishing to be free.
Roger, oblivious to Dougie’s revelation, went on. “I decided then and there that I wasn’t going to be like him when I grew up. I studied hard. I got into college. All I wanted was to be a cop. Not just any cop, either; I wanted to make detective. I didn’t realize until after I came here that all I’d really wanted was to not feel helpless anymore. Not feel afraid, you know? I wanted to learn how to take care of myself because there was nobody else in the world who would do it for me. Nobody else I could lean on. And I was scared all the time, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. The mast—Nikolai, Nikolai helped me. Took care of me. Taught me how not to be afraid anymore.”
“I don’t want to be afraid anymore either,” Dougie said. “Not even of Nikolai, or what might happen to me a week from now. I’m even afraid of myself, of what I might do.” To Nikolai or for Nikolai, he couldn’t say.
“My advice? Let it go. Just let it go. Give it to Nikolai. Let him carry that burden for you. He wants to.”
Dougie nodded. He believed that every bit as much as Roger clearly did, but it was still way easier said than done. “I wanted to be a therapist. A psychologist.” He paused, shut his mouth with a click of teeth. Why had he said that? Why even talk about his old life? And why to Roger, of all people? It wasn’t like Roger had been expecting him to respond. Talking about his own past and expecting the same in reply was the action of a man with ulterior motives, and no way was Roger the type. He was too . . .
God, he was too pure.
“I know. Nikolai talks to me about you.” He put up a hand before Dougie could respond, before the flash of jealousy Dougie felt at that knowledge—Nikolai confides in Roger—could fully form, let alone be analyzed. “Nothing too personal, I mean, nothing you’d be ashamed of me knowing. But where you came from, I know that. We’re alike in that way. That’s why Nikolai chose us: we want so badly to serve. I wanted to serve the law, serve my community. You wanted to serve people’s mental health . . . which I guess serves the community, too. But the kind of service we were striving for? It’s a losing battle, and we’d have burned out and the world would have eaten us alive. Even worse, it’s not what we really want. It’s just . . .” He shrugged. “A Band-Aid. A symptom of a deeper disease, of a pain we’d never have figured out how to heal on our own, one we were trying so desperately to guard against feeling again. But this kind of service . . .” He gestured in a way that encompassed the room, Nikolai, even some unknown new master waiting in the future. “This we can do. Nikolai won’t let us fail. And Nikolai healed me.”
Roger met Dougie’s eyes, and Dougie was shocked to see them shining with wetness, with a kind of devotion he himself had never known, never understood. “Nikolai will heal you too, if you let him.”
Dougie swallowed hard, and thought about school, and studying, and his old dreams of a practice, of rescuing Mat from a life of fighting, rescuing himself from . . . from what? Maybe Roger was right. Maybe he had been trying to rescue himself from a life of misery and fear. Maybe he’d picked psychology not out of passion but out of self-preservation. If he could master the human mind, if he could master the art of therapy and healing, then maybe he could heal himself. Was that what he’d been doing all that time? Chasing futilely after some panacea for his wounded soul and inadvertently making himself even more miserable in the process?
Could Nikolai really help him stop running from himself?
Looking into Roger’s earnest, open eyes, he dared to hope the answer was yes.
# # #