“Ackles, I need you to make the trip this time.”
Jensen looks up from his notepad. All eyes at the conference table are on him, surprise all around, mixed with looks of outright jealousy.
Jensen’s former personal relationship with the boss is common knowledge, and even though the sexual dimension ended shortly before Jensen was hired, there’s still some suspicion among his co-workers.
Working for Jeffrey Dean Morgan hasn’t been easy, though. The man is one tough boss. It’s taken Jensen four years to work his way up the ranks to the point where he can sit in on these upper-level meetings. At 32, he’s the youngest senior partner in the firm, and that’s not lost on his co-workers, either.
Even so, he’s never been asked to represent the company on a trading mission to Secundus. The boss has always gone himself, or sent his top aide, Jim Beaver. It’s considered risky to send someone who hasn’t spent time there, and both Morgan and Beaver have lived on the colonized moon.
Jensen’s never even been there.
“Sir, are you sure that’s such a good idea?” Misha Collins pipes up. “He’s pretty green, isn’t he? You always said the Secundus missions took special experience.”
Jensen schools his features so that he doesn’t openly glare at Collins. The brown-noser has been dying for a promotion, feels he’s owed Jim Beaver’s spot when the older man retires. He’s been with the company longer than Jensen, but only by a couple of years.
“Yeah, well, this time the General specifically asked for him,” Morgan growls, daring Collins to protest further.
Jensen raises his eyebrows, but says nothing. He recognizes Morgan’s shifty expression, the way he deliberately avoids making eye contact. This is something he wants to discuss privately, so Jensen plays it cool, doesn’t overreact.
General Sheppard visited last month, and Jensen remembers well the way he looked at him. It’s not something he’s comfortable with, but he thinks he can handle it. It’s not like it’s the first time he’s been on the receiving end of looks like that.
Collins glances at Jensen, eyes narrowing. He’s not Jensen’s type, but worse than that, he suspects he’ll never be as valuable to the company as Jensen is. That makes him dangerous, but Jensen figures he can handle that, too. Misha Collins is a whiner, a schemer, and a double-crossing player, but he lacks star power. He’ll never be a leader.
“When do I leave?” Jensen asks, and Morgan meets his eyes for the first time. There’s pride in his gaze, which is how Jensen knows he’s playing this the right way.
“Tomorrow,” Morgan answers, nodding, the barest hint of a smile in his eyes. “Come to my office after the meeting for your briefing.”
“Yes, sir.” Jensen keeps his tone even, doesn’t give away the pounding of his heart or the sweat that breaks out on the back of his neck and makes his hands clammy. He’s heard the stories about people disappearing during a visit to Secundus. It doesn’t happen often, but enough to make him nervous about going there.
He sits through the rest of the meeting without any outward sign of the turmoil inside him. He knows this because Morgan glances at him every once in a while, and Jensen catches the reassurance and concern. Morgan’s just going through the motions, too, getting the meeting over as quickly as possible so they can move on to the real business at hand.
Misha Collins squints at him and tightens his lips.
“Sheppard’s gonna eat you alive,” he hisses as he brushes past Jensen on the way out the door at the end of the meeting.
As Jensen follows Morgan and Beaver into Morgan’s spacious penthouse office, he practices breathing evenly. He focuses on keeping his hands from trembling as he closes the door behind them.
Morgan heads straight for the liquor cabinet, pours Jensen a drink before making one for himself. Beaver shakes his head at Morgan’s offer and takes a seat on the edge of Morgan’s desk as Morgan sits down behind it, leaving Jensen to take a seat facing both men.
Morgan lifts his glass, indicates to Jensen to take a sip as he does. It’s good whiskey, of course. Morgan always serves the best, as Jensen well knows. He lets the smooth taste of the liquor sit on his tongue for a moment before swallowing it, savoring the vapor before it goes down warm, just as Morgan taught him.
“You’re not going alone,” Morgan says by way of starting the meeting.
Jensen glances up sharply, reads the flicker of fondness in Morgan’s eyes, edged with fear. He’s worried for Jensen. Early negotiating missions with Sheppard had not gone well. They lost two rookie negotiators; one ended up dead, the other was never found. Sheppard denied any culpability, but Morgan or Beaver have headed every mission since.
Morgan knows about the nightmares Jensen used to have about being trapped on Secundus, forced to do unspeakable things. He knows Jensen used to fantasize about hijacking a space shuttle so he could rescue slaves from the moon colony. Jensen used to wake up shivering, unable to fall back to sleep no matter how Morgan soothed and held him.
“You’ll have three of my best men within striking distance at all times.”
Jensen nods, then asks the obvious question. “Why me, sir?”
Morgan takes a deep breath, lets it out slow.
“Sheppard’s not stupid,” he says. “He knows how to leverage a deal. He figures he’ll get more out of me if he has you.”
Alarm bells go off in Jensen’s head, and he’s grateful for the whiskey, for its calming effect.
“So you want me to go in as a kidnap victim.” Jensen stares at his former lover, trying to gauge Morgan’s reaction.
Morgan scoffs, lowers his eyes, and says nothing, which is all the confirmation Jensen needs.
It’s Beaver who answers. “No, boy, that’s not what he’s saying.” Beaver chuckles nervously. “Sheppard wouldn’t try to kidnap you! That’s crazy! The man needs us.”
“So I just let him keep me there, as long as he likes. Pretend I don’t mind.” Jensen shakes his head. “You want me to be his hostage.”
“He’s not going to hurt you, Jensen,” Beaver insists. “He’s not going to do anything to jeopardize his relationship with us. You’ll be treated like a king, I promise.”
“Is there an actual assignment here?” Jensen feels his voice rise against his own better judgment. “Is there something you want me to try to accomplish there?”
“Of course there is,” Beaver says. “We want you to convince him to give up the rights to the colony. He’s made hints about wanting to retire. Focus on that.”
“I need you in there,” Morgan interrupts. “You’re smarter than that bastard thinks you are. I know you can do this.”
Jensen sucks in a breath, slides a sweating palm along his thigh all the way to his knee.
“Okay.” He nods. “What do you need me to do?”
The morning dawns bright and clear. It’s early spring in Concordia. It’ll be early winter on Secundus. Chilly, but never cold. It rarely snows there, at least not that Jensen’s heard. In summer, it’s too hot to survive on the surface, so Jensen’s going at the right time.
As Jensen boards the company’s private shuttle, he glances out at the city below. New Pacifica is just waking up, sounds of traffic rising 100 floors to the roof of Helios International, the tallest building in the city. As he straps into his seat and the flight attendant offers him a drink, Jensen peers out the window at the sun rising above the skyline, glancing off glass and chrome, making the city glow and sparkle.
It’s a beautiful, civilized place, clean and efficient, nothing dirty or out of place. Jensen takes a long, last look as the shuttle lifts off, then turns to his pad, letting a swift touch fill the screen with all the info he needs for the assignment at hand.
Four hours until Jensen’s life changes forever.
He’s never been out of Concordia. He’s never been anywhere, really, except for his brief time serving in the military. Born and raised in New Pacifica, Jensen’s experience of the world has always been filtered through the lens of his parents and their hopes for him. Their dreams. Meeting Jeffrey Dean Morgan was part of that, clearly engineered to help Jensen succeed, although his parents would never directly admit that. They were delighted for him to make a match with one of Principia’s most powerful businessmen. That his affair with Morgan led to a job at Helios was a triumph for the Ackles family. Jensen never forgot how lucky he was, nor how grateful he was for the phenomenal success and status he brought to his entire family.
Other families were not so lucky. Jensen remembers a childhood friend whose parents had sold him to a Secundus commander to be trained up as a soldier. There were stories of other kinds of human trafficking, too. Slavery was deeply imbedded in the Secundus way of life, and although it was illegal to do so, poor Principia families sometimes sold their children to Secundus traders who promised them a better way of life.
It’s a fate Jensen wouldn’t wish on his worst enemies.
By the time his shuttle sets down, Jensen’s as well-read as he can hope to be. Mark Sheppard has been head CEO of the mining colony on Secundus for twenty-five years, and as far as Jensen can tell, the colony has thrived. Its primary natural resource is also its greatest export: irridium, the source of the fuel that powers half the colonies in the solar system. Half the population of Secundus works in the mines, while most of the other half work in the refineries that turn irridium into fuel. The working conditions are terrible in the refineries, but the mines are worse. A lucky few work in the homes and entertainment establishments of Atlantica.
The entire population lives in Atlantica, the only inhabitable city on the nearly airless moon. Except for a few hundred managers, overseers, and administrators, all the residents of Atlantica are slaves or former slaves, freed at the whim of their masters and always in danger of being captured and sold into slavery.
As the shuttle pulls into port, Jensen shuts down his pad and glances around the cabin. His companions are all trained ex-military: Tahmoh Penikett, Chris Kane, and Chuck Whitfield, hand-picked by Jeff Morgan for their loyalty and skill as bodyguards. Jensen’s been briefed on their past missions to the colony moon. These men have seen it all, and Jensen’s grateful to have them.
Chris raises his eyes and gives Jensen a smirk, and Jensen gives him a wry smile in return.
“This way, sir.”
The flight attendant motions for him to follow, and Jensen unbuckles his seatbelt, gathers his belongings, and gets out of his seat. He’s aware of the others following him down the aisle, Whitfield taking point as they exit the shuttle.
The corridor outside is bathed in the light of early evening. The lower oxygen content of the atmosphere gives the sunset a reddish tinge. Through the corridor windows, Jensen can see the sun hovering along the horizon, and he recalls from his reading that it’s always early evening in Atlantica. The city was built along the moon’s equator, where the sun’s light is constant. It’s never night here, but it’s never fully day, either.
Permanent twilight. Cocktail hour.
As they leave the port corridor and emerge into the spacious receiving lounge of the spaceport, Jensen hears his name called.
“Jensen! So glad you could make it!”
Mark Sheppard is dressed in a long coat, which at first glance looks more like a cape. Then Jensen spies the suit and tie underneath, the impeccable tailoring he associates with expensive taste.
Sheppard’s dressed to the nines, by New Pacifica standards. He’s dressed to impress.
“General,” Jensen greets his host, nodding.
“Please. Call me Mark.” Sheppard extends a hand, and Jensen takes it after a moment’s hesitation. “We’re equals here. It’s good of you to come.”
Like I had a choice, Jensen thinks.
“I’ve got the Empress Suite reserved for you,” Sheppard goes on, gesturing for Jensen to follow him. “Your friends are welcome to occupy adjoining rooms, of course. We have accommodations reserved for all of you.”
“Thanks.” Jensen forces himself to be polite, to fall back on the modicum of respect he knows Morgan expects. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
As they walk down the concourse, Jensen can’t help staring at the strange surroundings. Brightly painted people occupy dozens of stalls, hawking services ranging from massages to shoe shines. More stalls feature food and trinkets, all on display by oddly decorated humans, many covered in tattoos and piercings unlike anything Jensen’s ever seen.
“They’re all free people, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Sheppard explains. “Slaves can’t own their own stalls. These folks are liberated. They’re allowed to make their living however they can. We’re a civilized colony, Commander. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”
Jensen frowns at Sheppard’s use of his military rank. It’s been ten years since Jensen served. His civilian life has far more meaning for him now. Sheppard’s using the term deliberately, to remind Jensen that they’re both military. Essentially, Jensen’s no better than Sheppard. They both answer to a higher order.
“Your economy depends on slave labor, General. That’s what I can appreciate.”
As soon as he says it, Jensen knows he’s made a mistake. Sheppard’s eyes narrow, and a smile forms along his thin lips, making him look serpentine. Calculating.
“Seems to me Principia needs what we provide,” he says softly. “Your economy depends on ours, if you want to be specific about it. You depend on us.”
Jensen’s jaw clenches, but he says nothing. He’s messed up enough already.
“I think you’ll be quite pleased by the display of resources we offer,” Sheppard says as he guides Jensen into a waiting shuttle at the end of the corridor. “Allow me to demonstrate.”
Jensen lets himself sink back against the luxurious seat of the private shuttle as Sheppard continues to babble about resources and benefits. He’s been briefed to expect a long flowering pitch about the splendors of Atlantica and the greatness of Secundus, so he lets Sheppard’s words wash over him without much response. He’s already said too much.
“Ah, here we are.”
The shuttle glides to a stop outside a large lighted building, highlighted by turrets and balconies. It’s nothing like the glass and concrete structures of Principia. It’s more like a throwback to something ancient, as if to remind Jensen that there are things here he can’t possibly understand.
He hates it.
They’re greeted at the door by two handsome servants wearing matching tunics. The entry hall of the building is massive, with a curving staircase along a wall with several closed doors.
“John and Justin will take you to your rooms so you can freshen up,” Sheppard explains, gesturing toward the staircase. “We’ll meet for dinner down here in an hour.”
Sheppard disappears behind the nearest door, leaving Jensen and his companions to follow the servants up the grand staircase and down a long hallway.
“You’re in here, sir,” one of the servants says as he stops in front of an open doorway. Jensen can see a sitting room inside, with a bedroom beyond, through another open doorway.
“Your companions will be sharing a room next door,” the other servant says, indicating an open door to an adjoining room, where Jensen can make out three single beds crammed into a space about the size of a walk-in closet. At least both rooms appear to have private bathrooms.
“Let us know if you need anything,” Chuck says as the three men file into the tiny room.
Jensen nods as he turns into his own room. The servant closes the door behind him, leaving Jensen alone for the first time since he left home this morning.
The silence is deafening. Jensen can’t hear a sound from next door, where three men are no doubt grumbling and cursing about the mission they’ve been assigned. The walls must be soundproofed. If anything happened in here, nobody would hear him scream.
Jensen panics. He grabs the door handle, sure the door will be locked, but it turns easily. He yanks the door open, revealing the empty corridor. Nobody stands guard outside his room. There’s no sign of Justin and John.
Jensen takes a deep breath. He steps back into the room and closes the door, forcing himself to calm down.
“Idiot,” he mutters to himself.
He takes his time in the bathroom, changes into a formal suit for dinner, and decides to go downstairs to explore on his own. They didn’t lock the door or tell him he couldn’t, after all.
The corridor outside his room is silent, and the carpeted stairs mask his descent to the first floor. He crosses the spacious entryway to the first of the closed doors and turns the knob.
The room beyond is dark, and it takes a moment for Jensen’s eyes to adjust. It’s some kind of gallery, the walls hung with lighted portraits of men and women in various stages of undress. He walks along the wall to his left until his eye is drawn to the portrait at the end.
A young man poses on a pedestal, naked except for a long white cloth draped across his lap and an exoskeleton of delicate, gold wire that covers most of his body. He stares defiantly into the camera, jaw clenched, gaze clear and intent.
Despite the fact that it’s just a photograph, Jensen’s never felt so exposed. He feels like the young man is looking directly into his soul and finds it wanting. His entire body tingles with an odd feeling of déjà vu. He’s certain he knows this man, although he’s never seen him before.
“Beautiful, isn’t he?”
Jensen starts. Sheppard appears from nowhere. Jensen’s pretty sure he would have heard a door open; he’d deliberately closed the one he came in so as not to be disturbed.
“His name’s Jared.” Sheppard steps up beside Jensen to share his admiration of the photograph. “You have excellent taste.”
Jensen’s skin crawls. His cheeks flush as he looks away from the photograph, disgust bubbling up in his chest like bile.
Jensen’s nothing like Sheppard. He doesn’t share a thing with him, especially not this — this —
“Oh my God,” Jensen breathes. “Don’t tell me he’s — “
“A love slave?” Sheppard smirks. “Okay, I won’t. But yes, technically, that’s what he is. And he’s yours, if you want him.”
Jensen blinks up at the photograph in horror. “No,” he gasps. “No, I don’t want him! I mean, I don’t want that!” There’s no denying the strong attraction he feels for the beautiful slave, but he’s determined not to show it.
Sheppard’s eyes narrow. He’s still smirking, the bastard. “Are you quite sure about that? Because a moment ago, I could’ve sworn you’d fallen in lust at first sight.”
“Yes, I’m sure!” Jensen glares. “I want nothing to do with your piss-poor excuse for a culture! What you do to human beings here is horrible. It’s degrading!”
“Hmmm,” Sheppard murmurs, turning his gaze on the portrait of Jared again. “He doesn’t look very degraded, does he? Looks more like he’d enjoy taking you apart.”
Sheppard turns away, and Jensen can’t help looking up at the portrait again. Jared’s direct gaze holds his.
“And you know what I think?” Sheppard’s voice lowers. “I think you’d like that.”
Somehow, Jensen manages to keep his temper through dinner. He tells himself he’s a professional. He can handle the more distasteful elements of his business dealings, as long as he keeps the goal in mind at all times. He needs this win. Morgan and Beaver are depending on him. All he has to do is keep his head in the game.
By the end of the night, Jensen’s feeling optimistic. Sheppard seems prepared to give over mining rights, just as Morgan had hoped. He talks about retiring, moving to Concordia, living the dream in a place far away from the drudgery and hardships of Secundus.
Jensen turns on the charm, encourages Sheppard in this line of thinking. Morgan has given him carte blanche to offer Sheppard whatever amenities he requires, including permanent retirement accommodations on Concordia, all expenses paid by Helios. Sheppard can retire in comfort and luxury while retaining his status as CEO emeritus of his mining and refinery operations.
Sheppard seems pleased with the direction of their first formal dinner meeting. Jensen is cautiously triumphant as Sheppard walks him back to his room. He looks forward to filing his report. Things appear to be going well.
When Sheppard opens the door to Jensen’s suite for him, Jensen expects to bid his host good night and goodbye until the following day’s luncheon meeting. He’s not even a little prepared for what awaits him inside.
The love slave - Jared - lies provocatively on the couch, one long, bare leg draped over the arm of the furniture, his other foot on the floor. He’s naked except for a short white tunic and the gold chain exo-skeleton that loops around his arms and legs and torso. His gaze is just as direct and bold as it was in the portrait, holding Jensen’s eyes a moment before sweeping down over him, appraising.
“Whoa, whoa, wait a minute...” He backs into the doorframe, putting his hands up. “I didn’t agree to this.”
“Ah, no, technically, you didn’t,” Sheppard agrees. “But this is one of my conditions, you see.”
“Conditions? What are you talking about? I didn’t agree to any conditions!”
Jensen’s cheeks flush hot. He’s aware of Jared watching him, all that tan skin on display just a few feet away.
“Now, it seems to me, if you want this deal to go through, you’ll let Jared stay with you tonight,” Sheppard says, smug. “It’s not negotiable.”
Jensen stares. He can feel his mouth drop open. He’d thought the evening had gone so well. He’d even been able to keep his mind off the beautiful man in the portrait.
Except now he’s here, in the flesh, gazing at him with a little upturn of his soft lips, as if Jensen’s protests are amusing to him. As if Jensen thinks he’s in control here.
“What are those gold chains for?” He finds himself asking, desperate to find a way to distract Sheppard for a moment so he can think this through.
“They’re necessary, believe me,” Sheppard says, pulling a gold ring from his pocket and holding it up as an offering. “Put this on, and he’ll do exactly what you want, without protest. Unless you want him to protest, of course.”
“So it’s a cage,” Jensen clarifies. He ignores the ring.
“A body cage.” Sheppard nods. He lays the ring on the nearest table. “Latest technology. Keeps our more troublesome merchandise in control.”
“Troublesome?” Jensen clenches his jaw to keep from spitting. “Because he wants to be free? That would be troublesome, all right!”
“Jared came to us late in life,” Sheppard explains. “He remembers freedom. It’s part of what makes him — shall we say — interesting?”
“Take it off.” Jensen glares. “Take it off, or no deal.”
Sheppard takes a deep breath, glances at Jared before answering. “I can’t do that, Commander,” he says patiently, as if he’s speaking to a child. “It’s for your safety, and the safety of all my guests. I can’t have Jared running around loose in the house at night while we sleep. For obvious reasons.”
“I don’t want that,” Jensen says, gesturing at the ring. “You can take it with you. I won’t be needing that.”
Sheppard sighs. “Suit yourself,” he says as he pockets the ring. “But I can’t guarantee his company without it. Jared’s behavior can be a little — unpredictable.”
Jensen can feel Jared watching him. Curious, maybe, or speculative, Jensen can’t tell. Jared’s foxlike eyes never leave him.
“I’ll take that risk,” Jensen says firmly.
“Oh, there’s no risk, per se,” Sheppard assures him. “If Jared’s behavior becomes threatening in any way, the body cage will shut him down automatically. He can’t hurt you. Unless you ask him to, of course.”
Sheppard smirks as he turns to leave, and Jensen glares at him, speechless. He’s been backed into a corner, forced to accept a situation he never saw coming, and he’s furious with the man.
With both men.
Which isn’t fair to Jared. This isn’t his fault.
“Till tomorrow,” Sheppard says as he pulls the door shut, leaving Jensen and Jared alone.
For a moment, Jensen’s at a complete loss. Part of him wants to run out the door after Sheppard, demand that he — What? Take Jared away? It isn’t like Sheppard can force him to have sex with Jared, is it? All he has to do is let him spend the night.
Jared shifts on the couch, letting his legs fall open a little wider. It’s an invitation, along with that come hither look he’s giving Jensen.
The chains have disappeared.
“What — ?” Jensen stares, confused.
“They absorb into my skin when the cage is activated.” Jared’s voice is soft, melodious, with a slight accent Jensen can’t place.
It’s beautiful, just like him.
“So he monitors you,” Jensen guesses.
Jared nods. “He wants you to enjoy yourself. It’s my job to make sure you do.” Jared’s eyes sweep over Jensen’s body. “Shouldn’t be too difficult.”
It’s a lame pickup line, and under normal circumstances Jensen might be offended.
But Jared isn’t a casual hook-up. He isn’t even a paid sex worker.
“Okay, I’m just gonna say this once.” Jensen forces his pounding heart and sweating palms to behave themselves. He ignores his erection and his overwhelming attraction to Jared. “And I don’t want you to take this personally, okay? I’m not having sex with you. It’s just not happening.”
Jared’s eyes widen, just for a second. Jensen can see he’s surprised. The beautiful slave isn’t accustomed to rejection.
“Now, I’ve got some work to do,” Jensen goes on, clenching his fists to keep his hands from trembling. “I’m just going to sit here at the desk and get my report written, then I’m going to bed. You’re welcome to help yourself to the bar, the food, the bathroom, whatever. You can sleep here or on the bed with me, as long as you keep your hands to yourself. Are we clear?”
“You don’t like me.” Jared’s voice lowers to a whisper, but it’s loaded with self-doubt and insecurity. His lip quivers.
Jensen’s a dick. He’s an asshole to make this beautiful man doubt himself. He’s suddenly flooded with guilt and a powerful protective instinct that dwarfs even his sexual attraction.
Jared doesn’t deserve this. He didn’t ask for it. It’s unfair.
“No,” Jensen breathes. “I mean, that couldn’t be further from the truth, Jay.” The nickname slips out unbidden, and it occurs to Jensen he’s been thinking about Jared all evening, but his fantasies weren’t just sexual. Jared’s really gotten under his skin.
“The General needs proof,” Jared whispers. “He’ll have me examined.”
“Okay,” Jensen says, forcing his voice to stay calm and steady. “So what do you need? Just a little DNA, right? You can provide the rest on your own?”
Jared nods. He’s still sprawled on the couch, muscles and long limbs on display, chest gleaming. Jensen closes his eyes against the sight. He clenches his fists.
“Okay,” he breathes. “A kiss ought to do the trick, right?”
He opens his eyes. Jared’s expression is perfect. He’s looking up at Jensen with a combination of trust and desire, his foxlike eyes wide and hopeful.
Jensen steels himself, stalks to the couch, and gestures for Jared to scoot over so Jensen can sit down next to him. Jared obeys eagerly, and Jensen is struck again by how perfect he is. Everything about Jared seems to be designed to strike a chord in Jensen, to make him believe in something he’d given up on years before.
He could fall in love with Jared.
“Okay, let’s do this,” Jensen mutters, placing a careful hand on Jared’s cheek. Jared shudders and closes his eyes, leans into the touch. His lips part, and just before Jensen kisses him, he grabs hold of Jensen’s shirt, pulls him close.
Jared’s mouth is warm and wet and willing. The chaste kiss Jensen was planning gives way to something deeper as Jared clings to him, pleads for more with his hands and his lips and his tongue. To describe the kiss as perfect would be an understatement. Being this close to Jared awakens something in Jensen that he never knew had gone to sleep. He doesn’t have words to describe the way his body responds to Jared. Something deep inside him recognizes something deep in Jared. It’s like coming home from a long journey, when he didn’t even realize he’d been gone.
The kiss turns into kisses. Jared leans back, pulls Jensen down with him on the couch. Jensen slots easily between Jared’s legs, presses against his bare chest, chasing the taste of Jared’s mouth like a starving man. When he finally pulls himself away, it’s the hardest thing he’s ever done.
Jared blinks up at him, lips slick and plump, cheeks pink. His eyes glisten. He looks drugged.
“Soul song,” Jared whispers. “Don’t you hear it?”
Jensen frowns. There’s a ringing in his ears, now that Jared mentions it. He shakes his head to clear it, backs off Jared’s body carefully and rises to his feet. Every fiber of his being screams to be back in Jared’s arms, to be pressed against that big body, to kiss and lick every inch of tan skin.
“No.” The word is almost impossible to form on his lips, much less to expel from his throat. Jensen wants the opposite. “We can’t do this.”
“Our souls are singing to each other,” Jared says, still entranced. “I didn’t believe it before, but it’s true.”
“That — that’s crazy,” Jensen mutters. He’s heard the old wives’ tales about soul bonds, but he dismissed the idea long ago as superstitious nonsense, the stuff of fairy tales and children’s fantasies.
He can’t be soulmates with a slave. Fate wouldn’t be so cruel.
Jared’s lips curve up in a soft smile as he reads Jensen’s expression.
He reads me like a book, Jensen thinks. Of course he does.
“My mother always said I’d know it when it happened,” Jared says. “I knew it when I first saw you.”
Jensen thinks back to the first time he laid eyes on the portrait of Jared, the jolt of recognition he felt, as if he’d known Jared before. As if he knew him better than he knew himself.
“That’s impossible,” Jensen mumbles, still dazed. “I’d never seen you before tonight.”
He wants to gather Jared into his arms and never let him go. He wants to rescue him, save him from his wretched life, take him far, far away where he’ll be safe, where no one can ever hurt him again.
Tears smart at the corners of his eyes.
“Nor I you,” Jared nods, rising smoothly from the couch. “That’s how it works. Our souls are the same, yours and mine. They know each other intimately, even if our bodies have never met.”
“But I can’t be soulmates with you!” Jensen blurts out, trying not to panic. “I have a job! A home! I live on another world!”
Jared smiles sadly. “So we enjoy the time we have together,” he says. “And when we’re apart, we’ll remember and be grateful.”
Jensen can’t take his eyes off Jared as the man stalks closer. Tears slide down his cheeks as Jared leans in, cupping his face with big, gentle hands. His eyes slide closed as Jared’s soft lips touch his.
Jensen tries to remember why they shouldn’t do this, but he can’t.
He’s already lost.
The sex is incredible. Jensen never knew he could feel so intensely. Jared’s sensitive and responsive and knows exactly how to push every one of Jensen’s buttons, even the ones he never knew he had. Sinking into Jared’s warm, willing body feels exactly like coming home to the place he never knew he lost or needed.
Afterwards, as Jared sleeps on the bed, Jensen returns to the desk in the other room and scribbles off a frantic letter to Jeff.
Jeff’s face appears on his screen almost immediately. He’s got that rumpled look that he gets when he’s been sleeping, so Jensen knows he woke him up.
“What’s this about, Jen?” He demands, gruff. “Your letter sounded urgent. Everything okay?”
“No,” Jensen hisses, keeping his voice down so as not to disturb the man sleeping in the other room. “No, it’s not. Sheppard’s ready to sell, but he had a couple of conditions. One of them is sleeping in the other room right now.”
Jeff drags a hand across his face. He scratches his scruffy cheeks and squints. “You want to explain that last thing, Jen?”
“His name’s Jared,” Jensen says. “He’s a slave. I want your permission to negotiate for his release.”
“His release?” Jeff frowns. “You want to buy a slave?”
“No, no, no. I want him released. Set free. I want you to help me make that happen.”
Jeff squints again, then reaches for his glasses and puts them on. They make his eyes look bigger. He stares thoughtfully into the screen for another moment, studying Jensen’s face. Jensen remembers how good it used to make him feel when Jeff looked at him that way. Now all he feels is anxiety.
“You can’t be serious,” Jeff says finally.
“Dead serious,” Jensen answers. “I want Jared’s freedom. I want you to help me get it.”
Jeff shakes his head, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing.
“You’re there on a business mission, Jensen,” Jeff reminds him. “Not a humanitarian one. I’ve warned you to stay out of their politics. Their social structure is their own, nothing to do with us.”
“Right,” Jensen scoffs. “Except we benefit from it. Their social system benefits us, Jeff. That makes us complicit in human trafficking. It’s evil, Jeff, you know it is.”
Jeff shakes his head again. “You can’t solve all the world’s problems, Jensen.”
“No, but I can do this one thing. You can help me right this one wrong.”
Jeff stares at him. “You’re in love with this slave — this Jared — aren’t you?” When Jensen shakes his head, Jeff goes lets out a dark chuckle. “You are. Jesus, Jensen, how is that even possible? You’ve been there less than twenty-four hours!”
“You’re wrong, Jeff,” Jensen insists, still shaking his head. “That’s not what this is.”
“No? Then what is it?” Jeff glares. “You said earlier that the slave was sleeping in the other room. Did you fuck him? Did you?”
“You did, didn’t you?” Jeff slams his hand down on the desk. His screen shivers. The sound echoes harshly, and Jensen reaches instinctively for the volume control. “Damn it, Jen! I taught you better than this! I was counting on you!”
“I’m going to ask for Jared’s freedom, Jeff,” Jensen says. “You and Helios can either back me up, or I’ll offer whatever it takes on my own.”
“Jensen, listen to me. You do not have my permission to bargain for this, do you hear me? You are there as my representative and a representative of Helios, and as such you may not use your position for any unauthorized business transaction. Do I make myself clear?”
Jensen clenches his jaw, nods. “Crystal.”
“Good. Now I expect you to seal this deal and be on that flight home tomorrow afternoon. Morgan out.”
In the bedroom, Jensen sinks into the armchair, watches Jared sleep as he thinks through his new problem. On the one hand, Jeff’s right; Jensen’s letting his emotions impede his judgment. The affection he feels for Jared is out of proportion to the reality of the situation. His drive to protect Jared at all costs isn’t rational. It’s getting in the way of his ability to do his job.
But it is what it is. For whatever reason, or maybe with a complete lack of reason, Jensen is powerfully invested. Nothing has ever mattered to him as much as Jared does. Gaining Jared’s freedom is more important than anything. One way or another, he’ll achieve his goal, just like he always does whenever he sets his mind to something.
He has to.
One way or another, he’ll have to get Sheppard to agree to let Jared go.
Jensen slips into the bed and spoons Jared’s big body. The man stirs, shifts back until he fits against Jensen snugly, and huffs out a contented sound. Jensen runs his hand up Jared’s chest, letting it rest over Jared’s heart, and Jared holds it there, tangling their fingers together. Jensen slides a leg between Jared’s legs and pushes his face into his soft hair, kissing the warm skin at the top of his spine.
“Everything’s gonna be just fine,” he promises.
Jensen’s lips tingle. His ears ring.