Author's note: There is a bonus extra bit for this story up on my tumblr, potatoewrites, which I have a link to in my profile. It's a piece from Bug's POV about his first explorations with Brayan, and it ended up being as long as a regular chapter! Chronologically it takes place more or less between the previous chapter and this one, so if it sounds like something you might be interested in you may want to read that first. Enjoy!

Maric paced in front of the cell Lord Nolen was locked in, considering his next move. While Dara had still been asleep after being injured he'd asked Bug about what Lord Nolen had done to him, and Bug, body and voice trembling, had told him of things he still couldn't shake from his mind.

"I could do to you what you did to that boy of yours," Maric said finally. "Well, some of the things. I have no desire to fuck you nor to inflict that horror on anyone else."

Lord Nolen stared up at him from the floor of the cell, too exhausted by now to show fear. He had shouted, at first. Shouted and demanded and kicked up a fuss. By now he had given up on resistance. "Would that make you feel better, Maric? Soothe your sense of justice? I wonder if my victims would thank you for it. An empath and a healer... I think not."

"Funny how you only seem to care about their feelings when it benefits you."

Lord Nolen's lips curved up into something that couldn't quite be defined as a smile. "Oh, I don't care about their feelings. But you do. Too much, I'm afraid. You will never be the strong leader your father is. Not when you value those so far beneath your status."

Maric raised an eyebrow. "I understand this may come as a surprise to you, but it is possible to make use of people without hurting them. Sadism is not a crucial leadership skill."

"A leader must be capable of brutality."

A grin stretched Maric's lips as he took hold of the bars of the cell and leant forward. "I am; I simply choose my targets wisely. You and Fraccus will be hung by your necks until dead at dawn. Goodbye, Nolen."

Maric had never had to sentence anyone to death before, had dreaded ever having to, but now that he was faced with the necessity it felt surprisingly good. Lord Nolen's life was no loss, and from what he'd been told about Fraccus he could safely conclude that the slave had hardly had to be coerced into cooperation.

This whole ordeal had brought to light something Maric had long been avoiding — that cities under his rule were still being run in accordance with his father's views, by the people his father had put in power. Maric had been nothing but a figurehead since they'd been handed over to him. That needed to change.

There was a part of him that wanted to free all slaves, to trial what would happen if one city was allowed equality, but unfortunately such things fell outside of his power. He could ban slaves from the city, but he couldn't free them. That fell under country laws, well beyond Maric's limited controls.

He could do his best to prevent anyone from repeating the abuse Lord Nolen had inflicted on his slave, though. Make laws that would specify appropriate punishments for different levels of slave misbehaviour. Ban harm being done to slaves outside of such punishment systems. Extend certain laws of protection to slaves, such as the one that disallowed sexual activity with anyone under fourteen, and penetrative acts with anyone under sixteen.

He would also have to assign at least one person to inspect slaves on a regular basis to ensure these new rules were enforced. There were many people who were about to be displeased with Maric, but he found it difficult to care. The rules he would set in place were perfectly reasonable, and anyone who found they restricted their enjoyment of their slaves greatly enough to object deserved to be hung alongside Lord Nolen and his murderous slave.

Brayan was in his room when Maric sought him out, shirtless and in the company of Bug. He grinned at Maric, though, and let him in with no signs of being annoyed by the disruption. Bug was fully clothed, but he still flushed and averted his eyes where he sat on the bed. Brayan flopped down next to Bug and pulled him in close. It was surprising how readily Bug melted in against him despite the abuse he'd suffered. Perhaps being an empath helped him in that way.

When it came to discussing new laws, Bug had even more surprises in store when he made almost as many suggestions as Brayan. Most of them, strangely, were instances in which punishing a slave was appropriate.

"If masters feel the rules are outrageous in one instance, they're more likely to disregard them at times where they may be more reasonable," Bug explained when Maric questioned his insistence on harsher punishments.

"Clever," Brayan said and kissed Bug's cheek.

Maric couldn't help the smile that crept onto his face. "Well aren't you smitten."

Brayan grinned and dragged Bug on top of him. "Yup." Brayan untucked Bug's shirt and one of his hands slid under it. "He has spirit nobody could beat or burn out of him. Beauty no scars could marr."

"My goodness, is this what I sound like with Dara?" Maric shook his head in mock disgust. "Nolen and Fraccus hang at dawn. I expect you to be there, but Bug may be left with Dara if he doesn't wish to bare witness. I'll give you today off to get to know your new slave, but tomorrow after the execution I want you to start lining up prospective city leaders for my consideration."

"Yes, sir," Brayan said as his other hand joined his first under Bug's shirt.

Maric was happy for them, he really was, but he couldn't help but feel a little bothered that Dara hadn't taken to him with such easy trust. Was it simply because Bug was an empath, or was Brayan just less intimidating than Maric? Perhaps both.

Maric had known Brayan since he'd joined the military at sixteen and had enjoyed his first sexual experiences with him. Brayan, two years Maric's senior, had always been a gentle and relaxed lover, capable of taking control or ceeding it with equal ease. Maric had always admired that in him but had never quite managed to mimic it.

Whether he'd done poorly or not, when he returned to their room Dara had a welcoming smile for him. There may have been caution in him at times, but right now he reached for Maric without hesitance as soon as Maric joined him on the bed. Right now, in this moment, Maric was doing okay. All he needed to do was continue not to mess things up.

Maric slid a hand up the back of Dara's shirt. "Miss me?"

"Yes," Dara said, but Maric heard the tension in his voice, was starting to notice the slight stiffness in Dara's body. It was Maric's first instinct to ease it out of him rather than discuss it, but the last thing he wanted was a repeat of what happened earlier.

"What's wrong, love?"

"Nothing's wrong," Dara said slowly. "I just... I was thinking."


There was a stretch of heavy silence before Dara spoke. "I thought... well, maybe we could try something a bit more. With my mouth. I think I could... We could try."

Maric gave him a squeeze. The thought alone was drawing a response out of him, one he knew Dara would feel pressed hot and hard against his hip. "I certainly have no objections."

"Okay," Dara said, his body stiff against Maric's. "I guess we should take our clothes off?"

Dara's anxiety was both adorable and worrying. Maric pressed a kiss to Dara's forehead before getting started on the buttons on Dara's shirt. "Relax. It's just an experiment. I won't be cross if you can't follow through."

Dara took a deep breath, and then let it out as a sigh. He nodded his head against Maric's collarbone as his hand brushed boldly over the growing bulge in Maric's pants. Maric pressed forward, showing Dara his enthusiasm.

By the time Maric had pushed Dara's shirt off and moved on to his pants, Dara was hard. Maric now well knew how little that could mean, though. Physical arousal and mental approval were not necessarily linked.

Despite the tension in Dara's body, he was not behaving as he had that morning. He was participating now, hands brushing over Maric's body and starting on the buttons of Maric's shirt. He grazed his teeth over Maric's newly exposed collarbone and shifted onto his side so that he could grind himself against Maric.

Maric rolled on top of Dara and pinned him down and ground their hips together roughly, pausing only to shove Dara's pants off. Despite the lust clouding Maric's mind, it took only Dara's hand pressing lightly against his chest to catch his attention and make him pause.

"Um, ease up a bit?" Dara asked, voice uncertain like he wasn't sure his objections were allowed. Now that Maric was paying attention he could feel the tension in Dara's body, see the carefully contained fear behind his eyes.

Maric kissed his forehead, relieved that Dara had learnt to speak up when something was wrong. "Sorry, you just get me so worked up. Do you know how hot you are like this?"

"You're hot too. I just..."

"No, I get it." Maric pulled his half-unbuttoned shirt off over his head and slid down Dara's body. "Bad experiences, right? They don't just go away because things feel nice."

"Yes," Dara said, and then gasped and arched his back as Maric's mouth wrapped around him. "Aren't I, ahh, supposed to be doing that for you?"

Maric gave the tip of Dara's cock a lick as he pulled back. "I know a thing or two about dealing with those lacking in experience. Arousal makes things easier."

Dara let out a sharp exhale as Maric returned to his task. "As you may have noticed I was already aroused, but I shan't complain."

Maric brought Dara to the edge before pulling away, leaving him at maximum arousal. Dara whimpered his objection but didn't voice it, didn't touch himself or try to get Maric to continue. Maric kicked off his pants, leaving himself fully exposed, and lay down on his back next to Dara. How things continued from here was in Dara's hands.

For a moment Dara lay clenching his fists, waiting for his arousal to recede far enough that he could focus on something other than the desperate need to finish himself off. Eventually he sat up and stared down at Maric's erection. His eyebrows drew together and he pulled his bottom lip into his mouth, chewing at it contemplatively.

"You know how to get started. You've done that before," Maric reminded him.

Dara nodded determinedly and pushed Maric's thighs apart so that he could kneel between them. He reached out a hand to carefully stroke Maric as he leant his head down. A jolt of arousal ran through Maric at the first brush of Dara's lips against the head of his cock.

Once again, it was amazing how so little from Dara could do so much to Maric. He'd had blowjobs from masters of the craft that hadn't aroused him half as much as the uncertain graze of Dara's lips against his shaft.

"Press down on my hips," Maric said as Dara slid his lips over the head of Maric's cock, taking him fractionally deeper than he ever had before.

Dara pulled back, anxiety in his eyes. "You're stronger than me. If you..."

"I won't," Maric assured him. "I wouldn't try to force anything, but you know how hard it can be to resist those little involuntary twitches."

Dara's lips pressed together as he nodded. He pushed his weight down on Maric's hips and returned his mouth to its task.

Dara took Maric deeper, slow and cautious and unintentionally teasing. His tongue moved in ways Maric had used on him, alternatively pressing firm and dragging soft lines down his shaft, pausing to feel out the shape of Maric's glands with the point of his tongue. Apparently he'd been paying attention.

"Can you go faster?" Maric asked when Dara's careful pace grew too far from what he needed. He knew he couldn't have the pace, the depth, the intensity he truly desired, not without choking Dara, but he'd never get off at this rate.

Dara made a sound of ascent around Maric's cock, but he didn't sound confident. He eyebrows pulled together in concentration as he sped up the bobbing of his head, taking half of Maric's cock into his mouth on each downward stroke and using his hand to pump the lower half.

Maric arched his back and his thighs clenched, his entire body fighting the need to thrust. Dara was hardly a master of the art, not on his first uncertain try, but it would be enough. With his beautiful blue eyes flicking up to meet Maric's, it would definitely be enough.

Without warning Dara gagged and pulled back coughing, hardly unusual for a first timer. Dara's head dipped and his breathing sped up, became ragged as his whole body tensed on the edge of panic.

"Dara, calm down," Maric said, as though that was something that was within his power to command. "Do you want to stop?"

Dara shook his head, but his eyes were squeezed tightly shut as he struggled against his fear. Maric had forgotten how terrible it felt to witness the echo of the trauma Dara had suffered, to have been the one to draw it out. Now that he cared for Dara, it felt even worse.

Dara took a deep breath in and let it out slowly. "Okay. Sorry."

When Dara lowered his mouth to continue, Maric placed a finger under his chin to tilt it back up again. He tapped Dara's chin until Dara's eyes came up to meet his.

"I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do, anything that's going to hurt you," Maric told him. "I believe we've been through this enough. It's not worth it."

Dara's shoulders tensed, untensed. "I don't want this to end like that. If it does, I think I'll only be more scared of it."

Maric stroked his thumb along Dara's jawline. "I suppose I can understand that. You're not having fun with it, though. I shouldn't have rushed you. This will be easier if you're relaxed."

Dara made a sound of agreement, and then shut his eyes and leant into Maric's touch when Maric moved his hand up to run it through his hair. When Dara leant back into his task, Maric trailed his hand down to Dara's shoulder. He didn't want to accidentally push Dara's head down. That would likely have ruined any chance of this particular activity ever working out for them. Trust was important when fear was involved.

"That feels good," Maric said as his hand stroked back and forth over Dara's shoulder. "Just looking at you like this turns me on so much."

Some of the tension had relaxed out of Dara as Maric spoke, so he kept going. "Do you have any idea how beautiful you are? Healer or not, you never belonged on the floor, were never suited to kneeling in submission." Maric took a sharp breath in and his muscles tensed as Dara drew him deeper. "You're magnificent. There's no place in this world that's good enough for you. Ah—"

Maric arched his back, did his best to keep petting Dara's shoulder rather than digging fingernails into it. "Fuck, you're— beautiful—"

Pushing Dara's head away a moment before he came was the hardest thing Maric had ever had to do. It was only after the last twitch ran through his body that he realised his hand was clenched painfully tightly in Dara's hair.

"Sorry," Maric said on the exhale of a pant as he released his grip. Maric tugged on Dara's arm until Dara crawled up and lay his head on Maric's collarbone.

Maric ran his hand down Dara's back until he reached his ass, which he gave a firm squeeze. Dara took a sharp breath in and thrust forward, his hard cock brushing against Maric's hip. Something had definitely been forgotten in this adventure.

Maric's hand crept over Dara's hip, found his cock, took it in hand and slowly pumped it. "What can I do for you?"

"Just—" Dara inhaled sharply. "Faster."

Dara wrapped his arms around Maric and buried his face in the crook of Maric's neck, his breathing speeding up as Maric complied. Feeling Dara cling tighter as he came with a strangled cry was no less sweet than his own orgasm.

"You did well," Maric told Dara once Dara was settled in comfortable and relaxed against Maric's side. "Thank you."

"You're my prince and my master," Dara murmured. "You hardly have to thank me."

There was no resentment in Dara's voice; to him, he was just stating a fact. Maric's lips pressed into a tight line. "Don't bring that into bed with us." Maric rolled Dara on top of him and wrapped his arms around him. "You're more truly mine when you don't think of me as your master, as your prince. When you're simply doing your duty, you hold something in reserve. The most precious part of yourself."

"It's yours," Dara whispered, his breath coming as a soft tickle against Maric's neck.

Maric twisted his neck to kiss the top of Dara's head. "I am sorry I'm so clumsy with it."

"I am thankful that you try."

They fell asleep sticky and cuddled together, waking only to pull the covers over them when Dara murmured about being cold a couple of hours later. There were many things wrong with the world, but what they had, laying together in each other's arms in that room, was not one of them.


It was still dark when Maric urged a reluctant Dara out of bed and into a tub of warm water he'd already had brought up. It wasn't until Maric reminded him that Brayan would be bringing Bug over soon that Dara stopped grumbling and agreed that not being naked and covered in the evidence of the previous night's activities might be something he preferred. After Dara had resigned himself to wakefulness, having Maric gently wash him down was actually quite pleasant.

As soon as he was clean and dried and dressed, Dara went and snuggled back down on the bed. There was a knock on the door and Maric gave him a kiss on the forehead before going to answer it.

Bug looked just as sleepy as Dara felt, and as soon as he entered the room Dara urged him over to the bed. Bug crawled in next to him as Maric and Brayan left, and Dara soon settled back into sleep.

Dara awoke to find Bug sitting on the edge of the bed, illuminated by the early morning night. He gave Dara a tense smile. "Do you think it's done yet?"

Dara yawned and stretched. "Well. Dawn." He gestured towards the window. "But perhaps there's ceremony about it and that's what begins at dawn. Reading of sentences and such. I've never been to an execution."

"No. Me either." Bug stared out the window, gnawing idly at his lower lip. From the pinkened and tender state of them, Dara guessed Bug's lips were frequent victims of his anxiety. "I suppose it doesn't matter. Dead, or soon to be dead. I keep thinking it will make some sort of difference, that once they're dead I will somehow be healed. But that's not how it works. The scars will still be there, physical and mental, will still take time to heal or not heal at all."

"You have Brayan now. He'll help."

Bug ducked his head as a genuine smile crept onto his face. "Yes. I do. He's exactly what I've always wanted. I just wish I hadn't come to him so damaged."

Dara made a sound of agreement. He could certainly relate to that.

"That's not to say he isn't patient with me, that he has any complaints. He doesn't even mind the scars marring my skin. He has his own scars, and he says... he says they show our strength, show what we've survived. There's honour, not shame, in scars."

"I don't scar," Dara reminded him as he sat up and stretched out his arms. "But yes, I think he's right. That you're not a cowering mess after all you've endured is impressive. You should be proud of your resilience."

"I think I'll get there. But..." Bug took a deep breath in and let it out as a sigh. "It's not all cosmetic. There's..." Bug scratched the back of his neck. "Well, I wanted Brayan to penetrate me. I always enjoyed it when I was in training, and I've missed being taken with care over these last few years. He tried, with his fingers..." Bug's shoulders hunched up in a shrug, and for a moment he was silent. "There is scarring. He's not sure he can without hurting me, and he doesn't wish to hurt me. And I'm... I'm not sure I could enjoy being hurt."

Dara twisted his lips in consideration. "I know Maric told you I'm a healer, but my abilities haven't really been working on other people for a while now. We're delicate minded things. I don't know if I could—"

Bug's eyes widened and he waved his hands. "Oh, no no, I wasn't trying to— I wouldn't ask you to do that. I was just talking, complaining. I would never ask you to waste your ability on me."

Dara reached out a hand and patted Bug's knee. "It's not a finite thing, and even if it were it wouldn't be a waste. I would if I could, I'm just not sure... I have only once recently, and that was on a fresh wound and it took me hours. Scar tissue..."

Bug covered Dara's hand with his own. "I'm not asking you to, Dara. I will learn to deal with the loss, and Brayan says he doesn't mind being unable to do that one thing. There are other things we can do."

"I want to." Dara turned his hand over and gripped Bug's. "You don't deserve to be held back by what that bastard did to you. Not in any way. So... if you like, I will try. I may not be able to do much, or anything at all, but I'm willing to try it if you are."

Bug hesitated, teeth digging into his lip. He dropped his head and nodded. "I know I shouldn't accept such a thing. It's selfish, and that is not a desirable quality in a slave. I just..."

"I will need to touch the affected area, I'm afraid," Dara said as he pushed the blankets off his body. At Bug's nervous nod, Dara stood and scanned the room. "I could use saliva, but that's likely to be uncomfortable. I'm sure Maric must have some grease or oil around here somewhere."

The drawers next to the bed were empty, hardly surprising given how rarely Maric visited the palace, but a quick search through Maric's still packed bags turned up a small jar of grease. When Dara turned back around, Bug already had his pants off.

Dara could feel the scars in his mind, could feel the still fading fresher wounds, whenever Bug was around, but seeing them brought a new sadness. If he'd had full use of his ability, he'd have healed every single mark marring Bug's skin. Of course, if he'd had full use of his ability it wouldn't even have been terribly difficult.

Dara let Bug grease himself, then instructed Bug to lay face down on the bed and greased his own fingers. This was certainly not something he'd been taught during his training. The tight heat around his finger and the way Bug inhaled sharply almost made him forget why he was doing this. The feeling of the ridged scar tissue as he moved his finger around reminded him.

"Is it okay if I put another finger in?" Dara asked.

Bug made a quiet sound in the back of his throat and nodded, his hands gripping the bedsheets tightly.

Dara felt the echo of discomfort in his own mind when he pressed the second finger into Bug, but after a few seconds of adjustment it dimmed. Dara's fingers were fortunately quite slender. He moved them around, mapped out ridges in his mind, found the points that were at greatest risk of retearing.

"I'm going to try to start healing you now," Dara said. "It won't hurt, but it may feel a little warm or tingly. Is that okay?"

"Yes," Bug said, as much exhale as word.

Dara counted his breaths as he tried to relax his mind. Once upon a time that had been such an easy task. He had been respected, protected, had felt invincible. Now there were hidden vulnerabilities that lurched up when conscious thought was cleared from his mind. How could he relax, let his guard down, when he knew he was never truly safe?

The answer was that he couldn't, not really, but he could let himself go for small fractions at a time, long enough to get something done without sacrificing situational awareness. Dara was just starting to make a tiny bit of progress when Bug inhaled sharply as his hips twitched down.

"Hurt?" Dara asked before realising that no, of course it hadn't. If pain had been the issue he would have felt the echo of it himself.

Bug shook his head and buried his face in the pillow. "No, sorry. I, ah... I can't help... I'm sorry."

Dara frowned in confusion for several seconds before his eyes widened in realisation. "Oh! Oh. That's, uh... that's fine. It's a natural response. I think. Do you want me to stop, or...?"

"No, you can keep going. If you don't mind. I'll try to stay still."


Dara tried to keep his fingers as still as possible when he started up again, and slowly he began to make progress. It wasn't much, maybe not even enough for Bug to notice, but it was something and that pleased Dara. His ability wasn't dead. Who knew if he could ever be as good as he once was, but he was sure now that he could at least be useful again. That mattered to him more than he could express.

Without realising it Dara had allowed his mind to be pulled deeper, had become distracted from the outside world by his task. Bug's small, involuntary noises and movements were noticed and dismissed as unimportant. Until Bug suddenly rolled over, dislodging Dara's fingers, the sound of the door opening was registered the same way.

Dara blinked the fog out of his mind as he returned to reality. Maric and Brayan were back. They had gone to the execution, and now they were back. Maric looked... angry. Brayan just looked shocked.

Maric stomped over to the bed and jerked Bug up by his arm. "Get out!" When Bug tried to reach for his pants, Maric shoved him towards the door. "Don't make me tell you twice!"

Brayan looked like he planned to protest as he took Bug, half naked and shaking, into his arms. Maric pushed him out of the room and slammed the door in his face before he had the chance.

Dara's mind whirred as he fought to catch up. It didn't take long for it to click, for him to realise what the scene had looked like through Maric's eyes.

Maric turned and glared at Dara, the fury in his eyes making Dara shrink back. "What was that? If you were unsatisfied, or—" Maric threw his hands up in frustration. "Why, Dara? Was it him? Me? Why the fuck would you—"

"Maric, calm down," Dara said, doing his best to keep his voice steady. "I—"

"I will not calm the fucking hell down! I have been very generous with you, made allowances, given you all that you have asked for and you would dare, behind my back—"

"Shut up!" Dara shouted, his hands fisting at the bedsheets. "I wasn't. Whatever you think, you're wrong. He has... scarring. I was trying to heal him."

Maric folded his arms firmly across his chest. "Healing him required you to be two fingers deep in his ass? Oh and he certainly seemed to be enjoying that healing you were doing, didn't he?"

Dara tilted his head up, refusing to cower in the face of Maric's rage despite the fear twisting his stomach. "Where do you think scarring matters most to a bed slave? What do you think a bed slave's natural response to penetration is? If you're going to be angry, be angry because I belong to you and I used my ability without your permission. That's your right."

Maric stepped forward and took hold of Dara's chin with a grip firm enough to hurt. "Don't tell me what my right is. There is no limit to my right."

Dara held Maric's gaze. "Of course. Now what are you going to do with it?"

Maric's fingers dug into Dara's chin for a few seconds more before he released it with a scoff and turned to pace to the other end of the room. He stood there, staring silently at the stone wall, before finally speaking. "Was it working?"

"Slowly. I'm not what I used to be, but... slowly."

A knock on the door drew their attention and Maric scowled. He gave a huff and went to answer it.

Brayan was on the other side with a still pantsless Bug under a protective arm. He didn't look at all intimidated by Maric's annoyance. "Seems we've had a bit of a misunderstanding."

"So I've been told," Maric said stiffly.

"Wow, look how quickly we can sort things out when we talk about things instead of flying into jealous rages." Brayan lifted the arm Maric was using to block the doorway and directed Bug under it. "Go get dressed."

Bug moved to obey his master, but Maric grabbed the back of his shirt as he went past. Bug squeaked and cowered away as best he could while held in place.

"No," Maric said firmly. He let go of Bug's shirt and gestured to Dara. "They can finish what they started."

Brayan grinned and clapped Maric on the shoulder. "That'd be great."

Maric brushed Brayan's hand off and turned to face Bug and Dara. He gave them a stiff nod. "Go on, then."

Bug took a step closer to Dara, his eyes not leaving Maric's face, though it seemed more out of fear than compliance.

"I can't," Dara told Maric.

"You just told me it was working," Maric said, his voice accusing, suspicious.

"Maric!" Dara let out a growl of frustration and tugged at the bedsheets. "I can't just... I thought you understood better than this. You're being threatening. I'm useless if I feel threatened."

Maric's lips tightened into a firm line. "Fine." He turned to Brayan. "You stay with them and supervise. Oh, and get your fucking slave off before they start up again."

"Maric," Brayan said, letting out a sigh as Maric headed for the door. The door slammed shut in his face and Brayan just stared at it for several seconds before spinning around and giving Bug and Dara a tense smile. "Well, you heard him, boys. Let's get back to work, shall we?"

Dara rolled his shoulders in an attempt to loosen some of the tension. "Well... I can try. I need to be relaxed, though, and that..."

Brayan walked over and took hold of Bug from behind, and then pulled him onto his lap as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "Yeah, I know. Dramatic, right? He acted less like a teenager when he was an actual teenager. Don't worry. He just needs time to work his feelings out. I will speak to him about his behaviour."

"I really was just healing him," Dara said. "I wouldn't—"

"I know that," Brayan interrupted, "and so does Maric. Sometimes, though, when you care about something enough, it can make your fears and doubts feel more legitimate. Now, are we going to try this or not?"

Dara took in a deep breath and nodded. "I can't guarantee I'll have any success, but I do think it's worth trying."

"I'd best take care of this first, then," Brayan said as his hand crept around to grope Bug. Bug gasped and leant back against Brayan's chest.

Dara quickly averted his eyes. "Do you want, uh... do you want me to wait outside?"

"No," Bug said. "You can stay. You can watch if you want."

"Ha!" Brayan said, but he didn't disagree. He held his hand out to Dara and waggled his fingers. "Could you hand me the grease?"

Dara hurried to comply, feeling a sense of urgency that wasn't there.

Brayan thanked Dara and took the grease, then coated his index finger and lifted Bug's ass. Dara hadn't intended to accept Bug's offer, hadn't planned to watch, but by the time he realised he was he couldn't look away. Bug arched his back as Brayan pressed his finger into him.

Whatever Bug had been through, it hadn't dampened his confidence in this arena. This was what he'd been trained for, and he took to his role with graceful ease. He was responsive and enthusiastic but contained, working himself up and down on Brayan's finger smoothly, but only after being gently directed to do so.

Was this what Maric wanted from Dara? Such obedience and trust, an awareness of his body that made every movement look beautiful and controlled? Dara wasn't sure he could ever do it as well as Bug, as well as anyone trained for it since childhood.

Brayan worked his other hand on Bug's cock with the confidence of an experienced lover as he planted kisses down the side of Bug's neck. They had hardly known each other a day, but there was love there, tenderness not found in a casual encounter.

"You can come whenever you're ready," Brayan murmured in Bug's ear.

Bug let out a strangled whimper, the first show of anything but perfect control, and sped up his movement on Brayan's finger. A moment later, Bug came.

The way things ended had shattered the illusion of beauty, and as Dara handed Brayan a cloth to wipe down Bug's stomach he didn't feel quite so envious of the ease of their relations. How did you train someone to only come on command? How young had Bug been when they'd started? No, this wasn't something Dara could ever be. Regardless of what Maric wanted, it wasn't something Dara wanted to become.

"Are you okay?" Bug asked, and Dara looked up to see Bug watching him with concerned eyes. Empath, right. Not a mind reader, though. He would be able to feel the sense of unease in Dara's gut, but he had no way of knowing its source.

Dara gave a stiff nod. "I'm just not used to seeing, uh..."

"Ah." Brayan made a face. "I didn't consider that it might shake you up more. Seems conditions are becoming less and less ideal."

"I'm fine," Dara assured him. "Just... give me a few minutes."

Dara sat up straight and shut his eyes, focussing his attention on his breathing. He just needed to find that place of inner calm again. That place where nothing mattered but correcting what was wrong with the world. When he was about as relaxed as he was going to get, he gestured Brayan and Bug over.

When he opened his eyes to grease his fingers, the world looked different. Every injury abraded his mind, leaving irrelevant details fuzzy. There was nothing crass about Bug's nudity, it was just a body that needed to be fixed. Bug lay on his back, his head resting on Brayan's lap, as Dara pressed his fingers into him.

Dara felt as though the healing part of the equation should have come naturally from there, should have flowed easily now that he'd entered the right mental zone. It didn't. It was like he'd reached the wall he needed to climb, but his fingers kept slipping and he could barely get off the ground.

Dara's focus jittered as though he was trying to concentrate on a difficult mental task while fighting sleep, only the opposite was the issue. His mind was fighting for awareness when Dara needed it to stay relaxed, remain in this trance.

What had once come easily to him, could have been completed in a matter of minutes, became a struggle that lasted hours. The progress he made was ridiculously slow, but it added up.

By the time Dara's mind finally admitted defeat and he flopped down onto the bed, allowing his fingers to slide out of Bug, it was dark. It was dark? How long had he...? And they had waited?

Dara was so tired. It had been so long since he'd experienced healing fatigue that he'd forgotten what it was like, this heavy weight on his mind. He almost laughed. He hadn't even fully healed the scarring. He had done so little and it had taken so much from him. He was hungry. Thirsty. Cold. Too exhausted to deal with any of those needs, so he just lay there.

Brayan and Bug's voices sounded too loud to Dara's ears and their words registered as nothing but sound. Someone covered Dara with a blanket and he snuggled down into it.