by Alicia Cameron
A train wreck outside Hojer injures Jere and Wren, destroying their anniversary bliss, and thrusting them back into the dangers of their home, where slaves like Wren are treated as animals. While Jere struggles for consciousness, Wren is seized with the other slaves. When Jere comes to the rescue he is furious to find Wren kenneled, neglected, and abused.
For the last two years, Jere has been using his status as a healer to protect Wren and his second slave, Isis. Wren’s controversial fire talent is getting harder and harder to hide, Isis is desperate to escape to her family in a free state, and Jere’s compassion is making enemies of powerful slave owners. Meanwhile, upcoming elections are stirring political unrest. Jere supports a reformation that could improve the lives of Arona’s slaves by treating them in human clinics like Jere’s, instead of sending them to animal healers. But the slavers are only motivated by the threat of an untreatable infectious disease spreading inexorably towards Hojer.
The more Jere becomes involved in politics, the more his clinic and his household come under scrutiny, prompting the Arona slave regulation board to harass Jere, questioning his ability to manage his clinic, and threatening to take away Wren and Isis. The two slaves are preparing to be evaluated, when Jere stumbles upon information that could separate the three of them forever.
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Chapter 2: Retrieval
Jere awoke to a pounding headache and a sense of confusion.
“Where the hell am I?” he mumbled, looking around. He quickly realized he was in some sort of hospital or clinic, the white walls and smell of antiseptic familiar to his senses.
As he realized where he was, his next concern was the emptiness he felt inside his head. For years, he had been accompanied by Wren, joining him in his thoughts, his emotions, and his psychic abilities. Now that he was left alone, he had only his own fear to focus on.
Jere jumped to his feet, unnerved by the realization that he had been healed, that someone had used the very gift on him that he used every day on others. The last memory he had was being on the speed train with Wren, and then everything was blank. He was thankful to whoever had healed him; if he had been knocked unconscious, he was sure something had gone wrong. He had no idea what that something would have been. More importantly, he had no idea where Wren was, or if he was even alive. The mind connection might have broken due to whatever injuries he sustained, or it might have been broken for a far worse reason.
He spied a slave carrying some medical supplies. “Where am I?” he demanded, frantic. “Where is my slave? Is he here?”
The slave pulled away from him, frightened. “I’m not sure, sir. I’m sorry… can I get the doctor for you?”
Jere scowled. He didn’t want to take his rage out on this slave, but was furious and worried about Wren. “Find me my clothes!” he snapped instead.
“Yes, sir,” the slave agreed, setting down the tray of supplies and pulling out a bag with Jere’s clothes in it. “They’ve got blood on them, sir.”
Jere didn’t respond, he just grabbed them and started changing. He had to find Wren, and he wasn’t about to do it wearing nothing but a hospital gown.
The slave slipped out of the room while Jere was changing, a move Jere couldn’t really fault him for. He stormed around the clinic area until he found a doctor. “Where is my slave?” he asked, no more polite than he had been with the slave.
“Any property that survived the accident would have been taken to see Dr. Karmin Barrett at the local veterinary clinic,” the doctor informed him. “I can get you directions if you’d like.”
Jere felt his anger growing. “What in the hell is he doing at a goddamned vet’s office? And what… wait, what accident?”
The doctor shook his head. “Your speed train derailed. You suffered significant head trauma; it’s no wonder you don’t remember it. I don’t know about your slave. I wasn’t on the train. I just got a bunch of wounded passengers dragged to my door and you were one of them. You’ve been completely healed, but your energy might be a little depleted. You should take it easy for a few days—”
“I’ll settle my account and take those directions, please,” Jere cut him off. “I’m sorry. I’m a little agitated.”
The doctor didn’t respond; he just gave Jere the bill, the directions, and a form to free the clinic of any liability that might occur. Within minutes, Jere was making his way through the unfamiliar streets, intent on finding the veterinary clinic where he hoped he would find Wren. The alternative was too horrific to think about.
Fortunately, the clinic wasn’t far. Jere longed for a speed gift, or even one of the terrifying, polluting cars that were popular before The Fall. Human-drawn carts and bicycles were becoming popular in the cities, but in rural areas, communities were close enough that most people just walked—or ran. Jere was out of breath by the time he arrived, exhausted from his already poor health and anxious to find Wren. He didn’t bother checking in at the reception area, he just pushed through the doors that led to the back room. Jere searched through the psychic energy he could feel, relieved when he felt Wren’s presence. It was strong and steady, if terrified. Jere wasn’t sure whether to be relieved that he was alive or furious that someone had scared him. He followed Wren’s presence until he arrived in a back room, ignoring the protests of the veterinary staff who tried to block him.
When he pushed through the door, he was struck with the overwhelming stench of bodily fluids. Both animal and human, the odor reached Jere’s nose quickly and he tried not to gag. He covered his nose with his bloodstained shirt and pushed forward, relieved when he finally saw Wren.
His partner was alive, but he was caged and chained like an animal, locked inside of a cage barely large enough for an animal. He was injured. Jere didn’t need to use his healing gift to notice it, Wren was covered with blood, whimpering in pain and trembling with fear. Jere wasn’t usually a violent man, but he had to hold himself back from grabbing every free person in the building and stopping their hearts.
Jere whirled on the vet tech who was trying to pull him out of the holding room. “Get him out of there now!”
“Sir, he should probably be treated by the vet,” the tech suggested. “He’s been restrained for his own safety. He’s quite volatile and badly injured—”
“That didn’t seem to matter until I showed up with money, did it?” Jere snapped. “I’m a fucking healer. A human healer, not some inadequate animal healer. Get him out of there!”
“Let me just grab the paperwork.”
Jere didn’t bother to follow, he just grabbed the first chair he saw and turned toward the row of cages, intent on battering them apart.
“Jere!” Wren hissed, growing pale at Jere’s fury. “They’re animal cages. There’s a latch at the top—don’t go breaking things!”
Jere paused, his rage calmed somewhat by hearing Wren’s voice. He set the chair down and made his way over to the cages. He opened the door quickly, then glanced at the restraints encircling Wren’s wrists. Little drops of blood were dripping from them, and he felt the rage returning. He knew Wren hadn’t been any sort of threat, and even if he was, there was no need for this sort of treatment. There was no need for his lover to be in a vet clinic in the first place.
“Just get them off, please,” Wren requested, looking desperately into Jere’s eyes. “I want to go home.”
Jere nodded, reaching in and examining the restraints. The buckle needed to go tighter before it would come off, and he knew it would hurt Wren. He calmed himself slightly and placed his hand on Wren’s cheek.
“Let me make it stop hurting,” he said quietly. “And I can fix the mind connection while I’m at it.”
Wren nodded, giving him a weak smile.
In seconds, Jere had pushed his way past Wren’s psychic defenses. The old connection lit up in response, bringing them back together instantly. Jere was flooded with the panic and terror that Wren felt, and he tried not to let too many of his own emotions spill over. Wren would know that Jere wasn’t angry with him, but that much rage would be intimidating for anyone. As Jere worked to dull Wren’s pain, he felt Wren turn his head slightly. The kiss that Wren placed on his hand steadied him as it always did. Jere would heal Wren properly, but he was already feeling dizzy and weak from his injuries. Blocking the pain as much as possible, he pulled the buckles to release the restraints. Jere was pleased when his lover was free and in his arms again. He eased Wren out of the cage, glancing over the injuries that he had sustained. He felt renewed anger when he realized that none of those injuries had been treated, not even with a simple painkiller.
“I take it you’re the boy’s master?” a voice asked behind them.
Jere turned, one arm still wrapped tightly around Wren, the other out and ready to harm. The woman speaking—whom Jere assumed was the vet—didn’t even flinch.
“Yes, and we’ll be leaving,” Jere informed her curtly. “I don’t want to be in this place another minute. What you did to my property? It should be criminal!”
“He’s the one who resisted treatment,” the vet informed him. “Said his master was a healer and wouldn’t let anyone else work on him. Put up a hell of a fight when I tried.”
“Bullshit. You tortured him.”
“I assessed his health,” the vet replied. “At the risk of danger to myself. For a slave with a speed gift, he has quite a strong psychic presence. He was able to break away from the healing connection with ease. Fortunately, we were still able to keep him safe while you were away.”
“You can’t even clean the shit off your floors,” Jere replied, utterly disgusted. He had worked in emergency departments before, real ones where they treated humans like humans. These sorts of conditions would never have been tolerated. “I wouldn’t bring a dog here to be put to sleep.”
“All the same, we still have a fee for boarding and stabilizing your property,” the vet informed him, shoving a statement into his hand. “And we need you to sign a release indicating that we didn’t provide services because of your request.”
Jere glared at her, ready to fight until he felt Wren squeezing his hand.
“Please, Jere. It’s not worth it. Just take me home.” The psychic connection they shared allowed them to have private conversations despite being around other people.
Jere nodded, signing the release and digging some money out of his pocket. The offending pile of shit was still lying on the floor, and before he had a chance to think about it, Jere threw the money and the release form down on top of it, grinding it in with his heel.
He turned, pulling Wren along with him. As they left, Jere felt a little pang of guilt as one of the vet’s slaves was ordered to retrieve and wash the money.
He kept a tight hold on Wren as they walked away from the vet clinic.
“Was that really necessary?” Wren asked.
“Probably not,” Jere admitted. “I was just so fucking angry. How dare they put you in a place like that! In a cage with those fucking things on you!”
“I’m fine, Jere,” Wren reassured him. “I’m just glad you’re okay. The last I saw you, you were unconscious, bleeding out from that head wound. I’m glad someone got you healed.”
“Didn’t spare you the courtesy,” Jere muttered, furious. “How dare they take you to a fucking vet clinic!”
“It’s protocol in most places,” Wren reminded him. “Not all healers will see slaves, and I’m sure the medical clinic was busy. A lot of people were hurt.”
Jere was silent. He hated this place, hated any place that had slaves. He had done everything he could to protect Wren and it still wasn’t enough. He spotted a sign for an hourly hotel and pulled Wren along with him.
“Let’s get you healed and rest a little,” he suggested. “Then I’ll figure out when the next speed train can take us home.”
Wren just nodded. Jere paid for the room, ignoring the concerned look on the attendant’s face just as he had ignored the people they passed on the street. With the amount of blood on them both, they made quite a scene. Once they reached their room, he pulled Wren into his arms properly, holding him tight.
“Let’s sit,” Jere suggested. “I can heal you.”
Wren sat, but held Jere back at arm’s length. “You need to take care of yourself first,” he insisted. “Get something to eat, drink some water. You’re pale and shaking.”
“You’re in pain!” Jere protested. “You should have been healed hours ago!”
Wren nodded. “Yes, and we’ll both have bigger problems if you push yourself too far. I want to go home, Jere, not sit here and wait for you to regain consciousness again.”
Jere flushed, embarrassed. He knew it wasn’t his fault, but he felt responsible for what had happened to Wren. “Okay,” he agreed.
Reluctantly, Jere left Wren in the rented room and made his way to the business next door, buying some sandwiches and water and bringing them back to the room. When he returned, Wren was showering with his clothes on, washing himself and the clothing at rapid speed. Jere sat and started eating dutifully; he had no appetite, but he needed the energy to heal Wren. As he watched, Wren finished showering, stripped off the clothes, and warmed them between his hands. Jere watched in amazement as steam came off the garments; in seconds, they were dry. Wren turned around with a tired smile on his face.
“Want me to do yours, too?” he asked.
Jere shook his head. “Save your energy,” he advised. “I’m a doctor; I’m used to having blood on me.”
Wren nodded, dropping down on the bed. “I wasn’t hurt too badly,” he said quietly. “I could probably wait until we get home….”
It was painfully obvious that Wren was lying. The slightest movements made him wince, and he was breathing as shallowly as possible. There was no way Jere was letting his lover suffer from those injuries until they went home. “I’ll finish eating and then I’ll at least start on healing you. Maybe it won’t be perfect, but it will be a start. You’ll be out of pain, and you won’t risk bleeding all over your freshly cleaned clothes.”
Wren nodded, leaning against Jere. They were quiet as Jere finished eating and ran his hands over Wren’s body, figuring out where he was injured and what to heal first. Jere barely noticed when he entered into Wren’s mind; they were close enough that it was as familiar as his own by now. He focused first on stopping the pain; Wren’s collarbone had been severely bruised and a few of his ribs had been cracked. He felt Wren breathe a little easier once he blocked the pain, then he started to mend the bones, knowing it would take far too much energy to heal them completely. As it was, he could set them, start the healing, and finish when they got home. Wren lay pliant next to him, and when Jere couldn’t push himself any further, he stopped, keeping his hands on Wren’s body.
“Feeling better?” he asked, even though he knew Wren was.
“Much,” Wren agreed, sitting up to kiss him. “Thank you.”
Jere shook his head. “I should never have left you like that. This was supposed to be a nice day out, something fun. Instead… I don’t want to think of what they might have done to you there.”
Wren gave him a curious look. “I’m sorry, did you arrange for the speed train to derail? Or pull the roof of it onto your face? It was an accident, Jere. It’s a risk we take every time we go out. I’m aware of it, even if you seem surprised. That’s just how it is.”
Jere shook his head. “It shouldn’t be. I want you to be safe, even if I’m not there to protect you. There has to be something I can do.”
Wren smiled, pulling Jere’s arms around him. “I’m with you. I’d really like to never end up in a place like that again. But you came. That’s all that matters.”
It was halfway through the next day by the time another speed train arrived and brought them home. Jere was still exhausted; he had slept some, but any recovery he made was immediately funneled into healing Wren. He couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt, just like he couldn’t stop planning ways to keep him safe in the future.
Growing up in a free state, where there were barely even any mentions of slaves, Jere had only been minimally aware that slaves were even a possibility in the modern world. In his mind, such things were relegated to the most backwards, barbaric places in the world, surely no place that he would ever visit. He had never expected to own one of his own.
Or two of his own, as it was.
They arrived home to find the house quiet and seemingly empty. Jere looked around for a moment, wondering where his other slave was.
Isis came out after a few minutes, the not-so-secretly relieved smile on her face showing as she realized she hadn’t been abandoned. Her paranoia had faded considerably over the year since Jere bought her, signing over a small sum of money for the girl who was about to be sent to die at a workhouse. She had been beaten, starved, and was nearly insane back then. Over the past year, she had healed both physically and mentally, slowly opening up and starting to trust first Jere, then Wren. She took pride in her appearance now, arranging her long, dark curls in different styles, and selecting clothes that brought out her green eyes and olive skin tone, what little bit of skin she allowed to show, anyway. She had made remarkable progress.
“The mind connection went dead,” she said, shaken. “And then, you guys didn’t come home… is that blood?”
Jere just nodded. “Yes. Our train derailed. Are you okay?”
Isis nodded. “I hid,” she admitted. “I’m glad you’re back. Are you both all right?”
Jere shrugged. “I got good treatment.”
“I got to spend a few hours in a vet clinic for the first time,” Wren informed her, his tone conveying his disapproval. “But Jere came and got me.”
Isis shuddered. “Sorry. I’ve been there. Those places are awful.”
“So I noticed,” Wren agreed. “They had staff at the training facility, and once my last master bought me, when he bothered to heal me at all, he healed me himself. I think I’d rather be left to die than have a vet treat me again.”
“It won’t happen again,” Jere promised, his tone fierce. He just wished he knew how to keep that promise.
“Jere, you got some messages at the clinic while you were out. A lot of people wondered where you were. And some creepy guy in a suit came in looking for you. He wasn’t sick or anything, and he kept trying to ask me questions, but all he’d say was that he wanted to talk to you.”
Jere raised an eyebrow. He had left Isis there to clean and organize while they were out; he hadn’t expected her to go above and beyond. “You actually talked to people?”
She shrugged. “You forgot to lock the door. I made sure not to be rude when I answered, even that one guy. I told him that you didn’t want me talking to people, and that I had work to do in the back. Behind a locked door.”
Jere grinned, imagining how that must have gone. She could be abrasive at times. “Did you write down what they wanted?”
Isis rolled her eyes. “Yeah, because I’d forget so quickly.”
Isis had a memory gift that went beyond photographic. She remembered everything she had ever seen or heard from the time that the first signs of her gift started to show. It had resulted in her being taken as a slave when she was a mere seven years old instead of the traditional age of thirteen. Isis had been valuable as a spy, too young to even read the letters she memorized for her masters. As she grew older, her behavior became uncontrollable, and so did the harsh treatment she received. For years, she’d experienced nothing but torture and abuse. She had only been fifteen when Jere had bought her, but she had seen far more of the world and its cruelties than either of the men who had adopted her. As she slowly became acclimated to her new home, she was learning how to use her gift far more effectively to help manage things in the clinic, where she doubled as a note-taker and assistant.
“You want me to write it down so you don’t forget?” she asked Jere, teasing him.
“Yes, please,” he admitted. He knew his memory was nowhere near as good as hers.
“All right,” she agreed. “You can get details or anything when we do the energy thing.”
Jere nodded. Siphoning psychic energy, or the “energy thing,” as Isis called it, was an uncomfortable but useful process; connecting to someone else’s psychic energy source was intimate, and thoughts and emotions and memories got all tangled up in the psychic web. Jere’s medical ethics made him recoil from the very idea, but when he had agreed to treat the slave population in Hojer, he had found himself with few other alternatives.
“Speaking of energy, you should get some rest,” Wren hinted. “You’re back to work tomorrow and I’m sure it will be busy.”
Jere shrugged. “I’m all right,” he protested, knowing he was as exhausted as Wren said.
Wren leaned over and gave him a light kiss on the cheek. “You’re half-dead. You’re covered in blood. You’re slower than I am. Go get in the shower, and then I’ll come and make sure you’re clean.”
“Gross,” Isis commented, heading toward her bedroom. At sixteen, she was well aware of what couples did in bed at night, and as a slave she had experienced far too much of the sort against her will in the past. Now she was happily enjoying a second childhood, and had no interest in anything sexual.
“You’re just jealous of all the fun we have,” Wren teased.
Isis made a face at them as she left. As patient and compassionate as Jere was with Isis, she and Wren had developed a far different relationship. He teased her and didn’t tolerate any of her bullshit tantrums. Isis went along with it and appreciated his no-nonsense manner. Wren had even compared her, rather begrudgingly, to his own little brother, the one he hadn’t seen in years. Isis hadn’t stopped smiling for days after that comment.
Jere laughed and headed to the shower as Wren had ordered. He was relieved to know that the man he loved and the girl they had both grown to care for so deeply were safe. His little family depended on him.
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