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 5: Danger
Relieved, he circled around to face Jere, pressing tight against him. Jere was quick to pull him out of the waiting area and back into the empty halls of the clinic, where he wrapped his arms tightly around Wren and held him close. “Are you all right?” he asked, stroking Wren’s hair.
Wren was shaking now, which he thought was exceedingly stupid. He hadn’t been shaking when the man had been asking him questions, or even when Jere first came out; why on earth would he be shaking now? But he was, and he knew he didn’t have to hide it from Jere. He was safe enough to allow himself to break down, just a little.
“I will be,” he said softly, wanting nothing more than to stay in Jere’s arms forever.
Jere was kind enough to let him do just that. He stayed there, strong and available, until Wren felt himself calming down.
“What about your patient?” Wren asked, fully aware that he was trying to keep his mind off of anything to do with what had just happened, or what had been threatened. Thinking about work was safe, easy, not a risk for him or Jere.
“I sedated him. He’ll be fine when I get back,” Jere confessed. It was unlike him to abandon a patient that way. “You sounded scared. I wanted to be out there right away.”
Wren smiled up at him. “Thank you. I never doubted you’d be there.”
Jere stroked his hand down Wren’s back, calming him further. “I was half tempted to stick a scalpel in his face the second I walked out there, just for scaring you. What the hell gives him the right to think that’s okay?”
“He’s free, and he’s a slave agent,” Wren shrugged. “He doesn’t need any more rights than that.”
Jere nodded. “I fucking hate that, but I guess you’re right. Still pisses me off, though. You did the right thing. I don’t know what kind of gift he had, my guess is some sort of empath or mind-reader gift or something, but he was putting pressure on you. He tried for a second with me, but I could defend. Bastard, picking on someone who couldn’t.”
Wren just smiled at that. After all this time, Jere was still offended at the way people took advantage of slaves, even if he knew it was not only accepted, but expected. “You took care of it,” he reminded him.
“Yeah,” Jere said, sounding dissatisfied. “I want to go back to that clinic and lobotomize that vet. How dare she file a complaint?”
Wren tried to smile, but his face wouldn’t cooperate. He couldn’t pretend that this would be fine. “Jere… I attacked her. I didn’t hurt her, not really, but she was trying to heal me, and she was getting too close to my firesetting gift, and I just panicked. I had to get away before she found it for real.”
Jere placed a kiss on his head. “It was the right thing to do. You did everything right, just like you always do. I’m sure she couldn’t have noticed.”
Wren wished he could believe that, but he knew it wasn’t true. He had fucked up, both in letting his firesetting gift get out of control, and in fighting back against that vet. He had kept it inside for so many years, hidden it even from the gift-identifiers and his last master, and he had ruined everything by letting his guard down.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t use it so often. I know it’s dangerous—to you, to me, to Isis. We can’t afford to draw attention, and we certainly can’t afford me slipping up with it. I should go back to not using it. Ever.”
Jere looked troubled. “I love your gifts, Wren. Both of them. They’re a part of you. Besides, it’s not you I’m worried about, not even Isis, really. As strange as that seems, I’m mostly worried about myself. What if I mess up, say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing?”
“You were the perfect master today,” Wren reassured him. It was easier than reassuring himself, and it was true. Jere was making great strides in his ability to act the part.
“I still don’t like it,” Jere mumbled. “I could pretend for a few minutes because I was scared. But what would this audit even entail? Are they going to come in my house and question us for hours? Look through our things? Read our minds? What? I don’t know how well I can hold it together if that happens.”
“If it happens, which it might not, you’ll deal with it.” Wren forced himself to smile, false confidence bridging the gap between how he felt and what he wished was true. “I have absolute confidence in you, master.”
Jere made a face. “Don’t call me that!” he protested.
“Oh, but my darling master,” Wren teased. “You’re so strong and powerful. How could I ever think of you as anything but that? My master. My lord. My mighty, wonderful man, whom I couldn’t imagine life without.”
“Well, I’ll agree to that last part,” Jere told him. “I still want to smack someone every time I remember that I own you. It’s not right.”
“I’m perfectly content being yours,” Wren insisted. “And not just because it means I’m not somebody else’s. I love you, and I love knowing that nobody else but you gets to tell me what to do. I trust you with that, more than I’ve ever trusted anybody else in the world. Don’t take that lightly. It’s important.”
“You’re important,” Jere reminded him, pulling him close for a kiss.
Wren loved hearing it as much as he loved the strong arms around him and the soft lips pressed against his. He forgot about slaves, masters, and patients, letting Jere’s touch lure him into the safety that he loved, and had grown almost dependent upon. Everything was all right when Jere was around. It was what happened when Jere wasn’t around that scared him.
“We should get Kieran to visit.”
Wren had been anxious after the investigator came by, and he could tell that Jere wasn’t feeling much better.
Jere agreed. Kieran was one of Jere’s first real friends in Hojer. She was also an avid anti-slavery activist. They had stayed in close contact over the years, even once Kieran left to attend university in Sonova, the slave-free metropolitan city where Jere grew up. It had been Kieran who had gotten Jere to start advertising his services to heal slaves. A highly skilled empath, she had suffered for years in her home state, unable to block out the agony that the slave population felt. She would be the best resource if they really were facing an audit.
Kieran arrived the next day, looking a little rough.
“Taking my advice about having fun?” Jere teased. He had been gently encouraging Kieran to explore the fun sides of Sonova instead of focusing on coursework and activism.
“You should have given me advice about riding the speed train with a hangover,” Kieran mumbled. “Are you getting audited?”
Wren shook his head. “Just a visit. Pre-screening, I guess.”
“Harassment,” Jere muttered. He explained what had happened with the veterinarian, leaving out the part about Wren’s firesetting gift. No matter how much they trusted Kieran, the fewer people who knew about it, the safer they all were.
“The best you can do is comply,” Kieran advised. “With the current legal state, that’s all you can do. There’s a newly proposed law that would help, but I don’t even know if it would go into effect soon enough.”
“What law is that?” Jere asked.
Kieran brightened, happy to talk about her favorite subject. “They’re calling it the Slavery Reformation Act. The medical community on the west coast originally promoted it, after a few cities got infected with one of those weird, mutating diseases. A lot of states are emphasizing healthcare reform in this year’s elections, including better treatment for slaves. In Arona, the SRA requires that slaves be treated by human healers, not veterinarians.”
“I’m already treating slaves. According to our visitor, that doesn’t make me look any better.”
Wren agreed. He wished they had never bothered to help anyone outside of their home, no matter how much it pleased Jere or improved life for slaves.
“The SRA in Arona was influenced by both pro-slavery and anti-slavery lobbyists. It includes some protections for slaveowners—preventing unwanted searches and seizures, making mandatory public punishments illegal. The pro-slavery side is rather pleased by the part where licenses and certifications apply between slave states.”
Wren smiled. Kieran had long stopped considering Jere as “owning slaves” so much as “harboring future ex-slaves.” Her ambitions were entertaining.
“But there are opponents, especially to the public slave treatment acts. People are so intent on keeping their ‘God-given right’ to beat and kill their slaves in public, you’d think that we were trying to take away their right to breathe air,” Kieran shook her head. “Even the most conservative slaveowners don’t do that very often! We’ve done research, even the pro-slavery side has done research, and it’s not something that happens regularly. But so many people are throwing a fit over it. Most don’t buy that it presents a disease risk.”
“They see it as gradual and intentional encroachment on their rights as slaveowners, and we want no part in that,” Wren insisted. If he had owned slaves, he was pretty sure he would feel the same way. It was how he had grown up. “It’s too dangerous. We’re targets already.”
“So why not try to take away the power that the Slave Control, Regulation, and Enforcement Agency has?” Kieran reminded him. “People are panicking about these diseases. This law could get passed before you ever have a chance to get audited.”
Jere shook his head. “It’s too risky. My life, my clinic… my family doesn’t need to be subjected to that.”
“Even politics in Sonova are getting heated. Everyone wants to protect their health, and the slave states are a weak link. The candidates backing the SRA are doing well in the pre-election surveys, and the advertising and outreach campaigns are going well.”
“Even so… I don’t think this is the time,” Jere insisted. “There’s too much at stake.”
Wren glanced at Jere, relieved that he agreed. Between the veterinarian and the firesetting gift, the audit, and their general lack of fit with the community, he was glad that Jere was being cautious.
“Your sister thinks you should do it,” Kieran teased. Jere’s sister, Jen, had taken it upon herself to connect with Kieran through some of the activist groups they were both members of. “Will you consider it, at least? A doctor supporting a healthcare cause proposed by his own medical school makes perfect sense!”
Wren wanted to reject her again, but Jere was already nodding.
“I’ll look over it,” he promised. “What about the audit?”
“If it happens,” Kieran reminded them, “just go along with it. It’s probably best if I’m less involved. Spend more time with Paltrek; he’s the perfect picture of what the slave agencies want.”
Throughout the discussion, Kieran kept looking at them nervously. Wren was a little anxious as to what she was going to drop on them next. He and Isis shared a nervous glance. Like Wren, she picked up on the things that the free people in the room missed despite their best intentions.
“Jere, there’s this new restaurant I thought we might be able to go check out for dinner tonight,” Kieran said, squirming a bit. “The owner might be a good resource.”
Wren held back a laugh. She was clearly asking to speak with Jere alone, but desperately trying to be polite about it. It would have been sad if it weren’t so endearing.
Jere agreed. He and Kieran left shortly after, leaving Wren and Isis to themselves. Wren missed Jere, even when he was gone for stupidly short periods of time, but he was glad that Jere went out. He trusted that anything important Kieran brought up would be shared with him.
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