by Lynn Kelling
To everyone else, Trace is an enigmatic and carefully controlled Dominant. He runs Diadem, a private BDSM club and is a Master and mentor to his fellow Doms and their lovers—Gabriel, Darrek, Ben, and Kyle—while trying to be Master and lover for Micah. Trace is the one they all depend on to step in when anything or anyone threatens his closest friends.
But even Trace is in over his head when haunting events of the past endanger all their lives. Trace is forced to call on old connections for help from the world he tried to leave behind—the Master’s Circle in England. Tensions rise to a fever pitch as Trace’s hidden truths shake up the lives of everyone in his tangled, tight-knit family. (M/M+)
Chapter 1: The Truth About Trace
The ritual Trace has to go through before he can make the phone call is always the same. He drives to the nearest large shopping center and parks his motorcycle in a crowded area of the parking lot. With his backpack, he walks between the cars rather than down the aisle, goes into the shopping center and heads right for the bathroom. Once inside a locked stall, he changes into a different shirt and adds a scarf and a hat which he uses to hide his long hair, tucking it up inside. He puts the old shirt and the backpack into another duffel bag that had been inside the backpack. When he emerges from the bathroom, he walks a little straighter, a little slower and smiles less, watching everyone around him warily. The physical transformation itself always feels like coming home again. For a vagabond at heart like him, there’s undeniable familiarity in the moving and metamorphosis. No matter how firmly anchored his heart may be, the need to venture outward or reexamine which truths to tell, or conceal, is a lingering plague.
Through the shopping center and out the opposite side of the building than that through which he entered, he calls for a taxi. The taxi is then instructed to get on the highway and drive for about thirty three minutes before pulling off at the closest exit.
He has the driver keep the meter running and walks off into the fields or trees wherever they’ve stopped, not going too far that he loses sight of the taxi. The open air, isolation, and ability to easily see in all directions without obstruction helps calm his increasingly paranoid nature. Then, using a new, disposable, pre-paid cellphone, he dials the number from memory. He can only truly relax once the conversation has begun. Getting lost in the role he plays, and the comfort of trust formed diligently over the span of years, for a moment, nothing else exists except for the masculine voice on the other end of the line.
“Have I told you how sexy your accent is?” the voice tells him.
“Only a million bloody times, mate,” he chuckles. When he speaks, the pitch of his voice is slightly higher than it was pre-transformation. But, since it’s his normal register, it feels as soothing as a deep breath. It can be exhausting to constantly, consciously alter one’s way of speaking, but that’s just one of the costs of a good disguise. “How’s the missus?”
“Oof,” he groans.
“No, no. I mean she’s pregnant. Still can’t believe it, really. We heard the heartbeat again yesterday, though, so it’s real.”
Fear subtly tenses his friend and informant’s voice, sharpening the words like they were being scraped over a stone. Yasha Lachinov has been a voice on the other end of the phone for a long time now. Since the two of them have quite a lot in common, the conversation is always easy and good.
“That’s fucking fantastic,” he says sincerely. “Congratulations, mate.”
“Thanks Patrick,” is the sighed reply. “But that means I’m out. I’m done. That’s why I asked you to call. I couldn’t do this to you over email. I’m so sorry. I just can’t take the risk anymore.”
“I understand.” The news hurts, and makes speaking normally more of a challenge. How many years, total, has it been? Fifteen? Twenty? And now Yasha is going to fade away into obscurity like so many others, lost to time and circumstance. A true friendship is over, possibly forever. They will never speak again, most likely. It would be too dangerous. “Stay safe, my friend. Do what you need to do. Nothing is more important than family.”
“I don’t hear much these days anyway,” Yasha says. “I’m out of the loop. Have been for months, but… It would have been nice, just once, to get the chance to shake your hand. You’re a good man. It’s been an honor to know you, sir.”
He hates how upset he is after ending the call. It’s like the clothes, the voice, and the name all scheme to undo over a decade’s work at learning how to be strong.
After yelling, “Fuck!” loudly enough to startle some nearby sparrows, he tries to compose himself. He finds a fairly large rock and sets the cellphone down upon it. Driving the heel of his boot into the casing, he stomps until he hears the splintering crack, then leaves in the broken pieces were they lie. Slowly, he walks back to the taxi idling by the side of the road.
The ritual in reverse is hell. It’s like coming down with a crash from a beautiful high, or waking up after amazing sex next to a stranger who’s drooling in their sleep. It’s too much like the old rituals—clean up in the bathroom, make sure the fee is taken care of, and the customer is satisfied, then that long, cold walk out of the hotel, or wherever he happened to be, back to his life left feeling just a little bit more used, a little more soiled and ruined.
The taxi drops him back at the shopping center. He gets changed back into his original clothes without making eye contact with his reflection. It feels too much like vertigo.
The bike is where he left it, and the first thing he checks is the saddle bag. With a relieved sigh, he discovers his cell is still taped to the inside and hasn’t been stolen while he was gone. He never takes it with him when he has risky business to handle, due to possibly unfounded concerns of his location being traced on the off chance that his contact has been compromised. Mainly, though, it’s the memories of needing to be reachable at all times when servicing clients that cause him to leave the cell behind. When he’s slipping inside old identities, it’s better to do so without carrying along unnecessary stressors. He doesn’t work for anyone anymore. That’s a fact he repeats to himself, often. The freedom found in that truth is empowering. It steadies his nerves to choose to be unreachable when he’s already taking risks that leave him on edge.
But then, once business is handled, his current responsibilities mandate he have the means to check on those who are depending on him. As soon as he has the phone in his hand and touches a button to awaken the damned thing, he is reminded why he can’t abandon it entirely, even when he most wants to. There are messages waiting for him, mostly from Gabriel Hunter, his boy.
From an hour ago: ‘Someone broke into the house. I need your help.’
From forty-five minutes ago: ‘The cops are here. Where are you?’
From twenty minutes ago: ‘I don’t know what to do about Darrek.’
All of them cause his chest to feel too tight, every subsequent message making the dread of added responsibility a little worse. Beneath it all is the never-ending apprehension for the safety of his family, and the inescapable frustration born of rotten circumstances.
“Goddammit. Perfect fuckin’ timing.” He dials Ben Knox as he gets on the bike. He can’t call Gabriel. The ringing alone would do more harm than good.
Ben answers after the first ring. Another bad sign.
“Benny,” Trace says. “I’m headed over to see him. He texted you?”
“Yeah. Last ditch effort, I guess. The hell have you been, man?”
“Busy. I’m on my way. Gonna stop by your place after for a talk, so make your boy comfy before I get there. Understood?”
The storm he’d temporarily stepped out of to make the phone call is swirling faster than ever. It’s always swirling lately, buffeting him, the debris of his life and his kids’ lives clipping him as it wings by. The shrieking wind of shitty fate has been getting worse, more violent, and harder to escape. It’s all out of control.
The need for constant, daily maintenance of the lives of those who rely on him really started to kick Trace’s ass with the decision to keep Darrek Grealey and Kyle Roth away from each other, without any knowledge of what the other is up to while simultaneously not sacrificing Ben and Gabriel’s friendship in the process. Only through much finagling and a lot of effort on Trace’s part has he been able to keep everyone happy and functioning.
Then, Jerry had tried to call Darrek. When Darrek wouldn’t answer, Jerry kept trying to call. It has sent Darrek right up to the edge of a mental cliff, not able to stand up to his father and abuser, or able to completely escape him either. The ideas Darrek imagines to be the unknown reasons for the call make things worse. Gabriel tries to manage Darrek’s constantly shifting level of unease and find a way to fix the problem, but so far things have only gotten steadily worse.
Gabriel. Trace focuses on Gabriel.
Right away, his conscience starts to give him hell for things he’s done with Gabriel in the recent past—like acting the part of Daddy during sex involving Gabriel’s total submission after an urgent phonecall from Ben made on Gabriel’s behalf.
Sex doesn’t solve everything, you stupid shit. You showed that boy the respect he deserves for a goddamned decade and one desperate phonecall is all it takes to end it? Really? You should be better than that by now. That’s the shit that got your heart broken. That’s the shit that destroys hope and happiness. Your boy is on the line now, because of you and your fucking inability to keep it in your pants.
It’s always amused and disturbed him that he can sometimes hear Trace’s voice in his head, separate and distinct from his own inner mental dialogue. The part of him that is Trace, yelling at the rest of him which isn’t, is a uniquely twisted exercise in self-recrimination. When it comes to his relationship with Gabriel, Ben, or Micah, the voice of Trace tends to speak up and kick him in the ass. Trace—just one of his distinct, multiple identities—didn’t occur naturally, but is rather a conscious creation and a blend of a few different guys he used to run with as a teenage thug in New York. He scrambled their attitudes, their accents, and their manners of speaking and made them his own. It took a while for it to feel normal in practice. To be honest, it still doesn’t, always.
Perhaps it is because he can’t be who he really is, freed of labels or distinct personas, with anyone else anymore that he is forced to disassociate himself in private, quiet moments. When alone, he has no name, and no specific identity. He’s many people at once and none of them at all. Secretly tired of performing to please, he hopes one day to be able to drop the act entirely. The likelihood of that ever happening, though, is quite slim.
The ride to Gabriel’s home is short. He pulls up and parks in the driveway. The garage is open, the radio blasting inside. Darrek is in there, pencil in his hand, which is hanging at his side. He stares at a piece of wood on the worktable in front of him, but doesn’t move, doesn’t blink.
Going to the front door, instead, Trace raises his hand to knock, but it’s opened before he can. Gabriel practically throws himself forward into the hug, his eyes teary.
“Hey, beautiful,” Trace sighs, gathering Gabriel in his arms, taking a second to simply enjoy the proof that his boy is whole and safe.
“Thank you for coming.”
“Sorry I’m late. I miss the party?”
Gabriel detangles himself, straightens and looks slightly embarrassed.
“I know this isn’t your problem, but—”
“Hey, I get it. Let’s talk inside,” he suggests, wanting to at least put a closed door between them and Darrek.
Gabriel leads them into the hall, then the kitchen. The gun is there, above the bookcase where Gabriel leaves it. Trace can see the shine of its black metal, if he looks.
“He was upstairs in the bathroom, shaving,” Gabriel says, pacing back and forth by the counter, glancing now and then at the yard and the dog sniffing around in the grass of the lawn. “It was two hours before he was expecting me home and he knows I’m never early. Not with the way my workload’s been. He said the house was quiet. Sierra was asleep by his feet, near the heat outlet in the bathroom. She perked up. Barked once. Then the alarm started to blare.”
Gabriel exhales, running a hand over his mouth. He’s shaking, his eyes too big with fear. This is the stuff he can’t show Darrek. This is the stuff he only shows Trace.
“I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad one,” Gabriel laughs hysterically, sounding on the verge of tears. “But he shut and locked the bathroom door. He just barricaded himself in there with Sierra, and sat with his back to the door, curled up like that. When he heard sirens, he finally came out and opened the door before they could break it down to get inside. At least he didn’t have the gun.”
Better to hide than to run face-first into trouble, especially with where Darrek’s head’s been.
“Did they find any evidence?”
“No,” Gabriel says with exasperation. “No forced entry. Nothing. Darrek didn’t even hear footsteps or any sounds of someone moving around. They were certain it’s faulty wiring and the system just needs to be replaced. We only got it put in recently, so it makes sense, but….”
Gabriel hesitates, then finishes, saying, “But there’s a photo of me and Dare in the hall downstairs, on the bookshelf by the door. It was turned face down.”
“Babydoll, that doesn’t mean—”
“There’s another photo in our bedroom. Our bedroom, Trace. It was turned face down, too. What are the odds of those two things getting knocked over when the cops were wandering around, and nothing else? Nothing else was touched! It’s not right. I mean, they didn’t take anything. They didn’t leave anything. They didn’t try to break down the bathroom door. It’s creepy. And I’m so scared for him.”
Gabriel looks at Trace with a pleading expression, and the need is there. It’s right there, visible, tangible. Gabriel wants Trace to touch, to comfort, and take charge. The trouble is, Gabriel is completely oblivious to the inner struggles going on inside the man he only knows as Trace. Trace would never take advantage of Gabriel in a sexual way. Trace sees himself as Gabriel’s guardian and father. But Patrick would perform with pleasure if it was needed and demanded of him. When Ben called, Trace slipped, let Patrick take over. It was a mistake he’s been trying to live with, and striving not to repeat. Ever since, Trace has been reprimanding Patrick for his weakness in repeatedly resorting to sex as a solution to almost every problem.
“How do I make him safe?” Gabriel asks, looking desperate. “What do I do, here? This is breaking him.”
“You still having the issue with the phone?”
“Yes. It rings constantly. The caller ID usually comes up as Unavailable. Sometimes it’s the Grealeys. Dare won’t answer their calls since that first time when it turned out it was his father, and he won’t let me answer either. The idea of me talking to Jerry sends his anxiety level through the roof. When I do answer the phone, most times there’s no one on the other end. Sometimes I think I hear breathing.”
“Christ,” Trace sighs, rolling it over in his head, trying to not let the new worries get swept up in the storm in there, to keep hold of things until he finds something useful to say, some way to help his boy.
For how long did you crave a real family of your own, and here you are, fucking it up, like usual. Then again, all you’re good for is a fuck, right, Patrick?
“He’s convinced this is Jerry. Jerry on the phone. Jerry showing up at the house. But Jerry has no reason to come after him like this,” Gabriel hisses, his voice low, his gaze on the closed door to the garage. “But Harry has a reason to come after me. What if Harry found out it was my friends who cut him up? What if this is revenge? What if he’s coming after me and trying to—”
It’s not Harry.
“Hey. Enough,” Trace says. “You’re being paranoid. You need to keep it together for Dare. We’ll figure this out. You keep the alarm on the house active. Schedule an appointment for the system to be replaced, as soon as possible. You keep Dare out of here as much as you can. Keep him away from the phones. Keep your routine as normal as you possibly can. Keep things normal. You’re his Master. If he needs to submit to you for his own comfort, so he can draw comfort from his trust in you, then use that. Push him that way. Test his limits in a way he’s familiar with. It’ll help him see what a fighter he is when he needs to be, and keep his head here, instead of with the worry.”
“Okay,” Gabriel nods, latching on to the suggestions. “Yeah, okay.”
By the time Trace is able to leave, reassured Gabriel has it together, he sees Darrek in the garage, in exactly the same position as he was before.
“Hey,” Trace calls over the din from the radio, probably turned up to drown out the sound of ringing telephones. “Hang in there, okay? Don’t let the bastards get ya down, kid. We’ll figure this out.”
Darrek turns to look at Trace, but doesn’t reply at first. Then, he just nods once. The demons are right there, under the surface, scratching away at the kid’s sanity, feeding him nightmare possibilities on an endless loop, no doubt.
“Yessir,” Darrek murmurs.
He’s surrounded by every kind of power tool, hatchet, or blunt instrument he could want, in order to defend himself, and it makes it a little easier for Trace to leave Darrek there. Astride the bike, Trace watches Darrek turn back to stare at his unfinished work, then takes off down the road in search of Ben.