The Price

by Star

 


The phones hadn't been working right all day. Max trusted Ethan with the Cromwell interview, but he just felt uncomfortable being out of touch with his lover for so long. He drew a heavy breath and, exasperated, Max dialed to pick up messages from his cell.

{{Max, I'm still at the Cromwell interview. I'm not sure what the problem is with the phones, but when I call I'm getting your voice mail too. Cromwell's being a bit of a pain, but I think we'll wrap this up in an hour. I'll head straight for the Champion meeting then. See you there.}}

Max erased the message and put the phone away. It was a minor problem. Why should he be so concerned?

The limo that had picked him up at the office arrived at the old Saint Rain estate where he was to meet with his newest client, Vincent Champion. This was one of the most lucrative of the agency's commissions to date. Already there were accolades from the entertainment industry where most of their clientele came from and the word of mouth among the glitterati was pushing Elite into the top five category of security agencies, not just in Las Vegas but internationally.

Max thought about Elite's success and he knew that he was the primary factor behind it. He took pride in his accomplishment and knew that he was coming into his own.

The Saint Rain estate had fallen on hard times when old Joshua Saint Rain had passed, but Vincent Champion had sunk several small fortunes into refurbishing the estate. The grounds were impeccable. The outer façade had been meticulously cleaned and repainted; the mansion's old magnificence was shining though once again.

Max exited the limo and entered the main hall. No expense had been spared here. The hall shone with comfortable newness, accompanied by all the luxuries that plain old fashioned wealth could procure.

The butler escorted Max through the labyrinth that was the interior of the mansion. They passed seven levels of security as they moved through three different levels of the house.

Max inspected the 'in place security' that was visible. He found it more than adequate to meet the demands of the tenant. What was Champion after? Were there personal treasures in the estate that warranted an upgrade to his already tight security?

Ushered into a large sitting room, Max found a gentleman waiting for him. He was about Max's height, with a muscular build, a bald pate and some interesting markings on his left hand. He didn't look like a typical personal secretary, or an accountant. Max's feeling of acute awareness heightened.

"Mister Poole," the man rose, stepped forward and extended a welcoming hand. "My name is Galt. I'm afraid Mister Champion is running a bit late and has asked me to start things off for him. Please, be seated. May I get something for you?"

Max shook Galt's hand and took a seat. He was not entirely put off. Clients did have other business. But he didn't find it a good beginning; his time was important too.

"I'm fine, Mister Galt. Maybe you can clear things up for me. Even with a rough inspection, it appears your in-house security is more than adequate for an estate as big as this. Just what is Mister Champion looking for?"

"Ah, direct and to the point. I like that in a man." Mister Galt took his seat, relaxing into his leather chair. "Mister Champion requires the services of your agent, Winter. Ethan Winter."

Cold fingers of distrust and anger began to form around Max's heart. His outer countenance gave away nothing of his inner turmoil, his earlier premonition now flowering before him.

"And in what capacity does he require my agent?" He leaned forward a bit, his sapphire eyes drilling into Mister Galt. The temperature in the room dropped ten degrees.

"Why, he requires the same services that you demand on a daily basis." Galt lowered his eyes respectfully.

"Enough, of this cat's game, Mister Galt." Max showed no signs of anger, his words clipped and precise. "I run a security agency, not an escort service." Max was not easily provoked, but Galt was pushing all the wrong buttons.

"Mister Champion finds that Winter is a submissive of unequaled abilities. He'd like to rent him for a short period of time. Possibly discussing a lucrative sale, if you are interested…"

Galt didn't get to finish.

"Maybe I didn't make myself perfectly clear, Mr. Galt. I'm not running a flesh market and my employees are not meat for sale to the highest bidder."

"Mister Champion has authorized me to provide you with a blank check. I think you'll find that he is a man who will pay any price to acquire what he desires."

"My business is ended here," Max said with finality. "I can find my own way out."

He rose with a cool and unaffected demeanor, and as he made for the door, another voice interrupted his departure.

"Always the gentleman." A voice dripping with contempt and hatred froze Max in place. He turned to stare into black eyes; eyes that he'd thought were dead. Eyes that had haunted his youthful nightmares. Then everything went brutally black.

**

Ethan had closed out the Cromwell interview with all the charm and wit he'd had left in him. He'd crawled into the back seat of the company town car and told Dominic to get him to the Champion meeting as quickly as traffic permitted.

Loosening his tie, he pulled the Champion file into his lap to refresh his mind about the interview in progress. He pulled a mineral water from the wet bar and downed the cool fluid with a welcome sigh. If business got any brisker, they'd have to hire a bigger team.

Ethan wanted to phone Max, but the phones were on the fritz and Max probably had his phone on vibrate anyway.

"What's our ETA, Dominic?" Ethan was antsy.

"Twenty minutes." Dominic informed him.

Ethan suddenly felt cold. He ran his hand across his face and through his golden hair. Something was very wrong. Anxiety coursed through his body. What was it?

At the Saint Rain estate, he was told that Max had left already and that Mister Champion was also gone. A mister Galt told him that Max had been taken back to his condo in town. That he hadn't been feeling well and had wanted to go home. Ethan thanked him and rushed back into the town car.

"Back home, Dominic." Ethan speed dialed Max's number. Nothing. It went straight to voice mail. He wanted to tell Dominic to step on it, but then thought better of it. The phones hadn't been working all day. The condo wasn't that far off. He could wait a few more minutes.

The condo was empty, no music playing. No Max. Ethan's apprehension turned to fear. The phone rang.

"Hello, Max?"

"Hello, Ethan." A deep female voice sounded smooth, dark and sinister.

"Yes, who is this?"

"I'm the voice of your new master, Ethan. If you want to see your old master alive you will follow the instructions in the folder under the answering machine." The click from the other end of the line was deafening.

Ethan put the phone down and picked up the manila folder. Upon opening it, the first thing he found was a photo. Max lay on his side, nude from the waist up. A black leather slave collar was fastened around his neck, his hands bound tightly behind him.

Ethan's hands trembled as he turned the photo over to view the contents of the next page.

**

Ethan stood before the Saint Rain mansion. He had followed the instructions to the letter. He knew that both Max's life and his own depended upon how he played things out. The door opened to a warmth and light inside that belied the darkness of his mission. He handed the manila folder to the butler. He moved though the mansion as if in a nightmare; a nightmare of someone else's making.

"This way, sir."

Ethan was alert to every aspect of the mansion as he was shepherded into the interior. Fixing every right and left, every step indelibly into his mind. Finally he was brought to an antechamber. It was empty. He could almost feel his heart beating against the walls, reverberating back at him in the empty space. The butler left him, closing the double doors behind him. Ethan waited.

"Ah, Mister Winter, a man of incomparable beauty and impeccable timing." The female voice seemed to come from every where. It was deep and rich; the undercurrents of command and seduction were not wasted on Ethan. He turned looking for the body that belonged to that voice.

"I've done all that you told me to do. I want to see Max."

"Pretty forceful for a sub, but you've been a good puppy." There was a timbre in the sound of her voice, that was cruel, without the slightest bit of humanity.

Two stocky men brought Max in, still bound, a ball gag in his mouth. They set him none too gently at Ethan's feet and disappeared back through the doors.

"See, there's our dear Maxmillian, almost as good as new." There was a feigned delight in her voice, as if she were really talking to her prized puppy.

Ethan got down on his knees to inspect Max, running his hands over his lover's body; he had to touch him, to make him real again. Max's eyes were unreadable. It hurt Ethan to see him this way. Without control, without order and organization, Max was out of his element. All Ethan wanted was to get Max clear of this place as quickly as possible. Ethan began untying his hands.

"Stop. No one said anything about freeing him. From now on you will do what I say, when I say it. Do you understand me, bitch?"

Imperceptibly, Max shook his head letting Ethan know he was okay. Ethan touched Max's check affectionately. He lowered his head slightly as he turned to speak to the phantom voice.

"I will do whatever you want if you let him go."

"So self-sacrificing, how can I cope," she said sarcastically. "But for now why don't you take off all your clothes. I want a good look at my new merchandise."

Ethan stood and took off his clothes. He turned slowly so that he was completely visible, vulnerable to watching eyes.

"Now I want you to open Mister Poole's pants and show me how much you love your former master."

Ethan looked deeply into his lover's eyes. There were so many emotions waging war there. How could he take his lover to that place in front of this monster?

"Max, I..."

"Just shut up and do it!" the disembodied voice commanded in anger.

Max was motionless. Untouched. Untouchable.

"No. You don't know him as I do. He won't perform for you."

Mirthless laughter crackled throughout the room.

"Oh, but I do know dear Maxmillian. We go way back, don't we Max?"

"Then you know he'll never serve you. It's not within his nature."

"Service, that's what you were born to, isn't it bitch piece? That's what you do best! Take the collar off Max and put it on yourself."

Ethan knelt to remove the collar. Max used his cheek to brush the skin of Ethan's hand. The warmth and love in that tiny gesture made Ethan's heart leap with joy. Ethan silently mouthed the words, "I love you" and took the heavy leather collar off his lover and placed it around his own neck. The collar clicked loudly as the fasteners were remotely locked. He turned away from Max and she was finally there. In front of him.

She was dressed elegantly in tailored ebony men's clothes. Her dark gray shirt was piped with red silk. Her long black hair had been pulled back tightly, the pony tail hanging to her waist. She carried a black leather flogger to complete her ensemble. Her build was petite, yet strength emanated from her. A hard strength that bore no weakness, no human frailty. Her face was not unbecoming, but her eyes. Her eyes were darker than the black holes of hell and cold. So cold. Ethan shriveled up inside as those eyes ate him up and spat him out. Here was that very rare oddity: a female sociopath. Here was the pilot for your one way ticket to hell.

If Ethan stared long enough into those eyes, he could see his own death. He had to get Max out. That imperative had never been stronger. Now he knew the enemy. Now he could see the dark destiny that she held for them.

Ethan came to his knees, his forehead to the floor.

"Mistress." He trembled in the presence of such demonic power.

"Quardis." She replied. "Mistress Quardis."

She stepped forward and ran the tendrils of her black leather flogger over his well muscled back.

Ethan curled up even tighter in his submissive position. He knew that there would be pain, more pain than he could endure; pain with no hope of pleasure.

**

Quardis grabbed Ethan's collar and dragged him to his feet.

Mister Galt entered the room and without invitation untied Max's wrists. Max tugged the ball gag from his mouth and dropped it to the floor as he stood. He rubbed his wrists pushing the blood back into his numb hands. His eyes never left hers.

"Smith," he said levelly, "didn't I kill you?"

"Oh, that's right Mister Civility, Mister Do-Right, Mister Control-freak. You did try to kill me, didn't you? Surprise, you killed a look-alike. You put a bullet through her face, didn't you. Goes to show you that you should DNA your dead." Her smile was brittle, her demeanor aggressive.

Max moved toward her and Mister Galt produced a rather nasty looking 40 caliber Glock that he aimed directly at Ethan.

"What do you want, Smith?" Max stood very still, even the pulse beat at his strong neck showed a slow and steady beat.

"Why, everything and anything that's yours." She ran her flogger along Ethan's genitals and he stood very still, knowing he was hostage to a madwoman. "But wait, I already have everything that you hold dear, so what's left? How about your good name, your fortune and your life. How are you going to pay, Maxmillian, cash, credit card, or traveler's check?"

She turned on her heel dragging Ethan with her to the far side of the room.

"Vermin, will show you out."

"Smith?" Max was not to be put off.

"I'll be in touch, Max. You will do exactly as I demand or you lover will show up on your door step in several cases of canned dog food. Do I make myself clear?"

"Oh wait, am I being a bit cruel? I do have a tendency to do that you know." She was dripping with sarcasm again. She pushed Ethan back in Max's direction.

"Give them three minutes of talk, Vermin. Then escort Mister Poole out and bring the bitch to me. I'd advise you bitch, to persuade your lover to do everything I ask of him. But it's your call, I don't give a rat's ass either way."

Quardis moved to the door and exited.

Ethan came quickly to Max.

"Max get out of here, please. Whether you do what she wants or not, she's going to kill me, I can see it in her eyes. " Ethan was not the submissive now. This was his partner talking. His clear eyes shone with courage and conviction. "For me Max. If you love me, let me go. I want you to live."

"She's terrorizing us, Ethan, because it's what she does best. She and I have a bad history. She wants me to suffer, for as long and as hard as possible. Do what ever you need to do to stay alive. I will not rest until she's dead, until you are free."

Vermin Galt stepped forward. Max quickly grabbed the long blond hair at the nape of Ethan's neck; pulling it strongly bringing Ethan's forehead to his. It was not a kiss, but it brought them together so that vital energy flowed between them. Ethan felt his lover's strength and courage.

"Stay strong." Max whispered for Ethan only.

Ethan gave a gentle smile as he cocked his head in reply. It was a tell that Max knew well. There was something that Ethan knew but could not say in front of Galt.

"Enough," Vermin said in a sharp tone. Moving between the two men he separated them. He waved Max out the double doors. Ethan turned away from his lover. So that Max wouldn't see the crippling pain in his eyes.

Outside Quardis' limo waited.

Max was driven back to his condo. Letting himself in he was struck by all that was missing. Everything of Ethan's was gone. There was no evidence that he had ever been there. There was only the emptiness of the solitude in which he had once existed. Who had done this? Quardis? Or Ethan himself? Why?

"Ethan." Max said the name with love, his heart completely bereft.

She had taken Ethan away from him, physically and psychologically. She knew how to crack Max's barriers. She had studied him for years. Quardis knew of the loneliness, the great emptiness that Max had felt for so long before he met Ethan. The feelings he had denied and tried so hard to bury deep within his vast control. Now brick by brick, she sought to remove his control; to shatter those thick walls forever and watch as Max crumbled to nothingness. Now her long wait was over.

The door bell rang.

Max answered the door. A young woman about 5 foot tall, with very long, curly dark brown hair stood there. Her John Lennon glasses and studious appearance made her look for all the world like a librarian. She carried a large over-sized purse and she held her cell phone/text message device up in front of her. The message screen read.

{{Ethan sent me. Unsafe here, come with me now.}}

Max locked the door behind him and entered the hallway with her.

"How did you get past the security in this building?" Max started to query her.

She held her finger to her lips and continued at a fast walk down the hall. They entered a waiting elevator and descended.

In the lobby Max followed her out the security doors to where a battered gray van was waiting. She unlocked the doors, entering as Max followed her in.

"The security in your building has been breached." She said as she started up the van which was filled to capacity with cutting edge electronic devices, computers and some items that didn't register with Max.

"Who are you and what do you know?"

"My name is Erlene Dante. I'm your surveillance consultant. I'm also a friend of Ethan's. He always refers to me as 'Littl' E for obvious reasons."

Recognition came to Max's eyes.

"Dante and Domingo Services. You're a sub contractor for Elite and have aided us on some our most difficult assignments." Max hadn't interacted with Dante directly, Ethan had. But to work for Elite Poole you went through vigorous and thorough background checks. So Max knew that she was reliable, dependable and the best.

She moved smoothly through the van's gears and headed toward the freeway system.

"Do you know what Bio-Tracking is?" she asked.

"Yes, they use it to tag and track animals in the wild. How does that pertain to our situation? Has Ethan been tagged?"

"Ethan said you were a smart cookie. I've been looking at and working with a company in Canada called Biometrics Security. They do vehicle and asset tracking security systems."

"But I've seen these bio-tagging devices, they are huge, too big to hide on a human being."

"Not any more. There have been breakthroughs on a major level. Micro miniaturization; nano technology."

"What about batteries?" Max couldn't believe that it was going to be that easy to track down the scum of the earth by following Ethan's own telemetry.

"The technology runs off the heart. The bio-electrical charge the heart produces is enough to make it all work. Now I'm going to stop so you can take over the driving. I've got the FBI on hold on my computer hook up as well as local police and an ambulance. The GPS is working fine and we have global positioning on Ethan's location."

Max took over the driving with the weight of world lifted from his shoulders. Ethan was going to be alright. Everything was going to be okay, and with luck, Quardis Smith would be finally dealt with.

**
Smith was on the move. The mansion had been a ruse. The real Champion was out of the country and some well placed 'false orders' had emptied his mansion for the charade to fool Poole, who had walked into everything easily enough. She could have killed him there, but that wasn't her plan. She would use him to her advantage, then when she was finished with him. She would crush him, ruin his reputation, his finances and finally his life, and that was all within easy reach now.

She sat in the back of her RV. Ethan, hands bound behind him, at her feet. She was on the phone contesting a consignment.

"I ordered 225 women, 112 girls and at least 87 boys," she said matter-of-factly. "Don't give me any shit about lack of product. You will fill my requirements or I will start shaking your family tree to fill my orders." She turned angry eyes at Ethan.

Trafficker, Ethan thought. She's a slaver. They were everywhere; the slave market flowed, too thickly, through Sin City. That's how Max had gotten involved. Early in his career, Ethan remembered, Max had been a part of an Interpol sting. But it had all gone horribly south and the sting that was supposed to net the head trafficker's, had only nabbed a few of the lower minions. While five box cars full of people had been dumped in the San Francisco bay; the traffickers' way of shitting on everyone.

Max didn't talk about it much. It wasn't a good memory.

Ethan found Smith's eyes boring into his soul.

"You're a pretty enough piece," she said using the tip of her flogger to push Ethan's face into profile. "I can get a good price for you once you've served your purpose; renting you out over and over again. You'd like that, bitch-piece. I can make you a real sex slave for the rest of your life."

"For now I'm after power, and the knowledge that Poole can gather for me from his clientele, the dirt he can uncover for me will give me an amazing amount of leverage over powerful people. That's the only true set up. The real deal."

"He'll never betray his clients, not for me. Not for anyone." Ethan said knowing in his heart that Max would sell his soul to the devil, even if that devil was named Quardis Smith to save him.

Before he could react, Quardis used the handle of her flogger to back hand him several times in the face and head. Ethan went down, blood streaming from his left ear and a deep bloody gash over his left eye.

**

"Shit, shit, shit!" Erlene swore from miles away. "I've lost the signal."

**

Everyone and everything was on hold. Without the signal, they were lost. Littl' E and Max had parked the van outside of town and were monitoring from the parking lot of their hotel complex.

"Mister Poole, you might as well go and get some rest." Littl' E said from in front of her equipment.

"What went wrong?" Max asked with a touch of anger in his voice. Max was tired and very testy, he needed to rest but couldn't.

"The units themselves are pretty sturdy. A small subcutaneous electro transfer device was placed on his chest in the vicinity of his heart. That's the battery transmitter. Then the actual bio-tracker went in his left ear." She gave Max a worried look. "I'm afraid the damage may not have been to the transmitter."

"Miss Dante, do you think they may have done something to injure Ethan?"

"Yes, I believe it is possible."

Max's heart sank and he changed the subject immediately.

"How is it that you know Ethan? I've never seen you together socially?"

It was a simple question. Littl' E knew that the answer was important to Maxmillian.

"We're gamers, Mister Poole. We are active only on the Internet. Role playing. We spend hours in there playing together. It's a different kind of friendship, but a friendship no less."

"What happened? How did he contact you?"

"Big E, pardon me, Ethan, I'm so used to calling him that, knew that your security had been breached. They had taken photos of you, intimate photos. Taken from inside your apartment, your town car, your office. He was afraid that you were being targeted for murder or worse, blackmail, with him as hostage for your coerced behavior. The instructions told him he had to chose; your life or his. If he submitted he would become a sex slave for the rest of his life to a new master. If he didn't, you would be killed end of story."

"He didn't want to use the phone to call me directly, but he knew he could invite me to play and then talk to me from inside the game. Once there he knew could talk freely. He didn't think they knew about that aspect of the game. From there he told me exactly what was happening. We didn't have a lot of time. While Ethan moved his belongings into a storage facility, I met him there, pretended I was moving items into a unit too. I placed the tag on him then he headed for the mansion. I called the agency told them what was happening and they in turn notified the locals and the Feds. He thought it was big, but we didn't know how big. He left this for you."

She handed him a folded piece of paper. Max opened it, turning away from her as he did.

++Max, I don't want to lose you. I have to do what is asked of me. I want you to know these years with you, have been so intensely wonderful. I'll never find anyone who knows me, loves me the way that you do. Whatever happens, I keep you in my heart always.

Ethan.++

Max took out his wallet. Folded the paper up and gently placed it deep inside. His heart was racing, he wanted to do, to act, to make things happen. But his adrenalin was wasted, his energy spent on anxiety instead of action.

"Mister Poole, I'll take the first watch. All we can do is wait and see. The equipment should auto reset. It's programmed for that. Something might be preventing it."

"Miss Dante, if his heart stopped would the device fail?"

"Yes," was all she could say.

"I wouldn't give up on him yet, Mister Poole. He's a very resourceful agent and a great gamer. He knows how to play the board."

"He's dealing with someone who has no conscience, no soul." Max said coldly.

"How is it that you know her?"

"We were both youngsters. I was working with Interpol to capture the trafficking ring her father ran. My job was to seduce her. She fell deeply in love with me. The sting operation fell apart. She came to me, wanted me to flee the country with her. I told her the truth, that it had all been a deception. She pulled a gun on me and fired but the shot went wild. I didn't see her again until several months later in a fire fight at one of her father's strongholds. She was killed, or so everyone thought. Ballistics showed that it was my gun that killed her. I learned later that she had a psychotic breakdown and that she wasn't in her right mind anymore, but she was dead and there was nothing I could do."

"That is a bizarre story. But now that you are safe, Ethan will be freer to move and manipulate. With you as hostage, he felt totally helpless. Now he can do what he does best."

"And what is that, Miss Dante?"

"Why play to win, Mister Poole. Play to win everything."

***

Max stared at the monitors as they started back at him. He was taking his turn at watch, Erlene having gone to her rental condo. He had opted to come back home, putting Erlene up in a unit in the lower reaches of the Radcliffe. No word from Smith, no telemetry from Ethan. It had only been a couple of days, but it felt like an eternity to Max.

His phone rang. Ethan's number was showing.

"Poole," he answered in a cold, professional tone. His heart racing as he listened on the line. It was agonizingly silent. He strained to hear. The line went dead. Max took a deep breath. It was starting again. She would do this for hours. He couldn't turn the damn thing off. Because once, very briefly, he thought he heard Ethan. Just a whisper of a word. The line was never active long enough to trace. She was too sly for that. He was tired. Sleep was punctuated with nightmares of Ethan screaming in pain, writhing in agony. He put the cell phone down gently. Scrubbing his face with his palms, rubbing the sleepiness from his eyes.

His people were working the case. Miss Dante was ever present, her no-nonsense attitude was supportive, but 'damn it'.

Max stood abruptly, his fist slamming down hard on the desk in front of him. He was frustrated. He knew that the silence and harassment were meant to wear him down and they were, god-damn it. They were.

Miss Dante stood in the door way of the room that Max had commandeered from the Radcliffe. The van still waited outside for mobile use, but her home base had been moved in it's entirety to this room that was within easy reach for Max. Four days worth of moving and hook up, done in less than ten hours.

"I've brought you some coffee." Littl' E stated.

Max didn't know how long she had been there. If she had seen his out burst.

"No thank you." Max said too harshly. Turning away. He felt vulnerable in the close confines of the spacious room, now crammed floor to ceiling with technology that he could barely comprehend. He felt unsettled in the presence of this woman. Something about her. It didn't register completely, but then he was under stress and there was pain in his heart. He couldn't lose Ethan. That couldn't happen. That wouldn't happen.

Max pulled his control tightly about him, like a cloak of darkness to cover his vulnerability, and turned back to the diminutive woman. He would not apologize for his behavior. He stared into her dark brown eyes. They were a fierce brown that didn't back down from his gaze.

"Where is Domingo, of Dante and Domingo services?" he asked with practiced coolness.

"That's right you were out of town when it happened. He was killed 6 months ago. In the Aguilar drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. It wasn't in the local papers. I didn't want it covered in the press and had a few close friends kill the story."

Max was silent. His control held. His dark eyes considered the woman before him. She wasn't in the throws of grief. Her attitude and demeanor betrayed no signs of any kind. Nothing to show any depth of feeling.

"I'm sorry for your loss," he said with measured tones.

She bowed her head perceptibly.

"Thank you, Mister Poole." She said as she entered the room to take her position sitting at the console opposite him. "He was the best partner I've ever had. And a loving, irreplaceable Sub."

Max sat down in his chair. Not sure he had heard her correctly. The silence between them lengthened.

"Don't worry, Mister Poole, Ethan didn't betray your relationship to me. I'm paid to watch. My powers of observation are sharply honed. Body language, gestures, facial expressions and little movements can speak volumes. It didn't help that Ethan's love for you is very apparent to someone like me. Domingo saw it too and we both watched. He had been my sub for nearly eight years. Your secret is safe with me. I am Ethan's friend and in my own way, I love him too."

"I asked Ethan what you were like once. Not knowing you very well, personally. He said 'I'm sure that when Max isn't with me, he holds the stars apart. He's that strong.' Even text messaging can't hide the intense feelings he holds for you."

***

Max now knew why this woman unsettled him. He was looking at female version of himself. A woman of substance, personal courage and someone who truly did understand his feelings of loss. He sighed heavily. Closing his eyes against the mounting agony that was crushing his heart.

"You need to get some rest. You won't be any good to anyone in your current state."

Max looked once again into her eyes. Eyes that had lost much too. There was a warmth there that he couldn't acknowledge, but he smiled briefly.

"I think you are correct. Call me if you hear anything." He reached for his cell phone.

She placed her hand over the phone.

"Leave it here. I'll hook it up to a recorder. It will only disturb your sleep."

"You are right again." Max stood, in a daze he moved out the door and to the elevators.

Max didn't bother with a shower and collapsed nude into bed. Next to him on Ethan's side were the sheets that Ethan had laid in just days before and Ethan's pillow. They hadn't been removed and Max made sure that they would not be. He pulled the linen and pillow into his arms. The scent of his lover remained; a faint but tangible aroma that Max inhaled with anguish. Max clung to the material, burying his face in it. The only thing left of Ethan. He ached, his eyes wanted to swim with tears, but he would not allow them. Closing his eyes he tried to relax, to breath normally. To feel the presence of his beloved.

In the quiet, he heard a whisper.

"Max, don't open your eyes."

"Ethan?" Max wasn't sure what he had heard. Louder. "Ethan?"

"Keep your eyes closed or you'll spoil the surprise." The youthful voice said.

Gentle hands touched his body rolling him onto his back. Pulling the linen from his grasp. Sensuous hands spread his legs apart, sliding slowly up those well muscled legs and thighs to rest at the center of Ethan's universe. Max felt his arousal keenly.

"There, that's what I like, my man is happy to see me."

Max opened his eyes to gaze at his lover, lounging peacefully at his pulsing erection. Ethan's green eyes glowed with life. His smile broad and playful.

Max attempted to reach him, to sit up, but unseen forces held him down.

"Easy, Max. You have to relax and let this happen. Please, for me." Ethan's face showed concern now and something else. "I don't have much time."

"Ethan, I don't..."

Ethan wouldn't let him finish his sentence and crawling up his lover's body, smothered his mouth in devouring kisses. His hot body pressing against Max. Burning memory into skin. Ethan's weight, a welcome pressure that made Max melt back into the bed. With skill and determination Ethan brought his kisses down to Max's nipples. Licking them into hardened buds, he nipped and licked his way into Max's nether hair as it waited patiently for his attention. Max was motionless, his breath coming quickly, his body heating with the tempest of lust that always over came him when Ethan was making love to him.

Ethan worshipped the delicate sacks of skin at the base of Max's cock. Taking them into his hot mouth to warm them, releasing them to concentrate upon the erection that was full blown now. Kissing up the shaft, he took the plum tip into his mouth. Slowly, he came down, bringing the hard flesh deep into his throat, down to it's very base and holding it there as he hummed softly knowing that Max loved that vibration. Ethan continued, his mouth coaxing a rhythm from his lover that was sure to bring the desired results.

Max's eyes were heavy lidded. Sensory overload was taking hold of him. His hands gripped the sheets with tight fists as Ethan drove him further and further to the edge. The very brink. His muted cries of ecstasy lingering in his throat. Ethan began running strong fingers down Max's inner thighs. Sharp contrast to the soft heat of his mouth that held his lover captive in tides of heat and threatening orgasm.

Ethan stopped, eyes wide, startled with a moment's panic. Something in the darkness was dragging him away. He didn't cry out. His eyes focused deep into Max's. His hands clutching at Max, at the linen, holding tight, loosing grip; giving way. There was heartache in his eyes and pain, deep emotional pain.

[Max] his lips mouthed the silent word and then Ethan was swallowed up by the night.

"Ethan!" Max sat upright in the bed. His shout echoing in the stillness. His erection painful and very real. Max buried his face in his hands, willing his racing heart to return to normal. Pulling Ethan's pillow into his embrace, Max smothered his aching flesh in the still warm cloth.

"I will not let her do this to us." Max's words were potent with a murderous rage.

**

Ethan woke in a gray gloom. He had to urinate. Badly. He tried to lift up from where he was. His body was leadened. Movement was difficult. Drugged. They had drugged him. He tried to focus. It was difficult. He looked around for some type of receptacle. Finding a floor drain, he figured that was good enough. He was now dressed in some type of warm up suit, the slave collar was gone. He did his business, then holding on to the wall for security made his way back to the small cot; collapsing onto its surface. He was trying to clear his head, breathing deeply. How long had he been out? He had no idea. Where was he? The tag wasn't working or Max and Littl' E would have been crawling all over the place. What went wrong? And why was he suddenly being taken care of? This wasn't like Quardis at all.

There was something Littl' E had told him. Something important. God, he couldn't get all his brain cells to align in the same direction.

"Max." He whispered the name like a prayer. "You can work this, Ethan." He told himself. His heart was moving slowly. He reached up to touch the left side of his temple where Quardis had struck him. He felt butterfly bandages holding the wound together. It was strange that she would hurt him one minute and try to mend him the next. Not very consistent.

Lights came on from above. Bright. Ethan covered his eyes with his forearm. Rough hands lifted him up and dragged/carried him down a hall way and into an elevator. The movement was too fast and Ethan felt his head swim. He was glad that his stomach was empty, he was sure any contents would be forthcoming right about now.

He was deposited in a moist, warm room; there were candles in niches all round. The soft, warm glow was easier to handle. A huge, walk-in floor bathtub was centrally located in the room. The water gave off steam raising from its swirling surface. Ethan curled into a small ball. He felt better now that things weren't moving.

Gentle hands caressed his back. They started removing his clothing. It was all he had on. He didn't have the strength to resist. He was lying on a large towel and the person who had undressed him now dragged his body to the edge of the tub. His legs were tipped into the warm swirling water and then hands eased his body into the hot welcome water. Ethan turned to see who was treating him with such compassion.

"Hello, Precious." Quardis Smith said as she took him into her arms. Holding him easily in the water. Quardis used her free had to wet Ethan's hair, she reached for a small bottle on the edge of the tub and squeezed a tiny amount of shampoo on her hand and began washing his hair.

Ethan was shocked. This was Quardis Smith wasn't it? The physicality was the same. The face, the voice, but this wasn't her. It couldn't be.

She washed his hair very carefully. Not getting the damaged temple wet. Then reaching for a soft sponge, she began brushing his body under the water.

It was good and Ethan felt himself relax into her touch. The warm water, the drugs in his system, the sponge moving slowly, efficiently along the lines of his body. But then she opened his thighs and began brushing his genitals.

"No, don't." Ethan could only protest verbally.

"It's okay, Precious. We're all done now."

She held him like a mother holding her only son. Then she began tenderly rocking, her deep voice singing a melodic lullaby. Ethan felt like Alice, only instead of falling through the looking glass he'd run smack into it. They were like that for a long time. Quardis reached for a tall glass. Holding it to Ethan's lips. It was cool water, with a touch of lemon. Ethan was suddenly parched. He drank the whole glass. Then looked into the eyes of this stranger. These eyes weren't the black holes that he seen before. They were dark as midnight, yes, but there was a compassion there that couldn't exist in Quardis' eyes, ever.

"Who are you?" Ethan managed.

He was rewarded with a radiant smile. She was beautiful, with this face and these eyes. Someone very different from the demon he had met before.

"Come." She summoned and from some where men came, she pushed him to the edge of the tub and he was lifted out.

"Gently!" She commanded and surprisingly they were.

Ethan was laid down on warm towels and covered with more. She was there, her lithe body would have been welcomed if Ethan was into that kind of thing.

She toweled his hair, wrapping him in newer dry towels.

"What do you want from me?" Ethan was suspicious. This wasn't a rabbit hole and this woman wasn't Quardis Smith.

"Take him to my bed." She said, finally draping her nakedness in a large towel.

"You're his, aren't you my Precious?"

"Who's?" Ethan asked his heart beginning to beat faster.

"My beloved, Maxmillian, of course." She stated with no hint of anything but love in her voice.

***

Ethan was deposited into a large comfortable bed. This was definitely a woman's bedroom as it was very art nouveau, very organic in its make up. It was a comfortable room, but there appeared to be no windows. Ethan was left alone. He experimented with trying to get up. But the hot bath, lack of food and the still working drugs left him weak and unsteady.

She was there dressed in a thick Egyptian cotton robe; easily he was maneuvered back into the confines of the bed.

"Here we go, Precious." The Alice-in-Wonderland-Quadris produced a patch...much like the nicotine patches that smokers wore. She was going to apply it to his neck.

"Please, don't drug me any more. Please." There was pleading in his voice.

"If I don't drug you then, I'll have to tie you to the bed. You can't get away."

"I'd rather be tied to the bed than take any more drugs. I won't give you any trouble. I promise." He gave her his best little boy smile, the one that melted female hearts and gave Max a raging hard on.

He was not amazed when she pulled heavy leather restraints that were securely attached to the head and foot of the bed and locked him into them.

"You'll be safer here with me." A man came with a tray of food, set it on a side table and left. "I really don't like drugs either, but I didn't think you'd be happy tied up."

"You'd be surprised." He smiled at her again. "You're not Quardis are you?"

She sat next to him, pulling the tray close. There were many types of finger foods present. Everything to feed a starving young man. She fed him a slice of orange. He ate it gratefully and waited patiently for her response.

"I am and I'm not." She replied in her best Alice-in-wonderland voice.

**

Max was up and dressed. He wore a dark silk shirt with matching silk slacks, a cashmere sweater completed his ensemble, hand made doe skin shoes direct from his designer in Italy and of course no tie. He was casual today.

He came into the newly transformed communications room. James had been on duty. Everyone was taking four hour shifts. There were a wealth of volunteers to oversee the operations at the site, but nothing was forth coming so far.

Littl' E stood among the banks of computer equipment, checking things out when Max's phone chirped. There was an incoming text message.

{{You will download your client data base to this address. You have 2 hours.}}

"How long will it take to download our data base?" Max looked at Littl' E.

"I'm aware of your capacity. You'd have to confirm with Jeff in IS, but I think you can make that deadline."

"James, you can go home now. I'll take over for a while." Max watched as his agent left.

"You're not going to give in to her demands?" Littl' E asked, conscious of her employer's potent desires.

"What I do or don't do is entirely my concern, isn't it, Miss Dante?"

"As your consultant, I feel it is my duty to advise you of all available alternatives."

"Alternatives?"

"I know Ethan, he wouldn't want you to compromise your life, not for his. He valued your relationship above anything else in the world. You'd tarnish his memories by giving in to blackmail."

"And what would you suggest that I do, Miss Dante?"

"Involve the Feds in this."

"Not high on my list of priorities." Max was cold, remembering past Fed activities.

"Then allow me to try a feedback loop."

"Explain?"

"From a geosynchronous satellite, I could send out an energy wave toward the earth. Even if the equipment is not functioning, the tracker should 'mirror' the energy back at us. Giving us Ethan's position. We'd have to set up a grid pattern and go grid by grid but it's doable."

"And you didn't mention this before, because?" There was a mounting anger in Max's voice. He didn't like incompetence from subordinates. Ever.

"I didn't mention it before because of the placement of device. When the energy is mirrored it could cause pain and/or injury. We didn't have a lot of time. I placed the tracker in the ear canal to get the best signal. I regret that I didn't think of all of the possibilities. Perform in haste, repent in leisure."

She stared straight into Max's eyes. She took responsibility without flinching.

"How much injury are we talking about?" Max was calming down a bit.

"We have to send enough energy to get a fix, not enough to injure. I've consulted with the firm in Canada, this hasn't come up before. They are running tests right now."

"So you're telling me, we can pinpoint his location, but we might cause what, deafness, due to the procedure?"

"We don't know what kind of damage we are talking about. Most of the test mice have died. But Ethan's not a mouse. He'd know what's happening. The mice didn't know, didn't understand."

"They are still dead." Max wanted to scream and he knew that was exactly what Quardis was hoping for. Would this ever be over? He wanted nothing more than to hold his lover close, to retreat to his private world with Ethan. That was all he wanted.

"What are the percentages?"

"Right now, fifty-fifty." Littl' E stated.

"Let's do it." Max said without flinching. He had to trust his intuition. This waiting was deadening his heart. He needed to act.

**

"Who are you?" Ethan asked as he accepted another morsel of food from his captor.

"Quinterra," she said. "I'm called Quinterra."

Identical twins thought Ethan.

"Quinterra, why does Quardis hate Max? Where is she? How is it that you two are so..."

"Different?" Quinterra said somewhat whimsically.

"Like night and day." Ethan brightened. Maybe things weren't as bad as they seemed.

"She hates Maxmillian, because I love him." Quinterra brought her hand up to play with Ethan's golden hair. "You are such a handsome one, Precious."

"I don't understand," Ethan was blown away, things were getting curiouser and curiouser.

"It was a long time ago. We were so very young. I fell in love with him. He's a very convincing actor when he wants to be. He was such a splendid, dominate male; my wildest dark dream. I've never met anyone like him."

Ethan could believe that. Could he see Max seducing this woman for an Interpol sting operation? Not now, but a younger, inexperienced Max with something to prove and maybe his family to impress. Maybe.

"He was so very lonely for such a long time. Now he has you and..."

"He doesn't have me. Quardis has me. She is going to sell me into her sex slave market. I'll never see Max again. Then she'll have me killed. To hurt Max. She will destroy him first. Help me, Quinterra!"

Quinterra was quite distressed with this information. She placed her hand over Ethan's heart.

His heart was racing, he looked into Quinterra's eyes hoping to find an ally there.

"You're not part of her trafficking operations are you?" Ethan couldn't believe that she was.

"There doesn't appear to be anything that I'm apart of." She lamented.

"Help me." Ethan had to trust her there was no one else. "Help me get out of here."

"How?" Quinterra asked.

"First, I need clothing." He said as he shook his head slightly to clear it. The drugs were wearing off and he could think again.

**

For hours Littl' E had set the computers to scan out from the last point of contact with Ethan. Grid by grid she had moved in wider and wider circles as Max became more and more restless.

"Miss Dante!"

"I can't make it happen any faster, Mister Poole. The air is the air and I'm doing everything within my power to broaden the search pattern with as much speed as I can."

Max took a seat, elbows resting on his knees he ran is elegant hands over his face and through his thick mane of black hair.

"I am very irritated."

It was the closest thing to an apology she'd ever heard from him. After the shock wore off she looked at his dark visage and knew exactly how he felt. Prayed he wouldn't have to experience the loss that she had been through just months before.

Here was a dark beauty, much like her Domingo had been. His Cuban/African mix had been an eye candy combination that sent the female population into melting states of ecstasy. Maxmillian was the same union of beauty, strength and unparalleled spirit. But where Domingo had been a total submissive in the bedroom, Max was all Dom, she could see that in him even though he was in severe distress and with little or no control over the situation. Control was what Dom's were all about.

"Mister Poole, might I recommend that you go and get some sleep? Sangi will replace me in about and hour and there is nothing you can do here."

Spine straightening, eyes shining with weariness, Maxmillian Poole stood and walked to the sliding glass doors. His back was to Erlene as he stared out into the neon night.

"What's it like?" He asked knowing that it wasn't his to ask such a private question, but having to ask anyway.

"You both die. Some part of you walking into walls and not being able to function on any level. It's worse than the worst you can imagine. And when you think you can bare it for a brief span of seconds, a flood tide of grief takes your heart and carries it far away."

"In the end, you soldier on. You learn to find your way. You burn the corpse, knowing that it isn't him anymore. That he's out there, smiling at you from where ever it is that he's gone and you breathe again. You survive, knowing that it's what you have to do, what he'd want you to do."

Max turned back to her. Her face was composed. There was no torment there. Sorrow had been burned away in the fires of grief. The woman that was left standing was like burnished steel, all the stronger for the flame.

"Miss Dante. I haven't thanked you for the dedication of time and energy that you have spent to help retrieve Ethan."

Before she could answer one of the computers stared to hum melodically.

Littl' E looked at the monitor.

"The tracker has reset!" She exclaimed and howled like a banshee.

Max closed his eyes, a shiver of anticipation thrilled through him.

"Where?" was all he could manage to say.

**

The extensive casinos of Sin City had large underground facilities where many of the on going day-to-day functions were performed. House keeping, laundries, personnel lounges, house limos, whatever was needed could be placed here out of sight and yet always within easy reach.

Unbeknown to many, there were catacombs built to specifications that weren't originally in the contractors plans. People with money and power had added on to what already exited. Large extensive underground playgrounds, holding cells and luxurious confines were there, but accessible only to the purveyors of flesh and human misery.

Sin City was aptly named, for like many of her sister cities all over the world, she had her dark, despicable side as well as her flashy neon flesh. She was a city of dualities, she was the darkness and the light. She was heady illusion and decadent dying flesh; all rolled up into a presentation that took the breath away.

Ethan was clothed now, his hands manacled together in front of him, as he clung to Quinterra, to give the semblance of being a captive to any who passed them by. In reality, he clung to her diminutive frame because walking was very difficult for him. The drugs were slowly leaving his body, but the after affects were still haunting him.

She was strong for one so small. Holding Ethan around the waist, much of his weight was shifted to her as she literally dragged him along.

"How much further?" Ethan was exhausted and he knew that Quinterra couldn't keep up this grueling pace for much longer either.

"Not too far. Just keep going."

Ethan's legs gave way and he began to collapse. Quinterrra grabbed his manacled wrists not stopping his fall but redirecting the energy, she pulled him across her. Lowering her shoulder, she eased it into his waist and initiated a fireman's carry. The added weight slowed her progress, but did not stop her.

Footfalls echoed down the corridor. Quinterra moved into a passageway that didn't contain as much light. Lowering Ethan to the ground, she dragged him into the darkness.

"Quiet." She whispered urgently.

Ethan lay curled up on the ground, tremors taking control of him. Was it exhaustion, withdrawal from the powerful drugs or a chill he couldn't determine. He only knew that he was miserable, excited and strangely hopeful that the time of his captivity was nearly over.

**

Quardis Smith emerged from the dim hallway to see Maxmillian Poole and Erlene Dante rushing toward her. She pulled a gun from the small of her back where the holster had been concealed by her jacket.

"You motherfucker, I guess I'll have to kill now instead of later." She fired at Maxmillian, an easy shot, but Erlene was faster, by seconds and body blocked Poole taking the shot herself. Max lay beneath Dante, the wind knocked out of him from the terrific blow of Littl' E slamming into him. Quardis walked up to him. A head shot would do the trick.

Ethan heard the commotion. It sounded bad, then the shot. He forced himself to his feet. He had to see what was happening. Now another shot echoed in the empty hallways. He startled at the second shot. Moving out into the light he saw three bodies on the floor and everywhere blood.

"Ohmygod, Max, Littl' E!" He moved awkwardly to them. Max was getting up carefully. Erlene lay sprawled across him most of her left shoulder had been blown away by the force of the gun shot.

Ethan knelt, fell close to Max holding his face in his manacled hands. Max was covered in blood.

"Max are you all right?"

Max put his arms around Ethan and hugged him possessively. Ethan had never thought to feel that embrace again and his eyes misted with tears.

"I'm okay." He let go of Ethan and put pressure on Erlene's wound with one hand as he pulled out his cell phone and dialed the NVPD. They had informed the authorities of Ethan's location, but this underground was vast and he wanted them to pin point where they were for the paramedics.

Ethan crawled over to where she lay. He pushed the gun far down the hall and looked at the woman before him. The self inflicted wound looked bad and he pressed on the wound, hoping to stop the bleeding.

Her eyes opened.

"Precious, you okay?"

"Yes, Quinterra, I'm okay. What happened?" He couldn't quite believe anything anymore.

"I had to stop her, Precious, I couldn't let her kill him. You understand, you love him too."

**

Ethan lay in bed, his and Max's bed. He had been advised to stay in the hospital for 24 hour surveillance, but had declined. He wanted only to be here, with Max. Max held him close and comfortably, leaning toward Ethan to gave him a tender kiss on the cheek.

"So there is no Quinterra Smith, no identical twins?"

"No, only Quardis Smith. Everyone thought she was dead. DNA from that case was analyzed recently and it wasn't her at all. She must have gone into hiding after her "death", taking up her father's trade. She watched me for years laying the ground work for capturing you and blackmailing me. The Quardis I knew was not the rabid personality that we met at Saint Rain's mansion. There was no desolation in her eyes, back then. She hadn't turned killer."

"She shot herself." Ethan said, "Quinterra said that she couldn't let Quardis kill you. There were two people in there. The one that loved you and the one that wanted you dishonored and dead. We're lucky that love won out."

"Lucky indeed." Max smiled into his lovers eyes.

Ethan pulled Max down into a hot kiss.

"Please Max, I want you to take me." He whispered in pleading tones. "I want to be yours. I want you to brand me with your kisses, use my body to pleasure yourself, own me, control me, make me you whore." His eyes pleaded as his words stirred Max's arousal.

"Ethan, you've been through so much in the last few days. I want you to rest. To recuperate." Max was gentle but firm in his decision.

Ethan pulled out his favorite silk scarf. The one that Max used to gag him with, the beautiful knot waiting to fill his mouth. Max could not hold out against the offer, Ethan's eyes of love begged him for the restraint, capture and control that they both hungered for.

From a bed side stand Max pulled out silk ties that they used only for Ethan's bondage.

"You are mine, Ethan. Mine to take and control, to bend to my will. Mine to fuck. No one can use you the way that I do, your body craves submission to my every command. I take you there to that place, where all things merge, where sex becomes something else."

Ethan knew that place. Knew that Max was the only one who could take him there. His body pulsed. His breathing became deeper as he prepared for an avalanche of sensations. He trembled at Max's voice. He wanted nothing more than to listen to him talk dirty all night.

Max tied Ethan's wrists together with practiced knots and then taking the ends he fastened him to the head of the bed. Ethan's sex sprang to life as Max took the gag and placed it into Ethan's mouth, tying it firmly at the nape of his neck. Then Max kissed his face with strong, hot kisses that burned into Ethan's body.

Max could see the tears of joy welling in Ethan's eyes as he flared his hips open wide for him.

He moaned and kept perfectly still as Max massaged his tight entrance with cool lube. Ethan felt tiny shivers of desire, running deliciously through his body. His eyes never leaving Max's.

Then as if on command Ethan brought his legs up over Max's shoulders. Offering his lover everything that he was. Breathing deeply Ethan waited patiently as Max pressed his hard cock along Ethan's opening, teasing and taunting him beyond his ability to endure.

Ethan moaned loudly. He wanted nothing more than to be used and loved and filled to capacity by his magnificent lover.

"I am going to fuck you, Ethan." Max was in total control now. His energy burning out of sapphire eyes that glistened with life.

Ethan, nodded his head, tried to say yes, yes, yes against the restraining gag. He thrust his hips against Max begging for penetration.

"Yes, my hot sex slave, you want me to take you. Can you beg for my attentions? Can you show me how much you want me to fuck you?" Max continued to slide along Ethan's lubed bottom. Teasing his waiting flesh. Giving sensation but not the penetration that Ethan wanted above all else.

Ethan tried to impale himself on his lover's hard cock.

Max moved slowly into Ethan's tight heat. So slowly, Ethan thought that he would pass out from his hedonistic desire. He wanted nothing more than to be fucked senseless. But he waited and Max continued his slow, sensual, controlled invasion.

Max pressed in as far in as he could go. Now he began his siege of Ethan's body. Touching Ethan's leaking cock, he used his own fluids to moisten his lover's straining phallus. Stoking him in the same soft, sweet rhythm that he was using to enter his body.

"You are mine, Ethan Winter. You belong to me and me alone. I shall control you, and use you for my purposes, and I will love you for all my life. Know that. Know that I am bound to you just as you are bound here in our bed. Hold your climax, hold until I grant you that pleasure."

Ethan was in ecstasy, bound and gagged and filled with Max, he wanted to scream his happiness to the world. And was so glad that he couldn't. He was there. He was right there. Holding on by a hair's breath as Max thrust into him harder, deeper, faster. Ethan didn't know if he could hold on, but he had to. He just had to. He moaned loudly against the wet gag and tried desperately to pull Max into him with his strong legs.

Max continued, on and on until Ethan thought he would burst. His body shaking in tremor after ecstatic tremor. His body couldn't take too much more. He strained against the ties that bound him. His body filled with pain and pleasure, he was there, that place that one aspires to, he was there pulsing, with something beyond sex.

"Now, Ethan. Come for me now!" Max commanded as he plundered his lover, mining the furthest reaches of his mind and body. Filling him with his seed and pulling out to spill that seed all over his fair skin. Marking him. Ethan came upon command, his seed mingling with Max's. Max collapsing around him. Pulling him close. He loosened the ties that held him to the bed and hooking his bound wrists around his neck, Max hugged his quaking lover as he stroked his sex making sure his body found extended release. Max removed Ethan's gag and smothered him in kisses. They lay tangled together for a long time. Neither wanting to release the other, on into the night they made love. Over and over until the morning light found them exhausted and satiated at last. They slept. Ethan held tightly against Max's body. Max's embrace would never be broached again.

**

"How are you?" Ethan sat on the foot of Erlene's bed.

Erlene Dante was resting uncomfortable in her hospital bed.

"I'll be fine once I get out this place." Erlene was not a patient, patient.

"I owe my life to you and you saved Ethan as well." Max was visibly grateful.

"Think nothing of it, Mister Poole. I was just doing my job." Her face was wonderfully calm and composed. Almost angelic in a dominate, take charge sort of way.

"Your job?" Max queried.

"Big E told me to keep you alive, no matter what the price."

Max looked at Ethan and Ethan stared right back.

"I figured you'd go a little crazy. Littl' E was to make sure you made it through this, whether I made it or not. She was my backup. I knew I could count on her to pull you through, no matter what." Ethan said matter-of-factly.

"Even with your life, Miss Dante?" Max turned to the woman in the bed and saw a tiny bit of her pain for the first time.

"I couldn't bare to see you lose what I have lost if I could help it and I had save my gaming partner. Whatever the price."

Happy, soft tears slid down her cheeks and Ethan came to her and hugged her gently.

Max came forward.

"Erlene, please call me Maxmillian. And I want to discuss your future plans with Elite Poole as soon as you are feeling better. A woman of your great capacities would be an asset to our organization. I think we need to bring you on board in a permanent capacity."

"Thank you, Maxmillian." She said with a smile from within the circle of Ethan's arms.

**

That night there was a fire in the detention wing of the hospital. When the smoke had been cleared and the fire put out. One patient had been removed from the premises. Or was it two?

 

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