Chapter 1: Pretending
Mike opened his eyes. Ashton’s breath was warm against his back and his arm was cradled possessively over Mike’s belly. They had been sleeping together ever since the Queen dragon had flown in her mating flight and both Mike and Ashton had failed to capture her. In order to quiet the lust that inevitably filled everyone who chased the queen, Ashton had taken Mike to his bed.
Now, a month later, they were still spending every night together. Mike tried to breathe quietly so he wouldn’t wake Ashton up. At moments like these, he pretended that he meant something to the older man; that Ashton actually cared about him and wasn’t just using his body. He knew it was a false hope, but he clung to it anyway.
Ashton’s breathing changed and he pulled away from Mike.
“Time to get up,” he said, shaking Mike gently. “You have a busy day ahead of you.”
Mike winced. He had been training the queen’s mate, Scott, for the past month and it was nearly time for the boy to be reunited with Jamie, the queen dragon’s human partner. Scott and Jamie were deeply in love and Mike knew that the separation had been difficult for them even though they had been allowed to spend Christmas Eve together. Even though Mike longed for Ashton’s love, he had also hoped to use this time to grow close to Scott.
But Scott, unfortunately, had been sullen and unforgiving and if he didn’t learn to respect Mike and the rest of the council soon, Ashton would take over his training and Mike would have no way to protect him from the worst of the council’s wrath. It was a careful balancing act: he wanted to preserve Scott’s sense of independence, but he also needed to teach Scott how to obey the council. Their lessons up until now had been about history, but now they were moving into obedience and Mike worried that Scott would never learn what he needed to know to be reunited with Jamie.
Jamie, on the other hand, had been spending an hour a day with Ashton, learning about queen dragons and a highly edited history of Tarragon Academy. He was far more pliable and naïve than Scott, but Mike suspected that once the two of them compared notes, Jamie’s implicit trust of Ashton would vanish.
Ashton slapped Mike’s ass when he didn’t move, and Mike winced and stood up. They spent the night together, but there wasn’t much friendliness in the rough, passionate encounters. Often Mike wondered why Ashton didn’t kick him out as soon as they were finished.
Mike dug around the room for his clothes and headed to his room for a shower and a fresh set of clothes before seeing Scott. He wasn’t sure if Scott knew about him and Ashton. He didn’t want Scott to know. Even though he craved Ashton’s attention, he was ashamed of it as well and didn’t want anyone to know how much he needed the older man. The other council members knew – they always smirked when he went past – but no one else seemed to have figured it out, or at least no one else had commented on it. It wasn’t unusual for two men to sleep together at Tarragon Academy, but sleeping with the head of the council would surely raise some eyebrows and Mike was grateful that Ashton hadn’t announced their relationship.
After a quick shower, Mike took a deep breath and headed to the highest level of the dragon canyon where the queen and her mate lived. Or where they would live, once Marisol, the queen, was finished with her training. Right now, Scott and his dragon Narné had moved into the canyon but Jamie and Marisol still lived in the apartment complex on the other side of the campus. Ashton said it was because Marisol was not ready to be moved, but really it was a way to keep Scott and Jamie apart. Since neither boy was in classes due to winter break, there was no way they could see each other without crossing the entire campus and being spotted by at least one council member.
Mike took another deep breath before knocking on Scott’s door. Scott answered almost immediately and once again Mike felt a familiar rush of emotions at the sight of the handsome man. Scott was only a few years younger than him and when Scott was a freshman, Mike had been assigned to seduce him. Mike had succeeded, in part, but Scott had resisted and still thought of the encounter as rape. Mike had hoped the weeks of enforced closeness would make Scott realize that it wasn’t rape, but Scott was still as skittish and angry as the first day Mike had shown up to begin his training.
“When can I see Jamie? It’s been a month.”
“There’s one more lesson you need to learn, and then Ashton will test you.”
Scott’s lips tightened. “If I fail that test?”
“You won’t,” Mike said firmly. If Scott failed the test, then Mike would have failed as a teacher and he might lose Ashton’s interest. As much as he enjoyed spending time with Scott, he valued Ashton more. He would make sure Scott passed.
“So what’s this lesson?”
“I think it’s time we talked about the council.”
Scott’s eyes brightened with curiosity and he waved for Mike to come all the way in. They sat down near Narné in the massive dragon chamber designed to house two dragons. Sometimes Eraxes, Mike’s dragon, joined them, but not today. Narné and Eraxes had become close over the past month, even if their humans had not. At first there had been some tension between them – after all, Eraxes had been just a few seconds away from mating with Marisol when Narné swept in – but they had put aside their differences and become friends. Mike hoped he and Scott would follow a similar path.
“I know you understand a little of how the council works, but you have no idea how much power they really have.”
“I have some idea,” Scott said bitterly.
“I mean globally,” Mike said. “The Tarragon Council isn’t just responsible for the school. They’re responsible for every graduate across the globe, and they use their connections to control world events to their advantage.”
Scott was silent for a moment. “I thought so.”
“Well, it’s true. And because of that, you are a great risk. You’ve set yourself up as the queen’s mate-”
“I am the queen’s mate.”
“I know,” Mike said. “But if Ashton had his way, you wouldn’t have that title. There are responsibilities with that title, and a great deal of power.”
“Isn’t that what you’ve been teaching me this whole time? My responsibilities? Watching over the other dragons, helping Marisol when she lays eggs, all of that?”
“Yes, but the main responsibility is acting as a counterbalance to the council. And trust me, they are not prepared to let you take on that responsibility.”
“They can’t stop me.”
Mike’s hand curled into a fist. “You can’t become equal to them yet, Scott. If you try, if you claim your position, they will find a way to get rid of you. If you ever want to leave this training, you need to learn how to submit to the council’s will.”
“Is that what you’re doing with Ashton?”
A flush of heat rushed into Mike’s face. He had truly hoped that Scott hadn’t noticed.
“We’re not talking about me,” Mike said firmly. “We’re talking about you. You need to learn to pretend to do what the council wants so they’ll leave you alone.”
Scott hesitated and a crease appeared on his forehead. “Pretend?”
Mike fingered the gold chain around his neck and stared at the ground. The chain was a collar, really, and a gift from Ashton. Now that it was around his neck, there was no way to take it off. He had tried, but the latch had vanished. Eraxes said it was forged by a dragon who had a gift for forging metal together and it would be on Mike’s neck until Ashton decided to remove it. It represented his obedience to Ashton, but it also represented his biggest deception.
Mike was a part of an underground group of rebels who were dedicated to getting rid of the current council, specifically Ashton, because of their corruption. Mike had been chosen to attempt to get on the council so that he could make changes from the inside, but instead Ashton had seduced him and collared him. He tried to resist Ashton and pursue the group’s goals, but it was difficult. His only chance was to help Scott, but first he had to teach Scott how to get by without attracting the council’s notice. Mike had been doing it for over a year now, so he had good experience.
If Marisol laid her eggs and then chose Scott a second time in the mating flight, then Scott’s position as the queen’s mate would be confirmed and he could afford to make waves with the council, but until then he needed to keep his head down.
“You’re not the queen’s mate unless she chooses you twice in a row, and some council members won’t recognize you until the third mating flight. Until then, you are simply the person who flew with Marisol. If you want to survive, you need to learn to adapt.”
“But you said pretend. That’s different than adapt.”
“The council is… corrupt. You’ve figured that out by now. Changes need to be made and maybe you’re the person to do it. But this isn’t the time. You’re not strong enough.”
“How do you know?”
Scott was frowning and Mike sighed. Scott was reacting just as he had feared: indignant and angry rather than taking the news calmly.
“Fine. You might be ready to take on the council. You were certainly bold when you stole Marisol from me. But right now, Jamie is in the council’s hands and that will be true until Marisol lays her eggs. Marisol is vulnerable right now, and so is Jamie. I know you wouldn’t put Jamie at risk.”
Scott winced and Mike knew he had played the right card. Jamie was Scott’s vulnerability, but unfortunately Ashton also knew this and would use Jamie to keep Scott under control.
“Ashton knows your feelings about Jamie and he will use Jamie against you if you try to go up against him now. Just wait, Scott. Wait and do what the council asks, be as obedient as you can, and then, when the time is right and you and Jamie are both strong enough, then we can turn against them. But if you try it now all of our efforts will be for nothing.”
Scott nodded slowly, reluctantly. “Fine. What do I have to do?”
A smile of relief flashed across Mike’s face and he felt himself relaxing as he told Scott what the rebels had told him once about how to fool the council members. Most of the council was harmless: either they were so arrogant they didn’t expect deception, or they were decent people who had been inured to the corruption around them and didn’t even notice it anymore. But Ashton was clever, and would know exactly what Scott was doing. He was the one to fool, and Mike knew it would be a team effort between him and Scott, even though Scott wouldn’t like that idea. But without Mike serving as a distraction to Ashton, all of Ashton’s energy would be focused on seducing Jamie and destroying Scott.
Scott seemed to take everything in stride until Mike mentioned Ashton, when the man’s fists clenched and his eyes narrowed.
“I am not doing anything that man says.”
“He’s the head of the council,” Mike said. “He’s the one who matters most.”
“It won’t work. He’ll know I’m faking.”
“Maybe. But he’ll accept it. He just wants to know that you know your place, even if you aren’t happy about it.”
Scott was silent for a moment. “So what does it mean to know my place? I have to do whatever he says?”
“Pretty much,” Mike said. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t ask for anything you aren’t willing to give.”
“How will you do that?”
“Sometimes he does things for me,” Mike said cautiously.
In reality, he didn’t know how far Ashton would go for him, but in the past the older man had done unexpectedly kind things for him and they had been growing more frequent. It had started before the queen’s mating flight when Mike had the responsibility of killing a baby dragon whose human had died. Ashton had done the killing for him, sparing him the terrible task. Then inviting him to sleep together after sex. Ashton called Mike his pet, and he treated him like one, but a spoiled pet. If Ashton had Mike to entertain him and keep him busy, surely he wouldn’t worry too much about Scott.
“I’m not sleeping with him,” Scott said.
“I wouldn’t let you,” Mike snapped, then flushed. The thought of anyone sleeping with his Ashton was upsetting.
“I suppose,” Scott said slowly, “that I could do what he says. But I have my limits. If he hurts Jamie…”
“Jamie will be fine. He’s bonded with the queen, after all. You, on the hand, are in danger if you don’t obey.”
Scott nodded and his face went pale. He looked incredibly vulnerable and Mike ached with the desire to hold him and kiss him.
“You’ll make sure Jamie is all right? You’ll visit him and see how he’s doing?”
“I’ll go today. As soon as we’ve finished.”