training wheels

Yeah, it was them. And yeah, I knew them. Met them a while back, in fact. And in order to tell you the story, I have to start all the way back there, and I have to get graphic, because it's the only way you could possibly understand, but hey, at least it can't be any worse than the stories you and John have told me about the good old days at the Eagle back when you lived in Manhattan, right? Let me grab us both another beer first, because this is going to take a while.

So, it was -- '08? '09? Something like that. And I was just coming off the tail end of one of those relationships, and my very-recently-ex-Daddy had gotten custody of the usual hangout bar in the breakup, the one I'd bloody met him at, so I was spinning my wheels a little about where I was going to start spending my Friday nights. Most of the type I was into back then tended to stick to the straight-acting bars, so I figured it was probably good for me to broaden my horizons a bit. And hell, there was the Cocoa Bar, which was where any freak or misfit could usually find something to cuddle up to, and my sort-of friend Tom tended bar there and was always trying to get me to come in more often than I did. So I figured why the hell not.

The 'Bar was the sort of place that didn't tend to get a lot of women coming in, and the ones they got were usually bulldykes who felt more comfortable there or straight chicks who were sick and tired of being on the meat market, looking for a night out with no pressure and no pickup artists. But the dykes kept to themselves, and the straight girls always had this "I can't believe I'm here" look on their faces, and she wasn't either.

She was sitting at the end of the bar, the side up against the wall, and she had the stool turned enough so she could lean her back and shoulders against it. Couldn't say what made me look at her, except maybe the way she carried herself, strong and confident: it wasn't her problem that she was a woman in a sea full of fags, it was ours. Or maybe it wasn't anybody's. It was that confidence that made me look at her the second time, and when I did, I liked what I saw; she was in a black latex top that went from throat to wrists to waist and a skirt of black rags that went down to just above her ankles, but the top plunged all the way down to her bellybutton, and even in the shadows she was sitting in, I could see a whole host of old surgical scars. Something wrong with her legs, too, peeking out from under the tattered rags of her skirt, and I realized that the strip around her right wrist that I'd taken for a bracelet was actually attached to the cane she had propped up next to her, keeping it at hand. Couldn't decide if the shadows I saw were tattoos or more scars; maybe they were both.

First glance I took her for early thirties, about my age -- her tits didn't look like they'd started to lose to gravity yet -- but after a minute I realized she was older; late thirties, early forties, something like that. Her hair was short and brown, buzzed close on the sides, artfully spiked on the top. Didn't look like she was wearing any makeup, which meant either she wasn't or she was wearing the really good stuff. She was drinking Dos Equis straight from the bottle. Her eyes were resting on the dance floor, and her face was peaceful. Watching somebody in particular, not just enjoying the spectacle. And they put on a damn good spectacle at the 'Bar.

That is, she was watching the dance floor until I guess I looked a little too long or a little too sharply, because she suddenly turned her head and I found myself on the receiving end of a look that could probably pin me to the wall if she just kept it there long enough. Felt like the way my CO looked when he was trying to figure out if one of us was good enough to accomplish whatever he wants us to accomplish, and I had a bad spot there for a second, trying to figure out if I'd ever seen her around base. The time when I could have been kicked out of my job just for being seen in the 'Bar's parking lot had been only the year before, after all, which, yeah, must mean it was '09. But anyway, the look passed, so quickly I was left wondering if I'd even seen it, and she raised her beer bottle half an inch in salute and smiled at me.

Pretty smile. Pretty woman, too, for all that it was the kind of pretty Hollywood would turn up its nose at, and I was bored with all the guys I vaguely knew in the 'Bar that night, and it really wasn't my scene, and I hadn't seen anything new to make me sit up and take notice, and Tom was busy and couldn't take the time to talk to me. And I've always loved a mystery.

"Go on, ask," she said, without preamble, as I slid onto the stool next to her. Her voice was warm and low and full of Southern honey and lazy, sun-drenched afternoons. That close, I could see that yeah, her legs were fucked somehow, covered in scars, and the tattoos were meant to work with and around them. I was careful not to bang her knees with my own, not to bump the cane she was holding close. "Man who looks at me like that is tryin' to figure out a mystery."

"Most girls would want me to at least buy them a drink first," I said.

She laughed, low and throaty, and the combination of it and her voice made me check her throat and her hands. But no, she was biological. "Honey, most girls wouldn't be sittin' here in the first place. Or if they were, it'd be to play poke-the-freak, an' they'd've come in packs." She put down her beer bottle and held out her hand. "I'm Cammie."

"Stevie," I said, and reached out to shake. Strong grip, and her palm was callused, as though from heavy work. "And okay. I'll bite. What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"

She gestured to the dance floor with her chin. "See the smartass at my four in the red shirt and the leather pants who looks like he needs to be sprayed down with a firehose?"

I turned a little and looked; the guy she meant was immediately obvious. The shirt was candy-apple red, subtly patterned, and the leather pants were black and left nothing to the imagination. His hair was long and brown and pulled back in a ponytail, and he was wearing all the makeup she wasn't. Around the eyes, at least. He was dancing with nobody, or maybe with everybody, and the way he did it, it looked like fucking standing up without being anywhere near as crude. Not the kind of guy I would've ever looked twice at, since the only way he could have screamed "pushy bottom" louder would've been to bring a bullhorn, but he was pretty enough.

She spoke of him with amused and exasperated affection, though, and I ran the scenarios quickly. He was young enough, and up that close to her I could tell that she was old enough, that he could have been her son, but the 'Bar wasn't the kind of place for mother-son bonding, and I didn't want to insult her by suggesting it. Younger brother, maybe, with her there to be his chaperone. Or maybe they were lovers, and he was bi and she was tolerant, or maybe they were just friends. "Yeah?"

She picked up her beer again and watched me over the rim as she took another sip. "Guess you could call me his wingman. Or at least his common sense, since the minute little head takes over, his judgement goes to shit. You in the mood? I'll sell him cheap."

Not serious, though -- I could tell -- and I laughed. "Not my type, but thanks. Good friend, though, to be doing that."

One of her shoulders rose and fell in a brief shrug, and yeah, okay, you know I'm mostly queer, but mostly isn't totally and they were really nice tits. "Love the little fuck," she said, and the ease and grace with which she said it told me there was a story there. "Got tired of picking up the pieces after. But enough about me, Stevie-who-likes-a-mystery. What is your type?"

It was bantery without being flirty, like she just wanted to know. So I told her. "Tall, grey, and military, mostly. Extra points for wearing leather and being good with a paddle."

She found it funny. Really funny, for some reason, bending over and laughing so hard I thought she was going to pop out of the latex, and I was just thinking about getting miffed when she straightened up, took a deep breath, and wiped her eyes. "Sorry," she said, snickered again, caught herself. "You tripped a family joke. No offense meant, honey, an' I gotta say I like your taste. Not gonna find much here, though. Most'a the closet tops from base hit up Hank's."

Which was true, and which was the bar that the ex had gotten custody of, but I wondered how she knew it. Hank's was a military bar. Mostly straight. You had to know what you were doing to pick up there, because the back room games didn't show unless you were looking straight at them. You had to be careful as hell when you were cruising in there, too; I narrowly escaped having my teeth rearranged once or twice. But I didn't ask. "Not actually on the market tonight," I said. "Just out for the eye candy."

"Fair enough," she said, and signaled Tom with a raised hand for a refill. "Buy you a drink, then, an' we can ogle together."

I expected the standard run of chitchat questions -- what do you do for a living, that kind of thing -- but she didn't ask them; instead, she asked what kind of books I liked reading (with the implication that of course I'd be a reader, which I found amusing; not many people are, these days) and the next thing I knew we were in the middle of a rip-roaring argument about whether or not Hollywood had totally mined the superhero movie genre. She was defending the position that superhero movies were pretty much dead until Marvel got its racist, sexist, and homophobic head out of its ass -- and defending the hell out of it -- when I caught her hands moving.

I don't know if you know it, but my baby sister was born Deaf, so I know ASL as well as I know English. She was signing no, nice guy, but not your type; he'd prefer -- and a home-sign consisting of the letter O tapped twice at around shoulder-height, probably a name-sign, and I glanced around (playing casual) to see the twink she was babysitting sign back pity, since he'd never go for it from the edge of the dance floor as he strode closer.

I should tell you I sign, I said. She looked startled for a second, but laughed.

"Pity," she said out loud. "Most people don't notice we're talking about them in plain sight."

The twink came up next to her, slipping an arm around her waist. More casual than loverly, really. The bar stools were high enough, and she was tall enough, that they were about the same height, even though he was tall too; she leaned forward just enough for him to slide in behind her, then leaned back against him while he hooked his chin over her shoulder. It had the air of something they'd done a thousand times, but there wasn't anything sexual about it. He touched her like she was an extension of himself, not like a man touches a woman whose pants he wants to get into. Or whose pants he has gotten into. He gave me a look that was the twin of the one she'd given me earlier, just as piercing, his eyes dark smudges behind their eyeliner. It took him longer to smile at me than it had taken her, and when he did, it didn't quite reach past his lips.

"You causing trouble again, Mitchell?" he asked, still looking at me.

"No more'n you are," she shot back. "Stevie, this is JD Nielson. Nielson, this here's Stevie, an' aside from holding completely wrong opinions on the intelligence level of Joe Quesada, he's a keeper."

The twink -- Nielson, she'd said, and he'd called her Mitchell, which must be her last name, which was another interesting point of data -- snaked a hand around her side to hold it out to me. "JD," he said. "Whatever she's told you, it isn't true."

The look that wasn't in his eye when he looked at her, the look that said yeah, I'd do you, was in his eyes when he looked at me. I stuck out my hand and gave him brisk-and-business, not looking-for-action. His smile, which had fallen off his mouth pretty damn fast once he'd given it, came back, but this time it said message received. "She said you were thrifty, brave, reverent, clean, and help little old ladies across the street," I said.

He snorted. "Couldn't have. I didn't hear a fat man in a red suit place an order for ten billion pairs of ice skates."

She elbowed him, not gently. "I say nice things about you," she said. "Sometimes."

"Alternate Thursdays," he said. "And Tuesdays when it's a full moon."

"You forgot Fridays during Lent."

I couldn't stand it anymore; I had to know. "You two related?"

It amused both of them; she quivered with that belly-shaking laugh again, while he just snorted. "Heaven forbid," she said. "Though my momma keeps threatening to adopt him. Business partners. We do software."

And that was another place where she could have asked me what I did for a living, and another place where she didn't. He didn't, either. Neither one of them had asked my last name, either. The 'Bar wasn't the kind of place where cruise manners prohibit asking either, which meant that either they frequented different places where the manners were different or they both just naturally didn't like to pry. "Yeah?" I said, since something seemed to be called for. "What kind?"

"The kind we're not supposed to talk about," he said, and suddenly I had to blink, because there was something --

Okay, look. He looked barely legal, all right? But the minute he dropped the bantering tone with her, he suddenly sounded like he was old enough to be my father. Or my Daddy. And it's always been the kind of tone that goes straight down to my dick, and it must have shown on my face, because his eyes flashed thoughtful for half a second and then he smirked.

I felt myself flushing. Tried to keep it out of my voice. "Or you'd have to kill me, right?"

"Naw," she said, and the look on her face told me she hadn't missed that split-second flash, either, and she was thinking about it just the same as he was. Dammit. I had to wonder -- had I totally misread all the signals he was giving off? "Like you too much to kill you. We'd just chain you up in the basement and put you to work."

And this time it was bantery and flirty, gentle enough that I could ignore it if I wanted to and we'd all pretend we hadn't noticed. I wondered who she was flirting with me for, herself or him. I wondered if they cruised as a pair, or if she found all his dates for them both or if he found hers for her, and I wondered if I'd given her too damn much ammo with my crack about leather and paddles earlier. And then, God help me, I wondered why my mouth was so damn dry.

"Done here for the night, Mitchell," he said into her ear. I had to strain my ears to hear it over the music. She nodded, a half-smile on her lips, and all of a sudden, sweet Jesus fuck, both of them were looking at me. And neither one of them had so much as moved, but all of a sudden they both looked different. Him more than her. She just looked like she was comfortable in her own skin. He looked like I should be standing at attention and saluting him, and my dick was thinking about doing so, and he might've looked barely legal but my lips itched to call him 'sir' anyway.

He slid out from between her and the wall, one fluid motion, and took a step forward to stand by my knee. Didn't touch me, but I could feel the heat coming off of him in waves anyway. "What's your rank, airman?" he asked, low and compelling, his eyes hot on my face.

I swallowed. Hard. No idea how he knew; I wasn't wearing my tags, and with the face I've got, people take one look at me and it's like their eyes slide right off. "Captain," I said. My voice felt harsh.

He made a little thoughtful noise. "Peterson or Cheyenne?"

I found that I was leaning into his body, just a little subtle twist, like he was exerting his own gravitational pull. "Um. Peterson. They've got Cheyenne on standby."

That got identical smirks, though God only knew what I'd said. "I think it's time we blow this scene," he said, and it sounded familiar, but I couldn't place what he was quoting. His voice was low and calm and smooth, commanding, and ten fucking minutes previous I'd have sworn he wasn't my type, but that had been before he'd looked at me like that. "Mitchell and I will be out in the parking lot. You've got five minutes to decide if you're coming with us or not, Captain. You decide yes, it's the last thing you have to decide until we bring you back for your car in the morning. You decide no, no problem, we'll buy you a drink next time we cross paths and you and Mitchell can keep talking about comic books."

I couldn't tear my eyes away from him. Christ Jesus, where had he been keeping this? Couldn't find anything to say, either, because about the only thing my brain wanted to cough up was "yes, sir", and I wasn't quite ready to admit I wanted to say it. He lifted his hand and touched my lips, one quick brush of fingertips against my skin, and his skin was so hot that it nearly burned me. My mouth opened without me telling it to. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her leaning forward, just a little, to get a better view.

"That's pretty," she said, and suddenly I knew why he'd said we instead of I: I wasn't being picked up by him, or by her for him, I was being picked up by both of them. For both of them.

And okay. I hadn't been with a woman in coming up on a decade. But she was one hell of a woman. "So're you," I said, and I was damn fucking proud of myself, because my voice didn't crack at all.

It got me a delighted smile from her and a raised eyebrow from him. "Ain't you the sweetest thing," she said, in a soft little purr. She picked up her tiny clutch purse from where it was sitting on the bar, pulled out three twenties, and dropped them on the bar. Unusual: not too many people carried that much cash, even back in those days, not to a bar. Then she fished out a business card and handed it to me. "You give that to anyone you'd like if you're of a mind to come with us and feel the need to set up a safe call. Or you keep it for yourself if you decide no, an' gimme a call whenever you feel like an' we can finish that argument about how bad Ultimate Marvel sucks."

The mention of a safe call broke a little bit of the spell he'd hit me with. Because, yeah: the idea of going home with two people I'd met less than half an hour ago would have been stupid even if the prospect of -- whatever -- hadn't been on the table. But I liked her more for thinking of it, because fuck, I wouldn't have. And I wasn't usually that stupid.

I looked down at the card. It proclaimed her as Cameron Mitchell, Chief Operating Officer, Nielson-Mitchell Solutions, with a phone number and an address that was just outside of the Springs proper. Email address, plain and no-frills, Black print, white paper, no fancy fonts or graphics. Interesting that his name's first, I caught myself thinking, and then he ran his fingertip down the line of my throat and I stopped thinking for a few seconds.

When I started thinking again, he'd stepped back, out of the range of my immediate personal space, and was holding out his arm like a gentleman in those old movies. She swiveled the bar stool and put her left hand in the crook of his elbow, leaned down a bit to set the cane against the floor. I stared at them both for half a second, and then my brain caught up to me; I stood at the exact same time she did, and fuck me if it didn't turn halfway into attention.

He flicked his eyes over to me, and I could tell I'd scored points somewhere on some mysterious internal scale. Then a half-drunk guy who'd been hovering pushed his way closer, lurching over to prepare to lay claim to the seat she'd just vacated, and JD's head snapped to track and I could see the reflexes fire: the need to block the guy's approach lest he push her over warred with the need to stand where he was so she could keep leaning on him, and I could tell that if he moved he'd set her off-balance -- she was halfway there already, from having to deal with standing up and shifting her weight. His muscles were tensing anyway, ready to move and intersperse himself between her and the drunk guy and then turn back and catch her if she was going to fall, and I saved him from having to by throwing out an arm just in time.

Drunk guy slammed into my arm, full across his chest, and I gritted my teeth, because he'd come in hard and I had to suppress my own reflexes too. Then I thought about how unsteady she looked on her feet, and how much of a clusterfuck this could have turned into in three point two seconds or less, and I snarled, "Watch where you're going around the lady, idiot."

Next to me, JD's mouth snapped shut, and he raised an eyebrow, and he gave me a little approving nod, like I'd picked the exactly right thing to do instead of just the almost-right thing.

The drunk guy muttered something at me. I ignored him. Tom freed himself up from the cluster of drag queens on the other end of the bar and hurried on down. I nodded at him, telling him I had it under control, but he wasn't looking at me. "You all right, Cammie, honey?" he said.

"Peachy," JD said, through gritted teeth. Cammie set her shoulders back, shifted her weight, and gave Tom a smile, but she didn't say anything. JD flicked his eyes back to me. "Five minutes," he said.

I swallowed hard again. "I'll only need two," I said, and some curious pleasure moved in his eyes, but all he did was nod and turn to escort her to the door.

I turned to Tom as soon as they were out of earshot. Held up the business card. "Tom, I --"

He was looking at me and smirking. "Night of your life, from what I've been told," he said. "I'll vouch for 'em. Go on." And, well. Tom and I weren't close, but there wasn't a damn thing he didn't know about the 'Bar's regulars, and if he said they were kosher, they were kosher.

I caught up with them just as they hit coat check. She was fishing around in her purse for their claim tickets. I came up behind them, on his side and not hers, and something told me to make damn sure he could see me out of the edge of his vision as soon as I got in range. "Please, ma'am, may I?" I said, holding out my hand, and she looked startled and then pleased; she handed the claim tickets over, along with a $10 bill, which was overtipping for coat check. But then again, I'd only seen her drink one beer, with another empty on the bar in front of her, and yeah, she'd bought me a drink, but even with that, even if she'd been paying for a tab both he and she had been running, unless he drank like a fish -- and he looked and moved perfectly sober -- she'd overtipped Tom, too.

Easy as hell to figure out which jacket was his and which was hers; hers was a dove-grey wool peacoat, long and thick, that looked handmade by someone, while his was a black leather biker jacket, scuffed and beaten, so thin it looked like a spring jacket even though it was the dead of February. I took both from the coat check girl, hung his leather jacket over my arm, and held her coat up for her. She slid the leather strap of the cane from around her wrist, shifted her weight so that the majority of it was leaning on one leg -- the good one, I guessed -- and flicked her eyes to him. He looked at me, like he was trying to decide how far I could be trusted, and then held out a hand to accept her cane from her. Didn't step too far away, but didn't hover over her, either.

My baby sister Reenie is the most stubborn person in this or any other universe, especially about being Deaf, so I had an idea of what to do and what not to do already, but his body language was telling me a hell of a lot more. She was crippled, and crippled badly, but neither one of them was going to make a big deal about it, and they were both telling me not to either, without having to use words. So I just held the coat for her instead of trying to help it on, and I was fucking hell careful not to so much as breathe on her to maybe-possibly unbalance her, and he watched like a hawk the entire time. Then he was handing her cane back to her, and I turned to face him, and he did that thing again that I couldn't name and couldn't define that made me want to hit my knees and kiss his fucking boots.

I settled for just lowering my eyes (and they were nice fucking boots, too) and holding up the jacket, letting him decide how he was going to play this. He laughed. Actually laughed, sudden and amused, and the laugh carried into his voice when he said, "Yeah, I know." Fuck it all if I didn't think he did, and he took a step forward and presented me with his back, his arms spread so I could put it on him, and holy fuck, in the fluorescent light of the coat-check hallway I could finally see that the patterns on his shirt weren't. On his shirt, I mean. They were under his shirt, fucking gorgeous blackwork tattoos peeking through the close-clinging translucent fabric, long lines striking out from the spine in intricate designs I wanted to study for hours.

But I made myself behave, and I put his coat on him, and he turned as soon as I had it settled on his shoulders and brushed his fingertips over my lips again. "Nice," he said, low and full of promise, and I dropped my eyes again. He presented her with his arm. She tucked her fingers in his elbow again. I wanted to offer myself, but I knew it'd be a bad idea; the way they were moving together told me they had this down to a science, and I didn't know enough about how to match her step.

Christ, I was halfway down into that part of my head already, and I was teetering on the edge of falling all the way, and neither one of them had touched me with more than a fingertip yet. All I knew was that I wanted to serve her and serve for him, and either one of them probably could have told me to strip naked right then and there and I would have.

Only took me a second to reclaim my own coat and struggle into it. They didn't wait, but I caught up with them fast enough. Parking lot was iced over, and the two of them took it at a crawl. I stationed myself two steps behind her and one step to the right, on the side he wasn't on, and the long slow processional gave me plenty of time to get worked up. Their car was parked in the handicapped spot, but the parking lot was badly planned enough that it wasn't really all that close. By the time they hit the car, she was moving even slower, and my back and hips were aching in sympathy.

But she seemed cheerful enough as she stopped, three or four steps away from the car, and fished her clutch purse out of the depths of her coat pockets to rummage for the keys. And she certainly seemed cheerful enough as she passed the keys to me. "If you would, please and thank you," she said, and I found myself holding the passenger door open for her less than three seconds later. I waited until she'd nodded that she was settled, shut the door for her as gently as I could, and handed the keys to him. He nodded back at me. Made me warm enough that I thought I could probably get by without the coat.

"Last chance, Captain," he said. His voice was low and husky, and his lips caressed my rank like he knew exactly what it was doing to me to hear him say it. "You going back inside?"

I licked my lips. "No, sir," I said. It made him smile at me again.

"Good," he said. Took a step closer, into my space. This time, he cupped his entire hand against my cheek, strong fingers digging into the back of my head, and pulled me close. My pulse jumped, my dick said hello, and I was bracing myself for a kiss, but all he did was tug me forward and nip my earlobe with his teeth. "I like the way you sound when you call me that," he said, right against my ear. "That's what you're going to call me for the rest of the night."

Swear I stopped breathing for a minute. It wasn't what he said -- I'd heard things like that before, more times than I can count -- so much as how he said it, a thoughtless confidence I wouldn't have expected to hear out of someone as young as he was. But he had it down perfect, the arrogant assurance of command, and it was command. Plain as day.

"Yes, sir," I said, the way I would've said it to my CO, not the way I would say it to some kid who was topping me for the night, and I was pretty fucking sure he could hear the difference.

His eyes were amused as he let me go and stepped backwards. "Backseat," he said.

I got my ass down in the seat, behind the passenger seat, and had the seatbelt buckled before he got in the car. "'Bout damn time," she said, cheerfully, as he turned the key in the ignition. "Freezin' my ass off in here waiting for you two to get your business done out there."

"Bitch, bitch," he said, all bright and singsong, and slapped at her hand as she reached to turn up the heater. "Aht. Rule fourteen."

"Suspended when it's under twenty degrees," she said.

"Be glad I don't have the window open. I'm roasting."

"You put one hand on that window and I'll shoot you in the head," she snorted. I didn't have to think about it for more than a second; I struggled out of my down ski jacket and touched her on the shoulder, lightly. She turned in the seat, raising an eyebrow at me.

"Put this over your knees, ma'am," I said. Passed the jacket between the bucket seats. "Until you warm up."

"Well, ain't you still the sweetest thing," she said, accepting the jacket and spreading it over her lap. "Nielson, you should take lessons."

"And here I thought you loved me just the way I am," he said. He handled the car like an extension of himself, calm and controlled and capable even though the roads were probably just as icy as the parking lot. When he hit the first traffic light, his eyes came up to the rear-view mirror; I could just see the glimmer there, cool against the shadow. Made me shiver, and it wasn't because I'd given up my jacket, either. "Twenty minute drive," he said. "More if the salt trucks haven't been through lately. Plenty of time for us to play getting-to-know-you. Unzip your jeans."

My dick leaped again at the note in his voice, still calm and matter-of-fact. I took a deep breath and thumbed open the button of my jeans, slid down the zipper. He didn't crane his head to look, even though I knew I had to be in shadow and the way I was sitting meant he probably couldn't see anything. Didn't matter.

"What'cha got on under there, babydoll?" she asked. From where I was sitting, I couldn't see her face and she couldn't see me, but her voice was smoky and deep.

I wet my lips and bit down hard for half a second when my tongue cleared the lower one. "Boxer-briefs, ma'am," I said. My voice came out weaker than I'd intended, and I cleared my throat a little.

"Yeah?" she said, not really quite a question, so I didn't try to answer it. "Why don't you just pass those on up here too. You can put your pants back on once you're done. Wouldn't want you to take a chill."

Took me a second to realize what she'd said. The words had been just as matter-of-fact as he'd been using. Then I reached down like I was in stop-motion and untied one of my shoes, and the second one went a little faster, and the next thing I knew I was loosening my seat belt enough to let me squirm out of my jeans and my skivvies all in one move.

Or, all right, not exactly in one move, because she had the front seat pushed back damn far and I didn't have a lot of room to wiggle around in, because I didn't need to be told to know that banging my knees into the back of her chair would be a rookie fucking mistake. The light turned green just as I was realizing that yeah, the air in the car was fucking cold, especially on my bare ass. But I got myself naked, or at least half naked, in the backseat as he put the car back in gear, and I separated out my boxer-briefs from the twisted knot of my jeans, and I had just started to squirm my foot back into the one leg before I caught myself re-playing her orders. She'd told me to pass up my underwear first.

So I did. She accepted the grey cotton gravely, and for a second I wished, shivering just a little, that I'd worn something a little fancier. "You listen so well, babydoll," she said, still husky. "Most boys would'a missed that. You go ahead and put your pants and your shoes back on, now. Leave that zipper undone."

"Yes, ma'am," I breathed, and hearing myself, I realized: yeah. Whatever thing he had, command presence or command voice or just plain command, she had it too. Not the same way he did, but I'd jump to for her orders just as fast as I'd jump to for him, and that was an important thing to realize.

I was half hard by the time I got finished setting everything back to rights, even in the chill. I could see his eyes flicking up to me in the rear-view, every now and then, but he didn't say anything. I couldn't see into the front seat, or see what she'd done with my shorts, but she sounded pleased when she said, "Now you just put your hand over your dick to keep it nice and warm, and you close your eyes and tell us everything we should know."

I didn't entirely want to close my eyes -- this whole thing was surreal (and hot, and getting hotter, and I didn't mean the ambient temperature) and closing my eyes would only make it worse -- but I found that my eyes were closed without me telling them to be, and I took a deep breath and spread my knees and put my palm (cold, but it started warming up as soon as I touched) over my open fly. My hips rose up against it, just a flick, and I huffed out breath and made myself stop before it could turn into a full thrust, because if I started I wasn't going to be able to stop and she hadn't told me I was allowed to.

"I like being told what to do," I said, and there was a snort from the front seat, probably from him, that conveyed yeah, no shit. "I like not being in charge."

I took a deep breath. She'd said everything they should know, and I knew what she wanted. She wanted my laundry list, you know, the one everyone carries around with them. And you know the way everybody's got a couple of different layers: some of it you hand out to anyone, some of it you only give if you're pushed. Simple rule is that the more you give to somebody new, though, the better the scene is, and the way they were both talking already told me that this had the potential to be one of the explosive ones. The more I gave them, the more they'd have to work with. "I like not having a choice about things, but it terrifies me too. I like being terrified, but I also hate it. Um. In the right kind of way. You know."

She made a little noise of affirmation, the back of her throat. "You mentioned a paddle, back there," she said, and my dick twitched under my hand again. But she didn't ask the question I thought she was going to ask. Instead, she asked, "That about what it does to the backside of your ass, or what it does to the inside of your head?"

"Um," I said, and found that I was shivering. Not from the cold. "Yes. Both. Neither. Both, I think."

She made another noise of understanding. I could feel the seat in front of me shifting a little as she redistributed her weight, and in that second I was torn between obeying her orders and keeping my eyes shut and opening my eyes to see if she needed help. But her voice was still strong when she said, half a second later, "Where are your lines, babydoll?"

That was an easier one. "No bareback. No blood. No marks that'll last more than a few days. I don't mark easily, though. No restraints -- I like being held down, but not tied down. No pictures or recordings. Um, I'm okay with heavy impact and things that go thud or things that go whap, but I'm not really into sting. No pi --" I started to be as crude as I usually was back then, found I couldn't, not in front of her. "No waste. That's about it."

"You are such a good boy," she said, and the delight in her voice was clear. "Allergies or medical conditions?"

And you know how some people find the question-and-answer phase offputting? I've never been one of them. It always makes me feel better when someone I'm thinking about bottoming to cares enough to go through it with me, and even back then -- especially back then -- I'd done it so much it's Pavlovian. Set out the boundaries, talk through the checklist with someone new, and my dick gets hard. Harder, at that point. "No allergies, no medications, no conditions. Last bloodwork came back clean three months ago. Um, one thing you should probably know is that when I go under, I go under hard. I'm okay, I'm still there, I'm just really far down."

Her voice sharpened. "You still know enough to know when it's time to stop?"

"Yeah," I said. There'd been once, a long time ago, where I hadn't, but that had been a long time ago. It had taught me to be more careful.

The car felt like it had been speeding up slowly but surely for a few minutes, and I thought back on the stops and starts and turns and figured we must be out of downtown proper by then. I wondered what kind of space they had. Neither of them had struck me as hardcore scenesters, but she was taking me through my paces like a pro, and I realized that it was actually soothing away the nerves I'd only barely been aware of, hearing such calm confidence reflected back at me, like there was no chance she (or he) wanted to fuck anything up. I remembered Tom telling me I was going to be okay, and if anybody in the place would know, it'd be Tom.

"We are gonna have ourselves such a good time," she said. "You got anythin' you wanna ask us?"

"Um." I took a deep breath, hearing my own voice in my ears, feeling a little awkward and a little uncomfortable and knowing I had to ask it anyway. "What do I need to know so that I don't hurt you?"

"I'll take care of that," he said. It made me jump. I'd almost forgotten he was in the car, I'd been so focused on the sound of her voice. The answer sounded like a door shutting, like a sign on the map saying Here Be Dragons, and I winced and gritted my teeth and realized I had a fifty-fifty chance of being about to fuck this all to hell.

"I'm sorry, sir," I said. Tried to keep it as respectful as possible. "I -- I should know anyway."

There was a rustle in the front seat, like the sound of skin whispering over the nylon of my jacket, like she was reaching over to him. "He's right," she said. Pain in her voice, but old pain, the kind you've learned to live with. I almost broke my orders and snuck a look, but I stopped myself. Her voice went brisk, then, the kind of brisk you use to cover up something that hurts like hell. "My balance is shot to shit, I'm missing three toes, my legs and my pelvis have a lot of interesting metal in interesting places, and there's a hell of a lot of scarring at the small of my back that you need to stay away from and keep as much weight as possible off of. The rest of it, you don't need to worry about."

I bit my lip. The way she was talking, there was a rest-of-it, and I did want to ask again. But so much of all of this is about trust, and I was just going to have to trust that I wouldn't do any harm in my ignorance.

"Now," she said, and her voice was dropping back down to honey. "You don't have any more questions, I got a few things I'd like you to do."

"No, ma'am," I said. I did. Lots of 'em. Starting with how she'd gotten hurt, wandering through what the two of them were to each other, finishing off with where the hell he'd learned how to push all of my buttons so damn hard. (Father in the service? Still. He was young. Young enough that normally I'd never have even though about playing with him.) But they could wait for the second time. If there was going to be a second time.

"A'ight, then," she said. "Let's start by having you stroke that pretty dick of yours until it's nice and ready, 'cause I want you hard until he says it's all right for you to come."

Sweet Jesus. And yeah, okay, she probably could have pieced that together from what I'd told her, at least the parts about not being in charge and not having a choice, but being told I have to hold it is one of the things I hate and love all at once. I wished I had my eyes open. Then I knew I was probably glad I didn't, because from the sound of the way her voice had bounced around in the car, she'd turned to look at me, and at that point I thought it was easier to be on display if I couldn't see the other person looking back at you, because I still wasn't comfortable enough with wanting someone to look at me like that.

I rolled my fingers just behind the head of my dick, gently, more of a hello-how-are-you than anything serious. The cabin of the car had warmed up, enough that I wasn't cold anymore, and I could feel that one of them had turned on the heat, because my skin was so goddamn sensitive that I could feel the breath of air on my cheek. Didn't take much to get me going. I'd been most of the way there anyway.

She made a pleased noise. We slowed down, took a curve. I could feel the engine of the car beneath me, powerful but leashed, tamed beneath the hands of its driver. The way (I shivered) I was going to be. Or maybe she'd be the one to touch me, to take me, and I couldn't suppress another shiver, because I didn't know which one I wanted more.

"Head back," he said, and I found that I'd done so without consciously deciding to obey, tipping my head back over the back of the seat, my throat line long and exposed. I swallowed. You ever notice how it's fucking hard to swallow when your head's rolled backwards that way?

"Oh, now that's just pretty," she said. "Hand on your dick, honeybaby, I didn't tell you it was time to stop yet."

Sure enough, my hand had fallen away, and I sank my teeth into my lower lip -- the spice of tiny pain helps me remember what I'm doing -- and palmed myself again. I was being careful, because you know that when you've got an open zipper and no underwear on, one fuckup can make for a damn unpleasant night. "May I --" I started, and then stopped, because we hadn't settled that point of doctrine and I didn't know if I was allowed to ask.

He snorted again, still amused. Her voice was warm. "Babydoll, you go on an' ask for anythin' you need. Might say no, but you go on an' ask."

It made me feel better. "May I push my jeans down, ma'am?"

She tsked a little, but it was at herself, not at me. "You go right ahead. Shoulda thought of that, me, an' thank you kindly for reminding me. Not too far, though. Himself gets the fun of unwrapping you when we get home."

I shifted just a little, just enough to get settled better. "Yes ma'am thank you ma'am," I said, all in one rush, and I felt it like a click in my head, the shifting sideways into a space where that was the only possible response, the sweet pleasure of saying the words, the formality and the ritual of them. Usually it was yes sir thank you sir, and I wondered if she'd mind if I slipped, and I wondered just a little, for the first time, how different my life would have been if Aggie hadn't run screaming when I'd gently broached the topic, ten years back, and whether or not I'd ever have even figured out about how much I like cock.

Then I put it aside. Bit down harder. She was watching.

He probably was too. The car had slowed down again, and I couldn't tell if that meant we were nearing our destination or if he had run into bad weather or if he was dividing his attention between the road and me and didn't want to risk higher speeds. Fucking hell, I was jerking off in a car with two people I hadn't even fucking met an hour ago, heading God knew where because my eyes had been closed the entire time, and it was the stupidest fucking thing I'd ever done in my entire life, and I didn't fucking care, because everything down to my toes was telling me that they were all right. I curled my thumb and my finger around my dick, tugged lightly along the length, feeling the faint burn that comes from friction and not being wet enough. Rubbed my thumb along the head, smearing around the pre-come, flicked my thumbnail at the slit. Eyes still shut. I thought it was me breathing heavily in the compact space, but it wasn't; it was her. Or maybe it was both of us, or all three.

Then the car slowed further. We turned, and the feel of the tires gripping the road changed, went from the county's typical half-assed half-paved gritty and pothole-ridden bullshit to smooth and gliding. Private road, the part of me that could still notice those things said. Probably a driveway. The other part was too busy sliding my hand down my dick to circumnavigate my balls, and I was paying more attention to that one.

Long-ass driveway if it was a driveway (I still couldn't tell; he took it back up to speed), but eventually we slowed again. Stopped. I left my hand right where it was, because neither of them had told me to do anything different. Heard the sound of motion from the front seat: her elbows making the rasping noise of motion over the nylon of my jacket, two faint sounds like hand gently striking hand, silence, then again. They were signing at each other, and just as I was considering fluttering my eyelashes open just enough to catch part of it, just enough to shut up that one last nagging bit of doubt, he spoke again.

With my eyes closed, with my nose full of the smell of me and my ears full of the sound of my breathing to distract me, he sounded more Daddy than my last Daddy had ever been. Something about the sound of just his voice, coming out of the dark, with none of the visual confusions. "Pants back up," he said. "Zip 'em, on your feet, open the door for the lady, and don't touch her or get in her way. Two steps behind us on our way to the door. You're allowed to gawk, but no talking. Once we're in, shoes off and under the table. The one house rule you get kicked out for breaking: nothing on the floor in the open, anywhere. Period. You got all that?"

It was exactly the same voice my CO would use to run down a tactical plan. "Yes, sir," I said. Shivered. "Thank you, sir."

"Eyes open, then," he said. "Get a move on."

Opening my eyes was almost painful, in a way, coming back out of that warm sweet cocoon inside my head, but when I did, neither one of them was looking at me. They were looking at each other, and the air between them was as charged as it was possible to get without having one tiny bit of erotic tension. He opened the car door, sliding out with the recklessness of youth. I shoved my feet back into my boots as quickly as I could, tightened up the laces just enough so I could walk in them, and shoved the ends down behind the tongues instead of tying them.

Then I tugged up my jeans, careful to tuck myself in as delicately as I could still hard, and zipped them. The cold air hit my face like a slap when I opened the backseat door, and I caught the shiver starting right between my shoulderblades and rippling downward. I also caught myself standing at attention when I opened her car door, looking off into the distance instead of at her just like protocol says you're supposed to, and it took me a second to realize that she was holding up my jacket to me.

"Thank you kindly for the loan, babydoll," she said. "Put it on."

I didn't think I was going to need it for a walk to the door, but she'd told me to put it on, so I did. It smelled like her.

She handed me her cane next, and I didn't know what to do with it, so I just held it. He came around the side of the car, one arm out parallel to the ground, and I realized suddenly that somewhere along the line he'd taken off his leather jacket, wasn't wearing anything but the shirt he'd been wearing in the Cocoa Bar, because I could see the muscles and the tattoos in his arm ripple as he braced himself. She wrapped both of her hands around his forearm, and together they levered her upright. Their breath puffed out white in the chill, mingled together. She held out her hand, and was just starting to turn her head to look at me and ask for her cane back, but I already had it right where her hand would fall, and it earned me a smile.

I was careful, the whole way, to make sure that my hand didn't touch her, touched nothing but the cane. He'd ordered me not to. I was watching her, fierce and concentrated, and that's why it took me a second to realize that he had ducked back around the car and slid back into the driver's seat. He pulled the car out of the way, and around the corner of the house we'd parked next to. Couple of seconds later, I could hear a garage door opening, and then the car door slamming again, a lot more forcefully than he'd slammed hers.

She didn't start heading for the front door, which (I realized) was probably why she'd made me put my jacket on. I took the chance to look around me. We were standing on a perfectly-paved driveway that felt more like the surface of a track, under my feet, than pavement; it was completely bare of ice or snow, and there wasn't any salt on the surface of it or any snow piled up by a snowplow nearby. It was as though the surface of the driveway simply repelled weather. Just past the driveway, though, was a veritable winter wonderland stretching out. Deserted and quiet, a definite country home. Not only could I not see the road from where we were, I couldn't even see the city lights.

The house itself was larger than I'd expected, its sides rough-hewn wood like a backwoods cabin that had lost its manners and gotten too big for its size. We were standing just at the crest of the hill it was on; the driveway sloped down both behind us and in front of us, but the spot he'd chosen to leave her was not only right in front of the walkway to the front of the house, it was the flattest area in sight. The floodlight fixed to the side of the house was on, and it turned the area just around us to mid-day lighting, but I couldn't see the actual entrance to the house beyond it.

He came back a few seconds later, trotting around the edge of the house and loping up the incline seemingly without effort. He didn't say anything to either of us, just glanced at me (still standing at semi-attention at her side, wordlessly) and then extended the courtesy of his arm to her again. She took it, and they set off along the pathway that opened up off the driveway. Same material as the driveway. Just as clean of snow and ice.

I fell into step behind both of them, two steps behind, and as they moved up the pathway, another floodlight clicked on in front of them. It showed that there weren't any steps leading to the front door. She let him go as they neared it, and he stepped forward, shielding himself with his body, and did -- something. More than just unlocking the door with a key, I could tell that much. The inside light clicked on as he opened the door, and he preceded her inside, to clear the room, maybe. I waited until they'd both stepped in, took a deep breath, and followed.

It was a living room -- well, it was what they probably used as a living room; it was about half again as large as my entire apartment. Gorgeous space. High ceilings and hardwood floors everywhere; the walls were soft cream, and the entire outside wall to the left was floor-to-ceiling windows. I could just see snow and woods outside of them in the dark. There was a long low table to the right of the door, with a few sets of shoes underneath it already and a hanging rack for coats over it, and I remembered my orders and kicked my boots off and under the table.

I hadn't been given any further orders, but hey, courtesy's always a safe bet, right, so I sank to my knees and waited. The area just inside the door was slate tile, and it was cool under my knees. He glanced down at me and smirked again. Stepped over to stand next to me, put the palm of his hand on the crown of my head. "Go on," he said.

Unlaced his boots for him, one at a time. He stepped out of them as gracefully as a whisper, and I slid them underneath the table. When I turned to her, she'd already stepped out of her shoes, but she hadn't gone anywhere and hadn't stowed them herself; I picked them up and put them away, too. He was still holding the keys in his other hand; he whistled softly, just enough to get my attention, and I looked up at him. He held them up, jingled them a little. Showing me. Dropped them on the table. I nodded; I knew what he was trying to say. (You get scared, that's how you get out of here.) Then I lowered my eyes to the floor, waiting to be told what to do next.

"On your feet, babydoll," she said. "Let's get somewhere a little more comfortable."

The end of her cane made a hollow noise against the floor as she turned and walked across the living room. I looked at him. He gave me the move-forward hand sign, and I stood and turned and followed her. He didn't. She led me across the living room, through an archway door, down a hall and around a corner and down another hall, and just after I'd realized that this house was fucking ridiculously huge, we hit the end of the hallway and she opened a door and we were in the bedroom.

It was about as large as the living room was, with three outside walls (I drew diagrams in my head and realized that the back of the house must be a U-shape). I knew they were outside walls, because they were all floor-to-ceiling glass too. No drapes. I felt open and exposed, for half a second, until I realized that the tree cover stretched as far as I could see -- which wasn't very far in the blackness, but still -- and I couldn't see any additional light. No nosy neighbors. The slope of the hillside we were on had turned first floor into second floor, and for a second I felt dizzy.

"Hmpf," she said. "Now, I know I wasn't the one who was supposed to turn those down." She turned to a beat-up old computer terminal set into a recessed hollow of the wall and typed something, then something else, and (I nearly jumped, but caught myself just in time) the windows opaqued and turned into the same soft cream the living room was painted. If I'd walked into the room like this, I would have thought they were plain walls. I imagined that people who walked into this room usually did.

There was one bed in the room, pushed against the far wall, with two nightstands. I squinted at it. It was the biggest bed I'd ever seen before, bigger than a California king, even, and I realized it must have been a custom job. She crossed the room to sit on it, sighing slightly as she did. "You need the bathroom, babydoll, it's right over there," she said, gesturing to a door next to the one we'd come through, and I figured that it was a gentle hint, so I went.

The bathroom was huge, too, with a walk-in shower stall (sized for two) and a whirlpool tub tall enough that the water level would reach the chest of someone sitting down in it. I pissed, washed my hands, and went looking for a washcloth. Didn't have to look far; there was a stack of them on the counter, right in between the two basins of the double sink. (Two toothbrushes.) I've gotten good at fast sponge baths over the years, but I scrubbed a little extra hard this time.

If I strained my ears, I could just hear voices from the bedroom proper. He must have followed her. It was the comfortable shorthand of two people who knew each other well enough that they didn't need to elaborate, and it didn't make much sense to me: she said "ontogeny recapitulates --" and he said "bite me, Mitchell," and she said "gotta admit it's funny" and he said "guess I do". Then their voices dropped again, and I wondered if they were signing at each other or not, and then I squeezed out the washcloth, left it draped over the edge of the tub, and skinned back into my jeans and shirt.

When I came out of the bedroom, one of them had adjusted the lighting; the ceiling lamp was off completely, but the lamps on both bedside tables were on, and so was a strip of lighting at the baseboard. She was sitting on the bed, having piled all of the pillows against the window/wall to make herself a backrest, and she'd changed out of her outfit; instead of the latex and the rag-doll skirt, she was wearing a spaghetti-strap tank top and a pair of boxer-briefs. He was standing at the foot of the bed, his back to me, looking at her. He was still wearing the leather pants he'd been wearing in the 'Bar, but he'd taken off his shirt. His ink was fucking incredible.

She looked up when she saw me, and her face changed a little, went from concerned to pleased. He turned to face me. He'd scrubbed off the makeup somewhere between there and here, and without it, he looked even younger. But his eyes weren't young at all, and he dragged those eyes down my body, slowly enough that it took a good three minutes for him to get down to the feet and start back up again. "Come here," he said, his voice rough and scratchy, and I swallowed my nerves and went.

I stopped just outside even the most generous estimate of his personal space, but it felt like I could still feel the heat coming off of him anyway. He reached out a hand and caught my wrist, tugged me closer. Pulled my body up against his, with both of his hands around my waist and holding onto my ass, and up close the heat was even more of a furnace. He nuzzled the line of my neck, around to the hollow of my throat, and with both of us standing there barefoot, I realized I was about an inch taller than he was.

"Here's the deal," he said, his voice vibrating through his chest into mine. "We're all here to have fun. You stop enjoying anything we're doing, you just say 'stop'; I think special words are stupid. You listen to her and you listen to me. She gives you an order, I don't want you looking at me to see whether or not you should obey it. We hit something you don't want to do, but you don't want to stop entirely, you say that, too, and we'll listen. You decide you're having enough fun to want to come back for a second round, we might get into something more complicated, but for now, we're going to keep it simple. You all right with that?"

"Yes, sir," I said. Breathed, really, just a whisper, but I knew he'd hear me anyway. "Thank you, sir."

"One more thing," he said, and his voice changed again, lower and even more powerful. He took a step back -- I found myself arching forward, leaning into him still -- and raked me with his eyes. "You disobey a single order, and this is over. You give it the old college try and swing and miss, that's not a dealbreaker, but the minute you dig in your heels, we all put our clothes back on and it's hot chocolate and cookies before bedtime. Got it?"

I couldn't quite breathe. Couldn't quite talk, even. My lips rounded yes sir, though, without me telling them to, and he looked at me and smiled. Actually smiled, not a smirk or just his lips quirking, full and beautiful like sunshine, and I wanted to fall to my knees right there.

"Good," he said. "Mitchell, you comfy?"

"Y'all don't mind me, baby mine," she said, throaty and relaxed. "I'll let you know if I got any problem."

He nodded. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that she was picking up one of the pillows, using it to prop herself up as she turned around and sprawled out face-down, halfway down the bed, her elbows against the bed and her chin in her hands. I didn't pay too much attention, though. I was too busy watching him, watching him watching me, and the sunrise angel smile had settled down to just a little brightness in his eyes. "Take off your shirt," he said.

Or ordered. There was no doubt in my head that it was an order, and I took a deep breath and pulled my t-shirt over my head. Was half an instant away from dropping it on the floor next to me, until I remembered the orders I'd already been given, before we even got in here, and I turned the motion instead into just holding it in my hand at my side. He nodded once, approval in his eyes, and held out a hand. I handed it to him. He tossed it off to the side, and I tracked it with my eyes without moving my head and saw it hit an easy chair that was sitting against the wall, landing on top of a few other pieces of clothing that were already there.

Then his eyes came back to study me, and I tried to keep myself from puffing up my chest, sucking in my gut, under the scrutiny. I was in pretty good shape, but he was perfect; there wasn't an inch of fat on him anywhere I could see, just muscle and bone. But he was nodding, slowly, as he looked me over. "Nice," he said. "Very nice."

He reached out a hand, touched a fingertip to my left nipple. I hissed at the feel of it; I could feel my eyes trying to close, and forced them to stay open. He looked back up at me from under lowered lashes. "You ever put clamps on these?"

It was a question, so I had to answer it. "Yes, sir," I said.

"You like it?" he asked.

I took a deep breath, blew it out as slowly as I could. Tried to tell my body to behave, dammit. "Yes, sir," I said, and he must have heard the longing in my voice, because he threw me another one of those half-smiles.

He stepped back again and turned his head to look at her. I tracked his gaze with my eyes, still not turning completely -- he hadn't told me to -- but I could see that she had rolled over on the bed to half-lean off of it and was rummaging around underneath. She dragged out a large squat plastic box and popped the lid. I couldn't see into it from my vantage point, but it looked pretty full. Figured it was their toybox. Turned out I was right, too.

The backs of my knees were trembling. I could feel them, and the way that my chest felt hollow and open and free.

He turned his attention back to me, and the minute his eyes hit me, it was like a slap. The good kind. He reached out a hand again, this time trailing that single finger along the waistband of my jeans, and I could feel my stomach muscles leaping beneath his touch. He looked up to meet my eyes again, all amused. "Ticklish?" he asked.

"No, sir," I said.

That made him laugh. "Gotcha. Just ready for it, then." He looked back down at his hands, drew his finger a little up from my waist line, watched my muscles dance beneath his touch. "We'll get around to it. Right now, well, Mitchell brought me a present, and she does so like to be able to watch me unwrap them."

"You go right on ahead, baby," she said. She was sitting up again, and I could see that she'd gotten a few things out of the box, but I couldn't see what they were, buried among the twists of the covers. "I got a perfect view."

But he put his hands on my shoulders and turned me around so I was facing her. She cocked her head and studied me, her eyes doing the same long slow slide from my face down to my feet and back up again, and she'd stopped smiling but she still looked like she liked what she saw; she was breathing a little bit harder, and the scar across her throat that I hadn't really noticed before -- tracheotomy? -- was flushed pink. "You look awfully pretty, babydoll," she said to me. "You gonna be a good boy for us?"

At that moment, there was nothing in the world I wanted more. "Yes, ma'am," I said, and I could feel the heat of his body right behind me, and his hands snaked around the edges of my hips and thumbed open my jeans.

I was still hard, but he was careful, and I could feel him slithering down my back as he brushed his palms down over my hips and the outsides of my legs, taking my jeans with him. "Socks, too, baby," she said, and he made an irritated noise and tapped the back of my right leg for me to lift my foot. I did, and then the left, and eventually he straightened up and palmed my ass before stepping back. "Oh, that is nice," she said, her voice full of low admiration, her eyes flicking over my dick. I could feel myself flushing.

I was starting to hit the stage where I could feel everything going on around me even if I couldn't see it; I could tell that he was moving even before he appeared in my peripheral vision, carrying my clothes, to head over and drop them on the chair over my shirt. He whistled softly again, and she picked something small and silver from the tangles of the covers and underhanded it in his direction without ever taking her eyes off me. Underhanded them, because it was a set of nipple clamps, chain included, and he didn't have to stretch to catch them; they sailed right into his hand as he started to stride back to my side.

Right about then was where I think I might have whimpered, but I didn't really have time, because everything that had gone slow and gentle up until that point was suddenly a whirlwind. He slung the chain around my neck and kept a hold on the clamps themselves, using them to pull me in towards him, and I had just enough awareness left to realize that he'd angled us both so she could still see. It was the last thing I realized, though, because this time when he stepped close, it was to claim my mouth with his, and sweet holy fuck it was the most animal kiss I'd ever been a party to.

By the time he broke it off I was panting and ready to slide down and worship him if he so much as hinted it was what he wanted. He'd let go of the clamps, and they were heavy and cold against the tops of my pecs. He was pinching my nipples between thumb and forefinger of both hands, rolling them with an expert assurance, and dear God he knew just how: it hurt but it hurt so goddamn pretty, sparks flashing through my chest and behind my eyes, and I knew I was whimpering and I didn't fucking care.

He leaned in and nipped at my lower lip again, taking it between his teeth and sucking on it, and I moaned against his mouth and found myself pushing my chest into his hands. He laughed. "Easy," he said, soft and amused. He tugged on one of the clamps, and the chain slithered around the back of my neck and fell into his hands. I closed my eyes as he pinched my right nipple and pulled it tight, and I know I whimpered again as he set the clamp on it.

He made a little thoughtful noise, tugging lightly on the chain to test the pull, and the contrast of pain/pleasure on my right and aching emptiness on my left stung so beautifully. Something about the placement didn't satisfy him, because he pinched the clamp open and re-set it back a little further. I was about ready to come right there, just from what he was doing to me, but I swallowed it back and thought of snow, of ice, of nothing. It didn't really help. He took up the other clamp and positioned it over my left nipple, pinched and tugged and arranged, and when he was satisfied, he let the chain fall down against my chest. It was long enough to just tickle the top of my stomach.

It was heavy, too, and the clamps were tight, tight enough to make my eyes start to sting and water, and I was panting and hissing and moaning and trying not to swear, but he wanted me to wear them and I would by God wear them for him. "Nice," he said, approvingly, stepping back to study me.

Then he reached out and pulled on the chain, and I rose on the balls of my feet and arched my back to lean into the pull, and he reached down and slapped my dick with his other hand. Not hard, not even enough to sting, but it was a correction and I knew damn well it was. "Don't you try to make it easier on yourself by leaning into it," he said. "I want you suffering."

"Yes sir thank you sir," I said, my voice harsh and breaking, and he nudged the back of his knuckles against my dick again with the hand that wasn't pulling on the chain and this time I did swear.

He stepped back, letting the chain fall against my chest again. The pain was turning from sharp to one warm burn, spreading out through my core. For a second I wanted to follow him, wanted to beg him to pick the chain back up and do it again, but I heard her voice through the haze: "Now you come over here, babydoll."

I knew she was talking to me, because her voice held the same note of command that his did. I turned my head. She was sitting up on the end of the bed now, her heels propped up on some ledge or platform running around the edge of it, her knees spread wide and her arms leaning back against the bed to prop her upright. She indicated right in front of her with her chin, and I went. The chain swayed with me as I moved, and I found myself throwing back my shoulders, sucking in my stomach and pushing out my chest, to keep it from bouncing with the four steps I had to take to get there.

When I was standing right in front of where she was sitting, the top of her head came to about the center of my chest; the bed was a little lower than I was used to. She hummed lightly. That close, I could see that the scars on her legs were raw and angry, and I remembered what she'd said about her injuries, and I tried to neither stare nor obviously avert my eyes. But I didn't have long to worry about it, because she sat fully up and hooked a finger into the chain and pulled, and she didn't pull quite as hard as he did but she held it longer and leaned forward to take the chain between her teeth.

His hands moved over my ass as she tongued the chain and sucked on it, and I could feel him at my back, strong and solid and ready to bear me up if my knees gave up the way they were threatening to. Then he brought his hand around me again, and my eyes had slipped closed but I could feel the way he slid his palm behind the chain. Suddenly it was all three of us, both of them pulling on the clamps, her licking both the chain and his palm, me spun out between them with him nipping at my shoulder. Then he slid his hand down again, rubbing the backs of his knuckles along my chest as he went, and she wrapped the chain around her tongue and pulled some more while he closed his damp palm around my dick.

He knew just what to do with it, pulling and stroking just firmly enough to burn a little but not so firmly as to turn the burn to the bad kind of pain, and I whimpered again. My hands were still at my sides, and my fingers were flexing, looking for something to hold on to. He caught the motion and caught my left hand in his, and I have no fucking clue what kind of signals they used but they had to have them, because neither one of them said a word but she caught my right hand in hers half a second later.

"You like that, don't you," he said, over the soft wet sounds of her mouth. I must have been a little slower to answer than he wanted me to be, because he took his hand off my dick long enough to slap it again, a little harder this time. "I asked you a question, Captain."

I nearly came on the spot. "Sir, yes sir, I'm sorry sir," I said. Her hand squeezed mine a little tighter: reassurance.

He closed his hand over my dick again, working his way down, until he was gripping my balls just firmly enough for me to really feel it but not hard enough to make me nervous, rolling them in his palm. "You remember she said you don't get to come until I tell you it's time?" he said.

"Yes, sir," I said, and it was more of a moan than an answer, but it seemed to make him happy.

She let the chain slide out from between her lips with a pop, caught it as it fell in the hand that wasn't holding mine before it could fall against my chest again, and grinned up at us both. "He's meaner'n I am, too," she said, like she was confiding some great secret, even though I'd already figured that out. Then she pulled lightly on the chain again, two quick tugs, like instructions. "You c'mon down here an' kiss me proper, honey, before I start feelin' left out."

It was a joke -- at least, I hoped it was a joke, hoped that she was enjoying this one tenth as much as I was -- but I bent my head to kiss her, and he moved his hand from my balls back up to my dick and squeezed just as I was about to, and it threw me off-balance and I stumbled just a little. My knees hit the edge of the bed, between her open thighs, and I bounced off and slid down until I was half-kneeling on the platform she had her heels against, and neither one of them let go of my hands and they were both telling me without words they weren't going to let me fall against her and hurt her. So I shifted my weight a little, made myself a little more comfortable right where I was, and tipped my head to kiss her.

She was the first woman I'd kissed in a long fucking time and I thought it should have been weirder than it was. But she kissed the same way he kissed, all fierce concentration and collected heat, and I couldn't tell the difference when I closed my eyes. She curled the arm that wasn't holding my hand around my shoulders, pulling me close in to her, and the tips of my nipples brushed against the soft cotton of her tank top, over the swell of her breasts. Women smell different than men when they're turned on. It's lighter, somehow, or maybe sharper, I don't know. But I could smell how turned on she was, and it made me warm to know it.

She was still kissing me when he took another step forward, fitting himself against my back. He let go of my dick to do it, and I found myself moaning into her mouth in protest, pushing myself forward, seeking friction or touch or something. My dick bumped against the sheets. He pushed his hips into me -- with me half-kneeling, it just hit the small of my back -- and I was sensitized enough, trying to read their reactions and do the right thing enough, to notice that he was hard beneath his leather pants (which I was expecting) but not frantic with it. He had better self-control than I'd seen in a while, especially in someone as young as he was.

I tried to tell her with the way I was kissing her that I wanted this, that I needed this, that they'd gotten me this worked up already, and maybe it came across, because after another few minutes, she broke off the kiss and -- panting just a little -- looked up at him. "He's been a damn good boy," she said. I could feel my dick straining against the sheets (and I knew there was going to be a wet patch underneath me, too), but I hoped she wasn't telling him that she wanted him to make me come, because as soon as I come I have to take off the clamps fast or else the pleasant burn turns into outright pain, and I didn't want to give that up yet.

But he chuckled, somewhere over me, and rolled his hips against my back again, more lazily than anything else. "He has," he agreed. "You're not doing too bad yourself, sweetheart."

She grinned up at him, bright and happy, and something clicked inside my head and I couldn't say what the hell it was, but I suddenly realized that whatever they were to each other, they were using me to make love to each other, and my breath caught at the look on her face, satisfied and loving. It was beautiful. She was beautiful, and I couldn't see him behind me but I knew he was beautiful too, and I took a deep breath and let go of the last little pieces I was holding back and bent my head to nuzzle at her lips again, kissing her because I thought he wouldn't.

She made a happy noise in the back of her throat, but it only took a second for her to pull back again, and she let go of my hand and unwound her arm from around my neck, taking my face in between her hands. This close, her eyes were a soft sky blue, and I could see flecks of green and grey and white. "Look at me for a minute, babydoll," she said, and I did, and I don't know what she was looking for, but whatever it was, she found it. She looked back up at him, and her hands fell away from my cheeks. She caught my hands in both of hers instead, circled both of my wrists with her hands, and pulled them around my back.

It left me sandwiched between the two of them, tight and cherished, and he took both of my wrists together in one of his hands. Most people do that, it's a weak hold, breakable with little more than a twitch. He knew how to do it so I'd have to fight to get out of it. I didn't fight.

She nodded up at him. I didn't know what she meant, but he seemed to, and as she scooted backwards on the bed, his hand came up to just in between my shoulderblades and shoved. The timing was fucking ridiculously split-second, because I crashed down against the bed hard and missed clocking my forehead against her knee by half an inch. I could feel her scooting back a little more, and then one of her hands came to rest, not on the back of my neck where most people would have held me down, but on the back of my head, where fighting back against her would have meant breaking my nose against the bed or smothering myself.

I was pinned down between one breath and the next. My nipples were burning. My dick was so hard it hurt, too. I could breathe, but only through my mouth, and he was holding my wrists against the small of my back so tightly that I could feel bone grating against bone, and I could hear myself sobbing with need on the inhale.

"Oh, yeah," she said, sweet and gentle, and her nails rubbed over the nape of my neck and I shivered and bucked against the touch. Fighting back was instinctive -- I couldn't stop myself -- but he kicked my knees apart, roughly, and it pushed me off balance. I wound up with just the balls of my feet touching the floor, jack-knifed over the edge of the bed.

The fear actually hit me then, first time since I'd walked through their front door, but I beat it down, because it was just an endocrine response, really. And the fact that for the first time ever, I wasn't sure that I could get out of the grip I was being held in without seriously fighting back. And even then, I wasn't sure. It's why I won't ever let anyone restrain me -- held down, yeah, that really gets me, but tied down trips bad things in my head. But my hands were still bound in his single-handed grip more tightly than a fucking pair of handcuffs would have held me, and he was strong. Stronger than he looked.

He shoved his hips back against my ass, rocking against me like he was trying to fuck me dry and still-dressed, and I could feel the heat of his body even behind the leather. I strained against it a little more, trying to get my feet underneath me so I could have some leverage to break his grip, and he kicked my legs apart further and slapped my ass. Hard.

"Shh, babydoll," she said, kneeling in front of me with her knees to either side of my head, and I suddenly realized that all she would have had to do would be to clamp them together and twist for me to be in a world of trouble, because in the position she was in, she had the advantage of leverage and he was weighing me down enough. But her voice was calm and reassuring. "We ain't gonna do anythin' to you that you don't want done. Look at you with that pretty ass waving in the air. You're startin' to get scared, aren't you. Don't you worry. We're gonna do you nice and good, fuck you until you're ready to scream. But we ain't gonna hurt you any more'n you wanna be hurt."

His hand came down on my ass again, hard and rough and brutal, and this time the sob wrung out of me was half scream. I was starting to feel half crazed with it, the fear and the arousal and the sensation all crashing together and cracking over me, but I could still feel the way his weight shifted as he moved so he could get a better reach. The third blow landed on the other side, just on the most padded part of my ass, and he had the fucking heaviest hand I'd ever fucking felt. Worse than any paddle or strap. I twisted, trying to get out of their grip, and the more I twisted, the more I rubbed my dick and my nipples against the sheets and the more it hurt and it hurt so beautifully, and his hand came down again and I just flat-out yelled that time.

"Good boy," he was saying, barely heard over the din of my blood pounding in my ears. "Good boy, yeah, you just take that as long as I feel like giving it to you." His voice was rough and low, and it didn't make me stop trying to struggle against their hold, but it made me feel more like I wasn't about to explode and fly into tiny pieces. "Say please," he growled.

Talk? I didn't know if I could find my mouth. But I tried, chest heaving, and I got as far as the "pl--" when he slapped me again and I howled. "Please, sir," I finally managed, shivering and sobbing and fighting all the way, and he laughed and the sound of it burned just as much as my ass was starting to and he hit me again.

"God, yeah, come on, baby," she was saying, and I didn't know which one of us she was talking to, but the sound of her voice cut through the haze and I clung to it. My shoulders were starting to ache, and my wristbones felt hard and sore, and he snapped his wrist as his hand came down the next time and his fingers struck against the curve of my outer hip. The burn started spreading, red and hot and tight. He scraped his nails over where he'd just hit. Then he slapped me again. And again. And again, and something inside my chest broke open and spread, and I teetered on the edge of the cliff inside my head for half a second more before I fell, wide and open.

When I came to again, the sheets beneath me were wet, with tears or snot, I couldn't tell. My ass felt like he'd kept going for a long damn time. He'd switched to rubbing, with an open palm, just firmly enough that it soothed instead of irritated. She was running the fingers of both hands through my hair. I felt calm, and clean, and so fucking turned on I was ready to explode, and my ass was on fire and so were my nipples but the pain had twisted itself until it was nothing but pleasure.

He still had his hand around my wristbones, but it was a looser grip now, more of a reassurance than anything else. I caught myself pushing my ass up against his touch, trying to rub my dick against the sheets, and I didn't know how long I'd been doing it. She was making tiny happy noises in the back of her throat, and even with my nose shoved against the bed, I could smell how turned on she was.

"You back enough?" he asked, and there was iron and steel in his voice, controlling him, but it sounded affectionate anyway.

I tried to wet my lips. Turned my head. She let me, this time. "Yes, sir," I said. My voice was hoarse and scratchy. I must have been yelling. "Thank you, sir. Thank you, ma'am."

"Oh, don't thank me yet," he said. His voice got more amused. "We're nowhere near done. That was just the warmup. Mitchell?"

She shifted her weight, and I almost turned my head to see what she was doing, but he slapped my ass again and it shot straight through me. I heard myself moan again. The bed dipped around me, and her hands left my head, and I almost shivered, except he was still touching me. I heard some noises going on over me, but I couldn't quite bring myself to move. Then her hands carded through my hair again, soft and gentle, and his thumb stroked over the inside of my wrist and then he stepped away. More noises. More time. When he touched me again, it made me jump, because usually after a beating like that another person's skin against yours feels cool and lovely, but his fingertips running over my ass were the same temperature as my skin. If not warmer.

"I'm going to fuck you now," he said, low and smooth. "And you're going to use your mouth on her while I do it. After you make her come a couple of times, I'll think about letting you. Or maybe we'll just stay like this all night." He fitted his hips up against me again, and I whined and wiggled back against him, because he'd shed his pants and his dick against the heat of my ass felt strong and hot and solid. I couldn't even begin to imagine how he was sounding so in-control while he was that hard. He slapped my ass again, this time with his dick, and I whimpered again. "You acknowledge an order when I give it, airman."

Oh, God, he sounded like he knew exactly what that voice was doing to me. "Yes, sir," I croaked, and I heard a package tearing and the familiar snick of a bottle of lube being snapped open, and I picked up my head and saw that she was kneeling in front of me again and she was naked too.

I couldn't see him, face-down against the bed the way I was, but I could see her, and she was beautiful. Her breasts were proud and high even unsupported, and I barely noticed the scar between them, thick and raised, following down along her breastbone. She was softer through the middle than he was, rounded and curved where he was angles and edges, and she smiled softly at me and reached out a hand and slipped three fingers between my lips.

I sucked on her fingers like they were a cock, nuzzling and licking and taking them deep into my throat, fighting against the urge to gag. Her skin carried the salt of sweat and the taste of something else, something like earth-metal, and I licked down into the crease between fingers and hand, imagining her sliding her fingers into herself, seeking every last hint of the taste. She wasn't gentle in pushing her fingers into my mouth, her thumb slipping under my chin to hold me there, and I heard myself moaning. Then I did it again, because he'd slid his thumb, slick and cold with lube, between my asscheeks and over my asshole, and he circled his thumb around my hole twice and then pushed straight in.

I whimpered again. She laughed, hearing it, and slid her fingers out of my mouth, resting them, spit-slick, on my lips for a minute. "Give you a minute just to feel that, babydoll," she said, low and wicked, and I kissed at her fingertips while he drew his thumb out of me and rubbed around the edges again. She was looking at me, not at him. She still pushed her fingers back into my mouth at the exact same time he did, and it left me feeling drawn out between them, impaled on his fingers and her fingers and it was like live electricity running straight through me.

He drew his thumb away again, and before I could think to protest returned with two fingers. His hands were merciless, competent, assured; he slid his fingers in and out and in again, moving inside me until he found my sweet spot. I nearly bit down on her fingers when he did, and the only thing that kept me from doing so was that even as far gone as I was, I knew I didn't want to hurt her. "Nice," she said, her thumb whispering over the underside of my chin again. "So pretty."

I was starting to relax into it, the familiar lulling of fingers inside me and knowing they were going to lead to getting fucked through the mattress for as long as I could stand, when he spoke. Sounded distracted, like the majority of his attention was on his hands and my body. "You're being too easy on him, Mitchell," he said, and the combination of his voice and his words made my dick jump again. "I gave him an order. You gonna countermand it?"

"Hush, you," she said, threaded through with laughter. "You told him to use his mouth on me. He's got a sweet little tongue. Feels good, what he's doin'." But she pulled her fingers away, and I made an unhappy noise, and she tapped them against my lips. "S'okay, babydoll, you just stay right there a minute."

She leaned backwards, twisting carefully and a little stiffly. I wanted to watch, but he'd apparently decided he'd had enough of being gentle, because the next stroke of his fingers was hard and swift and demanding. I found myself dropping my head and pushing back against it, and he laughed softly and stroked his other palm over my still-burning ass. "Oh, yeah," he said, and laughed again. "Just like that, huh?"

"Yes, sir, please, sir," I said, and he tapped my asscheek with the fingers of his other hand, one tiny grace note on the symphony of sensation he was wringing out of me, and I missed her fingers in my mouth and wished she had a dick I could suck for her.

Then she was back in front of me, dragging a pillow along with her. I picked up my head again. She was sitting herself on the pillow, her legs spread wide, her heels planted against the bed on either side of my shoulders, her knees in the air. It left her open in front of me, her cunt so wet I could see it glisten. She was frowning in concentration, her hands working to untangle something it took me a second to realize was a square of plastic wrap, and I realized they were going to be high fanatics about safety just as she got it mostly untangled and reached one hand down between her legs to carelessly swipe her fingers through the wetness there and spread it around before placing the plastic over her.

Behind me, he twisted his fingers inside my ass, stretching and deep, and then he pulled them out one last time completely and I whined in the back of my throat. "Shh," he said, so absently I thought it might be the first unguarded noise I'd heard him make, like all of his attention was elsewhere. Then he grabbed both of my hips with his hands, one dry, one slick, and I felt slick latex up against my hole, but he didn't push in. Not yet. Waiting.

I rocked my hips up at him, begging without saying a word, please sir fuck me sir please. He laughed and pulled back just as much as I was pushing up, keeping himself right there, hot thick pressure. Then he seemed to change his mind and pulled back even further. "Up on your knees," he ordered, "and your mouth on her," and when I moved the weight of gravity on the chain of the nipple clamps re-woke the pain/pleasure/pain and I whimpered.

"Look at me," she ordered, and I dragged my eyes up to her face, and she rubbed her fingers over my lips. "I might not have a dick for you to suck, but you're gonna make me feel so good, aren't you, babydoll?"

And I wondered if she could read minds, or if I was just that fucking transparent, and I swallowed hard and said "yes ma'am" and "thank you, ma'am" and "oh, God, please," and he climbed up on the bed behind me and kneeled between my legs and put his cock back up against my hole, and I knew that was as far as he was going to go until I obeyed orders, so I lowered my head and put my mouth against her clit and sucked.

She breathed out, hard and ragged, and I thought it was a good sound, so I did it again. The position or the angle or the smell of her was waking up old memories, and I tried to remember what to do to make a woman feel good and hoped I wouldn't get it too wrong. She was hot underneath my mouth, not as hot as he was against me, and I flattened out my tongue and rubbed it over her clit and she moaned out and leaned back to prop herself up on her elbows and her hips came up against me.

"Nice," he said, soft and full of admiration as she moaned again. He rubbed the head of his dick along my hole, slick and wet, and then pushed a little more. Still not enough to slip inside, but more. You know how most guys misjudge the angle, slip eventually and slide up your entire asscrack if they try to do that? He didn't. "Two fingers in her. Don't move them, just leave them there. Your tongue on her clit. Hard and fast." He pushed a little more, and I could feel myself opening straight up beneath his dick, the stretch and burn of anticipation. "Your other arm goes under her thigh. Don't grab her hip."

I shifted so my weight was mostly on my chest and elbows. She pushed herself up on one elbow, helped me by tucking up the dental dam out of the way just enough, and then her head dropped back again and she hissed out in pleasure as I slid my fingers into her. If I'd been right that he was using me to make love to her, that should have been when he pushed into me, but he didn't. He just reached around underneath me and slid his hand over my dick once, like a reward, and I whimpered and tried not to writhe too much.

She lifted her hand and put it on the back of my head, holding on to it as she hitched her hips up a few times, working herself against my fingers. Then she drew my head back down to her, and I took a deep breath and tried to settle so I could still breathe and ran the flat of my tongue over her clit as hard as I could. She groaned again and let her other arm slide out from under her, flopping onto her back entirely; her hand came with her as she did, and it landed on the bed, right next to mine, clutching at the sheets. He'd told me not to grab her hip. He hadn't said anything about her hand, so I slid my hand into her grip and she bore down like she was going to squeeze my fingers off and I could feel the walls of her cunt rippling around me.

"Jesus fuck," she said, breathless, and he laughed again and eased forward a little more. God, his fucking self-control was incredible. I've never in my life met anyone else who could have done it. I felt like I was being split open, like between the burn of his dick up against me and the burn of my ass from where he'd worked me over and the burn of my nipples from the pinch and swing of the chain all swept over me all at once and I shivered. Panted. Caught my breath again and whipped my tongue over her, and suddenly 'queer' wasn't really a problem, and her breath caught hard and came out rough, and he gripped my hips hard enough that they became another point on fire and finally, finally sank all the way inside me.

That's about the last thing I really remember. I remember being there for it, but my brain had shut off, with the smell of her in my nose and the feel of him inside me, her hips moving, fucking herself against my fingers and my mouth, him holding on to me fierce and strong and fucking me deep and sharp and fast. I think she came again, and again, and I don't know how long it lasted, but eventually I realized she was back up to sitting, my fingers still inside her, the walls of her cunt gripping me with the same rhythm he was using to fuck me, her hand reaching down and pulling hard on the chain of the clamps, and he was breathing hard and cursing low and soft in a steady stream. He was also holding my dick, just holding, not stroking, like he was using it for a handle, and I was shivering and shuddering and open and empty and the inside of my head held nothing at all.

"Come for me, Captain," he said, through gritted teeth, and he worked me with his hand and she pulled on the chain a little harder and I dropped my head down against her belly and bit my lip and did, all over his hand and their sheets, and it was fucking incredible.

The minute I stopped shouting, she shifted so my fingers slipped out of her, then reached down and pinched my left nipple, right behind the tips of the clamp. I squeaked. "Shh, I know," she said, and her other hand opened the clamp as gently as she could. He put his hand back on my hip, the hand that was sticky with my come, and thrust into me again. Once. Twice. She let go of the pinch slowly, and I felt the blood rushing back in, sharp and hot with pins and needles. He was swearing again. She pinched my right nipple, and this time I moaned instead of squeaking, and just as she undid the second clamp, he buried himself as deep as he could reach. I could feel him coming as a spasm of muscles, nothing more, and then her fingers rubbed over my nipples to soothe them and he slid down just enough to rest his forehead against my back and we all took a second to breathe together.

Eventually, he stirred, and I could feel him reaching down to grip the base of the condom as he slid out of my ass. I couldn't quite do anything but make an unhappy noise as he left. His touch was gentle as he ran his hand over my ass, which was still stinging. "Easy," he said. "Don't want you too sore."

"'Fraid these are gonna hurt tomorrow, though," she said, still rubbing my nipples gently, and her voice was just as hoarse as I thought it probably should be.

I licked my lips. Swallowed. My throat was dry as hell, and I tried coughing a little to clear it before I said anything. "It's all right," I said. "God. Thank you. Sir. Ma'am."

She laughed, soft and gentle. "Thank you, babydoll," she said. "'Cause you were beautiful. Now you come up here and cuddle me proper while himself goes to fetch the wet rag and the Gatorade."

"Why is that always my job?" he said, and the aggrieved teasing sound was back in his voice, but this time I thought it was there to cover up everything he wasn't going to say. The bed dipped and shifted as his weight left it. I summoned enough effort to slide up her body, and she twitched one hip to roll me to her side, and I remembered her scars half a second too late. But it didn't seem to cause any damage.

She stretched out on the bed, reaching up to snag a pillow and then wrapping me up in her arms, and I could see him reach one clinical hand between her thighs to collect the plastic wrap -- and, I noticed, flutter his fingers over her clit for just a second, until her knee kicked out and she hissed at him. "Jackass," she said.

"Your jackass," he said, smug and self-satisfied, and she laughed and kissed the crown of my head.

I rested my head against her shoulder. Breathed out. Everything was sore, and everything was perfect, and I felt safe. Secure. Cherished, even, as she swept her hand over the plane of my back and kissed just above my eyebrow, and I nestled in closer and draped an arm over her and gave in to the endorphin-rush shivers.

He came back a minute or an hour later, sliding into bed behind me to sit at my back. His skin was damp, and so was his hair, and his hands were gentle as he turned me away from her just enough so he could run the damp towel over my skin to clean me up. I felt like putty in his hands, limp and exhausted and wrung out just like he'd wrung out the towel before he brought it over, and I wondered how the hell he managed to still be able to stand and walk and think.

"That scratch your itch?" he asked, almost tender, and I opened my eyes to see him looking down at me. He wasn't smiling, but there was satisfaction in his eyes anyway.

"Yes, sir," I said. Slurred, really. My voice cracked, and it made me want to laugh, but I could only really summon up the energy for a faint smile.

"Good," he said. Nodded once. "Since we're gonna want to do that again. Or some acceptable variant, at least." He smiled then, faint and small, so tiny I probably wouldn't have noticed it as a smile if I hadn't been looking at his face so closely. "Now sit up. Slowly. Carefully. Your ass isn't sore as hell, I've lost my touch."

She made a sleepy-sounding noise of protest as I lifted my arm, but he passed his hand over her hip to soothe her and then slid his other hand under my back to help me up as I struggled to obey. Spirit was willing, flesh was weak. My ass was sore as blazes, but it was the good kind, the kind that always mostly faded by morning, leaving only a pleasant reminder. And at least I didn't have to be back on the job until Monday.

Once I was sitting, he reached behind him and picked up the bottle of Gatorade he'd brought with him. The yellow kind; apparently they were purists. He uncapped it and handed it to me, but didn't pull his hand away. "Both hands," he said, and I brought the other hand up, and I noticed that they were shaking, faintly, as I drank.

He stopped me when I'd downed half the bottle. "That's enough," he said. "Any more and you'll shock your system. Mitchell, up. Your turn." She opened an eye and gave him a glare like a wet cat. He tsked. "Up," he said, mercilessly, and she grumbled again and sat up too. I caught the faintest of winces as she went, and he handed her the Gatorade and turned to take a shot glass off the nightstand. Full of pills. And I mean full.

He handed it to her; she gave him that flat stare again, then sighed and tossed them all back like she would a shot of tequila. Washed them down with the Gatorade. The sound she made when she finished drinking it was a sound of pure disgust, and he laughed again. "Yeah, yeah," he said, unsympathetic. "You hate all the other flavors worse."

"Foul and unnatural," she muttered. She looked as blissed-out as I felt, even through the irritation, her face all loose and soft and open. I couldn't help it; I picked up her hand, the one that that wasn't holding the bottle, bent my head, and pressed a kiss into the palm, soft and gentle. Her fingers curled around my cheek, and she hummed a low note. "Oh, I am so glad you came home with us," she said, and behind me, he snorted.

"He should be too," he said.

"I am, sir," I said into her palm. "And I'd like --" I took a deep breath. "I'd like to come back. If I may. Sir. Ma'am."

She chuckled. "Body'd have to be mad to say no to that, 'specially when you ask so sweet," she said. Her fingertips stroked my cheekbone, and I turned my face and brought both of my hands up to cradle her palm against my cheek. Behind me, his hand settled against the small of my back, his thumb stroking over the very top of my asscrack, and I felt the burn of his skin, hotter than anything I'd ever felt before, like he was running a fever even though he seemed perfectly fine. She turned her head to the side, hiding a yawn that threatened to crack her jaw, and it was contagious. I yawned too.

He didn't, making him one of the only people I knew who could resist that specific kind of peer pressure. He leaned in, his lips brushing against the nape of my neck, curiously tender and solicitous. "Oh, you're coming back," he said. It was the same soft command he'd been using all night, and I wondered if that was just how he was, and now that I was starting to surface from the haze, I wondered why. But I wasn't going to ask. Not yet. Maybe not ever. "Don't you worry about that. But for now, kids, it is snuggle-up-and-out-cold time. Mitchell, unless you need --"

"I'm good," she said, blurry with sleep, and I wondered what he'd been about to ask. She slid herself up the bed and rearranged pillows until they were to her satisfaction, settling herself about two-thirds of the way over, and patted the space next to her. "C'mere an' snuggle up with me some more, babydoll, since himself won't be sleepy for another hour or four at best."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, starting to really feel the post-orgasm lassitude sweeping over me, and damn but it was nice to finally find a partner (partners) for the evening who didn't want me out in the cold the minute we'd finished getting our rocks off. I settled in next to her, uncertain of how she wanted me; she rolled me over and spooned me, so that my ass was cradled up against her thighs, draping an arm over my waist and pulling me close. She settled her nose against the top of my neck and stifled another yawn against my skin. I'd always thought it was a guy thing to fall asleep after sex so quickly, but he was still bright and alert, sitting halfway down the bed (and I finally noticed that he was sitting with his legs up under him folded in lotus position, which made me wonder how flexible he really was) and she was breathing like she was going to be asleep any second.

He reached down and over, salvaging the knot of covers that had been kicked aside at some point (I didn't remember when) and pulling them up over us both. "Sleep well, sweetheart," he said, his voice low and soft and full of love, skimming his hand over her shoulder. I knew he was talking to her. The love on his face was too plain. Then he touched my head, his hand smoothing down my hair. "You too, Captain."

I closed my eyes. Heard him moving around, and a couple of minutes later, the snap of one bedside lamp being turned off. More movement, and the other. I opened my eyes again, just a tiny slit, and saw that he'd left the floor-strip lights on as he piled up the remaining pillows on my other side and climbed back into bed to sit up against them, picking up a book from the nightstand and pulling his knees up to act as a lapdesk to hold it against. He put his hand back on my head, his fingers tangling absently in my hair the way he might if I'd been kneeling at his feet with my chin on his knee while he was working on something, and held the book open between thumb and pinky of his other hand.

I let my eyes close again. She was breathing softly in my ear, halfway on the way to snoring, and her arm twitched against me. There was a rustle as he turned the page one-handed. His thumb stroked the shell of my ear. He was still mother-naked, and the air in the room was cool enough to make me shiver as the sweat cooled against my skin even with the covers and the warm body pressed up against me, and he only poked the tips of his toes under the covers, nothing more.

I breathed out, and thought about finding things you didn't even know you were out looking for and how I was maybe the luckiest bastard in the world and what I was going to tell Tom when I saw him again, and I thought, a little blurry, that maybe in the morning I'd have the balls to ask if there were any chores around the house I could do in order to serve, and maybe in the morning my ass wouldn't be so sore that he couldn't spank me again, and I breathed out again and then I was asleep.


And that was the first night of the weirdest fucking relationship of my life. Lasted a little more than a year and a half, it did, and the only reason it ended was that I found myself rotated over to South Korea for a two-year tour of duty when they wanted my unit over there to keep an eye on North Korea's saber-rattling, and it was the first time I'd ever shipped out with a perfect tic-tac-toe grid of cane stripes on my ass and a smile on my lips that didn't quit for a week and a half.

Didn't even really end there, either, just changed. Cammie sent me care packages once a week, and they were always full of the exact things I needed and hadn't bothered mentioning in my letters and emails back, and a metric shitton of her cookies, too. After a while, those cookies were trading higher than M&Ms and Snickers bars on the black market. Couple of my buddies offered to marry "your girlfriend" out from under me, sight unseen, after the first time I passed around the walnut-pecan. I never did explain to them why I was smirking, or about the extra attachment she'd come with.

I loved them both pretty fiercely by that point, and I knew that Cammie loved me (she wasn't shy of telling me so) and I was pretty sure JD did too. (Pretty sure. With him it was hard to tell. He showed it with what he did, not what he said.) Oh, it wasn't "in love". Not by a long shot, and we all knew it. But there's all kinds of love, and when JD blindfolded me and beat me senseless while Cammie held my head in her hands and spoke softly and soothingly to me, or when I was on my knees in the kitchen with a sheet spread out on the floor, polishing all the silver until it gleamed while Cammie moved around me to make dinner and JD sat at the table with his feet underneath him and his laptop to hand, I was pretty sure it was love. Even if it wasn't what someone else might recognize as it. And when JD curled around me in bed after he'd fucked me senseless or ordered Cammie to hold me down while he fucked himself on my dick or kneeled over me to use my mouth while Cammie fucked herself against me, when Cammie draped over me and fell asleep while JD stroked her back with me between them held safe and tight, I was pretty sure they knew it was love too.

Never did find out any of JD's story. Cammie, she told me hers, on the nights when I came over and none of us felt like doing much, on the nights where she ordered me to their bed and curled up with me for nothing more than skin-contact and some sleepy cuddling. Or as much of it as she could at the time, anyway, because there's classified and then there's classified and I remember getting the sense that there were secrets locked up behind her eyes that would make the secrets I knew look like child's fumbling in comparison. Fighter pilot, experimental program, whole squadron flamed out on test maneuvers, and they thought she wouldn't make it either. She'd clawed her way back from paraplegia on nothing but guts and determination, and that didn't surprise me in the least.

The Medal of Honor didn't surprise me, either, but she didn't tell me about that part; I found it in her underwear drawer when I was putting away the laundry one Saturday afternoon, and I knew better than to ask her about it. I asked JD, and his eyes got distant and thoughtful, and he said, "The fact that nobody knows the real story of how she got it is one of the great tragedies of this century." But he wouldn't say any more, even though I knew that he knew it. I asked around a little, once it was clear that neither one of them was going to talk. Nobody would give me any answers. But a couple of people started looking at me a little more thoughtfully when they found out I knew her.

But all I knew about JD was that he was young, and he was brilliant, and he was competent, and he was queer, and he was wholly, completely, and without question devoted to Cammie with every inch of his being. Everything else was a mystery. Neither one of them ever told me a damn thing about his history. I had to look up his bio on their corporate website, and what I found there answered some questions and prompted others, and I knew better than to mention that I'd looked it up to either of them.

Oh, it wasn't that they were secretive, not precisely, but every time the topic of work came up, they'd change the subject really fast. "We don't need to bore you talkin' about the technical stuff," was what Cammie usually said, or "no business at the dinner table," and though she always presented it like that, I always heard it as a quiet refusal to talk at all. Their corporate website just confirmed what she'd said that first night: it all but screamed "we make software, and if you have to ask what kind of software we make, you probably don't have the clearance to know". I knew enough, from selective Google work (and Google News alerts for "Cameron Mitchell", "JD Nielson", and "Nielson-Mitchell" -- I still keep the alerts, even, and you can imagine how crazy they've gotten), to know that they weren't hurting, for work or for money. I even checked with the Colorado Secretary of State, skimming through their incorporation papers (filed in 2005) and their latest business filings, and the numbers I found there made me whistle under my breath and then resolve to never look it up again.

I didn't actually need to look it up to know that they were rich by just about anyone's definition. The house was on at least a hundred acres, and they even owned three-quarters of the land around the lake out in the back. Public filings said they hadn't gone into hock up to the eyeballs to buy it, either; the mortgage was a hell of a lot smaller than it should have been, for a house and a parcel of land that size, and that was even before they'd done the renovations. And I wasn't the most technologically-savvy person in the universe, but even I could recognize the small (and expensive) touches, like the floor-to-ceiling smart windows -- most of the outside walls, I eventually realized, and they tended to keep them opaque when I was over, but sometimes after I'd fallen asleep I'd wake up to realize that JD had flipped on the lights in the center courtyard, cleared the windows that looked out on it, and was sitting in bed staring down at the gardens and thinking -- whatever they'd done to the driveway to make it so that snow and ice just declined to stick. That kind of thing, just the little subtle touches.

But they never acted like they were rich. Just comfortable, which I suppose they were. And they never offered me money outright -- which I would have declined and they damn well knew it -- but I never paid for a single thing while I was over there or all three of us went out together, not once. And I was okay with that, really. I took care of them with the things I could do, and they took care of me with the things they could do. It worked for us.

Six months after that first night, six months of some of the best sex and the most committed service and the most intense moments of my life, we had been sitting at the dinner table, and I had just risen to take away the salad bowls and ladle out the soup -- it had taken a while before Cammie was willing to let me serve at dinner, but she'd finally allowed that yes, I wasn't too hopeless at it, which I recognized as her form of a compliment, in the kitchen at least -- and JD caught my wrist, before I could pick up his bowl, and held it. Loose and casual, but there was steel there too, the same steel he always showed when he had me pinned to the bed and fighting, the easy and impossible grace that told me without words he'd trained in a school rougher than even the one I'd trained in, and a long damn time ago at that. (The list of what I thought he'd been kept growing. Child mercenary?)

"Been thinking," he said, and I knew that tone in his voice, and I sank to my knees right there next to the table. Waited. His hand came down to rest on the crown of my head, ruffled through my hair, and he unfolded himself from the lotus position he was almost always sitting in whenever he was sitting somewhere and rested his legs on the bar across the bottom of the stool-chairs, and I pressed my lips against the bridge of his foot. "Doesn't look like we're getting rid of you any time soon, are we."

By then, I'd known it for his way of saying and I'm damn glad of it, so I just nodded. "No, sir," I said, low and soft and respectful, just the way he liked it.

"Well, then," he said. "Since we're stuck with you." He slid off the stool, and I bowed my head and waited, and Cammie leaned over and caressed my cheek while he strode across to the kitchen counter and picked something up. When he brought it back, I could see it was a box. Long and thin, black velvet, and my heart went thud in my chest.

"Can't wear the collar on duty," Cammie said, sweet and loving, and my heart went thud again, because they'd never mentioned the idea of a collar but somehow I thought they both knew how much I still missed the one I'd had to give back to my last Daddy when I'd had to break it off. "So, we figured we'd get you something else, too."

He held the box down at my eye level, and I looked up and met his eye, and he gave me that smirk and the little toss of his chin that meant arms behind your back and knees apart and open. I was getting better at reading his orders before he had to give them. So I knelt up and spread my knees wide and clasped one hand around the other wrist in the small of my back, and he opened the box in front of me, and inside it were both a thin strip of black leather, silver D-ring where it would fall in the hollow of my throat, and a length of chain a little longer than the leather and a little thicker than the width of my pinky fingernail with a small padlock on the end. From anything further away than where I was, this close up, the padlock would look like a normal clasp.

"Chain goes around the neck too," Cammie said, and I knew she was watching my face to read what was written there with her frightening near-telepathy. "It's just long enough to stay hidden under your undershirt, so it's within regulation. You don't get to keep the key. Collar, well, that stays here, an' you put it on an' take it off whenever you come through the door."

It always amazed me, the way they both could fall into that firm command, pick up and tug on those threads of obedience so easily, even when a minute ago we'd been eating and laughing and telling stupid jokes. It amazed me even more, because I knew neither one of them played in the scene regularly, or were drawn to it naturally. They did it for me, because it was what I wanted, because it was what I needed, and I loved them both a little more for it each and every time I saw it happen.

My mouth was dry, and I looked up and looked at them both, and I nodded slowly and said, "Yes, ma'am. Yes, sir." Licked my lips. "Thank you, ma'am. Sir."

Here, actually, I still wear the chain around my neck to this day, although when they made me a ceremonial present of the key -- just before I shipped out -- see, here, I had it converted to a regular clasp and put the padlock and the key in my safe-deposit box back home. Found out at the jeweler's then that it was titanium, not silver like I'd thought. But that was a while later, and by then it didn't surprise me. And no, don't look at me like that. Of course Brian knows. I'm getting there.

The letters and packages didn't taper off after a while, the way I'd subconsciously feared they would have, either. I wound up at Andrews after I rotated back from South Korea, commanding a branch of the 89th Airlift, and any disappointment I'd felt about not being back in Colorado Springs evaporated when Cammie emailed me and told me they'd be in DC in a month or so and how would I like to come down and see the condo? And after so long apart, they were a little different -- a little more grey sprinkled through her hair, and JD had put on his last two inches (it was weird, him being taller than I was, finally) and broadened out along the shoulders and filled out in the chest a little -- but in some ways it was the same, and we'd all grown into slightly different people but it didn't really matter in the end, once the clothes came off and we fell back into bed.

That's how it went for a while. I'd get shuffled somewhere, and there'd be cookies and email and long, breezy gossip like we'd met over coffee at the O-club forever and a half ago, and then we'd cross paths or I'd get leave and take some of it their way or they'd happen to be in the same city I was for a weekend. Sometimes we'd fuck, sometimes we wouldn't. Sometimes we'd just cuddle up and talk. Sometimes we had four hours to have dinner in between me running one way and them running the other. Some years I didn't see them at all. Some years I saw them a whole bunch. One memorable year, I was stationed at Charleston AFB while I did a rotation with the 315th, and I got leave for Thanksgiving Day itself but not the Friday after, and Cammie ordered me to her family's for Thanksgiving because I couldn't get the timing of the flight back to Portland to visit my parents to work out right. I understood her a hell of a lot more once I saw her with her family, let me tell you. And her momma thought I was a very polite young man.

Got boxes of cookies from two fronts, after that, and it turned out one of her distant cousins was assigned to Charleston too. We started going out drinking together after that Thanksgiving, and I made a gentle and subtle pass at him about three months later, and he grinned at me just like she did and told me that if anyone could talk him into trying guys it would be me, and then he bought me a beer and proceeded to kick my ass at pool.

And that was how it went for a while. I know I dated around, and I know they did too, individually and together. Didn't bother me at all when she told me -- she was always the one to email me or write the letters that came in the care packages, and any messages from JD would be relayed along in an aside, his terse phrasings wrapped inside her more lavish ones but always carrying the flavor of his speech anyway -- that they'd met someone, or rather re-met someone she'd known in her old life but who was ready to start a new one with the two of them, and things were getting serious to the point that she was starting to think about the word 'forever'. We'd never had that kind of relationship, none of the three of us, and anything that would make them happy was enough to make me happy, too.

By then I was seeing someone too, a certain handsome doctor I'd met on base and fallen head over heels for. Bet you didn't know that he wasn't kinky when I met him, did you? But he was willing to learn for my sake, and I'd been comfortable enough in my own wants to ask him to try in the first place, and we were making a pretty good life with each other. We were both stationed at Maxwell when we met -- it's down in Alabama -- so I still couldn't marry him, but at that point we were just starting to talk about registering as DPs with the Air Force so if one or both of us got reassigned the other could follow, and I was pretty sure we'd be filling out papers before the end of the year. So I was feeling a little bit sappy and a little bit domestic, and the thought of Cammie -- or Cammie and JD -- settling down broke my brain a little, but I was happy for her. Them.

I emailed her back and I told her congratulations, and I asked if he had a name (which he did, apparently, but she just told me 'Daniel') and if she had pictures (which she didn't) and which one of them he stuck around for. It was a joke, and when she wrote back she treated it like one, but she also said he'd come for her and he'd stay for JD, or maybe for both of them, and I tilted my head and stared at the words on the screen and thought a little.

Wound up telling Brian the whole story that night in bed, my cold feet on his warm calves -- JD had conditioned me to like radiant body heat, but I'd never found anyone who ran even nearly as warm as he did -- and his hand cupping the back of my neck and holding my head against his shoulder. He'd heard some of it -- I hadn't exactly been shy with the detail when we'd started getting serious with each other, and he got first crack at every box of cookies, after me of course -- but I'd never told him all of it from beginning to end. He was thoughtful when I was finished, sliding the pads of his fingertips over the bones of my skull and playing with the short-cropped hairs there, and after a minute, he said, "Well, I've never seen Colorado Springs; I guess I could afford the time."

Cammie said not to be silly, of course they'd love to have us. It took a while for us to try to coordinate leave and the time that they'd be in town, since apparently they were traveling more and more for business, and some of the things she said -- if I read between the lines -- made me think that travel was getting harder and harder for her. She never mentioned the physical stuff, but I'd spent a year and a half learning to read her body from the lines of pain that showed only in those tiny spots between her eyes and around her mouth that it was like I was sensitized to read it from the text, too. Sometimes I'd thought of mentioning it to Brian, seeing what he could tell me from the symptoms I could describe, but I never did. It wasn't my place to bring it up.

But eventually the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars, and JD was waiting for us just past the security gate at the Colorado Springs airport, leaning against a wall with his hands in his jeans pockets, wearing a tank top and no jacket in the middle of February again, and I realized it was pretty much eight years to the day, more or less, that I'd met them. He looked older. He looked older every time I saw him, and it was weird, but the older he looked, the less I could see that weird cognitive-dissonance overlay of too much age for his years, like he was growing into his own skin. Or not precisely his skin, because he'd always been so supremely confident in his body, but maybe he was growing into his personality or something. I didn't know.

He shook Brian's hand and -- looking to Brian first, and I was glad to see him do it, and gladder still to see Brian's tiny nod of approval -- curled his hand around the back of my neck and pulled me in for a kiss, but the kiss was soft and chaste and gentle, and I knew it for the feel of a closing door. Couldn't much say I minded, either, except in the way it always leaves you feeling a little wistful when you find that you've moved on. "Car's down in short-term parking," he said. "Let me get your luggage."

"I think that's his job," Brian said, throwing me a warm amused smile, and I smiled back and murmurred yes, sir, and I could see the hints of JD's smirk creeping in around the edges.

Tiny changes. The car had handicapped plates now -- before, they'd used a hang-tag -- and JD had to shove a folded-up wheelchair (electric purple frame, neon pink fabric seat, and it was so Cammie that I didn't even have to see the embroidery across the back -- CAUTION: I BITE -- to know she'd custom-designed it) out of the way in the trunk in order to stow our luggage. He caught me looking at the chair. "Just in case," he said. "She should be using the thing more than she is. Hates it, though."

I nodded, and tried to calibrate a few things inside my head so I wouldn't upset her with my reactions, no matter how bad it had gotten. When we climbed into the car, I noticed the box clamped to the steering column, hand controls to drive with, but they must have been switchable back to standard, because JD bypassed them and drove with his typical fuck-you grace and style. At that point, it had been about four years since I'd been out to Colorado, but the house hadn't changed much, when we got there. Different flowers in the flowerbed out front, and a new mailbox out by the street. That was about it.

JD dropped us and our luggage at the same place he always used to leave us, and it was weird to stay put instead of offering my arm to Cammie and escorting her to the door. By the time I'd left, JD had trusted me to spot for her and had for a while, and that had been (in some small way) even more of a compliment than the collar and chain had been. But I squashed down the impulse and pointed things of interest out to Brian (who nodded, tolerantly) until JD came loping up the slope from the garage the same way he always had, and I called to him, as soon as he came into earshot, "You know, I just realized I never asked about the driveway."

"Micro-circuitry in the asphalt pour," he said, easily. "Same principle as the windows, really. Run a little juice through it, it stays enough above freezing to keep it clear; add in just enough slope so you get decent runoff, and I've never had to shovel or plow a day in my life." He gave me his aren't-I-clever smirk, and I grinned back at him, because they'd always been like that. Path of least effort on the stupid and pointless chores, and then they'd spend hours or days doing the things that did matter with grace and style. "For the fundamentally lazy, it's a godsend. C'mon. Herself will kill me if I keep you two waiting one second longer than I have to."

The house smelled familiar when he let us in: garlic and basil and oregano and a little bit of chocolate and brown sugar underneath it, and it was amazing how quickly the old instincts came back to me; I knew Cammie was in the kitchen, and I knew she was cooking bean soup and pasta and had baked bread and probably had fifteen kinds of cookies for dessert. JD shut the door behind him, and I kicked off my shoes and then knelt, quickly, to help Brian off with his, and Brian paused for a second like he was trying to re-align his worldview -- I'd never offered him service in front of anyone else before -- but then he held out each foot and let me undo the laces. I stowed both pairs underneath the hall table, then rose and hung my coat and helped Brian out of his. JD kicked his shoes off casually, and the studied air of nonchalance with which he just happened to do so so that they landed under the table by themselves, without my help, was so careful that I knew Brian didn't catch on.

"Break out the fattened calf," JD hollered over his shoulder. "For lo, I have fetched home the prodigal Colonel. And his boyfriend. Who's cute, Mitchell, you'll approve."

"Now, don't you embarrass the poor boy," Cammie called back from the kitchen, and there was a masculine muttering underneath her voice. "Either of 'em. Get your ass in here, Stevie, honey, so's I can greet you proper."

I went. A stranger greeted me at the door to the kitchen: as tall as JD, much broader across the shoulders and looking like he was just starting to soften a little in the belly, wearing wire-framed glasses and looking quite distinguished with silver threads liberally streaked through brown hair that was about five shades darker than my own. His face looked open enough, but there was something in his eyes that I didn't like the looks of, something that wasn't mean so much as wounded. He smiled, though, and held out a hand. "Hi," he said. His voice was soft. "I'm Daniel. It's nice to meet you."

"Stevie," I said, shaking his hand. Good firm grip. "This is Brian. Good to meet you, too."

Daniel held out his hand to Brian to shake, but I had stopped paying attention as soon as the bare minimum of politeness had been covered, because I only had eyes for Cammie. I'd spent a hundred nights easy in this very kitchen, and she'd always ruled over it with an iron hand, and she was still working at the counter the way she always had, but I realized why she hadn't come to the door to greet me: she was sitting on a stool, her feet tucked over the bar, and her legs had that preternatural stillness that comes from consciously trying not to move something you know is going to hurt like fuck when you move it. The stools were different, too. More padded, less tall, and I eyeballed the height and realized they were probably sized so she could sit down and get up without having to put strain on her hips. She looked tired, and the pain showed between her eyebrows and around her mouth, and there were big dark circles under her eyes.

But she was still Cammie, and she was still beautiful, and I came over to stand next to her and kissed her forehead lightly. "None'a that, now," she said, firm and fierce the way she'd always been, tipping up her face to give me the right angle. I hesitated for a second, my eyes flicking over to Daniel, but he had his back to us. Would've liked to have asked, with eyes if not with voice, but she was looking at me expectantly, so I kissed her.

There was more warmth in her kiss than there had been in JD's -- or no, not warmth, JD had been perfectly affectionate, but maybe more enthusiasm -- but it was the same kind of signal JD had given me, wordless and calm. And I was just as okay with it. She reached up to cradle the side of my face, and it was sweet and loving the way her touch had always, always been, and I rested my forehead against hers and kissed her nose.

"This is the part where you tell me I look like shit, honey," she said, a little bit of dare in her voice. Her choice of name for me was another clue, because I'd always been 'babydoll' or 'honeybaby' before, and I'd come to realize, over time, that what pet-names Cammie calls you is a pretty good cue about what role you're playing in her life at any given moment. "Or the part where you lie through your teeth an' tell me that no, I look great."

"You'll always be beautiful," I said. "No matter what."

She chuckled, and the faint hint of defiance faded away. "You are still the sweetest thing on God's green earth," she said. "Now. You bring your boy on over and introduce him to me all right and proper."

"I think he's my boy instead," Brian said, coming up at my elbow. "At least, that's what he tells me." He studied her, and she tipped up her chin and studied him, and I held my breath for a second, until she smiled and it made me relax, because it was Cammie's I'm-gonna-like-you smile.

"An' a damn good boy he is, too," she said. "And you're a lucky man to be able to say so. Now, you settle yourself at the table and make yourself comfortable --" She looked at me, and it wasn't the same kind of orders she'd always used to give, but I had a feeling I'd be obeying Cammie's orders to the end of my days anyway. "An' you, honey, you know where the cookies are, an' fetch yourself whatever you'd like to drink, an' I will finish chopping up all this broccoli an' then I'll come over and sit down with you."

Her gaze went past me, landed on Daniel, who was (I saw) looking a little confused, but not at all upset, like he couldn't quite figure out the dynamics in the room. Well, I'd seen Cammie in the process of playing hostess to other people before, enough times that I knew that her ordering me to serve myself broke most of the rules she'd probably drilled into Daniel about how to treat a guest. Must have been the first time he'd seen someone visit who'd gone past "guest" and into "family". "Daniel, baby mine, you wanna come here and start the water on to boil?"

I could see his face smoothing out a little. He took a step or two to go answer her request -- order, really, but I could tell that their relationship wasn't like that at all, and I could guess that she'd never give him an order where a gentle request would suffice. Hell, she'd almost always phrased her orders to me as requests, really. But as he walked past JD, I also saw JD's hand shoot out and grab the waistband of his jeans, and Daniel came to a sudden stop, the confusion magnifying, and the set of Daniel's shoulders and the confusion in his face told me that I should avert my eyes as JD snaked his arm around Daniel's hip and squeezed, quickly, before letting him go again.

Cammie saw it too, I knew, because she always saw everything. She waited until I had gotten two beers, one for me, one for Brian, and set out the cookie jar. (And rummaged inside until I found one stray pecan-walnut cookie, forgotten at the bottom, and took a bite.) "Actually," she said, in the tone of voice that told me she hadn't just happened to think about it but would probably read to Brian as a brand-new thought, "Nielson, why don't you take Brian on a house tour, show him around a bit. At least tell him where the potty is."

Brian, bless him -- there's a reason I love the man, and his perception is part of it -- stood immediately. "I'd love that," he said. "You have a lovely home. I'd love to see more of it."

JD glanced back at me, at her, over at Daniel, who was running water in the sink for it to get hot. "Sure," he said. I heard the note in his voice too, cool and distant warning, a message to Cammie as much as to anyone else. His hands moved quickly: don't break him. I didn't think he meant me. "C'mon, I'll give you the nickel tour."

I'd always found it charming, and a little bit interesting, the way JD's vocabulary and frame of reference was distinctly out of place. One of his little quirks. He had a lot of them. Brian took a last sip of his beer and set it back down again, and followed JD out of the kitchen. I wondered which rooms they were using these days. I wondered where Daniel was sleeping, if Daniel was living here, and whether or not he'd ever had any problems with the thought that his girlfriend was sleeping with another man, and whether he was straight or gay or something in between. Or whether he'd just decided it didn't matter. Sexual orientation had always seemed like something optional in that house, like the minute you walked through the doors you found you were willing to consider something you'd never have tried before.

"Now, then," Cammie said, her voice soft. Behind her, Daniel shut the water off and strong-armed the pot onto a burner. "Changed my mind, baby mine," she said, over her shoulder. "Just set it on down and come over and sit with us a few minutes. We've got time, still, until we need to set it to boil."

She set down her chef's knife with a soft click, and I leaned against the side of the kitchen table and put both of my hands behind my back, gripping one wrist with the other hand and holding myself tightly, to stop myself from leaping across the room immediately to help her. Because the way she moved when she reached out for her cane and set it down against the floor was slow and ponderous, her lower lip drawn between her teeth and white with the pressure she was bearing down on it, and I looked at her as she braced her shoulders and slid off the stool and leaned half of her weight on the cane and the other half on the counter she was gripping, and I wanted to make it all better. With every fiber of my being. 'If wishes were horses', blah blah, but at that point, if wishes could change reality just by wanting hard enough, she would have been healed on the spot.

She hissed under her breath and eased her weight off her arms and onto her legs, slowly. She was wearing the same kind of tank top she'd always worn around the house, not dressed up special for company, which meant that her arms were bare. I could see the heavy cords of muscle moving in her biceps, her triceps -- thicker, more prominent than they'd ever been before -- and it wasn't a good sign. It meant she was using those arms more and more, carrying more weight on her arms and less on her hips and legs. Wasn't just the side she used the cane on, either, which made me think that she was either up to using two canes or she was really used to leaning on whatever wall or table (or JD) was beside her.

Daniel didn't move to help her, but he was standing at her side anyway, hovering over her with a little distracted air that told me he knew damn well how bad she was, wanted to help about as much as I did, and couldn't. I thought it was interesting, how she didn't reach for him or his arm the way she'd always used to reach for JD's arm to stabilize her when she was getting up from a stool or tall chair. Couldn't decide if it was that she didn't think he'd know what to do or that her pride -- which had always been bad, even way back when I'd first met her -- had gotten so fierce and so stubborn that she wouldn't allow herself to accept any kind of help.

"I see you pretending you don't notice," she said, soft and a little bit challenging, looking up from where she'd been staring at her feet. (Making sure they were in the right position, maybe? Because she couldn't feel them well enough anymore?) I noticed she wasn't wearing any shoes, but that didn't tell me anything, because she'd never really worn shoes if she could get away without them. "Go on and ask, before you piss me off by spending too much time trying to figure it out on your own."

"No, ma'am," I said, and then I could have bit my tongue, because I'd told myself I wasn't going to call her that. But what else could I say when she sounded like that? "It's your business. May I get you something to drink?"

The tension seemed to leave her shoulders, and she blew out a breath and looked a little ashamed of herself. "No, honey, I'm fine," she said. Put the last bit of weight on her cane, took the last bit of weight off the hand that was leaning on the side of the counter. Took a step, halting and dragging. It looked like a combination of the gait she always used to use when her hip joints hurt to put weight on and the way you walk when you've been sitting on your feet for too long and they've gone all numb but you have to walk somewhere before they switch over to pins-and-needles. Her eyes went distant for a few minutes as she tried to figure out whether or not she was going to be able to keep going, but she did, all the way over to the table. It took her a long damn time to walk that twenty feet, Daniel trailing along behind her the whole way like a duckling who'd imprinted on his mama.

"There," she said, finally, when she arrived, a bit of satisfaction creeping into her voice, and began the tentative process of settling down on one of the chair-stools at the table, just as slowly and cautiously. "Settle on down, then, and we'll catch up a bit. Last time I actually talked to you, face to face instead of email, was -- what? Two years?"

"Little more than that, but not much," I said. Waited until Daniel had settled into the stool next to her before I sat down, too. I don't think he noticed it, but I know she did. "When your mother told me that if I didn't show up for Thanksgiving again, she'd just have to invite my whole family so I didn't feel like I was being dragged in two directions at once."

She laughed, bright and merry, but it sounded a little more hollow than it ever had before. "Oh, God, and that year was a crazy one, too. That was the year Jordan brought home his first girlfriend from college an' I had to send you an' Nielson out to rescue the poor girl from the train station before she fled an' we never saw her again. How's your parents doing, then, and your sister?"

I caught her up quickly, because I knew she was going to lead into whatever she wanted to say to me -- whatever she wanted to say to me in front of Daniel and not in front of Brian. And she and JD had always been perfectly capable of communicating across the house with no visible channel of information between them -- I always used to suspect that JD simply read her mind, and I'm getting ahead of myself here, but these days I wonder if that might not be true -- and I knew that JD would know how long to keep Brian out of the kitchen until she was done, but I didn't want him to have to stall for too long. Sure enough, after a few minutes of anecdotes, she said, "And Brian? He good for you, honey?"

I could feel the stupid smile starting to spread over my face. "Yeah," I said, quietly. "Yeah. He is. He's --" I ran out of words, made a little you-know-how-it-goes hand gesture. "Had to teach him pretty much everything from scratch, but he found that he liked it. We're happy. Damn happy. I think -- I'm pretty sure we're in this for the long haul. Starting to talk about filing DP papers with the Air Force, just to have something on record so we don't get split up. And Alabama doesn't have civil unions yet, but we're talking about maybe taking a weekend to California or Connecticut or Massachusetts, make it semi-official. It won't give us much in the way of benefits, but it'd be a symbol."

She grinned at me. "Not the only symbol he's given you, I'm betting," she said, and her eyes dropped to where Brian's wristband was peeking out from under my long-sleeved t-shirt, and I could see Daniel's eyebrows drawing together. Not like he was disgusted or confused or lost or anything. Just a faint curiosity, quiet and a little bit awkward, like he didn't know what he was supposed to be doing or what the polite thing would be. He's got this way of doing it that makes you feel like he's trying so earnestly to do whatever'll put you at ease, and even if he gets it wrong, people usually cut him a hell of a lot of slack for his willingness to be open-minded. And hey, I didn't think Cammie would have fallen in love with a bigot.

So I pulled the sleeve back and held out my wrist for her to inspect. The cuff was a single strip of black leather, snug and tight in the hollow between the very end of my arm bone and the base of my thumb, just a little wider than a bracelet would be. She took my hand in hers, and her fingers were warm, and she curled her palm around my fingers and pulled me a little closer and inspected the fine detail stamping on the leather that didn't show unless you were close up.

Next to her, Daniel looked too. "Nice work," he said, like he still didn't know what the proper response would be, but genuine admiration nonetheless. "Ah, it's interesting, you know, the kind of ritualistic symbols that have evolved over the years to signal availabilty -- or inavailability -- and romantic or emotional -- or sexual -- possession. I mean, you get things like wedding rings, but those aren't appropriate in all situations, obviously, and there are some subcultures that don't use them because they feel that the traditional resonance isn't appropriate, for whatever reason. I don't get a lot of opportunity to talk about that kind of thing with the people who are members of any real tightly-bonded counterculture, not with where I'm working. Would you mind if I asked you some questions later? I know that things like that are really private and personal to a lot of people, but --"

Cammie elbowed him, lightly. "Leave the boy alone until he and I finish catching up at least," she said, but it wasn't censure, just amusement. "You can be anthropological at him later."

It was a cue for me, intended to explain the reason for Daniel's curiosity, and I neatly filed it away in the back of my head, even though it sparked more questions than it answered, really. She'd told me she'd met him, in passing, through her work before she'd met JD, and I knew that she hadn't started her second career until after she met JD, which meant that she must have known him in the Air Force. And okay, the Air Force sometimes had a use for anthropology, but not often, and he was doing weird things to the part of my brain that noticed body language, because --

I can't really explain it, okay? Some people move and carry themselves like civilians, and some people don't. And he didn't, but he also didn't have the same kind of posture and discipline of someone who'd been in the service for long enough to have known Cammie back when. It was weird; he looked like he'd known action but not quite. But it wasn't my business to pry. "Sure," I said to him. "I don't mind at all. I used to be kind of ashamed of talking to outsiders about things, but that was a long time ago, and --" I glanced at Cammie. "That was before I met them."

Daniel's lips tipped up, and in his smile, I recognized bemused fondness and a whole heaping dose of love. For her. And maybe for JD, too. I couldn't tell, not until I saw Daniel looking at him, too, but I didn't have a single doubt in my mind that he worshipped the ground she walks on, or limps or shuffles over, and that took a weight off my mind, too. I knew that no matter what, as long as Cammie and JD had each other, either one of them would be able to work through any kind of heartbreak that happened to them from the slings and arrows of romantic fortune. But they shouldn't have to. Cammie and JD both deserved to be happy, and the way Daniel was looking at Cammie, I realized that he thought so too.

"She does that," Daniel said, soft and loving, and the two of them shared a look like for half a second they were the only people in the room, and I wondered, for that same half a second, why Daniel had said she and not they. I'd said "they", after all, and really, JD had done just as much for me as Cammie had. Cammie showed me that it was all right to love where I loved, no matter what, as long as I was open and honest about it. JD showed me that it was all right to want, and not to be ashamed of what I wanted -- never explain, never apologize, never back down. He'd pushed and challenged and dared me the whole way, picked through the inside of my head until I could put my finger on all of what I wanted, even the things I'd never been able to say out loud except to someone who already knew them. He'd taught me, with nothing but how he treated me, that it was all right to be myself.

And that was the lesson I'd needed more. Without it, I never would have been able to open my mouth and bring up the topic with Brian. Not with the memory of that whole clusterfuck with Aggie still behind me -- God, it'd been nearly twenty years at that point, but it still stung, thinking about it. Still does, really, knowing how badly we both fucked it up. Without JD and Cammie and their example to show me how it was all right to communicate, and as long as I accepted myself it didn't matter if someone else accepted me, I would have never looked twice at Brian. Or I would have had a brief quick vanilla fling, in between bar cruising and random pickups, and I never would have worked up the courage to ask him to hold me down and spank me until my ass glowed and my head was empty and free.

Then the moment passed, and Cammie was looking back at me, and there was affection in her eyes and her smile changed but was just as beautiful. "Got some thank-yous to tell you, too," she said. "Because you were the first person himself and I brought home who stuck around long enough for us to figure out how to make it work with three instead of two. An' that's a lesson that's come in handy, and more than handy, an' it was because of you that we learned it."

And it was an answer, too; she was telling me, right in front of Daniel, that they were the three of them instead of the two of them plus JD, and she was also telling me that it hadn't been an easy road to get there -- and I thought, maybe, that Daniel didn't know that they were entirely there yet, and I thought that she might have been telling me that it was all going to be okay anyway. And when Cammie told me that everything was going to be okay, I believed her. Always had. From the very start.

I tightened my fingers around hers, one quick squeeze, and then let her hand go. She didn't try to hold on to me, and I hadn't expected her to. "It was my very great pleasure, ma'am," I said, low and soft and respectful, the tone I hadn't been using since I'd walked back into their house again. But there was something about Cammie, there would and will always be something about Cammie, that makes me break any rules I try to set for myself.

I could hear voices drifting in from the living room, JD explaining some piece of art or technology to Brian -- probably the art; Brian puts up with computers and technology for precisely as long as he has to, in his practice and in his duty, and not an inch more -- and I knew that the heavy-lifting conversation was over. So I stood up. "Now tell me what I need to do to help with dinner," I said, instead of please, ma'am, how may I serve.

Her lips tipped up a little more, hearing the distinction, and she inclined her head, as regal as any queen and just as gracious. "Turn on the water for the pasta, then," she said, "if you'd be so kind." And Daniel stirred just enough to tell me that he'd thought about offering to jump up and do it instead and then changed his mind, recognizing that it was important to us both for me to do it, so I could show her that I also knew how to give a hand to a very good friend.


Dinner that night turned warm and companionable pretty damn fast, any last lingering awkwardness melting away quickly in the face of two bottles of wine and Cammie's firm determination that she'd never met a stranger in her whole life. She let me do most of the last-minute cooking; I could tell it was baffling Daniel, but Brian knew damn well that he had Cammie to thank for the fact that he ate like a king, because I'd been an adequate cook before I'd met her but she'd taught me how to really love food.

It was nice being back in that kitchen -- the nicest I'd ever hope to cook in, with a place for everything and everything in its place, arranged perfectly so anything I could possibly hope for was at hand -- and the pasta came out almost as well as it would have if Cammie had made it: cavatelli that I knew had started out life as semolina and ricotta and eggs that morning, broccoli that was nice and fresh despite being out of season (I wondered if they'd finally put in the greenhouse Cammie had been wanting forever), white wine and olive oil and butter and broth and garlic. I'd missed the bean soup she started us off with, too. I've never been able to get mine anywhere close to how good she makes it; sometimes I think she seasons it with some of her kitchen magic to make it taste right.

That night, once Brian and I had shut the door of the guest room behind us -- I'd suggested we stay at a downtown hotel, when I'd first emailed Cammie to see if we were welcome, and she'd treated the idea with about as much disdain as I suppose it deserved -- I gave into impulse and poked the spot on the wall that I knew was the hidden catch for the terminal. Brian raised his eyebrows at me as he came out of the bathroom, smelling like toothpaste, and saw me groping for it. "Nostalgic for the house, too?" he asked, giving me a fond smile.

"Just seeing if I remember -- aha!" The guest bedroom terminal was recessed into the wall, hidden away behind a latch that took a little bit of patience to open, because there were terminals in every room but Cammie and JD didn't like guests to be tempted to poke around on the private network. Nearly everyone who visited them brought laptops of their own, and if a guest didn't have a laptop one could be provided, but the WiFi available for visitors was a separate network than the one that the house ran on.

Brian's eyebrows climbed higher as I slid away the pocket door and pulled out the keyboard tray. "This house is something else," he said, shaking his head.

"Oh, that's nothing," I said, delighted (and a little bit touched) to find that not only did my login still exist, but I still remembered my password. Then again, JD was a sentimental bastard sometimes, just when you'd least expect it. I thought my login would probably exist on that network until the end of days. "Here. Get a look at this."

Took me a second to remember how the menu screens worked -- it had been a while, and the house network has no GUI and some of the options are obscure; I always suspected that JD had been the one to write the interface, because it was twisted in the same way JD's head was twisted and Cammie would have been more straightforward. But I picked the right room and the right set of controls, and I racked my brain for a few seconds to remember the exact syntax, and I cleared the window-walls that looked out over the back of the property and Brian jumped.

"Wow," he said. "That's ... wow."

I turned down the lights in the room to just night lighting -- there was a preset setting for it -- and cleared the walls that overlooked the courtyard, too. "The view from the master bedroom's even more impressive," I said, setting the terminal back to sleep and pushing it back into the wall. "Well, you saw how big it was. Three outside walls, not two, and in the middle of the night when they have the inside lights off and the floodlights on outside, it's like you're in an aquarium in the middle of nowhere."

I could see, across the courtyard, that the walls of the master bedroom were clear, not opaqued -- Cammie had explained to me, one of the times when I'd worried that someone might be looking in on us, that the glass was pretty close to being one-way, and sure enough I couldn't see in, but there was always a weird kind of shimmery gloss to the outside when the piezoelectric crystals of the windows were doing their impression of solid walls and it wasn't there across the courtyard -- and I wondered what Cammie and Daniel and JD were doing. Curled up in bed talking, maybe. Maybe more.

I didn't know. Even paying attention, close attention, I couldn't tell what JD and Daniel had left settled or unsettled between them. Maybe I would ask Cammie before we left, if I had a moment alone with her and she seemed in a good mood. Maybe I wouldn't. I didn't know.

"You didn't tell me they were this well off," Brian said. He didn't sound jealous or envious, just curious. "They don't act like they're filthy rich."

I shrugged. "It's been like that for as long as I've known them," I said. I pulled my t-shirt over my head, and long practice and conditioning had me folding it neatly and leaving it on the chair next to the door. "I don't think it's family money, either. Unless it's his family money, not hers, and I don't think that's likely. I still don't know much about his past."

"Mmm," Brian said, sounding a little bit distracted as he watched me unbutton my jeans and step out of them. It was second nature to make sure my backside was facing him; he says he likes to watch my ass while I'm undressing, so it was one of the first sets of standing orders he'd ever given me. "From the way you talk about him, I was expecting someone a little -- weirder, I guess."

"He's gotten less weird since the last time I saw him," I said. Then I stopped and really thought about it. No; he hadn't. And it wasn't that I'd let the mists of time romanticize my memory of him, either; I could still remember the first time I'd laid eyes on him, that night in the Cocoa Bar so long ago. He'd been twenty, then, with a damn fucking good fake ID -- I'd found out for sure later, and had a bad couple of days trying to decide whether or not I felt like a child molestor, but I'd gotten over it fast when I realized that it didn't matter how old he was chronologically, in terms of maturity and life experience he was ancient.

But I could still remember how weirdly out-of-sync he always seemed, too old for his years or too young for the way he acted, never anything overt but always present anyway. An overlay of unusual, not just from the confidence and self-assurance but something else entirely. It was still there, some vague ghost hint behind his eyes. But it didn't stand out as much anymore, like he'd learned so much more about how to blend in.

"Or maybe the world has just gotten weird enough around him," I said, finishing my thought just as I finished folding my jeans and setting them aside. "They've both always been kind of weird anyway."

"But you love them," Brian said, still smiling, sitting down on the side of the bed, and I had to smile back, because yeah, he got it. "Now c'mere."

He held out a hand, familiar and loving and firm, and I lowered my eyes and went to go kneel beside the bed with a light heart.

It was a good visit. We only had time to stay for four days, but we made the most of them. JD and Cammie didn't mention work once while we were there, and JD took us out and about, showing Brian and reminding me about all the interesting places you could find in the Springs. Brian and I weren't much for the bar scene -- I'd gotten too old and I didn't need to throw myself into the scene headfirst anymore, and Brian had never been much for bars in the first place -- but we stopped back into the Cocoa Bar for a drink, for old time's sake and to show Brian what the place was like. Everyone I'd known there had long since moved on, but I was expecting JD to still be a familiar face. Nobody waved at him, though, and the looks he got weren't haven't-seen-you-where-have-you-been looks, they were the size-you-up-for-potential looks I thought he'd probably get from strangers for the rest of his life.

He caught me looking sideways at him and around the room at the bar, trying to decide whether they weren't regulars here anymore because he'd changed or because the 'Bar had. "I don't go out much anymore," he said, in a low voice. "Don't think Daniel would get it. And -- it reminds herself too much of the days when she could."

I winced. "It's bad, isn't it," I said.

His eyes were dark. "And getting worse. Most days she can't actually feel anything below the knees, and if she can, it's because it hurts. They're giving her another two years tops before the paraplegia sets in again. It's not so much the damage to the spinal cord, although it's that too, but the combination of scar tissue and nerve damage is starting to get ridiculous. She's ... not taking it well."

No. No, she wouldn't be. And it explained so much about the things I'd seen, in her face and in her eyes, and it explained so much about why she was so angry, hostility simmering under the surface of her welcome and love, because I'd known her when she could have come out with us for the tour of Colorado Springs' highlights and lowlights, and when JD had offered, earlier, she'd pressed her lips together and said, bright and sunny, that we should enjoy ourselves, that she'd be curled up in a chair in the chair in her gonna-kill-you room and getting some knitting done. And I'd winced a little at that, at the way she'd tried to hard to sound like she just didn't feel like leaving the house when I knew that she'd prefer to be spending time with us, but I'd let it go.

Next to me, Brian was leaning in, and he had the look on his face that he gets when he's found a patient that's not doing as well as he wants them to, the look that says he'd go toe to toe with Whoever makes the decisions up there in order to fight for his patient's well-being. "Have they tried Elera for the nerve damage?" he asked. "It just hit the open market last year, and a lot of doctors don't know about it yet --"

"And we were in the last set of trials, and it didn't help," JD snapped, his eyes flashing, and then he seemed to stop himself and sigh. "Sorry. I know you're just trying to help. She's -- it's a really complicated case, and it's probably nothing you've ever seen before. She's in a couple of experimental programs over at the Academy Hospital, stuff they aren't doing anywhere else. They've tried everything."

Brian pressed his lips together, and I could tell it was his distant thinking voice. "If you'd like, I'd be happy to take a look at her records at some point while we're out here. I've got a lot of experience with trauma like that, and even if her doctors are the best in the world, another pair of eyes can't hurt."

"Thanks," JD said, but I noticed that he didn't say yes, and I had the feeling that he wouldn't bring it up again the entire time we were there. And sure enough, he didn't. At least not where I could hear them.

JD and Cammie took time out from their work to visit with us while we were there, but Daniel didn't. I didn't ask what he did for a living. Not because I didn't want to know; I did. The more time I spent around the man, the more subtle body-language cues I started to pick up, from the way he never sat with his back to the door to the way his eyes cased the entire room in a split second every time he entered to the way that Cammie and JD were both so careful never to move too fast at the edges of his peripheral vision. Same set of mannerisms you see in some of the guys who have been in hot zones lately.

But Daniel was an anthropologist -- and a linguist and translator, I did find out -- and yeah, for the Air Force, which always needed more linguists. Especially one who, like he apparently did, spoke a double dozen languages. If he was working for the Air Force, there was no way they would have him doing anything other than sitting behind a desk. People with skills like that were too valuable to risk under live fire.

Something interesting, though. The third morning we were there, I happened to be up a little early, spending time fetching and carrying and keeping Cammie company in the kitchen while she limped her way through baking a double batch of blueberry muffins for breakfast, and I was there when Daniel stumbled in half-awake and accepted a mug of coffee and a good-morning kiss and a blueberry muffin fresh out of the oven. And I was there when he muttered something about wishing they could bring the Mountain to Muhammed, and I was there when she laughed brightly and said they could put the Mountain back next to the lake and it would cut his commute down to nothing, and I could tell that they were both using capital letters.

The Mountain. Cheyenne Mountain. And Cheyenne Mountain Base had been on warm stand-by since '06, a decade at that point, and I didn't think that anthropology or linguistics counted as one of the jobs required to keep the base on stand-down and ready to move back in in a hurry if they had to. And I suddenly remembered, rising from the mists of history, the weirdness back on that first night when Cammie and JD had first brought me home, asking if I was stationed at Peterson or Cheyenne. And look, you're not military, so you don't get it, how weird all of that was. How absolutely none of it added up. At all.

Still, Daniel was a nice guy. Crazy about Cammie, in love (I thought, the more I watched the three of them together) with JD and not entirely ready yet to admit it, and it was weird as fucking hell, but half the time I thought Daniel knew JD better than he knew Cammie and half the time I thought he knew Cammie better than JD. But I could also see that JD was on weird footing around him, and it was the one little skip and hitch in the mental picture I was building about the life that they led together, because I'd never seen JD uncertain about how to treat someone else, ever. He'd always been able to read the things I wouldn't have even dared to say, known how to treat me just as instinctively as Cammie always had, and he'd never been anything other than completely himself. The weird level of self-control he always had in his eyes when he looked at Daniel didn't sit right with me, because it wasn't the same sort of self-control he used for everything else. It was the kind of self-control that meant he was holding something back.

Took me until we were packing up and getting ready to leave for me to figure it out, and even then, it was an accidental moment that gave me the final piece. I'd been packing our suitcase while Brian and Cammie sat and chatted in the kitchen, and I'd remembered that Cammie had told me I should duck my head into their library and check the books-to-be-donated-to-the-shelter shelf before I went, so we could have something to read on the plane if we wanted, and I walked all the way over from the guest room to the master wing of the house, where the library was just next to the master bedroom.

I didn't belong to them anymore, and to be honest I really hadn't for a while, but I'd cleaned just about every inch of this house -- most of the time on my knees -- and it was hard to feel like a guest someplace where you'd spent that much time naked and cherished, so I didn't bother asking before I opened the library door and let myself in. Knew where the donation shelf was, too, and it was overflowing the way it always had been. Both of them were readers, and neither of them had ever gotten used to electronic books, so there were always a plethora of paperbacks and hardcovers piled on every available surface, everywhere you looked. Half the time I'd been ordered to tend to the house, the thing that took the longest time was chasing them all down so I could put them back where they belonged.

I was just coming out of the library, a pair of stupid mindless adventure novels in my hands -- Brian and I both enjoy them, even though he always nitpicks the medical details and I always nitpick the military details -- when I heard, drifting out from the partially-open bedroom door to my left, JD's voice. "--know you've been feeling weird about it," he was saying, and I knew Cammie and Brian were in the kitchen, so that meant he was talking to Daniel. "But I'm glad you didn't decide to hide in your office all week."

"It's not that I feel weird," Daniel protested, sounding aggrieved. I tiptoed a little closer, just to hear better, knowing that I shouldn't eavesdrop but not being able to help myself anyway. Couldn't see either of them from where I was standing in the hallway -- by the sounds of the echoes, I thought they were standing over by the door to the walk-in closet, which wasn't immediately visible from where I was -- but that was maybe better, because it meant there was no chance of JD noticing that I was there. He would, too. Didn't matter how well I was hidden, he always seemed to know when anyone was looking directly at him. "It's just -- a little awkward, is all. I mean, I like them. A lot. They're great people. I'm just not entirely sure what the protocols are for this sort of thing. I've never exactly known anyone who was on such good terms with an ex."

"Not like we've ever been normal in the first place, you and I," JD said, and in that one unguarded second, when he thought there was nobody listening to the two of them, I heard everything in his voice that I hadn't been able to figure out for the four days I'd watched them together. JD loved him. JD was in love with him, wholly and completely and a little bit desperately, and JD understood him and JD wanted him and JD was holding himself back because he didn't want to frighten Daniel away. And I thought about Cammie's words in her email to me -- Daniel came for me, and he'll stay for JD, or maybe for both of us -- and I thought about the way JD's words, JD's tone, implied a whole lifetime of shared history, and I thought that for all the years that I'd loved JD, I'd never understood him, and I probably never would.

"O brave new world that hath such people in it," Daniel said, a hint of laughter in his voice, and there was affection and ease and comfort in the sound of it. And I thought that Daniel loved JD too, even if it wasn't the same kind of world-devouring love that JD had for him. Or if it was, Daniel was good at hiding it, or hadn't quite realized it yet. But somehow I thought it was going to be all right.

"Hell of a universe next door," JD shot back; "let's go --" and I held my breath and faded back down the hallway on tiptoes to avoid making any sound.

Cammie kept up the emails after that visit, of course, and she started including Brian's name on the cookie packages she sent, and once or twice I got an email or two from Daniel, with whom I'd had a few interesting conversations (all right, he asked questions and I answered them) about symbolism and ritual in the BDSM community, when he saw a journal article or reference he thought I'd like or that he had questions about. I didn't ask Cammie how she was doing when I emailed back. I didn't ask Daniel, either, but he dropped a hell of a lot more hints than Cammie did, and it was the one thing that worried me, because it didn't sound good.

Brian and I wound up getting reassigned out here to Edwards later on that year -- or rather, he got reassigned and I got to go with him, since we'd filed our paperwork just in time -- and as soon as we settled in, he gave an order that was really a question and I gave a yes, sir that was really an answer, and we started making plans. It was only the fact that I knew Cammie would insist on dragging herself along that kept me from sending the three of them a wedding invitation. Instead I waited until we got back from the honeymoon and sent them one of our formal announcement cards instead, and I cut the announcement out of the newspaper and paperclipped it all together. I actually emailed JD for once, instead of Cammie, right after I sent it -- I knew his email address, of course, he was just a horrible correspondent -- and told him, privately, that I wished they could have been there, but I didn't want to make Cammie feel like she should have to. He emailed me back and said he understood, and I knew he did, and he said that he'd make sure Cammie understood too. I was still glad that I wasn't going to be there when she got the letter. She's got a temper on her, and I knew how pissed she was going to be at missing the wedding, even if she would also recognize the lack of invitation as a kindness instead of as a snub.

She emailed me a few days later, just about when the announcement would have arrived, and sure enough, she told me that I was a sneak and a cheat and she was going to give me a spanking the next time she saw me, assuming my husband didn't mind, of course. But she must have gotten over her mad pretty quickly, because I could hear her laughter in it even though I was reading the words on the screen. She'd copied Brian on the email, which ended with heartfelt congratulations and a demand for prints of the wedding pictures, and he emailed back (CC me, of course) and said that she was welcome to do her worst the next time we were all together, provided that he got to watch, of course. The two of us picked out the best shots of us both all done up in our tuxedos and shoved them in an envelope, and I'm not positive, but I think Brian might have sent along a few of the more incriminating shots of me at the reception after everyone's parents and both of our superior officers had gone home. It's something he would have done, after all.

Two weeks after that, a package arrived, addressed to us both. It was -- well, you've seen it on the couch. The handknit wedding afghan, made out of the softest wool you've ever touched, beautiful and intricate and despite the museum quality of the piece, just perfect for snuggling up under. I knew she couldn't possibly have had time to knit it since she'd gotten the announcement, but it was like she'd made it just for me anyway, because I'd always loved all those deep blues and greens she kept adding to her yarn stash. I was pretty sure she'd started it as soon as we'd left the house from that visit.

Brian was there when I opened the package, of course, and he looked in the bottom of the box while I was still kneeling on the floor with my hands roving over the afghan, gathering it up to rub my face against it and marveling at the way the colors shifted and pooled and danced through the delicate stitchwork. "Huh," he said, reaching in. "That's not all that's in here."

One box, one envelope. The envelope was addressed to me. The box was addressed to him, wrapped in the same plain brown paper the main box had been wrapped in. I gestured a go-on-open-it, and he laughed. "Oh, no," he said. "You first."

It was an order, so I slid my finger underneath the flap of the envelope and eased it open; it hadn't been sealed. It was a congratulations card, on what looked like handmade paper, and yeah, it was beautiful, but that wasn't what made me squeak. What made me squeak was what was tucked inside it, a check made out to me for fifty thousand dollars in Cammie's perfect copperplate handwriting and countersigned by JD's near-illegible scrawl, and the note inside the envelope said "to start your life together properly."

"Holy shit," Brian said, his voice low and reverent, and I looked up to see that he'd opened his box too. There had been another box inside of it, with an identical envelope, and he had opened the envelope first and was holding another handmade card and the check that had fallen out of it. "Holy shit."

I handed him the check I was holding. He showed me his. Same amount, made out to him instead of me, and the note inside his card said "to help take care of each other" instead.

"We can't --" Brian started, and I had to laugh, because if I didn't laugh I was probably going to find myself crying. The good kind of tears, the kind that come from realizing that your life is so perfect it makes your heart fill up and spill over, but tears nonetheless.

"You want to try telling them no?" I asked.

Brian looked up at that, and it made him laugh too. "Okay. Yeah. Good point. I just -- Wow."

"Open the box," I said, feeling a little bit like a kid on Christmas morning, and Brian did. And then I did have to cry, because it was the leather collar I'd worn for them, way back once upon a time, and I hadn't known they'd kept it, and they'd sent it to Brian and not to me and the scrap of paper inside the box was a Dunkin' Donuts receipt with just "yours now" printed on it in the careful block lettering JD always used when he wanted someone to be able to read what he was writing.

And I pictured him, taking out the box from the desk or dresser drawer he'd kept it in, grabbing the first piece of paper to hand and not even looking at the back of it, scribbling the message and shoving it into the box and handing it to Cammie to slip in with everything they were sending, and I pressed my cheek against Brian's knee and breathed in deeply and thought about what my life would have been like if I hadn't been at the 'Bar that night, and Brian stroked my hair and made soothing noises and told me it was all okay.

"Here," he said, when I finally sat back up onto my knees and looked up at him. He pressed the box into my hands. "I'm not going to put this on you," he said, and I nodded, because I wouldn't have wanted him to. And he knew it. "But it's a message, and I get what he's saying. You keep it. They gave you to me a long time ago. I already know I own you."

And no, you don't get to know what happened next; he's private about certain kinds of things, and that was part of the deal we negotiated ahead of time. He's my husband, all right? You've seen us together. You can make a pretty good guess.

Just so happens that about four months after that, we got a phone call. We were out of the country at the time -- long story, not important -- but I got the message when we got back, asking if we'd be free to fly out to Vegas that weekend, their dime. We'd been gone for two weeks, though, and the message had come in at the very beginning of them, so whatever was going on, we'd missed. I called back anyway, just to see what had happened. Cammie's cell phone, even though I had both their numbers. Neither one of them ever picked up their phones, unless you'd told them ahead of time that you were going to be calling -- Cammie said that she'd gotten out of the habit of ever picking up her phone when she'd been still in the service, that she would force her family to always leave messages so they wouldn't worry about her on the occasions when she was called unexpectedly away without being able to tell them where she was going and she couldn't pick up the phone. Never knew what JD's excuse was. I think he just hated talking to people.

No answer, but I wasn't expecting one. Got Cammie's voicemail greeting instead. And I figured out what she'd called me for pretty quickly when I heard it, because it was her voice, brighter and more cheerful than I'd heard it in a while, drawling, "You've reached Cameron Mitchell Jackson. I can't come to the phone right now, seein' as how I'm on my honeymoon. We'll be back on August thirteenth. Please leave a message, an' I'll get back to you then. If you're related to me, you'll understand why I eloped without telling any of you I was doin' it, and yes, Momma, I promise you we'll do it again all formal so you can fuss."

I was laughing when the leave-a-message beep beeped, and I was laughing as I told her congratulations and we loved her, and I was laughing when I hung up the phone and went to go deliver the news to Brian.

When we finally got settled in and unpacked and I found time to check my email, I found that JD had sent me pictures: Cammie in a gorgeous wine-red sheath dress that stretched from throat to ankles, JD in a suit and tie, Daniel in a tuxedo, an older blonde woman I didn't recognize -- at the time -- in a shorter version of Cammie's dress in burnished gold. The woman was turning her head and covering her eyes, theatrically, with a bouquet of flowers. Cammie was leaning on the woman's shoulder, and the photographer had caught her mid-laugh, the whooping laughter that always meant she was halfway to falling over and wrapping her arms around her middle to stop it from hurting. And JD, who was still as scrawny-looking as an alleycat if you got him at the right angle and in the right light, had bent Daniel -- who wasn't -- backwards over his arm, holding him up effortlessly, and was kissing him like there was no tomorrow -- and Daniel was kissing back.

JD had sent a message with the photos, terse as always: figured you'd appreciate the pictures we aren't showing mitchell's family. it's him and her on the paperwork, but all three of us got the ink, and that's what really matters. bring yours for a visit sometime soon; after mitchell's family gets done with us, we'll need reinforcement from sane people. --jdn

"Huh," Brian said from behind me. I turned to see what he meant -- it was the that's-curious huh, not the isn't-that-cute huh -- and found that he was leaning in and studying the picture. Staring at Cammie. "Can you make that any larger?"

I double-clicked on it, and it filled the screen. "Huh," Brian said again, and I looked at it and tried to figure out what he was huh-ing about, and it took me a second to get it, because that was how she'd always looked to me inside my head. Cammie was standing perfectly capably, and her cane was nowhere in sight -- no, it was propped up against the chapel's altar, but it was a good four steps away or so. And I realized: I'd never seen Cammie wearing anything that clung so tightly through the thighs and had a chance of fouling her balance. Even nine years ago when she'd still been mostly okay.

My heart leaped for her. "New drugs?" I asked. "That you know of, I mean?"

He shook his head, absently. Still studying the pictures. "No -- well, maybe, but I haven't heard of anything. And I don't know anything that could do that. I mean, she never let me see her charts, but -- I would have wagered my license to practice on the fact that it wasn't just physical weakness or joint trouble or swelling around the spine, it was axonotmesis. If not neurotmesis." He caught my look and backtracked. "Sorry. The kind of nerve damage that you can't recover from. The kind where the actual nerve sheath is damaged. There's no drug in the world that can repair that. And if someone had come up with one, even if it were still in clinical trials, I probably would have heard about it by now."

"Huh," I said. I looked back at the picture. (This time, I noticed that Daniel's hand was on JD's ass, squeezing tightly.) Cammie looked -- happy. I didn't see any sign of pain on her face, and all right, she was only in three-quarters profile -- laughing at JD and Daniel -- and it was a still picture and not video, but if there had been any pain there, I would have seen it once I was looking for it. And there wasn't any.

"A great miracle happened there," Brian quoted, and he sounded baffled.

Never did get a straight answer out of them, either. These days, I can guess a little, but none of them have ever admitted anything, no matter how much I ask.


So yeah. I knew them. Know them; we still talk. Pretty often, actually, and yeah, that's who was over here last week, when the reporters sniffed out the story and wound up giving us all so much shit, which reminds me to apologize again about your rose bush. If the news station hasn't sent you the check to have the landscapers out, let me know. I'm pretty sure Cammie and JD will cover it. Or, hell, Brian and I can pay to have it replaced. I'm not going to let those vultures piss off the best neighbors we've ever found; if you guys get tired of us and decide to drum us out of the neighborhood, where the hell else are we going to find that'll be half as nice, and who the hell else are we going to have over for dinner who won't freak out when we forget to put away the toys?

I still can't get over how crazy it's been. Probably won't for a while. Brian and I got precisely twenty minutes of warning before the Bregman documentaries aired; JD actually called us, on the phone and everything. "Channel nine," he said, as soon as I answered the phone, and I didn't need to ask who it was, because there was only one person in the world who could ever sound like him. "Twenty minutes. It'll take three hours. When it's over, our phone's probably going to be jammed up for a hell of a long time, but give us a call in a couple of weeks once it's all calmed down."

Well, you remember the broadcast. Everyone does. Half an hour of the President talking, an hour of a documentary recorded by a brilliant man over a decade ago, an hour of the much-less-brilliant followup documentary for the ten-years-later, half an hour of talking heads. I watched the whole thing with my mouth hanging wide open. I mean, didn't you? You just know that in another generation -- hell, another five years -- that's going to be the where-were-you-when question: where were you when you found out we'd been talking to aliens for twenty years already?

Poor Daniel; he got the absolute brunt of the networks scrambling like hell to put together something after that, the where-are-they-now retrospective on the men and women of Stargate Command. The men and women of SG-1. He did his fair share of griping about how Sam Carter had shipped out to the city of Atlantis (Atlantis, Jesus Christ, I will never get over that) right before the news hit -- Cammie told me, later, that she'd called in a bunch of old favors so she wouldn't have to deal with the news vultures hanging around -- and Teal'c of Chulak had been safely away for years. "And Jack, damn him, decided to opt out of this circus by dying," he'd added, amused and a little bit exasperated, and I'd thought, at the time, that he seemed awfully flippant, but the more I've talked with him since, the more I've come to realize that his relationship with death is not like others'. And no, I'm not going to explain that one, because they've actually managed to keep it out of the news coverage for the most part and I can understand why he wants to.

And Cammie, my Cammie; I'd always known she was a hero, but I remembered that conversation with JD a long time ago, the one where he'd said it was a tragedy that nobody would know how much of a hero she was. When I saw the segment about how she'd gotten so hurt, well, I won't lie to you. I was crying. And I'm not ashamed to admit it. I always thought she'd die to protect the things she believes in; it wasn't really a surprise to find out that she nearly had.

I still don't know what kind of hold the government has over Daniel, either, because I know Cammie told me that he'd retired -- before they'd gotten married, even -- and the man I know wouldn't have agreed to do all those appearances and interviews just out of the kindness of his heart. A desire to set the record straight, maybe; he's been a little bit gleefully smug in some of our email conversations about how he's damn well going to make sure that the story gets written down the way it should be, not the way that the people in charge want it told. And I think that he regrets having infected Cammie with the same desire, really, because -- well, you've seen her telling all the stories about him, too, no matter how fiercely he blushes and stammers.

And JD? Well. I have my theories about JD. I really shouldn't share them, because I don't have any proof and I don't want to start any rumors, because the reporters have been giving them all enough shit. And for all his in-your-face ballbusting, he's really a private person when it all comes down to it. Always has been. He'll mouth off left and right, he'll posture and pose and preen, but when it comes down to it, there's two people in this world who get to see the real JD Nielson, and he's married to both of them. All right, not officially. But I've seen his tattoos, and I know how his mind works. All three of them wear wedding rings, even if it's only Cammie and Daniel on the paperwork, because the real wedding ceremony took place in a tattoo parlor somewhere in Vegas when they all had their vows to each other drawn under their skin.

JD isn't part of the story of Stargate Command, or if he is, it's just a little tiny part. I keep hoping that the reporters have other things to dig at, because God knows what they'd do if I'm right and they get wind of it. But I can't stop thinking, no matter how often I try to tell myself it's a crazy thought and there's just no way possible. He runs a few degrees hotter to the touch than anyone I've ever met. He wears shorts and tank tops, barefoot, in the middle of a Colorado Springs winter. He sleeps four hours a night, if that, and I've never seen him look tired. He eats like he's eating for six, and he never gains an ounce. He acts weird sometimes, like he doesn't know the cultural references he really, really should, and he does know the ones there'd be no reason for him to know -- like he would if he learned them from a book, instead of by living it. If you Google him, there's no sign he even existed before he walked into Cammie's life twelve years ago.

It's probably crazy. But I can't help wondering whether JD was born somewhere so far from here that we can't even pick the light of his star out of the sky with the naked eye. And I know I can't ever ask, and in some ways I don't want the answer, because, well, what I don't know for sure, I can't accidentally let slip.

It's been a hell of a crazy ride, hasn't it? I don't know how they're dealing with it; Cammie says it's been dying down lately, but for that first year after it all broke, there were only about half a dozen times when they left the house and it didn't turn into a royal clusterfuck. They even had to hire a personal assistant to do the grocery shopping, and that might not shock you as much as it shocked me when I found it out, but even at the height of Cammie's bad days, she never ceded that control out of the family; JD did it for her, yeah, and she hated even giving up that much.

Me, I'm just thrilled that they could have the wedding before it all started getting insane; can you imagine what that would have been like, as soon as some wedding chapel employee picked up the phone and called in a tip? And no, it's not fair. Cammie had six months of health and wellness and her two beloved pains in her ass, and I hope she enjoyed every last bit of it, because peace and quiet has been in short supply lately. I hope she knew, the entire way, that there was a clock ticking down to the day when she wouldn't be able to set one foot off her property without some reporter eventually shoving a microphone in her face, so that she knew enough to cherish every damn minute of it while she had it. I know Cammie, though. I'm pretty sure she would have cherished it anyway.

She's been utterly gracious to the reporters the whole way -- both she and Daniel have, Jesus, the patience they've both got -- but that just encourages them to keep coming back, and I don't know how long it's going to be until the wonder dies down and they can just keep living their lives. For Christ's sake, it's been two years. Longer. And you saw what happened when some asshole tipped off CNN that two of the Heroes of the Stargate Program were here visiting an old friend.

I keep wondering why they haven't just chucked it all and started over again somewhere. Sure, they're pretty recognizable, the three of them. But Daniel's the one who's been on camera the most, and he's also the one who's most easily disguised; sometimes I wonder if they deliberately arranged it so the one of them without any of the scars and the tattoos and the physical limitations was the one who got most of the press, because all of Daniel's recognizable traits are things that could change with a little or a lot of help. And I know, now, what actually caused those little haunted glimpses I used to catch in his eyes, and I've seen all the stories a double dozen times and had a few conversations with him -- and no, I'm not going to tell you what they consisted of -- where he told me some of the things he never told the cameras. I'm pretty sure that a man who survived eight years on SG-1 under the command and tutelage of General O'Neill, God rest his soul, has an entire arsenal of dirty tricks up his sleeve to deploy at will, and that's not even counting Cammie and JD, who fight dirty when they have to and never apologize for it later, not if it's in the defense of things that matter.

There are a lot of things holding them where they are, I know: the house, the business, their lives. But if it were really intolerable, and I know that if it were me I'd find it really intolerable, I'd damn well have no problem believing that media scrutiny aside, they'd up and vanish overnight, walk away whistling, and somewhere halfway across the world (or halfway across the galaxy) a family of three that looked nothing like them except in the eyes would move in one day and be running the place a couple of years later.

I keep wondering why they stay. I mean, don't get me wrong; I'm glad they have. It means I still get to see them. But they've actually been cooperating with the circus, to an extent at least -- you saw that Rolling Stone article, right, the one with the reporter who spent a whole week with them? -- and I can't figure out what game they're playing, because I know there has to be one. Cammie says Daniel is paying off two debts: one very old, and one very new. Daniel says Cammie enjoys confusing the reporters too much to want to stop playing.

JD, though. JD smiled when I asked him about it, and it was the kind of smile I remembered from the nights when he'd have Cammie hold me down and sit back on his heels and study me, all shark's-teeth and wolf's-head and wicked, feral glee. "Oh, don't mind us," he said, and he sounded delighted at the thought, and I could hear a touch of Cammie in his voice, or at least her merry recklessness and laughter at the world. "I've got a plan. We've just gotta lead them around by the rings in their noses for the next couple of years, so they're still paying attention to us when we're ready to use them."

Brian had choked on the beer he'd been drinking, coughing and spluttering and trying to catch his breath. First time he'd ever seen that look on JD's face, and I knew he was imagining it on a JD ten years younger, and I knew he was suddenly understanding the stories I'd told him, whereas before he'd simply accepted them. "Use them?" he said. "For what?"

And JD had turned innocent eyes over to Brian, his very best who-me? look, and Brian went into another round of coughing fit, bad enough that I'd actually risen from my knees to whack him on the back. "Oh, nothing," he'd said, and butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. "Just a few things we're whipping up down in the secret bunker. We'll let you know when it pans out."

Me? I'm just wishing Nielson-Mitchell were publicly traded. I'd buy as much of it as I could get my hands on. Because whatever they've got planned to top this, it's gonna be fucking awesome.

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