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Ease my worried mind

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Everything was off, like some kind of disturbed dream of the past.

The worst part was that Sam wasn't wearing a tie after decades of putting one on every day. It made him feel naked, more lost than the cars, than his incorrect warrant card. Other male tops had them, some with their subs following a half-step behind as they used to under Deference laws long repealed.

Sam tried to button his shirt to cover his exposed throat, but it had neither buttons nor buttonholes to close it properly. A sub's shirt.

Whoever dressed him would pay for his indignity.

It was bloody hard to believe that CID could have looked the way it did, even however-many-years-ago the people running this joke had decided on, when Sam walked into the gloom and the fug. Everyone gave him a wary look: the tops edged back from their desks, the men with their ties and their heavy sideburns, the women stern and unimpressed. The subs glanced up and stared at him with an interest he wasn't used to, but then, he was dressed as they were, wasn't he, all open-collared and with trousers tight as sin.

Maybe that part was another facet of the plan thought up by whatever joker knocked him out and dressed him up in the first place. At least with these trousers, he doesn't need a belt, or, God help him, the braces they'd probably try to put him in to match the open collar.

"Talk to him," one of the tops said through his bristly mustache.

"Yes, sir," said a sub, a dark-haired, sweet-faced boy, and stood up. "Can I help you?"

No "sir" for Sam, and that made him as angry as the rest. They'd been briefed, all of them, on keeping this sick joke going.

If it was a joke.

"This is where my desk is," he said, pointing to the place his office should have been. "Right here."

"Sorry?" The man frowned at him. "DC Chris Skelton. You're looking for a lost desk?"

"No." Sam showed him the warrant card, something clean out of a fancy dress party, but then they all looked like they were ready for one.

"Oh, God." Skelton went pale, then brightened. "Well. Welcome to CID, DI Tyler. Though I don't know as how you've been assigned a desk yet. You'd want to check with the Guv. In a bit, boss."

Sam rubbed his eyes, trying to figure out what all that meant. He didn't insist on "Guv" in his CID--it was the kind of thing that separated a leader from the people he was trying to lead, rather than showing respect, and "Sir" had always been enough for him. Not that anyone in the place was going to call him that, dressed as he was. "And just where would I find this 'Guv'?" He raised his voice. "And what the bloody hell's going on here?"

The door of the glass-walled office at the far end of the room opened. Skelton backed up several feet from Sam, as though he could be assumed to be guilty of something by mere association. "There you go, boss," said one of the others.

Sam glared at the man who swaggered out, confident, rather overweight, his tie negligently loose round his neck and entirely unnecessary as a signifier. "Okay," Sam said. "All right. Surprise me. What year is this supposed to be?"

It was several bruises and an intimate encounter with a filing cabinet before he got another real breath, and by then he had his face pressed to Hunt's desk, wishing to God he'd gone anywhere but here. As if anywhere else could be any better if the office he knew so well had gone to hell. "I'm not making up bloody stories!" he insisted for the third time. "I'm a Detective Chief Inspector and I will not tolerate this kind of treatment from anyone!"

Hunt patted his shoulder and showed Sam his own warrant card--the false one, at any rate. "Says here you're my DI. So stop bloody arguing with me and get to work, petal, or I'll have you demoted down to Detective Chief Bog-Washer."

Sam spluttered with fury, though Hunt still had his arm pinned against his back and he couldn't work free. "And for the record, I am not a bloody sub. Someone put me in these fucking clothes. I don't dress like this, I don't live like this, and I am not going to start for the likes of you."

"Is that so?" Hunt leaned over him, on top of him, the weight of his chest against Sam's back. "You know something, Tyler? I don't believe a word of it."

It was one of Sam's recurring nightmares, though he hadn't confessed it to anyone in years. He wasn't a sub--not by any legal definition and not by practice as far as anyone was going to prove without the testimony of those rare few among his lovers he'd dared to trust. And they wouldn't testify, he was sure of them, and if they would have, they wouldn't have been able to do it anywhere near Hunt.

So exactly how the man could be so bloody sure of something Sam wouldn't admit under concerted torture--Sam made himself keep breathing as smoothly as he could. "Fuck off," he said, afraid to fall into the trap of protesting too much, but unable to let that go by without some kind of denial.

Hunt laughed in his ear. "You came highly bloody recommended for a pushy bottom, you know. They think the sun shines out of your arse, but I don't, sweetheart. New town, new top, new rules."

"Let me go," Sam said, as sternly as he could with half his breath.

"When I'm bloody good and ready." Hunt squeezed Sam's wrist. "You've got a long way to go before you impress me, and the first thing you'd better learn is your place."

Sam pressed his forehead against the desk and willed himself not to make any uncomfortable noise. It only encouraged tops like this, the ones who thought they had some kind of innate superiority. "My place?" he asked, when Hunt had stopped and didn't seem to be about to elaborate.

"You work like gangbusters, you take down the guilty and protect the innocent, and I'll forget how much you like having your hands tied." Hunt patted his head and stood up, though he was still holding Sam down effectively. "But you put one toe out of line--you say the wrong thing to me, you mouth off when you should be saying, 'Yes, Guv,' and I'll make you hurt so much even you won't enjoy it."

It was easier to say, "Yes, Guv," than it would've been to say, "Yes, sir," though Sam didn't think Hunt merited either title.

"Good lad." Hunt swatted his arse and let him up.

Sam was sure half his blood was in his face, which was hopefully something of a distraction, as too much of the rest of it had gone to his prick, despite the humiliating circumstances and the unforgiving grip of his trousers. "You tell me what cases you want me to work on--Guv--but don't you touch me like that."

Hunt leaned against his desk and lit a cigarette, though Sam was sure, thinking about it, that he'd had one a moment before. "Which part, exactly, is bothering you, love?"

"My name is Sam Tyler," he said firmly. "I'm a--detective inspector. And I'm not here to polish your floor, give you a chance to practice your knots, or clean your shoes, so stop bloody well calling me 'love,' and keep your ruddy hands off my arse or I'll have you begging me for mercy."

He didn't know whether to expect Hunt to shout at him or toss him over the desk again. He wasn't expecting him to laugh and thump Sam on the shoulder, not gently but clearly not a punishment. "You might just do, Sammy-boy."

Sam was sure he kept the shiver that name gave him well inside. He'd had practice hiding his instinctive responses to tops who managed to find his buttons, at least. "Give me something useful to work on, then."

"We'll find a thing or two."

*

"You should see somebody, boss," Chris said for the third time. Sam sighed. He was not in the habit of ignoring advice that seemed reasonable just because it happened to come from a sub, but he didn't want to show weakness in front of Hunt or anyone else in the office.

"I'm fine," he said, though he felt confused, miserable, and twenty kinds of awful.

"If you say so."

Thirty minutes later, a woman in a PC's uniform came up to his desk. "You wanted to see me, boss?" she said, her voice soft but with an underlying confidence that made him look up at her immediately.

"Did I?" If he'd known she was there, he would've wanted to see her, that was true, from her calm demeanor to her smile. He stood up, trying not to stare at her eyes or her breasts too much. "I'm sorry, DI Tyler. Sam. And you are?"

"PC Annie Cartwright. I've done some first aid training." She looked round, though most of the rest of the office seemed to be ignoring them, more out of respect for her than for him, Sam was sure. Chris was bent over his desk, pretending he didn't have a thing to do with the PC's appearance. "DCI Hunt's out of his office. We could borrow it a moment."

Sam blinked at her, and at himself; he was already standing, ready to follow her wherever she asked him to go. He was better at controlling his impulses than that. Or he was better than that at home, at least. This was nothing like home. "I don't think I need first aid," he said, but she was going into Hunt's office, and Sam was trailing after her, a step behind, as if he was obeying the Deference laws without meaning to.

"No?" Annie frowned slightly, studying his face. "You look like you've come down with something fierce, and Chris said you'd got concussion. Though your eyes look all right, so far as I can tell."

"I don't think whatever's wrong with me is exactly physical," Sam admitted. "I--you're going to laugh at me."

She shook her head. "I promise, I know better than that."

He rubbed his eyes, wondering what she saw in his expression beyond what he meant to put there. "When I woke up this morning, I wasn't in this year."

Her eyes widened, but she didn't laugh. "Sounds like you had a bad dream."

"No, it's like I'm dreaming now." Sam shook his head and gave her his most confident expression. "I was a kiddie in 1973, Annie."

He expected her to say, "Cartwright," to correct him out of the familiarity, but she didn't so much as blink. "You're not making sense, DI Tyler."

"Neither is the world." Sam sighed. "If it is a dream, wake me up. Hit me."

She smiled, brief and tantalizingly pretty. "Now, I'm not sure that's the best thing to do on first acquaintance."

"No, really." Sam spread his hands, palms up, and it took him a second to realize what he'd done. Anyone outside watching would see it as a sub's gesture, not one that any DI should use. "This isn't me. Wake me up if you can."

Annie shook her head and Sam turned away, sighing. She struck him from behind, unflinching and sharp, the kind of pain that would surely wake anyone who was actually dreaming, and he half-crumpled, already bruised from having spent time over Hunt's desk.

While Sam struggled to get his breath back and keep his pain off his face, and the door opened behind him. "Staking a claim already, Cartwright?" Hunt asked, sounding amused. "Watch out for this one. He thinks he's bloody clever."

"He's suffering the after-effects of some kind of head trauma," Annie said, sounding just as self-possessed as she had addressing Sam. "I don't think he's entirely well, Guv."

"I could've told you that without the inspection." Hunt shook his head and gave Sam an irritated look. "I've got work to do here. Get a PC to run you home, Tyler."

The thought of getting a ride to 2006 from one of the PCs in the antiquated uniform Annie was wearing made Sam laugh. "I don't know where home is," he said, entirely truthfully.

Annie sighed softly. "See, Guv, trauma."

"He'll have more trauma, swooning around this place, if I have to catch him." Hunt scowled and lit a fag. "There's an address in the files, Constable. Check it and take him home before he gets himself collared by some plod who thinks they rule the roost."

Sam cleared his throat, the kind of noise meant to imply, "There is a conversation going on about me right now and it offends me not to be included."

"And if you're coming down with the lurgy, call out tomorrow, Tyler," Hunt told him, meeting his eyes with the kind of intense glare that it was difficult to contradict. "I don't need you infecting my good officers with anything."

"I'm not sick," Sam said.

"You're not well," Annie said, and put her hand on his shoulder. "Come on, boss, I'll see you home safe."

Home was nothing like the clean, spacious flat he'd chosen and decorated himself on his DCI's wages. That had been a lovely, open place where he'd been proud to have people over, a flat that showed everyone where its owner stood in the world. This did the same, but entirely on the opposite end of the spectrum: dark, dingy, poorly furnished. Sam picked up the fold-away bed and winced at its flimsiness. "Well. At least whoever decided I should live here didn't give me an en suite top to go with it," he said, trying to make a joke of it.

Annie laughed and peeked into the kitchen area. "No, I don't see anyone. Why, are you with someone?"

Maya had told him she needed space, a few weeks back, and he'd taken her at her word, bereft of other options. The breakup had the chance to break him, so it had to be as amicable as he could make it. "Not just now," Sam said, and tried not to think of the way Annie was moving through the bedsit as if she had every right to it. "God, I wonder--" he opened the chest of drawers, looking for any clothing that was his: his suits, his ties, his carefully chosen things. He wasn't expecting them, but neither was he braced for the open shirts there, and not a belt in sight.

The trousers, when he held up a pair to check the size, looked tight enough that he shouldn't need one, but it was the principle of the thing.

"They certainly look like your clothes," Annie said, and he could feel her measuring him as much as see it.

"They're not." Sam folded the trousers and put them on top of the shirts so that she couldn't see them. "I'm going shopping, now that I know where my flat is. I need real shirts, ones that button properly, and ties."

"And just where do you think you'll be wearing those?" she asked, sounding disapproving.

"Work." He tugged at the shirt he was wearing. "I can't go in there like this. I look--you know exactly how I look."

Annie pressed her lips together for a moment. "If you go in tomorrow with a tie on, they'll have you up on Deference charges. You know that."

"I'm not a sub," Sam said, for what felt like the tenth time that day. "I never have been. Someone put me in these clothes when I--when I suffered that head trauma."

"It'll be in your records, then." She sounded like that would explain everything. "You must've registered when you joined the force, one way or the other. If someone did dress you up, that's a rotten trick."

He hadn't thought of that, or of the differentiation that had been made obsolete in the reforms in the Nineties. The only records that required the marking, post-Deference repeal, were those that had to do with partnership registry. "In my records." Sam took out his warrant card and read it again, seeing things in it he hadn't noted before.

The side with his name was overlaid with an S, subtle if one wasn't looking for it but marked indelibly into the paper.

Sam sat down on the unreliable bed, afraid that if he didn't sit he'd fall. "The records are wrong. All of them. The ones that say when I was born are probably wrong, too. I can't imagine they'd go round writing down that I was born in 1969, but I was, and here I am anyway."

Annie took his card out of his hand and said, "Hmm." She didn't sound at all surprised by the mark. "You're pretty tall for your age."

"I don't know what's going on." He put his head in his hands. "I don't think this is real--how can this be real? How can you be real?"

"How can I not be real?" She sat next to him. "Look, Sam, you can see me, and hear me, and I know you can feel me. What else is there?"

Sam shook his head and looked up at her, aware of how close her thigh was against his. With a real woman, especially one who made every part of his mind that had ever deserved that S on his paperwork sit up and take notice, he would think it was a come-on, but she wasn't real. "You're in my mind," he said.

Annie took his hand and pressed it to her neck, lining his fingers up so that he could feel her pulse. "I'm here. I'm real. Surely you can feel that."

Every beat of her heart made him want to believe her. "But this isn't my life. I don't know whose it is, but I would never live like this."

"It's not so bad for a single sub on their own," she said mildly, as though she'd ever been in that situation, or could ever be.

"I don't know how to show you that I'm not." The only obvious option was lurid and static in Sam's head, refusing to connect with this reality. Annie was not the kind of person he could top readily, even if he had been at home and in control of his surroundings.

Annie laughed and stood up. "Well, I'm hardly going to stare at your floor, so that's me out for a start. I should be getting home, in any case."

Sam's leg felt cold where she'd been pressed against him. "Or you're telling me you have to go because my brain's tired of imagining you."

"Sam--" She shook her head, looking sad. "If that's what you believe right now, maybe. Maybe I am going to disappear, and you'll wake up safe at home, in the future, with whoever it is you're expecting to find on their knees by your bed waiting for you."

The image made him blush, not least because he couldn't expect anyone to wait for him like that. It was an old-fashioned image, created well before the subs' lib movement got going in a serious way. "No, I don't expect that."

"You sound as if you do." Annie opened the door. "Good night, Sam. Off I go to stop being real."

He found that he didn't want her to disappear, though he couldn't bring himself to ask her to stop. As the door closed behind her, he got up, then opened it again. The hallway immediately outside was empty, but Annie took a step back toward the doorway, as solid as she'd been before, and Sam backed up. "You're still here."

"So I am." Annie patted his cheek. "You get some rest, now. I hope you're better in the morning, but promise me you won't come in with a tie."

The weight of everything he was being asked to bear pushed down on him, but the touch of her hand buoyed him up slightly. "I won't," he promised. "I don't need to be tossed in the cells my second day here."

"Good." She smiled and let him go. "See you tomorrow."

"See you."

*

Sam felt worse the next day for having slept on what felt like a pile of scrap metal, argued with his television when it told him to kneel, and woken up in the same horrible place he'd gone to sleep. When he dragged himself into work, Hunt grabbed his arm and pulled him into his office. "What were you doing all bloody night?"

"I was in my flat. Alone." Sam met his eyes before he remembered that might be a bad decision. "Why? Did something happen?"

Hunt frowned at him. "I'd say you look like you were beaten to a pulp and tied up in knots, but that'd make you smile, at least. Here." He poured Sam a measure of scotch and handed it to him.

Sam grimaced at it. "Drinking on the job before nine-o'clock."

"It'll put color in your cheeks." Hunt patted his cheek, not gently. "So would a good drubbing, if you'd rather that."

"I haven't done anything wrong."

"Everyone's guilty of something."

Sam groaned and drank the scotch in one go, then grimaced. "I don't feel any better."

"Maybe you will when you've done something useful. Get out there with your new mistress and pound some pavement. We need some leads on those missing girls before the next one's dogmeat." Hunt pointed toward the door with a cigarette in his hand.

Sam looked up and saw Annie waving at him. "You can't expect me to drive a minute after you gave me alcohol," he said irritably.

Hunt laughed in his face, his breath half smoke and half scotch. "Christ, no, not a neck-bender like you. Who's been teaching you on the sly?"

"My mum," Sam said. "And she was a sub, but she had to learn. It was only the two of us."

"Touching story, Sammy, but a girl might be dying. Go."

In the end they found Dora just in time, though she was wan and looked like hell when they untied her and got her free. Gene made a production of thanking Sam for being helpful, and he didn't outright order him to destroy the mental health paperwork. He didn't even try to assert himself in a subtler way, and Sam was grateful for that.

If he was going to choose his own damnation, he wanted to know he'd done it of his own accord and thinking with his brain.

And then there was Neil, hanging round the station, staring after Annie. Sam couldn't bring himself to ask whether they'd been together in any meaningful way. It wasn't his business, after all.

But Neil sounded like his television, though that was impossible. Everything he said made Sam feel as though he was impossible, and as though Annie really would melt away the moment she was out of view.

Change something, he said. Take control. Be yourself.

That was how Sam decided to go onto the roof, to show everyone and everything that he could make his own bloody decisions and he didn't need anyone to order him about.

"Sam!" Annie called from behind him, and he turned and smiled at her.

"I'm in control," he said. "I'm going to do what I have to do to wake up."

"Come here," she said, and he took a step back from the edge before he realized what he was doing, bumping into the guardrail.

"You can't--I'm not listening to you." Sam moved away from her another step.

"Please, Sam." She sighed. "Think of it this way--either I'm your mind telling you what to do because I know what's best for you, or I'm your colleague telling you what to do because you're being a danger to yourself."

Sam held onto the guardrail. "Or you want to keep me here, and you're some kind of terrible nightmare."

"Do I look like a terrible nightmare?" she asked, with a weak smile. "I know the wind's fierce up here, but really."

She looked like herself, pink in the cheeks and reaching out for him. She made Sam want to be all the things he'd been called, do all the things he'd tried to convince himself he didn't really want. "I don't know."

From the street, Neil shouted, "I'm sorry, Sam! It was a game!"

"See?" Annie said. "Neil's a fool, but you don't have to be one. Listen to me, Sam."

He took her hand. She still felt real, incongruous grit on her palm and all. "I--you're sure."

"It's all right, Sam. We all feel like jumping sometimes, but we don't, you and me, because we're better than that. Come back from the edge, now."

Sam hesitated another moment before he climbed back over the guardrail. Annie caught him in her arms, holding onto him as though he'd somehow manage to fall at that distance from the edge. "Sorry," he said. "I'm so afraid."

"You don't have to be afraid. I've got you, love."

Sam took a shuddering breath and managed to laugh into her hair instead of crying. "Better let me go, or you'll have me on my knees in a minute."

Annie tugged his hair fondly, though she let him go. "Let's get off the roof first, at least, all right?"

*

"You're wrong, Guv!" Sam shouted, right in the middle of CID.

Gene's face went red, then white, and he grabbed Sam by the collar of his jacket and dragged him into his office, then pushed him down in the corner. "Knees. Now. Don't say a word."

Sam had never used this procedure as a DCI--and it was a procedure, documented in all the literature--and least of all had he ever wanted it used on him. "For God's sake, you know I'm right."

Gene scowled at him. "I know you're not bloody listening."

"Nor are you." Sam took a deep breath, as deeply as he could breathe with his knees pressing against cold tiles, knowing that everyone in the office outside was waiting to see what he'd earned this time. "Lois Wright wasn't lying to us, and the more you say she was, the more foolish you make everyone look."

"Right." Gene took his tie off. "Open your mouth."

Sam shook his head, mouth firmly closed. Procedure dictated that he had to listen, he had to do what his superior officer said, but he was damned if he was going to accept that Gene was his superior when he wasn't paying any attention to the facts.

"Open it, or I will open it for you."

Sam had had an array of bruises dating back to his arrival that made this sound like a perfectly credible threat. Resistance wouldn't get him anywhere.

As Sam opened his mouth, glowering at Gene, he wondered exactly how things would be going differently if he'd managed to keep his pretense going between decades. No one in 2006 would've told Sam to kneel by his desk, no one would've dared gag him with a hideous tie that tasted of silk, nicotine, and sweat.

Gene's chair creaked in protest as he sat heavily in it. There was the click of a lighter as he lit a fag and sighed, sounding contented with his place in the world.

All of Sam's real colleagues knew, or thought they knew, exactly how much of a top their DCI was.

Maya had helped with that--and he missed her fiercely, then, not only for the ways she'd understood him and abetted him, but for the way her smooth, cool hands felt on his skin after she'd given him a good thrashing, guaranteed by dint of long practice not to leave marks for more than half an hour. In his CID, people listened when he spoke.

He'd hidden it all so well.

Whatever had made Gene see through that--in the first second, the bastard--had made Sam lose everything. Everything except his job, and that was something, though the more he fought with Gene, the less anyone respected him.

That wasn't true, either, he told himself, and catalogued the office carefully. Everyone who thought of themselves as a top was probably on Gene's side in the matter, but Sam had caught Chris watching him with something that seemed like approval. Maybe even hero worship, though Sam knew he wasn't popular even among the subs.

"Got a few files for you, Guv," Chris said then, and Sam wondered whether he was dreaming him up to make the torment worse.

"Thank you, Chris," Gene said, more politely than he normally managed. "Set them here."

Sam peered up at them without moving his head, trying to be subtle in his surveillance. Chris had his eyes firmly on the floor and he was blushing, not looking at either of them.

"Anything else, Guv?" Chris asked.

"No. Go on back to your desk." The tone Gene used with him was the gentle one he rarely brought out in public--almost never for his officers, unless they were in danger, or one of the younger PCs was struggling. Whatever Chris had done to earn it, Sam found himself envying that softness.

Sam never merited that sort of consideration from Gene. If he bollocksed something up, he did it loudly and publicly, well beyond any hope of "It's going to be all right." If he did the right thing, Gene found some way to take credit for it, microcosmically if not macro, and that meant he was screwed coming and going. All he knew how to do was follow the rules--the rules that had let him get to the level where he belonged--and now following the rules was completely, utterly useless.

That didn't make him useless; that meant he needed to learn the new rules. And the old ones that hadn't fallen out of favor yet, but had by the time Sam joined the force. Sam shifted his weight on his knees as his thighs started to cramp and hoped Gene would say something. He couldn't see a clock from where he was, but he thought he'd been there about five minutes. More than long enough to make a point.

Gene didn't respond. There was only the sound of a paper falling into place as he opened Chris's files and started reading.

"Got a call in, Guv," Ray said, coming into the office without knocking.

In 2006, Sam's office walls were covered by truly opaque blinds when he needed to discipline an officer, and the soundproofing was better than anything that had been invented yet. Gene's office had Venetian blinds that he never drew. "What is it?"

"That bird who was missing--Carrie Trier--she's come back home."

"Good." Gene waited a beat, as Sam did, waiting for Ray to say anything of consequence. "Is that all?"

"Thought you'd want to know." Ray wandered into the office a few steps, trying to act nonchalant and failing. "Always rough when they won't listen, isn't it."

"What are you on about?"

"You know, Guv." Ray put his hand on Sam's head, as someone might pet a dog or claim a sub. "They get uppity, sometimes."

Sam wanted to bite him, but he settled for knocking Ray's hand away.

Two seconds later Ray hit the filing cabinet face first, his arm pressed up his back and Gene holding him there. "You do not touch your superior officers like that, ever, or I'll have you on a beat with an S on your warrant card. That clear?"

"Yessir," Ray said, sounding pained and breathless.

Sam knew precisely how that felt. The part he didn't entirely understand was how vehemently Gene was protecting his dignity while simultaneously beating it to shreds.

Gene let Ray up and thumped his shoulder once. "Back to work."

The lack of blinds meant everyone had seen that, and they were likely watching. Ray was the sort of top who made a show out of his theoretical dominance. He'd probably got everyone's attention with a murmured, "Hey, watch this," before he'd come in.

He went stumbling out again and Sam didn't try to see how anyone responded. If they thought his show was amusing, more power to them.

Someday Sam would make it home again, to an office where his desk was tidy, his warrant card said exactly how hard he'd worked for his job without any undercutting marks, and where no one would ever dare that kind of shit with him. He didn't need Gene to look after him.

He could almost convince himself he didn't want Gene to look after him, either, especially when he was being punished so openly and in such an embarrassing way. Being beaten was one thing. Everyone dealt with that kind of discipline, no matter which way they swung. But no one put a top on his knees and expected him to take it.

That thought made Sam consider charging to his feet, throwing Gene's damp, horrible tie at his head, and storming out. But he knew that if he went, he would be going away from everything he half-knew, not going towards anything he could understand.

He went back to thinking of Maya, how she'd handle this problem, and how he would make it through until he saw her again. If she was all right, if she'd take him back--he pretended everything would be all right. It was better than thinking of how chilled his knees were or how tight his muscles had grown, and it was much better than acknowledging, even in the quietest, deepest part of himself, that he liked having Gene throw people around to defend his honor.

Or that it had turned him on.

He denied that anything--anything at all about this place, especially not the violence, the smoke, the DCI--turned him on at all.

Sam did not let himself sigh. He didn't want to give Gene the satisfaction.

"Got another file," Chris said from the doorway. He was still blushing, but this time he looked at Sam and winked at him under his unruly fringe.

It was heartening in a strange way. Chris was just about the bottom of the pecking order in CID, which was how anybody could send him in to bother Gene twice in ten minutes, but he still had his pride. More, since Sam had started working with him, talking him up to Gene and to himself. He'd done a few things, helped with a few cases, and that got him out of the collator's den once in a while.

That, and losing the top who'd had him collared. Nobody wanted to be responsible for getting someone's sub injured, and the only other collared sub in CID was DC Reynolds, whose top Mary sat at the desk beside her and kept a careful eye on her, both in the office and on the rare occasions she was needed out on cases.

"Tell them to stop sending in ruddy files, Skelton," Gene said, though again, there was no edge to his voice. "I've got plenty to read without you popping in and out like a cuckoo clock."

"Yes, Guv," Chris said, and left.

Sam resisted the urge to sigh again, though he was growing increasingly uncomfortable. The longer he knelt, the more his thighs complained, and the more his brain went in circles. This was hardly the best use of his time, and he'd tell Gene that as soon as he got the chance.

He should tell Gene right now. It wasn't as though his hands were tied. He could remove the gag at any point. All he had to do was lift his hands up, remove it, and talk. But the moment he did that, he'd be rejecting the discipline, rejecting Gene's authority, and starting it all up again. Whatever the next step was past being made to kneel in public, Sam wasn't looking forward to it. He made a mental note to look in the disciplinary code the next time he could move freely and had a moment between cases.

Gene read for a while longer--five minutes, ten minutes, twenty--Sam was losing track of time, losing track of everything but how tired he was of being uncomfortable and humiliated. Eventually Gene stood up and said, "Stay right there," before he left the office.

Sam didn't want to do it, but he knew what the penalty for disobeying a direct order outside of an emergency situation was, and he didn't need ten strokes before he went home. He closed his eyes and counted his breath instead, trying to keep track of how long Gene had been gone. It was a minute before Gene came back.

He didn't say anything, didn't touch Sam, just went back to his desk and started reading again.

Sam was desperate for some kind of stimulation by then, preferably something to do other than hate himself for taking this as well as he was, but not so desperate that he dared to cut it short. He knelt up instead, taking in a sharp breath through his nose as his calves twinged.

"We're going after your Lyell case next," Gene said, and Sam had to look around the office before he was sure Gene was addressing him. "And if any birds tell us fibs, we'll take care of them."

It didn't sound like an apology, but then nothing Gene said ever did. Sam didn't dare look up at him--meeting his eyes while he was being disciplined was a good way to make it go on twice as long, and he didn't think his knees could take it. He nodded, and thought over the files they had so far, witness statements, forensics, everything that they could use to put a case together.

He didn't let himself wonder why he'd been given that piece of information until he'd thought over three complete statements, as best he could recall them.

"You wanted tea, sir?" Annie said from the doorway. "Oh."

Sam felt himself flush and had to fight the urge to crawl behind Gene's desk and hide. She'd seen him, and if she'd somehow missed him, surely all of CID would've asked her what she thought of Tyler on his knees by the time she got out of the room again. Annie was a wonderful girl, quiet, bright, all of the things that normally made Sam yearn to bow his head to someone.

He was sure that she'd thought less of him since the debacle with Joni Newton, though she was one of the few people who'd judged him for having sex with a witness and a prostitute, rather than simply because he'd apparently subbed for her.

Gene stood. "Ta, Cartwright. And you've been reading up on the Lyell case."

There was no reason to involve a PC in the case, none at all, except that Sam had discovered Annie's psychological training and used it to CID's benefit in the past. That was one more way that Gene had stolen the credit, then: Annie almost certainly that Gene had been the one to recognize her brilliance, not Sam. With her obsolete mores, she probably didn't think subs could think fast enough to realize how smart she really was.

The thought made Sam tighten his hands into fists. He had no chance of being himself here and no chance of impressing anyone as he seemed to be.

"Yes, Guv," Annie said. "I did read the files, though I'd like to talk them over with you--and with DI Tyler--before I come to any conclusions."

"In an hour," Gene said. "Unless something comes up."

"Of course, Guv." Annie took a step back, her heavy shoes thumping on the floor. "I'll come by again."

"You do that." Gene crossed the room, walking right in front of Sam, and there was the shushing noise of blinds closing.

Sam tried to remember if he'd ever seen this office shuttered and couldn't think of a time. Not for anyone's discipline, that was certain. Gene preferred to make that public enough to discourage everyone else from doing anything similar. All hands before the mast, he called it.

It was darker with the blinds drawn, though not so dark it was hard to see. Gene knelt in front of Sam. "You done arguing?"

Sam's immediate, truthful response was to shake his head.

Gene snorted. "Right, you've not got concussion today. You done arguing about that one bird? Done telling me I'm wrong in public?"

Sam nodded, though he wasn't sure that was true either.

Gene reached around his head and untied the tie. "Get up as slow as you need to."

Sam gritted his teeth, trying not to groan as he levered himself to his feet. He ran his hands over his thighs and hissed instead of whimpering, which was slightly more macho, but not enough for his injured pride. His mouth still tasted like Gene's tie. "Don't do that again," he said.

"Don't argue with me in public." Gene put a tea cup near the edge of the desk where it would be easy for Sam to reach it, but when he reached for it, he ended up catching himself heavily on the desk instead.

"Don't be wrong in public--shit." Sam closed his eyes and took deep, careful breaths while his muscles screamed. "How long was I down there?"

Gene put an arm round his waist, steadying and heavy. "Not long enough if you're still arguing."

"Not in public," Sam said. His voice betrayed how much pain he was in, he was sure, though that was part of the punishment.

Gene laughed once. "Got a hold on the desk?"

Sam tried to figure out why he might be asking. "Jesus, you're not going to beat me next."

"What did you do that I haven't found out yet?" Gene asked, rough in his ear, much more reassuring than a flat "No" that could be rescinded at any point.

"Nothing." Sam leaned more heavily on the desk, and Gene let him go in order to pull his chair over.

"Sit down, Tyler," Gene said, smacking the edge of the desk next to Sam's hands.

Sam frowned at the desk, then realized what Gene was talking about. He moved the tea, then sat on the edge. It was an indiscretion in its own right, worth a stern talking-to if not a more physical reprimand, if he'd done it without permission. "You're not going to get me on misuse of police property," he said, aware that he sounded more nervous than he normally did around Gene.

"For this? No." Gene picked up Sam's tea again and offered it to him. "One sugar, no milk, you bitter bastard."

That was how Sam normally took it, in direct contrast to the cloying, milky mess Gene favored where one could hardly taste the tea. Twenty-first century tea that didn't come from the canteen could actually stand up to being drunk that way. This stuff might've been better for the extras, but he hadn't managed to teach himself to stomach it yet. "Thanks," Sam said. He didn't ask how Gene knew, as that might sound like an insult to his detecting capabilities. Instead, he dug the heels of his hands into his thighs, trying to work the knots out before he had to go back into the office.

"Want a hand with that?" Gene asked.

Sam froze, doing an immediate inventory of all the things Gene could be offering. He wasn't hard--not right then, not until he started wondering whether he was--and the only pressing problem was the fact he couldn't walk straight.

"What?" Sam asked, feeling like an idiot.

"No fun being on your knees, is it? Well, not there, anyway." Gene patted Sam's knee, almost lightly enough that it didn't seem like a proprietary gesture. "Bet you don't mind it other places."

Sam closed his eyes, the only acknowledgement of that he was willing to give at this range. He hadn't spent much time on his knees for anyone over the years, what with the need to pretend he was a top and the difficulty with finding people who liked him enough to help him pass. On the shining occasions when he'd managed to work things out with someone--an out of town business trip, a carefully negotiated liaison--it had made him happier than he'd wanted to recall back home. It felt safer to remember it here, with Gene a foot away, and that was the clearest sign of all that Sam was losing his mind.

"You did your time for being a snippy little ponce," Gene said, his face so close to Sam's that if it had been another situation, if Gene had been someone else, Sam would've thought he was about to be kissed. "I can't have you limping around after me if we've got blaggers to chase."

Sam swallowed hard. "Are you seriously offering me a massage?"

"And a biscuit, if you want it. Got to keep your strength up." Gene sounded amused.

When Sam opened his eyes, he reconsidered dismissing the possibility of a kiss. "That would be--helpful. Thanks." The only thing it wouldn't help was that Sam wasn't sure he could make it through five seconds of a rubdown without an erection, no matter how fiercely he thought of the worst things he could imagine.

Gene's hands on his thigh did nothing to ease his arousal, no matter how harshly he pressed at the knotted muscles. "Jesus, how'd you stand up?"

Sam covered his mouth with his hand. The last thing he wanted was for the office to hear him moaning in Gene's darkened office after what they probably thought was a fair, well-earned punishment. "Willpower," he said, in a brief pause.

"Not bad, Sammy-boy."

That particular endearment made him shiver in a way that most of the nicknames Gene threw at him didn't. He'd never been anyone's boy, rarely let himself think about it as a possibility, since he finished school and had more important things on his mind than where his next orgasm was coming from. It sounded like the kind of thing a top said to a sub that he wanted to keep, not just work with, and Sam couldn't let himself believe that of Gene. Or of himself. He was going home as soon as he figured out how, back to people who respected him unquestioningly.

And Gene wouldn't want him, not an untrained, irritating man who hardly accepted that he was a sub at the best of times and fought it all the rest. He had the whole of the city to choose from, and surely he could find someone kinder, gentler, and prettier than Sam.

He'd barely had time to form that thought before Gene kissed him.

Sam frowned at him. "What--look, this isn't me. You have to know this isn't me."

"That's a 'no,' then?" Gene patted his thigh again, the one he'd been working on, the one that felt like Sam might be able to run on it at a moment's notice, and let him go. "All right."

Sam covered his face with his hand as briefly as he could manage and still put himself together a little. "You have no idea what I want. But this isn't it."

"Don't I? Christ, you're not subtle, love. You want to do a bloody good job, and you do, when you keep your mind on your work and off shouting at me. You want to prove yourself, and you keep on doing it." Gene shrugged. "And you want someone to take a firm hand with you, or you'd mind your ruddy tongue better than you ever bother to."

"I'm not a sub," Sam said, keeping his voice as level as he could.

Gene laughed in his face, loud and raucous, and patted his knee again. "You've been doing a good job of acting the part, then. Are you some undercover johnny infiltrating my department as a weak-kneed little prick?"

"No." Sam folded his arms. "I don't want this, that's all. Not from someone who doesn't understand me."

That got Gene to stop grinning at him, for better or for worse. "I don't understand you at all, then. Could've sworn you've been begging for this since you strutted in here, coming the big man in my office till I showed you what's what. Pushy bottoms aren't my style, Tyler, but you--" he shook his head, looking away from Sam long enough that it nearly felt like a victory. "And what is this bollocks about you not being a sub? Not going to tell me you've got a nice little sub on their knees waiting for you back in Hyde every night, while you slum around here in your bedsit."

Sam tried to picture living that kind of a lie, but he'd never found anyone who'd wait for him like that, never found anyone he'd clicked with to that degree. There had to be someone, though. He was sure he'd mastered enough of the mannerisms, enough of the necessities, that he'd be able to convince a reasonably naive sub to accept him, though in this decade there were the Deference laws to worry about.

"I don't have anyone waiting for me--what kind of a bastard do you think I am? But I'm not--I don't want this from you." He was aware as he said it that it wasn't strictly true, but he couldn't take another hit to his pride. "I want to get back to work, not--" he couldn't meet Gene's eyes and say it "--let you kiss me."

Gene let out his breath in something that wasn't quite another laugh. "And you're telling me you're no sub."

"Everyone's got the potential to be a switch," Sam said defiantly. There had been research--he couldn't remember when it had been, but he'd read it, and even in the 1970's people had to know it was a possibility. "So--if you're reading me as a sub--that's you, not me. At home--"

"You keep your potential to yourself around here--and don't you go telling everyone you think they're a switch. I like your arse the shape it is right now, not beaten six ways from Sunday." Gene shook his head. "There are people who'd not be caught dead on their knees."

"I know. I'm bloody one of them." Sam stood up and winced at the tension in his muscles. He was too close to Gene all over again, but at least this time he'd chosen it. "So piss off. And the next time you're angry with me, for God's sake give me a dozen of the best, like you'd do the rest of them."

Gene put his hand on Sam's shoulder. "You don't know what the hell you want."

Sam was willing to accept that that might be true, but only for brief periods and only in the privacy of his own head. He wasn't about to say so to Gene or anybody else. "I told you what I want. Now back off."

Gene touched his cheek before he took another step back, a glancing brush of his fingers that should not, under any circumstances, have made Sam want to be on his knees again. "Behave yourself out there, Sammy-boy."

"I'll do my fucking job," Sam promised him.

When he opened the office door, limping as little as he could manage, he was greeted by an Oo-er from everyone.

Part of his mind thought he might as well have taken that kiss and whatever else Gene wanted to give him. Obviously closing the blinds was a sign--not the "Someone has done something wrong and will pay for it" sign Sam always used it as, but "Someone's getting fucked." If they were all going to assume--no. It was better that he knew the truth. Sam held his chin up and walked back to his desk as smoothly as he humanly could.

"You all right, sir? I mean, boss?" Chris asked him quietly, bringing tea a few minutes later, when everyone's focus was hopefully back on their jobs rather than Sam.

"Nothing happened," Sam said. "And--thanks."

"Ray said--"

Sam raised his voice. "All I got from the Guv was the discipline I--I deserved for being insubordinate. Nothing else."

Someone behind him whistled. He didn't turn to see who it was. There was work to be done.

*

Sam wasn't sure exactly how many levels he'd escaped death on during the hostage situation in the Gazette offices, but it seemed like as good a night to get drunk as any he'd seen yet. It helped that Gene was standing half his rounds, even if he was standing half Gene's.

That was a parity he hadn't expected, exactly. Almost like equality, and there was a term no one was going to say seriously for a few years yet. Subs' liberation was still a joke.

And Sam was going to be a liberated sub, if he was a sub, whatever the year, while he was in a place where he'd been marked out so clearly. He could do what he wanted when he wanted to with whomever he liked, no matter what people thought of him for it.

"You're not driving," he told Gene, when Gene reached for the keys at the end of the night. There was something of DCI Tyler in his tone, something that made Gene pause before he looked up at him.

Pissed as anything. Pissed as Sam. "Nor are you, then," Gene said, not arguing the point, not calling him out for giving him an order in public. "Come on." He stood, swaying slightly on his feet. "Cold air'll do us good."

"Where are we going?" Sam asked.

"Not letting a pretty thing like you walk home alone, am I?" Gene put a hand on his shoulder, though which of them he was trying to balance was anyone's guess. "God knows what'd happen to you."

Another night, a night more sober than this one, any other night, Sam would've pushed his hand away and told him to piss off. Not taken it as his due, not walked with him to Sam's flat and talked about footie all the way, nothing important, nothing even flirtatious. "Come in. Have a drink," he said, when they'd made it there unmolested.

Gene leaned on the doorway, still not fixed from the time he'd broken it in. "You sure about that?"

"Just a drink," Sam said, and let them in. He nearly dropped a glass getting two out. "Maybe I've had enough."

"Maybe." Gene sat in one of his kitchenette chairs and lit a fag. That smell would linger all night and get into the curtains, but they'd had worse. "That makes one of us."

Sam sighed and poured him a small measure, enough to wet the mouth and little more. Looking at Gene, relaxing in his space, made him want to do everything he'd promised himself he wouldn't. "Here."

Gene held the glass up to the light and examined the level of the liquid. "I'd get drunker than that kissing you right now."

The phrase made Sam shiver. "Look--Guv--"

"Think you mean 'sir.' We're off the clock."

Sam made himself meet Gene's eyes, though it took an effort to do it. "I'm glad we're alive."

"And you're not drinking with me." Gene tipped the glass and the liquid sloshed to one side, nowhere near in danger of spilling out. "And you're standing there while I'm sitting. Not so polite, are you."

"I'm not kneeling in my own bloody flat." Sam ignored Gene's snort and poured himself a taste of scotch. "I'm not."

"Can't think of a better place for it, except mine." Gene reached toward him, glass extended. "To staying alive."

Sam clinked glasses with him, thinking of his mother's voice on the phone, of the doctors who'd thought he was already dead. He didn't know how to reach them except by living here as hard as he could, as loudly as he could manage. He drank off the swallow of scotch in one go and set his glass down.

There were things he hadn't tried yet. Joni Newton had been a mistake, a dream, a drug, nothing he'd intended. He hadn't given up anything to her, not really, but she hadn't given him anything back, either. Being tied to the bed didn't make him a sub any more than putting on stilts made someone tall.

He could feel the room tilt gently when he looked down at the table and he considered that he was, in the end, exceedingly drunk. Whatever he did at this point, he could write it off the next day as a bad choice enabled by too much booze if it went poorly.

Sam had never worked at the skill of falling gracefully to one's knees, as the better subs could manage. The real ones made it seem perfectly comfortable, but he didn't want to do it wrong and bruise his patella, so he worked his way down, one hand on the table.

"Christ," Gene said quietly. "Changed your mind, did you?"

Sam took a deep breath and carefully did not glare at him. "I'll change it back again if you're going to be a bastard about this."

"The last thing I want to do is give you a reason to stop. What's your safeword, Sammy-boy?"

He shook his head. "Never came up with a better one than plain old 'safeword,' sir."

"That'll do."

Sam was expecting Gene to leap into action, to order him around immediately and creatively, to do some bloody thing. There was a silent moment, then another, where nothing happened, and it was nearly impossible not to look up at him and ask what he was thinking. That wasn't allowed, Sam knew that much. He shuffled forward on his knees, feeling foolish, until he was close enough to touch Gene.

"You've been holding out on me," Gene said, though he wasn't reaching out. Sam couldn't figure out what he expected here.

"I don't--I don't do this," Sam said, sure that it was at least half true, and pressed his cheek against Gene's thigh.

He felt warm and solid, and smelt alive, in all the good and bad ways that made up a real person, smoke and whiskey and sweat. "Too bad," Gene said, and put his hand on Sam's head, stroking his hair. "Been thinking about you like this since I saw you the first time."

Sam was sure that was true. He'd ended up his knees entirely too often to leave any doubt in his mind that Gene had plans for him, though he hadn't pushed the sexual side of things when Sam turned him down. "God. I wasn't--I don't want to want this."

"I worked that out, thanks, love." Gene patted his cheek.

"Oh, for God's sake." Sam sat back on his heels, pulling away. "I'm not asking for a bloody collar, here. You don't have to treat me like I'm made out of spun glass."

Gene put his fingers under Sam's chin, forcing his head up until they were looking one another in the eye. At some point, he'd got rid of his fag-end. "So you do want me to be a bastard."

Sam scowled at him. "I don't need you to gentle me into this. I knelt for you. What the hell else do you need?"

He was expecting to be slapped for that or worse. If he'd taken that tone at work, Gene would've hauled him off for some kind of punishment. Here, like this, it made him laugh. "Point made. Right, then, suck me off and don't be quick about it."

Sam had never mastered the tricks of unfastening someone's clothing with his mouth, and it was a relief when Gene didn't protest his using his hands. He could probably manage it sometime, if he had to, but not drunk. As for the rest of the process, he'd had some practice sucking pricks over the years. God knew what Gene's standards were in that department.

He didn't complain, though. Sam had the basics down: teeth out of the way, tongue makes up for a lot, hands are great if they're allowed. "There, now, that's good," Gene said, when Sam had started. "Just what I needed."

Sam didn't let himself laugh, though he was tempted to. If Gene had really needed this, there were any number of people he could've walked home for a sure thing. Sam was a long shot--had always tried to seem like one--and he didn't believe for a minute that Gene had honestly expected this of him.

The next time Gene touched his hair, it was less gentle, more of a push. "Take a little more--there's a good boy."

The words made Sam shiver involuntarily. He didn't get half as much praise as he was used to--he'd set up a culture of it at work, positive reinforcement for everyone, top or sub. It made everything run more smoothly, and it reminded people to value each other. As for sex, he hadn't had any consensual encounters in this godforsaken decade, and he missed being touched.

That was what he told himself. It wasn't that the words meant anything; he was sure that the minute Gene was done, he'd be up and out of the flat, barely looking back long enough to say "Good night." It was just the kind of thing people said in the middle of sex, like atheists who yelled, "Oh, God," when they orgasmed.

He tried to make his sigh into a moan, but it didn't come out as convincingly as he'd hoped. Gene tugged on his hair. "You still with me, there?"

Sam let him go long enough to ask, "Where else would I be?"

"Take your trousers off," Gene told him. "And your pants."

"I'll freeze," Sam complained, but he did it, folding his trousers with a few efficient motions and tossing the pants in the direction of the laundry basket. He kept his eyes on the floor the whole time, going with the classic methods, for all Gene had forced him into eye contact before. It was easier not to know whether Gene was looking at him, or what his expression was. Sam had nothing he hadn't seen, between the Trent case and Joni Newton, but it was different like this.

Gene sniffed. "Barely having any fun, are you?"

"It's cold in here," Sam said defensively, covering himself with one hand though it wouldn't accomplish anything to restore his privacy or dignity.

"Not that cold." Gene pushed himself to his feet and Sam braced himself for a shove at his shoulders that didn't come. "You hate being on your knees that bloody much, do you?"

"That's not it." Sam shrugged and didn't look up. "What do you need from me? Sir?"

Gene smacked him on the arm, not as hard as he normally would as a prelude to some kind of reprimand, but still hard enough to make Sam feel it strongly. "I don't want you off in your head while you're doing this. If you're sucking me off, you'd better be enjoying it."

Sam bit his lip, trying to keep himself from smiling at the impossibility of that request. It wasn't that he couldn't or wouldn't enjoy it, but he couldn't force himself to. "It was fine."

"Fine. C'mere." Gene put his hand around Sam's prick and stroked him. "Fine, and you're bored to death."

Sam looked up at him without thinking, frowning at him and trying to read his expression. "I wasn't bored."

"I was." Gene kissed him, running his free hand through Sam's hair and holding him there, teasing at his prick until his hips jerked and it was too hard to stay quiet, even with his mouth full of Gene's tongue. "There," he said, when he let Sam go. "Now you're awake, at least."

Sam ran his hands down his thighs, shivering. "What do you want?"

"Better question that time." Gene kissed him again, then let him go, sitting down again. Sam swallowed the urge to moan. "Go back to it. And tease yourself, if you're falling asleep, but don't come till I say."

Sam couldn't be as gentle after that. He didn't have the patience or the concentration for it, and he wasn't trying as hard. Gene hissed at the first unintentional scrape of teeth. "There's my Sammy," he said, his voice as rough as his hand, tangled in Sam's hair. "Knew you were in there somewhere."

Sam tried it again, the same stroke, the same scrape, and Gene snorted. "God, where were you hiding? All that picture-perfect sub shit--not you. Not like this--you'd fight anybody, wouldn't you--but I've got you now."

That was at least as good as the sweet praise he'd said earlier, and much more plausible as far as Sam was concerned. He hummed in response. He couldn't have let go if he'd wanted to, not without putting up enough of a fuss to make Gene think he was trying to safeword.

"This is where you wanted to be, isn't it. Fighting so fucking hard--Jesus, like that, your bloody mouth--for what? Is that what turns your crank?"

Sam shivered, completely unable to respond without words. Sucking Gene harder didn't feel like a "yes" or a "no," but it felt entirely necessary.

"You'd better not fall asleep on me. I'll tie you to your bloody bed and leave you there till morning--know you like that--"

Sam nearly choked on the noise he couldn't make, and he couldn't have said right then if it was laughter or a sob. He'd hated it then, he'd hate it again, and it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference who had the keys.

"Send Cartwright after you in the morning--bet she wouldn't so gentle, this time around--oh, you like that, do you? She was giving you those looks, all bloody day, like she wanted those cuffs to be hers."

Sam smacked Gene's thigh, hoping he'd stop. There was too much there. He hadn't planned on giving Gene this much of himself, and he could hardly imagine turning around and doing the same for Annie, no matter how she'd been looking at him. The trouble with Annie was that he wanted to belong to her as much as he wanted her, and he couldn't have said half the time whether that was sexual, romantic, or both.

He already belonged to Gene, for all it had taken him this long to come to terms with it. Professionally, it was one thing--professionally, he was almost Gene's equal, functionally his partner, not shoved down face first on his prick and feeling like he belonged there. The thought made him groan low in his throat.

"Is that how it is?" Gene tugged Sam's hair again, not pulling him off. "You greedy little slut. Were you waiting for her to notice, or have you been following her around on your knees when I wasn't looking?"

Sam thumped Gene again, protesting, though the image was compelling. He dug his fingers into Gene's side, under his shirt.

"Stop that." Gene pushed his hand away. "I'm not half done with you yet."

Sam's jaw was starting to ache and he tried to press the issue before he ran out of stamina, sucking harder.

Gene patted his cheek and sighed. "Maybe half--God, you look good like this. Add it to your procedures, Tyler. First thing in the morning: get to work, be a pain in the arse, suck me off."

Sam snorted. He had no intention of making a habit of this, or so he told himself--especially the parts of himself that could see it, the fuck-off blinds drawn in Gene's office, Sam on his knees doing this, maybe, sometimes, earning that "Good boy" and the way Gene was groaning now.

"More'n half done," Gene admitted, his breath coming shorter. "You swallow, Sammy?"

Sam tried to work out how to answer the question. One tap for yes, two for no, or was it the other way around, and what was the rule for disease control when he didn't believe Gene was entirely real? He was going to end up choking if he tried, he was sure of that. He pushed back against Gene's hand enough to say, "No."

"Damn." Gene ran his thumb over Sam's cheek, another gesture that would be sweet, some other time. "Next time--we're talking this through first."

There wasn't going to be a next time, but Sam couldn't say that.

He didn't want to believe it, either. It would make things too complicated at work, though, if they went through with Gene's fantasy. Sam had earned a modicum of respect by being good at his job, but he couldn't believe it would stick if he was also falling to his knees for Gene every day. The discipline had been bad enough, but at least people could tell themselves he hadn't wanted that.

He wanted this, now, as badly as he wanted to go home. It was simple--not the mess of emotions, not the mess of office politics, but this act, where he couldn't say anything he wanted to say, but he could give Gene something concrete for once.

"All right, there?" Gene asked.

Sam hummed, lacking any better reply.

"Do that again--God, I'm buying you a fucking collar--"

Gene pulled his hair hard enough that it made Sam's eyes water, but that was nothing compared to the double gut punch of those words, absolutely a lie, and Gene coming, hard and shaking.

Sam pulled off as soon as Gene let him, breathing through his nose and coughing, and hit the bathroom. He looked like a wreck even after he'd washed his mouth out--lips puffy and red, eyes watering still, though he could hide that well enough by washing his face. "Fuck," he said to his half-shattered reflection, and went out again.

He was expecting Gene to be asleep in the chair, or at least drowsing. That left him entirely unprepared to be tackled onto his bed, which creaked alarmingly. "You," Gene said, pinning Sam's hands over his head. "You told me not to be a bastard, but you've been hiding all this, all this time."

Sam tried to catch his breath. "I wasn't hiding anything."

"The hell you weren't." Gene got both Sam's wrists under one hand, then met his eyes. "This all right?"

"I've had worse." Sam rolled his shoulders, checking how badly he'd cramp if he stayed like that for very long. "But--no handcuffs. All right?"

Gene laughed and patted his cheek. "You sure about that? I know you had fun with them before--"

"I was high as a kite." Sam pulled his wrists free and pushed Gene away, though he didn't go far. "I didn't want that, I don't want it again, and if you don't promise me right the hell now you won't do that to me, ever, I'm done with you."

"Shit, Sammy-boy." Gene shook his head, the teasing gone from his tone. "No means no. Was it that bad?"

Sam shivered. "I don't remember half of it, but it wasn't good."

Gene frowned at him and made a considering noise. "I'm not her."

"Fuck, I know that." Sam closed his eyes and tried not to see Joni Newton. "You threatened to leave me here."

"I'd never really do that." Gene poked Sam in the chest. "Stay with me, here."

"Yes, but you said--"

"Christ." Gene wrapped his arms around Sam, crushing the wind out of him. "I know the rules as well as anybody. I could give those safety lectures to the kiddies."

"That'd be brilliant." Sam buried his face in Gene's neck for a long moment. "But--don't tie my hands. Not till I'm ready."

Gene kissed the top of his head. "You just let me know."

It was three breaths later that Sam realized his request had sounded like a commitment to do more of this, but he couldn't bring himself to mind. The words meant nothing, just like Gene mentioning a collar in extremis.

"So," Gene said, when Sam's adrenalin rush had more or less passed. "You going to sleep, or do you want something?"

Sam shook his head and shifted to get a good look at him. "If this is your idea of aftercare, I can't imagine how you get anyone to fuck you more than once."

"Haven't had me properly yet, have you?" Gene kissed him lightly. "Do you need a good coddle after all that?"

It wouldn't have gone amiss, but Sam hadn't been expecting it, so he couldn't say he needed any such thing. "I'm fine."

"Right." Gene bit his lip and Sam winced. "Complaining about how I'm doing things, sounds like you, but you're not going to tell me how to make it better?"

"Not done yet, are you?" Sam pushed at him. "Unless you're planning on leaving me hanging." He wasn't particularly aroused at that point, what with one thing and another, but it was only fair. Not that he'd ever expected fair treatment as such from Gene.

Gene rolled his hips against Sam. "Might've had a few too many to give you a good fuck tonight," he admitted, then sat up, moving back over his heels. "Come on, over my knee."

Sam didn't move except to blink at him. "What? Why?"

"Refusal to clarify procedure. Ten strokes." Gene patted his thigh. "Let's go, Tyler, unless you want more for loitering."

"It's my bloody bed." Sam pushed himself up on his elbows.

"Dalliance in the execution of an order. Five more."

"Oh, for God's sake." Sam rolled his eyes at Gene, sitting up. "I've never been in a relationship with a superior officer," he admitted, "but I'm sure this isn't how it's supposed to work."

Gene laughed once. "This is exactly how it's going to work. Unless you want five more, get over here now."

Sam tried to get his head back into the right place as he lay over Gene's lap, but it was eluding him. He sighed. "Look--I really don't like spanking all that much."

"Not painful enough for you?" Gene patted his arse, nothing close to a spank. "You get right hard from a good belting."

"That's not the same thing." Sam could feel his face heat with embarrassment and turned his head to hide it. "I--the pain is probably part of it, but this just feels ridiculous."

Gene rubbed his lower back. "Haven't had one from me yet, have you?"

"What, are you some kind of wizard when it comes to spanking?"

"Could be." Gene ran his fingers through Sam's hair, lingering more than he had before. It brought back some of the sense of giving in Sam had managed earlier. "Fifteen. Count off for me."

Sam said, "Yes, Guv," by reflex, then, "Yes, sir."

Gene lifted his hand, then paused. "One more thing--"

The hesitation gave Sam time to force himself to relax, though he knew that tension would just make the experience more painful. "What?"

"Soon as we're done with this, I'm sucking you off."

Sam blinked, trying to reconcile this with Gene's toppier-than-thou persona, and winced at the first smack. "One. God, really?"

"Calling me a tease? That's good for another five."

"Shit--two--sorry."

It hurt considerably more than the bare-handed spankings Maya had given him, and that was in its favor as far as he was concerned. The pause at ten for a good rubdown made the pain go mostly to tingling, and that, in turn, made the last ten more intense. "Twenty," Sam said, at the appropriate point, and waited for further instructions, feeling less silly and considerably more aroused than he had at the start.

"My hand's gone numb, but at least you're a pretty color." Gene patted him. "Right. On your back."

Sam hissed as he lay down. The pain wasn't anything like a proper disciplinary beating, but every time he moved, it was going to smart for a while. "That was your fault, you know. Could've used something else."

"You're too used to that." Gene ran his hand up Sam's thigh. "Still think I was teasing you?"

"I don't care if you were." Sam arched his hips off the bed, trying to get a moment's respite as well as more attention. "At least if you were teasing, you'll bugger off and I can take care of things."

Gene raised his eyebrows, sounding entirely unamused. "I'm tempted to stay and keep you from it, with that attitude."

Sam laughed. "Not if you ever want me to sub for you again."

"There is that. But at least I'd know I'd had you." He pretended to weigh the pros and cons for a moment, then took Sam's hand. "You're not coming without permission. And--I won't tie your hands, but put them over your head and leave them. Under the pillow--like that."

"Anything else?"

"Beg all you want. It won't make me go any faster, but at least it'll give me something to listen to."

He was true to his word, though Sam tried every single kind of plea he could think of from the basic--"Please, God, I can't--" to the more elaborate "I hate you, you bastard, don't stop--" and the eventual, truthful, "If you don't let me come, I'm breaking your bloody rules."

Gene had laughed off the rest and ignored all the other threats, but something in the last got to him, and he let go, ignoring Sam's incoherent, distressed noise and lying beside him--half on top of him, with the size of the bed. "Not bad," he said, stroking Sam's slick, aching prick. "Not bad at all."

Sam couldn't stop himself from swearing. "God, please, I have to--"

"I could keep you just like this," Gene said, and kissed him, squeezing him harder. "Next time. Right now--come for me."

There was one rebellious voice in Sam's head that wished it could stop him, just so he could disobey and prove that he didn't have to do what Gene said. The rest of him was united in a grateful, overwhelming orgasm that left him in a literal and metaphorical puddle.

"God," Sam said, when he could, and then he remembered his manners. "Thank you."

"Welcome." Gene patted his cheek. "Need a drink?"

"No. Thanks." Sam moved his arms experimentally. "Just a wash. And--and sleep. Soon."

"I'll get a cloth. Do you want the bed to yourself?"

It took Sam's drunk, exhausted mind entirely too long to figure out what that question meant. "There's not really space," he said. "I mean. Unless you really meant it about the cuddling."

"I'll go," Gene said, and handed him a warm washcloth. "Soon as you've got your head together again."

"I'm fine, thanks." Sam stifled a yawn.

"You're sure? Last thing I need tomorrow's you coming in shouting about how I'm bloody terrible in bed."

Sam laughed and wiped himself off, then dropped the disgusting washcloth on the floor. If it ruined the carpet, so much the better. He'd have an excuse to replace it with something he could stand to look at. "No. I--no. If anybody does that, it won't be me."

"Good." Sam was half-asleep by the time Gene was dressed. "I'd say you should lock up behind me, but--"

"Yeah." Sam made himself open his eyes. "Turn off the light?"

Gene paused by the door. "You're dead to the world, aren't you?"

"Maybe." Sam waved sleepily at him.

"God, Tyler--" Gene hesitated a moment longer, then came over and kissed him, one hand in his hair. "I meant it about your morning routine."

"Mm-hm." That was an argument for some other time when Sam was more than a quarter conscious. "See you."

"Behave yourself," Gene said, and turned out the light as he left.

*

The little Indian restaurant in Rusholme smelled as good as Sam was expecting it to, but he'd forgot, when he suggested it, what year it was. The small tables had, on the average, a chair for every other diner, and a cushion for the rest of them.

He hesitated in the doorway and Gene said, "What, changed your mind already?" behind him.

The only option was to walk in, though he didn't keep his eyes on the floor, and he probably shouldn't have been walking ahead of Gene, for all that. "Can I help you?" the waiter said, obviously taken aback at two Caucasian men wandering into his restaurant at that time of night.

"Table for two," Gene said. "One chair."

Sam elbowed him. "Two chairs," he said, as quietly as he could manage.

"Don't you start that liberation shit with me." Gene gave the waiter an annoyed look. "Ignore him, he's drunk. One chair. And you--" he said to Sam, one hand firm on his arm "--try and remember your place for a minute or two."

"Everyone deserves a bloody chair," Sam said, but that was decidedly not the case by anyone else's standards. The cushion he was given was thin and worn, clearly showing the imprints of too many knees, with stains from assorted meals. It left him at nose-height to the table with an excellent view of the edge of plates and glasses. "I am never eating out with you again," he told Gene firmly. If they'd been any closer to the station, he would've stood up right then and walked out, but he didn't know the bus schedule and he was miles from home.

Gene snorted and handed him a menu, the one with a blank column after the descriptions of the food. "Stop your grizzling."

"What--you said I'm paying." Sam shoved the menu back at him. "Give me the one with the prices, at least."

"Does it ruddy matter--fine." Gene smacked his hand with the other menu, but gave it to him after that. "Are you always this bloody charming on a date?"

Sam glared at him, though Gene was looking at the menu and pretending not to notice. "This is a date, now?"

"Trying to read here, Sammy-boy."

The descriptions on the menu with prices were much more complete, explaining the various spices in case someone came in who didn't know the difference between cardamon and curry. They were poorly spelled in places, but that was tolerable, and there were several dishes Sam knew he wanted despite the typos. He set the menu down well before Gene had finished with his, despite the extra text. "Ready when you are."

"How anybody can remember the difference between all this bollocks--" Gene closed his menu and gestured for the waiter, who'd been giving them a wide berth. "I'll have the lamb and spinach korma," he said, mispronouncing it, "and the tandoori chicken for him."

"Oh, for God's sake." Sam smacked his hand on the table. "I don't want chicken, I want the jehangiri kofta. Please," he added for the waiter's benefit. "And mango lassi. And two orders of naan."

He was vaguely aware that there were people staring at him, including a few elaborately dressed subs on cushions of their own who clearly could not imagine what would make the English man so forthright.

Gene was staring, too. It took him a moment to compose himself enough to respond, "Well, you're the expert. Fine--no chicken, whatever the hell he said." He pointed at Sam's place setting. "And no fork for him, either."

Sam glowered at him, but it didn't seem to have any effect. He didn't want to do more than that with the waiter right there, for fear they'd be thrown out and he'd end up having to cook something for Gene. Cooking wasn't a problem--far from it--but it was one thing to play a part that didn't suit him in public. At this rate, he'd end up sauteing in the nude, and that was asking for trouble. He looked at the edge of the table while the waiter removed his fork, then back at Gene. "And you're always charming too, aren't you? What procedures did you want to discuss like this?"

"Nothing much," Gene said, and leaned back in his chair, looking relatively at ease with the current state of affairs. "Missus is off for the week, and I don't eat alone."

Sam blinked at him. He hadn't said a single word about her while they were doing things that would drive any self-respecting sub to mutiny, if her theoretically loving top did them with someone else. "Just the week."

"What?" Gene pushed one of the water glasses closer to the edge of the table. "Have a drink. I can hardly hear you."

He wasn't particularly thirsty, and he'd only been speaking quietly because he didn't want to draw any more attention to them than they already had, but he had a sip for the sake of form. "Just the week?" he asked again, more loudly.

Gene's expression closed down for a moment. "The year," he said. "To the ruddy day."

"Oh." Sam set the water glass down again and reflected on the myriad reasons anyone with the least bit of sense would have for leaving Gene. "Sorry."

"Don't go spreading it around," Gene said, and shook his head. "She never spent time with any of the blokes from the station, so they don't know. And they don't bloody need to know."

"God." Sam put his hands in his lap to hide that they were shaking slightly. Of all the things he should've figured out--of course she hadn't been allowed out. Of course anyone who belonged to Gene for more than a night would be as well-protected as he could manage.

A reluctant voice in Sam's conscience reminded him that he didn't want to belong to anyone in any case, but it was farther away than it had been for a long time, like someone on the radio, as much a part of his past-future as the doctors. That voice seemed less important than the one that was louder and more disappointed. No, there was nothing between him and Gene, only a night, and nothing to do about that except work through it. And work was the operative word. Sam tried to imagine moving into a quiet house on a quiet street and not being allowed to see anyone from the station. He reckoned he'd be putting his head in the oven inside of a month.

Gene nudged Sam's knee with his toe. "Weren't my fault," he said, his voice quieter, nearly lost under the ambient music. "I didn't do a ruddy thing she didn't like. Just--didn't work out."

"Right," Sam said, and lost track of the next thing Gene said because the ambient music had switched to something he recognized, a fast-moving song that he owned as an MP3. It had come out in the Nineties, and it didn't belong there. "What--" He stood up and went to look at the radio.

"Oh, Christ." Gene dragged him off of it just as a doctor started to explain something about sensory tests. "I haven't had a bite to eat since half seven." He pushed Sam to his knees at their table. "You stay there and stop touching things till I've had my dinner or I'll lock you in my motor till I'm done."

The threat only registered peripherally for Sam, under the flicker of the radio: a nurse saying something, then the music again, then the song that actually existed in 1973. The moment was gone, whatever it had been. He wanted to scream, but it wouldn't get him anywhere.

"You hear me?" Gene asked.

Sam looked up at him. "What?"

Gene shook his head. "Relax, Tyler. Enjoy yourself."

Sam shifted on the thin cushion and tried to calculate exactly how long it would take to convince Gene to give him a spoon. "Yeah. Right."

*

Sam felt a right idiot trying to explain things to Glen--Glen, who played the consummate top, who dared anyone within shouting distance to tell him he hadn't earned his place, no matter what color is skin was. Sam couldn't have asked for a better mentor, back home, but he couldn't quite see the Glen he knew in this young, difficult man.

Glen was less than pleased to be assigned a sub to work with, even if that sub technically outranked him. And he was from Hyde, or so the paperwork said. He should've known something, then. He should've shown Sam the same kind of respect he always showed subs, in the decades when Sam knew him.

"I'm just as bloody competent as you are," Sam didn't say, over and over again, though the temptation was strong as hell. It was easier to show him, to save his life and solve the case.

And at the end of it, Glen shook his hand like Sam was good enough. As good as a top.

It made the tension ease in Sam's chest, just slightly.

*

Sam wasn't comfortable approaching Annie about infiltrating the sub-swapping party at Roger Twilling's home, but he was more comfortable talking to her about it than to anyone else he might've gone with. The last thing he wanted was to attend with Gene and put himself at his mercy in a situation where they had to accomplish anything professional. Sam trusted himself to keep his mind on the case, but he didn't trust Gene as far as he could throw him, even in the face of a murder investigation.

"We should pick our roles," Sam said, turning to a new page in his notebook. "And Twilling is definitely not a sub by any stretch of the imagination."

Annie smiled at him kindly, as she usually did when he was making a useful point. It made him feel warm and accepted in ways that barely anything did in this decade. She said, "I wouldn't want to put you in danger, love. If he's not responsible at these parties of his, it'll need someone more assertive to take him down."

Sam sighed. "I'd be fine. I'm assertive. I wouldn't--God--I wouldn't fall into his wicked wiles or whatever you're worried about. He's a murderer, potentially, and I'd not forget that."

"Of course," Annie said, though he didn't think she believed him. "Still, you're not to go in there alone."

There were any number of ways he could contradict her, beginning by pulling rank and following it up with his years of seniority as an officer. On the other hand, if she couldn't trust him, the operation would fall apart before it began. "Then--well. You could go in as a sub, I suppose. Not that you seem like one," he added hastily.

"I could do my best." Annie batted her eyelashes at him and tilted her head to one side, suddenly and disturbingly vulnerable in ways she never was at work or anywhere else he'd seen her. "D'you think I could make it work, sir?"

Sam swallowed and straightened his shoulders, trying to remember how it had felt to pass as a top in a different style of clothing. Without a proper suit, he felt as though the weight of this century bore him down. "You'll do," he said. "And I can manage the opposite role as well as anyone."

The corner of Annie's mouth quirked and she giggled at him. "Sure, yeah. At least, when it's the two of us, you'll be all right."

"I can manage myself in all kinds of situations," Sam said sternly.

"'course you can." She sounded fond, then, more than he was prepared for. It was more like being patted and called a good boy than anything else, and he hadn't had that in far too long. Gene's efforts in that direction didn't count.

Sam cleared his throat and looked at the notepad, where he hadn't written anything. He scribbled down, "Switch roles," to start with, so he'd look like he was accomplishing something. "How d'you think we met?"

"I was just out of school, and you swept me clean off my feet." She dimpled at him again, then eased off her chair, falling to her knees next to him.

The whole situation made the hair on the back of Sam's neck rise. It was terrible to see her there, doing things that didn't suit her. "Get up. Please."

"You'll have to get used to it if we're going to make this work. Get a hold on yourself, sir." Annie put her hand on his knee and squeezed, too hard for a sub's gesture. "And they have dinner before they go off, don't they? I don't suppose they do that newfangled thing with everyone in chairs."

"Jesus." Sam wrote that down, too, focusing on forming every letter perfectly with his pen. "So what do you do?"

"Do?" Annie spread her hands and settled back on her knees. "I do what you tell me."

Sam pinched the bridge of his nose. "Right. I suppose I need some kind of career as a cover."

"Good thinking," she said, and he fought himself again. It was only Annie's way, to be positive toward the people around her. It didn't mean anything.

Playing the top's role as "Tony Blair" helped Sam keep his head in the game, though he could barely look at Annie square on with the heavy collar round her neck, and he had to pay close attention to remember to give her a fair share of dinner. He hoped his urges to protect his fellow officer came across as a top's protective, possessive instincts rather than anything incriminating, though he wasn't sure what to make of Twilling's sub. She was more assertive than he expected from a collared woman, and she didn't entirely respond the way he expected of her.

He was halfway to asking her whether she'd met switches at these sub-swapping parties when Annie shouted and he ran to her rescue.

Or meant to run to her rescue.

She was wearing red, her undercover collar still on, and wielding a whip with grace, dexterity--

Sam wasn't entirely aware his knees were giving out until Gene caught him round the waist and hauled him to his feet again. "C'mon, love. Work to do."

Annie grinned at him. "I've some names for you. Sir."

Their cover was completely blown, but that was only to be expected. Gene retrieved the sub he'd brought from the top who'd claimed her, and they got out of there in as close to one piece as could be expected.

In the car on the way to the station, Annie reached up from the back seat and put her hand on Sam's neck, a warm grip that made him shiver. "Are you all right, boss?"

Back to the work title; he didn't merit a "sir" from her, and they both knew it. "I'm fine," he said, though he wasn't sure that was true.

In the end it was Annie who saved Dennis Williams from Twilling's sub, for all Sam's work at the case, for all the roleplaying and the surveillance. But she did it with his tools, the things that they wouldn't have had, wouldn't have thought of, without him.

He bought her a drink, toasted her, let her bask in the praise from her mates, and she pointed out--fair-minded Annie--that she couldn't have done it alone. Not without Sam.

He wasn't sure who heard her say that. Gene, maybe. Ray wouldn't, no matter if she shouted it from the rooftops.

She sat beside him, there in front of everyone, in the pub that'd only just started to have chairs enough to go around, where Chris still sat on the edge of his chair as though he expected to be ordered out of it any moment and Geoff never used the stools. Too high up, he'd said when Sam asked, as though acrophobia applied to something that far off the ground.

Sam smiled at Annie and offered her his hand, palm up. He'd had that offer before, when he was pretending as well as he ever managed. Top me, it meant, in all the art in the Western world. Take me. Make me yours, for as long as you'll have me.

Annie raised her eyebrows at him, then put her hand round his wrist, a brushing, flirtatious touch that might've meant nothing or might've meant everything.

"Tyler," Gene said, snapping at him as though he'd botched the investigation.

Sam turned toward him. "What, Guv?"

"Your round."

It wasn't, so far as Sam could recall, but he didn't want to argue the point, not then. Gene had made the consequences for that very clear. He'd also left Sam alone, more than anyone would like, more than anyone would if they meant to be in a real relationship. Not at work--never, ever at work, and least of all when they were on the streets together, when Sam might as well have been leashed to him--but in the quiet times, the times when the world didn't seem real, Gene wasn't there.

Everything felt real enough to be going on with when Sam was with someone. But that wasn't something he could say to Gene: stay the night or I'll stop believing in you.

He'd said it to Annie, almost, that first day, after she'd smacked him.

He could never decide after that whether that was when he started to need this from her. It didn't matter.

Sam stood his round and tried to catch Annie's eye again, but Ray had sat next to her and Sam had no way of moving him short of starting a punch-up. He thought about it, about saying, "Looking for someone to tie you down for the night, Carling?" but the consequences would be worse than the potential pay-off. Ray might make that kind of joke as often as he farted, but Sam tried to be better than that. If he couldn't show respect for subs, no one would.

Annie glanced at him and smiled when he brought her a fresh pint. If there was something rueful in her expression, Sam couldn't tell.

"Did you put on your lead-soled shoes this morning, Sammy-boy?" Gene smacked Sam's arm when he got to him and pulled him down by his shoulder. There were no free chairs at Gene's table, and no cushions for the floor, either. It was still more comfortable to kneel there than in Gene's office, and after a moment Sam managed to forget that there were people watching. "What the hell are you doing with that woman?" Gene asked him in a fierce undertone.

"What anybody would," Sam said, glaring at him. Gene could only command him so far, and this was nothing to do with work. "Why, were you planning on taking her home?"

Gene gave him a shake and let him go, scowling. "You think you can do what you like, don't you. In and out of everybody's bedroom."

"I've barely touched anyone," Sam said incredulously. He didn't say, "Except you." He didn't need to.

"And you bloody shouldn't. How's a PC supposed to look up to you if they see you kneeling for someone?"

"Jesus, Guv." Sam spread his hands. "What's this, then?"

"Where you ruddy well belong."

Sam pushed himself to his feet, dodging away when Gene reached for him again. "Piss off," he said, and left the pub.

It meant ignoring Gene's shout of "Tyler!" and abandoning his fresh drink. The former was much harder.

He was two blocks away when he heard footsteps behind him. It was instinct to shift his gait, straighten his shoulders, and look like he could beat seven kinds of shit out of anyone who dared to touch him. He had his hands half in fists at his side when Annie said, "Sam, are you all right?" from a few steps behind him.

"I'm fine," Sam said automatically, turning to face her. "Shouldn't you be back there celebrating?"

"Shouldn't you?" Annie reached for his hand, and he let her take his wrist again. "I thought you and the Guv--"

"No." Sam bit his lip. "I mean--sometimes, but it's nothing official."

"You're sure." Her thumb traced the line of his veins, up the inside of his arm.

He shivered. "D'you think he would've let me go if it was?"

Annie laughed. "No. I know I wouldn't." She still had his wrist. "So you meant it, then?"

"If you'll have me."

She put her hand on his cheek. "I wouldn't have followed you else. Come on, then."

When they'd reached her flat, Annie wanted to talk it all through to every last detail. The more questions she asked, fully clothed and both of them sitting in chairs, the more Sam wanted to give her everything he'd ever been. "I don't know that I can handle any kind of bondage, yet," he said, and he couldn't meet her eyes. "I never meant that incident with Joni Newton to become a scene. Or anything. I only wanted to look after her, and she drugged me. I can't--" he realized he was rubbing his wrists, trying to chafe sensation back into his hands though they were fine. "I can't handle the thought of handcuffs."

It had taken them nearly an hour to get that far, boundaries and safewords and all.

"I have an idea about that," Annie said, and of course a brilliant woman would keep soft rope in her bedside table. Of course she'd know a complicated set of knots that could be undone with one simple tug, and she'd know enough to tie it round a pair of glasses first, rather than someone's hands. "See--" she pulled the loose end and the knots slid free. "I wouldn't mind if you had to undo it, any time. If you wanted."

Sam smiled at her more wholeheartedly than he felt like he'd smiled, sober, in longer than he cared to calculate. "God, you're wonderful," he said, and she laughed.

"It's some of the advanced work," she said. "Japanese, I think it is, or something like. Not everyone gets that kind of training, but they thought it was important for psychologists to know. For therapy, for couples." She offered him her hand. "And people who've had bad experiences, like you did."

"Let's try it," Sam said, and the thought didn't give him so much as a flutter of panic.

"When you're ready."

"God, Annie--" he squeezed her hand and let her go. "I've been ready. I've been wanting to give you--something--anything you'd take from me--for so long--"

She blinked at him. "What about your Maya?"

Sam felt himself flush at the reminder. But the truth was, either none of this was real and it didn't count for anything, or Maya was part of a lie in her own right. She'd known him, as much as he'd let her, but he'd always felt like he'd had to keep parts of himself back. "She's a long way away," he said, because that, at least, was true on both counts. "Please, just--" he slid off of his chair onto his knees, thinking of how wrong it had looked when Annie had done it and how right it felt to do it now. "I want to think about you. You, and no one else. Help me."

Annie stood up. "Take your clothes off and fold them."

"Yes, ma'am." He did it, slowly and carefully, feeling less awkward as he went rather than more so, as he sometimes did--other places, with other people. It wasn't uncomfortable to be naked in front of her, not when she wanted it from him, not when she wanted him there. He wanted to look up at her, to find out whether she was smiling at him, but he didn't dare.

"Sit on the bed and put your wrists out for me." Annie picked up the rope again and tied the same knot she'd done earlier, looping around Sam's wrists, firm enough that it felt solid, contained, safe, but not so tight that it would cut off circulation. When she'd finished, she gave him the loose end. "Pull it apart. Now."

"I trust you," Sam protested, not wanting to waste her work.

Annie smacked his shoulder, much more gently than she normally did when she was frustrated with him. "Do it. It only takes a moment to tie, and I need you to know that you can get free whenever you need to."

The knots slid apart just as readily as the demonstration had, and Sam shuddered as the rope fell free. "Will you show me how to do that?"

"Not tonight." Annie sounded less impatient than Sam thought she might. He kept delaying, pushing, demanding more special attention than anyone should. "Wrists out again."

"Sorry." He closed his eyes and held his hands out.

"What for?" The rope was cool against his skin, and her hands were warm where she touched him. "You haven't done anything other than arguing, that once."

"That's more than enough to make some people give up on me," Sam said, thinking of Gene, though he'd never quite given up.

Annie shook her head and touched his cheek. "Some people don't know what they've got when it's staring them in the face. I hope I'm better than that, at least with you."

"You always have been."

She sighed, half a purr, sounding pleased. "Right. God, do you flirt with everyone this much?"

Sam frowned and looked at his knees. "I wasn't--"

"No, I know you don't." She tugged his hair gently. "I don't think I'd talk to you if you did, that's all. You drive me mad enough with your time travel and your radios."

"I'm sorry." Sam went to bury his face in his hands, but she caught him before he did it, holding his wrists down.

"Look at me, love." Annie waited for him, two breaths and nearly a third, before he looked up at her. "Don't be sorry. Just promise me you'll try not to worry while you're with me. I don't want to wonder what you're thinking of in the middle of things."

"God, no." Sam shook his head and smiled, putting as brave a face on everything as he could manage for her. "No, I'd rather be here with you than--anywhere." For a few moments, that felt like the absolute truth, for all he wanted to be home.

The feeling intensified when she kissed him carefully. "Good. Lie down for me."

He felt off-balance, but he'd been feeling that constantly. At least with his hands bound he had an excuse, and she was watching him to make sure he didn't hurt himself.

As she had been since he got there--no, he wouldn't think of that now. He'd promised not to.

Annie smoothed her finger over the lines in his forehead just as he realized he was frowning and managed to relax. "All right?"

"Yes'm." It was getting easier to remember the honorifics. Something about the rope--he smiled at the obviousness of that thought, and Annie smiled back.

"Tell me what you want, Sam."

He swallowed and thought all the words through before he said them. "What I want--I want to make you feel amazing. I want to show you why I might deserve to be here, and--" he closed his eyes briefly. "I want to convince you that you should have me back again."

"Oh, sweetheart." Annie put her hand on his chest, mirroring the way she'd taken his wrist, that first day, and shown him that her heart was beating. "Your pulse is racing."

"I'm not surprised," Sam said, and let himself laugh. "You're lovely, and I've been waiting for this."

"So have I." Annie leaned over him, her hair tickling his nose for a moment before she kissed him. "But you weren't ready, and now I think you might be."

Sam made himself take a deep breath and did not think about how desperately he wished he could touch himself just then. It was easier to channel all that desire into concentrating on where he was and who he was with, the way she'd asked him to. "I think I must be, if I'm ever going to be. Please, Annie."

She took a step away from the bed, far enough that he could only see her face, and then bent over from the waist, easing her skirt off. "I think we'll have to keep the elaborate things for another time." She smiled at him and bit her lip, then unfastened her blouse, looking more confident with every button. "I'm not prepared for a long scene or pretending to be someone I'm not."

"Don't," Sam said, as he'd said when he brought it up. It was one point on a long list of things he'd enjoy, sometime. "Not today, not until you want it--I don't want anyone else, not now."

It was easy to stay focused on her, the sweet taste of her and the hungry noises she made, easier than Sam would've bet if he'd had anyone to bet against him. Annie whispered to him the whole time, guidance and praise and the gentlest corrections when he needed them, and he gave her everything he could.

"Give me your hands," she said after her third orgasm, and he looked up at her flushed and bright-eyed face from between her thighs.

"Did I do something wrong?"

"God, no." She found the loose end and tugged. "One more--and use your hands--there, yes."

Sam had to struggle to keep from touching himself, though she hadn't given him permission to, and he was ready to wait a while longer for it. When she knelt up again, she patted his cheek. "You--I think I'll keep you for a bit." She sounded more than slightly drunk, and when she lay beside him, she looked ready to fall asleep.

"Only a bit?" Sam asked, and touched her cheek, feeling as though he was daring a great deal even after the intimacy of sex.

"We'll see." Annie caught his wrist and kissed his hand. "You've worn me right out, love. Kneel up and touch yourself for me."

For all he'd suggested it in their extensive negotiation, the thought made him blush. It was easier to let other people take what they wanted from him than to give it freely. He'd been able to rationalize all manner of things as being taken, but this wasn't something he could justify that way in his head. "Are you sure?"

She tugged his ear, more gently than she had before. "I said, didn't I? Unless you're going to safeword on me now, get on your knees."

"No, I--" Sam shook his head and obeyed, though he felt disproportionately chilled everywhere he wasn't touching her. "Sorry," he said.

"Just listen to me, and we'll be all right. Go on, sweetheart. Show me how much you enjoyed that."

It was fairly obvious before he began, and once he had permission, it only took a few minutes before he was pushing into his own hand, wishing she'd touch him. "Please--would you kiss me? I--please, Annie--"

She laughed and pushed herself into a sitting position, then moved to do it. "You do beg prettily. Do you practice that when you're alone?"

Sam shook his head. "I--I just--I need to hold you again. To--everything--"

"Shh, I'm right here." She put her hand on the back of his neck again, as she had after the party, and kissed him, long and deep. "And you--you should come for me, Sam. You've been so good."

He didn't know which phrase set him off, and it hardly mattered in the end. He was drunk on the taste of her and the way she felt, and infinitely glad to belong to her, even if it was only for the evening. Bringing himself off was as easy as it had ever been, and all the more so for knowing she was watching, her fingers tracing the creases on his brow.

"Thank you," he said, with his first post-orgasmic breath.

"My pleasure, love." Annie smiled at him. "You go have a wash and come back quick, all right?"

Sam slept better next to her than he ever had on his rented bed, though it was a toss-up between her wide four-poster and Gene's. He woke up at half five, took stock of the situation, and realized he'd have to go home to change before work or face every kind of ridicule. "Annie," he said, petting her shoulder. "I'd better be going."

She blinked at him. "It's not even morning yet. Is it?"

"Nearly." He resisted the urge to embrace her again. "It was lovely--all of it. I'll see you at work, yeah?"

Annie smiled. "Of course. Be careful on your way home, now."

"I will be."

Sam's door was still broken, so he didn't try to unlock it before he opened it. Something fell to the floor with a crash inside, and before he'd got the door open halfway, someone had grabbed him and pinned him against the wall. Sam struggled, trying to free his arms, till Gene got his hands pinned and said, "Where the bloody hell have you been?"

Sam relaxed more than he would've credited. "You broke into my flat?"

"I broke into your flat weeks back, petal. I walked in, last night." Gene raised his eyebrows and kicked the door shut. "And there was nobody home."

"So you spent the night?" The intrusion made Sam's skin crawl less than it should. "What are you playing at?"

Gene shoved him against the wall again, a full-body crash that made Sam wince. "I ask the questions here, love. Where were you?"

"Is this a police investigation?"

"God give me strength. No, you bloody idiot, I'm not after you for anything but criminal wandering off on me."

Sam laughed at him, though he was still pinned against the wall and the only way out was around, or possibly through, Gene. "I must've missed the part where you said, 'Wait for me, Sam.' Or the part where you offered me a bloody collar, which you haven't done. Or even the part where you said, 'Tonight,' and I said, 'Yes, sir.' I don't remember any of that."

"You little limp-kneed neck-bender." Gene scowled at him. "You went off with Cartwright, didn't you?"

"She asked. I wanted to." Sam shrugged. "I don't belong to you."

Gene squeezed his shoulder hard enough to make him cringe. "That's news to me. And to her, I'd lay odds. What did you do for her?"

"None of your business," Sam said, though there was a gasp in his voice. "Jesus--let me go." He was ready for Gene to ignore him, to push further, though he didn't know what he'd do about that. The relief of release made his knees weak in the least metaphorical sense, though Gene hadn't backed off, so there was nowhere to go, even to fall.

"You bloody well tell people when you're tired of them," Gene said, breath close and morning-sour.

"I'm not tired of you." Sam was surprised to hear himself say it, and more surprised that it felt like the truth. "But I like Annie--"

Gene snorted. "Enough that you're using her name already. She must've beaten you senseless."

"It wasn't like that."

"No?" Gene shook his head. "Then she has no bloody idea what she's doing with you."

Sam laughed again, but only the once, and it felt bitter. "You've never beaten me senseless either."

"I'm inclined to start right now."

"You wouldn't."

Gene sighed and buried his fingers in Sam's hair, a casually possessive gesture that made him feel inappropriately comfortable after a threat like that. "I need your ruddy picky mind too much to leave you in a bloody heap, so, no. Not today." He scowled. "But if you run off on me again, I won't be so nice."

"I didn't run off on you. I didn't do a bloody thing to you." Sam met his eyes and glared at him. "I'm going to say it again till you hear me: this was nothing to do with you. It was what I wanted, and you're not to go demoting her on account of it."

"Jesus." Gene backed up a step, enough that Sam could move. "Is this how they do things in bloody Hyde? How many times do you need to be on somebody's lap before you realize you've got a standing invitation?"

Sam rolled his eyes. "'Get your arse over here' isn't an invitation, it's an order."

"Same thing."

"No, it's not." Sam folded his arms. "If you wanted something more than one night at a go, you should've said something. Not my fault if you didn't say it."

Gene snorted. "Pardon me for thinking you had a brain in your head, Detective Inspector Tyler. Change your filthy clothes so the whole station doesn't know you've been spreadeagled over her bed all night, and let's get to work."

The basic inconsistency of that made Sam frown. "You're going in wearing yesterday's clothes."

"And with you one step behind me, where you bloody well belong."

Sam covered his face with his hand. "No, you've missed the point again. I don't know what kind of relationship you think we've got here, but I haven't made you any promises."

"I got that bit when you sauntered in here smelling like Cartwright's soap." Gene prodded Sam's chest with two fingers. "Time to make up your mind, Sammy-boy."

"Make up my mind about what?" Sam frowned at him. "I haven't made Annie any promises, either, but I reckon she's smart enough to notice that."

"Might be. Or might be she thinks you're smart enough to notice that nice subs don't go round with their noses to everyone's carpet, and behave yourself."

"Smarter than you, then."

Gene pinned him to the wall again with another resounding thump. The neighbors were going to start worrying any time now. "What's it going to be? I'll not have you swanning off for a night with Cleopatra any time you miss the smell of a woman, not if you expect anything from me when you come waltzing back in at quarter to six in the morning."

"I didn't expect you at all. I expected you'd gone home, or gone off with someone else, or whatever the hell it is you do when you haven't decided to torment me."

Gene's hands tightened for a moment, enough that Sam had to grit his teeth not to make noise, and then he let go, backing off entirely. "If it's bloody torment, I'll be off." He wrenched the door open so hard it nearly came off the abused hinges entirely.

"Oh, for God's sake, it's not torment at all." Sam threw his hands up in frustration. "If you'd just listen--"

"I heard you," Gene said, and stomped out, though he'd left his coat behind and his shirt was unbuttoned.

Sam followed him out the door. "You can't go into work like that."

Gene flipped him the v-sign over his shoulder. "What the bloody hell do you care, Tyler? I'm not your problem, am I."

"Jesus, Gene--" Sam caught him by the arm; Gene froze. Sam had a distinct thought of "What am I going to do next?" before Gene turned, grabbed him by his jacket, frog-marched him back into the flat, tossed him onto the bed.

"Stay there," he said, his voice strained. "You're due in at eight. I'll send a plod round with a car."

Sam got up, ducking when Gene reached for him again, and slammed the door, getting between it and Gene. "Don't be an idiot. You're bloody fantastic in bed, is that what you want me to say? If you go storming off you'll wrap your car round a phone pole."

Gene grabbed his coat and looked round the flat, anywhere but at Sam. "You don't have to be a genius to work out the difference between consensual contact and forcing yourself on your subordinates. Might be there was a clue in there, right around when they start calling it 'torment.'"

"I was joking," Sam said, though it sounded weak. "Bloody horrible joke, all right, but you know I've been enjoying it. You."

"So much you followed someone else home." Gene's hand tightened in his coat. "Get out of the way, Sam."

"No." Sam had his hands up, ready to defend himself, though Gene was still several paces away. "Thing is, you start a relationship and don't bother to negotiate a single fucking thing, you teach people to read you out of self-defense. And I can read you." Most of what he was seeing was tension and anger, true, but he wasn't afraid, not in any significant way.

"You think so?" Gene was quiet for a long moment, long enough that Sam did start to worry, but he shook his head. "Read this--tell me flat-out which way you're going to jump, here, or call out sick for the week till I can look at you again."

"You can't put me on suspension for, for sleeping with someone else." Sam shied away from the term "cheating" because it hadn't been, not by his understanding of events.

"Watch me."

Sam pinched the bridge of his nose. "It--the thing with Annie--it's nothing like the thing with you. Never was, never could be. So it's not as though I've gone and found someone who gives me anything like what you do."

"Better, is she?"

Sam couldn't suppress his smile fast enough. "At the talking parts, yes. At the parts where I think she actually gives a damn whether it's me there or someone else--" he looked at Gene again and was deadly sure he was about to be punched in the face "--but if I want someone to fuck me through the floor till I'm begging for mercy, it's you I'd want every time."

Gene narrowed his eyes. "Funny how you keep not answering a simple bloody question. What's it going to be?"

"I don't know." Sam reached for him, palms up, a supplicatory gesture he would never have used in his old life. "I can't do my job without you and your shouting about my bloody place in the world, and if I can't do my job, I'm not myself."

"Then it's a good thing you've got a month off to work it out."

It took Sam a few breaths to make sense of that sentence. "You wouldn't. On what charges, for God's sake?"

Gene scowled at him. "What charges do I bloody need? You're a mental, out-of-control neck-bender who doesn't take orders on the best day, you alienate everyone in the whole ruddy department and half the time you think you can top everybody there except me. Give me three minutes and I'll give the Chief Constable a stack of charges that'll have him questioning why your precious Hyde mates ever gave you a badge in the first place."

"All this over--" Sam swallowed hard. "Over one bloody night. That's not how it's supposed to work."

"You're bloody right it's not." Gene's voice echoed off the walls. "You're meant to notice when somebody gives a toss for your sorry carcass. You're the sub, here. I wasn't going to go bringing you chocolates at work, for Christ's sake, putting flowers on your desk and reminding everyone in A Division you'll beg to suck my cock. You're meant to have half a brain in your head, you're meant to be a fucking detective. So detect."

Sam leaned against the door, staring at him as the pieces fell together. "If you'd ever said anything--anything but 'Get your kit off' and 'Bend over'--I might've had something to go on, there, Guv. Sorry."

"Bit late for that, isn't it?" Gene shook his head. "Get out of my way and I'll see you in a week. And don't ruddy call to find out if it's better yet."

Sam considered various options before he fell to his knees, ungraceful but heartfelt. "Let me make it up to you," he said, staring at the floor.

Gene left him hanging for several long breaths. "You're through with that woman, then."

It was difficult to negotiate without any particle of equality left to him, but Sam had never been good at giving up. "If you're through with treating me like some streetwalker you've just picked up whenever you want me. If you'll bloody talk to me."

"Jesus." Gene put his finger under Sam's chin and pushed his face up until their eyes met. "Did you have that girl bending her knees for you?"

The mental image made Sam laugh, though he couldn't decide whether the truth would make the situation more precarious. "God, no. Not Annie."

Gene sniffed. "Too bloody bad. I might've let you play with her every now and then if she was."

Sam shook his head, still trying to make it fit. "I don't--no. I don't want that from her any more than I want it from you."

"Not at all, then."

"No." Sam could imagine trying to do it, but he couldn't imagine being very successful on a personal or sexual level. He tried to think of ways to compare Annie and Gene that would be flattering to both of them, true, and comprehensible in 1973, but none of the analogies fit in his head.

Gene tugged on his hair. "You haven't bathed."

"I was going to," Sam said defensively. "As soon as I got home. But you know bloody well what happened when I got home."

"What did she do to you?" Gene was petting him, a little tug on every stroke. "No marks on your wrists."

"She was careful." Sam wondered, then, if she'd been trying to give him a chance to lie to Gene about it, in with everything else. If she'd known better than Sam had how furious Gene would be and wanted to leave him space to hide what he'd been doing. "Mostly we just talked."

Gene laughed once. "You're a bloody awful liar."

Sam bit his lip and looked at the floor again. "Well, there was a lot of talking. And I--" it was more embarrassing to put words to it for Gene than it had been for Annie. "I went down on her. For a while. And when she was done, I tossed off."

At the end of Sam's sentence, Gene hesitated. "Then what?"

"Then we went to sleep." Sam could feel himself blushing. "I told you--it wasn't about the sex. Not as such."

Gene snorted. "After that, then."

"I woke up and came here and got thrown against the wall by a jealous bastard who wouldn't know an honest expression of emotion if it bit him on his well-padded arse." Sam pressed his head up against Gene's hand as a sort of apology. "Nothing else."

"Hope you cleaned your teeth."

Sam shrugged. "Last night, yeah. This morning, I was hardly expecting to find anyone else to kiss."

"You haven't learned a bloody thing, have you?" Gene put his hand on Sam's neck, his other hand moving to his trousers. "Suck me off till you can't taste that woman anymore, and we'll say no more about it."

Sam bit his lip, tempted to point out that it had all been last night and he couldn't taste Annie in any meaningful way, any more than he could taste last night's supper, but it was easier to say, "Yes, sir," and give Gene what he wanted.

*

Annie was there well before they made it in, what with the trip to Gene's to fetch him a set of clothing. She frowned when she saw Sam half a step behind him, as he'd promised. Normally he felt that the Deference laws were for people who didn't have a job to do, but this once Sam preferred to follow them and appease Gene rather than risk another threat of suspension.

"Good morning," Annie said to Sam, coming over to his desk when Gene had gone into his office.

"Good morning," Sam said, though it hadn't been. "I'm just going to fetch some tea." It was normally Chris's job, but he wanted a moment out of the office. "Would you like to come with me and get a biscuit, ma'am?"

Annie's frown deepened. "All right," she said, and they went together. The kitchen was quiet at that hour--past the first rush, before everyone had finished their first cup.

"It's all gone a bit complicated, actually," Sam said quietly, and couldn't bring himself to meet her eyes while he said it. "I--I had to tell him that you and I--" he shook his head. "It was lovely. Really. But I'd missed a few things."

"You're all right, though." She took his hand and pushed his sleeve up, checking his wrist for telltale bruises. There were none, and no red marks either. "If he hurt you--" Her expression was thunderous.

He closed his eyes for a long blink, glad she couldn't think of an excuse to see his back. He had bruises coming there for certain from all the walls. "Not to speak of, no. I'm sorry."

"You're sorry!" Annie laughed once. "If he'd said anything of the sort--anything about promises--to you, you would've told me, wouldn't you?"

There was no way Sam could have lied to her about something like that, and he hoped she saw that in his expression, as she had the night before. "God, I wouldn't do that to either of you."

"I know." She patted his cheek. "You're sure you're all right."

"Yes. Now."

Annie lifted her chin and frowned at him. "And you'll tell me if he does anything to you--anything you don't want. Promise me, Sam."

The thought of confessing Gene's sins to Annie made him blush. "Why, what would you do?"

"I'd tell someone. He can't go round hurting you and getting away with it, not with him a DCI and all. No sub in the city would respect him for a moment if it got out."

Sam offered her his palms. "He didn't. I promise. It was just that I'd misread the situation."

"Just that he hadn't told you what he expected of you." Annie sniffed. "I should have a talk with him about setting bloody boundaries."

"God, Annie." Sam shook his head. "Don't--please. He'd probably find the least pretext to discipline you, today. Or suspend you, if he's in anything like the mood he was earlier." He bit his lip. "Which he shouldn't be, all things considered, but you know what he can be like."

"I know very well, thank you." She patted Sam's shoulder and caught him wincing. "What, there?"

Sam backed away a step. "I'm fine, thanks."

"You're not." She pressed her lips together. "You're nothing like fine, if he's been hurting you, love. What happened?"

"I can't. I--" He looked at the kettle and willed it to boil faster. "Please, Annie, just let it go."

Annie sighed. "For now. But I promise you, if he's not treating you as you deserve, he'll hear about it."

"From me, first." Sam squared his shoulders and managed to hide his wince this time. "If he'd just told me how things stood to begin with."

"Oh?" She raised her eyebrows. "Oh." More loudly, she said, "I think I've left it in Lost and Found, boss," and she took hold of Sam's wrist and pulled him in there, shutting the door behind them. "You're bright enough to know not to stick by him just because he--" she shook her head "--he tells you he loves you, sweetheart."

Sam studied his boots carefully rather than looking at her. "He didn't say anything of the kind," he said with perfect honesty.

"Did he offer you a collar?" Annie asked, keeping her voice low even though they were in the most private place they could reach readily.

"No." Sam rubbed the back of his neck, then caught himself doing it and let his hand drop. "He barely said anything--but he barely had to. I'm not that thick."

She hissed through her teeth. "If he thinks he's going to go round laying claim to people without giving them the respect they're due--"

The door opened behind her and Gene walked in, flicking the lights on and closing the door behind himself. It was all Sam could do not to flinch away from Annie, but he was sure that would make him look even guiltier than standing beside her. "How many trysts are you getting yourself into this morning, Sammy-boy?" Gene asked, an edge in his tone.

"I was just explaining how things stand to DC Cartwright," Sam said, or tried to say.

Over his words, Annie said, "You have no right to expect anything from anyone you've imposed on half so much as Sam, and you know as well as I do that common law collaring means you're living together properly, Guv, so don't you come in here with your jealousy and accuse him of any sort of misconduct, or me either. You should be ashamed of yourself, leaving him all alone in that terrible bedsit while you're out doing whatever you like, barely asking for his consent to do anything at all."

Gene stared at her. "What--"

"I told you, we mostly talked," Sam said, staring at the floor again. The floor was safer than either of them.

"Talked about what?" Gene asked.

"Everything you should've talked about with him." Annie sounded furious still. "Everything someone ought to know--you've known Sam was a bit confused about things ever since he got here. You've seen him fumble with things like the caution. Is it any wonder, if he can't get things like that right, that he's willing to go off with you even when you haven't promised him anything? What kind of a top are you, Guv," and that time the ironic weight on his title made Sam wince, "if you barely notice that your sub doesn't know half the rules without being told them, at work or anywhere else?"

"Fine words for a woman who's been stealing other people's subs," Gene said, and Sam could imagine his expression, self-confident to a fault.

Annie sniffed. "It's not stealing when you haven't taken care of someone. It's not stealing when you haven't given them any kind of emotional consistency. You should know subs need that sort of thing--support, comfort, reassurance that they've done a good job."

"Hey," Sam said, looking up at her. Her cheeks were pink even in the dim light of Lost and Found. "I get that. Sometimes."

Gene ignored him as if he hadn't spoken. "And you're the one to provide them, taking in all the lost lambs? Well, Saint Frances, you keep on with your charity mission with all the wandering souls you can find, but keep your alms off Sam. He's fine. Aren't you?"

The last was barely a question, but it gave Sam a chance to talk that he hadn't had while they were railing at one another. "I think everyone needs emotional consistency," he said, first, because that had bothered him a great deal. "Tops need reassurance, too. And it's not as though Annie dragged me off by my hair, is it, Guv?"

"I told you to stay where you were, last night," Gene said, and put his hand on Sam's shoulder as if he thought Sam was on the verge of kissing Annie. "You bloody ignored me, and now you're telling me it's all my fault for not giving you clear enough instructions."

"Not exactly," Sam said.

"Yes," Annie said, louder than him. "If you cared so much, you'd have given him what he deserves by now. How long has it been?"

Sam didn't know that he could answer that question himself. He was sure of the start date, but not, when he put his mind to it, of the current one.

"A while." Gene squeezed Sam's shoulder till he had to bite his lip to keep in a yelp. "Didn't know there was a time limit on engagements in the division. You'd better pass the word, Cartwright, if you're going to start poaching after so many days."

"Engagement?" Sam pushed Gene's hand away and blinked until he could focus again. "You've never said anything like--"

"Ha, see?" Annie gave Gene a triumphant look that wasn't a smile. "He barely knows you're courting him."

"He's not." Sam backed up and looked from one of them to the other. "You're not." The thought of being courted as a sub, of any kind of engagement or collaring, was more disturbing than a night here or there, however athletic or laden with negotiations. "God, you're not, are you?"

"Told you, didn't I?" Gene gave him a rueful look. "Can't do it in public, not without reminding the likes of Cartwright that you're not fit to meet their eyes."

"I would never say such a thing," Annie protested. "And I don't think it, either. Some of my best friends are subs."

Sam backed up further into the room, away from either of them. "I don't want to be courted. I don't want--whatever it is you think you ought to be giving me. I just want to know what in the hell is going on here." It was a familiar refrain in his head, though not a question he asked either of them with sufficient regularity, apparently.

Gene snorted. "Cartwright thinks she's your dominant parent, love. Wants to know if my intentions are bloody honorable, and I'd like to know how you'd measure that, ma'am. Should I tuck him away in a safe little flat with a big kitchen, keep him off the streets?"

"I'd kill myself first," Sam said with conviction.

"Don't say that, Sam." Annie's expression was familiar from the time he'd nearly thrown himself off the roof. "The only way to be honorable is to tell the truth, that's all. And I don't think you have been half the time."

"How the bloody hell do you know--what have you been telling her, Tyler?" Gene's voice rose.

"Nothing like that." Sam dodged round the other side of the table from Gene. "I promise."

Annie folded her arms. "He didn't say it in so many words, but he's afraid of you--aren't you, Sam, love?"

"No." Sam looked at the table between himself and Gene and reconsidered the answer. "Look, I'm sorry I didn't realize you were doing some kind of Neanderthal courting ritual--" the words still sounded strange when he said them, no matter what adjective he applied "--and I'm sorry I did anything I oughtn't to have done. Can we for Christ's sake call a cease-fire and go do our bloody jobs?"

"Cleverest thing you've said all day," Gene said. "Work to be done, Cartwright."

Annie blew out her breath. "There always is. Doesn't mean you can get away with being awful to Sam."

"I'm not ruddy awful to anyone."

Sam laughed with an edge of hysteria in his voice. "Everything's all right, Annie."

She gave him a long, understanding look that said she didn't believe a word of it. "You and your bruised shoulders going back to work, then, boss? All right. But you will tell me if he gets worse."

"He will bloody not!" Gene glowered at her. "He--" he pointed at Sam without so much in a glance in his direction "--is none of your concern. He is your superior officer, he is a grown bloody man, and he can take care of himself, on the streets or in the privacy of his bloody bed. So get back to your desk, Boadicea, and keep your nose out of other people's business."

Annie put her hand on the doorknob. "It wasn't my business till he came home with me," she said, softly and quickly, and left before Gene could do more than splutter.

"If I catch you alone with that woman in the next fifty years, it'll come out of your hide," Gene said, scowling at Sam.

"Even if it's for a case?" Sam asked, thinking of Twilling's sub-swapping party.

"You're not to talk to her for a case. You need a DC, you talk to Chris." Gene waved his hand at the door. "And you need two people, you talk to Ray."

Ray was about as likely to take orders from Sam as he was to come in the next day with a thick collar and braces. "Guv, you know Ray doesn't--"

"So take him over your ruddy knee and spank him till he does. Christ, you act like you want to half the time. Do it, and I'll tell him you've my permission for it whenever he's getting shirty." Gene opened the door and waited by it. "Come on, love. Can't hide in here all day."

"I really didn't tell her anything," Sam said, though he was sure he'd said some things that she could've used to extrapolate the truth. "Not in so many words."

"And you won't, so that's that." Gene flicked off the lights, and they went back to CID.

*

"What the hell d'you mean, you're leaving?" Sam heard at least ten times over the last two days he meant to spend in 1973, from Gene and from Annie both.

He'd broken the rules to talk to her, as she understood better than anyone--better than Gene, certainly--how desperate he'd always been to get home. She hadn't believed him about why, but at least she'd listened.

When he got home--

And everything was wrong, including Sam himself--

He couldn't stay.

He wouldn't stay.

So he didn't.

Getting back to where he'd learned to belong wasn't easy, but it was simpler than Sam was braced for by a long stretch.

It was all down to the difference between falling and jumping.

He'd hated being forced to play the sub when he'd first arrived, and he still hated the artificial parts. There were compensations, though, and ways to apologize that he'd never have been able to get away with if he'd been wearing a proper belt. "I'm sorry," was one thing. "I was wrong" only got him so far.

"I was off my head," fixed things with Annie, because she was inclined to believe him when he said that sort of thing.

"It'll never happen again," went some of the distance with Gene, though not at the station, not till Sam was ready to say it with all the conviction he could bring to bear on the situation.

Not till his hands were tied when he said it, and he could still meet Gene's eyes and make it true.