Sam woke with a start. Shreds of the dream still clung: lingering images of hospital corridors, empty wards, and the terrifying fear of being unable to move. Glancing at the bedside clock, she registered vaguely that it was three in the morning.
Go back to sleep?
Not yet. A pale memory of the smell of antiseptic hovered around the bedroom. Her muscles were tensed, ready to fight, even though there was no enemy in range. There was no way she'd be able to get back to sleep yet; she hadn't managed it the night before.
Coffee? No, that would make things even worse. She walked into the kitchen and and steadied her shaking hands by mixing up a sachet of hot chocolate. She reached out for the phone, then thought better of it. No one would appreciate being woken at this hour of the night. Besides, the Colonel was still recovering from his gunshot wound.
She'd been in tight corners before. She'd come close to dying before. Why should this time be any different?
Because there'd been nothing she could do; because she'd had no control over the situation. She took a sip of the hot chocolate, burning her tongue with the sudden heat of it, and stared down at her wrists. They bore the worst of the memories. She'd first awoken in St Christina's, fastened wrist and ankle to a hospital trolley, then, after she'd tried to escape, they'd handcuffed her to the side rails of a bed.
They weren't her wrists any more. They belonged to a stranger, a stranger who could be held and imprisoned against her will, a stranger whose life meant nothing to people who wanted money and power.
Write about it, wasn't that what the psych people were always saying you should do? Write a diary or a letter? It wouldn't help, but at least it would keep her fingers occupied and provide the illusion of doing something.
She took her hot chocolate through into the study and set it down beside the keyboard as she began to type.
<Maybourne. Bastard.> Now her hands were shaking again, as she tried to hit the keys correctly.
<You did this to me. You did it, damn it. You and your never-ending love of money. If I'd turned you in like I should have done, this would never have happened. Dealing with the Russians again... The Colonel told me when I visited him in hospital. You arranged for them to sell a goa'uld symbiote to Adrian Conrad's people. Three million dollars -- I hope you choke on it.>
<Did it ever occur to you that they just might want to have the only person to have survived being a goa'uld host? Would it have made any difference to you if you'd known?>
<Yes, I know you came with Jack to rescue me. So help me, I was even grateful to see you. Another minute and I'd have been dead.> She could see the doctor still, hear him mouthing meaningless platitudes about how her death might be the means of saving millions of lives, while his assistant measured out a lethal dose to inject her with. The handcuffs bit into her wrists, as she struggled desperately...
She balled her hands into fists, inhaled deeply of the chocolate and focused again on the screen.
It was too quiet. The hospital had been silent. No other patients, no footsteps unless they were coming for her, no conversation-- She grabbed a remote and switched on the stereo. Handel's water music filled the room, helping to pull her a little from the nightmare. She addressed herself again to the screen.
<I can't sleep. Every night, I'm there again, waiting, unable to escape, waiting for them to come and kill me. I can't move. I can't reach a weapon. I'm helpless...>
<<I could help.>> The words scrolled across her screen, uninvited. No need to ask who it was.
<Go to hell. You caused this. I don't want your help.> She really really ought to update her firewall. First thing tomorrow morning.
<<I didn't expect this to happen. I didn't sell them the data about you. The NID set us both up: I never discovered then how Conrad's people knew I had access to a symbiote, but I know now. If it's any consolation to you, I don't even have the money. The NID traced the payment to my off-shore bank account and cut a deal with the local government.>>
<I don't give a damn about your money. I nearly died, and Colonel O'Neill says you shot him.>
<<Do you believe I shot him?>>
<I haven't decided.> But she'd never really believed it was him in the first place, had even said as much to the Colonel. She'd only seen them together for a minute or two, but even that had been long enough. Something in the way that Harry obeyed the Colonel's orders, something about the smile in the corner of his eyes: something that said "I'm not doing this because I have to, but because I happen to like you and it amuses me to do it." No, she didn't think Harry would try to kill him. And if you wanted logic, one of the shots had been into the vest, and Harry had to have known about that, as he was wearing one too.
<<I came back into the country. As soon as I heard what had happened to you, I came back. Doesn't that count for anything?>>
He'd come back. She'd known it, but it hadn't really sunk in before. He'd come back. He'd even taken the risk of working with the Colonel, when Jack might easily have turned him in. He'd come back for her. Had Jack realised?
<If that's true, then the NID now have Conrad.>
<<Did I mention that I love you for your intelligence and that your obvious physical attributes have nothing whatsoever to do with it?>>
She almost laughed. In spite of herself, she almost broke through the tiredness and the horror.
<<You need me.>>
She glared at the screen, ignoring the itchiness of her eyeballs. I know that. I just don't want you to know that I know. Who else can I talk to? I know damn well why I keep putting off the firewall update. I tell myself I haven't got the time; I tell myself there's a thousand other jobs that take priority, but the truth is that I want to believe you're listening.
<We've already established that beating you to a pulp is not on the agenda, no matter how much I might be tempted.>
<<Not that. I can teach you -- or, at least, I hope I can -- how to submit. How to escape the nightmare.>>
Christ! Of all the things she'd expected, that was the last on the list.
<Let's get this straight; you want to tie me up? Can you think of a single good reason why I should agree to that?>
<<Because you can trust me.>>
Like Hell! But he'd had a gun and she'd been unarmed and he hadn't so much as laid a finger on her. In his own warped way...
Could it help? The idea felt strange, disturbing. When Maybourne appeared unasked in her dreams, she was always the one holding the rope. Control -- it was always about control.
<<I can do it so that you're still in control, even when you're bound.>> What was he? A mind reader?
<<Tomorrow's your day off. Meet me at the Holiday Inn.>>
Rain streaked the windshield, but inside the Volvo she was protected from more than the rain. Carter sat safe in the car park and debated inwardly. Being here was self-evidently stupid, but it also had a certain lure of the forbidden. Every day, she followed the rules. Every day, she was a good little officer. Maybourne was different: he made his own rules -- except when it came to sex. There were rules to his perversions and, as far as she could tell, he abided by them.
As long as she sat in the car, it meant nothing; she wasn't actually committed until she got out and went into the Inn. It wasn't as if this was a date, not really. Even her clothing was sensible: not too casual, but absolutely designed not to titillate.
She could still leave.
She'd walked away from Maybourne before.
'Third time pays for all.' Just don't ask which of us is paying.
The car door closed behind her with a decisive thud. Each footstep sounded distinctly on the wet tarmac as she walked past rows of parked cars to the entrance. Her nostrils took in the scent of air heavy with the odd musky smell that accompanies rainfall after a long dry period.
'New life after rain', but I don't believe in omens.
The instant she entered the foyer, tossing her hair to shake off wet droplets, she saw him. Relaxed on a sofa, reading a newspaper, Maybourne appeared to be concentrating on the news.
She stood, waiting, not even bothering to call his name. A moment later, he grinned, tossed the paper aside and got to his feet to meet her.
"Mary, I'm so glad you could make it."
She hesitated, between the desire to slap him and the need to reach out to him for comfort.
"I would have been here sooner, I got caught in the traffic." Inane, meaningless prattle. A sop for any listener, a crutch for her to avoid commitment.
"I've already registered. We're on the second floor."
"Fine." Her hands were shaking and she couldn't stop them.
He took her left hand in his, ran his thumb gently across the palm. His skin was warm and slightly rough to the touch. "It'll be all right."
And for the first time, she believed it.
The room was soothing to the eye, painted in warm umber tones. Harry pulled the curtains with a swish, cutting out the gloom and the rain. Watching him, she discovered a subtle pleasure in observing the way he moved: Harry lacked grace, but there was a solid physicality to him that felt oddly reassuring. Right now, she wanted that solidity, wanted something she could hold onto, just simple contact with another human being. Comfort, even from Maybourne, was still comfort.
"Harry." She paused. "I need you to hold me for a minute."
He raised an eyebrow in question.
She held out her hands towards him. "Just don't read anything more than that into it. Understood?"
Calmly obedient to her desire, he came and met her embrace, holding her against his shoulder, rubbing a hand in gentle circles on her back while she wrapped her arms tightly around his waist. His hold was comforting rather then sexual, and she responded to that, drawing warmth from him to subdue the nameless horrors inside her.
"What do you want?" he asked quietly.
"I thought you wanted..."
"I want whatever you want."
She laughed lightly, trying to hide her nervousness behind a facade of confidence. "You seduce me here with promises to tie me up. Whatever happened to the melodrama?"
Harry looked awkward. "I don't think well this way round."
"Why ever not? Surely it makes no difference who does the tying up? It's still the same process, isn't it?"
"It's just the way I am." He spread his hands out, palm upwards. "For me, being a sub is all about not thinking. I don't analyse what's happening, I just accept it."
"Even if someone hurts you?"
"Yes. Though," he added hastily, "I wouldn't play with anyone I didn't trust. I've no more desire than you to end up with any serious injury."
"And how do I know you won't injure me?"
"We use a safe word. That's what I meant before, when I said you could retain control while submitting. You choose a word beforehand, say, 'Carter'. If you want to end the scene for any reason whatsoever -- it doesn't have to be because I'm hurting you, it might just be that you changed your mind, then you say it, and I'll release you immediately."
He reached into a pocket. "I thought you might prefer these to rope." Two silk scarves floated down from his fingers, delicate shades of blue and grey in a pattern that reminded her of ripples left on the beach as the water flowed back and forth.
"But you have rope as well?"
The familiar Maybourne grin flashed for an instant. "Of course."
"So -- we'll go with the scarves."
"You're a natural top. Are you sure you don't want to do this the other way round?"
He tempted her. What would it be like to receive his surrender, to have him pliant to her will?
"What would you do if I asked you to kneel?"
His eyes met hers, looked at her with an unspoken offering; then he sank, pulled to the floor by an invisible string. Power surged through her, its siren song coursing through her veins. She reached out and touched his head, feeling the warmth of his scalp through the thinning hair, feeling the bond linking them together. She didn't want to lose this degree of control, but maybe she could make the moment last a little longer...
"Tie me up," she commanded.
"Does my mistress wish to remove her clothes first?"
From anyone else's lips, it would have sounded laughable. Here, and now, the title struck a chord and fuelled the need inside her. She was the one dictating the action. If she undressed, it was her choice, not Maybourne's. If she could follow this pattern all the way through, she could be 'helpless' yet still be in control.
Maybourne bent his head to gaze at the floor.
Unlacing her shoes, she tossed them carelessly on top of the skirt and then allowed her undergarments to fall onto the pile as she removed them one by one.
"Tidy them up."
Laying each seam of the skirt in a straight line, Maybourne folded it carefully, almost trance-like in his precision. He laid it on the chair where she had deposited her blouse, and followed it with her smoothed-out pantyhose and her bra and panties. Her shoes were placed neatly together, underneath.
Curious, she watched him. "Do you enjoy that?"
"Because it pleases you."
"What if I threw them all on the floor and ordered you to do it again?"
Gaze still lowered to the floor, Maybourne replied: "I would obey."
"How would you feel?"
His reply was slow coming.
She clicked her fingers in impatience. "How would you feel?"
"My feelings would depend on your reason for doing it."
"If you were unhappy with the way I'd folded them, I would be unhappy because I had failed to please you; but I would obey regardless and try to please you better the next time."
She picked up the skirt and let the folds fall out, watching the way his eyes focused on it. "Suppose I was perfectly happy with the way you did it the first time, but I just want to watch you doing it all over again."
Something subtle changed in Maybourne's body-language. A relaxation, a sense of ease. "I would obey my Mistress, with pleasure."
She tossed the skirt casually in front of him and waited.
No movement. Of course -- she hadn't given him the order yet. With a slight smile, she threw the blouse down as well.
"Fold them both."
It was, she reflected as she watched him, rather like throwing a stick for a dog. There was no reason for the dog to endlessly enjoy retrieving the stick, but he did it for the pleasure of a pat on the head and the words 'Good boy'. If it made sense when one looked at a dog, why should it be considered irrational for a human being?
Watching him fold her blouse was oddly relaxing. He did it silently and methodically, placing the sleeves in neat alignment with the sides and ending up with a result that could have been pinned to a card and placed in a plastic pack on a shop display. There was no sense of haste to his actions, no urgency to complete the task; rather, he appeared to be completely focused on the task itself, as though it was the only thing that mattered to him.
Perhaps it was...
When he had placed her clothes in a perfect pile on the chair and resumed his kneeling position, she asked: "What next?"
He said nothing.
"What were you planning? You had something in mind."
Eyes focused on the floor, he said: "You could tie one scarf around each wrist. The other end can be passed around the supports of the headboard and held in your hand. That way, you're held, but you can release yourself any time you want to."
She nodded. It made sense. Knowing that she could free herself at any time should help if the nightmares started.
This was the moment of truth -- did she want to go through with this? Was she willing to entrust herself to Maybourne's hands? He was an odd dichotomy of a man. Colonel Maybourne of the NID, she had not trusted at all; yet here and now, her instincts told her that he could be depended upon. Whatever took place from now on would happen because she wanted it to.
"Look at me."
His eyes met hers.
"All of me."
Across her breasts, down to her thighs, back to her breasts again, his gaze worshipped her. She felt woman, too long denied, too long ignored in her femininity. Sometimes, being a scientist, even a damn good one, just wasn't enough. To be desired as a woman, to hear the quickening of Maybourne's breath that spoke of desire, that was enough to bring a flush to her skin and hardness to her nipples.
"Do you want me?" she asked, just to hear him say 'yes'.
"I want to give you pleasure."
"I didn't ask that. I said, 'Do you want me?'"
"I want whatever you want."
She hadn't known she had the cruelty in her, until she spoke the words. "I want you to want me. I want you to desire me, even if I forbid you ever to touch me. What do you want?"
"I want you," he responded, but there was more than simple obedience to his tone. There was a rawness to his words that echoed truth. "I want you, even if you never permit me to touch you."
It was a possession more total than sex and it excited her in a way that she'd never known before. It was power: uplifting and seductive in its intensity. There was a delight to having him needy, yet held prisoner by her will. She came to stand beside him, rested her hand on his head in token of ownership. Words turned over in her mind and asked to be said. She hesitated, afraid of sounding silly, yet needing to give him something in response to what he was giving her.
His head pressed against her hand, responding to her. She ruffled his hair in a light caress and then smoothed it down, aware at some hypersensitive level of the fine texture of his hair, of the sound of every breath he took, even of the way his body's scent changed with arousal. The moment extended into an age. She felt at peace in a way that she'd rarely felt before. There was no need to fight, no competition, no need to endlessly prove her worth as a woman on endless alien worlds still dominated by men. Of his own free will, Maybourne had chosen to give her this gift.
Could she give this back to him? Could she give him what he had given her? Was she even capable of that degree of submission? Even with a safe word, could she do it?
Surely, she owed it to him to try?
She hesitated, unwilling to lose the emotion of the moment. But the nightmares still had to be faced.
"Snap out of it. We have to talk."
He looked down and took a deep breath, holding it for a moment, then let it out in a slow exhalation and came slowly, almost shakily to his feet. She guided him to a chair and sat herself down on the edge of the bed to face him.
"You said you would teach me how to do what you do, how to submit."
Hands clasped lightly in his lap, Maybourne looked at her. She was absurdly conscious, as she hadn't been before, of the fact that he was fully clothed, while she was stark naked.
"You have to let go of yourself," he said, "find a place inside you where all that matters are the wishes of your top. Nothing else exists, nothing else matters. You focus on obedience."
It sounded distinctly unappealing. "I spend most of my life obeying orders."
"I spent a fair part of my career giving them. I've been a sub most of my life, but the need intensified the higher up the system I got."
"Should be easier now you're on the run." She allowed a touch of acid to enter her voice.
Maybourne stared down at his hands. "It doesn't work like that." He glanced up at her in sudden appeal. "Sam, it's the only time I feel safe."
"If you're bound and naked, then you know beyond all question that you're helpless. At that point, you can do nothing except accept whatever your top chooses to do. It's--" he shrugged helplessly-- "liberating."
"No." She said it without even thinking, then sought the words to rationalise what she'd said. "I can't. I can't give up that completely. It's not that I don't trust you to keep to whatever we agree. I just don't think I can eroticise it the way you do."
He shrugged awkwardly. "It isn't about sex, not really. Sometimes sex comes into it, but it doesn't have to. When you called me a 'good boy'... That's better than sex."
Better than sex? "No way."
"It said to me that I matter to you. That my obedience gave you pleasure. That I made you happy. That I satisfied you. That I'd fulfilled my purpose. That's submission, and it's more important to me than sex."
He was moving way too fast, in an emotional direction where she really didn't want to go. She was letting him get too close, and that was dangerous. Yes, it had been pretty intense; yes, it had been special, but that didn't mean they were about to hold hands and dance off into the sunset together. And there was absolutely no way at all in which she could copy that emotion and imagine that the purpose of her life was to satisfy Maybourne.
"That's not me," she said decisively.
"With the right top..." His voice trailed off into hesitation.
"Which you are not. You said it yourself: you're a submissive."
"I know what to do," he protested. "I've switched a couple of times."
She didn't reply, simply gave him space with which to hang himself.
"Okay." His shoulders slumped. "It didn't work out."
He shook his head, a quick short jerk. "No feedback, no chemistry. I was just going through the motions."
"So--" she put her hands on the bed beside her, and sat up straight-- "we find another way." She could see a way as long as Maybourne played his part properly, and he damn well ought to be able to.
"Listen carefully." She had no doubt that he would, but the command should add reinforcement. "I want you to tie me to the bed. Use rope. Tie both wrists and ankles." She waited to see if Maybourne raised any objection, but he stayed silent. "Do anything you can to make the scene feel like a hospital. Give orders to imaginary nurses. Imagine you have an interesting alien to examine -- that shouldn't be too hard for you." She heard the bitterness in her voice, that spoke all too strongly of her ambivalent feelings towards him, and fought to keep it down. "When I tell you to release me, you release me. Understood?"
"Who's giving the orders here?"
"You are. As long as I choose to obey them."
"And this sudden change of heart is because...?"
"If someone in the military gives you a dangerous order, you have no choice but to carry it out. This isn't the Air Force. I'm a sub; that means that I do this from choice. If you give me an order that I regard as dangerous, then I can refuse. You're asking me to put you in a position which may scare you into a panic attack. For a first experience of bondage, that's stupid."
Of all the times for him to act like a gentleman! Yet, oddly enough, she felt as though a load had been lifted from her shoulders. It had been stupid. She'd wanted to replicate the hospital experience as closely as possible, but that was as likely to reinforce the nightmare as to banish it. Besides...
"Harry..." It was hard to put the words together, but she owed him this much at least. "I owe you an apology; I think at some level, I wanted you to scare me."
"Because?" There was a wariness to him that she didn't want to see there right now.
"You know how I feel about you?"
His eyes flicked around the room, never quite meeting her face. "I never know. I only know how I feel about you."
Her fingers gripped hard on the edge of the mattress. "I don't want to love you. I'm trying very hard not to love you. I can't forget who you are and what you've done in the past, but I can't bring myself to force you to stay away. I think I was hoping you'd frighten me away and solve the problem for me."
Maybourne leaned forward in his chair, hands half-outstretched towards her. "And now?"
Too vulnerable, too tempting. She knew him now, knew what he offered, knew how much it meant to her. Why couldn't he have been someone else, anyone else, other than ex-Colonel Maybourne, traitor to his country?
"It isn't working. I shouldn't want you. By all that makes sense in my life, I'm crazy to even talk to you, let alone..." She shivered. "Pass me my clothes and help me get dressed."
Silently, he padded over to her folded clothes and picked up her bra. As she came to her feet, he held it up by the straps for her to put her arms through.
"Cup my breasts," she whispered. "Lift them into place."
His fingers were cool to the touch, his palm firm and supportive. Her nipples rose to meet him, but she said not a word as he lifted each breast into the bra's support.
"Fasten it up at the back."
"Whatever my Mistress desires."
She deliberately remained standing with her back to the bed, so that he had to fasten the hooks by reaching both arms around her. His cheek brushed hers and the wiry spring of his beard left every nerve on her face tingling.
When he held them out, she stepped into them, but made no move to pull them up herself. At her nod, he drew them up, his hands sliding up her legs in a touch that was, at the same time, both non-sexual and highly arousing.
Maybourne unfolded it with careful precision and held out a sleeve for her. She slid an arm in and inhaled deeply as he passed the blouse behind her back. This close, she could smell the skin of his neck and the scent eased itself into the deepest holds of her memory, put down roots and locked firm. She held her left arm ready for the second sleeve and allowed him to ease it onto her arm.
"Do up the buttons--" her voice caught for an instant-- "slowly."
Their eyes locked as he started on the top. Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, he fastened the button at her neck, moved down and buttoned the next one without ever taking his eyes from her face. Still working by touch, he fastened the button between her breasts, with just a hint of a smile on his lips to indicate his pleasure in the temptation he was so assiduously avoiding.
"You're a good boy, Harry. You're a very good boy."
By the time he reached the bottom button, she knew she was sweating: sweating all over with the need for him to touch her in all the places where he wasn't touching her. It struck her that BDSM came in many strange forms. Never had clothing felt so restrictive. Never had she so much enjoyed the process of getting dressed. Did ropes ever have this effect on Harry? Did he get turned on as he was tied up, feeling that he was the full focus of someone's attention, knowing that he was only going to be touched when and where his top chose? Even the fact that this slow torment was totally of her own choosing didn't detract from the sensuality of it.
Harry picked it up, let the folds fall out of it, and held it for her to step into. She stepped into the circle of the waistband, loving the way the movement took her tantalisingly close to him. There was a joy in teasing him, in being so close, yet unattainable. As he drew the skirt up, she breathed in, narrowing her waist. His eyes took note, even as his arms encircled her, before he chastely pulled up the zip behind her and fastened the button at the waistband.
Resolve wavered momentarily as she looked at her pantyhose. Somehow, they seemed more intimate than anything that had gone before. Maybourne waited, focused on her with rapt attention.
God, she loved this in him. To be so totally the centre of his awareness...
When he had them in his hands, he paused for a moment as if trying to solve a problem, then used his fingers to gather up the left leg into a neat concertina. He held it out for her toe, and gradually eased it up her leg, stretching it out as he did so. When he reached her knee, he stopped and worked on the other half. Having got both halves upto her knees, he hesitated.
"Mistress, may I lift your skirt?"
Her skirt was tight around her hips and would make it almost impossible for him to obey her command without him raising it. Still, she delayed her reply for a few seconds, simply to enjoy watching him wait.
He resumed working on each leg alternately, easing each one upwards closer and closer to her crotch. When almost there, he shifted his hands to the waistband and pulled it upwards, leaving her both satisfied and frustrated by his obedience to her desires.
She sat on the edge of the bed and luxuriated in the touch of his hands on her feet as he eased on her shoes and tied the laces in precise, symmetrical bows. It was with regret that she finally stood, knowing herself to be beautiful, and looked at the figure kneeling at her feet.
She rested her hand on his bowed head, aware as she did so of both the simplicity and complexity of the contact. More intimate than a kiss, more revealing than nudity, the touch revealed too much about both of them.
Her feet were leaden weights and the sheer amount of effort required to move was almost beyond her.
"I have to go. I have go now, because if I don't leave now, I'll never be able to. I want you, and I've got to find a way to be able to live with that." His scalp was warm under her fingers. She twisted a strand of hair around round her finger, winding it tighter and tigher, before finally finding the impetus to break free.
As she reached the safety of the door, his voice caught her.
"Will I see you again?"
She paused, her hand still on the doorknob, unable to risk turning back to look at him.
Only when she was through the door, safely free for the moment from the siren call of his submission, did she dare to reply.
The door swung closed behind her.