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Bass studied the curve of Charlie's ass as she shimmied into position between the hedges at the crest of the berm surrounding the west edge of the town. The view sped up his pulse, but he still wished it was someone else. Someone more stable.

Neville's kid could have come with him for this. Hell, Neville's kid and Charlie could have done it themselves, but Miles was calling the shots and he'd insisted it had to be Bass and Charlie. It was a relief not to have to lead anymore, but it had its frustrations too. At least he knew Miles didn't consider it a suicide mission if he'd sent Charlie. Maybe that was her purpose here.

Charlie glanced over at him, her jaw tight with the grudge she still carried, and nodded to the north. The Patriot soldiers were just coming into view on the road below. Six in all, they moved like a pack of hungry dogs. One in the lead clearing the way, four in the middle, one trailing to defend the rear. Bass held up his fingers to count down to the kills.

Three minutes drug by like mud until the group was finally in place and Bass gave the signal. Charlie dispatched the man at the tail with a bolt from her crossbow. Bass managed to take out the lead and one member of the pack with quick shots from his handgun while Charlie reloaded. His gun jammed and she had time to get off a second, deadly shot before one of the untouched soldiers spotted them. Bass gave the retreat signal and they slid down the back side of the hill, away from the two remaining men and into the heart of the town, as the Patriots scrambled up the hill after them.

Rather than run through the streets drawing attention to themselves he pulled her into the open tattoo shop he'd scouted earlier. The man didn't care if you lingered as long as you spent money or looked like you were going to. They'd talked ink for 20 minutes before a paying customer had come in and Bass had walked out, telling the shopkeeper he might be back later with his girl to make a final decision.

When he'd chosen a place to hide in plain site he'd failed to calculate in that he and Charlie would have grass stains and mud smears from their slide down the hill. He quickly sat in the chair, hiding the bright green streak on the back of his khaki cargo pants and pulled Charlie down towards him. When she resisted he pulled her arm down hard, dragging the rest of her body with her, so he could whisper in her ear. "You are covered in dirt. If they shoot you in the chest it will turn to mud when your blood pours out of the hole." Charlie went limp in response and he put a hand on each of her hips and jerked her down onto his lap so she straddled him. Her head was slightly higher than his in this position and he quietly ordered, "Take off your jacket and let down your hair."

"Why?" she asked.

"Well, Charlotte, they saw your jacket and it took most of the dirt. Get rid of it and you're halfway to a disguise. If you let down your hair and drape it around both of us they won't get a good look at us but we'll still see them coming."

"Drape my hair around you?"

"We'll just look like a couple making out instead of assassins."

"You're disgusting,” she said, but her breath quickened and her eyes fixed on his. There was a fine line between lust and hate. Charlie had been dancing on it recently, just never with President Monroe.

The corners of Bass's mouth turned up in a hard smile as he looked away from her, quickly scanning the room in all directions. "In an hour or two they'll assume we're out out of range and give up the search, but we're going to have to give the shopkeeper some money and work if we want to stay without any trouble. Do you want your ears pierced?"

"If I have to, I will."

"You don't have to. I like tattoos. I guess today's my lucky day."

"You're going to cut and stain your body rather than face down an enemy?"

"I'm making a strategic retreat and living to fight another day. A lesson your uncle implemented frequently when you were with the rebels. If I get some art out of it, that's just a side benefit."

"Art?" she sneered.

"Miles did a lousy job training you at strategy and discipline. You talk too much."

"I'd rather..." she began.

He cut her off. "They're in the street and looking in the window," he said, running his fingers into her hair and fanning it around both of them as he pulled her into a rough kiss.

She resisted briefly before giving in to the cover story. There was no way out of it now, but she could use more teeth than was required, crush into him and leave bruises. He met her force with an equal push, fisting the fabric of her jeans and grinding her hips against him. She nearly jumped off of him when she felt his erection through his pants but he had a firm grip on her hair and her ass and pulled her ear down close to his lips whispering, "They're still watching."

She drew in a deep breath through her nose and smell of the alcohol used to sterilize the instruments burned her sinuses. She ran her fingers through his hair, trying to project the image of a woman mad with desire. "I hate you," she whispered in his ear before biting hard enough to draw blood.

"Then you should enjoy watching him repeatedly stab me and jab ink in the wound."

"That does sound pleasant."

"Does it make it better or worse to know that I'll have blue balls too."

"You're repulsive."

"I'm honest, and you don't have the faintest idea what to do with that." He renewed his grip on her ass, clenching flesh and fabric firmly, and whispered, "Hurt me if it helps you, but don't get us killed today," as the bell on the door chimed to announce the entrance of the Patriot soldier.

"I'm looking for a man and a woman on the run. Have you seen them?" the Patriot demanded.

Bass rolled his head slightly to the side as if drunk and responded in a slurred voice, "If she's running let her go, man. You'll find another piece just as fine." He slapped Charlie's ass before pulling her lips back down hard against his and sliding her hips rhythmically against his. If he wanted to hurt, fine. She'd hurt him. She'd crush him. She squirmed on his lap like the world was ending and the only thing that would save her was his cock if only she could sand away his pants. He broke the kiss and gasped. The Patriot, seemingly satisfied that the drunks were too horny to make an effective report, left.

As soon as the Patriot left, the shopkeeper appeared from a back room. He was a large man in his mid-forties with intricate designs displayed on every inch of his arms and chest not covered by his black t-shirt. "Get inked or get out," he said.

"Ink," Bass answered.

"You want the rope work we talked about?" he asked.

"Yes, with the knot to cover the scar."

"Is she coming back with you?"

"Yes."

The tattooist looked Charlie up and down, assessing her like he might study a stray dog before approaching it.

"Room three."

Room three held an ornately carved wooden bureau positioned next to a crudely customized metal and Naugahyde medical chair. A twin bed with a stained black satin coverlet was shoved into a far corner. There were no windows. Bass dropped into the chair and Charlie took up a position by the door as the tattoo artist took brushes and weapon-like tools from the drawer and laid them with a clatter on the metal tray he'd brought with him. The sharp bite of alcohol filled the air as he sterilized each needle and knife.

"You had a tattoo before the blackout, right?" he asked Bass.

"Yes."

"This hurts a lot more and takes a lot longer."

Bass laid his arm on the bureau in response. The artist picked up a brush and a pot of ink and roughed out the design on Bass's skin, a thick coil of rope ending in a knot covering a large, round scar on the back side of his bicep.

"How'd you get the scar?" Charlie asked.

"Baltimore."

"That's where, not how."

"It took a little bit of trial and error before your uncle became a master tactician. This is the result of one of the errors, of many of the errors actually, that snowballed into a complete cluster. Innocent people were hurt in the service of a pointless goal."

"Why won't anyone talk about Baltimore?"

"Who have you asked?"

Charlie looked away. No one. This was the longest conversation she'd ever had about Baltimore. She'd heard the nickname, The Butcher of Baltimore, and avoided getting details.

"Ready?" the tattooist asked.

"As I'll ever be," Bass answered.

The man placed a small tool, like a hammer with a half-dozen thin needles imbedded in a straight line along the head, against the design he'd drawn on Bass's skin and firmly tapped it with a second hammer. Bass crisply inhaled and let his head fall back on the chair.

"Exquisite pain or pleasure?"

"I've been stabbed before. I prefer one slice of a sharp knife to this."

"Only two hours to go, give or take."

The tattoo artist repeated the actions endlessly, occasionally changing to a differently shaped needled tool or stopping to wipe away blood and excess ink. Bass breathed deeply, fighting to keep his breaths smooth and even as the tapping, the stabbing, drug on and on. Sometimes his head rested in the chair and others it dug into it, the fist on his free hand clenching and unclenching repeatedly. The stench of primal sweat, a mix of fear and something even more base, the fight or flight instinct denied, permeated the room.

After thirty minutes the tap of his tools was like a drumbeat in Charlie's skull. She didn't enjoy this the way she wanted to. Seeing Bass hurt, a self-inflicted pain covering the marks of an older one, wasn't satisfying. She wasn't cut out for torture, at least not the torture of others.

The artist moved Bass's arm above his head, exposing the sinew and muscle of the pale underside and had Bass grip the bar on the top of the headrest. "This part's the worst for most people, but it's going to take another half hour. Grit it out or leave with the work unfinished, just let me know what you want," he said. Bass roughly shook his head, dragging his mind back from the dark places it had wandered, and nodded in reply.

Bass keened when the tapping began again, a pained wail of repentance and atonement. The sound twisted in Charlie's stomach, tying it in painful knots and threatening to force itself clean. Tears rose in her eyes. No one should know that kind of pain. She knew it, had felt it, had sought it out and had sought people to soothe it. Bearing witness to it was worse than bearing it herself. She was stuck with all helplessness and no sharp, clear edge.

She watched the progress of the work, anxious for the end. Bass looked spent, covered in sweat and with his muscles held as tightly as the knot drawn on his arm. She wanted to fix it all, to ease the brutality of the world.

"You're done," the tattooist finally said. Bass went limp in reply, his breaths now quick and ragged to compensate for all the shallow steady ones he'd forced during the process. "There's a pitcher of water in the hall if you want a drink. You've got the room for another hour. The time is for recovery. If you use it for something else, any problems are your problems."

Charlie followed the man out and returned with two metal mugs full of water and a clean rag. Bass sat motionless in the chair, his eyes closed, as his breathing slowed to closer to normal. Charlie knelt beside him, dipped her rag in the water, and gently pressed the cool cloth against his raised, reddened skin. He gasped at the contact but then settled into it as she held it against him, the pressure constant and her body unmoving. He studied the way she knelt, unmoving with her knees apart, shoulders back, eyes down, and recognition dawned. Someone had taught her to take that position and to hold it.

"Did you like seeing me hurt?" he asked.

She ignored the question and brought the cup to his lips. He took a sip and then took hold of a handful of her hair at the base of her skull. He didn't have the physical strength for this at the moment, but if she was assuming a trained submissive posture, she needed it. He'd do what he could and hoped it would be enough.

"I know you know the rules," he said. "You don't get to ignore me. The answers are 'Yes, Sebastian' and 'No, Sebastian.' Now, did you like seeing me hurt?"

"No, Sebastian."

"Did you think you would?"

"Yes, Sebastian."

"Do you still want to hurt me?"

"No, Sebastian."

He studied her for a long moment, trying to guess where she wanted him to take this. She began to twitch in the silence. "Do you want to make me feel better?"

"Yes, Sebastian."

"Do it," he ordered, carefully watching to see what she thought she'd been ordered to do.

She met his eyes then, briefly, before dropping them to the bulge in his pants. She didn't move toward it, but she didn't shy away either. He gripped her hair tighter, making her cry out, before he tilted her head up, forcing her to meet his eyes.

"Do you want me to hurt you?" he asked quietly.

She didn't answer and closed her eyes to avoid his.

"You've been playing with the dark side with someone who didn't know what the hell he was doing, haven't you?"

The words curled in her, threading their way through the memories of the pain she'd sought and found. The moments of earned helplessness and the punishment she thought she deserved were never enough. Tears rose in her eyes.

Bass sighed. "I can't change how you feel or undo what you've done. I can't undo any of it. But I can show you how to sharpen the knife so the cuts are clean.” Gently he stroked her cheek. “Maybe I can bring a few stars into your darkness."

Charlie kept her head down but met his gaze, blinking away her sorrow. Bass lifted her chin so she looked at him directly. "Go get the shopkeeper," he said.

Charlie stiffened and pulled away but didn't speak.

"Yes, really," he said to her unasked question.

When they returned Bass said, "She needs diamonds."

"Where?" the man asked.

"Her ears. For now."

"Small, medium, or large?"

"Small. The tiniest you have. And the sharpest needles you have."

"It'll be a hundred for the work and the jewelry."

"Pay the man, Charlotte."

 

Charlie paid and the shopkeeper left, promising the piercer would be in momentarily. When the door closed she gave voice to the smallest flutter in her stomach and asked, "Why the tiniest diamonds he has?"

"You don't need a big, sparkly invitation to questions. You need the experience and something you can touch later. Something to remind you that you're my jewel."

"How am I yours? We haven't even fucked."

"Don't be vulgar, Charlotte," he said. His mouth turned up at the corners as he added, "Now come straddle my lap like you did in the lobby."

Her spine stiffened, the memory of her sympathetic agony fading and replaced by too many memories of how much she hated him and everything she blamed him for.

"You can stick with the pain you know or you can choose a new one, Charlotte. I won't force you into anything."

He looked weak as he sagged in the chair, wrung out from two hours of ink and needles, but, unusually for him, he didn't look haunted. His ghosts seemed to have burned away and she craved that clarity for herself. Decision made, she strode across the room and mounted his lap, one leg on either side of him. She found footholds built into the chair and he ordered her to grab the bar above him that he'd held during his tattooing ordeal.

“Control yourself,” he ordered. “Hold still.” He surveyed her body like it was the first he'd ever seen, examining every detail and touching the parts that he found interesting. The scar on her shoulder received special attention. She didn't volunteer that it had been put there after a bad run in with his militia back when they'd been on opposite sides and everything had seemed so clear. He ran his thumb over her M brand, but didn't linger on it. Almost as if it were a last resort, his hands settled on her breasts, his thumbs caressing her nipples into hard points. She bit her lip and clenched the bar in her fists, struggling to stay still.

"We could pierce these too," he said.

Charlie froze. Even her breathing stopped as she contemplated his words.

"Oh, kitten, there is so much you don't know." He ran his hands into her hair, gently this time before pulling her in for a soft kiss. Their lips danced together like waves on the beach, their need ebbing as time passed. They shared a moment of quiet peace, foreheads together, eyes closed, before the door opened again, this time admitting a short woman with thin, heavily veined arms.

"Uh huh," she said. "I'm Leah, and I'm here to pierce the lady's ears."

"She's a little nervous," Bass said. "She can rest her head on my shoulder, right?"

"Whatever floats your boat," Leah answered.

Charlie leaned back so Leah could mark the spots on her ears while Bass approved the earrings. All of them confirmed the marks were properly located and then Leah explained the process. "Step one: I put a hole in your earlobe with this hollow needle. Step two: I put in the jewelry and pop on the back. Step two usually hurts worse than step one."

Charlie nodded her understanding.

"OK then, I need access to an ear and your hair out of the way, so whatever position you're going with, get into it."

Charlie curled into Bass with her legs wrapped around him, her head resting on his shoulder and nuzzling into his neck. She could smell his drying sweat and a hint of the dirt they'd slid through earlier. Bass lightly rested one hand on her thigh and one on her back.

"Ready?"

The pinch, pull and sharp jab of step one was unremarkable, a crisp pain that quickly retreated. Step two, as promised, was more difficult as the metal pressed its way through a fresh wound before being clumsily locked in place by the back of the earring.

"The second time is the hardest," Bass said. "When you know what's coming and then you do it anyway."

Charlie didn't answer with words, but she did move her head to the other side, exposing her unpierced ear. Bass was wrong, the second time was easier. The stud slid in smoothly and the back snapped on without trouble. Charlie exhaled in relief. She quickly realized she could touch her ears and summon the pain, but it didn't nag her.

"I'll leave you two alone," Leah said, leaving behind the hand mirror and making a hasty exit.

"What do you think?" Bass asked when she'd gone.

"Now I sparkle like a whore," Charlie answered.

Bass's eyes went cold. "I'm very protective of my people and my things, Charlotte. Don't ever call yourself a whore again."

"Why not?" she asked. "Because we haven't fucked?"

"That's a problem for you, isn't it?"

"I know it's coming. I'd rather get it over with."

"Flattering as that sounds, I'll have you when you beg for it and not before."

"What if I never do?"

He kissed her and gently touched her fresh piercing, making her gasp. “Do you really believe there's no bond more intimate than smashing our genitals together?”

“No, Sebastian.”

“Are you mine?”

“Yes, Sebastian.”