When he first walked into the apartment to see Marshall striking out at Barney, delivering a blow to his face that sent him reeling, Ted thought he'd stumbled upon the fourth slap in the slap bet, and wondered with irritation why Marshall would have chosen to carry it out when he wasn't around to watch and enjoy it. But both men seemed completely intent on what was happening, so much so that neither of them even noticed his entrance.
And Barney's reaction was nothing resembling what it might have been if that had been the case. Ted might have expected outrage and angry shouting about the injustice of the entire bet, with a healthy dose of petulant whining thrown in for good measure.
What he didn't expect was for Barney to remain on his knees where the blow had knocked him, his eyes lowered, his breath quick and apprehensive, but calm and carefully controlled.
"I'm sorry..." He spoke softly, his hands raised in a silent plea. "I'm sorry, I didn't... mean to..."
Ted blinked in surprise, taking a step backward when Marshall cut off Barney's subdued, pleading words by gripping a handful of his hair and yanking his head back, hard.
"Did I give you permission to speak?"
Barney shook his head slightly, his eyes closed, his mouth a taut, thin line of controlled fear.
"What have we told you about going home with strangers?"
Barney was silent, but he opened his eyes, looking up at Marshall uncertainly. Marshall crouched in front of him, tugging his head slightly farther back, a calm, leading smile on his lips.
"A question is permission to answer, Barney. You know that."
"You... you told me... not to go home with any… men, or… or couples," Barney replied, wincing as he spoke the words. "But I wasn't going to do anything with him. He just wanted to watch…"
"That's what they told you," Marshall snapped, shaking Barney slightly so that he whimpered with the pain as his hair was pulled sharply. "He might have just wanted to watch… or he might have wanted to rob you… or tie you down and rape you to death… or keep you as some kind of sex slave in his basement. Barney, you have no idea what they might have been planning. This has nothing to do with me being jealous of you with another guy. You know very well you are never to go blindly into any situation like that, where you might be putting yourself in danger."
"I'm sorry… I'm sorry," Barney whispered, and his voice trembled with what sounded suspiciously like tears.
Lily's voice from the bedroom doorway drew the attention of all three men, who looked up at her with questioning eyes. She nodded toward the front doorway as she spoke.
"Did you guys know that Ted was here?"
Marshall and Barney both looked at Ted, seeming utterly startled to see him there.
"When did you get here?" Marshall asked with a suspicious frown. "And… why?"
"I was supposed to come over to watch movies, remember?" Ted reminded them, unable to take his eyes off Barney's kneeling, unusually submissive body. "The door wasn't locked, so I just… but… I guess I should have… knocked…"
"Yeah. You should have."
Lily confirmed Ted's assessment of the situation as she slowly crossed the room to stand between Ted and Barney, something subtly protective and possessive about the way she positioned herself, just so as to perfectly block Ted's view. However, she was smiling, not at all upset, when Ted looked up to meet her eyes.
"I know this has to be a little… surprising, for you…"
"What exactly is… 'this'?" Ted cautiously asked. "What's going on here?"
"We've kept it a secret for a while now. It just… seemed to make sense to do so. But… I guess it's out in the open now, or… going to be," Marshall sighed. He released his grip on Barney's hair, leaning down to speak softly close to his face. "Do not move or speak until we say you may. Do you understand?"
Barney nodded solemnly, his eyes focused on the floor.
"Okay, I'm sorry, but…" Ted couldn't suppress a nervous laugh as he gestured toward Barney, shaking his head in disbelief. "… why the hell is he actually listening to you? What kind of blackmail material have you got over him that he's willing to… to… do whatever this is?"
"He's willingly entered into this arrangement," Lily explained, a hard note entering her voice, her smile fading at Ted's mocking tone. "Because he wanted to. Because he knew he needed to." She paused, looking down at Barney with a soft, affectionate smile as she idly ran her fingers through his hair. "A few months ago… Barney had a little too much to drink… went home with the wrong person… and woke up naked and bruised in some alley fifty miles from New York. He realized… his life was spinning out of control, and he didn't know how to fix it."
"He couldn't have fixed it, not on his own," Marshall pointed out, his tone grim and knowing. "He needed our help."
"You've heard of dominant/submissive relationships, right?"
Lily gave Ted a piercing look, and his eyes went wide with realization as he looked back down at Barney, still kneeling, obediently quiet and still, on the floor of Marshall's and Lily's apartment.
"He's… he's willingly submissive to you two? He's… actually chosen this?"
Lily's satisfied smile was all the answer she needed to give.
Still, Ted was not quite convinced.
He took a few slow, deliberate steps further into the room, moving into Barney's line of sight – or where his line of sight would have been, had he not been staring down at the floor in front of him.
"Barney?" Ted's voice was wary, uncertain. "You actually want this?"
Barney was silent, but he tensed at the question. He looked haltingly up at Lily with uncertain eyes. She nodded with an encouraging smile, her fingers still gently toying with his hair.
"Go ahead. Tell him."
Barney looked up to meet Ted's eyes, and there was nothing but pure sincerity in his gaze. "I chose this. I… asked them to help me," he confirmed. "It's… the only way. I was… slowly killing myself. I just didn't realize it."
Disturbed by Barney's unusually calm, distant manner, Ted frowned, shaking his head. "This… this isn't you, Barney. Something's not right with this. You can't… actually want to… to give up all control over your own life! You're so obsessed with… sex and money and power… living your own life on your own terms. There is no way that you would ever willingly consent to…"
"How would you know what I'd consent to?" Barney suddenly snapped, his voice trembling with anger, his eyes glittering with resentful accusation. "You don't even know me! You don't know anything about me…!"
"Shhh," Lily soothed him, as Marshall crouched down on the floor beside him to put a supportive arm around him. "Barney, you don't have to explain yourself to him. It's none of his business."
"None of my business?" Ted echoed incredulously. "This is my best friend, and it's none of my business that you two are treating him like some kind of… slave, or doll, or… sex toy? This is sick…"
"You have no idea what this is about, Ted." Marshall's voice carried a note of warning. "You're talking about things you don't understand, things you've never experienced and wouldn't know the first thing about… and I thought I was your best friend!"
"Not the point, sweetie," Lily reminded him gently before turning an unyielding look on Ted. "But you're right. Ted… you don't have a clue about this. Me, Marshall, and Barney – we're all three consenting adults, and you don't have the right to tell him – or us – that we shouldn't be doing this. You wouldn't know. Maybe it's nothing that would ever interest you – but it's Barney's life." She paused, glancing down at him again appraisingly as she continued, "Do you see any chains tying him down? Any weapons in either of our hands? Does it look like he can't just get up and walk away at any time he chooses?"
Marshall couldn't quite suppress a knowing smirk, and a little half-shrug of confession. "Well… sometimes there's chains… but… only when he wants them…"
Lily cleared her throat, giving him a pointed look before going on. "If all you can do is criticize, Ted… maybe you'd better go." She was quiet a moment, her expression growing serious as she looked back down at Barney. "After all, we've got kind of a… personal situation, here, anyway, that we need to deal with. Let's reschedule movie night for tomorrow night."
Ted blinked at her, mouth agape, thrown off guard by the calm, matter-of-fact way in which she was discussing these things. He nodded dumbly, heading toward the door as he registered the fact that he had just been dismissed. He paused in the doorway, looking dubiously back.
"Barney… you're… you're sure…?"
"I'm fine, Ted." Barney gave him an impatient look, rolling his eyes. "Would you just go? I'll let you know if I need your help – but I won't." He finished with a lecherous waggle of his eyebrows and a vaguely lewd gesture of his tongue between his teeth.
Ted shuddered in disgust at the unbidden images that filled his head, shaking it to clear it as he walked out and closed the door behind him.
Barney smirked at the closed door, momentarily forgetting his current situation as he looked up at Marshall and Lily, lips parted, no doubt to voice some witty and disparaging remark about his utterly prudish wingman. The moment he caught their eyes, however, Barney's smug expression faded, and he closed his mouth, swallowing hard, as he remembered his own offense. He looked down at the floor again, a slight shiver passing through his narrow shoulders.
Lily reached down and tilted his head up with a firm hand under his chin, her expression stern as she met his eyes. "We can only protect you if you let us, Barney," she reminded him with a tone of gentle reproof. "We have to remind you that you can't keep making these reckless choices – risking your life for a single night of pleasure…"
"… that we could give you so much better, anyway," Marshall pointed out with a smirk.
Lily smiled, nodding. "Right."
"Well… variety is the spice of life, and all that…" Barney's wide-eyed expression of false innocence faltered when he saw that there was no amusement left in their eyes. He swallowed hard, looking down again. "Sorry," he whispered.
"Not good enough to make up for risking your life," Lily replied without hesitation. "Get up, take your pants down, and bend over the couch."
Barney obeyed, trembling slightly as he braced his hands on the back of the sofa. Lily reached around him and slid his belt free of the belt loops, doubling it and cracking it into the palm of her free hand. Barney flinched at the sound, biting his lower lip, his breath quickening with apprehension.
"Don't be afraid," she whispered gently behind him, running a soft hand down the side of his hip in a soothing gesture. "We're only doing this because we love you. We're going to teach you a lesson… to remind you to keep yourself safe." She was quiet a moment, her voice heavy with emotion when she added, "We love you too much to lose you, baby."
Barney's eyes filled with grateful tears, and he found that he was genuinely grateful even for the first stinging blow that fell across his bare skin – because he knew that Marshall and Lily meant what they said, and would be there for him, do whatever it took to keep him safe… because they loved him.
And it had been a very long time since Barney Stinson had felt so deeply loved.