The following short story is based on characters created and/or copyrighted by Glenn Eichler, Susie Lewis Lynn, and MTV. All other characters were created and copyrighted by Roland Lowery.

The author gives full permission to distribute this work freely, as long as no alterations are made and the exchange of monetary units is not involved. Any questions, comments, suggestions, or complaints should be sent to esn1g(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thank you.

"He removes the greatest ornament of friendship, who takes away from it respect."

by Roland 'Jim' Lowery

The day began, as most mornings did, with breakfast.

Stacy was already standing at the side of the bed with a newspaper and a cup of coffee, the aroma of which finally brought Sandi into the world of the waking. After sitting up and stretching languidly, Sandi took the coffee and held it under her nose as she inhaled deeply. She took a quick sip, careful not to burn her lips or tongue too much, then set the black mug on her nightstand as she reached for the paper.

The first delivery of the morning finished, Stacy silently took a step back, tilted her head forward for a half-second, and then left to do a final check on the next. Everything had been meticulously planned out by her, and she'd already had a few years of practice at it, but she had long come to live by the standard of measuring twice.

Sandi pulled a tissue from a box on the nightstand and worked out a few bits of sleep still clinging to the corners of her eyes, then tried to concentrate on the headlines. Most of it was the typical nonsense, easily skipped or quickly read and then forgotten. After a few more sips of coffee had worked their way through her system, she set the bulk of the paper aside and opened up the business section.

Stacy returned with a tray covered in several healthy breakfast items, from dry toast to egg-white crepes to low-fat yogurt. Both women knew that caffeine wasn't very good for Sandi, but it was the only little vice she allowed herself for the morning ritual, so they had long ago agreed to let it slide. Stacy set the tray down over Sandi's lap, pulling out the legs underneath so that it stood up on the bed.

Without taking her eyes off the newspaper, Sandi reached around and grabbed a piece of toast. She lightly dabbed it in a small container of sugar free jelly, and crunched down on it, trying carefully not to let any crumbs fall on the comforter.

"Very good," she said after she had finished the bite.

Stacy smiled serenely and bowed slightly at the waist. "Thank you, ma'am," she said contritely, then left again.

Finding an article of particular interest to her, Sandi folded the paper and propped it up against the edge of the breakfast tray. She kept one eye on the text as she delved deeper into her meal, efficiently divvying it up, precisely chewing it, and delicately swallowing it.

Everything was delicious, as she had come to expect it would be. Stacy often spent several hours in preparation for breakfast, more than she did for any other meal. She would work the previous night, preparing what parts could be set up and stored, followed by an early start making sure that everything came out perfect.

A small smile played across Sandi's lips and she rubbed her belly contentedly once she had finished eating. Stacy stepped in again - somehow she always knew just when Sandi would be done - and moved the tray aside to allow the other woman to stand. She then divested Sandi of her black satin pajamas, placed them on the bed to be taken care of later, and proceeded to pull several items of clothing from the bedroom closet as Sandi called for them.

The ritual of putting on clothes for work went swiftly with Stacy's efficient assistance and Sandi's unerring direction. Makeup was applied and accessories attached in the same methodical manner, leaving Sandi with several minutes before she had to even thing about stepping out the door. She used the extra time to straighten out a few items on Stacy's own wardrobe, telling her to switch out her jade earrings for the amethysts and to put her hair down in a French braid instead of the bun that she had affected.

With herself and her household thus put in order, Sandi collected her briefcase and other papers which Stacy had expertly sorted and stacked neatly on the edge of the kitchen table. She gave Stacy a quick air-kiss on the cheek so as not to smudge her lipstick and then set out for another day at the office. Stacy, meanwhile, adjusted the padding under the soft leather collar encircling her slender neck and started planning out the next several hours of cleaning, bill paying, and all of the hundred and one other small errands she had to do.

All in all, another typical morning in the Griffin-Rowe household.

After putting the pajamas in the hamper, making the bed, and straightening the makeup table, Stacy sat down to her own modest breakfast of fruit and whole grain cereal with skim milk. As she ate, she leafed through a few of the sections salvaged from Sandi's newspaper, primarily the style, weather, and cooking sections. She glanced over the comics in the entertainment section, but as always felt a little disappointed at how they had seemed to have gone downhill since she was a child.

Breakfast finished, Stacy put the paper in the recycling bin, washed the dishes, then put a load of laundry in the washer. With everything else clean and squared away, it was time for her to clean herself. She quickly removed her clothing, jumped in the shower, and luxuriated in the hot water as it ran over her body.

It was her second shower of the day, the first having been taken just shortly before she'd started the morning stage of her breakfast preparations. Sandi demanded an extremely high level of personal cleanliness, and every Monday and Friday had been declared bath days in which Stacy was to undertake several extra rounds of grooming. It suited her just fine, as she was rather a neat freak herself and enjoyed the ritual thoroughly.

Her collar sat on the sink counter as she scrubbed herself. She and Sandi had discovered early in their relationship that wearing the leather 24/7 simply wasn't practical, to which the rashes she would sometimes get attested. Any time she would be heavily immersed in water, therefore, was one of the few instances she was allowed to have a bare neck.

In some ways, this bothered Stacy. The shower felt great and, of course, she wasn't wearing any clothing while she was in the stall, but it was only when she wasn't wearing her collar that she ever felt truly naked. Every once in a while, she reached up and picked at her neck, trying to adjust the circlet that wasn't there and feeling mildly annoyed when she couldn't.

She left the leather behind after she toweled herself off, then she sat down at a mirror in her room to blow-dry her hair. Once she had re-dressed, switching in her amethyst earrings and laying out a simple braid in her hair, she took an onyx choker from a case on her dresser and wrapped it around her neck. Instantly it felt as if her world made sense again.

A quick tour of the house to turn off any lights that had been left on, and Stacy was out the door. Her sporty little blue car was waiting for her in the condominium parking lot. Sliding into the vehicle, she put her purse into the passenger seat and put on her driving glasses.

The trip to Max-Mart was a short one. She pulled a small list from her purse as she got out of the car and briefly skimmed through it to help plot her route through the department store. She carefully crossed the lot, grabbed a shopping cart, and moved into the flow of midday customer traffic.

Smiling brightly to herself and the occasional person who's eye caught hers, Stacy efficiently piled all of the items she was buying into the cart, making sure that they would come back out in an order that made the bagger's job easier. Though she had never personally been employed at a department store, grocery, or - in fact - anywhere, she was keenly aware of the work those people did and how little they made doing it. Not taking a few extra seconds to help make things easier on them seemed almost unspeakably rude to her.

"Oh, my, what a darling necklace!"

Stacy looked up from the display of various kinds of apples that she had been contemplating to see a plump, older lady standing on the other side. She was holding one hand over her chest as she stared approvingly at the black-jeweled choker.

"Why, thank you!" Stacy replied appreciatively, putting her own hand up to the tight necklace.

As the older woman smiled, nodded, and moved on, Stacy felt a feeling of pride flush through her. Unlike most of her collars, which she and Sandi had picked out together, the onyx had been one that Sandi had allowed her to pick out for herself as a birthday present two years previous. It always felt good when someone else confirmed that she had been able to make a good fashion choice even without Sandi's help.

She decided on Red Delicious and bagged up four of the best-looking in the bunch. After putting the apples in her cart, she waved at a couple of small children that were watching her intently as they held their parents' hands, chewed on their own fingers, and drooled a bit. The small girl smiled at her, then became suddenly bashful and turned to hide in her mother's skirt.

With a chuckle and one final smile in the kids' direction, Stacy swung her cart around and headed for the nearest and emptiest checkout lane she could find.


Stacy frowned slightly at the sudden flash of memory and reminded herself it was just that, a memory. It came up sometimes when she was complimented, but with the help of Sandi and some of their friends, she had become very adept at stifling it before it became a problem. She had dealt with the situation a long time ago and she saw no reason to allow it to haunt her anymore.

Before she started putting the spoils of her shopping trip on the conveyor belt behind those of the customer in front of her, Stacy reached across her cart and grabbed one copy each of Steel Fashions and Fashionable Foods magazines. The new month's issues had finally come out, and she couldn't wait to sit and read them with Sandi later that night.

She paid the cashier, bundled her bags into the cart, and whistled tunelessly but cheerfully as she headed back out to her car.

Sandi paused at the front door and removed her pumps before padding over to her regular chair in the den. With a heavy sigh, she flopped down into the cushions and dropped her briefcase on the floor. Within seconds, a small tumbler filled with Diet Ultra-Cola and bourbon had appeared on the side table next to her, and small hands had gripped her shoulders and begun expertly kneading them.

"So, how was your day?" Stacy asked.

"Almost completely unbearable," Sandi moaned as she turned to putty under the other woman's ministrations. "But it's already starting to get better."

"Tell me about it."

Sandi smiled and closed her eyes. "Well, I walked in the door and sat in my chair, then a beautiful, naked island princess offered me a drink and a massage." She felt a playful slap on her arm and laughed. "Okay," she said, "I take back the 'island' part, but I'm still holding out hope for the rest."

Stacy's hands moved away, and Sandi suddenly found herself with a lap full of girl. After recovering her breath, she looked down to see that while she wasn't naked, Stacy was still a beautiful princess. Sandi reached out with one hand to pick up her drink and used the other to push the hem of Stacy's t-shirt up to just below her breasts. Looking deeply into the other woman's eyes over the rim of her glass, she began to trace her fingernails along the edges of Stacy's belly.

If Stacy could have purred, she would have done so. As it was, she let out a short trill and arced her back a bit at the contact. It was half-tickle, half-scratch, and all wonderful.

"Cindy tried to move in on my position again," Sandi said as she settled back and took a drink. "She wants my job so bad she can taste it, and I am really starting to get tired of her licking my office door. Montebank isn't happy with the sales this quarter, so he is making overtures that she might just get it if I don't pick up the pace. And that certainly cannot happen if those slugs down in shipping and receiving can't keep their heads out of their own asses long enough to get orders to the right addresses."

She sighed again. "It is times like these that I wonder what the old Sandi would have done."

"Probably would have tricked Miss Cindy into agreeing that you're the best one for the job," Stacy said distantly, totally caught up in having her belly rubbed. "And then insulted the shipping guys' cargo sense in between scheming to take Mr. Montebank's place."

Sandi pulled her hand back and scowled. "That," she said coldly, "was a rhetorical question, Stay-cee."

A hand seemed to clamp itself over Stacy's mouth of its own accord as her eyes popped open wide in horror. She stared up at Sandi, digging into her own cheek with her fingernails.

Sandi's stiff demeanor dissolved almost instantly, and she slumped forward. "Ugh," she grunted. "I really don't feel like 'punishing' you right now, sweet. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have set it up like that, but maybe we'll play later, okay? I really did have a bad day at work."

"Oh," Stacy said, her voice filled with equal parts disappointment and concern. Normally, she would have insisted, but concern quickly won out and she curled up closer to Sandi, wrapping her arms around the Dom's chest. "I'm sorry. Should I go ahead and set out dinner? Would you like a foot rub? Do you need me to find you some more comfortable clothes?"

Tracing a finger along the leather on the sub's neck, Sandi gave a weak smile. "Dinner sounds good, but not quite yet," she said, returning Stacy's embrace and kissing her on the forehead. "You're way too nice and soft to dump out of my lap. The new punishment for your insubordination is to stay right here until you start cutting off the circulation."

"I think I can handle that," Stacy giggled. She nuzzled softly into Sandi's neck. "You horrible, terrible taskmaster."

They sat that way for a long while, until Sandi decided her legs couldn't take any more. After a brief kiss, Stacy stood up and headed off to the kitchen to start preparing the evening meal. Sandi, meanwhile, finished off her drink and tried to force herself out of the chair. Failing utterly, she sat back again and rubbed her head in an attempt to stall a headache she felt threatening to surface.

She briefly considered picking back up on the course she had unthinkingly started earlier. Throwing out the "what would the old Sandi have done?" card was reserved for rough days as a way to let off some steam in a little harmless play and, more importantly, to be reminded not to slip back into old habits just because things were getting difficult. She had gotten her position at the company through good, hard, honest work, and reverting to the old mind games would do nothing but fill her with self-loathing and make her co-workers even more miserable than usual.

Worst of all, it would distress Stacy to no end.

Sandi shook her head. The play would be nice, but she just wasn't feeling up to it. She still wanted to have some kind of fun to offset the seriousness of work, but doing a scene would involve more emotional intensity than she was prepared to invest at that moment. In the end, she was glad Stacy had accepted calling it off without the usual fuss or the need to pull out a safeword.

"Dinner is ready, ma'am."

Stacy's voice roused Sandi from her reverie. She nodded and, fueled by the bourbon making its way through her system, found the energy to stand up and follow the other woman into the kitchen.

Dinner was standard fare, salads with baked potatoes and sauceless pasta. Stacy waited until Sandi had chewed and swallowed a mouthful of vinaigrette covered lettuce and gave an okay before she started her own meal. They ate in silence for several minutes before Sandi cleared her throat.

"What would you think of going to the Cage tonight?" she asked.

Stacy chewed thoughtfully on her noodles before answering. "As you wish, ma'am," she said with a slight nod of her head.

Sandi smiled at the thinly disguised Let's do it! and set into finishing her food as quickly as she could without actually shoveling it into her mouth one enormous bite after another.

The Diamond Cage, known to most of its patrons simply as the Cage, was a small downtown club that catered to the leash and leather set and had long been a favorite haunt of Sandi and Stacy's. The city didn't hold a very large population of kinks compared to others like New York or Los Angeles, but there was still a decent crowd there when the two women rolled up in Sandi's BMW.

Once they had found a good parking spot, Sandi stepped out and put on the top hat that had been sitting in the back seat. She and Stacy both straightened their coats, locked the car, and crossed the street to walk up to the main entrance. The bouncer immediately recognized them and let them pass with only a smile and a polite bow at the waist. He knew that their cover was still paid up for several nights in advance.

Inside, they stopped at the coat check area, where they handed theirs over to a man wearing a bright yellow dress over a copious petticoat. Keeping with their usual diamond-based themes, it appeared that all the club employees were dressed as the Diamond Dog dancers from Moulin Rouge that night.

While not quite as elaborately decked out as many of the people in the club, both women had their own special outfits. Stacy was wearing a leather black dress with a matching collar from which dangled a thin, short leash, while Sandi was sporting a rust red corset, long fingerless gloves, a Victorian style skirt, and heavy, wide-heeled boots. Here and there on Sandi's dress were implements of the steampunk genre that she had recently taken a shine to, including a pair of multi-lensed goggles strapped just above the top hat's brim.

Sandi pulled Stacy in by the leash for a quick kiss, purposefully leaving behind a light lipstick outline on the other woman's cheek. "Go find us a table, sweet," she said. "I'll get our drinks."

The two women parted as they entered the club proper. Canned music, heavy and thumping, pounded down from the ceiling, but Stacy could see a band setting up on a stage overlooking the dance floor. A large sign behind them identified them as the Carnival Cutters, a group that she had enjoyed when they had played a few week before.

Stacy found herself having to push through the feathers worn by two clubbers dressed like peacocks, leaving her momentarily blinded. Someone ran into her from the other side, nearly pushing her down, but she quickly regained her balance with their help.

"Oh, sorry about that, dear!" a lilting male voice called out over the music. "Here, let me . . . oh. Oh! Well, if it isn't our little Pub, back to see us again! My my my!"

Suddenly realizing who it was, Stacy threw her arms around the man's skinny neck, then they both drew back and squealed like little girls.

"Timmy, oh my God!" Stacy exclaimed happily. "But I thought you worked Friday nights!"

Timmy tilted his head down puffed his lips out. "You remember me talking about ol' Mr. Bee's Knees, honey?" he asked. "Well, he went and got himself promoted, he did. First thing he decides to do is cut down my hours, and you know that fish don't fly!"

Stacy covered her mouth in shock. "Oh, no! What are you gonna do?"

"Well, first things first, me and Mr. Big Boss are gonna have a little chat," he said, swinging a hand back and forth for emphasis, "and then Mr. Bee's Knees is gonna have himself a little wait in the unemployment line. Timmy knows a few thing he might not oughta know, and Timmy's feeling a little talkative now, know what I'm saying? Mm-hmm, I think you do.

"Anyway, girl, damn! It's good to see you! Is the missus about?" he asked as he peered around.

"She's getting our drinks," Stacy told him. "What about Rick?"

Timmy rolled his eyes and said, "Rick the Brick is having himself a little sitdown, as usual. Care to join us? I could stand to have a little more intelligent conversation and heaven knows he's not going to provide it."

She laughed and slapped playfully at his shoulder. "You're terrible!" she said.

"Mmm-hmm," he purred as he proffered one fishnet-covered arm. "Shall we, my dear?"

"I believe we shall," she returned, taking the arm and allowing him to lead her to circle of small couches sitting near the dance floor.

"Riiiiiick," Timmy trilled softly to the heavyset but muscular man wearing a passing approximation of the outfit worn by Victor Willis, the police officer in Village People. "Rick!" he said more forcefully, giving the other man a light kick to the shin. "Wake up and say hi to the Pub already, you Neanderthal!"

Timmy's partner - and husband, as Timmy was fond of saying, if the right state laws would ever get passed - snorted awake and greeted them with a small wave of his beefy hand and a grunt that sounded vaguely like "hey".

"He's delighted to see you as always, dear," Timmy deadpanned, causing Stacy to giggle. "Have a seat, have a seat, plenty to go around!"

He settled in next to his man as Stacy sat down across from them. The two subs chattered idly for the next few minutes as the first few screeching strains of the Carnival Cutters checking their sound sliced across the club. Rick remained sedentary, making few additions to the conversation other than an occasional deep chuckle.

"Are these two men bothering you, Stacy?" an arched voice suddenly asked from behind her shoulder. Stacy looked up to see a severe looking Sandi holding two glasses of diet cola and leveling a steely glare at Rick and Timmy.

"Oooooh, girl!" the smaller man squealed as he looked Sandi up and down. "You are one scary Victorian bitch, you know that?"

Sandi laughed as her far-too-serious face broke into a smile. "I take it you approve of the new outfit, then?" she asked as she rounded the couch.

"Oh, darling, everything you wear is absolutely gorgeous, you know that." Timmy flipped his hand and then turned to Stacy with a pitying expression. "But our poor, dear little Pub is still flailing about in a sea of fashion attrition! Why don't you get your girl something with a little color, a little pizazz, a little - dare I say it? - panache?!"

Stacy's mouth dropped open in mock-offense as she took her drink from Sandi. "I like this outfit!" she said. "And are you one to talk? A fishnet and mesh top with leather pants? Hmmm?"

"Oh, somebody," Timmy said, looking pointedly at the oblivious Rick, "forgot to pick up my usual outfit from the dry cleaners, yes he did! But goodness gracious, you're right! I guess I'm the Pub tonight!" He slapped the side of his face with a look of pure horror, making the two women laugh again.

As the two subs chattered away at each other, Sandi settled back into her seat and sipped her diet cola. Slowly but surely, she started to feel every muscle in her body start to relax one by one, exactly the effect she had been hoping for. Going out to the Cage always made her feel better, allowing her to become someone different for a while, someone who didn't feel constant pressure weighing down on her.

She loved her job, and she dearly loved Stacy, but sometimes they could both be a pain to keep in line. Work, of course, was a stress relatable to just about anybody, but the duties and responsibilities inherent in being a Dominant were a special set of troubles all their own. Of all the people outside the scene who knew about her arrangement with Stacy, very few seemed to understand the pressures of command, the demands of the sub and the sacrifices required of the Dom.

So many thought being in charge was a picnic . . . but then, it seemed they thought that about most any situation. She knew that many of her subordinates at her workplace thought that if they could just be in her position, everything would be wine and roses. They were all too young and inexperienced to realize just how much more work was required of the boss sometimes.

But at the Cage, she could forget all of that. She didn't have to think about work if she didn't want to, and by agreement with Stacy, their usual routine was lightened to a bare whisper. Sandi was the one who usually got their drinks and refills, and for the most part she played the same conversational cards as Rick, only chiming in for a few seconds at a time. Stacy picked out her own clubbing wardrobe with no input from Sandi, which was what had led to Timmy nicknaming Stacy "Pub", short for "Republican", thanks to her relatively conservative choices.

In fact, Rick and Timmy had much the same clubbing setup as Sandi and Stacy, though to a much greater degree. She had met both of them outside of the Cage on a few occasions, and it had been like meeting entirely different people. Instead of the high-pitched, fast-paced lisp, Timmy - or Tim, as he would then prefer - had a very rich, deep voice, and he displayed none of the stereotypical flamboyancy for which he had become famous around the club.

Hiding deep underneath the mountain of silence and indifference that was Rick, on the other hand, was a boisterous, talkative car salesman, of all things. The only time she had seen the two of them together outside the Cage, Sandi had felt certain that Tim needed to kick regular Rick to shut him up almost as often as Timmy had to kick club Rick to get him to speak.

Stacy and Timmy's conversation continued until the band had finally reached a level of fervor that made hearing each other impossible, at which point the two stood up and dragged their respective Doms out onto the dance floor. Or rather, Stacy gracefully led Sandi out onto the dance floor while Timmy nearly strained an important muscle and considered renting a bulldozer trying to get Rick to even bother standing up.

Dancing was followed by more drinks and conversation until Rick and Timmy had to leave, as both had to go to work early the next morning. By that time, however, Sandi and Stacy had met up with a few of the other club regulars to hang out with, and the night continued unabated.

Still, it seemed to fly by much too quickly for Sandi's tastes, and several hours later they were back in the BMW and on their way home. Stacy had a wide smile on her face the whole way back, and Sandi couldn't help but look over every once in a while to see it. Beyond everything else, the sight of Stacy happy was what truly made Sandi feel better.

Stacy was dreaming about a strange and elusive landscape when she felt something lightly pass across the underside of her nose. It barely registered and she quickly drifted back to sleep, but it came back again, tickling her more insistently. She came alive just enough to swat at the annoyance, but it was only gone for a moment before it started lightly slapping the bridge of her nose.

Coming fully awake, she reach out and snatched the object before it could hit her again. Opening her right eye, she saw that she was holding the business end of a black riding crop. The other end was in Sandi's hand.

"Good morning," Sandi said evenly. "Where's my breakfast."

Stacy's eye widened and her heart began to jackknife in her chest. She rolled onto her back and gaped at the clock on the nightstand, horrified at the time that it reported.

"I'm sorry, ma'am!" she babbled. "I don't-"

Sandi took back the other end of her crop and tapped it in her other hand. "All will be forgiven if you have something ready for me in," she thought about it, "fifteen minutes. Don't worry about dressing me or yourself. I can handle my own outfit this morning, and you have more important things do be doing." She settled her gaze on Stacy like twin laser beams. "Don't you?"

Stacy barely managed to get out a "yes, ma'am!" as she launched herself out of the bed and scampered out of Sandi's room. Her bare feet slapped on the linoleum floor of the kitchen and her unrestrained hair flared around her head and shoulders as she started tearing through the cabinets, grabbing plates and bowls with just enough restraint to avoid breaking them. Bread slammed down into the toaster. Cereal and milk poured. Jellies were dipped out into small serving bowls.

As she continued fixing as much as she possibly could in a short amount of time, Stacy counted herself lucky. The "punishment" that Sandi had administered the previous night had been mind-blowingly wonderful, but there was an enormous difference between that and the real punishment that she could have given for a late breakfast.

Sandi being strict the morning following a night of leniency was no surprise. Unlike Timmy and Rick, who kept their Dominant/submissive time almost purely in the bedroom, Sandi and Stacy had taken it on as a full lifestyle, 24/7. The leash might have been loosened for a short while, but Sandi had to reinforce afterward that she was most definitely the one in charge. It was one of the most basic tenets on which their relationship was based. Without it, everything would go back to the old disorder, and neither of them wanted that.

Still, even though she knew Sandi would have been a hardass that morning one way or the other, Stacy couldn't believe she had allowed herself to sleep for so long and make the situation worse than it had to be. As her hands worked automatically, spreading butter on the toast and cutting small slices of cheddar cheese, she tried to figure out just what had happened there.

All she could come up with was that it was a one time fluke, hopefully never to happen again. Her alarm clock was in her room, not Sandi's, but that was no excuse. Her internal clock had always gotten her up exactly when she wanted or needed to get up, without fail.

Pushing the question out of her head, she concentrated on finishing the food, cleaning the counter, and then arranging everything carefully on the table. Sandi walked in a few minutes later, dressed in loose fitting jeans, a light blue blouse, and a pair of house shoes. Stacy, still wearing nothing but her underwear, stood by the table and waited.

Without looking at the other woman, Sandi sat down in her usual seat. After looking the repast over, she picked up a slice of cold lean ham and a slice of cheddar, then folded them in a piece of toast and took a bite. After she swallowed, she pointed at the chair across from her and nodded.

Stacy sagged into the seat with a barely audible "thank you, ma'am" before starting on her own side of the breakfast.

The meal proceeded in silence, aside from the crunching of cereal, scraping of jelly on toast, and other usual sounds. Stacy forced herself to relax. Disaster had been averted, she wouldn't be punished, and Sandi was obviously feeling better if she was capable of being such a forceful Dom again. Everything was as it should be.

Though Stacy certainly wouldn't have minded getting some actual clothes on herself.

"An excellent, if Spartan, breakfast," Sandi said after she'd finished. "Once you are done, you may wash up and begin your daily duties. I will be in my office for most of the day. Please try to be more punctual with lunch and dinner."

And with that, she was gone. Stacy quickly shoveled down the rest of her food, then ran for the bathroom to take a shower. Leaving the dishes on the table irked her, but the first thing Sandi had said was to wash up, and with all the sweat she had worked up from dancing at the club and then other extracurricular activities once they'd gotten home, Stacy was for once willing to let the table sit dirty for a while.

Once she was clean, dressed, refreshed, and collared, Stacy went back into the kitchen and started setting the dishes in the washer. She hummed lightly to herself, all of the earlier anxiety completely forgotten. The shower had helped, and the reemergence of last night's afterglow made the tiny hiccup in her normal sleeping schedule seem far away and unimportant.

Actually having Sandi in the house, even if she had sequestered herself in her office, was a big help as well. Sandi's days off were few and far between, and Stacy enjoyed those rare times that they were in the same building, even if they weren't always in the same room. Sandi worked hard to support the both of them, which Stacy greatly appreciated and respected.

The call came shortly after lunch.

Stacy set the phone back in its cradle and felt as if she'd entered a state of shock. Too many emotions were trying to make their way to the surface, leaving her temporarily unable to feel anything. She sat, staring at the wall until slowly, very slowly, a grin spread across her face.

Excitement finally won out over everything else as she started dialing frantically, hoping that her frantic fingers could work well enough to avoid a wrong number. Once she decided she had gotten the buttons pressed in the correct sequence, she held the phone up to her ear and waited as she listened to the digital rings.

"Chez Couer, how may I help you?"

"Is Tim working today?" Stacy asked, her voice teetering on a squeal.

"Yes he is," the woman on the other end said. "He's talking to a customer at the moment."

"May I speak with him when he's finished?"

Stacy tapped her foot nervously on the kitchen floor as she waited. The seconds seemed to stretch into hours before the line was taken off hold and she heard a deep voice say, "This is Timothy Grand. How can I help you?"

"Tim, it's Stacy!"

"Stacy, nice to hear from you!" Tim replied, the smile evident in his voice. "Business or social call today?"

"Business, I'm sorry," she said contritely as she slumped her shoulders.

Tim chuckled softly. "Not to fret, dear," he said. "Derek's on the warpath at the moment anyway, so it's probably best to keep personal calls to a minimum for now. What can I do for you?"

"I know this is really really really short notice, but do you have any tables open tomorrow night? I'll take anything!"

"Well, let's see here," Tim said distantly. Stacy crossed her fingers as she heard the sound of his nails tapping on a computer screen. "It looks like . . . yes, I think we've got something! It'll be a bit of a squeeze, and it's not in one of the best spots in the dining room, but we did have a cancellation just recently. Should I pencil you and the boss in for a seven o'clock appointment?"

Stacy chewed on her bottom lip for a few moments. She knew it wasn't something she should even be considering doing, especially with Sandi on the start of a whole new super-Dom cycle, but the circumstances were slipping together far too well to pass up. Her need to talk with Sandi about it first warred with her desire to set everything up and force it to happen the way she wanted.

Unable to make a quick decision, she decided to try a compromise. "I don't know!" she said desperately. "Can you, like, hold the table for a little while? I swear I'll call back before the end of the day!"

"Well," Tim said uncertainly, sucking air in through his teeth. "I suppose, as a favor to you, I can hold it for an hour. But only because it's you, and if you don't call back in an hour, I can't promise it won't be snapped up by Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public for their 50th anniversary!"

"Thank you, Tim!" Stacy gushed. "Seriously, thank you! You don't know how much this means to me! You're the most wonderful man in the entire city!"

"Oh, go on," Tim said, obviously pleased. "But I'm not the one you have to flatter, I'm sure. Best you save it for the boss lady!"

Stacy did her best to laugh without tittering nervously. "Thanks again, Tim," she said, "and I swear I'll call back as soon as possible!"

Putting the phone back once again, Stacy took in a deep breath and then released it. Her nerves still jittered like they were on a caffeine overdose, but she slowly smoothed them out so she could do what she had to do without exploding. Fear still tried to course through her. Not fear of Sandi herself, certainly, as Stacy hadn't actively feared the other woman since high school. Nor was it fear of punishment. The call had come to Stacy, not the other way around. She'd managed to sweet talk Tim into holding a table for a short while without actually committing herself or Sandi to anything.

The only thing she really feared was that Sandi would say no, no matter what. That would be worse than anything else the Dom could possibly do to Stacy.

Screwing up all of her courage, Stacy stood up, walked through the condo until she reached Sandi's office, and then softly knocked on the door. A muffled voice called for her to enter, which she did before she could chicken out and make a run for it.

Sandi's office was originally the third bedroom of the condo, which Sandi had slowly but surely filled up with various bits and pieces of her work that she brought home. Besides the computer that she was sitting at in one corner, there was a large filing cabinet, several half-body mannequins each wearing a different outfit, and a drafting table stacked with several thick books and magazines. The walls were covered from one side to the other with design sketches, pictures and articles torn from magazines and newspapers, and snapshots of various sizes, all displaying or talking about clothing.

"Someone called," Sandi said without looking up from her computer screen.

"Yes, ma'am." It hadn't been a question, but Stacy answered it anyway.

"Is it what you want to talk about?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Sandi took a second to finish the line she was reading, then took off her reading glasses and rubbed her eyes. She swiveled her chair toward Stacy and leaned back, interlacing her fingers and resting her hands on her belly. "Okay," she said.

Stacy fidgeted for a few moments, wringing her hands over each other. The moment had come, and she still wasn't sure she could do it. She felt her legs trying to do a little side-step dance, and suddenly she had a ridiculous image in her head of herself, waving around a hat and cane as she cheerfully tap danced her way out the door, like Bugs Bunny in costume trying to escape from Elmer Fudd in those old cartoons.

"Quinn called!" she suddenly blurted out, then put her fingertips over her mouth as she waited for the response.

At first it didn't seem as if there would be one. Sandi continued to look back, expression unchanged from studious curiosity. Stacy wasn't entirely certain if that was a good or bad thing.

"Did she?" Sandi finally said in a carefully controlled voice. "What did she want?"

"Well y'know how she's been living in California since she graduated?" Stacy asked breathlessly, nearly running every word into each other. "Well she just moved back a few weeks ago and she says she's trying to reconnect with everybody and she really wants to see us really really bad, so I promised her I'd see if we could have her over and I was even thinking that we could go out somewhere nice to have dinner with her, I even talked to Tim about maybe reserving a table for tomorrow already but I didn't want to make a decision without you of course, so what do you think?"

Sandi tapped one of her thumbs on top of the other. Her face was still carved out of stone, unmoving, but Stacy could easily imagine that the soft sound of the computer's hard drive whirring represented the wheels spinning in the other woman's head. Sandi pulled in a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, then blew it out explosively.

"She wants to see us," she said. "That seems . . . unlikely."

"It's true," Stacy assured her. "I swear!"

"I don't know."

Stacy looked down at the floor. "I know it's a lot to think about," she said, concern tinting her voice. "But she said that she's finally getting along with Daria again, and . . . " Her eyes glistened with moisture as she looked back up at Sandi. "She wants to be okay with us, too. And I don't know about you, but I just want my friend back. I miss her."

"I guess that leaves the decision up to me, then," Sandi said quietly.

Stacy nodded and looked down again. She sniffled and felt the tears starting to come in earnest when Sandi stood up, crossed the room, and wrapped her up in a tight embrace. She returned the hug, pushing her face into Sandi's collar as the other woman stroked her hair.

"I love you," Stacy cried into Sandi's shoulder. It sounded almost like a plea.

Sandi softly shushed her and pulled her in even tighter. "I love you, too," she said, then pushed Stacy out to look her in the eyes. "You said tomorrow, right?"

"Yes," said Stacy as she nodded rapidly. "But I didn't actually make the reservations. I can cancel if you-"

Sandi's hand pressed on Stacy's mouth, silencing her.

"Go wash your face," Sandi said, "then call Tim back to confirm and pick out a dress for tomorrow night."

Stacy's face brightened with hope. "Really? You mean it?"

"Of course I mean it, Stacy," Sandi said with a warm smile. "It means a lot to you, so it means a lot to me. And if Quinn really wants this, then . . . maybe it's time."

With barely controlled excitement, Stacy put her hands along Sandi's jawline and pulled her in for a long, deep kiss. "Thank you," she said when they pulled apart, then rushed off to get everything set up.

Sandi's smile lasted only a few moments after her sub had left the room. Running a hand through her hair, she flumped back down into her chair, turned to the computer, and stared at the screen with unseeing eyes for almost an hour before putting her glasses on and getting back to work.

Tim met them as they entered the foyer of Chez Couer, his arms held wide and his smile threatening to go even wider. His brilliantly white teeth contrasted sharply with the black suit jacket he wore as one of the restaurant's maitre d's.

"Miss Griffin, Miss Rowe," he cheerfully greeted them, "a pleasure to see you, as always! And such impeccable timing! Your table has just become available, so if you'll step right this way . . . "

Gesturing with a coffee-colored hand and then walking just a little ahead of them, he led Sandi and Stacy on a weaving course through the packed dining room. Eventually they reached their own table, which was small and tucked almost entirely in the corner but already set with menus, silverware, and a basket of bread, steaming fresh from the oven.

"I really must apologize for the placement," Tim said as the two women settled in on one side of the table. "But to make up for it, I have managed to get a little shuffling done with the workload, so I will be serving you personally as your waiter for the night to ensure that you receive the absolute best service Chez Couer has to offer."

"Oh, Tim," Stacy giggled, "I think we all know you just like wearing the little vest."

Plucking at his jacket and leaning in conspiratorially, he told them behind his hand, "Protip: this thing does not breathe. It's like wearing a very expensive and good looking garbage bag packed with heavy wool. So," he said, raising his voice back to a normal level, "can I offer you ladies a drink now, or would you like to wait until your other party has arrived?"

"I believe we shall wait," Sandi replied. "However, we would appreciate three glasses of water in the meantime."

"Of course, coming right up, miss," Tim said, then bowed away gracefully.

Not but a few moments after he had left, Sandi and Stacy were surprised to hear a familiar voice approaching the table.

"Do my eyes deceive me," Quinn Morgendorffer asked mock-amazed as she walked up and put her hands on her hips, "or is that Sandi Griffin and Stacy Rowe, here exactly when they're supposed to be? What ever happened to being fashionably late, hmm?"

Stacy looked nervously over at Sandi, but the other woman immediately broke into a warm and genuine smile before standing up to give Quinn a quick hug. "We could ask the same thing, Quinn," she said facetiously. "Have a seat!"

After giving Stacy a hug as well, Quinn gratefully plopped into the chair across from Sandi and heaved a sigh of relief. "I actually would have totally been here before you guys, but I still haven't gotten re-used to the city yet! Lawndale was bad enough, but further in . . . yuck, right? It's like the guys putting up the street signs deliberately tried to get everyone lost. Anyway!" she interrupted herself. "Oh my God, it's so great to see you guys! You look so great! I love those dresses!"

While Sandi had picked out one of her usual black dresses, elegant and with a golden leaf print running along the left side, Stacy had chosen a green oriental-cut dress that she kept for special occasions and topped it with a jade choker. Both women thanked her and then proceeded to complement Quinn's own outfit, a magenta women's business suit.

Tim came back at that moment, carrying three crystal tumblers of ice water and having switched out his heavy jacket for a black waiter's vest. "Ladies, your water," he said, setting the glasses down, "and I see your party is complete! Greetings, miss, my name is Timothy Grand and I shall be your waiter for the evening."

Taking the fingers on one of Quinn's hands in his own, Tim lightly brushed his lips across her knuckles as he bowed gallantly. Quinn smiled widely at him as he stood up straight again, her cheeks turning a light shade of pink.

"Are we ready to order drinks, or should I come back in a few more moments?" he asked.

After taking their order for sparkling grape juice, apple cider, and an accompanying bottle of a mid-priced wine, Tim swept into another half-bow and left them to look through their menus. As he was leaving, Quinn leaned back and unabashedly checked out the view.

"Oh wow," she said once she was sure he was out of hearing range, "is that boy the most gorgeous thing ever or what? Ooh, that voice, and you could nibble on that butt for days!"

"I'm sure his boyfriend thinks the same thing," Sandi said with a smirk while Stacy tried to hide a giggle behind her menu.

Quinn looked absolutely crestfallen. "Oh no, really?" she said. "Well, at least that means he's not married and oh jeez it was horribly insensitive of me to make a joke like that without making sure it was okay first, wasn't it?"

Stacy's giggle became a full out laugh as Sandi waved off the other woman's sudden discomfort. "We're supposed to be here mending bridges, right?" Sandi asked. "I don't see how getting offended at every little thing will help with that, and you weren't saying it to be mean."

"Thank you!" Quinn said earnestly. "Seriously, you guys, I know I'm probably going to say some more stupid things tonight, but I really am trying to get better. It was stupid of me to freak out on you two like I did, but I was still coming to terms with Daria and Jane getting together, and then there's the whole . . . other thing . . . I just-"

Sandi held up a hand to stop Quinn mid-sentence, then proffered it to her and said, "There's absolutely no need to apologize. I have to admit that when Stacy first told me you called, I had some reservations. But I think, in the end, it's best if we simply let all the old stuff pass and make a whole new start of things. What do you say?"

Quinn reached out and took Sandi's hand, squeezing it gently but firmly in a friendly handshake. She then did the same with Stacy. "Quinn Morgendorffer, nice to meet you," she said good-naturedly. "Hi, how ya doing? So! I don't know about you, but I'm starved!

Tim came by a few minutes later to drop off their drinks and take their orders. Before he left, he shamelessly flirted with Quinn a few more times, which she accepted with more humor and less blushing than before, and although her expression was slightly more wistful the second time around, she once again watched him as he sashayed away.

"So, Quinn," Sandi said over her flute of grape juice, "what brought you back to our fine city?"

"Stacy didn't tell you?" Quinn asked disbelievingly.

"And ruin all the good talking points?" Stacy returned, shaking her head. "We didn't get back together for the first time in years just to stare across the table at each other with nothing to say!"

"So instead I'll just be repeating myself over and over and over again," Quinn laughed. "Anyway, first off, let me just say that California is wonderful. I mean, it's got its tacky parts and dirty, icky places filled with crime or whatever, but the rest of it, it's like walking around in a movie!

"But," she said, "and of course there is a but, the whole movie thing is what ruined it for me. If you can make it in Los Angeles, you're golden, but if you can't . . . well, let's just say the competition in the fashion business over there is horrendous. You know I don't mind a little challenge, but it can really start to wear a girl down, right? So when I was visiting mom and dad a few months ago and got a call from a locally published magazine saying they would like to hire me on as a reporter, I just couldn't say no!"

"'Locally published'?" Stacy said, scrunching her face in confusion. "You didn't say that on the ph- oh my God you're working for Steel Fashions?!"

"Well, I didn't want to ruin all the good talking points," Quinn coyly said with a shrug. "But yes!"

"That's fabulous!" Sandi said, genuinely impressed. "When is your first article going to be published?"

Quinn washed down a nibble of bread with a sip of wine before answering. "Not in the current issue, though of course you'd know that," she said, "but next month's, definitely. Just a little quarter-page thing this time around, but once I'm eased in they say they'll be giving me heftier assignments.

"But enough about me, what about you two? Oh, and Tiffany!"

"Tiff wasn't able to make it," Stacy said with a little pout. "But I guess it's understandable since she's busy taking care of the new baby and all."

"New baby?" Quinn asked after she was able to pick her jaw up off the table. "Tiffany?"

"Yes, but I wouldn't worry for her too much," Sandi said. "She's already had plenty of practice dealing with the first two."

"Three babies?!" Quinn said, her amazement climbing even higher. "Tiffany?!"

"Believe it or not, she's quite the doting mother," Stacy told her, palms up in a what-are-you-gonna-do gesture. "But just wait until you hear who the father is!"

Quinn put her hand on her stomach and looked vaguely seasick. "I'm not sure I'm ready for this."

"Ready or not," Sandi said as she raised her eyebrows, "it's Kevin."

An expression of shock crossed with horror slowly drew itself across Quinn's face. "No," she said simply. "No way. No."

Stacy broke into uncontrollable laughter, hiding her face in her hands and bowing over the table in an attempt to keep from bothering people nearby. Sandi managed to hold it in herself for a few more seconds, but the look on Quinn's face and Stacy's own giggle fit caused her to break and nearly snort grape juice out of her nose.

"Oh, you guys, that's mean!" Quinn said after they had collected themselves a bit. "Come on, seriously!"

"Okay, seriously, she has two girls and a boy now," Sandi said, wiping tears from her eyes. "Not with Kevin, though. Bad enough she'd be Tiffany Thompson, but those poor kids! I mean, can you imagine?"

"So who with who with who with?" Quinn said, bouncing slightly in her chair. "And don't say Charles . . . I don't think my heart could take another joke like that!"

"I'm not sure if you'd remember him, actually," Stacy said. "He was in the grade ahead of us and was still being home-schooled for most of your first year at Lawndale. You knew Ted, right?"

Quinn's face clouded up momentarily but quickly cleared. "Ted DeWitt-Clinton?" she said. "He dated- well, kind of dated- well, hung out with Daria for a little while, I think! Nerdy, geeky guy with blonde hair and glasses, right? This isn't another joke is it? How in the world did he and Tiffany end up together?"

"Not a joke," Stacy told her. "Ted was all set to go up to Crestmore after he graduated, but Tiffany says his parents had a conniption fit. Something about how the public school system corrupting him was bad enough and he sure as heck wasn't going to be turned into some ivy league robot. Anyway, he ended up staying in Lawndale and started tutoring students at Lawndale High. Since Tiffany didn't graduate with us, he got assigned to her, and her grades went through the roof!"

"Really!" Quinn said, amazed.

Sandi nodded. "Well, for Tiffany, anyway," she said. "She may not be a rocket scientist or anything, but you'd be surprised just how much she's improved while you've been away."

"If nothing else, she's a world-class mother," Stacy added. "I don't see how she does it! But anyway, after Tiff graduated, she and Ted kept seeing each other, and they got married just a few months later. Tiffany is a stay-at-home mom, and Ted is the head of the IT department for the Sun-Herald."

"That is just wild," Quinn said, shaking her head. "So what about you two? What are you doing these days?"

Pride flooded Stacy's voice as she said, "Sandi is the district distribution manager for Cashman's!"

"That's wonderful!" Quinn exclaimed as she briefly put her hand on top of Sandi's and squeezed. "And fast! Wow!"

Sandi shrugged modestly, catching the redhead off guard. She was pretty sure she'd never seen Sandi do anything modestly, but she shook her surprise off and kept smiling.

"It's nothing, really," Sandi was saying. "Just a matter of working hard and knowing the right people. I probably owe the job more to my mom and Stacy than to anything I did myself."

"Oh, stop," Stacy said, pulling Sandi over by her arm and giving her a quick kiss. "You worked your butt off to get where you are. All I do is make sure the dishes are clean when you get home."

An awkward silence fell over the two women suddenly. Stacy pulled back and starting running her fingers along her choker while Sandi seemed to find her drink glass to be inordinately interesting. Quinn looked back and forth between them for a moment, then cleared her throat and got their attention by reaching across the table and taking one of their hands each in her own.

"Stacy, Sandi, look at me," she said. Two pairs of brown eyes reluctantly met hers. "I'm not going to say I understand what the two of you have going. I'm not even going to say that I'm completely comfortable with it yet. But . . . I want to understand it. I want to be comfortable with it. Living in Los Angeles, especially in the fashion district . . . well, you kind of have to get used to things like this. It was getting to know people over there that showed me that by acting the way I did, I was shutting out several wonderful people over here who just happened to have a lifestyle that wasn't like mine.

"It's stupid, it's close-minded, and I know now that that's not the kind of person I want to be anymore." She sighed and looked at them apologetically. "So please," she said, "don't feel like you need to walk around on eggshells with me. Just be who you are, do the things you'd normally do, and say the things you'd normally say. It's the only way I'm going to learn. Okay?"

"Okay," Sandi said, her voice slightly hoarse.

Quinn turned to Stacy and repeated, "Okay?"

Stacy nodded silently, her eyes sliding away a bit.

By the time Tim came around with their food, the mood at the table had picked back up and the three women continued to chat about themselves, each other, people they knew, and their time back in high school as the evening wore on into night.

"Seriously, you guys, you don't have to do this," Quinn said, her words accentuated by a tremor of suppressed giggles. "I'm fine, seriously!"

"Do you think she is being serious right now, Stacy?" Sandi asked with a smirk.

Stacy laughed as she helped Quinn keep her footing on the two steps leading up to their condo door. "If only there was some way we could know for sure!"

"Oh, now you're just making fun of me," Quinn pouted. "Really, I didn't have that much wine. And the motel isn't that far from here!"

"And we'll be sure to take you back to your car so you can get to the motel in the morning," Sandi said cheerfully but firmly. "After that, Stacy and I will help you look for apartments. We know of a few places you might not have known to look. In the meantime, you said that you wanted to learn more about how we live, correct?"

Quinn sighed in good-natured defeat. "Oh, alright," she said. "I guess I'll take the tour, at least!"

"First, a cup of coffee," Stacy pronounced as she led Quinn through the foyer and turned left into the kitchen. "Then a change of clothes. Then the tour, followed by light entertainment and finally, a good night's sleep."

"Well, look who's Miss Bossy Britches," Quinn said. She sat down at the table and looked primly at Sandi. "And here I thought you were the one in charge?"

Sandi smiled and shrugged off her coat. "Stacy lets me pretend to be in charge every once in a while," she joked, "but we try not to make it a habit."

Stacy quickly whipped up a cup of instant coffee for Quinn, poured Sandi a glass of soda water, and left to start making preparations for Quinn's stay. The other two women sat in the kitchen in the meanwhile, sipping their drinks and chatting. Some time later, Stacy poked the top of her head around the frame of the kitchen door and cleared her throat. Her long hair fell loose below her sideways face.

Sandi turned around when Quinn pointed behind her. "Is everything ready?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am," Stacy replied, sounding a bit uncomfortable. "Bed clothes have been laid out for both of you, and bath items have been set next to the shower."

"Very good," Sandi said. "But . . . are you hiding?"

Stacy's fingers crawled around the doorframe's edge, and it seemed as if she were having to physically drag herself into the room. Once she had stepped in fully, Sandi and Quinn could see that she had already changed into a sleep shirt and pajamas covered in cartoon puppies. From the way she was dipping her chin to cover her neck, however, both women quickly surmised the problem.

"Stacy?" Quinn called out softly, setting her coffee mug to the side. "It's okay."

"I . . . I know," Stacy stammered. "It's just, the last time-"

Quinn swallowed visibly. "This isn't last time," she said.

The sub nodded and lifted her head bit by bit until her collar was in full view. With the reveal fully accomplished, courage finally seemed to coalesce in her spine and she stood before them confidently. Quinn looked at the spot where the jade choker from earlier in the night had been replaced by a thin strip of leather with a silvery chrome buckle.

"Does it . . . hurt?" she asked. "I mean, it doesn't chafe or anything, does it?" she clarified swiftly. "It seems like it might . . . chafe."

"Oh, no!" Stacy assured her just as quickly as she pointed out the soft padding between the collar and her neck. "See? It gets a little sweaty sometimes, but I change it out with the necklaces and other things often enough that it's not a real problem. It's not much different from a watchband, really. Just bigger and on my neck."

"Well, it's cute!" the redhead finally offered after a short, awkward pause.

Stacy thanked her and perked up a little more at the compliment, then suggested they begin the tour. Sandi and Quinn downed the last dredges of their drinks, then stood and followed Stacy across the foyer into the living room.

As Stacy pointed out favorite little nick-knacks on the shelves and other small things here and there to Quinn, Sandi trailed slightly behind the two other women. Though a few trepidations continued to hover over her mind like small rain clouds on the horizon, she saw Quinn's reaction to the collar as promising, if not entirely positive. It had certainly been a better reaction than the one she'd had years before when she had found out exactly why Stacy had been wearing it for several weeks in a row no matter what the rest of her outfit had looked like.

It had, more or less, been the outting moment for the two girls, only a couple of months fresh out of high school. Plans for college and moving out of their parents' houses and trying to keep in touch with each other had been everything for the Fashion Club that summer, but all of it had become secondary when Sandi had screamed at the continuously probing Quinn that the collar was hers and it meant that Stacy was hers as well and would Quinn just shut up and let it be.

But instead Quinn had stared stupidly at the two of them for several moments until an understanding gleaned from TV and the internet had slowly made its way across her brain, and those stray bits of knowledge had caused her to start screaming and retreating in disgust. Unwilling to listen, unwilling to understand, she had stayed away from Sandi and Stacy - and Tiffany as well, for reasons none of the three could fully comprehend - for her remaining month in Lawndale. Her departure for California and Pepperhill University had been seen off only by her family, none of the people she had called her best friends throughout her time at high school.

That Quinn didn't run screaming for the hills at the sight of Stacy's collar this time, Sandi took as a good sign. She had to, she realized, or she would go running and screaming herself from all the tension wrapped tightly around her heart.

Going back through the foyer and into the hall, they moved on to Sandi's office. Quinn oohed and aahed over the outfits on the mannequins and the designs posted on the walls, and the three of them stopped to talk shop for a while. Though Stacy didn't herself work in the industry, she had still gleaned enough from talking with Sandi and reading trade magazines to contribute to the conversation and follow Quinn and Sandi when they moved into areas with which she was less familiar.

Except for Tiffany's absence, the conversation had begun to sound almost exactly like their Fashion Club days, a point that Quinn commented on before they drifted to the next room.

"And this," Stacy said with a flourish of her hand, "is my room! You've filled out a little more than I have, but these should still fit you," she added, pointing to the bedclothes sitting on the bed.

"Mom's genes at work," Quinn said half-ruefully as she slapped a hand on her thigh. "But, you have your own bedroom? I kinda thought . . . well, that you two . . . "

Stacy jumped slightly as she realized what Quinn was talking about. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "I mean, well, of course, but we don't always stay in the same room. I only need to sleep about four hours a night, so I'm up all hours fixing food or cleaning or whatever. It's just more convenient that way."

Quinn nodded, but Sandi caught her expression before she turned her head to look around.

"There are a number of married couples who keep separate sleeping arrangements," the Dom said, an edge stealing into her tone. "It is not that uncommon. And it is simply a part of how our relationship works. It reminds us of where we stand."

Stacy glanced at her, worry etching her features, but Quinn simply turned to Sandi and contritely said, "Oh! No, of course, Sandi, I understand! Stacy, it's lovely, and since you've already got everything ready for me, I guess I have to stay, don't I?"

Relieved, Stacy nodded firmly once. "Indeed you do," she said as she linked her arm in Quinn's and moved her toward the door.

As the three women entered Sandi's room, Sandi felt an uncomfortable ripple move up her back. Quinn had been right, she decided, things were indeed starting to sound like their Fashion Club days. Sandi had seen shocked concern on Quinn's face back in Stacy's room, and Quinn had tried to cover it up with the same old obsequious act, not meaning a single word that she said.

She obviously forgets that I live with a true submissive now, Sandi thought as she frowned at the other woman's back. I know bullshit when I hear it.

And there the look was again when Quinn saw Sandi's riding crop hanging from its hook by the closet door. Sandi counted to ten and did her level best to calm herself down. The redhead had openly said that she still wasn't quite used to the scene yet but that she was trying. And, most importantly, Stacy hadn't seemed to noticed. Stacy wanted things to go smoothly, so Sandi had to bite her tongue and ignore their friend's little slip-ups.

And then Quinn saw the little red stool.

Sandi stopped breathing when she noticed what Quinn was looking at. Even with Quinn's request that they be who they were, Sandi still would have hidden the stool if the visit had been planned ahead of time. Since it had simply been spur of the moment, however, the tiny chair was out for everyone to see. She could only hope that Quinn didn't ask-

"Hey, what's that?"

Sandi glanced over to see Stacy's face go from happily content to dumbstruck horror in less than a second. "It's, uh," the sub choked out. "It's the puh-puh-puh-"

Quinn looked up from the painted wooden stool in surprise. "Stacy?" she said with concern. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, it's just . . . " Stacy trailed off and put a hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry, this may be going a little too fast. Can we just skip it for toni-"

"No," Sandi suddenly said, standing up straight and crossing her arms. "She wanted to know everything about our lifestyle, so we should tell her."

"Sandi, I-"

"It's the punishment stool," Sandi continued with lethal calm. "Whenever Stacy does something bad, I put the stool in the middle of the living room and she has to sit on it until I think she's learned her lesson."

Stacy went silent and started to turn inward. Quinn turned to Sandi, aghast.

"You do what?"

Sandi met Quinn's eyes with her own steely gaze. "You heard me," she said. "It's a tool that I use to keep order. It's a reminder of who is the Dominant and who is the submissive. It's a part of the rules."

Quinn looked at Stacy, who looked away. "You can't be serious," the redhead boggled. "You don't do that. Why would you do that?"

"I can and we do," Sandi assured her. "It's a part of our lifestyle. It's one of the things we do. If she makes a mess, or doesn't clean something right, or she's caught not wearing her collar, she has to sit in the chair, because she's been a bad girl."

"And what if you break the rules?" Quinn challenged.

Sandi glanced pointedly at the riding crop on the wall. "I do not break the rules," she said. "I make them."

"Stacy?" Quinn said, taking the other woman's shoulders in her hands. "Stacy, baby? Does she do that? Does she punish you like that?"

The sub nodded. "But, Quinn," she said in a wavering voice, "you don't understand, she's not explaining-"

"Don't understand?!" Quinn cried. "You're damn right I don't understand! I mean, sleeping in separate rooms, you being like a housewife, that I could get, I guess, but . . . making you sit on a stool, like you're some kind of little kid? If she's really been doing that, she's been treating you like a little kid, Stacy! Or hell, you've got the collar . . . she's treating you like some kind of pet, and I don't have to understand to know that's just wrong!"

"You're just a little drunk still, Quinn, you don't know what you're saying . . . "

Quinn put a hand on the side of Stacy's face. "Yes I do," she said. "And I think we need to get you out of here for a bit so we can talk, okay?"

"Yes, Stacy," Sandi growled, "she knows exactly what she's saying, don't you, Quinn? Because this has been the plan all along, hasn't it? Get poor, unhappy weak-willed Stacy away from big, bad domineering Sandi, right? That's the only reason you even called us, isn't it? Isn't it?!"

"You see, now she's yelling!" Quinn yelled as she started to push Stacy out of the room. "Come on, Stace-"

Sandi stepped forward and grabbed Quinn's wrist, pulling it back from Stacy and turning Quinn to face her. "You're not going anywhere with her," she snarled in the redhead's face.

"Let go of me!" Quinn screamed as she tried to pry Sandi's fingers off of her arm. "Let go of me, you stupid bitch!"

"Sandi, don't!"

Sandi ignored Stacy's plea. Her free hand raised up as an open palm.

"Sandi, please!" Stacy begged. "Don't do this! Don't make me . . . Sandi! Don't make me do this!"

The hand started to come down in a curving arc, headed straight for Quinn's face.

"Sandi!" Stacy screeched. "NASCAR!"

Quinn braced for an impact that never came. After a few seconds passed without feeling a stinging slap across her cheek, she opened one eye and looked around, then opened both in amazement.

Sandi still had hold of one of Quinn's wrists, but she was also frozen in place, her hand still poised in the air for a strike. The only parts of her that were still moving were her chest, which was rising and falling with heaving adrenaline-fueled breaths, and her eyes, which were bulging and jerking back and forth in indecision.

It seemed for a second as if she was going to go ahead and follow through, but she finally let Quinn go and seemed to shrivel up inside herself. Her shoulders slumped, she looked down at the ground, and she slowly walked over to stand behind Stacy.

Stacy, meanwhile, was suddenly standing up with her back straight and head held high. Though tears had started running down her cheeks and continued to do so, she looked like a completely different person than the one who had been begging and pleading mere moments before. She looked Quinn directly in the eyes, and while she didn't look angry exactly, she certainly didn't seem happy with the way things had gone by any stretch of the imagination.

Quinn looked back at her and Sandi as if she'd never seen them before in her entire life. For the first time that night, she actually felt that she'd had too much to drink earlier, and her mind struggled to keep up and failed miserably. "What . . . what the hell just happened?" she asked.

Stacy put her hands out in placation. "I can explain everything," she said, "but first, we all just need to calm down, okay?"

"I don't-" Quinn started, then shook her head to try and clear some of the fuzziness. Stacy's voice held an odd authority to it that was confusing her even further. "I think I need to get out of here."

"Quinn, wait. We'll go back to the kitchen, get some more coffee-"

"Nuh," Quinn grunted as she lurched out of the room, then out of the house and down the sidewalk, disappearing into the moonless night.

Quinn wasn't entirely certain how long she had been gone, but she thought she could just make out a thin line of purple or navy blue on the horizon, signaling the oncoming morning. It hardly mattered to her, however. When she shuffled up to the front door of Sandi and Stacy's condo, all of the lights inside were off, leaving the windows looking pitch black.

She felt her heart tumble down into her stomach as she turned and sat down on the small stairs leading up to the door. She put her face in her hands and could feel her makeup smudge a little bit more. That didn't matter to her, either, since whatever semblance of well-applied makeup she might have once had was several hours ruined.

There was only one thing that she really cared about at that point, and she was willing to wait as long as she had to in order to do it. Fortunately for her, she didn't have to wait long.

"Welcome back."

Quinn lifted her face to see Stacy sitting on the steps beside her. The other woman was still in her collar and bedclothes, and she was staring up at the predawn sky. Quinn tried to speak, found her throat to be stuffed up with phlegm, and had to stop and clear it.

"I'm sorry," she said roughly.

Stacy reached out and drew her in for a one-armed hug. "It's okay," she said, laying her head against Quinn's. "I'm sorry, too."

Quinn pulled back and shook her head furiously. "No, you've got nothing to be sorry for," she told Stacy. "I just . . . I got used to the whole lesbian thing after talking it out with Daria and Jane, and then I hung out with a bunch of other gay people and couples at Pepperhill and my job, and I thought that meant I'd be okay with what you and Sandi have, too." She kicked at the bottom step with the back of her shoe, scuffing it. "I guess I was wrong."

"Well, I don't know if it's exactly a common mistake or anything," Stacy said, "but sometimes people link being gay with being into BDSM, and vice versa. As long as you understand that they really are separate things . . . "

"I do," said Quinn. "I was just being stupid, I guess."

Stacy shrugged and said, "You were a little drunk, is all."

"No, that's no excuse for my behavior. It wasn't all just about tonight, Stace." She looked over at the other woman with red-rimmed eyes. "When I left, I only got about two buildings over. After I puked out most of my dinner and cried for an hour straight, I started thinking about why I acted the way I did, and I think . . . I think maybe it's because I still look at the whole thing like we're back in high school. Does that make any sense?"

The sub nodded knowingly. "I think I get what you mean," she said. "You have to understand, Quinn, that things aren't like that anymore. Sandi and I . . . well, back then, we had all these feelings for each other, but we didn't know what to do with them, so we just did the only things we could think of. I started trying to do anything I could to please Sandi and get her to like me, while she tried to control me like her mom used to control her. And . . . I'm sorry you and Tiff sometimes got caught in the crossfire."

Quinn snorted laughter. "I don't know about Tiffany, but there's no need to apologize to me. I set myself up for the crossfire with my own power plays more often than not."

Stacy laughed lightly in return, then said, "Anyway, Sandi and I used all that stuff to bury what we felt and tried so hard to be normal . . . whatever that really means. When we finally admitted how we felt to each other senior year, it was such a release, you know? We could finally stop playing those parts. But then . . . I don't know if you remember, but around Christmas that year-"

"You two were arguing all the time. I remember. I was rooting for you most of the time, because I thought it was just you finally trying to stand up for yourself."

"It was, for the most part," Stacy confirmed. "We'd kinda gotten used to the routine, and though we were trying to both change, it didn't seem to be working out. Then we learned about the Dominant/submissive scene, and as we kept looking into it, things started making more sense."

"But that's what never made any sense to me!" Quinn cried out plaintively. "Why would you set yourself up for the exact same situation you were in before if it was so horrible?"

"It's not the same situation," Stacy explained gently. "That's what I'm trying to tell you, Quinn. Before, I really was something of a doormat, letting people - especially Sandi - walk all over me. And Sandi really was trying to control me, along with everyone else around her. There was always this underlying layer of resentment between us. But now it's different because Sandi actually respects me. She listens to what I have to say, and the lifestyle we lead is based on a mutual agreement instead of one of us forcing it on the other.

"But the most important difference of all, I think, is that we love each other now. And that changes everything."

Quinn had her eyes glued to the pavement in front of her, but she was nodding in understanding. "Okay," she said. "That I can understand, at least. But . . . she almost hit me, Stacy. She doesn't . . . has she . . . "

"Hit me?" Stacy asked when Quinn trailed off. She shook her head. "Not once. Not ever. Well, except for a little play, but that's the mutual thing again. Sandi has never abused me, and she never will. She only attacked you because she thought you were trying to take me away."

"Oh," Quinn said with a wince as the full memory bubbled back up in her mind. "Right. But then you yelled something, and she stopped. How exactly does that work?"

Stacy chortled, "I screamed 'NASCAR'. It's one of our safewords, since it doesn't seem like a word that would come up in everyday conversation in our household."

"Safewords . . . I've heard of those, but I thought they were just for . . . y'know, sex or whatever."

"Well, usually, yah," Stacy said hesitantly. "And to be honest, I wasn't sure it was going to work this time, but it was the only thing I could think of to do. Anyway, safewords are just one of the many things that we have to protect each other and keep our relationship safe. It's especially important, I think, in the way me and Sandi do things, 24/7 and all. If either one of us are uncomfortable with what the other is doing while we're in our roles, no matter what it is, all we have to do is say the word and everything stops.

"Oh," she added quickly, "and if you don't mind, I'd appreciate it if you kept the word a secret. It's kind of . . . personal, you know?"

Quinn made the motion of locking her lips and throwing away the key. "No one will ever hear it from me, I promise," she vowed. "But . . . if you have the safeword, and you say Sandi never abuses you, what's with the stool?"

Stacy sighed and looked away for a second as she collected her thoughts. "The punishment stool isn't really what you might think," she said. "It's definitely not abuse. It's simply a part of the roles we play. In order for Sandi to be in charge of me, there have to be rules, and like any case where one person has responsibility over another, there has to be a consequence for breaking those rules or they won't have any meaning. So when I break a rule, I have to sit on the stool and . . . "

"And what?" Quinn prompted.

Stacy's fingers began to twitch back and forth, seemingly on their own, and she bared her teeth slightly. "And I'm not allowed to clean anything," she hissed lightly. "That . . . bothers me, so it makes a good punishment, really. And before you say anything, even though it bothers me, Sandi and I agreed well beforehand on the punishment. If I didn't think I could handle it, I would've made her pick something else. She isn't forcing this on me."

Despite Stacy's reassurance, Quinn still rubbed at her forehead and sighed. "I don't know, it still doesn't sit too well with me," she said, "but if you're really okay with it-"

"I really am," Stacy said firmly.

The two women sat in silence for a few moments, staring off into the distance, before she spoke up again.

"Shortly after we started college, there was this guy who started bugging me," Stacy said quietly. "I had almost gotten used to the occasional weird comment about my collar, but this boy . . . he actually knew it for what it was. He knew I was a submissive, but he didn't seem to understand what that meant, and he was . . . very crude about it. He kept following me around campus every day without fail, propositioning me for anything and everything his sick little mind could think of. He'd never do it when Sandi was around, but when she wasn't . . . "

"Didn't you call the cops or anything?" Quinn asked, incredulous.

"No," Stacy said. "If it happened now, then that would be the first thing I'd do, you bet. But at the time I was still working on building myself up from the mess I used to be. I just kinda hoped that if I ignored him, he'd lose interest and go away.

"But he didn't," she sniffled. "And he got worse. He started calling me all sorts of horrible names. It's stupid, but I can still hear his voice every once in a while. And he started following me around other places, not just the college. Then, one day, he grabbed me outside the grocery store and pulled me into an alley. He was going to . . . "

She began to sob quietly. Quinn scooted closer and put a reassuring arm around her shoulders, then waited patiently until she was ready to talk again.

"He didn't get a chance," Stacy said, her voice ragged but firm. "He suddenly jerked to the side, and Sandi was standing there behind him. She leaned over him where he fell and pressed her stun gun against the asshole's neck until he stopped trying to get back up to attack us, then we went and called the police."

"Holy shit," Quinn breathed.

"Yah. Turns out that Sandi noticed I was acting weird and jumpy. She thought I might be taking drugs or something, so she cut class and followed me around one day and saw the guy hassling me. She 'borrowed' her mom's stun gun and started following him while he followed me. When he finally attacked me, she took him out.

"There was a trial later, and we learned that he had two prior arrests for assaulting women. I was his third strike, and if he ever does get out of jail, he'll be going straight back if he gets within 500 feet of me or Sandi."

"And I'm guessing that's if Sandi lets him live a second time," Quinn said.

Stacy nodded, then looked over at the redhead. "Whatever you may think about how we live our lives, Quinn," she said, "don't ever doubt for even a second that she has anything but the best intentions toward me. I trust Sandi with my life, and she would never willingly do anything to hurt me. Ever."

The two women embraced each other and stayed that way for a long while.

"I guess I owe Sandi an apology, too," Quinn said once they'd separated. "Though I suppose it'll have to wait until she wakes up."

"She's already awake and she accepts," Sandi's voice came from the suddenly open front door. "But only on one condition," she added as she stepped down to sit on Quinn's other side.

"Yes! Of course!" Quinn exclaimed happily. "Anything you want!"

Sandi fixed Quinn with her most imperious glare, but almost immediately crumpled as her expression softened. "You have to forgive me, too," she said quietly.

"No, Sandi, really, it was all my fault," Quinn tried to assure her. "I shouldn't have freaked out like I did, I shouldn't have said the things I said, I-"

"No, Quinn," Sandi cut her off. "Stacy was right. She was probably the only one who was right. I wasn't trying to explain things. I was just being confrontational. I was trying to force you into a fight based on stuff you did years ago, and that was wrong of me. And no matter how mad I was, I never should have tried to slap you."

"You were just trying to protect Stacy," said Quinn. "But . . . yes. I forgive you."

After they hugged for a few seconds, Sandi said, "Well, this has been an exciting night, hasn't it?"

"Burning into an exciting morning," Stacy pointed out, waving her hand at the gradually brightening sky.

"Well, if you two don't mind, I need to grab my purse out of your car so I can call a cab and-"

"No no no," Stacy told Quinn as they all stood up. "Everything is still set up for you inside, so let's go, chop chop!"

"And after we get some sleep and food, we'll actually sit down and try to explain things a little better," Sandi said. "We'll take it slow this time and try not to dump it all on you at random."

"And then, apartment shopping!" Stacy cheered.

Quinn laughed as she and her friends filed into the condo. "Sounds good to me," she said with a smile.


Roland 'Jim' Lowery

March 27, 2010