"Hey, Barney." Robin took a sip of her drink, waiting until Barney turned toward her to direct a pointed nod toward the bar. "Check out the hot blonde who just walked in."
Barney glanced distractedly toward the woman in question, not really paying much attention before shrugging and offering his succinct assessment.
"Oh, come on!" Lily protested with a laugh, after a none-too-subtle glance over her shoulder to take in the view. "She's gorgeous, blonde, and busty, and she's working on her fourth drink. She's totally your type."
"She's also flirting with Carl," Robin observed with a smirk, raising an eyebrow in Barney's direction. "Are you really gonna let him tap that first?" Her lips twitched in suggestive amusement as she took another sip of her drink before offering, "I could give you a little wingwomanly assist, if you like."
Barney frowned, glancing between the two women in confusion as he took in the oddly hopeful, encouraging expressions on their faces, briefly replaying the last minute or so of the conversation he'd been too distracted to pay close attention to for most of the evening.
"Wait a second." His eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Why are you two suddenly all about helping me score? You're usually mildly repulsed by my attempts to hook up with random bimbos. So… what's with the sudden change of heart?"
Lily and Robin exchanged a look that was a disconcerting blend of guilt and concern, before Robin attempted to explain in a cautious, gentle tone that set Barney immediately on edge with irritation.
"It's still disgusting, Barney, don't worry. We haven't changed our minds about that. It's just… well, I can't remember the last time you took a girl home."
Barney raised a single eyebrow, looking to Lily for clarification.
She nodded with an apologetic grimace. "It's true, Barney. It's been weeks. And… we're just a little concerned because you… well, you don't seem to be quite yourself lately."
"Let me get this straight." Ted spoke up from his spot between Robin and Barney, a vaguely condescending smirk on his lips. "You two are actually worried… because Barney hasn't been acting like a two dollar crack whore?"
Barney barely managed to suppress his flinch at those harsh words. Robin and Lily both looked at Ted sharply in surprise and a little bit of alarm, but Marshall was distracted, frowning thoughtfully for a moment before he replied.
"Technically he can't be a two dollar crack whore. Either he's having sex for money, or for crack. Not both. Your contradiction in terms renders your point invalid. Lawyered."
"It does not," Ted argued, rolling his eyes and leaning forward in mild agitation. "It has nothing to do with my actual point…"
"Don't get me wrong," Lily conceded with a little shrug. "It's not like your usual habits are healthy, exactly, Barney. It's just… they are your usual habits, and… it's just…"
"Weird." Robin finished for her matter-of-factly, looking at Barney. "Stepford weird. It's creepy, dude. You're supposed to come in here every night grossing us out with your stories about your latest conquests."
"Well, the last one… got a little psycho for my tastes," Barney explained, unable to resist casting a brief, almost imperceptible glance in Ted's direction as he spoke. Ted's expression was one of cool amusement, but there was a brief flash of something in his eyes that Barney found both satisfying and alarming at the same time. "So, I'm just taking it easy for a while. Don't worry. I might be taking a time out, but I am most definitely still in the game and topping the scoreboard."
"Good to know." Lily remarked in a flat, mildly sick tone of voice that made it clear that she was already rethinking her concerns. She let out a quiet yawn, reaching for Barney's wrist, and the shiny gold watch it bore, as she asked, "What time is it, anyway? I'm exhausted."
Barney quickly withdrew his wrist in alarm, smoothing down the sleeve of his jacket as he raised his arm to check the time himself, hoping that he'd covered his reaction quickly enough to avoid arousing anyone's suspicions – particularly Lily's, as she was the one who'd been eyeing him warily all night.
"Ten-thirty. You're getting old, Aldrin."
Lily watched Barney closely as he laughed, a little too loudly, and lowered his arm back onto the table, where his free hand began to fidget nervously with the sleeve of his jacket, tugging it down further over his wrist.
But Lily had already seen more than enough.
She waited until Robin had left to catch a nap before work, Ted had gone upstairs, and Marshall had stepped outside to get them a cab, before reaching out toward Barney's wrist again, this time holding on firmly when he tried to pull away, and pushing his sleeve up with her fingertips, revealing what she'd already gotten a glimpse of a few minutes earlier – the mottled ring of dark bruises that covered Barney's wrist, not even slightly covered by the watch he wore.
"What happened?" she demanded quietly, meeting his eyes with a steely resolve that would not allow him to deny her.
He swallowed hard, holding her gaze with a trapped expression in his own, allowing her to hold onto his wrist as he offered a hurried explanation in a voice that was a little too casually dismissive, and trembled just a little too much for Lily's comfort. "Nothing that doesn't happen in my bedroom on a nightly basis, Lily. Like I said, things got a little crazy with the last chick I took home, and… she was a little scary, but… but a good time was had by all, and I'll be none the worse for wear in a week or so. So…"
"Are you talking about the girl?" Lily asked, studying his reaction closely. "The one you were telling me about who seemed to be using you for sex?"
Barney flinched at her blunt words, lowering his gaze and shaking his head. "No. I broke it off with her. You were right. She wasn't good for me, so I ended it. No, this was just some… some random kinky bimbo that went a little wild. Like I said… nothing I can't handle."
His tone was light and calm, and he rolled his eyes as he spoke, giving her a bright, reassuring smile as he finally met her gaze again – but Lily was not particularly reassured. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but something was just off about Barney's behavior – not just tonight, but for weeks, now – and she was beginning to worry that maybe that something was serious.
"Barney… we're friends, right?"
He blinked in surprise, his cool smile faltering as he answered, "Of course, we are. Why is that even a question?"
"I just… I just want you to know that… if there's something going on, you can… you can talk to me, Barney," Lily hesitantly explained. "I'm here for you."
Barney stared at her for a long moment before his stunned expression slowly shifted into a soft smile that was both grateful and teasing at the same time.
"Awww, that's sweet, Lil. Is the after-school special over now?"
"Oh, shut up," Lily grumbled, rolling her eyes and finally releasing her grip on Barney's wrist.
"I would, okay?" Barney added, and while there was laughter in his voice, there was also warmth and affection. "If something was wrong – I'd tell you. You know…" he amended with a little smirk. "… as long as I didn't care who else knew."
Barney watched Lily go a few minutes later, relieved that he'd apparently succeeded in convincing her that things were okay. She was by far the most perceptive of their little group, and he hadn't been at all sure that he'd be able to pull it off – especially once she noticed the bruises.
Things were definitely not okay.
He'd given up trying to end things with Ted and decided to just go with it – to play this disturbing, hot, confusing scenario out to whatever its natural end might be. After all, it wasn't as if he wasn't getting any pleasure out of it himself. Ted seemed to take great pride in knowing all the right ways to reduce Barney to a quivering, pleading wreck, in all the right ways.
Of course, he also knew all the wrong ways.
The bruises on Barney's wrists were just the beginning of the numerous marks Ted had left on his body over the past few weeks. Barney's hand drifted absently to circle his wrist under the soft fabric of his shirt. He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry, his body heated with the memory of his last encounter with Ted a few nights earlier, when that mark and the matching one on his other wrist had been left there.
The belt that bound his hands over his head, to the headboard of Ted's bed, was too tight, pinching and chafing his oversensitive skin with every movement Ted made. Barney let out a choked little whimper of need as Ted began to slowly, tortuously make his way down Barney's bare chest, alternating kisses with tiny darting touches of his tongue, searing hot against Barney's bare, damp skin in the chill of the room. As Ted's teeth closed just a little too sharply over the skin just below Barney's nipple, Barney instinctively jerked against the bonds that held him – and then hissed in pain at the slow burn in his wrists that was intensified by the movement.
"Stop," he whispered. "You're – c-cutting off my circulation…"
Ted rose up off of Barney, eyes narrowed in a dangerous warning as he grabbed Barney's hair and drew his head back, exposing his throat as he softly reminded him, "I thought I told you to keep your mouth shut."
Barney closed his eyes, braced for some kind of painful punishment for the infraction – but Ted released his grip on his hair, rising up, his knees straddling Barney's waist as he reached down to unbuckle his own belt. Barney felt a strange sense of relief at the thought that Ted was going to undress, too – that he was no longer going to be the only one exposed and vulnerable – but that relief was quickly overwhelmed by apprehension when Ted stopped with his belt.
Barney's heart clenched, and he pulled frantically against his own belt around his wrists, no longer caring about the pain he was causing himself, when Ted slowly wrapped the second belt around his throat, threading the leather through the buckle and pulling it smoothly down until it was taut. Panic seized Barney, and he struggled to buck Ted off of him, gasping for breath that was as yet just restricted, not completely denied him.
"Ted… no…" he wheezed. "Stop…"
"Shhh," Ted whispered, wrapping the end of the belt around his fist until it was flush with the back of Barney's neck, holding his head still, and reaching down with his free hand to grasp Barney's hip and push him forcefully back down onto the bed. "Stop fighting me, Barney," he advised in a soft, sympathetic tone. "You're only hurting yourself. Just let this happen…"
When Barney continued to struggle, Ted turned his fist just slightly, tightening the leather around Barney's throat enough to almost completely cut off his breath. Barney's heart raced with panic, staring up at Ted in terror. The warning expression he saw in his friend's gaze made him abruptly go still – submitting, if that's what it was going to take to get Ted to ease the unbearable pressure against his windpipe, the beginning of the burn building in his chest.
Ted nodded slowly, an approving smile on his lips as Barney stopped fighting, his body trembling involuntarily, but no longer straining against his bonds, no longer trying to push Ted off of him.
"Good," Ted whispered. "That's better."
He unwound the belt a little so that the leather was still flush against Barney's skin, but loose enough to allow him to breathe almost freely. As Barney drew in a deep, shaky breath, Ted leaned down over him, capturing his trembling lips in a languid kiss. Barney still felt out of breath, stifled by the kiss as much as he had been by the belt – but he submitted to it, wary of angering Ted again.
When Ted finally drew back to meet Barney's eyes again with a soft smile, he observed with satisfaction, "You're learning."
Barney opened his mouth automatically to protest, but a slight flick of Ted's wrist behind his head was enough to silence him immediately.
"No," Ted murmured, shaking his head as he unwound the belt from around his fist and instead wrapped it around the knotted leather that bound Barney's wrists, pulling it just taut enough to be a little restrictive, without really affecting Barney's ability to breathe. "No, I don't want to hear anything more from you tonight, Barney. Not a sound. Is that clear?"
Barney bit his lip for a moment, his pride making him hesitate, before closing his eyes and nodding in defeat, letting out a trembling sigh.
Ted smirked as he reached for something on the nightstand, and Barney turned his head to see – his stomach clenching with alarm when he saw that Ted had picked up the candle that had been burning there since they'd entered the room. He swirled the molten wax for a moment in front of Barney's face, a thoughtful expression in his eyes, before he gave Barney a wicked smile.
"… because we're going to play a new game tonight."