Cat allowed Willow to delete the files, trusting Willow's assertion that she knew exactly how to make sure no one found out Cat had even seen them. Getting caught didn't matter to Cat. Getting a handle on her emotions did. Faith and Tara were nearly back; they'd been reaching out to her for the past few minutes. So far, Cat had managed to avoid responding.
It wasn't the best way to start life with her bondmates. However, the information in the files had done more than provide a glimpse into Tara and Faith's past. Cat had been a detective too long not to read between the lines or see more than even Faith's Watchers or Tara's High Priestess had documented. And what she saw made her physically sick and mad enough to kill.
That was why Cat had to regain her control. She returned to her hospital room and curled up in the recliner. The lights were off; the glow from the hallway creeping under the door provided the only relief from the darkness.
Faith had been repeatedly raped as a child. She'd also been a prostitute. The report hadn't said any of that. In fact, all of the Watchers and psychologists had very carefully skirted the issue. They'd used words such as "over-sexualized" and "signs of physical trauma." Of course, they'd been quick to mention Faith's anger issues and her problems with authority. The section discussing the Council's plans to permanently deactivate Faith had been particularly brutal regarding Faith's lack of respect for her position and the danger she posed to society. Cat was already planning her first visit to the Council's International Headquarters in Scotland. She had a list of people she wanted to…talk to.
However, Cat had expected to find Faith's past hard to accept. Faith had already admitted some of what was in the report. It was Tara's background that had hit Cat the hardest. It didn't matter that Tara's father and brother were in prison. It wasn't enough. Not nearly enough to pay for the detailed medical reports outlining what they'd done to Tara as a child.
The door opened before Cat had managed to stifle her anger. "Cat?" Of course, it had to be Tara. "What happened? What's wrong?"
Confession time. Cat stood and moved to the bed. She curled up against the headboard, hugging the single flat pillow. "We need to talk." The steady thrum of desire through the link had grown cold. Her emotions must have affected Faith and Tara enough to counteract their PEBC symptoms. Rather than desire, now they felt only confusion and fear.
In silence, Faith and Tara entered the room and closed the door. They were locked in the darkened room with nowhere to hide and no one to interrupt.
Tara joined Cat on the bed. Despite the narrow mattress, she sat next to Cat and took her hand. Faith did her one better. She picked Cat up, sat down in the spot Cat had vacated, and relocated Cat to her lap. "We're ready when you are, tiger." It was a lie. Cat felt the tension in Faith's body where it cradled her.
"Actually, I should have said I have to talk to you. All you have to do is listen." Turning off the lights had been a good idea, Cat decided. It was a little easier to start without having to see the worry in two pairs of eyes. She already felt it through the link; adding in those beautiful eyes would have frozen her in place. "I know you wanted to talk. To tell me you remembered the bond, Faith. To tell me about your pasts and let me get to know you beyond what we've already shared. You don't have to do that."
Tara's fingers stroked over Cat's palm. "Sweetie, there's a lot…"
"No, Ma'am. There isn't," Cat disagreed. Her throat ached from forcing words past the knot lodged there. "I know it all. Everything. You don't have to ever talk about it again." It would be a relief not to hear Tara admit her father had once broken her arm and three of her ribs. And Cat planned to keep Faith from spiraling into a pit of self-hatred as she talked about her mother's drug habits and the men who'd "visited" them.
Faith stiffened. "Cat, what did you do?"
Cat wasn't throwing Willow under the bus. "I saw your personnel files." She kept the explanation simple. "And I put the pieces together." A million-piece puzzle she'd wanted to destroy as the last piece went into place.
"Oh." Faith's voice was tiny, completely unrecognizable. Shame, anger, and fear filled the link.
Fear Cat would repudiate the bond and run away. "Are you crazy?" Cat couldn't find a more polite way to phrase her question. "Why would I leave? You were a kid, Faith. So was Tara. I'd like to kill your families. Absolutely. And I work in Southie. One call and I can have every beat cop in C6 dragging your bitch of a mother out of her drug slum to face child abuse charges. And I'm thinking a change in cellmate assignment for Tara's family would do the trick. Maura's got enough pull to make that happen all the way in Oklahoma."
Neither of Cat's bondmates responded. Their silence helped Cat pull her thoughts and emotions together. It gave her the opportunity to study the link and absorb what Faith and Tara were feeling.
Those feelings broke Cat's heart and reinforced her determination to continue leading this discussion.
"I hated you for a long time, Faith." Cat released Tara's hand long enough to find Faith's arms and pull them tightly around her. Reclaiming Tara's hand, she kept talking. "For all the reasons I spewed out in the mall. But I hated myself more. I knew there was something wrong when we were kids. You never talked about anything personal. It was all about me. Teaching me to behave. Asking about my day and my family."
One painful admission at a time, Cat told Faith and Tara about her childhood. From her bond with Faith (so Tara would know what they'd had), to her time at the mental hospital. Her break for freedom and the daily struggle to keep going. To live alone. Cat forced herself to be honest the way she'd never done with Doctor Blaylock.
"When I realized you didn't remember me, Faith, I thought I'd die." The back of Cat's shirt had long since become soaked with Faith's tears. And there was a steady stream of tears landing on the hand Tara held in a vice grip. "And that made me blame you even more. And Tara? Tara was responsible for everything." Cat sensed their surprise when she laughed. "I was an idiot. It wasn't anyone's fault. You didn't leave me on purpose, and Tara didn't somehow steal you away from me. Did you know the day our bond broke was the day you got Called, Faith? Right down to the minute.
"I should have realized when Sam told me about Slayers bonding later in life. With the high mortality rate for newly Chosen Slayers, Fate must think it's better to wait. Why create a swarm of Forsaken? Another few years gives the new Slayers a chance to hone their skills, increase their chances of survival. And I'm sure the stresses of being Chosen can alter personalities." Cat had inferred that from the Watchers' entries in Faith's file.
Tara interrupted for the first time. "I knew about your bond with Faith, Cat. I've always known."
"What the fuck?" Faith beat Cat in responding.
"Shh, sweetie. It's not like that," Tara said softly. "You talk in your sleep sometimes. When your 'little cat' kept popping up, I talked to Mr. Giles off the record. He said it was a possibility that you'd been bonded before but the Council didn't have any information because you hadn't been identified as a Potential. That first night, when Cat walked in, I saw the way she reacted. Her expression when she saw you, and I knew." A tiny smile lightened her expression. "I know a little about partially formed bonds," she told Faith cryptically. "Cat showed all the signs."
One day, when this conversation was a distant memory, Cat would ask Tara to explain those last couple comments. Until then, she replayed every minute of time she'd spent with either Faith or Tara since meeting them in the squad room. If Tara had known, so many things made sense. "You kept throwing me and Faith together, didn't you?"
Rather than answering verbally, Tara lifted their joined hands and kissed each of Cat's knuckles softly.
"What were you going to do if I'd remembered, T?" Faith continued to impress Cat with her interrogation skills. It was a brutal question.
Tara never flinched. "I don't know." Somehow, Cat knew she was lying. "When you didn't, I thought…What about adding an unbonded third? Cat was beautiful, and I knew she loved you. When we went to Tinsale's office, and I collared her, it felt right. Being with her, dominating her, was natural. And you, my Slayer, you felt that too, didn't you, the night Cat called us for help?"
"Yes," Faith whispered. "I wasn't scared anymore. Cat was ours, and I trusted you both to tell me if I crossed a line."
Turning her head from side to side, Cat wiped her face on the shoulders of her shirt. "Tell us everything, Ma'am. You had a plan if Faith remembered." They'd come too far to back away from the truth.
"She was going to walk away, little cat." Faith answered for Tara with no hesitation. "The reports you read don't tell it all. T has a thing about not being good enough and trying to take care of everyone but herself. Right, T? Cat was my first bond. It musta been a good bond if I remembered it in my sleep, and Cat was hurting. She was a Red Cuff and regaining her bond would keep her from hurting more. If you left, I'd be OK because I had Cat."
"That's stupid!" Cat broke their positions. Wiggling out of Faith's arms, she climbed to her knees and turned until she straddled Tara's hips. "That's absolutely the dumbest thing I've ever heard. I know what a broken bond feels like. You'd do that to Faith? Having me would have been like putting a Band-aid over a gunshot wound." Cat didn't even mention what Tara would have done to herself. Cat was smart enough to know Tara hadn't cared about her own feelings. It was all about taking care of Faith and Cat.
Tara's regret and apology reached through the link. "I'm sorry, girls. Now that I can feel Cat's pain from the original bond and she's talked about her life… You are right. I was stupid. I love you, my Slayer, and I have always wanted what was best for you."
"Lucky for us that Fate's a bitch with a heart." Faith laughed. "She made us work for it, but we got what we've all wanted and needed now. The three of us together."
For someone who pretended to be so hard and mean, Faith was a complete marshmallow inside.
"You better keep that to yourself, tiger, or we're gonna have a long discussion," Faith warned.
Grinning madly, Cat replied, "Yes, Faith."
Tara pulled Cat down until she lay between her and Faith. It was a tight fit. One wrong move and at least one of them would end up on the floor. It didn't matter. Cat reveled in the feel of her Dominants wrapped around her, and Tara and Faith's enjoyment filled her mind.
"When are you back on full duty?" Jane asked. She ignored Maura's huff of protest at the question and waited impatiently for Cat to answer.
Cat took her time. She had more important things to worry about today. Going back to full-time status wasn't even on the list of priorities. She peered into the mirror and tugged at the neckline of her white tunic. It didn't fit right despite the numerous fitting sessions. Scowling, Cat tried to get it to lie in exactly the right spot. "Next month, probably," she mumbled distractedly. "Faith and Tara officially move in a couple of weeks. We'll be in Cleveland until then. And Internal Affairs is taking its sweet time investigating the shooting in the lab. I killed three people. I guess they don't care I was about to die."
Maura walked behind Cat and gently moved her hands out of the way. "Leave it alone, Cat. You look beautiful, and the tunic is perfect."
It wasn't. Cat shifted her weight. Her hair was already slipping out of its French braid. Tendrils curled wildly along her neck and over her ears. She reached for them – and found Maura's hands there first. "I've got it. Stand still."
"IA. Bunch of assholes who couldn't find a clue with both hands. I'll talk to Cavanaugh. You helped break the biggest serial murder case since the Boston Strangler. Not to mention Frost misses you at the office. We could use your help untangling more of the Legion mess." Jane began pacing the back of the dressing room. "I got a call from the District Attorney yesterday. Did you know Carrie Atherton is talking? Her lawyer cut a deal."
"Really?" Cat hadn't heard. She'd been too busy attending Basic Slayer classes with a crew of humorless instructors at the Slayers Council's Boston Headquarters. "What did she have to say? Anything about the murders? Or the reason Stewart started the Legion in the first place?" All of their digging had produced few answers but generated more questions. And they couldn't exactly question Master Phillip or his vampires. They were so much dust blowing through Boston after the raid.
Tugging on Cat's hair kept her from turning to face Jane. Maura continued to redo the braid; Cat had to make do with Jane's image in the mirror.
"She's naming names, including her own father. Your host for that Legion training session, Jason Anders." Jane met the Cat's eyes in her reflection. "Apparently her mother died when Carrie was a child but Anders never reported it. He had enough money and influence to convince everyone his submissive spent all of her time traveling the world. Carrie used her mother's surname – which we missed. They reunited when Anders started climbing though the ranks of the Legion. They were grooming Paula to join them until she got cold feet."
"And they killed her." Cat marveled at the magic Maura had done with her hair. Not a single strand was out of place and even the tunic suddenly fit perfectly. "Wow!"
Maura laughed softly. "I said you were beautiful. Tara and Faith will be awestruck."
"Not to mention Cat doesn't look ready to hyperventilate anymore." Jane joined Maura behind Cat. "A little shop talk to help with nerves. You should write a paper on it, Maura. You'd be even more famous than you are now."
"Thank you both," Cat told them. She took one last look in the mirror. "I'm ready now." Picking up the leather leash on a side table, she turned to face Maura and Jane.
The trip across the hall was short. A few steps at most.
They took forever, and Cat's legs trembled the entire way. When Jane opened the heavy door to the Conservatory, only Maura's hand on Cat's back kept her moving forward. "Don't be afraid, Cat." Maura gave one last slight push.
Cat barely glanced at the people clustered in the room. Her attention immediately went to Tara and Faith where they stood near the room's fireplace. They were amazing. She automatically reached for them through the link before remembering. Not yet. She had to stay inside her own mind until after the ceremony. It was easier to manage when Cat concentrated on her Dominants. Faith exuded danger in the formal black leather tunic and pants of the Slayers Council. Tara took Cat's breath away. Her linen robes perfectly matched her eyes.
She wasn't going to embarrass them by forgetting the rules for the ceremony. Cat would have plenty of opportunity to share her thoughts and emotions once they'd satisfied tradition.
Pacing forward, Cat stopped at the leading edge of an ornate Turkish rug on the floor. Cat heard the sound of the guests being seated. She kept her eyes ahead, though. The guests were only window dressing today. When the room quieted, a bell pealed.
"This is Cat, a submissive." Maura's voice was sure and clear. "She is uncollared and free to choose her own future."
The words were a formality. This entire ceremony was a formality. Cat chafed at the process.
A second bell rang. Faith and Tara stepped forward, and Cat noticed that each carried a riding crop. Chairs scraped the floor and more men and women strode forward. They, too, held the tools of a Dominant, crops and the occasional dressage whip. A line formed at the front of the room.
Leash gripped tightly in both hands, Cat started with the Dominant farthest to her right. Korsak winked and did a very poor job hiding his grin. Cat paused and met his eyes. Tara had asked for this ceremony. That meant Cat had to do her part correctly. She stood in front of Korsak for a long moment, as if considering his worth to be her Dominant. He stilled and his gaze grew more sober and commanding.
With a slight shake of her head, Cat took two steps to her left and paused again. It was much harder to meet this woman's eyes. Buffy, Faith's best friend. She held Cat frozen in place effortlessly. Her gaze tested Cat, measured her worth as a submissive.
It was a relief when Buffy's eyes flickered to the side. Cat was dismissed, and she used the opportunity to totter sideways in front of Janna. Despite her clearly serious demeanor, Janna was a breath of fresh air after Buffy. Cat managed to regain her composure before moving in front of Sam. The young Dominant was fully recovered. None of their shared laughter and teasing showed as she calmly met Cat's eyes. Cat nodded respectfully before moving on.
Cat knew she was getting closer to the end now. The muted buzz through the link had her nearly giddy. She held onto her control with a mental grip reminiscent to the one she had on the leash.
Only two more Dominants separated her from Faith and Tara. In their own way, though, they were more frightening than Buffy because they were Tara's oldest friends. She needed to impress them. Cat sucked in a deep breath and stopped in front of Brad.
Bleached blond hair and a surfboard tie-tack didn't lessen Brad's commanding gaze. Cat shivered and locked her knees. He examined Cat so closely her knees shook. His unruffled calm and cool control reminded Cat of Tara.
Swallowing audibly, Cat stumbled in front of Trish and froze as Trish raised her riding crop. It settled gently beneath Cat's chin and Trish examined Cat like a piece of merchandise. Or a prospective submissive. Cat's cheeks burned and, without the crop, her head would have bowed. Trish noticed. Her eyes hardened. She stepped closer and the tip of the crop slid downward in a soft caress.
Pressure exploded in Cat's mind as the temporary barrier to the link threatened to break. Cat saw Tara turn toward Trish.
Trish stepped away. The crop left Cat's throat. A tiny smirk prefaced her wink at Cat. It was a reminder that none of the people here were really trying to challenge her bond. They were playing a part, and that part included giving Cat the chance to show that Faith and Tara were her choices.
Trish had simply decided to put on a show. She was crazy, Cat decided, before Trish completely slipped from her mind.
Only Faith and Tara remained in the line. Both women looked remote and stern when Cat paused in front of them. Cat stood there and forced herself to meet their eyes. The need to kneel was crippling – but not yet part of the ceremony. Faith held Cat's gaze and Cat trembled at the silent promise there. Tara's eyes reached into Cat's soul. She'd never be able to hide from those eyes; they'd see everything Cat was.
That was the way it was supposed to be. "Lady Tara, Lady Faith, I offer you this leash." Cat extended her hands, leash resting on her open palms. "I seek your protection, your care, and your guidance. It is my desire to belong to you and to follow where you might lead me."
Faith and Tara each placed a hand on the leash. In easy harmony, they replied, "We accept this leash as a symbol of your offer. In return, we give you what you have asked: our protection, our care, and our guidance. From this day, you belong to us and we will do all within our power to guide you safely through our life journey."
Reaching to the mantel behind, Faith picked up a wooden box. For the first time, Cat noticed the chinks in Faith's manner. Her fingers were so unsteady the lid of the box rattled as it slid open to reveal a platinum collar matching the one Faith wore and a platinum wrist cuff. She extended the box to Tara.
"Kneel, Cat," Tara requested.
Obedience was natural and right. Cat dropped gracefully to the floor but kept her chin raised.
"Will you accept this symbol of our ownership to wear as a sign of our bond to us and to others on our life journey?" Tara held out the collar for Cat to see.
The last time she'd contemplated Tara's collar, nothing had felt right. It had been an act. A means to an end. Cat had profaned the pure act of submission represented by the collar.
There was no act now. "Lady Tara, Lady Faith, I kneel as a sign of my submission to you and my acceptance of this symbol of your ownership of me. I will wear it proudly for all of my days, Ma'am."
The collar slid around Cat's bare neck, and she welcomed the cool weight. Her breath rushed out in time with the snick of the lock. "You now belong to us," Tara said. The link opened wide, rocking Cat with twin surges of pride, love, and desire.
"Yes, Mistress." Cat's eyes sought the floor and her chin dropped. She settled into position and waited for the ceremony to draw to a close. Although she would participate in what happened next, she was no longer Cat the Individual. Cat was now a collared submissive. Her actions would be directed by Tara and Faith.
There was a rustle of paper, and Tara addressed the room. "We offer for your review the conditions of service and care of this joining. We swear before you all that we will always put Cat's best interests foremost in our dominance. She belongs to us, and is now part of us, body and soul." The words grew cold as Tara asked, "Would anyone present care to examine this contract or offer challenge for this submissive?"
No one moved. Of course they didn't. They'd invited only friends and family. It didn't stop Cat from holding her breath as Tara waited for a response.
"As there are no objections or challenges, this contract shall become as law until such time as we shall choose to alter it." There was a pause, and Cat knew Faith and Tara were signing the contract.
Seconds later, Tara tapped Cat's shoulder and she looked up just enough to see Faith holding the contract out and steady. Taking the pen from Tara's hand, Cat signed the contract as well.
The collar around her neck warmed, and the heat spread through her entire body. They were almost finished now. She held tight to her Dominants through the link and returned her gaze to the floor.
"Our union requires two changes in status today," Tara told their guests. "As Cat has surrendered her freedom to us, so now must Faith take on the mantle of Dominance in matters concerning our new submissive. To this end, I offer Faith the mark of a Dominant. She will continue to wear my collar and answer to me in all other things."
Cat didn't look up to watch. She'd seen the cuff Tara had purchased for Faith.
When Faith and Tara moved closer, their feet in view, Cat straightened until her spine resembled an iron rod. Tara's fingers brushed her neck and the collar grew heavier as she snapped the leash into place.
Bending forward smoothly (Cat had practiced the move for hours), Cat pressed her lips to first Faith's polished combat boots and then to Tara's sandal-clad feet. She remained in that position until Tara tugged on the leash. Cat surrendered to the Dominance implicit in the tug and immediately returned to an upright kneel.
"I'm yours, Ma'am and Faith." Cat wanted the guests to disappear. She needed to show her submission through whatever service her Dominants demanded.
Fingers cupped Cat's chin and lifted. "We know," Faith whispered with a wicked grin before she kissed Cat. Tara completed the ceremony with her own kiss.
The Conservatory echoed as the bells mounted in the building's tower announced their bonding to the city.
THE END...for now