February 19th, 2010

"You may enter."

He moves into the room, acutely aware of his surroundings even though the lighting is dim, filled with shadows. He cannot see the woman who speaks, but her clear voice is graced with the faintest trace of an accent—French, he thinks; not sure though. He's having trouble with his concentration.

"Of course I received a referral from Doctor Nolan for you, but I like to have a good idea why people come to me. If you're able, I'd also like you to tell me in your own words why you're here."

He stands mute, unable to reply. His rational mind orders him to leave. This is a mistake. You'll only stir up things best left alone. There's no logic in this action . . . . leave now. But for once he cannot rely on logic. He must stay; he quite literally has no other choice.

("Doctor Gardener's methods may be . . . unorthodox, but her results are extraordinary." Nolan sat back and regarded House with a steady eye. His mild amusement was evident in his faint smile. "I thought you'd appreciate that fact."

House snorted. "She's a dominatrix using a doctorate to charge a higher hourly rate. Why would I be impressed by her attempt to benefit from some clueless dickwad's idiocy?"

Nolan raised his brows. "She's more than she seems."

House glared at him. "Personal experience speaking?"

"I've never been a patient of hers, no. Nor a client. But if I needed her services, I'd use them." Nolan's tone was reasonable, but inexorable. "You have my recommendation. I've gone as far as I can to help you, but you require another set of skills here, and we both know the usual routine won't work for you. I think Doctor Gardener's methods . . . just might.")

His musings are disturbed by the woman's soft sigh. "Very well. Go to the stage."

He steps up onto the modest platform, stumbles a little despite the cane, winces as his ruined leg gives a warning spasm.

"Are you all right?" He nods, though it's not true. "Stand still. I want to look at you. No," that quiet voice says when he starts to bow his head. "Eyes forward, head up."

It is excruciating, to know he is examined. He stares into the darkness and does his best not to fidget. This brings back a lot of bad memories he'd hoped were lost for good in the dusty recesses of his brain. Not much chance of that happening now, though.

"Do you need a stool?" There is genuine concern in her voice. It grates on him. He shakes his head. "All right. We'll proceed, then. Remove your clothing."

He has dreaded this moment, though he's known it was inevitable since he read the paperwork forwarded by Nolan a few weeks back. Anyway, he'd signed the release forms . . . he can't pretend he doesn't have some idea of what's ahead. Slowly he takes off his scarf and pea coat and looks around for a place to hang them, and hates the sense of inadequacy engendered by his ignorance of procedure.

"You can put everything on the chair." The faint amusement in the woman's voice makes him grit his teeth. He drapes the items on the back of the wooden chair next to the steps, leans the cane against it as well, straightens and with great reluctance, begins to remove his jacket. It takes a while to get there, but eventually he's down to his briefs. He usually doesn't wear them, but for some bizarre reason he'd wanted to make a good impression-a ludicrous impulse on his part. Still, he's glad for their presence, as ephemeral as they may be in relative terms; it's an extra step between coverage and total nudity.

"Finish it," the woman says. "Underwear counts as clothing too."

He can stop this. All he has to do is grab his stuff, throw everything back on and walk out the door, with nothing worse than a temporary sense of embarrassment; it's not too late. He takes a breath, grabs what's left of his resolve, hooks his thumbs under the waistband and drops the briefs, nudges them toward the pile of clothes. It's done; he's naked. Humiliation burns at the back of his throat.

"Very good. Stand straight, hands at your sides."

He does as she tells him and stares out into the darkness, ignores the considerable discomfort this posture causes. The shadows are so deep he can't tell where she sits.

"That's quite a scar on your thigh." Her tone is neutral. "You have more on your belly and neck as well. Looks like you've had an interesting life."

He can't help a slight, bitter smile at her words. If only you knew the truth, he thinks. If only you could see the real scars.

"Turn around."

He obeys and finds he faces two polished wooden four-by-fours fitted together in an X shape—a Saint Andrew's cross, he knows the terms for the equipment. There are leather restraints at both ends. The sight of them makes his mouth go dry. Of course he'd seen all this when he came in, but now it's up close and personal—very different from viewing at a distance. He can't help but tense in apprehension, and jumps as the woman speaks from only a few feet away. He hadn't heard her approach. Of course he knows all this is in aid of her assessment of his mental state, but it still makes his anxiety rise, and he struggles not to bolt out the door in his birthday suit, fire up the car and flee to Princeton.

"Walk forward until you're a few inches from the form. With your permission, I'm going to put the cuffs on your wrists and ankles. You show your assent by raising your arms."

With reluctance he does as she tells him. He limps those few last steps and lifts his hands in what looks like an incongruous gesture of praise—and then it happens, the thing he's dreaded since he entered this shadowed room. Small hands reach up to fasten his right wrist into the thick leather cuff dangling from the form, and they touch his skin. His reaction is immediate. He pulls away, blind terror taking over as he struggles to escape. When something brushes his arm he hits at it as white noise fills his mind-

"Doctor House." The woman's voice is very close, clear and firm. "Doctor House, it's all right." The sound of his name pulls him out of his panic, at least for a moment. He stops fighting and forces himself to take a deep breath, hunches his shoulders and ducks his head, and waits for her to bitch him out. Instead she comes up and holds him from behind in an impersonal, steady embrace. It feels like she wears some kind of silk robe and not much else; under any other circumstance he'd be distracted, but right now it doesn't matter. At first he feels trapped and fights the nearly overwhelming urge to break free, but gradually the terror eases, transmutes into something else . . . an odd, tentative feeling of security. The warm pressure against his back and sides feels oddly reassuring.

"Better?" After a few moments he nods. "Darryl's notes indicate you've had trouble with being out in public, but there's just a mention or two about possible fear of touch, and only in passing. How long have you been afraid to let people touch you?"

It takes a while to remember; it seems like forever. "Months. Three . . . maybe four." He'd always had trouble with the kind of casual hugs or pats on the back everyone else exchanges without thinking, but since he left Mayfield he can't bear to have a stranger brush against him. It's made work even more of a living hell than it was before. An elevator ride can induce a panic attack if it's crowded enough, but because of his leg, he has no choice—he can't use the stairs without an ER visit and a week spent at home, with elevated pain levels and endless muscle spasms that even hot baths and bourbon can't stop. So it's a tossup between humiliation in public, and humiliation in private. Only the methods differ.

"So you came here thinking I would just flog this problem out of you, as if it's some kind of bad habit or personal flaw?" She sounds a little impatient now. He cringes away from her irritation. "I won't do that. What I will do is help you, if you'll let me." She pauses. "What happens in session is always consensual, there's no coercion. That means we use a safe word. You say that word, everything stops, no exceptions. Let's make it 'baker'." Slowly she releases him. "Now, shall I continue?"

It takes every ounce of courage he possesses to nod yes, but he manages it at last.

"Well done." Her soft voice sounds pleased and, though he can hardly credit it, proud. "Very well done."

As she places his wrists in the leather cuffs he can feel the restraints are padded and soft. They don't keep him immobile as much as hold him in place. The thought eases his panic, until his legs are moved apart and his ankles receive the same treatment. The fear returns, amplified into near terror.

"It's all right." She rests her hand on the small of his back. It is a curiously comforting gesture, much like the embrace she'd used to calm him; her palm is warm, her slender fingers light, gentle. "Remember, you have a safe word. You say it, everything stops immediately. What's the word?"

" . . . baker," he says finally.

"Correct. How's your leg?" He dips his head, incapable of speech. His leg hurts like hell. It doesn't really matter anyway, it always hurts like hell. "All right. I'm going to begin our session now. Remember that you can stop this at any time."

She caresses him, moves to his right buttock, slides over the curve and up to the spring of his ribs. He endures it at first, but his trembling slowly decreases as he begins to learn the feel of her fingers and smooth palm. She is gentle without being too careful, her touch confident and respectful. He swallows, focuses on her movements, and realizes she's speaking. "I do love a tall man," she says. "You're all leg, and those big feet . . . really beautiful."

He says nothing, unable to tell if she's serious. Since when are chicken legs and big feet beautiful? He's always been on the skinny side, which never bothered him that much—his body was just a means to an end, a way to find release, escape reality, exist in a world of his own making through strenuous physical exertion. Now it's nothing but a cage. He'll never see anything beautiful in that. He knows the human form has its own grace; he's admired it in others, studied the construction of bone and sinew, muscle and tendon, the drape and fold of skin, the curve of a breast or hip . . . but for himself, there is nothing but pain, and the ugly gully in his thigh that changed everything in one remorseless moment of time.

She's moved higher now. Her fingertips trace short little paths across his shoulders and upper back. "You have punishment marks." She sounds detached, impersonal. "Who gave them to you?"

Dad, he thinks but doesn't say aloud. Revulsion fills him at the memory of endless sessions with the belt. He can't help but tug at his bonds.

"Shhh . . ." She rubs his back, a light, soothing stroke. He calms a little, still poised for flight. When her lips touch his right shoulder he jumps. "I won't hurt you." Her breath warms his skin. After a moment something is held up in front of his face. "Can you see this?"

With considerable reluctance, he nods. A hard shudder goes through him as memory blooms.

("Know what this is? That's right, it's my belt. It does a lot more than hold up my pants, boy. It teaches little snot-nosed punks like you the difference between right and wrong. Let me demonstrate.")

No . . . oh no. He shakes now, and his heart pounds in his chest. No . . . please no.

"What is it? Tell me."

He tries to and coughs, his throat so dry the word won't emerge. The object disappears; he feels the woman walk away, and readies himself for what's to come. After a moment she touches his face. He pulls away as fear takes over.

"Shhhh . . ." He hears liquid poured out before the rim of a glass presses gently against his bottom lip. "It's water."

He gulps it down, grateful for the way it eases the dryness in his throat and shocks him back into something like normalcy. When it's taken away he rests his forehead on his arm. He shakes hard enough to make his restraints creak a bit. Can't do this, he thinks. Can't. But he won't bring himself to say the words, to tell this woman "I want out".

"What did I show you?" Her voice is calm but inexorable; she'll continue to ask until he tells her.

"Flogger," he croaks.

"Correct," she says. "When you speak to me you will call me 'my lady'. Now close your eyes." There is a rustling sound. Fabric settles over his lids, around his head . . . a blindfold. Thick folds drape over his shoulders a bit. It feels soft like silk, and smells faintly of lavender, clean and sharp. "Deprived of sight, the mind heightens all other senses." Leather strips trail over his skin. He can't help a groan, his fear grown so large he can't contain it. "We can use that to your advantage, if you're willing."

"Please," he whispers, and hates the halting tremor in his voice, "please don't . . ."

"I won't," she says. "Let me show you what I mean."

Slowly she explores him, uses the flogger to stroke and caress him, and everywhere the leather goes she leaves kisses in its wake. Her free hand caresses him, her slender fingers knead the tension out of his muscles. Gradually he begins to realize she's faithful to her promise; she hasn't hurt him. His fear recedes a bit, to reveal a faint sense of relief.

After a time she says "I'm going to give you a light swat on the right cheek." Her hand cups his buttock, squeezes it. "You have such a nice ass," she chuckles softly. When the blow comes it is barely more than a pat as the strips brush him. She continues this pattern over his backside until he is tingling and half-erect. He tenses when something cool and solid is fastened around the shaft of his penis, just below the head. It's a ring, light but definitely substantial enough to make its presence known. "I want you to wait for me," she whispers. "Concentrate on keeping the ring from falling off."

He tries to do as she asks, struggles to switch his attention back and forth from what she does to him, to maintaining his erection. The blows from the flogger increase slightly in intensity, but they are still not enough to cause more than a sort of electric flush; there is no pain. She continues to caress and stroke, and he feels a loosening deep inside. It eases the hard knot in his gut that's been there for months now. Even the ache in his leg lessens a bit. After a time he begins to anticipate the rhythm of the soft swats and arches his back as his erection grows. The ring tightens a little, but it's not uncomfortable.

"How's your leg?" She kisses the nape of his neck.

"All right, m'lady," he says, breathless at the feel of her full breasts pressed to him, her body just within reach and yet completely inaccessible. It's a situation that should have him freaking out hard enough to earn him sedation, and he's not sure what to make of it. Still, those are lovely perky breasts against his back, and a thatch of soft curls with warm wet labia beneath, brushing his ass . . . not exactly a bad thing, all in all. His erection agrees with him as it hardens at the knowledge, so that he has to fight not to groan aloud.

"Good for a little longer?"

"Yes, m'lady."

"Excellent." She moves away and the loss of her presence makes him anxious. The flogger strokes his left butt-cheek. He stiffens and her hand caresses his shoulder. "Let's try a slightly harder strike," she whispers. "No pain."

The first blow is enough to make him cringe, but it's more sound than anything else; all he cares about is that it doesn't hurt. She works his cheeks, moves down to his thighs. When the thongs gently slap the underside of his ass he gives a low moan, assaulted by an amazing array of feelings—her touch as it sends jolts of sweetness into his brain, the hard throb of his erection and balls, the delicious jangle of overstimulated nerves, increased blood flow as his muscles expand and contract. Even better, the pain in his thigh has lessened to bearable levels. His heart pounds, respiration's up, senses on alert, but without the overwhelming fear that's flooded him lately . . . it's fantastic. He starts to smile.

"Now that's what I like to see," the woman says with a soft chuckle. She reaches around to stroke his penis, a steady, driving rhythm to push him higher and higher, right up to the edge of the falls where he can see the swirling whitewater below. "Come for me, my beautiful man. Right in my hand . . . that's it . . . excellent."

He shudders as he dives headlong into release. The sensation is intense, coruscating. He is vaguely aware of the woman; she holds him close as she did before, but all he can feel is afterglow as it soaks into every atom of his being. Slowly he relaxes, nerves humming with luscious mellow wellbeing, and to his astonished disbelief, he is able to take a small measure of peace in her touch. He'd say that outweighs the spectacular orgasm he's just enjoyed, but he's not quite that far gone yet.

After a time he's vaguely aware of being freed, the blindfold removed. A slender arm slips about his waist as he is led to another room. The woman matches his halting gait with ease. After a brief interval he is helped onto what must be a bed. His last thought before sleep claims him is good thing it's the weekend.

When he wakes, it is to find he is indeed in what appears to be a bedroom. There is a lamp on a stand nearby. The soft light reveals clean lines, simple furniture, plain linens. His clothing is draped over the easy chair next to the bed. A silk robe, leather slippers and his cane lie atop them, with a note: please join me for dinner.

He isn't sure what to expect when he walks through the doorway, but it isn't an enclosed terrace. It looks as though it can be opened during the warmer months; for now there are privacy screens in front of some of the glass panels, pots of fragrant herbs and flowers set here and there, and a fine view of the Philly skyline. It's warm here too, even though it snows outside, and music plays; Oscar Peterson, nice choice. The entire effect is one of casual unforced intimacy, something he appreciates now more than ever.

M'lady waits, seated at a table with a bottle of wine, food and two place settings. She wears a robe like his, only it looks a lot nicer on her. As he approaches she smiles. "How do you feel?" she asks. He settles into the chair opposite hers.

"Better," he admits.

"My lady," she prompts. Her voice holds a note of gentle amusement.

"Okay," he says, and she laughs, her features alight with humor. This is his first chance to really look at her, and she's beautiful—not a glossy-magazine prettiness, but a quiet radiance that clearly comes from the inside out. She has an oval face with regular features and high cheekbones, a long straight nose, and an abundance of honey-gold hair now tamed into a thick braid. Her grey eyes are deep-set and slightly tilted, like a cat's. When she smiles there are little dimples on either side of her mouth that flash and disappear. She sits straight in her chair with that natural, unconscious elegance some women have from birth. He can see she owns a healthy measure of self-respect; it is the wellspring of her work, but he suspects she had to earn it through some difficult experiences.

Dinner is a slow, relaxed process—very old-style French, he thinks, she was probably raised there. She doesn't eat much, but she savors what she does take. She doesn't seem to expect him to talk, which is something of a relief. He hates meals at table, it's a ritual he finds uncomfortable, to say the least. Still, eventually his curiosity overcomes his reticence. "Am I permitted to ask questions? Uh—m'lady," he says, his gaze lowered as he watches her through his lashes. She sits back. A slight smile plays over her full lips.

"You may ask. I may not answer," she says, and sips her wine.

"I'm interested in how long you've been practicing."

"As a doctor, or as a dom?" She chuckles. "I received my doctoral degree twenty years ago. My top gave me my first flogger five years before that."

That would probably make her about ten years younger than he is. "Tell me what drew you to this line of work—m'lady." He emphasizes the last word to let her know he thinks her title is pure kitsch.

She sets aside her wine. "I expected more astute questions from the great Gregory House," she says. Those grey eyes hold shrewd good humor. For a moment he's reminded of Nolan. "Since you're trying to draw me out to reveal my weaknesses, I'll save you the trouble. I had an excellent childhood despite losing my mother at a very young age. My father and I had a difficult but loving relationship until he died two years ago. I enjoyed every year of school, have had one serious relationship and a number of very un-serious ones. I've never worked as a prostitute out of personal preference, and don't plan to become one in the future." She tilts her head a bit. "I work with sex therapy because in my experience, it's a method that yields above-average results in certain circumstances. In your case, I suspect Darryl felt more conventional modes wouldn't work because you're too smart for your own good."

Greg acknowledges this riposte with a slight nod. "So it's your task to crack my nuts, so to speak."

She leans forward just a bit. "I'm not a ball-breaker," she says firmly. "If you want someone to treat you like a naughty little boy, there are plenty of other options available. What I will do is help you regain some of your trust, if you decide to work with me."

"And that's all there is to it. Some sex with you and wham bam, I can walk in a crowd without freaking out. I don't buy it." He lets his sarcasm show now, even as he rubs his thigh. The pain is back, relentless, remorseless, his only real companion, now and forever.

"Do you have medication?" Her quiet voice grates on him.

"Already took it," he says. "Endorphins don't last forever."

She frowns a little. "You're not in pain management?"

"I see enough specialists and shrinks as it is." He takes his hand away and picks up the fork, eats a bite of the excellent casserole he has no doubt she made herself. She says nothing more, just sips her wine, but he senses she considers about what he's said. No doubt it'll all go into her notes later on, after he's gone.

It's later, as they enjoy a dessert of grilled pears and herbed chevre with some German ice wine, that she gives him a small velvet-covered box.

"Proposing on the first date. Interesting," he says. She doesn't reply, only watches when he opens it. Inside is a large ring. It appears to be brushed white gold with rounded smooth edges, milled thin to lighten the weight somewhat, with lapis lazuli insets, little rectangles mounted flush to keep the surface smooth.

"If you want to continue to work with me, you'll wear it," she says. It's not a request. He looks down at it, then at her.

"Why?"

"You know why. Are we still on for next week?" She offers him her smile, mysterious and cool.

Greg thinks about it. What the hell, it might work. And even if it doesn't, he'll get sex out of it at least. "Yeah."

"My lady," she prompts. He sighs.

"That's so corny," he complains.

"Nevertheless, I insist."

"Fine. M'lady." He rolls his eyes.

She gives him a slight nod. "Excellent."