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Camouflage Press

Deliverance is available in paperback and as ebook from Camouflage Press.

Deliverance © Marquesate and TA Brown 2011. All rights reserved.


June 2001, Fayetteville

Hooch came home one evening to a somber, silent Matt sitting at the dining table, toying with a half-full tumbler of the good Scotch that had been a gift.

"Matt?" Hooch knew something was wrong at the sight of the whisky. Matt hardly ever drank anymore, something about the negative effect of alcohol and its calories on the perfectly balanced body. "What's up?" He dropped his pack beside the door and walked over to the couch.

Matt looked up, tight lipped, definitely more than worried. He pushed something that had been lying in front of him towards Hooch. A photograph, and a slip of paper with typed lines.

Hooch sat down and reached for the photograph. He stared at it, frozen. Not saying anything for a long time, just looking at the picture, until he eventually read the few lines. His face remained expressionless when he turned back to Matt, but the storm raging in his dark eyes showed the fury bottled up inside of him. "How?"

"Fuck knows." Matt swallowed, and finished the rest of the drink. "I found it pushed under the door when I came up after the 1800 hours class."

"That," Hooch pointed at the photo print, "was on fucking Sunday. We were downstairs."

Matt twisted the glass. "Mandy was in in the morning." He kept his eyes on the empty glass. "We were doing the new website this week so she was behind on the schedules for next month."

"Mandy? Shit." Hooch looked at the photo again, then the note. "That makes no sense. Does she have money troubles?"

Matt shook his head. "Not that I know of." He gazed off into middle distance. "She hasn't said anything. And she would." He paused. "I'd have thought she would," he corrected, hating himself.

"I can't imagine I could have got her character so fucking wrong!" Hooch clenched his hand in a fist. "What the fuck do we do now? 'Wait to be contacted' isn't my goddamned style."

"It's not hers, either," Matt didn't touch the bit of paper, "at least I thought not." He closed his eyes. "Of all people, she's got to know us and this place inside out, and has for years. Why now?" He opened them again. "And she's off for the next three days."

"Yeah, why now. Makes no fucking sense." Hooch had a hard time holding himself back, the anger raging inside. "We need to talk to her." He slammed his fist on the table, the unspent angry energy too much to contain. "Fuck! I'm going to fucking kill the bastard who's responsible for this, and I don't give the flying fuck who that is."

Matt looked pale. "I frankly don't know what would be worse, that it's Mandy, who I've trusted with practically everything but this, or that there's someone else out there." He paused, looking at the phone lying on the table. "Should I call her cell now and say it's an emergency and to come in tomorrow morning, or surprise her when she's back in a few days?"

"Call her now. Don't give her time, if it was her. If this photo gets into my CO's hands…"

Matt nodded and made the call, sounding far calmer and measured than he felt. A twinge as Mandy promised to be in first thing in the morning, before the first class, as bright and bubbly as ever.

Hooch kept pacing the room, listening to the one-sided conversation. When Matt switched off, he looked across at him. "And now? What do we do now? Nothing?"

"Not while you're in that state." Matt was deadly calm, as though the anger, the hurt and the fear had already burned through him.

"This isn't anything I was trained for. This is personal."

"And if we're wrong? It doesn't make any sense for it to be her, and you know if we're wrong we'll be outing ourselves to her anyway."

"Shit." Hooch stopped his pacing. "It's almost worse if we're wrong and it isn't her."

Matt nodded. "As I said, I don't know what would be worse." He slumped. "So, since it was all shit anyway, I'm drinking again." He toasted Hooch with the empty glass.

"Right." Hooch took a deep breath, fighting hard to get himself back under control and into mission mode, even though this was everything but a mission. "It's Friday. I suggest we get shitfaced."

"Excellent idea," Matt agreed.

Hooch knew it wasn't an excellent idea, in fact it was most probably the stupidest one they could come up with, but it was also the only one that seemed fitting right now. He went to the fridge and got the six pack of beer, a second glass, and a three quarter bottle of Russian vodka. He brought his haul to the couch area, parked it on the table next to the whisky bottle and Matt's glass, then poured himself a large glass of vodka and Matt one of whisky. "Whatever happens, Matt Donahue, I take dishonorable discharge over anything else. Got it?"

Matt nodded, "got it," and slammed down his drink.

* * *

Neither slept well that night, and despite nagging hangovers, they were up and downstairs in the office well before Mandy pulled up in the parking lot and unlocked the front door of the gym. Her habitual perkiness only slightly punctuated by a yawn.

She caught the looks on both men's faces. "What's wrong?" she asked, concern all over her features.

Hooch was about to step right into her personal space to loom over her, when Matt held him back.

"Hooch, maybe you should just wait outside the office," he said firmly, and turned back to a very confused Mandy.

"Okay." Hooch reluctantly let his stare slide off Mandy. Watching their backs as they went into Matt's office, the door kept ajar.

Mandy looked at Matt, the smile fading off her face. "What's happened?" her voice low and, for once, no exclamation mark at the end of the sentence.

"Please sit down." Matt indicated a chair at the small round table in his office, and sat down as well. All too aware at any time of the presence of Hooch outside. "Mandy, this is a delicate question." He rubbed the heel of his hand over his eyes. Damnit, he had a hangover and his head was pounding, but he had to get through with this. "Do you have money troubles?"

She frowned at him. "No, well, no more than usual."

Matt nodded slowly. Okay, that wasn't going all too well, the subtle approach had never worked for him anyway. "So you aren't looking for ways to make more money?" Damn, but that was a stupid thing to say. He blamed his headache, or just the fact he had no clue how to go about a situation like this. "Thing is, I received a photo. And…" this was it. He heard Hooch pace outside, and this was the moment of no return, "…and a blackmail letter."

A gasp, and her jaw dropped. "You…and Captain Bozic? And you think that I…" her bottom lip trembled, and she stared at him with wide, shocked eyes.

"I'm sorry, Mandy, I really am, but…" Matt flustered the moment the trembling bottom lip was joined by large eyes filled to the brim with tears. When she began to cry, he realized he'd just accused her of a major breach of trust. He didn't know what to do with the crying girl, but Hooch rescued him when he stuck his head into the room.

Hooch was unfazed by the tears. "Mandy, did you say 'you and Captain Bozic?'"

She sniffled, "what else would they blackmail you with when you're both here? It's not as though you're cheating your taxes or underpaying anyone or hiring anyone illegally or building code violations or anything."

Hooch stepped inside the room, looking first at Mandy, then at Matt. "You know we are…?"

"Together?" Mandy finished helpfully, sniffing again, "aren't you?"

"Uhm…" Matt stammered, while Hooch reached for the box of tissues on Matt's desk, wordlessly handing it to Mandy, while Matt tried again. "Well, yeah, but how?"

Mandy took a handful of tissues. "It was pretty obvious right from the beginning," she blew her nose, "sending me off to get you both lunch that first day and just paying for the two of you automatically without either of you saying anything because you needed to talk about something personal; when you kept mentioning whether Hooch wouldn't like this or that when we were doing the apartment, how you nearly always go on holidays together, spend most weekends together, go to Matt's family for Thanksgiving together; all your bills go out from the same account and there's never any quibbling; how both your bedrooms are always locked when I send the cleaner in but most times there are only footsteps going in and out of one of them when either one of you is getting changed; neither of you've ever had a woman stay overnight and you're nearly always here every morning; you never have buddies over to watch the game or anything; you never check out any of the women who come here, even though the few who come here are all pretty hot; you don't do your laundry or your grocery shopping separately, and you're always so careful not to touch each other in public." It was a long, disjointed list, which ended with Matt holding his pounding head in his hands and Hooch sitting down with a groan.

"Shit." From both of the men, almost simultaneously. Followed by "we're so busted," from Matt.

She looked at them while wiping her nose. "I mean, there was also that neither of you made a pass at me, but that's quite easily explained by good manners."

"And age," Hooch commented drily. He'd pulled himself together quicker than Matt, and for the first time ever in Mandy's presence, he rested his hand on Matt's shoulder. "I'm sorry we suspected you." Matt nodded and sighed as Hooch continued, "but who the hell took a photo of us in the gym?"

"Here?" She was taken aback, "but I've made sure that nobody's ever on the same routine long enough to see any patterns."

"You did?" Matt gasped out, looking at Hooch who appeared suitably impressed with her foresight. "The photo was…wait." Matt searched in his pocket, producing the photo and the blackmail note. "Here. It must have been taken on Sunday."

She bit her lip and looked out the window into the gym. Almost the same angle. "It's from my office," she said softly, "I see how you thought it was me, but it was just me in there. I told Mike to wait for me outside." Her shoulders slumped.

"Mike?" Hooch immediately latched onto the name and the person like he'd focus on a target at the shooting range. "Who is Mike?"

"My boyfriend," Mandy replied, "we were heading out afterwards for lunch so I told him to pick me up from here."

"Did you ever, at any time, leave your boyfriend on his own? Think, Mandy." Hooch urged, while Matt reached for the photo and gently took it back out of her hands. Hooch and Matt, kissing. Just a simple kiss. One that could destroy Hooch's career and annihilate all his military successes.

She shook her head slowly. "I don't think he came in here this far. I remember when I saw his car pull in I was just about finishing up, so I went to the bathroom and when I came out he was waiting for me just inside the door. It was windy out." She added, "so he stepped in out of the wind."

"That must be it," Matt concluded. "You take a while in the bathroom, Mandy, no offence, and that would have given your boyfriend enough time."

Hooch looked at her, "how long have you known him? Are you aware of any money troubles that he might have?"

Mandy looked miserable, shredding the tissue in her hands. "Sorry," she said in a small voice, "just a few weeks. No money problems as far as I know, but…" She paused, as though realizing something, and shrank even further. "He had a new digital camera on Sunday," her eyes were firmly on the table, "and I remember it was odd, because he wouldn't let me have a go on it, when usually he can't wait to show off his new stuff."

"Where did you meet the guy?" Hooch was like a dog with a bone.

She sniffed, her face blotchy from tears, "it was at a party in the student union. I don't know who brought him with them, he isn't one of the students." She blew her nose noisily. "I thought he was cool."

"Cool." Hooch snorted, but anything else he was about to let rip remained unsaid, when Matt placed a hand on his arm to calm him.

"Can you remember what you might have told him about your job, or anything that might have given the guy the idea to snoop around and take pics?" Matt asked.

"No, I…don't know." Mandy admitted, misery incarnate. "I was so happy, because he came straight to me at that party, and he was flirting with me all night."

Matt looked pointedly at Hooch, before he asked carefully, "do all of your friends know where you work?"

"Sure," she nodded, before blowing her nose once more. "It's a cool job, so I told them all about you and the gym, the guys who come here, how much fun it is."

"Did you also talk about me?" Hooch tried to keep his voice from being razor sharp, but when Mandy cringed nevertheless.

"Uhm…no, not really, just that there's a cool Delta guy who's my boss's roommate." She blushed furiously when she looked down at her hands, sounded wretched and guilty. "I think I was a bit drunk and I might have boasted about how cool you two are."

Hooch groaned, but was quickly silenced by Matt, who had a lot more sympathy with Mandy's faux-pas than Hooch could ever muster. She wasn't exactly enemy and counter-intelligence trained by the military.

"Could it be," Matt carefully asked, "that some of your friends who are friends with this guy, talked to him about what you told them?"

She was still looking at her hands. "I don't know…but it's possible?"

"I'm just thinking that all of this might have been planned by that guy."

"You mean he was never interested in me and just used me to get to you for blackmailing?" She was more upset than ever, tears falling once more.

"I'm sorry, Mandy." Matt said softly while handing her another tissue.

"Can you imagine Mike doing something like that? Blackmailing us?" Hooch chipped in.

"I don't know," she looked like she had to force herself to look at them, eyes puffy and swimming with tears that kept spilling over. "I hope not," she said miserably.

"Well…" Matt tried to comfort her, "you've not been having a whole lot of luck with boyfriends since you came here. I'm sorry, Mandy, but I couldn't help notice.

"I never really have," she agreed. She took a breath, considering, deciding, weighing up, but in the end it was clear to her. "Do you want his address?" she asked, somewhat unnecessarily.

"Yes." Hooch said a little too quickly.

She reached for a pen and paper in its usual place on Matt's desk and wrote it down, handed it over. Dabbing at her eyes before blowing her nose, she visibly pulled herself together and sat up straighter. "Oh, Hooch?" she asked, "it all of this is true and he really plan the blackmail…"

"Yeah?" Hooch raised his eyebrows.

"Could you leave enough of him for me to dump?"

Hooch carefully smoothed his expression back to blank. "I don't know what you mean, Mandy."

Neither Matt nor Mandy commented on that blatant lie, both of them wise enough to realize the less they knew the better.

They sent her off with reassurances and apologies, Matt being particularly concerned that Mandy would take it badly that for a while he hadn't trusted her, but she seemed alright albeit heartbroken at yet another, this time epic, failure of a boyfriend.

When she was gone, the two men went back upstairs before the gym opened.

"You know what I want to do, don't you?" Hooch said the moment the apartment door closed behind them. "Question is, is it wise to do what I want to do right now, or better to wait for the next contact?"

"Not right now," Matt fiddled with the coffee machine, "not when we're both feeling rather…" someone else might have said 'homicidal', but they were people for whom it would be rather easy to put it into practice. "Soon. I don't like waiting any more than you, and given what we suspect, I don't want to give him any more time to do anything stupid."

Hooch nodded. He ruthlessly shoved down the restless energy that wanted him to act right now. "Exactly my thinking. Wait till he contacts us again, and I'll be there like that." He snapped his fingers.

Matt nodded, put a large mug of coffee in front of Hooch, sparing a glance at the scrap of paper. A name, an address. "That stupid, stupid child." He shook his head. "So much damage from such a stupid idiot."

"He won't be able to do any further damage." The dangerous glint in Hooch's dark eyes hinted at what exactly he was planning.

"Just nothing that…" Matt thought for a minute for the right word. Not 'regret,' as Hooch didn't tend to do that. "Nothing that's going to make this an even bigger mess." He finished.

Hooch let out a short, sharp, entirely humorless laugh. "I'll just frighten him enough to never again think of blackmailing anyone, least of all us. No major damage, I promise."

Hooch's idea of 'major' was rather different to most peoples', but Matt had a hard time feeling sorry for the imbecilic, hapless Mike.


"Deal." Hooch stepped close, the energy still strumming through his body, running right beneath the surface of his skin. "And now, since it's Saturday, we should go back to bed. I know a fail-safe cure for hangovers."

Matt snorted, but smiled despite the headache and the worry. He collected both their coffee cups and dumped them in the sink before heading back into the bedroom.

Making very sure that the blinds were pulled down.

* * *

The weekend remained tense, and early on Monday morning, in amongst the mail, was a plain typed envelope and another note, naming a nearby park as a location to meet, where the blackmailer would hand over the memory disk for a price.

"It's hard to believe this guy's really that stupid." Hooch read the note before handing it back to Matt. "It'll still be light by the time he wants to meet, I need to stall him."

"I'm not sure whether stupidity in this case is a good or bad thing." Matt folded the note and put it back in the envelope. "It's not as though we don't know where he lives. He could always be delayed at home."

"Good point." Hooch was on his way to the door where is pack was waiting for the day ahead. "I will make sure I get off base on time. I have a change of clothes with me, no need to make myself easily identifiable."

Matt watched as Hooch shouldered his pack and headed down, footsteps somehow louder than usual.

It would all be over soon, he thought, and catching sight of the note and the envelope, he scrunched them up and threw them against the wall in a rare expression of temper. Cursing their own carelessness, the viciousness of a greedy boy, and the stupid rules that hung over his and Hooch's life.

It was going to be a long day, and he felt a twinge of relief that Mandy would not be in. Facing either the guilt of having accused her, or her over-enthusiastic cheerfulness if she had decided to let it all pass, was unthinkable today.

* * *

That late afternoon, an hour before the appointed time in the public park, Hooch stood in front of a door to a small apartment in a run-down apartment building. Dressed inconspicuously in black jeans and white t-shirt, he stepped out of sight of the peephole, as he rang the bell.

"Yeah?" The voice that came through the thin door was young, male, and punctuated with a yawn.

"UPS, got a parcel for ya." Hooch exaggerated the drawl of his accent.

The door opened immediately to reveal a tall, dark-haired man in his early twenties, unshaven and wearing a stained T-shirt and threadbare jeans. "Whatcha got?" he asked, not really looking at Hooch.

"A very special delivery." In one fluid motion Hooch stepped inside, bodily pushing Mike backwards, while kicking the door shut behind him. Before the guy could gather his wits about him, Hooch had him with his back against the wall, the full length of Hooch's body pressed against him, effectively pinning him in place.

Hooch's voice was deadly calm and quiet. "The special delivery is that of a ransom note. The ransom for your life, buddy."

Mike's mouth moved, but it was a few seconds before any sound came out. "Who the fuck are you, man?"

"Don't recognize me from the photo?" Hooch pressed his forearm against Mike's windpipe to emphasize his question.

Mike's eyes widened, taking in the cool, calm man, such a contrast from the pressure on his throat.

"Well?" Hooch smiled an entirely fake smile that never reached his dark eyes. "Do you?"

There was movement against his arm that indicated Mike was trying to swallow or nod, and in the end he did some strange hybrid of both. "Fag," he coughed, not realizing the trouble he was in.

"What did you just say?" Hooch's fake smile widened until all teeth were on display.

More bravado than bravery, Mike looked back. "Fag," he repeated, with all the stupidity of some small rodent facing down a panther.

"I'm not sure I heard right." Hooch said very quietly. Without warning, he spun Mike round, with a hand twisted into the guy's hair, he slammed his forehead into the wall, then followed with his body, pressing all along Mike's back. "Could you repeat that again?" Hooch stood still, as if nothing had ever happened.

"That's disgusting! Get off me!" Mike struggled to no avail, starting to yell obscenities at Hooch. "You fucking fag! Don't touch me!"

Hooch didn't relent, kept his full body weight on Mike, pinning him against the wall, mashing his face into the grotty wallpaper for good measure. He didn't move nor did he say anything, letting the little piece of shit rant through an entire arsenal of homophobic hatred.

"Done yet?" Hooch eventually commented, when Mike was forced to draw in a breath.

"No, you fucking bastard!" Mike tried to spit, but Hooch slammed his head twice more against the wall.


Mike wailed, spittle flying. "You fucking fag are getting what you fucking deserve!"

"And that would be?" Still appearing calm, deadly and dangerous, Hooch could have killed the guy and would have only felt a modicum of satisfaction. Every fiber in his body strumming with anger and adrenaline.

"Dishonorable discharge!" Mike yelled.

Hooch lost it. With a roar he grabbed Mike by a shoulder and hip, and flung him half across the room, where he crashed into a rickety low table

Mike screamed in pain and flailed, struggled to sit up slowly, badly bruised and disoriented. "What the fuck do you want?"

"What I want? I want to wipe scum like you off the face of the earth." Hooch snarled. "Wrong question, try again." He took a couple of steps towards the guy on the floor.

Mike's eyes narrowed, finally getting it, or at least some part of it. Still too full of himself and his nasty little scheme to give up. "If you want the photos, It'll cost ya, like I said. Bet there's a few guys on base who'd find that photo very interesting."

"See, that's where you got it wrong." Hooch had himself back under control, once more the ice cold man who kept his fury locked down. He took another step, now close enough that his boot touched Mike's leg. "It's not going to cost me anything at all, because I don't play the games of little shits like you" With another all-too quick movement, he bent down, twisted his fist into Mike's grimy t-shirt, and pulled the guy up, as if he weighed nothing.

"Fuck, man," Mike gasped, "you can't do this. I'll call the cops." Realizing too late, that doing anything at all was going to be difficult with a very tough, coolly calm man holding the front of his shirt.

"Wrong again." Hooch gave Mike a shake as if he were a puppet, despite them being the same height. "Not only can I do it, I actually will do it." Mike never saw the knee cap that connected sharply with his groin, before Hooch dropped him.

Mike squealed as he fell back, landing heavily on the stained carpet. "You'll never find it," he covered his groin, face distorted into a grimace, "and you'll never know how many copies I've made."

"Perhaps." Hooch delivered a swift kick, and Mike howled in pain when the boot connected with his fingers that had been shielding his cock. Another kick and Mike's legs were spread apart. Hooch stepped between them, and placed his booted foot onto the groin, pressing down hard. "I'll make sure you'll never show it to anyone. You understand?" Increasingly adding weight onto his foot.

"You can't make me." Mike tried to move and to throw Hooch off balance, but instead Hooch delivered a well-placed kick between Mike's leg. Short, sharp, and utterly precise.

This time, Mike screamed and nearly passed out. "You fucking maniac!" he spat, curling into a ball from the pain. "You fucking fag, who do you think you are?"

"I'm the man who is going to stop you from ever blackmailing anyone again." Adrenaline was surging inside of Hooch, burning with a fury he didn't allow to show. "So. Where's the disk? You have three seconds, before I kick your face in. One…two…"

"Hey, hey, hey, hey," Mike held up his hands, "blackmail? You're the one who's breakin' the law, man, I thought I'd be a-decent like and give you right of first refusal-like."

"Decent. I see. As decent as someone who picks out a girl, flirts with her, and pretends to be into her, because he'd figured she worked at a place that might have to fags he could blackmail to get him some bobs. Am I right?"

When Mike didn't answer, just stared at him bug-eyed, Hooch took a step forward, which made Mike frantically edge away.

"Listen, you dickhead, your stupidity stinks so badly, I could follow the trail of the foul smell right to this place." Before he had finished the last word, Hooch straddled Mike as he went down on the floor. Knees clamping Mike's sides, both his hands fixing Mike's above his head and to the floor. "Are you telling me it wasn't you? Are you telling me you didn't plan it right from the start?"

For the first time-far too late, Mike realized just what real danger he was in, and his eyes bulged out as strained but was completely unable to move. Hooch could feel the moment the guy realized it was over. Mike's whole body sagged in defeat..

"Then are you telling me that it was you?" This was almost too easy. Hooch needed a fight, wanted a reason to wreak more damage, and to feel the pain of fists, boots and bodies clashing.

But all Mike gave him was a slight nod.

"What," Hooch leaned down, face to face, "cat got your tongue?"

"Y-y-y-yes," Mike stuttered, desperately cringing away. "Yes, I've got it. I swear nobody else has it, nobody knows about it."

"Good, but what assurances do I have that you'll destroy everything after you've handed me the disk?" Hooch shifted his upper body so that his elbows ground into Mike's biceps. "I want to be sure that you will leave Matt, me," more weight bearing down, "and Mandy alone."

There was death in those eyes, Mike realized at last. He'd run into some nasty types before, drug dealers and the like, but nothing came close to this. "Look man, you can check anything you like, it'll all be gone, I promise, and I never saw a thing and I'll never come near you again and I'll tell the broad it's me and not her, and it'll be as though this never happened. See?" he scrambled desperately, while panting against the pain.

Something deep down inside of Hooch, beyond deadly and above human, wanted to hear a scream tear out of this little piece of shit. "I want a guarantee or I'll come back"

"Anything!" Mike pleaded, "anything you like." The first a shout, the second a whisper.

"You will send an email to Mandy, telling her you are a stinking rotten bastard and that you will never bother her life again, and apologize. Then you will hand me the disk and any copy you might have made." Hooch still wanted a fight, but he needed a worthy opponent. Only the thin tethers of society rules held Hooch back from destruction. "Most importantly, I give you two days to move out of the area and far away. If you are still here after that, I will finish what I've started today."

There was wetness beneath Hooch, and he realized that Mike had wet himself in terror. A defeated, pathetic cur under the gaze of the contemptuous alpha wolf.

Hooch lifted his hips, his face showing his disgust. "Up." He moved off the body on the floor, made one small hand movement. "Email. Disk."

Mike scuttled away towards the computer in the corner, as though trying to make himself as small as possible.
Hooch stood close, arms crossed in front of his chest once more. He checked the email over, then nodded once. "Send." Another economic gesture. "Disk."

Mike fumbled, handing the small flat square over, and then, in a show of initiative, demonstrated on the nearby camera that the offending photograph was deleted from the camera's memory.

"Well done." Pocketing the disk, Hooch turned to walk to the door, unconcerned by showing his back. "Remember," he opened the door, "two days. I'll check."

Mike slumped back into his chair, trembling, staring at the door. After a moment, he got up, went to the bedroom, and started frantically throwing his belongings into a bag. He loaded everything that would fit into his car that very night and headed out on the highway, going west. He could cancel his lease and everything else away from Fayetteville. Very, very far away.

* * *

Hooch returned home straight away, while everything inside of him screamed out for a different course of action: to find a way of letting off steam. He needed to find a way to dissolve the tension from a fight that hadn't been a fight and an opponent that hadn't been worth it, but he forced himself to ignore the demand.

The gym was closed by the time he got back-it wasn't worth opening late early in the week-and Matt was upstairs in the apartment. The door opened before Hooch reached the top of the stairs.

"Hey." Hooch forced himself to remain calm, not allowing the darkness to show. "Here's the disk." Holding his hand out with the disk in the palm of it.

Matt took it, turning it over in his hand. Such a small and nasty thing. He looked up at Hooch. "Mike?"

"Broke up with Mandy by email, and is moving out of Fayetteville." Hooch closed the door behind him. "Probably right now, considering his state. He pissed himself while I talked to him."

Matt nodded. "Good." He looked at Hooch, seeing the tension. "Food?" He looked down at Hooch's groin, momentarily puzzled by the slight dampness visible even on the dark denim, and then remembered Hooch's last words. "Or bed?"

"Bed." Thank fuck for Matt and his perceptiveness. "Definitely bed." Hooch pulled the t-shirt off, before opening the buttons of his denims. "I need…" Damn. He couldn't say what he really needed. Pain. Anger. Aggression. Fight. "You." No lie. He needed Matt, always would.

Matt smiled, just a fraction of his normal one, but a genuine one, free from tension. "Come on, then." He was already halfway into the bedroom, shedding his clothes as he went.
Hooch was like a barely contained force of nature, and only Matt, as strong as Hooch, was able to match him in give and take, and sheer, unrestrained need. It was a side of Hooch that Matt rarely encountered: powerful, demanding and rough, a side of him that Matt knew Hooch consciously kept from him. In the end they were both sore and strained, bruised and battered, but relieved, and they slept soundly that night, knowing they had dodged a bullet.

* * *

Afterwards, it seemed that things went back to how they had been, and on the surface it was as though the blackmail attempt had never happened, and that life would continue in their peculiar version of normal.

Except that one afternoon in the last week of August, a young man appeared at the front desk when Mandy was on duty. He introduced himself at Lt. Jeff Sullivan, from the 82nd Airborne. He was tall and good looking, just a little shy, and from his accent a Yankee lost and bewildered in the South. He had a shoulder injury, he explained, that had healed but still didn't feel quite right, and Captain Bozic from the base had suggested that he come to the gym and make an appointment with ex-USMC PTI Mr. Donahue for an alternative PT program to the one he was getting up at Fort Bragg.

The result, perhaps, was predictable. The officer stayed far longer than anticipated, leaving not only with an appointment with Matt the following week, but also with Mandy's phone number and a lunch date that weekend.

Matt looked suspiciously at Hooch when he came home that evening. "Matchmaker," he accused him.

Hooch stared at him with a blank, mock-innocent look. "I couldn't leave things to chance, could I? I'd rather not have a repeat of Mike."

Matt snorted. "I bet that's why it's taken so long. How many did you vet before you decided on him?"

"Seventy-nine." Hooch retorted. "Number eighty struck lucky."

"You know, I can well believe that, and if my guess is right, he worships the ground you walk on, so even if he were to guess-and he's not likely to because he's got the imagination of a brick-he'd never say a word. I guess he's the sort who just needs someone to take him in hand and organize his life outside the military as much as it's organized in, and then he'll make Colonel."

"You're damn right, except for one thing: no one worships any ground I walk on. Crazy idea." Hooch cracked a grin.

Matt answered it with one of his own. "One good turn, I suppose. You know it's been ten years since Dan told me to go to the safe house back in Saudi while he was off to Thailand on R&R?"

"Ten years? Fucking hell." Hooch proceeded to push Matt up the stairs, with the intention to get him into the bedroom. "Celebrations are in order."

"No re-creating the first date, though," Matt joked, letting Hooch propel him forwards. "I was so fucking freaked you wouldn't believe, and that bed was fucking uncomfortable too."

"You did a damn fine job at hiding your freak-out." They were upstairs, the door shut. Hooch swiveled Matt round to face him. "Why exactly were you freaked out anyway?" He grinned, a normal, almost sunny grin.

The wide smile was rare enough that Matt couldn't help returning it. "Twenty-one years old, in the middle of the desert, when it was worse than DADT, fucking a crazy Brit merc on the sly, being sent to meet goodness knows who by crazy Brit merc and having a fucking Delta show up. What do you think?" He shook his head. "How the hell did Dan convince you to go out there?"

Hooch laughed. "Simple. He told me he had something waiting for me in the safe house that was of interest to an opportunist. He said I'd like it unless I had something against Jarheads."

Matt couldn't help it, he had to laugh out loud at that. "Fuck," he said when he could breathe, "what a fucked-up comedy we are, and you know what, I wouldn't have it any other way." He shucked off his clothes and threw himself on the bed, on his back, the way Hooch preferred, the expression on his face not so much 'come hither' but 'fuck me'.

A demand that Hooch was all too willing to fulfill..

The sex was slower than usual, but no less satisfying. Matt happily fell asleep afterwards, but Hooch lay awake, something itching inside of him, even though his body was replete. A something which raised its ugly head and flexed its razor-sharp claws whenever the silence caught up with him.


September November 2001, Fayetteville

The mellow season of the end of summer and the beginning of fall in the South was shattered by the crashing of planes in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the ensuring chaos afterwards. In the days and weeks that followed, Fort Bragg was thrumming with nervous energy, as there was a flurry of movement to and from Bragg and Pope Air Force Base, which had all personnel on edge.

Hooch spent more and more time on base, only rarely returning home, and when he did, he was tight lipped and grey with exhaustion. Even more silent, and even more obnoxious and difficult than usual. Matt could do nothing but watch, helpless as time went by, as Hooch withdrew further and further into himself.

It got even worse when the first planes carrying the coffins with his boys started coming back.

They tried to wage a war against an enemy that had no clear battle lines nor visible targets. It wasn't the long hours, the lack of rest, the fact that he had to stay behind, not even the sheer futility of it all, but the utter idiocy from those in charge, which poisoned Hooch's very self.

No one was listening to the guys on the ground, and as a result men were killed. His men. The young men he'd trained and who were being sent into impossible situations. It was like fine-tuning high spec weapons, only to waste them in suicide missions.

The itch inside of Hooch, which had never vanished since the blackmail attempt, had become an ever consuming presence that ate him up from the inside out. He knew he had no choice but to capitulate to the darkness eventually. The restless energy that gnawed at his guts, and the ever increasing tension that threatened to impede his ability to function, had to be silenced somehow.

He had to let off steam, the only way out he knew, before he imploded and destroyed what remained of his sanity.

* * *

They'd insisted that he took a few days off in November, marked it clearly into his diary, told him well in advance, warned him that everyone he worked with had been told and he was barred from the base. The first evening of his enforced leave, when Matt was downstairs in his office, Hooch made a mental calculation of the time difference, and called New Zealand.

The phone rang at least a dozen times before it was picked up.

"Aye?" Dan's slightly breathless voice was at the other end.

"Hooch here," he paused. "How are you?" going through the pleasantries.

"Fine, fine." The sound of a cigarette being lit. "You want him, aye?"

"Yes." Always direct, that was what he liked about Dan.

"Sorry, mate, he's bloody drugged out of his mind. Slipped a disk, now flat on his back floating on cloud nine." Another inhale, "I'm doing butler duties."

"Shit. How long's he out for?"

"Doc said at least a couple of weeks, but reckons he mustn't do anything physical for a hell of a lot longer. It's the same disk, he really has to take it easy now." A dry chuckle, "as if. You want him to call back when he's off his cloud?"

"Yeah." The veneer of civility, while the darkness clawed up his insides. Weeks at least; possibly months. No way he could wait that long. "Send him my regards, okay? I gotta go now." Hooch ended the call before Dan could reply. This was it. No other way out.

The sound of steps coming up the stairs, then Matt opened the door, yawning. He stopped in mid-movement when he looked at Hooch. Something in the expression on Hooch's face. "Anything I can do?"

"No." Not a lie. Nothing Matt could do. "Sorry. I just…" Hooch shook his head. "I'm going out for a bit. Don't wait up." He was on his way to the door quicker than Matt could grab his arm.

"Shit, what the fuck's up?" Matt skidded towards the door, blocking Hooch's path with his body.

"I need to go." This was not the Hooch Matt knew, but an extreme version of the man. "I just need to go!" Hooch gave Matt a push, far harder than necessary, to get him out of the way.

"Not until you tell me what's got into you!" Matt was caught off-balance, and his attempt to grab Hooch met with thin air as Hooch wrenched open the door and ran down the stairs. Thankfully, there was no-one in the gym as Hooch passed the reception area and went out into the icy chill of the parking lot towards the garage.

* * *

Hooch drove for while, until he was out of Fayetteville, stopping at a nondescript building in a run-down area. It had been years since he'd been here, and he hoped it was still what it used to be.

He got out, looking around and listening for anything suspicious, but there was nothing but crumbling buildings and a few cars discreetly parked in the shadows.

The place looked like it had three years ago, only shabbier. The clientele seemed the same, too, or at least similar. Hooch made his way through the people, a black clad hard-faced man with haunted eyes and a tense jaw, on the prowl for something he couldn't hope to find, yet so desperately needed.

Another man, just as hard-faced, leant against the bar, half-hidden in the gloom, watching the bodies writhe. He caught Hooch's eye-deliberate, calculating-then tilted his head.

Hooch lifted his chin a fraction, keeping his eyes on the other man's. He didn't back down nor look away, and gave a miniature nod after a moment. He was a masochist, but he was hardcore. He wasn't submissive. He made his way through the bodies that separated them, shouldering through the people as if they were nothing but meat.

The other man peeled himself away from the wall and out of the shadow. Hooch's height, but bulkier. Muscle, not fat. Cold, dark grey eyes. "You're new."

"No." Hooch appraised the other man with a swift glance, feeling the forced-down heat unfurling at the sight of the cold eyes that promised no mercy. "I'm not the usual client."

"No," the man agreed. "You want more."

"I don't play." Hooch's chin went up a fraction again, the heat now clawing at his insides, as if the darkness was an entity with its own life, feeding on the blood it was sniffing. "I don't do safe words."

Nostrils flared. A small, cruel smile. "Neither do I." A pause. "Not here. I know another place."

"Where?" One word, all that was needed to negotiate a pact that had no rules, no safety. The beast was raging inside.

The man tilted his head towards the back door. "Near."

"Walking distance?"

"Short drive," came the answer. "I'll lead."

Hooch nodded, following the man. Every single one of his soldier instincts screamed at him not to do this; not to go down that path of utter insanity into an unknown situation without backup, but his instincts were silenced by the beast. Now that he'd handed over the reins, the creature was full-out flaring, impossible to control.

He watched the other man get into a sleek black car, then followed several miles down the road to a row of abandoned warehouses.

Hooch didn't hesitate as he killed the engine and followed the stranger. He only had a rough idea of where he was, and he was going to give himself over completely. No backup plan, no safety net. The thrill of danger, and the anticipation of promised pain flooded his system with adrenaline. At last he'd be able to satisfy the darkness he'd been holding at bay for far too long.

The other man's footsteps were quiet on the gravel as they approached the door of the nearest warehouse. He fished out some keys from a pocket and unlocked the door, opening it and motioning Hooch inside.

Hooch peeled out of his jacket as he stepped through the door. As was his habit, nothing but cash in his wallet, his cell phone and the car keys, no ID, no bank cards, nothing. Flinging the jacket to the floor, he walked into the middle of the wide open space and stopped. The cold air made him shiver in his thin t-shirt, but it didn't matter, it'd be worse after stripping off anyway. Neither man said a word, not even when Hooch stood naked and the other man pointed to a spot above Hooch's head. When he lifted his gaze he saw chains hanging from a rusty steel girder, ending in manacles, high up in the ceiling. Looking back down, Hooch spotted the iron rings that had been set into the rough concrete that was wet and ice cold beneath his bare feet. The sound of chains rattling over a makeshift pulley and lever filled the empty space all of a sudden, a sound so loud, and his need so urgent, Hooch never heard the three other men entering the room through a door in his back.

* * *

By the time Matt arrived downstairs, Hooch had taken off like a maniac into the night, leaving Matt with no idea where he was heading. No way could he contact anyone for help, no way could he risk alerting Hooch's work. Cursing profusely, he went upstairs for his car keys, pushing aside the momentary hope that Hooch just needed some time in the truck alone, because that was fucking unlikely. He started his search along Hooch's favorite open spaces around the city, which would be deserted now in the cold. He tried, without much hope, at Hooch's usual drinking haunts, those few which were still open at the late hour. With increasing desperation, he went to the hospitals asking if there had been a man matching Hooch's description brought in. Frantic with worry, and exhausted from lack of sleep, Matt returned home, defeated, in the pre-dawn gloom. He snuck in the back door of the gym to avoid the early-birds coming for their workouts. Stumbling into the kitchen, he made himself a large mug of coffee and stared at it in his hands.

* * *

The sense of a throbbing, all-consuming ache in his entire body was the first thing Hooch noticed when he came to on the ice cold concrete floor of the warehouse. The next one that registered, was a cacophony of sharp, intense pain in several places on his body. No, not just on. In his body as well. His mind, usually awake within a moment, was sluggish to catch on, as he forced himself back to consciousness. He was freezing, shivering, naked, the sensations blended together into a dissonance of damage. Eventually, he managed to open his eyes, both of them almost swollen shut, his broken nose blocked with dried blood, but he could see enough in the pale grey dawn to take stock of himself. Covered in dried cum and blood. Bruised, in a lot of places so badly, the skin that hadn't been torn or whipped raw had turned almost black. He tried to move, but a frightening sound, that of an animal growling in agony, stopped him short. I took him long moments to realize he'd been the one who'd made the sound, and that he was alone. The four men had left.

Four men who'd known no limits, no mercy, and no safe words. Just like he'd wanted-with one, not four. They had used him, beaten him, cut and whipped him. They had fucked his ass and throat, had never taken no for an answer, not even after he'd been taken beyond the threshold he needed to quieten the beast, and he had finally begged for his life. Hooch looked around, spotting some clothes in a heap and his cell phone nearby. Nothing else. The jacket was gone, and so were his boots. No keys, no wallet. There'd be no truck either. It took him an agonizingly long time to reach for the cell. He couldn't think beyond the very real need to survive, and in order to do so he had to get out of that place. He knew only one number to call, the one he had on speed dial.

The shrill, annoying tone of the cell phone jarred Matt from his contemplation of his cold coffee. He only barely glanced at the name before answering it. "Where are you?"

"Not…sure…" Hooch's voice was low and slurred, raspy from screams he couldn't remember. It took all of his strength, whatever little was left of it, to recall the last street name he'd seen. "Abandoned…warehouse…" The cough that wrecked his broken body sent him into a spasm of pain. One side of his upper body was in agony, and only lying on his side eased the pain and made breathing easier. He dimly remembered steel-toed boots kicking his ribs. "Need…help."

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck! Matt feared the worst at the broken voice as well as the tone and the words. "I'm coming," he said, unable to keep the trembling from his own voice. Hooch had only been wearing a light jacket when he'd gone out, so he grabbed his own long woolen overcoat. Heading down to the gym, he thanked his lucky stars that it was still early, that Mandy wasn't in, and that it was the reliable, but not-the-brightest-bulb early shift receptionist Danni on duty, as he got out one of the big first aid kits from his office and went to his car. He drove on auto pilot, through early morning traffic, passing the named street sign, getting more and more frantic until he spotted the warehouse fitting Hooch's description. He all but ran from the car, heedless of any remaining danger, but the sight that awaited him made him freeze for a moment, before he rushed to Hooch's side.

Hooch had tried to dress himself, but all he'd managed was to drape the t-shirt across his groin. His body was in a worse mess it had ever been in, short of the torture during capture, and nothing could have prepared Matt for the sight.

Matt's mouth moved, but no sound came out. His face set in grim lines as he slid the coat underneath Hooch and started to look at the worst of his injuries. No way they could go to a hospital, or even call an ambulance, not without some very awkward questions. There was little that Matt could do in the warehouse, except to bandage the worst of the cuts and scrapes, before wrapping Hooch firmly in the coat and all but carrying him out to the car.

Hooch was quiet all that time, except for some groans he couldn't suppress, and that told Matt more than he ever wanted to know. When Hooch failed to remain stoic, then things were worse than they seemed-and they seemed fucking horrendous. During the car ride, Hooch kept his swollen eyes closed and his lips slightly parted, unable to breathe through his broken nose. He was half curled up on his side to ease the pressure on his ribs, drifting in and out of consciousness. His mind stuck on one memory, one thought and emotion: fear. He'd been scared. He'd experienced panic in different ways than ever before. Not even during captivity had he felt that sharp, blinding sense of fear and helplessness, the knowledge that he would die and there was nothing he could do about it. He knew with absolute clarity that the reason for that fear was sitting right beside him. He'd been frightened that he would die without Matt knowing where he was, what had happened, and, most of all, why he'd gotten himself into that situation.

Hooch knew what he'd done, but the enormity of that knowledge overwhelmed him into silence.

Somehow, through sheer luck, Matt managed to manhandle Hooch through the back entrance and up the stairs. He answered Mandy's shocked look with, "idiot crashed the truck and won't stay in hospital." Which she seemed to accept, and if she didn't, Matt was past caring because he knew that Mandy would not say a word in any case. As he closed the door, he heard Mandy remind Danni that nobody was to disturb Matt that day, and all phone calls were to be diverted away from the apartment to the answering machine in Matt's office.

All but carrying Hooch into the spare room, and onto the bed, Matt took his time washing away the dried blood and the cum, mouth set in increasingly grimmer lines as he had the time to take in the damage. Taking care of the injuries properly, unsure whether to lay Hooch on his back or his front, because both were so badly damaged that it had to be agony either way. He settled him onto his side, as Hooch leaned towards it. At least it would help with the breathing, and the ribs seemed cracked, not fractured. Matt thanked small mercies that it didn't look like he had concussion, at least.

Hooch drifted off while Matt tended to him. Finally, what seemed to be hours later, Matt picked up the basin of dirty, bloody water, and looked down at Hooch.

"You fucking idiot." He said without heat. Weary rather than angry, he went to dump the water before coming back to sit in vigil by Hooch's side.

* * *

Matt woke him every hour to check Hooch wasn't slipping into full unconsciousness, and fed him as many painkillers as he felt were safe. It took all of that day, until the hours of darkness, before Hooch stirred on his own. Attempting to force his swollen eyes open, he blinked sluggishly.

Matt's own eyes were red with strain and lack of sleep as he came closer with water, offering the straw to Hooch. "Nothing's broken, I think, except the nose," he told Hooch. "Should probably get someone in to have a look at that."

Hooch took a few labored sips. Even the water burned in his abused throat. He didn't say anything, despite the thoughts battering at his mind. Thoughts for which he couldn't find the words to say out loud, and emotions he didn't know how to deal with, let alone express. Everything had been different the night before, and while the beast was silenced, he'd lost more than he'd gained. He wasn't just responsible for his own life anymore. He was responsible for another's life and wellbeing, and all it entailed, but he had no clue how to deal with that realization. So all he did was look at Matt through slitted eyes and nod slightly.

"I told Mandy that you crashed the truck," Matt said into the gloom, "and I'll tell the doc that too." The words hung in the dim room, with only one of the bedside lights on. The rest of what he wanted to say could wait until Hooch got a little better. "Shall I tell your work the same?"

"On leave…this week." Hooch managed to get out. Every word was a struggle, but he didn't pity himself. Never had, not even after captivity, but least of all now. This was his own making. He would not dream of blaming the beast, because he should be able to control it, but he had failed.

Matt nodded. "Figures," he said, half to himself.

* * *

The next week passed in a blur for both of them, as Hooch slept and healed and Matt ran himself ragged tending to Hooch. That included lying to the doctor, tense throughout the whole examination in case the man was more perceptive than he hoped. He thanked his lucky stars that everyone swallowed the story of the accident so easily, and there were no enquiries about the truck, for once grateful that Hooch's habitual driving habits meant that everyone took the lie at face value.

* * *

It was the night before Hooch was due back on base. He still looked horrendous, but not half-dead, and was able to walk.

Matt stood at the window, facing away from him. He was looking out into the parking lot below, full of movement even at this hour. "I think," his voice was level and calm, and somehow defeated, "it would be a good idea if we had a break from each other."

Hooch sat on the couch, leaning into the bad side. He had hardly said anything all week, not knowing how to find the words, not even where to look for them. 'I'm sorry' was pathetic, 'forgive me' sounded shallow. It took a long time before he replied, because every single thing he meant to say felt wrong. Everything. In the end he gave up and simply agreed. "If you wish."

"For a little while, so we have some space," Matt continued, as though he hadn't heard. "And you can decide whether this is what you want. This living together. With me. If I'm enough for you. And I can figure out whether I can keep doing this, the next time if this happens, when you need to…work off steam." He turned around to face Hooch, and he looked paler and more drawn than Hooch had ever seen him. "I don't think I've ever been more scared in my life. The way you've been lately, the way you took off. Running around town looking for you, the waiting. Not to mention what you did, and what happened, and what's still going on." He braced his arms on the windowsill behind him. "Not being able to get you proper help, not being able to get the doc to do more than he did, because what possible fucking reason could I give him that a guy who's just been in a car accident needs a fucking blood test for STDs?" He braced his arms to control the trembling.

Hooch met Matt's gaze straight on. Every single word hit him square and fair, right where it counted. 'If Matt was enough for him'. Was he? Could he? Who or what could ever be enough, and yet the thought of losing Matt had been ripping a bleeding wound into Hooch these past days. So deep and painful, he didn't know if it would ever close, if-no, when-he was going to leave. He had to leave, for Matt's sake. What guarantees could he give, and how could Matt ever believe him, when Hooch couldn't trust himself. And yet…the fear he'd experienced, of knowing what he was doing to Matt if those men had decided to kill the raw meat that he'd become in that warehouse; the memory of that fear hadn't left him. Still as clear as it had been, the moment when he'd known that this time he wasn't in it only for himself.

"Matt…" Hooch started and trailed off. It was pointless. He couldn't find the words. Every thought and regret unspoken, each plea and each emotion unsaid.

"Just for a while," Matt said, misery incarnate. "I'm sure you've got heaps on at work anyway. We both need to think, and being cooped up here together isn't the place to do it."

Hooch remained silent, all words inside swallowed up by that gaping wound. He'd never experienced loss before, and the heartache that spread through his very core made the beast and the darkness seem like nothing. It hadn't been worth it, and he should have been in control.

Hooch nodded, and with that one nod he gave himself over to the inevitable. Defeated for the first time in his life, and it was all his own doing. He'd been his worst enemy all his life, and now he'd lost the one battle with the highest stakes.

"Jeff's offered to take you back to base tomorrow morning," Matt's gaze was somewhere over Hooch's shoulder. "Smashed truck and all, and the contractors coming in for the install."

Hooch nodded again. That was he could do: agree, and to try control the damage he'd done to Matt.

* * *

Neither slept at all that night, not Matt in their bedroom, nor Hooch in the guest room. Early the next morning, Jeff arrived at the gym, dropping Mandy off before helping carry Hooch's pack and a large gym bag to his car. He wasn't anywhere near as talkative as Mandy during the short drive to the base, but he made all the right noises of sympathy about car smashes and losing much loved trucks. His was a pleasant enough voice to fill in the silence on the road, for all of his dropped 'r's that made Hooch long for another voice, one with a completely different accent.

Again, helping Hooch out of the car and carrying his bags, Jeff accompanied him as far as he could go. He let him know that he was spending most of his free time at Mandy's apartment or at the gym these days, and would be more than happy to give him a lift back any time until Hooch got around to getting a new car; all Hooch had to do was let him know.

Which he didn't.

Jeff spent that weekend at Mandy's, but there was no sign of Hooch at the gym.

The next weekend, there was no sign of Hooch either, and neither did Jeff see the man while on base. Hooch kept busy, did his duties to a fault, kept honing men in their deadly skills and sending them out. Not allowing himself to grieve when they didn't return alive, because there was no space in him left to mourn. Every part of him had been consumed by that open wound.

* * *

Hooch was working late one night in his office when he was interrupted by a knock on the open door. Looking up, he found Jeff there. "Sir?"

"Yes?" Hooch's eyes narrowed slightly, unsure what to think of the unexpected visitor. "Lt. Sullivan."

"Can I come in, Sir?" Jeff looked nervous.

Hooch nodded and pointed to the chair in front of his desk.

Looking like he was about to step into the lion's cage, Jeff entered and closed the door behind him, before placing a small plastic box on the desk in front of Hooch.

"They're from Mandy," Jeff said, sitting down where indicated, "she said they're your favorite."

Hooch's eyebrows raised as he recognized the contents of the transparent box. Red velvet cupcakes. "Thanks."

An awkward pause, as though the younger man had no idea how to begin a conversation. "She says that everyone's missing you at the gym."

"Everyone." Hooch made it a statement, not a question.

"Everyone." Jeff replied firmly, meeting the gaze directly, hoping that it didn't look as difficult as it was. Mandy had said that Captain Bozic was a 'pussycat' but it felt more like being locked in a very small room with a very large and very unhappy panther. Jeff bit his lip, considering. "With respect, Sir, I have been there more recently than you. Whatever's happened, they do all miss you down there. You could just call and let them know you're okay."

"No." Hooch shook his head. "No, I can't do that."

"I'm going down again on Wednesday for my session with Matt," Jeff tried again. "Do you want me to pass on any messages?"

Hooch's eyes hardened with suspicion. "Why would I want to do that?"

Jeff gulped. They said the Airborne was full of terrifying hardcases, but none of them had anything close to who was facing him across the desk. He attempted what passed as confusion, "'cos you're roommates and buddies, and your stuff's still there, and no-one's heard from you in weeks." Biting his lip and barely holding back a twitch, before he warily made another foray. "Do you want me to bring your mail back?"

Eyes still narrowed, Hooch nodded. "Yes to the mail, but what do you know about my stuff being there?"

"You only had your pack and a sports bag when you came to base two weeks ago. You haven't been back, and you've been living there for three years. You can't not have stuff there still?"

The tension left Hooch's face, but the desolation never did. "Yes, I do. Don't need it, though. Got my uniforms."

Jeff nodded, then changed the subject. "I never thanked you for the recommendation down there. Shoulder's all fine now." A pause, "thanks for setting me up with Mandy. She's a great girl."

"Anything else you'd like to thank me for?" Hooch tilted his head.

A look crossed Jeff's face, as though he was swiftly praying to someone. "Just her. It's…well, listening to the guys, it's hard to find someone who understands the job, willing to put up with all sorts of stuff, that's kinda special. Don't think I'd ever want to let her go without a fight, I mean, you know," he corrected, realizing how the words could be misinterpreted, "just that having someone who's prepared to stick it out for the long haul, that's…nice."

"Yeah." Hooch fell silent again, until Jeff thought that was it, but then Hooch added, "don't fuck it up."

Momentary silence, then, "I'll try not to, but I guess I'm luckier than a lot of others already." Jeff left the sentence half-finished. Adding, as though all subtlety had been used up, "when we have fights with each other, we both get it all out into the open."

"Lucky you."

It was like poking a panther through the bars of a cage, and getting nearer and nearer to the claws every time. "I guess," there probably was no budging him, and Jeff dreaded the unsuccessful report back to Mandy. "I can come back for the box on Wednesday, if you like, Sir," he stood up. "It is quite miserable down there, though they're trying to hide it," speaking in the neutral and the plural.

Hooch took in a sharp breath, holding it in his lungs, before he stood up and audibly expelled it. "I can't go back. I am not saying that I don't want to, but I can't. I fucked up." He was giving more away than he'd ever done before, but it seemed the only way of shutting Jeff up. "Say thanks to Mandy for the cupcakes. Also, tell her you make a shit undercover agent."

Jeff gave a small smile in reply. "Now you know why they haven't picked me for your lot. But you'd be surprised just how many guys on base are really good at keeping secrets, and not just the classified ones, but ones that really shouldn't matter and that people really shouldn't give a damn about, Sir."

He turned and went to the door, opening it and walking out into the corridor before Hooch could react.

"Wha..." Hooch never finished the word, staring speechlessly at the retreating back. What the fuck had just happened? There was no way he could have misread Jeff's words, only one possible interpretation of that which was unsaid and yet said so clearly. Secrets that shouldn't matter. Shit. Hooch slumped back onto his chair and buried his face in his hands. He'd fucked up and thrown away the one thing that had mattered.

* * *

Thanksgiving passed, marked only with a delivery of pumpkin pie and an anxious look and a few pointed questions from Mandy. Matt threw himself into the gym, taking more classes, working early and late on proposals for the new year, and keeping himself busy. Anything to take his mind away from the empty spaces in the apartment, on the couch, at the dining table, in his bed. More strange with most of Hooch's things still there, as though he'd just gone on a long, classified exercise without communication. The place was silent, even though Hooch was so quiet most of the time.

While Hooch took little interest in food, except perhaps a good steak, the effort of proper cooking for one seemed too much, and one evening he was poking at the remains of his half-finished dinner, uncaring of the carbs in the pasta, when the phone rang.

The voice on the other end was warm and familiar, and didn't bother with preliminaries. "Matty, darling, why weren't you and Hooch really here for Thanksgiving?"

"We've been busy," Matt stalled, "especially Hooch at work."

"I know, darling, that's what you told me before the holiday, but I'm your mother, and I know when you lie. Do you remember the time you shoved Billy Haddington off that bike because he called you a fag?"

"How could I forget?" The memory was painful, but nothing compared to the present. Matt took a deep breath. "We're having a break."

"I thought so," Anne's voice softened. "Care to tell me why?"

"It's…" he trailed off, "it's been tough since September."

"Aftermath of the attack?" Anne probed gently.

"Yes," Matt confirmed. "His boys." That much at least, it would take a complete idiot or a shut-in hermit not to know that the operations in Afghanistan would involve Hooch's boys.

Anne made a soft sound of thoughtful agreement. "Which one of you wanted the break?" Always straight to the point.

"I," Matt confessed. Knowing that it made him sound like a heartless bastard, but no way could he tell his mother the full story.

"Matty, I know I'm biased, because I'm your mom and I love you and think you are the finest man to walk the earth, but I know you wouldn't ask for a break for no other reason than the man you love being difficult while that man is going through a hard time." She left the field wide open for him.

"Not just that." Matt didn't know if he should curse or thank his mother, who never failed to get to the bottom of everything, "also other things." Like driving off into the night like a maniac, going to goodness knows where to wind up half-dead, riddled with unknown infections and diseases, and closing off completely since. He hadn't expected a long, detailed explanation-this was Hooch, after all. But a "I'm sorry," and some hint of what madness was going through him would have been nice.

"Can you tell me a little about those other things?" She asked gently.

He opened his mouth and it almost came out, but shut it again, breathing deeply. He couldn't. "Just…stuff."

"Alright, dear," her voice remained gentle. "If you can't talk about it, perhaps I can ask some questions?" She paused a moment, "do you think Hooch still loves you?"

Matt almost answered with the first thing that came into his mind, which was 'as much as that crazy bastard loves anyone', but that would just raise more questions. The answer was simple, and yet not. "Yes," he breathed, knowing that he was telling the truth, "but sometimes that's not enough."

"Then he did something that hurt you very much?"

"Yes," let her think what she would. He only barely bit back a snort when he realized that she was partially right. After all, going out and getting yourself fucked by God-knows how many men, beaten up, chained, and tortured, probably counted as 'cheating.' They'd never agreed to be monogamous, even though they had been for the last few years. Too much risk otherwise, they'd more or less decided in that way that they had, without words.

"I see." Her voice was even gentler than before. "But you still love him?" She continued straight away, "and don't tell me that sometimes that's not enough, because if two people love each other, then they have to do everything they can to make it work."

"Yes." He loved that crazy, silent, maddening bastard more than anything. He was worth the lying, the worry, the Marines. But whether he was worth the pain of a repeat, the pain of the not-knowing, when he was out doing mad-assed crazy shit to himself, he still didn't know. "It's been a long road," Matt said at last, "so we're thinking about whether it's where we both want to be going." Knowing that he was lying, knowing that he wanted Hooch for the rest of his life-and that Hooch wanted him for most of it-except the bits where he had that urge to go out and get himself hurt so badly that he was barely human.

"Are you, dear? Are you both thinking that?" Anne let out a soft sound, like a tutting. "Have you two actually talked about this?"

He couldn't lie, but she knew Hooch. "No," he had to say. "Hooch isn't one for talking."

"Yes, I figured that, but darling, have you actually tried? I'm not saying this to defend whatever Hooch did, but you know better than I do that he is quite a broken man."

"Broken?" How the fuck could she know about his…thing?

"I talked to him, darling, remember? And I haven't been a mother to all of my brood for nothing. I can sense a very lost child a mile wide."

Only she could see that in Hooch, Matt thought, where everyone else saw the finely-honed killer. Hooch, who never spoke more than a word about his family if he could help it, who never spoke of his past. Who had been to Texas once or twice in the last three years, only when he could not avoid it, and scarcely more than a couple of days. Hooch, completely lost the first time when he visited Matt's family. "What he does takes a lot out of him," Matt said at last, noncommittally.

"Yes, I can imagine. While I don't claim to know anything about the sort of thing your jobs entailed, I can imagine that it's not something most people could do. But darling, don't you think you should at least try to talk to him? It seems to me that if you don't, you will regret it for the rest of your life."

"We will," Matt said vaguely, "we need to sort stuff out either way." Looking at Hooch's things around the apartment. Not that there was all that much of it, but each was a painful reminder: the coffee mug on the bench, the tattered paperbacks on the shelves, even the meticulously ordered clothes still in the wardrobe. All brought a pang. A repeat was unthinkable, but so was life without Hooch.

"Good." Anne managed to convey her disbelief in that one soft word. "I'll call you again. Send my love to Hooch when you talk to him."

"I will," Matt said quietly. "I will." more to himself than to her, as he finished the call and put down the phone.

* * *

It was a lonely Christmas and New Year. Hooch volunteered for duty over the holidays, watching the base empty of everyone who had managed to get leave, while those remaining grumbled about staying on base. He'd spent holidays on base before, letting the men who had families and actually wanted the time off take it, but this year felt far bleaker. No Matt kissing him awake with his customary enthusiasm on Christmas morning, no stupid joke presents, no New Year's celebration in the apartment, nothing.

There were Christmas-tree shaped shortbread cookies from Mandy, delivered by Jeff, who made half-hearted attempts to make him call the gym again, sensing it was hopeless. Jeff seemed wary of him after the last disclosure, as Hooch realized that he and Matt were possibly the worst-kept secret in Fort Bragg.

He got a call from New Zealand at the start of the holidays, and Hooch managed to be evasive, but when he ended the call, he realized that the gaping wound of missing Matt had not closed in the slightest over the past weeks. As raw and as painful as ever. He now knew what heartache was.

It was just as lonely in the gym during this quiet time. Even the most committed members decided to take a few days break for the holidays. With Mandy going up to Boston to meet Jeff's family, the remaining skeleton staff were professional and friendly, but nevertheless distracted by their own holiday thoughts. The gift for Hooch from his sister arrived at the gym the usual three days before Christmas, the beautifully wrapped box whose contents Hooch would stash away and never use, as always. Accompanied by a card that he would read once and then quietly put away. Matt sent the package up to base, no further note attached.

The day after New Year, Matt's private phone rang. It didn't show a number, but the caller became clear at the unmistakable voice with its Scottish accent and the customary exhale of smoke.

"Right, kid." Dan charged straight into the fray without a word of greeting. "I probably should be doing the Happy New Year shit, but I've been driven crazy by the Russkie's worrying. What the fuck is going on your way?"

He should have expected this at some point, Matt thought. "Hooch and I are on a break." It sounded feeble even for him. What was it now, two months? Almost that.

"Really, is that it?" Another deep inhale at the other end of the phone. "And that's why we are thinking about mounting a rescue mission?" The inevitable exhale of smoke. "Come on, mate, you can do better than that. Tell me what the fuck happened and I might get a decent night's sleep in the near future."

A moment's thought, a sigh, but this was Dan, who Matt owed more than anything. Dan, who had brought Hooch into his life. Dan, who had helped him get information about Hooch in what had, until now, been the worst moment of his life.

"You know what they do when they get together, don't you?" he asked, unnecessarily, because of course Dan would know.

"Aye, and I also know that Hooch called a couple of months ago. That's a bit of a coincidence."

Fuck, if that didn't make perfect sense. "It is, isn't it?" Matt stalled, while things slotted into place.

"Aye." Dan gave Matt a moment, during which he took another audible drag of his obligatory cigarette. "Does that mean you are finally going to tell me what the bloody hell happened?"

"He went to get himself worked over somewhere and rang me the next morning to get him, when he was three-quarters dead." It sounded awfully cold put like that.

"Well, shit." Dan's comment came out like a bullet. "That's serious crap, but only part of the story, aye?"

"It was the fucking last straw," the heat in Matt's voice surprised him, as it finally hit. "He's been fucking unbearable since September, more so since the fuck-ups began, and we got blackmailed over the fucking summer and then he went and pulled this shit."

"Crap." Dan retorted, with feeling. "I'd be pissed off to hell and back, too, but what does he have to say about it?"

Dan had a way of demanding the truth, even half a world away. "Nothing," Matt said, after a pause. "We haven't spoken since he left."

"Well, color me surprised. Not." A last exhale and the sound of a cigarette butt being violently stubbed out in the ashtray. "Look, mate, I get it. Talking is shit. It's a worse torture than being raked over glowing coals, but not talking in that situation? For two bloody months?" Dan raised his voice, "are you two fucking stupid?"

What a redundant question. "I guess we are."

"Bingo. You and Hooch score the jackpot." A faint raspy sound as Dan seemed to rub his hand over his face. "What a mess, and there wasn't even any KGB involved."

"No, I think we managed fine on our own." Matt felt the misery claw at him from the inside.

"I'm no expert on relationships," Dan huffed a laugh, "far from it, but you two really take the biscuit." He paused, "look, I'm going to talk to Hooch, aye? I'll tell him he's a fucking idiot, and then we'll leave you two to your own devices." An unspoken expectation that those devices were expected to be more communicative than they had been. "Alright, mate?"

"Alright." Apprehension, and more than a bit of bleak amusement. Dan had got them together to begin with no wonder he took such an interest.

"Don't think I do that for you two. I'm selfish, remember? I want a decent bloody night's sleep." Dan chuckled, "bye."

"Bye," Matt smiled despite himself and his misery. Dan had a way of doing that. He put down the phone, and very firmly went and placed Hooch's coffee mug into the cupboard, where it belonged.

* * *

Back on base, Hooch's cell rang.

"Yeah?" He answered warily, not recognizing the number.

"What the fuck do you think you are doing?" Dan's voice battered through the phone.

"With what?"

"Throwing your one chance away by not having the courage to do that talking shit."

"I…can't." Even that was hard. "I don't have the words."

"Okay." Dan calmed down somewhat. "I get it, I really do. I can guess what you did out there after you called a couple of months ago, and in what state you ended up in, but I've been through the shit, had my heart ripped out, and the one thing I learned through that? That if you don't communicate in whatever way you can, you're so fucked, you could just about throw your life away, because that equates to the same thing." He paused, during which Hooch felt his breath hitch. "You're not enemies, Hooch." Dan's voice had softened, "you're not on two different sides. You might think you are fucked up, but hell, you didn't have someone torture the last shred of self out of you. So, yeah, you're a masochistic bastard, and you got issues a mile wide, but you don't have anyone actually physically holding you back to pick up your damned phone and call the one person you love. Because you love Matt, don't you?" He didn't allow Hooch to get a word in edgewise. "Aye, I know that you do, even though I bet you've never said it." Dan was on a roll now. "If you don't have the words, then tell him that you don't have them. If you can't tell him what you feel, then show him. If you have to beg to be allowed to show him, then bloody well do it! Don't be as stupid as we were, because you're more clever than that and you haven't got most of the world against you. Goddammit, Hooch, do you get me?"

"Yes," and fuck, he did. Too caught up in his own pain and misery, too aware it had been his own making.

Dan let out a deep breath. "Thank fuck. Then take that chance and go for it. At least, if it doesn't work out, you tried. Whatever shit you did, I guess you figured out a few things in the meantime, aye?"

"Yes." That all the fear, the terror, the pain, the guilt-nothing was as agonizing as the thought of losing Matt.

"Get your arse in gear, soldier, because I hang up now." True to his word, the line went dead.

Hooch kept staring at the phone in his hand for exactly ten seconds, before he hit the speed dial for Matt. If he thought about it for too long, he'd realize once again how unequipped as he was with emotional tools, but cowardice wasn't an option any longer. He had nothing to lose, and everything to win.

He listened to the ring tone of Matt's cell.

"Hi." Matt's voice. Level, unsurprised. Wary? It was hard to tell.

"Can I see you?" Hooch sounded nervous even to his own ears.

"Yes." A pause, "do you want to come down? Do you have a new truck yet? Or should I come up?" Questions, so many questions.

"I bought a truck a month ago." All the little things that had hurt in new ways, such as the simple task of buying a truck and not telling Matt. Every little thing had fed the wound. "I could get a stand-in and come to the gym." Not 'your place', certainly not 'our place', carefully neutral instead.

"Yes," there was a soft exhale, "that would be good. It's still closed for the holidays so we'll have privacy."

"Thanks, Matt. I'll be there as soon as I can." Hooch cancelled the call and stood in his room for a moment, looking at the bare wall. He was shit-scared, because he still didn't have the words, but he'd had a long time to think, and he was going to try to communicate those thoughts, even if it killed him.

Staring at the phone in his hand, Matt took a deep breath before putting it down. Twenty minutes at least to work out what he was going to say. Twenty minutes before he'd have what felt like the toughest conversation of his life. Coming out to his parents was easy compared to this. He opened the door and went down into the deserted gym to wait.

For once, it actually did take Hooch twenty minutes, not the fifteen he usually managed with his maniac driving if there wasn't any traffic. His silhouette visible in front of the frosted glass door, as he rang the bell. One outside, one inside, and neither could see through to the other.

Matt opened the door."You look…" 'like shit' was what he was about to say, but he bit it back as he stepped aside to let Hooch enter

"Yeah, I guess." Hooch replied. He stopped once he'd entered, and turned to watch Matt lock the doors behind them. Matt. Fucking hell, it hurt to see him, as it all came rushing towards him, the loneliness, and the misery of knowing how he'd fucked up.

"Coffee?" Matt asked, heading towards the door to the apartment. Even now, in the deserted post-holiday silence, not worth the risk to be seen from the parking lot, just in case. No longer paranoia, but the caution that bit into everything with Hooch's career.

"Thanks." Hooch followed Matt up the stairs. A subdued version of the Hooch Matt knew. Once upstairs, Hooch took a quick glance around, but everything was just like it had been as he left.

Matt fiddled with the coffee machine, producing two cups, the way they preferred. Making a point of using Hooch's usual mug. "So," he began, "Dan phoned you, I guess."

Hooch's gaze lingered a while too long on his old mug. "Yeah, he did." He took the mug and then a first sip, looking at Matt from under his eyelashes as he glanced over the rim. "Told me I was a fucking idiot." He ploughed on before Matt could say anything. "I don't…don't know…" and fuck, if that wasn't exactly what he had been dreading. He huffed in frustration and grimaced.

"You don't know what?" Matt prodded.

"Words. I don't know how…shit." Hooch set the mug down on the kitchen counter and dragged a hand through his short hair. "For two months I've been trying to find the words, but I'm no closer to finding them."

More misery in Hooch's dark eyes than Matt had ever seen, even more than after the torture. "I see." Most, but not all, of the anger had burnt out of him, replaced by sadness and the Hooch-shaped empty space inside. "I know," what did he know, really? He tried again. "What the hell did you think you were doing?" No need to specify further, they both knew what he was talking about.

"I wasn't thinking." Hooch gestured to the couch. "Could we sit down?"

Matt nodded, put his coffee down too and sat on the couch.

Hooch followed, but he was no less tense sitting, as he had been when standing. "I never tried to explain my masochism to you. Thought I'd deal with it on my own. I was wrong, I tried to ignore the need and I fucked it up." Hooch sat straight, palms on his black clad thighs. How was he going to explain something so overwhelming-something he didn't understand himself? "For the first time…" slight shake of his head, he tried again. "I was scared. I'd never been scared before like that. Not for me, but…" he looked up and at Matt. "It wasn't just about me. I was scared to leave you, what it'd do to you. Scared, because I realized I had responsibility for someone else's wellbeing, and that wellbeing was more important than anything else, and I had fucked it up. I was a selfish bastard and fucked it up." Hooch looked down at his hands, fingertips lightly strumming on the denim of his trousers.

Matt blinked. Feeling what it must have cost for Hooch to say those words, more agonizing, he guessed, than any physical hurt that he'd ever suffered. The darkness in him, that he kept away from Matt-and truth be told-part of Matt had been relieved that he did. As though ignoring meant that he didn't have to deal with it. "Yes, yes you did," he said softly. "So what now?"

"I've been missing you." Hooch said quietly, still looking at his hands. "I never felt like that before. Didn't get better. It hurt, still does."

Matt exhaled a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. Hurt. And not the physical. Like how he'd felt inside. "I'm not sure I can do that again," he said at last, "the silence, the brooding, the taking off, the not-knowing all night, and then finding you." For all he loved that maddening bastard, there were lines he wasn't sure he could cross again. "If…" he paused, "if you want me, like how we've been the last few years, we'll need to work out how we deal with it." And how that stuck in him, in a way he hadn't realized, that there was something Matt couldn't, or wouldn't (where had that come from?) be for Hooch.

Hooch nodded. "Matt," he lifted his head to look at him, "I am not making promises, because that's not enough. What I will do is give you my word that I will never do anything like this again. I understand those words are hard to believe, but I don't have anything more convincing, except for giving myself to you for the rest of my days, to show you that I mean those words." Hooch paused, drew in a breath. "I will talk to you, try to explain, tell you what I need when…I'm not asking you to do anything you don't want to do, but I will tell you." He'd been thinking about this, plenty of time in the last two months. "Perhaps there's a club or something, something safe, where I could go regularly. Perhaps that would stop the…the…" he still didn't have a word for it, so he went back to one of the old ones, no matter how inadequate, "before the darkness gets too overwhelming."

Matt nodded thoughtfully. "That's a start, at least." He paused, "I have missed you, but," always but, "I think we might want to ease back into this slowly. Think it over. Weekends perhaps, and we see how it goes."

"Yeah." Hooch's posture relaxed slightly. "It's not that I didn't want to talk to you during the past two months." Everything else unsaid, but even though Matt could hardly believe himself, he saw pleading in Hooch's dark eyes. Asking for understanding.

"No," Matt agreed, and stopped. "One more thing, though. No sex for a while. We need to wait to see if you're clear, and we've always just had sex great sex rather than sort out shit." Much as he'd missed it, missed Hooch's weight in the bed, the warmth of the body, this was important. It had always been too easy to just tear at each other like animals, forgetting everything else when they were sated and exhausted.

"Yeah, I understand." Not just the safety part. "Guess I used it," Hooch said hesitantly, "sometimes." He ran a hand through his hair again, matter-of-fact in the face of the truly uncomfortable. "I went to a private lab, had tested what they could. All clear for STDs. Will go back in four weeks to get tested for HIV."

Matt let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Good." Hoping that the chances were good, that if the guys Hooch had been with hadn't given him anything else so far, they wouldn't have given him HIV either.

Getting to know each other again, Matt thought, without the sex that had been the beginning and the tie that had kept them together for so long before the friendship, let alone the love, that was going to be different. His hand went to cover Hooch's on his knee. The first time they'd touched for two months.

Hooch looked at the hand, hesitated for a moment, before he covered it with his own. It felt to him like the most romantic gesture he'd ever done in his whole life, and he lifted his head to smile at Matt. Tentative, but there. "I have to be back on base in three hours tops. Did you," searching for normality, "did you tape the game by chance?"

The mountain of tapes of games that Matt rarely got a chance to watch before taping over them again, a private joke. "Yes," he said, standing up and going to the TV cabinet to rummage through the pile, picking one more or less at random from the most recent and slotting it in. "Drink?" he asked, going to the fridge, looking at Hooch.

"No, still on duty. Got a Coke?" Hooch moved across to the part of the L-shaped couch that was facing the large TV screen. He had marginally relaxed, but only a hard physical session in the gym would get rid of all of the tension for now.

Matt nodded and got a coke from the fridge. Full-calorie, not diet.

Watching the game, unseeing, in silence. But a comfortable one.

They sat close together, almost touching but not quite, a synonym for their relationship.

* * *

The following Friday evening, a surprised but delighted Mandy saw Hooch enter reception, his daypack on his back, like he used to.

She looked like she wanted to give him a hug, but hesitated out of discretion, and settled for a huge smile. "He's in his office," she pointed in that direction. Continuing her discretion, she quickly vanished somewhere else in the gym.

Hooch nodded his thanks and went through to the office, where he hesitated. The door was ajar, but he decided to knock.

"Hey," Matt looked up from the pile of accounts on his desk, "how're things?" The little bits of conversation they'd rarely bothered with in the past.

"Hey." Hooch stepped inside and let the pack glide off his shoulder. "Better than last week. I'm here."

"Yes, you are." A new awkwardness, as Matt shuffled the papers, then locked them away. "Up?"

"You want to order pizza? I got a six-pack of beer." Hooch lifted the backpack and pointed at it.

Matt smiled. "Yeah…but pizza?" The uneasiness at this 'new them' obvious.

Hooch flashed a grin. "Come on, Matt, some carbs and a beer won't kill you."

Matt gave in with a chuckle, and they went upstairs into the apartment. When they got into the living area Hooch stopped, unsure where to put his pack. He decided to leave it at the door, then proceeded to pull out the beer.

"How was your week?" He handed a can to Matt, opened one himself. This small-talk thing was damned difficult.

"Good, good, especially considering the weather." Matt didn't miss Hooch's hesitation, felt equally awkward. "Yours?"

Hooch shrugged. "Long hours, I'm tired." He took a long draught of his beer then walked over to the couch to sit down. He really was bone tired, but nothing would have kept him from driving back to the apartment. "What pizza do you want?"

"Anything, just no anchovies." Matt opened his own beer and sat next to Hooch. It felt oddly surreal.

Like the 'dating' phase they never went through, retro-and ill-fitted now.

"Okay." Hooch went for his cell and dialed the local pizza place he still had on speed. He ordered a classic one and a salad, the latter to appease Matt's health concern. When he was done he turned to Matt.

"So," Hooch stifled a yawn, "what now? Movie? Game?"

"Game?" Matt asked. He picked up the remote, flicking at random until something suitable came up.

Neither of them enjoyed watching war or action movies, except for classics: all the mistakes were too annoying. And stupid comedies seemed inappropriate.

Hooch kept stifling a yawn, but perked up during a couple of passes in the game, until the delivery guy arrived. He was ravenous, eating too fast and washing the carb laden food down with beer, until the pizza was finished. He slumped back against the couch, eyes on half-mast, trying not to fall asleep, but the drowsier he got the more his control waned, and he kept slowly sliding towards Matt.

A hand on his shoulder, firm and warm. "Hey, looks like you're about to drop."

Hooch, more asleep than awake, leaned into the warmth of Matt's body, rubbing his face against Matt's shoulder while sleepily mumbling, until he suddenly froze. Eyes open, he sat back up straight. "Sorry." Matt wasn't 'his' any longer, and Hooch felt the painful sensation of having intruded into territory he no longer had the right to. "Yeah, I'm tired."

"Bed, then." Matt stood and cleared away the boxes and the cans, then stood awkwardly in the middle of the room. "I've made up the spare room for you."

"Yeah, okay." Hooch acquiesced. He was too exhausted to argue, and he had expected it anyway. He had to give this time, this…them. Besides, wasn't the spare room officially his anyway? "Thanks." Without further comment, Hooch went to get his pack, then vanished in the bathroom, only to emerge soon after to head to the spare room. "Good night." The door closed behind him.

Matt finished tidying the living area and went into their bedroom, closing the door behind him softly.

Even though he'd slept alone for two months, never had the bed felt so cold and empty.

* * *

Hooch woke with a start, the room dark and silent around him. Thoughts fuzzy, still caught in a dream woven from scary memories, his heart was racing and his mouth dry. Disoriented, as his mind frantically tried to supply where he was, and to gauge if he was in danger or not. Trained reflexes pushed him to high alert: this wasn't his bunk, nor the shared bed, and he had no recollection of the place he found himself in. His hands searched blindly, and he almost knocked over the lamp when he finally found the light switch. He could make out the spare room in the light, told himself he was safe, but his heart continued to race for a while longer, and the sweat felt sticky on his skin.

There was no point staying in bed, so he got up and quietly made his way to the bathroom to wash his face, and then to the kitchen for a glass of cold water. The couch seemed as good a place as any, and in the gloom of the light coming from the open door to the spare room, he sat on the couch, head back, glass of water half-drunk in his hand.

The other door opened quietly. Matt, backlit from the lamp in the bedroom, stood in the dim light, dressed in long, loose pajama pants another change, when he'd always slept naked before. "Hey," his voice hung in the gloom, "the dream?"

Hooch looked up, letting his head turn until his cheek rested against the back of the couch. "Not sure." He was about to shrug, but aborted the movement. "Disoriented." He inhaled deeply, before slowly breathing out. "Matt…"

Matt came closer, and fumbled with the light switch on the reading lamp on the side table, before sitting down side-on to Hooch on the L-shaped couch. Elbows on knees, waiting for Hooch to continue.

"I can't do this, Matt." Hooch leaned forward to put the glass onto the table. "I can't pretend the last ten years didn't happen."

A tilted head, as Matt followed the movement of the glass, then turned back to look at Hooch. "How so?" Having a good idea of the answer, but pushing Hooch to put it into words.

"This." Hooch made a vague gesture between them. "Not touching you. I don't mean the sex, I can accept that it's off right now, but I can't not touch you. It's all wrong."

A hand, warm and firm on Hooch's bare knee was the response. "You're freezing." The hand was removed just as quickly as it had come, as Matt disappeared into his own room for his robe Hooch had never really accustomed himself to one and came out to fling it over Hooch's shoulders. It was several years old, slightly threadbare, and smelt of Matt.

Matt was like a dog with a bone, wouldn't let go. "How?"

Hooch rolled his eyes at Matt's 'mothering', but pulled the robe closed around him anyway. He hadn't noticed how cold his skin had become until the soft, worn cloth covered it with warmth. He was about to say something about Matt trying to force him to find words he didn't have, when he inhaled and the familiar scent of Matt surrounded him. Hooch closed his eyes and took another deep breath. "This. This is how," he said quietly.

Matt took a long look, as though knowing these were already more words than Hooch was really comfortable with, then nodded. He held out his hand. "Come to bed, then."

Hooch looked up, surprised, but took the offered hand. The robe slid off his shoulders as he stood, but neither man cared, as they walked into the main bedroom.

The bed was still warm, and Matt settled in behind Hooch, pulling the blankets over them both. Matt, the solid presence at his back. Hooch thought that nothing had ever felt so right, as Matt held him closer, body-warmth seeping into him.

Hooch huffed softly. "I'm the little spoon now, huh?"

It was more a rumble in Matt's chest than an answering chuckle, but the amusement was clear. "I guess. Sleep, then. I'll take watch."

Hooch was about to say something in reply, but thought the better of it, and just placed his hand on top of Matt's that rested on his chest. Enveloped in the familiar warmth and scent, he didn't even notice when he fell asleep, it was that quick.

* * *

Hooch woke to milky winter sunlight streaming into the room through a gap in the curtains. Matt's arms still encircling him, Matt's body pressed all along his back, and the hardness of Matt's morning wood digging into him.

Matt muttered sleepily and snuggled closer, into the warmth, until he realized that Hooch was awake and deliberately staying still. "Morning," he yawned, pulling away slightly.

"Does a hand job count as sex, or as helping out a buddy in need?" Hooch murmured.

Matt's hand on Hooch's hip stilled. Not moving away but neither moving closer. Clearly thinking, considering Hooch's question. He finally snorted softly into the nape of Hooch's neck, and his hand moved forwards, having made a decision. "I'll let you get away with it this time," slightly grumbly, but with a smile, as he shifted to allow Hooch to roll over.

Hooch had a small grin on his face as he pushed Matt's PJ bottoms down. "Honestly, I'm just helping out a buddy in need," he muttered as his calloused hand closed around Matt's erection. He knew Matt so well, every stroke was perfectly set. Two men familiar with their bodies, no second guessing necessary.

It didn't take long before Matt came, bodies close together, his head buried in the juncture between Hooch's neck and shoulder, teeth scraping against Hooch's collarbone as he shuddered.

He pulled away as soon as he had his breath back, close enough to see Hooch's still-dilated eyes in the faint dawn light. "Return the favor?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow in an unconscious imitation, his hand already going to the waistband of Hooch's shorts.

"No." Hooch said softly, voice a little hoarse with desire. Gaze fixed on Matt's flushed face, he gently circled Matt's wrist with his hand, sticky with cum, and smiled his ghost of a smile. "Not yet. I want the test done first."

A hesitation, then a nod. They'd been through this before, and Matt bit back the memory of-what was it now-nearly four years ago, back in his old apartment. The same worry from Hooch, but for a far different reason. "'course," he murmured, not making an attempt to pull away, instead burying himself further into the bed. It was near-freezing in the room, because they'd forgotten to turn on the apartment's rarely-used heater.

"You lying in the wet spot?"

Matt snorted, "it's all over you, and you know it." He paused and sighed. "We have to talk, you know."

Hooch wiped the cum off himself with a corner of the duvet, then settled back down. "What about?" Which of the many things they'd never talked about.

"You. Me. Us. This." Matt exhaled, then elaborated. "What you need as a masochist. What you expect of me, and what I've been assuming these last few years. The things we've been letting slide because we've been getting settled here, into your new job, into the gym, into living together."

Hooch closed his eyes and let out a soft groan. This was what he had anticipated, and definitely feared, yet he knew he had to do this or he would lose Matt for good this time. He opened his eyes, and his serious expression was proof enough for Matt that Hooch was willing to talk. "It's too big, Matt, the whole masochism thing. I don't know where to start; how to explain…how to find the words. Can you break it down?"

Matt nodded slowly, considered asking whether Hooch would be more comfortable getting up, but then realized if there was any place that Hooch was going to be able to talk it was right here, together, in the bed. Thinking, thinking about what it was, until he came to the answer. The selfish one, perhaps, but it was a place to begin. "What is it you don't think that I can help you with?"

"Do you enjoy inflicting pain? Do you get off humiliating others?" Hooch asked without hesitation.

A start, and a shudder Matt couldn't repress. "No," he answered truthfully. He trailed a finger down the length of Hooch's nose, slightly straighter now than it had been before. The doc, too used to patching up the aftermath of bar fights, had evidently had his own idea of aesthetics.

"It's a necessity for the really dark stuff."

"But that's not all?" Matt asked eventually.

Hooch tried to follow the finger, ending up cross-eyed. "What do you mean?"

The finger disappeared. "It can't be all the pain and humiliation," Matt clarified, leaving aside the 'really dark stuff' for later, though not too late. He felt anxiety he hadn't even suspected was there, that he didn't know where it came from, or why. Jealousy? He had never felt that in all the years that they had been together: knowing he was 'Central Station' at first, and then Hooch had come home to him. He'd been convinced that was all he had wanted or expected.

Hooch exhaled softly and audibly. Suddenly, a few things became clear in his mind. Truths he should have noticed for years, but had never looked at. "I knew Dan was jealous for a while, back when he fucked up his knee, but I'm a selfish bastard, because I never thought twice about it. I knew I was only in love with," he hesitated, realizing he'd never actually said the words, "only with you. I never even wondered what you felt about anything."

Matt clamped down on the fury that rose automatically, but his anger with Hooch had burnt out, and now they needed to sift through the ashes. "I figured…I figured it was just something you did," he said at last. "I never thought about it much." He stopped. Honesty, of course, needed to go both ways. "I didn't, because it hurt too much. That there was something you thought I couldn't give you."

"Fuck." Hooch exclaimed softly. "Jesus fucking H Christ, I never considered your feelings." What the fuck had he been doing all those years? Even after he'd claimed he didn't take Matt for granted anymore? "This is not an excuse, Matt, because there isn't one, but I'm trying to explain. To me, the time-out somewhere far away, never counted as having sex with someone else." Hooch paused, "it was easy to compartmentalize."

With anybody else, Matt would have thrown them out of bed. But with Hooch-with all his secrets and the big chunks of his life that were classified-it actually made sense, albeit a painful one. "I guess it was," he said noncommittally. Their heads were so close on the pillows, it was impossible to turn away. "But it can't all be pain and humiliation for a week?"

Hooch cupped Matt's face, letting his thumb stroke gently, trying to take some of the hurt away he could see in the handsome face before him. He'd never felt like a rat bastard before, not even after his last stunt that had got him almost killed. Now, though, he truly realized that he'd deeply hurt the one person who meant more to him than anyone or anything-and all because he'd never bothered to think beyond the obvious and the convenient. "It is, Matt. It is all about that."

The "Why?" slipped out before Matt could stop it. Much to his dismay, it was almost plaintive.

"I don't know." Hooch said softly. "There is something in me which gets wound up tighter and tighter the less I have control over events and the longer it goes on. Back when I was out on missions, the more often I had dodged death or seen destruction, the tenser I got. It was worse when I couldn't prevent losses." He hesitated as he tried to explain to Matt what he couldn't fully understand himself. "It's like something that eats me up from the inside; like millions of fire ants racing through my guts and crawling under my skin. I feel like I'm about to snap, and I worry I can't trust myself anymore, that I'll be unable to function like a human being and instead become someone unhinged, who wreaks havoc because he can; because he can't bear anymore what he has seen and done." Hooch took a deep breath, this was taking more out of him than he'd ever imagined. Never before had he tried to put the darkness into words. "It's a compulsion I cannot escape from, because if I try to, I stop being able to function. I can't relax, can't sleep, can't think, can't eat, can't breathe, can't interact, until I get taken apart and until I break. Until I can't take it anymore and yet I get taken that one bit further." Unlike those men a couple of months ago who had taken him too far beyond. "That's when I can finally let go." Hooch ended quietly, barely above a murmur.

Silence, then Matt put out his hand to Hooch's face, mirroring the earlier caress. "I can't pretend I understand right now," he said at last, "but thank you for telling me. I'll try to get it." His hand went to the back of Hooch's neck. "That was why you called New Zealand in November," he knew the answer already, but needed confirmation from Hooch. "You were already past breaking point, and you couldn't wait the time it took to set something up, the way you usually do."

Hooch nodded. "Yeah, that's right. I've been thinking about how to avoid getting to that point of no return when I don't care about anything anymore. I won't do that again, because I do care about you. I need to find a way of never getting to that point in the first place."

Matt had been thinking about it too, about alternatives. "What did you use to do before?"

"I went to bars or clubs, preferably outside of the US. That tied me over."

It was as Matt had suspected, and probably not something that was as feasible now with Hooch's job, but he'd been researching one option, ever since an overheard conversation in the wet room between two of the longest-standing gym members. "Have you ever thought about a members-only club?" he asked. "Something with strict confidentiality rules?"

"Do you think that exists? Here? Not exactly gay central, huh?" Hooch gave a wry grin.

"Well, probably not here." Matt conceded, trying, and failing to imagine such a place. "But Charlotte, maybe. Raleigh, probably. They're near enough for a weekend. Asheville definitely, but it's too far."

"Seems to me you did some research already." Hooch gently mock-punched Matt's nose. "But that's not all, is it?" Echoing Matt's earlier question.

"No," no getting away from Hooch, nor the question at the back of his mind. Matt hesitated, "I suppose this is when we talk about other people. Having sex with other people, I guess. What counts, what doesn't. We've never actually talked about this; not at the beginning when it was fun, and not when we moved in here. To be quite frank, I've been so busy the last few years with the gym, I don't think I'd have noticed anyone, even if I'd wanted to."

"Would you want others?" Hooch smiled slightly. "To me, any of the sex in a 'scene' is just part of the whole humiliation and pain infliction that I crave at that time. It's not sex in my mind, which probably sounds crazy. I don't care who fucks me when I'm out of my head. The man's just a body, then. I don't want to have sex, just sex, with anyone else, but if you do, I don't mind. Sex is just that."

Matt gave a thoughtful look. "No, not recently." Truth be told, with Hooch around and his work, he'd been too exhausted to consider exploring further afield, though there were speculative glances aplenty at the gym. In a bizarre way, what Hooch was saying sort of made sense-once you managed to remember that it was Hooch the crazy bastard saying it.

Hooch's stomach suddenly rumbled and he cast a wry grin at Matt. "Before I beg you to let me out of this torture-talking-rack to get some breakfast, I want you to know it's okay if you ever wanted to experiment with me and my masochistic side. Anything and anytime."

There was a chuckle as Matt automatically reached for his robe before remembering that it was in the living room. "I think I may just hold you to that." There was a gleam in his eye as he left the bed and went hunting for a sweater, only barely remembering to pull up his PJs before he tripped over.

Hooch watched him, relishing the ease of how they interacted. He braced himself and jumped out of bed, braving the cold in his slightly damp shorts and nothing else. "First one in the bathroom gets the hot shower."

Matt laughed, and abandoned the hunt for the sweater in favor of taking advantage of his position nearer the door to head to the bathroom.

* * *

Hooch left to return to base on Monday morning, feeling like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Yes, there was still a chasm between them, but at least they had started to fill it in. He didn't know how long it would take, but he did know that he would shovel for as long as he needed to.

The next weekend passed much the same as the previous one, except now there was no question where he would sleep. He was back in their bed, with Matt wrapped around him-the spooning reversed. Though being so close to Matt, his determination not to permit so much as a hand-job until they were sure he was clean, grew increasingly difficult.

The following weeks passed in much the same vein, save that Hooch's self control was worn to a thread by the end of the month. He supposed that one benefit of staying on base during the week was that he had a chance of regaining mastery over himself, and not pouncing on Matt like he wanted to.

He waited until the appointed time on the first Friday in February, when he went to the clinic to pick up his test results. Once in his truck, he held his breath as he tore the envelope open. His eyes scanned over the lines, until he got to the test result itself. He read it once, twice, forgetting to breathe. After he'd read it a third time he turned the ignition of his truck, and sped with squealing tires out of the parking lot and towards the gym.

Hooch barely managed to maneuver the truck into the garage without damaging Matt's car parked in its reserved slot beside his, before all but hurling himself out of the vehicle. He stopped, breathing hard, forcing himself under control, before walking to the back entrance of the gym. Hooch let himself in, knowing that it was the shortest and most unobtrusive way to Matt's office, the most likely place where he'd be on a Friday evening.

He was so focused on his mission, that he walked straight into Mandy, who'd been carrying a stack of papers, which scattered all over the floor. "Sorry," Hooch snapped, "Matt in the office?"

"Uh…yeah?" Mandy blinked as Hooch moved past her, even brusquer than normal. But at least he was here, and Matt wasn't sulking anymore, what was a bit of scattered paper compared to that?

Hooch nodded, then barged into Matt's office, knocking at the same time as he opened the door and stuck his head inside. "You. Upstairs. Now."

Matt looked up, stared at Hooch, eyes narrowed. Mentally calculating dates, then standing up and, for once, not objecting to the curtness of the order. Without a word, he locked his office door behind him.

Hooch was already in the apartment, and the moment Matt stepped inside, Hooch simultaneously kicked the door shut and grabbed Matt. He shoved him against the nearest wall, descending onto him like a ravenous beast. Hands clawing at Matt's t-shirt and shorts, kissing hungry, open-mouthed, and close to biting.

Too shocked to object at first, it took a while for Matt to get enough leverage on Hooch's chest to shove him to arm's length, struggling against Hooch's weight and strength. "I take it you're clear?" he gasped, pulling away from Hooch's determined attack on his mouth, neck, collarbones, any area he could reach.

"Yeah." Hooch nodded, going once more in for the kill. He needed Matt, needed to feel, needed to fuck. He didn't realize he'd said that out loud.

"Christ, me too," Matt agreed. He returned the desperation and the hunger in equal shares, practically throwing himself at Hooch until they were on the floor, tearing at their clothes.

It was anything but coordinated, and everything like mindless rutting. Hooch thrust against Matt's thigh, groin, wherever he could reach, swearing when he couldn't get his pants open and down quickly enough; cursing even louder when their bodies and cocks aligned, wildly thrusting against each other while biting and sucking at skin.

It seemed like seconds before they were a damp, sticky, half-undressed mess on the living room floor. A miracle that they hadn't knocked anything over, as they fought to get their breath back. "Ergh," Matt wrinkled his nose as he sat up. He hesitated, as though he couldn't decide to make some pretence of pulling up his shorts before getting up or just giving up and stripping properly. "Shower?"

Hooch grinned with the sated expression of a breathless but very content Cheshire cat. A rare expression on him. "Yeah, shower. Then food. Then fucking."

A snort, but an affectionate one, accompanied by a gleam in Matt's eye as he decided in favor of stripping. "Dinner's in the crockpot." He nodded at the new appliance that his mother had mailed over, complete with a book of recipes. "No cooking required."

He made sure he stuck his ass in Hooch's face as he got up and headed to the bathroom.

"Hey!" Hooch grabbed for the tantalizing display, but narrowly missed him. Stripping out of the remainders of his clothes, he was hot on Matt's heels. "How long before you get it up again, kid?" He smirked, as he stepped into the shower cubicle to join Matt.

Matt took advantage of Hooch's momentary distraction when the water was turned on to shove him against the tiles, so that Hooch could feel him, half-hard already and definitely interested. "Faster than you, old man," he teased.

"Good." Hooch drawled, rubbing against Matt. "That means I can take advantage of you." He slid down the length of Matt's wet body, until he was on his knees on the porcelain floor. Hands on Matt's ass, he pulled him forward under the steady stream of hot water, and swallowed the half-hard cock without further preliminaries.

Matt only barely managed to stay upright, hand on the wall tiles as he watched his cock disappear down Hooch's throat. So long since they'd done this, and the sight itself was driving him out of his mind, even before the sensations. He groaned as Hooch started to move.

It would take longer, with the first edge taken off, but Hooch didn't care, because he craved being on his knees, sucking Matt's cock. He used every trick, everything he'd ever known about his partner's body, not to make him come as quickly as he could, but to draw it out even longer.

Even knowing it was coming, Matt only managed to give a warning before he came, feeling his cum run down Hooch's throat. Hooch sucked him dry, making sure he got every drop, letting his tongue run over Matt's slowly softening cock in long luxurious strokes, until he ended in delicate laps, barely feathering across the wet skin.

Hooch pulled himself up eventually, cherishing the twinge in his knees from the hard surface. He grinned at Matt with an even more satisfied, and decidedly wet cat appearance. "Your ass is mine now." He gestured with his thumb vaguely in the direction of the bedroom.

"Always was," Matt returned the grin tiredly, turning off the water and all but stumbling out of the shower, slightly wobbly at the knees. He made a half hearted effort at toweling himself dry before heading to the bedroom, barely moving the covers aside before flopping down on his front. "You'll have to do all the work, though," he threw over his shoulder, "you've wiped me out." But he gave the little wriggle that always made Hooch pounce.

"Gladly." Hooch grinned and fulfilled Matt's expectations by attacking him with lips and fingers. Pushing his legs between Matt's thighs to open them up, he only stopped to find the lube in the bedside drawer.

The fuck was much slower than Matt had expected, despite the months of missing. Hooch was mindful of Matt having just come twice, and his entry and strokes were long and drawn-out instead of the rough and hard he thought he'd receive. When Hooch came, a string of soft curses mixed with Matt's name and breathless groans filled the room, before Hooch collapsed on top of him, with his arms wrapped tightly around Matt, nuzzling the back of his neck.

Matt lay still, relishing the familiar weight on him, and groaned a little in protest as Hooch recovered and withdrew. Hooch lifted himself off Matt, but quickly collapsed back on the bed again. "I'd get you a wet cloth if I could move." Hooch murmured, too sated to talk any louder. Reaching out, he let his hand caress up and down Matt's spine.

Matt made an inarticulate sound at the caress, something between a rumble and a purr. "Missed this," he murmured into the pillow, before the change in his breathing told Hooch that he'd conked out completely.

Hooch chuckled at Matt's coma, he was used to him passing out after really good sex. He dragged himself out of bed and to the bathroom, brought the promised wet cloth with him and cleaned up the sleeping man as best he could, before falling onto bed for a post-coital nap. Keeping contact with Matt's skin and Matt's body. This had been a close call, he was determined it would never happen again. If he lost this, he knew now, he'd lose everything that had ever meant anything.

Hooch fell asleep, thinking what a lucky bastard he was.

* * *

When Matt woke up from his cat-nap, Hooch was still asleep. Matt frowned as he was able to get up out of the bed, rearrange the covers over Hooch, pull on his clothes and leave the bedroom for the kitchen to start dishing up dinner, without Hooch waking up. Testament to how much strain Hooch had been under that he didn't move a muscle at the disturbance.

Matt got out the plates and flatware and set the table, waiting for a sound from the bedroom.

Eventually, the bedroom door opened and a bleary-eyed Hooch emerged with his short hair standing up in all directions. He was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt of Matt's, which was too wide in the shoulders for him, his body leaner. "How damned long did I sleep?" he groused, running a hand through his hair to smooth it down. "Hasn't happened to me in forever."

Matt glanced at the clock. "Less than an hour." He dished out the food, pleased that it hadn't all lost shape. "Needed it, though."

Hooch flashed a quick grin. "You saying I'm getting old?"

Matt gave him a look. "You?" he snorted, "you'll be still running rings around those youngsters in ten years." He found Hooch's Tabasco sauce, put it on the table, and sat down.

"Good to know." Hooch turned towards the bathroom with a, "be right back." He emerged a few moments later, his face still damp, while his hands smelled of soap.

"No ketchup?" He sounded disappointed when he sat down.

Matt smiled and shook his head at Hooch's desensitized taste buds, legacy of years of eating pretty much anything, and got the rest of the condiments out of the pantry, regardless of whether they went with the food.

He waited until Hooch had poured a liberal amount of ketchup over the chicken breast, before saying: "I've looked up a few clubs."

Hooch's fork was halfway in his mouth when he froze at Matt's statement. "What?" The fork went back down onto the plate.

"I've looked up a few clubs for you," Matt repeated. "You wouldn't believe how many there actually are, just in Raleigh. More in Charlotte. And, if we really want to get out of state, sky's the limit." He could have been discussing the football scores.

"Clubs. Clubs for me." Hooch repeated, more dumbfounded than he had any right to be. "You looked up clubs for me." He drew in a breath and held it for as long as he could, to keep himself from making any further comments that would potentially upset Matt. "Okay." He finally let out that breath.

Matt made a noise of confirmation as he speared a cube of sweet potato. "You said it yourself: it's something that you need sometimes, and, as we've agreed, we need some other outlet, if we're going to go back to living together. I'm not sure I can go as far as you need," Matt was honest, "at least not now. Maybe never. So we need to find something else."

The repeated 'we' had no emphasis, as though Matt was stating a perfectly obvious fact: they were in this together.

Hooch, though, had picked up on this immediately. "We?" He still hadn't continued eating, a frown steepling between his eyes. "And no, you can't. We've established that." He was on the defensive, walls building back up in nanoseconds

Matt's look was firm. "We," he used the emphasis, "because I am going with you to look them over and decide. We are going to pick one, and when you get…antsy, you are going to go there."

"I am, ain't I?" Hooch's eyes narrowed, shields firmly in place.

"Yes." Matt pressed his point. "And when you are done, you can come back to me." He held the gaze, purposefully silent for a few moments. "You need it, I may or may not ever be able to give it to you, that's why we find something that means I do not ever have to pick up your carcass from an abandoned warehouse at the crack of dawn."

Hooch had locked himself into a battle of stare-down, but at the last words, he broke the gaze and lowered his eyes. "Okay."

Matt nodded, tension leaving him, as he went back to his food. "There are two public clubs with a private members area, and one solely members-only club in Raleigh. If we decide on Raleigh, the members-only one has the least risk of running into someone you know. If we go further, we can probably be less paranoid in Charlotte and there are more to choose from."

"Okay." Hooch hadn't taken his eyes off the plate and was swishing the now-cold piece of abandoned chicken repeatedly through the ketchup.

A hand descended onto his wrist. "Stop that." Matt increased the pressure until Hooch looked up. "I don't particularly like this." He said at last. "I hate that I can't be for you what you need. I hate the thought that someone else is going to be hurting you, humiliating you. But you need it if you're not going to crack. You know that this is the best-heck, probably the only-option that won't screw things up."

"You hate it." Hooch stated, dark eyes betrayed his turmoil. "How is this going to be anything but screwed up, if you hate it."

Matt's turn to look away. "How can I not, when I can't be what you need?" he said at last, repeating himself. "When it's taking huge risks in more ways than one? But," he met the dark, burning eyes again, "we need to work it out."

Hooch shook his head ever so slightly. "The more you want to be part of this the more you hate it, because you know more. It won't work. Let me do this alone."

Matt took a deep breath, knowing that his words were going to wound. "No fucking way. You did it alone last time. I. Am. Not. Letting. You. Do. That. Again." Each word clearly articulated, Matt's determination absolute.

"I need to," Hooch pulled his hand out of Matt's grip, "need to be alone."

Matt let him go to his study.

"Well, that went well," he said to the thin air, as he gathered up the plates and started to clean up.

He washed the dishes slowly, taking far longer than usual. Thinking, and keeping one eye on the closed study door. Never easy living with Hooch, but at least he only retreated further into the apartment, instead of taking off like he had in the early days.

Or as he had more recently, for that matter.

With an eye on the clock, Matt thought for a moment, then turned the oven on, letting it heat, while rummaging in the freezer for the apple pie he knew was there.

Half an hour later, the air was heavy with the scent of cinnamon and cloves when he saw the door to the study crack open, slowly opening further to reveal Hooch with his nose crinkled and sniffing the air.

"There's some ice-cream to go with it." Matt said, deliberately casual, feeling like a zoologist trying to lure some rare big cat out from its lair. Not too far from the truth, actually.

Hooch took a step further into the room. "Did you chuck out the chicken?"

"No, it's in the fridge." Matt sounded mildly horrified at the thought of throwing away perfectly good food. "I've got a couple of bread rolls heating up in there with the pie." White bread at that, which was usually forbidden at the table, a measure of the lengths he would go to lure Hooch out.

Another step, Hooch looked as if he were a puppet, pulled closer by the string that was the scent of food. "Do you have butter?"

"Yes." It was already on the kitchen bench, beckoning.

"Salted?" Hooch looked at Matt like a kid at Christmas.

Matt nodded. No way was he going to admit to Hooch just how many lonely dinners he'd had of full-fat macaroni and cheese on the couch in front of the television, his mother's recipe made for feeding hordes of active children.

Hooch padded across to his usual chair, still sniffing the air. He watched Matt heating the food, a pensive look on his face. "Never thought anyone would look after me. Never thought I wouldn't hate it."

"Sometimes shit really surprises us," that was as close as Matt got to philosophy. He opened the oven and took out the tray with the bread rolls, tipped them on a plate and put them in front of Hooch, before going back to the microwave for Hooch's chicken. He was nowhere near as assured as he sounded, evidenced as he absently took one of the rolls for himself. "You need looking after. I like doing it."

Hooch didn't seem to notice Matt's carb-fuelled faux pas, as he thickly buttered a hot roll. "Am I really that pathetic?"

"No," Matt's smile was back at the expression on Hooch's face. "Just human."

Hooch was thoughtfully chewing with a fairly blissed out expression on his face at the dripping salty buttery goodness. "Not quite. Seems to me most humans can look after themselves."

Matt snorted, "if they could, we'd all be hermits. And extinct." He brushed over the contradiction. "But like it or not, you are one extraordinary human being. You're not 'most humans'. You need someone to keep an eye on you, and that's me."

"Right." Hooch cut off a generous piece of chicken and chewed it, before he said anything else. "Is that your way of saying I'm off the 'normal' scale?"

Another snort. "Delta are all off the normal scale." Matt had just a smear of butter on his bread, but he was chewing it thoughtfully. "What sort of normal person would go through what you go through? Much less pass it? Voluntarily, at that?"

Hooch let out a huff of dry amusement. "Yeah, guess you're right. I can feed myself, though. On roots, hunted wildlife, insects…" He flashed a grin.

Matt wrinkled his nose. "If that's an offer, I think I'll keep on doing the cooking, thanks." He went back to the oven to turn it off and take out the pie so that it could cool slightly.

Hooch kept eating in silence for a while, until he had polished off all of the food. "Been thinking."

Matt raised an eyebrow, urging Hooch to go on. He took out the tub of ice cream from the fridge, a silent encouragement

"Do you want me back?"

Matt, who had been getting the ice cream scoop out of the drawer, straightened up in surprise. He had certainly not been expecting that. "Yes," he said, the simple truth, "but you can't keep running away."

"Not even into the study?" Hooch kept his gaze fixed on Matt.

Steady, meeting Hooch's eyes calmly. "It's only got one door, you can't fit through the window, and it's not difficult to lure you out. Retreating into the study I can deal with."

"If I give you my word I'd never run any further than the study, can I come back?"

Matt's smile grew as he reached out and grasped Hooch's hand. "Yes."

Hooch grinned back, taking the offered hand in a firm grip. "Promise me carbs and butter and ketchup in return?"

Matt laughed, "only in moderation, and as part of a balanced diet." He let go his grip and went to cut up the pie.

"I can live with that." Hooch watched Matt scooping the ice cream onto his pie. "I guess that means I'll have to get back to 'the talk' again, huh?"

"Did you honestly ever think I was going to let you off?" Matt put the bowl in front of Hooch. "My mistake in tackling it without feeding you first."

Hooch sighed, but Matt had put an extra large portion into his bowl, and that somehow eased the dread. "Can't I just leave it all to you and you tell me what to do and when and where to go?" Adding after a moment's hesitation, "with you." He'd accepted that Matt wasn't going to let go and this was Hooch's way of admitting that he'd been an ass.

Matt shook his head. "No." The feeling, almost like a thrill; the rare moments when Hooch was like this with him, like he'd managed to get a panther to walk at his heel, something so dangerous and powerful bending to his will. "This is for you, and we need to find a place that will give you what you need-or as much of it as possible, and where I'm satisfied that you'll be safe."

Hooch drew in a deep breath and nodded. He attacked the pie and ice cream to keep himself from dwelling on it too much. "The Raleigh place, then. The private one."

Matt nodded, though he knew that Hooch probably only saw the movement out of the corner of his eye. "Good, we'll start there, and move on to the others if it's not right."

"Can we change the topic now?"

Matt had to smile at Hooch's plaintive tone. Some things never changed. "Mandy's been moping around like a wet rag for the last week, but Jeff's still coming here at the weekends. Is there something happening on base?" Focusing on someone else other than themselves, and knowing that if Jeff had told Mandy something, it certainly couldn't be classified.

"Yeah, they'll be off in a couple weeks. Half a year at least." Hooch shoveled more half-molten ice-cream into his mouth. "If she's moping now, she'll be unbearable soon."

Matt closed his eyes at the thought of Mandy sulking for months. "Is this what people do when they're not worried about getting a dishonorable discharge?" it slipped out.

"Openly moping?" Hooch shrugged, "I guess."

Matt snorted. "We'll have to put up with it, I suppose. Problem with her being an army brat is that she pretty much knows exactly what could happen, so lying to her about it isn't going to make her feel any better."

"I never understood why anyone would want to be lied to." Hooch scraped the last of his dessert out of the bowl. "Better to face the facts." He put the spoon down and looked expectantly at Matt. "Is there any more?"

The pie dish with the rest of the pie was easily visible from Hooch's seat, as was the almost finished ice cream tub, but Matt had to smile at Hooch's attempt at subtlety in the face of sugar, as he obligingly pushed both over.

Some things, he thought, would never change.

Hooch flashed a grin as thanks, and tackled the remains of the dessert with dedication.

* * *

A week later, after Hooch had settled properly back into the apartment, Matt entered his study.

Hooch looked up from the laptop screen, squinting a little after staring for too long at the screen.

"So, I made an appointment."

"With whom?" Hooch frowned, trying to remember what kind of appointment Matt was talking about.

"With the club." Matt said calmly, as though he'd just made an appointment with the dentist.

"The club." Hooch repeated slowly and entirely unnecessarily. "Which one?"

"The private one in Raleigh, like we said. I've checked your diary, you're off on Monday, so if it doesn't suit we can have a look at the other two as well."

"You're better at organizing than I ever was, getting my team in and out from behind enemy lines." Hooch cast a wry grin and rubbed his tired eyes. "You got more intel on the club?"

"Mmmm," Matt made a noise as he waved a few sheets of paper he was holding his hand. "Application form and an introduction to the club, just a one-pager for that. Most of the information comes during the interview and tour of the club."

"Application form." Hooch commented. "Of course." He reached for the laptop and shut its lid before getting up. "Let's get on with it."

The first part of the application form was deceptively short, and, after the usual questions-contact details, age, gender, allergies-they came to a halt.

Hooch stared first at the form then at Matt. "What does that mean? 'Do you consider yourself to be D, M, s(u) or s(a)?' What the fuck's all that?"

Matt shook his head in bewilderment. "I'm not entirely sure. I think 'D' might stand for…" he trailed off. "No, not something that we should be getting wrong, I don't think. Leave it blank?"

"Yeah, I put n/a. Makes no fucking sense to me." Hooch scanned through the rest of the questions. "That one's easy: 'men only'." He glanced across at Matt, "you're filling it in, too?"

Matt nodded. "When I called, they said partners too, if there was one, whether they were going to join or not."

"Okay." The latter made more sense to Hooch. "Did they say anything about preferring couples attending to single attendees?" He put another n/a beside the questions regarding preference of leather, PVC or rubber.

Matt shook his head, "only that they were quite firm that if one of a couple was going to be coming, that the other had to know what was going on. I suppose the last thing they want is an outraged spouse trying to break in and screaming the place down."

Hooch huffed a short laugh. "Sounds like fun to me, would make the place livelier. So far it sounds as hot as a stockbroker's canteen."

"I think," Matt replied dryly, ticking the box next to 'leather' after few moments thought, "that lively is likely to bring the cops, and all sorts of interesting questions that don't generally get asked in stockbrokers' canteens." His pen hesitated at the rest of the page, as he left a great many blank.

"Good point. Score one for you." Hooch quickly filled in his stats. Height, weight, hair color, eye color…then hesitated. "How hairy or not hairy am I, you think?"

Matt looked up from his contemplation of the same question, where he'd made a mark near, but not at the 'smooth' end. "Somewhere in the middle," he said, after a moment's thought. "We could take some off, if you feel like it, but putting more on is a bit difficult."

"Why would I want to take any of my body hair off?" Hooch shrugged. "I shave my balls, that's enough. Smooth suits you though." He dutifully put his tick in the middle. "Piercings? Hell, no."

Matt continued down the page, ticking the appropriate boxes, leaving blank the ones with the incomprehensible acronyms, before finishing. Hooch was still working his way methodically down the last page, so Matt picked up the page where a summary of the facilities and services was listed, and scanned it briefly, eyebrows climbing to his hairline.

"What?" Hooch glanced across at Matt's expression, as he finished the last of the many n/as.

Matt handed the piece of paper over. "It's…comprehensive…" he choked, mind boggling. He wondered how big the building had to be to fit all those possibilities in.

"Not a fucking clue what most of that stuff is. Sounds more like a fashion mall than an S/M club."

"There's got to be something that you like there." Matt worried a lip as he pondered just how many members there might be, if that much was on offer. The thought that anyone from the base would be in the same position as Hooch did not make him feel any better.

"It's not about liking things, Matt. I don't care what the place looks like, what props they have, none of that bullshit." Hooch shrugged. "Does it say how many members they have?"

Matt shook his head. "No," he paused, "but since they do emphasize confidentiality and discretion, I wouldn't think that they would." He sighed and put the piece of paper down, looking at Hooch. "Beer?"

"Beer." Hooch confirmed. "Can't say I'm looking forward to that interview. Stop me from punching the guy if he gets too annoying."

"Will do," Matt agreed, getting up and going to the fridge. "Sounded English," he added, "posh, like their officers back in the Gulf."

"Does that mean I have to dig out my upbringing?"

"I have no idea," Matt said honestly, as he sat back down on the couch and handed Hooch the second bottle. Rare enough that Hooch made any allusion to his childhood and the wealth he'd left behind. There were occasional phone calls, and a present each Christmas from Hooch's younger sister, but otherwise there seemed to be no contact with his family except for the odd summons back to Texas that Hooch obeyed only if it could not be avoided. The presents were luxurious and tasteful, but things that were very much not Hooch, such as cashmere scarves and sweaters, expensive sports watches, or exquisitely crafted cases and bags for his electronic gadgets that said, more than anything else, 'I have absolutely no idea what you like or what you are like.'

"He's looking for paying members for his club, not dinner party guests." Matt pointed out.

"How much is the fee anyway?" Hooch clinked his bottle against Matt's.

"Scaled," Matt hedged, "depending on what you're after."

"Right…" Hooch took another mouthful of his beer. "That's vague. What's the scale? The starting point?"

Matt waited until Hooch had swallowed before giving him the figure.

"Holy fuck!" Hooch blurted out. "For that much I can expect getting my dick gilded."

"For that much you can expect that nobody finds out," Matt retorted.

"Score two to the golden boy here." Hooch raised his bottle to indicate a salute to Matt. "Thank fuck I got money." He suddenly laughed, a deep, throaty chuckle. "Damn, if that isn't the best of it all."

Matt looked at him in confusion.

"The money." Hooch said, as if that explained everything.

"You've lost me." Matt put the beer bottle down, wondering what had set Hooch off.

"My inheritance." Hooch finished his beer. "Did I not tell you about it?"

"You've never said anything about your family." Matt pointed out. "I'd always thought they were off-limits."

"I have nothing to say about them. My sister's alright, but not sure where she lives now. The rest are a bunch of dickheads who think money and social status are all that counts. And looks, for the ladies." Hooch shrugged. "My family made big bucks in cattle and oil. Hardly ever saw my mother and father as a kid, business, society events, all that shit. Couldn't care less about them. Inherited stuff from my grandfathers. Couldn't stand either of them, but then they didn't give a shit about kids unless they promised to take over the family business. I wasn't having that." Hooch fell silent, then, "as far as I remember I've got shares, cash, investments, bonds, and land."

Matt's jaw dropped open as he sat up straight. "So you're telling me you're loaded?"

"Guess so. Don't know how much, haven't checked in years. I could call my financial adviser."

Matt shook his head. "I finally get why you were so insistent on trying to put money into this place," his hand took in not just the apartment but the whole gym. He paused, realizing what Hooch hadn't said. "They don't know what it is you do, and they don't know you're gay, do they?"

"They know I'm army, which pissed them off when I enlisted. They were angry because I didn't take over the family business and I didn't even study, nor go for commission. They don't know anything else, told them it's classified. They've never asked." Hooch tilted his head. "Sofia, my sister, she knows I'm Special Forces, but nothing personal. As for my sexuality, any idea what that perfect Texan society pair would do if their good family name was tainted that way?" He let out a humorless laugh. "I'm not going to be responsible for their early graves."

Matt felt a rush of gratitude for his own family, the acceptance and love, and how they'd welcomed Hooch unquestioningly, for his sake. Clearly there had been a reason that Hooch's family had been off-limits for so long. He put his hand on Hooch's now-tense arm, a comfort more than any words could bring.

Hooch gazed down at Matt's hand, and when he looked back up, he had visibly relaxed. "That's why paying with my family's money for getting off by having the crap beaten and fucked out of me," he smiled to placate Matt, "made me laugh. It's probably enough to pay for a lifetime of club membership, I'll check tomorrow."

Matt exhaled as Hooch seemed to come out of the low mood. Clearly yet another thing that would take careful handling in the future. He smiled, hand not leaving Hooch's arm. "Good." He looked at the time. "I'm starving. Do you want some food, too?"

"Let's go out for food." Hooch stood up, "I pay."

Matt laughed in reply. "Why not? I've had a sugar daddy all these years and never known-might as well make up for lost time."

* * *

The club looked like a low-rise office building, several levels and a basement parking lot that was card-access only. New, with lots of steel and concrete and tinted one-way glass. The automatic doors opened to a small reception area, which would have been claustrophobic had it not been open the entire height of the building, and lit by a false skylight that gave off a diffused glow. The security/reception desk looked like any other security/reception desk anywhere. The very attractive female receptionist, who greeted them and asked them to wait on the low black leather banquettes that surrounded the walls of the reception area, was wearing a beautifully-cut suit that was clearly made to fit her like a glove, and razor-sharp stilettos-she had the legs and body to carry both off.

The narrow black leather choker around her neck looked like a fashion statement, a contrast against the deceptively conservative outfit.

No hint of what this place was. Sleek and modern, with polished chrome, glass and steel, black leather and white tiles, it looked like some dot-com that had cleverly sold out at the top of the market and then invested the windfall into something even more lucrative and far more substantial. The windows, in the reception area at least, were covered by plasterboard from the inside so there was no chance of seeing in, or out.

One of the wall panels facing the main door pivoted and a young man came out. Like the receptionist, wearing a tailored suit that fit him exactly, but without a tie-so that the plain black leather collar was prominent against the crisp whiteness of his impeccably ironed shirt. "If you will follow me, please?" he asked, indicating the opening that he had just emerged from.

Behind the wall was a wide corridor. Like the reception area, it had been painted and tiled an off-white, with doors spaced on either side. At one of the doors the man stopped, knocked, and after a precise three seconds, opened the door and entered the room, holding it open for Hooch and Matt to follow.

The large office-though it was likely that the actual administrative work was done elsewhere-was, like the rest of the interior, sleek and modern. There were two large desks towards the end of the room, on a slightly raised dais. One aggressively tidy, as though it was just for show, and the other had a woman sitting behind it.

There were a number of low, black leather and chrome sofas in the middle of the room, and a man sitting on the one that faced the door.

Hooch's eyebrows had raised considerably by now. What he thought of the whole thing was written clearly in his face, but for Matt's sake and for the promise he'd made, he kept quiet and forced himself not to turn round on his heels and leave.

The impeccably dressed and equally perfectly groomed gentleman stood up as they entered. He took a couple of steps towards them, and with the poshest English accent either Matt or Hooch had ever heard, he greeted them while holding out his hand for a shake. "Good day, gentlemen. I am Mark Robertson, the proprietor of this establishment."

He didn't introduce the woman behind the desk, who kept her eyes downwards and on her work at all times.

A glance showed that Hooch wasn't going to be doing anything, so Matt stepped forward to take the offered hand. "Matthew Donahue. This is Hubert Bozic."

"Pleased to meet you Mr. Donahue." Robertson cast a quick glance from Matt to Hooch who hadn't moved yet, and seemed to come to a conclusion. He let go of Matt's hand and addressed him again. "May I?" Indicating with an elegant hand movement to Hooch, who stared at Robertson in disbelief and confusion.

Matt's eyebrows echoed Hooch's and his expression was completely bewildered. "May you what?"

"May I shake Mr. Bozic's hand." Robertson explained mildly, with just the slightest bit of surprise, as if he hadn't quite expected Matt not to understand his request straight away.

"Why the fuck is he asking you?" Hooch looked at Matt, his voice low and-only known to Matt who knew him so well-rather menacing.

Matt was feeling like he was in a play where everyone else had the script except him. He blinked. "Um, I think that's up to him?" He hated how his voice went up at the end of the sentence, betraying just how confused he was.

"Ah." Robertson made a delicate sound as he nodded his understanding of the situation. "Perhaps we should go through the application form in that case." He held his hand out to Hooch, who shook it briefly, purely out of ingrained manners, then let go as quickly as he could, as if that finely manicured hand was poisonous. "Gentlemen, would you like to follow me?" Robertson gestured ahead and to a door, which led to a smaller room. Far more intimate, with equally modern, but more comfortable furniture: a U-shaped sofa arrangement of white leather and chrome with a low glass and chrome table in the middle.

Matt started to open his mouth, but decided that the morning was quite weird enough as it was and followed, nudging Hooch in front of him to make sure he didn't slip away.

If Robertson noticed the nudge he didn't let on as he closed the door behind them, and waited for his guests to sit down first. "Beverages will be brought in three minutes." He smiled graciously. "May I take a look at the forms?"

Matt had them in a folder and handed them over, feeling more apprehensive than he'd ever been since seeking this place out. However weird it was, though, anything had to be better than a repeat of the disaster back in November.

Hooch leaned back on the couch, looking deceptively relaxed, but Matt could read the tension lines all along his body and in his carefully neutral expression.

"Thank you, Mr. Donahue." Robertson pulled out the forms and cast a quick glance over them. His face didn't show anything other than politeness. "Perhaps we should look at Mr. Bozic's form first?"

Hooch shrugged.

That very moment, exactly three minutes after they had entered, the woman who had been behind the desk came inside after a knock. Eyes kept downwards, she entered with a tray with a variety of hot and cold beverages, which she arranged pleasantly on the table, including a plate of small, exquisitely looking British biscuits. She walked back out quickly and quietly, with Hooch staring at her as she walked to the door and out backwards, in unbelievably high stiletto heels, their ankle straps fastened to her slim ankles with small padlocks. She never presented her back to them, and the door closed as softly behind her as it had opened.

"Please, gentlemen, help yourselves." Robertson said, before studying Hooch's form.

Matt had been staring at the closed door, and blinked several times before turning back to Robertson.

This time it was Hooch who nudged Matt, before he reached for the delicate china coffee pot, pouring into two equally delicate china cups. Cream and milk were in polished silver vessels, and so was the sugar.

"Well, gentlemen," Robertson looked up from the form with a courteous smile, "I see there are quite a few questions that were answered with 'n/a'. Do I understand correctly that neither of you has been a part of the scene yet?"

"No," Matt shook his head, taking the cup from Hooch. "New for both of us, though it'll be Hubert who'll be coming, as I said."

Hooch groaned. "Do me a favor, Matt. Not Hubert." He took a sip from the far too dainty cup and focused on Robertson. "It's Hooch, and no, I've never been into any 'scene'. Looks like a lot of bullshit to me."

Robertson inclined his head with a mild-mannered smile. If he was shocked at Hooch's language, he didn't let it show. "Hooch it is, then. Please do call me Mark, we like to have a friendly relationship with our members." He looked at the form again. "Am I correct in assuming that you might not be familiar with the terminology on the forms?"

The expanses of unticked boxes and neat 'n/a's on both forms were fairly obvious, but Matt nodded in agreement nonetheless.

Hooch just rolled his eyes in silence.

"In that case, let us go through the form together. Hooch, would you call yourself a dom, or a master, or a sub or a slave?"

"Huh?" Was all Hooch managed.

"And you, Matt?"

"I don't think we're any of those," Matt said warily.

"If you don't explain what all of that means you'll never get an answer." Hooch challenged.

"Of course, my apologies, gentlemen." Robertson never stopped smiling politely. "A dom is someone, male or female, who enjoys dominating others, male or female. This may or may not include physical domination such as bondage, inflicting of pain, verbal and/or physical humiliation, sexual domination, or a combination of any and all of the above." Robertson nodded slightly, unfazed by the narrowing of Hooch's eyes. "A master or mistress is someone who enjoys dominating others, male or female, but in a more intimate and possessive way. They tend to own a male or female as their slave, and the relationship tends to be formalized and often 24/7. Does any of this strike either of you as fitting?"

Hooch's reply came without hesitation. "No way." He glanced sideways at Matt.

"No," Matt was in full agreement, "absolutely not."

"Well, then," Robertson still didn't show any surprise, "perhaps I should explain s and s. A sub enjoys to be dominated with any or all of what a dom does provide. They do not seek a 24/7 formal ownership situation, like a slave usually does. Does any of this strike you as fitting?"

Matt hesitated. "Definitely not a slave situation, but sub…sometimes?" He turned to look at Hooch, not quite sure how to articulate. How could he explain that Hooch could never fit into anyone's tidy, well-thought-out form, or any neat boxes?

Hooch shook his head. "No."

"No?" Robertson asked, for the first time showing a little surprise. "May I ask what you would see yourself as?"

"I'm a masochist. Simple as that. Can't do with all the frills and bullshit." Hooch frowned, his tension up a notch.

"I'm afraid in this club we do have to have certain classifications, it helps run the establishment smoothly and ensure the safety and discretion of our members."

"I won't let you fit me into one of your damned boxes." Hooch growled.

"Hooch," Matt placed a hand on Hooch's arm before it got out of hand. He turned to face Robertson, "I didn't talk about this on the phone, but we've come here even though we're not interested in 'the scene' because we-Hooch-needs a higher level of discretion. He's a masochist," Matt repeated, was that the first time he'd said it out loud? "and I can't give him what he needs, not at the level that he needs. We can't risk a public club."

Robertson looked at Matt then Hooch, taking in the hand on Hooch's arm, and how the latter seemed to calm down, as if holding himself back for the younger man's sake. "I think I understand." Robertson nodded before reaching to pour himself a cup of tea out of the china tea pot. "I suggest in this case we forego the forms and have a chat instead. I will have an individually customized file drawn up for you." Adding a splash of milk to his tea, he thoughtfully stirred it with a finely crafted silver spoon. "We do keep our members' professions and special requirements regarding their personal context on file, but not computerized, merely on good old fashioned cardboard." Robertson took a sip. "Under lock and key, of course, in a safe. The reason why, is so that we are aware at all times and no mistakes can be made, while greatest security is guaranteed." He took another sip. "I take it you are military, Hooch?"

Hooch nodded when he was addressed directly. "Fort Bragg."

"We have a number of military members, but none based at Fort Bragg at present," Robertson told them. "I assure you that we are well accustomed to the sensitivities."

"I'm also gay." Hooch glanced at Matt and added, "obviously."

"Ah, yes, I see that on the form." Robertson pointed to a tick on the top file he'd put onto the table. "Exclusively men." He had found his gracious smile again. "How are you planning to join the club? Will both of you be visiting us?"

A quickly exchanged glance. "Just Hooch, at this stage," Matt answered, "this is for him. Unless he wants me there. I'm…" he hesitated, "I'm not really into this sort of thing. Pretty much vanilla."

Robertson inclined his head, appearing to be deep in thoughts for a moment. "I understand." If he did or did not was impossible to figure out. "In that case, I assume you will prefer to wear your partner's collar, Hooch?"

Hooch's eyes tore open and his upper body snapped forward. "What?"

"Collar?" Matt blinked, hard.

"Oh." Robertson let out softly. "Did you not read all of the materials that were sent to you at time of application? At the club, we have a simple way of identifying what those who are seeking to be dominated," he carefully emphasized the word, to make clear he acknowledged that it was meant to stand for the wide range that included Hooch's masochism, "are looking for. Members who are slaves to other members usually wear collars, in many instances as an everyday adornment to signify the complete ownership. Some subs who come with their partners do not wear them, because their dominant partner will be here to guide and order, so there is no room for error. Slaves hardly ever come here on their own, and if they do, then their owner will have made arrangements beforehand, such as loaning them out to other members, so that the slave is always taken care of. Subs who come on their own and are seeking the possibility of a more formalized or closer relationship with a suitable dom, those won't be wearing a collar, to signify they are not owned in any way. However, someone such as yourself, Hooch, you are in a partnership, thus you are owned and not seeking. Therefore you should be wearing Matt's collar, so that it is clear without room for misunderstandings, that you are not seeking any kind of relationship with a dom. Besides, the collars are our ways of indicating what someone who seeks to be dominated is looking for: red for females, blue for males, both colors on collar-flashes if both genders are sought. Any other preferences will be made available to fellow members in an internal file. Such as penetration, or CBT, or flogging, or electro shocks, and so on."

Hooch was staring at Robertson when he had finished. There was only one word his brain had latched onto. "Owned?"

Matt, less stoic than Hooch, was doing a credible imitation of a goldfish, and couldn't get so much as a syllable out, and just stared at the two of them mutely.

"You are, aren't you?" Robertson looked kindly from one to the other of the men sitting opposite to him.

Matt choked, "I…er…I…" he trailed off.

Hooch turned his head and stared at Matt.

"Well, gentlemen?" Robertson smiled, taking a sip of his tea.

Matt closed his open mouth shut with an audible click. "I don't think so," he backed away, much as the mental thought of Hooch wearing a collar, and nothing else, was strangely arousing. "But that might be best, yes." He hid behind his teacup, a slightly comical sight in such a large man.

"We'll talk about that later." Hooch's voice lacked any inflexion. He looked back at Robertson, face neutral but a new set of determination on his face. "Yes. I will wear a collar. No, I am not interested in any kind of relationship with anyone else in any way shape or form. Nor am I interested in any fetish clothing or ritual or anything at all. It's ridiculous." He leaned forward and came closer to Robertson's face than the man very obviously liked. Right into his personal space. "To make this clear, I want pain. I want humiliation. I want extremes. If that means I get to be the attraction on stage so be it. If that means I have to wear a collar with blue, or camo, or polka dots, or any other bullshit, then so be it. No marks ever outside of what my uniform covers. Everything else: I don't care. As long as I get what I need so I can go back home and be the partner to Matt that he deserves. So, no amateurs and no beginners. I don't take kindly to anything but the best." He sat back.

Robertson had lost his polite smile, and his speech as well, it seems. Visibly flustered. This was not how any sub was supposed to behave. But at the back of his mind was the thought of just what an attraction someone like this was going to be for the hardcore doms. He nodded, trying to keep his equilibrium. Fort Bragg. It wasn't difficult to guess what Hooch might be. He nodded. "I'm sure we can accommodate." He made a few notes about the uniform. "Do you have any medical issues you haven't put on the forms?" he asked, "Pre-existing injuries?"

"Fractured pelvis. Healed but might cause trouble." Hooch looked at Matt. "Anything else?"

Matt gave Hooch an affectionate, if exasperated, look and recited the long list of other 'minor' old injuries, the broken bones, the sprains, the other bits and pieces of Hooch's body that were evidence of a long and hard career.

Robertson was making notes, having found his balance once more, not batting an eyelid at the long list of injuries. Eventually, he put the expensive pen down. "We require monthly STD screening for those of our members who prefer to forego condoms, which are, as you can imagine, most. I trust this meets with your approval?"

Both Hooch and Matt nodded.

"Very well." Robertson smiled. As odd and unsettling as this Hooch was, Robertson could increasingly see the attraction and potential. His club would undoubtedly profit from this new member. "Is there anything you absolutely do not do?"

Hooch thought for no longer than about a second. "No. Except for shit."

A scratch of the pen as he picked it up and made a final note. "That's the most common one," he said conversationally. "Would you like a tour of the facilities before we come back to finish the administrative details? I imagine you might want to stretch your legs."

"Why not." Hooch answered, looking at Matt to see if he agreed.

Matt nodded and stood up, feeling a rush of relief that the interview seemed over, or at least suspended.

They followed Robertson out of interview room and back into the large office, which led to the reception area. A door with a keypad led through to a corridor with several doors leading to the left and the right. Everything was scrupulously clean and gleaming. "We have all sorts of themed rooms. Medical examination rooms, fully stocked from enema kits over speculums and TENS units to a vast variety of needles and syringes; we have a medieval torture chamber with associated dungeon and cages, including suspended ones. The replicas are all made to the highest specifications. We have a salon emulating the sensory impressions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for those preferring the old world charm of ritualized slavery," at that Hooch almost let out a groan of disbelief, but caught himself and rolled his eyes at Matt instead. "We have a variety of modern rooms and even one specializing in blood play, but our main attraction is what I like to call the theatre." Robertson opened a set of black double doors that led into a vast room with seating, tables, a mind boggling array of bondage equipment and bondage furniture, steel chains and manacles from walls and ceiling, and in pride of place, at the very centre of the room, a round, raised stage.

Matt had been trying not to gape at the rooms. One thing to have them neatly laid out on bullet points on a one-page factsheet that looked like one from a fancy hotel, quite another to see it all laid out in front of him. He stepped into the 'theatre' with a slight sense of trepidation, and turned to look at Hooch. Here, he suspected, was where he'd spend most of his time.

Hooch took only one look at the vast room and its stage, then kept his eyes on Matt. He reached for Matt's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "It's okay. I've seen enough." He looked at Robertson, but didn't step away from Matt. "I can see that the steep fee is warranted. I'd like to set up payment one year in advance. Can this be arranged?"

Robertson blinked. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been quite so taken aback by a new member. He nodded quickly. "Of course." A pause, "shall we go back to the office to finalize matters?"

"Yes." Both Hooch and Matt replied at the same time and Hooch added, "as quickly as possible. I've had enough of formalities for now." Whenever he showed a veneer of manners, he seemed to need a dose of bluntness to counteract. They followed Robertson back into the office, where Hooch informed him that he didn't feel like filling in any more forms and if anyone wanted to know his preferences they just had to try.

The rest of the details were sorted out quickly and efficiently, and Robertson watched them exit through the main doors and to the public car park opposite on the security cameras. He was rarely flummoxed, but they had to be one of the oddest pairs he'd seen in a while. Bozic was certainly the most interesting prospect he'd come across in a long time. Military, he'd bet either high ranking or a very vital job, or both-extreme masochist-and completely under the thumb of his partner without realizing. A partner who didn't know that he owned Bozic. Obviously substantial financial resources, too. A puzzle indeed. Robertson tidied the notes and put them in a new file, before locking them away in the safe.

Hooch and Matt sat in silence in the truck, until they were out of Raleigh and well down the highway back to Fayetteville.

Hooch set the truck onto cruise control and turned his head towards Matt. "So."

"Will it do?" Matt asked, somewhat redundantly, given the amount of money that Hooch had just paid. There had been much to think about, not least all those odd assumptions by that really odd owner.

Hooch shrugged, eyes back on the road. "Will have to. At least it's secure." He drew in a deep breath, holding it for a moment. "I just don't get it, though."

"Get what?" Not as though Matt didn't suspect. "The way they have all those rules and frills and fancy equipment?"

"No. I get that one. It's for boring people who have to pretend they aren't boring." Hooch scrubbed a hand over his face. "The ownership thing. The collar."

"It worries you?" Matt asked. It certainly worried him, with Robertson's automatic assumption that Hooch was somehow his possession. "That was weird," he agreed. "Do we give off freaky vibes?"

Hooch didn't answer for a long time. When he eventually did, he kept looking ahead at the road. "You built the gym and the apartment, you chose how it looks. You organize our everyday life and you make me eat healthy stuff. You gave me an ultimatum to go seek a club, you sought the club for me, and I will be going there. I cannot imagine a life without you because those two months were unbearable. I left without argument when you told me to. I asked you to take me back. You tell me off when I behave like an antisocial bastard. You talk for me when I'm too much of that bastard to function in polite society." Hooch finally glanced at Matt. "Anything else?"

A momentary stunned silence. "I think that just about covers it." Matt replied, then paused to think. "I look after you," he said, repeating what he'd said the night he'd taken Hooch back, "because I like it, and you need someone to look after you." Letting it settle as the road passed under the tires. "That doesn't mean all the freaky stuff he was saying." Matt added, too quickly.

"Freaky stuff such as?" Hooch's voice didn't give away any of his thoughts or feelings.

"Like the ownership stuff, the slave stuff he was going on about," Matt said. "The whole asking me if he could shake your hand, as though you were a pet or something."

"Pet…" Hooch huffed a laugh. "Your pet Delta. Not that off the cuff, is it?"

Matt smiled, the first that day. "I guess." That thought again, of Hooch wearing a collar and nothing else, flashed through his mind. "I wonder where he gets all that stuff," he said, changing the subject.

"No way, Donahue, none of this." Hooch flashed a grin at Matt. "No changing of the subject. You made me go to that club, you sit through this talk. Don't like your own medicine, huh?"

Matt tried not to squirm. "Okay, fine, it freaked me out a bit-like that woman who didn't say anything and never made eye contact and was wearing those heels. How he was treating her as if she didn't exist. If that's ownership, that makes me…" he couldn't think of the word, "well, that just freaks me out." He was using that word a lot today.

"Yeah, but I guess it's that weird slave stuff they have going on." Hooch felt more at ease now than he had all day. Somehow a few things were falling into place. "I'm not slave material, and you're the first person to know that. I don't obey well at all, outside of work, and even there I've always had a reputation." Hooch indicated as he overtook another car, then slotted back into his lane. "One thing's true, though, I don't want anyone but you. When I was gone, those two months, I wasn't even alive."

"Neither was I, much." Matt was looking out the window. "Wanting you back and yet knowing I couldn't go through that again if you just took off. Feeling furious…and empty that I couldn't give you what you needed. Terrified what you would do without me there."

"Maybe we own each other." Hooch surprised himself with that statement, and it showed on his face.

Matt looked at him in shock, and then in contemplation. "Shit," he said after a long pause, "I think you're right." More silence. "Maybe it changes," he hazarded, "and he jumped to the conclusion because I was the one who dragged you there."

"Whatever." Hooch shrugged, "fact is I'm going to wear your collar." The word sounded weird in his mouth. "Any preferences?" he added, some part of him enjoyed seeing Matt squirm.

"Your choice. You're going to be the one wearing it," Matt retorted. Too quickly, hoping Hooch didn't notice just how much that disturbingly turned him on. "Where on earth are we going to get one? Should have got one back there," he meant Raleigh.

"No, it's going to be yours, so you choose." Hooch definitely did enjoy Matt's discomfiture.

A sign caught Matt's eye, thankfully relieving him of the need to answer straight away. "Stop here. I think we'll find what we're looking for right there, don't you think?" He pointed to a large barnlike building in a row of superstores. 'PetSmart' read the gaudy sign.

"PetSmart?" Hooch asked, but turned off the highway and into the parking lot.

"Pet Delta," Matt repeated Hooch's earlier joking words, "and where else are we going to find one without having to sneak in some dodgy back alley somewhere or risk some interestingly raised eyebrows from the post office?"

Hooch laughed. "Yeah, good point." He killed the engine and got out of the truck. "Does my neck look 'Rottweiler' to you?"

Matt snorted as he got out his side. "Thick enough, sure. Let's get this over and done with."

They were greeted inside by a young sales assistant. "Can I help you, Sirs?"

"Hi," Matt stepped in before Hooch's sense of humor could indulge itself, "looking for a collar for a dog. A big one." He determinedly did not look at Hooch.

"What breed?" She smiled at both. Hooch remained silent, hands in his pockets, and with an unidentifiable smirk on his face.

"Rottweiler cross," Matt said firmly. "Something sturdy, in black leather." Luckily, he still refused to look at Hooch, because the growing smirk would have made him blush or crack.

"Of course," the sales girl motioned for them to follow her to an aisle with dog collars. Every single type one could think of was displayed by increasing thickness and width. "Would you like to choose for yourselves or do you require help? Oh, and if you need a lead or a chain, they are behind you." She smiled at them.

"We'll be fine browsing, thanks." Matt hoped he didn't sound as choked as he felt.

"Just holler if you need any help." She cheerfully replied. "I'll be at the checkout." She finally walked off, just in time for Hooch to make an all too amused sound.

Matt watched her go and serve another customer before he glared at Hooch. "Not a word."

"Is that an order?" Hooch bared his teeth in a grin.

Matt just glared before selecting a collar off the display and glancing between it and Hooch's neck. "This one?" he asked.

"Let's see." Hooch took the collar from Matt's hands and without further ado, slipped it round his neck, to all intents and purposes about to buckle it closed.

The black leather looked disturbingly good against Hooch's tanned skin and plain white t-shirt, and Matt had to swallow before answering. "Yeah, it's the right size." He all but snatched an identical one off the same display and marched off to the checkout.

Hooch looked at Matt's quickly retreating back, then at the collar he had pulled back off his neck and grinned. Whatever wasp had stung Matt, he enjoyed the reaction. He put the collar back on the display and followed.

"Want me to pay?" Hooch asked.

Matt was already fumbling with his wallet. "No, I've got it." Handing over the cash and answering the small talk about the non-existent dog. Which was apparently, according to him, very large, absolutely ferocious towards those who threatened the family, but a complete softie with those he knew. He didn't glance at Hooch as he picked up the bag with the collar, refused a catalogue, and retreated to the parking lot.

When Hooch opened the truck doors for them, the grin was still firmly in place. "Ferocious, huh? Softie, huh?" He waited for Matt to climb into the truck before he followed. "I think I need to decompress from this crazy day of revelations when we get home."

Matt had his eyes closed and seemed to be forcing himself back under control. "I'm glad you find this funny," he said, half under his breath, and then realized that he was holding the collar in his hands. The thin plastic not much of a barrier, his finger tracing up and down its length.

"You don't?" Hooch steered them back onto the highway. He remained silent for a moment, pondering. "No, you don't. Something has you riled up. What is it?"

Matt still had his eyes closed. "It looked…" he swallowed, "really good. Trust me, I was about three seconds away from ripping your jeans off and fucking you in the aisle next to the kitty litter."

"I didn't expect that." Hooch voice had immediately slipped a notch into huskiness, and the steering wheel got a little jerk. He glanced at Matt. "I'll floor it home."

By the time they arrived back in Fayetteville, Matt had regained some of his composure. Enough that he made it through the gym, managed to exchange greetings with a few of the regulars, before heading upstairs, the bag with the collar held in a white-knuckled grip.

Hooch followed shortly behind, nodding a greeting at Mandy and a couple of regulars who'd been persistent enough in greeting him to kick his manners into being and to greet them back. When he reached the apartment, he locked the door behind him. Matt was standing in the middle of the room, back towards him.

Hooch stopped, dropped the keys in the bowl beside the door, took off his jacket and hung it up without a word. Unlacing his boots, he toed out of them, then took one step forward while pulling the t-shirt over his head and discarding it on the floor. He had opened the belt buckle and was about to unbutton the black denims, when Matt finally turned round.

He still had the bag with the collar in his hand. "Stop." A single word, voice shaking slightly, but Hooch stilled immediately. Fingers on the last button, he didn't move a muscle. Matt stepped closer, until he was close enough for Hooch to see that his eyes were almost completely dilated, just a narrow ring of green around the pupil.

Hooch's lips parted, but he didn't say anything. His dark gaze locked with Matt's as he stood perfectly still.

"Are you sure about this?" Matt's voice was slightly steadier now, but husky, as he took the collar out of the bag. Holding it with both hands, he never took his eyes off Hooch's.


Not a word, not even a nod, as Matt raised his hands with the collar and slipped it around Hooch's neck. He adjusted the buckle so that it fitted smoothly, not affecting Hooch's breathing but enough that it lay next to the skin.

Hooch swallowed visibly, the leather snug against his throat as he did. He'd never thought the symbol of the collar would affect like that, but it did, entirely unexpected.

Teeth at his neck, just nipping above the leather, as Matt's hands covered his at the buttons of his jeans, pushing them down. Hooch let his head fall back, giving as much access to Matt's teeth and the above and below the collar, as he could. His hands moved down, pushed the denims and briefs over his rapidly hardening cock, then stayed at his side, passive.

Matt's hands moved over Hooch's body, touch firm as they grabbed Hooch's ass, pulling him closer. Continuing to bite around the collar, pressing harder as Hooch writhed under his hands, reveling in the sensation, the coiled power under his fingertips, the metallic taste of blood in his mouth…

"Oh shit!"

Matt pulled back as though burned, staring at Hooch, at the bloodied mark on the side of his neck, before undoing the collar and practically throwing it on the couch.

"Wait here, I'll get the first aid kit." Matt darted off to the bathroom for the small kit they kept at the apartment.

"Wait!" Hooch called after him, but when he tried to follow, he tripped over the forgotten trousers round his ankles, and landed on his ass with a curse. "Matt!"

Matt was back, first aid kit in hand. "Shit, shit, shit," he cussed, kneeling down next to Hooch and dabbing at the small wound-only barely breaking the skin, but enough that it was bleeding. "Does that hurt? Oh crap. I think we'll get away without putting a dressing on it but oh crapthat'sgoingtoshow." He was dimly aware that he was starting to babble.

"Matt!" Hooch barked out the name like an order. Taking hold of Matt's shoulders. "Look at me, Matt, and shut up for a second. It's okay. It's nothing. You hear me? It's nothing."

"You're bleeding!" Matt was staring at Hooch's neck. "I bit you! I didn't even…I didn't even…" his voice trailed off and he looked at Hooch in bewilderment. "I didn't even realize I'd done it."

"You call that bleeding? Don't be ridiculous, hardly even a drop." Hooch cupped Matt's face and drew it closer. "You didn't realize you were doing it because you found it hot, as much as I did. That's not a problem."

Bewilderment turned to distress. "That'll show above your uniform," Matt repeated. "I…I…" his shoulders slumped as he pulled out of Hooch's grasp. "Well, that settles it. I'm really not cut out for this sort of thing."

Hooch was about to protest and try talk sense into Matt, but the dejected look made him realize it would be pointless. "Come on, look at me." Hooch moved so he knelt in front of Matt, ankles still restricted by his trousers. "Come on."

Matt obeyed, eyes still full of distress and the bloodied tissue held uselessly in one hand. "I don't get it," he said at last. "I really don't get it."

"It's okay." Hooch said in a far more soothing voice than a man like him should be capable of. "You are who you are and if you weren't you wouldn't own me." Before Matt could say anything Hooch continued, "yes, you do, so no comments on that one. There's no one else I want to be with and no one else I love. Got it?" Hooch covered Matt's fist with the balled-up tissues with his own hand. "I. Love. You. You better remember that, I won't say it often. I don't give a shit if we stick to vanilla or if you lose control or if you come with me to the club or not. I don't care, because I care about you and being with you, and if this crap here," Hooch gestured with his free hand at his throat, "if that upsets you, then we forget about it, because it's not worth it. I'll never get tired of sex with you, we don't need to go into stuff that freaks you out." Hooch drew in a deep breath. "I talked too much now and I really need some food and drink and to blow you. Not necessarily in that order."

Matt smiled at that, and leaned into Hooch for a kiss. "Depending on what order you want that," he was still smiling, "you either need to get some clothes on or I should be taking them off."

Hooch grinned, "or we could order in and stay both naked."

Matt laughed in reply, feeling much relieved. "Now that is an excellent idea."


February 2001, Fayetteville

A month later, Saturday lunchtime, Matt was waiting for Hooch to return from Raleigh. He knew when he'd left the club in the night, receiving a text at 3 AM stating simply "back at hotel," then got a text when Hooch was up a few hours later and heading for breakfast, then another when he'd got into the truck to head back home. He'd been surprised to receive those texts that recounted Hooch's whereabouts, they'd never talked about this previously. They had, in fact, not talked about much at all, only that Hooch would go to the club for the first time on a Friday night so he had Saturday and Sunday to recuperate. Matt hadn't asked any more questions and Hooch hadn't volunteered any answers.

Hooch entered the gym around the expected time, carrying a bag of takeaway containers.

Matt stuck his head around the door of his office, deliberately casual, and not at all as though he'd been watching for Hooch's arrival. "Hey," he said, "how was it?" Keeping it ambiguous, even though there was nobody within earshot except Mandy, and Mandy hadn't been paying much mind to anything except her work since Jeff had left for Afghanistan.

"Okay." Hooch said, looking relaxed, even though some of his movements were stiff. He smiled and held up the bag. "I got Thai, your favorite. Hungry?"

Matt nodded. "Upstairs?" He turned to Mandy. "You want any?" he asked, though it was largely useless.

The answer was, as it had been since Jeff left. "No, thanks, I'm not hungry." No exclamation marks, no bubbly enthusiasm.

"Doesn't matter." Hooch stepped towards the reception desk and opened the bag, looking for a particular container. "I got you some anyway." He pulled out the right one. "You think Jeff wants to come back to a wraith? He'll be starved of sex and affection when he's back, you got to keep in shape." He set the container down in front of her and gave her a look that would have made any recruit quake in their boots. "Eat, Mandy, or I'll get word out to the 'Stan about your moping."

She looked up at Hooch, blushed hard and obediently opened the container. "Thanks," she said, picking up the fork. "I know we're luckier than most-at least I can write to him and stuff and they'll let me know if anything happens to him. Thank you." Behind her, Matt smiled at Hooch as he started to move towards the door to the apartment.

"You're welcome." Hooch followed Matt up the stairs to the apartment, where he dropped the bag on the kitchen counter.

"Well," Matt asked, "how did it go?"

"Better than expected." Hooch pulled Matt into an embrace. "I tell you everything if you want to, if not, I won't say a thing, or keep it vague."

Matt exhaled and returned the embrace, reminding himself not to check Hooch for injuries too overtly. "Only as much-or as little-as you want." He bent his head into the crook of Hooch's neck. "Anything you want to get off your chest, or anything that I…" not 'can do', there was quite a lot he couldn't, "anything that I should watch out for."

Hooch cradled the back of Matt's head in his hand, guiding him to look at him. "Last night was all about me. Selfish bastard and all that. Now it's about you. I tell you-or don't tell you-what you want to know."

Matt exhaled, not entirely sure. On one hand, he wanted to know everything that had happened: what Hooch had done, or more accurately what had been done to him, but on the other, the thought of hearing about him hurt was painful in itself. "Just…briefly…" Matt said, after a pause, "an outline and some sort of idea and especially if we need to be careful about anything in the next week or so."

"Okay." Hooch smiled and slowly let go of Matt. "I can do that, but let's get the food before it's cold." He peeled out of his jacket and left it hanging near the door, then went to help Matt who'd started to dish out.

"I forgot to give you something." Hooch went back to the jacket and pulled an item out of a pocket. "Hand out, palm open." He placed the collar into Matt's hand. It had a blue color flash on it, and nothing else. The same collar they had bought a month ago, now with traces of wear, such as the indentation of the buckle on the top of the leather. "Yours." Hooch said softly while sitting back down.

Matt held it in his hands, the collar bought at the pet store, the collar he'd put on Hooch, claiming him as Matt's. "Mine," he echoed, before winding it up in his hand. "Where do you keep it?" he asked, genuinely puzzled. It had completely slipped his mind where it had got to after he'd thrown it on the couch the day he'd attacked Hooch's neck like some deranged vampire.

"In the bottom drawer of the bedside table." Hooch flashed a grin. "You never look in it, because the lube's in the top one." He started on his plate full of food, swallowed the first mouthful before speaking again. "I'd like you to keep it. It is yours, after all, just like I am."

Matt opened his mouth to say something, but couldn't find the right words. He nodded in agreement. "Yes, I will." His hands closed around the collar. Just a strip of leather, a metal buckle, but a wealth of meaning. Hooch, his, just as much as he was Hooch's. With or without the symbols.

Hooch nodded, eating in silence for a moment. "I'd like you to know that I made it a rule never to see anyone at the club. I don't want to know who they are and what they look like. I don't want anyone to be anything but anonymous to me, that's why I'm blindfolded at all times. It's in my file now." He continued to eat as if they talked about the weather.

Matt blinked and only barely stopped his fork falling from suddenly numb fingers. "Oh," he said. The thought of Hooch, bound, blindfolded, helpless-he didn't know what to feel. "Is that a new thing?" he asked, slightly warily, going into territory that he'd never gone before.

"Yes." Hooch swallowed his last mouthful. "Do you know why?"

Matt shook his head. "No."

"I wonder who's the blind one, then." Hooch leaned forward and poked his finger right in the middle of Matt's chest.

Matt looked at Hooch in surprise. "I've got no idea what goes on in your head most of the time and this is no exception."

"Why would I want to see anyone else? I don't care about anyone other than you."

Matt's brows steepled in confusion, because there was no doubt this was one of the times that Hooch simply made no sense. "What's that got to do with it."

"I can't explain it better."

Matt shook his head. "I suppose I'll get it in time. It's still all a bit new to me, but if you find it works for you…"

"Yeah. Yeah it does." Hooch was visibly closing back up again.

"What's it like?" Matt asked, after a few minutes of silence. "Not seeing what's being done?"

Hooch glanced up from his food. "It means I can't brace myself for whatever is coming, which makes it better. Most of all it means I can stay in my head and don't get distracted by other bodies and faces."

Not sure whether this made him feel better or worse, Matt continued with his food. "Do you think the club is going to be enough?"

"Yeah, it'll do." Hooch finished his meal and leaned back, arms crossed over his chest. "How do you feel?"

Matt exhaled. "I don't know. I know you need something, and I don't mind other men, it's not that, it's just…well, I'll get used to it in time." Matt's thoughts were all over the place. "I wish there was a better way, but we know there isn't." He finished, feeling that it was lame.

Hooch sat for a while in silence. Realizing eventually there was nothing he could say to make Matt feel better. He was fucked up, no way around it, and Matt had chosen this path for him, Hooch, to allow him to deal with that fucked up self of his while they stayed together. Only now, confronted with Matt's painful acceptance, did Hooch truly understand the magnitude of what Matt was giving him.

Hooch slid off the couch and onto his knees. Moving closer, until he nudged Matt's legs to settle between them. He reached for Matt's face, cupped it and gently pulled him close until their lips met. He tried to put everything he felt into his kiss: gratitude, love, respect, trust. Above all, love. More than he ever thought his broken self could feel.

Matt closed his eyes, just feeling. Thoughts and fears banished for now, with Hooch here, his. No matter what else, Hooch would come back to him, and that was the most important thing. It had to be.

He pulled back gently, his own hand on the side of Hooch's face, touch light. "It'll be okay," he said softly, not sure whether he was telling Hooch or himself. "It will."

Hooch nodded. "Yeah." The word not much more than a soft exhale. "Come to bed with me." Knowing full well that any bruise, any sore spot, any cut and scrape would be visible to Matt's eyes, but trying to hide the evidence of what he had needed, would only prolong Matt getting used to it.

Matt nodded, pulling away and taking the plates to dump them in the sink before returning. He took Hooch's hand, the only obvious sign of his insecurity. "Come on," pulling him gently, though Hooch needed no such guidance or encouragement.

Hooch slowly peeled out of his clothes; a more pliant and patient man than the one who had left the day before. He lay down in top of their bed and let Matt examine the damage that had been done to his body by men he didn't care about but needed.

Gentle hands moved over each bruise and scrape and welt. Matt winced even though Hooch did not, and each of Matt's gentle touches on his sore body reminded Hooch not of what he'd done the night before, but of why he was doing it: so he could be the man who was capable of being in this relationship.

"Love you," Matt murmured into Hooch's ear, "no matter what." Feeling the weight of Hooch against him, soothed into the sleep and the rest that his body craved so that it could heal.

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All characters are fictional. Any similarities with living or deceased people are coincidental. Deliverance is intellectual property of Marquesate and TA Brown. Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved.


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