Teddy Mariposa stood in his kitchen, unobtrusively eavesdropping on his guests.

Well, technically only one of them was a guest. Everyone else was here for Family Dinner, which defaulted them to non-guest status.

D took up the spot beside him at the counter. “This is like Family Dinner, Big Brother Edition,” she murmured. “Hey, Teddy, you’re with the CIA. Can’t you get someone to okay the wedding?”

“Shh, I’m trying to hear this.”

“Like a good spy.”

He waited, because the very act of saying “shh” to D guaranteed she wasn’t actually going to stay quiet.

“Anything so far?”

Teddy shook his head and risked leaning in a little closer. “Well, his name is Fred. Also, you smell like onions.”

“That’s what big high-and-mighty government guy said? What an idiot.”

“Yes, D, he came all this way to tell us you smell like onions. No. But Rory’s trying to not say anything controversial, and the guy doesn’t buy it.”

“You think I should go over there?”

“Emphatically, no.” Because the last thing Rory needed right now―while trying to convince the clean-cut young man that he wasn’t a slave, knew it, and could very well marry his former master without it being an abusive situation―was to babysit D.

“Shut up. I could be a distraction. I’m, like, the nuclear option.”

He’d nearly formed a clever reply to that when the door opened.

“Sorry I’m late. Traffic.” Geo hesitated, awkwardly, before kissing Rory hello. “I’m Geo. You must be, ah—”

“Fred,” Roar supplied. “Fred, this is Geo.”

“Good to meet you.”

“I, um, live across town.” Geo swallowed, as if he was lying, even though he wasn’t. “I mean, obviously, eventually Rory and I will both live across town―um―as long as you―pending your―approval—”

“Shit,” D mumbled.

Geo had strengths, but none of them included ingratiating himself to people who had power over him.

The door opened again and Maizy breezed in, already calling, “Hello! You must be Fred! Welcome to Family Dinner!”

“Thank god for Maizy,” D said.

Maizy laughed at something Fred said, and Teddy took a deep breath. “Thank god for Maizy,” he agreed.

* * *

Fred settled in next to Maizy at the table and his focus shifted, finally, from Rory.

“How’s the new job?” Teddy asked, passing the casserole dish. He already knew about the job, but Roar never seemed to tire of talking about it.

“I made the entire bank order today by myself.”

In most people, that would be a complaint. In Rory, it was a boast.

“Man, Roar, you do not know when to quit. It’s not even right, someone liking a job that much.”

“Ha, D, I don’t know when to quit. I don’t know. I just―like it. I like going in, and having a role.” He glanced at Fred, but Fred wasn’t paying attention. “Anyway, I could get you a—”

“Oh, you definitely don’t want to vouch for me. They’d probably fire you just for knowing me.”

“Shut up, D.”

Time for more wine. Teddy stood, made the rounds, refilled Geo’s glass without asking and waited for him to down it in a gulp, but he didn’t.

“Aren’t we supposed to―I mean, shouldn’t you be asking us questions or something?”

Teddy met D’s wide eyes across the table. She burst out laughing.

“You gotta excuse Geo, Fred, he’s just nervous. But yeah, we were all thinking you were gonna come here and sit everyone down like it was interrogation time. Except Teddy, since Teddy’s a spy.”

Fred, aware he didn’t get the joke, frowned and appealed to Maizy. “Um—”

“Don’t listen to D. Teddy’s not a spy.” Maizy offered up a sweet, interested expression. “Do you have questions for any of us? I mean, we can definitely confirm that Roar doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do.”

Rory blushed.

“We’ve found that people lie more effectively when we ask direct questions. It’s much harder to fake a level of casual intimacy.”

“Do you see that often?” Maizy asked. “I run an organization called Home Free that deals with former slaves and indentures, and I’m totally curious about what agents like you find when you go out on jobs like this one. Are there so many former slaves and owners getting married that you need a whole department?”

“Most of the time it’s not marriage. We have a fair rate of calls for mediation when former indentures return to their hometowns and face trouble with employers or family members. We’ve also had a recent uptick in former indentures petitioning to work for their former owners in a strictly legal sense, so we might go out to act on the former slave’s behalf in a professional negotiation, to ensure that the labor and benefits standards are upheld.”

“What’s the attitude of former owners, mostly?” Teddy asked. He wasn’t even feigning curiosity; this was genuinely interesting.

“Squeeze you for everything you are, then run you over a few times just to make sure,” D said. “Oh, wait, probably that’s not the owners you’re talking about.”

“No, no, I haven’t seen any of those. Actually, a lot of the time we see owners bending over backwards to take care of their responsibilities, which is—” He paused and smiled apologetically at Geo. “Well, I went into this pretty green, so I didn’t know what to expect. A lot of former owners have struck me as decent people who just happened to have contracted for indentured service.”

D’s chair scraped the ground. “I’m taking a walk. I’ll see you all later.”

Everything in Teddy’s body wanted to follow her out, but he knew her well enough by now to know she wouldn’t welcome it. Roar watched her back and sat there for a long moment after the door snapped shut, like he was undecided.

“D’s former owners weren’t decent people,” Maizy said. “In fact, they were about as bad as owners get, and I’ve heard a lot of the stories by now. Anyway, tell us more. Have you done a job like this one before? Where people have to prove they really love each other?”

“Oh, no, that’s Immigration. My role here is less about love and more about―the way my supervisor puts it is like this: the government passed a law ending an institution that’s been around, in one form or another, for hundreds of years. So it’s the government’s responsibility to make sure, as much as we can, that the repercussions of the law don’t burden anyone unduly. Which is why the law states five years before people can see each other again.”

“We already broke that one, I apologize,” Geo said.

Rory turned to him. “Did you just apologize for eating dinner with me?”

“I meant―we broke the law—”

“No problem,” Fred said quickly, and did not appear to miss Rory poking Geo with one finger. “And you haven’t had issues, so that speaks volumes.”

He didn’t say about what.

Fred took his leave just before dessert, claiming to be tired, and telling Roar and Geo he’d see them in the morning.

“What’s in the morning?” Maizy asked.

“He’s requesting meetings with our therapists. And he wants us to sign releases that say they can speak candidly to him.” Geo got up and headed for the wet bar. “It makes me sick to think about it.”

The patio door slid open. “Hey, so, J Crew took off, right?”

Maizy laughed. “He was totally wearing J Crew.”

“We have to sign them, Geo. What does it look like if we don’t?”

“Oh, I don’t know, we’d look like people who don’t want strangers hearing how fucked up we are from our shrinks. Dammit.”

“Wait, J Crew’s gonna talk to Geo’s shrink? See, I knew it, I knew therapy was a bad idea.” D reached around Teddy to grab the bowl of dinner rolls and his toes curled with her over-far-too-quickly nearness.

It was the damn wedding. Their lives revolved around it, and the constant presence of people madly in love with each other only highlighted the absence of that obsession in his own life. Most of the time, Teddy was perfectly happy to be single. He had to admit there was a direct relationship between how satisfied he was with single life and how close D happened to be standing at the time.

“Therapy isn’t the problem.” Rory held out a hand and Geo took it. “If you don’t want us to sign the waivers, we won’t. I just think it makes us look like we have nothing to hide, and we don’t.”

“I don’t want him talking to Erik. You can sign—”

“All or none, Geo.”

D, tearing open her dinner roll (and getting crumbs all over the table), took a breath to say something, but Maizy beat her to it.

“Is this about your pretend master/slave thing? Because lots of people do that, Geo. I bet I could even get Fred to, uh, broaden his horizons if I said the right things.”

“Hell, Maiz, don’t tell us about it if you do.”

Geo shook his head. “It’s—I don’t want him to get the wrong idea.”

“Well, I’m not going to kneel at your feet in front of him, so how could he possibly? Plus, no one’s going to bring it up, and it’s—”

“Pretend,” Maizy repeated.

Teddy cringed. “It’s consenting, anyway.” There was a lot going on between Geo and Rory, but he didn’t think any of it was pretend, exactly. It was intense, and serious, and it went all the way down to their bones.

And none of it was anyone’s business but theirs.

“We can sign the waivers,” Geo said. “I just keep thinking what if they don’t let us get married? You’ve got that guest house place all picked out, and a date—”

“I know, but all of it will be fine. We’re getting married in May or we’re getting married three years from now. But we are getting married, and for most of my life that wouldn’t have been legal.” Rory stepped closer and smiled up at Geo. “I don’t care when it happens. But I’m sure as hell not giving you up now, and no one, anywhere, can make me. I’m free, remember?”

“That’s my boy,” D said. “He’s a free bitch. I’ve been trying to pound that into his head forever.”

Geo huffed. “You realize D just referred to you as ‘a free bitch,’ don’t you?”

“Affectionate nickname. Plus, I am. I’m your free bitch. Right?”

D and Maizy laughed. Rory blushed, again, but the line did its job; Geo pulled him in, downed the drink he was holding, and set the glass on the counter.

“We’re going home.”

“I should probably stay here, where I, you know, live.”

Geo studied Roar for a moment, holding him very closely, then shook his head. “I’d just pick you up in the morning, anyway. He doesn’t have hidden cameras set up, Roar. Plus, you’re free.”

“Yeah. I am. Well, okay, I’m freely choosing to spend the night at your house. Based on—uh—I just want to. That’s good enough, right?”

“Sure is. Come on, Roar.”

“Goodnight, guys. Thanks for having an unconventional Family Dinner.”

“I usually get laid after Family Dinner,” Maizy said. “I mean, that’s the whole point.”

“Please don’t seduce Fred, Maiz. Seriously.”

Maizy looked like she might argue that particular point, but Rory, no fool, ushered Geo out while she was coming up with a defensive position.

“Bye! Come by and get coffee tomorrow! Oh, and D, we have to find you a dress, like, soon!”

Clever man. He closed the door before D could reply, too.

“Really, though, I might have to go out and find someone to sleep with. I’m kinda bored.”

D pointed half a dinner roll at Maizy. “Maiz, you’re a whore.”

“No, I’m a slut. A whore gets paid, and has to do what the client wants. Screw that. Okay, I’m gonna go get dressed.”

“Wait,” Teddy said. “Maizy, when did you name your organization? I’ve never heard you call it ‘Home Free’ before.”

“Isn’t it great? We haven’t named it, not officially, but that’s just details. Eventually, they’ll all agree with me that it should be called Home Free.” She grinned. “Give it time, Teddy. Give it time.”

“I like it. Home Free has a good ring to it.”

“Blah,” D said. “Sounds like some kind of self-affirmation or something.”

“That’s because it is, D. I’m really leaving now!” She blew them kisses and went out the back door.

“Want me to warm you up something?” he asked, as he stood and started gathering dishes.

“Nope. Diet of stale bread and water works just fine.”

“That’s freshly-baked.”

She shrugged, but the smirk threatened to peek through D’s mask of cool indifference.

“You’re insulting my dinner rolls, D. Those are definitely fighting words.”

“You gonna fight me, Teddy?”

“Nope. I’m going to tell Rory that you showed disrespect to baked goods and let him yell at you.”

“Damn, that’s not right. He’ll go into one of his all-cooking-is-art fucking lectures!”

“Exactly. Teach you to mess with my dinner rolls.”

Neither of them said anything for thirty seconds. Then D burst into laughter and spit bread bits everywhere.

“Is that—are you—talking ’bout your balls, Teddy?”

He grinned and mocked grabbing his (balls-less) crotch. “I do not euphemistically refer to any part of my body as ‘dinner rolls,’ no. Though now that you’ve said that, D, I may have to start.”

“Oh, picture that. There’s a come-on line: ‘Hey, baby, how about you play with my dinner rolls?’” She laughed again. “Shit, we have to stop talking, I can’t even finish eating this now, gross.” She put the half-eaten roll back in the basket. “I’m going to bed. All that not-fucking-with-Geo energy was exhausting.”

“I’m sure he appreciated your sacrifice.”

“Ha.” She passed the rest of the dishes up from the dining room table, lingering, and Teddy braced for something low and dangerous. But what she said was, “You don’t think they’re really going to tell Roar he can’t get married, right? I mean, that’s not—I don’t even like Geo, but that’s not right.”

“I think they’ll be okay. But I agree, there is something that makes me uncomfortable with the whole system. I’m almost surprised Maizy let it go. I thought she might challenge the law a little.”

“Yeah, we were all on good behavior. I guess I’m glad little J Crew is running around bein’ all nice and talking to decent owners, but it’s still not exactly freedom, you know?”

“Does the benefit out-weigh the obvious cognitive dissonance, is the question. And I don’t know, D.”

She exhaled long and flashed him the smile he’d come to associate with D shutting all the doors and windows. “Well, not something I have to worry about. Fuck all of that shit. Unless someone wants to come out to tell me how to not get fired all the time.”

“You don’t get fired all the time.”

“Fired, quit, what’s the difference, really? G’night, Teddy.”

The difference is one’s your choice. But he didn’t call her back to say it.

Teddy cleaned up the rest of dinner in a state of meditative quiet. He was glad Geo found a good house in a good neighborhood, and he enjoyed picturing Rory there, getting to know people, presenting himself for the first time officially as Geo’s partner, not his slave, but Teddy was going to miss Rory living in his spare room. Even with the girls on the other side of the duplex, suddenly the place felt very empty.


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Release Date: 10/1/2014