“Take it off,” Lila hisses into my ear. We're in a sterile king bed in the latest middling chain hotel room we've conned our way into, but there is nothing sterile about her cool, deadly tone.
My gloved fingers reach up to the leather cord around my neck and work at the knot until it comes undone. Lila opens her hand, and I lower the amulet into her waiting palm. Lila made the amulet against dream work for me a few weeks back, but not for my protection. She made it so that when I take it off, we both know she can work me.
The last thing I'm aware of before I fall asleep is the brush of her bare hand against my throat.
In my dream, it's raining, thin, sharp drops that sting when they hit my skin. I'm almost naked, in just my gloves, my boxers, and a pair of dingy sneakers. I'm on the roof of my old dorm at Wallingford, and the rain is making the surface slick. If Lila wants to scare me, she's chosen her setting well. I shiver, only partly from the cold, and my legs wobble under me.
In the gutter at the roof's edge, a familiar white cat strides by, apparently impervious to the rain. She tilts her head, beckoning me, and I shake my head no. It's hard enough staying still here; if I try to move, I might fall to my death, the way I almost did a year ago.
“Come on,” the cat says, tilting her head again. “You have to come to me.”
“I can't,” I say, flinching as the drops come faster. I know it's just a dream. I know if I fall, I'll only wake up. But that doesn't make the prospect of losing my footing here any more appealing.
“You can crawl if you'd rather,” the cat says, lifting her paw to her mouth. She licks the top of the paw clean, then pulls back her lips, showing two rows of sharp teeth.
I look down at the roof's surface. The slate tiles are rough and grimy, nothing I'd especially want to touch with bare skin, but nothing I'd ordinarily be too worried about either. Which means I'm being conned.
“What's wrong with it?” I ask. “What did you do?”
The cat doesn't answer. She just watches me, with that same sharp-toothed smile, and I think I can hear her purring. “Try it,” she says. “You can't stand there in the rain all night.”
The drops are cold against my face, my bare shoulders. I shiver again, and then gingerly, I turn and drop my gloved hands to the roof's surface. I bend my bare knee carefully toward the tiles. I'll crawl. Maybe there's nothing wrong with playing it safe.
The second my knee touches the slate, I know what's wrong. The roof is electrified. A sharp shock sizzles through me, magnified by the rain water. I snatch my knee away from the surface, balancing awkwardly on my hands and feet, my gloved fingers gripping at cracks in the tiles. I'm not going to fall like this, but to move down the roof, I'll either have to stand back up or face more shocks.
The key to a good predicament is balance. If the roof were covered in burning lava, or flesh-eating scorpions, the choice would be simple. But here, Lila's calculated that I might be willing to endure a shock or two to keep myself from having to stumble down the roof on my feet alone. Or that I might be willing to let her scare the crap out of me to avoid getting zapped.
Two ways out, two equally unpleasant options. Lila gets to make me pick my poison, and then she gets to watch me suffer.
Me, what can I say—I'm a masochist. I get the pleasure of knowing I'm screwed either way.
I glance down at the cat. Her pupils have narrowed to slits, and I'm reminded of the mouse she killed in Daneca's room. Did she toy with it, I wonder, the way she's now toying with me?
There's not much time to think. The roof is getting slicker by the minute. My boxer shorts are soaked through, and cold rainwater is pooling in my sneakers. Below me, the cat starts to pace impatiently, her tail twitching as she walks along the gutter.
Crawl or walk down? Pain or fear? I look around me one last time, and then I go for an equally unpalatable third option: humiliation. Butt in the air, wet boxers clinging to me, I step down on my hands and feet, rubber soles and leather gloves insulating me from the roof's electricity. Even on all fours, it's slow going, but I can step with relative certainty that I won't fall to my death. All the way down, the rain pounds into my back and legs, and the slick surface gives off a menacing hum.
When I reach her, the cat is watching me with a pleased, predatory smile. She rubs herself against me, and the scene around us ripples, then disappears.
I'm dry again, and my shoes are gone. I'm lying in Lila's satin-covered bed, flat on my back with my legs spread to either side. There are two people here with me, and they're both Lila. One Lila holds my arms above my head, pinning me down by the forearms. She leans forward to lick at my wrists, her tongue sliding just barely under the edges of my gloves. The other Lila is lying between my spread legs, perched on her elbows, her mouth so close to the crotch of my boxers that I swear I can feel each droplet of moisture when she breathes out.
I already know it won't last, but my dream-body reacts the way my waking one would: my face goes hot, my nipples stiffen to taut points, and I get a truly monumental hard-on. I'd like to think I don't have a lot of tells in bed. I'd like to think the Lila looking up at me can't read on me exactly how much suffering I'd be willing to endure if she'd only move her lips that extra half-inch closer. But I'm pretty sure the ones I've got are just about impossible to miss.
“You won't get to come,” the Lila at my waist says, pressing her tongue against the fabric of my boxers. I suck in air, and she laughs. “If you let me keep going now, it'll just make it worse for you later.”
As predicaments go, this one's pretty classic. Deny myself something I want now, or give in, knowing I'm going to pay. “It might be worth it,” I say, trying to keep my voice even.
The Lila above my head laughs. “You'll be miserable when it's over,” she says. “You always are.”
I try to bring to mind other times I've made this choice. I try to remember the agony of getting close, so close, only to have her pull away. But all I can think about now is the warmth of her mouth, how badly I want to feel her wet, confident lips against the bare skin of my cock.
This isn't the kind of predicament where anyone wonders what choice I'll make. Everyone here knows I'll let her suck me, the same way we all know that later, I'll wish I hadn't. That's the point: on the roof, I was screwed no matter what. Here, there's a way out, but Lila knows I'll be too tempted by her offer to take it.
As I hesitate, the Lila at my wrists pulls one of my gloves off with her teeth. She licks my palm with the flat of her tongue until my whole hand is wet and tingling. Then she draws her tongue along my index finger, licking its outline and then sucking the tip in between her soft, wonderful lips. It's impossible not to groan, impossible not to imagine the other Lila taking my cock into her equally perfect mouth.
“Please,” I say, already knowing I'll regret it, and the Lila between my spread legs giggles and leans in.
It's going to be excruciating. Every motion of her tongue, her lips, her ungloved fingers makes me frantic, makes my heart beat triple-speed. The boxers fade away, lost to dream-magic, and there's just Lila's mouth, covering me with slow, wet licks.
I'm trembling already. Lila lays an arm firmly across my thigh, then wraps her other hand around the base of my cock, half to add to the sensation, half to hold me in place. She stops licking and lets her lips close shallowly, sucking with pressure that skirts the line between painful and exhilarating.
It's all I wanted. I let the warmth of her lips, each slick motion of her tongue wash over me, my hips and wrists straining against the two Lilas' grip. A low noise comes out of me, and it makes the Lila above my head giggle. I wonder for a moment if I should try harder not to react, but what would be the point? Everyone here knows what I've chosen. I may as well enjoy the good part while it lasts.
The Lila at my waist looks up at me, and I can feel her smirking almost before I see it. She closes her mouth, sliding her lips over me until I'm panting, dizzy with the strain of being kept still. Her mouth surrounds me, and I can feel every slippery inch of her tongue. It feels exquisite and dangerous, and all I want is more, deeper, forever. I shiver. I am so fucking screwed.
The Lila above my head bends down to bring her face close to my ear, and I shudder against her warm breath. “You're going to hate this,” she whispers in my ear. “You're going to be a mess when we stop.”
“I know,” I tell her, but I don't want to think about it. I want to believe she'll let me come, just this once.
“You chose this, Cassel.” Her words are hot in my ear, and she follows them with a thick wet lick along the lobe.
“I know,” I say again, my breath ragged. The Lila at my waist lifts her hand from my thigh, and I thrust up into her mouth without thinking. I can barely see straight. Lila has to know how close I am. This has to be the end.
“I wonder what you'd let us do to you,” the Lila by my ear asks. “If we let you come after all.”
My eyes snap up to look at her, but she's too close to my face, a blur of blond hair. She's conning me again, she has to be, but even this shred of hope makes me frantic. “Anything,” I tell her, gritting the word out. It isn't true—even now I know there are things she could ask of me that I'd have to say no to—but I can't help myself. I'm shaking, sweating, and I'm almost there, if I can only just—
Before I know what's happening, both Lilas' lips are gone. “Liar,” the Lila at my waist says, grinning at me.
I gape back at her. My cock bounces uselessly in the air between us, aching already. Lila's right—losing her is worse than I remembered. I feel bereft, bewildered. My heart pounds futilely, and my skin is cold where her mouth was.
“Poor Cassel.” The Lila above my head laughs into my hair. “I told you you'd be miserable.”
I nod, speechless. I can't catch my breath.
“You did it to yourself,” the Lila at my waist reminds me. She giggles, and I'm grateful for the weight the other Lila is putting on my arms. My body doesn't know whether to flail or stay still as the Lila below me looks me over, examining her handiwork.
“You made me do it,” I tell her, and my voice comes out soft and rasping. It's her predicament, after all.
Lila looks back at me thoughtfully, then laughs. “Yeah,” she says, and she looks pleased with herself. “I did.”
She makes me wait a full, agonized minute before she touches her hand to my thigh and the scene fades.
The next thing I know, we're in a swanky hotel room I haven't seen in years but would recognize anywhere. I'm still naked, sitting upright in a square, wooden chair, and Lila—there's only one of her now—is holding a safety pin over a candle flame.
The fingers of her other hand curl around my left ear, and she runs her thumb along the lobe, her nail just sharp enough to hint at what's to come.
“This is the end of the dream,” Lila says, and I realize she's not the Lila I remember from this room, fourteen with spiked hair and a hint of girlishness behind her commands. She's taller now, more serious, with long, blond hair and a necklace of keloid scars. She knows me better than anyone, and she's chosen to be here with me. No matter how much I think I understand choices, this one will always astonish me.
I swallow as Lila's hand leaves my ear and reaches for the bucket of ice.
“I'm going to keep piercing you,” she says, “as long as you let me.” She picks up an ice cube from the bucket and rubs it against my earlobe. The cold of it stings, and drops fall onto my shoulder. “When you can't take it anymore, tell me, and you'll wake up.”
Coming up with a good predicament means knowing your target. Lila knows I want to stay here forever, in this world where she calls the shots and I scramble to follow. She knows I'm willing to bleed a little to get even a taste of what I want. Now her job is to dish out the right amount of pain. Too little, and my choice is easy. Too much, and I leave before she really gets a chance to watch me squirm.
“Okay,” I say, and I brace myself. All I can do now is endure.
The first time Lila pierced me, years ago, the safety pin got stuck halfway in. This time, the point jabs through cleanly, and I hiss between gritted teeth. Lila snaps the pin shut, and and it hangs there, thick and heavy, my earlobe throbbing around it.
“That still hurts,” I say, shivering.
On the table next to me, there's a highball glass filled with clear liquid. Lila opens a package of gauze pads and dips one into the glass. “This will hurt too,” she warns me, but she doesn't ask if I want her to stop. She already knows the answer.
The pad stinks of alcohol and burns where it touches my skin.
One pin stabbed through my ear makes me grimace; five in a row and I start to get shaky. Lila finds a rhythm: ice my ear, heat the pin, jab the point through, swab with vodka. Each fresh hole stings, and liquid—blood, mixed with runoff from the ice—drips slowly down my earlobe and onto my neck, making my skin prickle. I can smell the tang of the blood, the harsh bite of the alcohol. My heart pounds in my ear, and I swear I can feel blood pouring out of me, even though I'm pretty sure it's not more than a slow trickle.
After the last one, Lila cups my chin in her hand, and I try to look back at her. The room is wobbling. “You're still here,” she says, and there's an edge to her voice. Her gaze darts back to my pierced ear.
I nod, not trusting myself to speak. I want to stay as long as I can.
“I wonder where else you'd let me pierce you,” Lila says, her eyes glittering as she picks up a fresh safety pin. She slides the pin between her fingers, looking me up and down, and I try to hold my body still. I am painfully aware of my own exposed flesh, of all the terrifying things I'd say yes to just to be in in this room a little longer.
I close my eyes. Lila lets go of my chin, and a moment later, I hear the rattle of ice in the bucket. She puts a hand behind my shoulder, and then my whole body jumps as she presses a dripping ice cube against my right nipple.
My eyes fly open. I'm not ready for this. The cold alone is almost too much; imagining the point of the safety pin stabbing through me makes me sway between Lila's hands.
Lila takes the ice away, dropping it back in the bucket, then holds another pin over the flame. “Cassel,” she says, and her voice is tender now, concerned. “You can wake up.”
I shake my head at her. “I don't want to.”
Lila's hand holds the pin steady, and I stare, mesmerized, as its surface turns colors. Iridescent, I remember her saying years ago. “This is going to hurt,” she tells me, lifting the pin and turning it in the lamplight. By the time she's got the tip pressed up against the brown-pink skin of my nipple, it barely feels hot.
I grit my teeth. “I know.”
I can't control my tells now; my eyes are wide, and my chest is rising and falling so rapidly that I wonder if she'll be able to keep me still. I want to close my eyes again, to shut out the sight of the pin entering my skin, but I can't bear to lose the sight of Lila, her canine teeth sharp as she grins at me, her soft blond hair falling gracefully into the small space between us.
Her eyes meet mine, and then I feel the sharp, searing pressure of the pin going in.
It's so much worse than an earlobe. The prick of the pin point radiates through me, and even after the ice cube, I can feel the metal shaft burrowing between capillaries and nerve endings. There's blood, a lot of blood, and I shrink into the chair, unsteady, woozy. My heart hammers against my ribs, every beat reverberating through the new hole in my flesh. The throb of my ear grows distant; everything is distant. It's too much. I don't like pain, not this much pain, anyway. The dream is almost over. I know I can't stay much longer.
Lila pats down my nipple with a vodka-soaked pad, and I hiss at the sting. She giggles. “You look terrible.”
I feel like my chest has been invaded by razor blades and kitchen knives. “Thanks,” I say, trying to laugh, but it comes out creaky, labored.
“Do you need to go?” Lila asks. Her smile is almost inhumanly wide as she takes in the blood running down my chest and the pin stuck through me, lifting each time I breathe in. She wants me to stay almost as much as I do. Maybe that's what keeps me from letting the dream end here.
“One more,” I whisper, my voice at half-strength. I can take one more.
Lila darts her finger back up to the pin in my nipple and gives it a quick, sharp flick. Fresh pain jolts through me, and I suck in air. “The second one'll be worse,” she says, letting out a short, giddy laugh at the thought.
The first one still feels pretty bad. “Why?”
Lila flashes me another sharp-toothed grin. “Because this time, you'll know what to expect.”
She presses the ice cube to my chest, and I swallow as my unpierced nipple shrinks to a point. I try to imagine the pain of the first hole doubled, but I'm already lightheaded.
Lila brings a new safety pin to the flame, flipping it between her fingers. “Fast or slow?” she asks.
Pain that hits suddenly, in a hot burst, or pain that grows incrementally, lingering. Another decision with no good answer. “Fast,” I say, because I don't know how long I can stay like this.
Lila grins in response, and then in one fluid motion, she brings the pin to my chest, lines it up against my nipple, and shoves it through.
If you can black out in a dream, I do. The pinprick burns, hot and terrible and cruel, and my mouth opens to scream but no sound comes out. I'm shaking. My chest is dripping blood. I can't stay. I have to wake up, but I can't remember how.
“Cassel,” Lila says, and I look down at her, my vision blurred. “Are you there?”
I nod. I can't speak, can't remember how to make my brain form words.
“Cassel,” Lila says again. Her voice is soft now, gentle. She leaves the pin open and brings her hand instead to cup my chin. Her skin is so warm.
I look back at her. There are so many things I wish I could say.
“You're okay,” Lila says, stroking my cheek with soft fingers.
I nod in answer. Her face almost fills my field of vision.
“You're going to wake up now,” Lila says.
I nod again. I miss her already.
The last thing I remember before my eyes fall open is her soft, warm lips touching mine.
I wake up exhausted. I touch my chest, but there are no holes, no blood. I'm wearing my boxers, and I'm lying beside Lila under a polyester bedspread. The only pieces of the dream that remain are a soft ache in my ribcage and a wholly predictable hard-on.
Next to me, Lila is shaking in her sleep, whimpering in a way I've never seen her do awake. She's never told me what she dreams about when the blowback hits, but whatever it is makes her look scared. Fragile.
“It doesn't matter,” she told me the last time I asked. “It's worth it.”
“Can I do something when it happens?” I asked then. “Can I hold you?”
“Yeah,” Lila said. “But you'll be exhausted.” She gave me a pointed look. “I don't need you to take care of me.”
The key to a good predicament is balance. But this is no predicament. Ignore Lila when she's in distress, or wait a little longer to sleep and offer her some small comfort. Let myself rest to the sound of Lila's nightmare, or take her in my arms while she shakes and shivers.
I turn on my side to face Lila, and I reach for her. I will reach for her every single time.