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It’s not hard to do. You’ve gotta sell it, but the real trick is to make sure you don’t have to sell it too hard. It’s just a long exhale, closed eyes, maybe a little noise, not too much. The timing is the hard part. You can’t shoot for simultaneous, because it turns out people don’t buy it, not long-term. Which is a shame, because what you’re really after is some good cover. So the best idea is to do your thing about ten seconds before the other guy does their thing. Most people, they aren’t paying all that much attention at that point, and when all’s said and done they’ll just remember they had a good time, and so did you. It’s best if you jigger your timing a bit here and there for verisimilitude. But otherwise? Yeah. Easy.

And it’s not lying, either. Just . . . deceptive. A teensy bit. You’re doing the other guy a favor, really. Keeping things simple, avoiding a lot of needless grief.

People, they get emotional about this stuff. Invested. Kind of crazy.

Of course, John Marcone is a details guy. And he lives to give me grief. So maybe I should have seen it coming.

*

Things started going south when John tried to . . . ‘hem. Go south.

It was July and ridiculously hot, even in my basement apartment. John had spent all evening trying to seduce me with tales of the air conditioning set to sixty in his penthouse. Which, okay, was pretty freaking tempting. But I’d said from day one that if he wanted to play the sugar daddy, he could go find some girl who was actually impressed by his money, instead of appalled. And if he wanted to see me, he could come slum it in my basement, and he could fucking well like it.

Which, for the record, he absolutely did.

We had sex that night on a single sheet, all the other bedding kicked away. I hadn’t actually thought we’d do anything at all; John was visibly tired, and I’d been up since five on a case. I figured, when he asked if he could stay, that we’d just sleep together without any hanky panky.

We’d done that a few times: gone to bed together, slept next to each other, woken up sharing a pillow or with his back solid against mine. It was really nice. And it made me feel stupidly fluttery, like I had the first time he’d kissed me. Or that time he’d come into my office to find me tangled to the wrist in a complicated string spell, and he’d sat there and talked to me for five minutes, then gotten up without a word to smooth the hair off my face and hold it away from my eyes with his hand warm at my temple until I was done. He had no fucking business giving me warm fuzzies, and he certainly never asked permission. But there you go.

So I figured that night was just about the company, and not the company. John was already in bed when I came out of the bathroom. He was reading one of my Discworld paperbacks by candlelight. I made a checkmark under enjoys puns in my mental ledger. I’d abandoned the idea that he didn’t have a sense of humor at all, but it was twisty and frankly weird, and it seemed to appear and disappear at random.

I turned my back and pulled off my t-shirt. The silence behind me changed subtly. I dropped my shirt in the laundry bag, then wriggled out of my bra.

I heard the book hit the nightstand and the soft patter of bare feet. Then John was behind me, his hands at my waist. He spread one palm over my belly, fingertips dipping below my belt. The other eased up my ribs, his knuckles brushing gently against the underside of my breast.

I inhaled. "It’s hot," I said. Not saying no. Just an observation.

He kissed the back of my neck. "I don’t care," he said huskily, and brushed his lips down my spine, feather soft.

I prickled, goose flesh coming up on my stomach and thighs and chest, everywhere his warm hands weren’t.

". . . Yeah," I said, because I didn’t care either.

It was good. We started out gently, because we’d stick together if we pressed too close or held on too hard. But after a little while John didn’t seem to care how sweaty we got. I ended up on my back with him inside me. We were plastered together from the thighs to the shoulders, and he was breathing open-mouthed and loud into my hair while he moved in me.

I love holding him when he comes. It’s like, if I have both my arms around him, I can feel something pass through him, out of him, into me. The way his whole body moves . . . I don’t know.

So I held him close that night while he sweated, and came, and slumped into me. I scratched my nails down his back, not minding the sweat.

"God damn," he said breathlessly. He turned his head, kissed my ear, my neck, my jaw, my mouth, lopsidedly.

"That good?" I said, a little smugly.

"Give me a second, and I’ll show you." He slipped out of me, and flailed ungracefully up onto his haunches to pitch the condom. Then he leaned over me for another kiss. "Just let me . . ." he murmured, brushing his lips down my neck.

"Huh?" I said, as he kissed down my chest. He paused to flick his tongue at my nipple, just a little hello.

"Shh," he murmured, crawling down the bed.

I didn’t catch up to the plot until his tongue was in my belly button. "Wait," I said sharply. I felt my thighs tensing, my pulse picking up in sudden unease. Because, hell’s bells, I’d been kind of distracted back there, and I’d totally forgotten to put on a little theater.

"Mmm?" he said. He glanced up at me, but his mouth was sliding down my belly.

So I grabbed him by the hair. Not a plan, just reflex.

I might have been a little rough, because his eyes popped wide, his mouth freezing so low on my belly, I could feel his breath in the coarse hairs there. I ached between my legs, a hollow, bottomless feeling. But that didn’t matter, not really, and the only thing a little favor from John Marcone was going to get me was more aching.

". . . No?" John said.

"No," I said quickly.

John reached up and gently disengaged my fingers from his hair. I winced. My hand hurt, I’d grabbed him so hard. But he didn’t complain. He just leaned up over me on his hands, his eyes on mine. "Then tell me what you want," he said.

I shook my head. "Nothing."

He frowned. "You know I want to make you feel good."

"You did," I said truthfully.

The frown eased, but the eye contact didn’t waver. "But you didn’t come."

And here’s where I made a big mistake. I should have said, yeah, but I really am tired, or it’s just too hot, or you can owe me one.. What I actually said, without a second’s thought, was, "yes I did."

That wasn’t just deceptive: that was a lie. And it kicked John over from vaguely dopey confusion to narrow-eyed suspicion.

"Okay," he said slowly. "You’re going to have to explain this one to me. And I swear to God, if you’re carrying this whole ‘I won’t let you give me anything’ routine as far as orgasms now, I will buy the most obnoxiously expensive mattress made by mankind and screw your brains out on it."

"You’re hilarious," I said flatly. His casual certainty pissed me off. He was so sure he could swipe his credit card and get whatever he wanted, no big deal; he was so sure he could make me come.

"Is it a control thing?" John asked, cocking his head. ‘Did you want to show me – no, that isn’t it, you didn’t want me to know at all."

"Okay, look—" I started.

But John was locked in, and there was no stopping him now. "You didn’t want me to know," he repeated. "So it’s not about a blow to my ego, and it’s not a power play."

"Your mind is really freaking disturbing," I said honestly. "You do remember not everyone thinks like that, right?"

"You do," he said absently, not really paying attention. "You like to pretend you don’t, and you usually listen to your better angels, but—" he stopped, blinked, frowned. "You’ve been faking it," he said in an entirely different tone. "It’s not just tonight. You’ve been – how often –"

His face was something to behold. If I actually had been going for a shot to the ego, I would have just taken him out with a roundhouse. It didn’t feel as good as I’d always suspected it would. All those times that yes, damn him, I’d thought about it.

“Have I . . .” he looked lost. “Have I been . . . imposing myself?”

I snorted. “Let me tell you something, Marcone. If I didn’t want you in my pants, you wouldn’t be there.”

He blinked, and I suddenly wondered if I’d said more than I’d meant to. It was so fucking hard to tell with him sometimes – I would mention what kind of tea I liked, and he’d run with it like it was the key to my soul or something.

He was still kneeling between my spread legs. I twisted away, flushing, and accidentally kneed him in the side.

He grunted, but caught hold of my ankle, keeping me on the bed. "Harry, wait," he said.

"I’m going to shower," I said, shaking my foot. "Let go."

There was a beat of silence, and then he did.

I spent a long time in my cramped shower stall under the tepid water. I scrubbed away the grime from a long, active day, and the evidence of sex. Then I lingered, not thinking about much. Giving him time to clear out.

Except when I came back into the bedroom, he was still there. He’d changed the sheets for me, and he was waiting in bed, only one candle left burning.

I didn’t know what to do, so I joined him. He rolled over as soon as I was settled and draped his arm across me. The candlelight caught his eyes just right, and he looked eerily catlike for a second.

I was rigid under his arm, waiting for him to start up again, as he inevitably would. Except when he finally spoke, he did the one thing that could take my feet out from under me: he was humble. In that genuine, runs-deep way I always forget about until he aims it at me again.

"If I’m not satisfying you, I want to do better," he said. "Tell me how?"

I breathed out long and slow, looked away. "You can’t," I said.

I could feel him frowning, failing to compute that. Of course. "Why not?"

"I don’t . . ." I bit my lip. "Look, it’s not a big deal, okay? But I just, uh, you know. Don’t."

"Ever?" I made the mistake of looking, and saw the expression to match the incredulous question.

"No," I snapped. "Not ever."

He goggled at me for a long, really unpleasant few beats. Then he closed his mouth, nodded to himself, and said "right," in the tone of voice I associate with the sound of his briefcase snapping open. "Well, we’ll be fixing that," he said briskly.

"Oh, will we?" I said, extremely unimpressed.

He nodded. "I can help," he said. "I want to help. I can figure this out."

"Wow, way to make it all about you," I said, scowling. "And what do you mean, ‘figure this out?’ There’s nothing to figure out, this is just how it is."

He shook his head. "No, Harry, lots of people have difficulty reaching orgasm. But it should only be a matter of finding the right sexual stimulation. I wonder . . ."

"Hell’s bells," I muttered.

John’s eyes returned to me from far off. He had that dreamy, faintly adoring expression he gets when he’s thinking really hard; it’s his sexy fantasy face and his flow chart face all in one.

"Hey," he said, following up the earlier humble with a round of earnest. "Harry. Seriously. I – we. We can figure this out."

"You don’t understand," I said quietly.

He leaned closer. We lost eye contact, and his cheek brushed against mine. "Don’t understand what? Just tell me, I’m sure it’s manageable, whatever it is."

I shook my head, laughing tiredly. Of course he thought it was manageable, and of course he was sure.

"Okay," I said wearily. "Maybe you were right about me."

"What do you mean?"

"This is going to be hell on your ego, and I’m going to enjoy it," I said. "You can’t fix everything, John."

There was a slightly disconcerted pause. Then he said lightly, "I bet you I can."

I snorted, felt myself unknotting a little as we were back on old, familiar ground. "Bet you can’t," I said.

He leaned across me to blow out the candle. His hand curled warmly around my hip in the dark, and he wasn’t kidding around or trying to defuse things when he quietly said, "We’ll see."

*

So then my very mobster sorta boyfriend staged a military offensive against my clitoris, and I was tempted to garrote him with a tight-stretched condom (pre-lubricated and ribbed-for-her-pleasure, naturally). It’s a wonder either one of us is still alive, let me tell you. Me because he was making a concerted effort to kill me with sex, and him because it was taking a concerted effort for me not to smother him in his sleep.

He sleeps like an angel, have I mentioned that? On his side, usually, with his knees drawn up and, I do not tell a lie, his half-curled fist tucked against his cheek. It’s freakishly sweet.

Anyway. Not the point.

The point is, there was suddenly a lot more sex on the agenda. Or, no, actually, that’s not true. John’s tongue starts hanging out if I so much as wear a tight t-shirt, and I will admit that he is, aside from everything else, kinda sorta really very unreasonably hot. If I were the kind of girl who wrote poetry about her conquests on bathroom walls, I might be tempted to pen a limerick or two about the breadth of his shoulders, or that cut of muscle inside his hipbones, or maybe even his eyes when he’s sleepy and—

Anyway.

It’s not like there was suddenly more sex, because we’d been having a lot already. That’s pretty much what we did with each other. But it was suddenly not just sex, it was Step Sixteen in the plan to advance the Great Orgasm Agenda.

It wasn’t all bad. John had two major offensive fronts, and one of them was actually pretty fun, in a nature special on the sexual habits of a Chicago-born crime lord kind of way.

It was just a bunch of different positions at first. Stuff we’d done before, stuff we hadn’t. What if I was on my stomach? What if I was on my knees? What if I was on top? (We got sidetracked on that one for a while, and had to repeat several times). What if I was bending over the back of my couch? (I vetoed that one after about sixty seconds on account of cat hair). What if I was dangling upside down from my non-existent chandelier? That sort of thing.

And we had to try everything in the full thirty-one flavors. Really slow, sensual sex, all soft touches and breathing so close I could feel his eyelashes on my cheek; rough, wild sex where we came away dizzy and bruised; and everything in between.

Then it was more adventurous stuff. I thought the edible body paint would be awkward and kind of twee, but it was actually great. The brushes were cool and tickly, and then our mouths were warm and soft. Also, it emerged that years of thaumaturgy and generalized magical craftswomanship had paid off, and I was a pretty good artist. John, on the other hand, was terrible. Sex aside, the whole thing was pretty entertaining.

The riding crop was a total misfire. We sat around debating it for half an hour – "you first" "no no, after you" "but I insist" – before we admitted that neither one of us was actually that interested.

The handcuffs were a surprise hit. He dangled them in front of my nose after dinner one Saturday, eyebrow arched challengingly. I snatched them out of his hands and told him not to get any big ideas, he was going first.

And then I, well. Heh. I kind of fucked his brains out. It was amazing, riding him like that, feeling him contained but straining between my thighs. I felt strong and powerful and sexy, all my creeping doubts fled away for a little while.

I didn’t come. John did. In fact, he may have gotten some of mine, too, and I wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t burst a blood vessel or something. I didn’t mind. But he really did, in his buttoned-up way.

I vetoed anything involving blood, furry animals, people pretending to be furry animals, bodily functions, guns, and period costumes. What? They don’t make corsets for women with torsos as long as mine. John said I lacked a sense of adventure, but that he could work with those parameters.

The candle wax thing was fun, if really, really messy. John liked it too, though he was less fond of the ice we added into the mix.

We ended up on the rug in front of the fire that night. It was November by then, and that was the only warm place in my entire apartment. John was all limp and smiley with afterglow; I took the opportunity to crawl across him and steal the spot closer to the fire.

"Mmm," he said. He started to roll over against me, but yelped as he encountered a patch of chilly ice melt.

"Here," I said, passing him a towel. We could have gotten off the floor, but neither one of us cared that much.

John folded his arms around me, brushing one hand up and down my stomach. He began gently peeling the sheet of cooled wax off my right breast with the other.

"I can’t believe we got through all that, and the only thing you set on fire was the candles," he said.

"Don’t tempt me," I said lazily.

There was a long, comfy silence. Then, "You like sensation play," he murmured into my hair.

"What?" I said sleepily.

"Sensation play," he said. "You like it, don’t you?"

I frowned into the fire, thinking here we go again. "I don’t know what that means," I said. "Isn’t it all ‘sensations’?"

"Maybe," he said. "Why don’t we look into the difference?"

And he showed up a week later with a blanket straight out of a fairy tale about a princess who could spin clouds into cloth. Except in reality it was probably some space-age, machine-tooled marvel. Indistinguishable from magic, indeed. It was the softest thing I’d ever touched in my life.

He didn’t have to talk me into anything; I stripped down in record time and sank into it, rolling over and starfishing out and groaning.

"Ooh," I said, stretching and flexing just to feel it whisper over my skin. I opened my eyes to find John standing at the foot of the bed, doing the stone-faced version of drooling over me that I still wasn’t used to. It was just a little much, the way he panted after me. How often he told me he wanted me, how he would stare at my legs, my breasts, my hair on those rare occasions I unbraided it. I’d once told him he could tone it down, that I didn’t need all the dramatics to feel appreciated. He’d just stared steadily at me for a while, then proceeded to ignore me completely.

I pointed my toes, wincing a bit as the roughened skin on the bottoms of my feet snagged on the blanket. "Oh, are you still here?" I said. "You’re kind of superfluous right now, I’ve gotta tell you."

He grinned. "Say that again in ten minutes," he said, and started undressing.

He’d brought a bunch of little scraps of fabric, some in squares, some in loops that he could slide over a finger or a hand. But not velvets and silks like I’d been expecting. These were rougher, more abrasive. Pretty close to sandpaper, some of them. John rasped them gently over me as I twisted in the encompassing softness. He chafed my nipples until they were swollen and aching, and later when he fucked me with a finger wrapped in a nubbly, abrasive fabric, my back arched clean off the bed.

He leaned over me when we were done, sweating at the temples and dangerously thoughtful. "Good," he said judiciously. "But not quite good enough."

"John," I said, irritated. Because that was the part I didn’t like, the inevitable post mortem. He wanted to discuss everything we did, pick my brain for what I’d liked and what I hadn’t. It was like he thought he could draw a topographical map of my sexual responses, and if only he got detailed enough he would eventually get X marks the spot, here there be orgasms. I didn’t like it at all.

And then there was the other stuff he wanted to do, the second-prong of the operation. Basically, he wanted me to lie back, spread my legs, and let him go to town. Which doesn’t sound so terrible, on the surface. Except he was so utterly convinced that all he had to do was go down on me or finger me long enough and hey presto! It would turn out the last few decades of often bitter experience couldn’t stand up to the power of his tongue.

And the thing that pissed me off the most? He actually was good with his mouth. Really, really good. And I’ve always loved that; Susan and I used to lie head-to-toe, my back bowed to accommodate her smaller build, and we’d lick each other until our mouths went numb. There is nothing else that feels like that, not really.

So yeah, I’d normally be all over that. But it was hard to get into it when John was looking up from between my legs every ten seconds going, "Are we there yet? How about now? How about now?"

He couldn’t think about anything but giving me orgasms, and he was totally ruining the sex.

Things finally got out of hand in January. I’d realized, weeks after the fact, that the blanket folded at the foot of my bed could be considered a present. I thought about it for days: did I feel . . . compromised? Would I even know?

He wasn’t buying my loyalty. But I still wasn’t okay with it. The surprising part was figuring out that what I needed to do in order to be okay with it wasn’t to return it, or burn it on his lawn or anything.

I was nervous when we got together a week later. I didn’t even last five minutes; I left John in charge of setting the table while I slipped into the bedroom.

"Got you something," I said when I came back.

John turned, smiling quizzically at the thick black cord I dangled in front of him.

"A bracelet?" He asked, flicking a finger at the tied-off fibers at one end.

"It’s not your usual aesthetic, I know," I said. "But I thought you might—"

He rolled up the right sleeve of his sweatshirt and silently offered me his wrist.

"Okay," I said, exhaling. "Hang on, this’ll take a minute." He held his hand patiently while I snugged the bracelet to his wrist and began painstakingly weaving the loose ends together. There were twenty-one strands, a few of them extremely fine, and they all needed to connect up.

"Does it . . . do something?" John asked, tapping one of the copper beads I’d threaded in.

"Impotence charm," I said absently, pulling his wrist closer.

"Uh-huh." He ran a free thumb down my jaw. "Not working yet, for your information."

"Quit it," I said. "And hold still."

He’d take the bracelet to Gard, I was sure, and she’d tell him about the low-level protections woven in. Nothing big, just a little grounding mechanism for any hostile energy that might come his way. She might or might not figure out one of the dark threads was a strand of my hair. That was okay, either way. I wasn’t actually planning on dogging his movements; I was pretty sure it would be better if I didn’t have the details on where he went all day. But if I ever really needed to find him, I would be able to.

"There," I said, tying the last knot.

"Thank you," John said gravely. He lifted my hand and kissed my knuckles. It was one of those stupid showy things he did that somehow came across as very sincere. "I brought you something, too."

"If it’s jewelry, I’m kicking you out," I said instantly.

"I wouldn’t dare." He grinned over his shoulder as he went to dig into his coat pocket. "I’ll leave that to you, apparently."

He’d brought me a cylindrical rubber thing, four inches long, sort of phallic except for how it curved in the middle. There was something magical about it – I could feel a tingle of potential under my fingertips. It was familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.

"All right, you got me," I said. "What is it?

"It’s a spell that stores and then disburses kinetic energy," he said, clasping his hands and looking supremely smug. "Which is tied into a complex mechanism of very small springs and ball bearings."

"Okay," I said, turning it slowly in my hands. "And it does—" I triggered the spell – it was easy, once I knew what it was – and the thing jumped in my hands. I yelped, fumbling it, trying to hang on as it buzzed disconcertingly. "Holy crap!" I said. "No fucking way."

He crossed his arms, grinning harder than I’d ever seen.

"Springs, you said?’ I squeezed the – stars and stones, the magic vibrator between my fingers. "And ball bearings? Do you know how--?" There was a seam in the rubber, I could spot it when I squinted. I tried to slip my nail in, to see if I could peel it open.

John took me by the shoulders and shook me firmly. "Harry. Priorities. You can take your vibrator apart later and see how it works. Right now that spell has a limited life, and it’s running down."

". . . Oh," I said, blinking as I mentally changed gears. "Right you are."

He didn’t even wait for me to get my clothes off; he came up behind me while I was fighting with my shirt, put his arms around my waist, and rubbed the vibrator up between my legs, over my jeans. I squeaked, twitching away, then back into it, then away again. I’d never felt anything like it. It was tingly, more encompassing than the touch of fingers. I really, really liked it.

I got my jeans off, then I had one foot kicked up on the edge of the bed and John was behind me, holding me up while he rubbed back and forth between my spread legs, over my underwear. I whined between my teeth, already breathless, and guided him where I wanted him with a hold on his wrist.

We screwed fast and hard, shoved sideways at the foot of my bed. John barely remembered to put on a condom. The angle was wrong for him to keep at me with the vibrator, so I took over. I squeezed my eyes shut and rolled it over my clit, pressing hard enough to make my feet kick helplessly in reaction. The vibrations had felt very sharp and focused at first. But they were spreading out, somehow, diffusing through my whole pelvis and turning me to liquid. I could hear myself; I was growling between my teeth like an animal. And then, as I kept rubbing and John kept thrusting, I was making these big, open-mouthed, guttural noises. I sounded like I was hurting.

And then it ended. John came, and the vibrator sputtered out, and I lay there, throbbing. I could still feel the vibrations beneath my skin; just the touch of air was painful. The muscles of my belly trembled, and sudden, unexpected tears prickled behind my eyes.

"We need to stop," I said.

"What?" John foundered up onto an elbow.

I gestured tightly between us, my hand shaking. "The orgasm thing," I said. "It has to stop right now."

He looked comically confused. "But I thought that was really working for you," he said. "Maybe not this time, but if we keep at it—"

"No," I said sharply. Oh yeah, it’d been working for me. What the hell had I been thinking, letting him pull this stuff? He was John, he was creative, he got shit done. I should have known he’d come up with something that would make me think, if just for a second, that it would work. And now here I was, crawling right out of my skin, and aching. "Game’s over."

"It wasn’t a game." He flared with sudden frustration, leaning into my face. "For God’s sake, I just want to make you feel good, but of course you can’t just let me, I should have fucking known."

It was easier for me to control myself with him kind of losing it. "And I just want you to stop," I said evenly. "I don’t want to argue about it, I don’t want to take a vote. Just stop."

He sucked air between his teeth, exhaled, did it again. "Fine," he said, and it was like I’d actually hurt his feelings or something. Yeah, well, neither one of us was having a good night, so he could just deal.

And so he stopped. With a lot of awkwardness and an uncomfortable few weeks where we didn’t manage to have sex at all. But he stopped trying to make me come. And I suspect, eventually, he even stopped thinking about it quite so much.

I didn’t.

*
I got mad.

At first I was mad because I couldn’t help it. I stomped around for a week, alienating Murphy and snapping at Molly. And very definitely not crawling back to fucking Marcone or recharging that fucking vibrator for some relief, because there would be no relief.

And then when that subsided, I was just plain mad.

I mean, I’d done this already. I’d freaked out, I’d experimented. I’d had my five stages of grief, or whatever you want to call it, and I’d moved on. And then John Marcone came along and messed it all up again.

Except, funny thing. I don’t know if it was just being older and allegedly wiser or what, but it didn’t feel like it ever had before. It wasn’t like when I was twenty two and finally losing my virginity, and the crushing disappointment that followed. And it wasn’t like how desperate I’d been through my slutty period, when I’d slept with three separate guys in less than eighteen months. And it definitely wasn’t like fighting Susan’s relentless kindness – "it’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with you, lots of women are like this" – and the slow acceptance of what she kept telling me. Or the months that followed, our brief good times, when I figured out how nice sex actually is, even when you can’t get the brass ring.

This time was different. More focused. Hell, maybe it wasn’t being older and wiser, maybe it was just being older and meaner. I knew more about being mad now, more about focusing, more about doing something useful with it.

So I did something. With this alarm clanging in the back of my head the entire time, knowing all along that there was no point, that at best I was going to end up disappointed and at worst . . . well. I’d known I was kind of messed up about the whole thing through my twenties, even at the time, and the thought of going back there was scary.

But knowing all that, I still went to California.

I didn’t go just for – I had warden’s business. I just happened to barter a guide through the nevernever from a wildfae instead of taking any of the warden-approved routes, and when Ramirez and I were done kicking ass and taking names, I went back to his place for a shower and just happened to ask to use his phone.

Elaine met me in Santa Barbara. The pier was all but deserted in February, even though to me it felt like a nice, tropical sixty out. Californians.

We got coffee at Starbucks. Elaine wanted to sit inside, but I coaxed her back out with me. The pier was cement for several hundred feet, then it turned to wood. The ocean always looks rough to my Midwestern eye, and it certainly sounded impressive rushing under our feet. But Elaine gave it a jaundiced look and told me it was far too mild for any surfers to bother coming out.

I had an agreement with myself that I would start talking as soon as we came even with the next railing post . . . okay, no, the one after that . . . okay, that bench . . . okay, the end of the pier, if we got there I would have to start.

We got there. We stopped. I drank coffee. And Elaine knows me, it doesn’t matter how many years we go without talking, or how bitter I still am, or anything. So she just stood there and waited.

"Okay," I said. "Here it is. I need to ask you a question. Just one. And if you could say yes or no, I’d really appreciate it, and I promise we won’t ever have to talk about it again."

She seemed to retreat from me without moving a muscle. "Okay?"

I stared down at the water. "Are you . . . do you . . . Did you get it back? Sex. After, you know. The thing he did."

There was a brief pause. I didn’t look up until Elaine said, "Yes."

"Okay," I said, exhaling. "That’s, um. Good for you. Thanks."

"Wait." Elaine was still pretty, even frowning like that. "Are you saying you didn’t get it back?"

"We don’t have to—"

"Oh, shut up, we are absolutely talking about this. I thought you had slept with that woman? The reporter?"

"I did," I said, blushing. "I got that back. Just not, um."

"Not . . .?" Elaine wasn’t looking hunted and fragile like she should for a conversation that started where this one had.

I made demonstrative hand gestures, but it turns out I’m way better at faking it than at playing charades. "Orgasms," I said finally. "I didn’t get that back."

Stars, this was excruciating. Elaine and I used to be so far under each other’s skin that we could have whole conversations in three or four syllables. But there were always things we didn’t talk about, sudden gaps where there be monsters. We never had a single disloyal conversation while we were under Justin’s roof, even though in retrospect I can’t have been the only one who sometimes caught herself thinking, wait, that isn’t how it’s supposed to be, is it?

Elaine was staring at me, chewing her lip. "You’re seeing someone new, right?" she said.

I pulled a face. "You could put it that way."

"And it’s serious."

I made ‘slow down, wrong turn’ hand gestures. "Hell’s bells, it’s not like that. It’s – it’s the anti-that. If it’s serious, it’s serious like a medical condition. It’s—" I decided to stop talking.

"You and your relationships," Elaine said with an odd, fond twist to her voice.

"Okay, it’s definitely not that," I said, horrified.

Elaine turned away and pitched her empty coffee cup into a trash can. She started walking back up the pier, and I had to take two long steps to catch up.

"I was twenty-four before it really came back," Elaine said tonelessly. "Twenty-six before I let anyone so much as touch me. It wasn’t easy." She flicked me a quick look. "You know, I think one of the biggest things he stole from us was time."

"Time?" I repeated dubiously. I didn’t see how that was worse than autonomy, self-respect, the ability to trust, peace of fucking mind . . .

"Yes. I had to catch up, I guess. So I slept with thirty or forty people." I nearly dropped my coffee. "Look, I didn’t say this would help," Elaine said. "Just, this is what I had to do."

"Okay," I said carefully. "And it did help?" She nodded. "But you’re not –" I gestured, trying to figure out a nice way to say, ‘but you’re still alone.’

"Not everyone wants the home-hearth-burning relationship thing," she said, giving me a significant look. "I have pretty good sex when I want it. And orgasms. It just took a lot of practice."

Funny. I’d heard other people talk about sex that way, like it was something you had to work at. And there was something systematic about all John’s variations and experiments. But still, I could never shake the deep-seated conviction that it was just one of those things I should already get, that my body should just know.

"Okay," I said. I tossed my coffee cup as we came off the pier. "Thanks."

She nodded, and zipped up her jacket like she could possibly be cold in the California sun. We hovered a foot away from each other, stuck in that awkward moment where we couldn’t decide whether we wanted to hug or not, whether it would be okay. And then I thought fuck it with a spurt of old, savage defiance, and held out my arms. We squeezed each other tight. I didn’t touch many people like that, and my arms automatically expected John’s solidity. Elaine was weirdly fragile in comparison.

"Take care of yourself," she said, pulling away.

"You too." I stepped away, turned, took three steps, stopped. Turned back, slowly. "Elaine?"

"Yeah?" She glanced over her shoulder.

I bit my lip. "The thing he did," I said. "That was really fucked up, wasn’t it." I didn’t understand the impulse. It wasn’t like I was asking her, I just wanted to say it.

"Yeah," she said. "It was really fucked up."

And to have her agree, apparently.

"Yeah," I confirmed, and went to find out where my wildfae had wandered off to.

*
I loved Elaine, once. Probably always will, even if I don’t necessarily want to sometimes. But I still feel like crap pretty much every time I see her, for one reason or another.

That time it was . . . stars. I was just angry. I felt like she’d taken something away from me.

Before, I was someone who’d been fucked over, and who’d lost something wonderful that everyone else seemed to have as a matter of course. That sucked. I dealt. I was proud of dealing, even if it’d taken me a long time. And I had certainty.

But after talking to Elaine, I didn’t know what I was anymore. Still fucked over, definitely. But maybe the loss wasn’t permanent, maybe . . .

Even that pissed me off. Turns out, if you’ve never had something and you’ve learned to be okay with that, and then suddenly hey maybe you can have it after all if only you solve this riddle and complete this impossible quest . . . it’s not actually very nice. It makes all that hard work you did before just to be okay seem pointless.

And besides, I still didn’t know anything, not really. John and I had tried – well, okay, I was no expert, but it had certainly felt like we’d tried everything. So if he was right about me, if all I needed was the right "sexual stimulation," then we should have fixed me, right? To hear him talk, it should be a matter of finding the right kind of batteries, and off I would go.

And if all that hadn’t worked, what could I possibly do about it?

Nothing, apparently. I had no bright ideas, and my body was still mute. No secret trove of instinctive knowing suddenly opened to me.

Time passed. Stuff happened. I went on with life.

John had a toothbrush next to my sink and a few changes of clothes in my drawers. It was bizarre, how well he fit into my life. Not on the outside, I mean, with our respective associates and enemies – that was a disaster poised and waiting to happen. We didn’t talk about that. But inside my apartment, when the door was closed and it was just him and me . . . there was something timeless about it, like there is about good things. Like you can’t remember when they started, because it seems as if life must always have been this way. And you certainly can’t conceive of how they could possibly ever end.

John brought me roses in the spring. It was out-of-the-blue and kind of weird. He laid them in my arms when he came in the door on a Wednesday night.

"Just humor me," he said with a rueful smile.

I was feeling magnanimous, so I put them in a vase and didn’t even give him hell about it. They were beautiful: the petals were the traditional red at the base, but they shaded up to an extraordinary violet near the edges. Someone brings you beautiful flowers, it doesn’t matter if he’s a giant weirdo about it, you’ll still smile when you stumble out in the morning and see them on your counter.

But I have some deep-seated impulses when it comes to flora, and they don’t stop at looking.

Four days after bringing the roses, John followed me into the kitchen early in the morning. He leaned against my back, arms around my waist as I filled the kettle and splashed a little extra water into the vase.

"It’s fine," he said, an amused rumble to his voice. "You can stop restraining yourself. I won’t be offended when you shred them for potions ingredients."

I scowled. "I was waiting for them to age," I said.

He sniggered into my neck. "Of course you were. Sufficiently mature now, are they?"

"Yes," I said haughtily, and poured the water back down the sink.

I dissected them right there at the counter. It was meticulous work, very finicky. I plucked the petals first, keeping them as intact as I could, then stripped the sepals, snipped the thorns, and delicately peeled and split the stem and hips. One rose produced a pile of petals and leaves, the woodier layers of stem for discard, a clutch of rosehips, a few thorns, and a single fragile stigma on its long style, attached to the tiny bulb of ovaries. There was deep magic locked there, renewable and wild.

John watched me do it, then picked up a rose of his own, copying me precisely gesture for gesture. There were two dozen roses, and it took us a long time to get through them. We had mounds of petals and parts before we were done.

I stopped with two roses to go, and passed behind John without saying anything. I came back with a fresh handkerchief. I stood close by him, slipping around and through his arms to spread the cloth open beneath his working hands.

John was in the final stages, just easing the stigma and ovaries free. His fingers were stained faintly purple; they looked enormous in comparison to the delicate rose organs. He glanced quizzically up at me, one eyebrow cocked.

"Keep going," I said.

He did. And I held the handkerchief, catching little drifts of glittering pollen, fragments of rose. And something less substantial that I trapped with a gossamer net of magic. And I folded it up in the cloth, even though I didn’t know its name.

Three weeks later, I was in the middle of sorting my mail when I realized, hang on, John and I had started sleeping together last spring. Last April, as a matter of fact. I couldn’t pin it down to a date, but right around a year and three weeks back.

. . . Oh.

*
I measured time by the ware on the bracelet I had given John. He couldn’t take it off, of course, and it was fraying and fading as he sweated and showered and went about his life.

The Denarians cut it when they took him. I knew, even though the magic wasn’t supposed to work that way. It slapped me out of a sound sleep and left my head ringing, my chest aching with a wrenching, profound loss.

It took me a week to get him back, with Hendricks and Gard in and out of commission, and fucking faeries everywhere, and then Ivy in the balance, too.

All this isn’t actually relevant to my orgasmic destiny. Not really. It’s just the stuff that happened to pop up between points A and O.

Anyway. We got them both back. It came very close to costing us Michael.

I shuttled between rooms at the hospital, experienced one of the more disturbing events of my very disturbing life in the chapel, and somehow got swept up in train with Marcone when he checked out. Next thing I knew I was in his mansion for the first time, up in his bedroom. Tucking him in.

Hendricks lumbered in after me, and I watched in some astonishment as he made his giant paws work the childproof cap of a Percocet bottle.

"One or two?" he asked.

"Two," John said, and swallowed them dry.

Hendricks left the bottle beside the bed. "Four hours before he can have any more," he said to me, like I was the hired nurse or something, and then he left.

I blinked down at John, thoroughly discombobulated. He blinked back, residually loopy from whatever they’d given him at the hospital while they stitched bits of him back together.

He’d gotten out miraculously whole. Just the mangled ear, some cuts on his face, two broken fingers, some contact burns, and the results of several beatings. Yeah. Miraculous.

"My hero," he said, smiling at me.

I felt myself go violently red. Hell’s bells. "I thought you’d be one of those macho guys who refuses pain medication and just soldiers on," I said.

He eased his shoulders, wincing. "No point in macho unless you have something to prove," he said. "And unlike some people, I don’t have something to prove by definition."

I tried to decide whether I was supposed to take that personally, but John had already moved on.

"Lost it," he said, gingerly lifting his splinted hand to show me the bare wrist. "Sorry."

"I’ll make you another," I said, then paused. "Actually, you know what? I’ll make you another right now."

It was even more seat-of-the-pants than the first one. Gard let me raid her supplies. I used black thread again, but silver beads this time. Gard had fine-spun copper wire, and I used a single filament of that for strength. And my hair, of course.

"Take it down," John said when I reached for my braid.

"Demanding," I said, rolling my eyes just to give him a little normalcy back. I’d intended to unbraid it all along – hair retains more magical vitality if it’s plucked from the root in a whole strand rather than cut along the length.

I got the hair, then set to work. I wove the bracelet right around his wrist, making up a new pattern on the fly. And I worked my will into every strand. It was one of those unspoken, wordless spells. It’s deep magic when a wizard holds something in her hands and just wants into it.

It took a long time. I looked up when I was almost done, expecting to find John asleep. He wasn’t. His pupils were shrunk to tiny points, but he was wide awake. And staring at me, with his lips a little parted and this look on his face.

"Hell’s bells," I said, outraged. "This is turning you on."

His eyes tracked lazily up to my face. "Too stoned," he said succinctly.

"Okay, yeah, but." I waggled my free pinky at him. "You’re still totally, y’know."

"If you’re saying I have a spiritual hard on for you right now, I must confess it’s true," he said solemnly.

I snorted out a laugh. "I don’t even know what that means," I said. "Shut up, let me finish."

He held up his wrist when I was done, admiring it. I turned away, cleaning up the scraps and suppressing the urge to ask him if he liked it.

"Harry," he said. His voice was low and hoarse.

I turned back, uncertain.

"C’mere," he said. His eyes were huge and liquid. "Let me smell your hair?"

I cracked up. "You are so stoned," I said. "And I haven’t showered since – John."

He was making ridiculous grabby hands. I sighed hugely and leaned over, planting my hand on his far side.

"Perv," I said. John buried his face in my hair, then nuzzled into my neck, sucking distractedly at my skin.

"Mmm," he said dreamily. "I thought about you. Your hands. Your hair. Licking water off your breasts in the shower . . ."

Well, crap, what could I say to that?

He lifted his braceleted wrist. "Would you let me?" he seemed to be losing track of his sentences, getting sleepy at last. "Would you throw it back in my face?"

I didn’t know what ‘it’ was, but I got the general idea. "I don’t know," I said honestly. "I might. Might not."

"You have to feel like we’re even," he said, with remarkable acuity for someone who couldn’t keep his eyes open. "And I owe you right now."

"I’m okay with that," I said. Him owing me? That was fine. It was just the other way around where the wheels came off. "And hey," I added. "You don’t get to – to take advantage of the fact I just saved your ass in order to give me something—" I didn’t have the right adjective to finish the sentence. Uncalled for was almost it, but not quite.

He was still smiling. "Thought about you haranguing me, too," he said, slurring. "Keep going."

"I will not harangue on command," I snapped. "Go to sleep."

"Yeah," he said dreamily. "Just like that."

And he was out. I scowled down at him. He looked exhausted, as well as chewed up and spat out. Had they let him sleep? Had he let himself sleep?

‘Well, I’m glad it was good for you," I muttered peevishly, and tucked his braceleted hand back under the blanket.

I stuck around until he woke up, gave him more Percocet, then went back to the hospital. There was a lot to take care of. Kincaid had whisked Ivy out of town before anyone had a chance to so much as give her a hug. But Michael was still touch-and-go, and Charity needed auxiliary childcare, an extra pair of hands, some spare sanity, the little things.

It was a week before I saw John again. Not intentional, we were just both completely swamped.

He showed up at my door with Greek takeout roughly ninety seconds after I stuck my head in my icebox and wondered despairingly what I was going to do with a single rind of moldy cheese and a case of beer.

He looked better. Still a little ragged around the edges, and those purple shadows under his eyes would not quit. But whole and moving comfortably. He hid the taped-up fingers under black gloves, but wore the mangled ear proudly in the open. How did he know which injury would say I’m vulnerable and which would say I survived? I could never tell when it was me – they all just felt like a flashing neon sign that said easy target, come on in for seconds.

We ate at the coffee table, not saying much, then maneuvered easily around each other in my little kitchen. He was handsier than usual: touches lingered at my waist, my bicep, my back.

We drifted to bed early by silent agreement. John was lying on top of the covers when I came out of the bathroom. He was still completely dressed, and Mister was sitting on his chest, bushy tail curled around his paws. Well, at least I knew the bruised ribs were healing.

John was running his hands from the crown of Mister’s head down his spine to the base of his tail in long sweeps. I kneed up onto the bed and swung a leg across, straddling his hips.

"You look tired," I said.

"I’ve been busy," he said. "An unplanned vacation will do that."

Listening to him be flip about it pissed me off. I lifted Mister out of the way and dropped him off the side of the bed. Deprived of the cat to treat like worry beads, John’s hands fell open at his sides.

I looked down at him. He looked back, one eyebrow coolly raised. He was calm, playing a flawless off-hours Marcone. But if he were a machine, he’d be emanating a supersonic whine of effort.

We’d said a lot of things to each other over the years. And even more things over the past few months here in my apartment. But when you come right down to it, the way we communicate best isn’t with talking.

So I took my shirt off. I wasn’t trying to be all slinky and sexy about it, mostly because I wouldn’t even know where to start. I just took my time, moved like I would if I were alone, only a lot slower.

John has this vendetta against my everyday bras, the cotton singlet ones with no underwire. It’s the lack of hooks he objects to, because apparently unclasping my bra is one of the great pleasures in life or something. So because I’m a really nice person, I wear my special occasion bra with the two hooks in the back a lot more often than I used to.

John reached back and undid it for me. The crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes deepened, though he wasn’t smiling.

He cupped my bare breasts, exhaling quietly to himself and closing his eyes. I suppressed the urge to ask him whether the three of them wanted to be alone for a while, and just let him commune or whatever.

But when he tugged lightly at my shoulders, I resisted. I leaned away, he pulled me back, I poked his chest, he got a better grip.

So I pulled out the big guns: I snapped the elastic off the end of my braid.

John froze to instant attention, and suddenly I was free to do whatever I wanted. I sat back, shaking his hands off, and started unraveling my braid.

You’d think I was performing a striptease, the way he stared. His fascination made it kind of sexy for me, too. I went slow, finger-combing each inch of hair out as I worked it free. It had been wet when I last braided it, so it came out even wavier than usual.

I tipped my head back when I was done, and shook it all out. The smell of my mint shampoo rose in the bedroom, and my hair was heavy and unfamiliar, brushing bare skin most of the way down my back.

And then I leaned down like he wanted, and let my hair fall around his face. John made a sound I’ve never heard from him before or since, and just burrowed into me. I sank to my elbows and let him do what he wanted. He was all fetishy about my hair for a minute, then he slid down and kissed my breasts, sucking gently until I sighed and cupped the crown of his head.

We undressed each other slowly. John was black and blue all over, but he wasn’t favoring anything. I kept my touches careful, and he did the same.

I didn’t notice anything odd for a while. Then I went hrmm to myself and pressed closer to him. I rolled my hips suggestively; I knew I was leaving traces of wetness on his thighs.

John’s eyes were closed when I looked. He had the remote, focused expression of a rock-climber working up a tricky overhang. I held still, waiting.

John’s mouth compressed, and he blinked his eyes open. I’d seen him defeated, I’d seen him afraid, I’d seen him cornered, but I’d never in my life seen that expression on his face.

"I’m afraid not," he said, and eased his hips away from mine. "My apologies.”

I bit my lip, suddenly on very uncertain ground. Men: they’re as fragile as their testicles, and that’s pretty fucking fragile.

So I tapped the bracelet around his wrist and smirked. "Got it to work this time," I said.

He snorted, and some of the tension went out of his mouth. "Witch," he said, and kissed me.

And then things got really nice. We knew we weren’t going to screw, but everything went all mellow and sexy instead of shutting down completely. We curled around each other, one of my legs hooked over his waist, his arm under my side. We kissed softly, lingering so long my mouth got tired. When I blinked my eyes open, one of the candles had burned down, leaving us tucked together in a dim, close light.

I tossed my head, trying to get the hair out of my face. "See," I muttered, clearing my throat, "this is why . . ."

John reached up and smoothed it back for me. He kissed my forehead, my temple, my eyelids. And with sudden precision, I knew exactly what I wanted.

I didn’t open my eyes. "Would you . . .?" I said, and pushed lightly at his shoulder.

He got it really fast. I heard his quick breath, and then he was moving, rolling me onto my back and sliding down my body. I kept my eyes shut, and even threw a forearm across my face.

He rubbed my thighs, spread them, pressed his face between my legs. I felt his breath, his lips, his tongue.

"Slow," I said, curving my hand around the back of his neck. "Just . . ."

And he just. He licked me slowly, but not gently. I held his head to me; I could hear myself crooning. It felt so good. Not urgent, not leading me on to expect something my body wouldn’t deliver. Just keen, sweet goodness with him here and alive.

I enjoyed it for a long time, without getting self-conscious or wondering if he was bored. And when I felt like I’d had enough, I tugged gently on his hair, and he stopped. He was still only half hard when he crawled up the bed, but he looked downright post-coital, all blissed out and soft eyed. Like I’d done him a favor or something.

We held each other, and kissed, and touched. Another candle burned out. The distant neighborhood sounds fell silent as the night deepened.

And sometime – it could have been midnight, it could have been three a.m. – I put my lips to his ear and whispered.

"Someone put a spell on me when I was a kid," I said. "When I was fourteen. He caught me kissing someone, and he made it so we wouldn’t do that. So we wouldn’t even want to."

And it had worked. I’d felt something in me quench and die; he smothered it so thoroughly, I couldn’t even want it back. I could remember wanting Elaine, the excitement, the uncertainty, but the fire was just . . . gone.

He couldn’t make me stop falling for her, though. We crept into each other’s beds at night, bathed together, slept naked, but never did anything more than g-rated kissing. And she was still my first lover in every way that counts.

"Anyway," I said. "The spell went away, eventually." Dying over months like a failing light bulb, and hadn’t that been fun. "But I think it screwed me up pretty good."

John was quiet for a minute. Then he said in that direct way he has of delivering his conviction, "I don’t think it did. I think you’re fine."

We slept, eventually, and somehow got under the covers without realizing it. I dreamed intense, sensual dreams that I don’t remember, all physical sensation and no context. And when I woke in the morning, I was slick and wet.

I lay there for a few minutes, aching pleasantly, mostly still asleep. John was in the shower. I smiled to myself; I have no problem admitting that I enjoy the hell out of inflicting my cold water on him.

He padded back in eventually, and I said "mrrr?" without opening my eyes.

He came and kissed my forehead. "Morning," he said, sounding about a hundred times more awake than I wanted to be.

"Mmm," I said, and bestirred myself just enough to twitch his hand from my shoulder farther down my body.

"Oh really?" John said bemusedly. He folded the covers down, hands wandering. I nudged back into him. He was wearing only a towel, and it looked like, yep, last night’s exhaustion or whatever wasn’t a problem anymore.

"Stay there," John said huskily.

No problem. I drowsed in pleasant, heated anticipation while he rustled about. Then he was molding himself to my back, he was kissing my neck, he was rubbing his safely latexed dick back and forth between my legs. Just enjoying having the equipment operational, I was pretty sure.

He took his time. That was okay. I sighed when he finally entered me, my back sliding into a curve. I was crookedly on my side, tipped partway over onto my stomach with John curled around me. It was awkward but perfect. I just lay there; my muscles were lethargic, and I’d barely moved since I’d woken.

He went slow for a long time, pushing into me on every other breath. One of his hands curled over mine on the pillow. I wormed the other one down beneath me and found my clit. I didn’t really work at it, I just let the motion of our bodies work it against my fingers.

He went harder after a while. I was still so relaxed, my whole body rolled with it. I felt something rising in me, something finite and fragile, only perceptible because I was so still.

I pressed my clit between my fingers, my hips starting to move. My breath was rushing faster, my hands and feet tingling. John was fucking me hard by then, pressing my legs wider as he fought to get deeper into me.

"Harry," he kept saying,. "Harry, yes. This is what I – yes."

And I came. Easy like tipping over a teacup; I didn’t have time to know what was happening until it was there. And I thought, wait, what? and then no fuckin’ way. And then, ooh.

John swore and shook over me, in me. He kissed my hair and my neck. Then, weirdly sweet, he leaned up and kissed the knuckles of the hand on my pillow.

"I’ve got to go," he murmured after a few minutes. "I’m sorry. Are you even awake?"

"Uh-huh," I said faintly. My belly was quaking, all the small muscles trembling as if they’d just done something really difficult. Which, to be fair, they had.

John chuckled, oblivious. "Go back to sleep," he said, and kissed me again.

I lay there while he got up, while he went back into the bathroom to wash up and dress. And I lay there while he said goodbye again, and while he left.

Then my apartment door squealed shut, and I bolted up to stare wildly around. I throbbed between my legs, a wonderful, replete ache. It was just as good as the throb of wanting, but qualitatively and utterly different.

"Okay," I said to myself. "What the fuck was that?"

*
Then everything changed. Or everything stayed the same, and I changed. One or the other.

I wandered around for a few hours in a daze. Molly showed up for some apprenticing, and I performed a live fire demonstration for her on why you don’t ever ever brew while you’re distracted. I’m a hands-on teacher, what can I say.

I’d had an orgasm. I don’t get pleasantly surprised very often, and pretty much never by myself. I had the weird urge to pat myself on the back, even though I couldn’t name a single thing I’d actually done except be really sleepy and in-the-moment.

It turns out pleasure is like pain: it leaves ghosts behind in your body, echoes of intensity even though you can’t remember what it was truly like.

Could I have more? When could I have more?

As soon as physically possible, I decided. To hell with worrying about flukes and one-in-a-millions. It had happened. I had proof of concept.

So that night I went to bed with a tube of lubricant, the fingers of my right hand, and the sort of do-or-die mantras going in my head I usually only reserve for storming vampire strongholds.

It didn’t work. I felt good, all systems go, then it was like the Captain told Scotty they needed more from the engines, and Scotty just didn’t have it to give. I kept going until it stopped feeling good and started feeling twitchy and weird, and then until it kind of hurt.

Not a good night. A perfect replay of a couple really bad nights back in my early twenties, actually.

But there were a lot of differences between now and then: I was older and wiser, sure, whatever, and I had proof of concept. But the biggest thing was, now I had resources.

So I took John’s magical vibrator apart and figured out how it worked. On my coffee table instead of in the lab, thank you very much, though to be honest I wasn’t happy so much as being in the same building as Bob.

The vibrator was so fucking cool. John’s description – a kinetic energy spell connected to a system of springs and ball bearings – was like saying the Mona Lisa is some colored pigments splashed on a white surface. There were hundreds of springs, coiled and twisted to channel force into a tight, circular motion and sustain it at high speeds. I know magic; I believe in it, and I never doubt it’s the most powerful force man has ever used to work his will. And I know what can happen when you combine magic with good old physical science. But this was brilliant.

I studiously didn’t think about where it had come from, because if I did that, I’d have to confront the possibility that John had paid Gard to make it. And that would mean I’d have to go hide in the bathroom for a while, and then lure John in with me so I could drown him in the tub. Which might decrease my chances of future orgasms.

But then I found a maker’s mark, an angular, minimalist rendering of interlocked springs etched on the single solid piece of plate metal in the whole apparatus. That blew my mind. It meant there was someone out there who made this stuff as a profession. Maybe several someones. Maybe a whole cottage industry, and I’d had no idea.

I could investigate that later. There was plenty else on my plate just then.

I figured out how to renew the kinetic spell on the vibrator, and even made it stronger while I was at it. Except, uh, I might have overdone it a tad. I’d vaguely thought, you know, vibrations were the most powerful sensation I’d ever applied down there, and it had almost worked the first time, months and months ago. So more could only help, right?

. . . Oops.

Adjust, calibrate, retry, rinse, repeat.

I think having the engineering problem to focus on helped, because it meant I didn’t spend the entire time thinking about, y’know. The Engineering Problem.

The jackpot was elusive, even when the mere touch of the vibrations didn’t make me levitate off the bed anymore. Turns out there’s an art to vibrators, and I had a lot to learn. I figured out how to sneak up on myself, how to back off, how to go hard, then soft, then hard again. It was like learning the wardens’s battle sign language, at first just trying to comprehend the signals flying at me, then to respond, then to understand on a deeper level so responding would be instinctive.

It was hard. Like real work, I mean. I tried, and sweated, and failed. And sometimes, when everything worked just right, I failed a little better.

I had to wait between attempts, obviously. And sometimes I pushed too hard, kept at myself past where I should have given up, and I couldn’t come back for a couple days at a time. I was giving John a bit of the distracted-shoulder. That was okay in the short-term; we both did that, now and then. But his tolerance was not infinite, and I knew eventually –

Except, funny thing. I wasn’t just figuring out how to hold the vibrator and how much pressure to use. I was also learning less mechanical things about how this worked. And one of them was that I could not run to schedule. I could not think this time! or not today, but by the end of this week! or even for fuck’s sake, what do I have to do, sacrifice a goat? Because the minute I started thinking bigger picture, the train came off the track.

It was really, really hard. Just . . . being. Enjoying, to the exclusion of anything else.

I slowed down. I stopped thinking about the finish line. And somehow, gradually, playing with the vibrator became a reward, something relaxing and good I could do for myself at the end of a long day. And then it got better. I found out how good it felt to slide it into myself, to press it deep and angle it just right. It got so I would get wet, just thinking about it.

And then it worked. My second-in-a-million. And it was even better than the first one.

I started out on my back like normal, but by the moment of truth I’d twisted around to my stomach, I was rocking frantically with the vibrator and both hands clamped between my legs, I was making crazy sex noises into my pillow.

I laid around and beamed at the ceiling for a while after it was over. My thoughts puddled in my skull, sloshing from one thing to the next in weird, associative leaps.

. . . Huh.

Eb used to say that we can never truly understand something until we figure out how to explain it to ourselves.

"It’s not like finding the right battery," I said. "It’s like magic."

Magic takes craft, of course, and practice, and skill. But at least for me, it never works without the other thing. The soulstuff. What comes geysering out when I dredge deep.

And I know a lot about magic. But most importantly, I know how to learn it.

I started calling John back again. He was bitchy at me about the whole thing for about thirty seconds, but he’d dropped off the map completely for weeks last December for reasons he’d never adequately explained, so he shut up about it pretty fast.

Besides, I was calling him for the express purpose of jumping his bones at every opportunity, and John knows what side of his bread the butter is on. So to speak.

So we started experimenting. To be honest, if I didn’t have that very first orgasm as evidence, I would have doubted my ability to get there without the vibrator. But it’d happened. I couldn’t stop thinking about coming with him inside me. I remembered losing track of the boundaries of myself, with the blood rushing so fast right under my skin. I remembered feeling . . . permeable, like the barriers of our separate bodies became thinner for just a moment.

. . . It was a really good orgasm, okay?

And I wanted another one. With him.

So we experimented. And it was irritating, but I found myself falling back on John’s example. I ran us through positions like a piano player does scales.

Except, in a sense, it wasn’t the same at all. Because it felt weirdly like the gymnastics were just a blunt instrument. A crude way of moving our bodies around when what I was really doing was making finite, strange, precise changes in my head.

Yeah. Hard to explain.

The physical stuff was important, though. I figured out after a while that it didn’t matter what else was going on, I was never going to have an orgasm while lying flat on my back. I don’t know, it’s just one of those things. It was a relief to give up on that and move on.

I learned I was hard work. I mean, I knew that. But it’s one thing to curl up at night with your vibrator (it was mine by then, damn it, by right of freaking conquest). That was all about my rhythms and pace. It was another thing entirely to throw John’s rhythms into the mix, particularly since it demonstrated without fail that I was just really, really slow to boil over.

But I had orgasms. Not many, only two in three months. Such a small sample, it was hard to figure out what worked and what didn’t. I had one when we were drunk, going at it fast and dirty on my couch. One in the shower late at night, when the water was warm for once and we were sleepy and slow.

There were different kinds of orgasms. I’d known that, watching other people, but I had no idea how different. How they could be intense and deep and roll out from the center of you, or short and almost brutal, closer to the skin.

And, um. When I say that we experimented, what I really mean is that I experimented and John was an enthusiastic but unknowing confederate.

It’s not like I set out to be deceptive. I just . . .

I used to think that couples told each other everything. Well, I mean, I was a P.I., so I knew they didn’t. But I always figured if you were doing it right, if you had the real deal, you wouldn’t want to keep secrets. I was horrified the first time Michael casually mentioned some bit of harmless domestic subterfuge. I couldn’t believe he’d do that.

I used to be wrong about a lot of things. Turns out sometimes it’s okay to keep a secret even though you’re, y’know. Inarelationship.

Turns out there are times you need to keep a secret, and it’s not because you’re doing something wrong. It’s just because its yours.

This stuff, the orgasms, it was new and pretty amazing, and also a little scary. And I wanted it to be only mine for a while. Not forever. Just for a little bit.

That, and, well. John.

This one time, I was going through a box of files when he came over for dinner. I had old case folders everywhere, rubber-banded together in thematic and chronological and magical groupings. I asked John to pass me one thing – one sheet of paper – and when I looked up twenty minutes later he’d "reorganized" the entire other half of the coffee table into some incomprehensible regiment of perfectly even stacks run on the Dewey Decimal System or something. He did it without even thinking about it, I’m pretty sure. And he frankly didn’t get it when I snarled at him and had to spend twenty fucking minutes figuring out what he’d done in the first place before I could un-Johnlogic everything back to a system where I could find what I wanted.

John manages things. I’ve heard him muttering over the paper in the morning, and I have a lurking suspicion his sweetest daydream is of the perfect, obedient world he’d build if he were in charge of, say, Wall Street.

I didn’t want that aimed at my orgasms. They were tricky and elusive; trying to catch one was like going after a stray cat. And John being logical at me wasn’t going to help. It’d probably just scare them off.

It’s not hard to fake it, by the way. It’s just a few breaths out, a stillness, a grip on the urge to move and make noise, while simultaneously keeping everything pretty relaxed. It’s not a lie. Not really. Just deceptive, a teensy bit.

It is true that John isn’t only smart, he’s sharp. He notices things, and keeps all of them in storage to fire back at you at the most inopportune moment.

But lucky for me, his brain lives in his balls just before, during, and most definitely after sex. It’s amazing, actually. The goofy things he’ll say, how tunnel-visioned he gets. It’s like my vagina is his Kryptonite.

(Not that he’s Superman, because he’s most definitely not. He’s more like Booster Gold. Or, okay, maybe on his really good days he’s like Green Arrow.

Except without all the womanizing, because he knows I’d kill him.)

Anyway.

I faked not-it, and he had no idea.

Well, maybe he had an idea, but he definitely didn’t figure out exactly what was up. And after a while, I started wanting him to. I wanted him to know, and I also wanted him to get there on his own. Mostly so I wouldn’t have to figure out a way to shoehorn, "hey, by the way, how about those orgasms" into conversation.

I was thinking about that one night early in the winter. We went ice skating, then stopped for pizza on the way home, to round out the Chicago traditions. It was a good night, and I still don’t know how it went wrong so fast. It was just one of those things where everything’s fine, and then you’re irritated about something tiny like the way he tries to alphabetize your bookshelves on the sly, and you say something about it, and he says something back, and suddenly you’re snapping at each other about books and stupid ties and the price of tea in China and, um, Helen Beckett.

"It’s not like I question your right to associate with whomever you please," John said.

Yeah. When I get mad, I get loud; when John gets mad, he gets grammatical.

"Since when?" I asked incredulously. "If you were any snottier to Thomas last time you saw him, they’d have to give you a medal for it."

"Well yes," John said, obviously irritated. "Your vampire walks in unannounced – with his own key – while we’re in bed, and you’re upset that I didn’t lay out the welcome mat for him?"

"Not the point," I said hastily. We’d had that fight before: John had said something cutting about a threesome, and I hadn’t taken it well at all.

. . . Yeah. Sometimes you keep secrets.

"What is the point?" John asked.

I scowled. The point was I knew and suspected a lot of terrible things about her. And the point was John wasn’t doing anything about it. Which either meant he didn’t know, or he didn’t care. Neither was acceptable: he could not be that willfully blind. She did not get to be his Kryptonite.

I ground my teeth and glared. John crossed his arms and glared back. I leaned forward. John leaned forward.

Mouse quietly got up from his spot on the rug between us and disappeared behind the couch.

"Don’t. Mess with. My books," I said.

"Don’t interfere," John said.

We were silent for another few tense beats. Then John tilted his head towards the bedroom, lifting an eyebrow.

"Yeah," I said, and started taking my clothes off.

What? We have highly-evolved, complex mechanisms for channeling conflict.

We went for it pretty hard. I knocked John on his back and rode him, putting all my frustration into it. I had his wrists pinned at his chest with my forearm, my rocking weight keeping him down. But he fought his way up again; I could feel every muscle in his chest and belly working against me. I leaned into him more, just to feel the quiver and the strain as he levered himself impossibly up.

He sat up all the way, his face close to mine, and I kissed him so I wouldn’t say anything ridiculous like "I love your body."

"Come on," he said, breaking away with a gasp. He scooted sideways, bringing me along on his lap, until he had the wall to his back and could brace himself.

Then, oh yeah, then we went at it. I thrust myself down onto him, thumping him into the wall. John growled and pounded up into me, his whole body flexing with effort.

And that little corner of my brain that was always watching the control board started going whoop, whoop, whoop, battle stations, because all the lights were green.

I reached down between my legs, losing my balance and lurching into John. But I didn’t care, I wanted my fingers on my clit. I rubbed, my back arching. Yeah, this was going to happen.

"Hey, John," I said breathlessly. "You wanna see a trick?"

"What?" His glazed eyes seemed to be having trouble focusing on me.

"Hang on," I said, pressing, and moving, and biting my lip. "I think . . . almost . . . just – don’t stop!" He’d slowed down, confused. I clamped my thighs tighter and flailed at his chest with my free hand. "John! Come on."

I shoved down, and he shoved up, and I rubbed hard, practically grinding my fingertips into the slickness. And I let rip. Right there, with him watching me the whole time. It was a really good one, the kind that comes in one long, hard wave.

I closed my eyes somewhere in there, and when I was done with most of the quivering and moaning I opened them again. John was staring at me, with this look like—

Like someone who doesn’t get pleasantly surprised very often.

"Harry," he said wonderingly. "You just came."

"Believe me, I know," I said smugly.

"Oh my God," John said.

"I know," I said. I suspected I was grinning like an idiot.

John opened his mouth, shut it, and breathed in sharply through his nose. Then he said, "Excuse me," like a gentleman, you know, knocked me over onto my back, thrust into me once, twice, and came like a freaking freight train.

We lay there for a minute, stewing gently in the afterglow. Mmm, afterglow. My favorite bit, after the sex bits, and the orgasm bits, and the cuddling bits. Mmm, sex. Mmm, orgasms.

And then someone pounded on my door. John was up like a shot, ditching the condom and practically teleporting into his jeans.

"What?" I said.

"Hendricks," John said. "That’s the emergency knock."

"Emergency knock?" I repeated blankly. Then to his back as he bolted out, "If you guys have decoder rings, you are way cooler than previous evidence suggested."

John didn’t hear that, or chose to ignore it. I heard him muscle my door open, and the murmur of voices. And I might have been post-coital and pretty damn happy, but I’m professionally nosy, so I strained my ears to listen.

"Stockpile," I heard Hendricks say, and "the lake," and "A.T.F."

"Motherfucker," John said distinctly. I sniggered into the sheets. Brain most definitely still in the balls, yep, or else that never would have popped out.

He came back at a jog, and flung himself into the rest of his clothes. "I’ve got to go," he said unnecessarily.

"You bastard." I stretched lazily. "The fuck-and-run. I’m cruelly used."

He came across the room and leaned over me. "Oh, is that what we’re calling it now?" he asked, smiling everywhere but his mouth.

"Uh-huh," I said intelligently. I was kind of distracted by the rasp of his stubble on the side of my neck.

He kissed me there, then my mouth, lingeringly. "Later, we’ll talk." He ran a hand down my body, slicked his fingers between my legs and rubbed. I went "ooh," my feet flexing, and John grinned like a kid who’d just been given the keys to the candy store. "Yes, definitely," he said. "Later."

*
Except then the son-of-a-bitch vanished for six days. He’s like a cat that way: constantly underfoot until the second you actually want him, and then he’s gone.

And I really wanted him.

Something opened in me that night we fought. It’s like when you have an old scar, and you can’t use your hand like you used to, but you adjust, that’s fine. And then one day, bam you bend it just a little too far and an adhesion rips and hurts like a motherfucker, but suddenly you have your entire range of motion back. Like that, only without the agony.

The way I thought about sex was suddenly much more urgent. I didn’t just want it anymore, I wanted it now, in very specific detail, with John, oh yeah, and an orgasm on top.

So I was understandably cranky when John finally deigned to call me.

"How are you?" he said, and was immediately swamped by a burst of static on the line in direct proportion to my irritation.

‘Oh, you," I said. "Where are you?"

"Philadelphia," he said. "In a hotel room, to be precise."

"You bastard," I said with feeling, because I’d honestly been expecting him to say ‘in the car, ten minutes away,’ or something else equally high-handed and baronial and enraging -- and really quite handy.

". . . Ah?" John said interestedly.

I inhaled sharply through my nose, reining myself in. Like I was going to give him ammunition like that. It might – just might -- be okay for me to need him a little bit. But that didn’t mean I had to tell him about it, stars and stones. "It’s nothing, never mind," I said.

"Really?" John said. Then he dropped the polish and went a thousand percent more urban punk in the space of two words. "C’mon, baby, don’t be like that."

I snorted out an involuntary laugh. "Don’t call me baby, we’ve been over this, you were warned."

He went back to his normal delivery. Maybe not his real accent, but what did real mean, after all? With John, the package became the substance pretty damn fast. Funny how few people I could say that about.

"I’m sorry I had to run out on you," he said. "There was a minor emergency."

"Minor as in traveling away from the city, which you hate doing?"

He ignored that, like I knew he would. "Am I forgiven?"

"No," I said. "But I’m willing to listen to you apologize some more."

His voice dropped half an octave. "Really? And how would you like me to do that, Miss Dresden?"

"Don’t even," I said. "We’ve been over this, too. I don’t do phone sex."

"Can’t blame me for trying," he said philosophically.

"No, I think I really can," I said.

There was a faint rustle on the line. Bedclothes, maybe. "But it’s been recently demonstrated that sometimes you can do things you say you don’t do." He paused. "Demonstrated in spectacular fashion, if it’s not too presumptuous of me to think so."

I crossed my legs, slumping into a deeper lean against my kitchen wall. "You were born presumptuous," I said.

"That’s why you like me," he said. "And I’m irritated with you as well, by the way."

"For what?" I said warily. This was either going to be something really obnoxious about how there wasn’t enough fiber in my brand of breakfast cereal and he knew a much better one, or something stupid and romantic.

"For being so damn distracting," he said ruefully.

Great. Romance. "Oh, here we go."

"I’m serious." He sounded like it, too, like this was dead fucking serious business to him. John had said a lot of more or less romantic shit to me, but he usually delivered it in this ironic, nothing-to-see-here style, like he was making fun of himself. Or me, I was never sure. This was different, and it pinned me to the wall, right where I stood.

"I’m trying to work, and I think of you," he said. "I try to sleep, I want you."

We were quiet for a minute, just breathing at each other over the crackling line. Then I took a really deep breath, inhaling against what felt like a boulder on my chest, and said, ". . . yeah."

The line went to static for a long minute. I waited it out, my head down, making myself breathe evenly. I half expected the call to disconnect, but eventually it cleared and John was still there.

"Speaking of things you say you don’t do," he murmured.

I made a face he couldn’t see. "Hell’s bells, it was just an orgasm," I said. A discussion of my sexual habits suddenly seemed way less fraught.

"You looked like you enjoyed it," he said, not missing a beat.

". . . Yeah," I said.

He puffed a breath in my ear. It sounded exasperated. "What changed?" he asked. "Was it something I did?"

"You’d like that," I muttered, knotting the phone cord between my fingers.

"Yes, I really would," he said frankly. "Because that way I could do it again. And again and again."

Well, when he put it that way.

"It . . . you didn’t do anything," I said, gesturing helplessly at my empty kitchen. "But you -- I. Um. It’s just something that might happen now. Sometimes. Maybe. Don’t – don’t scare it off."

"But it’ll happen again," he said, pouncing on that.

"Yeah." I closed my eyes. "I think so. When my horoscope lines up or whatever."

"And is there anything I can do to facilitate it happening again?" He’d gone all bedroom-voiced, even though he was talking to me like my orgasms were a real estate deal. And this time, it didn’t irritate me or make me feel weird because of the phone thing.

"Maybe," I said, exhaling. Hell’s bells, why was he in Philadelphia?

"Like what?"

Like talk to me, apparently. Geez. I squeezed my legs together, deliberately didn’t move my hands. "Like—" I had to clear my throat. "Like come home. And do . . . stuff to me."

There was a second’s pause, and then John cracked up. He turned his mouth away from the phone, but I could still hear him.

"Shut up," I said. I flushed, sniggering helplessly. "You asshole. This is why I don’t do this."

"Okay, okay," he said. "Doing stuff to Harry Dresden. I’m putting it in my Outlook calendar as we speak."

"For when exactly?"

Rustle, rustle, click. If he was actually doing it – well, that was kind of hilarious, come to think of it.

"Two more days," he said. "I’ll be home Saturday evening."

"Okay," I said. "I should be around, assuming there isn’t another hatching."

"Hatching of what?"

Ha. I made victory fingers in the air. It was always nice when I slipped one past Gard and, consequently, John. No reason, it just made me happy.

"Don’t worry your pretty little head about it," I said breezily.

He hummed, noncommittal. I was pretty sure he was making another calendar note -- send underling to investigate ‘hatching.’ Poor underling. I don’t mind spiders, and it had freaked me right out. John, I happened to know, hated anything with more than four legs with the stone-faced loathing of someone who is very purposefully not screaming like a girl.

"Saturday," he said. "Two more days."

"Promise?" I said. It just popped out, then hung in the air, suddenly taking up a lot more space than expected.

John went back to his deadly fucking serious voice. "Harry," he said. "I promise you." I closed my eyes, a zing going through me. Funny, but that felt like the sexiest thing we’d said all night.

"Okay." I joggled the phone against my ear, biting my lip. Here’s the part where we signed off. That had never been weird before, but suddenly it really was.

"Okay," he said back.

I exhaled, shook myself gently. "Good night, John."

"Good night, Harry."

I simmered for two days. The slow-and-steady kind, where you know you’re going to get to one hell of a boil eventually. And I didn’t do anything about it, even though I had the vibrator right there and it was really, really tempting. But I figured maybe if I saved it up, I would get extra. Something like that.

He showed up at six on Saturday in full business regalia, carrying a bottle of champagne.

I’d been down in the lab, so I kept him at a distance with an elbow and diverted to the kitchen to wash my hands first. John followed me in, poking into the upper cabinets.

"Good trip?" I asked.

"Crisis averted, at least," he said.

I scrubbed my hands dry with a towel, watching him search. "See, what’s really funny about this is how you’ve been banging me for over a year, but you still assume I would have champagne flutes," I said.

He paused, looking from me to the bottle. "We’re going to end up drinking out of mason jars again, aren’t we?"

"Suck it up, they’re practical." John’s persnicketiness was really practicality dressed up fancy, anyway.

"I know you have scissors," he said. "I’ve seen them."

"Um . . ."

"What?"

"They were temporarily repurposed," I said. "And I haven’t had a chance to sanitize them yet."

He looked pained. "Repurposed for what?"

"It involved a spider the size of your head, so I figure you’re happier not knowing," I said, and watched him twitch.

"I have a knife," he said, looking dubiously at the foil hat thingy.

"Hang on." I held the bottle out at arms length. "Give me a second . . ." I built the spell tiny, just a pinpoint of magic focused in the neck of the bottle. No idea whether this would work or whether I’d explode the whole thing in my face, but hey, one way to find out. "Forzare," I said calmly. The spell rocketed up the neck of the bottle and hit the cork dead-center. I was holding on tight, or else the bottle would have torn right out of my hands. There was a creaking noise, a rip, a pop, and the cork ricocheted off the ceiling and landed in the sink.

"Three points!’ I said, and took a slug out of the bottle. The champagne was smoother than I was expecting; the bubbles fizzed in my head instead of prickling, and it didn’t have that bitter taste I remember from my rare prior experiences.

"Wait," I said, squinting suspiciously at the bottle. The label wasn’t in English, and I was pretty sure that meant it was extra-fancy. "This cost a lot of money, didn’t it?"

"It involved my credit card, so I figure you’re happier not knowing," John said, and I twitched.

He took the bottle away and set it on the counter. "Hands all clean?" And when I nodded, he kissed me. "Hi," he murmured against my lips, and did it again.

"Hi," I said. I leaned into him, kissing him back. His hands were at my waist, thumbs tracing my hipbones. My hands were on his bicep and his ass, respectively, and my thoughts had instantaneously reduced to mmm, muscles, mmm.

We separated slowly, both a little out of breath.

"Um," he said, clearing his throat. "So. Have you had dinner? We could order, if you like."

"John," I said. "Forget about dinner."

"Thank God," he said with nearly religious fervor, and lift-shoved me back onto the counter.

"Not here,” I said, laughing. "John!" It probably would have been more effective if I wasn’t wrapping my legs around his waist and grinding into him like I didn’t know what shame even was. He dragged his mouth away from my neck, but left his hand on my breast where it was. His thumb rolled over my nipple, and he kept at it even as he snagged the champagne bottle with the other hand and took a long swallow. If it weren’t for the three-piece suit, he would have looked maybe twenty five. It was the sense of wildness about him. I was used to him loosening up the grip on his restraint; I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen him abandon it completely.

He set the bottle down too hard, champagne foaming up the neck.

"I want you to tell me what to do," he said, leaning close. "Tell me what will make you come."

I shivered. "I don’t – I’m not sure." I still didn’t really know how I’d done it to myself, forget giving him a roadmap.

John didn’t look any less determined. "So let’s figure it out," he said. "Triangulate." He pressed into me. "Last time, I was fucking you."

I licked my mouth involuntarily. "Yeah." Geez, I’d gone so throaty, I was turning myself on.

We kissed, slow and dirty. The kind where it’s not about your mouths as much as it’s about play-acting the other thing you’re both thinking about.

I didn’t know how much I liked fucking before John. Sex, yeah, that was Susan’s gift to me, and I will always be grateful. But that was about being naked with someone, and learning the best ways to touch each other. So I knew I liked sex when John and I started up, but I didn’t know how much I loved fucking: how wet I would get, the pressure and the stretch, the way a fast, hard rhythm would take over my whole body.

" . . . Yeah," I said again, and John squeezed my breast.

"What else?" he said urgently.

I squirmed, pinned between him and the counter. "It’s not – look, I don’t run to schedule, okay?" I said. "Don’t – I’m not easy."

"You don’t say." Okay, that much sarcasm was uncalled for.

"I mean it," I said doggedly. "I’m not one of those ‘insert coin, pull lever’ girls."

He was nuzzling pushily at the collar of my t-shirt. "So we’ll try again," he said. "Oh no, anything but that, twist my arm." Then in the exact same tone, "Are you going to let me go down on you tonight?"

"Uh," I said intelligently while my brain went sizzle sizzle ping. Then, "Hey hey, don’t even think about it." He had my collar in his mouth, and hell’s bells if the crazy bastard wasn’t going to try and rip my clothes off me with his teeth.

He came up grinning that grin, like he was some crazy kid with no brakes, no filters. "Oh yeah," he said crudely. "You’re going to let me eat you out."

"Overconfidence is not attractive," I lied.

"Let’s go," he said, blithely ignoring that and slinging me up off the counter. I yowled and kicked, and he dropped me smoothly to my feet, leaned over to snatch up the champagne, then spun me around and marched me smartly into the bedroom.

"Geez!" I said. "You’d think you were the one who didn’t get to come very often."

He took me by the shoulder and turned me to face him. His chin was up, his eyes boring steadily into mine. "No," he said, "I’m the guy who thought watching you come was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen. So do me a favor: stop complaining, take your clothes off, and work with me here. Start meditating, or visualize things on fire, get drunk and relaxed or whatever it is you need to do to make it happen again."

I went bright red, with the word gorgeous ricocheting around my head. Talk about uncalled for. Then I stuck out my hand and he slapped the bottle into it. I downed two glasses worth in one long, foamy guzzle, because that drunk thing was sounding like a better idea all the time.

It hit my empty stomach and seemed to evaporate instantaneously into my brain. I fumbled at my clothes, apparently not moving fast enough for John because he pushed my hands away and unzipped my jeans himself. He hooked my feet out from under me with his ankle, moving slow enough so I'd see it coming. I let myself fall back and he came down over me. His shirt was gone, but his slacks chafed at my inner thighs as he pressed a leg up between mine. We clenched together, his breath rushing into my mouth as he shoved a hand under my ass and ground me up into him.

"Come on," he said. "Talk to me."

"Like hell," I said. "If I won't do phone sex, what makes you think you're getting the live action version?"

John took another few years off his age with a really impressive eye roll. "Fine," he said, "then tell me what not to do. I know for a fact you can do that."

That wasn't a bad plan, actually. I pressed up into him, nuzzling at the hint of stubble under his jaw. I couldn't remember the last time he'd shown up without a perfectly clean shave, and he didn't smell like he was fresh from the shower, either. Had he come to me straight from the airport?

I breathed out against his neck, then leaned back and made eye contact. "Okay," I said. ". . . Don't stop."

"You got it,” he said, just like I'd asked him for something after all. He kissed me hard on the mouth, teeth pressed clumsily to my lip. Then he went down like a working girl on the clock.

He kissed my belly on the way, but it wasn't that lingering thing where he'd spend five minutes on my belly button just to be romantic or piss me off. Same thing, really. He shouldered my thighs apart and went at me. His eyes were already shut; his stupid dark lashes to go with his stupid pretty green eyes were stupidly sweet on his cheek when they closed.

His mouth on me was not sweet. More 'take no prisoners.' He licked into me first, not messing around, and then slid up, the fingers of one hand holding me open while he zeroed in. He shoved closer, pressing my legs wider with his shoulders and making himself right at home.

He kept moving, switching off hands, his tongue pressing and pressing at me. I couldn't stop watching the way his head bobbed between my thighs; it was just so . . . well . . . pornographic.

It hadn't been like this before, the handful of times I'd let him do this. He wasn't just trying to make me feel good or relax me, he was trying to make me come. He was exactly as goal-oriented as I'd been afraid he would be. And miracle of miracles, he wasn't scaring, y'know, it off.

And then he had me: one thumb rubbing back and forth right under my clit, his tongue circling tightly over it, the fingers of his other hand slicked deep inside me. I started sweating against the sheets, my hands scrabbling at the air and my own skin. I was shaking, my legs clamping around John's shoulders and then kicking helplessly loose.

John came up for a gasped breath, then went back down on me. He had both hands working me, and his mouth was making these filthy wet noises. . . . Or maybe that was me.

It was just so deliberate. So -- yeah -- so goal-oriented. Not the way I usually approached sex. I liked it a lot better when it was more like 'oops, I tripped and my pants slid off and then I fell on top of you.'

John wasn't playing it that way anymore. There was no way what we were doing could be called an 'oops' or 'just messing around.' But that just figured, because that was the problem with John all along. He didn't oops and he didn't mess around. And neither could I, not when I was with him. Because he was him and I was me, and there simply wasn't a big enough oops in the world to account for that. I -- we -- had to choose this again and again. On purpose and everything.

And it felt so fucking good.

I put both my hands in his short-clipped hair, scratching at his scalp. “Don't stop," I said, "don't move, stars, John, don't--" He bit me, off-rhythm and unexpected. I shrieked, my spine locking up for a few seconds while his teeth worried at my clit. I recoiled when he let me go, my lungs stuttering back to life.

"What the hell!" I said, high-pitched.

John didn't say anything. He just scooted up the bed after me and licked, wet and gentle where his teeth had been. My breath sighed out on a long exhale, taking the rest of my tirade with it. That felt amazing, hot and tender as the little flash of pain died away.

He still had his fingers in me, moving slow and deep. I could feel how wet I was getting around them, and John could too, at least to judge by the quiet, pleased noises he was making.

"Here, hang on," I said, bumping my knuckles against his forehead. "Before you get any more bright ideas." I wriggled away, twisting onto my side to reach the nightstand. The vibrator was on top of my usual jumble; John plucked it neatly out of the air when I pitched it at him. "I know you don't need me to write out an instructional manual for that," I said.

He grinned, flipping it fast between his fingers the way I'd seen him do with pens and knives. Weapons of choice. "It generally works better if you turn it on," he said helpfully.

Right, because it ran on magic. I hadn't actually followed that thought out before. I could turn it on and off, rev it up to maximum or make it purr like a kitten, and he couldn't do a damn thing about it. I tucked my hands behind my head, feeling suddenly smug. "I'll turn it on when you're doing something worthwhile with it," I said.

“Excellent,” John said. He looked deeply pleased, and it belatedly occurred to me that I’d just handed him a real-time barometer of how well he was doing. Great. I generally liked John better when he was playing with a handicap.

He leaned down and kissed me, soft and open-mouthed over my clit. Then he propped on his elbows, eased his fingers out, and slipped the dildo in. Slow, with a relentless, steady pressure. And I figured, in a fit of magnanimity and all, that I would let him have this one.

His eyes kept moving. He’d stare at what he was doing, right up between my legs like that, and then he’d look up, make eye contact, refuse to blink until I was the one who looked away first. He was unsmiling, breathing fast but quiet.

“Like this?” he asked.

“Um.” It took me a second to remember the game we were playing. “No,” I said, “don’t, um. Don’t go too fast.”

It was unnecessary to say; he was moving slowly, just small, controlled flexes of his wrist as he pushed into me and gently withdrew. It was slow enough for my breathing to fall in rhythm – in and in, out and out. He seemed to realize it, with that eerie awareness he has sometimes. I held my breath for a few beats, wondering, and he paused, alert, waiting for a queue. Our eyes locked. I needed to breathe, I needed --

I breathed in, and in the same moment I tripped the spell without planning to. The toy hummed quietly inside me, and John pushed it all the way in. He was beginning to smile.

“Like that,” he said, and it wasn’t a question.

The moment of weird connectedness fell apart. I was breathing faster and John was moving unevenly, no longer in sync. I closed my eyes, tilting my head back. Yeah. Yeah, this was good.

“Can I – are you. Um. Are you ready?” I asked.

John snorted indelicately. “Suffice it to say . . . yes,” he said like I was a moron. “This way?”

“No, that won’t work,” I said. “Let me . . .” I rolled over onto my knees because that seemed like the easiest option. The toy was still buzzing quietly inside me, and moving made me twitch. I reached down between my legs and pulled it out. My skin prickled with a flush, partly because I knew without looking that John had watched me do that and it was really dirty, and partly because it felt just that good.

There was a lot of really fast moving behind me, the crinkle of a condom wrapper, then John’s hand low on my back.

“Can I . . .?” he said, sneaking the other hand down and plucking at the toy.

I whisked it away from him. “Uh-uh. You’ve got one job on this ship right now, got it?”

John laughed. “Yes Ma’am,” he said, and I suddenly regretted rolling over because I wished I could see his face. But before I could do anything about it, he was inside me, wham-bam-yes-ma’am indeed.

“How do you want it?” John asked. He was already jostling at me in quick, jerky thrusts.

No way in hell was I going to say ‘just like that,’ to him. So I pretended not to hear.

I dropped my weight to one elbow and went about my job on this ship. Which, for the record, was a way more complicated engineering endeavor than all John’s efforts.

The toy skidded all over the place, I was so wet. But I braced my knees against John’s movement and fumbled until I had it right. Not quite on my clit, but rocking gently just under it. And then I loosened up everywhere – my knees, my hips, my shoulders, my wrist – and started moving with John.

I knew how to work myself with the vibrator pretty good by then. But John was a total wildcard in the mix. It was kind of like how you can’t tickle yourself; he could do things to my nerve endings that I couldn’t do to myself, partly because I couldn’t anticipate him. He stayed shallow for a while, thrusting fast but only an inch or two. Then he pressed in deep and stayed there, jerking his hips unevenly and holding me fast around the waist.

There was a new hitch to his breath that I’d never heard before, and I started to think maybe he was getting some of the vibrations, too. I reached farther back, experimentally, feeling blindly with the toy until bingo John yelped and jolted over me like I’d tazed him.

“That’s cheating!” he said, snatching at my wrist.

“What?” I said, but I backed off because I’m just such a nice girl like that. Also because I wanted my vibrations back all to myself.

John had stopped moving, pressed up close inside me and lying over my back. “Come on, Harry,” he said into my neck. “I’m a sure thing. You know that.”

Yes you are, I thought, and the wave of satisfaction was startling.

John took a shuddering breath and eased into a gentle thrust. “Is this good for you?”

I’d been trying not to think about that part under the theory that actively wanting something to happen makes it exponentially less likely to occur. But now that he’d brought it up . . .

“It’s good,” I said. “But I’m not sure . . . here, let’s—“ I reached back with my legs, tangling him up and pulling him with me as I tipped us over onto our sides. I lost the toy somewhere in there, but somehow John stayed inside me and the thump of our landing made us both groan.

“Wait, wait,” I said, smacking ineffectually over my shoulder at him as he started to move again. “I was gonna—“

John snarled something inarticulate and frustrated into my hair and pulled out. I flipped over to face him, tossing my braid off my sweaty cheek. I’d meant to get him on his back, since it’d worked so nicely before. But then we were face-to-face, and he was right there with his eyes dilated and the hair at his temples damp with sweat. And he was . . . he was my sure thing, damn it.

And suddenly we were pressed together everywhere, and I had my free leg thrown up around his waist, and we were fucking like we were crazy. There wasn’t a whole lot of leverage on our sides like that, but we didn’t care. I flexed my whole body into it, clawing at his back. And there, that was good, that’s what I’d wanted, to get my hands on him. I could grab his broad shoulders like this, scratch down his spine and make him groan, squeeze the meat of his thigh for leverage as we strove against each other.

Then it was John’s turn to say, “Wait, Harry, hang on.”

“What now?” I demanded.

John twisted his upper body away, fumbling in the blankets. “You need –“ he said feverishly. “It was just –“ He finally came up with the vibrator, still going, and practically flung it at me.

“Yeah,” I said, fumbling it. “Yeah, John, come on.”

It was possibly the most unhelpful position for that sort of thing. We were pressed so close together that all I could really do was shove the vibrator down between us where it counted and hope for the best. It slid off target, then back on, then off again. I caught myself grunting out guttural nonsense syllables between my clenched teeth.

“Come on, come on,” John said, pounding into me. “Harry, come on, give it up.”

My eyes were screwed tight shut. I opened them with an effort, because I wanted to see the face that went with that tone of voice. John was wild-eyed and flushed, with a savage tension to his mouth. He really, really wanted to come. I watched him fighting it, and ran my hands down his back again. He was practically shaking with strain, his muscles solid to the touch.

“Wait,” I said. “Wait.”

John made an agonized sound. He shook his head violently, an involuntary, meaningless display. But he knew what I meant, which most definitely was not ‘stop.’

I kept watching, amazed. It was like earlier, when he’d fallen into sync with my breathing. Except now I was the one tuning into him with this intense jolt of body-connectedness that left me irrationally convinced I could hold him back by closing my empty hand. Or make him come by opening it.

Hell, I don’t know. Maybe I could have. Maybe there’s a kind of magic there, on the brink.

Whatever it was, it was good. And I suddenly was sure, like I hadn’t quite been all along: I was going to come tonight.

“Ten second warning,” I said, gasping.

John clutched me to him. We kissed messily, our clenched bodies rocking with the force of him pounding into me and me giving it right back. I slid sweatily against him. I could smell the lingering traces of cologne on him, feel his stubble on my face, then my neck.

I came violently against him. But instead of clenching up, I let everything go, my hands, my teeth in his shoulder, my thigh around him, even the muscles in my belly. It all went loose and open, and the orgasm all but blasted me out of myself. It hurt. I might have cried, a tiny little bit.

But I never went away like you do sometimes when it’s that good. I was there the whole time, plastered to John. I saw him shake, felt it when he came after me, when he seized against me, overwhelmed, and bit into my forearm like he didn’t know what else to do with himself.

It took us a while to untangle. John rolled away to get rid of the condom, then just sort of flopped back over against me.

He made a questioning noise, groping vaguely at me and then patting my ass.

“Yeah,” I said, even though I didn’t know what the question was supposed to be. It seemed like the right answer. My voice was cracked and hoarse. I unfolded the arm that was squashed between us. Everything was stiff. We hadn’t been particularly acrobatic, but we’d both been working pretty hard there at the end, and I could feel the small muscular twitches of overuse in my inner thighs. That was going to hurt like hell tomorrow.

“Mmm,” I said, and kissed the top of John’s head. I was suddenly overflowing with good feeling for him and his pretty green eyes and his nice muscles and his wonderful, wonderful dick. Stars, I loved his dick.

…Geez. I only had a very few post-orgasmic periods to look back on, and none of them had involved another person in the afterglow. If I’d known it would require getting this ridiculous, I’d – well, no, all right. I would have done it all the same.

“Orgasms,” I said thoughtfully.

John made an indescribable noise, had a few false starts, and finally muttered, “plural?” Pretty pathetically, I thought.

“Hells bells, no,” I said. I was pretty sure that would blow out a circuit, even assuming I could do it, which I probably couldn’t.

“Oh good,” John said, blinking vaguely at me.

I frowned and poked him. “Hey. I thought you were a sure thing?”

He closed his eyes. “You know I am,” he said, like it was no big deal. “Stop fishing.”

I exhaled a long breath from my toes, it felt like. Funny thing about really good orgasms: you’re so relaxed after, you physiologically can’t get upset. It was kind of a relief right in that moment, actually.

“Yeah,” I said. “I know you are.”