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Grace draws him down across her lap with soft hands. She’s in a knitted skirt today, different from Harold’s suit pants or skin on skin. John shifts against it, against the patterned green and white sheets, and Grace rests a hand on his shoulders, brushes her other hand over his spine and down, across the little scatter of bruises from Harold’s belt that morning (John knows Harold doesn’t even wear a belt, not with his suits, that he got it just for John. Wants to press it to his chest, sometimes, thinking that, kiss the leather and every button of Harold’s suit, imprint them into his body, his heart.)

“How are you feeling?” Grace’s voice above him feels like the sunlight that falls through the window.

“Mmm.” He doesn’t really want to make words right now. Grace keeps her hands on him, and he can feel her smile in her touch, in her fingers in his hair. He’d give her the words, if she wanted them (would give her most anything), but she doesn’t demand them, lets him float below the surface, trusts him not to hide it if something was wrong. (Trusts him so much more than that, trusts him across her body and under her hands, no fear for what his own hands have done to so many who’ve touched him.)

She warms him up with her hand too- he doesn’t need it, could take much more and not wait. But he likes it, not pain so much as rhythm, touch that seems to sink into him, diffuse through him, like a warm room after a cold day. When she’s done there’s a second in the in-between, and then she rests the paddle against his skin - smooth wood, polished, the handle just the right size for her. There’s a moment where his breath catches on inhale, like the air made itself solid just then and he swallowed it, like something in him still can’t quite believe this is real, can really happen.

Then the paddle lifts, comes down again for the first time, and it can, really, the sudden sting through his skin, the shiver like electric sparks in darkness. Keeps coming, with Grace’s hand still on his shoulders, not to hold him down but just to be there, anchor him as though between worlds. Keeps coming, and he can stay - the cotton of the sheets, her warmth under him, no need to leave his body behind or any part of it, every echo through his nerves is good, is his, and hers, and theirs. Is safe here. Keeps coming, until that other moment, stones that skipped across the surface sinking down through it, into depths, stirring darkness that cradled, that swallowed noise and held no enemies. Keeps coming, and he is there under it, across the bed and Grace’s body, his own body that could be safe, that could stay, an anchor in a storm and not a hair-trigger. Stone pillar for this still strange new home that can hold it, maybe, not send it crashing down.

 

 

After, she holds him, lets him curl around her, lay his head in her lap while she strokes fingers through his hair, folds the blanket half over him, the weight of her hand over it like a low note at orchestral volume, sinking through him to the bone. He kisses her hands, each of her fingers, his lips feeling too rough against her palm and yet her hands still stay, still come back to him.

“You’re so good,” she tells him. Like evening sunlight, warm and golden. A treasure, she calls him sometimes, not like a coin or a ring but like a painting from a lost artist, a manuscript from generations ago. Tears sometimes, or soot, or inkstains, and yet irreplaceable.

He lets her words flow over him, through him. Imagines each one as a brushstroke, the line of a calligraphy pen. Finding the cracks in the canvas, the ragged edges of words, and letting the colors, letters, bloom over them again.